Schopenhauer On Philosophy’s Overton Window

by John Holbo on February 4, 2018

On Facebook a friend was mentioning that good old Francis Bacon bit:

The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.

This reminds me of a bit from Arthur Schopenhauer I really love. In this other thread I joked about The World As Willed Misrepresentation, but here’s the real deal: Schopenhauer on philosophy’s Overton Window, so to speak. This is from his Parerga and Paralipomena (the title means something like ‘extras and omissions’), which used to be damned hard to find but was reissued last year (volume 1, volume 2).

Another great advantage that poetic achievements have over philosophical is this, that all works of poetry exist side by side without hindering each other, indeed, even the most heterogeneous among them can be enjoyed and appreciated by one and the same mind; meanwhile, each philosophical system, scarcely does it enter the world, is already plotting the downfall of all its brothers, like an Asian sultan who comes to power. For, just as there can be only one queen in a beehive, so too only one philosophy as order of the day. Systems after all are of such an unsocial nature, like spiders who sit all alone in their web and watch how many flies may be caught in it, but approach another spider only in order to do battle. So while the poetic works graze peacefully next to each other, like lambs, the philosophical works are born rapacious beasts, such that in their lust to destroy, like scorpions, spiders and certain insect larvae, they target their own species. They come into the world like the armoured men from the seed of Jason’s dragon teeth, and to this day, like the latter, they have all mutually annihilated one another. Already this struggle has lasted over two thousand years: will a final victory and enduring peace ever arise from it?

As a result of this essentially polemic nature, this ‘war of all against all’ of philosophical systems, it is infinitely harder to achieve legitimacy as a philosopher than as a poet. The poet’s work after all demands nothing more of the reader than to engage a series of entertaining or inspiring formulations, and a few hours of devotion. The philosopher’s work, on the other hand, aims to overthrow the reader’s entire way of thinking, and demands of him that he declare everything that he has learned and believed in this genre to be in error, his time and effort lost, and that he must begin anew; at best it leaves a few of the predecessor’s ruins standing, in order to make a foundation of them. To this is added the fact that it has an official opponent in every teacher of an already existing system, indeed, that occasionally even the state extends its protection to a preferred philosophical system and using its powerful, material means prevents the rise of any other. Now let one further add that the size of the philosophical public compared to the poetic is proportionate to the number of people who want to be instructed versus entertained and one is able to measure under which auspices a philosopher makes his appearance. – On the other hand, to be sure, what rewards the philosopher is the approval of thinkers, the elite of long periods of time and all countries, without national differences; the masses learn eventually to honour his name by deferring to authority. Accordingly, and because of the slow but deep effect of philosophy’s course on the entire human race, the history of philosophy has flowed for millennia beside the history of kings and yet counts a hundred times fewer names than the latter; which is why it is a great achievement for the philosopher to secure a lasting place there. (Volume 2, Chapter 1, section 4)

Parerga and Paralipomena is a lot more entertaining than The World As Will and Representation. I can’t honestly say it’s first-rate. A lot of it is distinctly not. The section on women is about as bad as you would expect – which is to say, very very bad. If something else in your life is tugging you towards Schopenhauer, or early 19th Century German philosophy and culture, or the roots of Nietzsche’s philosophy, or whatever, you should check out these volumes. (Myself? I got into old Arthur, chasing down the roots of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Your mileage may vary.) Some of it is just cranky. He writes an essay about how he hates noise.

