Schopenhauer's Will: Veiling Reality for Action

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Schopenhauer's arguments anticipate by over a century some of those offered by Peter Strawson in his important book, Individuals. But there is an important difference between Schopenhauer's approach and that of Kant, and of neo-Kantians like Strawson. Kant and Strawson primarily investigate the question of the basic or "a priori" structures of experience needed for a coherent cognitive life. But Schopenhauer, in seeking to explain why we are willing to use these structures even though they inevitably conceal reality from us, does not limit himself to exclusively cognitive considerations. He considers these structures to be primarily enablers of action rather than of knowledge. This shift should not be surprising. It is natural to view the purportedly universal activity of structuring and distorting our own experience as serving our fundamental needs. And what one takes these needs to be depends upon one's view of the fundamental nature of human beings. Schopenhauer, who identified our fundamental nature as will, suggested that we impose distorting structures upon experience - and thereby create a world of identifiable particulars - not primarily because this is a necessary condition of being able to comprehend the world rationally, but rather because only such distortion enables us to act.

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Schopenhauer's line of argumentation, unpacked and somewhat elaborated, would be something like this: First, human beings need to be able to be conscious of particular individual things not primarily in order to have knowable objects, but rather to have determinate objectives for their actions. The objectives of action, the states of affairs and events that we seek to bring about, must be constituted by individual things; for without individuals there would be nothing that could serve as an objective of action, as an objective toward which the will could strive. And without objectives there could be no action…

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Second, this framework allows each one of us to appear as an individual body in a world of individuals, and thus as the necessary locus of agency, the center from which desires and action can originate. Third, without the efficacy of action that causality brings to the world, it would be impossible to undertake to do anything, to accomplish a task or act upon the world. What would it mean even to attempt to bring something about in a world in which one's efforts had no efficacy, that is, in which they were not causally connected with the realization of the states or events desired? According to this account, the fundamental structures of our experience primarily serve the most basic need of the will, which is to be able actively to will something. Since Schopenhauer holds that "will" is what we really are, the essence of our true being, the most basic need of the will is our most basic need. Thus, it becomes plausible that we would be ready to subordinate and even sacrifice all other human needs and desires to its requirements for active agency. Schopenhauer's account of why we veil the world from ourselves, in its appeal to the idea of noncognitive interests that might lie deeper than our cognitive concerns and override them, opened the way for other variants of this strategy. Nietzsche's account is one such variant.

In essence, Schopenhauer's viewpoint diverges from Kant and neo-Kantians like Strawson by emphasising that our cognitive structures primarily serve our actions, not just understanding. He argues that our need for determinate objectives drives the distortion of our experience, creating a world of identifiable particulars to enable action. Schopenhauer sees these structures as facilitating the fundamental need for active agency, rooted in his concept of "will" as our true essence. This perspective suggests that we prioritise fulfilling the imperative of active willingness over other human needs, veiling reality to enable our pursuit of objectives.
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