occultural studies column

Philosophical Doomcore

By Eugene Thacker, 24 January 2012
Image: Arthur Schopenhauer


Objectively pessimistic or just plain grouchy? Schopenhauer’s ethics, which threw out positive conceptions of freedom and the human will, might put anyone in a bad mood. But, writes Eugene Thacker, standing on the brink of manifold disasters we ‘humans’ have much to learn from this dismal world view


Do pessimists have an ethics? If they do, do they always expect the worst, even in the face of well intentioned actions? For that matter, wouldn’t the true pessimist be unethical, precisely in the sense that they would be incapable of action?


The problem is that pessimists still do things, even if all they do is complain. This is the double bind of a pessimist ethics – decision without efficacy, acting without believing, the abiding sense that, ultimately, everything will turn out for the worst, all will be for naught. We could peruse the highbrow halls of literature and philosophy for exemplars of pessimism, but perhaps this is the wrong place to look. Take the case of Glum, one of the characters in The Adventures of Gulliver, a cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera in the 1970s. In the cartoon, Glum was notorious for his pessimistic outlook, expressed in his monotone, droll phraseology: ‘We’ll never make it...’ or simply ‘We’re doomed...’ Glum not only stood out from his more optimistic, idealistic and chivalric counterparts (which was basically everyone else in Gulliver’s crew), but he often had the knack of delivering his pessimistic proclamations just when they would be the most unhelpful, (when taken prisoner, when drowning at sea, even when free-falling from a cliff) that is, when the gloomy fate of the adventurers seemed to be obvious beyond stating. Never mind that Gulliver’s crew seemed to be miraculously saved at the end of each episode; even the miracle itself was not enough to convert Glum, who never ceased to remark the futility of all action.


But Glum is not just a pessimist, he is also a part of Gulliver’s roving band of do-gooders. In other words, even though he never seems to tire of reminding us that ‘we’ll never make it’, Glum goes along with things all the same. A contradiction presents itself – in spite of his pessimistic attitude, Glum not only states the futility of all action, but he then goes on to act anyway. He does not leave Gulliver’s group, he does not shut himself up in a desert cave, he does not enjoy his solitude and write existential meditations on the virtues of suicide. Of course, there may be an eminently practical reason for this: to whom would Glum complain if he were alone? Yet nobody wants to hear him. In a sense, Glum’s droll pronouncements are a challenge to the ethical world view of Gulliver and his crew – that there is good and evil, that the difference between them can be discerned, that action can be moral and have moral effects, that the ‘healthy’ attitude for any adventurer in life is to be positive and try your best, that life is ‘out there’ to be lived. Glum is the dark stain on the glossy veneer of an ethics reduced to self-help. And yet he continues to go along with things.


At first glance, Schopenhauer – that arch-pessimist of philosophers – presents a similar case. Judging by his rather curmudgeonly outlook, it would appear that for Schopenhauer, ethics would be about as necessary to philosophy as self-consciousness to a stone. In fact, Schopenhauer often cited an analogy borrowed from Spinoza: if a stone thrown through the air were conscious, it would fancy that it moved itself through the air of its own will and of its own accord.


Until recently, readers would have had to look to Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, for anything like a pessimist ethics. In it one would find statements here and there about the suffering of the world, about how it is better not to have been born at all, and so on. But there is little in the way of a sustained, critical examination of the topic. Thankfully, a new English language series of Schopenhauer’s work will help to diversify the image of the pessimist philosopher; at long last, readers of Schopenhauer will have scholarly editions of his works available to them.i


The ‘Cambridge Edition of the Works of Schopenhauer’, edited by Christopher Janaway, published its first volume in 2009: The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, also edited and translated by Janaway, and comprising two long essays by Schopenhauer written several years after his better known work, The World as Will and Representation.ii The ethics essays not only build upon this latter work, but they also isolate a fascinating lacuna within Schopenhauer’s darkly cosmic metaphysics – in a world bereft of foundation or meaning, a world constituted by an indifferent, inhuman ‘Will’, how should one act?


