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The Sound of Philosophy
The musical ideas of Milton Babbitt and John Cage.

Dmitri Tymoczko

Milton Babbitt and John Cage, two of the most notorious postwar American composers, are often thought to be antipodal figures. Babbitt is straight, Jewish, politically conservative, and southern, a skeptical rationalist who talks like a mathematician on speed. Cage–who died in 1992–was gay, goyish, politically left, and Californian, a genial fruitcake whose enthusiasms ran toward astrology, mushrooms, Zen, and anarchist politics. Babbitt’s music is fastidiously organized, each of his notes carefully placed within multiple nested rhythmic and melodic patterns. Cage’s music, by contrast, is scrupulously disorganized, composed randomly–for instance by tossing coins or tracing astronomical maps onto music paper. Not surprisingly, Babbitt is an academic, and has many students who teach at music departments throughout the country. Cage, who never graduated from college, was an auto-didact (more or less), and has had at least as much influence on visual arts and popular music as on the world of academic musical composition.

Yet behind these differences there lurks a fascinating, and more fundamental similarity. Leave aside the fact that even expert listeners sometimes have difficulty distinguishing Babbitt’s sophisticated musical puzzles from Cage’s mystical soundscapes. The important point is that Babbitt and Cage straddle the line between philosophy and art. Beginning with specific philosophical ideas, each developed an utterly original style of musical composition that reflects those ideas almost perfectly–and in the process thwarts almost every conventional musical value. This poses a real problem for music criticism. For beyond talking about how this music sounds, it is natural to want to talk about why it sounds the way that it does. (And, indeed, about what role ideas should play in our appreciation of music.) This means that the critic of Babbitt and Cage’s music needs to be a critic of their philosophies–which is to say, a philosopher himself.

In fact, if Babbitt and Cage are to be believed, it is almost beside the point to talk about whether their music sounds good or sounds bad. For both composers would admit that their music does not "sound good" in the ordinary sense: instead, they would challenge that notion, and replace it with highly philosophical views that are meant to undermine our ordinary aesthetic judgments.1 Babbitt’s strategy is to deny the importance of taste: first, by questioning whether lay listeners have the cognitive capacities to render aesthetically relevant opinions about his music; and, second, by intimating that some expert value-judgments may themselves be insignificant. Babbitt famously drew an analogy between music and mathematics. The non-mathematical layman who attends a mathematics lecture on "Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms" may find that he does not enjoy the experience:

Under duress, our layman discloses precise reasons for his failure to enjoy himself; he found the hall chilly, the lecturer’s voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner. His interlocutor understandably disqualifies these reasons as irrelevant to the content and value of the lecture, and the development of mathematics is undisturbed.

The development of mathematics is left undisturbed for two reasons: one, because the layperson who does not understand the content of the lecture is simply not in a position to render competent judgments about it; and two (though this consequence is implied, and not explicitly drawn by Babbitt), because judgments of personal taste are much less important in mathematics than in music.2 (Mathematics, for all its beauty, is about discovering facts and establishing truths; while music, despite its complexity, is about moving people through the medium of sound.) Consistent with this vision of musical works as sonic theorems, Babbitt eliminated from his compositions almost every trace of musical expression. Instead, the main features of his compositions–the pitches, rhythms, dynamics, and even the large-scale formal properties–are part of a complex rational structure. His music is like a giant cryptogram, dense with interrelationships but devoid of emotional significance.

Cage’s approach to the problem of taste was very different. Rather than denying the relevance of our aesthetic preferences, he acknowledged them, but encouraged us to see his music as part of an important spiritual struggle to overcome value judgments in general:

The value judgment when it is made doesn’t exist outside the mind but exists within the mind that makes it. When it says this is good and that is not good, it’s a decision to eliminate from experience certain things. [D. T. Suzuki, from whom Cage took courses at Columbia University in the early 1950s] said Zen wants us to diminish that kind of activity of the ego and to increase the activity that accepts the rest of creation. And rather than taking the path that is prescribed in the formal practice of Zen Buddhism itself, namely, sitting cross-legged and breathing and such things, I decided that my proper discipline was the one to which I was already committed, namely, the making of music. And that I would do it with a means that was as strict as sitting cross-legged, namely, the use of chance operations, and the shifting of my responsibility from the making of choices to that of asking questions.

