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English isn't my first language and I am reading an essay by Arthur Schopenhauer. I came across the following lines I couldn't understand:

The Art of Literature By Arthur Schopenhauer:

"Thus genius may be defined as an eminently clear consciousness of things in general, and therefore, also of that which is opposed to them, namely, one's own self."

I cannot really make sense of it. Can someone kindly try to let me know, in simple terms, what this all means?

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  • Which essay was this? That might help someone find the quoted passage. Welcome to Philosophy! I also made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. Feb 23, 2019 at 12:42
  • "Thus genius may be defined as an eminently clear consciousness of things in general, and therefore, also of that which is opposed to them, namely, one's own self."
    – Sayaman
    Feb 23, 2019 at 13:07
  • For that reason, genius may be defined as having a clear consciousness of things in general, and therefore it is also derived from the thing that is opposed to them: our own self.
    – Sayaman
    Feb 23, 2019 at 13:11

2 Answers 2

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Quote in context and its origin

This quote is dubious. It is supposed to be taken from "a chapter in the Parerga entitled Den Intellekt überhaupt und in jeder Beziehung betreffende Gedanken: Anhang verwandter Stellen" (preface).

After quite a while of research, I found the original quote in a different translation in Schopenhauer, A. (2000). Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, trans. by E.F.J. Payne (Vol. 2). Oxford University Press:

§54

A genius is a man in whose head the world as representation has attained a degree of more clearness and stands out with the stamp of greater distinctness; and as the most important and profound insight is furnished not by a careful observation of details, but only by an intensity of apprehension of the whole, so mankind can look forward to the greatest instruction from him. If he develops and perfects himself, he will give this now in one form and now in another. Accordingly, we can also define genius as an exceedingly clear consciousness of things and thus also of the opposite, namely of our own self. Mankind, therefore, looks up to one so gifted for information about things and about its own true nature. (bolded mine)

Interpretation

As you can see, the quote is (as most earlier reflections of him on genius) about the genius being able of deeper insight into the true nature of things beyond their particularities. One of the insights - this is the main theme of Schopenhauer's philosophy in general - is that everything that is linked to objects of the will (the world as representation, corresponding what we commonly call empirical reality) is mere illusion enforced by The (World) Will on our selves. Hence, we can learn about our own (true!) selves (only) from geniuses because the genius apprehends the whole, i.e. the relations between selves, the world, and the world as representation. To see beyond The Will is a distinct ability of the genius:

The intellect of ordinary people is kept strictly tied, namely to its fixed point, the will, so that it resembles a short and therefore rapidly swinging pendulum, or an angle of elongation with short radius vector. The result is that in things they see really nothing except just their advantage or disadvantage, the latter, however, the more clearly whereby there comes a great facility in dealing with things. The intellect of the genius, on the other hand, sees the things themselves, and in this consists his aptitude. (§50)

This is linked to another theme of his where he describes genius as the ability to reflect the true picture of things (including human selves) in earlier paragraphs:

The genius is one who has a double intellect, first for himself and the service of his will, and secondly for the world whose mirror he becomes by his apprehending it in a purely objective way. (§51)

Aside

Interestingly, the German text of the original textbit that I found reads differently (my translation, preserving Payne's where possible):

A genius is a man in whose head the world as representation has attained a degree of more clearness and stands before him more pronounced: and as the most important and profound insight is furnished not by a careful observation of details, but only by an intensity of apprehension of the whole, so mankind can look forward to the greatest instruction from him. If he develops and perfects himself, he will give this [i.e. instruction] in one form or another. [end of paragraph] (edition of A. W. Hayn, 1851)

Here, you can see that the last two sentences are simply omitted (as some others are). I cannot fathom why though and lack knowledge of the editorial works or manuscripts to vouch for any of these versions.

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To understand Schopenhauer’s definition of genius, we have to keep in mind a few of the following considerations:*

  1. The difference between a genius and an ordinary person lies exclusively in the sphere of knowledge. According to Schopenhauer, any knowledge, be it knowledge of a genius, of an ordinary person, or even of an animal, always presupposes two opposite sides, or halves, that are a knower (subject of knowing) and a known (object of knowledge). These opposite halves of any knowledge can’t exist without each other.

Our knowing consciousness, appearing as outer and inner sensibility (receptivity), as understanding and as faculty of reason (Vernunft), is divisible into subject and object, and contains nothing else.” (FR, chapter 16, p.41, Open Court Publishing Company, 1974). One more quote: “Therefore the world as representation … has two essential, necessary, and inseparable halves. The one half is the object, whose forms are space and time, and through these plurality. But the other half, the subject, does not lie in space and time, for it is whole and undivided in every representing being. … Therefore these halves are inseparable even in thought, for each of the two has meaning and existence only through and for the other; each exists with the other and vanishes with it.” (WWRI, chapter 2, p. 5, Dover Publication, Inc, 1969).

