A philosopher not suitable for a university curriculum?

14 June 2019

For a long time, it was the only academic institution at a German university dedicated to the study of Arthur Schopenhauer and today it is still the best place to go for anyone wanting to know more about the philosopher. The Schopenhauer Research Center was founded in 2001 by Professor Matthias Koßler at the Philosophy Department of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). 

There is considerable interest in Arthur Schopenhauer. He is one of the few philosophers of whom the general public are aware – at least by name. “At German universities however, he was always seen as a bit of a black sheep,” says Prof. Matthias Koßler of the Department of Philosophy at JGU. “It was a long time before there were any academic institutions dedicated to conducting research into his work. Instead, that was left to private organizations.”

Perhaps this was to some extent because Schopenhauer was anything but complimentary about the academic landscape in Germany. In his 1851 essay ‘On Philosophy at the Universities’ he ranted: “Are they not crammed with corrupt views, and do they not accept hollow phrases, meaningless twaddle, and nauseating Hegel-jargon where thoughts and ideas are expected?” Still, this is hardly cause to have ignored him for so long.

The main center for international research

“To this day, I don’t understand why those in academic circles handle him with such kid gloves and, with a few exceptions, take such a cautious approach to him that it would be better to avoid him altogether,” wonders Koßler. He shakes his head, smiling. “It is, and remains a mystery to me. In the meantime, I’ve stopped giving it much thought.”

In June 2001, Koßler founded the Schopenhauer Research Center at the Department of Philosophy at JGU. It was the first academic institution at a German university to be fully devoted to the study of Schopenhauer. “It started as a collaboration between the Schopenhauer Society and JGU, which mainly provided the necessary venues and infrastructure.” Since 2008, the research center has also been supported by the Dr. Walter and Dr. Gertrud Pförtner Foundation.

“For a long time, those involved in international Schopenhauer research could only come to us,” says Koßler. Things have changed somewhat; now, for example, there is also a Schopenhauer department in Hagen – even so, Mainz remains at the heart of things. “Each year, we have around 10 to 15 scholarship students coming from all over the world to work on their research here with us.” The research they can undertake here in Mainz is often very important to doctoral candidates. Koßler is currently hosting visitors from Russia, Japan, Brazil, Italy and China.

“Schopenhauer now garners a lot of attention from abroad. In Brazil there are a couple of professors that specialize in his work, and there is even a Schopenhauer Society in Japan.” It is likely that Schopenhauer’s popularity in East Asia stems from his extensive work on Buddhism. “He was the first western philosopher to really take Buddhism seriously. He thought we could learn a lot from it.”

Between the Enlightenment and the Modern Period

Schopenhauer lived during the transition from the Enlightenment to the Modern Period. “He believed that it was not reason that constituted and defined our world, but instinctive will,” explains Koßler. “I think that this theory is the reason why we find him much more interesting than other philosophers right now because we are in an era in which we are confronted by wars and major conflicts. For him, the solution for this cannot be found in rationality, but in the principle of impulsive will and a return to self-interest. For Schopenhauer – as opposed to Leibniz – this was the ‘worst of all possible worlds’. Amongst other things, he criticized the continual growth in people’s needs. He argued against the steady expansion of consumption, a trend that he considered was ultimately at the expense of others.

The spotlight is on Schopenhauer in 2019, as exactly 200 years ago he produced his magnum opus ‘The World as Will and Representation’. “We are working on an anniversary edition”, points out Koßler, taking a stack of printing proofs from the shelf. “Our new edition is an exact replica of Schopenhauer’s personal copy from the first print run. On the left we have a column with the printed text, and on the right you can see Schopenhauer’s handwritten annotations.”

There is still one particular problem that hinders Schopenhauer scholarship – there is, as yet, no complete critical and historically-accurate academic edition of his works. The research center is now working to rectify this with help from the Schopenhauer Society. “We are also preparing a Schopenhauer bibliography; however there is still no printed version.”

Scholars who wish to acquire Schopenhauer’s works regularly encounter difficulties. His literary works are all too often out of print and only available at exorbitant prices. Naturally, the Schopenhauer Research Center stocks his books, and not only that – it even has available versions in Japanese and Chinese. “We are often asked to help with translations,” adds Koßler. “Unfortunately, we don’t usually have the finances for this, but we can usually contribute a foreword at the very least.” Schopenhauer has most recently been translated into Turkish and Chinese. “We often receive specimen copies.”

Searching for Schopenhauer quotations

One very important aspect for researchers is the research center’s large collection of essays. They date back to Prof. Rudolf Malter, who revitalized the study of Schopenhauer at JGU’s Department of Philosophy. “Wherever you are in the world, if you study Schopenhauer, you’ll eventually have to contact us,” states Koßler knowingly. Copies of the Schopenhauer Yearbook, which the research center is involved in publishing, can also be found here. “We have digitized them and set up an online platform where you can easily perform searches using keywords.”

Another service is the in-house information desk. This can be contacted by phone on Tuesdays between 10 am and 12 midday, although most inquiries come via mail. “We do what we can to help everyone,” says Koßler. “Often questions come in about quotations attributed to Schopenhauer. He is well known as a philosopher who had a good turn of phrase.” However, he is sometimes mistakenly credited with coming up with a pithy saying and among these disputed aphorisms is: Health isn’t everything, but without it everything else is nothing. “We don’t believe he coined this – at least, we haven’t been able to identify anything like it so far.”

The Schopenhauer Society and the research center plan to hold an International Schopenhauer Congress to mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of ‘The World as Will and Representation’ in Frankfurt in the autumn of this year. The Institute of Philosophy at Goethe University Frankfurt will also be involved, however, in a limited organizational capacity, as Schopenhauer plays no special role at the university of his adopted home. German universities find it difficult to know what to do with this philosopher even today. Mainz, however, is the notable exception.