Implications of Schopenhauer’s Aesthetic Theory

Last night I returned from a very productive philosophy conference at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia (just outside Hotlanta) where I gave the following paper on Schopenhauer’s aesthetic theory. Thus far I am at a very preliminary stage in my thoughts on how this theory could work practically speaking, but the following contains my most refined thoughts on the matter.

Arthur Schopenhauer, in his argument for philosophical pessimism based on the eternally frustrated and suffering will, outlined three paths for escape from the terrible nature of the world: the aesthetic experience, the path of holiness, and ascetic negation of the world. Although he placed the highest value on ascetic negation, the aesthetic experience is the most sublime of Schopenhauer’s paths to salvation, for the subject is able to exist within the world but beyond its suffering by contemplating various sensory objects aesthetically, in terms of their beauty. However, Schopenhauer considered this experience to be only a “momentary salvation,” and so its utility in the moment is tempered by long stretches of unremitting suffering.

By contrast, I will argue that the “momentary salvation” from the will found in the aesthetic experience is anything but, and that it is possible to maintain the experience not as a singular moment, but as an almost continuous state of being. By reevaluating the objects of desire, as well as abandoning the value judgments attendant upon them, the idea of beauty may be broadened to potentially include any sensory object. Further, by desiring a state of no desire, and thus abandoning a concern over the ends of actions, the willing subject is able to exist in a state of disinterest concerning the world around him. Through these reconceptualizations, the individual subject may exist in a primed state where each object is beautiful and thus a potential catalyst for the aesthetic experience. A succession of aesthetic experiences will then wash over him, making it possible to exist joyously in the world.

Before moving on to the aesthetic experience itself, it is necessary to draw a brief sketch of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and his argument for philosophical pessimism, which must be distinguished from the mental state of pessimism as such. The argument for pessimism relies on the metaphysical necessity of the Will. This Schopenhauer conceives of as the “thing-in-itself,” a primal force that simply exists, free of the constraints of space, time, causality, and the principle of sufficient reason, which “requires us to acknowledge that there is no fact or truth which lacks a sufficient reason why it should be so, and not otherwise.” It is useful to think of the Will as an ocean, for it is groundless, without reason or explanation, and consequently perfectly spontaneous and free. It is an ocean of “becoming,” for being unlimited by logical, temporal, and spatial restraints, it lacks the basic criteria which enable definition and the existence of “being” in the phenomenological sense.

All things that exist are like waves being sent up by this illimitable sea, as instantiations of the Will at once distinct from but also intimately connected with it, for just like waves, the Will’s subsidiary instantiations are separate but simultaneously connected by being individual aspects of the Will on one hand, and being subsumed within its totalizing force on the other. Once the Will has created individual instantiations, these objects lose all the unbounded characteristics of the Will as thing-in-itself: they are subordinated to the principle of sufficient reason; they do exist in the realm of space, time, and causality; and they do exist in a deterministic framework. This is what Schopenhauer refers to as a “representation.”

Every representation has what Schopenhauer calls a “double aspect,” the distinction between the body, both as a third-person object, and as an individual instantiation of the Will as a first person subject. All representations exist as objects when viewed by others, but they are also capable of viewing themselves as subjects. This faculty inheres in all representations in various degrees, with a hierarchy stretching from inanimate objects like stones at the bottom, to human beings at the top, separated only by the degree of knowledge each possesses. For example, the stone is inert, mindless will; the bacterium strives for its existence, but blindly and without knowledge; the animal strives with some degree of cognizance, but without any sort of reflexive intelligence; and so it is only the man that is the full embodiment of knowledge and will, and is capable of understanding both his own objectification, and recognizing it in others.

The Will does this solely because it is the pure essence of lack. Precisely because it is unbounded by any constraint, it is perennially frustrated – it eternally desires being from becoming, and as such sends up representations of itself in order to fulfill this primal lack. However, the Will only succeeds in transferring its basic frustration to its subsidiary instantiations, which are imperfectly objectified manifestations of the Will. As aspects of being, their desires embodied and can be fulfilled through interaction with other representations, but the ability to fulfill desire initiates a cycle defined by desire-satisfaction-desire again, and thus all willing “springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering.” Because of this, there can never be any true, lasting satisfaction, for in fulfilling these incessant demands of the personalized will we attain a “final satisfaction [that is] itself only apparent; the wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one; the former is a known delusion, the latter a delusion not as yet known.” Every act of willing merely perpetuates the will, thereby ensuring that a single satisfying moment will inevitably fade and give way to dissatisfaction, making lasting happiness impossible.

