Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Soulful Articulations • Music, Food of Thought • A Wealth of Experience? • Dasein, Oder Nicht Dasein? • ‘Heaven UnChristian’ Shock • Imadaldin Interpretation Issues • Slack Anarchist • Evolving Ethics • Mortal Words • Give Rand a Hand
DEAR EDITOR: Congratulations on an excellent editorial ‘Art and Soul’ (Issue 57). What is art? You have given the game away. In your piece you have continually used the word ‘article’. Now we all know what is meant by ‘article’: it is a small construction, usually literary, intended to pass information to the observer. But ‘article’ is simply the diminutive of ‘art’: art-icle. Therefore, art is a larger construction intended to pass information to the observer.
Music, Food of Thought
DEAR EDITOR: I was most interested in Ben Ushedo’s piece on Music & Emotion in Issue 57 of Philosophy Now: It is indeed a mystery as to why certain sounds or combination of sounds can induce emotion in the listener. It seems to me fairly obvious that musical keys have something to do with it. Minor keys, on the whole, evoke feelings which range from sobriety and gravity through sadness to utter despair, whereas major keys, again on the whole, engender a sense of optimism and well-being.
Interestingly, there are exceptions to this rule, but they are few. Chopin’s famous Funeral March, played on state occasions when the predominant mood is one of mourning, is most emphatically in a minor key. Yet Handel’s equally famous so-called Dead March from his oratorio Saul arouses much the same emotions, but is entirely in a major key.
There is also the question of the ‘falling phrase’. Take, for example the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, used as background music in the film Death in Venice. Falling phrases abound here, and the composer’s sadness of heart is clearly expressed in the music. The works of Elgar also provide abundant examples of the falling phrase, eg in the famous Cello Concerto to give but a single instance. However, the finest example of this musical device is in the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the so-called Pathetique. Here the music invites us to share in the composer’s feelings of self-abnegation and despair.
The strange thing is that sad music often consoles rather than adds to one’s sadness. It can be like a healing balm. Cheerful music, on the other hand, can be irritating if one is not in the right frame of mind to receive it. Listening to music is an engagement between the performers and the listener, but the performer acts as a kind of medium for the composer’s thoughts and musical ideas.
DEAR EDITOR: In her delightful introduction to Issue 57 (Sept/Oct 06) of Philosophy Now, ‘Aesthetics and Philosophy: A Match Made in Heaven?’, Anja Steinbauer cites Arthur Danto as holding that what makes the difference between a Brillo box in a supermarket and a Brillo box in an art gallery is a matter of theory. But some 60 years earlier, Marcel Duchamp answered that question differently, not in words but in practice. For him what makes the difference between a urinal and a sculpture called Fountain is the viewer’s intention – in both the philosophical and the everyday meanings. Placed where it would normally be found, the viewer regards it as a urinal and acts accordingly. Placed in an art gallery, the viewer looks at it to have an aesthetic experience.
This suggests that aesthetics is really married to psychology, even if it has been indulging in an affair with its childhood sweetheart, philosophy, for a very long time. (Just to complicate the relationship, it should be remembered that Nietzsche had already begun to blur the distinction between philosophy and psychology, and that the Phenomenologists took it further.) This thought brings me to Ben Ushedo’s essay ‘Music & Emotion’ in the same issue. Ushedo talks about ‘cognitivist’ and ‘emotivist’ approaches to the question of how music can generate emotion in the listener, but he makes no attempt to suggest the actual mechanisms by which it does so. Indeed, he does not refer at all to the most convincing and widely-held group of theories – at least among those musicologists who have not been carried away by the current fashion for hermeneutics – the so-called ‘implication-realization’ theories.
Probably the earliest and most convincing account of this school of thought is that by Leonard B. Meyer in his 1956 book Emotion and Meaning in Music. To put it very simply, music takes place in time. By various means, a passage of music sets up expectations in the listener of what will happen next. Psychological affect is generated when what actually happens deviates from expectation but soon returns to what was predicted, so that the listener’s confidence in his ability to continue to predict is re-established. Only a few expectation-arousing factors are inherent in the nature of sound and the psychology of hearing. The most important of these are the harmonic series which determine the pitches of all the overtones of a definitely-pitched sound. These act as an unconscious frame of reference for the degree of tension or relaxation with which the intervals between different notes are experienced. Also important is the rhythmic pattern associated with the ubiquitous phenomenon of simple harmonic motion (pendulums swinging and the like) which we as a consequence call uniform, even pulsation– together with the rate of pulsation which approximates to the heartbeat, relative to which other rates of pulsation are experienced as fast or slow. (This rate Medieval musicians took as their norm. Baroque musicians called it ‘tempo ordinario’ and English ones, translating that term as ‘common time’, misapplied it to something different.) Most other factors in the appreciation of music are culturally-determined, stylespecific and unconsciously internalized by members of a particular culture. They can even override the ‘natural’ factors. An octave, the most unemotional interval in tonal music, can be so unexpected in an atonal work that it can generate powerful affect; a vivid example occurring for instance in Harrison Birtwistle’s Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments. But Meyer, unlike some other theorists, also shows that psychological tendencies such as the desire for pattern completion and other processes described by Gestalt psychologists play an important role in creating expectations of specific continuations of a passage.
