Conference: Frontiers of Memory, Institute of Education, London
September 18, 1999
M.A.R. Habib
Rutgers University

In his Autobiographical Study, published in 1925, Freud had this to say about Schopenhauer: “The large extent to which psycho-analysis coincides with the philosophy of Schopenhauer — not only did he assert the dominance of the emotions and the supreme importance of sexuality but he was even aware of the mechanism of repression — is not to be traced to my acquaintance with his teaching. I read Schopenhauer very late in my life.” Freud goes on to say that he avoided Nietzsche for the same reason, affirming that he (Freud) was less concerned with the question of priority than with keeping his mind unembarrassed (38). These statements serve both to maintain an independence of Freud=s thinking from Schopenhauer’s while perhaps invoking a kind of sanction from the similar conclusions of the German philosopher.

As Freud himself, and others such as Otto Rank, recognised, there are some profound similarities between Schopenhauer’s and Freud’s views of the human mind and its relation to reality.  In this paper, I propose to offer a broad comparison of the two thinkers in the following respects: (1) their situation in recent intellectual history; (2) their general models of the human mind; (2) the  roles they assign to memory and repression; (3) the fundamental and pervasive function they attribute to sexuality; (4) their assessments of the “life” and “death” instincts; and (5) the degree to which they locate human nature in history.

During the early stages of the industrial revolution, Schopenhauer initiated a tradition of radical critique of Enlightenment notions of historical progress, rationalism, and autonomous human agency. Schopenhauer argued that the intellect or reason so hypostatized by much Enlightenment thought was actually in bondage to the practical motives of the will to live, a will concentrated in the sexual act, in the unconscious and irrational desire to perpetuate life. Schopenhauer viewed Will as the unique noumenal reality in a Kantian sense, a force which operated (a) largely unconsciously, (b)  often repressively, and (c) in intimate conjunction with memory and sexuality.

The Enlightenment notions attacked by Schopenhauer, such as the scientific progress of civilisation and the perfectibility of individual and state through refinement of the faculty of reason,  reached a climax in the philosophy of Hegel which represents the most articulate attempt to present a coherent bourgeois view of the world, incorporating elements from Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism as well as from Romanticism. The “heterological” tradition opened up by Schopenhauer was continued by figures such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Bergson, Husserl and Heidegger, thinkers who challenged the very discipline of philosophy and its claims to arrive at truth through reason. They emphasised instead the role of emotion, the body, the unconscious, as well as of pragmatic interests. Schopenhauer offered an incisive critique of the bourgeois world: its vision of the present as alone real, its exaltation of a rationality answering merely to pragmatic needs and, underlying these, its self-abasement before the “crass materialism” of science.  Schopenhauer was especially contemptuous of attempts to historicise and rationalise the evils of the bourgeois world as part of an ordered teleogical plan; he dismissed Hegel’s “philosophy of absolute nonsense” as comprised of “three-quarters cash and one-quarter crazy notions…”  He himself utterly rejected the notion that history exhibited any unity beyond eternal recurrence of the same miserable patterns of events. 

I would argue that in some ways Freud, like Schopenhauer, belongs to this heterological or alternative tradition of thought. It is true that Freud saw himself as indebted to what he saw as the systematic spirit of the Enlightenment;that he saw psychoanalysis as a branch of science needing no world-view of its own; and that the positivistism and anti-metaphysical dispositions of his early scientific teachers were a life-long influence on him. However, there are some important features of Freud’s thought which lie beyond this borgeois enlightenment tradition. For example, both Schopenhauer and Freud shared an intense disillusionment with the concerns and methods of philosophy. Like Schopenhauer, Freud was impatient of what he saw as the intellectual and verbal games, the logical manipulations and groundless speculations of philosophers. Again, like Schopenhauer, he insisted on speculation being confined to experience, observation and testing. Above all, while Freud was devoted to rational and scientific inquiry, the findings of his inquiry suggested that the human subject was a far cry from the ideal Hegelian subject whose intellectual and ethical behaviour  rationally complied with the requirements of a rational state. The Freudian subject was driven by motives scarcely accessible and harboured a perpetual tension and struggle between its constituting elements.

