On 4/19/15, we recorded the second part of our current treatment of Arthur Schopenhauer, this time covering chiefly music, but also aesthetics more generally, situating appreciation of the different types of art within Schopenhauer's weird metaphysics of the Will as described in episode #114.
Our guest Jonathan Segel has been the long-time violinist/etc. for one of my favorite bands, Camper Van Beethoven, and is also a front-man and guitar hero in his on right, as well as a composer in many genres.
Our text was The World as Will and Representation. We were largely working with sections of Volume 1, Book 3:
- For our previous discussion, we'd already looked at (but not really discussed) the beginning, i.e. sections 30-32, where S. described how Platonic Ideas (i.e. Forms) work into his metaphysics. These are the most immediate manifestations of Will, providing a teleological template for actions of striving. Like the Will itself, they are outside of space and time, but just the fact that we can (sometimes) have an experience of them (as when we peek out of Plato's cave) means that they're Objects for a Subject, unlike the Will itself. They're also individuated: there's an Idea, for instance, for each type of living thing, so that tigers in their growth and behavior strive toward quintessential tigerness and ferns toward fernness.
- For this discussion, our reading started with section 34, where S. gives an overview of what art appreciation is all about. A good spectator needs to forget about his personal strivings and focus on the artwork (or scene of nature, or whatever). In doing this, he essentially gives up his individuality and becomes a "pure will-less Subject of knowledge." He connects not with the particular work in front of him, but with the universal Ideas within it, like ideal beauty, or prototypical characters, or (as in the case of architecture) with the forces of gravity and rigidity themselves.
- We then skipped to sections 38-39, where S. lays out his theories of the beautiful and the sublime. Like Burke, S. distinguishes the sublime by its involving scary/overwhelming content that the beautiful lacks, but whereas Burke sees the experiences of the beautiful and sublime as fundamentally different (one essentially derived from feelings of pleasure and the other from pain), for S., the experience is largely the same (the will-less contemplation), except while the beautiful naturally incites such contemplation, with the sublime, we have to consciously overcome our fear in order to enter the aesthetic state.
- Section 40 warns us against "the charming," in much the same way that Kant did. Though S. entirely dismisses the mechanisms of aesthetic appreciation Kant described, his resultant aesthetics is similar to Kant's, in that the beautiful in art can't be something that actually titillates us, or incites any other desire. Art has to be impersonal in a way, so that we can be free to contemplate it as will-less. (Rock music with its goal of making us actually rock naturally does not fare well under such a system.)
- We then jumped to section 45, which discusses the beauty of the human form. You'll recall that not only does Schopenhauer think that there's a Platonic Idea for the human species, but also for each individual, so that an image like the Mona Lisa can capture a quintessential character of that individual even if (unlike those ancient Greek ideal nude sculptures) that image isn't what we'd call the ideal physical specimen.
- Section 51 is a lengthy one on poetry and literature, including the lyrics that go with music. S. thinks that narratives are much better at portraying characters than paintings or sculptures. In expressive, lyric poetry, the singer makes himself out as such a character, as a conduit for universal sentiment. Though S. thinks that's a legitimate way of expressing a Platonic form, he also thinks there's something cheap and easy about it, not requiring genius in the manner of a Shakespeare who gives us a more wide-ranging picture of the human condition.
- Finally, section 52 is about music in particular, which is different than all the other arts, according to S, because it's non-representative. It doesn't directly depict some object in the world, nor a Platonic form which those objects strive to express, but instead is an expression of the Will itself, of the striving toward resolution that music involves. Of course, his model of music here is Beethoven/Bach/etc., which involves a relatively narrow harmonic language where everything typically has to return to the major chord (the tonic) at the end of the song to wrap things up, so we discussed how well S's characterization applies to subsequent, crazier-sounding music, and more generally the degree to which Western tonality is universal and biologically rooted in the way that S. seems to think.
We also tacked on a couple of essays from 1844, released as part of the subsequent volume of The World as Will and Representation; wikipedia describes the whole thing as two volumes, whereas apparently the second volume (made up entirely of commentaries on the original book) is sometimes broken up into volumes 2 and 3, so in that case (as on the Project Gutenberg page), these would be part of volume 3.
- Chapter 34, "The Inner Nature of Art" (read it online here) considers how art is really part of philosophy: that when we become will-less Subjects of knowledge, we're opening ourselves up to what the universe really is. However, while art exposes us to only one piece of truth, one needs concepts to characterize the whole thing, and that's where philosophy is needed. But really, if you just did philosophy, and couldn't see truth for yourself through art, you wouldn't be a very good philosopher. S. also has some things to say in this section about conceptual art and improvisation.
Chapter 39, "On the Metaphysics of Music" (read it online here) goes into more detail on the investigation of music in section 52, giving us the picture of four-part harmony as directly representing the manifestations of Will: the bass is like the mineral world, operating only according to mass forces like gravity and impenetrability, the tenor is like the vegetable kingdom, the alto like the animals, and the soprano like people. This, S. thinks, is part of what makes music resonate for us so much. He thinks that music is the most immediately effective, most universal, and really most perfect art form, getting at truth directly without the distraction of Representation getting in the way. Given this view, S. is very opinionated about, for example, appropriate and inappropriate mixtures of words and music: music can express and enhance words (or images, as with an opera or, more tellingly for us today, a movie soundtrack), but since the words are always going to be less universal, less direct, less effective, it's sort of a sacrilege to merely make the music in a work a mere subservient appendix to the words, and (Kant thought this too), words really muddy up the effectiveness of music, so the best musical works are instrumental.
As our first rock-star guest (and believe me, I've been trying to make such a thing happen for a long time now), Jonathan set a very high bar. He went to grad school (not in philosophy) and had heaps of cool historical facts about music at his disposal to pull out, and really got the idea of how these conversations work. You can read a recent musical/philosophical rant of his that he composed as we were planning this episode here and watch a wide-ranging, smart interview about his various musical activities and his approach to composition here: