When I learned that a family member of mine was likely struggling with the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, I felt like it would be a good idea to revisit his work. I wanted to familiarize myself with his writing, just in case I was asked for my thoughts as a Christian who has spent some time thinking through philosophical systems and ideas. And upon rereading his work, I quickly remembered how effectively the man could make you sink to his level of despondency and depression. He does this, in part, by abusing his readers. What do I mean?
Well, he alternates between giving the reader hope and then snatching it away almost as quickly as he has given it. This results in the reader entertaining a hope that there is perhaps some light at the end of Schopenhauer’s morbidly bleak tunnel of ruminations, although there is none.
Thankfully, however, I also recognized just how logically self-destructive his philosophy is when scrutinized in light of itself. Below, I’ll give my reasons for thinking this to be the case.
1. Appearance vs. Reality
The first glaring problem is that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics differentiates between the world-in-itself and the world-for-us, that is to say between what is actually the case and what we perceive to be the case. The world-in-itself is a unity; the world-for-us, however, is diverse. What this means is that the suffering and the pleasure upon which Schopenhauer waxes for pages and pages and pages is, well, an illusion. Because suffering is part of the world-for-us, and is not the world-in-itself, it is merely a representation of the underlying unity of all experiences and objects. The world-in-itself is merely a pulsating will, as it were, that cannot be said to be good, bad, painful, or pleasurable.
It just is.
This means that the entire focus of Schopenhauer’s pessimism has no foundation in his beliefs about what reality is, namely a single unconscious, a-rational, a-logical Will. And this further de-fangs his pessimism, seeing as the unity of the world-in-itself lacks teleology (i.e. a goal toward which it is tending), moral value, emotion, and reason. It needs to be remembered that we are part of this world-in-itself. Consequently, whatever we think is teleological, moral or immoral, emotive or apathetic, and rational or irrational is illusory. If Schopenhauer is right about the world as Will and Representation, then he is wrong. This is self-contradictory and, therefore, false. His metaphysics destroys his pessimism, rendering all of his claims about the futility and pain and pointless of human existence false.
2. Observation as Epistemological Authority
Schopenhauer, moreover, cites his observations as the authority that justifies his claims about suffering and pain and futility and death. However, given that Schopenhauer makes universal claims about the nature of reality, the nature of pain, the nature of pleasure, human nature, animality, time, psychology, and many other subjects, his citation of observation only serves to show that his observations do not justify his claims as true. While he may talk about individual experiences that he has observed, he has no ground for asserting that because of his observations he can make universal claims about the subjects I mentioned. Why? Because universal claims can only be evidentially justified, i.e. proven to be true by evidence, if the evidence for them is total, lacking no other pieces of evidence. For example, if Schopenhauer says that upon the basis of his observations he has concluded that all of human existence is ultimately suffering, he is either claiming to have observed human existence at all times and in all places and under all conditions, or he is claiming to know something he could never observe, namely human existence at all times and in all places and under all conditions. Schopenhauer isn’t speaking the facts, as he claims, but his opinion based upon his limited observations. He is overextending the legitimate applicability of his observations to his system of philosophy.
3. Existence is Pure Goodness, According to Schopenhauer
For anyone whose read the old, disgruntled codger, it might be surprising to see that Schopenhauer identifies existence as pure goodness. This is because Schopenhauer harps on and on about human existence being a mistake, an accident, and ultimately purely comprised of suffering and evil. Yet his own metaphysics makes this impossible. If the nature of reality is one, an indivisible throbbing Will that has no emotions or morals or reasons – then it follows that it is just as true to say that all of human existence is Jell-O Pudding as it is to say that all of human existence is suffering.
But even if we ignore this glaring contradiction, for the sake of argument, and grant his irrational belief to him about reality being comprised of suffering and futility, what do we see? Well, in a word, we see that all of existence is tending toward death, which is the cessation of physical and conscious experience, including experiences of pain and suffering and futility. And this is precisely what goodness is, the absence of pain and suffering and futility, according to Schopenhauer. How, then, can he say that the universal movement toward death – and note that this is another universal claim he cannot justify by an appeal to his senses or observations – is a bad thing? If the end result of all of existence is death, then the end result of all of existence is a state of perfect goodness in which pain and suffering and futility have come to an absolute end.
Not only this, but part of our pain and suffering in this life comes from being consciously aware of our eventual and inevitable death, as Schopenhauer claims, and death is the end of pain and suffering and futility, then it follows that our conscious awareness of our eventual and inevitable death is not a cause of suffering and pain, but one of pleasure, seeing as by contemplating death and obsessing over it, as Schopenhauer does, we are actually contemplating and obsessing over an eternal state of goodness in which there is neither pain nor suffering nor futility. How is the contemplation of an never-ending goodness, a never-ending state of deathlessness and painlessness and futility-less-ness not pleasurable?
Even Schopenhauer recognizes that human being’s can derive a great deal of pleasure from hoping for a state of goodness that they have no experiential access to. Does it not, therefore, follow from Schopenhauer’s own philosophical assumptions that the contemplation of one’s own death is equivalent to the contemplation of the overarching goodness of the whole of reality, which is constantly striving toward eliminating pain and suffering and futility?
It does follow, and inexorably so.
Schopenhauer’s belief here reduce to absurdity. For if pessimism is true, then it is false.
Soli Deo Gloria
P.S. I may at some time in the future address Schopenhauer’s immensely ignorant comments about the Scriptures and the Christian faith.