Schopenhauer published The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics in book form in 1841. However the two texts in it were originally submitted to essay competitions. The first competition was hosted by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences, for which Schopenhauer submitted his essay ‘On the Freedom of the Human Will’. The second competition was hosted by the Royal Danish Society of Sciences, for which Schopenhauer wrote the essay ‘On the Basis of Morals’. To his delight, Schopenhauer was awarded the top prize for the first essay. As Janaway notes in his introduction, this recognition was a boost for the now middle-aged Schopenhauer, struggling to gain recognition in the shadow of his more popular contemporaries Hegel, Fichte and Schelling – for whom Schopenhauer felt nothing but spite.


Delight soon gave way to chagrin, however, in the case of the second essay. Schopenhauer was the only person to submit an essay, and yet the Royal Danish Society refused to grant him a prize – or for that matter, any recognition at all. They pretended he didn’t exist. To add insult to injury, in their comments on Schopenhauer’s essay, the Royal Danish Society members would also reference ‘distinguished philosophers’ such as Hegel. One can only imagine the absurdity of the situation for the pessimist from Danzig. When Schopenhauer published both essays in book form in 1841, he made sure to note that the second essay was ‘not awarded a prize’, and added lengthy retorts and rants against the Royal Danish Society’s comments on the essay. He would also make incisive remarks concerning ‘journal writers sworn to the glorification of the bad’, of ‘paid professors of Hegelry’, of Hegel’s philosophy as a ‘colossal mystification that will provide even posterity with the inexhaustible theme of ridiculing our age’, and of German Idealism generally as a ‘pseudo-philosophy that cripples all mental powers.’


Fisticuffs aside, it is important to note that in the case of both essays, Schopenhauer was in effect prompted to write about ethics; he was prompted by the announcement of the competition itself, but also by the particular questions to which contestants were to reply. The questions posed by the organisers in each case provides Schopenhauer with something to push against, and I would argue that it is this kind of philosophical ‘resistance’ in his writing that makes The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics still relevant today.


In the first prize essay, the question (originally posed in Latin) was, ‘Can the freedom of the human will be proved from self-consciousness?’ For the second prize essay, the question, this time longer, was, ‘Is the source and basis of morals to be sought in an idea of morality that resides in consciousness, and in an analysis of the remaining basic moral concepts that arise out of it, or in another cognitive ground?’ To both questions Schopenhauer answers in the negative. No, he says, the human will is free only insofar as the ground of human will is free – that is, only insofar as a more fundamental, abstract, and non-human Will is free. For the second question Schopenhauer also answers no, and he even goes so far as to question the presumption that human morality has anything to do with reason at all, choosing to instead explore the concept of compassion (Mitleid) and the vaguely Eastern notion of loving kindness (Menschenliebe) as the basis for morality.


In The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer had attempted to radicalise Kant, presenting a two-sided view of the world. On the one hand the phenomenal world of appearances, bodies, objects and nature – the world of Representation; on the other hand, that which grounds that phenomenal world, but which is itself not any Representation, and is instead an anonymous, indifferent, blind striving – the world of Will. Schopenhauer remained convinced that, even though the world as Will remained inaccessible to us as human beings in the world of Representation, there was a connection between them, particularly in the living body. The body and life were, for Schopenhauer, this nexus of the Will in Representation, of an undifferentiated Will in an individuated human will, of the non-human in the human.


While this would seem to steer things inevitably towards an ethical philosophy, The World as Will and Representation does something altogether different. It is, of course, concerned with the human world and the human capacity for making sense of the world, but by the funereal fourth book of The World as Will and Representation, ethics drops away in favor of discussions on mysticism, Eastern philosophy, pessimism and the enigmatic idea of not-willing or ‘Willlessness’. To be more precise, The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics highlights a gap within The World as Will and Representation – how to connect the indifferent and inhuman world of Will with the all-too-human world of Representation?iii


In the first essay – ‘On the Freedom of the Will’ – Schopenhauer breaks down the long-standing debate in ethical philosophy over freedom and necessity. He distinguishes between different types of freedom (physical, intellectual, and moral), arguing that freedom is essentially a negative concept, the absence or removal of an obstacle to action. Schopenhauer’s primary target is the illusion of purely self-conscious acts, the presumption that freedom derives directly from willing (the notion that, as Schopenhauer says, ‘I am free if I can do what I will’). But what grounds this isomorphism of freedom and will? As Schopenhauer notes, one would have to inquire not just into the doing based on willing, but the willing of the willing of doing, and so on. One either follows this question to infinity, or one must presume a paradoxical groundless ground, a Will for all willing that does not itself will anything.


