Philosophy is a convoluted world. Writers try to find some central theme to their writings, and through that unify a system of belief, but since reality doesn’t fit under any heading in an outline except “reality,” these end up being contorted organizations. Despite thousands of people working in this field over the past centuries, not much of a definitive nature has been produced. One of the great classics, and one that best formulates the “transcendental idealist” position on philosophy, is the work of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer wrote his classic “The World as Will and Representation” to express two basic ideas as indicated by the title. The first is the one grasped by almost everyone out there; that the universe, like individuals, is not purely rational but is more like a personality, in that it is like individual animals motivated by an attachment to life, or “will to live.” The second idea is more important in a broader context, and relates to the first; much as Plato saw “objects” and “shadows of objects” in his metaphor of the cave, Schopenhauer separates the world into its essential force (Will) and its forms, which are a human Representation based on sense-data of the world as is.
Unlike many who followed Plato, Schopenhauer avoided the trap of dualism, in which one would say that there is a pure world and it is mirrored in our physical reality. Will is a force that animates the world, and there is something like a representation generated from it, which we can’t know as a “thing in itself” because we are included in it and its scope is too broad for us to comprehend in a linear thinking system. The representation in Schopenhauer’s works was a revolutionary concept: he said that humans never know the world as it is, but only know a representation of it, formed of their interpretation of sense-data and memory.
These were revolutions to a philosophical world which had so far operated in the Christian tradition of an Absolute, believing there was a dual world (or an abstraction that constituted a pure and singular form) which was the blueprint from which the world of appearance is made. This is one viewpoint on the classic division of philosophy: what is the world, and what is the human, and how can the latter best approximate the former? The question “Why do we suffer?” even has its origins in this, as to the world, the suffering of humans is inconsequential, but to a human, individual suffering can take up most of his or her awareness.
Although all of these ideas had vast political and social effects, what this article targets as its topic is something else: the addition of another Representation to Schopenhauer’s list. This is not an addition to his actual cosmology, but a political notation. It is that in a modern time, when we have no uniform religious tradition and are accustomed to devotional belief as our means of finding truth, we view government and media and organized religion as sources of truth or at the very least, information about reality. This comprises an additional representation that a modern must address.
This representation is not unique to a modern time; we are always influenced by others, and there have always been doctrinal headlocks by various sources. However, in the age of technology, which asserts concepts as “scientific” and “proof” in an absolute sense, it takes on enough political and social importance that it’s worthwhile to comment on Schopenhauer’s philosophy and point out this additional cause of confusion. In the most rigorous academic sense, it would not be included in Schopenhauer’s description of reality, as that is analytic of process and not situation. But for moderns, for the purpose of this article, it bears commenting.
Nihilism by its very nature negates this social representation. Most people confuse nihilism with fatalism, which is the belief that one can’t know any truth or do anything about it, even if one could find out. However, nihilism is purely this: a negation of value in any sense removed from the inherent. It is not a negation of reality, but the values which are associated with a value-representation of reality, and while it removes that which exists, it does so to enable the individual to analyze reality and from it derive values on the terms of the individual in the context of a task, not an absolute. Fatalism says there is no ability to interpret, value, perceive or think; nihilism says that such thinking must occur outside of what humans have already projected onto their world.
Of course, reinterpreting this through Schopenhauer, we can see the reason for nihilism existing within the individual: the individual knows the world through his representation, and therefore, can act only on that data according to his degree of will. There is no absolute to which the individual can appeal, but there is grounds for “truth” or at least accuracy in statements about the nature of reality if the individual interprets it according to its structure. In turn, this interpretation is only allowed by nihilism, which by removing values outside of the inherent de-emphasizes perception of what something is, and turns the mind to focus on its importance in the context of a task or goal.
There are two ways to interpret Plato’s cave. The first is that there’s a pure world, and physical objects are shadows of it; this presupposes that we know physical objects as they are, instead of as data from our five senses. The second interpretation is that there’s a physical world, and it casts shadows on the cave wall that are what we know; these are the sense-data perceptions of physical objects, and this view presupposes that we can know our own representations fully. However, it is more logical that we can master thought than that we can achieve perception of things beyond our knowing, and for this reason, nihilism is the only sensible gateway.
It is a rejection of the artificial world imposed upon reality by the additional representation mentioned here: the social and economic reality that is trumpeted in our ears and eyes daily by any number of technological devices. It is repeated in newspapers, on television, on radio and on the Internet; government leaders and news/entertainment people give basically the same view, disguised as oppositional theories. All of these debate things that are not immediately important for the long-term triumph of replacing the reality we perceive, a representation of our world in our own minds, with another representation, that of a collective reality based on social values.
One thing that can oppose this mindset is nihilism, but it does not exist as a philosophical system as much as a method of liberating concentration to be able to apply other methods and intellectual systems. The basic idea of nihilism is accepting ultimate reality – the physical world that surrounds us and, whatever it is made of, is consistent in effect upon us all – and discarding all inference-information from others; it rejects both the absolute and the ultra-subjective, and replaces them with subjectivity as contingent upon an initial goal of valuation, such as a task. Although this is more complex than what most embrace, it clears the part of the mind that values to consider life anew without being unduly manipulated.
Undoing the best efforts of philosophers, there is no central concept or theme to life, except life itself. It is its own goal. Schopenhauer gave us some basic tools that can help us understand our relationship to the world, but there is no complete, single answer – only a series of starting points. The individual can use these starting points successively as the changing basis of a goalset, with each realization leading to something new. But that path begins with something like nihilism, or the mind is awash in the absolute representation of the herd.