Schopenhauer’s Concept of the Will viewed through the lens of Psychologism


As a prelude many of the ideas presented will only be superficially explored because it not possible to dive too deeply in only 4–5 pages. So, that being said this essay is based on part-knowledge of the source material, The World as Will and Representation, and part intuitive understanding of what ‘the will’ means, which inherently contains multiple contradictions especially as I research further into the Schopenhauer’s life. Human Beings are complex creatures with each idea containing a whole host of layers of personal interpretation. In other words, we are a contradiction. This thesis is just one layer of interpretation but one in which, if I am correct, can cast a shadow on how ‘the will’ as a metaphysical entity is seen in human interaction. Schopenhauer was a pessimist in regards to human happiness found in material understanding of the universe. This interpretation, while, I believe is essentially true, is wrong in definition. So, I will simply, to the best of my ability, what I mean by the term: psychologism and its overall relation to Schopenhauer regarding his formulation of ‘the will’, with it being essentially a psychological projection of his own inadequacies. I will cite Freud, Nietzsche as well as other contemporary philosophers to try and prove my thesis, which is: An argument against Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the will as simply a projection of psychologism.

Myth of Prometheus & Brahma

First of all I need to define the terms in order for us to be on the same page. What I refer as Psychologism is the tendency to reduce philosophical arguments down to the sheer psychology regarding the author. It is a simplistic viewpoint, one I utilize but only in weighing philosophical arguments, not in terms of the merit of the idea, but in understanding the mind set behind the reason why that issue was deemed necessary to write about. For instance, R.K. Gupta writes that Schopenhauer “…sees the ultimate reality as a blind and involuntary force; the will […] as blind, purposeless, and insatiable, a crying and raging in the darkness.” (Gupta, p. 721) Schopenhauer’s views stem from his study of Indo-philosophical texts especially the Upanishads. His conclusion he draws from that text, as well as the Myth of Prometheus clarified by Robert Bruce Cowan is that creation is “a sinful act”.

“He (Schopenhauer) emphasizes the sin inherent in creating the world, as in the myth of Prometheus. In ‘Fragments on the History of Philosophy’ in Parega, Schopenhauer argues that redemption is a concept of Indian origin, ‘for it presupposes the Indian teaching according to which the origin of the world is itself based on evil; that is to say, it is a sinful act of Brahma.” (Cowan, p. 542) Later stating “…with the Hindu doctrine of emanation […] the world is mistakenly viewed as degraded. Thus only the realm of the Creator is a place of divine bliss.” (Cowan, p. 542)

This ‘creation story’ acts as a starting point that seeps through the rest of his thoughts regarding the inherent goodness of this reality. By denying an anthropomorphic God he views the will as a “reintegrating oneself with that reality […] not unlike that or the unity, or yoga, of atman and Brahman.” (Cowan, p. 541) If he views life itself as a mistake, merely needing to be transcended, then that calls for a challenge regarding the reader, like myself, because as I will clarify in my conclusion these ideas hold significant weight and nothing exists in a vacuum.


Quickly I want to point to some passages that might make my case a bit clearer about how I saw clear cases of psychological projections in his work that might stem from his unorthodox and tense relationship with the outside world. It is widely known that Schopenhauer was a misogynist who held outdated and quite absurd views regarding women and sex in general. R.K. Gupta writes that Schopenhauer held a “black view of human sexuality and regard it as an ignoble slavery to nature […] whereby deludes the individuals into contributing to its nefarious goal of perpetuation of the species.” (Gupta, p. 724) Later in the same passage he writes that Schopenhauer associates sex with “feelings of disillusionment and disgust.” Another article points out that he “actively hated all women, beginning with his mother.” (Armond, pp. 58–59) However, this lack of regard was not limited to just woman but extended to humankind in general; writing later, “The less necessity there is for you to come into contact with mankind in general, in the relations whether of business or of personal intimacy, the better off you are.” (Armond, p. 57) Another example is from a claim made by Paul Gottfried saying that Schopenhauer’s views on history changed based solely over his professional jealousy with Hegel. He stated that, “because of his ‘war’ against Hegel, Schopenhauer changed his position on the nature of history between the writing of Volume I of ‘The World as Will and Representation’ in 1817 and Volume II almost 20 years later.” He degraded historians from practitioners of science on par with mathematicians whereas in Volume II history was degraded from “being a science to mere knowing”. (Ausmus, p. 141) The question then becomes: did Schopenhauer change his mind regarding his philosophy out of the noble pursuit of truth? Or did external and internal factors motivate him to change? To provide a response: perhaps, in line with Schopenhauer’s idea of the impersonal will, it (the will) motivates us to change our minds in unconscious ways; meaning that we have no ultimate control over our responses and thus are prone to our animal instincts, or in Freudian language, the id, in ways that even blatant geniuses are unstoppable of controlling. However, I doubt that Schopenhauer would say this is the case.

