History holds many thinkers who have dabbled in transhumanist ideas. One such thinker was the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
Arthur Schopenhauer was a philosopher who lived in the part of the world we now know as Germany. He lived from 1788 to 1860, and spent most of the latter part of his life in the city of Frankfurt am Main.
Although conservative in his political views and personal habits, Schopenhauer’s philosophy appeals to me as a transhumanist. This is because it emphasises the negative aspects of the human condition, and suggests how we might escape these, and achieve a higher state of being.
Schopenhauer’s brand of transhumanism is rather different from the modern, progress-centred view of humanity. It is negative, emphasising the bad aspects of humanity from which we must escape. Schopenhauer suggests that the way in which we can become better is through ceasing to be conscious beings, and immersing ourselves in art, music, or intellectual pursuits.
At the core of Schopenhauer’s world view is the idea he drew from his intellectual hero, and fellow German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). This idea is that human consciousness is split into two areas. These are ordinary consciousness and a higher state of being that could perceive things as they really are.
These two states of consciousness correspond to the two sides of the world. These are the world or representation (Vorstellung, as Schopenhauer called it in the original German) and the world of will (Wille). The world of representation can be thought of as the world that is apparent to us, and that we perceive using our senses and the empirical methods of science. The world of the will is the world as it actually is.
These two worlds are related, but it is a mistake to conflate the image with the real thing, and as human beings, we can only ever perceive images, glimpses of the shadows of a deeper reality.
This idea of the will is a complicated one. Schopenhauer doesn’t mean god, or any other kind of metaphysical consciousness. The will is probably best described as a constant, mindless, unconscious, bloody-minded striving on the part of everything in the universe to be rather than not to be.
Human beings have the capacity to engage in rational thought, which corresponds to the world of will. However we also have an underpinning volition to strive and to survive.
Humanity is poised between a life of base survival and reproduction, and that of intellect. Schopenhauer believed there are ways we can escape the world of mindless striving, and escape into a timeless contemplation of a higher reality.
For Schopenhauer, a keen flautist, these were the escapes of music and art. In losing ourselves in aesthetic contemplation we could transcend our baser selves.
Schopenhauer came to many of the same conclusions as those found in Buddhism, although he came to them independently, having published his major works in 1818 whilst the ideas of Buddhist philosophy were only introduced to Europe in the 1830s and 1840s.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy blended that of Plato, Kant, and the Hindu Upanishads to create a worldview that manages to be both compelling and depressing: existence is suffering. It is an endless buffet of boredom and pain, combined with a constant striving for that which cannot be attained. And yet there is escape. Human beings can perform works of art and lose themselves in the craft of music, game playing, or workmanship.
What Schopenhauer means by “losing ourselves” in artwork is very similar to the idea of “flow” as described by the modern psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is a mental state of full involvement with an activity.
This idea of flow is ironic as it suggests in that most human of activities, that of artistic expression, we do not use that most human of faculties of conscious awareness.
Schopenhauer is usually portrayed as the pessimists’ pessimist, but I can’t help feeling that Schopenhauer could be interpreted as saying something profoundly optimistic: even if conscious existence is suffering, it is within our power to lose ourselves in art, and transcend our baser propensities for violence and conflict.
This is a powerfully transhumanist idea, but it raises profound questions about humanity and what it is to be human. What exactly is consciousness anyway? Do we lose our humanity when we reject it, or do we become something different?
The British mathematician and logician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) once wrote that “civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” What progress has meant over the last two hundred years of industrialisation has been just that. The mindless drudgery of Adam Smith’s pin factories has been replaced by machinery (not everywhere and in every case, mind you). Humanity as a whole is no longer “conscious” of many of the things it produces. Human attention is not needed for many of the day-to-day activities of civilization.
This is true on an individual level as well. I wake when an alarm sounds. I move about the place in an automobile whose operation I barely understand and that I don’t have to consciously “think” about to use. I just do it. In fact I am “conscious” for only a very small portion of my time. What does consciousness add to my life?
So to return to Schopenhauer: perhaps consciousness, like greed or hunger, might just be another human attribute the transhumanist sloughs off on the road to posthumanity.
I would say anyone who recognises the frailty of the human condition, and the necessity of escape, can be counted a transhumanist. Schopenhauer could not have dreamed of the emerging technologies that grant us the possibility of escape, so Schopenhauer advocated an ascetic life dedicated to the arts. Perhaps we can do better.
Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John N. Gray. This book offers a sketch of Schopenhauer and how his ideas tie into a negativist conception of transhumanism.
Gloom Merchant by Roger Scruton. Scruton disagrees with what he calls Schopenhauer’s “comprehensive gloom” and offers a contrary view on human progress.
The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy has a brilliant entry on Schopenhauer and introduction to his philosophy.