Philosophy » Great Philosophers

The best books on Arthur Schopenhauer

recommended by David Bather Woods

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher who held a deeply pessimistic view of the world. He was also, among other things, a misogynist. And yet, he made important contributions to a number of areas of philosophy and had a deep influence on other philosophers. He wrote in a clear style that gained him a wide readership among non-philosophers as well. David Bather Woods, a Schopenhauer expert at the University of Warwick, talks us through his choice of books on the life and work of this remarkable thinker.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

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Before we get to the books, let’s start with the basics: who was Schopenhauer?  

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher, born in 1788. He came from a wealthy family of international merchants and he was bound for a life as a merchant, going into the family business, until tragedy struck. When Schopenhauer was 17, his father was discovered dead in a river near the family home, in what he and his mother assumed was suicide.

His mother pursued a literary career in Weimar, whereas Schopenhauer prepared to hold down the family business by continuing his merchant’s apprenticeship.  But then eventually he, too, started on the path of an intellectual life. He attended a number of universities, including the University of Berlin where he studied under Fichte and Schleiermacher, and that was the beginning of his philosophical career. The most important work he produced was The World as Will and Representation. It was this book that gained him his reputation as a pessimist. There he set out his view that all life is suffering, and that life isn’t worth living. But it was also in this book that he made contributions to almost every branch of Western philosophy: political philosophy, aesthetics, the philosophy of art, epistemology. His three main philosophical influences were Plato, Kant and—interestingly for a philosopher of his time—classical Indian philosophy…

Particularly Buddhism

Yes, Buddhism, but actually Hinduism as well. His first engagement with Eastern philosophy was in 1814 when he picked up a Latin translation of the Upanishads, which is the metaphysical scripture of Hinduism. It’s from there that he gets this term that you find a lot in Schopenhauer, ‘the veil of Maya’. He thinks that Plato, Kant and the Upanishads are all getting at the same distinction between appearance and reality. The reason for the title, ‘The World as Will and Representation’ is a reference to the world of appearances (the world of representation) and what he thinks is the world of reality, beyond appearances, which is what he calls ‘will’…

…which is, presumably, ‘behind the veil’. The veil is like a curtain, behind which we get a little glimpse every now and then, but we can’t see what’s really there.

Yes, exactly. His innovation in the history of philosophy is thinking that he’s solved this Kantian problem of what to make of this idea of ‘the thing in itself’, what Kant called the ‘noumenal’ world. Schopenhauer identifies it with ‘will,’ because he thinks that human beings are in the unique position of having some sort of internal access to at least one thing ‘as it is in itself’, which is themselves. Everything else in the world we know only as representation. But our body we know both as representation (as a causal spatial-temporal located object) and as ‘will’. We experience its movements from the inside. He thinks that’s the kind of Rosetta Stone for interpreting the rest of experience, on the assumption that the rest of the world, too, has something that lies beyond representation, namely this thing called ‘will’.

Just as an aside, is it true that his parents deliberately gave him a name that was cosmopolitan—Arthur isn’t a very German name?

They gave him a name that would be recognized globally—remember they were international merchants. He was born in Danzig, which is now Gdansk. But when Danzig was annexed to Prussia, his family moved to Hamburg, another port in the Hanseatic League. He was almost born in England and he and his father were Anglophiles. It was cosmopolitan, but I think it was also a slightly Anglophile decision. The mature Schopenhauer wasn’t exactly politically cosmopolitan, but you can understand why, if they thought he was going to become a merchant, that he would need a name that would wash with all kinds of different nations.

How did you get interested in Schopenhauer?

I came to one of the works I’m going to talk about, which is his prize essay on the freedom of the will, because I was preoccupied with questions about free will and determinism. The question whether we have any free will naturally occurs to people, given that everything seems to be causally explained. The title of this short book seemed like it was going to answer that question. So, I read it and I did get an answer that kind of chimed with what I was already thinking about it, which is, more or less, that everything is determined and there isn’t space for free will.

“The most important work he produced was The World as Will and Representation. It was this book that gained him his reputation as a pessimist.”

But, more impressive than that, was just that he was putting things far more precisely than when they occurred to me. There were also all these very erudite references to other areas of the history of philosophy and literature that I hadn’t come across. The way he wrote captured me more than the answers I got from him. I liked his writing. He was an impressive stylist. So then I thought I would try and read all of it.

I have to say, amongst German philosophers, he stands out as a model of clarity—at least when translated into English. His essays are beautiful and read as if composed in English. They clearly translate very well. Most of The World as Will and Representation is highly readable for a technical work of philosophy. That’s probably why he’s had such a big influence beyond philosophy as well, with artists, novelists and musicians. It’s partly because he makes such a big deal about the arts within that book, of course, but partly because he’s such a great stylist and communicates so effectively.

Again, that was deliberate, I think. Partly because he was Anglophile, he liked the common-sense idiom you find in Hume and Locke. He liked common-sense philosophy, but he also liked the straightforward way of talking. He really despised the indirect way of talking and writing of the generation before him—Hegel, Fichte, Schelling—the generation who taught him. He thought that they were unnecessarily obscurantist. He could just about forgive it in Kant, because he thought Kant had made some very important advances.

Schopenhauer writes in German in a common-sense idiom that lends itself to English translation. And he didn’t like unnecessary technicality. So, yes, there’s a reason why he is often picked up by people who aren’t necessarily interested in philosophy, particularly the technical areas of philosophy.

