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Awful historical men give me life advice (part 2)

October 18, 2016
In the first part of this series of reflections, I underscored the need to respond to those of my students who question the inclusion of canonical but admittedly awful historical men in the curriculum. As promised, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on Schopenhauer as a test case and try to outline a satisfying answer to this concern.

It is generally known that Schopenhauer was extremely misogynist and racist. My claim is that while this makes the experience of reading him repugnant, it doesn't automatically disqualify him from the philosophical canon because a) some of his ideas are logically detachable from his prejudicial views and b) a case could be made that his own philosophy contains the tools necessary to push past his limitations and articulate a better set of views. The case to be made with the example of Schopenhauer is that we should reject the prejudices of our discipline's heritage but not stop reading the classics. Where possible, we should appropriate what's best in those philosophers to provide a reading that goes against the grain of their self-understanding (and, for that matter, we should also widen the canon of "classics" to include marginalized and less awful voices!). Readers can refer back to my first blog on this topic for a methodological reminder: nothing says we have to hold finite human beings to the standard of perfect consistency, though we should of course hold them accountable according to the live options of their historical context. We should recognize that the history of philosophy is an eternal work in progress and do bricolage with the best of its ideas.

Approaching Schopenhauer, whose metaphysical system seems very odd at first blush, requires a bit of background. Though he was very well-read, he claimed that Plato, Kant and the Upanishads were about the only philosophical sources of any real worth. This is because, in his view, they best approximated his own philosophy, which can be drastically simplified as follows: the world of everyday experience ("representation") is an illusory covering for an eternal, unitary, unchanging, underlying world ("will"). From Kant, Schopenhauer borrowed the distinction between phenomena (things as they are experienced, falling under natural laws) and noumena (things as they are in themselves). But while Kant insisted that the noumenal realm was best understood through the category of human freedom in its capacity for rational self-legislating according to a universal moral law, Schopenhauer gives the noumenal world a darker cast. Calling it "will", he conceives it rather in terms of an endless, insatiable striving that can be likened to the pain of an intense craving (note in this connection how Nietzsche and later Freud would be influenced by Schopenhauer, who appears to have invented the notion of the unconscious!) The entirety of ethics, for Schopenhauer, concerns the cessation in the phenomenal realm of the noumenal will's clamoring (and on this score, he is impressed by Buddhism and Christian asceticism). But it also recommends a general point of view towards other sentient creatures, including animals: compassion. Each individual (in the world of representation) is an expression of an underlying pain through which all of us are unified.

Let's pause over this claim and see if we can square it with Schopenhauer's racism. He makes several ignorant, anti-Black comments in his writings, so you might think that his view of slavery - in full swing at the time of his writing - would be indifferent or even supportive. In fact nothing could be further from the case. His metaphysics, and the ethic of universal compassion which results, leads him to excoriate the institution in a remarkable passage. Speaking of the American Anti-Slavery Society's document Slavery and the Internal Slave-Trade in the United States of North America, he claims that "This book ... rouses one's human feelings to such a degree of indignation that one could preach a crusade for the subjugation and punishment of the slave-owning states of North America. They are a blot on mankind." (Essays and Aphorisms, p.138) He speaks of being moved to tears by the plight of his "innocent black brothers." (Ibid.) This seems entirely out of keeping with what we know about Schopenhauer the man, and yet it fits nicely with his philosophical system.
On his view everything in the phenomenal realm, including a person's character, is pre-determined. Schopenhauer's own knee-jerk racism can be chalked up on this model to simply the way he is. But because the phenomenal person as we have seen is not the real person, and because at the noumenal level we are all the same, this entails a duty of compassion. This is perhaps why Schopenhauer strikes us as so discordant: he is incorrigible in his prejudice, yet weeps for his African American brothers (and, presumably, sisters). The remarkable thing is that, since compassion ultimately concerns things as they are in themselves, it appears to represent a more properly philosophical aspect of Schopenhauer's system. The racialist and racist determinism is on this view secondary. We should never ignore it, but we should avoid the temptation to resign his writings to the flames on its account.
In the next and final part of this series, I'll ponder the question of how we might approach the teaching of awful canonical men in the classroom. It's one thing to discuss this problem in the abstract, and quite another when we consider the perspectives of the very people such awful historical figures are insulting - in particular, racialized and gendered students who must constantly engage with them through mandatory readings, lectures, and discussions.

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