The Relevance of Philosophy for a Musician

This essay is the written corroboration of the self-transformative process regarding my views on abstract branches of Philosophy such as metaphysics and ontology. So far, I have ignorantly dismissed them as irrelevant. However, taking this course on Continental Philosophy has taught me that it is not as irrelevant as it initially seems. This essay, in its current form, reflects the status of my thought at the time of my writing. The essay acted as the whiteboard of my constantly evolving ideas about various issues in music, art, and aesthetics, and what you see are only the surviving remnants. Many pages were removed per page of writing, and I imagine that it will continue to be so after the first release.

I have found that every sentence in this essay contains several questions that needs to be answered through further reflection, examination and study, and this was my aim. There are many seemingly naïve claims such as what it means for an artist to be great, or how art needs to be received. I intentionally included such claims which desperately need to be clarified as I hope to revise this essay throughout my career as a musician as I evolve in my understanding of music, philosophy, and life. I also hope to answer every one of those questions that I have throughout the essay from seemingly small question such as “what is significance?” to seemingly big questions such as “what does greatness mean?” or “what is practical?”

Initially written for Prof. David Wood in a course about 20th Century Continental Philosophy


As a student and an artist, I have always found Philosophy a fascinating area of personal and academic inquiry. Given my current belief that works of art can transcend their physical forms, I believe that a solid philosophical foundation is an important part of any artist and his or her creations. Thus, I have made it a personal priority to begin studying the immeasurably vast world contained under the title of Philosophy. However, it has not been an easy journey reconciling Philosophy’s many abstruse branches full of abstract concepts with my preference for the concrete and practical approach to life, work, and education. Studying Philosophy, especially through this course, has exposed me to the incredible amount of extramusical concepts, ideas, and systems that help explain why I create the art that I do. It has also provided given me an introductory understanding of the structures behind the perception of music. At the same time, I wondered many times throughout this course why I was spending my time in a discussion of metaphysics or ontology which I felt was irrelevant to my artistic ambitions. In this essay, I hope to transform my own understanding of Philosophy in order to appreciate even the most abstruse branches of Philosophy.

First, Philosophy must be defined if I am to defend its relevance for a musician. This is difficult even for the seasoned philosopher because Philosophy can seem very broad. Plato and his students stated that Philosophy in the simplest definition consists of Epistemology, the nature of knowledge; Metaphysics, the nature of physics; and Ethics, the nature of value. There are more recent definitions of Philosophy including Aesthetics, Political Philosophy, and Logic which differ from Plato’s. For the purposes of this essay, I will keep to Plato’s simpler definition of Philosophy while relating newer branches of Philosophy under the three umbrella categories of Plato.

What I defend is more than merely Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Ethics. Together, the three branches of Philosophy becomes a package greater than the sum of its parts. With a strong foundation of Philosophy, an artist’s work gains a new level of meaning that the public can appreciate and enjoy. Philosophy also transforms the artist. While good artists have their artistic craft mastered and understands that art is a reflection of its creator, the greatest artists have the most clarified sense of his or her relationship to Philosophy. The greatest of artists possess an ability to channel significant power through his artwork from the complete synthesis of artistic craft, understanding, and philosophy.

Heidegger recommended thinking instead of philosophizing, and while I understand what he means by it, there is a critical difference between philosophizing and thinking. Philosophy, or the act of philosophizing, is the journey through a process in creating a concept by arriving a conclusion. There is an inherent telos built into philosophizing. Philosophy allows us to structure both our thought and everything we perceive through Ethics, Metaphysics, and Epistemology. To put it more crudely, it is a methodical construction of evidence, logic, and induction to form a new concept. Thinking, although it seems similar to philosophizing, is the opposite because it is the synthesis of empirical evidence, intuition, and deduction to make a judgment. Where Philosophy is in search of a conclusion, thinking forms judgments. Philosophy does not make judgements. According to Deleuze, it only creates new concepts. Philosophy is completely teleological while thinking is not limited in that way. The two serve very different purposes. Thinking is an instrument and Philosophy is a process. Perhaps Heidegger meant that philosophers should not be limited by the teleological constraints of philosophizing.

Before the discussion goes on any further, we must explore what it is to be relevant. It is not as simple as saying that something is relevant or not relevant. There is always a necessarily meaningful context even if one could completely determine the relevancy of that something. If something is indeed relevant, there are still ambiguous properties of its relevancy such as “regarding what is it relevant?” Relevance is unstable and completely contextual. For example, the most irrelevant observation at the moment could be the most relevant one later, or an observation relevant to a task not-currently-at-hand may be distracting to the task-at-hand and thus rendered irrelevant. In addition to its contextual dependency, there is also the complexity in determining if something is truly relevant or not.

