Schopenhauer’s Moral Philosophy

In Jens Timmerman & Sacha Golob (eds.), The Cambridge History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 448-58 (2017)
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Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a system philosopher in the grand tradition of classical German idealism. Broadly an adherent of Kant’s transcendental idealism, he is now most noted for his belief that Kant’s thing in itself can best be described as ‘will’, something he argued in his 1819 work The World as Will and Representation (WWRI 124/H 2:119). Schopenhauer’s term ‘will’ does not refer primarily to human willing, that is, conscious striving towards a goal. Following Kant he argues that willing remains conditioned by the forms of representation and therefore cannot be identified with the thing-in-itself. To reach the thing-in-itself, all forms of representation must be removed to arrive at a conception of will as striving without a goal. This conception is at the root of Schopenhauer’s pessimism: willing is experienced by conscious beings as suffering; and the world, including each of us, is in-itself endless willing without the possibility of satisfaction. Only two things hold out the prospect of any relief: the disinterested contemplation of works of art provides temporary respite from the striving will for the many; and a very few saintly beings may be able to still or quiet the will completely and achieve a state that Schopenhauer identifies as nirvana. These concerns—with suffering, meaning, asceticism and renunciation—are already problems in moral philosophy in a wide sense. But Schopenhauer also has a moral philosophy in the ‘narrower’ sense (WWRII 589/H 3:676; Cartwright 1999) that addresses questions such as freedom of the will, moral responsibility, the proper criterion for right action, moral motivation, and the virtues and vices. Indeed Schopenhauer makes a distinctive and quite contemporary contribution to virtue theory, advocating compassion (Mitleid) as the source of all human virtues.

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Alistair Welchman
University of Texas at San Antonio


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