Introducing 'Decoding Schopenhauer's Metaphysics'


My new book, Decoding Schopenhauer's Metaphysics (DSM), is now available for pre-ordering from amazon UK and soon from other retailers as well. In this post, I want to give you a brief overview of the book, tell you why I wrote it and why I think it is important.

Introduction

After I finished The Idea of the World—over a year before the book was actually published—I started an effort to trace my ideas back to their historical predecessors and anchor them in the Western philosophical tradition. In regard to 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, I took it light at first and read Christopher Janaway's little book Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction. I describe this experience, and what happened next, in DSM:
In the many quotes of Schopenhauer’s works included in [Janaway's] book, I believed to discern—to my surprise—clear similarities with the metaphysics laid out in my own work. Naturally, I felt his points were compelling. Yet, Janaway peppered his book with criticisms of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. What he seemed to be making—or failing to make—of Schopenhauer’s words was quite different from what I thought to discern in them. Janaway saw problems and contradictions where I thought to see clarity, elegance and consistency. But since Janaway is the professed expert and I was just perusing quotes out of context, I initially suspected I was reading too much into them.

The only way to clarify the issue was to sink my teeth into Schopenhauer’s magnum opus: the two-volume, 1,200-page-long third edition of The World as Will and Representation [1859], in the same translation that Janaway himself used. ... In the ensuing months, I devoured the lengthy two-volume set, reading and re-reading it. I recognized in it numerous echoes and prefigurations of ideas I had labored for a decade to bring into focus. The kinship between my own work and what I was now reading was remarkable, down to details and particulars. Here was a famous 19th century thinker who had already figured out and communicated, in a clear and cogent manner, much of the metaphysics I had been working on. What better ally could I have found? And yet, bewilderingly to me, Schopenhauer’s “metaphysics has had few followers” (Janaway 2002: 40). Its utter failure to impact on our culture for the past 200 years is self-evident to even the most casual observer.
With DSM, I try to change this, for I think there is tremendous value in Schopenhauer's legacy for a 21st century readership, particularly in the modern context of quantum mechanics and the 'hard problem of consciousness':
I believe Schopenhauer’s most valuable legacy is precisely his metaphysical views: they anticipate salient recent developments in analytic philosophy, circumvent the insoluble problems of mainstream physicalism and constitutive panpsychism, and provide an avenue for making sense of the ontological dilemmas of quantum mechanics. ... Had the coherence and cogency of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics been recognized earlier, much of the underlying philosophical malaise that plagues our culture today—with its insidious effects on our science, cultural ethos and way of life—could have been avoided. (emphasis added)
In the book,
I offer a conceptual framework—a decoding key—for interpreting Schopenhauer’s metaphysical arguments in a way that renders them mutually consistent and compelling. With this key in mind, it is my hope that even those who have earlier dismissed Schopenhauer’s metaphysics will be able to return to it with fresh eyes and at last unlock its sense.

Value-add

A perfectly legitimate and good question that can be asked of a book about someone else's writings has been put forward by a participant of my discussion forum:
I never understood why would anyone read a book about a book wrote by someone else. ... why not just read the original and use your own mind to decide what the author wanted to say? ... why bother with third parties and not just read the original?
I replied to him by stating that, with DSM, I think I can help to

  1. disambiguate Schopenhauer's conceptually-loose terminology usage;
  2. clarify his argument under the light of modern psychology;
  3. place his ideas in the context of quantum mechanics, inexistent at his time;
  4. relate his discourse to modern issues emerging in ontology and philosophy of mind, which were also inexistent at his time;
  5. summarize and bring together his contentions in a coherent framework articulated in modern language, which people today can easily relate to.
All this said, I do think the best is indeed to read Schopenhauer's own words, if people are willing to face them: Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation alone has 1,200+ very dense pages in tiny fonts, written in an accessible but old-fashioned style. Because I suspect that most people don't have the time or the interest to plow through that, I felt an alternative would be valuable, for I want to make Schopenhauer's thought available to them too. DSM has only 144 pages and costs a fraction of Schopenhauer's original. After reading it, if their curiosity is piqued, the more interested readers can approach Schopenhauer himself with a solid basis for making sense of his words.

Goals

I have two main goals with DSM:
on the one hand, I aim to rehabilitate and promote Schopenhauer’s metaphysics by offering an interpretation of it that resolves its apparent contradictions and unlocks the meaning and coherence of its constituent ideas. On the other hand—and on a more self-serving note—I hope to show that my own metaphysical position, as articulated in my earlier works, isn’t peculiar or merely fashionable, but part instead of an established, robust and evolving chain of thought in Western philosophy.

Polemic

A key element in achieving both goals is my refutations—elaborated upon in detail in DSM—of present-day criticisms and misrepresentations of Schopenhauer's metaphysics, which unfortunately are rampant in academia. As a philosopher who has produced original work myself, the idea of my own writings being one day subjected to the kind of disfiguration and outright abuse suffered by Schopenhauer, at the hands of presumed experts, makes me sick. My sympathy for Schopenhauer compels me to try and improve the standing of his work.

