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The following Précis, which I wrote for a Philosophy class at The University of Maryland, College Park, discusses the very special regard in which music is held by Arthur Schopenhauer, the last of the great German idealist philosophers. As you will read below, Schopenhauer believed that while all art was useful in understanding the nature of existence, music stands apart from the other arts in its ability to render philosophical insight:


Arthur Schopenhauer discusses several forms of art and design in the sections of The World as Will and Representation* leading up to §52, on music. Architecture, painting, sculpture, and poetry, Schopenhauer contends, are expressive forms that "objectify the will only indirectly, in other words, by means of the Ideas" (§52, p.257). But music, Schopenhauer argues, is a different kind of art form. Music is "independent of the phenomenal world."

I will discuss Schopenhauer’s precise meaning to this end through consideration of the following passage:

To stimulate the knowledge of these Ideas by depicting individual things (for works of art are themselves always such) is the aim of all the other non-musical arts . . . [but] music, since it passes over the Ideas, is . . . quite independent of the phenomenal world, positively ignores it, and, to a certain extent, could still exist even if there were no world at all, which cannot be said of the other arts (Ibid).

Schopenhauer’s meaning in saying that music could "exist even if there were no world at all" is that music does not deal in material referents. There are (generally speaking) no things in the material world against which a musical piece could be validated to render it coherent. Whereas a sculpture is modeled after some real-world object without which it would not 'make sense'; and a building is composed of material things whose structure is governed by immutable laws of physics which must be heeded for a building to even exist; and poetry is composed of words invoking in the minds of its listener specific things (even if abstract things); music has no such real-world component. Certainly music is produced by physical objects, but that's irrelevant because the music itself does not explicitly refer to anything physical, as do prose, poetry, and sculpture. So, Schopenhauer is claiming that music would 'make sense' even if all that existed in the universe were that music itself. Music needs no specific, referent 'thing', (although it can be inspired by things).

I have stumbled upon this point before in my philosophy studies. Monroe Beardsley in his 1970 Authority of the Text advances 'Textualism' as a means to art interpretation. In Textualism, the meaning of an artwork is embedded in the literal meaning of the artwork itself—-"the meanings of the words in their order", as Beardsley puts it—-irrespective of the artist’s intentions. In a paper critical of Textualism, I argued that the practical value of Textualism is lost in the realm of music, because even if we attempt liberally to apply Textualism to music, it fails to render insight. What is the 'meaning' of 'B-flat'? What is the 'meaning' of an A-minor chord followed by a G-major chord? Schopenhauer, I think, would agree with my criticism, perhaps pointing out that the notes in a musical piece are not the equivalent of words in a poem, because words refer explicitly to things and notes (or chords, phrases, even entire musical pieces) do not. Schopenhauer says that poems (and all non-musical arts) express the Ideas indirectly, with reference to the phenomenal world, but music bypasses the phenomenal world altogether, expressing something closer to what Schopenhauer (and Kant even before), would call, "the Thing In Itself".

There is a problem with this thinking, though. Schopenhauer is too quick to dismiss the non-musical arts as potential arenas for straightforward manifestation of the Will’s essence. That is, there are other arts besides music which could be argued to express the Ideas without reference to things. Take, for example, the abstract painting Improvisation 28 by Wassily Kandinsky, a painter and musician. There are no 'things' in this painting, though there are a few ambiguous forms that might invoke things in one’s mind, just as music might. Even poetry provides further examples of art without reference to things. Consider, from the famous Lewis Carroll poem, Jabberwocky:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe
Jabberwocky is full of nonsensical words and yet, it communicates a certain feeling nonetheless. Just as lyricless music and abstract painting bypass the phenomenal world’s ‘things’ to communicate the Ideas, so too can poetry.

So, it is not necessarily the aim of all non-musical arts to depict specific things. But perhaps Schopenhauer’s statement about music can be recast in a way that shows that music is in fact different than the other arts. Instrumental (lyricless) music is, after all, the one art form that must, necessarily manifest without making explicit reference to the phenomenal world. Hard as a musical composer might try, he cannot write a piece of instrumental music that expresses, say, a soldier’s triumph at winning a specific battle in the War of 1812. The music itself cannot specify the phenomenal world’s occasion for this feeling of triumph. Music can express triumph, sure! But triumph is an Idea. Triumph in one battle is musically expressed the same way that triumph in any other battle would be. In music, the phenomenal world—-the specific 'thing'—-doesn't matter. The Ideas matter. And while other forms of art can, as I have shown, express the Ideas without depicting 'things', instrumental music is the one art form has no choice but to do so.


*The title was once more popularly translated instead as The World as Will and Idea.

Edition used is translated from the German by E.F.J. Payne and published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York.

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