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Music and Metaphysics

In academia, philosophy on July 14, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Philosophers have such a high regard for music that even Arthur Schopenhauer, supreme pessimist of the West, ascribes to music the being of the Will. Friedrich Nietzsche, in his first important work entitled The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, interprets this by saying that music is never just an expression — for that would reduce it into an appearance or phenomenon. For him, music is the thing-itself.

Metaphysics is the quest for this irreducible there-ness of entities. The simplest way to understand it is imagining a tree in the middle of the forest, and imagining you are not there — what remains in the forest, while one is absent, is the thing-itself unmediated by consciousness and perception. Any metaphysics is concerned about the tension between appearance (or mere “physics”) and this fabled thing-itself.

Professor David Jonathan Bayot’s 2007 Professioral Chair Lecture talked about music and ontology (a branch of metaphysics) in The Alter Egos of Music, Real Presences, or Being inside a Ripe Green Grape: A Rhapsody on a Theme of Pedagogic Interfaces. The article can be accessed on IDEYA, a journal of humanities published biannually by De La Salle University. The following excerpt develops the arguments of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche using the ideas of Heidegger and Steiner.

What is music, then? What could it be? Steiner, with Heidegger’s Sorge / care within the givenness of Being as Being-towards-Death, declares that “music would stand as the alpha and omega of Sein, of being itself.” Steiner’s allusion to Heidegger’s distinction of Sein as Being “the ‘thereness’ or ‘being of’ an entity, in contrast to Seinde as being that is there as an entity” is not a mere glib to skirt the subject of music out of rational sight. The allusion to such metaphysics of distinction enables Steiner to claim for music an ontic plane of existence that “demonstrates . . . the reality of a presence, of a factual ‘thereness’ which defies either analytic or empirical circumscription,” while, at the same time, an ontological level of existence that opens itself up to “the ‘thereness’ of what lies beyond it.” The ‘thereness’ beyond circumscription has the obstinate texture of Schopenhauer’s ‘will-to-live’ and the invincible aura and aural ‘lightness’ pointing to the ontology of transcendence. And to characterize to one that irreducible ‘thereness’ of music is, for me, to extend an invitation for one to traverse the inscape of a ripe green grape while one dwells on the ‘isness’ of that Being. To put Steiner’s thought in another set of expression, one can say that music, for him, is a phenomenon while, in simultaneity, a phenomenology. In Steiner’s words, in music, “there is a there there.”

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