Unfortunately, instead of producing original work of their own, some scholars in academia choose to make a career out of (mis)representing and criticizing dead philosophers' works. That these philosophers are no longer around to defend themselves seems to give license to the scholars in question to pass their own interpretative difficulties for errors on the part of the late philosophers; errors one wouldn't attribute even to a high-school student today. In other words, some critics seem to mistake their own intellectual obtuseness for (completely implausible) shortcomings in the argument of the philosophers they criticize. By presumptuously portraying themselves as intellectually superior, these critics perhaps feel that the recognition hard-earned by their targets—thanks to the latter's original work—rubs off on them.

Christopher Janaway characterizes Schopenahuer's metaphysical contentions as "something ridiculous" or "merely embarrassing," which should be "dismissed as fanciful" if interpreted in the way Schopenhauer clearly intended them to be. He claims that "Schopenhauer seems to stumble into a quite elementary difficulty" in an important passage of his argument. And so on. The freedom Janaway allows himself to bash Schopenhauer, and the arrogant, disrespectful tone with which he does it, are breathtaking. It is so easy to bash a dead man who can't defend himself, isn't it?

Ironically, all this actually accomplishes is to betray the utter failure of Janaway's attempt to grok Schopenhauer. Indeed, his apparent inability to comprehend even the most basic points Schopenhauer makes, and to think within the logic and premises of Schopenhauer's argument, is nothing short of stunning. Here is someone who just doesn't get it at all, and yet feels entitled not only to write books about Schopenhauer; not only to characterize Schopenhauer's argument as "ridiculous," "embarassing" and "fanciful" (Oh, the irony!); but even to edit Schopenhauer's own works! By now Schopenhauer has not only turned in his grave, but strangled himself to a second death.

Even more peculiar is Janaway's suggestion that it is Schopenhauer who is obtuse, for the "elementary difficulties" Janaway attributes to him couldn't be seriously attributed even to a high-school student today, let alone a renowned philosopher. At no point does Janaway seem to stop, reflect and ponder the glaringly obvious possibility that perhaps Schopenhauer does know what he is talking about and it is him (Janaway) who just doesn't get it. Instead, he portrays Schopenhauer as an idiot; how precarious, silly and conceited. He even accuses Schopenhauer of crass materialism, despite Schopenhauer's repeated ridiculing of materialism and the fact that Schopenhauer's whole argument consistently refutes it in unambiguous terms. I discuss all this in detail in DSM. Here it shall suffice to observe that, to be an expert on anything, it takes more than just study; for if one can't actually understand what one is studying, no amount of scholarly citations will turn vain nonsense into literature.

I richly substantiate my criticism of Janaway in DSM: I carefully take his contentions apart, while clarifying Schopenhauer's points in a way that should be clearly understandable even to Janaway. So if you think I am exaggerating in this post, please peruse DSM: it can be leisurely read in a weekend or, with focus, in a single sitting, so it won't cost you much time at all to see whether I actually have a valid point.

Tackling other misrepresentations

Amazingly, some attribute dual-aspect monism to Schopenhauer. Indeed, as of this writing, Wikipedia listed his metaphysics as an instance thereof. I can only imagine two reasons for such a vulgar misunderstanding: either one has read only the title of Schopenhauer's main work (The World as Will and Representation) and arrived at conclusions from it alone, or one doesn't actually know what dual-aspect monism means. Again, I elaborate much more in DSM.

Conclusions

Despite all this, DSM isn't primarily about polemics and refuting misunderstandings and misrepresentations, even though it is about that too. Primarily, it is about elucidating, in a concise and easily-accessible manner, Schopenhauer's extraordinary and sophisticated ideas on the nature of mind and reality; ideas whose plausibility, explanatory power and importance have only increased over the past two centuries. Schopenhauer's work is a veritable metaphysical treasure that deserves much more recognition than it has gotten. Even more importantly, we, 21st-century readers, deserve the gift Schopenhauer has left us as inheritance.

Sometimes, those who preceded us weren't just naive and ignorant, 'primitive' versions of ourselves—as some scholars conceitedly seem to think—but in fact saw farther than most of us do today (including scholars). We ignore and dismiss them at our own peril.
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8 comments:

  1. Great! "Then, if their curiosity if piqued" I suspect is a typo.

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  2. Wow, I'm in! This promises to be a fiery read. Many thanks for this welcome addition to an already exceptional library of books on idealism.

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  3. Schopenhauer's thinking was a substantial part of the edifice for Albert Schweitzer's elemental, universal ethic of reverence for life. I applaud Bernardo for his attempt to resurrect Schopenhauer's vital but difficult work. For those interested in seeing what Schweitzer did with Schopenhauer, how Schweitzer was able to ground moral values in Schopenhauer's foundational "will-to-live," Schweitzer's "Philosophy of Civilization" awaits those who dive into and enjoy digesting Bernardo's DSM.

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  4. I look forward to this book. I felt the same way about Berkeley after reading some of his actual writings.

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  5. I have been reading thru that huge masterpiece of Schopenhauer this year (though did not finish it, yet) and found it quite crystal clear when compared to other German contemporary idealists (such as Hegel, Schelling, etc.), especially if you are familiar with Kant's epistemology. I definitely agree his ideas are very much appropriate today considering the problems and metaphysical crisis of cognitive (neuro)sciences...

    Looking forward to your book; I wish it would be released earlier though.

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