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The Sound of Philosophy

James Tartaglia asks whether philosophy and music should intersect.

I magine you are seated in a lecture theatre, patiently waiting to hear some philosophy. The philosopher you have come to see then takes the stage and starts to sing: a song about the very topic you were expecting them to talk about.

What you were expecting from your next sixty minutes was the usual presentation: namely a long build-up to situate you within the philosophical debate in question; the occasional (more or less) humorous aside to punctuate proceedings; lots of tentative reports of what the philosopher ‘wants to say’ (the nervous tic of the profession); and then some original claims, more often than not saved up until near the end. Then would come the round of questions –which some members of the audience will have been mentally rehearsing throughout the talk, designed as much to demonstrate the questioner’s own philosophical prowess as to elicit an illuminating answer, perhaps by catching the speaker out. This particular philosopher, however, has defied all these expectations by singing. Would you be disappointed and immediately leave? I doubt it. You would certainly be surprised, and might well regard this spectacle as ludicrous beyond belief; but a morbid sense of curiosity would keep you in your seat. But then, suppose the philosopher turned out to be a really good singer, with a really good song which had philosophically illuminating lyrics directly relevant to the issues. Further suppose he or she was accompanied by a first-rate band. Then you might be rather pleased at this turn of events. So delighted, in fact, that you found yourself talking about it for years to come.

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But, entertaining as such an event might be, real philosophy has nothing to do with entertainment, right? Philosophy lectures may often be boring (and they often are; professional philosophers have techniques to disguise when they’re nodding off in other people’s talks), but that’s irrelevant. All that matters is the content; and surely there is no way one could convey the richness of philosophical content contained within a lecture through a song? (That said, you might have doubts about whether one can effectively convey the rich content of a written research paper through a lecture. You can go back and forth over a paper while studying it, but lectures happen in real time. At a lecture, you do get to ask questions – if the chairperson chooses you. But then there are very few philosophers who will not respond to an email addressing issues arising from their work).

However, even if a carefully crafted song could convey such complex content – Homer did sing the Iliad and the Odyssey, after all – and even if my imaginary singing philosopher would do a good job of it, the idea of mixing philosophy with music still seems a bit silly. And real philosophers would surely not do a good job of it, even if they were that way inclined. This is perfectly illustrated by Professor David Chalmers of ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ fame, and his song ‘Zombie Blues’. The song was named after the ‘philosophical zombies’ Chalmers conceived of, which are physically exactly the same as ordinary humans, but lack consciousness, this purporting to show that consciousness is not physical. But the song itself has no serious points to make, and is just intended as a bit of fun for the punters after a hard day of consciousness-conferencing. Chalmers has an excellent stage presence, but a truly rotten singing voice – which all adds to the fun, of course.

Nevertheless, there is some real musical talent to be found in philosophy. Arthur Schopenhauer was a good flute player, by all accounts. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote piano compositions, and although musically, as opposed to philosophically, he was no visionary, they are perfectly credible pieces within the romantic idiom. Donald Davidson the analytical philosopher was an accomplished pianist, and he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein in a college production of Aristophanes’ The Birds. On the current scene, Torin Alter, who, like Chalmers, is a consciousness-man, fronts a rock band, ‘The Lying Angels’, which is very much the real deal; while UK philosophy boasts a number of semi-professional jazz musicians, including Andrew Bowie (saxophone), Andy Hamilton (piano)… and me (saxophone). Rather unusually, I was a jazz musician before I discovered philosophy. Not your typical career path.

Absurdity & Complexity

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Still, it is one thing to be both a musician and a philosopher, and another to try to combine them. On the face of it, they do not mix. With no evident overlap, it seems there can be no good reason to combine music and philosophy. We have already encountered two apparently good reasons not to try, namely that the combination seems silly, and that music is not an appropriate medium to convey the richness and complexity of philosophical content. I do not think the first is a good reason, however, and although the second embodies a good point, it overlooks a crucial aspect of philosophy. So let me address them in turn.

Firstly, we must ask why it would seem silly to present philosophy in musical form. The reason, I think, is that philosophy is associated with profundity, but music with levity. Combine profundity with levity and the result is absurdity. If a political leader were to deliver a speech about foreign policy to a disco beat, that would be a paradigmatically absurd juxtaposition. But then again, you could achieve the same effect by hosting a hotdog eating competition to a soundtrack of Beethoven’s Fifth. The reason this switch maintains the absurd effect is that hotdog eating, unlike politics, is not serious; and, more pertinently, that not all music is associated with levity. Some music is just for fun, and can be all the better for it. But to assume that all music is so is to make a seriously philistine assumption, albeit one it is possibly easy to make, until you start to think about it. The assumption explains our immediate reaction (mine too) to the idea of singing philosophy. But human beings also have a long track-record of producing serious music. (As a jazz musician, I can assure you that the first thing that springs to my mind here is not the Western classical tradition.) So if you get the music right, I see absolutely no reason why a musical setting of philosophical ideas should be absurd, so long as there is good reason for it. Setting philosophy to music might put some people off. Richard Rorty, who apparently hated all music, would certainly not have liked it. But others might find that it focused their minds. And if you think that philosophy is so utterly serious that no music could match its gravity, you probably shouldn’t be reading philosophy in a magazine.

The second reservation is that philosophy is too complex to be effectively conveyed in musical form. I think this is basically, but not strictly, correct. It is not strictly correct, because there is no logical reason why every single word of a fifty minute research paper presentation could not be set to music. Very little, if any, audience interaction transpires during philosophy lectures, on the whole; but even that could be incorporated if the music had an element of improvisation, as jazz does. Nevertheless, the reservation that philosophy is too complex to effectively convey in musical form is in practice basically correct, because making it happen would require enormous, completely impractical, amounts of effort, for minimal, if any, rewards. Scoring and rehearsing a philosophy lecture would be a mammoth task; so such events could only be occasional one-offs, reserved for the odd star paper. The clear benefit – for those it did not put off – would be a more entertaining, enjoyable and memorable presentation. The ideas would be the same, however, and they are surely the point of the exercise.

Reasons To Be Musical

However, conveying content is not the only thing that philosophical talks, or texts, do. This brings us to the reasons why I am taking the idea of combining philosophy and music seriously. For texts and talks also inspire us to think philosophically not just by conveying ideas and arguments, but also by getting us to empathise with the ideas and arguments: to connect them with our own lives, and thereby to lodge them under our skins, so to speak. And one way they have done this, throughout all the great philosophical traditions, is by utilising what might be called non-argumentative effects; that is, artistic ones.

Let me give you a couple of instances to show you what I mean. There is a well-known passage in Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2 (p.354 in the Payne translation), in which he illustrates his despair at the futility and cruelty of life through the kind of case which, he thinks, makes this most evident – the lives of non-human animals. Schopenhauer gives the example of turtles in Java dying in agony as they are ripped apart by wild dogs, who are themselves sometimes ambushed by tigers. It is a scene of horror that is repeated year after year, and for Schopenhauer, who has a thoroughly bleak outlook on reality, it is a microcosm of life in general. But this is evidently not a disinterested exercise in academic reasoning. Rather, it is a vivid illustration designed to induce the pathos in his reader that Schopenhauer himself felt. Schopenhauer was aiming for an artistic effect when he wrote this passage. Of course, he was illustrating a position he had previously argued for; but here he was trying to produce an emotional effect on his reader. It must have worked, given how often this short passage from his massive book is cited. I have no doubt that generations of readers have pitied those turtles, and drawn parallels between their own lives and the pointless, endlessly recurring horror that transpires on those Java beaches. And I also have no doubt that this non-argumentative, artistic effect has inspired many to take Schopenhauer’s cosmic pessimism seriously; to look into the arguments to see whether the sentiment is well supported.

