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Kant and Schopenhauer

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    Kant and Schopenhauer

    Schopenhauer objected to the metaphysics of Kant, and yet he is classified as a Kantian. I argue that the conventional designation is a valid one, and that objections put forward by Schopenhauer are only semantic in the end. Schopenhauer finds Kant’s philosophy couched in absolutist terms, and this he finds to be inhuman, and not what philosophy should be. The rigid scientific terminology of Kant seems to suggest a mechanical and Newtonian order in the realm of morals. It is as of the moral law denies the human being its freedom. To restore the semblance of human freedom Schopenhauer aims for an alternative metaphysical description that places the will at the forefront. I argue that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics does not differ in essence from that of Kant. However, the difference in terminology is important, for it gives rise to certain terms, like “empathy” and “compassion”, which are relatively lacking in Kant’s treatise, which is more involved in universal laws and ‘categories’. The analysis of Schopenhauer is definitely more human, and therefore is more conducive towards the implementation of morality in society. Kant’s analysis, however, should retain its primacy, being the more thorough and accurate theory. Schopenhauer’s analysis can then be taken as qualifying and enhancing Kant’s theory, rather than being a refutation of it.

    In specific terms, Schopenhauer objects to Kant using the word “law” to describe the moral order of the universe, as we find in Kant’s treatise Grounding of a Metaphysics of Morals. Schopenhauer felt that such absolutism was not called for in the arena of morality, or even that of philosophy, judging that philosophers should limit themselves to explication and description, and that there was no room for dogmatic assertion here. Responding to Kant, he says,

    What justification have you for … forcing upon us, as the only possible one, a system of Ethics couched in the imperative terms of legislation? I say, in contradistinction to Kant, that the student of Ethics, and no less the philosopher in general, must content himself with explaining and interpreting … (Schopenhauer 1998, p. 52)

    Schopenhauer does not merely accuse Kant of philosophical dogmatism; he in fact traces its roots to theological dogmatism. “I can only recognise the Decalogue as the origin of all these connected conceptions,” he says. He goes on to describe philosophy in the West as molded by the Christian tradition, and in Kant’s concept of Duty he identifies something as dictatorially imposed by higher doctrine. Kant describes Duty as disinterested on the one hand, and yet motivated by the Highest Good on the other, and this is why it is the vehicle of morality. Schopenhauer refuses to see it this way, and believes that morality should always be motivated by something tangible, like happiness. All motivation is in the end self seeking, he maintains. He analyses the Golden Rule in Christianity itself as self-seeking:

    The impossibility of violating the duty of self-love is at once assumed by the first law of Christian Morals: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” According to this, the love which each man cherishes for himself is postulated as the maximum, and as the condition of all other love. (Ibid, p. 58)

    Kant’s categorical imperative falls victim to the same analysis, it being a mere variation on the Golden Rule. The point of Schopenhauer is that it is no use appealing to universal laws, because the law of the will is a law in itself. It is such that it overcomes all imposed laws in the end, and also precedes all laws. He therefore centers his metaphysics on the will.

    But Schopenhauer can be said to be repeating Kantian metaphysics with semantic variation only. He cannot overhaul Kantian metaphysics through such trifling objection about the using of the word “law” to describe morality. What he does is introduce the novel concepts of ‘Will’ and ‘Representation’, and with such terminology he is able to render philosophy in a more descriptive and discursive way. This is how he believes philosophy should be. Through concentrating on the Will, he believes that his philosophy has become more human. By emphasizing the primacy of the Will he is also emphasizing human freedom. It is as if he is saying that human beings are not limited by dogmatically rendered ‘laws’, and through the freedom of the will we overcome all such restrictions.

    From a purely metaphysical point of view, Schopenhauer’s objection is unjustified. Kant’s moral law does not work against human freedom, but in fact embodies it. The formulation of the moral law comes through a strict consideration of human freedom. To see this it must first be pointed out that Duty is a disinterested act. All other acts are motivated my material ends. Kant describes motivation as a cause, so that if an act is motivated by some material object, it must also be described as having been caused by it. Thus, ‘cause and effect’ regulates human action, in the same way that it orders the realm of inanimate objects. In fact we are unable to differentiate between the two sorts of ‘cause and effect’. Now, in the realm of inanimate objects we do not say that an object is free, because it is bound by physical law. In the same way, human action is not free when it is “caused”. Freedom of the will can only be established when all ulterior motives are eliminated, which makes for a disinterested act, and that which Kant defines to be Duty. When one is dutiful one has achieved the freedom of the will. Kant also calls this a universal law of morality, and the introduction of the word “law” has provoked Schopenhauer’s protest. In doing so he overlooks the substance of Kant’s theory and focuses on semantics.

    This does not necessarily imply that the differences between the two philosophies are superficial. Words are important too. Schopenhauer is justified in his complaint that Kant’s philosophy comes across as too rigid and absolutist, which is apparent in the way the categorical imperative is framed: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (Kant 63). There are many others than Schopenhauer who have commented that such a rule is too formal to ever be of practical use. And yet Kant tries to be as informal as possible, and devises it as a mere rule of thumb to guide in moral matters. He admits that Duty cannot be described in any terms whatsoever; because every description must predicate it to something else that is material. Kant gives us the categorical imperative as a tortured compromise, because he realizes that it is wrong to let Duty remain an inaccessible philosophical concept. Even after the compromise, Kant’s theory fails to inspire moral action. Schopenhauer complains that it is impossible to be always mindful of ‘humanity’ in all our actions. We cannot be tending to “universal law” in our particular actions, but we can pay attention to our own will. The will directs towards selfish acts, and it is true that most of these acts are not for the greatest good, and therefore cannot said to be moral. Morality, says Schopenhauer, is established through compassion. This comes about when, through our willing, we are able to reflect the will of others. In the extreme case our will merges with the wills of everyone else, and then we have engaged in a purely moral act.

    Schopenhauer’s concept of ‘compassion’ is a valuable one, and is certainly more accessible than Kant’s theory. It only remains to show that Kant’s theory does indeed include what Schopenhauer is trying to say. We first notice that the particular wording of the categorical imperative contains the word “will” at its very heart. It indeed establishes the primacy of the will in the moral act, just as Schopenhauer would like it to be. It is only through willing that we are able to overcome all the contingencies of cause and effect. Now, only a little rephrasing of Kant’s rule delivers Schopenhauer’s message. We put the rule thus, “I must act so that my will does not infringe on the will of others” or “I must act so that my will coincides with the will of others”. Either way, I have arrived at Schopenhauer’s idea of compassion. Therefore, the categorical imperative expresses exactly Schopenhauer’s sentiment, which is proof that his earlier objections were unjustified.

    We draw the conclusion that Schopenhauer, though he frames his philosophy of the Will in opposition to Kant, does not really differ from Kant’s philosophy in essence. Our first response is that it is only a semantic difference. But a more considered respoinse is that semantics do matter in the end. While trying to overcome the rigidness of Kant’s theory, Schopenhauer arrives at the valuable concept of compassion. It is said to be a vehicle to morality, just as Kant’s ‘universal moral law’ is. However, the former concept is far more accessible than the latter, and here lies its worth. It is a trivial matter to show that they are indeed identical concepts.


    Kant I. (2005). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. New York: Broadview Press.

    Schopenhauer A. (1998). On the Basis of Morality. Translated by E. F. J. Payne. Minneapolis: Hackett Publishing.


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