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The Music in My Philosophy
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Arnold Berleant

Music has not been as prominent in philosophy or as influential in aesthetics as the visual arts, at least in the Western tradition. Reflecting on my years of experience as both a philosopher and a musician, I am increasingly intrigued by speculating if and how today’s aesthetic discourse might have taken a different direction if music had been its central focus.

There have been some exceptions to this inattention, to be sure. One thinks of Schopenhauer, for whom music was the most metaphysical art, duplicating the basic structure of the world. Whereas philosophy, he claimed, can convey the inner nature of the world only in general concepts, music expresses the inner being of the world, the will, distinctly and directly,[1] so that “the most philosophical sensibility will be a musical sensibility.”[2]

Another instance of the effect of music on philosophy struck me years ago when I was teaching Bergson’s “An Introduction to Metaphysics.” Bergson was particularly fond of music and knowledgeable about it, and the influence of musical experience may be recognized in his distinction between relative and absolute ways of knowing a thing. Relative knowledge, he held, comes from our external relations to an object, whereas absolute knowledge is acquired by directly entering into it.[3] Bergson’s characterization of absolute knowing bears a close resemblance to musical experience. But apart from the content of “An Introduction to Metaphysics,” I discovered a more recondite but profound musical influence on Bergson’s essay: its structure bears a striking resemblance to what in music is known as sonata-allegro form, commonly used for the first movements of symphonies, concerti, sonatas, and other standard compositional types of the classical repertory. Exposition, development, and recapitulation of thematic materials, followed by a coda, are the basic components of sonata-allegro form, and Bergson’s essay embodies an identical structure. Bergson’s interest in music was not unique, for there are notable instances of philosophers who have also written music, among them Nietzsche and Adorno. Whether music had an influence on their philosophical work and on that of other important philosophers as well, would be a fascinating subject to pursue, but it is beyond the scope of this autobiographical sketch.

While I have studied and played music nearly every day from the age of twelve, and have degrees from a major music conservatory, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of my Ph.D. in philosophy. Both passions have co-existed in mostly separate domains. For most of my life I seemed to have lived in two worlds, pursuing each on its own terms. In one I taught piano and music theory, performed with orchestra as piano soloist, organized and played in a chamber music group that gave concerts for nine years, and performed as an accompanist and soloist. I have also composed songs and instrumental music, including the chamber ballet, “Theodora,” one of whose performances was in 1979 for the ASA meeting at the Banff Center in Canada, in which several members of the Society played in the instrumental ensemble.

But as I look over my philosophical work, which includes eight published books and numerous papers, I am struck by the small place that music occupies in them. Only a handful of essays are on music. In fact, among my philosophical colleagues, few are aware of my musical background, and on only rare occasions have I included performance as part of a presentation at an aesthetics meeting. The most notable instance was at the XVII International Congress of Aesthetics in Ankara, Turkey in 2007, where, at the invitation of the organizer, Jale Erzen, who long before had become acquainted with my musical interests, I offered an artist’s presentation. This presentation combined the performance of several works involving piano with a formal paper called “What Titles Don’t Tell.” In that presentation I played (on the piano) some eighteenth century harpsichord pieces, Schumann’s Kinderscenen, and lastly Roussel’s Jouers de Flûte with the talented young Turkish flautist, Onur Türkes. This presentation surprised many of the international colleagues I had known for years and yet who had no inkling of my musical background. Only in the last year or two have I given deliberate thought to the relationship between my musical and philosophical worlds, and now, for the first time, have begun to articulate it.

This process led me to some unexpected associations. “The aesthetic field,” the central idea (and title) of my first book, reflects, I think, the contextual character of musical experience in recognizing the interdependent collaboration of composer, musical sound, audience, and performer that constitutes the four dimensions of the aesthetic field. At the time of its publication in 1970, the importance of performance was not generally recognized in the prevailing aesthetic discourse, and this book was one of the first works in recent times to give it a central place. The correspondence of the aesthetic field with the musical situation was not deliberate but rather circumstantial, and only recently has the resemblance become clear to me.

Another musical influence, equally central, appears in the concept of aesthetic engagement, which I first developed in my book, Art and Engagement (1991), and subsequently refined in other essays and books. Offered as a clear alternative to Kant’s aesthetic disinterestedness, the idea of aesthetic engagement formulates what, at the same time, is central to musical experience, at least in my own practice as a performer and listener. To be sure, that was not the motive for developing the idea. Rather, I had been struck by the practices in the contemporary arts that subverted the dualism of art object and appreciator, deliberately breaching their separation. I had first noted the significance of this transgression in a paper I published in the JAAC in 1970 called “Aesthetics and the Contemporary Arts,” and am now gratified that this observation anticipated what has taken many forms to become one of the most conspicuous trends in contemporary art, from audience participation in theater, fiction, and other arts, to relational art, performance art, and the growing interest in the aesthetics of everyday life. Musical experience, like the appreciative experience of dance and film, has, I think, always invited aesthetic engagement, which is why I continue to wonder what would have been the consequences for aesthetic theory if music, rather than painting, with its apparent (but misleading) dualism of object and viewer, had been taken as the paradigmatic art.

