Music, philosophy, and live tweeting

This weekend saw the inaugural annual conference of the new RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group, organized with brilliant success by musicologists and philosophers around the UK. I was chairing a session and was invited to join a group of three musicologists live-tweeting the event (the others were @eeleach and @laurenredhead). Since the study group itself is an interesting new venture and the experience of live tweeting from a conference both a relatively new idea and a curious experience, I thought it worth blogging about my reflexions.

On live tweeting

The first and most immediate problem with live tweeting from a conference that offers discussion of ideas about which one has personal views is that the process soon turns into a torment of self-censorship. Although I made a number of pointed remarks on speakers and questions from the floor (which can be found among other contributions from inside and outside the conference by reading the Twitter hashtag #MPSG11) I nevertheless suppressed many more than I published. It is difficult to make the argument of a conference paper (when one is discernible) compatible with the Twitter medium, and often little more is possible than to tweet a remarkable comment, either from the speaker or the floor. So, the essence of James Young’s paper on Peter Kivy’s writing on the philosophy of music was perfectly summed up by his early statement:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/quiltingpoint/status/87103655756574720″%5D

Similarly, various comments from the floor by Roger Scruton seemed to resolve to the same kind of aristocratic disdain:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/quiltingpoint/status/87102179193786368″%5D

More substantial comments are also possible, though the character limit means that they rely to an extent that is common on Twitter but manifests itself most clearly perhaps in situations like this, on a great deal of contextual understanding. Only musicologists could hope to know what I meant by this, for instance (it refers to Catherine Abell, the respondant to the second keynote paper, given by Kendall Walton):

[blackbirdpie url=”!/quiltingpoint/status/87129148165857281″%5D

And that brings me to my next point about the conference.

On music and philosophy

The aim of the RMA study group is to bring together philosophers who are interested in music and musicologists who are interested in philosophy. It certainly managed that, at least on a superficial level: this was one of the best-attended musicological conferences I have ever attended in the UK (better than the ‘main’ RMA conference!), a triumph of advertising and organization by the committee. There were stellar performers from both disciplines. But there was virtually no connexion between the two, little true sense of interdisciplinarity. (I attended only half of the conference but my impressions were supported by everyone I spoke to over the real business of any conference – tea.)

Putting it simply will cause offence, but it must be said. The musicologists at the conference are interested in philosophy. They read major figures such as Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and so on, and they read the secondary literature too, if not to a degree of professionalism that would pass muster in a philosophy department, then at least enough to gain perspective on the principal debates and main current interpretations, and so on. In the main, however, philosophers who are interested in music (and this seems particularly to be the case with analytic philosophers) do not read musicology. If they did, then their frequently catastrophic failures of definition and unwillingness to engage with – or even conceive of – political, economic, cultural, and historical context for the music, composers (where there are any), performers, listeners, and critics who jointly make up the world we call ‘music’ would show up to them as glaringly as an elementary error in a syllogism. The short form: there will never be meaningful exchange between philosophy and musicology while philosophers fail to read anything as obvious as the major writings of Richard Taruskin.

It was typical for philosophers to open their papers by announcing that ‘by music I mean instrumental music of the 18th and 19th centuries’. Well, fine – a specific focus is OK – but then they proceeded to make universalizable claims about ‘music’ that actually even sat very uncomfortably alongside that narrow range they wanted to talk about. One (analytic, of course) suggested that the only way to influence a listener into thinking that music was ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ or whatever was to ask a leading question such as ‘how happy or sad does this music make you feel’, quite ignoring the complex process of enculturation that could lead to learned responses to any kind of music. Another suggested that ‘music’ (on another limited definition), uniquely among the arts, provokes bodily responses such as foot-tapping. I tweeted an immediate response, and asked a question in the hall, but it went unanswered:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/quiltingpoint/status/87130478477443072″%5D

As analytic philosophy, no doubt these papers were good and interesting, but from the perspective of someone with some expertise in music, they were theorizing about something that with more (by which I mean some) reading of the work of musicologists they would realize is an internally inconsistent starting point for a discussion. To go back to the last-but-one tweet I quoted: the suggestion that ‘we’ are mostly interested in what a composer meant would lead to the academic evisceration of an undergraduate student in musicology. A glance at Taruskin’s thoughts on ‘the poietic fallacy’ is all it takes to correct this – call a spade a spade – ludicrously ill-informed conception of what musical engagement and experience (the only areas of interest to analytic philosophers) are about.