In other words: to say that Cage’s randomly composed music "sounds bad" is to engage in the un-Zen practice of making value judgments. Instead, we are supposed to use Cage’s random music as an opportunity to get beyond our likes and dislikes. By abandoning traditional composition, using random procedures rather than making intentional choices, Cage virtually ensured that we would approach his music as part of his quasi-Buddhist project of overcoming our values. Like Babbitt, he cemented the link between his music and his philosophy by eliminating from his music those qualities that have been the traditional focus of listeners’ attention.

Many critics have for this reason concluded that Babbitt and Cage cannot be understood as composers in the traditional sense. Instead, it is argued, they belong to a different artistic species entirely–musical philosophers, perhaps, or composer- theorists, and their work is to be evaluated in correspondingly more intellectualized terms. (Indeed, the editors of the New York Times at one point insisted that a critic describe Cage as a "music philosopher" rather than as a composer.) This is sensible, but it raises some interesting problems. For while Cage and Babbitt’s music is intimately linked to the ideas that produced it, there are–as we shall see–reasons to be deeply suspicious of those ideas. This means that if we are to appreciate Babbitt and Cage as "musical philosophers," it will be despite major reservations about whether their ideas are in fact correct. And this, in turn, should lead us to ask about the relationship between our appreciation of a philosophical idea and its truth. Thus we may find that in thinking about Babbitt and Cage, we recapitulate in the aesthetic realm an important debate about the nature and purpose of philosophy itself.


ALMOST ALL OF BABBITT’S music is composed out of arrangements ("rows") of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Each note is allowed to appear once and only once, as in Example 1[requires Adobe Acrobat Reader] (and taken from Arnold Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet, op. 37).

Following Schoenberg’s practice, Babbitt’s rows may appear in four different forms: (1) transposed: for example, the same interval pattern as Example 1–one semitone down, then four semitones down–but starting on any of the twelve-notes–say, F sharp instead of D; (2) backwards (i.e. B, F sharp, Gn, etc., though again the pattern may start on any note, such as A or C sharp); (3) "inverted" or upside down (so that D, instead of moving down one semitone to C sharp and then down 4 semitones to A would move up by a semitone to E flat, and then up by four semitones to G); and (4) upside-down and backwards (or "retrograde-inverted"), combining (2) and (3). These rows are then assembled, somewhat like a musical jigsaw puzzle, into complicated vertical structures that themselves contain exactly one note of every different kind.

Consider Example 2 [requires Adobe Acrobat Reader], a simplified piece of pseudo-Babbitt of my own construction. Observe that each of the four instruments plays twelve notes, exactly one note of every kind. The second violin plays an inverted version of the first violin’s melody: where the first violin moves down by one semitone, and then up by five semitones, the second violin moves up one, and then down by five (and so on). The viola plays the same interval pattern as the second violin, but backwards (from back to front: up one, down five, etc.) and starting on a different note. The cello plays the same interval pattern as the first violin, but again backwards and beginning on a different note. Observe also, that each of the first three measures (and measures 4-5, considered as a pair) contains exactly one note of every kind, though these notes are drawn from the four independent rows that each individual instrument plays. Thus each instrument makes a series of 12-note statements containing exactly one pitch of every kind. Meanwhile, the music can be broken into discrete segments of time, in which the total number of pitches played by all the instruments contains exactly one pitch of every kind. The resulting music might be compared to a tapestry, where each note has its place in two different musical "threads"–the "horizontal" instrumental lines (corresponding rows themselves), and the "vertical" collection of notes found in each measure (called "aggregates" by Babbitt).

