Negative Theology and the “True Self”

It is a commonplace of modern culture to refer to the notion of the “true self.” We often claim that we must be true to ourselves and that we need to work to express our true inner self, rather than trying to repress it. But while we talk in this way often, if we look at the notion of having a true self, it seems odd and quite implausible as the notion of the “true self” seems to suggest that there is a fundamental unified essence waiting to be fully expressed within each human being, and this seems to very out of step with the conception of what a human being is that we get from an understanding of modern biology. Modern biology tells us that humans are not true selves trying to express themselves through a bodily vessel, but beings whose core identity can be identified in the arrangement of matter that constitutes them; or put more simply our true nature is that we are bodies made up of constituent parts like brains, lungs and bones. So, there seems to be an incompatibility between the way we talk about ourselves and how we must live authentic lives, and the way we understand our identity as physical biological beings. I think we can explain this tension between our vision of the “true self” and a biological conception of humanity if we stop thinking of the self as a static object of empirical enquiry and instead think of it as Negative Theology thinks of God, and I will explain why in the argument that follows.

If I look deep within, it is hard for me to seriously suggest that I see a clear being, a “true self” waiting to be expressed. But what I can see is that I would like to develop this quality, and that quality, and that I do not want to develop other qualities. However, none of these qualities I long to have, taken independently, or in combination with the others, seems to exhaust the nature of my “true self”. My “true self” somehow seems to be indescribable in the categories of ordinary speech. In this sense, we might say that our approach should be analogous to the approach to God known as Negative Theology. Negative Theology posits awe towards God, but refuses to claim that God has specific qualities like benovelence. According to this approach we can understand what God is not, but not what God is. God can be seen to transcend any categories that can be applied to him.

Likewise we might say that the “true self” within us is not a physical object or even a collection of qualities and desires that we can point to and describe, but rather something that is beyond all linguistic description. This seems to be plausible as the notion of a “true self” is always aspirational in that when we speak of our “true self” we do not refer to an accurate description of the current state of our identity, but a sense of something admirable that we can develop into. Furthermore, this admirable thing we can develop into that is somehow “inside of us” is not something that can be grasped as a collection of properties or a single unifying property. Whenever, we develop our “true self” and think we have fully developed our self we realize that there is something that is missed in our development and our description of that development. I may have developed my capacity for courage, but something about the mode of action, is not simply courage or any other category, but something beyond, unspeakable, that I am drawn towards. We do not stand at the ready with a perfect image and description of our “true self” ready to replicate that self in life as if we were a craftsmen building a replica of an existing model. Rather the “true self” calls us to express it while at the same time all of our categories fail to fully account for what this “true self” is.

Consequently, while there seems to be cognitive dissonance between the image of ourselves as at our core biological creatures with the notion of the “true self”, a Negative Theology of the self, like the one I have loosely sketched above tends to show that this tension is not so irreconcilable. There is a sense in which human beings are physical beings with particular biological characteristics, but what applying the model of Negative Theology to the self, shows us is that any categorization of humanity, whether it is biological like that of science or normative like the categories that I have pointed to in my discussion of the self, fails to fully capture what we mean when we talk about the “true self”. In this sense the “true self” like the God of Negative Theology is something that cannot be fully grasped at once through a set of categories. Furthermore, the “true self”, in particular, is something that comes from within us and demands expression, but eludes full understanding.

I am not sure if Negative Theology is the right approach to thinking about the self, and while I am attracted to certain elements of it, I also am drawn towards the notion that a system of categories can exhaust and fully disclose the reality of something. I find a part of me whispers if we can never fully capture reality through language in some meaningful sense what is the point of thought? But one thing that is certain is that a mode of thought modeled on Negative Theology provides us with an interesting way of thinking about the self that gets at the intuition that while it may be true in some sense to say human beings are matter in motion or social, amicable being, or whatever description we find compelling, none of these descriptions fully uncovers what we are. Further, this mode of though helps us capture how at ease we are at accepting two seemingly contradictory descriptions of humanity, because if all description fail to fully describe the “true self” then there is no reason why two seemingly contradictory modes of thought could not both reveal an aspect of the truth. If this is the case we have no reason to be uneasy that two descriptions of humanity we adhere to seem incompatible or opposed.

On our treatment of the apparently homeless

If you walk down the urban core of most cities you are bound to encounter someone who appears as homeless. Furthermore, when we talk about the plight of these people there are few people who can be found who do not see the situation of the apparently homeless as a problem that needs to be addressed. Now, while there are many competing social policies that can combat homelessness I will not discuss them here. What I would like to discuss is the way in which our ordinary relations to those who appear as homeless show that while we might feel that they are in a terrible situation and that society needs to help them improve their lot, when given an opportunity we rarely engage with them as human beings or fellow members of a community who have dignity. Through this disrespect for those who appear as homeless we are complicit in worsening their situation as we participate in a practise that tends to make the apparently homeless less capable of living a fully human life.

