- The Ambiguity in Schopenhauer’s Doctrine of the Thing-in-Itself
The general attitude toward Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics is rather fiercely critical and at times even tendentious. It seems that the figure of Schopenhauer as an irredeemably flawed, stubborn, and contradictory philosopher serves as a leitmotif among scholars. Julian Young describes Schopenhauer as “a stubborn personality unwilling to admit that the central claim of his philosophy—that the will is the thing-in-itself—rests on a fundamental error.” 1 In his preface to Self and World in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy, Christopher Janaway remarks,
Only a proper appraisal of the context in which, and the aims with which, Schopenhauer was arguing can bring out the true philosophical interest in studying him. That his metaphysics is flawed . . . does not detract from his historical importance or from the worth of the problems he raises.2
It has to be pointed out that as a result of this prevailing tendency many have become accustomed to treating Schopenhauer’s philosophy as in need of substantial correction and reconstruction. In this paper, I especially take issue with certain interpretive routes that have been taken in Schopenhauer scholarship concerning his metaphysical system. In my view, Schopenhauer’s metaphysics still deserves serious consideration and understanding rather than correction or rebuke. I also think that the history of philosophy is at its best when it is not guided by our preconceptions. Therefore, I am solely interested in examining what Schopenhauer has to say about the thing-in-itself and developing an account that does not go beyond what he is stating. That being said, my interpretative attitude is perhaps best reflected in Georg Simmel’s words: [End Page 251]
The total philosophy of Schopenhauer is a way to the thing-in-itself. For Schopenhauer, it was certainly not the case that the concept of thing-in-itself had created a problem by offering an empty schema which had to be given flesh. Such would be the approach of an epigone or of someone who had merely flung the toga of philosophy around himself. Schopenhauer was a philosopher at heart, who from the first had a characteristic world-sentiment shaped by its direction toward absolute being, toward the simple totality of the manifold of things.3
Schopenhauer’s identification of the thing-in-itself with the will continues to be a thorny puzzle in the secondary literature, and it presents perhaps the greatest challenge to Schopenhauer scholars. 4 Schopenhauer borrows the term “thing-in-itself” from Immanuel Kant, who uses it to refer to a reality that is distinct from what appears to us and hence unknowable.5 Despite the fact that several interpretations [End Page 252] have been offered to make sense of Schopenhauer’s identification of the thing-in-itself with the will, there appears to be no consensus about how to interpret this identification as well as his understanding of the term “thing-in-itself.” The proposed interpretations fall under two main categories: those who recognize a change of heart by Schopenhauer from his earlier views on the thing-in-itself6 and those who do not.7
I agree with the first group of interpreters that there are noteworthy changes in Schopenhauer’s views. The gist of their discussion seems implicitly to suggest that there are two stages in Schopenhauer’s philosophy: the first stage, where the young Schopenhauer identifies the thing-in-itself with the will, and a later second stage, where he takes a less stringent stance by qualifying his use of the term “thing-in-itself.” I do not believe, however, that one can trace clear-cut stages in his philosophical development given Schopenhauer’s simultaneous adherence to views that are seemingly contradictory and incompatible in nature. My interpretation significantly differs from that of the first and second group of interpreters insofar as they either entirely omit or overlook those changes in Schopenhauer’s thinking as greatly affecting the internal consistency of his position. Unlike the other interpretations, the interpretation I offer here distinguishes three distinct and mutually incompatible views that Schopenhauer formulates about the thing-in-itself. I believe any attempt to give a coherent, consistent...