Musical thinking? Philosophical song? One.

A letter to C.

As you responded to various questions about Kierkegaard at your dissertation defense, I remember silently grasping for ways to characterize your way of thinking about the issues you cared about. Not all philosophical minds work alike. This was evident as the questioning proceeded. Your topic was not easy: how to understand the mix of joy and suffering, of fear and delight, in Kierkegaard’s religious discourses. I think I sensed in your writing and responding – especially as I heard others respond — a fluid, musical, unfrozen kind of thinking. You and I revel in something unusual in Kierkegaard’s writing – not just content, but a manner of thinking.

I sense a fluid, musical, unfrozen way of thinking. But what’s that? Well, think of the opposite. Some philosophical minds work to dispel all ambiguity, to establish hard and fast categories that stay still, to get arguments and analyses that are air-tight. That’s admirable enough, but it’s not adequate, in my view, to get at some important aspects of reality.

Aquinas or Aristotle seek categories or conclusions that will endure like blocks of unmelting ice or cut diamonds. A musical thought lets categories or conclusions remain somewhat fluid, perhaps suggestive and ephemeral rather rock-hard for all time. It lets categories, steps in thought, and conclusions behave like tones that have overtones, that shift, that appear and disappear, and evoke a response as we listen other than “that follows” or a detached “I get it.” The response evoked can include both a joy in unfolding thought and a sadness of loss as the thought slips away — every tone dies. The very process of thinking has it’s musical ups and downs that make it anything but the application of a mechanical strategy or method. If we are to follow what Kierkegaard has to say – or anyone has to say about complex, elusive issues like the co-presence of joy and suffering in experience – we need a way of writing that preserves that openness to mobility and multiple resonances.

As you wrote and spoke I admired the manner in which you relayed and replicated mobile conceptual shifts in Kierkegaard — as if the final word were not exactly final but instead a musical word, a tone that enters and leaves, that exists against the memory of other tones and overtones. It’s as if that rhythm of shifting and mobility of thought is the final fact of the matter we come to live with – perhaps that we are blessed to live with. It’s the opposite of thinking that there is a hidden architectonic built for the ages in Kierkegaard’s thinking, and that it’s our job to unveil it – or unmask its pretense, showing its vanity, showing that all we have (“aren’t I smart!“) is confusion and ruble.

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One comment on “Musical thinking? Philosophical song? One.

  1. Beautiful! And such a challenge. Even as we seek with our writing and thinking to find order in what can feel like (and might be) chaos, there is the danger of converting our anxiety into rigid systems of thought. A danger all the greater because of the academy’s attachment to rigid systems. There would seem to be much promise in this idea of philosophy as music, and I would love to hear more (from you, your student or others). Of course Wittgenstein and others have suggested that philosophy could be poetry (which I take to be NOT the same as music), and your comment “Not all philosophical minds work alike” for some reason reminded me of Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Best, Wm. Eaton

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