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Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger: Sex, Death and Boredom

Interview by Richard Marshall.

It was Schopenhauer who made me a philosopher. Real philosophy, I told my appalled colleagues at Auckland, is about sex, death, and boredom. Since then I have expanded my horizons, but I have always retained an affection for the sage of Frankfurt.

The brain, he says, is the ‘one great tool’ that has enabled a creature endowed with neither sharp teeth nor claws to survive in a competitive environment. Moreover simplification of data, and indeed judicious falsification, are adaptive traits.’

The everyday world, as Kant proved, is mere appearance. But it is also the only world in which we can make sense of the idea of a plurality of distinct individuals. We can only distinguish things as different if they occupy different regions of space-time. It follows (a point Kant missed but which the mystics have always understood) that reality ‘in itself’ is ‘beyond plurality’ and is, in that sense, ‘One’.

In aesthetic consciousness we enter that painless state, prized by Epicurus as the state of the gods; for a moment we are delivered from the miserable pressure of the will. We celebrate the Sabbath from the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.

Nietzsche always admired Schopenhauer as a ‘knight of truth’ who said ‘No’ to the facile optimism of Hegel, in particular, and the nineteenth century, in general. But his endorsement of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is confined to his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, a celebration of his friendship with Richard Wagner who was an even more passionate Schopenhauerian.

Art of course survives on the walls of private dwellings and corporate offices, but it ‘dies’ in the sense of losing its public, community-gathering, world-historical significance. Heidegger endorsed this view up to the end of the 1930s. ‘Modern’ art, he believed, is the ‘art of pastry cooks’, its function reduced to the provision of pleasurable sensations.’

Julian Young’s main interests are 19th and 20th century German philosophy (especially, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger), the meaning of life, philosophy and opera (especially Wagner), and tragedy. Here he discusses Schopenhauer’s debts to Kant, his Darwinian account of science, his account of ‘will’, his approach to art, the sublime, Heidegger’s magic realism, Nietzsche’s debts to Schopenhauer, his theory of art, Heidegger’s views about art, and his mysticism.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Julian Young: I drifted into a career in academic philosophy because I couldn’t see anything outside the academy that looked to be anything other than drudgery. But I wouldn’t say I ‘became a philosopher’ until an early mid-life crisis forced me to confront the fact that, while ‘philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom’, and ‘wisdom’ is the knowledge of how to live well, the analytic philosophy in which I had been trained seemed to have nothing to do with life. For a time I thought of teaching philosophy as my day job and my real life as that of a painter, until one day, in a depressed condition, I discovered Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. Finally, I thought, a philosophy that is about life, even if the message—life is essentially suffering and as such ‘a kind of error or mistake’—was not a cheerful one. It was Schopenhauer who made me a philosopher. Real philosophy, I told my appalled colleagues at Auckland, is about sex, death, and boredom. Since then I have expanded my horizons, but I have always retained an affection for the sage of Frankfurt.

3:AM: You’re an expert on Schopenhauer amongst other things. Can you sketch for us what was his debt to Kant and whether his idealism was fundamentally different from Kant’s?

JY: What Kant means by calling the manifest world a mere ‘appearance’ of reality ‘in itself’ is a matter of scholarly debate. A sober reading of Kant would have it that this is not an ontological distinction between a natural and a supra-natural domain, but merely the point that reality has more aspects than are revealed to us. Schopenhauer’s variation on the appearance-reality theme is, however, decidedly unsober. (Recall that while Kant was a proud member of the Enlightenment, Schopenhauer belonged to the Romantic counter-movement.) Like Keats, Schopenhauer tells us that, metaphysically speaking, life is but a (bad) ‘dream’. And whereas Kant argues that since we cannot escape the fabric of our own minds, reality ‘in itself’ is unknowable by us, Schopenhauer thinks he knows what it is. (At least he thinks he does in his youth. Later on he retreats, somewhat, from the claim.) What underlies the surface of things, Schopenhauer claims, is the tormented and tormenting ‘will’. (I shall discuss why he thinks this later on.)

Mostly, Schopenhauer just takes over Kant’s arguments for idealism. But he does provide one argument for the ‘mere appearance’ status of our everyday world-picture that owes nothing to Kant. This is an argument from evolution (Schopenhauer has a good claim to be regarded as the founder of evolutionary psychology). The brain, he says, is the ‘one great tool’ that has enabled a creature endowed with neither sharp teeth nor claws to survive in a competitive environment. Moreover simplification of data, and indeed judicious falsification, are adaptive traits. (In the jungle, ‘Every animal over ten feet tall wants to eat you’ is probably false but almost certainly a survival-promoting belief. Paranoia pays!) Since this argument seems to presuppose the reality of things like brains and dinosaurs, it sits uncomfortably with Romantic Kantianism, with the idea that material things are merely ‘dream’ images. But Schopenhauer was not always consistent. Like Goethe – whom he met in his mother’s literary salon – he was a Romantic who was also fascinated by natural science.

