The Failure of Philosophy

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A. PHILOSOPHY has hitherto been a failure. It could not, indeed, have been otherwise; because, instead of confining himself to the better understanding of the world as given in experience, the philosopher has aspired to pass at one bound beyond it, in the hope of discovering the last foundation of all existence and the eternal relations of things. Now these are matters which our intellect is quite incapable of grasping. Its power of comprehension never reaches beyond what philosophers call "finite things," or, as they sometimes say, "phenomena;" in short, just the fleeting shadows of this world, and the interests of the individual, the furtherance of his aims and the maintenance of his person. And since our intellect is thus immanent, our philosophy should be immanent too, and not soar to supramundane things, but be content with gaining a thorough grasp of the world of experience. It surely provides matter enough for such a study.

B. If that is so, intellect is a miserable present for Nature to give us. According to your view, the mind serves only to grasp the relations that constitute our wretched existence as individuals —relations which cease with the brief span of our temporal life; and is utterly unsuited to face those problems which are alone worthy to interest a thinking being—what our existence really is, and what the world means as a whole; in short, how we are to solve the riddle of this dream of life. If all this is so, and our mind could never grasp these things even though they were explained to it, then I cannot see that it is worth my while to educate my mind, or to pay any attention to it at all; it is a thing unworthy of any respect.

A. My dear sir, if we wrangle with Nature, we are usually in the wrong. For Nature does nothing that is useless or in vain—nihil facit frustra nec supervaeaneum. We are only temporal, finite, fleeting beings, creatures of a dream: and our existence passes away like a shadow. What do we want with an intellect to grasp things that are infinite, eternal, absolute? And how should such an intellect ever leave the consideration of these high matters to apply itself again to the small facts of our ephemeral life—the facts that are the only realities for us and our proper concern? How could it ever be of any use for them again? If Nature had bestowed this intellect upon us, the gift would not only have been an immense mistake and quite in vain; it would even have conflicted with the very aims that Nature has designed for us. For what good do we do, as Shakespeare says,

We fools of Nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.[1]

If we had this perfect, this all embracing, metaphysical insight, should we be capable of any physical insight at all, or of going about our proper business? Nay, it might plunge us for ever into a state of chill horror, like that of one who has seen a ghost.

B. But surely in all this you are making a notorious petitio principii. In saying that we are merely temporal, fleeting, finite beings, you beg the whole question. We are also infinite, eternal, and the original principle of Nature itself. Is it not then well worth our while to go on trying if we cannot fathom Nature after all—ob nicht Natur zuletzt sich doch ergründe?

A. Yes; but according to your own philosophy we are infinite and eternal only in a certain sense. We are infinite and eternal, not as phenomena, but as the original principle of Nature; not as individuals, but as the inmost essence of the world; not because we are subjects of knowledge, but merely as manifestations of the will to live. The qualities of which you speak are qualities that have to do with intelligence, not will. As intelligent beings we are individual and finite. Our intellect, then, is also of this character. The aim of our life, if I may use a metaphorical expression, is a practical, not a theoretical one; our actions, not our knowledge, appertain to eternity. The use of the intellect is to guide our actions, and at the same time to hold up the mirror to our will; and this is, in effect, what it does. If the intellect had more to do, it would very probably become unfit even for this. Think how a small superfluity of intellect is a bar to the career of the man endowed with it. Take the case of genius: while it may be an inward blessing to its possessor, it may also make him very unhappy in his relations with the world.[2]

B. Good, that you reminded me of genius. To some extent it upsets the facts you are trying to vindicate. A genius is a man whose theoretical side enormously outweighs his practical. Even though he cannot grasp eternal relations, he can see a little deeper into the things of this world; attamen est quodam prodire tenus. It is quite true that this does render the intellect of genius less fit to grasp the finite things of earth; just as a telescope is a good thing, but not in a theatre. Here we seem to have reached a point where we agree, and we need not pursue the subject further.



  1. Hamlet, I., Sc. 4.
  2. Translators Note. This is a favourite remark of Schopenhauer's. Some account of his interesting theory of Genius touched upon at the conclusion of this dialogue may be found in the concluding section of another volume in the series, The Art of Literature.