My recent reading has taken me on a bit of tour of Western philosophy. Like a vulture circling, I started by soaring above, getting a high-level view, then closing in on some interesting details.
The first phase was reading Frederick Copleton’s nine-volume A History of Philosophy. It covers a lot of ground, going from the pre-Socratics to Jean-Paul Sartre. I found that Copleston kind of seems to assume that the reader is already basically familiar with the thoughts of the philosophers discussed and covers more of their historical development than their ideas themselves. Still, it provides great context for further reading, since you now essentially know who these people are and how they relate to the development of various schools.
After making it through that epic (a process which took something like six months), I immediately jumped into another work about philosophy, recommended by the same friend that had given me A History of Philosophy: Bryan Magee’s The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. A History doesn’t dwell too long on Schopenhauer; after the mammoth exegesis on Kant that concludes volume six, he’s sort of thrown in with Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. I’d seen the great video of Magee & Copleston talking about Schopenhauer and he’s also one of my friend’s favourite philosophers (the name under which we’re developing an app together comes from a concept from his works), so I decided to give this a read, more on the strength of the recommendation than any particular interest to begin with.
Reading about the life and works of Schopenhauer was absolutely fascinating. Magee really has a gift for explaining philosophical ideas in very accessible ways and the book not only gave me a new-found fascination with Schopenhauer, but retroactively improved my understanding of A History of Philosophy. After tearing through The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, I took an enjoyable digression through Magee’s autobiography-cum-tour of philosophy, Confessions of a Philosopher. Also a great read, it made me very interested to both read more about Schopenhauer and read some primary sources. So, with some trepidation, I ordered the two volumes of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation.
I’ve just begun to read Schopenhauer in his own words and I’m already really enjoying it. He is, as Magee described, a wonderful writer – cogent, acerbic, dryly funny. Despite the way he may get lumped in with Kant and Hegel, his writing is vastly more comprehensible (when, in A History of Philosophy, Copleston notes that it’s rather difficult to understand what Kant means in many places, I felt a bit like Brian Shaw had just mentioned something was a bit heavy – “if you think that, then I probably need to stay clear”).
The content itself is…challenging. Deceptively simple, but hard to think about. Building on the epoch-making work of Kant, Schopenhauer continues the work that he in turn advanced from Descartes, Locke, and Hume, investigating the question of what can we really know. The problem that these philosophers were so flummoxed by can sort of be boiled down to “how is induction justified” – that is, just because we see that every time A happens, B occurs, and in the absence of A, we never see B, can we say that A “causes” B? That’s basically how science proceeds, obviously with great success, but why? It’s always possible that it’s just coincidence and that the next time we repeat our experiment, we’ll see something different.
Hume seemed to kind of shy away from the notion that empiricism (that is, figuring out what’s real by experiment, versus “rationalism”, which in this context means just reasoning it out) is on somewhat shaky grounds.
Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”
– David Hume
Kant, however, dove right in and set about answer the question “What is the limit of what we can know about?” Essentially, he draws the line between what empiricism can deal with and metaphysics, saying that we not only can’t know about things in the latter domain, but reason is insufficient, does not apply there. Thus, for examples, proofs of the existence of God, something that had been a frequent effort of medieval philosophers, were just domain errors, like trying to use a butterfly net to catch a rainbow. With that limitation in place, what can we talk about then? We have the whole of the physical world that can be investigated (quite successfully as both Kant and Schopenhauer well knew), but what happens when we try to look beyond the physical phenomenon? You can look at some object, say “that’s an apple”, because the feeling, taste, sight of it all correspond to what we understand an apple to be. What if we ask “what is it really?” though? Can we say what an apple is without resorting to descriptions of phenomenon? We are trying to discuss what Kant calls a “thing-in-itself” – the underlying “thing” which is the cause of the phenomenon we experience.
What can we know about these “things-in-themselves”? According to Kant, nothing. They are outside of the world of phenomenon, in what he calls the “noumenon”, and hence the intellectual tools of phenomenon do not and cannot apply.
This is where Schopenhauer comes in. He adds two key things to this line of inquiry: First, differentiation requires notions of time and/or space, which are phenomenal concepts, inapplicable to the noumenal – therefore, rather than talking of a plurality of “things-in-themselves”, we should instead talk about one1 “thing-in-itself”. Second, he points out that there is one physical object that we have a privileged relation to, that we can have a glimpse of outside of the separation imposed by the subject-object dichotomy – our own bodies. Not that we completely know and understand ourselves – he is very much aware that people do many things that they don’t really know why they do – but in the mere act of moving our bodies, we are directly effecting a physical object.
What are the consequences of all that? Well, I’m still working my way through The World as Will and Representation, so I can’t quite say yet. Although it is an enjoyable read, it is still very dense and relatively slow going. Once I make it all the way through, perhaps I will try to summarize my thoughts at that point as well. Schopenhauer also speaks very highly of the arts, an area that I’ve long felt that I should have more appreciation for than I do. Perhaps taking in his thoughts on the matter will help me make a break-through in that domain. In any case, at this juncture, I’m finding it a very powerful way of thinking about things, about the problem of knowledge and the philosophy of science. There is something very…uplifting, perhaps, in the idea that there is an underlying unity in the “true” reality. If nothing else, digesting such a complete philosophical system is a very enriching intellectual exercise. In a time when people seem increasingly excited to abdicate thinking at all, it’s very refreshing to get deep in the weeds of thinking about thinking itself.
Although in his writing, Schopenhauer takes pains to point out that saying that the “thing-in-itself” is “one” is not to say that it’s “one thing” in the way that we would think about physical things being, but that it exists outside of concepts of plurality. This stuff gets pretty challenging to be precise about…