The only way to attain lasting peace would be to step outside the constraints of the Will. This is hardly possible, because in seeking to transcend your own will you are engaged in an act of willing, and even if you were capable of fully escaping your own will, you would still be a manifestation of the Will as thing-in-itself, thus violating the Law of the Excluded Middle. There can be no permanent respite from the Will, no peace from its desires, because “as long as our consciousness is filled by our will, so long as we are given up to the throng of desires with its constant hopes and fears, so long as we are the subject of willing, we never obtain lasting happiness or peace.” Without lasting peace, there cannot be lasting happiness. What Schopenhauer concludes from this is that, because enjoyment is only fleeting, and one can never obtain true peace, the only logical conclusion is that happiness is really impossible. Pessimism, as the acceptance of these conclusions, becomes the only logical viewpoint available.

The Aesthetic Experience

However, there are opportunities, at times, to seemingly escape the will. Schopenhauer explains that when an “external sense or inward disposition raises us out of the endless stream of willing, and snatches knowledge from the thralldom of will, the attention is now no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will.” When you as the knower experience art, you become such that you are a will-less, timeless, painless, disinterested knower, with all objects of contemplation “given up in so far as they are merely representations, and not as motives.” If you get to this state, you experience a calm and quiet state, the “essential ingredients of happiness.” When you see something of incredible beauty, you are caught up in it and forget your anxieties. And then what happens? Your stomach growls and the spell is broken, because the will and its objectification gets in the way. The disinterested subject is not disinterested in the object of contemplation, but in the needs arising from the imperfectly objectified will, his own body. The only way to escape the will is through brief, transient immersion in the beauty of the moment. The germ for the end of this immersion is contained in the moment itself, which is by nature transient, and which will end in time. This is what Schopenhauer defines as the “aesthetic experience.”

In formal terms, when engaged in contemplating an external object in the aesthetic experience, the subject undergoes a startling metamorphosis, whereby he transforms from a particular, subjective knower to the pure, will-less subject of knowing: “a pure intelligence without aims or intentions.” By letting the aesthetic experience take hold of him, the individual subject begins to transcend the principle of sufficient reason, in that the “where, when, why and whither” in things is disregarded in favor of the “what” – objects are viewed as their essential “objectness,” (the “appleness” of an apple, say), as Will-in-itself, distinct from the striving instantiations of will in the world as representation. The knower transitions from being subordinate to the principle of sufficient reason to being a pure contemplator of Ideas, a “faithful mirror of objects,” and thus paving the way for the pure object as Idea.

When the object itself goes from a particular substance to the Idea of that substance, the “complete objectification of the will takes place, for only the Idea is the adequate objectivity of the will,” and thus the Will-in-itself is revealed to the subject. This occurs when the will qua imagination is enveloped in a largely spontaneous experience, becoming passively untethered from the grasping will, but without losing either its activity or its perception. The object, as “nothing but the representation of the subject,” passively unites with the subject, both equally coming under the purview of the Idea. When subject and object are in complete equanimity, having “filled and penetrated each other completely,” only the true world as will is left standing . This is not only the union of subject and object in the contemplation of the universal Idea, but also the union of subject with the Idea-in-itself, or the Will. For, in contemplation, the will acts as the thing-in-itself of both Idea and the particular knower, objectifying them completely. Without the object to contemplate, the knower is just the summation of his desiring impulses, and without the knower to contemplate it, the object is just inert will. By becoming enveloped in the aesthetic experience, the knower becomes one with the Will-in-itself.

Because the will drops out in the aesthetic experience, and thus the whole cycle of willing itself, the experience becomes a salvation from the “slings and arrows” that so predominate in life. When absorbed by the experience, the individual subject is temporarily one with the Will-in-itself, which is latent, passive; there is no longer a need to act in the world, and the cycle of willing is temporarily broken. But, because the demands of the will inevitably encroach on the experience, the individual subject eventually must be divorced from the Will-in-itself, and return to fully inhabit the world as representation. That is why, for Schopenhauer, the salvation is only momentary.

The Aesthetic Experience as Everyday

All forms of salvation involve the disappearance, or negation of, the will. Schopenhauer argues that the world must be negated because, being full of suffering, it is evil. He judges what the world is as immoral, and argues that because it is immoral, we as moral agents must remove ourselves from it is far as we can. Asceticism is the highest path to salvation for him, because in essence it is a negation of desire and thus of the evil of the world. Yet, in a world axiomatically rooted in desire, there is no real way to escape desire – even negation of desires as in asceticism is still a desire to negate. It is a conundrum for him to demand that the subject both live in the world as a willing being, while also attempting to negate the willed world by the very act of willing itself.

This drive to nihilism is destructive and ultimately impossible; the only other option is to affirm life, and if operating within Schopenhauer’s framework, the only way to do this is by engaging in the aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience seems to offer only a momentary salvation, but this is only because the experience is dependent on beauty, which is itself dependent on the biases of the individual knower. What is traditionally considered beautiful – a particularly glorious morning, or a gorgeous piece of art, what Schopenhauer calls the beautiful and the sublime respectively – is too narrow a category. By redefining what is beautiful to potentially include all objects, the knower becomes predisposed to having an aesthetic experience with almost anything. When existing in this primed state where all is beautiful, it becomes possible to have back-to-back aesthetic experiences.

This is certainly possible, for in assigning humanity a double-aspect, as objectified will and subjectified self, Schopenhauer has provided for this contingency in his own philosophy. For the individual human agent is, by virtue of being a subjectified manifestation of the will in his very essence as an agent, the only one capable of moving his objectified body towards or away from some sensory object. Not only this, according to Schopenhauer, “existence and perceptibility are convertible terms.” Every representation in the world besides myself exists only as an object, and this object’s characteristics are entirely structured within space, time, causality, and the principle of sufficient reason; namely, “the whole of this world is… [the] perception of the perceiver.” Because all sensory objects are structured by our own minds, it is feasible that our own minds are able to reevaluate and reinterpret these sensory objects. Thus removing the influence of sensory desires and aversions begins with the agent himself, in a conscious effort at reconceptualization. Each individual has different desires, different biases towards and against certain things, and all of these are certainly a product of subjective experience. If they are a product of subjective experience, it possible that they can be changed by further subjective experience.

Everyone has likely had the experience of finding something particularly delightful, a song, a book, a certain food, and then later, inexplicably, found it dreadful and never thought about it again. By contrast, someone may hate the taste of, say, avocados and then grow to love them later in life. Both scenarios involve reformulating a judgment related to a sense object, either a book or an avocado, on a conscious level. More importantly, things that once called up intense responses and emotions may inevitably cool to a state of indifference. It is certain that everyone has had the experience of being angry, and over time the anger cooled until it was as if nothing had happened. The question is, what was it that precipitated this change from intense emotion to placidity? The objectified body cannot act on its own, but is impelled solely by the subjectified will, so it must be some aspect of the will as such which moves a person from anger to calmness, or from like to dislike, and vice versa.

Indeed, it must be asked here how judgments are made at all. To a great extent the sensory organs structure the phenomenological world that we operate in, but it is not the eye that sees or the ears that hear, it is the mind. When contemplating an external object in the ordinary way, (that is, in relation to one’s will ) we are confronted with sense impressions that are then structured by our minds into images, sounds, et cetera. Depending on our disposition, we are likely to judge these impressions as good, bad, or possibly indifferent. The smell of ice cream, or of excrement, would likely be classified as good or bad respectively, while the sight of a red car versus a blue car likely as indifferent. Thus, the perception of an objective representation is closely tied up with the judgment concerning that representation. This is even more intuitional when we consider interpersonal relations: our own mother may be incredibly dear to us, but to anyone else on the street she is simply another woman walking by. In both cases, she is the same person, but how she is judged greatly changes the perception.