Once affect has been aroused, its particular nature – grief, rage, joy – is determined partly by association (trumpet calls signify war, pairs of semitones sounding like sighs), and partly in some of the ways described by Ben Ushedo.
Arthur Danto’s post-Hegelian idea of the end of art, or more precisely, the impossibility of establishing the aesthetic value of something from its objective properties, also has precedents, and in particular, amongst other sources, in another, and later, book of Meyer’s: Music, the Arts, and Ideas (1967). Meyer describes the twentieth century situation as ‘fluctuating stasis’ – a multiplicity of styles co-existing, with one or another temporarily coming to the fore, in place of a continuous development of the dominant style of one period into that of another. What this means in relation to his theory of the generation of affect is that the modern listener no longer has a secure, internalized set of conventions which allow him unconsciously to predict the way a passage of music will continue. A different set of conventions is needed for each kind of music, and this can lead to confusion and a failure to respond emotionally.
A Wealth of Experience?
DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 57 there an article on world poverty by Grant Bartley. I was thinking that this article had nothing to do with the theme of the issue, art. But, always thinking of connections between subjects, I tried to establish one.
Art always has an economic component. It costs money to do and it generates money. I thought of a town in Indonesia which was like an art colony, its main industry being art. Art was its chief industry and source of income. (I say art was its chief industry because I read that the town was devastated by an earthquake and thus its chief source of income was destroyed. I don’t know if it has recovered.) Anyway, art can alleviate poverty for some. One can find great art in the poorest countries, as in Haiti and many others in Africa and throughout the world. On an individual basis it is a source of income which draws on personal skills, and it does not necessarily depend on state largesse.
Poverty stricken areas of the world seem to consistently remain poverty stricken. The rich countries of the world sometimes seem to throw good money after bad in trying to lift these countries out of their poverty. It seems to be an endless cycle. Perhaps the procedure for giving aid is wrong. Too much of the aid falls into the wrong hands; the corrupt hands of the administrative officials that run these countries. Many economists believe that if people of persistently poor countries had real property rights (most don’t have any property rights) the economic conditions would improve. Property rights also initiate democracy. It puts the power of the community into the hands of its people, not in the hands of corrupt administrators.
Art is an individual property right (in the Lockian sense), and perhaps it could be leveraged in impoverished countries into more tangible forms of property, like houses. With that kind of property you can get a loan and thus status and recognition from the state. But that would require change and legislation which a lot of these counties are constantly remiss about.
Another thing art does that I can’t recall reading in this issue is that it facilitates life: It eases life, making it more livable and bearable. Imagine how much worse off the impoverished nations of the world would be if they didn’t have their art.
Dasein, Oder Nicht Dasein?
DEAR EDITOR: With reference to Reneh Karamians’ ‘Dasein and the Arts’ (Issue 57), the usual English translation of ‘Dasein’ is ‘being there’ – where ‘being’ semantically pre-exists the word ‘there’. The latter word necessitates a space-time continuum to operate in. However, reversing the two words back to the Germanic mode (‘there being’) has the spacetime continuum pre-exist any being which might come to inhabit it. This is critical to the appreciation of the Heideggerian Zeit, in which experienced time is that half of the continuum in which base existence manifests itself, so that space equals ex-isness, or in halb Deutsch, ex-ist-ness – that is to say, no-thing. In this way, the intense spirituality of the German language (as opposed to of Heidegger himself) enhances anticipation about the nature of the ‘being’ which waits in the wings for revelation. It is the absence of this intrinsic German linguistic excitement which makes the English ‘being there’ seem so prosaic – as if being-there were lamely taking place at some suburban bus stop.
‘Heaven UnChristian’ Shock
DEAR EDITOR: I am in hearty agreement with John Donnelly (Issue 56) when he writes that there is a fundamental inconsistency in the beliefs of many of us Christians when it comes to thinking about Heaven – just not the inconsistency he points out. In the Christian scriptures, Heaven is in fact not spoken of as the believers’ ultimate destination. The idea of ‘a home in the clouds’ owes more to a phenomenal/noumenal distinction borrowed from Platonism. The Christian hope, however, is not that we will sprout wings and make a spiritual escape from the physical world: rather it is in the recreation of a new Earth, and God’s relocation from Heaven to “dwell” or “share house” with people (Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:1-2). This explains the importance of physical resurrection in Christian Theology (a body is needed for a physical existence). It seems that an earlier Philosophical Orthodoxy (Platonism/ neo-Platonism) has made for a bad Theological Heterodoxy (‘pie in the sky when you die’) that’s still with us today.
Without wings or halos,
Imadaldin Interpretation Issues
DEAR EDITOR: The piece by Imadaldin Al-Jabouri in Issue 56, whilst attempting to create a greater understanding of the theological strands of Islam which under-lie current political tensions and conflicts, presents difficulties even for those who struggle to understand by empathising with believers.
