Schopenhauer and psychology: “The world is my representation”.



Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) states that the whole world is my subjective representation. He declares himself a follower of Kant, but immediately goes beyond the latter’s philosophical vision.

For Kant, reality exists independently of the individual who perceives it (although framed by our categories of the intellect). Schopenhauer, on the other hand, focuses his philosophy on the possibility of the subject to actively construct his own world.

“The world is my representation”: here is a truth that is valid in relation to every living and knowing being (…). He does not know neither the sun nor the earth, but always only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels a land (…). This whole world is only an object in relation to the subject, intuition of those who intuit, in a word: representation”.

The world is the active representation of the ego

Schopenhauer explicitly links his cognitive theory to the ancient Indian Veda texts (dating back as far as the 20th century BC), written in Sanskrit.

The German philosopher is particularly struck by the theory of the Vedanta school (developed from the ninth century BC), according to which the essence of things depends on our perception, and not vice versa .

In this regard, Schopenhauer cites the contribution of the historian W. Jones, a contemporary of him:

“The fundamental principle of the Vedanta school consists not in denying the existence of material substance, but in correcting the common popular notion, asserting that nothing exists independently of mental perception. Existence and perception are convertible terms”.

There is only what I perceive and construct through the mind: “The world is my representation”.

Each representation is therefore not a passive event, but always occurs in relation to a subject, by definition active and problematic.

There is no substantial difference between interiority and exteriority : the so-called “external world” corresponds to my way of being. The world reflects the positive, negative and problematic aspects that characterize my personality.

This means that if I change my perception of the world, reality is transformed into its essence.

The world is my representation: implications in psychotherapy

For example, imagine a building, a house where I spent my childhood.

If I was happy as a child, seeing the house again in adulthood I will experience feelings of gratitude and serenity, even if veiled with melancholy.

If, on the other hand, I was mistreated or abused in childhood, returning to that place will arouse in me feelings of anguish, anger, frustration.

The perceived object is the same, but it can represent two antithetical realities in my inner experience.

“What represents for you this situation? “is a fundamental question that every mental health professional uses to try to understand the patient’s world view.

Can man access all knowledge?

If there is only what I perceive, by increasing my perceptive faculties I can access any knowledge, even the most profound and apparently dark. How does all this happen? Thanks to two fundamental peculiarities of the human being:

1) Possess the faculty of self-reflection.

2) Having a body, of which it is possible to refine the perception.

For Schopenhauer, man is a “metaphysical animal”. He has self-awareness and is able to verbalize a fundamental question to himself: “What is the meaning of my existence?”.

For Schopenhauer the body is the representation of my will

Thanks to self-reflection, I can come to understand that my body is not a mechanical or abstract object.

In the body I live from within”.

This allows me to experience concrete feelings of joy and pain, to perceive life in all its essence: only what I perceive is real.

I live thanks to the body. Even if my existence is not identified only in the body.

My body is not a cold machine, nor a set of automatisms. If I perceive it authentically, I come to understand that the body is the representation of my will: the digestive system is my desire to feed myself, the hands are my intention to interact with reality, the feet my aspiration to progress and overcome obstacles, the sexual system is my desire to feel pleasure and reproduce me, etc.

I, even before being intellect and thought, am the will to live.

To every other being, living or non-living, I will have to attribute the same will to exist. Even a stone, in this sense, “wants” to affirm itself, through its extension and its resistance to stress. All Nature wants to exist, to affirm itself.

I, as a subject, am intimately interconnected with the natural world. Indeed, I aspire to become Nature itself, in a synthesis of subject and object.

Outside of this type of perception, every reality is deceptive.

Our particular ego: a great deceiver.

The fundamental illusion, root of all human suffering, is to be convinced of a presumed separation between our individual self and the “external” world.

The most radical deception is to think that there is an existing reality in itself, regardless of the subject interacting with it .

In his particular life, the common man is convinced of his existence divided from that of other subjects.

His representation of the world is erroneous and deceptive. This subject behaves like a desert wanderer who observes, from a distance, the shadow of the sun shining on the sand: at that point he has the illusion of seeing an expanse of water, but it is only sand.

What’s more: in the unconscious man there is no difference, according to Schopenhauer, between real life and dreams. Except that life has an apparent continuity of events in waking states, while the dream follows its own intrinsic independent logic.

