‘The Terrifyingly Ancient’: Is Schopenhauer a Correlationist?

Today’s contribution comes from Matthew Ray, author of Subjectivity and Irreligion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), taking on the rarely mentioned Schopenhauer and his relation to speculative realism.

Matthew Ray, ‘The Terrifyingly Ancient’: Is Schopenhauer a Correlationist?

Intellect and matter are correlatives, in other words one exists only for the other, both stand and fall together

– Schopenhauer[1]

After Finitude, by Quentin Meillassoux, is a notably perspicuous work of recent French philosophy (‘Ah! The old style…’). Perhaps its most useful innovation for the historian of philosophy is primarily terminological: the introduction of the expression ‘correlationism’. The term is used, largely retrospectively, to cover a substantial part of the history of recent philosophy that sees man and world as being necessary correlates. This, then, may be the basic characterisation of correlationism: a philosophy in which man and the world depend upon one another and are, in fact, co-originary.

Meillassoux himself writes in After Finitude:

Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. [2]

Although Berkeley is the most prominent name that will spring most immediately to mind (esse est percipi aut percipere being his famous dictum), Husserl and Heidegger are two of the great reference points for Meillassoux himself here. It is Kant, however, who is really the proximate source of correlationism itself, as Meillassoux’s After Finitude attempts to demonstrate, especially at the end in its summary of Kant’s correlational ‘Ptolemaism’.

The question I find worth posing here is whether a significant post-Kantian philosopher, and one, moreover, whose whole philosophy itself is significantly informed by Kantian doctrines above all others, Arthur Schopenhauer, can be adequately summarised as being such a ‘correlationist’.


My response to what is essentially a question of historical categorisation – a question that used to be framed largely under the faintly constrictive headings of rationalism and empiricism – must expressed negatively primarily because 1) of correlationism’s being characterised (in Meillassoux at least) by a strict anthropocentric bias when it comes to considering the subject and 2) Schopenhauer’s relative (relative to Heideggerean phenomenology, say) lack of an anthropocentric worldview.

Schopenhauer certainly believes that ‘world’ and ‘subject’ are indeed correlated. In this he is admittedly pretty close to correlationsim and, in particular, of course, to Kant’s own version of it. But although in some moods Schopenhauer does seem to casually presuppose it, he does not ever actually insist that the subject necessarily be a human being. On the contrary, he sometimes explicitly admits that it need not be. Although it does need to be living being, the subject could be a red kite, stonefish, cane toad or even an insect. Anything, in fact, it would seem, with eyes[3]. In the first volume of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer makes the following ‘ancestral statement’ when writes of our world:

And yet the existence of this whole world remained forever dependent on that first eye that opened, were it even that of an insect.[4]

Fine! But where did that first eye come from?

There are clearly all sorts of very obvious problems here about what was happening before subjectivity emerged, since there could be no world supported by it (since ‘Intellect and matter are correlatives’ as he puts it).

Reading Schopenhauer’s work as a whole, one gets a vague sense that a material world is there and is building up to the creation of an eye. But there can be no matter in the world before representation. All such difficulties are summarised by Meillassoux as referring to the aforementioned ‘ancestral realm’. The key question pertaining to all talk of the ‘ancestral realm’ is, of course, this one: How are we to conceive of the empirical sciences capacity to yield knowledge of the ancestral realm?[5]

Or, more modestly and more specifically in relation to Schopenhauer, the question is: how do we explain all our scientific knowledge of the world as it existed and developed before the ‘first eye that opened’? It seems to me that Schopenhauer has no discernable answer to the philosophical puzzle of a timeless incubation period of representation itself but he does seem to believe that living beings were produced on a pre-organic stratum in the first sentence of the second volume of The World as Will and Representation:

In endless space countless luminous spheres, round each of which some dozen smaller illuminated ones revolve, hot at the core and covered over with a cold hard crust; on this crust a mouldy film has produced living and knowing beings; this is empirical truth, the real, the world.[6]

Admittedly, Schopenhauer does then go on to cloud this issue considerably by marking this view out as being provisional and programmatic and by rehearsing Berkeley’s argument that nothing can be perceived without a perceiver and thereby suggesting that his characterisation of what we take to be the real is naïve and pre-reflective in a way that has been philosophically revolutionised by the achievements of Descartes, Berkeleley and Kant. Nor, I should mention, does Schopenhauer clarify matters any further by his innumerable conflations of the terms ‘mind’ and ‘brain’[7].

