Philosophy of Music
“Cover Versions: Ethics, Appropriation, and Expertise” in Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics [PDF] (Winter 2022, 45:4)
Ethical issues arise when musicians perform and record “cover” versions of songs. In
this paper I discuss performances of Blues music by professional musicians who do not have strong cultural ties to this material. I begin with a discussion of musical authenticity and appropriation, and then discuss some of the surrounding ethical issues, drawing on James O. Young’s defense of profound cultural offense. Could harm arise from cross-cultural musical covers, and if so, is this harm always a relevant consideration for musicians? What do musicians owe to people who came before them and upon whose cultural traditions they are building?
“Response to Susan McClary: Subjectivities” in The Oxford Handbook of Western Music and Philosophy. Editors: Tomás McAuley, Nanette Nielsen, Jerrold Levinson, and Ariana Phillips-Hutton. 2020.
“Music and Lyrics” in: W.F. Thompson and K.N. Olsen (Eds). The Science and Psychology of Music: From Beethoven at the Office to Beyoncé at the Gym. Greenwood: ABC-Clio. 2020. pp. 188-191.
“Crack in the Voice” and Joe Turner Blues forthcoming in Philosophy and Literature [PDF](October 2020, 44:2)
Great art has been created under conditions of immense suffering and social injustice. How can one responsively and sensitively make sense of and appreciate such art? How to acknowledge the suffering that went into making the art, while seeing the creators as something other than victims of circumstance? I offer some reflections on the challenge of appreciating African American music with the central example of the song, “Joe Turner’s Blues.” I outline two possible approaches to these questions (those of Arlene Croce and Fred Moten) before offering my own suggestions.
“Singing, Speaking and the Difference” can be found in the book Singing: The Timeless Muse. (January 1, 2018)
The differences between singing and speaking are not obvious. I argue that the distinction is not best made along physiological or auditory lines, or even solely along musical lines. Instead, the distinction between singing and speech is better made on cultural lines and on pragmatic grounds. What a singer or speaker is considered to be doing when he or she communicates, and how that communication is received, will depend heavily on social and cultural factors, and on the shared expectations of singers, speakers, and listeners. With this understanding in place we can make better sense of borderline cases, both in artistic contexts and in social life more generally, and to consider some of the wider implications: why does singing continue to have a place in nearly every musical genre, and why sing when speech is usually a more efficient means of communication than song?
“Excess in Art: The Case of Oversinging.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 76:1 (Winter 2018): 83-92. [PDF]
“Oversinging” is singing that is excessive in one or more dimensions: too loud, too ornamented, too melismatic, too expressive, or employing too much vibrato. I begin with a characterization of oversinging and establish a context for discussion (Section I). Next I consider performances by Christina Aguilera and Michael Bolton as examples (Section II). In light of these examples, I consider how oversinging might be both aesthetically and morally problematic (Section III). Along the way I raise concerns about authenticity and sincerity (Section IV). Finally (Section V), I consider a “paradox” of oversinging involving the role of skill in artistic performance. My discussion touches on the aesthetics of performance, aesthetic judgment, virtuosity, and taste.
“Introduction: Making a Space for Song.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 71:1 (February 2013): 1-11. [PDF]
“Tears and Chills.” The Journal of Music. 2011. On-line journal.
This short article summarizes some of the main ideas in my book, Why Music Moves Us (Palgrave 2009).
“Reflections on John Henry: Ethical Issues in Singing Performance.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 67:2 (March 2009): 173-80 . [PDF]
Singers have ethical duties to audiences, both in their choice of material and in the details of their performance. First I discuss the nature and scope of such obligations, drawing on Laurence Thomas’s notion of moral deference. To perform a song in a morally sensitive manner requires moral deference. When a song is valued by a group, a morally sensitive singer must try to understand why the song has the significance that it does, and must shape the details of her performance so as to honour that significance. Next, I illustrate and test these claims through extended consideration of a single example – the American folksong “John Henry.” In the third part I draw out some implications for my position, including implications about authenticity, cultural appropriation, and the project of finding connections between moral and aesthetic sensitivity.
