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Schopenhauer and Aesthetics

Adrian Samuel

Aesthetics & metaphysics

In last issue's article, we explored Schopenhauer's metaphysics in terms of its being a response to Kant's 'transcendental idealism'. The latter took the faculty of judgment as its starting-point, exploring reality in terms of how it is organised by our concepts. And Kant explored this by not simply using reason to criticise possible accounts of reality. Kant's project rather has at its heart 'a call to reason to undertake anew the most difficult of all its tasks, that of self-knowledge.' (CPR A xi) That is, Kant's critical philosophy reasons about the possibilities and limits of rationality itself, so that we might better understand how reality reveals itself in our acts of judgment.

Schopenhauer fully endorses this method of critical philosophy, but rejects Kant's starting-point of the faculty of judgment. Schopenhauer's starting-point is rather the 'world' experienced directly in our active engagement in it (as 'Will') and in our intuitive perception of it (as 'representation'). That is, these refer to the world as experienced through our acting and perceiving respectively. Or to use the language of Kant that Schopenhauer took over, for Schopenhauer we have a direct and intuitive engagement with the 'thing-in-itself', whereas for Kant this is always mediated by the act of judgment.[1] This leads Schopenhauer to take the critical project in a very different direction to that of Kant. For unlike Kant who interpreted the self-knowledge of reason to clarify the scope of our powers of judgment (i.e., reflections on the limits of what rationality can tell us), Schopenhauer interprets the self-knowledge of reason to reveal how the world discloses itself to us through both Will and representation.

In the first 'book' of The World as Will and Representation, we saw Schopenhauer to argue for four irreducible models of explanation - explanations in terms of being (mathematics and geometry), of becoming (causal interaction), of acting (purposive action) and of knowing (recognition).[2] And in Book II, he sees this fourfold model of explanation to be mirrored by a fourfold model of being out of which our powers of judgment arise. Schopenhauer terms this movement the 'objectification'[3] of the 'Will', since the act of judgment (a particular act of Will) is seen as essentially continuous with the actions constitutive of the world (the Will in general). As such, the Will affords a privileged access to the world, since in willing we know the world from the 'inside' as Schopenhauer puts it since our consciousness essentially belongs to it in its own action.

Our other direct access to the world for Schopenhauer is through representation. For just as Schopenhauer sees the act of willing to undercut the divide between the thing-in-itself (mind-independent reality) and judgment by its conceiving judgment to be a particular species of the agent's engagement with its world, so representation plays a similar role. That is, representation is also understood as undercutting the divide between the thing-in-itself and judgment, since representation is the disclosure of reality to consciousness, and judgment is a second-order reflection on this. In both cases then, Schopenhauer attempts to rethink the epistemological primacy of judgment by approaching it in terms of ontological movements of the world itself.[4]

Schopenhauer traces the essential structure of this movement of the world into consciousness by appealing to aesthetic insight. For just as the essential models of explanation were understood to articulate the essential structure of the Will's objectification, similarly the essential insights of aesthetic intuition are understood to articulate the essential moments in the world's movement into representation.

Kant, Schopenhauer & the aesthetic

To more fully appreciate Schopenhauer's aesthetics, it is helpful to compare and contrast it in more detail with that of Kant. Kant's critical philosophy[5] deals with the aesthetic in two principal places. Firstly, in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant's discussion of the aesthetic considers the spatio-temporal framework necessary for making determinate judgments about the physical world. Here the term aesthetic refers to the 'science of a priori sensibility' - the necessary preconditions of perception in general (that they exist in space and time). Secondly, Kant discusses the aesthetic in his third Critique, The Critique of Judgment. In this second sense, the aesthetic refers to a philosophy of art or a 'critique of taste'. The first point to note is that Schopenhauer brings together these two distinct senses of the aesthetic in Kant - Schopenhauer's critique of taste at the same time allows us to explore the preconditions of perception.

Further, the subject-matter of Kant's Critique of Judgment is 'reflective' judgment - judgments about judgment itself (rather than particular types of judgment, such as the theoretical and practical judgments of the first and second Critiques). For Schopenhauer sees Kant to believe that his third Critique's exploration of aesthetic judgment can disclose to us the essential preconditions of judgment in general.[6] This is because aesthetic experiences are both essentially subjective in being feelings, and at the same time they point towards objectivity in their being sources of necessity and universality[7] - they constitute an education in right judgment.

For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experiences are also understood metaphysically, but they are not explored for insights about judgment itself. They are rather explored for insights about the world's movement into representation. For as discussed above, this is because the world and consciousness are not essentially mediated by judgment for Schopenhauer. Objectivity and subjectivity are two aspects of a single world, allowing Schopenhauer to conclude that events of aesthetic insight are at the same time events of insight into reality.

