The first step of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, however, is to transform Kant’s account of disinterestedness as a characteristic of aesthetic experience that allows us to make intersubjectively valid judgments of taste into the negative pleasure of at least a temporary respite from this cycle of frustration that is afforded by the experience of beauty.
Schopenhauer’s thought (presented in Book III) is that ordinarily we set ourselves on the possession of particular objects that we expect to fulfill desires, but that it is possible so to immerse ourselves in the perception of an object that we can actually forget our inevitably unsatisfying desire to possess or consume it, at least for a while. In such a state we,
. . . devote the whole power of our mind to perception . . . and let our
whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural
object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a
building, or anything else. We lose ourselves entirely in this object . . .; we
forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure
subject, as clear mirror of the object. . . . Thus at the same time, the person
who is involved in this perception is no longer an individual, for in such
perception the individual has lost himself; he is pure will-less, painless,
timeless subject of knowledge.
This state of relief from the pain of particularized desire, a strictly negative form of pleasure, is achieved by perception, which is a form of cognition itself rather than a play with cognitive powers, although Schopenhauer’s initial suggestion that it is achieved through the perception of particulars qua particulars is misleading; it is achieved through the cognition of the general form of the kind of expression of the underlying reality of will that the particular object is: ‘If, therefore, the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject has passed out of all relation to the will, what is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea, the eternal form, the immediate objectivity of the will at this grade’ .
The disinterested pleasure of Kant’s free play of our cognitive powers with aesthetic ideas is transformed into relief at the liberation of the will from its unsatisfiable obsession with particulars through the cognition of the general forms or Platonic ideas of the expression of the will itself in aesthetic experience.
The cognitive rather than play-character of Schopenhauer’s theory of ideas is immediately apparent in his theory of art, including his theory of genius as the source of art, his comments about the reception of art, and his classification of the arts as types of representations of the ideas—until he reaches music, which represents the will itself rather than any of its other objectifications.
Following his initial introduction of the theory of ideas as the objects of timeless, painless, willless contemplation, Schopenhauer illustrates the contrast between the ‘different grades at which’ the ‘objectivity’ of the ‘will as thing-in-itself’ appears, ‘i.e., the Ideas themselves, from the mere phenomenon of the Ideas in the form of the principle of sufficient reason, the restricted method of knowledge of individuals’ (WWR, §35 181), with examples drawn from nature: the shape of particular clouds at particular moments is mere phenomenon, but the very fact that ‘as elastic vapour they are pressed together, driven off, spread out, and torn apart by the force of the wind’ shows that ‘this is their nature, this is the essence of the forces that are objectified in them, this is the Idea’ (ibid.: 182).
(We have to take the identification of physical forces of the sort that are mentioned as the phenomenal expression or objectification of a thing-in-itself that is will as a leap of metaphysical faith: there can be no further evidence for it than the experience of will in our own cases that Schopenhauer earlier mentioned.) But in the ensuing sections, Schopenhauer makes it clear that the primary way in which we encounter Ideas and enjoy the benefits of contemplating them is through art, and here he makes clear the cognitive character of art and of our response to it:
What kind of knowledge is it that considers what continues to exist
outside and independently of all relations . . . the true content of
phenomena . . . known with equal truth for all time, in a word, the Ideas
that are the immediate and adequate objectivity of the thing-in-itself, of
the will? It is art, the work of genius. It repeats the eternal ideas
apprehended through pure contemplation, the essential and abiding
element in all the phenomena of the world. According to the material in
which it repeats, it is sculpture, painting, poetry, or music. Its only source
is knowledge of the Ideas; its sole aim is communication of this
While natural things might occasionally suggest their own Ideas and dispose us toward contemplation, art actively and therefore presumably more reliably and frequently ‘plucks the object of its contemplation from the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated before it’.
Schopenhauer accordingly describes genius, the ability to create art, in strictly cognitive terms. Genius consists in the exceptional capacity for the recognition of timeless Ideas through the particularities of phenomena and in the exceptional capacity for the communication of such cognition. First, the heightened capacity for cognition: ‘Only through the pure contemplation . . . which becomes absorbed entirely in the object, are the Ideas comprehended; and the nature of genius consists precisely in the preeminent ability for such contemplation. . . . the gift of genius is nothing but the most complete objectivity, i.e., the objective tendency of the mind . . .
Accordingly, genius is the capacity to remain in a state of pure perception, to lose oneself in perception’. And ‘For genius to appear in an individual, it is as if a measure of the power of knowledge must have fallen to his lot far exceeding that required for the service of an individual will’.
