Schopenhauer Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea gave rise to a pessimistic strand of German Romantic philosophy, introduced Europe to several concepts drawn from Eastern philosophy, and provided a major and well-reasoned response to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Summary of Event

Arthur Schopenhauer published Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819; The World as Will and Idea, 1883-1886, 3 volumes) at a time when European philosophy was still attempting to grasp the implications of a new concept of the human mind, thought, and understanding that had been developed by Immanuel Kant. Himself responding to the theories of David Hume (1711-1776), Kant had distinguished two distinct aspects of reality: phenomenal reality, or the world as it appears to the human mind, and noumenal reality, or the world as it really is. Kant had asserted that there was a nearly absolute gap between phenomena and noumena, such that the noumenon, or the“thing in itself” (Ding an sich), was not directly knowable. Only its phenomenal appearance could be known. World as Will and Idea, The (Schopenhauer) Schopenhauer, Arthur Philosophy;German Philosophy;Arthur Schopenhauer[Schopenhauer] Kant, Immanuel [p]Kant, Immanuel;and Arthur Schopenhauer[Schopenhauer] [kw]Schopenhauer Publishes The World as Will and Idea (1819) [kw]Publishes The World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer (1819) [kw]World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer Publishes The (1819) World as Will and Idea, The (Schopenhauer) Schopenhauer, Arthur Philosophy;German Philosophy;Arthur Schopenhauer[Schopenhauer] Kant, Immanuel [p]Kant, Immanuel;and Arthur Schopenhauer[Schopenhauer] [g]Germany;1819: Schopenhauer Publishes The World as Will and Idea[0960] [c]Philosophy;1819: Schopenhauer Publishes The World as Will and Idea[0960] Wagner, Richard

Thus, on the level of perception, human beings in Kant’s system were permanently divorced from the ultimate reality. Kant did, however, believe that humans could make contact with the noumenal on the level of practice, because they were capable of making moral decisions that recognized and agreed with the objective moral world of freedom and justice. Nevertheless, in Kant’s description of everyday experience, each person’s experience of the world was really an experience of his or her mental conception of the world; it was never a true encounter with the world itself.

Arthur Schopenhauer.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Kant’s theories were designed to solve a version of what has come to be known as the “mind/body problem” that became particularly important in the wake of Sir Isaac Newton’s model of a universe governed by physical laws. If all physical objects, including the human body, are determined by laws, Kant wanted to know, how can the human mind be capable of free will and yet be fundamentally linked to the body? The division of the world into two different levels of reality—phenomena and noumena—was a crucial step in Kant’s overall system, designed to explain how the free mind could relate to the law-governed body. It created a different problem, however: If human minds could never have direct, unmediated contact with physical reality (bodies), how could these minds form ideas about external reality that have any sort of validity? Kant believed that he had solved this problem in his Three Critiques, but most philosophers of mind who came after him seem to have disagreed, since they have all tried to find their own answers to the problem. Schopenhauer’s answers have been greatly influential.

When Schopenhauer published The World as Will and Idea, he saw his work as both a development of Kant’s theories and an artfully constructed solution to the epistemological problems raised by those theories. Officially published in 1819 (even though the first copies appeared in December of the previous year), The World as Will and Idea would be revised and enlarged by Schopenhauer twice in his lifetime (in 1844 and 1854). Its impact was not immediate. Largely ignored by the academic and artistic community until the 1840’s and 1850’s, the work began to be met with widespread acclaim only near the end of Schopenhauer’s life, when its author suddenly was celebrated as a great visionary. In the treatise’s original four-volume format, the first and third volumes dealt with Kant’s concept of phenomenal understanding, which Schopenhauer termed the “world as idea” (Vorstellung; properly, “representation”). The second and fourth volumes presented Schopenhauer’s proposed solution to the problems that he believed Kant had raised for philosophy, a solution that Schopenhauer termed the “world as will” (Wille).

According to Schopenhauer’s view of the world, will—which should be viewed as closer to the English concepts of “desire” and “craving” than to the sort of conscious volition implied by the term “will”—is a universal principle found in all of nature. It is not only the characteristic feature of human existence but may also be seen in animals (which, lacking human rationality, respond to their world purely out of will), plants (which turn toward the sun, put forth leaves, and develop roots as a means of satisfying their needs), and even inanimate objects (for which such forces as gravity and the laws of thermodynamics may be viewed as an impersonal sort of will).