Just before we get into your five choices, could you say a bit about the book about Schopenhauer you’re editing at the moment? What is it and when is it coming out?

It’s in the early stages, but it’s under contract. It will be in the ‘Philosophical Minds’ series that Routledge commission and it’s going to be called The Schopenhauerian Mind. I’m co-editing it with Timothy Stoll, who’s at Franklin & Marshall College in the States. It will be a collection of newly commissioned essays on different areas of Schopenhauer’s thought, with special attention to his legacy and some of the people who’ve been influenced by him. It will also focus on Schopenhauer’s engagement with pre-Kantian philosophy and the difference between that and his engagement with post-Kantian philosophy.

It seems to me that, within philosophy departments, it’s quite rare to have a course on Schopenhauer, even though he’s an interesting thinker and so important in the history of ideas. For some reason he gets missed out. It’s a bit bizarre. Do you have any idea why?

I think Southampton University has a Schopenhauer module on the books, but I’m not sure how often it is taught. At Warwick University at the moment we do a module called ‘Nietzsche in Context’, which I currently teach. The way I teach it, the ‘context’ part of that module concentrates on Schopenhauer.

What would Schopenhauer think of that? The only way he gets on the syllabus is by putting Nietzsche in context!

Yes, I don’t think he’d like that. But one of the legacies of the huge amount of secondary writing that’s accumulated around Nietzsche is that for every book you get on Nietzsche you get a chapter—maybe a bit less—on Schopenhauer. It tends to be quite a one-dimensional, straw man Schopenhauer, in my view. Part of what I’ve been trying to do on the module that I teach has been to give, not so much a more charitable, but a more rounded picture of Schopenhauer and to show some of the continuities and some of the differences between him and Nietzsche, and some of the subtler influences.

“He founded a system and he tinkered with it for his whole life and built on it”

I don’t know why Schopenhauer doesn’t have more attention given to him in his own right. His influence, as you’ve already mentioned, tended to be outside philosophy.

He influenced Nietzsche. He influenced Wittgenstein. Those are two massive influences.

They were more character influences, I think. Those were two people who really knew their own minds and went their own way. Schopenhauer’s largest impact on them was his radical way of thinking for himself. He seems to have taught them how to be philosophers, but not necessarily what to think. And the later Wittgenstein doesn’t really have many Schopenhauerian influences. It’s only the early Wittgenstein.

Yes, but Wittgenstein doesn’t acknowledge sources. That’s one of the things about him. Nietzsche is quite dismissive of Schopenhauer at some points. He asks why you would trust a philosopher who preaches pessimism, but still plays a flute, arguing that, if he were sincere, he ought to have been a bit gloomier. Anyway, let’s get on to the books you’re recommending. What’s the first book you’ve chosen? I think you’ve already mentioned it.

I’ve mentioned half of it. The book is Schopenhauer’s The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. It has two constitutive essays. One is the essay on free will and the other is the essay on the basis of morality. So that suggests the two fundamental problems for Schopenhauer are: ‘Do we have moral freedom?’ and ‘What is the basis of moral worth?’

This is an early work, right?

It’s a middle work, I’d say. The two essays were written for a specific purpose in 1839 and 1840 and then published in one volume in 1840. But there’s an interesting story behind why they were produced. The essay on free will was written in response to a competition question put out by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences. It was a short question: ‘Can the freedom of the will be proved from self-consciousness?’ And Schopenhauer wrote this essay and won the competition. Then he tries to do it again in response to an essay question put out by the Royal Danish Society of Sciences, which is a more long-winded question, but basically a question about the connection between metaphysics and the basis of morality. This time he loses. He was the only entrant to the competition, but he still lost. From then on, he always had it in for the Danes.

Fair enough, in the circumstances…

There are complicated reasons why he lost. It was partly because he spent so much of the essay Hegel-bashing, which he did a lot. He later found out—or thought he did—that a philosopher called Hans Lassen Martensen was on the judging panel. He was somebody who had a formative influence on Kierkegaard (who also hated Hegel). At that time, Danish philosophy was really under the sway of Hegel and all that Hegel-bashing wouldn’t have washed with them.

What’s interesting about these essays is that they were anonymously submitted. Even though Schopenhauer had already written his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, more than a decade before, he couldn’t refer to it. They had to stand up on their own. When they were put together in book form, he did put some references in, but these essays really hold up as standalone pieces. So, if somebody was reading Schopenhauer for the first time and wanted to get a handle on his thought, it would be a good place to start. It is often the first thing I recommend.

That’s a good steer. Let’s go to the second book, The World as Will and Representation. This is his major work, the book he is best known for. I think he rewrote it several times, didn’t he?

That’s right. This book also has an interesting structure. It was first published in 1818, in December, although the first edition has ‘1819’ as a typo. Schopenhauer was only just out of his twenties then. He was a very young man, but he’d built this huge system of philosophy that was supposed to explain everything in a really ambitious way, covering aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and ethics. And, in 1844, there’s a new version published, shortly after The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics – this is the first volume with some minor changes, plus a whole new second volume, which is not entirely new thoughts but supplementary thoughts to the first volume. So, he writes about 50 essays about his own first volume, which elaborate on the system.