Part of my concern here was spotlighted quite naively by Nick Zangwill in his introduction to Walton’s keynote. He wanted to explain the difference between analytic and continental philosophy by clearing up what analytic philosophy was not. It was not, he said, concerned with endlessly stalling discussion of the quality of blue by retracing ‘what Hegel said about blue’. Why not? Hegel was kind of clever. He said a lot of interesting things. ‘Some of us are not only ignorant of history but proud of it’, he said. While devotion to the authority of a historic Great Man (they’re usually men) is of course potentially intellectually and politically hazardous, the thoughtful re-engagement with (and, where necessary, radical rethinking of) thoughts that have been useful in the past is a vital part of scholarly practice. Nobody would suggest that Žižek’s quite idiosyncratic reading of Hegel amounts to slavish citation. Give me thought that builds on past thinkers – particularly those who we humbly acknowledge to have thought rather better than us – over what can from the outside seem like self-regarding talk like this.

It was not all like that. From the best quarters came a sense that musicology and philosophy could be equal partners. The jointly delivered paper by musicologist David B. Levy and philosopher Julian Young (on Wagner) was the best example of what the conference should have been about. They had productive disagreement that betrayed their disciplinary allegiances, but there was mutual respect, and both engaged deeply with the other’s disciplinary perspective. But mostly the traffic was one way, with musicologists reading philosophy and philosophers reading philosophy. (I’d be interested to hear whether philosophers felt that the musicologists were similarly incapable of engagement across the disciplinary boundary.)

One truism was significantly absent from the spirit of the conference: philosophers are not the only people who read philosophy well and intelligently, and few of them are individually as intelligent or interesting as Plato. Individual philosophers have no greater powers of mind than academics in any other discipline, and deserve no more or less respect than any other academics. Therefore, one speaker’s comment that he pays ‘no more respect to psychology than any other philosopher, but this experiment was well put together – almost as intelligent as if a philosopher had done it’ made my blood boil. He was roundly attacked from all sides during the questions, though not on this point (Zangwill redoubled the insult to other disciplines, in fact). I have never encountered this kind of scorn for other disciplines among musicologists, literary scholars of any language’s or culture’s literature, art historians, and so on (though I have from scientists: read more or less anything by Dawkins or Hawking to get a sense). This sort of thing is hard to bear at a conference that is meant to be (mutually respectfully) interdisciplinary. The sense of a senior and junior discipline at the conference was, then, quite palpable, and only reinforced by the one-way nature of the intellectual traffic (which one person at the conference described to me as ‘willy waving’).

There was a strongly anti-analytic philosophy mood at the conference, which partly reflected other people’s concerns with this dreadful model of engagement with other disciplines. But equally important, I think, is that musicology as it is currently constituted is, like its neighbouring disciplines in literature, a product of a revolution based on the reading of continental philosophy. We came to it later than our literary colleagues, and digested it less comprehensively (no space, for most musicologists, for Marx, Freud, Heidegger, Gadamer, Lacan, Derrida, or contemporary thinkers like Žižek, Badiou, Nancy, or Agamben). But our focus on the very broadest and irreducibly contingent contexts in which musical production, practice, and reception can be seen to operate makes ours a discipline alien to one which is ‘not only ignorant of history but proud of it’. Papers dealing with connexions between music and continental philosophy were more productive – and the philosophers had read more musicology.

