Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788-1860)

Christopher Young and Andrew Brook

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher and one of the major inheritors of the Kantian tradition. After a disappointed attempt at academic life, Schopenhauer removed himself from the academic community and, supported by independent wealth, devoted himself to reading voraciously (in seven languages) and writing. Schopenhauer's notable pessimism was at least partly the result of a bitterly unhappy relationship with his mother, whose fame as a novelist overshadowed him for many years. His father is likely to have committed suicide.

Schopenhauer produced his only major work while still in his twenties, The World As Will and Representation (1819). He never departed from the substance of this work, though he added a second volume to it in a second edition of 1844 (all references will be to this edition in the original pagination) and published a third volume of essays carrying the argument further in 1851, Parerga and Paralipomena. Prior to the publication of these essays and despite producing a masterpiece as a young man, Schopenhauer had been ignored. With the publication of these essays, he became one of the most widely read authors in the German-speaking world and beyond. This fame continued for the next fifty years or so.

The World As Will and Representation begins with the observation that the world is a representation, that is, that one "does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees the sun, a hand that feels an earth; ... the world ... is there only as representation." (1844, 1, p. 3) For Schopenhauer, this is one of the two fundamental perspectives. The other, which is more important to us here, is the will. The will is fundamental; it underlies and animates everything which we would call the objective world. We can know something of this will by being aware of our own volition. Our volition is a limited manifestation of the same will from which the entire objective world arises.

Schopenhauer's analysis of the will reveals a remarkably sophisticated insight into human psychology. The will, which is largely unconscious, manifests itself most notably in sexual desire; sexual drive "springs from the depths of our nature" (1844, 2, p. 511).

The sex-relation ... is really the invisible central point of all action and conduct, and peeps up everywhere in spite of all the veils thrown over it. It is ... the basis of the serious and the aim of the joke, the inexhaustible source of wit, the key to all allusions...; it is the daily meditation of the young and often the old as well, the hourly thought of the unchaste, and even against their will the constantly recurring imagination of the chaste, the ever ready material for a joke, just because the profoundest seriousness lies at its root. (1844, 2, p. 513, translation slightly modified).

We see here a deep-running anticipation of Freud's views on the universality of sexuality in human motivation. Again like Freud, Schopenhauer claimed that this influence is for the most part unrecognized.

Schopenhauer also anticipated Freud in his view of the relationship between the unconscious will and the intellect. The will creates the intellect to serve its interests. The intellect is therefore secondary and subordinate to the will and has no motives of its own. Indeed, the intellect "must surprise the will in the act of expressing itself, in order merely to discover its real intentions." (1844, 2, p. 210).

Schopenhauer's argument for the existence of the unconscious also anticipates Freud. Like Freud, he argued that consciousness is fragmentary. If so and if mental life has coherent psychological causes at all, these causes must be unconscious. Such observations led him to a strikingly original reevaluation of the importance of consciousness in general.

Anticipations of Freud can also be found in Schopenhauer's reflections on the causes of madness. He himself applied his account to what we would now call psychosis or severe affective disorder. As an account of the etiology of major psychiatric illness, it is not very plausible. Taken as a theory of neurosis, however, it anticipates Freud's first theory of neurosis in the most remarkable way. Schopenhauer locates the source of madness not in a simple inability to connect to reality but rather in memory (1819, 1, p. 192). He bases this view on substantial empirical evidence. For many years, he regularly visited insane asylums to observe and talk to the patients. He found that in some of these patients, memory is preserved, but in others "the thread of memory" is broken by traumata. Where the traumata has been strong enough to destroy an individual, the mind defends itself by destroying the thread of memory and "fills up the gaps with fictions." (1819, 1, p. 193)

Thus, not only did Schopenhauer anticipate Freud's view that `hysterics suffer from reminiscences', he also saw the essentials of what Freud later came to call defense mechanisms, the mechanisms that troubled people use to deal with memories. Indeed, we can recognize both repression and resistance in Schopenhauer's discussion; he even used the German terms for them. And behind his picture is another prescient idea: that madness is not the result of neurological breakdown; it is a motivated though unconscious technique for coping.

We can find other anticipations. Schopenhauer takes the first steps toward the clinical insight that it is therapeutic to bring unconscious thoughts to consciousness, arguing that they are thereby deprived of their power. He also developed a detailed theory of dreams, one that has extensive parallels with Freud's later account, and urged that following trains of associations is a valuable technique for restoring the thread of recollection. Finally, there is Schopenhauer's argument that the behaviour of the mad is analogous to everyday psychological mechanisms for banishing unpleasant thoughts. Thus, Schopenhauer even had insights into the `psychopathology of everyday life'.

These anticipations naturally lead one to ask about the nature and extent of Schopenhauer's influence on Freud. The answer is not entirely clear. Prior to 1914, Freud made a few references to Schopenhauer, especially in Interpretation of Dreams (1900), but not many. In 1914, having been showed a passage from Schopenhauer by Rank, Freud explicitly acknowledged Schopenhauer as a forerunner of psychoanalysis but claimed that he had only read him late in life.

The theory of repression quite certainly came to me independently of any other source; I know of no outside impression which might have suggested it to me and for a long time I imagined it to be entirely original, until Otto Rank ... showed us a passage in Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation in which the philosopher seeks to give an explanation of insanity. What he says there about the struggle against accepting a distressing piece of reality coincides with my concept of repression so completely that once again I owe the chance of making a discovery to my not being well read [1914a, p. 15].

Even if is true that Freud did not read Schopenhauer till late in life, the cultural milieu in which Freud grew up had been saturated with Schopenhauer. Freud could not have escaped his influence. Freud's most influential teachers knew Schopenhauer well and a book that Freud is known to have studied carefully, Von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious, was devoted to developing Schopenhauer's psychological insights. In short, the evidence that Freud had been influenced by Schopenhauer is very strong, his own claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Further reading:

Ellenberger, H. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Words of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

Freud, S. (1914). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Words of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1957.

Gardiner, P. (1963). Schopenhauer. Great Britain: Penguin Books.

Gupta, R. (1980). Freud and Schopenhauer. In: Michael Fox, ed. Schopenhauer: His Philosophical Achievement. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books.

Hartmann, E. v. (1869). Philosophy of the Unconscious: Speculative Results according to the Inductive method of Physical Science. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1931.

Kaiser-Al-Safti, M. K. (1987). Der Nachdenker: Die Entstehung der Metapsychologie Freuds in ihrer Abhaengigkeit von Schopenhauer und Freud. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann.

Magee, B. (1989). The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. New York: Oxford University Press.

McGrath, W. (1986). The Politics of Hysteria: Freud's Discovery of Psychoanalysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Proctor-Greg, N. (1956). Schopenhauer and Freud. Psychoanal. Q. 25, 197-214.

Schopenhauer, A. (1819). The World As Will And Representation, Volume 1. Trans. E. F. J. Payne. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.

Schopenhauer, A. (1844). The World As Will And Representation, Volume 2. Trans. E. F. J. Payne. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.

Schopenhauer, A. (1851). Essay on spirit seeing and everything connected therewith, in: Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 1. Trans. E. F. J. Payne. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Young, C. and Brook, A. (1994) Schopenhauer and Freud. Internat. J. of Psychoanal. Vol. 75, 101-118.