Schopenhauer and Scruton on Music

Schopenhauer was one of the most influential modern philosophers to develop a philosophy of music. He thought of music as the most direct access to fundamental reality, which he called Will. Roger Scruton, in a reworked Schopenhauerian theory saw music as inducing a response of “overreaching intentionality” in which we acquire a first-person perspective on a state of mind that is not our own.

I’d like to talk about some stuff I’ve been reading on music from the philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Roger Scruton. Scruton I’ve been familiar with for a number of years. Schopenhauer I’ve known by name but never really studied much until more recently. This year I dove in and read his most important work, The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. And that left me thinking, wow, why did I wait so long to study him? Such a fascinating thinker. For a long time the main things I knew about Schopenhauer were (1) that his big idea was that everything is ultimately Will, with a capital W, and (2) his pessimistic view that existence is suffering. His idea of Will especially I understood to have been influential in Nietzsche’s thought. And it’s true that those are important ideas in Schopenhauer’s thought. But they’re also much more interesting in the broader context of his whole system. That system is kind of weird. But that’s why I want to supplement him with Scruton, who kind of updates Schopenhauer for the 21st century while staying true to the upshot of his most important ideas.

One of the things I find fascinating about Schopenhauer is that he’s something of a triangulation of three influences, each that I find independently interesting. The first is his near contemporary, Immanuel Kant. And this was the most immediate influence. Everyone in Germany at the time was responding to Kant. And Schopenhauer considered himself a Kantian, though he modified his ideas in important ways. The second influence is Plato. And this really caught my attention because one of my major philosophical interests is the continuing but underappreciated relevance of Plato in modern times. So it’s interesting to me to see a nineteenth century thinker like Schopenhauer taking Plato seriously and expanding on his ideas. The third, kind of unusual but very intriguing influence, is the Upanishads, a major religious text in the Hindu tradition. Schopenhauer said of these: “I do not believe my doctrine could have come about before the Upanishads, Plato and Kant could cast their rays simultaneously into the mind of one man.” I won’t get much into the Upanishads here but it’s an interesting topic as well.

The first thing to highlight is Kant’s idea of noumenon and phenomenon, the noumenon being the “thing in itself” independent of our perception of it and the phenomenon being the representation we construct of it in our mind. It’s the difference between the world that’s “out there” versus the world as we know it and the unbridgeable gap between those two. Schopenhauer picks up on this idea and continues with it in his system of “will and representation”. And those two terms correspond to Kant’s noumenon and phenomenon. Representation is clear enough. It’s the picture of things that we have access to but is not the thing in itself. For Schopenhauer the thing in itself is Will, which requires some explanation.

Will is a striving toward that lies at the base of all things. His book was published decades before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species but I think there’s some affinity to the idea of struggle in Darwin’s thought. That striving is a fundamental driver behind all things and for Schopenhauer this applies even beyond just the organic domain. For Schopenhauer this is not the will of any particular subject, such as God, certainly not in his view since he was a staunch atheist. So this is will abstracted from any willing subject. I’m not going to say much more about this since it’s not a metaphysical model I buy into. On the subject of music I’ll go with Scruton’s adaptation. But I’ll mention briefly that if we were to suspend Schopenhauer’s atheistic condition for all this I do think there is some interesting potential here to see the world and being itself as grounded in theistic will, which I do actually.

But getting back to music, Schopenhauer sees music as one way to actually access Will directly, to access the deepest reality directly. In Schopenhauer’s aesthetic philosophy, i.e. his philosophy of art, arts such as literature, sculpture, painting, etc. approach Will, or the thing in itself by mirroring Platonic forms. Platonic forms being abstractions of a concept’s essential characteristics. And there are many ways to understand the ontology of that, which I won’t get into. But suffice it to say for the moment that both Plato and Schopenhauer understand there to be these entities, these forms, that transcend the physical universe, that subsist outside space and time. For Plato individual instances of physical entities are approximations of ideal, perfect forms. For Schopenhauer great art is a production of innate genius by which an artist accesses these pure, ideal forms and captures something of this transcendence in the work of art. And in Schopenhauer’s view all arts but music mediate the Will through the Platonic forms.

Music however is highly privileged in Schopenhauer’s thought. Music is actually able to bypass even the Platonic forms and channel Will directly. This is necessarily non-propositional since Will is not something that we can access directly through representation, which any propositional description would amount to. Schopenhauer’s thought was very influential on the great composer Richard Wagner and on the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was also a talented musician. Wagner and Nietzsche were actually close friends for a time and were mutual admirers of Schopenhauer.