I’m glad I went to the conference. In the same way that trips to America make my cultural closeness to Europe much more obvious, this latest encounter with analytic philosophy’s approach to questions about which I think I have a certain expertise made me recognize my family resemblance to colleagues in literary scholarship and musicology. That was not the intention of the conference, but unless the study group develops more along the lines of a group for musicologists who are interested in philosophy and philosophers who are interested in music and musicology (rather than just telling musicologists that the only relevant questions are a rather dull list of old-fashioned aesthetics), I fear for its future.



  1. Excellently put, Paul. As you know I’m in total agreement, and it was something of a relief to realise that this conference didn’t say anything about the current state of musicology, but did seem to say something – loudly and clearly, as it happened – about the philosopher’s false prerogative to practice pseudo-musicology. In fact, pseudo-musicology may be a little generous…

    It’s good to know that you (and your first commenter!) are willing to publicly express such opinions, rather than kowtowing to the shameless authoritarian dividing lines evident at the conference, and falling victim to the inevitable brown-nosing that ensued.

  2. Thanks for the comments… we are all feeling our way here… and I think it is good if there is sometimes intellectual irritation… for then we know we are communicating rather than uttering bland platitudes and vacuities! Frisson is not soporific at least. There is a temptation (on all sides) to interpret the Other unsympathetically, which can allow one to retrench into easy self-congratulation, which leads to further isolation and in the end irrelevance. We must work hard to step into the shoes of Other traditions and Other expertises, and perhaps to respect differences, given that we are all coming to try as best we can to understand something we care about. Different expertises can and should be celebrated. Part of this is to recognise that people who have a certain high-level training in discipline A doesn’t necessarily mean that they can with great ease pronounce on discipline B. Stephen Hawkins is a lousy theologian, for example. Philosophers and Musicologists are trained to a high level, but differently. What each does is far from easy, though like any art practiced at a high level it can look easy. I liked to guy who mentioned kindness at the end. Sometimes intellectual flaws may be there due to moral flaws, such as vanity, pretentiousness, pomposity, closed-mindedness, crassness, wilful ignorance, opportunistic careerism, etc. But other times people are doing their best in different ways to understand something, and if someone thinks that they could be better, then that should not cause anger, for example, but an opportunity to engage in dialogue to help each other do better.

    • Thanks for replying, Nick. I agree of course that sensitivity to the other is important, and one of my points is that the multiple musical others that musicology has theorized for the last few decades weren’t acknowledged by the philosophical papers I went to. Musicologists are certainly willing to engage with their philosophical (or psychological, or anthropological, or historical…) others, but I hardly heard a philosopher cite a musicologist, living or dead, central to the discipline or not. Naive question: was I just unlucky? Are essays by analytic philosophers on the aesthetics of music brimming with references to musicologists? I’d like to read them (honestly), since I’ve missed them otherwise.

      We come at ‘music’ from different disciplines, and of course we bring different (and hopefully interestingly different) perspectives to bear. But musicology is the discipline that, whether it is interested in philosophy or not, spends all its time ruminating on what ‘music’ is, and although its methodological approaches are of course not the only ones that can be applied to it, musicology does have a lot of interesting things to say about the particular thing we were gathered to talk about from our different perspectives. Philosophy is not so single-minded in its focus on music and it’s not pride but a fairly unexceptionable observation to suggest that that might count for something in the long run. Epistemologists would be rightly impatient if musicologists said or implied that knowledge is a category we don’t need to interrogate (though of course musicologists would not say such a thing).

