Arthur Schopenhauer: Life, Philosophy and Legacy

Biography | Influences | Core Philosophy | Essential Works | Reception | Criticisms | Legacy

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a renowned German philosopher who made significant contributions to the fields of metaphysics, philosophy of the self, ethics and aesthetics. His ideology, though not widely recognized during his lifetime, has had a profound and lasting impact on subsequent generations of thinkers and scholars.

Schopenhauer is best known for his seminal work, The World as Will and Representation. In this grand treatise, he presents his comprehensive philosophical system, drawing on various intellectual traditions and Eastern philosophies, particularly Indian and Buddhist thought.

At the heart of Schopenhauer’s philosophy lies the concept of “will”, for he posited that reality’s underlying essence is a blind and insatiable force – the will – which drives all phenomena, human actions and desires alike. He perceived existence as an unending cycle of suffering, which he attributed to the relentless nature of this will. According to him, the root cause of human suffering is intricately connected to attachment and the unceasing pursuit of desire.

His ideas challenged the dominant philosophies of his time and laid the groundwork for pessimism and existentialism. While he is primarily remembered for the notion of will, this focus often overshadows the broader scope of his philosophy.


Arthur Schopenhauer was born on 1788, in the city of Danzig, Poland. He was the son of a prosperous merchant family, Heinrich and Johanna, a well-known novelist and intellectual in her own right. Despite belonging to a privileged background, his early life was marked by personal challenges and tragedies. His father passed away when he was just a young boy, and his mother’s literary ambitions often overshadowed her maternal responsibilities.

Schopenhauer’s mother provided him with an extensive home education and introduced him to literature, music and the arts. In 1805, he enrolled at the University of Göttingen to study medicine, but later transferred to the University of Berlin to pursue his intellectual interests. It was during this time at the University of Berlin that he encountered the philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant, which had a profound impact on his thinking.

Despite completing his academic studies, Schopenhauer faced significant challenges in establishing himself as a philosopher. He struggled to gain recognition and support for his ideas, which often diverged from the prevailing philosophical trends of his time. In 1819, he published his first major work, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which attracted some attention but failed to gain acclaim.

In fact, Schopenhauer self-published his most significant work, The World as Will and Representation, in 1818. However, the book did not achieve immediate success. It was only much later in his life, particularly after the publication of the second edition in 1844, that his ideas began to garner attention from a broader audience.

Despite the initial challenges, Schopenhauer’s perseverance eventually paid off, and he became a respected figure in philosophical circles during the latter part of his life. His perspective, particularly on the nature of human existence and the primacy of the will, earned him a place among the most influential philosophers in history.

Intellectual Influences

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the intellectual landscape in Europe was shaped by significant philosophical movements that would profoundly influence Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical thought.

By synthesizing these diverse influences from the Enlightenment, German Idealism and Eastern philosophies, Schopenhauer crafted a unique philosophical perspective that challenged conventional Western thought and laid the groundwork for his own distinctive contributions to philosophy.

The Enlightenment, a period of intellectual awakening and reason-based inquiry, had a significant impact on European thought; emphasizing the importance of reason, scientific inquiry and individual freedoms. Enlightenment thinkers sought to understand the natural world through empirical observation and rational analysis, challenging the doctrine of the time. In the wake of the Enlightenment, German Idealism emerged as a prominent philosophical movement. Led by figures like Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, German Idealism sought to reconcile the divide between the mind and the external world. Kant’s philosophy, in particular, had a significant influence on Schopenhauer’s early philosophical development.

Kant’s distinction between the “phenomenal” world, which we perceive, and the “noumenal” world, which lies beyond human cognition, played a crucial role in shaping his own philosophical system, in particular the concept of the “thing-in-itself”. He adopted and expanded upon Kant’s notion of the “thing-in-itself” as the “will” – an unconscious, irrational and universal force that lies behind all appearances. This notion formed the core of his metaphysical system, which asserts that the will drives all human desires and actions, leading to suffering and unfulfilled desires.

In addition to the prevailing intellectual movements within Europe, he studied Eastern philosophies, particularly Indian and Buddhist thought. Through reading the ancient sacred texts, such as the Upanishads and Buddhist scriptures, he encountered ideas that presented a radically different perspective on human existence and the nature of reality. The Vedic notion of “Brahman” and the Buddhist concept of “nirvana” resonated with his understanding of the underlying reality beneath the material world, providing him with a unique lens through which he interpreted human suffering and the perpetual strive that, in his view, characterizes life.

From the Eastern philosophies, Schopenhauer absorbed the notion of the fundamental unity of all things and later developed the concept of the “will”.

Core Philosophical Framework

Schopenhauer’s core philosophical framework centers on the concept of the will – an irrational force that permeates all aspects of reality. His view of human existence, grounded in the insatiable desires of the will, showcases the perpetual nature of suffering. However, through art, and music in particular, individuals may find solace.

Metaphysics and the Will

At the heart of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical framework lies the metaphysical view of the world as an expression of an underlying, blind and irrational force he termed the will – a force that transcends human cognition and consciousness, operating independently of reason or purpose, the will is the fundamental reality that manifests itself in all things and beings.