My second example is more recent: one from Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons (1984), where he uses a tele(trans)portation thought experiment to test the idea of personal survival through psychological continuity – the idea of the continuity of the self through continuous memories, thoughts, experiences, personality traits, etc. As is well-known to Star Trek fans, a teleporter is a fantasy machine which scans your body in order to create an exact physical replica at another place, destroying the original body in the process. However, the idea being considered by Parfit is whether psychological continuity is what is required for survival, and since psychological continuity in his sense is preserved in the replica, then teleportation could be a possible form of personal transport. Travelling this way would worry him, Parfit admits, but he dismisses this worry as irrational, like the nerves we might feel when looking through the window at the top of a skyscraper (p.279). Similarly, any concern we might feel for our ‘old’ body is dismissed as no different in kind from the irrational sentiment we might feel for the actual wedding ring we wore at the ceremony, as opposed to a physically identical replica (p.286).

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People tend to react strongly to Parfit’s teleportation thought experiments, and in diametrically opposed ways. One reaction is that of course teleportation would be perfectly safe, and it’s only a superstitious, anti-scientific belief in something like a soul which would lead you to think otherwise. The other reaction is that the teleporter’s destruction of your body would bring down the final curtain on you just as effectively as a bullet through your head, and the fact that it would subsequently create a replica that would think it was you is beside the point. But however you react, react you will, since thinking about teleportation has a powerful artistic effect of imagination stimulation which draws you into the metaphysics of personal identity. Parfit has indeed imagined a situation in which your metaphysical views would be a matter of life or death: if your views convinced you that teleportation was safe to use, but they were wrong, then you would die! (It is a strange quirk of metaphysics that even in a world where everyone agreed that teleportation was, no-one could know you had died.)

Parfit did not need to use this thought experiment; his arguments about personal identity stand on their own. But he clearly wanted to engage our imaginations by bringing emotions like fear into the mix. In fact, the word ‘fear’ frequently recurs in Reasons and Persons, because Parfit thinks his theory can help us conquer fear of death: given that my memories and psychological traits – which on his view is all I amount to – may be passed onto others, at least in their memories of me, this is supposed to make my death seem less absolute and final. Only the illusion of a fixed self makes death seem terrible, Parfit thinks. Thus he embraces the Buddhist view of ‘no-self’ (pp.502-3). [Please see later this issue for an obituary of Derek Parfit, Ed.] Others, however, regard the fear they imagine at the prospect of teleportation as a spur to investigate where Parfit went wrong, on the grounds that their fear of being zapped out of existence with their body must surely be justified.

These examples show that philosophical ideas can be framed to affect us in the manner of art: they can arouse intuitions we did not know we had while inducing passion, pathos, wonder, mystery, or fear. This is hardly surprising, given what philosophical ideas typically concern – namely, our lives and our place within reality. Neither is it surprising that philosophers would cultivate artistic effects to inspire their audiences and get them thinking. The ultimate aim of philosophy, once we get into the arguments, may be the determination of truth, but it can often be an artistic effect which draws us into the arguments. Such effects instigate and sustain philosophical thought, and hence do important work; not so much in guiding us to the truth, as in determining the paths we want to tread and the kinds of truths we want to discover, and in motivating and sustaining our search for them. A lecture or text may produce artistic effects in a more or less inspiring way, depending on the skill of the philosopher. Artistic effects are neglected in the quasi-scientific technical work which dominates today’s academic philosophy, but they are a mainstay of the history of philosophy.

If our singing philosopher concentrates on producing these effects through music, and keeps the actual philosophy to the minimum required to produce them, then they might well thus be doing valuable philosophical work – the work that lectures and texts do when they aim to produce empathy and engagement in order to inspire reflection. Music moulds, reinforces, and shapes our ideas and feelings – most typically, love, sadness, and passion, and it can do the same kinds of thing with the more conceptually sophisticated and varied palette of philosophy. But a musical rendering also has the advantage that it can aspire to art.

