Schopenhauer On Women

I greatly admire and have found insightful much of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (of whom I’ve written extensively on this blog.) Nonetheless, he was—without question and undeniably—a misogynist. Here is a typical quote on women by Schopenhauer, “Although women can have even more potential and more talent than man, they always lack in judgment.” Now this is straightforwardly and self-evidently false.

The fact is that individuals can be profoundly insightful on some topics and positively ignorant of others. Schopenhauer was a good philosopher but completely ignorant of sociology, anthropology, and psychology—he is not a good guide on these subjects. His opinions about women are completely non-scientific. He is not to be entirely faulted here as those social sciences didn’t really exist when he lived.

And he is not alone in this regard. Aristotle was a good ethicist and political philosopher (although he endorsed the idea that some people are by nature slaves, yes he really thought this) but he was a terrible biologist and physicist. He thought, for example, that water ran downhill because it sought its natural resting place and that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. Newton was one of the world’s great geniuses but was also evidently a terrible person who also believed in alchemy. And while I consider myself a good philosopher I am ignorant of mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, zoology, botany, and many other subjects beyond the very basics. Moreover,  there are many specialized fields within philosophy about which I’m ignorant.

Schopenhauer’s views on women probably derived from his personality, his personal experience, and his environment. (Aren’t all our beliefs and actions derived from some combination of our nature placed in some environment?) Schopenhauer had a notoriously strained relationship with his mother and other women in his life. No doubt his stereotypes about women were formed partly because of his bad experiences. He also lived at a time when women had almost no means of becoming educated or living independently. Perhaps from this, he mistakenly concluded that they were all his intellectual inferiors.

Contrast this with my experience. My Mother was loving and devoted and could read Latin till her dying day. My wife earned a master’s degree in pure mathematics (something I doubt Schopenhauer could have done) when she was in her 40s while caring for 3 young children. Almost all the top students in my academic career from grade school to grad school were women. More than half of law school and medical school students in the USA are female which belies the claim of any intellectual inferiority. My three daughters all work for a high-tech company with whom it is harder to get a job than to get into Harvard. Two of them are world-class programmers. three are extraordinarily educated and have taught me much. Most of the women I’ve known have been astute and judicious. I also have 2 granddaughters whom I love dearly and who are so smart. So my experience has been different from Schopenhauer’s.

But personal experience is irrelevant here; it supplies nothing but anecdotal evidence. The only way to know what’s true about the matter of inherent differences between men and women is through scientific research. The bottom line is that all human beings share a human genome and we are much more alike than different. In fact, we share about 98% of that genome with chimpanzees! Yes, there are differences between the sexes (men are on average larger than women for instance) but none of those differences would justify a single one of the claims of Schopenhauer such as women “always lack in judgment.”

If you are serious about these topics you can read thinkers like David Buss or Helen Fisher on the evolutionary origins of the different sexual strategies between the sexes or the results of other empirical research into quantifiable differences between the sexes. (Males and females do have different reproductive strategies for instance.) As for Schopenhauer, I’d like to believe that were he were alive today he would laugh at his 19th-century folly. And if he didn’t it would be obvious he was only interested in maintaining his prejudices not in finding the truth about these issues.

It is easy to hold on to your prejudices because they are comforting; it is hard to jettison them after careful research and reflection. It is also always easier to hold on to your beliefs based on some intuition or emotional experience. But if I trusted my intuition I’d still believe the world was flat or that the sun orbited the earth.

Now I am sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn’t criticize individuals for adopting the silly views of their time. So I don’t throw out all of Aristotle or Aquinas or other philosophers because they were sexist or racist. I don’t reject Descartes’ skepticism or analytic geometry because, when he was presented with the devasting arguments of Elizabeth, Princess of Bohemia against his mind-body dualism he simply shrugged them off because they were merely advanced by a woman. In fact, almost all philosophers in the Western tradition were sexist, with the possible exception of Plato, until John Stuart Mill. Mill courageously penned the wonderful essay “The Subjection of Women.”

But what’s particularly problematic about people’s prejudice is that it hurts others and harms the world, whether that prejudice is sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. When people see the other as different they quickly conclude the other is inferior. And from that can follow a host of bad consequences.

