Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Schopenhauer conference


On 17-18 October 2013, I attended the conference on the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer organized by the philosophy department of Ghent University. Keeping in mind the interests of my audience as well as my own time constraints, I will limit this report to just one session: the one relating Schopenhauer to Asian philosophies and to the comparative science of religion. Note that I haven’t read any Schopenhauer since the 1980s.


Love deceives us

Jonathan Head, from Keele University, UK, spoke on “Schopenhauer, Love and the Upanishads”. He restated that Arthur Schopenhauer wrote some anti-Christian polemics as well as high praise of the Upanishads. (That much, at least, the old philosopher had in common with yours truly.) His aim was, to explore the influence of Schopenhauer’s reading of the Upanishads with a view to locating the precise differences between agapè (charity, more or less prema) and eros (desire, more or less kāma) in Schopenhauer’s system.

The speaker relied on the “self-expansion model of love”. He found this back is a famous passage of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad: “It is not for the love of the wife that the wife is dear, but for love of the Self.” The goal of the ordinary self is to become the Self. The Self seeks become everything, and this begins by the attempt to subsume other people. This begins as self-centred (desire), but can become altruistic later (charity). Thus, love becomes a phase in the expansion of the self. Intimacy is a love-relationship of reciprocity in which each person feels validated. Love is motivational.

Schopenhauer, sceptical of self-deceptions, said that romantic love deceives us: “The sex drive deceives us into feeling admiration”; indeed, is a notorious phrase, he opines that only under the influence of his sex hormones, men can describe the “low-height, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged” women as “the fair sex”. Admiring the other’s qualities, the self believes it achieves its own self-expansion, but it is really being deceived by species, which urges men and women on to have such feelings as motivating them to procreate. (Earlier that morning, Schopenhauer had been described as a predecessor of Richard Dawkins, who analyzes altruistic behaviour as serving “the selfish gene”.) Love is the misfiring of the Will’s drive to self-knowledge, an attempt to achieve wholeness.



Christopher Ryan, from the Metropolitan University in London, spoke about “Moral Universalism and Discrimination: Schopenhauerian agapè and Confucian ren”. He is the author of a book on Schopenhauer called “The Death of God and Oriental Religions”.

In Confucianism, we love our family more than others, and that is deemed right. Students are horrified about this. However, the Chinese only go a bit farther in this than most of us. It is easy to see how one would love his father more than someone else’s father; but here the son’s loyalty also means that, against a universal morality, he would truthfully reveal the sins of another, but conceal the sins of his father. Schopenhauer’s agapè is more universalistic than that. Against Immanuel Kant, though, it is a universalism of proportion.

Theories full of abstraction are just empty, according to Schopenhauer; and this includes Kant’s theory of universalist morality. Kant says that actions only take place if there is a sufficient motive, that this is a necessary law for all rational beings. Schopenhauer calls this lacking in any substance unless these motives are located in reality, viz. empirically traced to their biological sources. The species wants to procreate and therefore instils in the individuals something they take to be love.

Schopenhauer sees one criterium for selfless love: fellow-feeling when a sentient being is suffering. But this empathy will empirically be found to be stronger for someone closer of kin, or at least for those with whom we have had tangible relations, though it is conceived as kind of universal. Again anticipating the “selfish gene”, he sees self-sacrifice as ultimately selfish, or at least species-selfish.

Similarly, the Confucians made a moral discrimination opposing contiguous and far: we feel stronger for those closer to us than for those more removed. Kongzi’s follower Mengzi showed first of all that human beings are endowed with a natural fellow-feeling (ren). In his example, we feel motivated to intervene because of sympathy or compassion when we see a child on the verge of falling, and we feel this compassion without calculation. However, these higher, universally intended concepts have a lesser content, because empirically, we feel them less when a being farther removed from us is involved. So, Kongzi (Confucius) is clear that we can love another’s father but never as much as our own. So, this gradedness in compassion is common to both Schopenhauer and Confucianism.

Ryan was aware that the debate between Schopenhauer and the Kantians had also taken place in China itself, more than two thousand years earlier. Kongzi’s notion of graded sympathy was challenged by a philosopher called Mozi, who taught universal love (jain’ai). The arguments to and fro were very similar, and historically, the Confucian gradualist position had won.   



Dennis Vanden Auweele, from my alma mater, the Catholic University of Leuven, spoke about “Religious Love and Resignation”. He proposed to elucidate the notion “a pessimistic religion”,, and in particular Schopenhauer’s dictum that “the purpose of a religious doctrine is, to give a mythological cloak for truths inaccessible to the untutored mind”.

In Schopenhauer’s view (as well as that of many Enlightened intellectuals), philosophy is properly true, but fit only for the few; religion, by contrast, is only allegorically true, but is appropriate for the masses.

