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Schopenhauer on human freedom


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Schopenhauer on human freedom
Date: 12 March 2008 12:28

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 3 March, with your University of Londonessay entitled, 'How does Schopenhauer understand freedom?', based on Chapter 7 of 'Reading Philosophy'.

It is difficult to assess this essay because of the very general title. It doesn't look like an exam question to me (please correct me if I'm wrong). My guess is that in the face of Schopenhauer's difficult text you decided to attempt a synopsis of his argument, and as such it is not a bad job.

However, because your answer is so close to the text, some questions that one would really like to answer are left hanging: for example, Is Schopenhauer a compatibilist, or can his views be used in support of compatibilism? What exactly is the target of Schopenhauer's analysis -- considering that he goes to much greater length than philosophers like Hume, or Ayer, who have been concerned to defend a compatibilist view?

Nor does your essay exactly work as a introduction or summary of Schopenhauer's view of freedom. For that, one would need more distance from the text, as well as an awareness of approaches which contrast with Schopenhauer's, together with your view of what the problem is. Your essay is all exposition, without any commentary.

Let me try to describe in general terms the kind of thing that would work as an essay on 'how Schopenhauer understands freedom.'

First and foremost, why is freedom a problem? what are we talking about? Political freedom, which you mention in passing, is a significant topic in its own right -- witness J.S. Mill's essay 'On Liberty' where Mill takes pains at the beginning to distinguish the problem of political freedom from the problem of 'freedom of the will'.

Clearly, however, the main target here is freedom of the will. Schopenhauer is offering a solution -- of a kind -- although not the kind of solution that someone puzzled by the problem of freedom of the will is necessarily looking for.

Philosophers in the past have naturally assumed that the 'have' something, 'free will', and the problem then becomes how it is possible to have this 'thing' in a universe governed by deterministic laws. This leads, either to the fruitless search for the 'thing itself' that makes us free, or equally fruitless attempts to show how there could be sufficiently large gaps in the deterministic framework to allow free action, in the sense of action which is only determined by the will itself.

Instead, Schopenhauer offers a kind of 'error theory', similar in some respects to error theories in ethics (e.g. J.L. Mackie's defence of subjectivism in his book 'Ethics Inventing Right and Wrong'). It is part of the very nature of human deliberation that we are led down the false path of searching for the absolutely 'free will'. Even prior to engaging in philosophy, this shows in the way we convince ourselves -- like the man returning home from work -- that we are 'free' to do any number of things which in fact we will never do, and which are inconceivable given our character.

(Sartre, of course, would question this. The assertion, 'My character would prevent me from choosing to go to the theatre' would be diagnosed by Sartre as a classic case of 'bad faith'. The very fact that I am considering the theatre as an option gives rise to the possibility that I will make a radical break with what others would have predicted for me and jump off the bus at the theatre entrance.)

Schopenhauer investigates -- more brilliantly than I have seen done anywhere else -- the various illusions and logical traps which lead us to think that our freedom depends upon an 'unwilled will', or the capacity to will without any determining motive at all. He doesn't take the easy option of many compatibilists of simply offering a revised definition of freedom -- in terms of the absence of physical or psychological barriers to the normal process of deliberation and action.

Despite Schopenhauer great respect for Kant, he doesn't agree with Kant's view of the problem of free will and necessity. You mention something about Kant at the end, although I don't think (again, correct me if I'm wrong) there is anything about this in the extracts from Schopenhauer's essay. A comprehensive account of Schopenhauer's understanding of freedom would have to include this.

You do raise a question at the end, 'How can someone... be responsible for their own character?' How exactly is this meant to relate to Kant's theory of the 'thing in itself?' There is a perfectly good sense in which persons are responsible for their character which Aristotle investigated, namely, the importance of cultivating habits, the ability to form 'second order' intentions relating to the kind of person one would like to be, which gives rise to the possibility of moral improvement and also gives a sense to the notion of 'being responsible for one's character'.

To summarize: I've raised various issues which should have been the main elements in an 'expository framework' which would convey the significance of Schopenhauer's arguments, as opposed to what you have done which is to closely run through the arguments themselves.

Despite what I've said, on this evidence you should do well. You have managed to get to grips with a difficult text, and that is an achievement in itself.

Please, next time, send me an essay which I can argue with. I believe that is the best way that I can help you, and also the best way to prepare for the examination!

All the best,