Then, the life of the unconscious man is nothing more than a long dream, interspersed with short dreams , corresponding to dream states.

Real life is comparable to coherent reading of the sheets of a book. If we browse the pages here and there, we have the dream.

No dream, however, is a chaotic experience. It has a sense that can be grasped through the language of symbols.

Is man a servant of the Will?

The common man sleeps and must be awakened.

A first awareness must awaken in me: every part of my body and of the natural world is the representation of my feeling and will.

But it really is my will? Or is it a Will external to myself, which makes me a slave to it?

Schopenhauer highlights the risk that the feeling of will may escape my awareness. The Will can slowly take possession of me, until it becomes a reality that dominates me. To the point that I no longer know what I want.

Psychoanalysis will place in the unconscious the set of desires which have become autonomous from our awareness and which condition us.

The common individual, who does not notice these subtle inner processes, is nothing but the servant of the will, “as the horse depends on the rider”. In this context, a life dominated by feelings of alienation, suffering, resignation, shortcoming, boredom, passivity looms for him.

Time of existence is marked by an oppressive “pendulum”

In such a scenario, moments of pleasure and joy are negligible when compared to the amount of time we are tormented by the desire for what we do not have, which can easily become compulsive in all of us.

Here we have lost our freedom and have become automatons , an object among objects, in search of purely instrumental relationships with others.

Even the world around us, as a representation of ourselves, becomes a place of frustration, a source of desires that are never satisfied. So we are often sad, saddened, angry about what we don’t have.

Above all, we feel bored by the interminable time when we are not filled with the excitement of having what we are looking for.

Hence the famous phrase of Schopenhauer according to which life is comparable to a pendulum , which oscillates between pain and boredom, passing through fleeting phases of pleasure and joy.

The ways of liberation from pain according to Schopenhauer

Despite the pervasive underlying pessimism, Schopenhauer keeps alive the hope that, through the rebirth of self-awareness, man can achieve liberation from pain:

I know of no more beautiful prayer than the one that concluded the ancient theatrical performances of India. It says: May all living beings be free from pain!

On the other hand, “the world is my representation” and nothing exists by itself. By changing my attitude, I can therefore bring about a radical transformation of reality .

According to the author, natural science cannot be the tool to free man from pain. Mechanical science is, by definition, enmeshed in the categories of space, time and causality. We are the polar opposite of freedom and spontaneity.

Natural sciences can help man to better master reality through technical applications. Not to lead him to perceive the meaning of existence, which must be sought elsewhere.

Art as a temporary pain relief

Art is a free and disinterested activity, which comforts man in a transcendence from the daily routine, however temporary. It is the first way to reach a release from pain, however ephemeral.

By creating or contemplating a work of art, the single individual can become, perhaps for a single moment, “the eye of the world”. The artistic spirit allows man to increase his perceptive faculties and to rise above earthly life (dominated by the mechanistic principles of space, time and causality).

This has the effect of a feeling of catharsis , of inner purification (of sublimation , to use a term used in psychoanalysis).

Schopenhauer defines art as a short spell , a relief that cannot, however, allow a true liberation from pain and a lasting comfort to existence itself.

The ethics of compassion

More interesting, from the psychological point of view, is the meaning that Schopenhauer attributes to ethics.

Ethics, according to the author, does not correspond to an abstract moral code, nor to an imperative dictated by the intellect (as Kant stated). Every regulation prescribed by external entities seems to be born to be broken.

I can respect a rule only if I really feel this need to me.

Ethics for Schopenhauer represents my concrete intention to overcome selfishness and aspire to universality. In other words, unity with others and with the world around me. This is a natural need of the human being, which only has to come to light.

Selfishness, on the other hand, arises from the illusion that my “empirical self” (my person, conventionally distinguished by name and surname) is separated from the outside world.

The misleading veil of Maya gives man the feeling of being distinct from other individuals. Each unconscious self is therefore pervaded by a compulsive will to overrule others. In fact, all living things are an absolute unity .

Open your eyes and see yourself in the others

Selfishness is nothing more than a form of slavery, which makes me the executioner of my neighbor and the victim of my own instinctive will (of which I have lost control).