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Then there’s a third version in which there aren’t many changes at all, republished in the last few years of his life. But it is suggestive of the kind of thinker that he was. He founded a system and he tinkered with it for his whole life and built on it, which is different from, say, Nietzsche, where you almost get a different Nietzsche from book to book. Schopenhauer was elaborating on a huge system.

Maybe I could give a caricatured version of what I understand the central themes of the book to be, then you can correct me. I take it to be that you have the world of appearances, the world we move around in and perceive. And behind this Veil of Maya is the real world, what Kant called the noumenal world, which for Kant, was fundamentally, by its nature, unknowable except by a transcendental argument: it must be there because we’ve got this realm of appearances, which wouldn’t be as it is if there wasn’t this noumenal realm behind it all—something like that. But for Schopenhauer we have direct experience of the will, what Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”, this energy or sap that is in us, that allows us to do stuff. And, particularly, with our own self-consciousness, we get a glimpse of the world, but this is also revealed, indirectly as I remember, through music and, possibly, through tragedy.

Yes. He actually says that music is another direct expression of the will in a quite confusing discussion of music and what it can do for us. I think he just couldn’t find the words to describe how moving and powerful he felt music was. What he does get right here is his view that other art forms were mediated by what he called ‘the Ideas’, the essential attributes of the things; whereas music isn’t mediated by the Ideas. It isn’t depicting a given object. It’s abstract…

…because it isn’t representational. He didn’t think of music as representing the emotions. It’s pure something-or-other.

Yes. I think he even said that if there was no world there would still be music, which is very mystical. But, the idea of the metaphysical picture you’ve given there is right. Will was his attempt to derive and characterize what Kant referred to as ‘the thing as it is in itself’. He wasn’t satisfied with what Kant said about it. He thought Kant almost contradicted himself by deriving the thing-in-itself as a cause of representation, when he’d already said that causality is something that stands between representations and not between representation and ‘the thing itself’.

Schopenhauer thinks that we get this insight into the will by reflecting on our own experience of ourselves because we have this privileged access to one object—ourselves—which is unlike the access we have to other objects. At one point he says we’re not Engelskopf, floating angels’ heads. If you read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason you’d think we were these disembodied intellects, just cognizing experience. But instead, Schopenhauer says, we’re also rooted in experience. We are driven by desire, our preferences and a kind of restlessness. That twofold experience of ourselves is the analogy he uses for interpreting the rest of experience.

“He…said that if there was no world there would still be music”

The rest of experience would be experienced as the same ‘ghostly procession’ as we would have if we were just these disembodied angels heads, if we didn’t interpret it as having something behind representation, which the representation is manifesting. And that’s what he called will and he called it will only as a memento of where the inside comes from. The risk of confusion here is that he seems to be attributing volitional states to inanimate objects. He thinks that all of nature is an embodiment of will.

So, it’s more like a force than the human will?

Bryan Magee suggested thinking of will as ‘energy’ in order to link Schopenhauer to physics after Einstein. But Schopenhauer tries not to use words like ‘force’, ‘energy’ and ‘power’ because those are words that are derived from representation. He wants to remind us that the key to interpreting outer experience is an insight that has come from inside, which is our experience of the will. It becomes a more and more abstract notion and it does start to sound just like ‘energy’, but he’s very firm on the fact that, even though he knows it risks confusion by anthropomorphising the world, the reason he’s chosen ‘will’ is as a reminder of that insight.

It’s maybe difficult to do, but when I introspect, what is it that I find?  If I were David Hume, I might just find fleeting impressions, as if passing across a stage; but if I’m Schopenhauer, what do I find there?  What is this thing that he’s labelled ‘the will’? What sort of experience is it? What are its qualities?

Here’s one way of thinking about it. If I want to know about an external object, I have to represent it and infer from the outside what it intends or what its nature is from what I see. But if I introspect I don’t have to infer. I don’t look at my arm and then know that my arm went up: I have some sort of privileged access to what explains my action, without having to infer from external appearances. I experience what moves me as an object in a specially immediate way which I cannot experience with any other thing. I’m sure there’s some speculative neuroscience or something like that going on and people would say that that is just another sensory phenomenon…

Proprioception, perhaps…

Yes, that’s it. And I think that’s part of what Schopenhauer is getting at. That’s one of the ways he explains it. He sometimes calls the will ‘causality seen from within’. Everything else we intuit through their causal relations with one another, but our own movements we don’t have to intuit through causal relations. We somehow have privileged access to movements.

Because we’re in the engine room, as it were.

Yes, we are sat on a metaphysical fault line. That’s the way Iris Murdoch looked at it. Our bodies are in the empirical world and our wills are in the noumenal world.

Now, there’s one other element we haven’t talked about very much, which is the emotional tone of what he’s saying which, as you mentioned earlier, is pessimistic. He’s basically saying life is suffering, a bit of a waste of time. Everything is quite dark. That’s the caricature. As I understood it, that comes very much from Buddhist teaching on suffering: the Buddha went out into the world and all he could see was suffering everywhere he looked. And Schopenhauer took that as a profound insight into the nature of appearances. But for Buddhists life is about the capacity to get beyond suffering. I wonder if The World as Will and Representation has that kind of redeeming aspect to it..

