The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which we’ve been discussing for the last three weeks, was enormously influential in European intellectual circles from the last quarter of the nineteenth century straight through to the Second World War. That doesn’t mean that it influenced philosophers; by and large, in fact, the philosophers ignored Schopenhauer completely. His impact landed elsewhere: among composers and dramatists, authors and historians, poets, pop-spirituality teachers—and psychologists.
We could pursue any one of those and end up in the place I want to reach. The psychologists offer the straightest route there, however, with useful vistas to either side, so that’s the route we’re going to take this week. To the psychologists, two closely linked things mattered about Schopenhauer. The first was that his analysis showed that the thing each of us calls “myself” is a representation rather than a reality, a convenient way of thinking about the loose tangle of competing drives and reactions we’re taught to misinterpret as a single “me” that makes things happen. The second was that his analysis also showed that what lies at the heart of that tangle is not reason, or thinking, or even consciousness, but blind will.
The reason that this was important to them, in turn, was that a rising tide of psychological research in the second half of the nineteenth century made it impossible to take seriously what I’ve called the folk metaphysics of western civilization: the notion that each of us is a thinking mind perched inside the skull, manipulating the body as though it were a machine, and now and then being jabbed and jolted by the machinery. From Descartes on, as we’ve seen, that way of thinking about the self had come to pervade the western world. The only problem was that it never really worked.
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