Remarkably, Babbitt has applied the same structure to other musical domains, such as rhythm and dynamics. Consider, for example, all the notes marked "pp" (pianissimo) in Example 2. These fall on (starting from 0) the 11th, 10th, 3rd, 7th, 6th, and 2nd sixteenth notes of their respective measures. (The example contains a fifth staff of numbered sixteenth notes which should make this clear.) If we were to number the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, starting with C = 0, and proceeding through C sharp = 1, D = 2, and so on, we would find that the first violin plays a series of pitches that begins 11 (B), 10 (B flat), 3 (E flat), 7 (G), 6 (F sharp), and 2 (D)–corresponding exactly to the sequence of sixteenth notes on which the "pp" notes fall. (This correspondence continues throughout the example: the series of "p" (piano) notes correspond to the second violin’s pitches, the "f" (forte) notes to the viola’s, and the "ff" (fortissimo) notes to the cello’s.)3 If you are confused by the complexity of this system, don’t be: the important point is that Babbitt uses the most important musical parameters–pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and (in many pieces) timbre–to delineate a complex abstract system by which pitch and rhythmic relationships mirror each other. The traditional concerns of music composition–expressiveness, melodic continuity, and drama–are addressed only after these prior constraints have been satisfied.

The value of these procedures stands or falls on two questions: Are the resulting structures musically intelligible–in other words, do they lead to perceptible features of the music that can be understood through listening? (I am assuming here that musical structure must be perceptible in order to be relevant; inaudible features of the notation, such as the color of the paper on which the music is written, are of minimal relevance to the aesthetic quality of the work.) And more importantly: do these structures lead to music that people find pleasurable or otherwise compelling? Babbitt’s answer to the first question is that his structures can be heard, but only by people who are specially trained and have exceptional musical gifts. This is, in his view, why most people do not like his music:

Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.

But the credibility of this assertion depends on there actually being some substantial group of specialist musicians who are able to follow aurally the mechanics of Babbitt’s music. (Just as there is a substantial body of specialists who are able to understand lectures on Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms.) If mathematics could only be understood when it was written down, then both laymen and professional mathematicians would find mathematics lectures to be boring. Similarly, if Babbitt’s musical structures are only intelligible on paper, then both specialists and laypersons should be equally baffled by the experience of listening to Babbitt’s music. Conversely, if experts really do enjoy Babbitt’s music on Babbitt’s terms, then this must be because it is possible to perceive the structures that are at the heart of his compositional method.

On this score, history has not been kind to Babbitt. The study of music perception, in its infancy when Babbitt first developed his techniques, has flourished in recent decades. Numerous experiments have shed light on the perceptibility of the operations that are at the heart of Babbitt’s syntax.4 And almost all of the available evidence suggests that Babbitt’s music is well beyond the capacity of even the most expert listeners. There are many reasons for this: some of the relationships in Babbitt’s scores cannot be translated into sounds; some of the relationships present in the sound cannot be apprehended as such. But the main problem is the sheer, overwhelming blizzard of information present in Babbitt’s scores. Following the relationships in a Babbitt composition might be compared to attempting to count the cards in three simultaneous games of bridge, all played in less than thirty seconds. Babbitt’s music is poetry written in a language that no human can understand. It is invisible architecture. The relationships are out there, in the objective world, but we cannot apprehend them.


OF COURSE THERE IS A SECOND, and deeper question that we have so far avoided. Even if the mechanics of Babbitt’s music might turn out to be perceptible by some extremely small minority of listeners, or even if we accept the dubious proposition that musical structures need not be perceptible to be relevant, one might still ask, what does comprehensibility have to do with aesthetic appreciation? There are many things in the world that we understand without enjoying–in my case, country music and golf. Understanding may be a necessary condition for appreciating music, but it is not in any way sufficient.5

Babbitt’s answer to this question takes us to the heart of his philosophy. Starting in the 1950s, he launched a series of polemical attacks on the language of music criticism; the aim was to defuse criticisms of modern music by severely limiting the range of acceptable critical discourse. Influenced by the logical positivist philosophers–who asserted that the statements of traditional metaphysics were not so much false as meaningless–Babbitt suggested that the statements we typically use to express our enjoyment of music are actually empty:

… musical discourse is a never-never land of semantic confusion, the last resting place of all those verbal and formal fallacies, those hoary dualisms that have been banished from rational discourse.

… if the concertgoer is at all versed in the ways of musical lifesmanship, he ... will offer reasons for his "I didn’t like it,"–in the form of assertions that the work in question is "inexpressive," "undramatic," "lacking in poetry," etc., etc., tapping that store of vacuous [my italic] equivalents hallowed by time for: "I don’t like it and will not or cannot say why."

