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Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) 

From the National Post, January 14, 2008

This year marks the centenary of monosodium glutamate, drip coffee makers, the FBI and — most importantly — atonality as we know it.

In 1908, Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg led the classical tradition away from its audience, changing the world with music not in any key and of no commercial value. He put music before audiences, both literally and figuratively, and in doing so created some of Western culture’s best music while gutting classical’s contemporary significance.

Schoenberg started writing compositions as a child in the 1880s, studying Bach and Mozart passionately. And though none of his family was artistic, his music began demonstrating genius, soon blending the sounds of those romantic antipodes, Brahms and Wagner.

In the late 19th century, European opinion was primarily divided between these two composers. Brahms was a supposed reactionary who nonetheless wrote the first pieces that were completely thematic, wherein every bit of the score was related to the main melody. Wagner’s blatantly progressive, extended tonalities seemed too delicate to support Brahms’ tight melodic weaves.

Nonetheless, Schoenberg put them together in his 1899 Transfigured Night, when he was just 25. It wasn’t merely beautiful, sophisticated music; this half-hour string sextet was wise and heart-wrenching, on par with the best of Mahler or Richard Strauss.

Schoenberg didn’t just want to entertain; he was a culture warrior who said things like, “I have discovered a technique that will guarantee German music’s supremacy for the next thousand years.”

At the turn of the century, most serious artists in Vienna were confronting psychoanalysis by looking inward.

Painters were on the front lines of new ideas back then, and Schoenberg was active in this art as well. He and cutting-edge younger Viennese visual artists like Egon Shiele and Oskar Kokoschka were interested in the bald psychological stresses hinted at on the canvases of Klimt, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Bodies and landscapes could now be legitimately, hideously rendered if the artist was revealing truth, the same way clenched hands betray the lie behind a smile. This style was dubbed expressionism, pulling the romantic pose inside out.

Schoenberg’s view of musical history allowed for a similar inversion. It ran something like this: from Mozart to Mahler, classical music became more and more dissonant, with more chromatic (or “wrong”) notes in it, so that it was more indirect overall with each generation. The handling of chromatic notes was critical to a composer’s unique sound. Schoenberg concluded that since wrong notes were coming more and more into the foreground of compositions, that they were music’s progressive impetus.

But the public was uninterested in difficult music. Schoenberg barely supported his family as a conductor. Critics were childishly toxic, writing clever cruelties like “Transfigured Night sounds similar to Tristan and Isolde if the ink were smeared across Wagner’s score.” By today’s standards, these dissonances are no more offensive than one of Danny Elfman’s soundtracks.

Entire article is here.


The Four Philosophers, 1611-1612 

Reviewed by Stephen Juan in Philosophy Now, January/February 2008

Philosophers may lead us in terms of profound ideas, but their personal lives can be quite another matter entirely. As historian Nigel Rodgers and philosopher Mel Thompson write in their marvelous little book, Philosophers Behaving Badly, “a life of reason does not necessarily lead to a reasonable life.” Their portraits of eight philosophers bring home this point again and again. Although monumental in their insights, these philosophers were screwed up!

When not too self-obsessed, greedy, proud and incredibly lacking in any semblance of a conscience, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) succeeded in setting out principles of society, democracy, education and humanity’s place in nature which greatly helped to form the foundation for intellectual, social and political revolutions in at least three nations. The impact of his ideas upon our world today is enormous. Yet Rousseau treated people terribly – particularly women – even those who showed him kindness for many years, of whom there were several. He dealt with the people closest to him as if their sole reason for existence was to serve him and stroke his massive ego. If alive today, he would come perilously close to being diagnosed as a sociopath.

Rousseau’s life was a disastrous mass of contradictions and inconsistencies. Praising conjugal love, he never properly married, but displayed a callous neglect of Therese, his lifelong partner. Adoring children, he readily abandoned his own. Believing that intellectual hatreds were the worst, he engaged in endless battles of ideas. Deploring the advent of printing, he was a prolific writer. A hater of privilege and wealth, he always relied on the rich and the great for support.

Entire review is here.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

From the Daily Times, January 26, 2008

That the outer man is a picture of the inner, and the face an expression and revelation of the whole character, is a presumption likely enough in itself, and therefore a safe one to go by; evidenced as it is by the fact that people are always anxious to see anyone who has made himself famous by good or evil, or as the author of some extraordinary work; or if they cannot get a sight of him, to hear at any rate from others what he looks like. So people go to places where they may expect to see the person who interests them; the press, especially in England, endeavours to give a minute and striking description of his appearance; painters and engravers lose no time in putting him visibly before us; and finally photography, on that very account of such high value, affords the most complete satisfaction of our curiosity. It is also a fact that in private life everyone criticises the physiognomy of those he comes across, first of all secretly trying to discern their intellectual and moral character from their features. This would be a useless proceeding if, as some foolish people fancy, the exterior of a man is a matter of no account; if, as they think, the soul is one thing and the body another, and the body related to the soul merely as the coat to the man himself.

