Can I do what I Want? Arthur Schopenhauer’s View

According to Schopenhauer, the original, free creative will is rooted in the eternal spiritual reality. In our reality, the world of appearances, there can be no free will. But we have a share in the spiritual world. The intersection of the two levels of being is our conscience. This makes us responsible for our deeds.

Can I do what I Want? Arthur Schopenhauer’s View

The question of human freedom runs like a thread through Schopenhauer’s philosophy. It reveals a profundity that enables new perspectives on man and his task in creation.

Man experiences the world in a two-sided reality; it is comparable to a living organism with two different but inseparable views. Schopenhauer calls it “the world as will and representation”, whereby the human being experiences it as will in his inner world and as representation in his outer world.

When I read the following sentence in Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essay on the Freedom of the Will, which he quoted as a popular statement on freedom of will: “I can do what I want”, I had to realise that I had used it many times before in the firm conviction that it confirmed my own freedom.

For Schopenhauer, this conclusion is not at all given; for he goes on to ask: “Can you also want what you want?”, and when this is answered in the affirmative, he follows up with: “Can you also want what you want to want?”, and so on.


What is freedom?

What is freedom? Arthur Schopenhauer explains the concept as follows:

Freedom is for him first of all a negative term, since we understand by it “the absence of everything that hinders and inhibits”. He divides it into that of physical freedom and the two philosophical concepts of intellectual and moral freedom. Physical freedom is the absence of material obstacles of any kind.

Intellectual freedom means that the human faculty of cognition can discern undistortedly and clearly the motives that influence man, so that they are morally attributable to him.

Moral freedom is the essential concept to which the answer to the question of the actual freedom of the will applies. The concept of freedom is synonymous here with freedom of the will. It means that a person can decide freely between opposing actions. For example, he can tell the truth and thus betray a friend, or he can lie and protect the friend. However, he is only free if he can decide freely from motives acting on him, motives such as fear of coercive measures or inner pressure due to obligations he has entered into towards his friend.

Schopenhauer examines the question of the freedom of the will. There is a difference between willing and doing. Doing concerns the execution of the will, that is, the realisation of the will. But the power of execution is something completely different from the decision of the will itself. This can, therefore, be influenced by more or less inhibiting motives. Doing, says Schopenhauer, cannot enter into a direct connection with willing because it can be influenced by inhibiting motives and thus cannot freely choose between opposing options. Accordingly, it already presupposes a genuine ability of the will. In man, the distance between motive and action can be immeasurably great, for he is not bound to any presence or environment. It is different with animals: “The dog stands immediately hesitating between the call of his master and the sight of a bitch, the stronger motive will determine his movement: but then it takes place … necessarily”.

Since man is not bound to place and time like the animal, the hindering motives can also be found in mere thoughts, so that he thinks “… the will decides itself, without cause”. To explain this error, Schopenhauer describes the situation of a person who says to himself: “It is six o’clock in the evening, the day’s work is finished. I can now go for a walk or I can go to the club; I can climb a tower to watch the sun go down; I can also go to the theatre; I can also visit this or that friend, yes, I can also run out the gate into the wide world and never come back. All of this is mine alone, I have complete freedom to do it; but do nothing of it now, but go home to my wife just as voluntarily.”

The error of this man is that, though he can think himself free to perform all these acts, he is not able really to will them, because the compelling motive to go home is too great and compulsively determines him.

Thus the question of man’s moral freedom arises anew. The concept of freedom here can only be thought in the absence of all compelling motives. Freedom of will as “the free decision of will not influenced in any way” is not possible, according to Schopenhauer. Man can wish for opposing things, but will only one of them: “And which one this is is revealed to self-consciousness only by the deed”.


The world as will

Thus the question of the freedom of willing leads us to the question of the origin of free will itself. Schopenhauer says: “… man’s will is his actual self, the true core of his being, and so the question ultimately means whether man could also be someone other than himself”.

The original, free creative will is for him a “thing-in-itself”, since, like Plato’s ideas, it is rooted in the eternal intelligible (spiritual) reality. Schopenhauer speaks of an intelligible world in contrast to the “world of appearances”. The latter is the external world of experiences, which he calls an empirical world (Erfahrungswelt). The two worlds are reminiscent of Plato’s divine world of ideas, which is opposed to a world of appearances.