      My principal concern is therefore less that we’re each overvaluing our own disciplinary approaches but that we’re simply not approaching the same thing at all: it’s the starting point, not the process, that is at issue. Stephen Hawking is certainly a lousy theologian, but when he says ‘God’ he means the same thing as Rowan Williams does; they just disagree on the interpretation of it. When the philosophers I heard said ‘music’ it didn’t mean the same thing as most musicologists would mean by it. I don’t disrespect the philosophical expertise of analytic philosophers, but until there can be some more substantial agreement about what ‘music’ might be, questions about whether ‘it’ expresses emotion or whatever else are going to fail to establish a connexion between the disciplines. And incidentally, the failure to engage with musicology’s highly developed speculations about the qualities and contexts of ‘music’ is the best way I can think of to imply that the entire discipline – its attempts to define the object of study as well as the methodological approaches it then brings to bear on it – is unworthy of engagement.

      • I should probably read the rest of the dialogue before responding, but I just want to note that I have little desire to ‘agree’ with anyone about what music ‘is’. People keep making more and different music in part, surely, because they’re creatively engaging a zone of indeterminate potentiality, with multiple, heterogeneous traces washed up on (as?) the shores of history. So why agree on what music might be? I don’t think I get a say anyway. And for some of the creative sound practices I engage with, the category may even be irrelevant.

      • Thanks for this, Huw. Perhaps I haven’t been clear that it’s the failure to acknowledge the impossibly varied and constantly changing character of ‘music’ (even just within the confines of the Western art-music tradition, let alone outside it) that particularly concerned me with the analytic-philosophical papers at the conference. You’re right: there is not a thing, music (by which they seemed to mean common-practice tonal instrumental music, despite the fact that the conference’s theme was opera!), that we need not interrogate. The ‘agreement’ I’d hope for is an acknowledgement that the question about where to start is substantially more complex.

  3. A fundamental problem for me remains just how compatible the two ‘disciplines’, namely analytical philosophy and contemporary musiclogy, might be, though of course I realise that they are not monolithic categories.(Many examples of so-called Continental philosophy present a somewhat different matter.) The relationship between analytical philosophy and both modern scientific method and mathematics is, I think, an issue here. A grave problem when it comes to mathematics is that it does not permit of contradiction and therefore of dialectical thought, whatever the undeniable ‘pure’ beauties of the mathematical realm. If something not only claims that contradiction does not exist, but is predicated upon its non-existence, then it is not clear to me that it will fare well in so dialectical a realm as we understood that of music to be, whether in terms of composition, criticism, analysis, listening, performance, etc, etc. Given that all of those and many more facets of musical studies and practice are historically determined and developed, there clearly arises a difficulty when it comes to attempts to consider a ‘musical work’ almost as if it were some kind of thing-in-itself – although, as Paul points out, there is a peculiarity, in that many philosophers tend to limit themselves in precisely historical terms here, e.g., instrumental music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I am a little puzzled by that apparent (non-dialectical) contradiction, though, to be fair, I tend to think similarly also about a good number of modes of musicological enquiry.

    I worry also about an abstraction that removes us entirely or even in large part from actually existing musical works. It is not at all clear to me what musical works might be ‘in themselves’, or rather, it is not clear to me that such an analytical enquiry is the right question to be posing. (That is neither to say that there are no such things as musical works, nor that the concept has no worth, far from it.)

    In related fashion, I wonder how much one can say about particular musical works without dealing with ‘the notes’; it would, for instance, seem a strange thing to do to treat with literature without considering words. (Perhaps it would be an interesting challenge; indeed, I am sure it would be. It might be thought eccentric, though.) I do not mean this to sound as a plea for empiricism, but rather for some degree, at least, of immanence, not just concerning musical works but also with respect to their history. Even those, arguably particularly those, instrumental works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are not now what they were at the time of composition. There is nothing specific to music about that; one might say the same about the works of Shakespeare, Hegel, or Michelangelo, although in the cases of, say, Bach and Shakespeare, the issue of performance often, if not always, complicates matters further. Nevertheless, the St Matthew Passion will never be the same work after we have heard – or read – Tristan; nor will it ever be the same after Marx’s critique of religion, or after recordings by Mengelberg and Klemperer. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony – even if we could agree in which order the movements should be played – will never be the same after Berg’s music, after the horrors of the Great War, after performances by Bernstein and Boulez, after the advent of recording, and so on. I do not lament such developments; I welcome them. However, it seems to me perverse to ignore or to underestimate them. History, if not what we have come somewhat dubiously to term ‘historicism’ seems to me, if not to be all, then to have the upper hand here. But then, an analytical philosopher might turn around and reply: we are doing something entirely different.