On the contrary, every human face is a hieroglyphic, and a hieroglyphic, too, which admits of being deciphered, the alphabet of which we carry about with us already perfected. As a matter of fact, the face of a man gives us a fuller and more interesting information than his tongue; for his face is the compendium of all he will ever say, as it is the one record of all his thoughts and endeavours. And, moreover, the tongue tells the thought of one man only, whereas the face expresses a thought of nature itself: so that everyone is worth attentive observation, even though everyone may not be worth talking to. And if every individual is worth observation as a single thought of nature, how much more so is beauty, since it is a higher and more general conception of nature, is, in fact, her thought of a species. This is why beauty is so captivating: it is a fundamental thought of nature: whereas the individual is only a by-thought, a corollary.

In private, people always proceed upon the principle that a man is what he looks; and the principle is a right one, only the difficulty lies in its application. For though the art of applying the principle is partly innate and may be partly gained by experience, no one is a master of it, and even the most experienced is not infallible. But for all that, whatever Figaro may say, it is not the face which deceives; it is we who deceive ourselves in reading in it what is not there.

Entire article is here.

New site – currently under construction – where Wittgenstein scholars and others can share information about conferences, new books, useful websites, or other information and materials relevant for the Wittgenstein research community. In order to post information, visitors must first register as a user.

For questions or comments write to Alois Pichler <> at WAB.

Wittgentein News

John Searle 

From the Times Literary Supplement, January 16, 2008

John Searle
128pp. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. £16.
978 0 231 13752 4

John Searle has been around for a long time. His first significant philosophy paper was published in Mind in 1958. Since then he has produced over a dozen books and about 200 articles. And here he is again, after nearly fifty years, with yet another book displaying his familiar no-nonsense approach to the central problems of philosophy.

As Searle disarmingly explains in his introduction to Freedom and Neurobiology, he produced this latest volume by accident. In 2001, he gave two lectures at the Sorbonne and agreed to their publication in French translation, thinking that they would in due course appear in some little-read journal. He was pleasantly surprised when some time later he received copies of an elegant little volume called Liberté et neurobiologie. Translations into German, Spanish, Italian and Chinese quickly followed, by which point it seemed silly not to have an English version.

Entire article here.

The following is excerpted from the British Library here 

By the early 1950s Lutyens’s hectic professional life, her frequent periods of separation from Edward, and the constant guilt and concern about her children, all took their toll. She had fallen into the habit of drinking to cope with her difficulties, and by this time was an alcoholic and on the point of a full nervous breakdown. After successful medical treatment in 1952 she underwent a complete re-evaluation of her work and gave up drinking altogether for several decades.

String Quartet no.6, op. 25, Elisabeth Lutyens, 1952

A vital breakthrough came with her Sixth String Quartet, op. 25, in 1952. The composition of the quartet was intimately connected to a conversation Lutyens had had with her friend, the artist Francis Bacon. Bacon told Lutyens that he always painted very quickly and very instinctively when he wanted to create something which would have a violent impact on the nerves. Excited by this description, she wrote her quartet in one twelve-hour sitting, totally immersed in the task at hand. The result is a concise work of great power, one which exhibits a degree of clarity and rhythmic freedom which had not really been attained in previous quartets. As she stated, ‘with this work I at last began to find my own style.’

The Quartet was followed by one of her most remarkable and best known works, her Motet op. 27 (1953) for unaccompanied chorus with words taken from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The piece was written in response to a commission from William Glock. He later applauded the Motet for having achieved an ideal balance ‘between its impersonal aspect and its illustrative aspect,’ and memorably described the music as being ‘a kind of geometry answering to Wittgenstein’s philosophical thought.’ (Glock, ‘A Tribute to Elisabeth Lutyens,’ script of BBC Radio 3 broadcast of 15 December 1983, British Library, Add. 71114, f. 220).

Tone rows for ‘Wittgenstein’ Motet, Elisabeth Lutyens, 1953

44. It is often said that for a marriage to work, husband and wife must share more in common than mere species membership. Now, if you and I share the same environment day in, day out, it helps tremendously if in our spontaneous behavior we think and act alike. Because the truth of the matter is this: marriage is hard enough as it is, and seldom fares well when through lack of spontaneity from the domestic level on up, every little thought and deed needs to be explained and accounted for. That is a dreadful burden! Spontaneously from the bottom-up; or – bottoms-up!


From the New York Times by Perry Meisel

When the wealthy and cultivated young Ludwig Wittgenstein burst upon the hermetic world of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore at Cambridge in 1912, three lives were changed forever. The Viennese Wittgenstein struck even Russell as perhaps more than his match. The unflappable Moore shared in a fierce but collegial relation that survived two world wars. As a combatant in the Austrian Army late in World War I, Wittgenstein completed the only book he saw fit to publish during his lifetime, ”Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (1921). Returning to Cambridge in 1929, he began to question his own assumption in the ”Tractatus” that the study of language could yield systematic rules, preferring instead to delight in the indeterminacies of linguistic reference, and composing, among other works, ”Philosophical Investigations,” published in 1953, two years after his death.

