Solipsism’s Younger Brother: Schopenhauer’s Prism of Consciousness
Timeless & notoriously grumpy philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, argues that the most direct and consequential aspect in humankind’s perennial search for wisdom - how to live well - is one’s own consciousness. Not the things we experience, but the architecture of how we experience things in the first place.
To Schopenhauer, what we experience as we move through life are not direct perceptions of reality itself, but representations woven together by consciousness. He sees consciousness as a screen upon which our reality is projected; try as we might, we cannot turn around and see the projector directly.
The famous opening words of his Magnum Opus read:
“The world is my representation…[man] does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world around him is there only as representation, in other words, only in reference to another thing, namely that which represents, and this is himself.”
~ Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (1819)
Consciousness is that which represents, re-presents, the world to us. Seeking to cultivate a ‘good life’, by focusing upon external experiences is like seeking to change the pictures on the screen - the representations. Schopenhauer argues that “the most essential thing” is not what’s on the screen, but the screen itself. That which presents things - all things - in the first place:
“Since everything which exists or happens for a man exists only in his consciousness and happens for it alone, the most essential thing for a man is the constitution of this consciousness.”
~ Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims (1851)
This idea even snuck its way into idiomatic speech, as Schopenhauer points out:
“When we use that English expression, ‘to enjoy one’s self,’ we are employing a very striking and appropriate phrase; for observe - one says, not ‘he enjoys Paris,’ but ‘he enjoys himself in Paris.’”
It seems incorrect to imply that anybody enjoys Paris, or a nice chocolate lava cake, directly. What we are actually doing when on an excellent vacation in Paris, or when eating a sumptuous meal, is enjoying our state of consciousness in that particular situation. To ask “did you enjoy Paris?” is to skip the middleman, something that we love to do today in the name of efficiency, but consciousness is quite the consequential middleman to cut out. The risk is to breed an emphasis on second-degree inputs to cultivating a good life in lieu of focusing upon consciousness itself in our explorations of philosophy’s perennial question: how to live well.
For why would one go to Paris in the first place? We can offer surface-level responses such as “to obtain culture”, or “to see the world”, but at the base is a belief that such a trip will make a positive impact upon our consciousness, somehow improving our experience of life. Following Schopenhauer’s reasoning: our experience of life is the experience of our consciousness.
It’s no surprise, then, that Schopenhauer was among the first (widely recognized) Western intellectuals to take up a study in Buddhism, whose crux is an empirical practice focusing directly on the cultivation of consciousness as the path towards sustainable well-being. This trajectory - Western philosophy -> centrality/immediacy of consciousness -> Asian philosophy - is one that’s proliferated in recent decades. It represents the critical move from descriptive philosophy to embodying one’s philosophy. This evolves the notion of philosophy from an intellectual discipline into an existentially ameliorative practice.
But taking up this position, that one’s personal consciousness - subjectivity - is the only source of experience, we’re led down that perilous path towards solipsism, which plagued intellectual giants from Wittgenstein to David Foster Wallace. Solipsism, or the idea that one’s own experience of the world is the only thing that can be proved to exist, where other subjectivities may just be lifeless projections of one’s own mind, is a lonely prospect. It breeds an existential isolation that Foster Wallace never quite shook, though he found Wittgenstein’s refutation of solipsism in Philosophical Investigations (1953) convincing:
“The point here…is that the idea of a private language, like private colors and most of the other solipsistic conceits with which this reviewer has at various times been afflicted, is both deluded and demonstrably false.”
~ David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage”, Consider the Lobster (2005)
Foster Wallace’s eventual suicide, largely from such afflictions, demonstrates the impotence of mere intellectual beliefs, or the chasm between knowing something and living it.
