19th century philosophy

Knowing ‘Will’

In book 2 of WWR, Schopenhauer says “If now every action of my body is the manifestation of an act of will in which my will itself in general, and as a whole, thus my character, expresses itself under given motives, a manifestation of the will must

be the inevitable condition and presupposition of every action” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 2, §20). What he means by this is that will is the driving force behind all human actions and experiences; every action is an expression of will. He believes that our will entails desires and motivations, and thus the manifestation of will is a condition for every action. Without a will, action would be impossible, so it makes sense that “teeth, throat, and bowels are objectified hunger” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 2, §20), is used as an example. If this is true, then the same must apply to mouths and eyes (yawning) being objectified tiredness. We desire and have a will for sleep, so the manifestation of this will present itself as a yawn and thus leads to the exhibited action.

The manifestation of will is a presupposition for every action; before we can perform any action, our will must be present (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 2, §20). This is why hunger can be objectified through teeth, throat, and bowels, and tiredness through mouths and eyes (yawning).

Schopenhauer’s Concept of Coming to Know “The Idea” in Interstellar

In Schopenhauer’s “The World As Will and Representation”, he discusses how a transition is needed for a person to achieve a “pure will-less subject of knowledge” which is important reaching knowledge of “the idea”. The will is impacted by one’s desires and therefore one must negate the will to gain objective knowledge about the world as an idea.

Clip From Interstellar:

The film “Interstellar” represents Schopenhauer’s concept of coming to know “The Idea” through it’s examination of the universe and deeper truths, the protagonist’s self sacrifice of giving up his ability to raise his daughter to save humanity, the transcendence of space and time, and the stunning visuals alongside the film’s musical composition that assists in conveying the film’s message to the audience. The protagonist’s pursuit of higher truths relates to Schopenhauer’s concept of the “transition” where they maintain a “fixed contemplation” on the object which in this case is the Universe. Additionally, the protagonist’s willingness to sacrifice his personal desires is an important part of coming to know “the idea”. Schopenhauer believes that “genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world” (The World As Idea, §§36). This is what the protagonists must do to obtain higher truths. He essentially must give up his desire to raise his daughter to embark on this journey. This also relates to Schopenhauer’s idea of “negating” the will. This makes sacrifice of personal desires a central part of coming to know “the idea”.

Furthermore, Schopenhauer states that a man “gives the whole power of his mind to perception, sinks himself entirely in this, and lets his whole consciousness be filled with the quiet contemplation of the natural object actually present” (The World As Idea, §§34). This is what happens when we as audience members are “absorbed” by a film. Many people have those moments where they get so into a show or a movie that they lose track of time and become immersed in the world of the characters. People let go of their personalities and their own interest to “experience” a character’s world. This is why binging shows on Netflix has become such a popular hobby.  Every time we interact with something that removes us momentarily from our minds, where we are so consumed by the “perception”of an object, we are coming to know “The Idea”.

Schopenhauer’s Knowing of “The Idea” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”, along with the mesmerizing cinematography and music (by Ludwig Göransson) is a pinnacle example of the individual being immersed into the perceiving of the object and knowing “The Idea” without any attentivity to one’s environment and surroundings.

Schopenhauer explains in The World as Will and Representation that when the individual comes to knowing the Idea, he “…gives the whole power of his mind to perception, sinks himself entirely in this, and lets his whole consciousness be filled with the quiet contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether a landscape, a tree, a mountain, a building, or whatever it may be…” (WWR, v1, bk3, §§34) With this particular scene in “Oppenheimer”, Christopher Nolan purposely structures and fills it with breathtaking landscapes, microscopic particles, and instances of artistic contemplation as a means of immersing the audience into the film. The orchestral music contributing to this intention, as it rises in tempo and intensity (as if it gets faster and stronger to drag the viewer deeper into this contemplative mentality). Another important factor to take away from this clip is the person in it. You’ll see that throughout the clip, the individual looks up to admire the architecture, stares to admire the painting, and experiences moments of captivation. The very mentality that Schopenhauer explains should and will be when knowing “the Idea”, is exactly what the person is experiencing in this scene. Christopher Nolan is therefore communicating his intention, which is to say that one is meant to be completely lost in the components that make up this masterpiece.