Another advantage to a musical approach is that, given its patently artistic aspiration, our attention is immediately drawn to the non-argumentative nature of these effects, which is something that might pass us by with artistic effects in a purely textual treatment. I mean that with the use of music in philosophy, attention will thereby be drawn to the fact that although we may be moved and inspired, we should not necessarily be persuaded. As such, the musical performance of philosophy has something in common with the aims of experimental philosophy, which, among other things, provides a check on the use philosophers often make of intuitions by empirically investigating a representative sample of a population’s intuitions. The very fact that there is now such a thing as experimental philosophy makes us more wary when we see philosophers appealing to the intuitive high-ground without evidence. And likewise, performance philosophy of whatever medium, by raising our awareness of the use of non-argumentative effects in philosophy, may remind us to keep a level head whenever these effects are employed, however much we may otherwise welcome them.

The Performance of Philosophy

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Performance philosophy has become a reality in recent years, and is spreading fast (see performancephilosophy.org). It encompasses not only music, but also dance, theatre, film, and all manner of artistic endeavours which can be inspired by, and inspire, philosophy. I think we should welcome this, because even though some philosophers like to think of their discipline as a branch of science, philosophy has a strong affinity with the arts, and this affinity should be celebrated, not hidden away. This affinity with the arts can immediately be seen from the fact that the history of philosophy is a living part of philosophy, in a way in which the history of science could never be part of contemporary science: philosophy, just like an art form (maybe it even is an art form), has canonical figures whose thoughts have retained their relevance for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Plato and Descartes will not fade from our horizons any more than will Shakespeare, Rembrandt, or Beethoven. Old science, by contrast, is typically obsolete science.

Another reason to welcome the development of performance philosophy is that, to be frank, philosophy has an image problem. A ‘toga/pipe and slippers/pointless waffle’ image problem. Science is universally taught at primary schools, and breeds celebrities; it pervades our culture, and is showered with adoration. Philosophy, on the other hand, is viewed with suspicion in many quarters, and remains a niche interest outside the stubbornly insular profession itself. This is despite the fact that philosophy is, in fact, thoroughly ubiquitous: it creeps into blockbuster movies, ground-breaking artworks, and bestselling novels with surprising frequency; if a novel is acclaimed for its intellectual depth, this usually means that it flirted with a little philosophy. But very few apart from us philosophy-nerds seem to notice. So rather than remaining a publicly invisible source for art to draw upon, maybe it is time for philosophy to start drawing upon art. Then it could hardly be missed. It also might start to be appreciated a bit more.

In any case, philosophy certainly needs to raise its profile, because we are currently on the verge of technological breakthroughs which, in the words of Edward O. Wilson, “will bring us to the greatest moral dilemma since God stayed the hand of Abraham” (The Meaning of Human Existence, p.14). This ethical precipice is most notable in the fields of genetic enhancement and artificial intelligence. If philosophy continues on its current, unassuming track, then we will soon find ourselves with the anomaly of all the seats on the ethics panels being taken up by scientists. Philosophy desperately needs more cultural influence and respect, for which increased public awareness is a good start. Performance philosophy can help. And if you think this will lead it to be taken less seriously, then you are falling back on the unthinking assumption about levity. In any case, when it comes to the big philosophical issues currently facing us, I am not sure it could have much less influence than it currently does.

To return to my singing philosopher, then: I myself would willingly sing that song. Unfortunately, to echo the unforgettable words of jazz pianist Erroll Garner, my voice is “worser than Louis Armstrong’s.” That is why, for our album Jazz-Philosophy Fusion, we hired a professional singer; and one of the best, too. Philosophy deserves it.

© James Tartaglia 2017

James Tartaglia is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Keele University and the author of Philosophy in a Meaningless Life (Bloomsbury 2016). Before he pursued an academic career in philosophy, James was an award-winning jazz saxophonist. He has now combined his passions with performances with his band Continuum Of Selves, including a recording, Jazz-Philosophy Fusion. Please visit jazzphilosophyfusion.com for more about the band.

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