“Explaining Strong Emotional Responses to Music: Sociality and Intimacy.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 14:12 (2007): 5-23. [ PDF]
This paper examines the phenomenon of strong emotional responses to music within a framework of ecological naturalism. Such responses are 1) experienced by listeners rather than expressed in music; 2) believed by listeners to be caused by qualities intrinsic to the music; 3) intense; and 4) have a physical component. It is maintained that the question of why certain musical works arouse strong experiences cannot be separated from the more fundamental question of why any music in any context brings about such experiences in any listener. Music and musical experience are argued to be fundamentally social in character, rather than strictly individual. Music’s social nature can be seen in the conventional character of musical meaning and musical practices, and in the connections between music and social bonding. Evidence from neurobiology reinforces these claims. The notion of intimacy is introduced to integrate the neurological, cognitive, and inter-personal aspects of strong emotional responses to music.
“Just a Song? Exploring the Aesthetics of Popular Song Performance.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63:3 (Summer 2005): 261-70. [ PDF ]
When singers perform, either in front of a live audience or in a recording, what are they doing? What relationship do listeners assume between the performer and that which is conveyed by the song, and why do they assume this relationship? My point of departure (I) is Godlovitch’s recent philosophical analysis of musical performance. Drawing on his account, I discuss the expectations audiences typically have of vocal performance (II), and then suggest some answers to the question of what sort of aesthetic activity singing is (III). Finally, I offer some tentative answers as to why singing arouses special difficulties (IV).
Ted Gracyk discusses this paper in “The Aesthetics of Popular Music” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Scruton on Understanding Music,” Nordisk Estetisk Tidskrift 25-26 (2002): 132-43.
I analyze Scruton’s views on understanding music and related topics, focusing on: (1) Musical hearing and the nature of the musical object (including the possibility that music might be representational); (2) His account of involvement with music as a “dance of sympathy;” and (3) his analysis of meaning in art generally and how this meaning is grasped. I argue that Scruton’s conception of understanding and involvement with music, and his account of aesthetic meaning, are overly austere. Indeed, his own discussions of particular artworks are richer than is strictly allowed by his theoretical stance.
“Can Music Convey Semantic Content? A Kantian Approach,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60:3 (Summer 2002): 253-261. [ PDF]
For some listeners music seems to have a semantic content beyond its expressive properties. In this paper I explore some recent philosophical work on the possibility of music’s semantic content, as well as offer some tentative answers. I consider two accounts supporting the possibility of semantic content in music (James Young and Kendall Walton), and one account against (Peter Kivy). I offer my own explanation, drawing on Kant’s analysis of aesthetic ideas in the Critique of Judgment, and Nelson Goodman’s conception of art as a symbolic system.
“Music, Listeners, and Moral Awareness,” Philosophy Today 45 (Fall 2001): 266-274.
This paper examines the status of moral judgements and comparisons between different musical works, genres, or styles. Specifically, I consider the moral status of music as experienced, and the structure of relations between musical works and listeners. First I critically examine recent work on this subject by Colin Radford and Roger Scruton. I then propose a “Kantian” analysis of “moral awareness” in music which aims to help explain the enduring tendency to treat music as an object of morality.
“The Problem of Reference in Musical Quotation: A Phenomenological Approach,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59:2 (Spring 2001): 185-191. [ PDF]
According to Nelson Goodman, there would seem to be two necessary conditions for quotation. First, the quotation must contain a syntactic replica of the quoted expression or its semantic equivalent. Second, the quotation must refer to or denote what is quoted. While music in standard notation has no difficulty with the first requirement, there seems to be no way of aurally marking the difference between music that contains a secondary musical text, and music which both contains and refers to another musical text. I propose a solution which stresses musical literacy and the composer’s likely expectations of his or her audience. An analogue for the phenomenon of musical quotation is found in the practice of not explicitly referenced quotation in spoken language.
Aesthetics, Philosophy of Art and Literature
“Less is More: Response to a Poem by Helen Mort” in Opposite: Poems, Philosophy & Coffee by Helen Mort and Aaron Meskin. Valley Press. 2019.