My personal experience when having seen this film, particularly this scene, was memorable. The emotional soundtrack and beautiful picture work were such crucial factors in me being completely engulfed in the film. I had lost track of time, my environment…even forgot my father was sitting next to me at times. As Schopenhauer eloquently puts it, “…so that it is as if the object alone were there, without any one to perceive it, and he can no longer separate the perceiver from the perception, but both have become one, because the whole consciousness is filled and occupied with one single sensuous picture…” (WWR, v1, bk3, §§34) During the duration of this scene, I was merely a reflection of my perception. My sole focus and mind were in perfect unison with this transcendent unification between film and music. The experience was so unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, that I ended seeing it two additional times.


Can We Eat In Heaven?

Schopenhauer, in his work “The World as Will and Representation,” with his philosophy develops a duality of what the world actually is (will) as opposed to that which we observe (representation). To transfer from the world of representation to the world of will, one needs to immerse in the experience “will to live” and realize that the person desires and the physical ability represent the life force manifestation. Schopenhauer put the situation in a nutshell in saying that “teeth, throat, and bowels are but the hall of hunger” which means that all organs of the body are just a personification of primary instincts such as hunger. For much the same reason, the non-representational aspect of reality can also be illustrated through the phenomenon of hunger and the eating as a fusion means for one to appreciate one’s will.

Picture a situation when a person, after some hard job, experiences an equally enormous hunger. This longing is not simply a thought or an intellectual number but a strong, mediating insistence. The stomach makes a sound to communicate the body’s need for v in this; hunger is not a personified remembrance, but an immediate, first-hand witness to the mowing hunger of a mouth trying to stay alive. Schopenhauer is the one to contend that animal desires and needs which he designates as the will are thus the stuff of nature, the force that configures the entire existence.

The tantalizing pain of the void in the pit of one’s stomach, accompanied by apparent weakness and general irritability are subtle, yet persistent ways in which the body communicates its attempt to sustain life. The complexity of this situation can be compared to the idea of an indicative gesture. This gesture is being simultaneously a representation of something else and also a source of certain will. The teeth, throat, and belly are no more than leakages of a super complex machine that comprised the will to prefer life over death.

The nineteenth century was referred to as the age of the memoir, in which the author’s confessed sins were a thematic staple in the narrative. The experience is empirical; start eating, it is not mechanics. There is more to eating than just bodily activities: chewing of food, swallowing and digesting (Schopenhauer, 1906). Every action is done under the desire to get to see hunger gone and the organism stay alive. The sensual pleasure received from eating, taste satisfaction, and a filled stomach are all simple forms of will that you experience through the body.

The process of eating is a complex cognitive activity which surpasses a concrete understanding of food being the mere act to fill the body with energy needed for survival. It becomes a direct connection with the decisions real world. The individual is absent food because he or she feels and understands the energy value of the food but the mind demands that person will live considering my personal feelings and understanding. With this intuition, it becomes evident that reality has a dimension other than the rational mind; it is the essence of power that governs everything in the universe.

In the physical body, there is a reflection of the deepest sexual desires, which commonly provide the background of a romantic relationship. At this juncture, Schopenhauer’s idea should be regarded as a source of inspiration. These teeth are devised for the tearing and grinding of food, the throat for swallowing, and bowels for digesting: they are all rough embodiments of the will to live. They are not only an economically invaluable part of an organism but, rather, the most direct manifestation of the will’s striving which is the engine of existence.

Schopenhauer specifies that only those who step through the barrier of representation and there opt for the real and raw experiences of life can actually perceive the world as will. Food and eating, on the one hand, are the best examples of this model. Here, Stendhal posits that our exigencies are not just situational whims but represent the inextinguishable urge to live. Thus, we have an opportunity to reveal essence of the will in the very reality of the will without any chance to doubt through the direct acquaintance with it that opens the curtain on the nature of existence even deeper than the reliability of appearances.