Schopenhauer states:

The tormentor and the tormented are one. (…) If their eyes were opened to both, the one who inflicts pain would recognize that he lives in all beings who, in the vast world, suffer torment.

And the tormented one would see that every evil that was committed in this world or that was once committed, springs from that will which also constitutes its essence “.

What, then, can tear the veil of Maya and make this great illusion vanish?

It is the feeling of compassion, which allows one to perceive and understand in myself the similar experiences of the other.

The meaning of compassion

Compassion is different from commiseration: the latter, on the contrary, increases the distance between myself and the other, through the implementation of paternalistic attitudes, with which I subtly induce my neighbor into submission.

Compassion, on the other hand, is the faculty that allows me, on an equal footing, to “feel” what the other feels. And to know myself better, through him.

Schopenhauer as a precursor of Comprehensive Psychology

Schopenhauer starts from the assumption that the same feeling that I perceive also exists in the other. Existence and perception are synonymous, as we have seen before.

This is also the principle of the psychology of understanding, which K. Jaspers will propose in the General Psychopathology of 1913. Comprehensive psychology is based on the search for an intimate correspondence between my moods and those of the other.

We can add, from the contribution of analytical psychologies, that when I am immersed in a close relationship with the other, I cannot help but project in him my qualities: I will feel admiration for the same qualities that I appreciate in me, envy for what the interlocutor has and what I lack, or anger in finding my defects in the behavior of others.

Does it make sense, then, to speak of a reality that exists in itself? I live in a world that is my representation.

And then who am I? Am I just my empirical being, circumscribed by my body? No. In daily life, I continually transfer my feelings to the other and vice versa: I am also in the other, just as the other is part of me.

My existence is one with that of every living being, with which I am intimately interconnected, whether I am aware of it or not. Schopenhauer in this regard states:

Damn any morality that does not see the essential link between all eyes that observe the sun“.

Schopenhauer and the rejection of suicide

In the pessimistic vision that prevails in Schopenhauer, the life of the unconscious man (therefore of almost all individuals) is pain, impotence, slavery of the Will. One wonders if suicide is not the logical consequence of this condition.

Schopenhauer, however, rejects this solution: suicide is in fact the ultimate deception, “Maya’s masterpiece”, a consequence of the fundamental “illusion” of being separated from others. It means to mistakenly conceive that my identity is limited to the individual that my body seems to delimit .

Furthermore, for Schopenhauer, suicide is not the rejection of life, but the affirmation of an intense selfish will to live. I, for a form of antithesis (which we can define dialectic), reaffirm and claim, with this act, my impossible aspiration to realize a personal project of existence. However, I can never achieve this ideal through individual effort.

If “the world is my representation”, the individual who aspires to suicide lives in a reality similar to a nightmare. He plunges into a scenario dominated by frustration for unachievable desires and despair at the incommunicability of this condition.

Is there an antidote to suicide?

The only anti-suicide solution is to come out of individual isolation and become intimately aware of the profound union between all living beings . How? By increasing our perceptive faculties, until we truly live a sharing, a participating between my feelings and those of the other.

Eastern mystics, for millennia, have been proposing techniques to increase our inner and outer perception (such as yoga and meditation).

Schopenhauer seems to have a strong fascination for the experiences of bliss, “ecstasy”, “nirvana” perceived by mystics of different origins and schools of thought. In these states the individual subject does not disappear, but it transcends itself , merging in a harmonic synthesis with the universal object.

When I am in a state of bliss, I feel like I am no longer a miserable isolated individual. Instead, I perceive, in a tangible way, that I belong to the entire Universe and that, conversely, the Universe belongs to me .

The idea of suicide, in this context, loses consistency until it disappears.

What is actually perceived in the state of ecstasy, however, is impossible to convey in intellectual terms.

The asceticism.

