Schopenhauer’s Telescope:

Tracing the Mind of a Clever Animal

Drew Kopp

Rowan University

For those who do not find it too subtle, the following consideration can also help clarify the fact that the individual is only appearance, not the thing in itself. Every individual is on the one hand the cognitive subject, i.e. the complementary condition for the possibility of the whole objective world, and on the other hand a single appearance of the will, which is precisely what objectifies itself in every thing. But this duality of our essence does not remain in a self-subsisting unity: otherwise we would be able to be aware of ourselves in ourselves and independent of the objects of cognition and willing: but this is absolutely impossible. Rather, as soon as we try for once to understand ourselves, and to do so by turning in on ourselves and directing our cognition inwardly, we lose ourselves in a bottomless void and find ourselves like hollow, transparent spheres from whose void a voice is speaking, while the cause of it is not to be found within, and in wanting to grasp ourselves we shudder as we catch nothing but an insubstantial phantom. (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation I 304 Cambridge)

In the above brief note embedded within paragraph 54 of the first volume of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Arthur Schopenhauer gives one particular view of a crucial philosophical and rhetorical problem that he terms the Weltknotten, the “world-knot”: what is the possibility of knowing the knower? And once we turn around to face ourselves, only to find nothing there except a voice whose cause is not to be found in this inner emptiness, what then? The reader shudders to find they are not even a “they”: there is no one, no thing there. Our sense of self so full of significance and pathos falls apart like the house of cards it is. Here we have the opening salvo of the pessimistic conclusion for which Schopenhauer is infamous: Life is something that should not have been. This is the ontological insight his discourse is designed to deliver for the reader, who, if this discourse is to be taken seriously, must by degrees dissolve in the face of this critique that goes to the heart of the matter of human existence and its value.

This bitter pill of truth is itself, on Nietzsche’s view, an expression of what he calls the “will to truth.” This drive has dominated the history of philosophy, from ancient Greece to the twilight of metaphysics in the 20th century, interpellating a veritable parade of largely male figures who have pursued with devotion the aim of this will: to illuminate one’s self and to then lead the unillumined out from their private darknesses and into the vast, well-lighted, and deeply focused vision the will to truth presses before eyes presumed to be eager for such instruction.

What feeds this will, what emerges from and returns to the dark interstices at the margins of philosophy, always barely slipping from the clutches of Western metaphysics—whose minions strive always to name what escapes naming—is the radically indeterminate realm of rhetoric.[1] Within this realm all expressions of the drive for certainty dissolve into infinity, including the totalizing project of philosophy to inoculate humanity against deception and its treachery by establishing some self-certainty upon which to base all our investigations. If rhetoric is the counterpart to philosophy, indeed its recalcitrant shadow, it will always and already remain so in the face of the most extraordinary efforts of the will to truth to subdue, master, and eradicate it. For Nietzsche to name the will to truth is itself an act that is equal parts philosophic and rhetorical, for this rhetorical act allows philosophy to see itself, not without shame, as rhetorical from the ground up: the ultimate rhetorical “truth,” that truth itself emerges from untruth, like some utterance from a hollow, transparent sphere “from whose void a voice is speaking.”

Consequently, to count oneself a philosopher, an emissary of the will to truth, is a bold, barely conceivable maneuver, one requiring an overweening degree of self-esteem that expects the world, by virtue of the artifacts of written discourse left in the wake of thought, to follow these lines of flight, and as a consequence, those who have let themselves be so directed at last emerge into that masterful horizon of consciousness that only has eyes for the true, the beautiful, the good. While it may appear to be safe to play along, the reader who takes up the philosophic text risks much, for what if, in the end, employing this expertly designed machine of philosophy does indeed educate, that is, does interpellate the reader, assigning roles that cannot be put down so easily once the mask has been donned? Plato was quite wary of this danger, going so far to have Socrates suspiciously prod his interlocutor Hippocrates at the beginning of Protagoras, showing his concern for the youth’s perhaps shameful desire to “entrust the care of [his] soul” to a dreaded sophist. Because it is unlikely for Hippocrates to know what a sophist is, it is not possible to know what will come of the education a sophist will give his students, good or ill (312c). Such an education, according to Plato, is in “making clever speeches” (312e) concerning that which “nourishes the soul,” though it is certainly an education lacking real knowledge concerning the quality of what is imparted (313c), as Socrates “proves” through his dialogue with the old sophist Protagoras himself. Regardless of Plato’s elaborate response to this sophistic power he pretends not to exercise, where nearly every one of his dialogues seek to demolish the logos and ethos of each of the sophists appearing in these pamphlets for the Academy, the entire corpus of Plato’s Dialogues can barely hide its roots in the so-called first sophistic.[2]

But even if the reader enters the clutches of the clever speeches of an arch-sophist such as Plato, who has succeeded in veiling his sophistry across twenty centuries of dogmatic slumber, rhetoric still provides ways of seeing, of reading, the available means of persuasion within the given constraints the interpellated subject of the will to truth has been dealt. Such “seeing” promises the reader access to speaking back, access to confront and wrestle with the ever watchful will to truth that constrains reading to merely duplicate or “double” the philosophic text in ways that match, or at least reflect all prior readings. Such “protected” readings serve merely to reproduce, in Derrida’s words, “the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language.” What risk is there in performing a reading where one “must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer, between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language that he uses” (Of Grammatology 158)?