Although this essay is not strictly about relevance itself, we must first understand it before we can determine the relevancy of Philosophy for a musician. As if it was not already obvious, I must commit in writing that determining relevancy is a difficult enterprise. Information retrieval system architects have long recognized the problem of relevancy as something easy to intuit but difficult to describe.1 However, it is often difficult—even for an intuitive mind—to accurately determine relevancy. While information retrieval systems architects resort to a score of relevance calculated by deterministic algorithms using quantitative relationships between objects in a database, we cannot do that as humans. Our thought processes are indeterministic. While Logic and Reasoning provide a scaffolding for a deterministic thought process, we still rely far too much on instinct, feelings, and momentary conditions: especially for subjective tasks such as deeming something relevant. However, there is a similarity between us and the algorithms which is our understanding that relevancy is driven primarily by a network of relationships. For now, let us leave the discussion of relevance at this conclusion: relevance as determined by one’s perception of a network of relationships is subjective for human decision makers.

Ethics

Of the three subcategories of Philosophy, Ethics, the nature of values, is the easiest to find direct relevance for a musician in his or her daily life. For example, here is one possible ethical framework of being an artist: > Being an artist is not to be taken lightly. When a patron either pays money or sacrifices time—or often, both—to participate in an artistic experience (such as attending a musical performance or visiting a sculpture garden), there is an unspoken responsibility placed on the artist to make the performance or the visit a meaningful experience. In order to fulfill that responsibility in the most respectful way, the artist must first understand the possibility of power and influence that his or her artworks can exert on the patron. Additionally, the artist is granted with implicit but clear trust every time a patron gives up something to experience a work of art by that artist, and it is the duty of the artist to neither take this trust for granted nor abuse it. The artist must be fully ethical and moral in his or her command of the patron’s experience. This in no way means that the artist must only deliver experiences that are pleasant to the patron. Meaningful and influential experiences that are worthy of art are sometimes—or frequently—unpleasant. To only feed sweet or pleasant experiences to the patrons would be unethical itself. These experience must contribute something constructive to the audience. Only through this transformative approach to art can any meaningful experiences can be made. This framework, heavily focused on the social and the public consumption of art, is at one extreme end of the spectrum. An artist must be aware of his or her own priorities of values of artwork. When an artist has not given this enough thought, it diminishes the overall effect of the produced artwork because there is a lack of a clear vision and a focus.

There are differing views on whether or not the value that the artist creates in the artistic experience is fully dependent on the value systems employed in the artist’s life. While it is possible to say that there is no possibility of separation, others advocate leaving art to be interpreted only from the artwork itself. Patrons consider this, too. Some will denounce the works of Nazi-supporters even if the artwork on its own is worthy of merit while others may be able to reconcile the artist’s “wrong” morals with the greatness of his or her artwork. While this dilemma exists in most areas of human activity today, art is especially conscious of those whose ethics are not aligned with the majority’s. But we have to wonder, how do we know what is good or evil? How about artists like Richard Wagner whose antisemitic activities and writings were normal for their times? What if Michaelangelo was an openly-admitting child-molester? Would his works be still revered? While we cannot answer these questions in a definitive way, an artist must think about them at the very least. Ethics enables both the artist and the patrons to define their own framework in evaluating art.

Metaphysics

I personally find metaphysics to be the most difficult subject-area of Philosophy to grasp because it can be so abstract. However, it remains an important component of any decision-making process of an artist whether or not it is a conscious effort. Metaphysics deals in the nature of the physical realm. Although it may initially seem irrelevant, it is not. Consider the following definition of art: Art is an expressive form of communication through creative mediums. What kinds of metaphysics does it assume?

First, it assumes that art is a form of communication which implies that there must be something communicating to something else. In other words, there exists two entities—one as the sender and other as the receiver. What about art that was destroyed before it could be seen or heard by anyone—no receiver? Most of Paul Dukas’ compositions is thought to have been burnt by Dukas himself before it was heard by anyone. From the music that survives, we know that Dukas was an incredibly gifted and beyond-competent composer. Does this mean that the unheard compositions were not works of art? Is an imaginary receiver enough? It is ironic that we are able to imagine a scenario which would be impossible to perceive in the real world.

Another relevant part of metaphysics for music is ontology. In the most basic sense, ontology deals with questions of being and existence. In what form does music exist? Some artists believe that they are merely tapping into a cosmic stream of already-existing music which they have the privilege of sharing with the world. Any artist who claim such a privilege are making several ontological assumptions such as the possibility of a nonphysical but cosmic force, the existence of music as a being outside of human imagination or perception, and the nature of the relationship between an artist-being and a music-being. Other very practical questions fall under the realm of metaphysics. For example, when a composer writes a piece of music, does that music exist as a being on its own? Is it more than just the ink on a piece of paper?