Because these two opposite halves of any knowledge are inseparable, even in that of a genius, Schopenhauer does not forget, in his definition of genius, to mention both halves: the known of a genius as “an eminently clear consciousness of things in general” and the knower as “one’s own self”.

  1. Each knowing being is a knowing individual because he possesses not only knowing consciousness, but also a body. Schopenhauer writes: “But he [knowing being] himself is rooted in that world; and thus he finds himself in it as an individual, in other words, his knowledge, which is the conditional supporter of the whole world as representation, is nevertheless given entirely through the medium of a body, and the affections of this body are, as we have shown, the starting-point for the understanding in its perception of this world.” (WWRI, chapter 18, p.99).

It also means that our body serves as a condition for another division of our knowing consciousness into two opposite halves: consciousness of other things (objects outside our body) and self-consciousness (feelings of internal states of our body). However, because the division of consciousness into subject and object is essential, inescapable condition of any knowledge, it means that self-consciousness will also contain this division into subject and object.

“All knowledge inevitably presupposes subject and object; and so even self-consciousness is not absolutely simple, but, like our consciousness of other things (i.e., the faculty of intuitive perception), is divided into a known and a knower. Now here the known appears absolutely and exclusively as will.” (FR, chapter 41, p.207-208). And further: “However, we have not merely an outer self-knowledge (in sensuous intuitive perception), but also an inner, and yet in consequence of its nature all knowledge presupposes a known and a knower. Thus within us the known as such is not the knower but the willer, the subject of willing, the will.” (FR, chapter 42, p.211).

In our self (what we mean by the word “I”) the subject of knowing (intellect) and the subject of willing (will) form temporary and necessary identity. It’s this identity that is the essence of knowledge of ordinary individuals and all animals. In this knowledge of ordinary individuals, intellect in its original condition is directed by and subordinated to will, because will is the essential thing and intellect is only secondary.

“But in all knowledge the known, not the knower, is the first and essential thing… Therefore in self-consciousness the known, consequently the will, must be the first and original thing; the knower, on the other hand, must be only the secondary thing, that which has been added, the mirror.” (WWR II, chapter 19, p. 202). “… the intellect in its activity in the service of the will, that is, in its natural function, really knows mere relations of things, primarily their relations to the will itself, to which it belongs, whereby they become motives of the will, but also, with a view to the completeness of this knowledge, the relations of things to one another.” (WWR II, chapter 29, p.363).

  1. “Genius consists in the knowing faculty having received a considerably more powerful development than is required by the service of the will, for which alone it originally came into being… Genius, therefore, consists of an abnormal excess of intellect, which can find its use only by being employed on the universal of existence. (WWR II, chapter 31, p.377).

This excess in knowing faculty makes a genius capable of a special kind of knowledge that appears under condition of certain changes in his subject of knowing. These changes consist of temporary “disengagement”, “detachment” of subject of knowing from subject of willing in self of an individual. Thus, the essence of genius can be defined as an inborn ability to the changes in subject of knowing when “knowledge of the genius is essentially purified of all willing and of references to the will… and only when the intellect, freed from willing, moves freely over objects, and yet is energetically active without being spurred on by the will. This is certainly contrary to the nature and destiny of the intellect; thus it is to a certain extent unnatural, and for this reason exceedingly rare. But it is precisely in this that the true nature of genius lies; and in this alone does that state occur in a high degree and for some time, whereas in the rest it appears only approximately and exceptionally.” (WWR II, chapter 31, p. 380-381).

I will remind the reader, however, that any knowledge presupposes subject and object as two inseparable halves, even knowledge of a genius. So, changes in subject of knowing will always have corresponding changes in known objects. In the state of pure contemplation (knowledge of a genius), when we “lose ourselves entirely in the object… and we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, … and if, therefore, the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject has passed out of all relation to the will, what is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea, the eternal form, the immediate objectivity of the will at this grade. Thus at the same time, the person who is involved in this perception is no longer an individual, for in such perception the individual has lost himself; he is pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge.” (WWR I, chapter 34, pp. 178-179).

So, the unclear phrase in Schopenhauer’s essay should be understood as the following:

“Thus genius may be defined as an eminently clear consciousness of things as Platonic Ideas, the eternal forms of things, and therefore, also of that which is opposed to them, namely, one’s own self as pure will-less subject of knowledge”. “An entirely objective perception… is absolutely conditioned by a complete silencing of the will which leaves the person as pure subject of knowing. The aptitude for the prevalence of this state is simply genius”. (WWR II, chapter 30, p.371).**

*All bold fonts are mine.

**All Schopenhauer’s quotes are given in Payne’s translation from the editions mentioned above.

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