Kant wrote an essay on the living forces, a but I would like to write a dirge and a threnody on them, because their all too excessive use in knocking, hammering and ramming has been a daily pain to me my whole life through. Of course there are people, indeed quite a few who smile at this, because they are insensitive to sounds; but these are the same ones who are also insensitive to reasons, thoughts, poetry and works of art, in brief, to spiritual impressions of any kind, due to the tough and unyielding texture of their brain matter. On the other hand, in the biographies or other accounts of personal utterances of almost all great writers, for instance Kant, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul, I find complaints about the anguish caused to thinking men by noise; indeed, if such information is missing in any one case, then it is merely because the context did not lead to it. I interpret the matter as follows: just as a large diamond cut into pieces is equal in value only to so many small ones, or an army shattered to pieces and dissolved into small units is no longer capable of anything, so too a great mind is no more capable than an ordinary one as soon as it is interrupted, disturbed, distracted and diverted, because its superiority is conditioned by concentrating all its powers on one point and object, as a concave mirror does all of its rays, and precisely this is prevented by the noisy interruption. This is why eminent minds have always abhorred every kind of disturbance, interruption and diversion, especially those of a violent nature through noise, whereas others are not especially bothered by this. The most sensible and intelligent of all European nations has even called the rule ‘never interrupt’ its eleventh commandment. But noise is the most impertinent of all interruptions, since it breaks up and indeed breaks down even our own thoughts. But where there is nothing to interrupt, noise is of course not particularly sensed. – Occasionally I am tormented and bothered by a moderate and constant noise before I am clearly aware of it, in that I sense it merely as a constant hindrance to my thinking, like dragging a weight with my foot, until I realize what it is. –

But transitioning now from the genus to the species, I have to denounce as the most irresponsible and scandalous noise the truly infernal whip-cracking in the echoing streets of the cities, which robs life of all peace and all pensiveness. Nothing provides me with a clearer notion of the obtuseness and thoughtlessness of mankind than the condoning of this whip-cracking. This sudden, sharp, brain-numbing crack, which cuts to pieces all contemplation and murders every thought, has to be painfully felt by everyone who bears anything resembling a thought in his head; therefore each of those cracks must disturb hundreds in their mental activity, however inferior it may be in quality, but they chop through a thinker’s meditations as painfully and disastrously as the executioner’s blade severs the head from the body. No sound cuts through the brain as sharply as this damned whip-cracking; the very tip of the lash can be felt in the brain, affecting it like a mimosa when it is touched, and lasting just as long. With all due respect for most sacred utility, I still do not see why a fellow who hauls off a load of sand or manure should therefore be granted the privilege of nipping in the bud every successively emerging thought in the heads of ten thousand people (for a half hour along a city route). (volume 2, Chapter 30)

But getting back to Francis Bacon. The ayes have it for the bees, perhaps, but Nietzsche has his suspicions. From Genealogy of Morals:

We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers: and with good reason. We have never looked for ourselves, – so how are we ever supposed to find ourselves? How right is the saying: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’; our treasure is where the hives of our knowledge are. As born winged-insects and intellectual honey-gatherers we are constantly making for them, concerned at heart with only one thing – to ‘bring something home’. As far as the rest of life is concerned, the so-called ‘experiences’, – who of us ever has enough seriousness for them? or enough time?



bad Jim 02.04.18 at 6:55 am

Today, the mockingbirds started singing. They’ve been around awhile, flashing their alarming wings and growling like blue jays, but just this morning they began performing their endlessly variable chants.

Of course I prefer their chorusing to the sound of leaf blowers and lawn mowers and jack hammers and air compressors, but it’s still noise, isn’t it? It’s louder than the usual chatter of finches and chitter of hummingbirds, certainly.


steven t johnson 02.04.18 at 10:54 am

“the chitter of hummingbirds…” I’m so thick I thought hummingbirds really do hum.


John Holbo 02.04.18 at 10:58 am

“I’m so thick I thought hummingbirds really do hum.”

Fake news!


William Timberman 02.04.18 at 12:31 pm

Hummingbirds do hum — with their wings. When one flies up to your face and hovers a bit before flicking away, which they’ll do sometimes, out of myopia, or curiosity, or who knows what, the humming is certainly loud enough to have given them their name.


Lee A. Arnold 02.04.18 at 1:51 pm

I take opposing philosophies as experimental evidence, starting from ancient times up to now, that will be explored in the coming age of neuroscience. There may be circuit structures of aggregated neurons in the brain, yet to be discovered, which allow one philosophy to predominate, then another. Philosophies will be like raw data in this effort. Perhaps poetry contacts the neurons at an emotional level which musters the intellective inputs more as metaphor, than for logical discovery. This emotional level is likely more basal and more widely shared among individuals. I’m not sure there is an Overton Window so much as an endless deepening and erasure of our understanding of the universe which characterizes modern science.


John Quiggin 02.04.18 at 7:18 pm

The Spider-Bee comparison is in Swift’s quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns.


AnthonyB 02.05.18 at 4:18 am

Yes, “the poet nothing affirmeth and therefore never lieth.” If, on the other hand, you make claims to truth then you will compete with others making such claims. Even within a given philosophy there is, alas, no diversity of truths: Nietzsche blamed Plato’s influential single Good for moral monoculture and thence monotheism. The philosophy Nietzsche envisioned being transmitted to the masses would be dressed up as a religion (more easily lapped up) and would have multiple gods (perhaps Dionysus and Ariadne). Since in classical times one could be a votary of more than one cult, one could hold more than one value for a given parameter, religion being taken deservedly lightly.


Belle Waring 02.05.18 at 6:59 pm

I think something more like “Omissions and Fragments,” dearest husband.


Glenn 02.05.18 at 10:07 pm


The ability to make good assumptions ( intuitive guesses) about the nature of reality promotes the passing of tests encountered in natural selection.

Babies demonstrate fear of falling when placed on an elevated glass surface.

Fear of falling from heights may be seen as a priori knowledge in an individual, but I see it as being a posteriori by means of genetically encoded reality tested (empirical) knowledge.


ccc 02.06.18 at 9:16 am


F. Foundling 02.07.18 at 4:55 pm

@Glenn 02.05.18 at 10:07 pm

An emotion, such as fear, is not knowledge at all. Knowledge is being aware of facts, not just reacting automatically to stimuli. It doesn’t matter whether the automatic reaction is conducive to a result that may correspond to somebody’s wish and objective (not to mention that neither individual nor, even less, species-level survival can simply be *assumed* to be an inividual’s wish and objective). Knowledge and emotional reactions may contradict each other – you may fear a snake, although you know it is harmless. If we equate knowledge and reactions, we might as well say that a vacuum cleaner ‘knows’ that it ought to start cleaning when you press a button [or else you will discard it and thereby prevent the temporary survival of the individual machine or the viability of the entire model!], and that a knife ‘knows’ that it ought to cut when it is pressed against a surface. Blurring the boundary between conscious knowledge and automatic reactions > blurring the boundary between human and object > blurring the boundary between free and unfree.


J-D 02.08.18 at 9:35 am

Systems after all are of such an unsocial nature, like spiders who sit all alone in their web and watch how many flies may be caught in it, but approach another spider only in order to do battle.

I read that and wondered whether it was true that spiders only approach each other to attack. The Wikipedia article suggests not; in fact, not only does it have examples of spider social behaviour, it has none of spiders approaching each other to attack.


F. Foundling 02.09.18 at 2:24 am


Well, the Wikipedia article on ‘Spider’ does contain a link to a whole separate article on ‘Spider cannibalism’. The Wikipedia article also mentions ‘a few’ social spider species, but the main article about ‘Social spiders’ begins with the disclaimer ‘Whereas most spiders are solitary and even aggressive toward other members of their own species …’. Social spiders and herbivorous spiders are interesting, but they are the exceptions. Also, I think that most people’s everyday observations will agree with Schopenhauer’s. I, for one, have co-habited with fairly decent numbers of spiders during most of my life and I can confirm that when the spiders that I am familiar with do approach each other, the encounter is, indeed, nearly always hostile (either to chase away or to cannibalise), with the rare exception of courtship and mating. And, of course, it is notorious that even mating is a very delicate business that may end sadly in many spider species.


John Holbo 02.09.18 at 5:09 am

I was just reading Eric Schliesser’s blog and recalled that – of course! – Plato uses the ‘king bee’ metaphor when it comes to forcing the philosophers to work!

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