3:AM: What was his account of science?

JY: Ah, I seem to have anticipated your next question. The scientific image of the world is, says Schopenhauer, like ‘a section of a piece of marble showing the many different veins side by side but not letting us know the course of the veins from the interior to the surface’. Science discovers ‘laws’ of nature, but it does not tell us why the laws are laws. Given that atomism is a ‘revolting absurdity’, the entities that ground the laws of nature, the fundamental entities of science, must be, he says, fields of force. But what are these forces? What is gravity? Until we can attach some sensory reality to ‘force’, the ultimate terms of science have no meaning, so that the entities they purport to describe are ‘mere Xs’. And so natural science needs the help of philosophy ‘whatever fine airs it may assume towards the latter’. Philosophy comes to the rescue, says Schopenhauer, by directing our attention to the fact that we have first-person, ‘inner’, as well as third-person, ‘outer’, knowledge of ourselves.

Suppose, by way of a thought experiment, that the only way I know what I am doing is by observing my bodily movements. Then I would have a perception of, perhaps, the presence of food (say an apple hanging from a tree) followed by the perception of a hand (the one I call ‘mine’) reaching for it. If I only had third-person access to myself I would have no idea why the second perception followed the first. But, in reality, of course, I have first-person as well as third-person access to myself, and this explains the sequence of perceptions: the reason the second perception follows the first is the desire—the ‘will’—to eat. Schopenhauer then argues that what is true of the ‘microcosm’ (oneself) is true, too, of the ‘macrocosm’ (the world). As will is my ‘inner’ reality, so it is the inner reality of the world as a whole. Desire gives us the phenomenological reality of the fundamental entities of science. Gravity, for instance, is the ‘will’ to attract.

3:AM: Will is a key idea: what did he mean by the idea of the world as will?

JY: The key idea is that a world of will is a world of conflict, of ‘war, all against all’. Fifty years before Darwin, Schopenhauer saw that nature is essentially an arena of conflict, conflict between the ‘will to live’ in one individual and the will to live in another: the big fishes eat the little fishes and the little fishes eat the minnows. And they must do so on pain of extinction. Like Darwin, Schopenhauer saw that the way in which the economy of nature preserves itself in the face of such eternal conflict is through overpopulation. The system generates enough antelopes to perpetuate the species, but also a surplus to feed the lions. Here we see one aspect of Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Fear, pain and death are not isolated malfunctions of the kind of order a benevolent deity would create, but are inseparable from the means by which the system of nature preserves itself.

When we turn to social life of human beings, is true that civilization mostly ameliorates the cruder cruelties of nature. Yet even here we face a life of conflict between one will and another. If one individual wins a sexual partner, job, wealth, or social status another loses out. Like non-human nature, human social life is a ruthless game played between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Even one’s internal psychology is essentially an arena of conflict. If my will is unsatisfied then I suffer: if my desire for food is unsatisfied I suffer the pain of hunger, if my desire for friends is unsatisfied I suffer the pain of loneliness. But if the will is satisfied, very quickly I become bored—that is I suffer. After a fleeting moment of pleasure, the new Porsche becomes just ‘the car’, the new Omega wrist watch just ‘the thing for telling the time’. Hence life ‘swings like a pendulum’ between the suffering of lacking and the suffering of having.

3:AM: What are the key ideas about art for Schopenhauer? Did he bring something new to the ideas of aesthetics or were his ideas just rehashes of what was already developed by Hegel?

JY: Schopenhauer’s philosophy of art owns nothing to Hegel. His starting point is rather Kant. Since will is the human essence, says Schopenhauer, things show up in everyday consciousness only insofar as they are ‘interesting’ to the will. To the engaged chess player the beautiful jade chess pieces show up as mere Xs which move in a certain manner, to the traveler in a hurry the beautiful bridge over the Rhine is reduced—as if on a map—to a dash intersecting with a stroke. (Marx attributes this reduction of things to their functional properties to capitalist ‘commodification’, but if he had read Schopenhauer he would have realized that it is rooted in the human condition as such.) Because things show up in will-impregnated ways—because everything shows up as either a threat or a solicitation—ordinary consciousness is permeated by anxiety, anxiety that a threat may be realized or a solicitation withdrawn. Occasionally, however, we find ourselves suddenly captivated by a sunset over the ocean, by the play of moonlight over gently rippling water, or by the enhancement of these effects in great art. We are, as we indeed say, ‘takes us out of ourselves’ so that, for a moment, we become oblivious to the threats and solicitations that surround the ordinary self. Our consciousness frees itself from the will, becomes (this, for Kant, is what defines aesthetic consciousness) ‘disinterested’. And because is disinterested, for a fleeting moment we are free of anxiety, achieve that ‘bliss and peace of mind always sought but always escaping us on the path of willing’.