Both Wittgenstein and Foster Wallace were heavily involved with formal, mathematical logic. They sought to live from coherent logical positions [footnote] Interestingly, both ended up turning away from this existential approach. Wittgenstein by directly refuting the solipsism put forth in his Tractatus, Foster Wallace by turning focus to fiction over formal philosophy, as the former proved a greater remedy for his existential solitude [/footnote]. But seeking to capture the whole of life in a logically consistent theorem seems a difficult, perhaps impossible [footnote] Gödel's incompleteness theorems come to mind [/footnote], endeavor in a world where paradox is often the nearest representation of reality. Indeed, 19th century poet, John Keats, describes the true measure of genius as one’s ability to be at ease with uncertainty. Rather than grasping at perplexities with the net of reason and logic, being comfortable in the darkness beyond intellectual clarity:
“…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
— John Keats, Letter to his Brothers George & Thomas, 1817
Whether or not there is a formal proof to refute solipsism, however, remains irrelevant for most of us; we don’t require mathematical foundations for our beliefs. We can accept that our entire experience of life comes to us through consciousness, and consciousness alone, without following this through to the possibility that nothing else in the world exists but our own minds.
Still, just as consequentially, by accepting this humble relative of solipsism, we’re forced to admit that altering our consciousness would then literally change our entire world. Regardless of what else may or may not exist beyond our own subjectivity, there is nothing in our experience of life that would remain untouched by modifying consciousness itself. Changing the screen changes all subsequent pictures - representations - cast upon it.
What’s a ‘Good’ State of Consciousness?
In light of this, Schopenhauer’s fancy towards Buddhism makes sense. And yet, like so many philosophers, he seemed more interested in theory than practice. Though Schopenhauer allegedly learned meditation from his Dresden neighbor, German philosopher Karl Krause, it doesn’t seem that he undertook any enduring meditation practice (other than reading the principal texts). Perhaps he believed that the confines of one’s experienced consciousness are rigid, immovable. That man is eternally confined to his world of representations. We know the projections we observe to be illusory, and yet we have no hope of ever looking at anything else. No way out. Not even suicide:
“Suicide may also be regarded as an experiment — a question which man puts to Nature, trying to force her to answer. The question is this: What change will death produce in a man’s existence and in his insight into the nature of things? It is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.”
~ Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims (1851)
Given this outlook, no wonder he was a grump (though he did believe in a sliver of hope, which he saw in a mixture of aesthetic contemplation and an ascetic lifestyle. Essentially to withdraw from phenomenal life, a much frowned upon, and uninspiring, conclusion to Buddhism's observation of impermanence). His view that we are damned, forever trapped in our own representations, however, does not fit with Buddhism’s perspective. Schopenhauer misinterpreted parts of Buddhism (Given the scarcity of Buddhist literature and scholarship in the West at that time, it's a wonder, and testament to his intellect, he accurately took on as much as he did), especially that Śūnyatā implies nihilism, and that dukkha implies "all life is suffering", rather than something like, "all life contains suffering".
Buddhism agrees that one’s default experienced consciousness is an illusory projection - the baseline human condition is of maya and avidyā, illusion and ignorance - but disagrees that this is an inescapable condition, and that it’s an entirely negative one. Buddhism asserts - and asks you to see for yourself - that the horizons of experienceable consciousness stretch far beyond Schopenhauer’s screen. This process calls for diligent cultivation and exploration of the nature of one’s experience.
This debate is receiving new life in the growing dialogue between Western science and Eastern philosophy: whether or not it is possible to experience the noumenon (Kant's "thing-in-itself", existing independent of perception), nirvana- the projector rather than the projected.
Schopenhauer’s stance on this debate may have dissuaded him from taking up any practices purporting to carry one beyond the confines of representational experience. He didn’t think it possible. But drawing from his own positions, as well as those on the “yes” side of experiencing the noumenon, if there is a way out (or in), it’s through exploring consciousness itself.
But what does this mean? How can we turn such an abstraction into a prescriptive, pragmatic action? And “cultivate consciousness” towards what? What is a ‘good’ state of consciousness (A question posed in Thomas Metzinger's book, The Ego Tunnel)? Will all this even pay off?