Lastly, it should be noted that Kant's Critique of Judgment, strictly speaking, involves two critiques. The first is 'The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment', which considers the experiences of the beautiful and the sublime. The second is 'The Critique of Teleological Judgment', which explores the concept of purpose. By considering the two together, Kant is attempting to connect the purposiveness involved in achieving right judgment (directly experienced in aesthetic judgment) with the purposiveness necessary for explaining organic life (i.e., Kant believes that explanations of organic life cannot be merely mechanical). Schopenhauer sees Kant's attempt to bring together these two understandings of purpose as forced and artificial. (WWRI: 531) For as we shall see, Schopenhauer himself contrasts the purposiveness of the movement of understanding (representation) with the purposiveness of organisms (the 'Will'), seeing them to be radically at odds.

Transcendental knowledge

Schopenhauer's discussion of the aesthetic is concentrated in Book 3 of his first volume of The World as Will and Representation. Schopenhauer approaches the aesthetic in terms of 'transcendental knowledge' - knowledge that is essentially concerned with the character of the individuals known, and so is 'conscious of the true state of things' (WWRI: 173) He contrasts this with 'homogeneous knowledge', which understands individuals as essentially undifferentiated things in a spatio-temporal framework. For the latter, individuality is implicitly reduced to a 'plurality of homogeneous beings, always being originated anew and passing away in an endless succession'. (ibid.) Against the attempt to reduce the character of our experiences to the homogeneity of a theoretical system, Schopenhauer writes:

'I cannot too often repeat that all abstract concepts must be controlled by intuitive perception.' (FFR, sec. 49)[8]

That is, theoretical accounts of reality must always take our concrete experiences as their standard, and we should not be tempted to make our experiences fit in with the theoretical models we are presented with (e.g., those of Newtonian physics).[9] Schopenhauer's aesthetics is an attempt to explore the intrinsic structure of our intuitive perceptions, rather than impose a theoretical structure on them. That is, the methodology is not one of abstractly framing a theory and then testing whether experiences conform to it, but developing an understanding of reality out of our experiences of it.

The sublime and the beautiful

In developing an account of transcendental knowledge, Schopenhauer follows Kant's lead in concentrating on the aesthetic experiences of the sublime and beautiful. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer's interpretation of these experiences is radically different. For Kant, the sublime experience (overwhelming our powers of cognition through its size for the 'mathematical sublime' or by its might for the 'dynamic sublime') is interpreted as illuminating the power and extent of the ideas of reason which guide judgment. (CJ 27) This is because, even when we are confronted with a scene that completely dwarfs our human powers (such as a stormy sea), we are also aware of our ability to stand back and contemplate it, and so our independence from it. By highlighting the finitude of our powers therefore, the sublime encourages us to nurture those powers (CJ, 23) and so throws us back on to the independence and creativity of our act of judgment.

For Schopenhauer, by contrast, the sublime emphasises our dependency on the world - our being a 'vanishing point' in it when confronted with overwhelming, sublime scenes. It is the transcendental truth not of independence and creativity, but of the need for self-abandonment and a giving ourselves over to the world. As such, Schopenhauer introduces a third species of the sublime, which might be called the exemplary sublime. The object of this experience is a human that has essentially recognised this dependency - one whose concerns are no longer their own, but the needs of the world itself. And such a type (e.g., Jesus) is understood as sublime since the expanse of their cares and concerns dwarfs others' narrowly self-centred ones.

Schopenhauer's account of the genius similarly involves a modification of Kant's position. For Kant, the 'Genius is the innate mental disposition (ingenium) through which nature gives itself the rule to art.' (CJ, 46) This is important, since the activity of the genius sets the rules for lesser talents, but does not itself obey rules. For example, Giotto established a style of painting that became the rule for subsequent painters, although he himself did not obey any rules when establishing this style. This allows Kant to identify the genius with the establishment of rules for judgment, without itself being rule-bound. As such, Kant sees aesthetic reflection on the genius to exemplify and so illuminate judgment's own establishment of rules.

For Schopenhauer, by contrast, the genius is characterised by an 'unusual strength of imagination', a great strength of 'Will' and a contemplative disposition. These characteristics are necessary for overcoming the self-centredness of the Will so as to imaginatively identify with the essential character of the world and so bring it to articulation (representation). We might say therefore that Schopenhauer, similar to Kant, identifies the genius with the establishment of standards of judgment, but unlike Kant, these are not the intrinsic standards of judgment, but they are rather given to judgment by its acknowledgement of the world in its essential character.

The role of art

Art is understood by Schopenhauer as a medium for exploring and communicating intuitive perceptions, and so a medium for better understanding them. Schopenhauer identifies three principal ways in which this can be done. The plastic arts explore and communicate transcendental knowledge through matter. Literature explores and communicates transcendental knowledge through concepts. And music explores and communicates transcendental knowledge directly.

