Theodor W. Adorno, “The Relationship Of Philosophy And Music”

For . . . pragmatists, . . . the object of inquiry is “constituted” by inquiry only in the following sense: we shall answer the questions “What are you talking about?” and “What is it that you want to find out about?” by listing some of the more important beliefs which we hold at the current stage of inquiry, and saying that we are talking about whatever these beliefs are true of. – Richard Rorty, “Inquiry as Recontextualization” in Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p.96

But if someone, instead, is of a mind to force music’s secret directly and immediately, with the magic want of primal words, he is left only with empty hands, tautologies, and sentences that, at best, provide formal constituents – if music even has something like a formal a priori .  But the very essence of music will have vanished, usurped by the disposition of language and the concern about its supposed origins. – Theodor W. Adorno, “The Relationship Of Philosophy And Music”, in Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p.141

Whenever I see a title such as the title of this essay, I get a rash.  The idea that any human activity is in need of justification via an act of cognition that sets for the conditions for its proper form and function is not just hubris; it is ridiculous on its face.  To take the current example, music is a nearly universal human activity, done in order to perform all sorts of social functions.  “Why” that is so, “what” the music is and is not saying, “how” it says or doesn’t say it – these are matters that can and must only come after the musical act has occurred.  In this, at least, Adorno is consistent.  More to the point, writing in 1953, half a century after the introduction of what Adorno continues to call “the new music”, relying for his musical texts on Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg (a short snippet of whose opera, Wozzeck, appears at the top), as if by 1953 many of the questions posed by the atonal, 12-tone, and serial compositions had not already been answered, and new musical forms, from music concrete, the first stirrings of electronica, and the rise of the real avante garde from Edgar Varese to John Cage offering not only new musical questions, but even inquiring in to the very nature of what constitutes “music”, were not occurring.  To this extent, then, Adorno is a bit like a music critic complaining that Ray Charles and Elvis Presley created a new emotional pallet for music, while America listens to Jay Z, Ed Sheeran, and Nikki Minaj.

In fact, most of the essay, after a preliminary apologia for a philosophical inquiry in to music as a function of the philosophical examination of social phenomena in general, turns to a far more analytic focus works by Schoeberg.  For Adorno, it is precisely analysis – even more than interpretation – that provides the key for proper philosophical inquiry.  Analysis consists of an inquiry in to the structure of a piece, from individual notes and phrases up through and including the piece as a whole and how it fits in the larger social relationships it confronts, mirrors, or contradicts.  Yet, we are treading old ground; this is the position Adorno has maintained now for a quarter century, examining the same pieces over and over, insisting they offer far more to the listener precisely because they are so demanding, not the least intellectually.

Personally, I find it kind of silly to create an argument for the philosophical justification of any human activity.  Human activities justify themselves through their continued practice and common, social acceptance they serve particular functions.  Philosophy does indeed have a role to play, as it is no less a human activity with a particular purpose.  That purpose, however, is no longer the justification of other human activities, a court that judges what is and is not proper in any particular human activity.  Making philosophy step down from the judge’s seat, offering the possibility there are more profitable, more interesting questions to ask without once worrying whether or not the activity under examination is functioning properly is a good thing.  In one sense, much of Adorno’s piece does just that, focusing , with laser-like precision on particular instances in music that offer evidence for his insistence on the negative dialectical nature of the best music.  On the other hand, to insist that it is only through philosophy that this is possible is kind of silly.  Even a casual listener can come to the conclusion that works by the early creators and masters of 12-tone and serial music offer the listener more possibilities than can be gathered in a single hearing.

As I do not believe it necessary to defend music, to defend philosophy, to defend the philosophical examination of music – as long as the philosopher in question doesn’t get too caught up in the thought that she has some key to the kingdom of music, some Rosetta Stone that will unlock the secrets of the language-like nature of music – an essay such as this is more historical curiosity than anything, not least because Adorno’s prose is at its densest, most difficult best throughout, making great pains to indicate that both philosophy and music both are and are not secularized religious activities, stripped of their transcendent objects, yet propelled toward transcendence by the nature both of music and philosophy.  Which is why the analytic turn is important for Adorno, keeping him grounded in actual works, how those works are structured, and how they relate internally as wholes, and as wholes relating to the larger world.

There is much to be gained from moving through Adorno’s musical essays.  Reading another apologia for the act of philosophizing, however, becomes an odd spiral, both inward and outward, landing the reader back at the beginning without having gained much more insight than, “Just because.”