Just consider a recent example in my own country. Hilary Clinton lost the American presidential election in 2016 to Donald Trump. Clinton was probably the most qualified person to ever run for the presidency in US history. She probably has an IQ of about 160, she knows more about health care, geopolitics, and many more relevant topics to that job than almost any person alive today while Trump was both unfit, unqualified, and a clinical psychopath. Yet, no doubt she lost votes simply because of sexism.

But imagine if she had been President during the Covid pandemic. As an amazingly competent policy wonk who knew how to push the levers of government, she was perfectly fitted for that task. Contrast this with Trump’s immorality and incompetence. Thousands of lives were lost because of sexism in this case. Or consider that racism was a major cause of the defeat of the universal health care first proposed in the USA by Harry Truman. But racism played a major role in its defeat. Surely you wouldn’t want to catch blackness by sharing a hospital room with an African American! The result of this racism has likely been the loss of more than a million lives in the intervening decades as well as countless suffering.

I understand that some people don’t like women or men or fat people or dark-skinned people or progressives or Jews or gay or transgender persons or whomever. But please don’t act on your prejudice and bigotry. Remember that the conclusions we draw from our limited experiences are often mistaken. The truth about people can only be teased out through careful scientific research. Our intuitions and prejudices often mislead us and this should matter if we want to know the truth about something. Again there are differences between the sexes (although gender is not a simple either/or concept) but none of those differences discovered support anything Schopenhauer writes. And it most definitely refutes the idea that one or the other sex is superior or inferior.

But if you still doubt the stupidity of Schopenhauer’s view of this topic just read his essay “On Women” where you will encounter the quotes below. Virtually the entire essay is so stupid as to be a parody of itself. What it clearly reveals is a man who detests women.

One need only look at a woman’s shape to discover that she is not intended for either too much mental or too much physical work.

Women are directly adapted to act as the nurses and educators of our early childhood, for the simple reason that they themselves are childish, foolish, and short-sighted—in a word, are big children all their lives…

This is why women remain children all their lives, for they always see only what is near at hand, cling to the present, take the appearance of a thing for reality, and prefer trifling matters to the most important.

With girls, Nature has had in view what is called in a dramatic sense a “striking effect,” for she endows them for a few years with a richness of beauty and a, fulness of charm at the expense of the rest of their lives; so that they may during these years ensnare the fantasy of a man to such a degree as to make him rush into taking the honourable care of them, in some kind of form, for a lifetime—a step which would not seem sufficiently justified if he only considered the matter.

Moreover, she is intellectually short-sighted, for although her intuitive understanding quickly perceives what is near to her, on the other hand her circle of vision is limited and does not embrace anything that is remote; hence everything that is absent or past, or in the future, affects women in a less degree than men. This is why they have greater inclination for extravagance, which sometimes borders on madness. Women in their hearts think that men are intended to earn money so that they may spend it, if possible during their husband’s lifetime, but at any rate after his death.

It is because women’s reasoning powers are weaker that they show more sympathy for the unfortunate than men, and consequently take a kindlier interest in them. On the other hand, women are inferior to men in matters of justice, honesty, and conscientiousness.

So that it will be found that the fundamental fault in the character of women is that they have no “sense of justice.” This arises from their deficiency in the power of reasoning already referred to, and reflection, but is also partly due to the fact that Nature has not destined them, as the weaker sex, to be dependent on strength but on cunning; this is why they are instinctively crafty, and have an ineradicable tendency to lie.

In a court of justice women are more often found guilty of perjury than men. It is indeed to be generally questioned whether they should be allowed to take an oath at all. From time to time there are repeated cases everywhere of ladies, who want for nothing, secretly pocketing and taking away things from shop counters.

Nothing different can be expected of women if it is borne in mind that the most eminent of the whole sex have never accomplished anything in the fine arts that is really great, genuine, and original, or given to the world any kind of work of permanent value.

That woman is by nature intended to obey is shown by the fact that every woman who is placed in the unnatural position of absolute independence at once attaches herself to some kind of man, by whom she is controlled and governed; this is because she requires a master. If she, is young, the man is a lover; if she is old, a priest.

While I value many of Schopenhauer’s philosophical insights, I completely, totally, and unequivocally detest his misogyny. It is as harmful as it is untrue. 