According to Schopenhauer, the will is an all-pervading essence that drives the natural world: a ceaseless striving and desiring force, constantly seeking satisfaction. However, this insatiable will inevitably leads to suffering as desires are never fully satisfied, and individuals find themselves in a perpetual state of discontent.

Existence and Suffering

Schopenhauer’s philosophy delves deeply into the human experience of suffering. He asserts that the inherent nature of existence is marked by continual striving, frustration and inevitable suffering, and that life’s pursuits are often in vain, leading to a sense of unfulfillment and dissatisfaction.

According to Schopenhauer, human desires and attachments are sources of suffering, as they bind individuals to the relentless pursuit of fleeting pleasures and unattainable goals.

Aesthetics and Art

In response to the bleak reality of human suffering, Schopenhauer turned to aesthetics as a redemptive force. He believed that art had the power to provide temporary respite from the misery caused by the will’s incessant striving: in the presence of genuine art, individuals may enter a state of contemplation and lose their self-awareness, escaping the immediate demands of the will.

He thus considered genuine art as the highest form of human expression, especially music, which he regarded as the purest form of art, transcending mere representation and appealing directly to the essence of the will. Through music the will finds direct expression, and in its contemplation individuals may experience a momentary liberation from the burdens of existence.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essential Works

Arthur Schopenhauer’s essential works – On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, The World as Will and Representation, and The World as Will and Idea – are the foundational texts that embody his unique philosophical system, exemplifying his perspective on the primacy of the will, the nature of human suffering and the redemptive power of art.

On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason

Published in 1813, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason is an early work by Schopenhauer which lays the groundwork for his later philosophical developments.

This book explores the principle of sufficient reason, which asserts that everything must have a reason or cause for its existence or occurrence. He discusses four distinct aspects of the principle of sufficient reason: the principle of becoming, of knowing, of being and of acting. Through these aspects, the author formulates and presents his epistemological principles, investigating the ways in which humans perceive and understand the world.

The World as Will and Representation

The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, presents a comprehensive exploration of his metaphysical perspective, offering a unique view on human existence.

The central idea revolves around the notion of the will as the underlying and universal force driving all phenomena in existence. He posits that the world we perceive is a mere representation, a product of our individual minds, and the true reality lies in the will that constitutes the essence of everything.

Schopenhauer’s metaphysical framework challenges traditional Western philosophy by shifting the focus from reason and empiricism to the individual’s subjective experience and the primacy of the will. Ultimately, he contends that the will is inherently blind and irrational, making human existence a continuous cycle of unfulfilled desires, striving and suffering.

The World as Will and Idea

In 1844, Schopenhauer released the second edition of The World as Will and Representation, which he retitled The World as Will and Idea. This revised and expanded edition included significant updates and additions, elaborating on his core ideas and addressing critiques from the first edition. This revised edition further solidified the centrality of will in his philosophical system, refining and clarifying the concept.

The title change reflects the author’s desire to draw attention to the dual aspects of reality: will as the underlying force, and idea as its representation in human consciousness.

The World as Will and Idea had a profound influence on subsequent philosophical thought, as it garnered recognition from various intellectual circles beyond philosophy, influencing literature, music and the arts.

Influence on Philosophy

Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy had a profound impact on the development of existentialist thought, psychology and aesthetics. Nietzsche’s critical engagement with Schopenhauer’s philosophy, in particular, laid the foundation for the development of existentialist thought.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a prominent 19th century philosopher, initially engaged with Schopenhauer’s ideas and admittedly drew inspiration from his outlook. In later years he would diverge, however, and his exploration of the “will to power” can be seen as a critical response to the former’s fatalistic worldview.

As Nietzsche developed his philosophical ideas, he introduced the concept of the “Ubermensch” or “Superman.” The Ubermensch represents an ideal human being who transcends societal norms, embraces individuality and takes responsibility for creating their own values and meaning in a world without inherent meaning or purpose. The concept of the Ubermensch played a pivotal role in shaping the existentialist movement, foreshadowing the core existentialist themes of individual freedom, authenticity and the need to create one’s own values in a seemingly indifferent or absurd universe. Later existentialist thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, further developed these ideas and expanded on the themes of individuality, existential choice and the search for meaning in a universe devoid of inherent purpose.

Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s ideas on aesthetics and the nature of art also left a profound impact on philosophical discourse, as later thinkers in the realm of aesthetics found inspiration in his work. Once again, Friedrich Nietzsche drew from the former’s perspective on art’s redemptive potential and its connection to human suffering.

Finally, Schopenhauer’s exploration of the human experience and the profound influence of the will on behavior, which itself bears a resemblance to G.W.F. Hegel’s concept of Geist, foreshadowed significant developments in psychology. Sigmund Freud‘s concept of the “id” – representing the instinctual and unconscious part of the mind seeking gratification – echoes Schopenhauer’s notion of the “will” as the driving force behind human motivations and actions.