That’s interesting. I’ve got a few thoughts. The fact that we are just manifestations of the will is not a happy fact for Schopenhauer. Our experience of it is always one of suffering because he thinks that, whenever we’re striving for something, we lack it. That lack is felt painfully and that’s why we are motivated to strive in the first place. Even if we satisfy our desires and we’re no longer striving, we succumb to boredom. He has this famous line that life swings to and fro like a pendulum, between boredom and pain. He really thinks there’s nothing for us in life. It’s just either pain or boredom and we’d be better off not existing at all.

Does he talk about the wisdom of Silenus or is that Nietzsche?

He quotes Sophocles in the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, so the later volume, and he quotes the part of Sophocles where Sophocles is reporting the advice of the woodland sage Silenus to King Midas: never to have been born is best, and the next best is to die soon. Then Nietzsche explicitly attributes this wisdom to Silenus in The Birth of Tragedy. Schopenhauer also, on at least two occasions, quotes Hamlet‘s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Chapter 46 of the second volume of The World as Will and Representation actually ends with a collage of literary examples of this world-denying pessimism, going right from the ancients, even ancient Mexican culture—he talks about these parturition rituals where people would regret and mourn when someone was born and would celebrate when they died—all the way up to the Italian atheist and pessimist Giacomo Leopardi. He mentions him right at the end, with Byron.

OK, so that’s the pessimism. But, if he got this from Buddhism, which seems likely, Buddhism has redemption built into it, with the possibility of getting out of this eternal cycle of suffering through nirvana. Is there anything equivalent in Schopenhauer’s thought?

There is something equivalent, but there are differences, too. Schopenhauer thinks that the only way to escape suffering is to achieve an ascetic self-denial that results in a kind of will-lessness. It resonates with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, extinguishing the fires of desire. Even in the very final lines of the first volume of The World as Will and Representation, he talks about the impasse that exists between the person who has denied the will to life, the saint, the ascetic, and the person who hasn’t, the person who’s still full of will. He says their life to us is nothing and our life to them, with all our suns and galaxies, is nothing. And the very last word of The World of Will and Representation is ‘nothing’.

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In other places Schopenhauer says ‘nirvana’ is just a word for this ‘nothing’. It’s a word for the nothingness that a life without will looks like, viewed from a life with will. So, The World as Will and Representation ends on a note of mysticism, which was really attractive to both the early Wittgenstein and to Iris Murdoch.

I’ve heard a lot of people characterize Buddhism recently—people like Graham Priest—as an optimistic philosophy, not a pessimistic philosophy, precisely because it has this form of salvation in it. I’m inclined to think that, even though there is salvation in Schopenhauer, its form is anything but optimistic. To me, accepting all possible sufferings in life as if they were your own and being spiritually crushed by that, does not sound like a happy ending. It sounds like a terrible way to be saved. So, I don’t think there’s much optimism in Schopenhauer. He’s a pessimist through and through, although—important historical fact—he doesn’t use the word ‘pessimism’ (or the German equivalent) in the early works at all, and sparingly in later works. He doesn’t really have it to hand. It was a fairly recent invention.

Let’s move on to your third book choice, Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms. This is a selection, but it wasn’t his selection. 

Exactly. I picked this for a reason. It’s a book I know very well, without owning it. The real book is Parerga and Paralipomena. Essays and Aphorisms are some selections from that. They are the most user-friendly writings of Schopenhauer and they were recognized as that in his day.

Who made this selection?

R.G. Hollingdale.

The Nietzsche enthusiast and translator.

That’s it.

We’ve talked about Schopenhauer’s writing style being so clear. Could you give me a flavour of the sorts of topics he addresses in these essays?

The title helps. ‘Parerga and Paralipomena’ is Greek for ‘additions and omissions’ or ‘offshoots and offcuts’. It’s the stuff that is either tangential to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but just wasn’t covered in the main works, or that is not really a tangent and just isn’t covered by his systematic philosophy at all. Roughly speaking, volume one is the ‘parerga’—the offshoots; and volume two is the ‘paralipomena’—the offcuts.

Volume two has this potted history of philosophy with a lot of Schopenhauer’s views on the history of philosophy, everything from Greek philosophy to the modern era, and the place of his contemporaries and himself in the history of philosophy.

Now we know where Nietzsche got that from!

Well, there’s another thing Nietzsche got from Schopenhauer. There’s a famous essay “On University Philosophy”, which is very damning of academic philosophy and uses ‘philosophy professor’ as a term of abuse. And in Untimely Meditations Nietzsche’s essay, “Schopenhauer as Educator” is very anti the academy in many of the points it makes and seems to borrow from Schopenhauer.

We should say, as an aside, that Schopenhauer lived outside the academy and Nietzsche, after being appointed at a very young age to a university professorship, as a result of a combination of ill-health and quirkiness ceased to be a part of the academy. So, they’re very much outsider figures in that world of universities.

Yes. Schopenhauer had a brush with university. He taught at the University of Berlin for a term. He deliberately scheduled his lectures at the same time as Hegel, as an act of spite, and about five people showed up. The courses were listed for a few years afterwards, but he never taught them. So, he had a really bad taste of academia and he cultivated an outsider persona.

Actually, it’s with Parerga and Paralipomena that Schopenhauer is really accepted as a philosopher and starts to achieve some sort of renown and recognition.

Are you saying that in his lifetime he was better known as an essayist, or just in his early life?

He just wasn’t really known. His mother, Johanna, was more famous than him as a writer and as a saloniste. She hosted Goethe and that’s how Schopenhauer got to know Goethe a little bit.