While even these questions seem irrelevant to the practical life of an artist, they have the potential to influence every decision made in the process of creating art. A key practical question involving metaphysics is who are you creating this art for? Does art have to be experienced in order to be art? Who is your target audience? For some, the opportunity to devote time and energy into producing powerful experiences is a true joy. That involves the metaphysical decision—either knowingly or not—that art exists in a social medium. It has to be experienced by someone else and interpreted. If the artist’s decided that art does not have to exist in a social context—or be experienced—that is another metaphysical decision. Philosophy and metaphysics remains relevant regardless of the artist’s awareness of it.

Epistemology

One of art’s most unique assets is that it gives its patrons the permission to experience and interpret the work how they please. In most cases, art can be experienced even without any prior knowledge or understanding of it. For example, you do not have to be aware of Beethoven’s theoretical innovations in motivic development in order to experience his work. Without that knowledge, the appreciation of his ingenuity and—of course—his art may be diminished, but the act of experiencing itself is not made impossible. Some artists make it impossible to experience it without understanding or having knowledge about its construction by force. An example is Clayton Pettet’s controversial public performance art of losing his virginity. As becoming an audience member of that exhibit is extremely difficult, it would have been impossible to experience the artwork without knowing or understanding it beforehand. Understanding it beforehand was the only possible way of being admitted.

Epistemology deals with the structures and theories of understanding and knowledge and directly influences both the artist and the patron. Epistemology is relevant beyond the functional knowledge or understanding of concepts in producing art. It also helps the artist structure his or her works of art in a way that influences his patrons. A work of art has the potential to change how its patrons behave, and I experienced that first hand in an exhibit at Sammlung Boros in Berlin. I encountered a sculpture which subtly conveyed the destructive force of the manufacturing behind ever-so-ubiquitous aluminum foil. I cannot describe how effective the sculpture has been because I have significantly reduced my reliance on aluminum foil, using it only once or twice in the past year when it was absolutely necessary.

Experiencing art is fundamentally cognitive, and the artist who finds Epistemology relevant will be able to make his art even more effective. For example, using perfect geometric shapes is an invention of Pythagoras whose employment of rationalism opposed empiricism and idealism. Plato once argued that art is dangerous when art is used incorrectly because it has such a transformative power. In Republic, Plato argues that art is able to represent things that itself or its creator does not understand. Thus, there is a real potential for ethical violations by the artist leading to misleading his or her patron. Thus, Plato stood on the end of the Epistemological spectrum which believed that art has the ability to teach. Others disagree, and the artist can make his or her choice. This choice would inextricably influence the artist in his or her creation of artwork.

Conclusion

Art is inextricably connected to Philosophy in every aspect. It is not that art is dependent on Philosophy. Rather, Philosophy helps art to be structured and organized in a fundamental way that otherwise would remain ambiguous and romanticized. Philosophy has the ability to develop an artist so that the physical craft is synthesized with the mind and thought. This synthesis has the potential to enhance the resulting artwork by giving it greater meaning than just the physical manifestation of the work itself. This does not happen by coincidence: the artist must be immersed in Philosophy and its ideas. Even if an artist does not imbue his or her works with Philosophy, it still remains relevant: there is no escaping from it. There is no question that nearly every artistic decision is constructed on philosophical assumptions. If you were an artist, wouldn’t you want to have some control over it?

This essay itself—as if it was a work of art—is an exercise of making philosophical assumptions. For one thing, I am making the ethical statement that this essay is somehow more valuable than saving a child in need or volunteering to make the world a better place in the short-term. (The long-term consequences are yet to be fully known.) In addition, I am making a metaphysical assumption that this essay is very real and meaningful to me even if no one else witnesses this account of self-transformation. The epistemological assumption is that I can somehow learn anything from challenging myself to write this essay.

As a final word, I think it is important to note that Philosophy is not necessary for art. However, that was not the purpose of this essay. This essay’s purpose is to support Philosophy’s relevance to the artist who seeks to be effective at expressing the impossible. What at first seemed like an impossible task, I have come to realize that Philosophy is more relevant than I had initially thought—even for the most practical of applications. While I may still fail to grasp the relevance of defining the differences between “existence” and “ek-sistence” to a musician, I now know without a doubt that Philosophy has everything to do with art and being an artist.


  1. Ingwersen P. Cosijn, “Dimensions of Relevance,” Information Processing and Management 36 (2000), 535. [return]