Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Music
In this essay I take the opportunity to recast some insights from my extensive study over the last decade of Wittgenstein’s remarks on music into a coherent and concise portrayal of Wittgenstein’s philosophical underpinning and upshots pertaining to his perception of the modern music scene in interwar Austria. The gist of the present essay is to show that, for better or for worse, Wittgenstein’s personal taste in music was powered by philosophical reasoning, which was organic to his philosophical development, and that ultimately his philosophical attitude to the music scene of interwar Austria manifests a deeply probing gradation. I are argue that we can distinguish between four varieties of the absurd in the music of interwar Austria, according to Wittgenstein. First is the nonsensical absurd of the incapability of seeing that the nonsensicality of the form of progress is incomprehensible. This category pertains to music which straightforwardly tries to emulate the various maxims and formulations derived from the form of progress. Such nonsensically absurd music typifies progressive Romantic composers such as Richard Strauss, Max Reger, and the early Arnold Schoenberg. Second is the vacuous absurd of the incapability of seeing what the form of progress renders incomprehensible. This category pertains to music which denounces the predominantly nonsensical maxims and formulations of modernity, thus destining itself to keeping on groping for something which it cannot express. Such vacuously absurd music is best exemplified, in Wittgenstein’s mind, by Josef Labor. Third is the philosophical absurd of rendering what is incomprehensible (from the perspective of a cultured person) comprehensible within the same purview. For Wittgenstein, Mahler’s music betokens such incommensurability, evoking a relativist philosophical puzzle: whether cultural progress is real, and it is us who have been left behind, or whether culture has really been vanquished, and we are the only ones left to notice it. The very thought of an artwork of “a totally different sort” remains invariably hypothetical. Fourth is the praxeological absurd of giving rise to an auxiliary, praxeologically dislodged musical language, replacing the transparency of human gesture with exact rules of comprehensibility. From Wittgenstein’s perspective, the shunning of the expanse of lived experience in a musical language fit for the meaning-blind would be the inglorious spot assigned to Arnold Schoenberg’s vision of the music of the future.
One need not be a confirmed Humean in order to observe the effects of habit. When it comes to the contingencies of history, the conjunction of facts and a propensity to relate them to one another might indeed give rise to philosophical confusion. The practice of yoking Ludwig Wittgenstein and Arnold Schoenberg as intellectual comrades-in-arms of sorts seems to have already become commonplace. The prima facie appeal of such a practice is undeniable, and, indeed, one could hardly find a text on Fin-de-Siècle Vienna that does not underscore at least some similarity between the two great men—their biography, their cultural background, their intellectual projects, their personal fate. In such collage works, historians and philosophers alike often share an enthusiasm for bold brush strokes, which certainly serve a purpose within their overall perspective: to paint a picture of a cultural period to highlight common themes. Yet the thrust of the present essay is, in this sense, antithetical. This is an essay about differences, and some of my brush strokes will be cautious and inevitably tentative. I contend that what sets Wittgenstein and Schoenberg apart from one another is much more interesting philosophically than the historical contingencies that seem to force them together.
Ludwig Wittgenstein's life and writings attest the extraordinary importance that the art of music had for him. It would be fair to say even that among the great philosophers of the twentieth century he was one of the most musically sensitive. Wittgenstein’s Denkbewegungen contains some of his most unique remarks on music, which bear witness not only to the level of his engagement in thinking about music, but also to the intimate connection in his mind between musical acculturation, the perils of modernity, and the challenge, which was very personal to Wittgenstein, of philosophizing amidst what he believed was a dissolution of the resemblances which unite his culture’s ways of life. In particular, Denkbewegungen contains unique remarks on modern music, the problem of Gustav Mahler’s music, and the music of the future. Also, it contains, among other things, some unusually forward-looking remarks on the differences between Brahms and Bruckner, which both probe deeply into the nature of musical creativity and anticipate his later philosophical move beyond the inner/outer divide in his last writings. I shall offer a close reading of Wittgenstein’s remarks on music in Denkbewegungen, which situates them in the broader context of his philosophical development in his middle-period and beyond. I aim to show the deep integration of Wittgenstein’s thinking about music with his philosophical development, his deep sense of cultural lamentation, and his development as a person and as a philosophical expositor.
In this paper we explain Wittgenstein’s claim in a 1933 lecture that “aesthetics like psychoanalysis doesn’t explain anything away.” The discussions of aesthetics are distinctive: Wittgenstein gives a positive account of the relationship between aesthetics and psychoanalysis, as contrasted with psychology. And we follow not only his distinction between cause and reason, but also between hypothesis and representation, along with his use of the notion of ideals as facilitators of aesthetic discourse. We conclude that aesthetics, like psychoanalysis, preserves the verifying phenomena in their fullness.