Will to live

In science, will to live, or Wille zum Leben in the original German, is a physical chemistry theory of will, outlined by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his The World as Will and Representation (1814/44), based on a platform of German polymath Johann Goethe’s human chemical theory, which in short posits that all observable phenomena is controlled by a driving force or ‘will’ in anthropomorphic speak, or ‘will to live’ as the theory has come to be known, or drive, whereby one “can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants".

The following passages and comments by Schopenhauer outline his general will to live theory:

“As the title indicates [Elective Affinities], though Goethe was unaware of this, [it] has as its foundation the idea that the will, which constitutes the basis of our inner being, is the same will that manifests itself in the lowest, inorganic phenomena.” [1]

“Knowledge which everyone possesses directly in the concrete, namely as feeling, is the knowledge that the inner nature of his own phenomenon, which manifests itself to him as representation both through his actions and though the permanent substratum of these his body, is his will. This constitutes what is most immediate in his consciousness, but as such it has not wholly entered into the form of the representation, in which object and subject stand over against each other; on the contrary, it makes itself known in an immediate way in which subject and object are not quite clearly distinguished, yet it becomes known to the individual himself not as a whole, but only in its particular acts. Of itself it will become the key to the knowledge of the innermost being of the whole of nature, since he now transfers it to all those phenomena that are given to him, not like his own phenomenon both in direct and in indirect knowledge, but in the latter solely, and hence merely in a one-sided way, as representation alone. He will recognize that same will not only in those phenomena that are quite similar to his own, in men and animals, as their innermost nature, but continued reflection will lead him to recognize the force that shoots and vegetates in the plant, indeed the force by which the crystal is formed, and the force that turns the magnetic to the North Pole, the force whose shock he encounters from the contact of metals of different kinds, the force that appears in the elective affinities of matter as repulsion and attraction, separation and union, and finally even gravitation, which acts so powerfully in all matter, pulling the stone to the earth and the earth to the sun; all these he will recognize as different only in the phenomena, but the same according to their inner nature.” [2]

"The will of the copper, claimed and preoccupied by the electrical opposition to the iron, leaves unused the opportunity that presents itself for its chemical affinity for oxygen and carbonic acid, behaves exactly as the will does in a person who abstains from an action to which he would otherwise feel moved, in order to perform another to which he is urged by a stronger motive." [2]

Terminology issues
While Schopenhauer’s will theory is fairly cogent, it does smack of an anthropomorphizing of chemistry or to an extent of blend of both the extrapolate down approach and the extrapolate up approach, whereas the gain in knowledge in modern science has allowed us deeper insight into physical and chemical processes, and hence allowing a stripping away of the many of the older anthropomorphisms, e.g. life (see: defunct theory of life), among others. To exemplify, in 1938 English physiologist Charles Sherrington, in his own grappling battle with explaining existence in pure physical and chemical terms, exemplifies how when the will to live terminology is extrapolated down to the combustion reaction of the ignition of gunpowder the notion of a ‘will-to-implode’ becomes a laughingstock: [3]

“Let us seek where we can first trace mind, or where we last lose it. Does it not begin with urge to live? Zest to live which is part and parcel of life? Is it not that all through? Becoming gradually more sophisticated? The zest of the living thing to go on living, and renew itself as a new life. The zest which implements the whole conduct of life; the zest which the whole conduct of life implements. At once an urge and a motive. No species of life without it. Innate, inalienable, impelling alike man and animalcule. A character which in the more than millionfold variety of nature’s types does not fail or falter in single one. Individual minds of endless variety of type, reptile, fish, bee, octopus, ant. Man observing them, wrapt in his own anthropism, finds some as strange in mind as in the bodily forms that clothe them. Some on still closer knowledge become to him still more strange; some on closer knowledge hateful beyond all tolerance; some delightful to know more closely. But in them all, whatever else, this constant trait; the dirve to live and increase. We can call it zest, and zest it often is, but who shall say where, traced along life’s scale of forms receding from man’s own, zest becomes blind drive, and drive retreats into mindless urge? It may be mind still, although mind ‘over the horizon’.

It was panegyrized years ago as “will-to-live”. But that was a misconception and despite its intention sadly inadequate to the fact. As well call an ocean-tide which sweeps the mariner onward his ‘will’. As well suppose we summon the spring’s growth by asking for it. To think of the vast nether flood of the ‘urge-to-live’ as mere ‘will-to-live’ is to miss the meaning of the whole subconscious world whence man has come, and in part still belongs. Urge-to-live is an immense natural situation, greatly older and far wider than ‘will’ can embrace. It was a biological ‘law’ before ‘will’ came to be.

I remember sowing into 2 liters of distilled water contained in one of a pair of similarly filled tall glass jars a minute speck of a culture of cholera germ. I added this speck to the clear water just before leaving the laboratory late in the summer afternoon. The water in both the jars then crystal-clear. Next forenoon, to my extreme astonishment, the whole tall column of water in the one jar was faintly opalescent. I microscoped a drop. It teemed with myriads of cholera germs, the progeny of my speck of the day before. An almost incredible multiplication. But a philosophy which dubs such a phenomenon ‘will-to-live’ adopts melodrama. To gunpowder its lyricism would impute a ‘will-to-explode’.”

The take-away wisdom of this is that, in regards to terminology and conception development, the extrapolate down approach is the safer approach to follow.

1. (a) Nicholls, Augus and Liebscher, Martin. (2010). The Thinking Unconscious: Nineteenth-Century German Thought (Elective Affinities, pg. 141). Cambridge University Press.
(b) Schopenhauer, Arthur. (date). Samtiche Werke, ed. Arthur Hubscher (Mannheim: F.A. Brockhaus, 1988), Vol. III, 336-37, 339-91.
2. (a) Schopenhauer, Arthur. (1818). The World as Will and Representation, Volume I (Elective Affinity, pgs. 110, 122, 148), trans. E.F.J. Payne. Dover, 1966.
(b) Schopenhauer, Arthur. (1844). The World as Will and Representation, Volume II (Goethe, 41+ pgs; Elective Affinity, pgs. 174, 297-98, 386, 396; inorganic will, pg. 297), trans. E.F.J. Payne. Dover, 1969.
3. Sherrington, Charles. (1940). Man on His Nature (pgs. 166-67). CUP Archive.

External links
Philosophy of the ‘Will’ (Arthur Schopenhauer) – Wikipedia.
Will to live – Wikipedia.

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