In aesthetic consciousness we enter that ‘… painless state, prized by Epicurus as the state of the gods; for a moment we are delivered from the miserable pressure of the will. We celebrate the Sabbath from the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still’ Very often, when we call an object ‘beautiful’, we are actually not describing the object but rather expressing this subjective state of peace.

The importance of this experience in Schopenhauer’s overall argument is that it’s an intimation of ‘salvation’, of ‘how blessed must be the life of a man in whom the will is silenced, not for a brief moment, as in enjoyment of the beautiful, but for ever’. Of course, since to live is to will, the will can never, in fact, be entirely silenced in the life of ‘a man’: only death can silence the will ‘for ever’. And so, says Schopenhauer, his philosophy, like that of Socrates, is ultimately a ‘preparation for death’, something, he further argues, which, properly understood, is not to be feared but rather welcomed as a friend.

3:AM: You argue that he saw the sublime as requiring a division of the personality into two – a threatened self and an unthreatened one. Why do you think this makes it, when combined with his idealism, a kind of egoism and what’s wrong with that?

JY: I don’t think it’s his account of the sublime that commits Schopenhauer to a kind of egoism but rather his ethics. Virtue, he holds, is altruism; that is, in a world of suffering, compassion. But given that the only pain I know about is my own, given that I have no experience of the suffering of another, the existence of altruism is puzzling and demands an explanation. Schopenhauer’s explanation is given in terms of his metaphysics. The everyday world, as Kant proved, is mere appearance. But it is also the only world in which we can make sense of the idea of a plurality of distinct individuals. We can only distinguish things as different if they occupy different regions of space-time. It follows (a point Kant missed but which the mystics have always understood) that reality ‘in itself’ is ‘beyond plurality’ and is, in that sense, ‘One’. In reality, individuality is an illusion since the One is the real self of each one of us. People who are just in their actions have a certain limited intuitive insight into this deep truth, the person of compassionate love a much deeper insight. What Schopenhauer does, therefore, is to explain this-worldly altruism in terms of metaphysical egoism. We are all the same ‘I’ so that, as the enlightened understand, there is no distinction between your pain and mine. Since this is an all-inclusive egoism I see nothing ‘wrong’ with it.

3:AM: Does Heidegger’s ‘magic realism’ capture the sublime better than idealism?

JY: ‘Magic realism’ is my riff on the ‘plural realism’ that, in my view correctly, Bert Dreyfus attributes to Heidegger. I think the thought behind your question is correct. The idealism of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a duality of ‘appearance’ and a delimited, finite (albeit unknown) ‘thing in itself’. But as Kant himself correctly observes in the later Critique of Judgment, the essence of the sublime is the infinite. In all its forms—the natural numbers, the night sky—the infinite is sublime because it makes us feel ‘small’: it ‘awes’ us. Plural realism allows for the sublime because it holds that our mode of rendering reality intelligible captures just one aspect of an infinitely aspected reality. As Heidegger puts it, borrowing the image from Rilke, concealed behind the lighted side of the moon is its dark side, a dark side of (a point not captured by the image) unfathomable magnitude.

3:AM: Nietzsche is massively influenced by Schopenhauer isn’t he, especially his pessimism which he tries to answer. How did Nietzsche think art would help in his response to Schopenhauer?

JY: Nietzsche always admired Schopenhauer as a ‘knight of truth’ who said ‘No’ to the facile optimism of Hegel, in particular, and the nineteenth century, in general. But his endorsement of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is confined to his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, a celebration of his friendship with Richard Wagner who was an even more passionate Schopenhauerian. (Tristan und Isolde is often described as ‘Schopenhauer set to music’.) When he broke with Wagner in 1876 Nietzsche broke, too, with Schopenhauer; with his Kantian metaphysics and with his pessimism. All his mature philosophy can be described as an overcoming of Schopenhauer. In his youthful first book, however, Nietzsche does accept Schopenhauer’s pessimism on behalf of both himself and the Greeks. (That the Greeks were Schopenhauerians before their time is shown, he says, by the myth of Silenus. Captured by king Midas and forced to reveal his wisdom, the demi-god tells him that ‘the best thing is not to be born, the second best is to die soon’.)

The youthful Nietzsche thinks of art as providing the Greeks—and us—with two kinds of solution to the suffering of life. The ‘Apollonian’ art of the Homeric age persuaded one to take a third-person rather than first-person stance to suffering, so that—as in the classic Western—what one experiences is the glamour of the heroic warriors rather than their fear and pain. The ‘Dionysian’, art of the great Greek tragedies (and of Wagner’s operas), particularly the ‘intoxicating’ effect of the singing of the chorus, transports one to another and better place, a realm beyond this world of suffering: the realm of ‘salvation’, of the blissful dissolution of individuality within the Schopenhauerian One.