Likewise, Schopenhauer distinguishes three types of necessity (logical, mathematical, and physical). While he maintains the freedom-necessity pair, he also attempts to show that they can only be properly related outside the sphere of the human subject. If, as Schopenhauer argues, freedom is a negative concept, then it is also the absence of necessity. But the absence of necessity, taken to its logical conclusion, entails a notion of ‘absolute contingency’: ‘So the free, as absence of necessity is its distinguishing mark, would have to be that which simply depended on no cause whatsoever, and would have to be defined as absolutely contingent; a highly problematical concept, whose thinkability I do not vouch for, but which in a strange way coincides with that of freedom.’iv Passages like these betray, in an interesting way, Schopenhauer’s ongoing ambiguity surrounding ethics – particularly the investment of good faith in the human that Schopenhauer thinks he needs in order to think about ethics at all. In an analogy he develops later on, Schopenhauer likens the human being’s bloated over-reliance on free will and choice as being as absurd as a self-conscious pool of water: ‘That is exactly as if water were to speak: “I can strike up high waves (yes! in the sea and storm), I can rush down in a hurry (yes! in the bed of a stream), I can fall down foaming and spraying (yes! in a fountain)… and yet I am doing none of that now, but I am staying with free will calm and clear in the mirroring pond.”’v


If the first essay is primarily concerned with critiquing the individuationist and humanist notion of ethical action (freedom vs. necessity), then the second essay – ‘On the Basis of Morality’ – tackles the broader question of the ground of ethics itself. It is no wonder Schopenhauer was not granted a prize for this essay – from the start he contentiously implies the stupidity of the question, while also noting the ‘exuberant difficulty’ of the problem of grounds. Here Schopenhauer’s target is Kant; but his extended critique of Kant is also laced with admiration. As Schopenhauer notes, Kant’s greatest contribution to ethical philosophy was to tear it away from eudaimonia (happiness, well-being). Whereas for the ancients virtue and happiness were identical, for the moderns virtue and happiness are related as ground and result. The axiomatic approach of Kant focuses less on eudaimonia and more on the practical aspect of ethical action. But here Schopenhauer is quite critical, for Kant’s categorical imperative, with its emphasis on the ‘ought’, can only lead to the absurd idea of a totalising ‘ought’:


In a practical philosophy we have to do not with providing grounds for what happens but rather laws for what ought to happen even if it never does… Who tells you that what never happens ought to happen?vi


In short, Schopenhauer sees in Kant’s categorical imperative a church masquerading as a court of law: ‘Conceiving ethics in an imperative form, as doctrine of duty, and thinking of the moral worth or unworthiness of human actions as fulfilment or dereliction of duties, undeniably stems, together with the ought, solely from theological morals, and in turn from the Decalogue.’vii Schopenhauer later riffs on Kant’s ethics as having a mystical, ‘hyperphysical’ core:


[…] in the Kantian school practical reason with its categorical imperative appears as a hyperphysical fact, as a Delphic temple in the human mind, from whose murky sanctuary oracular utterances announce without fail not, unfortunately, what will happen, but what ought to happen.viii


And here we see Schopenhauer directly attempting to build a bridge between the ontological claims of The World as Will and Representation and the ethical claims of The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. The upshot of this, as Schopenhauer chooses to state with some subtlety, is that ‘in this the human being is no exception to the rest of nature.’ix That is, insofar as freedom is impersonal and unhuman, the human is simply part of a larger field that is at once metaphysical and ethical. Paradoxically, Schopenhauer’s thinking moves towards something we can only call an unhuman ethics.


Of course, the major challenge is how to re-conceive of ethics given this unhuman metaphysics. In the second essay Schopenhauer gives us hints of such an ethics, setting up two pairs of ethical concepts: the poles of self-oriented action and other-oriented action, and the poles of well-being and woe. From this he derives his two key ‘positive’ concepts that close the essay: that of compassion (Mitleid) and that of loving-kindness (Menschenliebe). He shifts the debate away from the preoccupation with human reason and law. At the same time, his discussion on compassion remains open-ended; one senses that for Schopenhauer compassion is not limited to the feeling of one human being for another, but that it can be open to perhaps, strange, unhuman compassions – with the animal, the plant, the rock, the ocean, the cloud, the swarm, the number, the concept, or what have you. Such compassions, such instances of ‘suffering-with’, can range from sentiments of dread and horror to sentiments of affinity and the loss of self. Similarly, Schopenhauer’s ever-eccentric appropriation of Eastern thought, and his concept of loving-kindness is not simply a love of the human for the human, but quite the opposite – one loves the human only as a starting point for loving the unhuman.


