All Things Pair

Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of Sexual Love and the Contemporary World


Much of Arthur Schopenhauer’s genius is characterized not by the originality of the seer-artist who hears the future world long before it’s experienced, but the originality of the vastly read domain expert who understands the history of ideas, the centuries-long dialectic of reflective individuals—not social forces—and makes courageous judgments within that domain. This is essentially what it means to be a critical thinker, despite the pretentions that clutter that term today. Much of Schopenhauer’s greatness, then, comes from his clarification of the history of ideas—his interpretation of the great thinkers before him. In the area of sexuality, however, he was a pioneer. In 1844, when volume two of his principal work, The World as Will and Representation (WWR), was first published, he had no predecessors to look to for guidance. No philosopher had dealt seriously with the topic, as Schopenhauer makes explicit in the opening of his chapter, “The Metaphysics of Sexual Love,” and who dared before him to even approach the topic of homosexuality? Sexuality was the realm of poets and artists, as it remained until recently. 

A brief digression must be granted here. Despite being the first philosopher to seriously consider sexuality, homosexuality, and the merits of a foreign culture’s philosophical worldview (all topics of great interest in contemporary society), the general picture conjured of this great thinker is of a comically pessimistic curmudgeon to either be wholly dismissed or mentioned as a footnote in the legacy of the much-loved and widely interpreted Friedrich Nietzsche. The general silence that reigns over Schopenhauer in contemporary academia I can only describe as conspiratorial.

The Will as Kernel of the World

To understand Schopenhauer’s philosophy of sexuality his metaphysics must first be understood. The core idea of his metaphysics is contained in the title of his principal work, which declares, in the simplest of terms, the heart of his monist system: the underlining thing—the essence—of all humanity and the world—the ten thousand things—is will. Will is a blind insatiable drive that wants nothing but to flourish. This is the core of humankind—a terrible truth, Schopenhauer deems it at the end of the first chapter of WWR1. It is terrible because it overthrows all our previous delusions about humankind. Previous metaphysical systems, both religious and philosophical, ground humankind’s being in concepts like morality, goodness, perfection, and rationality. In Schopenhauer’s system, these things become either relative—only valid in reference to a presupposed ideal set by either the subject or a collective culture—or, as in the case of rationality, a tool for the will’s attainment of its blind desire: expansion. 

Schopenhauer’s concept of will begins with the observation that “the subject of knowing, who appears as an individual only through his identity with the body,” experiences this body in “two entirely different ways.” One is “in intelligent perception as representation, as an object among objects,” the other, in a more immediate way, which “is denoted by the word will” (WWR1, 100). In other words, there is both an internal and external experience of the body, the internal being immaterial—intuitive. This intuitive experience of the body gives us access to Kant’s inaccessible thing-in-itself according to Schopenhauer, and is another departure he takes from Kant’s philosophy.

In Schopenhauer’s system, the body is the objectification of the will and its action the act of the will “translated in perception” (WWR1, 100). Furthermore, the will can only be known through the body, that is, in time. The body is one’s “condition of knowledge” of one’s will” (WWR1, 102). Schopenhauer also calls this a “double knowledge of the nature and action of the body” (WWR1, 104), and it’s an induction from this double knowledge that brings him to the conclusion that the foundation of the world is also will, the very same that is objectified in time and space by the body. 

This induction comes about through analogy. Schopenhauer reasons that the object—the other—also has a double knowledge of his body, even though the subject only has a singular knowledge of the object as a representation. The stranger’s experience is analogous to our own. As the subject of his own individual experience, he knows his body both within and without, yet confined to the exterior for all other living creatures and inanimate objects. The body is the “phenomenon of the will” (WWR1, 107). All other phenomena are known only as apprehended objects, but the body has the added, immediate, and constant understanding of what drives it to action: the will. This analogy is further carried over to nonhuman others, those who experience their will without the guiding knowledge of motives and concepts. 

The use of the word “will” to apply to a force in nature that animates all life may seem problematic and even misleading since we so often experience and consider our own will in conjunction with motives. Schopenhauer acknowledged that while extending by analogy the will as inner experience to all other things, he was also extending the conceptual understanding of will. We must remember that the mind is merely a tool of the will. Beneath rationality there is a drive and in the absence of rationality and even thinking this drive still exists. 