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

12 thoughts on “Schopenhauer On Women

  1. Dr. Messerly,

    Thank you for your post. I have now re-read the ‘essay on women’ by AS. (And some The Moral Animal). Before I say anything: I think most of what AS wrote in the essay is too extreme, unfair, etc. I don’t easily buy into the word ‘misogynistic’, in his case. Let’s face it: only idiots can be misogynistic. AS wasn’t an idiot. I think we should give him the benefit of doubt, here’s some points of why I think so. I am no scholar; I read what I want, when I want, and make of it what I will. This means that I cannot ever be 100 per cent sure about absolute precision in what I write. Only, say, 90 per cent. I can be mistaken, but on the whole it’s improbable. I try to learn anything only from credible sources. So here’s some of points mentioned above:

    1. During his last years, AS was directly confronted by women who admired his philosophy, but admonished him for the essay on women. His reply was: ‘Ah, but I still haven’t written my last word on women!’.

    Now, who knows if he ever did? Maybe these writings exists, but have not been found. I have an Italian translation of incredible material about AS that was never translated in English. But maybe he never wrote again about women, for whatever reason.

    The man was a student until his final days. The mornings were always devoted to study alone in his studio. He would not be disturbed for any reason, not even when famous people visited him. He would instruct the maid to tell them to return at an appropriate time.

    Who knows what more he could have said?

    2. In many parts of the essay, I strongly suspect he’s begrudging some personal experiences. His father committed suicide, only to observe his very frivolous mother and sister happily relocating to Weimar, establish a salon, engaging in coquetry and frivolous undertakings, and wasting away the fortune that his father had accumulated.
    And, later, he was taken to court by a woman who was intent on ruining him, spending years into maddening court proceedings, and losing his case. I don’t need to get into the details here, but it seems the woman was pretty much a psycho.

    3. He continuosly refers to ‘the European lady’. I believe he’s referring especially to the frivolous courtesan type. AS was an avid concert and opera goer, he observed these courtesans chattering away during the concert etc. Frankly, I found the essay funny in places:

    ”If at these concerts the women would only shut up, so that the rest of us could hear what was being played!”.

    Now, I agree how many things he wrote about women are too extreme. I disagree with most of it, but still agree with some points. However, before I readily crucify him, I also note that many other famous men such as Byron and Rousseau, which Schopenhauer readily quotes, wrote similar things.

    I just wonder how someone like these people, could be geniuses, and idiots, all at once. If so, it shows how truly no one is perfect. But also, these people weren’t living in our day and age. I believe women in the 1800’s weren’t like the women of today. Back then aristocratic women were crazy. Marie Antoinette would go out with a hairstyle that was 3 meters high (or so I remember reading). I believe it was this kind of mindless debauchery that Schopenhauer was mainly lambasting.

    The man was thrifty, and judged any unnecessary money waste as stupid. It is true that it seems that his vitriol in the end extended to all women.

    At least for the time being. Who knows?

    But I agree about what he said about judgement. In The Moral Animal, although I just started reading it, the problem I see is that the author seem to justify everything according to the evolutionary theory/psychology.

    But we aren’t just animals. And what would be justified by the evolutionary theory, is not necessarily good judgement. First, we would need to define good judgement. I haven’t looked in the dictionary, but unless I am mistaken, it seems to me to mean the ability to make the best choice that benefit myself, without harming others in the process.

    But indeed many women for example are attracted to the ‘alpha man’. The fact is that even if the man is bad, you can be pretty sure many women will feel at least confounded.

    Unless I am mistaken, this would agree with evolutionary psychology. But not with good judgement. I already made the example of all these women who in the end divorce the abusive husband. I find hard to believe that the signs and the red flags were completely invisible to the woman.

    Sorry, I just can’t believe it. Did these women suffer abuse? Unfortunately, yes. I am not saying the abuse and the injustice is not there. It’s there. No one has the right to abuse another. Yet it’s been now what, 20 years that I hear always the same story. Woman marries man. Man is good looking, etc etc. He is an ‘alpha’. A while later, woman complains of abusive husband, and has no choice but to divorce him.

    Unless I am mad, this stuff is there all over the place. But maybe I am mad.

    By the way, it’s interesting to note that Schopenhauer preceded Wright in the idea of polygamy being in the end beneficial to women too.

    I don’t know if I’ll continue with this. But these are my impressions in a hurry.

