Schopenhauer and the Aesthetic Standpoint Philosophy as a Practice of the Sublime
The book in a nutshell. We have known Schopenhauer as the author of one of the most powerful expressions of pessimism in intellectual history—as the philosopher who uttered a diamond-hard “No” to the whole of existence, having first claimed to have established its nature. Yet if the Schopenhauer we know is the dark, brooding advocate of world-denial, the reactions his philosophy has provoked in his readers might sometimes seem hard to explain. Nietzsche would use the language of “intoxication” to describe his reaction to Schopenhauer’s vision; Tolstoy would speak of an experience of “continuous ecstasy”; Thomas Mann of a “metaphysical magic potion” that left one besotted.
With our attention often focused on how philosophy speaks to our reason, these visceral reactions of inebriated and vertiginous wonder which speak to a different aspect of ourselves are easy to overlook. In many ways, this book started as a reflective meditation on the experience of reading Schopenhauer’s philosophical works. Its main proposal—which is not meant to negate alternative ways of reading Schopenhauer, but to correct for their omissions—is that to understand Schopenhauer’s philosophical standpoint fully, we need to refer it to the terms of his own aesthetic theory, and more specifically to the vertiginous experience of the sublime which formed a staple of Romantic aesthetic sensibility.
At the same time, this way of understanding Schopenhauer offers us important tools for recalibrating the way we respond to his philosophy more critically. And here, central to my argument is the suggestion that Schopenhauer’s philosophical practice—a practice of the sublime that puts us in touch with an extraordinary state of subjectivity—can be connected to a similar moment in ancient philosophy—to an ideal of letting the soul soar upward to behold the truest realities and connect itself to its own truest identity. In the ancient context, this moment of soaring attracted a specifically ethical qualification, namely “greatness of soul” or megalopsychia. It is a virtue that philosophers reviving the ancient ethical legacy have often been disposed to overlook. My claim is that they shouldn’t; and that it is a character trait that, in its tight connection to the notion of wonder and to that of hope, offers the key not only to the way we should approach Schopenhauer, but to the way we should respond to the realities we still share with him.
Reviews. The book has been reviewed in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2014); Philosophical Investigations 37 (2014); Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 54(2015); Classical Journal (2015), Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74 (2016).