Why do modern philosophers suffer from amusia?

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy opens his book Listening/À l’écoute (2002) with two questions:  “Is listening something of which philosophy is capable? … Isn’t the philosopher someone who always hears/entend (and who hears everything), but who cannot listen, or who, more precisely neutralizes listening within himself, so that he can philosophize?” (2007, p. 1)

The philosophy of music is a rather new and limited field of inquiry. The names associated with it remain few – in order of year of birth, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bloch, Ingarden, Jankélévitch, Adorno, Barthes, Deleuze, Cavell, Bernard Williams, Badiou, Kendall Walton. (I am not considering here the substantial work of musicology.) Arguably, since E. T. A. Hofmann most important reflections on music have been written by fiction writers (Balzac, Thomas Mann, Carpentier), poets (Rilke, Stevens, Zagajewski), and musicians (Berlioz, Wagner, Schönberg, Stravinsky, Thomson). Furthermore, some of the most penetrating and influential musical aesthetics have been fully musical, that is, composed and not written. From Schumann to Schnittke we discover in song, opera, sonata or quartet tremendous immanent reflections on music making.

And of course the history of Western musical thought can be written simply by tracing the figure of Orpheus over the last five centuries.

Yet philosophers are notorious for being un-musical or even anti-musical.  (Even Heidegger’s “attunement” has nothing to do with tone.)  In a 1990 interview Derrida wondered “if philosophy, which is also the birth of the prose, has not meant the repression of music or song” (Points…, p. 394)  In our theoretical explorations Pantelis Polychronidis and I are surprised to see us rarely refer to philosophers.   Why then do they find it uninteresting or impossible to reflect on music in contrast with their extensive work on poetry or painting ? Could it be because music is the supremely reflexive art, the one that most persistently and radically poses the question of its nature?

December 12, 2104

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4 Responses to Why do modern philosophers suffer from amusia?

  1. ELB says:

    Perhaps I am not getting how you are thinking of “philosophy of music” here, but couldn’t it be that your definition of “philosophy of music” is what returns so few figures?: What about, say, Hanslick, the debates surrounding formalism and absolute music, or even Attali in _Noise_?

    Separate point: Might music (except when taken narrowly as an art) be more analogous to language than to arts (“poetry or painting”), and so it’s more a question of why there hasn’t been a “musical turn” analogous to a “linguistic turn” in philosophy? (Perhaps a “musical turn” only happens when there has been further groundwork laid by musicology, comparative musicology and ethnomusicology, if not sciences of sound/acoustics/aural perception/etc., which thus far few philosophers seems familiar enough with to take into consideration?)


    • Vassilis Lambropoulos says:

      In this case my definition of philosophy is a traditional one: it includes only so-called philosophers. Writers from Hanslick to Kramer and Abbate are (very important) musicologists and theorists of music. _Noise_ is indeed philosophy of music but it’s the only one of Attali’s, so I did not include him. A list of musical thinkers would have been far longer & more representative but I stuck to philosophers to point out what I consider one of their major deficiencies. Ditto about literary theorists. A musical turn would be something groundbreaking! Nevertheless, I continue to think that music-as-music is, in terms of (self) reflection, incredibly advanced – but we can’t hear this either…


  2. ELB says:

    An FYI: Susan McClary writes in _Modal Subjectivities_ (p. 9): “Most New Historicists depend principally on literature, theater, and painting for their evidence; they rarely refer to music as a resource (except in the work of Theodor Aorno or Carl Schorske), in large part because of the specialized training demanded by the task. They sometimes look to musicologists for assistance, but music scholars have concerned themselves only very recently with the questions typically asked by cultural historians.”


    • Vassilis Lambropoulos says:

      Very pertinent remark, thanks for quoting it. BTW, I apologize for the late response but I’m still new to blogging and it takes me time to figure some things out.


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