There are some interesting parallels between the models of the human subject offered by Schopenhauer and Freud. Like Freud, Schopenhauer viewed consciousness as the mere surface of the mind; in his essay on the unconscious Freud cited the incoherence and incompleteness of the conscious mind as one justification for assuming the operation of the unconscious. Human reason is but one faculty, and it is hardly dominant: its knowledge is restricted to the incomplete conscious mind and its operation occurs as a continuous struggle to mdeiate the claims of the social world and the deepest instinctive drives and desires. Schopenhauer’s concept of the will to live overlaps broadly with Freud=s notion of the unconscious as an arena which  can harbour contradictions, where events are not temporally organised and where the claims of externality reality are replaced by those of psychical reality. Schopenhauer had taken Kant=s distinction of phenomena and noumena as his starting point. On the basis of this distinction he regarded the world which appears to us as phenomenal, a representation whose form was governed by the subjective apparatus of time, space and causality. In this scheme, the self-conscious human subject has a dual position. On the one hand, it takes its place within the scheme of objects in the world: as a subject I am conscious of myself as an object. On the other hand, I experience my self as a subject, as a willing, active, moving agent, whose body and actions objectify my will. This inner consciousness reveals itself to me immediately and irreducibly as my will, the “in-itself” of my phenomenal being. Schopenhauer is at pains to point out repeatedly that the will is not an instrument of the intellect. Nor is the intellect some privileged faculty engaged in a disinterested manner in understanding the world. Rather, the intellect itself is a slave to the will; in its very basis, it is already infected by practical motives and interests. Schopenhauer characterises the intellect as operating in a temporal medium, of past, present and future; whereas the will moves in an endless present. The will, then, is our profoundest source of motivation and the primordial means of our engagement with the world. What is germane to Freud here is that Schopenhauer sees this will to live as a blind, irrational and purposeless force, which ceaselessly drives the subject like an internal clockwork. In the cases of both Freud and Schopenhauer, the model of the mind is deterministic and in both cases the determining factors lie well beneath the reach of reason.

Also common to these models of the mind are the phenomenon of repression and the location of motives in the unconscious. Schopenhauer asserts that we often impose illusory rationalisations on behaviour which arises from hidden drives. The will itself prevents potentially embarrassing thoughts and desires to rise to consciousness. The will can inspire failure of memory and a complete suppression of events and experiences, together with the replacement of these by delusions and fantasies. In Schopenhauer’s words, the will resists what is contrary to it to come under the examination of the intellect (WWII, 400). The will, says Schopenhauer, periodically withdraws itself from the guidance of the intellect and of the motives. “In this way it then  appears as a blind, impetuous, destructive force of nature, and accordingly manifests itself as the maina to annihilate evrything that comes in its way” (402). When the resultant gaps in the conscious mind are arbitrarily filled up, madness results. In his essay on “Madness,” in volume II of The World as Will, Schopenhauer goes so far as to define soundness of mind as consistng in perfect recollection. Madness, then, consists in Athe broken thread of…memory which nevertheless continues to run uniformly, although with constantly decreasing fulness and distinctness (399). What is essential to madness is “the impossibility of a unformly coherent recollection” (401), and the madman is “incapable of any consideration or regard for the absent, the past, and the future.” Hence, at the core of madeness lies an inadequate engagement with time and memory, the repressed components being thrown into the unconscious which itself is removed from the time constraints of the conscious mind. These comments bear comparison with Freud’s remarks in his essays on repression and the unconscious that neuroses entail certain gaps in consciousness which it is the function of psychoanalysis to redress by allowing the patient to revisit the repressed circumstances and to effect their transition into the conscious mind through the mediation of a rationalising narrative. Such a technique might be equated with a restoration of the fullness and completeness of memory, together with an alteration of the paradigms  of acceptability of such restored coherence.