Regarding the plastic arts, Schopenhauer discusses these under four main headings, mirroring his fourfold discussion of rationality. The first artistic field includes architecture and the artistic arrangements of water in fountains, and affords transcendental knowledge of the elemental structure of matter: gravity, rigidity and fluidity. The second artistic field includes landscape appreciation, and affords transcendental knowledge of material types: species and species' interaction. The third artistic field includes sculpture and painting, and affords transcendental knowledge of specific character. And the fourth artistic field includes 'historical painting'. Schopenhauer does not mean by this what Joshua Reynolds, the great artist and art critic meant - paintings which have an epic grandeur. Rather, Schopenhauer means paintings that meditate upon the culture of a people and so afford transcendental knowledge of history from the 'inside' as it were. The painters of the 'Dutch school', such as Vermeer, who 'depict objects from everyday life' (WWR, 230) and the significance they have for the people are seen to be exemplary of such a type of art.

If the plastic arts explore transcendental knowledge under the aspect of material objects, literature explores transcendental knowledge under the aspect of the concept. Once again, Schopenhauer divides his discussion into four main headings: allegory, history, lyric poetry and objective poetry.

Firstly, allegory is understood to explore and communicate transcendental knowledge of a particular concept, the elemental structure of language, through a narrative that unfolds that concept's meaning. Schopenhauer gives the example of Don Quixote as an allegory on idealism (i.e., pursuing ideals at the expense of engaging appropriately with the world).

Secondly, history explores and communicates transcendental knowledge of the narrative itself (rather than using the narrative to illuminate the concept). It should be noted that by 'history', Schopenhauer does not merely mean essentially factual accounts. Rather, the latter is understood as a restricted understanding of history that is weak at communicating transcendental knowledge. Biography and supremely autobiography are suited to communicate transcendental knowledge, since these inhabit the narrative and participate in its development.

Thirdly, lyric poetry explores and communicates what might be termed the interdependency between the concept and the narrative. This is because the lyric poet does not simply describe the events (as is the case with history, even autobiography), but also imaginatively immerses herself in those events so as to give them voice.

Finally, objective poetry integrates these events of imaginative identification into a more complete story of multiple viewpoints. This field of transcendental knowledge includes the romance, epic, drama and most importantly for Schopenhauer, tragedy. Tragedy is singled out since it traces the life and death of a character without imposing any values on this story - the story is the source of its own significance.

Music figures above both the plastic arts and literature for Schopenhauer since it involves an imaginative identification with the dynamic of objectification itself, not mediated by material objects or concepts. Schopenhauer's account of music's exploration and communication of transcendental knowledge focuses on romantic music, since he sees this to be the musical norm against which other forms of music should be judged. His account is similarly fourfold. The most elemental form of transcendental knowledge is explored and communicated in the 'ground bass' or 'deepest tones of harmony'. In its clearly revealing the musical key, this affords an 'intuitive perception' of the basic structure of the piece, analogous to arithmetic and geometry's revealing the basic structure of objectification.

Secondly, harmony explores and communicates transcendental knowledge of interrelationships, its intuitive perceptions being the counterpart of the causal relationships identified by rationality for objectification.

Thirdly, melody introduces a 'sequence and continuity of progress' (WWR, 259) into the piece, its intuitive perception being the counterpart of 'acting' for objectification.

Finally, the 'principal voice', which articulates the overarching idea around which the piece is structured, is analogous to objectification's movement into knowing, since objectification similarly finds articulation in this movement.

Aesthetics & religion.

If the insights of Book I and II of The World as Will and Representation (i.e., the rational determination of the objectification of the Will) and the insights of aesthetic judgment (Book III's rational reflection on intuitive perception) are analogous however, they are also in tension. For the former (the Will's objectification to which our own action of judgment belongs) implicitly rests upon the metaphysical principle of a self-sufficient activity - the 'Will' understood as a 'blind striving'. Under the aspect of the Will therefore, the world is essentially a meaningless stream of activity. The Will's projection of goals are ultimately excuses for the exercise of its insatiable striving - evidenced by our own insatiable desires.

The transcendental knowledge gained through intuitive perception, by contrast, affords real satisfaction since it allows us to dwell upon the object of perception through tracing its significance in its relation to the whole. Or in other words, aesthetic insight takes something intrinsically meaningful (intuitive perception) as its starting-point and takes satisfaction in exploring this.[10]

This dualistic conception of reality mirrors that of Kant and yet with a fundamental difference. For Kant's starting-point of judgment, there is a conceptual dualism between judgments of objective reality (the focus of his first Critique) and judgments of morality and religion (the focus of his second Critique). Kant's discussion of aesthetics in his third Critique, for Schopenhauer, explores judgment in general, and so the continuity and distinctness between the two other types of judgment.

