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Schopenhauer’s sense of self

Can our core subjectivity survive bodily death?

Schopenhauerian self

Few things matter more to the value and quality of human life than our conception of self, our notion of who or what we are. For what we identify ourselves with largely determines what we perceive as threats, what goals we believe are worth pursuing, our understanding of death, and even our sense of meaning.

For instance, those who identify themselves with their professional careers—as in “hi, I am a doctor”—stand to experience losing their job as an amputation of the self. For those who identify with their body—the mainstream conception of self in our society—life becomes a slow march towards inexorable oblivion. Most importantly, for those who see themselves as just audience to the seemingly absurd spectacle we call life, little can make sense at all.

An extraordinarily insightful analysis of the self—which, if fully grasped, can permanently free us from the horrific expectation of ultimate oblivion—has been available for over 200 years

Eastern philosophical traditions—particularly Advaita Vedanta—have been exploring and refining the notion of self for millennia. Western popular interest in these eastern insights has been growing rapidly since the 20th century and is now—thanks to the advent of the internet and social media—widespread.

Yet in western philosophical tradition, an extraordinarily insightful analysis of the self—which, if fully grasped, can permanently free us from the horrific expectation of ultimate oblivion—has been available for over 200 years, in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer. According to Schopenhauer, underlying each mortal individual is the ‘pure subject of knowing’. Universal and immortal, this pure subject is what ‘remains over as the eternal world-eye’ after bodily death.

The problem is that, at the hands of presumed experts in academia, Schopenhauer’s profound insights have been misunderstood, distorted and grievously misrepresented for decades, ensuring that they remain elusive for most of us. Take, for instance, what Prof. Christopher Janaway has to say about Schopenhauer’s pure subject of knowing:

Schopenhauer’s attitude to this pure subject … is ambivalent. On the one hand, he says “Everyone finds himself as this subject” ... At the same time, however, each of us is an individual distinct from others.

Janaway has serious grievances about this ambivalence, for he cannot make heads or tails of it:

The problem, bluntly, is this: is my ‘real self’, or ‘the kernel of my inner nature’, something that attaches to the finite individual that I am, or is it … beyond space, time, and individuation altogether? ... Schopenhauer seems to stumble into a quite elementary difficulty.

Fortunately, present-day analytic philosophy, with its knack for eliminating even the most benign and easily reconcilable ambiguities, comes to Janaway’s rescue. Schopenhauer’s pure subject of knowing is what philosopher Itay Shani recently called ‘core-subjectivity’: it is ‘ipseity, or I-ness, by which is meant an implicit sense of self which serves as the dative [i.e. recipient] of experience, namely, as that to whom things are given, or disclosed’.

At the hands of presumed experts, Schopenhauer’s profound insights have been grievously misrepresented for decades

In other words, core-subjectivity is what remains of a person’s subjectivity when the person’s particular experiential contents—that is, specific memories, thoughts, emotions and perceptions—are disregarded. It is pure I-ness, which feels exactly the same in each and every person—arguably even every living creature—for what distinguishes the conscious inner lives of different people is precisely their respective experiential contents.

For this reason, Schopenhauer describes core-subjectivity as ‘that one eye of the world which looks out from all knowing creatures’ (emphasis added), the ‘eternal world-eye’. If you and I were to become completely amnesic while lying in an ideal sensory deprivation chamber, for at least a moment all that would be left in both our conscious inner lives would be this core-subjectivity, this undifferentiated but felt I-ness, identical in both you and me.

At the same time, the fact that we are each a different individual confers upon each of us a unique perspective within the world, an idiosyncratic point of view or window into the environment surrounding us, whereby each of us acquires a differentiated set of perceptions and episodic memories. Moreover, each of us also has private, endogenous experiences such as particular thoughts and emotions. Therefore, when it comes to experiential contents, we are each a differentiated, individual subject.

Schopenhauer is quite explicit about our having this double identity or mode of existence, stating, ‘we can attribute to everyone a twofold existence’. Consequently—and entirely reasonably—he also uses the pronoun ‘I’ in two different senses, depending on context.

But Janaway finds fault with this as well:

Schopenhauer has previously told us that ‘I’ refers to the material, striving, human being, which would not exist were it not for his or her bodily organs. But how could anything to which ‘I’ refers remain if the human being ceased to exist, taking with it the subject’s consciousness?