So alluring is Wittgenstein’s appeal that it has stirred Bruce Duffy, a writer who lives in suburban Washington, to produce a historical novel centered on Wittgenstein and his English friends. Its sweeping arrangement of fact and fancy is vivid, passionate and funny. Mr. Duffy adheres faithfully enough to the outlines of Wittgenstein’s life as we know them (a full-scale biography has yet to be completed), although his book is really an accomplished orchestration of the spheres of Russell’s urbanity, Moore’s domesticity and Wittgenstein’s wanderlust that is organized around three key points in Wittgenstein’s experience -his first years at Cambridge, his service in World War I and his return to England.

Mr. Duffy intersperses his absorbing narrative with deft flashbacks that fill in the pasts of all three men (the death of Wittgenstein’s father in Vienna is probably the novel’s most extraordinary sequence). He writes with great wisdom about love, work and fame, painting raucously humorous and uncommonly moving portraits of his three principals. Russell stews deliciously in his inwardness; Moore gobbles his meals at high table at Trinity with such methodical relish that his philosophical hedonism is explained more convincingly than it is in most academic accounts.

The rendering of Wittgenstein is more dramatic and less naturally inward, testimony to his daunting intractability as both a man and a thinker. Wittgenstein’s melancholy narcissism was so profound that it frequently turned into its opposite – the feeling that he hardly existed at all. In reply to a friend’s request to take his photograph, Wittgenstein remarks: ”You may develop your film & find no image whatsoever.”

The novel’s title comes from a passage in the ”Tractatus” (”If I wrote a book called The World As I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body”) that concludes with the difficult statement that such a book would be ”a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject.” Mr. Duffy exemplifies Wittgenstein’s point both by apprehending him within a matrix of social contexts, and by dramatizing the elusiveness of subjectivity in the dream of a world he fashions with a prose that aspires to a combination of visionary expansiveness and postmodern terseness.

There are, to be sure, a few hitches. Bertrand Russell did not, pace Mr. Duffy, split infinitives. Nor did Lytton Strachey have a booming voice – it squeaked. There are also some lapses into melodrama – a visit to a Yiddish theater in Vienna, a family friend-turned-Nazi and Wittgenstein’s painful acknowledgment of his Jewish roots at the onset of World War II. Such moments aside, Mr. Duffy’s is an achievement in both fiction and historiography which deepens Wittgenstein’s mythology and should attract a wider audience to it.


An essay adapted from the chapter in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia on Wittgenstein is here.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000)

Here is a delightful morsel from Willard van Orman Quine (Word and Object, 1960): given all available material evidence, it is impossible to determine which one of mutually incompatible translations of a text is the correct one. While what is really best in any book is always translatable, the hard truth is that translation is the art of failure. It is not merely poetry that is lost in translation: linguistic meaning too is only ever an echo. 

Let’s rework Quine in this way: given all available material evidence, it is impossible to determine which one performance of a music score is the correct one. Is it always thus? What is our attitude to the various performances of a score, say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Do we prefer a performance of it by one orchestra over another? Yes, typically we do. We all have our favorite music recordings. We prefer one performance over another by the same orchestra on different occasions, or by the same orchestra but with a different conductor, concertmaster, principal trombone, etc. etc, and so on. And this only for classical music in our western society.

In all such cases, do we contrast performances only in terms of correctness? But, what is the standard of comparison here? Well, one might rank one performance higher than another in terms of fidelity to the score. For example, the Klemperer recording of the Ninth (1957) is highly regarded for the self-control with which the conductor Otto Klemperer observes the tempo marking ‘Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso’ in the first movement. We could explain our preference for this recording of the Ninth by citing that as the reason. Suppose we say this. It is conceivable that, in this case, the Klemperer recording of the first movement is correct (to the score). One would need a trained ear to make this sort of judgement. Nonetheless, we could, if so inclined, rank one recording of the Ninth higher than another of the same piece using the score as the standard. But imagine a case in which musical appreciation consisted only in such judgements!

Surely, talk of correctness fails to exhaust all that might be said of the ‘meaning’ of the piece. We may judge a piece of music to be ‘correct’, and other performances of it as ‘incorrect’ – though it is strange to say this – but such talk is within the ambit of our larger attitude which regards a performance of music, especially in the classical tradition, always as interpretation. We speak of ‘correct music’ without thereby meaning that it is not an interpretation. Provision is made for this. Only a philosopher would say otherwise. And we remind ourselves here that music is interpretation in the case when one wishes to make judgements of correctness the sole criterion of musical appreciation. Again: nothing is lost to the other who disregards Klemperer’s Ninth in the face of one who thinks it correct.

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