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Title: Pessimism in Kant and Schopenhauer. On the Horror of Existence
Other Titles: Pessimism in Kant and Schopenhauer. On the Horror of Existence
Authors: Vanden Auweele, Dennis
Issue Date: 22-Oct-2014
Abstract: The historical period of the 18th and early 19th century is usually perceived as the high point of human self-emancipatory optimism. Specifically, the Enlightenment (or the Aufklärung or the Siècle des Lumières) believed that reason would guide humanity from darkness to the light. Ay, there's the rub, so rhymes the Bard of Avon, for wherefrom arriveth the urge to flee the dark? The rationalist propensity to remodel and re-invent the world is testament to a dreary and pessimistic analysis of the human condition. Thus, the Enlightenment made a largely self-content analysis of the natural, traditional and historical condition of humanity which suggested that underneath its emancipatory, rationalist optimism lurks an unspoken perspective on reality that, in the verse of Alexander Pope, “on weak wings, from far, pursues [its] flights”. In this dissertation, I have called that perspective ‘the horror of existence’: the tacit acknowledgment that whatever is naturally and historically presented to the human agent is to be treated with suspicion. Nietzsche even declared such squinty eyes part and parcel of the bad blood of Western metaphysics in its ignoble resentment towards the vitalistic full-bloodedness of existence. Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer are the protagonists in the investigation into the pessimistic focal point that looms underneath the Enlightenment’s alleged optimism. Three points of inquiry are central to unravelling this pessimism. First, it is to be established that Immanuel Kant – the proverbial vanguard of the Aufklärung – actually subscribed to a sense of pessimism. Virtuous duty is the code word of Kant’s ethics: to act in a fashion in opposition to certain countermoral inclinations. While Kant calls such behavior ‘autonomy’ in the supposed fullest sense of the term, such autonomy is lacking in appeal in comparison to the pursuit of happiness (both of which are valid goals of humanity). If rational morality is left unassisted, it remains in the perennial danger of being ineffective. The human agent is ill-disposed towards the moral law and radically inclined to overturn the moral world order. Accordingly, Kant turns to certain religious tools to bestow a kind of moral education that would augment the appeal of morality without ever making the human agent in any way inclined to moral virtue. At best, the human agent is justified in his/her rational faith to moral progress. In sum, while Kant believed that immanent rationality is the appropriate guide for moral pursuits, it is lacking in appeal to the finite and frail human agent. Second, it is to be shown that Schopenhauer’s more overtly pessimistic philosophy is a continuation of a certain philosophical impetus at work in Kant’s philosophy. After Schopenhauer questions the irresistible appeal of rationality, he finds that the Kantian recalcitrance to morality could very well be understood as self-justified self-expression of a blind, amoral will. Since even Kant admitted that rationality lacks in appeal to draw humanity in line, why would rationality be the most intimate aspect of noumenal reality? Instead, the human agent is mired in a depravity from which only his/her own frail and quasi-powerless tools can facilitate an escape. Accordingly, an ethics of compassion, a sublime piece of art, a pessimistic religion and proper philosophical insight can facilitate an escape from reality and (re)turn the human agent to blissful nothingness. Third, it is to be shown that Kant and Schopenhauer’s specific sense of pessimism is a philosophical translation of a certain theological perspective on the interplay between nature and goodness. Instead of thinking about nature and good as on a continuum, the Protestant Reformation (but also nominalism and Gnosticism) introduced a radical dualism between nature and goodness which requires nature to be radically reformatted. No good is to come from the exercise of nature: works do not justify. Similarly, Kant and Schopenhauer reiterate how a radical change in the normal behavior of the human agent is the only escape from his/her depraved condition. But how do you fuel a quest for health if that which would do the healing is diseased to its core?
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Centre for Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy
Centre for Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Culture

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