    Thank you,
    Luigi

  2. ‘But we aren’t just animals.”. And by that, I mean that in the human realm, things are more complicated than in the animal realm. For example, boredom, which of course AS founded part of his philosophical system.

    I don’t think it is something I imagine: women get bored more easily. They are waiting, until their last day, for a knight in shining armour to arrive and sweep them away.

    You might be horrified by what I say here, but I am sure you know about pickup artists (yes, what a ridiculous name). Some are phonies. Certainly no scientists. But many of them know a lot about women. If you sift through the trash, you’ll see that the idea of the woman ‘lacking judgement’ (which is not at all as being stupid! Women aren’t stupid.) needs not be so shocking.

    Men lack judgement too. The difference is that women can do things that most of us men just don’t understand, things that make no sense to us, although it does to them.

    I believe women get bored more easily, and so do all these ‘pickup artists’ (I am not one, of course. But years ago I dabbled with these ridiculous ideas, and I did learn something). This is just what AS wrote about boredom. All of us are subject to it. But women get bored more easily. I think this is because they have a lot more choice than men.

    Anyways, perhaps I am wrong on everything. Sure. Who am I to judge?

    Thanks,
    Luigi

  3. ” I can be mistaken, but on the whole it’s improbable” I meant when quoting someone, or giving more minute details. I did not mean to say that it is improbable that I can be mistaken on anything, i.e. I -can- be mistaken on anything.

  4. let us also remember that Schopenhauer said harsh things about everybody, even about Germany and German people. At the restaurant where he ate everyday, he would say that Germany is a stupid country, and that Germans are fools, even though he was German! Some people would protest and ask that he’d be thrown out. He said bad things about French, Italian, and MEN in general too. The only men he respected were Kant and Buddha, most other men were to him idiots.

    Or either, he was sarcastic. People who met him in person said that he had a Mephistophelian type of smile, which was almost always stamped on his face, as to basically say that most people were fools. When female sculptor Elisabeth Ney visited him to tell him she wanted to make his bust, he looked at her in disbelief (with the usual sarcastic smile on his face) and said that he could not believe her ‘audacity’. He told her ‘he didn’t need any busts, and to leave him in peace’, but she insisted.

    Long story short, he agreed to let her make the bust and stay at his home, and he said in a cheerful and jovial mood to others: ‘She’s an excellent artist and she is making my bust, and I see her every day. It feels as if I were married!’.

    I find these stories amusing.

    But yes, some of the things he wrote about women are wrong.

  5. I am not deep on AS. He did write some ideas on will that were instructive and helpful to me many years ago. No, I did not know of his opinion(s) on women. Disappointing, certainly, yet not out of touch, much, with his time. We are better enlightened now, especially, IMO, since the iron glove of religion has grown rusty from disuse and abuse.
    Arthur’s assessment of women’s judgment is archaic by today’s standards. Although it may have aroused some ire, in its’ time, it probably did not cause many to question AS’ judgment. Human evolution and responsive consciousness are closely linked, in MY judgment. Good post, Dr. Thank you.

  6. thanks for the time you took to write all these comments Luigi. Perhaps some readers will reply.

  7. Dr. Messerly,

    One more thing I’d like to add about my argument in regard to Schopenhauer not being a simple misogynist or a crude “woman-hater”, and that the reasons why he has written these extremely negative generalizations, in his case should be considered along with the times and how aristocratic women might have appeared to him.

    When his mother and sister established their salon in Weimar and happily started wasting away the fortune his father (who, let’s remember, died of suicide. The wife was something like 20 years younger and was completely unattracted to the husband, yet she married him nonetheless), the young Schopenhauer despised his mother and to a lesser degree, his sister.

    The mother was being courted by a lover, and Schopenhauer saw this as immoral.

    Long story short, the mother chased away the young Schopenhauer, effectively rejecting her son, and the two never saw each other again for the rest of their lives.

    Not trying to break anyone’s heart or making excuses for the things he wrote about women. I am only saying, perhaps we are too ready to judge in absolute terms without considering that there might be something more behind what appears to us, as Epictetus said. I believe this at least in the case of Schopenhauer, Byron, Rousseau, and others.

    Perhaps they just had some bad experiences and started to believe that it’s that bad in every case. A very common occurrence with many people, (I mean in regard to many other things, not specifically about women) one would expect a Schopenhauer to know better than that, but after all, he was human too.