But what is, in any case, obvious in the quote from The World as Will and Representation about the insect’s eye is Schopenhauer’s characteristic lack of, as opposed to Heidegger’s resolute attachment to, what some may be lured into calling the slightly maladroit term ‘specicism’. (It would be strange if Heidegger and Schopenhauer were bedfellows, given Heidegger’s snide sideswipes against Schopenhauer in, for example, the Nietzsche lectures. We must not imagine, though, that just because Heidegger disavowed Schopenhauer he did not borrow anything from him and their aesthetics, in particular, share some striking similarities[8].) Admittedly, in Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the Platonic Ideas, which is a kind of weird neo-classical adjunct to his Kantian philosophy of the will as thing-in-itself, Man is the pinnacle of all the Ideas. And in his aesthetics, which is largely based upon his Platonic metaphysics (the chief exception here being music and, arguably, tragedy), the quintessentially Schopenhauerian and, in fact, ultimately classical claim is that: ‘Man is more beautiful than all other objects’. Or, as Dale Jacquette has phrased it: ‘Schopenhauer’s nineteenth century transcendental idealism confirms the ancient Greek ideal of the human form as paramount among artistic subjects.’[9] Or, alternatively, as Clément Rosset, has it: in Schopenhauer, humanity is a ‘privileged manifestation’[10].

So it would be obviously wrong to simply assert that there is no privileging of the human or ‘specicism’ at all in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. But although man may indeed be paramount among artistic subjects, he is not paramount among existence subjects, to coin an admittedly initially rather unattractive phrase. If ‘correlationism’ is, therefore, defined as the characterisation of man and world as being irreplaceably interlocked (the phenomenological fetish), Schopenhauer can justifiably be denied the label. If it is to be defined – and it hasn’t been, so far, by Meillassoux[11] – as animal and world as being interlocked then he can justifiably be attached to it.

No object without subject. But who is the subject? The Schopenhauerian insect belongs to Meillassoux’s ancestral realm. Meillassoux: ‘I will call ancestral any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species’.

[1] Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. II (New York: Dover, 2004), 15.

[2] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude (London: Continuum, 2009), 5.

[3] This in itself appear to be a problem, since the blind can tell objects from their sense of touch alone without an eye. Indeed, the sense of touch is prioritised by all of us insofar as if we could see something but feel nothing we would take it to be mirage, whereas if we could see nothing but feel something we would take it to be an invisible object. Schopenhauer is explicit about a certain priority that may be afforded to touch: ‘Touch, however, is a thoroughly versatile, and well-informed sense. For whereas each of the other senses gives us only an entirely one sided account of the object, such as its sound or its relation to light, touch […] supplies the understanding with data regarding simultaneously the form, size, hardness, smoothness, texture, firmness, temperature and weight of bodies; and it does all this with the least possibility of illusion and deception, to which all the other senses are far more liable.’ The World as Will and Representation Vol. II, 27.

[4] F. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. I,, 30. We must not suppose, however, that the world of this insect looks the same as ours: ‘the insect sees everything on its little stem and leaf with the most minute accuracy and better than we can;’ (p.146)

[5] Meillassoux, After Finitude, 26.

[6] Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. II, 3.

[7] See e.g. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. II, 46.

[8] As I previously noted in Subjectivity and Irreligion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

[9] Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation I, 210. D. Jacquette, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Chesham: Acumen, 2005), 154.

[10] Clément Rosset, Schopenhauer, Philosphe de l’absurde (Paris: PUF, 1994), p.92. Contrast this with the tone of David Hume’s comment that ‘the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than the life of an oyster’, Selected Essays (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 319.

[11] ‘We do not know of any correlation that would be given elsewhere than in human beings’, Meillassoux, After Finitude, p.11. See also p.50: ‘the correlationist cogito also institutes a certain kind of solipsism, which could be called ‘species solipsism’.’  We must not imagine, however, that all of Meillassoux’s fellow critics of correlationism will limit correlationism to the human species: I may be permitted to record here that Graham Harman explicitly does not.

11 thoughts on “‘The Terrifyingly Ancient’: Is Schopenhauer a Correlationist?

  1. Even Kant, in certain moments, has adequately acknowledged that his subject need not be a human being; his apriori’s pertain to the structure of rationality per se; this is certainly the case in his ethics where he seems concerned with rational agent qua rational agent. Concede this, and one is halfway to conceding that the insect or the amoeba is a subject with its own incipient rational structure. And if an amoeba philosophizes, it too might come up with a kind of single-celled correllationism.

