An insightful analysis of Schopenhauer's "will-body identity thesis" that leads to the conclusion that the "vocation of man" is to go beyond man, and thus beyond the body and the very world to which the body belongs


The Human Character

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John E. Atwell

"This in-depth study of aspects of Schopenhauer's philosophy that have not received sufficient attention from other scholars throws new light on this difficult subject…. The book exhibits a thorough knowledge of all relevant texts, and is lucid, balanced, and engaging throughout."
Konstantin Kolenda, Rice University

This work places Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in the mainstream of current philosophy by examining his conception of human agency and responsibility, his unique ethics of the morally virtuous character, and his assessment of life as fundamentally suffering. These notions are analyzed in terms of the cornerstone of Schopenhauer's philosophy, the will-body identity theses. John E. Atwell thus focuses on Schopenhauer's contention that the human will and the human body, being one and the same, cannot have a cause and effect relationship with each other. He examines the philosopher's notion of human character that follows from this thesis and brings Schopenhauer into a dialogue with current philosophers concerned with the nature of human agency, the recent emphasis on "virtue ethics," and, in effect, what, if anything, makes human life bearable.

Particularly significant, observes Atwell, are Schopenhauer's attempt to delineate the relationship between doers and their deeds, his vigorous attack on Kant's rationalistic ethics as clearing the way for his own ethics of compassion, and his doctrine of pessimism generated by the suffering essential to the natural human condition. In putting forth a sort of "virtue ethics," Schopenhauer argues that the key element of ethics is what a person is rather than what a person does. Atwell's central argument is that Schopenhauer uses the will-body identity thesis as the key to his metaphysics ("reality is will") but he tends to abandon that thesis in his acknowledgment of three important aspects of human experience—repentance, compassion, and salvation. This fact raises the question of the importance, and indeed possibility, of consistency within a comprehensive philosophical scheme.



"…Schopenhauer appears to make one's character or will the doer of one's deeds, the agent of one's actions. Does this mean that the character is 'the cause' of actions (as with a form of practical causalism or agent-causation)? Or does it mean, upon a deeper analysis, that the character is in some fashion the composite of a person's actions (as with a version of practical reductionism)? The difficulty of resolving this issue is complicated by the fact that Schopenhauer 'equates' the will and the body and claims that acts of will and bodily actions are 'identical.' Does the will 'cause' acts of will, or is it a set of acts of will? Does the body 'produce' bodily actions, or is it a set of bodily actions? In a consideration of these matters, what happens to agency, especially to agency required for making sense of the claim that each person is the doer of his deeds? To address these questions properly, we need to examine Schopenhauer's 'identification' of the body and the will.

"Philosophizing from the first-person standpoint (as was his wont), Schopenhauer maintains that, strictly speaking, I am one thing: a body. But this body, he claims, is 'given to me' in two ways, and hence as if I were two things: a representation or object of perception, and at the same time as a will or character. Viewed from the representational perspective, the body that I am is simply an object among objects, and thus it is subject to the laws of objects (i.e., temporal, spatial, and causal 'laws'); but viewed from the volitional, and therefore nonrepresentational, perspective, the body that I am is a unique will. (Alternatively put: Consciousness reveals me to be an object, but self-consciousness reveals me to be a will.) Consequently, anything given to me both as representation or object of perception and, simultaneously, as will is the body that I am; and anything given to me only as object, and therefore not the same time as will, is not the body that I am. No body is given to me simply or exclusively as will, not even my own.

"In speaking of myself as body, given in two ways simultaneously—as an object and as a will—I am trying to articulate Schopenhauer's position in terms of the naturally wanted distinction between that which it is given. I am trying to find expressions for what some later (and perhaps earlier) philosophers call the 'referent' of thought in contrast to the 'meaning' of it: The planet Venus is given to us as the Morning Star and then as the Evening Star (Frege), and the man Napoleon is given to us as the Victor of Jena and the Vanquished of Waterloo (Husserl). Similarly it goes with Schopenhauer, for whom the body that I am is given to me, on the one hand, as object and, on the other hand, as will—though in this cas the two 'givings' occur at the same time. What is said here of the (or my) body holds, with one significant exception, of the world: It is representation—the only way it is literally given—but it is also will—as we have a right to infer. Thus it can be asserted that my body is the 'microcosm' of the world, and thus the 'key' for understanding the world."

From "The Body and The Will"



Introduction: Schopenhauer as Philosopher

Part I: Doers and Their Deeds
1. The Central Problem
2. On One's Being the Work of Another
3. The Body and the Will
4. Reinterpretation of Substance
5. The Will as the "Ground" of Actions
6. Character of Agent as "Character" of Actions
7. Inborn Wickedness and Nonresponsibility
8. Motivation and Repentance
9. Intellectual Freedom
10. Overview and Criticism

Part II: Ethics and Virtue
1. Actualism and the Nature of Ethics
2. The Meaning of "The Basis of Morals"
3. Kant's Nonempirical Ethics
4. The Natural Foundation of Ethics
5. The Great Mysteries of Ethics
6. Justice and Philanthropy
7. The Metaphysics of Ethics
8. The Acquired Character
9. Conclusion

Part III: Pessimism, Suffering, and Salvation
1. Philosophy and Pessimism
2. Sources and Sorts of Pessimism
3. Metaphysical Pessimism
4. The Worst of All Possible Worlds
5. Pessimism and Human Suffering
6. The Roads to Salvation
7. Eternal Justice
8. Original Sin
9. Conclusion Afterwords: Schopenhauer as Philosopher of Paradox


About the Author(s)

John E. Atwell is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University and the author of Ends and Principles in Kant's Moral Thought.

Subject Categories

Philosophy and Ethics



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