Also, it should be noted that this entry will only deal with those who appear as homeless. For example, those who look ragged and are dressed in ill-fitting dirty clothes with unkempt hair and dirt all over their faces and hands. There are many homeless people whose homelessness is invisible as they dress and appear just like anyone else, and their situation is certainly worth investigation, but my object here is to focus on those who appear to us as clearly homeless.

Anybody who has lived or worked in the downtown core of a large city has likely had the experience of an apparently homeless person coming up to us or a person we are near and asking for change or some other form of assistance. This person stands out from the rest of their crowd with their dirty, unkempt appearance and often people ignore and do not respond at all to the question raised by the apparently homeless person. Similarly, if someone spots an apparently homeless person they often will either go out of their way to avoid them or say “No” to them before the homeless person has had a chance to speak thereby preventing themselves from being asked a question. Likewise, even when an apparently homeless person is merely interested in chatting with someone on the street many of us are afraid to engage with them, and either ignore them or try to talk to them in the most minimal way possible to get away from them as soon as possible. I say all of these things not in a finger waving way, but because I, and many other seemingly compassionate people that I know, are guilty of this kind of action at one time or another in our lives.

But this raises the question of why seemingly compassionate people react this way when confronted by the apparently homeless? It seems to me that the core of this issue is that we have become deeply ingrained to fundamentally see the apparently homeless as predominantly an unpredictable, and possibly threatening force, rather than as vulnerable human beings looking for assistance. Consequently, when the apparently homeless appear before us our most basic reaction is to avoid engagement with them. After we react in this way to the apparently homeless or during our brief interaction we may have a thought in the back of our minds that this person is just a human like me and is just unfortunate enough to fell into a difficult situation, but our more visceral reaction is to perceive them kind of like a wild, possibly dangerous animal that we do not want to hurt, but we also do not want to engage with. More than once late at night an apparently homeless person has come up to me, and my first reaction is often to avoid interacting with them at all or for any extended period of time. After the fact I feel guilty about not engaging with the person and treating them like I would treat any other person, but treating them as human beings who should be engaged with respectfully when they ask a question is something that I need to work with myself to do against my more fundamental response of fear. What, in fact, has led to this mode of reacting to the apparently homeless is an interesting question, but not one that I have the time to discuss in this entry.

When we interact with the apparently homeless by ignoring their presence or trying to flee from them as quickly as possible because of our fear we are complicit in worsening their situation. The apparently homeless often are in fact homeless and suffer in that they lack shelter and consequently their health and physical prosperity is always at risk. But on top of this the apparently homeless also are faced with being devalued and misrecognized in the social world they inhabit. It is not just that as an apparently homeless person I cannot find shelter from the elements, it is that whenever I try to interact with a person I tend to be either ignored when I merely ask another a question or dismissed as a parasite just trying to get money for myself for drugs, alcohol or some other apparent vice. In being seen in this way the apparently homeless suffer much in the way that persecuted ethnic and other minorities do, in that the gaze of the other, presents a demeaning image of themselves before their eyes, and when this occurs it tends to negates their ability to live a fully human life. This occurs as those who are seen fundamentally in society as lesser will tend to interiorize this image of themselves and as a result become less able to pursue what they see as fundamentally valuable. In this sense one condition of possibility of pursuing what is worthwhile is being seen as having dignity by others and so when we participate in the practise of treating the apparently homeless with fear and disrespect, we are not merely making an innocent choice about how to respond to them, we are complicit in depriving them of the ability to live a fully human life.

The Pathology of Market Care Substitution: “High Touch Service” and “The Girlfriend Experience”

Many businesses pride themselves on offering so called “high touch service.” With high touch service the client not only pays for a particular product or service; she is treated in a personable manner in which her server not only provides her with a needed good or service, but appears as someone who genuinely cares about the client, rather than someone who is merely providing a good or service in exchange for payment. The service provider in this context thus appears as more of a friend or associate than a stranger. In this sense a corollary of the “high touch service” is the notion of “the girlfriend experience” in the sex trade. Like high touch service a client pays a sex trade worker to appear as if she cares about her client and is in a mutually committed relation with him. What unites both high touch service, and the girlfriend experience is that the client pays for a substitution of a pure market relation in which one provides goods or services in exchange for payment, for the appearance of a relationship that transcends market relations in which the client and service provider encounter one another in a relationship of mutual affection and concern.

For the sake of simplicity I will refer to this behaviour of substituting a relation of buyer and seller for the appearance of a relation of affect and care as “market care substitution.” I know this neologism does not have the same pleasant ring as “high touch service,” but it should suffice for this piece of writing. In what follows I will try to at least partially set out what the relevance of market-care substitution is.

One thing that the presence of market care substitution reveals is the way in which market-driven societies encourage a distorted understanding of the good and are based on a distorted relation to the good. Market care substitution seems to arise in any market driven culture as we can see from the way in which both the food and financial service industry operate in North America. Focus is always placed on making the client feel as if they were deeply cared for, rather than just as a source of revenue that must be provided with certain things. Consequently market care substitution seems to be quite prevalent in market-driven societies.

Now that it is clear that market care substitution seems to arise in market-driven societies we can turn to how this affects the agent participating in these relations. When I participate in a relation of market-care substitution as buyer or consumer I must separate myself into two distinct elements. One element is the buying self who decides that it wants to pay for the appearance of a relation of care and affect. The other element of the self is that which enjoys the appearance that has been bought. In this sense we must separate the economically rational “I“ that pursue what it wants from the “I“ that enjoys the appearance. This occurs as in order for the self to enjoy the appearance of the caring relation it must suspend its relation with the enjoying element, so the enjoying element can enjoy the appearance in ignorance of the fact that this appearance is a mere appearance. For if the self remained as a single entity, it would know that the relation was merely apparent and this would sully the enjoyment of the apparently caring relation.

In itself this separation of the economically rational “I“ from the enjoying “I“ may not seem like a particularly large problem, but on further reflection there is a certain perversity about this mode of operation that encourages a distorted understanding of the good. If we ask ourselves what a good life is we don’t think that it is one with lots of pleasant experiences of the appearance of affection or care, rather we tend to think that the actual development of relations of care and affection that mutually enrich and develop the interlocutor’s lives constitutes a central aspect of the good life. Some might disagree with me that most have this understanding of the good life, but I question this because when a friend betrays us we are upset with them not because they have failed to keep up an appearance of care and concern, but because they have shown that they actually do not care in the way we thought he or she did. This shows that what is actually valued and enriches the lives of friends is not the simple appearance of affection and care, but the presence of an actually constituted relation of affection and care.

From the preceding we can see that the practise of market care substitution seems not to fit with this understanding of the good life as through market care substitution what is sought is the mere appearance of affection and care, rather than its genuine presence. Thus, given that market-driven societies seem to encourage market care substitution it also encourages a distorted understanding of the good as participation in these kinds of relations will reinforce the tendency to see the good as the appearance of relations of affection and care rather than their genuine presence. If our economic lives are spent pursuing the appearance of caring relations this will only make us more vulnerable to viewing the good life as consisting in the presence of relations that appear to be genuinely imbued with the spirit of mutual concern and affection, and this is clearly a distortion.

In addition, market care substitution leads to a distorted understanding of the good because it encourages us to see the good as a separate object that we as subjects come to possess just as we hold a pen in our hands. This is an erroneous understanding of the good as we long to become one with the good through our participate in it. To explain when, as with market care substitution, we have a self or “I“ that reasons and decides standing in opposition to the self or “I“ that enjoy we have a situation in which the good always remains separate from me. The enjoying self may momentarily possess the good and ravish and enjoy it, but the good always remains as an object separate from myself that I have in my possession. On the other hand in actually constituted friendships I do not possess the good as an object, instead I, in some sense, become one with the good through my participation in it. The good of friendship is not an object for me and an object for my friend, rather it is something that we mutually share and participate in. Furthermore, this participation partially constitutes our relationship as a friendship.

Now this raises the question of what our actual relation to the good is as I have only shown that friendship does not fit the model of the good as something we possess. Nonetheless I think that the understanding described in terms of friendship more adequately represents our relation to the good as beyond the relationships we have to others many other goods are best described as things that we participate in, rather than things we possess. For example let us look at virtues like courage, generosity and justice as these on most accounts can be considered to be genuine goods. The courageous person is not a person who exists independently who happens to have the skill to be courageous, but a person whose identity is partially constituted by their courageous spirit. In a sense this person participates in the essence of courage through their very identity as courage is a quality shared by them and many others both living, dead and to be born. If a person merely had the skill to be courageous as something separate from their identity they would not necessarily have the virtue of courage as they could choose not to deploy that skill. So thus our relation to virtue goods is not one of possession, but of something that constitutes our identity and that we participate in. As a result it seems to me that it is quite plausible and convincing to view our relation to the good not as that of possessor to object, but rather as something that we participate in and to some extent become one with. Therefore, the activity of market care substitution is based on a distortion of our actual relation to the good, as it always places the good as an object that stands at a distance from us that we need to possess, rather than as something that we can commune with and participate in. In addition as was noted earlier participation in relations of market care substitution will reinforce a distorted understanding of the good, as when we participate in these relations we tend to reinforce the vision of the good as an object separate from us that we possess.

Do you agree with the basic thrust of this essay?

Is our relation to goods distinct from our relation to the good?

Are there any other important aspects of market care substitution that have been ignored and should be recognized?

Thanks for reading and please respond to the questions if you wish to.

On Critical Thinking and Instrumental Thought

Critical thinking is often praised as a valuable asset in modern liberal democratic societies. While this may be true the admiration that follows critical thinking raises the question of what actually constitutes critical thinking proper. It seems to me that when people refer to thinking they mean either one of two things, but neither of these understandings of critical thought captures the meaning of critical thought if we take the idea to its logical limit. In fact, when critical thinking is taken to its logical limit it can be plausibly construed as calling into question the notion that thought is valuable merely because of its ability to produce benefits in the world. Consequently, critical thinking involves more than questioning means or particular goals, but rather questioning the whole notion of thought as a tool to produce positive results in the world.

Often, when people talk about critical thinking, they refer to the process of being able to come with a creative solution to achieve a predefined end goal. For example, on this understanding of critical thought, the politician who is able to discover the set of policies that produces the greatest amount of economic growth for a nation is a critical thinker and consequently displays critical thinking abilities as he is able to reflectively examine the policy alternatives available and figure out which one will best achieve the end of maximizing economic growth. I call this meaning of critical thinking, “instrumental critical thinking.”

On the other hand others understand critical thinking as the process of not only reflectively evaluating means to a given end, but reflectively evaluating which particular ends or values ought to be pursued. Consequently, the activist who questions the politician’s pursuit of the maximization of economic growth because of its deleterious effects on equality and ecological preservation exhibits this understanding of critical thought, as he is not only reflecting on means, but what ends ought to be pursued. I refer to this understanding of critical thinking as “evaluative critical thinking.”

While the two conceptions of critical thinking elucidated above are opposed in that one focuses on means, while the other focuses on means and ends, they are alike in that in both cases what is taken for granted is that the point of critical thinking is to produce some kind of benefit in the world. In the case of instrumental critical thinking, critical thought helps us to efficiently pursue the ends that we already accept. Similarly, evaluative critical thinking helps us to produce value in the world by ensuring that we are pursuing the proper goals or values. In both cases thought is a means to some further end beyond itself.

It seems that the essence of critical thinking is questioning as both understandings of critical thought explained above put forth a form of thought that questions something that is given, whether it is a given set of means or a given set of ends. Consequently, if we take this questioning, which forms the core of critical thought, to its furthest limit we are driven to not only question means and ends, but, also to question the notion that the point of thought is to produce some tangible benefit in the world, whether this benefit is more efficiently growing our economy, recognizing the values that we ought to pursue, or providing us with a better understanding of the world.

But some might say how could thought not simply be a tool to some end? We think so that we can solve problems don’t we? If thought is not meant to be a tool to produce benefits then what would be the point of it? We do think to solve practical problems and create benefits in the world and there is nothing wrong with this form of thinking, but this is not the only form of thought, and more importantly, form of critical thought that is possible. Sometimes we begin to reflect on a topic like justice and while initially we are trying to solve the problem of what the meaning of justice is, as we think, the wave of thought carries us and we spontaneously jump from one stream of thought to another without any sense of direction towards a particular end. While initially we set before ourselves a task in the process of thinking we lose our sense of this task and our driven as if possessed by a demon of thought from one stream of thought to the next. But in this moment we do not merely lose a sense of our task instead we lose a sense of ourselves as subjects trying to know a particular object, at that moment I am not a subject thinking about the object, instead I am thinking constituting itself. This appearance of thinking in this world is not a means to an end, but thought as something making itself present through its constitution in us, where the “I” and “we” disappear into thinking itself. This suggests that thought cannot simply be understood as a means to producing some benefit in the world. Thought makes its appearance as a tool to be used by humans, but thought also makes it appearance in a way in which it is not subordinate to human will.

Consequently, given that there seems to be a form thought does not aim at producing benefits in the world it seems that critical thinking would not lead us to merely question means or ends, but rather to question the entire enterprise of thinking of thought as merely a tool to be used by humans for their benefit. This form of critical thought that questions thought understood as a tool, may not prove to be particularly immediately beneficial for societies, or the individuals who are constituted by it, but it does represent the result of taking critical thought to its furthest limit. So those of us who are committed to the practise of critical thought must necessarily question the vision of thought as a tool to produce further ends.

This entry is indebted to David Loy’s great book Nonduality – A study in Comparative Philosophy as my description of this kind of thought is deeply influenced by his thoughts on nondual thinking and I am also indebted to bloggingisaresponsibility for writing about David Loy’s book as this introduced me to it.

Music and Truth

ausomeawestin posted a really interesting entry on his blog last week that made me think about the nature of music and whether it can be understood as something that discloses truths. This is a question that I have struggled with for a long time, but I would like to give a preliminary sketch of how I think music reveals truths about the world and what we are. While my approach differs from ausomeawestin’s I would strongly recommend that anybody interested in this subject read his entry; as he makes a very interesting argument that is quite plausible.

As ausomeawstin points out music is not something that represents concrete objects in the world.  It is hard to think of what a musical equivalent of a man sitting at a desk writing a blog would be. Simply put, music does not present us with a concrete picture of the world. But if this is the case is music able to disclose any truth?

To describe how music might disclose truths we must first distinguish different ways of listening to music. Typically when we listen to music we either have it on as background music, and pay little attention to it or find ourselves completely engrossed and absorbed in the music, such that it is the only thing we are conscious of. In the former case we are failing to pay attention to the music and so it cannot disclose or reveal anything to us, while the latter affords this opportunity because we are fully caught up in the music.

In addition, we might listen to music as a biologist dissects a fetal pig. In this approach to listening we listen to the music but not as an active participant absorbed in the music, but as an analyst who is breaking down the piece and trying to understand its constituent parts.  Let us call this “analytical listening,” and call the the approach to listening that involves being absorbed in the music “engaged listening.”Analytical listening can help us understand the nature of order and disorder and the place of these concepts in the world. On the other hand engaged listening can help to disclose a more fundamental fact about the nature of the self and so better help us understand our relation to independent objects in general.

When we listen to music analytically we are able to parse out and analyse the individual elements of music such as melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics. While all of these elements of music can reveal order and disorder, for the sake of this entry I will focus on harmony.

Dissonance and consonance are the fundamental basis of harmony. To explain the concepts of consonance and dissonance in a perhaps overly simple way consonant harmonies sound stable, at peace and pleasant, while dissonant harmonies sound unstable, ill at ease and primal. While a particular chord may not convey a particular emotion, the sound of the chord will typically either embody order or disorder. When I play C major chord on my guitar there is no sense from the sound that anything is out of order. Everything appears to be constant and is in its right place. On the contrary when I play a Cmin6 or better yet a C diminished chord it embodies disorder, and when I hear the sound of such chords it is as if the universe is breaking up while at once longing for reintegration. Consequently, through its use of dissonance and consonance music embodies order and disorder.

Consequently, analytically listening to music allows us to better understand order and disorder  as when we hear dissonance and consonance this further reinforces our understanding of order and disorder outside of music. For example, when we hear a minor chord calling out for resolution we  see the way in which reality is built between an interplay between disordered forces calling out for resolution, and ordered forces that tend to stabilize this disorder. Furthermore, as the listener begins to ponder order and disorder as fundamental constituents of reality they will see that just as the disordered diminished chord reaches out to resolve itself, so too do the disordered elements of the self reach out to find a form of unity or integration. My conflicting desires embody the reality of the dissonant harmony, as both conflict with one another, but yet somehow call for resolution.  As a result when we listen to music we gain a deeper understanding of order, and disorder and can better see how this conceptual distinction relates to the world and ourselves. Music thus illuminates and further enhances our understanding of order and disorder.

To move on to engaged listening, in some cases with this form of listening we transcend our sense of self, and so achieve a kind of union with the rest of reality. When I listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or Agalloch’s The Mantle, I am not a listener detached from the music observing it as a science observes the processes of nature. Instead I am so caught up in the music that I am listening to that I lose track of my sense of self. In this state I am not a differentiated subject who stands apart from the rest of reality, but an unconscious, or perhaps pre-conscious participant in the unfolding of reality; in this context I am reunified with everything outside of myself.

When we analyse this experience of engaged listening it may seem that all we have here is a visceral experience of release or escape, but at the same time this experience shows us something important about ourselves and our relation to reality. What it shows us is that while we typically experience ourselves as independent subjects who stand over and opposed objects, that in another sense seeing ourselves as independent subjects does not tell the whole story. Instead this experience shows us that while from a certain perspective we may appear as purely independent subject we are also not wholly distinct parts of a singular reality in which every seemingly independent thing is integrated with everything else.  Consequently, through engaged listening we are able to see a different aspect of our relation to reality.

My analysis has only begun to scratch the surface of what music discloses and my thoughts may be entirely confused, but hopefully I have

Theory, Habit and Agency

There is one image of the relationship between theory and human agency that I would like to problematize. This image suggests that human beings have certain theories and as a result of these theories they act in certain ways. On this image it as if the person engaged in sexual ecstasy is applying a theory of how to engage in sex. This image not only seems wrongheaded because it gives an implausible image of our agency, it is also problematic because it makes us think that the theories that people seem to buy into are what is fundamentally responsible for the state of the world. Theories certainly influence the world, but are rather one factor among many, rather than the dominant factor ruling our world.

It should seem obvious that while the theories we have influence our action they are often not the sole guide to our action as human agency tends towards the habitual and prereflective. We go about our day to day lives doing things habitually without really thinking about what we are doing. It is only at particular moments like when we encounter a problem or find ourselves captured by an insight that we begin to think theoretically about what we ought to do. At these moments theory seem to be the fundamental cause of our action, but when we are actually habitually we are acting on a prereflective understanding of the world which is often opaque to ourselves and not linguistically articulated. For example, when I play my guitar I do not think in order to play this song I need to hold my hand in this way, and move my hand this many times. Instead I have an embodied understanding of how to play this song and I can thoughtlessly engage in playing it. In fact it is when I start thinking about how to play the song that I stop being able to play the son well because my mind is then split between this embodied prereflective understanding of playing the song and more explicit thoughts. Of course when we learn to play a song on the guitar we have to think to get through it, but once we have developed the capacity to play it our understanding is a prereflective (or nonreflective) embodied understanding, as opposed to a theoretical understanding. Furthermore, this is not unique to the playing of instruments. When a kind person offers their seat to someone who needs it on the bus they typically do not do so thinking I ought to be kind, but rather just respond to the situation based on a prereflective sense of what they ought to do. Consequently, this theorycentric view of agency seems deeply problematic and implausible. For the sake of consistency I will refer to the view of agency critiqued above as “the theorycentric view.”

Nonetheless, while the theorycentric view seems implausible when we reflect it still seems to be the underlying assumption of a lot of social criticism and commentary on society. For example, we often hear that the reason for the decay of modern society is that the theories that people accept such as the notion of authenticity, or the theory of liberal individualism leads people to be selfish, narcissistic and vapid. These critiques seem to suggest that what is afflicting modern society is bad theories that are leading us to act badly. But if my critique of theorycentric view of agency is correct than it seems that this positing of theory as the reason behind modern problems is at best hyperbole, and at worst deeply misleading.

Certainly, the theories that people adopt will impact their actions but this is not the only factor impacting their action. Instead, in addition to the theories that people hold, the traits, habits, dispositions, qualities and embodied understandings that people possess will also impact their activity. For example, I can think of many times in my life where I have engaged in some action as a result of a habit or disposition that was opposed to one of the theories that I held about the world. In particular, I loathe cowardice at a theoretical level, but because I have developed the habit of being agreeable, polite and somewhat conflict averse I sometimes will not challenge people’s ideas even when I find them repugnant. On reflection this failure to challenge is a mark of cowardice, as at that moment I lacked the courage to stand up for what I believe in. As a result we can see that theories are not the fundamental cause underlying the state of the world, as there are other factors at play, such as habit and embodied understandings, which seem to be at least equally determinative of our actions and consequently the state of the world. Therefore, it seems that social criticism cannot just focus on being critical of people’s ideas, but rather must focus on fully understanding and critiquing the habits, dispositions and embodied understandings that people have, as these nontheatrical elements of agency impact action and are not reducible to any particular theory that people hold.

Transcendence, Disenchantment and Unbelief

Talking about transcendence within a society that tends to see the universe as disenchanted and purposeless may seem odd, as anything transcendent seems to have little place in such a universe, but yet many of us have experiences that are best described as transcendent. Consequently, it seems to me that even those, like myself, who lack religious belief may require the concept of transcendence to understand their own experiences, so it is not a concept we can do without. I will examine two types of experience that I have had that I can only understand as transcendent to try to clarify why I think this.

The first experience is that of coming into contact with nature while one is alone. When I hike through a quiet trail alone somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, nature does not appear as merely a collection of matter arranged in a particular way, rather it is as if there is something behind the appearances of the landscape that I am connected with. This other thing that I feel connected with is not something that I can easily describe, but it appears to me as I hear the rustling of the leaves and the howling of the wind, and feel the uneven ground under my feet as I walk through this quiet path; it is at once something that is ever present through these walks, but yet indescribable in particular terms. In this context I do not feel like an ordinary self with ordinary human purposes, rather I feel connected with something beyond ordinary experience .The cause of this experience is not something that I understand, but the experience does seem to be best described as transcendent, as the experience is not simply beautiful, purifying or pleasant; it is all of these things, but it is more as it involves a sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary.

The other transcendent experience I wish to discuss involves creative musical inspiration. As a struggling musician I often find myself trying to force certain musical ideas which tends to only lead to frustration, but once in a while I will be playing my instrument and something will take over me, as if I were captured by something other than myself. In the moments of the creation of the composition I am not a self in the ordinary sense of a being that can disengage and reflect, but rather I am connected with something beyond myself which takes me out of my ordinary selfhood and drives me to create something wonderful and beautiful. It is hard to find an adjective to describe this kind of experience, but I do think transcendence fits, because in this kind of experience it as if something beyond our ordinary understanding peers in and grabs us and reveals what it is that we wanted to create, but could not describe before we had created it. Once again, the actual underlying cause of this experience is not clear to me, but the experience seems to not be one of ordinary immanent existence, but something transcendent.

So, it seems to me that transcendent is a category that is necessary to make sense of our experiences, as I would hazard a guess that many others have similar experiences and have an equally difficult time describing them in other terms. What is responsible for this sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary that we experience in creative musical inspiration, or quiet walks through nature, or other experiences, is not clear to me, but the category of the transcendent is still required to make sense of these experience and so even though we may believe in a disenchanted, purposeless universe, this does not mean that we have no use for the concept of the transcendent.

Melancholy, Angst and Music

I, like many others, am very attracted to angst ridden, melancholic music. But what is it that draws me and others to this kind of music? It would seem that this music would be unattractive as it seems to glorify suffering, loss and pain, and it seems bizarre that a seemingly normal person would be drawn to an art form that is devoted to displays of misery. Furthermore, why would anybody want to listen to such a form of music, as how could such an art form be anything but depressing? In answer to the preceding questions I can think of two sources of the attraction that many have to melancholic, angst ridden music. For the sake of brevity I will refer to music that is either angst ridden, melancholic or depressive as “dark music”. The first source is the more obvious fact that dark music can help people who are dealing with certain feelings to recognize that they are not alone in having these feelings, and in so doing help them to deal with those emotions. The less obvious source of the attraction of dark music is the sense that dark music discloses a significant truth about human life that is ignored by society and most other forms of art. It should be noted that I am not arguing that these are the only two sources of the attraction of dark music; rather the argument is being made that these sources contribute to our attraction to dark music.

When a person is melancholic or angst ridden their melancholy or angst is not some additional feeling added on top of their regular feelings and way of operating in the world. Rather, both angst and melancholy shift our entire way of seeing the world. For example, angst makes us see life and the world as void of meaning. For the angst ridden nothing seems worth doing, but when angst ridden people are confronted by music that objectifies their angst this has the therapeutic quality of making that angst ridden person realize that there are others who see the difficulty of seeing anything as worth doing, and this can help people deal with their angst. Recognizing that others deal with angst shows us that there is nothing peculiar about feeling this way, and thus allows us to recognize that angst is a typical human feeling, and one that we need to deal with. Similarly, in the case of melancholy, any person who has been mourning a loss and then listens to a captivating song that represents this loss in an interesting way will know that through listening to this piece of music one will feel that one’s melancholia has been alleviated to some extent, such that it is easier to continue living one’s life. Consequently, it seems that the first source of the attraction of dark music lies in its ability to perform the therapeutic function of helping us to deal with our angst, melancholia or depression. In a way, this is simply a restatement of conventional wisdom, but that fact should not prevent us from recognizing it as a source, as it seems to fit with our experience.

The second source is not recognized as commonly as the first. This source is the fact that dark music reveals some truth that most of art and most of society does not want to speak about or acknowledge. There are many unpleasant truths that are revealed through dark music. They range from the truth that the only thing we can be certain of is death and that we are born and die alone, to the less melodramatic idea that the cosmos is utterly meaningless. Whether these “truths” are actually true is an open question, but for many who are attracted to dark music, one of its most attractive qualities is that it confronts these truths head on rather than trying to avoid speaking about them. Put slightly differently, dark music does not try to comfort its audience by telling them pleasant stories about life, rather it says to them “as much as you do not want to hear this, life is miserable in many regards.” Music with this sort of meaning is attractive because it is not deceptive; instead, it is deeply authentic as it will not shy away from saying things that are horrifying, unsettling or upsetting. People are attracted to this authenticity as it means that the music that they listen to is more than a commodity, because even though the music is a commodity it is also something more in that it speaks honestly about the world.

There are surely other sources of the attraction that many have to dark music, but the two sources elucidated above surely help explain why so many seemingly normal people find themselves drawn to music that seems committed to glorifying loss, misery, pain and dread.

Music, Commodification, Creativity and Beauty

During this week a colleague of mine and I were discussing a band that she quite enjoys. I commented that while I think this band are good at what they do, I find their music derivative and therefore have never really given them much attention. Her response to this was that she sees nothing wrong with a band being derivative if they produce enjoyable, good music. My response to her comment expressed the idea that part of the point of the creation of art is to create something unique and distinctive, as opposed to something that is merely a re-creation of something that already exists. Ultimately, there was no resolution to the discussion, but this conversation got me thinking about the nature of music and its relation to modes of production and consumption within post-industrial society. I will argue that while music may not need to be creative or original to be good, that the presence of original music is necessary in post-industrial society as original music forces us to recognize the beauty of art, so that we can fully appreciate it, rather than merely seeing music as a commodity and consuming it.

Within contemporary post-industrial society music is not only an art form; it is also a mass produced commodity. The commodity nature of music means that we tend to consume music as opposed to appreciating its beauty; we listen to music not as a response to beauty of the music, but rather because we know that we will gain enjoyment from listening to the music. In this sense we look for the musical product that is most likely to give us a reasonable rate of return in terms of enjoyment relative to our investment in the product. As a result of this, beauty becomes dissociated from music as we do not see music as something beautiful that we need to fully grasp, and appreciate, but rather see it as something that merely delivers enjoyment, just like any other commodity.

Derivative music is typically consumed unthinkingly. If I have a heard a particular form of music before, and I stumble upon another band that performs this style well, my experience of their music will not draw attention to the beauty of the music, as the music will simply appear to me as something ordinary that provides me with enjoyment, rather than a beautiful object that needs to be appreciated. In this sense the consumption of derivative music sits fairly comfortably with the dissociation of music and beauty.

On the other hand, original music serves to reconnect music and beauty such that the listener is drawn to appreciate the beauty of the piece of music, rather than merely seeing the music as an instrument of enjoyment. This occurs as original music provides us with a unique experience that pulls us out of our everyday pre-reflective mode of operation. When I hear a form of music that I have never heard before, whether I like it or not, I am drawn to understand that form of music precisely because it is so alien. The alien nature of the music calls on me to grasp it. Furthermore, in trying to understand that form of music I am drawn to recognize its beauty. Consequently, original music as opposed to derivative music allows us to once again realize that music is more than a commodity; rather, it is an attempt to create something beautiful.

Seeing the relationship between music and beauty is important because this relationship is integral to the practise of the composition of music. The composer of music is not a clever entrepreneur trying to create an attractive product, but an artist trying to create some new manifestation of beauty in the world. Therefore, If one sees music merely as something that provides enjoyment one has failed to understand the practise of the composition of music. This failure seems particularly egregious as the creation of music seems to be a significant practise in nearly all human societies and thus to lack understanding of this practise, is to lack understanding of the human condition in general.

So it seems that both my colleague and I made valid points. Derivative music can be beautiful, and consequently good, but creativity is necessary in music, in a post-industrial society, as the experience of creative music ensures that people will be able to see, and fully appreciate, that music is not merely a commodity, but the attempt to create something beautiful.

How can we understand music? What role should it play in our lives?

For many in postindustrial societies the enjoyment of music is a central element of a well-lived life. We speak of music in different ways. In one moment we see it as a release. In another, we see it as a pleasure. In another we see it as something to be understood. It is to the issue of understanding music that I wish to turn. Furthermore, I would like to examine music without lyrical content and ask if there is any meaningful sense in which such pieces of music can be grasped or understood. It may seem obvious that music can be understood, but on further thought understanding music gives rise to difficulties that do not arise in other forms of art such as painting or poetry. Music, on its own, is divorced from the medium of language, and because thought requires language it becomes difficult to think of how a sequence of melodies or harmonies can have any inherent linguistic meaning. Furthermore, unlike painting, music is divorced from visual representation, and while visual representation itself may not have any inherent relation to language, the visual representation of object seems to more easily align itself to linguistic meaning than sound. For example, if I see a picture of a person sitting in a chair with their dog, I automatically think that at least at a superficial level, the painting is about the pleasant relation of people to their pets, and perhaps this meaning relates to the human desire for domestic comfort. However, when I listen to “Claire de Lune” by Debussy I can only sense sadness, beauty, and fragility, but these terms themselves seem to conflict so what is the overall meaning of the piece? Is there an overall meaning of the piece? If the piece has no meaning, what does it mean to have an understanding of the piece? In this entry, I will try to reveal what it means to understand a piece of music.

When I listen to a piece of music in order to get an understanding of it, of any kind, I have to clear my mind of other thoughts. If I am occupied with thoughts, even thoughts about the music, I will hear the sound, but I will not be aware of it and how it fits into the whole. This means that to understand a piece of music I cannot analyse it as I am listening to it; I must fully engage myself with the music.

While I must fully engage myself with the music to get any understanding of its meaning, there is a danger in engaging in a way in which the self is utterly lost in the experience. This occurs when we listen to a piece of music and after the piece is over we have a very incomplete sense of all of the parts of the piece, but nonetheless we have found the piece enthralling or beautiful. This may be an extraordinarily pleasant experience, but it does not allow us to understand the music, as the subject is not fully consciously aware of the musical piece as a whole.

After listening to a piece of music and avoiding the dangers that were mentioned above we may get a vague sense of the meaning of the music. We might say that the piece is melancholic, dark and there is a sense of grief in the music, but it is difficult to see how we might be able to penetrate to a more articulate core of the meaning of the music. Consequently, it seems that the meaning of a piece of non-lyrical music at most can be disclosed to the listener in general terms that do not pertain to a particular problem or issue like the angst we experience regarding the inevitability of death. Further, while a musical piece may become associated with this particular meaning in a listener, there is nothing in the musical experience that renders this particular meaning as the only legitimate meaning of the piece. For another the piece may disclose the meaning of the grieving process.

As a result of the preceding the meaning of piece of music can only be articulated in general adjectives, rather than as something that discloses a particular issue, or a particular problem. We can understand the specific meaning the piece of music has to a particular subject, whether the subject is the composer or a listener, but if divorced from its relation to any particular subject, the meaning of the piece of music is only describable in terms of basic adjectives. In this sense, music does not disclose any particular thought, although it may bring to consciousness the particular concerns of the listener.

At this point, someone may be asking why this is an important topic at all? The reason this is an important topic is that many people see music as essential to their lives, and because of this we need to understand what these people are devoting their time to.

It seems to me there are three ways of listening to music. We can listen to understand the music. We can listen and lose ourselves in the music. Or we can listen to music while analysing it. The first option allows us to understand the meaning of a piece of music, and may encourage reflection upon our own lives as we relate the feelings that a piece of music evokes in us with particular experiences or issues. The second option provides us with a pleasant experience. The third option fails to disclose the meaning of music, but exercises our capacity for analysis.

When I reflect upon how I ordinarily listen to music I realize I tend to listen through the second method, or the first. I think most others will have similar tendencies, and if this is the case we have to question how much time we spend listening to music through the second method, because while pleasure has value, the pleasurable experience of losing oneself in a piece of music, does not create lasting fulfillment or enable us to live worthwhile lives. The visceral experience of the second method is like eating chocolate; it is an immediately pleasurable experience, but not one that would realize any substantial good in one’s life. So, we need to be sure not to build our lives upon listening to music through the second method.