The certain relationship I am aiming to reveal is the rhetorical dimension of the role of the philosophic pedagogue, the voice of the will to truth, vis-à-vis the student/reader: the unseen dimension at work, in plain sight, in the letter, which exposes the philosopher to be inescapably rhetorical, against all protestations to the contrary. Indeed, I aim to participate in this game of illumination, but with a difference. I risk posing a question that might guide us toward surrendering a protected reading, allowing a proleptic projection to be dissolved and relinquished in favor of what the questioning reveals. Any protected reading serves to maintain a particular horizon, or limitation, that the declarative face of the text reiterates; a close reading of the signifying structures that secretly guide the conscious intent of a writer, leads instead to the production of an opened reading. Here, instead of the long familiar educatory voice, the act of reading itself releases a discourse that speaks through the voice of the philosopher, and says what the philosopher may not have intended to say.

In taking a careful look at the visible traces of two texts, each written by a different 19th century German philosopher—on the one hand, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer on the other—I will seek to perform such an open reading, to un-close a rarely posed question, a question that examines the philosophical discourse guided by the will to truth and intended to bring its addressee into “illumination,” while at the same time revealing that any such illumination is impossible. This careful reading will draw forth, as if by magnification, undeclared meanings visible in the interstices between the larger, more easily seen, declarations. I shall begin by fixing and focusing my eye on the fable that begins Nietzsche’s essay “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außer-moralischen Sinne” (“Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” hereafter referred to as TL), written in 1873, after The Birth of Tragedy and during the composition of The Untimely Meditations, though it remained unpublished in his lifetime.

An Isolated Eye Among Countless Others

In the first sentence of Nietzsche’s essay we find an initial pathway, a stylistic trace that takes us, by intertextual degrees, to adumbrate the corpus of another philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, lurking there in the background like a hollow sphere out of the void of which a voice is speaking. Nietzsche presents there an “invented” a fable where

In irgend einem abgelegenen Winkel des in zahllosen Sonnensystemen flimmernd ausgegossenen Weltalls gab es einmal ein Gestirn, auf dem kluge Tiere das Erkennen erfanden. (KSA I 875)[3]

(In some isolated corner of the spread-out universe, among countless shimmering solar systems, there was once a heavenly body on which clever animals invented knowing.)

Breazeale begins his translation of Nietzsche’s fable with “Once upon a time” (79); quite understandable as “gab es einmal,” occupying the middle of the sentence, almost always begins German Märchens. But Nietzsche begins with “In irgend einem,” which translates as “in some one…,” emphasizing—more potently than the fairy tale beginning—the ridiculous coincidence that life just happened to come into being in some one anonymous, distant, and isolated (abgelegenen) corner. Isolated from what position? Or the better question to ask is: what device, what instrument would grant the ability to see this one heavenly body (Gestirn) from among the multitudes of flickering lights already spread throughout the universe? What permits the vision, not only of this one body on which clever animals invented knowing (kluge Tiere das Erkennen erfanden), but of the clever animals themselves? Only a powerful telescope could so extend vision, allowing some isolated eye to see closely what would otherwise remain distant and unnoticed from among the countless other objects that fill the vast sky. And there must be an eye that uses this device to select isolated particulars.

Since Nietzsche’s statement surreptitiously includes the possessor of such an eye to be among the ranks of clever animals, it threatens to intoxicate the possessor with a bit of arrogance. The telescope and the eye that it aids: these are but the means to acquire knowledge. And so “knowing” is itself the clever invention that provides a sufficient ground for the eye to, well, see, and consequently, to know about this event in which clever animals invented knowing, and to know by means of a telescope that also extends sight into what was long ago and once upon a time.

A stark contradiction arises within this magnified view. Nietzsche holds up a privileged perspective, but instead of granting us mere knowledge of something truly isolated and foreign, it gives us a surreptitious view of the eye itself, as well as its possessor. Nietzsche provides a lens through which to “see” the self, magnified. This magnification of the self—knowing the self as clever—is the special knowledge Nietzsche imparts through his fable—his words arranged as if they could function as a conceit: a “telescope” with which to view something impossibly distant and isolated, i.e., the self. Thus, this fable appears as if telescopically enhanced to fit within a very narrow field of view, as if the watchful eye stumbled across this heavenly body by accident with a trusty sight-extending tube pointed strategically into the exact right spot in the night sky. The notion to arrive at this telescopic trope springs from the inescapable conclusion lying at the back of this fable: that the existence of the universe here actually hinges on the clever beasts’ ability to know. In particular, it depends on the eye stationed in some isolated corner gazing through the philosopher’s magnifying tube constructed of precisely selected words and carefully crafted statements.

However, Nietzsche admits in the next statement that his fable cannot accurately depict the way things really are; it is but a metaphor, quite inadequate after all. He has provided a faulty telescope through which to see:

So könnte jemand eine Fabel erfinden und würde doch nicht genügend illustriert haben, wie kläglich, wie schattenhaft und flüchtig, wie zwecklos und beliebig sich der menschliche Intellekt innerhalb der Natur ausnimmt. (KSA I 875)

(Thus could anyone invent such a fable, though it would have failed to sufficiently illustrate how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how purposeless and arbitrary the human intellect appears to be from the point of view within nature.)

Thus, the arbitrary and capricious situation knowing beings are subject to is accentuated in the failure of the fable to illuminate the truth. This begs the question of the possibility of occupying such a point of view, of the eye that nature looks through to see the human intellect in such a light, and what such a vision, when granted, does to the viewer occupying this point of view, if but for a moment, an Augenblick.