Second, the exceptional capacity for the communication of such cognition: while all people must have the capacity to contemplate the Ideas and through that contemplation to obtain relief from the demands of their will to some degree, otherwise the effect of art would be entirely lost on them, they have the capacity to recognize or discover ideas to a ‘lesser and different degree’ than the genius; and the genius in turn excels the rest of mankind not merely in the capacity to have such ideas but also in the capacity to retain them and convey them through a ‘voluntary and intentional work, such repetition being the work of art. Through this he communicates to others the Idea he has grasped’.
The gift of the genius is the twofold gift of cognition and communication, although the latter can to some extent be acquired: ‘that he knows the essential in things which lies outside all relations, is the gift of genius and is inborn; but that he able to lend us this gift, to let us see with his eyes, is acquired, and is the technical side of art’.
The key point is not so much whether one aspect of genius is more innate than the other, however, but that it has these two aspects. In this regard, the structure of Schopenhauer’s analysis of genius replicates that of Kant’s, with the key difference that the element of play is missing from the experience of both the genius and the audience.
For Kant, genius consisted in the ability to create a free play of the imagination with an idea and then to communicate that to the audience in a way which would allow the audience not just to apprehend the content of the artist’s idea but also to enjoy a free play of their mental powers in some way analogous to but not fully determined by the free play of the artist—without that, the experience would not be an aesthetic experience for Kant. For Schopenhauer, however, although the genius must be active in plucking an idea out of the phenomena, he does not play with the idea, but simply contemplates it, and facilitates the contemplation of it in his audience, by means of which they are both, to some degree or other, transformed into will-less and therefore painless pure subjects of knowledge.
Throughout this cognitivist account, Schopenhauer’s theme remains that aesthetic experience offers the negative pleasure of relief, although only momentary, from the incessant frustration of the will. But there is a hint in Schopenhauer that aesthetic pleasure may have a positive side, a sheer pleasure in knowing that does not presuppose any antecedent frustration from which knowledge offers an escape. In §38, Schopenhauer says that there are ‘two inseparable constituent parts’ in the ‘aesthetic method of consideration’, namely ‘knowledge of the object not as individual thing, but as Platonic Idea . . .; and the self -consciousness of the knower, not as individual, but as pure, will-less subject of knowledge’, and he then adds that the pleasure produced by contemplation of an aesthetic object arises sometimes more from one of these sources than the other.
Here he is alluding to this theory that in the case of beauty the Idea presents itself to us (or at least the genius) as if it were immediately in the object, whereas in the case of the sublime we are more conscious of a struggle to isolate the Idea out of the experience of the object. In the case of beauty, ‘that purely objective frame of mind is facilitated and favoured from without byaccommodating objects’ , whereas in the case of the sublime ‘that state of pure knowing is obtained first of all by a conscious and violent tearing away from the relations of the same object to the will . . . by a free exaltation, accompanied by consciousness, beyond the will and the knowledge related to it’. But in the opening paragraph of his discussion of the sublime, Schopenhauer does describe the ‘subjective part of aesthetic pleasure’ as ‘that pleasure in so far as it is delight in the mere knowledge of perception as such’.
Whether he intended it thus or not, this remark suggests that we might take pleasure in the contemplation of Ideas even if we did not need to be relieved from frustration by that contemplation. So here Schopenhauer hints at a return to the purely positive account of aesthetic pleasure characteristic of Kant (and most other 18th century writers), and to prepare the way for a return to this emphasis in subsequent aesthetics. But even Schopenhauer’s suggestion of a positive pleasure in aesthetic experience remains firmly linked to his interpretation of this experience as an exceptional form of cognition rather than a free play with our cognitive powers that is not aimed at actual cognition.
Schopenhauer’s theory of art as the genius’s vehicle for the repetition and presentation of the Platonic Ideas leads him to a classification of the arts. Schopenhauer’s classification begins with architecture as the medium which, insofar as it is considered ‘merely as a fine art and apart from its provision for useful purposes’, brings to ‘clearer perceptiveness some of those Ideas that are the lowest grades of the will’s objectivity’, such Ideas as ‘gravity, cohesion, rigidity, hardness’, and so on, ‘those first, simplest, and dullest visibilities of the will’.
Schopenhauer then mentions both horticulture and landscape and still-life painting as arts which present the Ideas of the objectification of the will in vegetable life, a form of its objectification that is more advanced than the mechanical forces presented by architecture but is still far from its objectification in human character and action.
