Monday, January 29, 2007

"On Truth"

If font size is a measure of profundity, Harry Frankfurt's sequel to "On Bullshit" is even deeper and more insightful than its predecessor.

Its question is: what is wrong with bullshit, anyway, in its indifference to the truth? The proper response, according to Frankfurt, is that "truth often possesses very considerable practical utility." The obvious rejoinder is not quite ignored, but it is rather scandalously deferred to a final "chapter":
[What] can be said about the value of truth itself, as distinct from the rather commonplace suggestions I have already offered concerning the value of individual truths?
What Frankfurt goes on to provide, however, is not a reason to care about getting it right when doing so is not of practical use or is useful only to other people, or a reason to care about truth for its own sake, but a reason to be glad that there are truths to be acknowledged, even when those truths conflict with one's desires. The argument is that
our recognition and understanding of our identity arises out of, and depends integrally on, our appreciation of a reality that is definitively independent of ourselves. In other words, it arises out of and depends on our recognition that there are facts and truths over which we cannot hope to exercise direct or immediate control. If there were no such facts or truths, if the world invariably and unresistingly became whatever we might like or wish it to be, we would be unable to distinguish ourselves from what is other than ourselves and we would have no sense of what in particular we ourselves are.
Even if Frankfurt is right about this, one has to admit that it's pretty lame. We might have hoped for fireworks, as at the end of the earlier book: "sincerity itself is bullshit"! But the fireworks themselves were quite indifferent to the truth. And this book, too, instantiates its theme. However much he may have wished for his topic to be interesting, and its examination fruitful, the facts were not in his control.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sonata, what do you want of me?

So asked Fontenelle, according to Rousseau. His frustration is one that I have shared. It is hard to articulate the content of abstract music in a way that could explain why it matters so much, at least to some of us, and annoying to be left with nothing to say.

This plight is addressed with brevity, and an apt historicism, in a recent book by Mark Evan Bonds. Music as Thought recounts the valorization of instrumental music, and the symphony in particular, at the turn of the 18th century. In 1790, Kant could dismiss non-vocal music as "more pleasure than culture". By 1810, Hoffman would write, in a celebrated review, that Beethoven's Fifth "open[s] up to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable."

What happened in between, according to Music as Thought, was the aesthetics of post-Kantian idealism, in Fichte, Schelling and others. If abstract music conveys the infinite or the Absolute, or a unity of subject and object that lies beyond our conceptual grasp, there is no embarrassment in our inability to capture it in words. The philosophers and critics – not the musicians – could thus invent a new way of listening and, in doing so, a new kind of music.

Even if one is sympathetic to the need for generic and thus historical context in the explanation of art, there is something puzzling in this account. If it is right, we face a problem of belief – or worse – when we aspire to listen without anachronism. It is not just that we may not accept the metaphysics of idealism; we may not even attach a sense to the putative thoughts that Hoffman and others took Beethoven's symphonies to express.

Nor does Music as Thought say very much about how to interpret specific works. In part because the philosophy is so lightly sketched, what we get is not a map of the conventions of the idealist symphony against which particular symphonies stand out in relief, but something more like a reading of various works taken together – an approach that is "generic" in the negative sense.

This is only to say that the book is incomplete: it is a provocation to further thought. One of its best ideas is about the indeterminacy of abstract music. The facts of production and reception are sufficiently messy that they may not fix upon the form of a given piece, a single generic context. In an ingenious coda, this argument is applied to the musical formalism of Eduard Hanslick. Rather than divining the essence of abstract music, we might regard him as proposing – inadvertently, perhaps – yet another way in which it can be heard. The question is not what the sonata wants of us, but what we want of it.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Why do I like this ridiculous film? In part, because it is beautiful, with its sheer black landscape and stark colours. And in part for its humility: it is, by its own confession, a Martian's view of philosophy; and it is framed by three remarks of Wittgenstein, spoken as a child:
If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.

In art it is hard to say anything as good as: saying nothing.
Even to have expressed a false thought boldly and clearly is already to have gained a great deal.
If the film's portrait of Wittgenstein's thought is a cartoon or caricature, it is not a bad one: we learn about the picture theory of the Tractatus, the reversal – with continuity – of the Investigations, the assault on privacy and the inner theatre of ideas. There are disappointing omissions, as when an effete Keynes expands to fill the boots of G. E. Moore, in Terry Eagleton's original script. But as Steven Wright remarked, you can't have everything – where would you put it?