But if Nietzsche knows enough to make a claim on behalf of nature, why did he not invent a fable that could more sufficiently illustrate these more truthful ways the intellect appears in nature’s eyes? While Nietzsche highlights the arrogance present due to the intellect’s assumption that “the world’s axis turned within it” (als ob die Angeln der Welt sich in ihm drehten), he does not seem to pretend to escape the charge of arrogance. He admits, in effect, that a certain kind of telescope aids his eye in seeing the clever animal he is himself, allowing him to catch himself in the very act of inventing a fable. Thus, as the philosophical narrator, Nietzsche too suffers from the same hubris, and he knows this, despite the description that gives him the philosophical privilege to occupy such a perspective a clever animal is condemned to lack. It seems as if Nietzsche was practicing the educative act of illuminating those in need of it through his figure that produces an endless set of reflections on the self who is caught in the act of spinning round fast enough to catch a glimpse of the self, only to find nothing but an insubstantial phantom. Perhaps Nietzsche failed to invent a more “proper” fable out of simple humility. But perhaps he did not do so because it was already done “properly,” and Nietzsche was ever so cleverly improper.

Fathers and Sons

In 1844, Arthur Schopenhauer published a new edition of his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, which included a second volume that extended the four books of first volume with greater depth, rigor, and eloquence. It happened to be the same year as Nietzsche’s birth—an isolated event certain to remain unknown to Schopenhauer’s eyes even until his death in 1860.[4] The philosopher opens this second volume with the chapter “On the Fundamental View of Idealism,” inventing there a wry fable, as if the world-eye[5] telescopically fixed itself upon his scratching pen. He begins:

Im unendlichen Raum zahllose leuchtende Kugeln, um jede von welchen etwan ein Dutzend kleinerer, beleuchteter sich wälzt, die inwendig heiß, mit erstarrter, kalter Rinde überzogen sind, auf der ein Schimmelüberzug lebende und erkennende Wesen erzeugt hat. (WWV II 11)

(In endless space countless shining spheres, around each of which some dozen smaller illuminated ones roll about, hot at the core, covered with a cooling, solid crust, on this a moldy film produced living and knowing beings.)

Rather than drawing attention from the start to an isolated corner and a specific heavenly body (Nietzsche used the word Gestirn instead of Schopenhauer’s more general Kugel) amongst endless others, Schopenhauer employs the figure of auxesis to shift focus by degrees from endless space to the inner molten cores covered with cooling, hard crusts—and here is where he makes the final move—auf der: on this crust a moldy film produced (erzeugt hat) living and knowing (erkennende) beings. It is already the one crust upon which the eye blinks, reading Schopenhauer’s words, contemplating the request to see living and knowing as a byproduct, not of clever animals, but of... mold. If there is humor in this version, it is as cold and moldy as the cooling crust on the molten sphere. For Nietzsche, the animals are at least already clever, and have invented, i.e. produced knowing, while for Schopenhauer, living and knowing beings fall short even of the moldy, superficial outer coating of the cooling crust: living and knowing beings are accidents, mere parasites feeding on parasitic mold. Nietzsche’s admitted failure of his fable to capture how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature meets a parallel remark from Schopenhauer that addresses the eye noticing the living and knowing beings who have emerged from a moldy film:

—dies ist die empirische Wahrheit, das Reale, die Welt. Jedoch ist es für ein denkendes Wesen eine mißliche Lage. (WWV II 12)

(This is empirical truth, the real, the world; and it is certainly, for a thinking being, a precarious position to occupy.)

Nietzsche at least gives due pause before the abyss of life’s emptiness and meaninglessness; Schopenhauer’s clinical diagnosis leaves a thinking being without even the cold comfort Nietzsche’s gasp kindly offers.

But conspicuously absent within Schopenhauer’s vast, ahistorically focused steps from the widest realm to the narrowest spot is the fabulist cue, “gab es einmal,” “once upon a time,” or even simply “there was once,” a cue present in Nietzsche’s opening sentence, though shifted to the middle. Absent is any time within which to locate this visual spectacle. But this verbal absence calls attention to the mechanism of the words imparting the rack-focused series of viewpoints: it is the auxetic telescope that provides the means to see heavenly bodies and the knowing beings that inhabit one of them. However, Nietzsche’s employment of a temporal cue makes his attempt more obviously a fable; at the same time the cue does not draw attention to the verbal device so ubiquitously used. Flaws are the rule, perfection the exception. However, there once was an eye who took notice of the lack of time in Schopenhauer’s little fable. The flaw is visible when examined next to Nietzsche’s fable, which stands out as if in relief against Schopenhauer’s. Perhaps the older of the two did not intend his to appear fabulistic. Instead, perhaps he meant his words to reflect in physical form, in style, the shape of the telescope he used to see and know the world; the style and shape of his clever mind.

The Exchange

While this investigation shifts to another location, I beg the reader to keep in mind, even if but as a trace, the one we have left behind. The connecting link of our pivot shall be the telescope, and its powers to magnify, and its limitations due to its very form and function, also occurs as a metaphor (three times as Teleskop and twice as Fernrohr) within chapter 15 of Volume Two of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation: “On the Essential Imperfections of the Intellect” (“Von Den Wesentlichen Unvollkommenheiten Des Intellekts”). Here, Schopenhauer, through intensive repetition of a “single” idea, sets up a privileged dichotomy within which the philosophical educator inhabits the greater of the terms, and consciousness, in particular self-consciousness, falls into the lesser. What permits this dichotomy to function is the repeated image of the telescope (Teleskop, or Fernrohr—literally “distance-tube”) to illustrate the limitations of the human intellect that permits consciousness to begin with. On this view, the “philosopher” surveys and knows the world from a supreme height, and with clear, telescopic vision, guides and leads the eye of consciousness to see a new world illumined for the first time.