In Kantian terms, Schopenhauer’s concept of the will provided a direct point of contact between the mind and the physical universe, since human desires, needs, and longings always occur in the mind even though they are directed toward some external body. For instance, a human being may develop will (for example, a desire for water) if there is thirst, desire for food if there is hunger, desire for air if a room is stifling, and similar desires in any of a number of different situations. On the other hand, no one would ever say that they long for or need the square root of negative two or the space-time continuum in the same way. The latter are mental constructs rather than physical bodies, and the will is always a mental state directed toward the physical universe. Seen in this light, therefore, Kant’s perceived dichotomy between mental concepts and physical objects did not exist in Schopenhauer’s depiction of the world. The bridge between them was the will.

If Kant’s division between phenomena and noumena did not exist for Schopenhauer, what Schopenhauer did regard as a central challenge for philosophy was the essentially tragic view of human existence implied by his own theory of the world. In other words, he believed, since the characteristic quality of all nature is the will, existence is necessarily frustrating for the human consciousness. Throughout all of life, as soon as one desire is satisfied, another desire appears; permanent satisfaction is never possible. In addition, even when satisfied, the same desire will eventually return. Food, water, sexual gratification, sleep, and other human needs must be addressed on a regular basis, and a perfect state of happiness will never be possible.

Even worse, according to Schopenhauer, was the suffering produced in the mind because certain desires could never be satisfied, compelling human beings to experience life as a wearisome cycle of ordeal characterized by endless longing. The only cessation to the will, Schopenhauer believed, was that which was suggested by several Eastern philosophies: the cessation of all human desire, particularly that which occured in death and the obliteration of the human consciousness. By introducing to the West such concepts as nirvana (the complete extinction of all desire), The World as Will and Idea played a major role in the European discovery of Buddhist thought and helped pave the way for such works as Eugène Burnouf’s Introduction à l’histoire du bouddhism indien (1844; Legends of Indian Buddhism, 1911) and Karl Friedrich Köppen’s Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung (1857; the religion of the Buddha and its origin).

Schopenhauer’s view of human understanding and his pessimistic view of existence influenced a broad range of philosophers, including Karl Robert Eduard Von Hartmann (1842-1906), Henri Bergson (1859-1941), and Hans Vaihinger (1852-1933). Schopenhauer’s pessimism stands in marked contrast to the materialist, utopian, and optimistic philosophies of such figures as Karl Marx, Robert Owen, and Charles Fourier, who represent an entirely separate strain of philosophy. Perhaps most distinctly, the impact of The World as Will and Idea may be seen in the later works of Richard Wagner Wagner, Richard [p]Wagner, Richard;operas , such as Tristan und Isolde Opera;Tristan und Isolde Tristan und Isolde (Wagner) (1859; Tristan and Isolde) and Parsifal Opera;Parsifal Parsifal (Wagner) (1882), as well as in the works of poets and novelists such as Charles Baudelaire Baudelaire, Charles , Stéphane Mallarmé Mallarmé, Stéphane , and Joris-Karl Huysmans Huysmans, Joris-Karl .


Schopenhauer’s publication of The World as Will and Idea initiated a major new direction in Romantic philosophy. First, by attempting to answer several of the key questions that Kant had proposed in such works as Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Pure Reason (Kant) 1838), Schopenhauer redirected the approach of many nineteenth century philosophers away from Kant’s obscure and highly complex Idealism to a more readily comprehended, all-encompassing philosophy that suited the needs of many intellectuals and artists of the late Romantic age. Second, by popularizing many of the ideas that Schopenhauer had encountered in Buddhist and Hindu authors, The World as Will and Idea introduced many Europeans to Eastern philosophy for the first time and helped begin to forge an integration between Eastern and Western philosophic ideas. Third, Schopenhauer’s influence on such cultural figures as Wagner, Baudelaire, and others carried his pessimistic Romantic philosophy into such fields as music and literature, where they were encountered by entirely new audiences.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coplestone, Frederick Charles. Arthur Schopenhauer: Philosopher of Pessimism. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. A classic work exploring both Schopenhauer’s philosophy and its influence on the Romantic age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magee, Bryan. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. An excellent and thorough analysis of every aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, presented in language that a general reader will be able to understand.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tanner, Michael. Schopenhauer. New York: Routledge, 1999. A very brief and accessible overview of Schopenhauer for the non-philosopher.

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