“The Physical Legacy of a Troubled Past” in Ruins, Monuments and Memorials: Philosophical Perspectives on Artifact and Memory (Routledge 2019), 253-261. [PDF]
In this paper I examine some of the competing values underpinning debates on the physical legacy of a troubled past. I focus on the controversy over the former Calhoun College at Yale University and the physical legacy it contains, which includes artworks in public and semi-public places. I discuss the approach to these issues taken by Yale President Peter Salovey in his 2015 address to the incoming class and evaluate actions already taken at Yale (alteration, re-contextualization, destruction). I argue against Salovey’s demand that the discussion be informed by a coherent theory, and defend an anti-theoretical, highly particularlized approach to these questions.
“Some Thoughts on Artists’ Statements” in R. Sassower & N. Laor (eds.) The Impact of Critical Rationalism (Palgrave MacMillan 2019), 291-99. [PDF]
Artists’ statements can perform two different functions, and often perform both. First, an artist’s statement allows the artist to provide information to viewers that is not necessarily discernible from the work. Second, an artist’s statement can contextualize a work. It can direct the viewer to see, interpret, or appreciate a work in specific ways. Though an artist’s statement cannot compel viewers to have a particular experience of an artwork, it can suggest or guide viewers in a certain direction. This chapter is intended to open up the discussion by pointing out a few areas where our approach to artists’ statements will have a bearing on deeper philosophical questions.
“Imagination and Belief: The Micro theories Model of Hypothetical Thinking.” Journal of Consciousness Studies. 23:3-4 (2016): 31-49 [Second author with Jim Davies, Institute of Cognitive Science, Carleton University]
Beliefs about hypothetical situations need to be ‘quarantined’ from factual representations, so that our inference processes do not make false conclusions about the real world. Nichols (2004) argued for the existence of a place where these special beliefs are kept: the pretense box. We show that this theory has a number of drawbacks, including its inability to account for simultaneously keeping track of multiple imagined worlds. We offer an explanation that remedies these problems: beliefs of content imagination each belong to some number of micro theories: systems of ideas tagged as being true or false only in certain contexts.
This material has been published in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, volume 23, 2016, pages 31-49, the only definitive repository of the content that has been certified and accepted after peer review. Copyright and all rights therein are retained by Imprint Academic. This material may not be copied or reposted without explicit permission. Copyright 2016 by Imprint Academic.
“Architectural Ghosts.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 72:4 (Fall 2014): 435-41 .
The article discusses the aesthetic appreciation of structures that have been lost or destroyed.
Not Moderately Moral: Why Hume is not a ‘Moderate Moralist.’” Philosophy and Literature. 37: 2 (October 2013): 330-42. [Second author with Eva Dadlez, University of Oklahoma] [ PDF]
In the debates over the moral content of artworks the group whose views are known variously as “ethicism,” “moralism” or “moderate moralism” has claimed Hume as one of their own, and this supposed kinship has gone largely uncontested. We argue, contra Gaut and others, that the “merited response argument” is not to be found in Hume, and that he was not a (moderate) moralist in the current sense. Hume did indeed hold that our moral responses contribute to aesthetic assessment; but this does not amount to the claim that moral flaws in works of art are also aesthetic flaws.
“Love, Beauty, and Yeats’s ‘Anne Gregory.” Philosophy and Literature. 34:2 (October 2010): 348-358.
The speaker of W.B. Yeats’s poem, “For Anne Gregory” tells Anne that she is doomed to be loved, not for herself alone, but for her yellow hair. Anne finds this prospect so unappealing that she threatens to dye her hair. Why should Anne be dismayed, and what is it to love someone for herself “alone”? These questions take us to the heart of some crucial philosophical problems of romantic love. Rationality has a place here, but not the place it is usually given. We need to assess the rationality of the beloved, as well as of the lover.
“To See a Picture “as a Picture” First: Clement Greenberg and the Ambiguities of Modernism.” AE: Canadian Aesthetics Journal. Summer 2008. On-line journal.