Titanic (1997 film)

The experience of viewing the iconic “I’m flying!” scene from James Cameron’s film Titanic is an example of coming to know an idea via art. This is the scene where the main characters, Rose and Jack, stand at the bow of the Titanic ship, and Rose stretches out her arms and exclaims “I’m flying!” I chose this scene specifically as an example of the state of complete absorption Schopenhauer discusses because it is exceptionally beautiful and immerses the viewer through the magnificent setting featuring a sunset, ocean, and grand shots of the Titanic, the soul-touching song by Celine Dion “My Heart Will Go On,” and the apparent romantic chemistry and joy between the characters. For these reasons, this scene can fully absorb an audience and relates to the following points made by Schopenhauer about coming to know ideas.

Schopenhauer states that an indication that a subject is fully perceiving an object and coming to know an idea is that “[the viewer] ceases to consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither of things, and looks simply and solely at the what” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §34). This means that when a viewer is fully perceiving an object, they abandon the rational analysis that is associated with scientific thinking; they do not try to link the object to anything else via the principle of sufficient reason. This applies to the viewer of the “I’m flying!” scene because I imagine that when most people watch this scene for the first time, they are not concerned with intricacies like “Why did Rose change her mind at the beginning of the ‘I’m flying’ scene?” nor do they try to make connections between the scene and other things that can be on their mind. They are fully captivated by the “what,” that is, the aesthetics and emotion they see on screen created by the scenery, music, acting, etc. When such a state of absorption is achieved, the viewer comes to understand the ideas concerning beauty, joy, love, etc.

Another sign of total perception of the object is “the individual has lost himself; but he is pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §34). This applies to the viewer of Titanic when they are so absorbed by the scene that they forget themselves, their current surroundings, and current desires (“will-less”) and worries (“painless”). The “I’m flying!” scene has an escapist quality that is conducive to total perception of an object.

In summary, according to Schopenhauer, a subject comes to know an idea when they fully perceive it and are undistracted by rational analysis or external concerns. Because the “I’m flying!” scene is so aesthetically and emotionally captivating, it induces a state of absorption in the viewer that allows them to grasp the ideas concerning beauty, joy, love, etc.

Schopenhauer in the Courtroom

Within Schopenhauer’s monist framework, our understanding of the one world exists within two dimensions, will and representation. Because the world as representation comprises our sensory experiences and intellectual constructs, it is largely a manifestation of our world as will, which represents the underlying force that drives all phenomena. From this, we might posit that many of the institutions that anchor our social fabric are themselves an embodiment of will’s directive role. With its orientation towards something resembling fairness, the American legal code stipulates a three-pronged proof that must precede a criminal conviction: motive, means, and opportunity. Perhaps the most stirring of these three, motive serves as the rhetoric precondition for any sound legal argument.  

A defendant accused of murder, for example, might be represented rather easily as a fiend and aggressor given a sufficiently inconvenient confluence of circumstances—some version of wrong place, wrong time. Say he walked into a fresh murder scene, picked up the gun from the floor, left his fingerprints all over the place, and was found there by the police. Representationally, it’s plain as day that he’s the culprit; he had both means and opportunity, the gun and his physical presence in the location.

But a criminal legal argument, like any piece of persuasive writing, strives to tell a story. This is no accident: human beings organize their thoughts, big and small, into stories. Therefore, the accused’s salvation may just lie in the world of will. If he had no relationship to the victim, no deep-seated hatred for her, indeed no desire to want her dead—beyond the unlikely outburst of unprovoked primal bloodlust—it wouldn’t be a very compelling story. Without some base motive toward that crime, the climb required for a jury to turn up its nose, to righteously indignate unto the accused, would be too steep.

The American justice system demands unity of 12 independent individuals to, within the subjective, non-representational dimension, come to the unanimous will to punish (or acquit). One might ask what exactly this assumes about individuals’ proclivity for condemnation. A unanimous agreement of 12 separate people seems challenging; perhaps humanity is inclined to look down its nose at others. There’s certainly precedent for that sort of behavior all throughout history. We know for a fact that the will of the few can turn entire societies on their head, as Arthur Miller describes in The Crucible, his play about the Salem Witch trials. Abigail and her enablers managed to poison the minds (by way of will) of the entire town against whomever she saw fit, and her malignant will soon manifested itself in the representational reality of the town, seeping into biased legal proceedings that cost several people their lives. The Crucible itself was an analogy to the red scare sweeping the US in the 1950s, with the sensationalism of conservatives led by Senator McCarthy serving as the grounds for destroying countless careers, families, and lives. These examples give us some insight into a justice system governed exclusively by will. The base urge towards survival often poisons the will when irrationally construed, swayed by primal fear, irrational prejudice, and petty squabble.