However, this is not exactly what Schopenhauer declares he is doing in this chapter. He declares that self-consciousness has certain ineluctable limitations that are the rule, and that along with the rare exceptions, also imperfect (in their exorbitance) but admirable nonetheless, an aristocracy of nature emerges where differences in degree can never be bridged intellectually, but “only by kindness of heart” (Payne II 146). Through a relentless pursuit to express with transparent style the inherent limitations of self-consciousness in contrast to the quality of thought of the wide mental horizon of the genius, Schopenhauer hopes to reveal the physiognomy of the mind, i.e., the “telescope,” of an honest genius:

Die schlechten Köpfe sind es nicht bloß dadurch, daß sie schief sind und mithin falsch urteilen; sondern zunächst durch die Undeutlichkeit ihres gesammten Denkens, als welches Sehen durch ein schlechtes Fernrohr, in welchem alle Umrisse undeutlich und wie verwischt erscheinen und die verschiedenen Gegenstände in einander laufen, zu vergleichen ist. (WWV II 168)

(Inferior minds are such not only because they are distorted and as a consequence make false judgments, but also because of the indistinctness of their entire thought process. This compares to sight through a bad telescope (Fernrohr), where all outlines appear indistinct and overlapping, and where various objects run into one another.)

hört oder liest man sie; so ist es, als hätte man ein schlechtes Fernrohr gegen ein gutes vertauscht. (WWV II 169)

(In contrast to this “bad telescope” is that of an eminent mind (eminenten Köpfen), of whom, when one hears or reads [them], it is as if one has exchanged a bad telescope [Fernrohr] for a good one.)

Where inferior minds suffer from indistinct thinking, eminent minds bring into new light even the most everyday things. Schopenhauer’s declared aim appears to be as follows: If self-consciousness is to recognize true genius and so thereby enter the safe harbor of “high culture” it must do so by exchanging a faulty telescope for an excellent one. But there is a price to such an exchange.

In Schopenhauer’s calculus, with relinquishing the faulty telescope also goes all corresponding attachments to the world known by virtue of the old device. In other words, by virtue of taking up a fragment of Schopenhauer’s thought, self-consciousness runs the risk of following it through to its ethical conclusion of total renunciation of the will to life. This latter point may be a bit too much to include in this very partial close reading, but look again at the beginning of Schopenhauer’s fable in relation to Nietzsche’s. It is as if both look through the eye of nature at self-consciousness, one with a mood of acquiescence to the cold, hard truth, the other with a mood of alienation and abjection of an unhappy eye striking back at its master with dissimulating irony. What describes itself in the text is a relationship between self-consciousness and the philosopher, where the latter appears privileged, but in fact must also fall under the vagaries inherent to the declared limitations of the former.

The One and the Other

Schopenhauer begins chapter 15 with the word “Our,” which possessively qualifies “self-consciousness” (Unser Selbstbewußtseyn), immediately invoking solidarity with this incorrigible weakling who has so many foibles. He uses the first-person plural pronoun—both the possessive unser and the nominative wir—a total of eleven times in the first four sentences of the chapter, because, as he is wont to do, Schopenhauer aims to impart bad news: “we” suffer from an irreparable limitation. Speaking for self-consciousness, he writes that

Wir können nämlich Alles nur successive erkennen und nur Eines zur Zeit uns bewußt werden, ja, auch dieses Einen nur unter der Bedingung, daß wir derweilen alles Andere vergessen, also uns desselben gar nicht bewußt sind, mithin es so lange aufhört für uns dazuseyn. (WWV II 159)

(Whatever we know, we only know successively. We become conscious of one thing at a time, but only under the condition that we forget everything else; as a result, while we know whatever we do in the moment, everything else, whatever was formerly present in consciousness, ceases to exist for us.)

I must note here that this particular logical structure—setting forth the condition and pointing to what cannot be contained because of it—becomes a prominent recurring logical structure for the chapter, the “single” controlling idea that recurs in varying forms, where terms exchange places in each iteration. Most importantly for this discussion is the particular use of the terms “one” and “other” (Eines, dieses Einen and alles Andere), two more “characters” in this developing drama. The “one” thing we come to know in this moment precludes the presence of the “other”; the other is already relinquished as we come to know the one.

Additionally, as the third sentence of the first paragraph, the above-quoted statement already repeats the use of “one” given in the first sentence. There, “one” is used in order to characterize the limits of our poor, poor self-consciousness, which only has time as its form, with no access to coveted space. Schopenhauer writes that

deshalb geht unser Denken nicht, wie unser Anschauen, nach drei Dimensionen vor sich, sondern bloß nach einer, also auf einer Linie, ohne Breite und Tiefe. (WWV II 158-159)

(our thinking does not, as our perceiving, occur within three dimensions, but instead it merely moves along one dimension, as along a line without breadth and depth.)

Like the “other” that must cease to exist for us once we know the “one” in the present, the three dimensions of perception (Anschauen) appear to defy the one-dimensional stream of our thinking which cannot but occur sequentially, in time. However, the three-dimensional impressions that perception grants us must too pass according to the limit of one dimension in which time runs its course. A tenuous hierarchy has emerged here. Schopenhauer appears to favor perception and the “other” because both lie outside the limits of time-bound self-consciousness. However, since self-consciousness conditions even the impressions perception leaves, it maintains itself as the primary, albeit constrictive, term. From a little telescopic window, self-consciousness enviously watches perception frolic, though the latter cannot know that its apparent freedom depends on the former’s imprisonment.

Despite the imparting of this bit of bad news, that human experience is caught within a fundamental and inescapable finitude, Schopenhauer works simultaneously to soothe the impact by including himself as a knowing being suffering the same limitation: he can speak for consciousness because he suffers its limitations too. But before he makes this particular move at the end of the paragraph we are examining here, Schopenhauer takes a first, almost unnoticeable step. Already in the first paragraph, he racks focus from the gaze of solidarity closer onto the tool, the mechanism itself that is responsible for the grievous flaw: the intellect.