… there is but one kind of language, one kind of method for the verbal formulation of "concepts" and the verbal analysis of such formulations: "scientific" language and "scientific" method.

… statements about music must conform to those verbal and methodological requirements which attend the possibility of meaningful discourse in any domain.

The suggestion seems to be that statements of value–such as "This piece is more beautiful than that one"–are devoid of rational meaning. (The positivists compared them to the grunts and growls of non-rational animals. Instead of simply saying "yuck," we dress up our reaction in fancy aesthetic jargon, but the jargon adds nothing of substance to the simple "yuck.") By contrast, statements about musical structure, for example statements about the invisible architecture of Babbitt’s compositions, are objective, verifiable, and hence significant. If we add to this the idea that talk about music should aspire to the meaningfulness of science (and Babbitt refers to "that easily disposable, if persistent, dichotomy of ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’") we obtain the conclusion that unexplained statements about musical likes and dislikes are simply not important.

This view is completely untenable, even by the standards of the positivist philosophers who inspired Babbitt. For it was no part of positivism to transform every aspect of human behavior into a species of science. No: the positivists recognized (though in some cases grudgingly) that there are areas of human activity in which scientific values simply have no role. Ironically, Rudolf Carnap, who wanted to make philosophy (but not poetry) scientific, once criticized Heidegger precisely because he tried to express himself through philosophy rather than art. (As Carnap asked: "When a metaphysician gives verbal expression to his dualistic-heroic attitude towards life in a dualistic system, is it not perhaps because he lacks the ability of a Beethoven to express this attitude in an adequate medium?") Babbitt, by disavowing the important distinction between art and science, ends up reducing logical positivism to crass scientism–indeed, to one of the more extreme formulations of scientism that has ever been seriously proposed. Yet this is the view that has motivated him for almost fifty years, and we can hear its echoes in every note of his exquisitely complex, brilliantly organized, and altogether inhuman compositions.

Cage is in some sense a less complicated figure than Babbitt, but this is in large part because he is more successful. No difficult perceptual issues dog his theory; no complex technical operations lie at the heart of his musical syntax. Everything is quite charmingly on the surface. Inspired by the Buddhist project of eliminating desires, Cage decided to write music from which his own likes and dislikes had been excluded. To that end, he generated his music with various impersonal mechanisms–such as rolling dice, or tossing coins. The point of this endeavor was to assist audience members in the task of getting beyond their own tastes. As with Babbitt, Cage’s music almost transparently represents the views that produced it, if only because there is little else there that might distract you from those views. In the case of Cage’s most famous piece, there is literally nothing else in it at all:

I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most is the silent piece [titled 4’ 33"]. It has three movements and in all of the movements there are no sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall.

There are, it seems, two sides to this project: one, the (Buddhist) endeavor of renouncing our likes and dislikes; and the other, the (Emersonian, Transcendentalist) aim of learning to love all of nature as if it were a beautifully constructed work of art. Each is problematic in its own way. On the one hand, tastes are a very natural part of the human organism, and the project of eliminating them altogether may seem as unappealing as the project of removing one’s own fingers. Unless we adhere to Cage’s religious point of view–and he was always a little vague on whether this was a requirement for enjoying his music–it is unclear why we should want to get rid of them. At the same time, our desires are not completely plastic: it may well be impossible for human beings to come to feel, as Cage exhorted, that "the sounds of their environment" are "more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall."6 Or rather: it may be that the only way we can really get ourselves into anything that resembles this state is by learning to deny, or harden ourselves to, the real beauties of traditional, composed music. The first step in loving everything equally is to stop loving the things of which one is particularly fond. A central question in thinking about Cage’s music is whether this first step is also the last.

