Striving as Suffering: Schopenhauer’s A Priori Argument for Pessimism


This paper aims to clarify Schopenhauer’s a priori argument for pessimism and, to an extent, rescue it from standard objections in secondary literature. I argue that if we separate out the various strands of Schopenhauer’s pessimism, we hit upon problems and counterexamples stemming from psychology. For example, instances where striving (willing) does not appear to equate to suffering, which puts pressure on the Schopenhauerian claim that human life, qua instantiation of the will, is painful. Schopenhauer’s sensitivity to the complexities of human psychology means that he may be able to stave off such concerns. However, this reveals that true force of Schopenhauer’s argument lies in the manner in which he combines an a priori formulation with empirical observation. I conclude that, though not unproblematic, Schopenhauer’s argument in its most refined forms offers a deep articulation of the human condition, and warrants serious consideration.

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  1. 1.

    It would be a mistake to consider ‘Schopenhauer’s pessimism’ to be a single position, rather than an umbrella term for a variety of distinct views. As well as the claim considered in this paper, ‘pessimism’ could also be understood—for example—as the metaphysical claim that (1) our world is the worst of all possible worlds (see W2, pp. 583–588); or the historical-philosophical claim that, contra Hegel, (2) there is no significant progress in human history (see W2, pp. 442–444). Schopenhauer himself only begins to use the term ‘pessimism’ in the second edition of WWR in 1844, yet these various views are clearly present in the first edition in 1818.

  2. 2.

    It is an interesting question how far the argument can be plausibly endorsed using alternative conceptions of wellbeing. For an interpretation of Schopenhauer’s pessimism which does not rely on the truth of hedonism, see Migotti (1995). For a denial that Schopenhauer is committed to hedonism, see Neill (2011).

  3. 3.

    Much of what I shall present in this paper is applicable to animal life as well. While he believed there to be significant differences in the capacity for suffering between humans and animals (which I shall address later), Schopenhauer’s attention to animal suffering, and the relatively wide scope of his moral community, was at the time innovative. This is partly a result of his thoughts on the common experiences of striving and satisfaction which make up the a priori argument I will focus upon here.

  4. 4.

    I will not have time here to explain this point in detail, but Schopenhauer considers this possible for exceptional individuals via aesthetic contemplation (W1, §57), or a saintly ascetic resignation from life (W1, §68)—both of which amount in some way, according to Schopenhauer, to a distancing of the agent from their essence.

  5. 5.

    Schopenhauer points to various ascetic practices common to Hinduism, Buddhism, and early Christianity as evidence for this (e.g. W2, p. 169–170).

  6. 6.

    See footnote 1. It is worth noting that Schopenhauer does in one place talk in these broader terms, describing a particular empirical observation in animal behaviour as “an argument for pessimism” (W2, p. 356).

  7. 7.

    It is useful to acknowledge Schopenhauer’s understanding of “a priori” as referring to arguments drawn from his metaphysics which state universal features of human life. But metaphysics itself, for Schopenhauer, has its “origin” in “empirical sources of knowledge” (W2, p. 181). He held that “once a correct system of metaphysics has been found…then the unchangeable nature of an a priori known science will indeed belong to it, since its foundation is only experience in general, not particular individual experiences.” (W2, p.182). This differs from the a priori arguments of rationalists, which Schopenhauer, like Kant, considered “necessarily vain and fruitless” (W2, p. 182).

  8. 8.

    This essence, which constitutes a blind and arational striving force, he labels the Wille Zum Leben.

  9. 9.

    See, for example, Rozin (1999), p. 129.

  10. 10.

    On this point I agree with David Woods (Woods 2014). Cf. Soll 1988; Soll 2012).

  11. 11.

    It has been objected by David Cartwright (Cartwright 1988, pp. 51–66), Ivan Soll (Soll 1988; Soll 2012, p. 302), and Noël Carroll (Carrol 2003, p. 36) that some desires do not require a lack, rather, they depend upon having something already, where there is a wish to retain it (e.g. retaining one’s health, or place of residence). However, I shall not address this worry here, for I contend that plausible refutations have been offered. Firstly, that Schopenhauer is really interested in active striving and not merely desiring (as I shortly explicate further), and only the former intrinsically commits one to a goal of changing some state of affairs (Atwell 1990, p. 162; Janaway 1999, p. 329; David Woods 2014, p. 54). Secondly, desiring to retain something does involve a lack, namely: security or assurance of stability in maintaining the desired end. This is especially pertinent in the case of health, where one has to strive more and more to retain it with age and circumstance (Young 2005, p. 209). The latter claim is a key point made by Socrates to Agathon in the Symposium: “he desires that what he has at present may be preserved to him in the future, which is equivalent to saying that he desires something which is non-existent to him, and which as yet he has not got” (Plato 1989, pp. 40–45).

  12. 12.

    As I explain in the next section, this conflation of concepts is likely a source for the objection of equivocation that is traditionally levelled at the a priori argument. E.F.J Payne translates both “Begehren” and “Wunsch” as “desire” in some passages. However in others he translates “Wunsch” more accurately as “wish”. This difference sometimes occurs on the very same page: e.g. see Payne (1966, W1, §55, p. 300; §58, p. 319).

  13. 13.

    For detailed attention to this ‘push-pull’ image of willing, see Migotti (1995), p. 647.

  14. 14.