Schopenhauer’s philosophy could partly be described as empiricist and Kantian. It’s the former he uses to argue for use the word “will.” He recalls that all concepts—words—must ultimately be based on intuitive data, that is, something experienced in the world. Our will is something we know immediately, directly. The concept of force, on the other hand, is known only indirectly. It is inferred. Instead of subsuming will under force, as it has long been, Schopenhauer—through an empiricist argument—has subsumed force under will, the thing he knew without inference.[1]

Delusions of Attraction (Lovers and Dupes)

If the essence of humankind is the blind drive of the will-to-live, procreation is its most serious venture, not only for the will-at-large, but also for the individual that objectifies that will in a subjective, immediate, and urgent experience. It’s difficult to avoid personification or seeming to attribute rationality to the will when writing about it, but I must emphasize that a drive to live and expand can be observed in all living things, yet none but humans are accorded the powers of rationality and metaphor and therefore we talk about it as we talk about most things, figuratively. The will-at-large, as I’m calling it, is not rational but it acts with purpose, a single purpose. Like the microorganism, growth and expansion are its sole aim, but adaptation to the fittest possible manifestation of itself directs this growth. In human terms, “What is decided by it [the sexual act] is nothing less than the composition of the next generation.” Doubtless, the next generation is rarely what lovers are thinking about when they come together, but regardless of their consciousness of it, in Schopenhauer’s system, this attraction, this passion, conditions “the being, the existential, of these future persons.” Further, the sexual impulse conditions “their essentia, by the individual selection in the satisfaction of this impulse” (WWR2, 534). 

Schopenhauer’s conclusion here will likely strike many as mystical at best, yet most agree, religious and non-religious alike, that something immaterial animates the material body. The religious might call this a soul, the secular a force, energy, or will. Regardless of its designation, the premise of an immaterial source of animation implies an independence from the material body and therefore an existence before and after the body. Religion has personified this immaterial thing and married it to our individual consciousness. Therefore, it is the individual to some extent who survives the destruction of the material body. For Schopenhauer, however, the consciousness and intellect of the individual are simply mechanisms for the irrational animating force—the will—and vanish with the body. What remains is the original source of animation: the will. 

Following this line of reasoning, Schopenhauer speculates the beginning of the individual will (which is the will-at-large only manifested in space and time), in essence, springs into being when two people feel the first pull of attraction. More audaciously, Schopenhauer deems this pull the beginning of the delusion, the delusion that has the individual acting in the service of the will and often against his own happiness and wellbeing. The lover is a dupe. He believes he acts to attain his own desires, while really he acts to bring forth the being that the will-at-large demands for the strongest manifestation of itself it can maintain.[2] It’s acting in the service of the will—the species—instead of the individual that lends the lover’s action its seriousness and often disregard of societal laws and customs.[3]

Schopenhauer grounds this argument on three observations. The first is the irrelevance, the disconnection, between the pleasure of the sexual act and the person who it’s achieved with.[4] The lover, full of mad passion, projects so much importance on consummating bodily pleasure with a particular individual, but the actual pleasure would be the same regardless of who takes part in eliciting it. Regardless of who helps bring the orgasm forth, dejection, or at least disillusionment, is sure to follow the sudden absence of intense passion.[5] This disillusionment is the second observation and the freeing of the individual from the will-at-large. No longer at the service of the species, the individual feels at a loss to explain the intense feelings that had recently embodied him. It’s for this reason that the Greeks depicted love as an external force that overtakes a person. 

Finally, and perhaps most damningly, Schopenhauer reflects on the biological fact that a man (the inseminating sex) can produce a vast number of children in a single year, while a woman (the gestating sex) is limited to a single child. This biology shapes gendered behavior and, of course, laughs at the strict interpretation of gender as performance. It also renders the individual of the inseminating sex virtually expendable from a teleological perspective. I would argue this conclusion is, specifically, man’s great crisis and the source of much artistic drive.

Perhaps the best representation in the arts of both the intellect and lover-as-tool-of-the-will comes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under the magical influences of the flower, “love-in-idleness,” which is a metaphorical objectification of the sexual impulse, Lysander tries to explain his sudden and inexplicable desire for Helena. He says, “The will of man is by his reasoned swayed, / And reason says you are the worthier maid… / Reason becomes the marshal of my will…” (2.2.115-120). It would seem that Shakespeare through Lysander is arguing the opposite of Schopenhauer’s conclusion, until the reader recalls that Lysander is under a spell. He therefore uses his reason as tool for attaining his desires, yet is unaware, though the audience is not, that his desires are not his own. In my edition there’s a note under this specific passage reminding the reader that “will” could also mean “penis.” I doubt Schopenhauer would disapprove of the central importance the male reproductive organ takes in his system as a metaphor for the essence of the specie’s will. 