  4. Thanks for replying, is it John? I am no sure of your first name.
    Just to reply to some of your points…
    1st paragraph) I think you should play fair on references to work in the other discipline… I suspect that if we are scoring the number of references to the other discipline, that neither discipline wins. For example, there is the last 30 years of philosophical work on emotion? Do musicologists reference that body of work?
    2nd) Agreed, ideas of musicology, ethnomusicology, psychology of music etc… the more we take on board the better.
    3rd paragraph) Here I think you are the rejectionist. It often happens that those who reject what I would call dialectical philosophy (which includes making distinctions and evaluating arguments) are those with rather dogmatic philosophical views. This is often found in very people with very strong religious or political views. They are hostile to dialectical philosophy out of fear. (Socrtates was put to death after all.) It sounds to me as if you have a philosphical theory up your sleeve in your last paragraph. Good for you! Maybe you are right. But you are not infallible. Let us together discuss it, see how plausible it is, and see what the arguments for and against it are. That is also philosophy. To reject that kind of dialectical debate (“unworthy of engagement” you wrote) is too easy for you. Let us dialogue. Any abstract enquiry is very difficult, and we can do better together in dialogue.
    Think of it like this…I am inviting to dance! You can refuse and remain sitting if you like. Perhaps you are shy or think you won’t like the dance. And of course you have to know a bit about how to do the dance in question. But if you refuse, you may miss out. And so will the person who asked you. But others will take the risk and try it, I hope. We may stumble and fall sometimes, but I reckon that it will be worthwhile too. We may even have fun.

    • My name’s Paul, Nick, as you’d have seen if you’d read the other comments (by musicologists, I can’t resist adding…).

      I’ll respond to your points in order. You say ‘I suspect that if we are scoring the number of references to the other discipline, that neither discipline wins. For example, there is the last 30 years of philosophical work on emotion? Do musicologists reference that body of work?’ Two answers. (1) I’ve already reeled off a list of philosophers that musicologists frequently engage with. Dead ones include Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Adorno, Langer; living ones include Scruton, Kivy, Goehr, among the obvious ones we ‘should’ read, as well as Žižek, Badiou, Agamben, Nancy, et al. among those we only read because we’re curious to reach beyond the boundaries of our own discipline. That’s just a dozen and a half off the top of my head (they’re names I find interesting to varying degrees; some of my musicological colleagues would contribute a quite different list). Can you produce a similar list of musicologists, dead or alive (you say you’re proud of historical ignorance so maybe you’ll limit it to the living) that analytic philosophers engage with, let alone even cite, in their work on music? (2) By ’30 years of philosophical work on emotion’ I presume you mean ‘and music’. Well, the questions were first posed rather more than 30 years ago (sorry to bring history into it again), and yes, even some on the list I’ve just given have written, persuasively or not, on the question, some of them in the last 30 years. But to return to the point I’ve been making, if it seems to musicologists that the sense of the term ‘music’ is an impossibly problematic one with which to start, the literature might as well be about donkeys and expression. We still haven’t cracked that nut. So: (1) give me your list, and (2) we’re surely not on top of all of it, but we’re aware of it.