A contrast to these examples, though, would be the famous play Twelve Angry Men, where the will of most of the jury initially swung to the conviction of a teenage boy for the murder of his father. Left unchecked by juror 8, played by the great Henry Fonda in the film adaptation, the deeply rooted biases of the jury would’ve mangled the representational reality of the case so irrevocably that an innocent boy would be punished for the sins of somebody else. But as Juror 8 scrutinizes the evidence, the other jurors recognize their ill-will one by one.

The structuring of the legal burden of proof implies that laws are built to account for a division of the world along Schopenhauerian lines, and the number of jurors seems to reflect an imbalance of power between the dual considerations of will and understanding. We see that will is as powerful as it is unruly, trampling over the facts as they may be representationally and approaching some internal understanding, which need not have any particular attachment to reality.  

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)


This is the clip from the 1982 movie Koyaanisqatsi I showed you in class. The music is by Philip Glass (famous, amazing, and still living (!) composer). The movie is a critique of modernity and what it’s done to our life. ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is Hopi for ‘life out of balance.’ So, the message is not subtle, our life is out of balance.

(Philip Glass, 1937 -)

The rocket-launch-gone-awry is of an unmanned US ‘Atlas’ rocket from the 60s. I picked the clip because it illustrates several features that Schopenhauer points to in his explanation of ‘knowledge of the idea.’ These are notably:

  1. Rupture: The suddenness with which the viewer is ‘plucked’ out of watching an ordinary spatio-temporal, causal event (a rocket launch) into, well, something else that, though still in space and time, is nevertheless strangely contemplative and timeless
  2. Meditation: The way in which the falling piece of the rocket is in a way no longer spatio-temporally or causally placeable, and the neural pathways that opens up
  3. Art: The way this rupture and meditation is specifically related to art (both visual and music)

Let’s take these in turn:

  1. Rupture—The first way in which the Koyaanisqatsi clip illustrates Schopenhauer’s claims about ‘knowledge of the Idea’ is pretty much self-explanatory”
  • Schopenhauer says that “The transition which we have referred to as possible, but yet to be regarded as only exceptional, from the common knowledge of particular things to the knowledge of the Idea, takes place suddenly” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §34; my emphasis)
    • So, two conditions that have to be satisfied if anything like “knowledge of the Idea” is to be possible: the experience has to be both exceptional and sudden and, so, rare and abrupt, or out-of-the-ordinary and, as Schopenhauer implies, transportive
  • Clearly the rocket-launch-gone-awry is an illustration of that: a fairly routine (if amazing) event takes an exceptional, unexpected, and almost instantaneous turn (for the worse)

2. Meditation—The second way in which the clip illustrates Schopenhauer’s claims about ‘knowledge of the Idea’ is a little less straightforward (and that’s, of course, where the fun is)—this concerns Schopenhauer’s claim that what I’ve called ‘transportive’ experiences, while still a form of ‘representation,’ take us beyond the realm of the principle of sufficient reason

  • Schopenhauer explains that (presumably as a result of the abruptness of the experience) the person who gets in touch with ideas “ceases to consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither of things, and looks simply and solely at the what” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §34)
    • The things contemplated in this way are thus taken out of their ordinary relations as governed by the principle of sufficient reason; contemplating them in this way is accordingly “a way of viewing things independent of the principle of sufficient reason” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §36)
    • Now, I say that the clip illustrates this aspect of Schopenhauer’s claims about ‘knowledge of the Idea’ a little less straightforwardly:
  • That’s not terribly surprising because the claim in question—that we ‘cease’ to see things spatially, temporally, causally, conceptually, even though we typically must see them that way—is baffling
    • To put it in rocket terms: the falling, burning piece of the rocket is, of course, still in space and time and nature: it falls, spins, flares up, it has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated piece of engineering, and it’s clearly a part of the rocket that just exploded, etc., pp.
    • All of this means that we have a pretty good sense of the ‘where’ and the ‘when,’ the ‘whence’ and the ‘whither’
    • So, we are clearly not viewing this piece independent of the principle of sufficient reason!
    • But wait! Things are a little more complicated than that
      • First, we don’t really know exactly what this ‘thing’ is:

(Koyaanisqatsi, 1982)

  • Even an engineer might not
    • It’s not a neat functional rocket component, surgically removed
    • It’s more like a jumble of parts ripped from the core

(Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

  • So, we do have a general sense of the thing: ‘rocket part(s)’
    • But they are rudely detached rocket parts and, so—even if they form an identifiable component—they are parts that have now been turned into something desperately non-functional
  • They have, as it were, been put onto a pedestal, like a sculpture
    • They have been put into a frame, like a painting
      • They have literally been put into a 1980s movie, like an actor
  • Schopenhauer says that this sudden and exceptional transition “[art] plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world’s course, and has it isolated before it” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §36)
    • Conclusion 1: While not fully independent of the principle of sufficient reason, the ‘thing’ has certainly been removed from the usual causal relations that typically explain it
    • Second, and related, this ‘thing’ has become oddly spatio-temporally un-placeable
      • Yes, we know that the piece is falling
      • But how exactly do we know that?
      • From the larger context (the earlier part of the clip)
        • The rocket was fairly high-up when it exploded (‘whence’)
        • Now things are raining down (‘whither’)
      • From the cinematography (the latter part of the clip)
        • The piece is slowly growing (a) bigger (i.e., it occupies more of its frame) and (b) more distinct
        • Since we assume (reasonably) that the camera throughout is on maximum zoom
        • We can see that the piece is coming closer to the camera and, by extension, that it is approaching the viewer
        • Combined with the larger context (above), we can therefore tell that it is falling
      • But note how this is all highly inferential
        • What we actually see is a thing oddly suspended in space, gently swirling and twirling
  • Perhaps appropriate for something that was bound for outer space, there’s a distinct zero-gravity feel to its movements
  • Conclusion 2: This tension between suspension and falling leads us to something more like (a) a meditation on falling, on the workings of gravity, on the nature of bodies in three-dimensional space, etc., as well as (b) even larger notions like the dangers of technology, the cost of human ambition, etc. In other words, it leads us into an intuitive engagement with timeless ideas—or, as Schopenhauer puts it, to “knowledge of the Idea.”

These reflections, moreover, lead us straight to one of the great moments in Greek mythology, The Fall of Icarus :

(Peter Paul Rubens, The Fall of Icarus, 1636)

  • … which is, of course, the ancient version of the 1980s Koyanisqaatsi tale of human ambition gone too far …

… and this, of course, is simply a version of that other great fall of humanity, in fact, THE fall:

(Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504)

Conclusion 3: Schopenhauer, I think, is on to something. The tension between suspension and falling has transported us out of an immediate concern for the falling piece as a falling piece and into a meditation on fall and falling. This meditation has become possible because our relation to the falling rocket piece has in an instant become more immediate than the arms-length relations of conceptual understanding that the fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason governs. It has, instead, become the relation between artwork and beholder. While that’s still a representational relation (WWR, vol. 1, bk 3, §32), it is representation stripped down (like Adam and Eve) to its core components of subject and object. It is representational but, as it were, a mere fig-leaf of representation, covering the abyss of the in-itself.

  1. Art—The third way in which the Koyaanisqatsi clip illustrates Schopenhauer’s claims about “knowledge of the Idea” has to do with the role art plays in that form of ‘knowledge’
  • There’s this absolutely magical transformation in the final Koyaanisqatsi scene from inartful NASA newsreel to modernist work of art (think of video installation)
  • This illustrates Schopenhauer’s point that the relation between subject and object that makes knowledge of the Idea possible is distinctively within the province of art and not science
  • The Koyaanisqatsi clip makes this even more explicit—arguably it guilds the lily a bit—by overlaying the NASA video with a deeply moving Philip Glass soundtrack, which turns the arresting visual experience into an all-around artistic experience.