These are potent questions ripe for debate. Though staples in Asian public discourse for centuries, never before have these questions been widely taken on by a culture with such analytical power and knowledge as the industrialized West.
Two areas of research - experiential research - may prove useful. First, the process of bringing what is unconscious to the surface. Integrating our awareness with the ‘repressed’, or subsurface mental mechanisms that play a primary (and sneaky) role in the architecture of our experience. This is what Carl Jung called individuation. Bringing the shadows into light.
Second, becoming more acquainted with what consciousness - our inner experiential space - is. What it feels like, tastes like, at rest, when unidentified with its contents and attachments that lure awareness outwards. ‘Pure consciousness’, ‘perfectly still awareness’, ‘noumenon’, whatever term suits you; that notoriously slippery domain esteemed by mystics for thousands of years. Our approach may draw upon the troves up meditative practices developed over millennia, enriched by today’s repository of analytical methods and insight. Probing that experiential space is an idiosyncratic affair. No meditation technique will suit everybody, and yet everybody presumably has some access point into that inner sanctum of stillness. It may be that building from this inner foundation of quietude is, in fact, the most potent method of getting beyond the limits of our own consciousness.
Is it Worth it?
Too much talk of “cultivating consciousness” can, admittedly, become nauseating. It’s also a difficult and lengthy process. Of those seeking to integrate their conscious & unconscious, very few - if any - ‘succeed’. Even after a lifetime of tireless pursuit. Not to mention the perhaps more perilous, or perhaps identical (I really can’t say), affair of exploring consciousness as it is, rather than as we know it.
This being the case, that such ventures rarely come to fruition in one’s lifetime, we have to ask, what’s the point? We’re forced either to adopt belief in reincarnation to elongate the timeframe of the task, or face impossible odds. Why should anyone who doesn’t believe in reincarnation bother with practices aimed towards transcending mere representations? Wouldn’t it be preferable to “rage against the dying of the light”, rather than pour time into an unrealizable folly?
My only conceivable answer, is that I have no idea. Yet some stubbornly do so anyway. I can think of no adequate, linguistic justification that’s worthwhile to put forth in an attempt at convincing others to take this path. Doing so would carry a presumptuous stink about it. You’re either into it, or you’re not. In Ken Kesey’s famous words: “You’re either on the bus…or off the bus”. Richard Alpert/Ram Dass - the Harvard professor-turned-guru that inspired so many Americans to rip off their shoes and sit together in exploratory silence - remarked during a lecture:
“A lot of people will…say ‘I ought to meditate’. Forget it. Don’t. Go out and lust some more. Go until you are so nauseated by your own predicament that you yearn to meditate. Get so hungry for it that you can’t wait to just sit down, turn off the television, turn off the drama, and just be quiet for a few minutes…You need an honest approach to the path, you can’t be a phony holy.”
~ Ram Dass, Here and Now Podcast, Episode 98
And in Schopenhauer’s words: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”. “Cultivating consciousness” is not, and shouldn’t, be presented as an absolute Truth everyone ought to conform to. This would breed what Ram Dass called a mass “phony holy” epidemic (one need only peruse the New Age/spirituality section of popular bookstores to witness the off-putting platitudes that emerge from inauthenticity).
Commitment to the contemplative practices aimed at carrying us beyond the rigid skin of our own consciousness is not something that can be imbibed from a book, lecture, or any other outside source. It can only, at best, be provoked. It emerges from within. The integral approach required to explore the depths of our own experiential space is a life-consuming affair.
Bearing all this in mind, why write such an essay at all? Why ostensibly advocate for something there is no sense in advocating for? Why risk sounding pretentious, or denigrate a widely appealing trip to Paris? To this pickle, Alan Watts, that sensuous mystic, “spiritual entertainer”, who elsewhere cautioned about the pitfalls of taking one’s spiritual practice too seriously, responds with characteristic eloquence:
“If, then, I am not saying that you ought to awaken from the ego-illusion and help save the world from disaster, why The Book? Why not sit back and let things take their course? Simply that it is part of ‘things taking their course’ that I write. As a human being it is just my nature to enjoy and share philosophy. I do this in the same way that some birds are eagles and some doves, some flowers lilies and some roses. I realize, too, that the less I preach, the more likely I am to be heard.”
