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Introduction to the Continental Philosophy of Music

Lecturer: Rhonda Siu

Originally Taught: Winter School 2017

The main aim of this course is to introduce students to key themes in the philosophy of music from a Continental perspective.  More so than the other creative arts, music has been overlooked as a proper subject of philosophical investigation.  Philosophy’s hesitation before music can be mainly attributed to the significant challenge posed by music’s seemingly indefinable nature our what Theodor Adorno terms its “enigma”.  Music is usually regarded as inherently non-representational and a-conceptual, thereby tending to frustrate attempts to define it made by traditional philosophical frameworks (especially analytic ones) that privilege epistemological forms of analysis.  This course would explore how key figures in the Continental tradition have examined music, from a variety of perspectives (e.g. metaphysical, corporeal and affective).  Further details are provided below.

Lesson 1 – Music’s “enigma”: Adorno’s philosophy of music

To introduce some main concepts in the Continental philosophy of music, this session would explore key themes in Adorno’s aesthetics of music, such as: (1) music’s “enigma” or indefinability, (2) its complex relationship with language and other art forms, and (3) its dialectical interaction with history, politics and society.  Key texts to be explored include Aesthetic Theory, Philosophy of Modern Music and Essays on Music. 

Lesson 2 – Music as metaphysics: A Schopenhauerian view

Beginning with an overview of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics (on which his aesthetics of music is based), this session would explore his key claim that music can express the essence of existence by virtue of being a “copy of the will itself”.  Music, for Schopenhauer, is valuable because it can temporarily alleviate our pain and suffering through epistemological means.  This session would also explore the analogies he establishes between the nature and movement of the musical elements and the empirical world (i.e. the “world as representation”).  Excerpts from The World as Will and Representation would be explored.

Lesson 3 – Music’s life-affirming power in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (and other works)

This session would explore how Nietzsche both draws upon and transforms Schopenhauer’s metaphysical views of music in his analysis of the contribution of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles to the life-affirming power of Greek tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy.  The analysis would be supplemented by insights from early (and rarely discussed) unpublished works like “The Dionysian Worldview” and “On Music and Words”.  Nietzsche’s views of music in his later works may also be explored.

Lesson 4 – Temporality, intersubjectivity and lived experience: Schutz’s phenomenology of music

Departing from the metaphysics of Will that features in both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s philosophies, this session would explore the role of temporality and intersubjectivity in the lived experience of music in Schutz’s phenomenological philosophy.  It would investigate what it actually means to “make music together” by focussing on his key notion of the “mutual tuning-in relationship”.  The musical manifestation of the latter, Schutz claims, describes the ways in which participants in the musical experience meet in overlapping dimensions of what he calls “inner” and “outer time”.  The Husserlian underpinnings of Schutz’s thought may also be examined to situate the discussion, for example, Husserl’s notion of the “ideal object” and his conception of temporality in terms of “retention”, “reproduction”, “protention” and “anticipation”.  Key texts would include “Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship” and “Fragments on the phenomenology of music”.

Lesson 5 – Corporeality, affect and creative expression: Music in Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology

This session would continue the exploration of music in terms of lived experience by investigating its role in Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology.  While Merleau-Ponty does not write about music in an explicit or sustained manner, his investigation of the corporeal, affective, creative and transformative nature of all expression provides a constructive opening for discussing an aesthetics of music.  That his philosophy is conducive to an aesthetics of music is indicated by the way he sometimes uses concrete or “real-life” examples of musical experiences to elaborate and substantiate his claims about the inherently expressive nature of language.  Key concepts to be discussed here include the “lived” or “phenomenological body”, “habit”, “corporeal intentionality” and “expressive silences” in both music and language.  Key texts include Phenomenology of Perception, The Primacy of Perception, The Visible and the Invisible, and Signs.