Quite cool to have Goethe coming round to your house when you’re a kid.

There was always an element of professional jealousy between Schopenhauer and his mother. Parerga and Paralipomena came out in 1851, the last decade of Schopenhauer’s life. Among the essays in the second volume are “On Suicide”, “On Noise”, “Similes, Parables and Fables”, “On Women”, which is the locus classicus of the misogyny that he’s so well-known for. He’s almost like Montaigne in the range of different philosophical and cultural phenomena that he’s interested in. And there are really accessible numbered sections, a bit like Nietzsche would later write, offering clear pearls of wisdom on all these different topics.

Some of them are opinion pieces, really, aren’t they? He’s sounding off.

Yes, absolutely. The title of the book itself suggests that these are not big philosophical thoughts. These are errant thoughts that he was having and writing at the time. But he deliberately said, when he sent it off to the publisher, ‘This is the last thing I’m going to write, I don’t want to bring any more weakling children into the world.’

Is that like Hume describing his Treatise as ‘falling dead-born from the press’?

A bit. His mother mocked him by bringing to his attention the fact that the first editions of his works still hadn’t been selling…

In today’s academic world that’s taken as a sign of quality.

Parerga is interesting because, in its day, it was the one that people found easiest to get into. That it was compiled into Essays and Aphorisms for Penguin Classics suggests that it’s still the one that people go in for. But there’s one other thing I should say about it. Within the first volume of Parerga, there’s a book within a book called On the Wisdom of Life or Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life. That’s one that you sometimes find published separately as a book. He does something really unusual there, but helpful for winning him a popular audience, which is that he puts aside all that Buddhistic ethics of self-denial, which he says is unachievable for most people, and practises what he calls a ‘eudaimonology’, a science of the good life.

“He has this famous line that life swings to and fro like a pendulum, between boredom and pain”

His official view is that the good life is a contradiction in terms. He doesn’t think there’s such a thing as a good life. But he puts that aside and says, ‘Imagine there was a good life. What would it look like, given that it’s too late not to exist now?’ And, so, he offers some advice about how to live. His advice is self-serving, though, in that what you should really be is a self-sufficient intellect, who’s very solitary and independent. In other words: you should be like Schopenhauer.

That leads us into the realm of biography. The one thing in Schopenhauer’s life that people bring up is the incident with his neighbour, when he pushed an old lady down the stairs for making too much noise on the landing— that may not be accurate. And then there was the horrible thing he wrote across her death notice when she died, ‘obit anus abit onus’—the old lady dies and the burden is lifted—because he had to pay a regular fine as a result of injuring her by his violence. Pretty callous stuff.

Even though he denied pushing her down the stair, he does admit to grabbing her to move her away, and that’s how it’s reported in the biographies: some people were talking outside his rooms too loudly. He came out and most of them were happy to go away, but there was this one seamstress who was living in the building, who he had a scuffle with and she ended up falling down the stairs. He was taken to court and had to pay her a stipend until she died some years later. There aren’t many ways to tidy that up. It’s a really horrible incident.

I don’t know whether you want to tie it to his misogyny, whether it was significant that she was a woman rather than a man.

I don’t know whether I’d want to speculate on that. I don’t know. We can’t know. One of the things he writes in Parerga and Paralipomena is the essay “On Noise”. He was acutely sensitive to noise: he hated it. That seems to have been the initial motivation. But I wonder, if he’d encountered a man making noise, whether it would have ended in the man being pushed down the stairs. I doubt it. But that’s speculative.

I could say more about his terrible views on women. His view was that women weren’t capable of the kind of intellectual life that he prized, that they were born for a life of being, as Beauvoir put, the second sex, in a supportive role to men. It doesn’t have any sound reasoning behind it. And I think it’s better to approach this through the lens of psychoanalysis, in terms of his relationship with his mother and his sister. There’s no basis for it, he just thought that women were incapable of philosophical thought. It’s appalling.

He had some forward-facing views about other things, though. In the second volume of The World as Will and Representation he writes a chapter called “On the Metaphysics of Sexual Love”. The appendix is about homosexuality and he takes a stance that he knows he will be ridiculed for: that it’s not unnatural to be gay. He says it’s so prevalent in human society, both in history and in cultures of the day, that it can’t be treated as aberrant. He then goes into a really weird explanation of why nature has made things that way, but he knows that even that is enough for him to be ridiculed by his contemporaries.

He’s a bit like Jeremy Bentham in that respect. Bentham was writing in the late 18th century. The strong suspicion is that he was at least temperamentally, if not actively, homosexual. Is there any sense that that may have been true of Schopenhauer as well?

Some people have speculated. Bryan Magee speculates that Schopenhauer had some gay experiences. He definitely had a boyhood friend he was extremely close to. He takes the Greek model of partnerships between young men and older men and he thinks that the reason why nature makes it that way—and this is the part that doesn’t sound very contemporary, it sounds awful—is so that those people don’t procreate when either they are before the point of maturity or past the point of being able to get a woman pregnant.

“I don’t think there’s much optimism in Schopenhauer. He’s a pessimist through and through”

Bryan Magee reads into that that maybe Schopenhauer had some gay experiences or gay feelings when he was young, and then again when he was older. I’ve heard people argue that his essay, “On Women”, illustrates an obverse ideal. So, if you read between the lines, the things that he hates in women, if you made them into their opposite, he would be describing the physical form of a man. I’m not so convinced by that because, much as it would be interesting, there’s no evidence of an actual gay relationship and plenty of evidence of straight relationships.