Appreciation of theological subtleties is very difficult for people who have not been embedded in the practices of believers, and the problems are made worse by attempts to convey the memes of another language and culture to secular English. However, the same difficulties were posed for Dr Al-Jabouri’s interpretation and analysis of political events. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is described as “in the name of law and legitimacy” but an important component missing from the chronology was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which made Iraq, or Saddam, responsible for conferring legality on an intervention which might not have been justified in order to ‘simply’ protect the Kurds or Marsh Arabs from genocide.
The inference of the sentence “to call Iraqis ‘insurgents’ or any other name reflects our opinion about them” is that all Iraqis are called insurgents and that all Iraqis resist the occupation. But not only are only some Iraqis insurgents, many insurgents are not Iraqi.
It is charitable to ascribe the discrepancy between Al-Jabouri’s words and reality to problems of language and culture, but this cannot apply to the sentence “Moreover, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians died within two years of the occupation.” Whatever the source of his numbers, this factoid is presented in the sweeping manner of those who recruit young Muslims into insurgency. Most deaths are Iraqi against Iraqi, or as a consequence of the chaos arising from the removal of Hussain’s government and its structures. It is not the occupation which sets Sunni against Shia and vice versa. Without an intervention, or the no-fly zone being maintained, what would the future have been for the Kurds?
The grounds for the 2003 intervention as an invasion were spurious, and we may never know what was really behind it; but should we do nothing when a country practices genocide? And did the turn-out at the election in Iraq mean nothing at all?
DEAR EDITOR: It may interest Philosophy Now readers to know that the elderly anarchist in the film Slackers (see Issue 56) was played by Dr Lewis Mackey, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. I was fortunate to take a class from him. He was an excellent teacher and beloved of many.
DEAR EDITOR: Kudos to Massimo Pigliucci for his careful handling of a highly sensitive topic (‘Is Ethics a Science?’ in Issue 55), and kudos to the editorial team for printing the piece next to the one by Mahendra Govani carrying Voltaire’s resonant definition of ‘virtue’ as “commerce of beneficence” among human beings. Having the two pieces side by side stimulates reflection on the possibly unexpected but inevitable consequences of looking at ethics through a scientifically- based evolutionary perspective. Being a social species makes humankind thoroughly dependent on a reciprocal commerce of beneficence, which therefore is only a ‘virtue’ to the extent that it may serve the common good to the apparent detriment of the individual. This evolutionary analysis in turn highlights how ‘unethical’ it is to hold religious beliefs in general, and to make moral choices on the basis of religion in particular. Religionism obfuscates the biological bases of ethical behavior, and further impedes its flourishing by restricting its range (not only does commerce of beneficence get reserved only to fellow brethren, but active enmity toward those who are not brethren is justified and encouraged). A Voltairian twist on the title of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical (‘Deus Caritas Est’, briefly discussed in Issue 55 News) would be that ‘caritas’ is an ethical imperative requiring that we purge it of any reference to ‘deus’ to be properly expressed.
To tie morality to an extra-human (ie supernatural) framework, and then to argue that only some specific extrahuman agents are the true ones (in a ‘my god is better than your god’ parody of playground tussles) is not only irrational, but also a betrayal of our most valuable human tendencies. As Pigliucci convincingly points out, “modern ethical theory simply can’t afford to ignore what the natural sciences tell us about human nature, about the neurological basis of moral decision-making, and about the evolution of morality itself.” And a scientifically- anchored ethical theory implicitly supports R.A. Sharpe’s ‘moral case against religious belief’.
DEAR EDITOR: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” These twelve words from Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins must be one of the most explosive openings of any book written in the past ten years. But in response to Baroness Mary Warnock’s interview in Issue 55, I suggest that we are not the lucky ones. The guts of Baroness Warnock’s position was “What horrifies me most is that old people who are not competent anymore are just allowed to wither away. Nobody has any policy about this at all, it just happens. Care for the old and dying is absolutely terrible in this country” – and not only in this country, one might add.
The delay in writing this letter was for one main reason – to see the reaction of subscribers and ‘off-the-shelf’ readers of this excellent magazine, which is read by over twenty thousand. Not one letter – not one letter, not one word in reply or comeback or counterattack or even agreement. Are we to gather from this lack of response that none of your readers are going to die? Have they all made some special arrangement with the ‘life force’, and are keeping the secret to themselves? Or it might be that they are all going to get old but remain in the very best of health right up to the last nanosecond, when they will slip peacefully away in their own beds between pristine white sheets, in their own houses – certainly not in a care home or hospital, not even noticed by the millions of cells that comprise their bodies. What a magnificent dream!
Give Rand a Hand
DEAR EDITOR: You have done a serious injustice to the memory of Ayn Rand in your description of her dealing with Nathaniel Branden (see reviews, Issue 57). For the true account of that relationship read The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics available at most bookstores.
RALPH C. WHALEY MD