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The World as Will and Representation

Published in 1819, The World as Will and Representation is the central work of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Relationship to earlier philosophical work

The main body of the work states at the beginning that it assumes prior knowledge of Immanuel Kant's theories, and Schopenhauer is regarded by some as remaining more faithful to Kant's metaphysical system of transcendental idealism than any of the other later German Idealists. However, the book contains an appendix entitled Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy, in which Schopenhauer rejects most of Kant's ethics and significant parts of his epistemology and aesthetics.

Schopenhauer believed that Kant had ignored inner experience, as intuited through the will, which was the most important form of experience. Schopenhauer saw the human will as our one window to the world behind the representation; the Kantian thing-in-itself. He believed, therefore, that we could gain knowledge about the thing-in-itself, something Kant said was impossible, since the rest of the relationship between representation and thing-in-itself could be understood by analogy to the relationship between human will and human body. According to Schopenhauer, the entire world is the representation of a single Will, of which our individual wills are phenomena. In this way, Schopenhauer's metaphysics go beyond the limits that Kant had set, but do not go so far as the rationalist system-builders that preceded Kant. Other important differences are Schopenhauer's rejection of eleven of Kant's twelve categories, arguing that only causality was important. Matter and causality were both seen as a union of time and space and thus being equal to each other. Bryan Magee rather sensationally called this a prototype for the theory of relativity.

Schopenhauer also frequently acknowledges drawing on Plato in the development of his theories and, particularly in the context of aesthetics, speaks of the Platonic forms as existing on an intermediate ontological level between the representation and the Will.

Development of the work

The development of Schopenhauer's ideas took place very early in his career (1814-1818) and culminated in the publication of the first volume of Will and Representation in 1819. This first volume consisted of four books - covering his epistemology, ontology, aesthetics and ethics, in order. Much later in his life, in 1844, Schopenhauer published a second edition in two volumes, the first a virtual reprint of the original, and the second a new work consisting of clarifications to and additional reflections on the first. His views had not changed substantially.

The belated fame which came to him after 1851 stimulated a renewed interest in his seminal work and lead to a third and final edition published in 1859, just one year before his death (and adding 136 more pages.) In the preface to the latter Schopenhauer noted: "If I also have at last arrived, and have the satisfaction at the end of my life of seeing the beginning of my influence, it is with the hope that, according to an old rule, it will last longer in proportion to the lateness of its beginning.


Schopenhauer used the word "will" as a human's most familiar designation for the concept that can also be signified by other words such as "desire", "striving", "wanting", "effort" and "urging".


He used the word representation (Vorstellung) to signify the mental idea or image of any object that is experienced as being external to the mind. It is sometimes translated as idea or presentation. This concept includes the representation of the observing subject's own body. Schopenhauer called the subject's own body the immediate object because it is in the closest proximity to the mind, which is located in the brain.

Epistemology (Vol. 1, Book 1)

As was mentioned above, Schopenhauer's notion of the will comes from the Kantian things-in-itself, which Kant believed to be the fundamental reality behind the representation which provided the matter of perception, but lacked form. Kant believed that space, time, causation, and many other similar phenomena belonged properly to the form imposed on the world by the human mind in order to create the representation, and these factors were absent from the thing-in-itself. Schopenhauer pointed out that anything outside of time and space could not be differentiated, so the thing-in-itself must be one and all things that exist, including human beings, must be part of this fundamental unity. Our inner-experience must be a manifestation of the noumenal realm and the will is the inner kernel of every being. All knowledge gained of objects is seen as self-referential, as we recognize the same will in other things as is inside us.

Ontology (Vol. 1, Book 2)

In Book Two, electricity and gravity are described as fundamental forces of the will. Knowledge is something that was invented to serve the will and is present in both human and non-human animals. It is subordinate to the demands of the will for all animals and most humans. The fundamental nature of the universe and everything in it is seen as this will. Schopenhauer presents a pessimistic picture on which unfulfilled desires are painful, and pleasure is merely the sensation experienced at the instant one such pain is removed. However, most desires are never fulfilled, and those that are fulfilled are instantly replaced by more unfulfilled ones.