    Having said this, it has to be confessed that there is clearly a kind of anthropocentric impetus in Kant. It would be interesting to read this, in Kant or in Schopenhauer, in terms of a kind of ambivalence about human beings rather than a stark privileging of their ptolemaic centrality. In Schopenhauer’s case, that ambivalence seems palpable.

    • Yes, Schopenhauer does have that ambivalence, though your comment got me thinking that Schopenhauer does privilidge the human in another way: insofar as humans are the only species that can renounce the world.

  2. It seems quite trivial to say that, because Meillassoux never explicitly states that correlationism applies to living organisms beyond human beings, Schopenhauer is not a correlationist (nor would Kant be, as per the first comment). I realize the final footnote tempers this a bit, but please, anthropocentrism is less the strategic enemy of Speculative Realism than simply the binding of thought and reality, whatever the source of thought be. That first After Finitude blockquote could easily be read as applying to non-human subjectivities, whether Earthian animals or interstellar aliens. Further, the least interesting work of SR is retrospective labeling of this or that philosopher as a correlationist. It’s much more interesting when, as Harman does with Heidegger, SR unearths a totally unique reading with unheard of implications.

    • Thanks, Tim. You’re right about Buddhism – but unfortunately I don’t talk about it elsewhere. It would be fascinating to talk of Zen, Gelassenheit in Heidegger and renouncing the will in Schopenhauer. I suspect that to do so properly would really require reading the Kyoto school of Japanese philosophers, some of whom tried to combine a kind of post-Heideggereanism with Zen. …one day I’ll study them!

  3. There are clearly all sorts of very obvious problems here about what was happening before subjectivity emerged, since there could be no world supported by it (since ‘Intellect and matter are correlatives’ as he puts it)

    It’s quite some time since I read Schopenhauer – but isn’t Schopenhauer’s answer to this that matter is only the world as phenomenally perceived by an individuated subject, and that noumenal reality is not matter but will? As I understood it, in Schopenhauer’s version of transcendental idealism temporality only applies to the phenomenal realm, so it doesn’t make sense to ask about what exists in-itself in terms of temporal priority: temporality is a category of subjective empirical phenomenal perception. The arche-fossil or whatever can exist in itself independent of human or animal perception, but that existence will be non-temporal.

    (It’s a silly position, if you ask me, but as far as I can tell it does allow Schopenhauer to speak of an ‘in itself’ even though he sees intellect and matter as correlatives. (Intellect and Matter are both empirical epiphenomena of the noumal reality that is Will.))

    • Duncan – your comment is thought provoking: you are right: noumenal reality is non-temporal. But, on the other hand, I suppose, it is also non-spatial. So the arche-fossil can’t exist beyond time it would be submerged in the will. (…But in the second volume of The World as Will Schopnhauer steps back a bit and says the will isn’t thing-in-itself but is the closest we can get to it!) So, I suppose the question then is, why did the will manifest itself in this way? And still, the scientific findings of pre-biological times would have no validity according to Schopenhauer because the world as representation emerged only with insect life. It’s a pretty tricky set of questions and I know these answers aren’t wholly adequate. (Not least because, as you say, its a silly position.) I’d genuinely like to hear more of your thoughts on it, though.

      • Thanks Matt, I’m not sure I’ve got any more thoughts really though. I agree the arche-fossil would be non-spatial too, if unperceived, and therefore arguably in some sense not the arche-fossil at all. But my assumption is that for Schopenhauer the representation that is phenomenal reality still in some sense genuinely does relate to (represent) the noumenal reality behind it. I.e. scientific knowledge still is knowledge of the will – it just mistakes reality-for-us with reality-in-itself, and therefore overestimates the extent or nature of its knowledge. I guess it doesn’t matter what that empirical knowledge applies to – whether it’s pre- or post-emergence-of-perceiving-life: phenomenal reality is just as much and as little an adequate representation of the noumenal regardless. And my memory is that Schopenhauer does regard it as adequate to some extent.

        As I say, though – it’s quite some time since I read him, so you’re much closer to the text than I am. I’d forgotten about the modification of the position in volume II, for instance. (Sorry to leave the thread hanging for so long, also.)

  4. A century after Schopenhauer, Sri Aurobindo resolves the riddle of this world in a fashion that can’t be glossed over. Speculative and intuitive at the same time, his ontology has a tranformative dimension too which transports to question-less zone. [TNM]

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