Perhaps I have bitten off more than I can chew. And yet…I can’t resist.
I ran into a quote by this German philosopher (22 February 1788 – 21 September 1860) last week, and his words echoed. Like if you drop a pebble into a hole, and its resounding splash bubbles up from the darkness into a chorus of sound; it is then that you realize you’ve come across a rather deep well, something more profound than a dry, abandoned tunnel of air.
I felt that lovely, inexplicable pull of a kindred spirit, and thus began my pursuit of Schopenhauer texts. After a bit of rooting around, I discovered some truly fascinating works called Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (“The World as Will and Representation”, 1818/1819, vol 2 1844), and Über das Sehn und die Farben (“On Vision and Colors”, 1816). For this post, I wanted to outline the concepts in the former text, especially those ideas that revolve around the value of Art and beauty.
Science operates within the principle of sufficient reason (everything has an reason/explanation for why it is), and it is through this branch of knowledge that we humans condition our perception of the world. Schopenhauer believed that science is superior to the empirical nature of everyday cognition, because it is not colored by the wills and whims of the individual. Sciences deal with the “phenomenon, its laws, connections, and the relations which result from them.” This type of knowledge seeks to understand the world as representation.
The aesthetic experience, on the other hand, is a will-less perception. It provides a kind of knowledge that is “concerned with that which is outside and independent of all relations, that which alone is really essential to the world, the true content of its phenomena, that which is subject to no change, and therefore is known with equal truth for all time, in a word, the ideas, which are the direct and adequate objectivity of the thing in itself, the will…”
Perhaps this sounds a bit like the Platonic Ideas (think Plato’s Theory of Forms)? Indeed. Schopenhauer believed that “the Idea in each particular thing is that which is enduring and essential in it (WWR I, 206) and can only be intuited in aesthetic experience of nature and art (WWR I, 182).”4 Some critics have a lot to say about his metaphysics here (Schopenhauer’s ontological explanations of the Ideas are a point of contention)…buuuuut we won’t get into that right now.
In short, Schopenhauer considers the value in art to be the aesthetic experience. The viewer who is immersed in aesthetic contemplation no longer sees the world as mere presentation or as an object from which they are a separate entity. The individual becomes “the pure subject of will-less knowing” by sinking into perception, “losing [himself] in the object, forgetting all individuality, surrendering that kind of knowledge which follows the principle of sufficient reason, and comprehends only relations…”
A true aesthetic experience offers the viewer knowledge of the object, not as an individual thing but as the “enduring form of this whole species of things…” (aka. its Platonic form).
Anyone can participate in this magical aesthetic experience; the artist is simply particularly skilled in such contemplation.
It is a difficult feat to attain, this frame of mind. And I wouldn’t label it as “meditation,” either. Here’s how I understand it: this is a state in which the mind must participate in an artistic activity (which usually involves using one’s body in some way, whether it be painting, writing, playing an instrument, etc.) and yet act for an extended period of time without concern for the self. The artist must be self-aware but not self-conscious; objective AND subjective. Indeed, Schopenhauer believes that this ability to stay in such a state makes the artist a genius!
“We must therefore assume that there exists in all men this power of knowing the ideas in things, and consequently of transcending their personality for the moment, unless indeed there are some men who are capable of no aesthetic pleasure at all. The man of genius excels ordinary men only by possessing this kind of knowledge in a far higher degree and more continuously. Thus, while under its influence he retains the presence of mind which is necessary to enable him to repeat in a voluntary and intentional work what he has learned in this manner; and this repetition is the work of art.”
THE WORK OF ART
“[A work of art] repeats or reproduces the eternal ideas grasped through pure contemplation, the essential and abiding in all the phenomena of the world… Its one source is the knowledge of ideas; its one aim the communication of this knowledge.”
Schopenhauer notes that one can have an aesthetic experience with a work of art or “directly by the contemplation of nature and life.” So why is Art special?
The average viewer can more easily glean that coveted Platonic Idea from a work of art than looking directly at nature. Why? The artist has already done some of the work: “the artist, who knew only the idea, no longer the actual, has reproduced in his work the pure idea, has abstracted it from the actual, omitting all disturbing accidents.”
So maybe having an aesthetic experience seems a little tricky, and you’re wondering why you should even attempt it. Schopenhauer would claim that you should try for your own mental health…it’s therapeutic! Dwelling in the perception of an artwork frees the mind from the pain and strife associated with the body and mind.
“Therefore, so long as our consciousness is filled by our will, so long as we are given up to the throng of desires with their constant hopes and fears, so long as we are the subject of willing, we can never have lasting happiness nor peace. It is essentially all the same whether we pursue or flee, fear injury or seek enjoyment; the care for the constant demands of the will, in whatever form it may be, continually occupies and sways the consciousness; but without peace no true well-being is possible.…”
“This is why the man who is tormented by passion, or want, or care, is so suddenly revived, cheered, and restored by a single free glance into nature: the storm of passion, the pressure of desire and fear, and all the miseries of willing arc then at once, and in a marvelous manner, calmed and appeased. For at the moment at which, freed from the will, we give ourselves up to pure will-less knowing, we pass into a world from which everything is absent that influenced our will and moved us so violently through it. This freeing of knowledge lifts us as wholly and entirely away from all that, as do sleep and dreams; happiness and unhappiness have disappeared; we are no longer individual; the individual is forgotten; we are only pure subject of knowledge; we are only that one eye of the world which looks out from all knowing creatures, but which can become perfectly free from the service of will in man alone. Thus all difference of individuality so entirely disappears, that it is all the same whether the perceiving eye belongs to a mighty king or to a wretched beggar; for neither joy nor complaining can pass that boundary with us. So near us always lies a sphere in which we escape from all our misery; but who has the strength to continue long in it? As soon as any single relation to our will, to our person, even of these objects of our pure contemplation, comes again into consciousness, the magic is at an end we fall back into the knowledge which is governed by the principle of sufficient reason; we know no longer the idea, but the particular thing, the link of a chain to which we also belong, and we are again abandoned to all our woe.”
There are different levels of aesthetic pleasure, depending on what you decide to view. Schopenhauer claims that the aesthetic contemplation of inorganic, botanical, and architectural subjects only provide “low grades of the objectivity of will, and are therefore not manifestations of deep significance and rich content.” The aesthetic pleasure pretty much consists of taking a hiatus from yourself. However, animals and humans provide greater aesthetic pleasure, because these subjects offer more in the way of knowledge: “they exhibit the greatest multiplicity of forms, the greatest richness and deep significance of phenomena, and reveal to us most completely the nature of will, whether in its violence, its terribleness, its satisfaction or its aberration (the latter in tragic situations), or finally in its change and self-surrender…”
Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea.
1. Cartwright, David E. Historical Dictionary of Schopenhauer’s Philosophy. Scarecrow Press, 2005.
2. Jacquette, Dale. Schopenhauer, Philosophy and the Arts. CambridgeUniversity Press, 2007.
3. Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea. Translated by R. B. Haldane and John Kemp. London: Trübner. 1883. Volume I. Book III.
4. Shapshay, Sandra, “Schopenhauer’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/schopenhauer-aesthetics/>.