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  • Schopenhauer on Sense Perception and Aesthetic Cognition
  • Bart Vandenabeele (bio)


In Schopenhauer’s view, the whole organic and inorganic world is ultimately governed by an insatiable, blind will. Life as a whole is purposeless: there is no ultimate goal or meaning, for the metaphysical will is only interested in manifesting itself in (or as) a myriad of phenomena, which we call the “world” or “life.” Human life, too, is nothing but an insignificant product or “objectivation” of the blind, unconscious will, and because our life is determined by willing (that is, by needs, affects, urges, and desires), and since willing is characterized by lack, our life is essentially full of misery and suffering. We are constantly searching for objects that can satisfy our needs and desires; once we have finally found a way to satisfy one desire, another one crops up, and we become restless willing subjects once again, and so on in an endless whirlpool of willing, suffering, momentary satisfaction, boredom, willing again, etc. Life is not a good thing. The only way, Schopenhauer argues, to escape from these torments of willing is by “seeing the world aright,” as Wittgenstein would have it: that is, by acknowledging the pointlessness and insignificance of our own willing existence and ultimately by giving up willing as such—which in fact really means abandoning our own individuality, our own willing selves. This is momentarily possible in aesthetic experiences of beauty and sublimity and permanently achievable [End Page 37] only in the exceptional ethical practices of detachment, mysticism, and asceticism, in which the will to life is eventually denied and sheer nothingness is embraced—either through harsh suffering or through sainthood.

Yet here I set out to examine a perhaps somewhat lesser-known part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy: his theory of perception and cognition. Acknowledgment of this strand of his thought moves Schopenhauer away from the German idealism of Schelling, Hegel, and other contemporaries and takes him back to the company where he (or so I contend) more properly belongs: the British empiricists, such as Locke, Reid, Berkeley, Hume, and, of course, Kant, whom he revered with immense adoration. I first expound Schopenhauer’s theories of the “intellectual” character of intuitive perception and the hierarchy of the senses. I argue that his analysis of the role of the understanding in perception may be closer to Kant’s than he conceded, but he supplements Kant’s transcendental conception of perception and understanding with a more scientifically plausible account of sensory perception and empirical cognition. I then contrast this with his account of aesthetic perception and cognition (ästhetische Anschauung und Erkenntnis), in which the brain operates detached from our will and offers pure, will-less pleasure. I shall argue that Schopenhauer surpasses Kant’s aesthetic theory of disinterested pleasure by (rightly) holding that the value of aesthetic cognition and art cannot be reduced to the value of the pleasure they yield.

1. Perception and Understanding

The gist of Schopenhauer’s account of perception is that all intuitive perception (Anschauung) is intellectual—that is, only through the understanding’s application of the concepts of time, space, and causality can the world “stand out as perception extended in space, varying in respect of form, persisting through all time as regards matter” (WWR I:12; see also WWR II:19).1 The senses alone do not suffice to offer perception, since they “furnish nothing but the raw material, and this the understanding first of all works up into the objective grasp and apprehension of a corporeal world governed by laws, and does so by means of the simple forms . . . space, time, and causality. Accordingly, our daily empirical intuitive perception is intellectual” (FR 78). He emphasizes, however, that “This operation of the understanding . . . is not discursive or reflective, nor does it take place in abstracto by means of concepts or words; on the contrary, it is intuitive and quite immediate” (FR 78).

Schopenhauer uses this view of the “intellectual” nature of perception to argue for the ideality of the perceived world. Schopenhauer proclaims himself to be a true follower of Kant’s transcendental idealism from the first sentence of his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation: “The...


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pp. 37-57
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