      I agree with your second remark (‘the more we take on board the better’), but the implication of your third, viz. that I’m afraid of dialectical thought, is wide of the mark. I’m a Marxist, for a start. I’d hate to suggest you read any of my scholarly work but perhaps you could cast an eye over a few of the posts on my personal blog at quiltingpoint for a flavour. (Incidentally, you’ll see there that I describe myself as a dialectical materialist.) And your claim that people ‘with rather dogmatic philosophical […] religious or political views […] are hostile to dialectical philosophy out of fear’ seems bizarre too. Or did Marx himself have quiet, stay-at-home, don’t-rock-the-boat kinds of views? One thing about dialectical thought that marks it out from what you’re displaying here, though, is its tendency to address issues directly, albeit from multiply entangled perspectives. Difficult though it might be for some (and irrespective of its persuasiveness), when Adorno sits down to think through the fetish character of music, a discussion of the fetish character is what you get, not a noodling about that fails to consider what ‘fetish’ and ‘music’ might mean.

      Your fourth point is just plain weird, not to say a little creepy. All I can infer from this bit of prose poetry is that you want to imply that I’m the ugly kid at the school disco whom nobody wants to do a slow dance with. Just to stick with the metaphor for a second, I’m the one who started this dance by writing the blogpost, so your attempt to paint me as ‘shy’ and risk-averse fails. I’d be happy, as you suggest, if ‘others will take the risk’, but they won’t be stepping in as my knight in shining armour, because I’m not intimidated.

  5. Paul,

    this is a very interesting posting, and the comments are (mostly) very stimulating too. I wonder if I might ask you to think of all this from a different angle?

    In terms of discipline, I am neither a musicologist nor a philosopher, but a scholar of religion and history, with a bit of political science thrown in for good measure (and so I cannot resist pointing out, in good humour, that Stephen Hawking and Rowan Williams almost certainly DON’T mean the same thing when they talk about ‘god’, as you said in one of your comments!). Nonetheless, I find I can relate to much of what you say about the disconnect between musicologists and philosophers because one of the issues that arises in my discipline of religion is that attempts to engage with, for example, ‘mainstream’ political scientists, economists, philosophers even, is that there is virtually no engagement on their part with works that appear to be directly on religion. Like you, I have read widely outwith what might be seen as the narrow confines of my discipline, and use Foucault, Spivak, Said, Chakrabarty etc. with gay abandon – but scholars from other disciplines do not tend to use the works of religion scholars, such as Fitzgerald and Roberts (at my own institution), Asad, Thomas, Strenski, Goldenberg etc.

    The obvious question is: why not? Why do philosophers seem to think that they can do without musicologists’ insights, and political scientists (for example), do without religion scholars’ insights? Are we – musicologists and religion scholars – ahead of the game in terms of interdisciplinarity? If so, why? Does the liminal nature of what we are discussing necessitate engaging with other tools in order to adequately address our concerns, whereas this need is not one that others from these disciplines perceive as necessary? If that is the case, why?

    Of course, there are many religion scholars who ignore other disciplines, and although I don’t know this for sure, there are probably many musicologists who have a very narrow field of vision too. But since it seems you are not such a musicologist, and I am not such a religion scholar, I think this is an interesting issue to address.

    I feel my own blog will need a posting on this before long…!

    Thanks for the stimulating site and postings.


    • Thanks, Michael. I suppose what you’re arguing is the old ontic/ontological difference. Your hunch that scholars of more precisely delimited forms of knowledge (literature, music, religion, art, etc.) – what we might for these purposes call the ‘ontic’ disciplines – are from time to time more or less haughtily ignored by the disciplines of general theory or methodology (philosophy, history, etc.) – the ‘ontological’ ones – is probably right. There’s a strong whiff of the superior force (which is given symbolic authority by the manner in which the ‘ontic’ disciplines draw on it) taking a colonizing attitude towards the weaker, in whose autochthonous modes of thought it has little interest. I hope you do blog about it; let me know. These people need to be called on their actions.