Here it is important to note that Schopenhauer’s pessimism is of a particular type. Philosophical pessimism is generally of two types: a moral pessimism and a metaphysical pessimism. In moral pessimism, one expresses an attitude about the world that takes the worst possible view of things. The moral pessimist at his or her height can take any phenomenon, no matter how apparently joyful, beneficial, or happy, and turn it into the worst possible scenario (even if only to note that every positive only paves the way for a negative). This is the typical view of the glass being half-empty. Note that moral pessimism is pessimistic because its view is pessimistic, irrespective of what is happening in the world. The tendency to take the worst view of things, or the tendency to always expect the worst, is about an interpretation of the world, not about the world in itself.


This changes once one moves from moral pessimism to metaphysical pessimism. In the former one expresses an attitude about the world, whereas in the latter one makes claims about the world itself. This is the view that it is the objective property of all glass in itself to be partially empty. Metaphysical pessimism is more than just a bad attitude, it makes claims about the way in which the world in itself is structured or ordered. For the metaphysical pessimist, the world itself is ordered in the worst possible way and is structured such that it always leads to the worst possible ends. For the metaphysical pessimist, saying that this is the worst of all possible worlds is less a case of being grumpy and more a statement about the radical antagonism between the world itself and our wants and desires.


While Schopenhauer expresses both of these types of pessimism, he remains dissatisfied with both, for both rely on a stable division between a human subject and a non-human world within which the subject is embedded. The only difference is that with moral pessimism, we have a subjective attitude about the worst of all possible worlds, and with metaphysical pessimism we have an objective claim about the worst of all possible worlds. But both views, being concerned with ‘the worst’, implicitly rely on an anthropocentric view – either one is stuck with a bad attitude or one is stuck in a bad world. (As Sid Waterman once noted, ‘I see the glass half full, but full of poison.’)


So, while Schopenhauer himself was a curmudgeon, and while he does state that this is the worst of all possible worlds, his philosophy ultimately moves towards a third type of pessimism, one that he never names but which perhaps we can christen: a cosmic pessimism.x For Schopenhauer, the logical endpoint of pessimism is to question the self-world dichotomy that enables pessimism to exist at all. But such a move would entail a shift away from the relation and difference between self and world, human and non-human, subjective attitude and objective claim. Instead, it would entail a move towards an indifference, an indifference of the world to the self, even of the self to the self. Cosmic pessimism would therefore question even the misanthropy of moral and metaphysical pessimism, for even this leaves us as human beings with a residual consolation – at least the world cares enough to be ‘against’ us. Schopenhauer’s cosmic pessimism questions ethical philosophy’s principle of sufficient reason – that there is an inherent order to the world that is the ground that enables reliable judgements to be made regarding moral and ethical action. It also questions the fundamental relation between ethics and action, whether of the Aristotelian first principles type, the Kantian-axiomatic type, or the modern cognitivist-affectivist type. Cosmic pessimism seems to move towards an uncanny zone of passivity, ‘letting be’, even a kind of liminal quietism in which non-being is the main category. In cosmic pessimism, this ‘indifference’ is the horizon of all ethics. As an ethics, this is, surely, absurd. And this is perhaps why Schopenhauer’s ethics ultimately ‘fails’.


Despite their different orientations, The World as Will and Representation and The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics are united by a common approach, and that is an inversion of metaphysics and ethics. Schopenhauer tends to begin with human experience, even and especially if that experience is one that mitigates against the illusory coherence of the subject. All of Schopenhauer’s rants concerning pessimism and the limits of human knowledge dovetail on this strange counter-experience, the experience that the subject is not a subject, the experience of the dissolving of the principum individuationis. Part of Schopenhauer’s strategy is to undo the notion that the subject is separate from the world it experiences, that it relates to, and that it produces knowledge about. Part of his strategy is also to prod the notion, which he inherits from Kant, that there is an inaccessible, unknowable, noumenal world ‘in itself’ from which we are forever barred access. Both of these issues deal with the problematic category of the human – the human being as living in a human-centric world, accessible or not, that always exists ‘for us’ as human beings.