3:AM: You divide his career and philosophy of art into four phases which you think can be understood as a circle – can you sketch your interpretation here?

JY: The idea of the circle comes from Lou Salomé, the great, but unrequited, love of Nietzsche’s life. It focusses on the figure of Dionysus. As I observed in answering your previous question, the transport of Dionysian intoxication is central to the youthful Nietzsche’s account of ‘tragic pleasure’, of the effect the tragic festivals has on the Greeks. But after The Birth of Tragedy, Dionysus disappears from his philosophy until virtually his last book, Twilight of the Idols. Here, Nietzsche describes himself as ‘the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus’. The solution to the suffering of the everyday self, he suggests, is to overcome the illusion of individuality and to ‘be oneself the eternal joy of becoming—that joy which includes even joy in destruction’. This resonates with the idea of ‘salvation’ from suffering as absorption into the Schopenhauerian ‘One’—but resonates rather than repeats. For whereas The Birth of Tragedy is founded on the duality of worlds postulated by Schopenhauer’s Kantian idealism, for the mature Nietzsche there is only one world, the world of nature. However, in this world, too, one can exit the suffering of the individual by identifying with the total ‘flow’ of life. The ‘circle’ is this translation of the Dionysianism of Nietzsche’s youth into, as one might call it, the lyrical naturalism of his maturity.

3:AM: Heidegger began in the 1930s thinking that art in modernity was dead didn’t he? Can you say why he took this position?

JY: Heidegger took over the ‘death of art’ thesis from Hegel. Great, world-historical art, Hegel argued, is art which creates and preserves a culture, a community. The focus of Greek life was the tragic festival: here one learnt what it was to be a Greek (as opposed to a ‘barbarian’) and affirmed one’s membership of the Greek community. And the same is true of the medieval cathedral: gathered into its ritual, one affirmed and reaffirmed one’s membership of the Christian community. But thereafter, the great artwork—as Wagner calls it, the ‘collective artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk)’—disappears from Western history. Art of course survives on the walls of private dwellings and corporate offices, but it ‘dies’ in the sense of losing its public, community-gathering, world-historical significance. Heidegger endorsed this view up to the end of the 1930s. ‘Modern’ art, he believed, is the ‘art of pastry cooks’, its function reduced to the provision of pleasurable sensations. He had, however, always loved, and sensed the profundity, of Hölderlin’s poetry. From the end of the 1930s, he began to realize that this love was incompatible with the idea that great art had to fit the Hegelian-Wagnerian paradigm and as a consequence died at the end of the Middle Ages. Later on, he discovered the greatness of Cézanne and of Paul Klee, and realized that the Hegelian paradigm of artistic greatness needed to be supplemented by another paradigm.

This new paradigm was supplied by Hölderlin himself. ‘And what are poets for in destitute times?’ such as our present gods-deserted age, he asks in ‘Bread and Wine’, and answers that they are ‘like the wine god’s holy priests/who fare from land to land in holy night’. The ancient world was, says Hölderlin, ‘touched by the exciting nearness of the fire from heaven’. It was this that made the gods awesome, that gave them the authority to gather and preserve the community. By keeping the fire alive, Dionysus’ ‘holy priest’, the poet, preserves the possibility of a return of the gods. Once the fire is extinguished the gods are expelled for ever.

3:AM: What do you say to those who argue that Heidegger lapsed into mysticism in his late period?

JY: There is mysticism in Heidegger’s late work, but I don’t see it as a ‘lapse’. There are, Heidegger says, two ways of knowing something: through Dichten (poetry) and Denken (thought), through poetic insight and discursive thinking. In his discussions of poetry, and in his own poetic words, Heidegger allows us to experience ‘the mystery’, the awesomeness of the ‘fire from heaven’. But in his analysis of truth (briefly, truth presupposes reference, which presupposes a frame of intelligibility, which conceals an infinite range of alternative frames of intelligibility) he provides a hard-headed conceptual ladder on which philosophical reason can clamber up to the insight which the great poet reaches in one intuitive leap: the numinous infinitude of the real. Heidegger’s later thought is a meeting between the philosophical and the poetic, not the replacement of one by the other.

3:AM: And finally for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?

JY: I am a philosophical explorer and that the territory I am now adventuring into is quite other than the one you have questioned me about. So, the five books I would take with me if I were to be cast away on a desert island would be:

From Max Weber, especially the essays ‘Science as a Vocation’ and ‘Politics as a Vocation’,

Dialectic of Enlightenment (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno),

The Arcades Project (Walter Benjamin),

Eros and Civilization (Herbert Marcuse),

and The Human Condition< (Hannah Arendt).

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 25th, 2017.