Aesthetics (Vol. 1, Book 3)

Like many other aesthetic theories, Schopenhauer's centers on the concept of genius. Genius, according to Schopenhauer, is possessed by all people in varying degrees and consists of the capacity for aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience occurs when an individual perceives an object and understands by it not the individual object itself, but the Platonic form of the object. The individual is then able to lose himself in the object of contemplation and, for a brief moment, escape the cycle of unfulfilled desire by becoming "the pure subject of will-less knowing." Those who have a high degree of genius can be taught to communicate these aesthetic experiences to others, and objects which communicate these experiences are works of art. Based on this theory, Schopenhauer viewed Dutch still-life as the best type of painting, because it was able to help viewers see beauty in ordinary, everyday objects. However, he sharply criticized those which depicted nude women or prepared food as these sorts of depictions tend to stimulate desire, and thus hinder the viewer from having the aesthetic experience and becoming "the pure subject of will-less knowing."

Music also occupies a privileged place in Schopenhauer's aesthetics, as he believed it to have a special relationship to the will. Where other forms of art are imitations of things perceived in the world, music is a direct copy of the will.

Ethics (Vol. 1, Book 4)

Schopenhauer claims in this book to set forth a purely descriptive account of human ethical behavior, in which he identifies two types of behavior: the affirmation and denial of the will.

According to Schopenhauer, the Will (that is, the great Will which is the thing-in-itself, not the individual wills of humans and animals which are phenomena of the Will) conflicts with itself through the egoism that every human and animal is endowed with. Compassion arises from a transcendence of this egoism (the penetration of the illusory perception of individuality, so that one can empathise with the suffering of another) and can serve as a clue to the possibility of going beyond desire and the will. Schopenhauer categorically denies the existence of the "freedom of the will" in the conventional sense, and only adumbrates how the will can be "released" or negated, but is not subject to change, and serves as the root of the chain of causal determinism. His praise for asceticism led him to think highly of Buddhism and Vedanta Hinduism, as well as some monastic sects of Catholicism. He expressed contempt for Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam, which he saw as optimistic, devoid of metaphysics and cruel to non-human animals. According to Schopenhauer, the deep truth of the matter is that in cases of the over-affirmation of the will – that is, cases where one individual exerts his will not only for its own fulfillment but for the improper domination of others – he is unaware that he is really identical with the person he is harming, so that the Will in fact constantly harms itself, and justice is done in the moment in which the crime is committed, since the same metaphysical individual is both the perpetrator and the victim.

Schopenhauer discusses suicide at length, noting that it does not actually destroy the Will or any part of it in any substantial way, since death is merely the end of one particular phenomenon of the Will, which is subsequently rearranged. By asceticism, the ultimate denial of the will, one can slowly weaken the individual will in a way that is far more significant than violent suicide, which is, in fact, in some sense an affirmation of the will.

The ultimate conclusion is that one can have a tolerable life not by complete elimination of desire, since this would lead to boredom, but by becoming a detached observer of one's own will and being constantly aware that most of one's desires will remain unfulfilled.

Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy (Vol. 1, Appendix)

At the end of Book 4, Schopenhauer appended a thorough discussion of the merits and faults of Kant's philosophy. Schopenhauer's criticism of the Kantian philosophy asserted that Kant's greatest error was the failure to distinguish between perceptual, intuitive knowledge and conceptual, verbal knowledge.

Volume 2

The second volume consisted of several essays expanding topics covered in the first. Most important are his reflections on death and his theory on sexuality, which saw it as a manifestation of the whole will making sure that it will live on and depriving humans of their reason and sanity in their longing for their loved ones. While this has been much improved on since, his honesty on the subject is unusual for the time and the central role of sexuality in human life is now widely accepted. Less successful is his theory of genetics: he argued that humans inherit their will, and thus their character, from their fathers, but their intellect from their mothers and he provides examples from biographies of great figures to illustrate this theory; unfortunately for Schopenhauer, there has been no evidence in the science of genetics to back up his claims (nor to specifically deny them). The second volume also contains what many readers view as attacks on contemporary philosophers such as Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.