From these arts, Schopenhauer advances to historical painting and sculpture, which present the outward forms of isolated manifestations of the will in human actions , and then to poetry, which reveals ‘that Idea which is the highest grade of the will’s objectivity, namely the presentation of man in the connected series of his efforts and actions’. His discussion of poetry culminates with his own version of the conventional wisdom that tragedy is the ‘summit of poetic art’: for Schopenhauer this is so because tragedy presents more effectively than any other art-form ‘The unspeakable pain, the wretchedness and misery of mankind, the triumph of wickedness, the scornful mastery of chance, and the irretrievable fall of the just and the innocent’.
Then Schopenhauer turns to music, which is for him the highest rather than the lowest of the arts, because it ‘is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but [is] a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. For this reason the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence’ . Music is thus on a par with the other manifestations of the will rather than with the other arts as copies of the manifestations of the will; music is the art that crosses the Platonic barrier between art and other ordinary things by being a copy of reality itself rather than a copy of a copy of reality itself.
From this point of view, Schopenhauer then interprets the different aspects of music as ‘copies’ of different aspects of the will itself rather than of its objectifications: the deepest tones of harmony are a manifestation of inorganic forces; in ‘the whole of the ripienos . . . between the bass and the leading voice singing the melody’ he recognizes ‘the whole gradation of the Ideas in which the will objectifies itself’, and finally in melody he recognizes ‘the highest grade of the will’s objectification, the intellectual life and endeavour of man’.
Schopenhauer’s accounts of both tragedy and music seem to present a paradox: the contemplation of beauty, especially artistic beauty, is supposed to present us with timeless ideas the contemplation of which will release us from the frustration of our timebound wills; but tragedy presents us with such affecting representations of human suffering, and music supposedly presents the will and all of its indifference to our own concerns to us with even greater directness, that it is difficult to see how we can take pleasure in these arts, except perhaps to the limited extent that Schopenhauer recognizes a positive pleasure in cognition as such—a form of pleasure, however, which he hardly emphasizes and does not seem adequate to account for the profundity of our pleasure in these arts.
Schopenhauer recognizes the threat of this paradox and confronts it directly in his discussion of music. He writes that music ‘never expresses the phenomenon, but only the inner nature, the in-itself, of every phenomenon, the will itself’.
Therefore music does not express this or that particular gaiety and
definite pleasure, this or that affliction, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety,
merriment, or peace of mind, but joy, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety,
merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract,
their essential nature, without any accessories, and so also without the
motives for them.
Schopenhauer’s thought is that contemplation of the universal ideas always turns our attention away from the frustrating particularities of our personal situations, even when those universal ideas are themselves the ideas of pain, suffering, and so on. ‘It is just this universality’, which Schopenhauer ascribes uniquely to music, although one would think that it could be achieved by tragedy as well, ‘that gives it that high value as the panacea of all our sorrows’ . Music ‘reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain’.
Schopenhauer’s solution to what threatens to be the greatest paradox for art— his version of the traditional paradox of tragedy perhaps—depends entirely on his theory of the redemptive power of the contemplation of universals, and thus confirms the thoroughly cognitivist character of his aesthetic theory. He has transformed Kant’s idea of the disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment into the idea of a literal release from painful self-interest through cognition, Kant’s conception of the aesthetic ideas as that with which the mind plays in art into that which the mind knows in art, and Kant’s conception of the genius as the one who can both more freely play with ideas than others yet communicate a sense of that free play to others into the conception of one who more readily knows than others and can communicate that knowledge and its ensuing benefit to others.
Schopenhauer has disrupted Kant’s delicate synthesis of the ancient idea of aesthetic experience as a form of knowledge and the novel idea of aesthetic experience as the free play of our mental powers and turned it back into the traditional theory of aesthetic experience as a heightened form of cognition alone, although his account of the cognition in aesthetic experience naturally reflects the innovations in his account of cognition itself.
Whether this reversion to the fundamental idea of traditional aesthetics was a good thing or not, I will venture to judge, but it was certainly influential: the strictly cognitivist approach to aesthetics would be continued by Hegel, who first lectured on aesthetics the year after The World as Will and Representation was first published, and would continue to dominate aesthetic theory at least until the time of Nietzsche, and in some quarters well beyond (consider, for example, Luka´cs and Adorno). That story is beyond the scope of this chapter, but here I will conclude with a comment on a famous remark of Nietzsche’s about the aesthetics of both Kant and Schopenhauer.