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Schopenhauer on the Essential Difference Between How Art and Science Reveal the World

“[Science] is like the innumerable showering drops of the waterfall, which, constantly changing, never rest for an instant; [art] is like the rainbow, quietly resting on this raging torrent.”

Schopenhauer on the Essential Difference Between How Art and Science Reveal the World

“We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell marveled in her diary. “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his exhilarating Nobel Prize acceptance speech, adding: “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Art and science furnish dramatically different yet complementary lenses on what we call reality and grant us different ways of inhabiting it, of making sense of it, of living with its perennial mystery.

In his beautiful meditation on the creative sympathies between art and science, physicist and novelist Alan Lightman pointed to “the infinite mystery of human nature” and “the infinite mystery of physical nature” as the respective domain of each. Nearly two centuries earlier, the influential German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) considered the relationship between art and science, and their abiding mutual sympathies, in The World as Will and Representation (public library) — the 1818 masterwork that also gave us Schopenhauer on the relationship between genius and madness and the crucial difference between genius and talent.


Schopenhauer uses mutability as the criterion of distinction — science, he argues, is concerned with change, whereas art contemplates the eternal. He writes:

At the lowest grades of its objectivity, where it still acts without knowledge, natural science, in the form of etiology, treats of the laws of the changes of its phenomena, and, in the form of morphology, of what is permanent in them. This almost endless task is lightened by the aid of concepts, which comprehend what is general in order that we may deduce what is particular from it. Lastly, mathematics treats of the mere forms, time and space, in which the Ideas, broken up into multiplicity, appear for the knowledge of the subject as individual. All these, of which the common name is science, proceed according to the principle of sufficient reason in its different forms, and their theme is always the phenomenon, its laws, connections, and the relations which result from them.

But what kind of knowledge is concerned with that which is outside and independent of all relations, that which alone is really essential to the world, the true content of its phenomena, that which is subject to no change, and therefore is known with equal truth for all time, in a word, the Ideas, which are the direct and adequate objectivity of the thing in-itself, the will? We answer, Art, the work of genius. It repeats or reproduces the eternal Ideas grasped through pure contemplation, the essential and abiding in all the phenomena of the world; and according to what the material is in which it reproduces, it is sculpture or painting, poetry or music. Its one source is the knowledge of Ideas; its one aim the communication of this knowledge.

Because science is predicated on forever reaching into the unknown, Schopenhauer argues, it is therefore inherently forward-leaning and unfinishable, whereas art is about resting the attention on a particular object and beholding it with absolute presence. He writes:

While science, following the unresting and inconstant stream of the fourfold forms of reason and consequent, with each end attained sees further, and can never reach a final goal nor attain full satisfaction, any more than by running we can reach the place where the clouds touch the horizon; art, on the contrary, is everywhere at its goal. For it plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world’s course, and has it isolated before it. And this particular thing, which in that stream was a small perishing part, becomes to art the representative of the whole, an equivalent of the endless multitude in space and time. It therefore pauses at this particular thing; the course of time stops; the relations vanish for it; only the essential, the Idea, is its object. We may, therefore, accurately define it as the way of viewing things independent of the principle of sufficient reason, in opposition to the way of viewing them which proceeds in accordance with that principle, and which is the method of experience and of science. This last method of considering things may be compared to a line infinitely extended in a horizontal direction, and the former to a vertical line which cuts it at any point.

The method of viewing things which proceeds in accordance with the principle of sufficient reason is the rational method, and it alone is valid and of use in practical life and in science. The method which looks away from the content of this principle is the method of genius, which is only valid and of use in art. The first is like the mighty storm, that rushes along without beginning and without aim, bending, agitating, and carrying away everything before it; the second is like the silent sunbeam, that pierces through the storm quite unaffected by it. The first is like the innumerable showering drops of the waterfall, which, constantly changing, never rest for an instant; the second is like the rainbow, quietly resting on this raging torrent.

The World as Will and Representation, it bears repeating, is an existentially necessary read. Complement it with Schopenhauer on the intellectual rewards of boredom, then revisit the story of how the cross-pollination of art and science in early twentieth-century Vienna shaped modern life.

Published August 5, 2016




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