Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Happy Birthday, Arthur

Arthur Schopenhauer: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
In my younger years I got a bachelor's degree in Philosophy. While the school I went to was (at the time) very analytic in its culture, I was allowed a great degree of freedom to study continental philosophy: mostly because I speak and read German very well, and Germany dominated continental philosophy from the 18th Century up through the 20th.

This means I got to know Arthur Schopenhauer fairly well. I will not go too much into his philosophy here, because regurgitation is something I find boring to do and read. 

I had issues with Arthur during my undergrad years because of his rather nasty attitudes toward women. It took me a long time to realize through the lens of Nietzsche (himself a misogynist) as to how emotional damage and prejudices can infiltrate even the most rational of thought systems.

For example:
“The fundamental defect of the female character is a lack of a sense of justice. This originates first and foremost in their want of rationality and capacity for reflexion but it is strengthened by the fact that, as the weaker sex, they are driven to rely not on force but on cunning: hence their instinctive subtlety and their ineradicable tendency to tell lies: for, as nature has equipped the lion with claws and teeth, the elephant with tusks, the wild boar with fangs, the bull with horns and the cuttlefish with ink, so it has equipped woman with the power of dissimulation as her means of attack and defence, and has transformed into this gift all the strength it has bestowed on man in the form of physical strength and the power of reasoning.” 
Charming, eh? As so often with angry men, there is a lot more, but I will stop there. No wonder he died alone, never married and was frustrated in his dealings with women all his life? Perhaps he hated only Hegel more.

As I got older, I realized that while wrong-headed, he did have one amazing insight buried in all that vitriol. "as the weaker sex, they are driven to rely not on force but on cunning"

Poor Arthur hated women so much he never really applied his own Principle(s) of Sufficient Reason to question why women were "the weaker" sex, but the insight into how someone deprived of power is despised for her survival tactics struck a chord.

Today, Schopenhauer's bleakly pessimistic (yet very Buddhist-friendly)  philosophy strikes similar harmonic chords in me: that we are all driven by the false alignments of desire and the representations we create that render us incapable of satisfaction and happiness, leading to Blind Irrational Will doing what it does best.

I think it's useful to consider Vorstellung here. It is in the title of his best known work Die Welt als Will und Vorstellung. It is the "presentation" of the world to us. Put-before-us is a way of translating it. It is what our sensory apparatus and minds are constantly doing. It's why it's so easy to create illusions. As an idea, it's really an ancient one, but neuroscience is finally learning how to explain the old wisdom.

But really, in the above passage, it's the idea of power that grew and blossomed. Follow it from Ida Wells, and through de Beauvoir up through to contemporary thinkers such as Crenshaw, and it is more important than ever, especially when we consider resentment as a complicated, manifold power relationship between people.

I am not saying these thinkers were influenced by Schopenhauer directly. Such precise genealogy is not in my interest or purview. Consider it more of a zeitgeist that has been growing.

I wonder:

In this day, would Arthur have been a callow little troll? An angry yet intelligent, sexually frustrated white man hiding behind the Internet with personal issues that are inextricably bound up with the culture he lives in and its definitions of gender, success and worth?  Would he have sought the solace of an automatic weapon to take revenge?

More importantly, could he have overcome all of this and let it go as the core of his philosophy suggests?

I like to think of him as the eccentric, but essentially peaceful man who lives in the same building that I do. We need to say hello. Perhaps talk about his poodle or something at Cal Anderson park and start the long respectful path to understanding one another in this irrational world.

I have no answers, only the suggestion that you read  more and consider it yourselves.

For a good place to start… Feminist Perspectives on Power: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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