Vanden Auwele gave a survey of Schopenhauer’s assessment of the different religions. The philosopher was raised in Christian circles, and though he criticized Christian belief, he kept on evaluating it fairly approvingly. He especially approved of what he called “authentic Christianity”, by which he mean the New Testament, the doctrine of original sin (“the only thing that can reconcile me with the Old Testament”), Saint Augustine and mystics such as Eckhardt. Many people contrast really existing Christianity with some chosen part of Christian doctrine as the “real Christianity”. In the contemporary world, he knew Christianity in its Catholic and Protestant varieties. He considered Catholicism, like the ancient heresy of Pelagianism (which rejects eternal sin) as too optimistic, hence living in illusion, and essentially Pagan; Protestantism as degenerate and too rationalistic. In most respects, Judaism, Islam and “Paganism” (including pre-Vedic but excluding post-Vedic Hinduism) were too optimistic or world-affirming for his taste. By contrast, Buddhism and Upanishadic Brahmanism were in agreement with “authentic Christianity” that this world is a vale of tears from which men needs redemption. 

Schopenhauer believed in a radical separation of goodness from nature. From Protestantism, he inherited the notion (also existing in devotional Hinduism, unknown to him) that  what you do does not affect your status; only faith in God does. By contrast, Pelagianism and partly Catholicism is condemned for optimistically believing that your own works can “force” God to interfere on your behalf. Compassion and asceticism: these virtues lead to self-renunciation via the metaphysical acknowledgment of a mystical unity of reality. In “true” Christianity, all are children of the same father; in Brahmanism, all are of the same essence, one in Brahma. These two are characterized by love: Brahmanism by love of the real, authentic Christianity by God’s agapeic transcendent unconditional love. Judaism and Islam lack this love. Protestantism precludes the awareness of ultimate oneness by eschewing mysticism, while Pelagianism reduces the mysteries to banal intelligence. But above all, Schopenhauer found his pessimistic worldview in (or based it on) Buddhism.

He emphasized the allegorical nature of religion: it is not strictly true, but allegorically. When confronted with a mystery, we should not destroy it by projecting exegetic notions into it, for then only banality remains. Finally, faith is like love: it cannot be forced. It comes to you, you can’t go to it.



The remarkable thing about Arthur Schopenhauer is that he built such a large part of his philosophy on the Upanishads and Buddhism when these were as yet so little-known (around 1820). Only towards the end of his life did he master Sanskrit, so he had to make do with just a few translations. For the Upanishads, he used Anquetil Duperron’s French translation from a Persian translation of the original Sanskrit. Yet, his understanding of them was better than that of many later thinkers. (In the same period, Georg Hegel wrote a undoubtedly biased but fairly insightful commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita.) In this regard, Schopenhauer was the opposite of his admirer Friedrich Nietzsche, who in ca. 1880, in the heyday of German Orientalism, could have used many more translations and personally knew the famous Indologist Paul Deussen, yet relied on amateurs like Paul Jacolliot for the few references he made to Indian thought and society.

Schopenhauer fully acknowledged his Asian sources and never tried to hide these or to claim their ideas as his own. In that respect, he doesn’t seem to fit Rajiv Malhotra’s scheme of the “U-turn”. In this scheme, Westerners first learn from Indian masters, then progressively adopt the learned ideas as their own, and ultimately go and advertise them back in India as the latest intellectual contribution from the West. While Schopenhauer in person didn’t follow this pattern, his followers later kind of completed it. Nietzsche mentioned Schopenhauer a number of times, and the connection which contemporary scholars have made with Asian thought is largely due to Schopenhauer’s influence, but he is already very sparing in referring to Schopenhauer’s Asian sources. Most philosophers at the conference had studied him but not the Indian roots of his thought. 


desicontrarian said...

Incomparable level of discourse. Schopenhauer must have been there in spirit! Beautiful report by KE, whose writings, level of perception and feeling have become more and more spiritual.

ysv_rao said...

What of Schopenhauer's comments on women?
He didnt think too highly of them

Was this aspect discussed

Koenraad Elst said...

@Rao: Schopenhauer was in agreement with the Buddha on women, the guilty party for our birth into this vale of tears... No, serious, he merely laid down in writing what many men say about women over a beer. He thought that men only get enchanted by women through the effect of their sex hormones, but that when sobriety came back, men were disenchanted again. Well, that was his freedom of opinion.

अश्वमित्रः said...

[Schopenhauer fully acknowledged his Asian sources and never tried to hide these or to claim their ideas as his own.]

And yet that's precisely what they were, had he but known it:

"Schopenhauer, for his part, was convinced that our senses do not communicate material reality to us directly, but only through the distorting “lens” of subjective experience (vitiated by the will and, at the same time, failing to perceive the will for what it is). Throughout his mature works, he chose to describe the distorting aspect of subjectivity in pseudo-Hindu terminology (e.g., “the veil of Maya”) and also in pseudo-Buddhist terminology (derived from 19th century translations of Mahayana sources). Schopenhauer’s casual appropriation of ideas from ancient India and medieval China had tremendous influence upon European assumptions about Buddhism in the generations that followed. In a recent essay, Urs App has demonstrated that this reciprocal influence actually took place within Schopenhauer’s lifetime: the German philosopher’s innovations had already been ascribed to Buddhist sources in a textbook of 1856."