Perfection: A real nuisance

November 29, 2021

Yesterday I got distracted by Schopenhauer’s account of how logic. And we will have to come back to Logos, the etymological root of logic, eventually, both in Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (lectures 1935; book 1953), as well as in the work of one of his famous students, Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (1958).

But as we reach the penultimate post of November (this is my twenty-ninth), I can’t quite stretch my brain to either.

So let’s keep it light and stick to Schopenhauer today, shall we? This comes from the Appendix, “Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy,” The World as Will and Representation, Volume I (1818), translated by E. F. J. Payne, 499.

In this section Schopenhauer is summarizing Kant for us. Although he hates Hegel, Schopenhauer always has qualified but nice things to say about Kant:

Kant’s greatest merit is the distinction of the phenomenon from the thing-in-itself, based on the proof that between things and us there always stands the intellect, and that on this account they cannot be known according to what they may be in themselves.

He is a big fan of Kant’s influence, but not a big fan of England’s (he frequently complains about how nobody in England has read Kant):

The change of tone and of the metaphysical background that has appeared in German works on natural science since Kant is remarkable; before him things were the same as they still are in England.

Kant’s merit, for Schopenhauer, is that he fights against the tendency toward the “unreflecting pursuit of the laws of phenomenon, the enhancement of these to eternal truths, and the raising of the fleeting phenomenon to the real inner being of the world, in short, realism, not disturbed in its delusion by any reflection […]”

This is important. The default position before Kant is a kind of naïve realism. You assume that your experience is real, you apply “reason” and form abstract/eternal truths, and then you take your fleeting and unexamined experiences to say something about fundamental reality. Earlier philosophers don’t examine how these perceptions themselves are formed, nor do they examine language.

Schopenhauer then notes that Berkeley (1685–1753; whom he likes much less than he likes Kant) and Malebranche (1638–1715) made some strides in the direction of idealism.

More importantly for our purposes, he notes that this view, i.e., that perceptions are fleeting and misleading, “prevails in the whole of non-Mohammedan Asia,” by which he presumably means within Buddhism and Hinduism.1 Once again, the ideas may actually have come from the East, as Alison Gopnik has argued for Hume’s “bundle” view of the self, which she found suspiciously similar to the Buddhist position (i.e., that no true self exists).

If what came before was, for Schopenhauer, a kind of naïve realism, then this naïveté was accompanied by a kind of naïve morality:

Ethics was also treated by that realistic philosophy according to the laws of the phenomenon, which it regarded as absolute and holding good even of the thing-in-itself. Therefore ethics was based now on a doctrine of perfect happiness, now on the will of the Creator, and finally on the notion of perfection.

So just as earlier “Western” thinkers perceive “reality” in a straightforward way, they also perceive “the good” in a straightforward way which they assume reflects the will of God. Ethics moves from happiness to the will of Creator, and finally to an abstract “notion of perfection” that need not invoke any God.

I’ve asked before: What does perfection mean?

According to Schopenhauer, not a whole lot, without context:

In and by itself, such a concept is entirely empty and void of content, for it denotes a mere relation that acquires significance only from the things to which it is applied. “To be perfect” means nothing more than “to correspond to some concept presupposed and given,” a concept which must therefore be first framed, and without which the perfection is an unknown abstract quantity and consequently means nothing at all when expressed alone.

Notice that Schopenhauer jumps immediately to the abstract form of perfection, and not the indexical sense of “complete” that Spinoza described as preceding the formation of abstract categories.

He finds this approach tautological:

Now if we want to make the concept “mankind” into a tacit assumption, and accordingly to set it up as a moral principle for aspiring to human perfection, then in this case we merely say: “Men ought to be as they ought to be,” and we are just as wise as we were before.

But then he backs up to Spinoza’s point, that etymologically, perfection relates to completeness:

In fact, “perfect” is very nearly a mere synonym of “numerically complete,” since it signifies that, in a given case or individual, all the predicates that lie in the concept of its species appear in support of it, and hence are actually present.

The idea that perfection once meant actually present is important; see my earlier mention of indexicality. The first kind of perfection is something you can point to in the world as complete or finished, something which is not abstract at all.

I find Schopenhauer’s exasperation at notion of perfection quite funny. “Mere idle display of words” and “a real nuisance”!

Therefore, the concept of “perfection,” if used absolutely and in the abstract, is a word devoid of idea, and so also is all talk about the “most perfect of all beings,” and the like. All this is a mere idle display of words. Nevertheless, in the eighteenth century this concept of perfection and imperfection had become current coin; indeed, it was the hinge on which almost all questions of morality and even of theology turned. It was on everyone’s lips, so that ultimately it became a real nuisance.

He laments the fact that intelligent people wasted brain power on this:

We see even the best authors of the time, Lessing for example, entangled most deplorably in perfections and imperfections and wrestling with them. Here any thinking man was bound to feel, vaguely at any rate, that this concept is without any positive content, since, like an algebraical symbol, it indicates a mere relation in abstracto.

To me it seems important that Schopenhauer laments that minds were wasted on a seemingly pointless abstract issue. I think this kind of lament may be characteristic of “the West”. The controversy has since melted away.

Later, to give another example, Otto Neurath (1882–1945) would argue that both magic and science involve observing regularities and trying to influence them to our advantage. The problem is with theology, which came between the ancient age of magic and the modern age of science. Theology, to Neurath, does nothing more than add useless metaphysical arguments.

I’ve also heard John McWhorter argue this about Thomas Aquinas, something like, “You almost feel bad for the guy, that he didn’t have anything [other than theology] to devote that enormous brain to.”

I’m beginning to think that such accusations are themselves a philosophical tendency in “the West.” Schopenhauer, at least in his youth, is insanely excited about German Idealism and the path to forward progress in philosophy that it represents. But it wouldn’t surprise me to hear a scientist today lament the use of Schopenhauer’s own enormous intellect toward “useless” metaphysical questions.2

I can’t really parse the last bit of Schopenhauer’s paragraph. I think he’s saying that action is related to the thing-in-itself, whereas the phenomena are not. But I do love the fact that he comes to see sensory experience as an “unstable and insubstantial dream,” like Chuang-tzu dreaming he is a butterfly.

Kant, as we have already said, entirely separated the undeniable, great ethical significance of actions from the phenomenon and its laws, and showed that the former directly concerned the thing-in-itself, the innermost nature of the world, whereas the latter, i.e., time and space, and all that fills them and is arranged in them according to the causal law, are to be regarded as an unstable and insubstantial dream.

  1. I’d be super curious if he knew anything about Taoism.
  2. Though it must be noted that by the standards of the “Western canon”, Schopenhauer is positively brimming with life and practicality.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.