Look Through My Telescope

In this initial diagnosis of the essential imperfections of the intellect (wesentliche Unvollkommenheiten des Intellekts), Schopenhauer establishes a bond with his student, self-consciousness, with whom the reader is to identify. This bond then permits both parties to look together into a mirror of sorts in order to inspect the real culprit, an inherently faulty mechanism: the intellect as device, the telescope. Rather than define the intellect at this point,[6] he adumbrates it through presenting its essential limitations. From this always and already limited point of view, self-consciousness cannot hope to see the prison, the one-dimensional condition that binds the intellect to only apprehend one thing at a time, for the intellect is the only “eye” available to self-consciousness, the only device that permits cognition.

Schopenhauer consolidates his solidarity with self-consciousness through supplying a metaphor that allows it to see the problem otherwise impossible to see. With this particular quality (Eigenschaft) of limitation in mind (though dangling as a trace that threatens to disappear), Schopenhauer compares the negatively known intellect to a “Teleskop mit einem sehr engen Gesichtsfelde” (WWV II 159). In this quality of limitation, the intellect can be compared to a “telescope with a very narrow field of view.” But he follows this immediately with a dependent clause that highlights the recurring conditional logical structure of the essay: “weil eben unser Bewußtseyn kein stehendes, sondern ein fließendes ist” (WWV II 159). This quality of the intellect can be compared to a telescope “because ours is not a stationary (stehendes), but a fleeting (fließendes) consciousness”: the very narrow field of view (sehr engen Gesichtsfelde) permits sight of one thing only after another falls aside of necessity. We cannot but witness this ever-changing stream of differentiation because of the intellect’s limitation. The intellect does not permit self-consciousness to know itself—that is, the intellect—except negatively, i.e., by virtue of an inherent lack that permits only a hint or trace of the intellect engaged in the act of focusing on one thing at a time. This trace occurs in the style of the written word itself, the letter. Thus, blind to itself, self-consciousness can see Schopenhauer’s telescope, traced there on the space of the page, as if it mirrored what could never become phenomenon to be seen.

However, when on behalf of self-consciousness Schopenhauer refers to the trace of the intellect—known only by what it is not, the “other”—through announcing “In this quality” (In dieser Eigenschaft), he brings self-consciousness to keep in mind the negative trace of the intellect—still not positively defined—as if it were a previously held object of consciousness. A kind re-minder indeed: as a trace, this quality of the intellect is already a relinquished “other,” which self-consciousness had to let go of in order to think what appears in the presence of the text, according to that very limitation just named and now recalled with a demonstrative “this” (within “in this quality”). Thus, this structure, already in the first few sentences, permits taking advantage of the inherent weakness of self-consciousness as Schopenhauer defines it. The limitations demand self-consciousness to settle for a nebulous, indistinct concept of the central “heavenly body” of this essay, the intellect, which in turn lends a somewhat faulty, catachrestic nature to the telescopic metaphor: quite a blurry move for Schopenhauer to make.

Schopenhauer’s textual blurriness results from his reliance on a spatial, three-dimensional figure—the telescope—in order to describe the negatively known intellect. The intellect’s narrow field of view grants self-consciousness the capacity to see the form, or style of a superior, knowing being that condescends into the written word from a field that transcends the limitations of the moment. Self-consciousness can see the limitations of the figure in the light of a style that appears different, other, a distant star beyond its boundaries. What remains undeclared, or imperfect, is how it is possible for the imperfect intellect to know that it is imperfect. How can the always already imperfect intellect imagine perfection? From what point of view is this possible?

The Strange and Pitiable

While Schopenhauer circumscribes the point of view that may see the limitations of self-consciousness, he simultaneously describes how the one limited point of view is capable of imagining perfection because of the other, which resides beyond the confines of consciousness. From this “higher” viewpoint, possible only due to philosophical reflection executed by a masterful thinker, the philosopher exercises a degree of condescension, or pity, when regarding the inherent lack that binds self-consciousness. On this view, this is precisely the philosopher’s task: to pity those who reside and roll about in darkness, to wonder at the oddity of those content with grasping at the backs of words. I leave the orbit of the first paragraph for the moment in order to show how Schopenhauer describes the point of view of such an impossible intellect, one not bound by the form of time. He writes:

Offenbar ist ein so großen Beschränkungen unterliegendes Bewußtseyn zur Ergründung des Räthsels der Welt wenig geeignet, und ein solches Bestreben müßte Wesen höherer Art, deren Intellekt nicht die Zeit zur Form, und deren Denken daher wahre Ganzheit und Einheit hätte, seltsam und erbärmlich erscheinen. (WWV II 161)

(Obviously, such a consciousness so greatly burdened with limitations is almost completely unfit to fathom the riddle of the world, and such a quest, to beings of a higher sort whose intellect does not have time as its form, and whose thinking would therefore have true completeness and unity, must appear strange and pitiable.)

Although Schopenhauer clearly uses the subjunctive here (müßte and hätte), the suspicion arises that he is describing these beings of a higher sort from the point of view, not merely of acquaintance, but of a primus inter pares, for whom self-consciousness, caught within time and consequently incapable of pursuing a grounded investigation into the riddle of the world, appears strange and pitiable (seltsam und erbärmlich). Already from within the initial assent of self-consciousness to Schopenhauer’s hand of solidarity, it has entered the position of the patient suffering a diagnosis. Revealed in his style, Schopenhauer’s intellect focuses on the inherent incapacity of the intellect itself to gain access to the philosopher’s point of view. As a consequence, an unwritten conclusion arises for self-consciousness: the enthymeme here is that it must exchange a faulty, an improper, telescope, for a proper one, if such an exchange is even possible.