For Schopenhauer's starting-point of the world, by contrast, there is a dualism between understanding's participation in the world through its action (the Will) and through its perception (representation). The intrinsic meaningfulness of the world experienced through representation, and the intrinsic meaninglessness of the world experienced through Will, leads Schopenhauer to attempt to reconcile the two through morality and religion. For he believes that through religious discipline, a life can go beyond the success of its own Will (where success is defined in terms of ephemerally realising one of the Will's projected goals before being drawn to undertake another). Through religion, we are capable of stilling the Will's influence in a life so as to experience simple gratitude for existence, similar to the ephemeral experience of stilling our Will when we appreciate a fine work of art. But Book IV of The World and its discussion of religious discipline takes us beyond the scope of a discussion of the Aesthetic.

Adrian Samuel
Richmond-upon-Thames College

Further reading

Atwell, John E. (1995) Schopenhauer on the Character of the World: the Metaphysics of Will, University of California Press: Berkeley & London

Copleston, Frederick (1975) Arthur Schopenhauer, Philosopher of Pessimism, Search Press: London

Gardiner, Patrick (1963) Schopenhauer, Thoemmes Press: Bristol

Hamlyn, D.W. (1980) Schopenhauer: The Arguments of the Philosophers, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London

Janaway, Christopher (1989) Self and World in Schopenhauer's Philosophy, Clarendon: Oxford

Janaway, Christopher (1994) Schopenhauer, OUP: Oxford, 1994

Janaway, Christopher, ed. (1999) The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer, CUP: Cambridge

Kant, Immanuel (1987) Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar; Hackett: Indianopolis [CJ]

Kant, Immanuel (1929) Critque of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith; Macmillan: Hampshire [CPR]

Safranski, Rüdiger (1989) Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, trans. Ewald Osers; Harvard: Cambridge, MA

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1967) On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, trans. E. Payne, US: Open Court

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1967) The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, trans. E. Payne, London: Dover

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1967) The World as Will and Representation, vol.2, trans. E. Payne, London: Dover

Simmel, Georg (1986) Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, University of Massachusetts Press: MA

White, F.C. (1992) On Schopenhauer's Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, E.J. Brill: Leiden, Netherlands

Young, Julian (1987) Willing and Unwilling: A Study in the Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, Nijhoff: Dordrecht & Lancaster


[1]  The 'thing-in-itself' is a Kantian term for direct and unmediated access to the world as it is in-itself. For Kant this is impossible, as what we experience is always shaped by how we experience it. We can therefore only know how the object is for us - we cannot know how the object is in-itself. Schopenhauer adopts the term, but radically reinterprets it, understanding it not as an object necessarily beyond our subjective powers of judgment, but as rather a dynamic process that gives rise to acts of judgment and perception.  [back] 

[2]  It is possible of course to reduce one mode of explanation to another, such as physicalist accounts of moral behaviour do. Strictly speaking however, these explanations do not answer the question. They rather change it.  [back] 

[3]  Objectifictation is a technical concept in Schopenhauer, and this was directly addressed in the first article, 'An Introduction to Schopenhauer's Metaphysics'.  [back] 

[4]  Schopenhauer therefore disagrees with the Cartesian model of representation, inherited by most philosophy. For the latter model, representation is the subjective consciousness of an essentially distinct objective reality. Schopenhauer is attempting to undercut this ontological dualism.  [back] 

[5]  That is, the philosophy of his three Critiques onwards - The Critique of Pure Reason's discussion of theoretical reasoning on judgments about physical reality, The Critique of Pure Practical Reason's discussion of practical reasoning on moral judgments and The Critique of Judgment's discussion of reflective reasoning on the nature of judgments as such.  [back] 

[6]  Schopenhauer's reading of Kant's third Critique is controversial. To speak in broad terms, within what is called 'Analytic Philosophy' the third Critique is read as an analysis of particular types of judgment (aesthetic and teleological ones). Within what is called 'Continental Philosophy', the third Critique is read as a direct engagement with metaphysical questions. Schopenhauer belongs to the latter tradition.  [back] 

[7]  At times Kant uses the term aesthetic judgment to include judgments about the agreeable, the beautiful and the sublime. At other times, he restricts the term to mean just the beautiful and the sublime. We are using the term in this restricted sense, as judgments on the merely agreeable lack the universality and necessity required here.  [back] 

[8]  Intuitive perception is not to be explained by reasoning - it is rather to be developed by reasoning. Reasoning is to open up the limited experience of the world that we are immediately given in perception on to a fuller and more complete understanding of it.  [back] 

[9]  For example, we should not see the reality of an experience of music to be reducible to the mechanistic interaction of Newtonian physics. Rather, we should take the integrity of our experiences as our starting-point, and see theory to clarify these.  [back] 

[10]  Rational determination of the Will's objectification takes mere action as its starting-point, exploring its structure but gaining no real insight into why the Will is itself in motion.  [back]