Music is the answer to the mystery of life.
– Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
Lately, I’ve gotten into this thing of watching documentaries.
I’m not saying this to sound smart or anything. I’m certainly not bragging about it.
Truth be told, I’m not too keen on indie cinema or documentaries. Any documentary I’ve ever watched I saw on cable television.
So I’m really not as much of a fan of documentaries as I am a fan of cable TV.
Thank goodness for Time Warner Cable.
I hate to have to admit that.
I know that when a person says that they like documentaries, the immediate mental picture that comes to mind is of some pompous ass who only drinks fair-trade coffee, can determine the quality of wine from its smell, and tells people that they watch documentaries only so they can pontificate about how the only important cinema is based on true life.
I assure you I am not one of those people.
Well, I don’t watch the documentaries that air on the Sundance Channel. I watch the ones that air on HBO. The ones that come on late at night.
The ones that have Taxicab Confessions or Real Sex in the title.
I especially enjoy the documentaries they play on VH-1.
Because I find VH-1’s Behind the Music on Lynyrd Skynyrd more compelling than March of the Penguins.
That one VH-1 aired about Soul Train changed my life.
How can you not watch this and be changed for life?
Did I just admit that?
Being a sucker for anything on VH-1 with the word “documentary” in the description, I decided to watch The Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City.
In the documentary, musicians like Grohl, Lee Ving, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, Mick Fleetwood, and Trent Reznor talk about their passion for music.
There’s no denying that music plays a fairly important part in most of our lives, not just the lives of musicians. Many of us have arm chaired judged contestants on American Idol.
And even more of us are guilty of singing more-than-slightly-off-key renditions of popular songs in the shower.
Although most of what philosophers write about music concerns itself with the ontology of music*, drawing the distinctions between art and music, the classification of high and low forms of music, and the role that music plays in the philosophical development of the individual, even philosophers appreciate a tune or two.
Nietzsche famously said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Philosophers, like the professional musicians in Dave Grohl’s documentary, also appreciate music as art.
And philosophy, like music, can be an art.
This looks like a fine place to drop a “That Look On Your Face When” meme.
I know this all seems rather unbelievable.
Not because there are no artists anymore.
But because no one is into philosophy.
You see, even though the media doesn’t make much ado about modern-day painters, poets, or sculptors, being an artist is a fairly legit occupation. Even if they don’t talk about you on TMZ, a person can still find a successful career writing poems, painting or sculpting. We still read the works of Shakespeare, marvel at the paintings of Rembrandt and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Students still study Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
It’s a safe bet that if you walked around the streets of any major city you would find at least one person who can name a modern-day painter or poet.
Unfortunately, the same probably can’t be said about philosophy.
Sure, a few folks know about Aristotle and Socrates but how many people can name a philosopher who was born after the Titanic sank?
I know you philosophy majors can. You don’t count.
I blame TV and the movies.
When the television and the motion picture camera were invented philosophy went the way of the dodo.
What I mean, is that there are still writers and other artists. There are still romantic figures in the arts – modern-day Lord Byrons and Voltaires carry on the days of the troubadours. But they’re mostly in the arts that are meant to entertain. Our romantic artists are all actors or musicians. No one is ever celebrated for the art of creating a beautiful philosophical theory.
You can say your brain is an instrument, but who are we trying to kid?
Nobody ever sold out Madison Square Garden playing their brain.
And since I never learned how to play an instrument I’ve had plenty of time to think about these things….
I suppose that’s one benefit of never having learned how to play a musical instrument.
The problem isn’t just that philosophers aren’t very popular these days, thinking about things in general has gotten a bad rap.
There is something wrong with our ideology.
There’s something wrong with the basic principles upon which our culture is based.
You see, a growing number of Americans aren’t into reading anything. According to a Pew Center poll nearly a quarter of Americans did not read a single book in 2014.
It seems that the space where we communicate is getting smaller and smaller. So small in fact that we aren’t really required to read at all. Twitter limits us to 140 characters. Websites like Snapchat are purely visual.
There is no need to write anything.
And it’s not just that there are no words, but that the image we post disappears in a matter of minutes.
Think about it – what we communicate literally disappears.
Even the visual image doesn’t last for very long.
I don’t know if it’s because we want to save trees or because the Illuminati has dumbed down the herd so they can imprison us in
re-education death FEMA camps, but I contend that when people don’t read – when people stop studying the written word, there’s a problem.
Sure, you can learn from visuals. We’re all been able to put together a bookshelf by just looking at the diagram. But when a significant number of people (and growing) stop reading and society increasingly communicates via the visual image and the visual is temporary, how can we expect to sustain a culture that wants to read, analyze, and develop the kind of passion for the written word that some have for music?