  6. It seems to me that Nick’s final two paragraphs could be a copied and pasted response to anybody who takes issue with analytical philosophy’s self-congratulatory mode of being. And as John – sorry, Paul – pointed out, rather weird too. Why is it that the Socrates fan amongst us seems unable to address the discussion in a way that is not evasive? Perhaps we should talk about music and forget about the dancing! (Mind you, some kind of mention of the long-standing relationship between music and dance might have helped a certain keynote speaker’s mind-numbingly vacuous talk become a little more credible…)

    The most frustrating aspect of the conference (to elaborate on one of Mark’s points), to my mind at least, was the seeming lack of willingness – or ability? – to engage directly with music on some kind of analytical level. Attempts made by philosophers at the conference were usually prefaced with something like ‘I’m not really a musician, so this is a little amateurish…’. The problem is then extended to those who have chosen to engage directly with music (which as I have said, seemed to be rare – maybe I went to the wrong papers): they have done it, but in a manner demonstrating that any musical investigation is subservient to the philosophical ‘point’ of whatever was being said.

    Such laziness would rightfully not be tolerated when the tables are turned. If you were to read some of Paul or Mark’s work (or that of hundreds of musicologists), you would see it is precisely a dialectic of musical analysis and everything else that is being attempted, and often with some success. Hand-picked philosophical soundbites do not come in occasionally to validate a musical argument. Rather, an integrated dialectical process is what drives any such project, and I would argue that this is absolutely necessary. Nick’s definition of what is ‘dialectical’ is either a very strange one, or he has completely missed the point of several decades of musicology.

    • I wasn’t at this conference, but there can be a not dissimilar dynamic with Anthropologists and Ethnomusicologists, where I’ve heard the former on a few occasions explicitly inform the latter (sometimes kindly) of their fatal lack of understanding of ‘anthropological theory’ (the hardest stuff of all for anthropologists, and for some, apparently the only stuff). These hierarchies are interesting, big/small discipline complex, the weight of orthodoxy and canon, the acceptability of heterogeneity, the level of scope there is or how easy it is to be radical (internally and externally to the discipline), and what all this does to our thinking/research. It’s also interesting to see musicology here apparently under-rated by a bigger discipline, as historically that’s what musicology has done to ethnomusicology!

  7. Dear Paul, thanks again,
    My dancing analogy was an attempt to lighten up the situation with humour. Sorry if it struck you as weird. Just as we need to discuss these things in the pub rather than grandstanding, similarly we could all lighten up a bit, don’t you think? (Or maybe such stylistic issues are what are really at issue, deep down.)
    By ‘dialectical’, as I said, I mean, being willing to consider arguments for and against what one defends. Dogma, Marxist or otherwise, needs to be examined. And part of that is that one makes distinctions and strives to be as clear as possible so that one’s view can be assessed and considered. It’s ultimately a democratic political point about the intellectual enterprise. Appealing to the great dead can just be an exercise of the authoritarian intellectual personality whereby one bullies one’s readers or listeners into accepting a view. Moreover it is a modernist activity in many ways, stripping away the messy ornament of idealist or postmodern jargon and striving to make the central lines of thought Bauhaus clear.
    I persist in thinking that both sides have a great amount to learn from the other discipline. I want to learn what you can tell me, not about philosophy, but about music, or musics. But you seem to think you have nothing to learn the other way, which is a shame. This is the sense in which you are refusing dialogue. However, there are very many musicologists that I have met and that I have been in touch with who are more open than you, and I would encourage them.
    I think we are probably getting diminishing returns here, but I think it has been worthwhile. Thank you very much for the dialogue.
    Yours, Nick

