Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Philosophical songs

This discussion of the top philosophical songs is hard to resist, but I don't think I can bring myself to come up with a top ten or fifteen. Songs can raise (perhaps unintentionally) philosophical issues, or pose philosophical questions, or propose answers to such questions, or deal with them in some other way. For instance, Gong's "You Can't Kill Me" ("You can kill my body, baby, but you can't kill me") provides an opportunity to ask questions about personal identity; Psychic TV pose the question of free will in "Roman P" ("Are you really, really, really, really free?"); one kind of theory about perception is ruled out by the Adverts in "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" ("The eye receives the messages, And sends them to the brain./ No guarantee the stimuli must be perceived the same"); and Morrissey likes to joke around with philosophical questions (e.g. "I could have been wild and I could have been free/ But nature played this trick on me"). But is any of those songs really philosophical? 

There's no shortage of songs with an ethical or political message, of course. Action Pact's "People" comes to mind, with its attempt to argue that you shouldn't treat people badly because they are people. (I'm still not sure whether that's brilliant or stupid.) Perhaps the most interesting ones, though, are the ones that aim for some bigger point: The Kinks' "Shangri-la" and "Big Sky," or Roxy Music's "In Every Dream Home a Heartache". I can't think of one that's genuinely philosophically interesting, but there are some good lyrics out there. And even bad lyrics can be fun: "Make the world your priority/ Try to live your life ecologically" is as funnily painful a rhyme as I can think of. It's a good song too ("Sweet Harmony" by The Beloved). 

10 comments:

  1. "Action Pact's "People" comes to mind, with its attempt to argue that you shouldn't treat people badly because they are people. (I'm still not sure whether that's brilliant or stupid.)"

    I guess we know how Beardsmore or Whittaker might have seen it though (and perhaps, if they're right, how Wittgenstein might have seen it, as well)! It's like saying that this is just a moral fact in our cultural context, grounded in fundamental notions we subscribe to via our form of life (including the language we've learned to speak). I'm thinking of Beardsmore's point here about moral judgments being foundational in the way certain knowledge claims are (On Certainty) as well as his suggestion about the moral sentiments involved being pre-loaded into the language we use for descriptive discourse.

    Like you, though, I find myself unsure whether this is really helpful or it's just some kind of cop-out. After all, the fact that the group even felt there was a point in making this case by presenting those words in THAT song implies, at least, that they think some people in our culture don't get that. And if some don't, but still share the same moral system the rest of us do, then can it really be an answer to those who don't get it to say, as Whittaker suggests Beardsmore did, that the assertion in that song is factual in the sense that it expresses a hinge element in our form of life, as factual in its way as any descriptive claim about the world that also counts as true? Can we argue for something by saying it's beyond question? Isn't that precisely why, in On Certainty certain assertions are just thought to be beyond doubt? Everything is in favor of it, nothing against it? Yet in this moral case, you really can't say that because there are people who break the moral rules and so we have the need to disapprove and argue for other behaviors.

    Somehow it seems that the strategy Wittgenstein adopted in On Certainty doesn't work as well in this arena.

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    1. Yes, it's tricky. I think the idea of the song is partly to tell a kind of story (i.e. it's just a song), partly to register protest, and partly to try to remind people of something they already know (that their victims are people) and get them to see what they are doing under a different aspect, or to see their victims as falling under the concept 'people' rather than the concept 'obstacle to my will', say. It doesn't seem likely to change anyone's mind, but I suppose it could. And it could be argued that just bearing witness to the truth when injustice occurs is important (although this song is so unspecific that I'm not sure that point applies to this case).

      The importance of reminding people of things they already know and the goal of trying to get people to think or see differently are somewhat like Wittgenstein's way of doing philosophy. For what it's worth it also reminds me of Aristotle's idea that weakness of will is like forgetfulness caused by drink. Once you sober up you remember what you had really known all along. Maybe Wittgenstein could be thought of as wanting to sober people up. (Aristotle also mentions people who are asleep or mad in the same breath, and Wittgenstein does talk about waking people up. His goal of clarity could be thought of as something like sanity, wakefulness, or sobriety.) Wittgensteinian moral philosophy, I think, would involve this kind of enterprise: reminders, prompts to see things in different ways, etc.

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    2. ". . . and partly to try to remind people of something they already know (that their victims are people) and get them to see what they are doing under a different aspect, or to see their victims as falling under the concept 'people' rather than the concept 'obstacle to my will' . . ."

      Yes, I think this is the key. The point is to get someone to "see" the matter in a different way. A moral argument rests on drawing another's attention not to foundational principles per se (at least not to such principles as a basis for one's judgment) but to a different picture. It's to prompt a certain realization in the other. Why should the fact that others are people too matter if what we should do in a moral sense goes against our own particular needs of the moment (or even longer term)?

      Well it doesn't if the issue is only one of practical calculus. But there is something else involved, isn't there, i.e., seeing ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves. Get this to happen and a moral argument takes on weight, achieves a needed gravitas sufficient to motivate behavior. Prompt empathy in the other and perhaps the morally good choice follows. But is there any sort of argument for empathy? Can we tell someone he or she should feel a certain way toward others if they don't? Can we give reasons to be empathetic and, if so, what kind of reasons would they be? And can a person simply choose to feel one way about another and not some other way?

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    3. Right. And I think the answer to each of your last questions is No. Although perhaps thee is something one could say. Whatever it is surely won't create empathy though.

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    4. I have come to think differently although it would not be a matter of proving one should be empathetic by some kind of knock-down/drag-out deductive demonstration but of presenting the right picture through a series of statements qua arguments which would serve to prompt agreement. Such agreement would not be one of accepting certain premises so much as coming to see things a certain way. Must all knowledge claims work the same way? Why would we expect them to?

      Then the issue, of course, would be whether, even if, agreeing, one could choose empathy (and the kinds of behaviors which arise from that state of mind). I think one could to the extent we can cultivate feelings in ourselves. In fact, I think we do that all the time. So I have come to think that there is an answer though, perhaps, it isn't a demonstrably Wittgensteinian one.

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    5. Well this sounds very interesting. I guess I need to read more of your thoughts on this.

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  2. it is almost as if there is something philosophical about the arts.

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  3. talking heads once in a lifetime
    -dmf
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvM6TxUnCDE

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    1. I need to stop saying 'indeed,' so: yes.

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