The question of ethics becomes especially pertinent here. Schopenhauer’s essays refuse relying on either the human individual or the group as its foundation, much less any discussion on human nature, the state of nature, or what have you. Schopenhauer also refuses relying on either intuition (or any innate, moral faculty) or law (as in the axiomatism of Kant). Instead, Schopenhauer zooms-out from the traditional, humanist ethical discourse to the larger issues of ethics as the self-world relation – or, really, ethics as the impossibility of this relation. In fact, while Schopenhauer does not go this far, I am tempted to suggest that The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, when read alongside The World as Will and Representation, poses the problem of an ethics without the human. Given our current concerns with climate change and global disasters, the time would seem ripe for an exploration into such an ethics. But an unhuman ethics would have to avoid both the pole of an all-too-human ethics (in which ethics takes place exclusively and solely within the spheres of law and policy), and the pole of a romantic ethics (in which the ethics of animals or the environment presumes a naïve notion of nature).


The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics puts forth some key philosophical points that resonate deeply with our so-called posthuman era. The first is that Schopenhauer displaces the ethical discourse of free will by externalising human will as an unhuman Will. He does this through a questioning of the basis of human will and his negative concept of freedom. Though he does not name the anonymous, abstract Will as such, his critique of the human-ethical subject points in this direction. And this leads to another point, which is that Schopenhauer constantly shifts the scale of his discussion of ethics beyond the human institutions of religion, law or politics. This is a contentious point, for, as Schopenhauer well knows, this non-human aspect of the world can never be proved as such (nor would any such proof prove anything). But in his criticisms of the traditional terms of ethical philosophy, one senses Schopenhauer’s ontological commitment to some metaphysical principle in excess of the human. And it is here that The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics comes into focus. Schopenhauer does not divide the unhuman Will from the human, all-too-human will, but is constantly at pains to show their immanence to each other, the Will in the will (or Will-in-will), as it were. The individuated human being is what he wills, but this will is also the Will, the human also the unhuman.


Eugene Thacker <thackere AT newschool.edu> is a New York based writer and the author of In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol 1 published by Zero Books. He teaches at The New School and is a scholar-in-residence at the Miskatonic University Colloquy for Shoggothic Atheology





Arthur Schopenhauer, The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, (trans.) Christopher Janaway, Cambridge University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-521-87140-2




i For years, those reading Schopenhauer in English have had to make do with the Dover editions which, while important, left something to be desired for the student and scholar. In addition, the advent of inexpensive, print-on-demand technologies has issued in a flurry of Schopenhauer reprints, but with varying degrees of editorial quality – many are marred by poor copy editing, uneven translation and even poor page layout and design. Given this, this series is a welcome intervention.

ii The bibliophile in me cannot help but make some rather unctuous comments on the book itself. In a publishing climate afflicted by successive cutbacks, Cambridge has, thankfully, spared no expense – the cloth edition is printed on thick, high quality paper, along with a minimal yet classy jacket design. Janaway, a leading Schopenhauer scholar, editor and translator, has included an informative introduction, along with bibliography, varia from different editions, a glossary and other elements one expects to find in scholarly editions.

iii Schopenhauer wrote the two ethics essays after the first edition of The World as Will and Representation; but he would also produce two further editions following The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. In a sense, then, The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics stands in between the early and later Schopenhauer.

iv Schopenhauer, The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, Christopher Janaway, (ed. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 36.

v Ibid., p. 63.

vi Ibid., p. 125.

vii Ibid., p. 129.

viii Ibid., p. 148. Given this critique, Schopenhauer does rescue certain elements of Kant’s ethical philosophy. In particular, Schopenhauer does something interesting with the freedom-necessity pair he had already examined in the first essay. Necessity, as sufficient ground, is an extension of the phenomenal world of appearance, the domain of the individuated human will, what Schopenhauer calls the ‘empirical character’ of the human being. To this is contrasted freedom, which Schopenhauer had already defined in terms of absolute contingency, and which he allies with the Kantian noumenal world, the Will in itself that is nevertheless manifest in the human being, what Schopenhauer calls the ‘intelligible character’.

ix Ibid., p. 174.

x Cosmic pessimism is further explored in my In The Dust of This Planet – Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, Zero Books, 2011.