    • Nick, I agree about the dangers of invoking the dead, and said so in the original post. But I find it absurd to suggest that engagement with the philosophers I listed this morning, albeit not with certain others, constitutes a refusal to enter dialogue. Are these people really so beyond the pale for you that they don’t even count as philosophers? If the terms of interdisciplinary dialogue are that I must read about music and emotion when I’m more interested philosophy that has informative things to say about sex, death, and politics, then the terms are not very generous. Why is only one corner of your discipline open to me for dialogue? That might say more about your own view of the internal divisions of your discipline than it does about the possibility that musicologists with very different interests from yours might still find an immense amount of value in philosophy. You want me to read around in one corner of your discipline; I prefer to read another: but that (continental) corner is still philosophy. The terms on which I invite you to engage with musicology – and I note your unwillingness to meet my challenge to point to any analytic philosophy that does engage with musicology – are more generous. Just read some of it. It needn’t be anything in particular. It could even be musicology I passionately disagree with. And I’m not at all surprised to hear that you know of many musicologists who want to engage with your work. As I’ve consistently said, we’re an open-minded bunch. Do them the courtesy of engaging with their work too.

  8. “By ‘dialectical’, as I said, I mean, being willing to consider arguments for and against what one defends. Dogma, Marxist or otherwise, needs to be examined.”

    Marxism, that non-dialectical beast. Silly Marx, failing to engage with any of the dialectical philosophers before him. And it’s a good job you clarified that Paul’s Marxism is dogma, because otherwise you might have risked having to be ‘willing to consider arguments for and against what one defends’. How many gaping holes can two sentences contain?

  9. I was directed to this article by one of my close friends (posting above, as ‘Josh’) and, not having been able to attend the conference myself, I am thrilled to be able to read this and get a flavour of what happened in it, and indeed what didn’t happen in it! Though I am not myself a musicologist, but rather an MA English student, I tend to think that I too would have felt concerned and dismayed by the analytic philosophers’ blank ignorance and disregard of the advances in musicology over the last 30 years.

    Having said that, I do think that we should be careful not to succumb to the ensuing temptation that, for example, my friend (I’ll refer to him, because I know that he is intelligent enough to defend himself!) succumbs to when he starts talking about ‘the philosopher’s false prerogative to practice pseudo-musicology’ and ‘analytical philosophy’s self-congratulatory mode of being’ – when it’s clear that the reference to ‘the philosopher’ covers everyone who currently operates within this discipline, and the ‘false prerogative to practice pseudo-musicology’ is supposed to be taken to characterize any attempt, on the part of a philosopher, to talk about music from his/her own perspective; and, if it applies to philosophers, I presume that it also applies to other non-musicologists, such as ordinary concert-attendees who might wish to reflect over the experiences that they have had in the hall. It seems to me slightly odd to suppose that an ignorance of musicological theory disqualifies one from thinking and speaking intelligently about music, or at least from having one’s thoughts taken seriously.

    The article itself seems to me at one moment slightly disconcerting in its implication, which is when the claim is made: ‘philosophers are not the only people who read philosophy well.’ It seems to me (possibly in my naivety) that what qualifies one as a philosopher is not one’s ability to read the philosophical works of the past, either well or badly, but rather one’s ability to philosophize – i.e. to think well, in the present, and to the point. If some of the analytical philosophers at the conference thought poorly, then the criticism to be directed at them is that they should have thought better, their arguments being absurd in the following ways, etc. But there doesn’t, to me, seem a lot of point in either name-dropping a number of writers whom they obviously haven’t read, or noting that they are thirty years out of date. It is possibly my ignorance of Marxist theory that makes me want to say that philosophical arguments don’t go out of date in this way, and that an analytical philosopher, or anyone else for that matter, could conceivably have read no musicological literature, from any period, and still be fully capable of thinking insightfully and interestingly about music. If the philosophers at this specific conference failed to do this, then that is immensely disappointing and frustrating, but that does not seem to me, of itself, to demonstrate that one must take into account the writings of, say, Richard Taruskin if one is to speak intelligently about music – or, at least, in the presence of musicologists.

    Having said all of that, I spot – in passing – the words ‘Let us dialogue’ in a comment, above, which I am told was left by one of the analytic philosophers at the conference. That someone working in a philosophy department could use language in this way is the most horrifying and depressing thing of all.

    Thanks once again for the stimulating article!

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