Tuesday, April 5, 2005

What is it

Arthur Schopenhauer, the great Nineteenth Century philosopher, had a pessimistic vision of the world as "will and idea.” Our will to survive serves no high purpose; the world is at best a shared illusion.   Schopenhauer influenced Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and inspired our guest, prominent psychiatrist Irv Yalom, to write the novel The Schopenhauer Cure. What truths, metaphysical or psychological, can we wrest from Schopenhauer's gloomy vision?

Listening Notes

Schopenhauer was part of the school known as German idealism, following Kant and Hegel. One of his main themes was that the world was idea, that is, it is a mental phenomenon that everyone shares. Schopenhauer thought we could know the nature of reality, the will, because we are part of it. He was greatly influenced by Indian religion and philosophy. He thought the will was exemplified in cycles of boredom and desire. Even so, he played the flute everyday after dinner.

Ken introduces Doctor Irving Yalom, psychologist and author of The Schopenhauer Cure. How was Schopenhauer's pessimism related to his philosophical views? Yalom tells us that Schopenhauer was a negative person throughout his life. Does the world being an illusion entail that life is suffering? Either way, the idea that the world is a mere illusion is unsettling. Yalom points out several similarities between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: both embraced the inevitability of death, neither had religious beliefs, both closely examined life.

Ken poses the question: suppose we take Schopenhauer's advice seriously and try to quell all our desires? If the first humans overcame all their desires, then the species would have ended. That's bad. But, John counters, who is it bad for? Maybe it isn't that bad. Is there a split between human activity and nature? Schopenhauer thought not because human activity was part of nature. It is not much of a reconciliation between the human activity and nature. His views were more of a reduction of man to nature. Where does value come from if man just is part of nature and nature is cold and unfeeling, lacking any intrinsic value? Ken proposes that we make value. Nature does not provide it.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:58): Amy Standen talks to Professor Lanier Anderson of Stanford University about Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche. 
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:46): Ian Shoales gives a biography of Arthur Schopenhauer.

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Irv Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Stanford University

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