234th birthday anniversary of Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer. Fot. Jacob Seib/Wikimedia Commons.

February 22nd marks 234 years since the birth of Schopenhauer, an icon of philosophical pessimism, a man with a difficult character, shying away from people and achieving spectacular scientific success. We talk about the philosopher who did not live to see his successors with dr Robert Rogoziecki from the Institute of Philosophy, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Gdańsk.

- Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska: What should we associate Arthur Schopenhauer with and what was the impact of his philosophy in the times in which he lived?

During his lifetime, he was rather an outsider. He was spectacularly successful academically, but, probably due to his rather difficult character, he kept to himself somewhat. One such achievement was undoubtedly his doctoral dissertation On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde), where he laid out the first principles of a concept that he later developed in The World as Will and Representation. He valued Kant, but not, particularly Schelling, and towards Fichte and Hegel he expressed open hostility.

Schopenhauer was undoubtedly a forerunner of the philosophy of life, using the category of the unconscious, considering cognition to be a form of domination. He was the first to attempt to naturalise transcendentalism. His aesthetic concepts were an unquestionable achievement. Here, the notion of genius as a capacity for purely contemplative perception of reality, free of volitional factors, which, insofar as our life is defined by the pursuit of constantly new goals, brings at least temporary relief from constant desire and the resulting suffering, acquires particular significance.

- Exactly, 'the gloomy philosopher' - this is probably the most frequent association that comes to mind when recalling this figure. Is this the only way we can see Schopenhauer, as an icon of philosophical pessimism?

- Many see Schopenhauer that way, and he was probably a pessimist. But it seems more important to me that this pessimism had not so much a psychological basis, but rather a metaphysical one. The world as will and representation is simply a very bad place to live, and in fact, it would have been better for us if we had not been born at all, or if we had been, if we had met a quick and painless death immediately after birth, and if we missed that too, then we must come to terms with the fact that as much as we desire to live, our existence is defined by constant and indeed never satisfied desires. The latter arises from the fact that as individuals we are forms of the manifestation of the will.

Indeed, Schopenhauer adopts two concepts of will: (1) the will as a metaphysical principle, a blind, aimless striving, being an unknowable, but conceivable and representable in idea, thing in itself, and (2) the individual will, which is a form of manifestation of the former in the domain of experience. As individual wills, we are always chasing some individual goal, we always desire something, and when we achieve it, we are soon consumed by weariness and boredom, so we point out to ourselves new goals and desires, and so on until we die. This entails a veritable Tantalus, from which only art, asceticism and compassion for the sufferings of others can save us.

- Once upon a time there were organised 'Following the Dog's and Cat's Trail in Gdańsk' walks. You could hear, for example, that Arthur Schopenhauer was unsympathetic, difficult, made public quarrels. He hated women, but he loved poodles and it was easier for him to get along with a dog. He believed that a dog was a noble creature. Unlike humans, who are uninteresting, imperfect and mean.

- Some people are only capable of sharing their lives with animals. It happens. Maybe it did in this case too. But what is more important is that Schopenhauer assumed the existence of two kinds of representations as to the foundation of cognition - intuitive representations and abstract representations. When I perceive an object, I, first of all, have an intuitive representation of it, existing only in me as a cognitive subject. Such representations, i.e. intuitive representations, are common to both humans and animals, at least to higher animals. The phenomenal world exists not only for humans but also for animals, and they have not only senses but also intellect. What they do not have is the power of abstract concepts, that is, reason. A dog, therefore, although it is not able to think in an abstract way about time and space, can experience time-space relationships and follow the principle of causality in its actions. And this is where we come across the originality of Schopenhauer's thought. Before him, rarely had anyone posed the question of the subjectivity of animals. For Schopenhauer, animals, despite their inability to use abstract categories, are subjects with the same feelings we have for other people.

- Where might we place Schopenhauer's philosophy today? His influence on European creativity at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries seems to have been enormous.

I don't know of this overwhelming influence of Schopenhauer on contemporary philosophy. On the contrary, I would say that he is one of the most overlooked modern thinkers. References to Schopenhauer in modern thought are rather incidental, and if he does appear somewhere, it is only as Nietzsche's teacher and educator. Occasionally references are made to his aesthetics. It is a pity that so little attention has been paid to him, for he is an extremely original thinker and a top-notch writer.

Thank you for the interview.

The philosopher born in Gdańsk - Arthur Schopenhauer - is commemorated and popularised by, among others, the Academic Club of Philosophers of the University of Gdańsk, organising Schopenhaueralia. This year the event will be held in an online form, on February 25-26. More information on FB.

Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska/Press Office of University of Gdańsk