You see, to truly develop the intellect, you need to read; to meditate on what you‘ve just read. If we don’t appreciate the written word, we lose the capacity to communicate complex ideas (like philosophy, for instance). Like the great works of literature, complex ideas can’t be communicated in just 140 characters. Complex ideas can’t be limited to just visuals. Much less one that self destructs in 90 seconds.
Look, I’m not calling for everyone to throw out their guitars and ditch their Twitter accounts because we should all study philosophy. Yeah, I write and blog about philosophy. But it’s not even deep philosophy. I write about how philosophical concepts relate to the things we see on TV, in movie theaters, read in books, hear in songs and see in our popular culture in general.
I know what I do is not as marketable as a fashion blog or a mommy blog. Or blogging recipes or posting pictures of my cat. I know anything I will ever post on the internet will never have as many views as Tyler Oakley. A philosopher will never be asked to host a late night talk show.
That’s because philosophers are lousy at stand-up.**
But dammit, this what I write. This is my passion. I think that reading and thinking about philosophy should be everyone else’s passion, too.
At least somewhat as much as some people love music.
Now that I think about it, Rush is pretty much that band, isn’t it?
So the question is, how do you get people to want to think about stuff like philosophy? How do you convince people that a career in philosophy can be just as rewarding as a career in the music industry?
Listen: some people worked long and hard to figure out how to get people to stop thinking. There must be some way to do the inverse. Plunking down books in front of people and making them read doesn’t work anymore. There’s nothing to be gained by being all smart and philosophical about everything.
Keep in mind when I say “nothing to be gained” I mean doing philosophy doesn’t make you a lot of money.
The average philosophy professor earns about $65,000/year.
Unless you work for California State University system (you’ll only make a measly $48,000/year).
Dave Grohl is worth $260 million.
What’s worse is that we’ve been trained to think that only ugly and/or un-famous people think.
People who are decidedly un-rock star.
Seriously. Think about it for a minute. Studying and thinking about serious stuff is for ugly people. This is why, no matter what contributions this man has made to modern thought –
We wouldn’t buy him for one second doing something like this:
That’s why folks like Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow are on MSNBC and not on Fashion Police.
Why you’ll never see Kate Upton at an APA convention.
Not to say that Rachel Maddow is unattractive. I don’t think she is.
And not to say that Kate Upton would never give a keynote speech to the American Philosophical Association.
But you get my point.
There has to be a way to convince people that thinking, dare we even say philosophizing about things is not only not just for the unattractive, but for everyone. That all of our lives will be a little better if we start critically thinking about things.
That being a philosopher is as sexy as being a musician.
Here’s something I think Dave Grohl and Socrates would agree on: There’s something about music that can make us think, that can motivate us in ways that other forms of art cannot. That’s why Kant made a distinction between high and low forms of music.
It’s why Socrates tells us that we must be careful of what kind of music we listen to.
Of course, there is a dark side to encouraging all this philosophical thinking; to making philosophy sexier.
Our problem is this: If we want to encourage thinking about philosophy the same way we think about our favorite rock musician, philosophical thinking inevitably will be sexualized, thus counteracting the point of encouraging people to value our capacity to reason over mere physical attributes.
Not to mention the incredible difficulty of convincing the intellectual elite that gaining sway over public perception and opinion means they’ll have to ditch their academic ivory towers for the low and gritty world of common public discourse.
The thing is, philosophy really is like music.
But seriously, tho.
Contemplating life’s “big questions” touches us deep in our souls in the same way we are moved by a good song by our favorite band. Philosophers and rock stars are equally known for coming off as arrogant.
One can easily imagine Hegel, who said philosophy “must not lower itself to the people” jumping into the crowd to quell one of the rowdy rabble like this:
I suppose people will eventually get to a point when they’ll collectively rise up and after so many years of intellectual abuse, change the way we think about things.
And that, my friends, is the one benefit of never having learned how to play a musical instrument.
It’s knowing that one day doing this
Will get you just as famous as doing this
….. and your name won’t have to be Slavoj Zizek, either.
Alas, it remains a great deal more difficult to covey the passion or sex appeal of thinking critically.
A working knowledge of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is still a lot less sexy than playing a guitar and bedding groupies.
Wait – do philosophers have groupies?
* If you want to read one of those articles on the ontology of music read: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/music/
** a notable exception to the philosophers are lousy at stand-up rule may be Ricky Gervais, who has a degree in philosophy from University College London.