With solidarity already established, self-consciousness and Schopenhauer can together view the intellect in the metaphor of a telescope, though only by virtue of the philosopher’s field of view. Now in the next jump in rack focus, Schopenhauer prepares to put the philosopher under the knife of prescribed necessity. He sets up this faux fall through introducing the treachery of the trace, the insidious uncertainty that influences self-consciousness from a realm beyond its very narrow field of view. This insecurity does not declare itself openly, however, because a masterly presence is at hand, guiding consciousness, a presence whose field of view is not so constrained. By virtue of the description of these limits, self-consciousness must contend with the trace, the dimming awareness of Schopenhauer’s horizon, which horizon seems to extend far beyond the present moment. His wider perspective, appearing word by word, sentence by sentence, occurs as “other,” emerging into view from the dark unknowable field of the trace that always and already delimits the fragment self-consciousness attends to in the moment by virtue of the inherent limitation of any field of view. It is always and already the “other” fragment that self-consciousness must relinquish in order to grasp the “one” given in the present moment. Immediately following the comparison of our intellect to a telescope, because our consciousness is fleeting, not stationary, he writes that

Der Intellekt apprehendirt nämlich nur successiv und muß, um das Eine zu ergreifen, das Andere fahren lassen, nichts, als die Spuren von ihm zurückbehaltend, welche immer schwächer werden. (WWV II 159)

(The intellect apprehends only successively and so must, in order to grasp one, let another go, nothing remains but traces that grow weaker and weaker.)

Before, self-consciousness could know only successively, now it is the “intellect” that apprehends only successively: it may only hold (ergreifen) one object at a time. Though growing weaker and weaker, the traces (die Spuren) left behind from the earlier sentence bear down on the reader who must now unify into one hand “our self-consciousness,” the “form of time,” “our intellect,” the “telescope,” “the intellect.” At the same time, according to the text, it must relinquish from the other hand the three dimensions permissible to sight, as well as relinquish das Andere, the other. The physical limitation that prohibits self-consciousness from holding more than one thing at a time asserts itself; it reminds self-consciousness of the narrow field of view of the telescope that cannot see outside its focus, which image is itself a trace growing ever weaker.

Because of the limitation of the instrument, the hand or of the telescope, in order to grasp (zu ergreifen) one thing (das Eine), the intellect must let the other go (das Andere fahren lassen). This might seem an odd wording, especially because the yet to be grasped object is already present and near as the “one,” while the already distant and absent “other” is yet to be released. The present object is already other because it is destined to enter the field of the trace, as the object within the field of the trace destined to enter the narrow field of view of the telescope is already one in the present. Thus, Schopenhauer describes the limitation of the intellect as never really grasping anything, for whatever is already present is so only because it is already absent, already the trace.

The Final Move

And so here is the move toward which we have been heading, where Schopenhauer kindly offers his own neck, so to speak, to assuage our anxiety over the treacherous trace. As if addressing a child fearful of the dark, Schopenhauer deftly walks into the darkness and returns again, unharmed. Abandoning the use of “we” and “our,” and so apparently relinquishing the “higher view” that apprehends self-consciousness distinct from the intellect and the telescope (these are now given over to the dark, threatening world of the trace), Schopenhauer writes himself into the equation. As a case to prove his rule, Schopenhauer writes that

Der Gedanke, der mich jetzt lebhaft beschäftigt, muss mir, nach einer kurzen Weile, ganz entfallen seyn: tritt nun noch eine wohldurchschlafene Nacht dazwischen; so kann es kommen, daß ich ihn nie wiederfinde. (WWV II 159)

(After a short time I must allow the thought that strongly occupies me now to completely slip away: now once a full night’s sleep comes between it and me, it is almost certain that I will not find the thought again.)

Due to the fleeting nature of consciousness, bound as it is by the form of time, the thought now occupying his attention, must, by virtue of time, entirely disappear and become other. Then, if a dark night of sleep passes, even the philosopher may never find the thought again. Alas, if even the best of us must fall prey to this limitation, where is self-consciousness to turn to shield itself against its inescapable finitude?

Schopenhauer’s answer to this a fortiori argument appears in the dependent clause that follows the last citation. It completes the already familiar structure, though Schopenhauer makes a new shift in focus, allowing a new “heavenly body” to appear from out of the dark realm of the galactic trace, where the thought may very well be lost to the world of the trace,

es sei denn, daß er an mein persönliches Interesse, d.h. an meinen Willen geknüpft wäre, als welcher stets das Feld behauptet. (WWV II 159)

(unless [es sei denn] it happens to be connected [the subjunctive: geknüpft wäre] in some way to my personal interest, caught up with my will, which always commands the field.)

The will commands the field, even determining those very limitations against which the trace emerges by necessity. Here “unless” already precludes that whatever does return to self-consciousness despite the treachery of the trace does so by some necessity self-consciousness cannot fathom because the necessity operates from beyond the sphere of its profound limitations. Clearly this is a riddle self-consciousness, with its bad telescope, is little fitted to fathom. But the philosopher’s mastery is always already ascendant. While the philosopher uses his own person as a model for self-consciousness to admit its essential lack, by virtue of him doing so, admiration puffs up within self-consciousness. Schopenhauer knows, and he is fully equipped to guide lesser-equipped beasts, because his masterly will guides the production of discourse, moment by moment.