In this paper I explore some implications of Greenberg’s prescription to see a picture first “as a picture.” Contemporary art criticism and philosophy of art seem to follow Greenberg’s ukase in some respects, and to disregard it in others. I argue that there are benefits and costs to abiding strictly by such instructions.
“What is Offensive about Offensive Jokes?” Philosophy Today 51:4 (Winter 2007): 458-65. [ PDF]
Joking is a social activity, subject to moral consideration and assessment. Yet it is not easy to say when a joke is offensive, what makes an offensive joke offensive, and to determine where the moral fault lies when there is one. There are two dominant positions in the small philosophical literature on the morality of humour: 1) cognitivist or or belief-based and 2) consequentialist. Worthy of note yet not fitting into either category is 3) Ted Cohen’s recent anti-theoretical account of the morality of offensive jokes. In this paper I argue that the cognitivist position is fundamentally flawed as an account of the immorality of offensive jokes. The consequentialist position is more adequate but ultimately unsatisfactory. I suggest, contra Cohen, that the ethics of humour is an appropriate area of theorizing, and propose an account of the moral fault of offensive jokes which is broadly within the virtue ethics tradition.
“Orientalism as Aesthetic Failure: The Sheltering Sky.” Film and Philosophy 11 (2007): 159-71.
Should we care whether artists “get it right” when they portray the unfamiliar? I examine the aesthetic (rather than say, moral or political) reasons to resist artistic misrepresentation of exotic situations and characters. I focus on orientalism – the misrepresentation of the Islamic East – as an instance of aesthetic failure. By estranging and alienating viewers from the culture and people encountered, orientalist artworks offer an impoverished aesthetic experience. I illustrate these claims through an examination of the portrayal of the East in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Sheltering Sky. While the exotic aspects of the film may captivate our attention, the grotesque aspects emphasize the unfamiliarity of the Orient and serve to alienate or estrange us from it.
History of Philosophy and Ethics
“The Moral Problem of Self-Righteousness.” The Journal of Value Inquiry. 44:4 (December 2010): 477-87.
The designation “self-righteous” is a condemnation, if not an outright insult. This is paradoxical, as righteousness or justice is an aspect, perhaps the very foundation, of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness consists in either exaggerated or inappropriate claims of moral injury or moral improvement; or excessive or misplaced public moral pronouncements, which may be true or false. In the first case, the aptness of the charge of being self-righteous, and so a moral assessment of the actions or speech which are the target of the charge, rests on the acceptance or rejection of antecedent moral claims. Yet in the second case the resolution of the moral issue is different. Even when we are in the right, and know that we are clearly in the right, there is good reason to refrain from the kind of behavior that warrants a charge of self-righteousness.
“Self-knowledge and the Limitations of Narrative,” Philosophy and Literature 28:2 (2004): 406-16.
Worries about the epistemological status of personal narratives bring us up against the limitations of narrative as a tool for understanding persons. Given that any number of possible narratives can make sense of a set of events, how can we determine that any one story or way of understanding the past is better than any other? I illustrate some of these concerns through an examination of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. Then I sketch out what a genuine increase in self-knowledge and moral understanding might look like, drawing on the discussion in Spinoza’s Ethics.
“Descartes’ Rhetoric: Roads, Foundations, and Difficulties in the Method,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 36:1 (2003): 22-38.
Close attention to Descartes’s rhetorical strategies in the Discourse reveals a tension between the individual and the social or communal aspects of scientific method. This tension is manifest in the conflicting metaphors Descartes uses to characterize scientific and epistemological progress. The best known of these metaphors (from architecture and town-planning) emphasize individual effort. Yet recurrent metaphors characterizing scientific progress as a road point to a more social or communal view of science. I consider what implications we can draw regarding Descartes’s view of the nature of science, scientific method, and of the role of nonscientists in the quest for certain knowledge.
“Self-Scrutiny in Maimonides’ Ethical and Religious Thought,” Laval théologique et philosophique 58:3 (October 2002): 531-43.