Although in those days people wouldn’t have been keen to leave traces.

That’s true. But I think it’s a bit speculative. To take a stance as Schopenhauer did is itself quite something.

What’s your fourth book choice?

Helen Zimmern’s biography Arthur Schopenhauer: His Life and His Philosophy, published in 1876, only 16 years after Schopenhauer’s death.

Did she know Schopenhauer?

No. The closest connection is that she was born in Hamburg, which is where Schopenhauer spent a lot of his childhood. But they never crossed paths. She’s the same generation as Nietzsche, a couple of years younger. She did know Nietzsche personally.

She was born in Hamburg, as I said. But then, in 1850, the family moved to Nottingham and then, in 1856, to London, after fleeing the revolutions of 1848 in mainland Europe. She becomes a naturalised British citizen when she comes of age. So, she’s a German-born, German-speaking British person.

She wrote the book in English then, presumably? It certainly reads like that. I’ve only read the opening, which is brilliant. She’s a great writer.

Yes. She turned her hand to everything. Before she wrote biographies and criticism, she was writing short stories. She was a writer above all. She wasn’t specifically a biographer or historian. She wrote all kinds of things. And she was a translator. Eventually she translated Nietzsche.

Is this book an accurate biography?

Yes. There was already a biography of Schopenhauer in German by someone who did know Schopenhauer personally, Doctor Wilhelm Gwinner, and the biographical details of Zimmern’s book are based on Gwinner’s book. A lot of it is almost anecdotal, as if she did know Schopenhauer, because it’s taken from a source that was anecdotal. You get a lot of nice little morsels, the real minutiae of Schopenhauer’s life. It still holds up. It’s much shorter than some of the biographies that came later, but it’s accurate about the life, and even the presentation of the philosophy is reasonably accurate, given that not many people knew Schopenhauer’s philosophy at that time.

I’m planning on reading the book. The opening is certainly remarkable. Remarkably readable for something written in the Victorian era, as well. She has a very lucid style.

One of the criticisms she got later was that, when she translated Nietzsche, people thought it was done in this high Victorian style. Sometimes people find that her style isn’t so digestible. In this biography, when it’s not her translating anyone else, but just her own writing, I think she’s really interesting in the way she writes about Schopenhauer. And she’s writing in a specific moment, when people in Britain are just beginning to hear about this fascinating German philosopher. She mentions in her preface a review in the Westminster Review by John Oxenford, which was originally published anonymously in 1853. Schopenhauer knew about this review and actually made a point of finding out about who wrote it, because he loved praise. Oxenford’s review, which was called “Iconoclasm in German Philosophy,” said that Schopenhauer would suit British tastes in a way that Hegel never did, because you can understand what Schopenhauer is saying. You know when you agree with him and when you disagree with him. You’re not left uncertain about what he’s saying. The only thing Oxenford disagrees with is his so-called ‘ultra-pessimism’. He thinks that ‘Englishmen’, especially at that time of Victorian liberalism, will not take kindly to this anti-progressive message in Schopenhauer, but the rest of it they will get on with.

“There’s a famous essay…which is very damning of academic philosophy and uses ‘philosophy professor’ as a term of abuse”

Zimmern references that, but she also references the fact that there hasn’t been this kind of systematic elaboration of the thought in English. There’d been at least one in French and some in German, but not in English. For a long time, this biography was the only place to go for translations of Schopenhauer into English.

Really? So, it served as an anthology as well as a biography?

That’s right. It wasn’t until later that there were some translations of Schopenhauer. There’s the Kemp and Haldane translation, which came out about a decade or so afterwards, which is still being published in the Everyman series. It gets published as The World as Will and Idea. There are other translations, too. T Bailey Saunders translated essays from the Parerga.

There’s an interesting one, which is The Fourfold Root of the Principal of Sufficient Reason, which was Schopenhauer’s very first book and his doctoral dissertation. This got translated by a woman called Jesse Taylor, who had to publish under her husband’s name, Karl Hillebrand. She’s the first person to translate Vorstellung—which is the word translated by Kemp and Haldane as ‘idea’—as ‘representation’, which is what scholars use now.

I used to own an early translation of Nietzsche I found long ago in a secondhand bookshop. I think it was translated by the same person.

It might be Zimmern. If it’s Human, All Too Human or Beyond Good and Evil.

Anyway, so you were saying The Fourfold Root translation was published under a man’s name, but there was a woman behind it.

Yes. And there are a few similar cases. There’s a Mrs Rudolf Dircks—I don’t know what her real name was—but she went under her husband’s name as well. She published some of Schopenhauer’s translations into English, including ‘The Metaphysics of Sexual Love’, which she translated as ‘The Metaphysics of Love’. That was D.H. Lawrence’s first introduction to Schopenhauer. Obviously, Lawrence was obsessed with ideas about sexual love and found it refreshing to hear somebody talking so frankly about sexuality.  But even that translation is somewhat prudish: for instance, it omits the word ‘sexual’ from the title. It’s interesting to speculate what Lawrence would have made of the real unadulterated version of Schopenhauer’s views on sex.

That’s fascinating.