For reasons that are hard to articulate, the many inaccuracies and infelicities of portrayal, the superficial depiction of philosophical argument, the sheer silliness and campiness of the whole enterprise – it all seems irrelevant to me. Perhaps that is because I find it hard to imagine doing a better job, however bad this one may be. Or perhaps I should follow Wittgenstein, and describe my feeling by the metaphor that, if a man could make a film about him which really was a film about him, this film would, with an explosion, destroy all the other films in the world. It's a good thing no-one has tried.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Love's Confusions

At a pivotal moment in The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch's protagonist is deserted, suddenly and without explanation, by the woman he loves. He reports this experience in a sentence I have always found breathtaking, despite the cliché:
You die at heart from a withdrawal of love.
What crushes the jilted lover is the unintelligibility of love's withdrawal. How could someone's feelings change like that? By what right? It is as if we want to hold our ex to account: justify yourself.

Taken this way, the demand is one of love's confusions, since it asks for reasons where reasons are not required. No-one needs an argument for falling out of love. In pressing the demand, one protests not only the loss of a particular relationship, but the implacable nature of love itself.

The example would be pleasing to C. D. C. Reeve, whose recent book about love begins with themes that have preoccupied me here: whether it can be promised or given at will, its relationship to work, and the perplexities of loving God. He is emphatic about love's passivity: recognizing that one's happiness depends on someone else is "more central to love than the desire to confer benefit – an acceptance of our lover's power, rather than an expression of our own." And he is a relentless critic of rationalism about the source and sustenance of love.

On Reeve's loosely Freudian account, love is never fully liberated from its infantile and "alimentary" origins. This poses difficulties for those who want to integrate sex with respectful loving commitment: sexual excitement may continue to depend on the politically incorrect – fantasies of dominance and abjection, or of being treated as an object.

I am less interested in the details of this speculation – on which I refuse to comment here – than in the incipient role of philosophy as therapy. "Dear Professor Reeve: my wife and I both work away from home, and believe in sexual equality. But things are falling flat between the sheets. What can do we do to spice them up?" Though they are not exactly framed this way, answers to this question appear throughout the book: exploiting jealousy or flirtation as a stimulus to desire, experimenting with other partners, keeping gender politics out of the bedroom.

Reeve is not alone in trying on the therapeutic form, even if he does so in a specially provocative way. He has a nice blurb by Paul Woodruff, whose book about the virtue of reverence – which manifests itself in feelings of awe for what surpasses human limitation – approaches the oracular style of the self-help manual:
Reverence is not enough by itself for a completely good character. You will need to develop other capacities in order to live a morally good life. But you may find that reverence is necessary – as is courage – to the regular exercise of all other virtues.
If one has doubts about the philosopher as moral guide, one is liable to be even more suspicious when he tacitly adopts the role of relationship counselor. I am reminded of Harry Frankfurt's nice response to a question about contingency that followed a series of lectures he gave at Princeton some years ago.
Audience member: What I can't see, on your account, is how there is any assurance that my wife will continue to love me.

Frankfurt: I'm sorry, sir, I'm afraid I can't help you with that.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A New Orthodoxy?

The canonical form of title for a book of philosophy used to be X, Y and Z – though an occasional lack of inspiration would reduce this to X and Y. Thus we have Language, Truth and Logic, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Being and Time.

The model has served us well for decades, but there are signs of change. As we have jettisoned the 18th century's Essay, Inquiry and Treatise, so the new millennium abandons conjunction in favour of subtraction. Hilary Putnam turns his back on Reason, Truth and History, opting now for Ethics without Ontology. There is "Vagueness without Ignorance", Libertarianism without Inequality, Ethics without Principles.

Reluctantly, I am adding to the list: my book, Reasons without Rationalism will be published this month by Princeton University Press. I conceived the title some years ago, before its structure became routine, and it is too late to change it now. Perhaps I should be cheered by the development. Whatever the fate of its contents, the title of my book reflects a pattern whose time has come: X without Y.