Nevertheless, Cage was quite shrewd to choose music as the medium for his quasi-Buddhist message. Our sense of hearing is psychologically and neurophysiologically an intermediate one: less directly connected to our emotions than smell and taste, but more directly connected to them than sight. This means that experimental musicians have less freedom than experimental painters but more freedom than experimental cooks. Thus we can well imagine a painter who worked more or less randomly– splashing colors on a canvas with little regard for how it all fits together. (It is even possible to imagine that such paintings might come to be worth a lot of money.) But it is difficult to conceive of a cook who proceeded in this way. People are very picky about what they eat, and tolerate only a few of the many possible tastes. Random sequences of musical notes stand somewhere between these two extremes. We can certainly tolerate random music, and some people have claimed to find genuine pleasure in it. But the fact remains that most people consider random music to be a taste, like clam chowder ice cream, that is not worth acquiring.7

The intermediate quality of musical perception makes it a very natural arena in which to explore the Buddhist-Transcendentalist project of overcoming taste. Imagine, by way of contrast, two hypothetical Cages: one who worked in the medium of cooking and used randomly created food to help us to try to overcome our own desires; and the second, a painterly Cage, who randomly splashed paint on canvas with a similar end in mind. Now Cage the chef would no doubt meet with failure, simply because the prospect of eating random flavors is completely unappealing–most of us would much rather engage in traditional Buddhist meditation then expose ourselves to the prospect of noxious or galling food. But Cage the painter would likely meet with the opposite sort of failure. For canvasses with random paint splashes on them can actually turn out to be reasonably appealing, or at least not unappealing, and it would be too easy for us to appreciate them on a purely decorative level. (Too easy, that is, for the paintings to carry the message that we should try to overcome our own tastes.) Cage the composer managed to find a medium in which we had some, but not too much, attachment to our taste–and in this sense it is an ideal arena in which to explore Buddhist renunciation.

We can, then, listen to Cage’s music (unlike Babbitt’s) more or less as he intended it. Listening to Cage, one can try–and one does try, inevitably–not to dislike what one is listening to. One can reflect, naturally enough, on the motives that cause the music to be as it is, and about what it would be like if the ambient sounds of urban life were just as beautiful as Brahms (it would be distracting, actually). And one can think about Cage himself, our postwar Thoreau, isolated in a tiny musical cabin of nondesire and coin-tossing. This experience is not always pleasant, and it is not for every day, but it can sometimes be quite powerful. Especially if some Brahms also appears on the program.


SO HOW ARE WE TO EVALUATE these musical philosophers? Do we say that Babbitt’s music is bad because his version of logical positivism is unconvincing? Or that Cage’s music is good because Buddhism is one of the world’s great religions? Should we focus on the remarkable way both figures tried to translate abstract philosophical thought into the language of musical tones? And, if so, should we judge that Cage is a better composer because he made a better translation? Or should we just forget about philosophy altogether, and simply focus on Babbitt and Cage’s music in itself?

This last temptation is particularly strong in Babbitt’s case. Many critics have tried to "save" Babbitt’s music from his philosophy by arguing that while the theory itself may be dubious, the music it produced stands on its own terms. (One can, of course, make the same argument about Cage, and some critics, such as James Pritchett, do, by arguing that Cage needs to be understood as a composer rather than musical philosopher. But the pressure is less acute, since Cage’s philosophy is less badly in need of repair.) Here I think there is the risk of falling into a genuine philosophical confusion. The problem is that there are two seemingly reasonable principles which suggest that we may not be able to evaluate Babbitt or Cage except by way of their theory.

1. In the case of simple sensuous enjoyment8, the object of our appreciation is limited by our discriminative capacities. So, for example, if I claim to like Mozart’s 40th Symphony, but I am absolutely unable to distinguish it from any other Mozart symphony, then I cannot be said to enjoy the 40th in particular. Instead, what I enjoy is something like "Mozart symphonies in general," or "the Classical Style."

2. In evaluating the successfulness of an artist, the features that are the cause of our enjoyment must be non-accidentally related to the artist’s intentions. So, for example, if a blind person were to claim to derive enormous pleasure from running his or her fingers along the surface of the Mona Lisa, or if some strange creature were to eat the painting and find it tasty, these facts would not count to establish da Vinci’s skill as a painter.9