Self-scrutiny has long been considered necessary for the development of virtue. Maimonides’s insistence on the importance of self-scrutiny in the formation of character has its roots in Aristotle, but is developed by him in such a way as to be innovative. Three related themes are discussed here: Maimonides’s conception of the role self-scrutiny plays in moral development; how the imperative of self-scrutiny shapes his analysis of Mosaic law; and the specifically religious function of self-scrutiny.
“The Individuality in the Deed: Hegel on Forgiveness and Reconciliation,” Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain 37/38 (1998): 73-84.
My goal in this paper is to illuminate Hegel’s discussion of forgiveness and reconciliation in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion by examining his treatment of the same topic in the Phenomenology of Spirit. I begin with an analysis of forgiveness and reconciliation in the Phenomenology (specifically ¶666-671), and then show how the discussion there is necessary for comprehension of the religious aspects of forgiveness and reconciliation in the Lectures. I suggest some limitations in Hegel’s account, specifically with regard to his conception of evil, and the discontinuity between the human and divine aspects of forgiveness and reconciliation.
“An Overlooked Aspect of Love in Spinoza’s Ethics,” Iyyun 47 (January 1998): 41-55.
Spinoza’s definition of love (“pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause”) is in stark contrast to his all but mystical conception of the intellectual love of God. Are the positive values of love for God found only in love for a supreme Deity, or can something of its unselfishness be present in our love for one another? I argue that there is a more subtle and complex view of love implicit in the Ethics, and that Spinoza does allow for the possibility of a sophisticated, mature love between human beings. This third type of love, which may be characterized as “self-determined,” mediates between the extremes of love based on inadequate ideas (what Spinoza calls the “common sort of love” V, 20S), and the intellectual love of God.
“Soloviev’s Critique of Progress in Three Conversations,” Canadian Slavonic Papers, 33:2 (June 1991): 101-112.
Book Reviews (alphabetical by author)
Addis, Laird. Of Mind and Music in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59:4 (Fall 2001) 432-33.
Cohen, Ted. Thinking of Others in Philosophy in Review 29:4 (August 2009): 244-46. [ PDF]
Costelloe, Timothy. (ed.) The Sublime: From Antiquity to the Present in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (February 23, 2013) [Online version]
Davies, David. Art as Performance in AE: Canadian Aesthetics Journal 13 (Summer 2007). (PDF)
Donskov, Andrew and John Woodsworth, eds. Lev Tolstoy and the Concept of Brotherhood in Canadian Slavonic Papers 41:1 (March 1999): 97-99.
Elkins, James. (ed.) What Do Artists Know? in British Journal of Aesthetics (2013) [Online version]
Godlovitch, Stan. Musical Performance: A Philosophical Study in Philosophy in Review 20:1 (February 2000): 31-33.
Kivy, Peter. Antithetical Arts in Mind 119 (April 2010): 497-500.
Levinson, Jerrold. Music in the Moment in Philosophy in Review 19:3 (June 1999): 205-07.
Newman, Jay. Religion vs. Television: Competitors in Cultural Context in Philosophy in Review 17:3 (June 1997): 193-94.
Ridley, Aaron. The Philosophy of Music: Theme and Variations in Philosophy in Review 25:3 (June 2005): 210-212. [PDF]
Roholt, Tiger. Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Experience. British Journal of Aesthetics 56:4 (January 2017): 429-31. [Online version]
Rudinow, Joel. Soul Music: Tracking the Spiritual Roots of Pop from Plato to Motown in British Journal of Aesthetics 51:2 (2011). [Online version]
Scanlan, James P., ed. Russian Thought after Communism: The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage in Canadian Slavonic Papers 36:3-4 (Sept-Dec 1994): 572-73.
Sharpe, R.A. Philosophy of Music: An Introduction in British Journal of Aesthetics 45:4 (October 2005): 447-448.
Shusterman, Richard. Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art in Philosophy of the Social Sciences 33:4 (December 2003): 506-510.
Taylor, Paul, C. Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics in Philosophy in Review 37:4 (August 2017): 172-73. [PDF]
Yancy, George, ed. The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy in Philosophy in Review 24:1 (February 2004): 72-74. [PDF]