From his height, Schopenhauer continues to play with and recycle the image of the telescope to repeat in various forms the logical structure of the essential imperfections of the intellect, with the continued effect of awakening self-consciousness to its own strange and pitiable state inherent to the essential limitations of the intellect. In fact, if self-consciousness can admit the view of itself that calls forth pity in this manner, it is as if its eye is there at the eyepiece, watching a clever animal—its own self. Admiration flows out to the mental horizon that demonstrates such mastery over the trace, through quality of insight, rather than mere quantity of knowledge. For Schopenhauer, the realm of potential knowledge available to the learned is only as good as the thinking that puts the knowledge to use. The contrast between these two Schopenhauer calls strange (ein seltsamer Kontrast):

Ersteres ist eine unübersehbare, stets etwas chaotische Masse, Letzteres ein einziger deutlicher Gedanke. Das Verhältniß gleicht dem, zwischen den zahllosen Sternen des Himmels und dem engen Gesichtsfelde des Teleskops: es tritt auffallend hervor, wann er, auf einen Anlaß, irgend eine Einzelheit aus seinem Wissen zur deutlichen Erinnerung bringen will, wo Zeit und Mühe erfordert wird, es aus jenem Chaos hervorzusuchen. (WWV II 163)

(The first is a massive and always somewhat chaotic mass, while the second is a single clear thought. The relationship between the two compares to that between the countless stars of the heavens and the narrow field of view of a telescope. The relationship stands out when on a particular occasion, one wants to bring to clear recollection some particular (irgend eine Einzelheit) from one’s knowledge, where time and effort are demanded to search for it out of this chaos.)

It is interesting to note that Payne does not translate the noun Einzelheit as “particular,” but as some “isolated fact”: irgend eine Einzelheit. And this brings us back once again to Nietzsche’s opening to his essay, and mine, where “in some isolated (irgend einem abgelegenen) corner of the spread-out universe, among countless shimmering solar systems, there was once a heavenly body on which clever animals invented knowing.” While Schopenhauer’s noun focuses on the presence of the particular, Nietzsche’s adjective highlights the absence of objects.[7]

The Abject and Low

Es ist nichts so verwerflich und gering in der Natur, was nicht, durch einen kleinen Anhauch jener Kraft des Erkennens, sofort wie ein Schlauch aufgeschwellt würde; und wie jeder Lastträger seinen Bewunderer haben will, so meint gar der Stolzeste Mensch, der Philosoph, von allen Seiten die Augen des Weltalls teleskopisch auf sein Handeln und Denken gerichtet zu sehen. (Nietzsche, “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne” KSA I 875-876)

(There is nothing so abject and low in nature that would not through the smallest puff that comes with the power of knowing immediately swell up like a balloon. And as every such carrier of burdens desires to have admirers, so especially does that proudest of human beings, the philosopher, who from all sides sees the eyes of the world telescopically fixed on his every action and thought.)

So ends the first paragraph of Nietzsche’s TL, which initiated my attempt at producing an open reading of these two philosophers with a penchant for patent literariness. It follows the vivid fable of the clever animals, a fable that falls slightly short, by Nietzsche’s admission, of capturing the tenuous situation in which all who possess the capacity for knowledge live, including the possessor of the eye lodged at the opening of the eyepiece of the telescope. There is nothing so abject and low that would not puff up like a balloon with the slightest brush against knowledge. This concluding statement of Nietzsche’s first paragraph presages the rest of his essay, highlighting the overweening arrogance emerging, as if by necessity, within any thing that happens to possess the ability to know, that happens to possess any degree of consciousness, though especially the philosopher, the avatar of the will to truth. Since this appellation occurs so close to the most “abject and low,” a clever animal may easily bring the philosopher into the same orbit as the morally contemptible. This defies the commonplace assumption that, because of the refined thought granting a privileged vantage point from which to look upon lesser beings as strange and pitiable, the philosopher lies somewhere beyond the rabble. But here even the proud philosopher falls into the sphere of those deserving of rejection, especially because he writes with the expectation, even the certainty, that the eyes of the world telescopically fix themselves upon his every word and deed (von allen Seiten die Augen des Weltalls teleskopisch auf sein Handeln und Denken gerichtet zu sehen). Perhaps Nietzsche had been one who possessed a pair from among the throngs of admiring eyes telescopically fixed on this lowly and abject being puffed up to exaggerated proportions by virtue of a pronounced ability to “know.” I mean Schopenhauer, the “one” we have relinquished in order to grasp “another,” Herr Nietzsche.

The image of telescopically fixed eyes at the end of Nietzsche’s first paragraph repeats the gaze he casts across the universe of his fable that began it. It also repeats Schopenhauer’s use of the telescope appearing throughout the elder’s essay. The use of the trope triggers a close, telescopic reading of Nietzsche’s words. At the same time it brings the watchful eye to reflect on its own abject and lowly nature, puffed up with Nietzsche’s astounding grasp of the arrogance with which knowing infects the clever animals who invented self-consciousness, and who will die shortly. Nietzsche’s telescopic vision gives the reader a slightly different focus than that of Schopenhauer’s mastered perspective bordering on the clinical: the latter aims precisely to illustrate, in Nietzsche’s words, “how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature” (“TL” Breazeale 79). Schopenhauer appears to have mastered the trace that continually threatens to disrupt his higher mission, but I believe that even the great[8] Schopenhauer has not escaped the treachery of the trace. While he demonstrates the mastery of his vision, Nietzsche reveals, in good fun, that his master is always already blinded, puffed up. The philosopher looks upon self-consciousness as if upon a strange insect with pity, as it struggles to fathom what it is ill-equipped to do. With its telescope already set, casting a magnified glance into some out-of-the-way corner of the universe, the eye of self-consciousness apprehends the clever animal in the act of inventing self-consciousness. It pities the strange beast doomed to oblivion despite its precious advance over darkness. Once the eye notices that a telescope focuses back on it, however, pity dissolves into abjection. To stoop so low to assume the perspective of nature in order to obtain the attention of the eyes of the world; he, too, is among the abject and low, puffed up with knowing, though perhaps, in the end, deserving of pity. What a strange beast the philosopher is.