The difficulty is that these two principles are liable to work against each other. In the case of Babbitt, for example, we know that listeners are unable to discern the structural complexities that characterize his music. Thus, though they may have pleasant experiences while listening to Babbitt’s music, those experiences are probably caused by very general rhythmic and textural features that Babbitt’s works share with a broad class of other musics. (For instance: with hypothetical versions of Babbitt pieces in which all the pitches have been replaced with randomly chosen notes, close to but not exactly the same as the original pitches.) In this sense, they cannot be said to enjoy Babbitt’s music as opposed to pieces in this more general class. But these general features of the work are arguably just accidental byproducts of the structures that were the primary focus of Babbitt’s attention. For it is not as if Babbitt developed his techniques to produce the effects that they actually have; rather, he generated them in an attempt to produce different effects altogether, effects that depended on the appreciation of the music’s complex syntactic structure. (Much in the same way as the flavor of the Mona Lisa is only accidentally related to the visual experiences that da Vinci intended to evoke.) So while no argument can show that (some) people do not have pleasant feelings while listening to Babbitt’s music, these sorts of considerations can suggest that these feelings do not necessarily bear on the question of whether Babbitt himself is a good composer. Confronted with someone who criticizes da Vinci as a painter, it is beside the point to respond by saying that the works are nice to nibble on.

At the same time, it is equally difficult to appreciate Babbitt and Cage as philosophers. The problem, it seems, is that we cannot disconnect Babbitt and Cage’s music from the ideas that produced it; but at the same time (unless we follow Babbitt’s positivism or Cage’s Buddhism) we cannot fully endorse the philosophical views of the composers themselves. Thus we are left needing some explanation of how it is that we can appreciate philosophically a set of views that we do not ultimately believe to be correct. The answer to this question is by no means obvious, and there are in fact many philosophers who–seeing philosophy as part of science–would simply deny that false beliefs are in any way interesting.

I disagree. While it is important that a composer’s work be good to listen to, it is not always necessary that a philosopher’s beliefs be correct. Quite the contrary: many of the philosophers that our culture most admires, from Plato and Kant to Nietzsche and John Rawls, have at least occasionally made questionable assumptions and suspicious arguments. Philosophy is not science, and we do not evaluate philosophers simply in terms of the truth of their views. (Doing so would reduce the philosophical canon by a worrying degree.) Instead, we value philosophers because they are interesting thinkers: because they develop compelling visions of the world, or of humanity’s place in it, and because their arguments, though sometimes wrong, are tempting, or instructive, or otherwise rewarding to think about.10 (Occasionally, of course, we like them because they are right. But even here they tend to be more right about why their predecessors were wrong than about how things actually are.) Babbitt and Cage fit neatly into this tradition of compelling speculations: each propounded radical, extreme theories about the world and music’s place within it, and each managed to live those ideas, changing the musical world in the process. Furthermore, Babbitt’s and Cage’s views push us to think very deeply about music (or more generally, art) and its place in our society. Indeed, I would venture to guess that most contemporary composers have thought seriously about Babbitt or Cage, and that many of these have had their views about music changed in the process.

Why? Partly because each composer took such an extreme position, and defended that view so determinedly–both in theory, and in their compositions. This represents a challenge to the rest of us–not only to say where the two of them went wrong, but also to develop our own ideas about music to the point where they can rival those of Babbitt and Cage in their ability to compel conviction. (Babbitt and Cage were above all serious–admirably convinced of the fundamental importance of music composition, and its place in the modern world.) But partly, also, it is because there seems to be something inherently fascinating about visionaries as such.

I think that there is nothing wrong with this. Cage and Babbitt are exciting figures, precisely because of the way their (otherwise somewhat boring) music reflects their (admittedly somewhat outlandish) ideas. The two composers belong to a tradition of exciting, extreme thinkers–a tradition that includes serious philosophers, utopian politicians, philosophical poets, and many other speculators whose thoughts, though compelling, have not made their way into the austere canon of recognized science. We should not be shy about valuing this tradition: the reasonable and the proper can sometimes be a bit disappointing, and it is often exciting to encounter figures who have managed to elude these constraints. Visionaries are the outlaws of the intellectual world, and when, as a freshman in college, I first met Milton Babbitt, I was instantly captivated–by his charisma, by the baroque intricacies of his musico-philosophical system, and by the sheer exhilaration of finding someone who was more original (and more different) than anyone I had ever met before.11

It may be that philosophy no longer has as much room for these kinds of radical personalities: the progress of science, coupled with the pressures of academicization, may be making philosophy less tolerant of provocative speculation that it used to be. (Contemporary philosophers do tend to spend more time discussing the radical thoughts of past thinkers than developing new, provocative thoughts of their own.) And this in turn may be driving philosophy closer to the sciences. If so, then it is all the more reason to celebrate those people who, working in the more tolerant realm of The Arts, are managing to engage in something like the visionary philosophy of the past. Twenty-five hundred years ago Diogenes lit his lantern at midday and walked through the marketplace saying, "I seek an honest man." That was called philosophy then. Today we would call it performance art.