Insofar as this is a conscious process, we are able to change our judgments of objective representations at will. Because perception is frequently bound up with judgment, neutrality in perception is contingent on eliminating most value judgments. It is proper to consider our own mother to be valuable, but it is tenuous to claim a preference of a blue car over a red car is equally so. Such a value judgment is entirely subjective and changes according to the individual perceiver. Not only is a value judgment simply a subjective assessment of the goodness or badness of an objective representation relative to our own will, it is also an appraisal that this objective representation ought to be something – the red car ought to be blue to suit my preference – and so it is completely bound up with desires and aversions. Because beauty is just a value judgment about how some object ought to appear aesthetically, by abandoning subjective judgment concerning the beauty of an objective representation, everything is equally beautiful in a world where the very idea of “beauty” itself is valueless. Taken to its logical extremity, with this abandonment the world is transformed from a realm of differing sensory objects to one of supreme indifference, each object being equivalent with the next.

Beyond altering the objects of desire and aversion, it is possible to stymie desire itself through denying the will its aspect as something eternally lacking and desiring to fulfill this lack. However, if Schopenhauer’s metaphysical basis for pessimism is granted, the desire which continually perpetuates the cycle of lack is inescapable. Instead, the highest goal must be to divest the will from intelligence entirely, for if intelligence is completely freed from the constraints of the will, it will be able to comprehend all objects indifferently. Indeed, this is what occurs in the aesthetic experience and allows for peaceful contemplation of the world. Schopenhauer considers the intellect, in comparison to the will, “variable, limited, [quick to] tire, and its judgments are subject to manipulations by matters of will like fright, fear, hope, love and hatred… for ‘what goes against the heart, the head does not let in.’”

To approach this goal, one cannot deny the will, but must instead reformulate its goals and its methods. Though it is impossible to escape desire entirely, it is possible to escape the eternal cycle of desire-satisfaction-desire again by assenting to a desire for no desire at all. In some senses this is little different from asceticism, in that it involves some sort of denial of the will. However, it cannot be more stressed that this is not a suppression of the will, but merely its redirection from one form of desiring to another. Because the willing subject must desire a complete lack of desire, but this is ontologically impossible for the subject as a will, there can be no satisfaction at all, only this singular desire continually perpetuating itself. As a representation, the subject is able to fulfill its desires, if only for a little while, by its interactions with other representations. However, because the desire for no desire cannot lead to any fulfillment, the eternal cycle is broken, because only an additional desire may recapitulate the cycle.

It may be remarked at this point that the subject is now, in some ways, merely equivalent with the aspect of the Will-in-itself as an eternally grasping, perpetually unfulfilled entity. The utility of desiring no desire, if this only leads to a different type of dissatisfaction, would certainly be suspect. Further, pursuing the desire for no desire does not negate the need to pursue various other desires: the desire to eat, to sleep, to procreate, et cetera will certainly not go away even in the single-minded pursuit of one goal.

The idea of no desire is an ideal. It can never be a reality, because to live is to desire. Along with the imperative to dissociate oneself from all desires save no desire is the concomitant need to dissociate oneself from concern over the ends of all desires. This outcome follows naturally from the pursuit of no desire, for any desire or aversion can be conceived of as the state of wanting something to be different. Hunger is the desire to return to satiety, fear is the aversion from a frightening stimulus, et cetera, and so to have no desire is not to desire something to be different. To desire nothing to be different is not to care whether something changes or stays the same, or whether an action which you do fails or succeeds, and thus to have no desire implies to have no concern over the outcomes of your actions.

This ultimately necessitates a split between the subjective inner self and the objective body, or more accurately, between the concerns of the will with its intelligence and sense, and the concerns of the body with its brute desires. Abandoning concern over the outcomes of desire does not eliminate desire itself, for it is perfectly possible to desire a ham sandwich and be simultaneously unperturbed when a ham sandwich does not come. Rather, to eschew concern over the outcomes of desire means to have real, visceral concern over the inward desires within the subjectified self, but a lack of concern over the outward manifestations of those desires by the body.