The state of bliss and freedom from pain can be reached directly, according to Schopenhauer, only through intense ascetic discipline.
What kind of asceticism do we mean here?
In common language, asceticism refers to withdrawal from the world, isolation from other human beings.
To fully understand Schopenhauer’s thinking it’s necessary to reverse the meaning of asceticism.
We must understand ascesis in its literal term: the elevation of man, above every egoistic and particular need, not detachment from the world.
Being in daily contact with the experience of those who suffer, providing support without any personal gain, is a powerful ascetic activity.
The person who performs the asceticism does not correspond to the hermit who takes refuge on a mountain despising the human race. Instead, it’s represented by the hero who is fully involved in the world, willing to offer his life for the common good, to sacrifice himself in the name of a higher collective value.
Through asceticism we want to deny attachment to our limited individual ego, in order to aim for a universal self.
On the path to asceticism, according to Schopenhauer, the individual should “intentionally seek what is unpleasant and reject what is pleasant”, to the point of denying the instinctual will of which he is subjected. This behavior is not, however, an end in itself.
Going in search of what I instinctively would like to avoid breaks my limits: it overcomes the barriers of my prejudices, of what “I don’t like”, of my beliefs about the fact that “I could never do this”. It makes me discover the latent potential, virtually infinite, of the human being.
This is also the spirit of an intervention of exposure of the patient to an adverse stimulus, which is currently used in some forms of psychotherapy.

Suffering is the ultimate liberation from pain.

It is not essential to resort to asceticism to achieve liberation from pain.

According to Schopenhauer, in fact, most people arrive at freedom and self-awareness indirectly , through the experience of suffering that naturally pervades our life.

It is enough to let unpleasant emotions flow when they arise in us, without opposing them.

The awakening of man through suffering.

Schopenhauer writes:

“Suffering in general, as inflicted by destiny, is also a second way to reach denial (editor’s note: of selfishness). On the contrary, we can establish that most of them arrive by following this path, and that it is the suffering personally felt and not that which is simply known, what most frequently causes resignation ( ed: from the selfish desire to overwhelm others), often only in proximity of death”.

“Then we see that man, having been driven to despair through all degrees of growing anguish and despite the most violent resistance, suddenly comes to his senses , recognizes himself and the world (Ed: we could say: “he recognizes himself in the world “), changes his whole being, rises above himself and all suffering and, as purified and sanctified by this, in a peace, in a bliss, in an unassailable sublimity, he voluntarily renounces everything he wanted a little earlier with the greatest vehemence and welcomes death with joy“.

The developments of Schopenhauer’s thought in Existentialism.

The theme of pain, as an opportunity for self-knowledge and self-liberation, will be widely developed in Existentialism.

It alludes to a suffering that must be fully experienced in the single individual. Not abstractly analyzed (like reading a text or studying a scientific document), but perceived personally and accepted in all its forms .

Through the living experience of suffering and our limitations, a psychic function that has remained latent (replaced by daily behavioral automatisms) awakens in us: Self-consciousness.

Jaspers will develop the concept of Self-consciousness in his General Psychopathology. We can define it as the free activity of the subject. It is a unitary nucleus which, on the one hand, corresponds to my authentic identity; on the other hand, it allows me to immediately recognize my neighbor as my fellow man. As a part of me.

Self-awareness is a psychic activity above the brain functions (such as sensation, thought, memory, alertness), which are passive.

Self-consciousness is reborn in us precisely in contrast to extreme experiences of defectiveness and suffering. Especially when we feel close to failure and death.

What is death?

According to Schopenhauer, if everyday life is an illusion, the same goes for death.

It is a “nothing” for one who is anchored in his particular life; however, if I manage to rise above the sphere of selfishness, I discover that the natural end of life is the union with the universal essence.

The death of the individual ego corresponds to the expansion of the subject towards infinity, beyond the oppressive limits of earthly existence.

If the world is an illusory representation, I don’t fear the death.

In a passage from “The World as Will and Representation”, Schopenhauer states:

“A man who found satisfaction in his life and, reflecting calmly, wished that his existence, as lived up to now, would have an endless duration and an ever new return, and whose vital courage were so great that he, faced with the pleasure of life, accepted together all the pains and ailments to which he is subject, such a man would stand with firm and vigorous legs on the well-rounded and stable earth.

Armed with that conscience that we attribute to him, he would look impassively at death fast approaching on the wings of time, considering it a false semblance, helpless ghost for scare the weak, but who has no power over him who knows of be, himself, that will, whose objectification or copy is the whole world.

For him, therefore, life always remains certain and also the present, the authentic and unique form of the will, which no infinite past or future can frighten, because he considers it as the vain illusion, as the veil of Maja.

Therefore he would have to fear death as little as the sun at night “.