Arthur Schopenhauer, though initially met with skepticism, gradually found an audience appreciative of his unique perspectives on the human condition, and he began to gain growing recognition within intellectual circles. His influence extended beyond Germany and he garnered a dedicated group of followers and students who admired his depth of thought and originality. The appeal of his philosophy was not limited to professional philosophers; his ideas also resonated with artists, writers and individuals seeking a profound understanding of existence.

One of Schopenhauer’s most notable admirers was Friedrich Nietzsche, who engaged extensively with his work and acknowledged his influence on his own philosophical development. Nietzsche’s admiration for Schopenhauer’s insights, particularly on the nature of the will and human suffering, significantly contributed to the dissemination of Schopenhauer’s ideas beyond his immediate intellectual circle.

Despite his growing influence, Arthur Schopenhauer faced significant critiques and challenges from academic philosophers and critics who disagreed with his philosophical outlook. Some questioned the validity of his metaphysical claims, particularly his positing of the “will” as the fundamental reality, which they deemed as speculative and unfounded, while others outright dismissed Schopenhauer’s philosophy as overly pessimistic, finding his views on the irrationality of the will and the pervasive nature of suffering fatalistic, as it lacks a constructive perspective on life.

Moreover, Schopenhauer’s opposition to the prevailing German Idealist philosophy, particularly that of G.W.F. Hegel, led to challenges and critiques.


Schopenhauer’s philosophy has faced significant criticisms throughout history, including objections to an overly pessimistic worldview, reliance on metaphysical concepts and the misrepresentation of Eastern philosophies.

Schopenhauer was initially a student of G.W.F. Hegel, who later became one of his fiercest opponents. Hegel would criticize his former student’s pessimism and the denial of the importance of history and progress, seeing the focus on individual suffering as contradictory with the spirit of philosophical inquiry and the advancement of human knowledge.

Friedrich Nietzsche had fundamental disagreements with Schopenhauer’s ideology, particularly regarding the notion of the will. While Nietzsche acknowledged the former’s insights, he discouraged the pessimistic worldview in the belief that life should be embraced affirmatively, including its challenges and struggles. Existentialist philosophers, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, while acknowledging the inherent suffering in life, choose to emphasize the individual’s freedom to create meaning and purpose.

In modern times, Bertrand Russell commented on Schopenhauer’s metaphysical arguments, especially the concept of the “thing-in-itself”, contending that the reliance on Kantian noumena is problematic and not rationally justifiable; as it is, in the words of Karl Popper, unfalsifiable and thus negates the criteria for genuine scientific philosophy. Russel questioned the validity of Schopenhauer’s metaphysical claims, drawing attention to the impossibility of understanding the nature of reality beyond sensory perceptions.

In the realm of gender equality, misogynistic remarks and reductionist attitudes towards women present in his works, which reflect the patriarchal biases prevalent of the time, have been heavily condemned by feminist scholars.

Finally, Eastern philosophers have questioned Schopenhauer’s understanding and interpretation of Eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism, as scholars contend that he misrepresented crucial aspects of their teachings.

Despite these criticisms, Schopenhauer’s ideological framework continues to be studied and influential, especially in existentialist, pessimist and nihilist circles, and his contributions to metaphysics, aesthetics and ethics remain topics of interest.


In stark contrast to the prevailing optimism of his time, Schopenhauer’s philosophical framework centered on a belief in the intrinsic suffering and futility of life. His seminal work, The World as Will and Representation, served as the conduit for his metaphysical ideas, gaining recognition long after his death and influencing prominent thinkers of subsequent generations, including Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

At the heart of his philosophical contributions was the unwavering belief in the universality of human suffering. He posited that human life is characterized by constant striving and unfulfilled desires, leading to an inherent dissatisfaction with existence. This perspective challenged the optimistic currents of the 19th century, which had asserted that progress and reason would lead to a better world, contending instead that life’s essential nature was marked by a pervasive sense of discontent.

Schopenhauer’s conception of human will as the fundamental driving force behind our actions and choices furthered his significance in history, as he argued that human behavior is profoundly influenced by irrational and unconscious drives and not solely determined by rationality. Exploring the depths of human desires, he offered a compelling analysis of human behavior that resonated with later psychological and psychoanalytic thought.

Moreover, his reflections on art and aesthetics added to his lasting impact on philosophical discourse. He regarded art as a potent means of transcending the burdens of existence, as true art expressed the underlying essence of reality and allowed individuals to connect with a deeper, universal truth. This emphasis on the transformative power of art foreshadowed modern views on the therapeutic and emotional dimensions of artistic expression and contemplation.

Additionally, his exploration of compassion and empathy as ethical imperatives underscored his philosophical significance. He considered compassion not only as a virtuous trait but also as a means to recognize the shared struggles of all living beings and alleviate suffering. This ethical perspective has since influenced contemporary ethical theories centered on the consideration of others’ well-being.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s enduring significance lies in his divergence from prevailing optimistic philosophies of his time, the primacy of human will and desire, the universality of suffering, his profound reflections on art and aesthetics as well as his ethical framework centered on empathy and compassion.

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