By maintaining the subject-object distinction, the subject is able to divorce his inward desires from the outward realization of those desires, i.e. the desire itself from the end goal of the desire. An implication of this is that value judgments, which are simply subjective assessments of the world and how it ought to be, no longer are grounded in a desire which seeks something to be different. Rather, one may have an inner value judgment that a ham sandwich is delicious and superior to a turkey sandwich, but it is a meaningless distinction, as either receiving the ham or the turkey sandwich would be met impassively. To live without value judgments at all is absurd, because everyone has preferences for certain things over others. However, it is eminently possible to live without concern over whether those value judgments are adhered to in reality. From this, everything may be viewed dispassionately, every outcome as an equivalent outcome, and so every desire is both equal and meaningless.

Much like the constant pursuit of no desire, by simply maintaining desire without either satisfaction or defeat, the subject is reduced to feeling a sense of neutrality, and thus of peace. Instead of prizing the end result of an action, the subject values above all the mindset that is detached from inward desires and aversions and does not seek ends, but only attempts to do what is proper according to his own interior value judgments. That is, the subject acts and wills with internal interest over the object of willing, without the attendant desire that his willing reach his desired outcome. He acts out of disinterest, and although he is actively engaged in the processes of the world, he can be best described as doing that which he believes to be right, without seeking its fruit.

By abandoning desire over the end results of action, all the subject’s actions are reduced to eternal flux, and so become meaningless by definition. The subject must desire and will in order to exist, but if the ends of the actions are of no account and the actions are meaningless, it becomes possible to acknowledge that the suffering within the world as representation is real and viscerally important, without the constant inward suffering brought on by active engagement with the desires that birth them. In other words, by abandoning the desire over outcomes, the subject also abandons value judgments simultaneously. Without such judgments, the subject is able to view the world as a child views it – not dispassionately when it comes to processes, but dispassionately when it comes to outcomes. As the child rushes from thing to thing, toying with it until his interest wanes and then moving on, not playing in order to accomplish anything but playing for the sake of playing itself, so too must the subject view the objects of the world as his playthings.

The aesthetic experience is passive, but it washes over a person because that person is already primed to viewing an object aesthetically by his own desires and biases. To be able to view the world as entirely aesthetic, the idea of beauty must lose these individual notions of what is and is not beautiful, and thus the desires and biases beauty is based on must change. Because beauty is just a value judgment about how some object ought to appear aesthetically, by abandoning this subjective judgment, everything is equally beautiful in a world where the very idea of “beauty” itself is valueless. In doing so, the subject is able to comprehend sensory objects without a constrained notion of beauty, and thus a constrained pool of triggers for the aesthetic experience. By desiring no desire, and by lacking the attendant concern for ends that accompanies desires or the value judgments that structure desire, the subject cannot be compelled to desire one object over another, or avoid one object over another. The world is then reduced to just being – an existence without meaning because it is without a value judgment over what that meaning ought to be. All representations are equally perceived through the lens of disinterest, and so through willing the subject is able to avoid the usual concerns of desire and aversion which make the aesthetic experience impossible. From this, back-to-back aesthetic experiences become possible.


In the aesthetic experience, the disinterested subject is not disinterested in the object of contemplation, but in the needs arising from the imperfectly objectified will, his own body. The only way to escape the will is, seemingly, through brief, transient immersion in the beauty of the moment. Yet the entire world as representation can be aesthetic in nature. Why is it, then, that a sunset, or Yosemite Falls, or a painting by El Greco, is any more aesthetically pleasing than a colony of ants, or a pile of excrement? The transience of the aesthetic experience is to be found not in the experience itself, but in the arrogation of the experience to those things considered aesthetically pleasing. By broadening the scope of the aesthetic experience to include the whole of the world of representation, and their corresponding Ideas outside of the realm of perception, it becomes possible to appreciate everything aesthetically and thus transform “momentary salvation” into a state of permanent being.

The aesthetic experience represents Schopenhauer’s most optimistic pathway on the road to salvation, for it is a full-throated acceptance of Will-in-itself. By tapping into the Idea, which is a pure objectification of the will, the knower is in turn embracing not the world itself, but the seed which contains the world, for by the principle of individuation each Idea is subdivided into the infinity of particulars that constitute the world as representation. The world is seen in a meaningful way that is outside the ordinary, instrumental use of objects in the world as representation. One cannot hope to escape the demands of the will when one exists in that will, by denying life or the rapacious desires of the ego, but by truly and fully embracing the pure Will-in-itself.

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