[1] Please see my article “Cutting the Edge of the Will to Truth; Or How Post-Process Pedagogy is Biting its Own Tail,” where I work to distinguish a common value historically operative within both process and post-process composition pedagogies, namely, the pedagogic commitment to cultivate rhetorically intelligent subjectivities, that is, subjectivities willing to risk participating in the making of history in various social domains, including the personal, professional, academic, and civic. Central to the argument is distinguishing the will to truth as a dominant drive that relentlessly seeks to reduce the irreducible into transmissible content. I argue that the performative dimension of language games may serve to include the will to truth in order to move beyond it, while at the same time avoiding the trap of falling into interminable critiques of power that preclude active participation in historical development.

[2] I am here aligned with Jasper Neel’s polemic that rails against the will to truth dyed in the warp and woof of Plato’s discourse, and consequently, the history of Western metaphysics: “Rejecting Protagoras, Gorgias, and all their followers as relativistic nihilists whose ideas would lead to social decay, sexual perversity, and anarchy creates a comfortable certainty for Western thought. By rejecting sophistry, Western thought can play itself out as a history in which truth, after much tribulation, triumphs through its own self-righteous virtue and then remains available in the West forever.” (Plato, Derrida, and Writing 205)

[3] All translations are mine except when noted. For the sake of comparison, the only other translations of Nietzsche I have employed are Breazeale’s translation of TL, and Hollingdale’s translation of Human All Too Human. When using translations, I will clearly identify the philosopher in my text, and then give the translator’s name in the parenthetical citation. Using Payne’s translation of Schopenhauer, I will follow his name with the volume number, I or II. Otherwise, I will cite the German text with the German title: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (WWV), with the volume number.

[4] In “Nietzsche's Teacher; the Invisible Rhetor” (Rhetoric Review. 32.4. 2013), I take Friedrich Nietzsche’s iconic stature within the field of rhetoric and writing studies as a starting point, and from there I work to reveal how a few key scholars, in overlooking Arthur Schopenhauer as an important figure in Nietzsche’s rhetorical education, failed to account for Nietzsche’s so-called “original” insights into the rhetoricity of language expressed within the oft-cited fragmentary essay “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” I argue that beyond the more obvious appropriations, Nietzsche ultimately appropriated Schopenhauer’s central philosophical theory as the rhetorical maneuver in TL.

[5] The world-eye (Weltauge) is a term Schopenhauer coined to designate the objective viewpoint permitted the subject of knowing during the moment of aesthetic arrest, free from abstractions and the needs of the body. See WWR I pp. 185-186.

[6] Near the end of the essay, Schopenhauer finally defines the intellect: “der Intellekt ist ein differenzirendes, mithin trennendes Princip” (170): “The intellect is a differentiating, therefore separating principle.”

[7] ab as a prefix means “to take away”; legen is a verb meaning to put or to lay: thus abgelegen, incorporating the ge prefix for the past participle, means “already placed away”: isolated from other things

[8] This is a citation from the preface to Nietzsche’s second edition of Human All Too Human: “When, in the third Untimely Meditation, I then went on to give expression to my reverence for my first and only educator, the great Arthur Schopenhauer—I would now express it much more strongly, also more personally—I was, so far as my own development was concerned, already deep in the midst of moral skepticism and destructive analysis, that is to say in the critique and likewise the intensifying pessimism as understood hitherto, and already ‘believed in nothing any more,’ as the people [sic] puts it, not even in Schopenhauer: just at that time I produced an essay I have refrained from publishing, ‘On Truth and Falsehood in an Extra-Moral Sense’” (209 emphasis in original).

About the Author

Drew Kopp is an Associate Professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University, where he serves as the chair of the department. His research and scholarship explores histories of rhetorical theory and pedagogy, the conflict between rhetoric and philosophy, and the practice of rhetorical and ontological inquiry, its implementation in the development of curricula, and the role such inquiry plays in transforming understanding of the self and world. He has published articles in journals in the field of rhetoric and writing studies, including Rhetoric Review (2013), and JAC: Rhetoric, Writing, Culture, Politics (2012), and Kairos (2010). He has also contributed a chapter to the edited collection Disrupting Pedagogies in the Knowledge Society (2011). His co-authored book (with Bruce Hyde), Speaking Being: Werner Erhard, Martin Heidegger, and a New Possibility of Being Human (August 6th, 2019), provides the first major presentation of Werner Erhard’s ontological pedagogy juxtaposed with an extensive study from a perspective granted by Heidegger’s innovations in ontological inquiry.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Neel, Jasper. Plato, Derrida, and Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988.

Kopp, Drew. “Cutting the Edge of the Will to Truth; Or How Post-Process Pedagogy is Biting its Own Tail.” JAC: Rhetoric, Writing, Culture, Politics, 32.1-2 2012: 145-184.

---. “Nietzsche's Teacher; the Invisible Rhetor.” Rhetoric Review. 32.4. 2013: 437-454.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. 1986. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: U.P., 1996.

---. "Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense." Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the 1870's. 1979. Daniel Breazeale, ed. and trans. New Jersey: Humanity Books, 1999.

---. “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne.” Kritische Studienausgabe 1. 873- 890.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Gesamtausgabe. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. 1998.

---. The World as Will and Representation. Volume 1. Ed. and Trans. Judith Norman, Alistair Welchman and Christopher Janaway. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

---. The World as Will and Representation. Vols I & II. Trans. E.F.J. Payne. New York: Dover, 1966.