Yet Schopenhauer’s reasoning in flawless, and the pronoun ‘I’ is entirely appropriate for referring to both of the identities or modes of existence of a human being. When referring to the pure subject of knowing, ‘I’ denotes the contentless recipient of experience—identical across all individual subjects—which ‘remains unimpaired when [the individual subject] becomes extinct in death’. In his mode of existence as the pure subject of knowing, ‘man is nature herself’ and therefore undying, universal, and eternal.

In his mode of existence as the pure subject of knowing, ‘man is nature herself’ and therefore undying, universal, and eternal.

On the other hand, when referring to a person’s mode of existence as a differentiated individual, the pronoun ‘I’ denotes a particular set of experiential contents given to the universal recipient. This latter ‘I’ disappears upon death, in a way analogous to how a dream avatar vanishes when we wake up, or to how the dissociated personalities of someone suffering from dissociative identity disorder become re-integrated into the host personality upon a cure. Schopenhauer’s ambivalence regarding the pronoun ‘I’ is thus far from an expression of confusion.

Under Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, we are eternal in that our core-subjectivity is eternal. Our felt sense of self—unlike our conception of self as a discrete organism—transcends time and space. All existence unfolds within our core-subjectivity, the ‘one eye of the world’, which happens to take myriad different points of view in the form of individual living organisms. If Schopenhauer is correct, then we survive our bodily death in the only way that really matters: our felt I-ness persists and probably witnesses the entire dying process.

If Schopenhauer is correct, then we survive our bodily death in the only way that really matters

That most people today identify not with their core-subjectivity, but with an intellectual conception of self—associated with a particular and ephemeral perspective within the world—is a symptom of our failure to heed the message of one of western philosophy’s greatest exponents. Schopenhauer’s claim that our core-subjectivity is universal and eternal is anything but frivolous; it follows logically and naturally from a coherent, highly persuasive chain of reasoning that makes sense not only of the self, but of nature at large as well.

Indeed, Schopenhauer’s metaphysical system is one of the grandest intellectual achievements in the history of the west; one as profound as it is—ironically—misunderstood. To try to render it more accessible, I’ve written a concise book clarifying Schopenhauer’s argument. In it, I address the dual notion of self, as well as many other points often misrepresented by scholars.

 If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

Bernardo Kastrup will be appearing in The Limits of Material discussing consciousness and idealism.

Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics is available to pre-order from John Hunt Publishing.

Quotes from Arthur Schopenhauer are from his book, The World as Will and Representation, translated by E. F. J. Payne, volumes 1 and 2, Dover Publications Inc. (New York, 1969).

Quotes from Itay Shani are from his paper, ‘Cosmopsychism: A Holistic Approach to the Metaphysics of Experience,’ appearing in Philosophical Papers, volume 44, number 3, pages 389-437 (2015).

Quotes from Christopher Janaway are from his book, Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2002).

Image by Fabio Paiva.


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Joe Anderson 15 July 2021

This is an <a href="">excellent</a> collection of original articles with a very specific focus, does it require human beings to be made up of two separate entities, one of which is left behind at death. this question form to my mind after reading this.

Zorida Oyena 8 July 2021

He had unique perspectives. Grease trap pumping Houston

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Parmenideum 23 February 2020

This brought to mind David Chalmers' idea of naturalistic dualism. Consciousness / experience is part of the "ontological furniture" of the universe, as he puts it, just like mass and charge. On this view things don't evolve consciousness, they simply partake of it on an increasing scale from electrons up. The complexity of a being would then conceivably determine just how much experiential quality it has, to the point where it might have enough to become self-aware. After which, each complex being can have individualised experience, or a "particular set of experiential content" as you write, thereby creating the idiosyncratic self on top of the claimed core self. Chalmers' idea, a form of panpsychism that traces back at least to Leibniz’s monadology is appealing, as is Schopenhauer’s dual-self take on it. Though whether either can be defended on just logical grounds seems very questionable. It will be interesting to see if your book provides an unassailable logical argument, as really that is what is needed if there is to be no trace of mysticism and so no room for self-delusion. Though at the end of the day, delusion may not be such a terrible thing if it is only to do with something as benign as a content-less universal mind, as opposed to gods with serious personality disorders.