Another profound similarity between the two thinkers lies in the pervasive and comprehensive role they both attribute to sexuality. In his essays on sexuality, Freud had attacked the prevailing narrow conceptions of sexuality as a phenomenon which was absent in childhood, as exclusively heterosexual, and as aiming primarily at sexual union. Freud had discussed a range of sexual aims and sexual objects, the variety of possible erotogenic zones, and elaborated his ideas of infantile sexuality.  In these and other essays, he had attempted to show the pervasive connection between sexuality and and a wide range of neuroses. He had also argued that, even in the dialectic between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, the sexual instincts were the most difficult to educate. Schopenhauer also accords sexuality a central place in the economy of human motives. He described sexuality as the focus of the will. In his essay on “The Metaphysics of Sexual Love” he described the sexual impulse as “the strongest and most active of all motives…It is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort” (WWII, 533). He even goes so far as to define the sexual impulse as the will to live (535). He looked with askance at this state of affairs, affirming that sexuality “appears on the whole as a malevolent demon, striving to pervert, to confuse, and to overthrow everything” (534). What explains the important role of sexuality is that, whatever its proximate aim might be, its ultimate aim is reproduction, to procure the only kind of immortality available, the immortality of the species. Schopenhauer states that the growing attachment of two lovers is in reality the will to live of the new, unborn individual (536). The indestructibility of man’s true being in itself lies in the species rather than in the individual. Schopenhauer himself reflected sardonically on the fact that the entire maintenance of a species depends on an irrational, emotional, instinctual act.

Closely connected with both authors’ accounts of sexuality are their accounts of the life and death instincts. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud surmises that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces. He concludes ultimately that the aim of all life is death, driven by an instinct to return to the inanimate state (612-13). Freud here explicitly cites the parallel between his own views and those of Schopenhauer: “We have unwittingly steered our course,” he says, “into the harbour of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. For him death is the ‘true result and to that extent the purpose of life’, while the sexual instinct is the embodiment of the will to live.'” (618) Like Schopenhauer, Freud exempts the sexual instincts from this deathly disposition: the germ cells in an organism repeat the performance to which they owe their existence, and these germ cells work against the death of the living substance in winning for it what we can only regard as potential immortality. Hence Freud calls the sexual instincts the true life instincts (614-15).

Schopenhauer too regards death as the return to a blissful state. In his essay “On Death and its relation to the Indestructibility of our Inner Nature,” he states that “the entire cessation of the life-process must be a wonderful relief for its driving force.” Those who have engaged in the  terrible struggles for existence, he says, have “the return into the womb of nature as the last resource…Like everything else, they emerged from this womb for a short time, enticed by the hope of more favourable conditions of existence than those which have fallen to their lot” (WWII, 469). Moreover, for Schopenhauer, the true being of anything survives its own individual death; employing Platonic ideas, he suggests that the eternity of the idea of a given species is distinctly marked in the finiteness of an individual (482). In fact, “Death and birth are the constant renewal and revival of the will’s consciousness. In itself this will is endless and beginningless” (500). At the end of this essay, Schopenhauer presents us with the starkness of his pessimism: “Death is the great reprimand that the will-to-live, and more particularly the egoism essential thereto, receive through the course of nature…it is the violent destruction…of the fundamental error of our true nature, the great disillusionment. At bottom, we are something that ought not to be; therefore we cease to be. Egoism really consists in man’s restricting all reality to his own person, in that he imagines he lives in this alone, and not in others. Death teaches him something better, since it abolishes this person, so that man’s true nature, that is his will, will henceforth live only in other individuals” (507).

In conclusion, these similarities might be situated in the broader context of the respective pessimism and optimism of the two thinkers. Essentially, Schopenhauer turns away from the world while Freud is eager to confront it. Schopenhauer affirmed that genuine knowledge, as given exclusively by poetry, the arts and philosophy, must have as its object not the particulars of the material world but the underlying unity of the Platonic universal. Hence, he saw the modern world as confronted with the overarching problem of the One and the Many, torn as it was, in a condition of irony, between a scientifically inspired bondage to irreducible particulars and abstract spiritual schemes of unity. Schopenhauer urged that the only avenue of escape from bondage to the utilitarian and rational Will lies in the shared endeavour of philosophy and poetry. The “high calling” of the poet and philosopher, claims Schopenhauer, has its root in their common ability to free the intellect from the utilitarian and rational constraints of the subjective Will.  These disciplines have as their object not the world of becoming but the world of being, the permanent unity underlying the ever-changing flux of phenomena, the One behind the Many. Such freeing of the intellect was, for Schopenhauer, a stage on the Buddhistic and Hunduistic path to total renunciation of both world and Will, a path summarised in his phrase the “turning of the Will.”

As an overall characterisation of the historical connection between the ideas of Schopenhauer and Freud, we might say that what Schopenhauer posed pessimistically as timeless conditions of human existence are reformulated by Freud as problems with given determinants, whose specificity is what enables the proposed solutions of psychoanalysis.