Here’s another one: Olga Plümacher, who wrote in one of the first issues of the journal Mind. There were a couple of essays on pessimism in Mind because it was right in the middle of the so-called ‘pessimist controversy’ that Schopenhauer basically kicked off. Plümacher, who was of Russian origin, was another woman writer who was bringing Schopenhauer to the general public. So, in the late 19th century—ironically, given the Schopenhauer thought that women couldn’t aspire to an intellectual life—he was being written about and translated by all these amazingly talented women.

I wonder if they translated his essay on women as well.

I don’t know. Maybe.

Zimmern is a next-generation biography. Is there a more recent biography that you’d recommend in passing or is that the place to go?

There are other biographies. The most authoritative English biography now is David Cartwright’s Schopenhauer: A Biography. That’s an incredibly detailed piece of scholarship. One of its sources is Gwinner, who is Helen Zimmern’s main source too. Cartwright’s book is incredibly detailed. There’s also English translations of Rudiger Safranski’s Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy. So, there are others. But the good thing about Zimmern is that it’s so short, and it’s got everything you need about the basics and some more. I did a little comparison. There’s a great anecdote about Schopenhauer going to Frankfurt Zoo in the 1850s and seeing an orangutan—this is in the years just before On the Origin of Species—and saying that we must be descendants of these. So, I had a look to see  if the orangutan made it into Cartwright’s book and I couldn’t find it there.

That’s a shame. Quite an omission.

That’s what I mean.

Do you mean that he couldn’t corroborate it, do you think? The only thing I can think is that, if it were some kind of apocryphal tale and it emerged that there was no orangutan in the zoo at that time, then he might omit it for that reason, although it seems unlikely.

Yes, it’s quite specific. I’ll go back and check now, but there are nice little incidents that, I think, are from the original source having had direct access, being literally in the room. You get this humane picture of Schopenhauer as he was, as a person, maybe almost too flattering because, by all accounts, he could be a really difficult person to be around. Famously, his mother couldn’t spend much time with him.

That’s true of many famous philosophers, to be honest. And some not-so-famous ones, as well! Let’s move on to the last book, by Bryan Magee. Bryan Magee was a wholehearted Schopenhauer enthusiast. His three passions seem to have been Schopenhauer, Popper, and Wagner. He wrote several books about Schopenhauer. There’s quite a funny bit in his ‘great philosophers’ series where he says something like, ‘If I were to interview the most eminent writer on Schopenhauer now alive, I’d be interviewing myself. But, in the absence of that, I’ve got Father Copleston’. Quite conceited, in a way. You’ve chosen the classic book by Bryan Magee on Schopenhauer, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Why did you choose this book?

Again, it was one of the books that helped me out when I was first getting into Schopenhauer. It was lucky that Schopenhauer had been picked up by the greatest populariser of philosophy of his generation in Britain, which again makes me wonder why Schopenhauer still isn’t more popular than he is.

He may be popular beyond philosophy. That’s the thing. He may be very popular, but just not so much with philosophers.

Yes. That’s a good point. And, even though now I disagree with some of the things that Magee says about Schopenhauer, at the time it was great to have this lucid exposition of the basics of Schopenhauer’s thought. Like a lot of Bryan Magee’s work, it indicates a personal investment in a thinker and included some personal elements. Magee makes connections; connections that I now dispute a bit, but connections between Schopenhauer and other parts of the intellectual and artistic world that made Schopenhauer seem like a hugely important thinker.

My impression is that Magee, who was, in some ways, an outsider figure in academic philosophy—he had a career as a politician, as a TV presenter and various other things as well—as an independent writer, probably had lots of affinities with Schopenhauer. He did get married and had a child, but he spent most of his life single. He was obsessed with classical music. There are lots of things he had in common with Schopenhauer. Perhaps the most important one, for me, is his absolute commitment to clarity in writing, both in his own practice, but also in his attitude. He was quite scathing about the state of Oxford philosophy in terms of its obscurantism, echoing the kind of attitudes that Schopenhauer expressed in his essays. I think this book is written from the heart. It’s not a cold analysis of a thinker from the past. It’s about somebody he really admired and saw himself reflected in.

I hadn’t really thought about there being an overlap between certain parts of Schopenhauer’s character or style and Bryan Magee’s, but it makes perfect sense. Someone whom Bryan Magee knew, Iris Murdoch, was also really interested in Schopenhauer. In her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she pinpoints the curious thing that’s so attractive about Schopenhauer. She calls him the merry pessimist…

…That’s a paraphrase of Nietzsche…

Yes. But Murdoch also points to the way Schopenhauer is so generous to his readers, so garrulous. Nietzsche wasn’t. Nietzsche sometimes tormented his readers and seemed to hate them. Schopenhauer appreciated being read. Murdoch describes him as more like a kindly teacher or a fellow traveller, unless you’re a woman, I suppose, given his misogyny—but then again Murdoch was a woman…Magee himself could be like a kindly teacher. He’s an enthusiast, someone who really cares about his reader.

Magee’s book is very readable. Is it just the discussion of the influence of Schopenhauer on culture that you take issue with now, or are there other things in the book that you continue to have reservations about?