Concluding Remarks

These two ideas presented are just brief quips into the psychology of Schopenhauer and how they might influence his philosophy. I must say that there are many ideas surrounding “the will” that I found that I agreed with. Such as his critique against deification of reason presented by his rival Hegel. His thoughts regarding the “geniuses of morality”: the saint and the ascetic, how he admired them for “identifying with the suffering of others […] by breaking through the world of representation […] this involves the innate quality of denying the very substratum of which human life is but an expression.” (Cowan, p. 543) His understanding of the nature of freedom in which it is only the “freedom to rid ourselves from the illusion of freedom in the first place” (Cowan, 2007, p. 545) also, how he viewed art as a tool to help in that resignation towards the will; and lastly, that of the composer acting as the exemplar genius, in this case ‘Beethoven’, producing with every piece of music “a direct copy of the will.” (Cowan, 2007, p. 546) With Nietzsche adding that “we might, therefore, just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will” (Nietzsche, 1956).

This quick essay is more of a note for a longer diatribe regarding my own personal views of how philosophers need to adopt a new criterion before expounding on their beliefs in the public marketplace of ideas. Even those ideas born in an act of despair or projections of inadequacies can produce much wonderful fruit. Schopenhauer is a genius on a level I can’t match but with the weight of history behind me and hopefully a philosophically incline prophetic vision for the future we again must adopt a new standard for our philosophy in the 21st century simply because, as mentioned before, ideas hold weight in the minds of readers generations after the composer of those thoughts have died. It would be hard for Nietzsche to willingly agree to let the Nazi party adopt much of his philosophy to justify their abhorrent worldviews but he wasn’t around to defend this misinterpretation.

In that way, Schopenhauer’s ideas regarding ‘the will’ as the essential metaphysical element behind all of life helped influence countless generations of thinkers in all fields of academic study. With every noble interpretation of “the will’ equals another interpretation that will be used, justified, and implemented for unjust or essential un-human ends. The bigger question posed with my analysis is: Are we responsible for all of our ideas, even if they are misinterpreted for negative ends? I have a hard time answering that fully but the question arose a number of times in the research for this article. The historical benefit I have in my analysis allowed me to view the linear thought process regarding “the will” from Schopenhauer to Freud identifying perhaps what is our biggest obstacle for the 21st century western culture — individualism. Did Schopenhauer intend that? No, but was it interpreted that way down the line? Yes. Philosophers therefore need to be fully aware and self-conscious of how their ideas will inform the public.

Works Cited

Gupta, R.K. (1975). Freud and Schopenhauer, Journal of the History of Ideas, 36, 721–728.

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1817), The World as Will and Representation, New York City: Dover Publications, Inc., Translation: Payne, E.J.

Cowan, Robert Bruce (2007), Nietzsche’s Attempted Escape from Schopenhauer’s South Asian Sources in “The Birth of Tragedy”, German Studies Review, 30, 537–556

Ausmus, Harry J. (1976) Schopenhauer’s View of History: A Note, History and Theory, 15, 141–145

Armond, Fred De (1976) Thoreau and Schopenhauer: An Imagined Conversation, The New England Quarterly, 5, 55–64

Fernandez, Jordi (2006) Schopenhauer’s Pessimism, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 73, 646–664