~ Alan Watts, The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)
Schopenhauer felt a similar imperative to “philosophize”, though he did not carry the same tact, nor perhaps insight, into the diversity of human affairs. He would often unleash tirades upon those who didn’t see the world in his light:
“How very paltry and limited the normal human intellect is, and how little lucidity there is in the human consciousness, may be judged from the fact that, despite the ephemeral brevity of human life, the uncertainty of our existence and the countless enigmas which press upon us from all sides, everyone does not continually and ceaselessly philosophize, but that only the rarest of exceptions do.”
~ Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims (1851)
Despite differences in pluralistic tolerance, both shared the motivation of contemplating life as near its source as possible. Behind Watts’ ‘natural state’ being one of sharing philosophy, behind his writing, “The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego”, seems to be a forceful fascination with existence itself:
“I wanted to plumb and understand being itself, the very heart and ground of the universe, not to control it, but simply to wonder at it, for I was — and still am — amazed at my own existence.”
~ Alan Watts, In My Own Way (1972)
We strive to make sense of our representations. We become immersed in the images and narratives projected onto our screens. We take them really seriously. So much so that this brand of existential marvel Watts embodied, that the writing of Schopenhauer embodied, is evermore rarefied to our most vulnerable moments. We contemplate death only when a family member dies, life only when one is born. We otherwise find ourselves submerged in the fictions (Not that fictions are, by definition, bad. Humans have devised some incredibly useful fictions. The idea is just not to lose sight of their status as just that, useful fictions) of representational experience. This ordering and sense-making of chaos, a buffer to existential bewilderment, a survival technique our brains developed over thousands of years, is what author Annie Dillard calls our “human endeavor”:
“Our human endeavor … is to shift phenomena one by one out of the nonsense heap and arrange them in ordered piles about us”
~ Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction (1982)
Is it not the bleed-through of amazement at our own existence, the embers of socratic wonder kept alive by history’s most eccentric characters, which carries that potential to shock us out of our neatly designed narratives, back into confrontation with the ever-present unknown? With the noumenon, the projector, always there but just slightly out of view?
Is it not these moments of stark realization that confirm to us our individual screens of conscious representation are nothing more than finite windows into an infinite mystery? Aren’t the lengths to which we go for a slightly better viewing experience rendered somewhat comical?
There is a certain threshold of basic needs after which the mystery of existence is made vivid through our idiosyncratic windows. Living in constant struggle to eat, sleep, or feel safe certainly contributes to a more opaque view of the marvels of being. But so much of the capitalist mentality conditions us to place this threshold farther and farther away. We’re constantly encouraged to compare our view to others’, pulling our gaze laterally, up, down, anywhere but directly into the void that awaits our viewing when there’s nowhere left to go. So we must always be going somewhere. Growing, developing, becoming more productive, all just to keep the cycle alive. There’s a fear that if economic growth bred collective tranquility, it would undermine itself. Maybe. Is that such a loss? Depends what ends we want growth to serve. Depends what we consider a “good state of consciousness”.
With an eye towards the ability of art - something that thrives in tandem with increasing leisure time - to embolden that original sense of wonder, Dillard also writes:
“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? … What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.”
~ Annie Dillard, The Writing Life(1989)
There are moments when, despite our best efforts to remain comfortable in our neatly arranged conceptions of the Universe, we are thrust beyond the limits of our own consciousness. Ripped right out of our skin. These are the moments of wakefulness Dillard evokes. These are the wellsprings of awe, wonder, that keep us yearning to turn our heads around, and stare directly into the projector itself. Schopenhauer be damned, we must continue trying.