But from here I’d actually like to move on from Schopenhauer to Scruton, who I think gives a more intelligible account for some of these ideas, perhaps somewhat similar in effect to Schopenhauer’s, but less loaded with the particular nineteenth century German notions that are a little less relatable these days.

Scruton reinterprets Schopenhauer’s Will as what he calls “overreaching intentionality”. Intentionality is a concept he’s grabbing from phenomenology, particularly in the thought of Edmund Husserl. The basic idea of intentionality is that our thoughts are always about something or directed towards something. This direct-ness of thought or intention of thought toward something is intentionality. There are no be bald, free-standing thoughts.

In Scruton’s thought intentionality overreaches, not in any bad way, but in a way that we project intentionality onto things where it doesn’t truly apply in a literal way, but in ways that are still rewarding and valuable. Music is a consummate example of this. When you listen to a piece of music it feels like it’s about something. It feels like it’s intending and communicating certain emotions. In fact I’d say music does this more effectively than almost anything. It conveys emotion in its purest and most raw form. Yet, it’s hard, maybe impossible, to see any way to analyze how this kind of meaning could be conveyed. We don’t have in music the kind of linguistic analysis of signs and signifiers to the things signified like we have with language. And we can think of this in terms of Schopenhauer’s idea that music bypasses all these mediating channels, even analyzability, and gets to things themselves directly.

In Scruton’s thought music operates on its own kind of logic in its own kind of musical space, which has very different sorts of rules than physical space. We might think of this as a kind of abstract, mathematical space, but not so rigorously defined. The rules of musical space are particular to music itself. Here’s a passage from Scruton’s The Soul of the World:

“Music is a perceived resolution of the conflict between freedom and necessity, made available in a space of its own… You can see this very plainly if you ask yourself just what it is that moves, when music moves. The melody of the Beethoven began on C and moved up to E-flat. But what moved? Not C, which is stuck forever at C. Nor did anything release itself from that C and travel to E-flat—there is no musical ectoplasm that travels across the void between the semitones. If you go on pushing questions like those, you will soon come to the conclusion that there is something contradictory in the idea that a note can move along the pitch spectrum—no note can be identified independently of the place that it occupies, which makes it seem as though the idea of a place is in some way illegitimate. In all kinds of ways musical space defies our ordinary understanding of movement… nothing literally moves in musical space, but that in some way the idea of space cannot be eliminated from our experience of music.”

In Scruton’s estimation Schopenhauer was right to see music as a manifestation of an activity usually associated with a thinking and feeling subject, even if – in both Schopenhauer’s and Scruton’s view – it is not actually the activity of a thinking subject, but rather more of an as if condition. This intentionality is “overreaching”, in Scruton’s vocabulary. Here is Scruton talking about this in book Music as Art:

“Schopenhauer tells us that the non-conceptual awareness that we have of our own mental states is really an awareness of the will; he also tells us that the will is objectively presented to us without concepts in the work of music. In these two statements we can ‘divide through’ by the will, to use Wittgenstein’s metaphor: reference to the will is an unwarranted addition to another and more intelligible theory, which tells us that in self-knowledge we are acquainted with the very same thing that we hear in music.”

So here Scruton is saying that we can “divide through” or dispense with Schopenhauer’s notion of Will and the baggage of the elaborate philosophical system that come with it and just drive to the key insights, updating them to our present purposes and interests. Continuing again in that same passage:

“To put it in another way: music presents subjective awareness in objective form. In responding to expressive music, we are acquiring a ‘first-person’ perspective on a state of mind that is not our own – indeed which exists un-owned and objectified, in the imaginary realm of musical movement… According to this theory, sounds become music when they are organized in such a way as to invite acousmatic listening. Music is then heard to address the listener, I to you, and the listener responds with the overreaching attitudes that are the norm in interpersonal relations. These attitudes reach for the subjective horizon, the edge behind the musical object. The music invites the listener to adopt its own subjective point of view, through a kind of empathy that shows the world from a perspective that is no one’s and therefore everyone’s. All this is true of music in part because it is an abstract, non-representational art, in part because it avails itself of temporal organization in a non-physical space.”

Scruton’s reworked Schopenhauerian view is that music is able to uniquely access a kind of disembodied subjectivity in which we can participate. Maybe the closest thing to a “mind meld” or direct access to another person’s thoughts or subjective experience. Except with music it’s not any particular person’s thoughts we access, but rather thought and emotion as such, in as pure a form as can be imagined. Something to think about next time you find yourself deeply moved by a piece of music.

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