In the last thirty years and more, environmental aesthetics has become an important focus in contemporary aesthetics, attracting international and interdisciplinary attention. Both Finland and China have hosted multiple conferences that included a wide range of international participants, and environmental philosophy, as well as the environmental movement, has recognized the relevance of environmental aesthetics. As one of the early contributors to the development of this side of the discipline, I am pleased at the attention and influence environmental aesthetics has generated. In the context of these comments here, I am led to wonder whether there are any additional ways in which influences and parallels are discernible between music and environmental aesthetics.

There is, of course, the observation that music may be thought of as an environmental art. This characteristic of music has been exploited in obvious ways. Songs and dances in traditional cultures are characteristically used to influence weather patterns, and music is employed to promote environmental awareness and action, from the UN Music & Environment Initiative to folk singers.

I suspect that music provides more here than a presumed causal or rhetorical contribution, and that part of its influence could stem from its inherent environmental character. For example, it is misleading to localize music in the performer. Doing so confuses its source with its perception. Even though most musical production has a directional character, musical sound has a powerful ambient quality. In an acoustically successful concert hall, sound surrounds the listener, the hall acting as a great resonating chamber. This ambience of musical experience has long been recognized. Antiphonal singing has been used since antiquity and occurs in the liturgical and folk music of many cultures. In the sixteenth century, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli used antiphonal choirs of voices and instruments in the great resonant space of St. Mark’s Cathedral, which has two opposed choir lofts, to create what became celebrated as the Venetian antiphonal style, and in the eighteenth century, Bach was one of many composers to use divided choirs. These are but illustrious examples of a common practice that makes artistic use of music’s environmental character, a practice that continues to the present day.

It’s not my intention to digress into musical aesthetics, as such, but rather to reflect on whether the ambient character of musical experience has some resemblance to environmental perception more generally. The way in which my work in environmental aesthetics has developed may have some parallel in the music I have engaged in daily. For example, I try always to distinguish between ‘environment’ and ‘the environment’ and I find the difference crucial. ‘The’ environment objectifies the setting of spatial experience; it turns environment into a separate object, distinct from the perceiver. However, the ecological and behavioral sciences, as well as personal perception, recognize the continuity of humans and the setting of which we are a part. There is no dividing separation or barrier. Rather, lines of influence radiate in all directions, from sound and space to the mutual influence of humans and the things and activities in which we engage. There are certainly perceptual foci in environmental experience, and so, too, do these occur in musical experience. And as our understanding of environment has expanded to include the built environment and social relations, along with the many intangibles of experience, so musical sound has expanded to encompass the ambient sounds of urban and everyday life, sometimes in musical form, sometimes literally. One can cite numerous twentieth-century examples, the most notorious (and overworked) one being John Cage’s 4”33” (1952), consisting of chance environmental sounds, but Gershwin’s An American in Paris imitates traffic sounds, Honneger’s “mouvement symphonique” Pacific 231 (1923) evokes a steam locomotive, while Saint-Saën’s Danse macabre reaches its climax with the cock’s crowing. Of course, the classic example is the musical rendering in Beethoven’s Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony of the flowing water of a brook, peasant dancing and revelry, and the passage of a thunderstorm and the shepherds’ joyful song of thanksgiving.

Music may have had a still more subtle influence of on my philosophical work. There are probably as many ways of writing music as there are of writing philosophy. Having done both, I detect a personal resemblance in method and sensibility, and the idea is worth pursuing in its own right wherever it may lead. I am hardly the first to consider philosophical writing an art.

In the last few years I have come to recognize the central place of sensibility in aesthetics. Indeed, I think of aesthetics as the theory of sensibility: the study of the central role of perceptual discrimination, of sensory nuance and resonance in our engagement with the various arts and occasions under the unique conditions of each circumstance. I think sensibility is a powerful factor and an essential guide in the creative activity of artists and composers, just as sensibility guides perceptual attention in appreciation. Sensitivity to the perceptual possibilities and demands of music, as of any art, guides the development of the materials of a work and encourages its coherence. In any case, I have come to recognize that similar processes play a critical part in my philosophical writing as they have in my music, and I expect that I am not alone in benefitting from their aesthetic and philosophic mutuality.

As for the relation itself of music and philosophy that I’ve been considering here, does it designate an influence, a common way of thinking, or something else? Perhaps it would be better not to trivialize the resemblance by attempting a simple explanation, causal or otherwise. So I end, as philosophy began, in wonder and admiration at both music and philosophy as striking instances of the interpenetration of all the factors in the aesthetic field.


1. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (1859) (The Falcon’s Wing Press, 1958), Vol. I, p. 264-5.

2. Robert Wicks, “Arthur Schopenhauer,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011,5.1. Accessed 23 July 2012.

3. Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903) (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955), p. 21.

2012 © Arnold Berleant

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