To reiterate the above points in Schopenhauer’s language, “…the sexual impulse, though in itself a subjective need, knows how to assume very skillfully the mask of an objective admiration, and thus to deceive consciousness; for nature requires this stratagem in order to attain her ends” (WWR2, 535). And again, “This delusion is instinct. In the great majority of cases, instinct is to be regarded as the sense of the species which presents to the will what is useful to it. Since, however, the will has here become individual, it must be deceived in such a way that it perceives through the sense of the individual what the sense of the species presents to it” (WWR2, 538). 

Existence Before Essence: An Opposition

Despite the recent popular criticism postmodernism has faced, Nietzsche is rarely cited as an influential source of postmodernism. In truth the two biggest claims of postmodernism—the infinity of interpretation and the performance of identity—can be traced back to Nietzsche grappling with or adopting ideas from Schopenhauer’s system. Julian Young writes about the Schopenhauerean origins of Nietzsche’s perspectivism and its links to postmodern literary theory, but since that topic is not relevant for this essay, I will end it here. The performance of identity, on the other hand, is highly relevant, especially since it has become largely accepted in liberal/progressive society in the West. 

Most people who support the idea that gender, specifically, and identity, in general, are performance, that is, something that the individual constructs, are rarely aware that their support presupposes agreement with a particular side in a much older philosophical debate. This debate is whether “essence precedes existence,” or “existence precedes essence.” The former is the position assumed in Schopenhauer’s system and agreed upon by most of the major philosophers prior to him. Schopenhauer grounds his support of this stance by stating, “you can’t have something from nothing.” Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—the forefathers of existentialism—dissented from this stance, implicitly, and eventually Sartre stated this dissent explicitly. 

When Judith Butler formulated her gender performance theory in Gender Trouble (1990), she didn’t extrapolate it from the work of Sartre, but from a very specific passage in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (first essay, #13). There Nietzsche says, “there is no ‘being’ behind the deed, its effect and what becomes of it; ‘the doer’ is invented as an afterthought, the doing is everything.” Although this declaration will be used to go on and challenge Kant’s theory of a thing-in-itself and therefore will appear to be at odds with Schopenhauer’s “essence precedes existence,” it’s also in agreement with Schopenhauer’s theory of matter: “cause and effect are the whole essence and nature of matter; it’s being is its acting” (WWR1, 9). Nietzsche’s passage itself could be used to refute his conclusion and certainly the spirit of Butler’s, but that would be outside of the scope of this essay. 

The importance of the above detour is to describe the contemporary interpretation of sexuality and its opposition to Schopenhauer’s. If existence precedes essence, if identity is performed and forged by the nonidentity-bearing individual, then Schopenhauer’s metaphysics can’t hold up. There would be no natural drive for expansion, only training and custom. Also the delusion would not be the sexual impulse appealing to the ego while really supporting the species, but instead who the actors themselves thought they were.  

[1] Before the reader dismisses the idea of a unity between the essence of humans and the essence of the world, he should consider how this is implied in Einstein’s argument for energy as the essence of matter. Einstein, who was an avid reader of Schopenhauer, may not have speculated on the metaphysical ground of humanity, but his discoveries are not at odds with Schopenhauer’s metaphysical theory. The work of the quantum physicists, such as Heisenberg and Schrodinger (also readers of Schopenhauer), further reinforce Schopenhauer’s conclusion.

[2] “In this way, therefore, man shows that the species is nearer to him than the individual, and that he lives more immediately in the former than in the latter…That eager or even ardent longing, directed to a particular woman, is therefore an immediate pledge of the indestructibility of the kernel of our true nature, and of its continued existence in the species” (WWR2, 559). 

[3] “For ultimately he seeks not his interest, but that of a third person who has yet to come into existence, although he is involved in the delusion that what he seeks is his own interest. But it is precisely this not seeking one’s own interest everywhere the stamp of greatness, which gives even to passionate love a touch of the sublime, and make it a worthy subject of poetry” (WWR2, 555). 

[4] “The beauty or ugliness of the other individual has absolutely nothing to do with this satisfaction in itself, that is to say, in so far as satisfaction is a sensual pleasure resting on the individual’s pressing need” (WWR2, 539). 

[5] “According to the character of the matter expounded, everyone who is in love will experience an extraordinary disillusionment after the pleasure he finally attains…” (WWR2, 540).