    Anyways, no more 🙂

    Thank you!

  8. Dr. Messerly,

    After thinking about all this some more, I finally came to a definite conclusion: you win the argument. Mine wasn’t an argument at all, but mere claims. I just wanted to offer a view of the reasons why AS wrote this stuff.

    But, let’s be clear: what he wrote about how women should “submit” in this or that way, is absolutely unacceptable. No one should be made to submit to anyone, and women of course are no exception. The only thing one should submit to, is the law.

    Personally, though, I still am skeptical about AS being a woman-hater. To the contrary, I think he was crazy about women. In some of his writings, this is quite clear, he even pretty much describes what it is about them that makes him lose his head. And there are various stories of his adventures with women, for example his relationship with Teresa Fuga, I have read the letters, they are really saucy, ha ha. He would change his itinerary with no second thoughts whenever he could meet Teresa.

    In his old age, he was still speaking about her, because she was the reason why he had not meet Byron, but that’s another story.

    But that doesn’t gloss over this stuff he wrote. To be honest, I never took this too seriously. Until now. Thank you for opening this can of worms!(I mean opening the can of worms and made me arrive at these final conclusions about the essay he wrote.) Thank you.

  9. I have been thinking about all this again, and I have now an even more complete picture about Schopenhauer. I have read more about the kind of person he was. He seems to have actually been a better person than many of us. He always defended ‘loving-kindness’ for other human beings, irrespective of whether they were men or women.

    Toward the last part of his life, for example, he saved a boy from drowning. These seem an irrelevant argument in relation to the specific subject mentioned in this post, and yet it is not completely irrelevant, if not for a single fact: Schopenhauer should not be confused with an idiotic ‘woman hater’.

    And I still agree at least in part about what he believed about women. People who seem to be offended by these views are in reality people who have had the least experience with women….if anyone who isn’t a vulgar and dumb ‘woman hater’, who has had at least above average experience with woman would be consulted, it will be found that at least part of what Schopenhauer wrote, is true and correct.

    I too believed all these seemingly strange things about women were false, principally, that they are fickle and irrational in their relationships with men, until I gained just enough the experience mentioned above, to confirm that these things are in fact true.

    This should NOT be confused with mere ‘women hatred’. In my view this is a fallacy, i.e. just because something negative is being said about women, although it is done by unfairly generalizing (something it can be attacked as a prejudice, when in some case this can be actually closer to inductive logic), it is unfairly attacked as ‘hatred toward women’.

    And as Bertrand Russell said, a human being should also be judged in general, i.e. not by just picking out their flaws.

    As Schopenhauer himself said: ‘I do have my own flaws. But I don’t keep adding to them.’.

    There’s a lot of stuff that is said about him that really doesn’t add up, for example how in the last part of his life ‘he didn’t make much mention of his philosophy’, or that he was a ‘hypocrite’…..all rubbish, but that’s for another time.

    Thank you for your views.

  10. Of course, ‘my evidence’ about it is anecdotal. But just because it is so, it doesn’t mean the evidence is irrelevant, just that it is weak evidence. That’s all the evidence I can provide. But I also have met with other men who have had extensive experience with women, people who overrated sex (as I did when I was younger), and lo and behold, they maintained the same views.

    All I am saying is this: that if one is expressing generalized negative views about women, it should not be immediately categorized as ‘hatred toward women’, unless the people expressing these views, are dumb simpletons.

    But again, it seems strange that people who were far from being simpletons, such as Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Byron, and many other famous intellectuals, actually share these views at least in part.

    No more, I promise. Thank you for your patience. (as always, you have every right to discard my comment. I wrote a lot or too much in this post, and I am fully aware of that.).

  11. “I have not yet spoken my last word about women. I believe that if a woman succeeds in withdrawing from the mass, or rather raising herself from above the mass, she grows ceaselessly and more than a man.”
    ― Arthur Schopenhauer, Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy

    I know I broke my promise several times probably, but I -had- to write the above quote. I had read it before but could not remember what was the source. That should tell us how much Schopenhauer really ‘hated’ women, when in reality, I believe he’s been crazy about them all his life.

  12. ”…the more I see men, the less I love them. I wish I could say the same about women.”. -Schopenhauer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.