However, these questions are very far from man’s self-consciousness; they cannot even be brought to his “understanding [… for] in him it is dark as in a blackened stovepipe”. “How does man become directly conscious of his own self? [… -] as a willing one”, says Schopenhauer. All passions, all wanting and desiring and resisting are expressions of his will. Man is himself an expression of the creative will, but he is not aware of it. He unites in himself all forms of evolution which are objectified qualities of the creative will: The will manifests its ideas, which lie within itself, of an inorganic and organic life: plant, animal and human, and the latter in a double way, on the one hand as the inner and on the other as the outer world of man.

The will lights a lantern for itself. As the last stage, the will develops the human cognitive faculty of the intellect, with the help of which man is to recognise his outer world brightly and clearly. The will thus works from the inside out like a tree that gradually unfolds its branches, twigs and leaves and finally its fruits. However, the human being only becomes aware of this when he encounters an external world. He first perceives it in his own body as a manifested form of the will working in him.


The world as representation

The inner human world thus finds its expression in an outer world. To make us vividly aware of this statement, let us recall the state of being of a small child who still lives quite securely and unconsciously in harmony between the inner and outer worlds. For example, if it bumps into a table and hurts itself, it likes to stroke the table comfortingly; it experiences the table and itself as one. Later, when the I-consciousness awakens in the child, the unity becomes a duality: the inner and the outer world. The germ of the intellect that will develop in the future is laid.

Here, it is no longer a question of the will in immediate self-consciousness, but of the will as the human being perceives it in the appearances of the outer world. Schopenhauer calls it a “consciousness of other things”, and he adds that this constitutes the far greater part of human consciousness. “Other things” are regarded by means of the human faculty of understanding as the beings endowed with a will, which are to be examined as objective and external appearances, “as objects of experience”.

The faculty of understanding is thereby bound to its inner forms. It recognises phenomena through its immanent categories of space and time and by means of the law of causality. This is “the general and fundamental form of understanding, since through its mediation alone the conception in the perception of the real external world comes into being”.

The causal law of cause and effect states that we conceive of our perceptions as effects and necessarily pass immediately to their causes, which we now imagine as appearances in space and time.

The mind as a property of the individualised will, however, becomes independent in the course of its development and reflects our conception of the world in a distorted way.

It develops from a servant of the original will into a self-willed force that inserts all perceptible phenomena into its comprehensible structures of time/space and causality.

Just as a bumped ball on the billiard table must start moving, so from then on man will have to react to external motives. A freedom of will would be “an inexplicable miracle”, says Schopenhauer, “namely an effect without a cause […], thereby the mind stands still, it has no form to think such a thing”. Everything that happens happens with necessity, and: “Necessary is that which follows from a given, sufficient reason […], for all reasons are compelling.” Schopenhauer says that this sufficient reason lies in the character of man. “The necessity with which motives act like all other causes is not a presuppositionless one […], it is the innate individual character, […] thus every deed of a man is the necessary product of his character and of the motive that has occurred.” Our deeds are already created in us before we perform them. Everything that happens, according to this view, happens with necessity, and “through what we do we merely learn who we are”.


The free will in the transcendent being

Does this mean that there is no freedom of the human will? No, in the world of appearances it is not given to man. However, man also has a share in a spiritual, intelligible world: the free will to create that is active in him is rooted in this transcendent being. The intersection of these two levels of being is man’s conscience, which makes him responsible for his deeds. In it, the two worlds meet: man as an appearance of nature and man as a free spiritual being of will. “This freedom, however, is a transcendental one, that is, not emerging in appearance, but […] outside of all time, to be thought of as the inner essence of the creative will in man […].” Schopenhauer says: “Freedom is therefore not abolished by my representation, but merely moved out […] into a higher region and not so easily accessible to our cognition: that is, it is transcendental.”

According to him, man can recognise through insight his free will as being rooted in the original, intelligible world; it will then become bright and clear in him. It is a kind of rebirth in which “thus, as it were, a new man takes the place of the old.” Then (Schopenhauer now invokes Kant) man will possess the faculty of causing a series of causal occurrences in the world of appearance of his own accord and freely.

This is the actual positive concept of freedom of will.


Arthur Schopenhauer: Essay on the Freedom of Will

Arthur Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Representation

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Date: April 28, 2022
Author: Sibylle Bath (Germany)
Photo: boy-press ? and ⭐ auf Pixabay CCO

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