Psychotherapy as opportunity of awakening.

This should be the ideal goal of any psychotherapy: to put the patient in a position to face suffering instead of avoiding it, to allow him to chase away the ghosts of his own self-annihilation and to feel master of his own existence, living the present moment fully.

The man described above is not a passive instrument of an all-encompassing Will (scenario in which the common person lives instead, lying in sleep). On the contrary, this individual, as if awakened by suffering, having become aware of himself and his faculties, “knows that he himself is that will“.

If the subject rediscovers that the feeling of will belongs intimately to him, he can truly become an entity with unlimited potential, to the point of observing death itself with superiority and detachment.

The unmasking of illusions, the acceptance of suffering and the acquisition of self-awareness are the main qualities that Schopenhauer attributes to this ideal individual (precursor of Nietzsche’s Over-man ).

I would add that another fundamental quality of the conscious man is that of possessing a deep feeling of gratitude towards others and the world around him. Gratitude that paradoxically also involves the suffering experienced, hostile people and negative events of existence. These experiences awaken in him the need to overcome his limits.

If the world is my representation, what are the conclusions?

There are innumerable influences that Schopenhauer left in philosophy, which were subsequently collected and developed in psychopathology:

The primacy of sentiment over the intellectual principles of the Western philosophy.

From Plato to Descartes, up to Kant, knowledge was understood as a passive intellectual mirroring of a reality existing in itself. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, emphasizes character active of the construction of the reality: it is none other than the my representation, led by my sentiment of will and affirmation .

The role of the body.

In the Platonic and Catholic tradition the body is regarded as a limiting, sinful, disqualifying entity. The body is contrasted with a balanced and rational “soul” (comparable to the perfection of mathematical ideas), a reflection of the divine mind.

In the natural sciences the body is instead reduced to a biological mechanism, stripped of the sphere of feelings.

For Schopenhauer the body is the immediate expression of my feeling of will , or rather of the affirmation of myself. It’s a limit, but at the same time (dialectically) a way to transcend myself and know my true nature.

The patient’s body language and non-verbal communication are extremely important expressions in psychotherapy, even more significant than the verbal elements.

The dream

In the Western philosophical tradition the dream was (with rare exceptions) little considered. It has often been relegated to a chaotic and meaningless experience, as opposed to the “clear and distinct” Cartesian ideas of the rational mind.

For natural science, dreaming is nothing more than the passive brain response to electrical and mechanical stimuli.

For Schopenhauer the dream is an active experience of the ego.

The dream, like the “real” world, is my representation: in both situations, I am the protagonist of the scenario that manifests itself in front of me, but I am also its director .

The dream conveys messages that contain a meaning, not in logical but analogical ways.

From these assumptions, psychoanalysis will identify in the dream “the royal road” to access the unconscious and transform what is chaotic into awareness.


Everything unconscious, result of a long sleep and shapeless, must come to awareness. This is the key to enlightening and beatitude, which for Schopenhauer leads to the definitive liberation from pain.

Even Freudian psychoanalysis, albeit amid various epistemological ambiguities, will admit that “where the id was, there must be the ego”.

Similarly C.G. Jung states: “Make the unconscious conscious, otherwise the unconscious will guide your life, and you will call it destiny”.

I am energy in the act of becoming aware of myself. When I discover this, I wake up and realize that I have lived indefinitely like an automaton. That is, as an object, a slave to instincts and compulsions.

To discover my true identity I have to be willing to do anything, even to suffer until death. In this way the most authentic part of me will reveal itself to my conscience. This message, from Schopenhauer, has been handed down through existentialist currents (M. Heidegger, K. Jaspers, M. Boss, V. Frankl) until today.

The experience that I have to contradict myself in order to reassert myself with greater awareness obviously contains a dialectical principle: I have to find it in the actuality of the present moment to authentically perceive that I am alive.


In Schopenhauer’s statement “the world is my representation” the influences of the ancient Indian schools of yoga and meditation are very evident.
Shiva statue is shown here, taken from
According to tradition, Shiva was the founder of yoga. He remained indefinitely in the Himalayas, in ascesis and in personal suffering.
He then achieved enlightenment and ecstasy thanks to the increase of his perceptive faculties, experiencing that I and the world, subject and object are a harmonious and unitary synthesis.


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