Yes. There are things I have reservations about now that I didn’t have when I first read it. For instance, he makes one pretty fundamental claim, that Schopenhauer’s general philosophy, by which I think he means his epistemology and metaphysics, is compatible with optimism. And he says that’s because you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. You can’t derive the value of something from a description of it. He looks at optimism and pessimism through the classic glass half-full/glass half-empty model. It depends on the temperament of the observer whether it’s half-full or half-empty. At one point Magee makes a vague concession, saying there are ‘some of those parts that deal with ethics and aesthetics’ that may be intrinsically pessimistic. But, to me, there’s just no optimistic equivalent for Schopenhauer’s main claims made throughout The World as Will and Representation. How do you say the world ought not to exist in an optimistic way?

Or that it’s better not to have been born…Is Magee saying, perhaps, that Schopenhauer appears to derive the pessimistic outlook from a metaphysical commitment, and that’s just an illegitimate move in argument?

Yes. It does seem like it’s that. Magee’s basic point is that his pessimism can’t be derived from first principles, but I think it’s unfair to say that that means that it’s just a perspective on a value-neutral object, like a half-empty glass. For Schopenhauer, we’re not debating about how to see the glass; we’re debating about how much liquid is in the glass. His is a glass-fully-empty philosophy. Magee is right to say that we can’t necessarily derive some of these claims from descriptive metaphysical principles, but perhaps he’s wrong to say that means it’s all just a matter of perspective and temperament.

He’s actually objecting to the subtitle to Copleston’s book because Copleston’s book is Arthur Schopenhauer: Philosopher of Pessimism. Magee doesn’t like the idea that what we remember Schopenhauer for is being a pessimist. Part of what he was trying to achieve in The Philosophy of Schopenhauer was to draw attention to all the other things that Schopenhauer could be famous for, other than his pessimism.

Perhaps Magee was trying to project his own more optimistic outlook on to Schopenhauer…But it is definitely a book worth reading, despite that that?

Oh, yes. Totally. Some things about the fundamental parts of Schopenhauer’s philosophy he explains beautifully. And there are things we wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for Magee’s amazing connections. For example, he just drops in that he met the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Magee mentioned that he was writing this book on Schopenhauer and Borges went into ecstasy about how much he loved Schopenhauer. When Magee asked Borges why, with all his passion for intricate systems and structures, Borges had never written a philosophy, he replied that ‘he did not do it because it had already been done, by Schopenhauer.’ I wish Magee had expanded on that. He mentions Borges a couple of times in the book, but instead he expands on other things in a more speculative way.

How do you square the fact that this pessimism runs through his philosophy, but it didn’t seem to run through his life, a point that has cropped up several times in this interview already? From what I’ve read about him, Schopenhauer didn’t seem to be somebody who suffered deeply all the time. He enjoyed his food, he enjoyed music. He had his writing, he had his bachelor lifestyle. Was he a hypocrite?

No, he wasn’t, for these reasons. One is that he thought that knowing these things had nothing to do with practising them. He said that just because a painter or a sculptor knows how to depict beauty, doesn’t mean that they’re going to be beautiful themselves. So, the fact that he knew these truths didn’t mean that he was going to live in the light of them. He didn’t practise what he preached, but he didn’t just preach what he practised either. He didn’t live up to the measures of his main ethics of ascetic self-denial, and could quite easily have argued that everyone should live just as he did. Instead, he is explicit that ultimately people shouldn’t live as he does.

Almost like David Hume, who pointed out that inevitably we fall back onto a natural pattern of life, despite being intellectual sceptics.

I think so. Schopenhauer thought philosophical pessimism was justified, but he thought that there were all kinds of reasons why human psychology had developed in a way that didn’t acknowledge its truth—otherwise, we’d all just kill ourselves or we’d all just stop living. He’s as susceptible to the illusions of sex and hunger and the passions as anyone else. So, our natural psychology is not going to be in tune with philosophical pessimism. That’s something he recognizes, even though, at the same time, he is quite derogatory about that. We’re so deluded about the individual and pursuing, with serious intensity, these things that are never going to satisfy us.

The one relevant thing I will say about his life—not that it makes a big difference—is that, like many people, he did have genuinely depressive episodes. You don’t learn this from  Zimmern’s biography, but Cartwright discusses it in his. Schopenhauer would lock himself away in his room for weeks. But most of the time he seemed to be this ebullient, robust person, that Nietzsche never was. Even though Nietzsche’s philosophical stance is all about strength, Nietzsche was in fact incredibly weak, and suffered terribly from various illnesses.

The other thing that comes through—again, Iris Murdoch taps into this as well—is that the one way in which Schopenhauer was an optimist was in relation to truth. He thought that it’s possible to know the truth and it’s good to know the truth. In contrast, Nietzsche was a pessimist about precisely these things. He’s not sure it is possible to know the truth and he wasn’t sure it’s good to know it. But Schopenhauer was an optimist in this respect, in that he obviously derived a great deal of satisfaction from knowing what that truth was, even if it was terrible, and being able to articulate it with such talent and genius. So that’s why I think he comes across as this so-called merry pessimist. That often confuses his readership. Murdoch finds it charming, but Oxenford finds it confusing: in that early review I mentioned he wonders how you could be so energized by truths that are so terrible. It’s the fact that Schopenhauer was able to capture those truths that gives him that quality that readers really enjoy, and, I think, he really enjoyed. That’s partly how to explain it.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

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David Bather Woods

David Bather Woods is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick. His research focus is the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and he has published work in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, The Palgrave Schopenhauer Handbook, and the Schopenhauer Handbuch. Follow him on Twitter @dbatherwoods and Instagram @all_academic.