The contents of Volume II are as follows. Supplements to the First Book First Half

The Doctrine of the Representation of Perception Through § 1 – 7 of Volume I

  I. On the Fundamental View of Idealism
 II. On the Doctrine of Knowledge of Perception or Knowledge of the Understanding
III. On the Senses
 IV. On Knowledge a Priori

Second Half

The Doctrine of the Abstract Representation or of Thinking

   V. On the Intellect Devoid of Reason
  VI. On the Doctrine of Abstract Knowledge, or Knowledge of Reason
 VII. On the Relation of Knowledge of Perception to Abstract Knowledge
VIII. On the Theory of the Ludicrous
  IX. On Logic in General
   X. On the Science of Syllogisms
  XI. On Rhetoric
 XII. On the Doctrine of Science
XIII. On the Methods of Mathematics
 XIV. On the Association of Ideas
  XV. On the Essential Imperfections of the Intellect
 XVI. On the Practical Use of Our Reason and on Stoicism
XVII. On Man's Need for Metaphysics

Supplements to the Second Book

 XVIII. On the Possibility of Knowing the Thing-in-Itself
   XIX. On the Primacy of the Will in Self-Consciousness
    XX. Objectification of the Will in the Animal Organism
   XXI. Retrospect and More General Consideration
  XXII. Objective View of the Intellect
 XXIII. On the objectification of the Will in Nature without Knowledge
  XXIV. On Matter
   XXV. Transcendent Considerations on the Will as Thing-in-Itself
  XXVI. On Teleology
 XXVII. On Instinct and Mechanical Tendency
XXVIII. Characterization of the Will-to-Live

Supplements to the Third Book

   XXIX. On Knowledge of the Ideas
    XXX. On the Pure Subject of Knowing
   XXXI. On Genius
  XXXII. On Madness
 XXXIII. Isolated Remarks on Natural Beauty
  XXXIV. On the Inner Nature of Art
   XXXV. On the Aesthetics of Architecture
  XXXVI. Isolated Remarks on the Aesthetics of the Plastic and Pictorial Arts
 XXXVII. On the Aesthetics of Poetry
XXXVIII. On History
  XXXIX. On the Metaphysics of Music

Supplements to the Fourth Book

    XL. Preface
   XLI. On Death and Its Relation to the Indestructibility of Our Inner nature
  XLII. Life of the Species
 XLIII. The Hereditary Nature of Qualities
  XLIV. The Metaphysics of Sexual Love
        Appendix to the Preceding Chapter
   XLV. On the Affirmation of the Will-to-Live
  XLVI. On the Vanity and Suffering of Life
 XLVII. On Ethics
XLVIII. On the Doctrine of the Denial of the Will-to-Live
  XLIX. The Road to Salvation
     L. Epiphilosophy


The value of this work is much disputed. Some rank Schopenhauer as one of the most original and inspiring of all philosophers, whilst others see him as inconsistent and too pessimistic. Whilst his name is less well known outside Germany, he has had a huge effect on psychoanalysis and the works of Freud; some researchers have even questioned whether Freud was telling the truth when he said that he had not read Schopenhauer until his old age. The notion of the subconscious is present in Schopenhauer's will and his theory of madness was consistent with this. Also, his theory on masochism is still now widely proposed by doctors. Nietzsche, Popper, Tolstoy, Borges and the composer Richard Wagner were all strongly influenced by his work.

Schopenhauer's discussion of language was a major influence on Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Many interpreters see Schopenhauer's account of the Will as closely resembling classic examples of pantheism, especially as propounded by Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy. Schopenhauer even believed in the theory of evolution, before Darwin began to publish his work. His interest in Eastern philosophy brought new ideas to the West. His respect for the rights of animals – including a vehement opposition to vivisection - has led many modern animal rights activists to look up to him. The Animal Liberation Front commends him on their website



  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Dover. Volume I, ISBN 0-486-21761-2. Volume II, ISBN 0-486-21762-0
  • Magee, Bryan, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Oxford University Press, 1997 (reprint), ISBN 0-19-823722-7

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