    These kinds of desire are also arguably far more prevalent in the twenty-first century than they were in Schopenhauer’s day (or, indeed, Montaigne’s and Rousseau’s day, from which discussion of boundless desire for prestige is also familiar). Not only has global capitalism reached a stage where there is a seemingly endless stream of products available for purchase—products that persistent advertising would have most of us believe we need—but the world today is significantly more interconnected. The artificial need for prestige in particular, and its accompanying anxiety, is, Schopenhauer would have surely observed, amplified exponentially by the phenomenon of social media. See P1, 368–369.

  15. 15.

    Jacquette (2005), p. 117.

  16. 16.

    The Buddhist view that desire or craving (Taṇhā) is suffering most closely resembles Schopenhauer’s own view that I consider in this paper. He explicitly recognises this, and in fact uses the large adherence to Buddhism as further evidence to support his position (W2, p. 169).

  17. 17.

    Schopenhauer similarly sometimes claims that a happy life is “impossible” (P2, §172a), instead of simply an exception. This may on the surface appear as imprecise, or at worst a clumsy error, given that Schopenhauer does allow that some modes of life can invite escape from suffering. But it is important to distinguish between freedom from suffering—what Schopenhauer calls ‘salvation’ [Erlösung]—and ‘happiness’, which, as we have seen, Schopenhauer conceives of in terms of the lasting satisfaction [Befriedigung] of the empirical individual. Understood in these technical terms, Schopenhauer can claim that ‘happiness’ is unattainable or fleeting at best, while still maintaining that some exceptional individuals (i.e. the ascetic, artist, or saint) can avoid suffering through some form of self-denial or resignation.

  18. 18.

    It is worth noting that in this paper I have focused on pessimism at the level of each agent. However, Schopenhauer also often uses ‘pessimism’ and ‘optimism’ as terms pertaining to judgements of the existence of the world as a whole. This is clearest in his classifications of religions as either optimistic—i.e. seeing the world as justified in-itself—or pessimistic— i.e. seeing the world as something that ought not to be—(see W2, p. 170; P2, §179). Whether understood summatively or not, pessimism about the world ‘as a whole’ may be left unscathed even if pessimism at the level of the individual is put into doubt. For relevant passages which emphasise the world rather than the individual, see W2, p. 576, pp. 357–359; P2, §150, p. 263, §156, p. 269. For sustained attention to this distinction, see Hassan (forthcoming).

  19. 19.

    For a representative sample, see: Young (1987), pp. 145–152; Cartwright (1988), p. 59; Soll (1988), pp. 111–112; Migotti (1995), pp. 648–650; Janaway (1999), p. 333; Carrol (2003), p. 36; Vasalou (2013), pp. 138–140.

  20. 20.

    Dühring (1865), p. 94; 95.

  21. 21.

    Simmel (1986), pp. 55–56; 64.

  22. 22.

    On some plausible interpretations, this was to be influential for Nietzsche’s theory of agency as ‘will to power’. See Reginster (2006).

  23. 23.

    I use ‘optimism’ here not necessarily in its traditional sense to reflect the view that this is the best of all possible worlds, but the broader view that life is worth living.

  24. 24.

    Note that this point is best understood taking into account an earlier distinction: in terms of striving for a goal, rather than merely desiring a goal. It is plausible that a simple desire can act as a pleasurable ambition/anticipation for a number of years, for one may never even decide to try and achieve it (something similar to a ‘pipe-dream’). But if one strives for that goal—i.e. is already by definition committed to actively seeking it out—this pleasurable anticipation likely has a shorter life-span.

  25. 25.

    It is worth noting that perhaps the optimist is on stronger grounds in one respect here, for one can presumably still derive pleasure from an awareness of one’s causal efficacy even in (some) cases of failure. For instance: a sports team that has put in tremendous effort against a superior opponent yet still loses. It is plausible to suppose the team could still find joy in their struggle, even if there might also be frustration or disappointment in losing. I suspect, however, that this joy might be explained in terms of the satisfaction of other goals subordinate to that of winning (e.g. giving a stronger team a run for their money).

  26. 26.

    Schopenhauer elsewhere defends a stronger asymmetry thesis: that the mere presence of suffering is sufficient to outweigh any amount of happiness, since happiness—being a negation—cannot be expected to affect, either positively or negatively, that of which it is a negation (see W2, p. 576). For close analysis of this argument, see Woods (2014), p. 71.

  27. 27.

    See W1, Bk. 4, especially §59; W2, Ch. 46; P2, Ch. 11, 12. For contemporary empirical evidence of this nature, see Benatar (2006), pp. 89–92.


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List of Abbreviations

Works by Schopenhauer are cited by section using the following abbreviations and translations:

W1 = The World as Will and Representation, Volume One, J. Norman & A. Welchman & C.

Janaway (eds./trans.), Cambridge University Press, 2010.

W2 = The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, trans. E.F.J. Payne, Dover Publications, 1966.

P1 = Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 1, trans. C. Janaway and A. Del Caro, (Cambridge, 2014).

P2 = Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, trans. C. Janaway and A. Del Caro, (Cambridge, 2015).

FE = The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, C. Janaway (eds./trans), Cambridge University Press, 2009.

For the original German:

Schopenhauer: Sämtliche Werke, ed. Arthur Hübscher, 7 vols. (3rd edn.; Wiesbaden: F. A. Brockhaus, 1972; 4th edn.; 1988).

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Hassan, P. Striving as Suffering: Schopenhauer’s A Priori Argument for Pessimism. Philosophia (2021).

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  • Schopenhauer
  • Pessimism
  • Wellbeing
  • Hedonism
  • Value theory