The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (d. 1860) has to this day maintained a reputation of being a pessimistic thinker whose ideas influenced psychology and aesthetics. Some of his pessimistic outlooks are found in his The World as Will and Representation (1819) that interests us here.
Schopenhauer followed in the footsteps of Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) and his division of the world into the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. Schopenhauer rejected Kant’s strong distinction and instead saw the two worlds as one world experienced in two different ways: one world (the phenomenal) is experienced internally and the other (noumenal) externally. And where Kant referred to the noumenal world as being the “things-in-themselves”, Schopenhauer referred to it as “Will”. To Schopenhauer, this meant that on the one hand the world is constituted of representations (our ideas) and, on the other, Will, namely our underlying drives and desires.
Schopenhauer’s notion of Will has been of great interest to philosophers. Generally, it is understood to be a sort of non-rational, aimless energy, and impulse that manifests within humans as the drive for self-preservation. It has no end in view, is served by the human intellect, and is a major cause of suffering. It is the Will that leads to our disappointment and frustration in life, and our desire to want to overcome unappeasable longings. This suffering can be escaped; Schopenhauer believed that people can only escape it by producing a loss in the need for gratification through dedicating oneself to asceticism or through universal compassion for the human condition. Schopenhauer’s belief in asceticism that denies the Will as a means for overcoming suffering suggests Buddhist influences on his thought. Schopenhauer also claimed to have been influenced by several Indian religious texts such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. That the underlying Will is a source of suffering and frustration seems strikingly similar to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths that says life entails dukkha (suffering).
Another way to find relief from the suffering of the Will is through aesthetics. Schopenhauer claimed that tragedy is the highest form of art because it attempts to understand and communicate this universal condition. Schopenhauer was also an atheist because his notion of the world as Will leaves no room God. Life is inherently meaningless and the Will pushes us on without any direction and purpose. Schopenhauer was interested in the concept of love and spoke about it at great length. He particularly saw it to constitute a basic drive of the Will, and this is where Schopenhauer’s views have some significance in the field of psychology. Human beings are essentially motivated by this force of love that they do not really understand.
Although Schopenhauer was largely ignored in his time, German existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) was influenced by his ideas. Nietzsche proposed the idea of the “will to power” as a major psychological force drawing on Schopenhauer’s notion of the Will. However, Nietzsche disagreed with Schopenhauer as he saw the denial of the will being a weakness that led to Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Nietzsche also did not have much time for Schopenhauer’s liking of Eastern thought and asceticism. Ultimately, there is a significant difference between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, despite the latter having much influenced the former: whereas Schopenhauer saw the Will as being something negative and a reason for pessimism, Nietzsche saw it as something positive and in need of embrace to overcoming oneself.
Russell, James. 2007. A Brief Guide to Philosophical Classics. p. 53-56
Buckingham, Will., Burnham, Douglas., Hill, Clive., King, Peter., Marenbon, John., and Weeks, Marcus. 2018. The Little Book of Philosophy. Penguin Random House. p. 117-120.