Dmitri Tymoczko has written for The Atlantic Monthly, Lingua Franca, and Transition. His essay on tolerance and religious diversity appeared in our December/January 1997-98 issue. His essay on Beethoven and Kant appeared in our December/January 1999-2000 issue.


1 Of course, the critic can always ignore these philosophical views, treating the music "as music." But since Babbitt and Cage’s music is not meant to be music in the ordinary sense, this amounts to applying a potentially inappropriate standard of evaluation: it is as if the critic were to insist on treating a basketball game as a strange, and inadequate form of ballet.

2 We do not usually say of a mathematics paper, the way we ordinarily do say about a symphony, that it simply doesn’t move us. Instead, we tend to explain our judgments: to say why the paper’s conclusions are not correct, or why they are not likely to be significant. These explanations involve value judgments, of course, but of a very different sort from those that are involved when someone says that she prefers chocolate ice-cream to strawberry, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade to Franck’s D-minor symphony.

3 There are also "rhythmic aggregates" corresponding to the "pitch aggregates": just as measure 1 contains one pitch of every kind, so, too, do measures 1, 2, and the first beat of 3 contain attacks on each of the 12 possible sixteenth notes in the measure. (In measure one, there are attacks on the 2nd, 5th, 8th, 9th, and 11th sixteenth notes; in measure two, there are attacks on the 1st, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 10th sixteenth notes; and on the first beat of measure 3, there are attacks on the 0th and 3rd sixteenth notes.) The rest of the excerpt contains a second "rhythmic aggregate."

4 See, for example C. L. Krumhansl, G. J. Sandell, and D. C. Sergeant, "The Perception of Tone Hierarchies and Mirror Forms in Twelve-tone Serial Music," Music Perception 5 (1987): 31-78. Other useful references can be found at http://dactyl.som.ohio-state.edu/Gibson/research.summary.html.

5 Interestingly, Schoenberg sometimes talked as if there was no difference between understanding and appreciation. For instance, in talking about dissonances he constantly emphasized the question of their comprehensibility to the exclusion of issues involving enjoyment. See, for example, "Composition with Twelve Tones (1)," in Style and Idea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975 [1941]).

6 Note the typically Cagean contradiction here: even though we are supposed to abandon our "likes and dislikes" we are still allowed to judge some works of art as being "more interesting" than others. I don’t know that Cage ever directly addressed this inconsistency, but I suspect that he had in mind a distinction between tastes, which are passionate and emotion-driven, and more dispassionate, intellectual value-judgements (such as "interestingness").

7 Another important fact is that music is temporal. We look at a painting for as long as we want, but we listen to a piece of music for as long as it lasts. This is no doubt one reason why there is a smaller audience for avant-garde cinema than for avant-garde painting.

8 As distinguished from more complex forms of contextually mediated enjoyment. I may value my friend’s painting for reasons that have nothing to do with how that painting looks, just as I may value a wedding ring for reasons that are independent of my respect for the jeweler’s craftsmanship. What I am considering here is a more restricted kind of sensuous enjoyment that abstracts away from these sorts of historical/contextual considerations.

9 Note that this is a condition on the evaluation of artists, not about the more general task of determining whether a given artwork is enjoyable or not. This is of course a large and controversial issue. Unless we take intentions into consideration, though, we are unable to account for the fact that most people think that there is an important difference between the artist who produces good art deliberately, and the one who does so only accidentally.

10 Saying exactly what makes philosophy great is as difficult as specifying what makes great literature (or, for that matter, what makes a mathematical proof beautiful). It is clear that cogent rational arguments are important, but there are other values at work as well.

11 Of course, not everyone feels this way. I would argue, however, that our culture as a whole seems to. If we want to explain philosophy as a tradition, or cultural practice, then we need to invoke the inherent fascination that radical, visionary speculation seems to have.

Originally published in the October/ November 2000 issue of Boston Review



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