The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

September 21, 2013

September 21, 1860

Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788 to September 21, 1860)  wanted to know what there is, what he was, how things fit together, and what the commonness between things was. He insisted on pursuing these questions based on his own experience. These are the basic philosophical questions. His was the basic critical approach. He refused to extrapolate beyond what he knew, he refused to go beyond an investigation of the immanent, because that was all he could personally verify. He is little read today, but counted as a major contributor to the modern world, because of his influence on other thinkers, from Edmund Husserl to Jorge Luis Borges.  One assumes there is an interesting chapter on Arthur Schopenhauer in some book on the history of concepts about the unconscious. 

Schopenhauer died  just as evolution was being discussed. It might seem like Darwin's idea was another explanation for what Schopenhauer observed. But Darwin placed things in a causal chronological line. Schopenhauer saw below the surface, and might well have considered evolution as postulating transcendent principles, something Schopenhauer refused to do. He based his scheme on what he could personally, not theoretically, validate. Schopenhauer was not so concerned with theoretical consistency as fidelity to his observations.

And what did Schopenhauer find, that unites and explains what surrounds and involves us?


The standard English translation of this aspect of his terminology in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, [revised 1844 edition] is irritability. The point is that if you look around everything is changing, everything is moving toward a different state, everything is exhibiting Will. By Will here we have to see something that encompasses both a concern for the individual's integrity and at the same time, an awareness to move, to alter, to succeed -- to change. So Will is a good word, since no ready word exists to combine that observed quality in the world-- of a sense of a unitary something which needs to change while preserving it's unity.  At each moment everything is aware of a lack, hence, the crankiness, and hence, movement. 
Will is non-verbal, so when Schopenhauer says Will wants something, he is not referring to a verbal purpose.

And all this Schopenhauer sees as pushed into motion and kept there by, irritability, And this characterizes everything, and finding this ultimate layer of the observable world, that which unites at the same time as it explains the divisions apparent, is brilliant. Many philosophies insist they explain something, few succeed in pointing helpfully below the appearances.

Let's look at a direct translation, (found in Alfred Weber's History of Philosophy, 1896)  and see where men fit into all this.

And experience strikingly proves, that what is essential and fundamental to us is also the essence, the ultimate principle of the nature of all other beings. We are essentially will, and the entire universe, considered in its essence, is a will that objectifies itself, gives itself a body or a real existence.

In the first place, my body is the product of will; it is my will become phenomenon, my desire-to-be made visible....And the objects which I perceive through it are like my body: all are phenomena, manifestations, products of a will analogous to mine. The will, the principle of everything that exists, is sometimes pure, i. e., not connected with an intellect. In this case it is identical with irritability, the mysterious force which governs the circulation of the blood, the digestion, and the secretions. Sometimes it is connected with the intellectual phenomenon; it is conscious, and in this case it is what we commonly call will and free-will. Will, in this special sense, is irritability acting knowingly, and according to motives, as, for example, when I raise my arm. Sometimes, again, our acts are both the result of irritability and motived will:.... The power of conscious will is immense. We may cite the cases of negroes who committed suicide by arresting their respiration. But, whether it be conscious or unconscious, irritability or free activity, and however diverse and innumerable its manifestations may be, will as such is one.

Whether it is conscious or not, the will acts in us without interruption. The body and the intellect grow tired and need rest; the will alone is indefatigable; it acts even during sleep and causes dreams. It acts in the body not only during its formation, but exists prior to the body.

The will forms and organizes it according to its needs ...the will, in the embryo, transforms a part of the cerebral substance into a retina in order to receive optical phenomena...

Consider the organization of animals, and you will always find that it conforms to their mode of life. It seems, indeed, at first sight, as though their mode of life, their habits, depended on their organization; in the order of time the organization precedes the mode of life. It seems that the bird flies because it has wings, ...But intelligent observation shows the contrary. We observe that many animals manifest the will to use organs which they do not yet possess. The goat... butt
[s] before...[it has horns] .... Hence, the will is the principle of organization, the centre of creative evolution. Wild beasts that desire to tear their prey to pieces, to live on plunder and on blood, have teeth and huge claws, strong muscles, piercing eyes (eagles, condors); such, on the other hand, as, by instinct, do not desire to fight, but to seek safety in flight, develop, instead of organs of defence, a fine sense of hearing, slender and agile legs (stags, roe-bucks, gazelles). ....owls desire to see in the dark, and so have enormous pupils, soft, silken down, in order not to awaken the animal desired for prey. The porcupine, the hedgehog, and the tortoise cover themselves with a shell, because they do not desire to flee. ....

Where none of these means suffices, the will provides itself with a still more efficient safeguard, the most efficient of all, intelligence... which, in man, supersedes all the others. The intellect is all the more powerful a weapon because it can conceal the will under false appearances, while, in the case of animals, the intent is always manifest and always of a definite character.

The will plays the same part, although this is not so apparent, in the vegetable kingdom. Here, too, everything is striving, desire, unconscious appetition. ....The seed planted in the ground will invariably push its stem upwards, its roots downwards, in whatever position it may be placed. The toadstool performs real feats of strength, wonderful acts of will, breaking through walls, splitting stones, in order to reach the light. .... Climbing plants seek supports and make visible efforts to reach and catch hold of them. Hence, here, as in the animal kingdom, everything is reduced to will, to that elementary will which we call irritability. There is no essential difference between irritability and the faculty of being determined by motives; for the motive regularly produces an irritation which sets the will in motion....

Considering its manifestations, it is hardest to recognize the will in the two extremes of creation, i. e., on the one hand, in man, on the other, in the mineral kingdom. Every animal, every vegetable, has its fixed character; indeed, we can tell in advance what to expect of it. When we are dealing with a dog, or a cat, or a fox, we know at once that the dog will be faithful, the cat treacherous, and the fox cunning. .... But in man and in the minerals, at the summit and at the base of creation, the character is full of mysteries. We cannot discover it by direct observation, and we can know it only after prolonged experience. This is a difficult procedure, especially in the case of man, who can conceal his character, and disguise the particular tendency of his will. Nevertheless, we find in man clearly marked tendencies, inclinations, and propensities, while the mineral kingdom has its constant tendencies also. The magnetic needle invariably points to the north. Bodies always fall in a vertical line, and we call this the law of weight or gravitation. Liquid matter obeys the same law in following the descending plane. 

Schopenhauer's ideas explain what other schemas only pretend to explain --- the motion of life itself. And you might say movement to what end. Schopenhauer was a Buddhist and ultimately a pessimist. All this motion is ultimately just to continue, not arrive, someplace.
And that might fit the observations.

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