Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What is music?

Yesterday I had a session with two fifth grade classes (about 40 or so students), in which a local pianist/composer came in and performed John Cage's 4' 33" to inspire a conversation about the nature of music and art. In each of these classes, I had facilitated a session within the last couple of weeks in which we talked about the nature of art, including questions about whether art must always express emotion, how we know what emotion art expresses and whether that emotion is in the work itself, in the artist, and/or in us, and what makes something a work of art.

“Can art be emotionless?” one student asked in one of the classes. All of the students who responded wanted to claim that art must express emotion.

“All art expresses some emotion,” one student argued, “even if it’s just boredom.”

“But how do we know what emotion art is expressing?” another student asked. “It could be that we see a painting and think it’s sad, but really the artist and the person in the painting were happy.”

Several students maintained that expression, color, a subject’s body language, etc. all suggest certain emotions. Some of us might see the painting as expressing an emotion that is different from the one the artist intended, which led some students to assert that really the emotion is in us, and not in the art.

“Art just triggers emotion,” one student declared, “but the emotion it triggers is in us and not in the art.”

This led us to a discussion about what makes something art. I wadded up a piece of paper and threw it onto a table. “What if I said this was a new work of art I’d just created?”

“Well,” one student responded, “that could be art if you were intending to express something.”

“Okay,” I answered, “so if I said this was my expression of how pointless life seemed, that would make this crumpled-up paper art?”

“Yes,” another student put in. “If you intended to express that, it could be art. But if I was doing my homework and crumpled up the paper I was working on because it was wrong and planned to throw it in the garbage, that wouldn’t be art.”

“So can anything be art?” I asked.

In both classes, most students seemed to think that yes, anything can be art, though some of it is “bad art.” What really matters, most suggested, is the intention of the artist.

When we came into the band room for the performance of John Cage’s piece, the students were, of course, expecting to hear a performance of a traditional music piece. They were, just as students with whom I did this last year were, completely respectful and quiet during the performance of the piece. When it ended, they applauded, and when I asked them what they had experienced, the students observed that the effect of the piece was very relaxing and peaceful. One student commented that they had all been kind of “noisy and jittery” when we all came into the room, and noted how calm and quiet the room had become. Others commented on the way that the piece had allowed them to listen to all the sounds in the room in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. We talked about Cage’s intention that the piece be a “listening experience.” Is 4’ 33” music?

Some of the ideas that came out of this conversation included the claim that for something to be music, there must be a listener, that even one note can be music, and that silence can be a kind of music. We referred back to our earlier conversation about the centrality of the artist’s intention. Cage’s intention in creating 4’ 33”, to generate in listeners a greater openness to listening to all the sounds in the world, was decisive for most students in their conclusion that the piece counts as music. I wonder if this discussion leads the students to notice more the sounds in their lives, and to explore whether all or some of these sounds are music and what makes them so.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs--
He, she, all of them--yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face....
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss--
Elders and juniors--aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white stormbirds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all--
Men and maidens--yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee....
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them--aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

-- Thomas Hardy

November Birthdays

Thursday, November 19, 2009

World Philosophy Day

Introduced in 2002, World Philosophy Day, the third Thursday of November each year, is a celebration of philosophy that seeks to bring philosophy into the lives of people everywhere. The day is an initiative by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) that honors philosophical reflection internationally by bringing together people from around the world to explore a wide variety of issues.

This year the global celebration is taking place in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The theme is “Philosophy in the Dialogue of Cultures,” and the day is devoted to exploring issues related to dialogue between cultures. Many countries around the world actively promote and are engaged in this worldwide observance. World Philosophy Day is a recognition of the role of philosophy in establishing the conceptual foundation for the principles of justice, democracy, human rights and equality. People all around the world are encouraged to engage in philosophical reflection and dialogue. What a great day!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Women in Philosophy

There has been an ongoing discussion on the Leiter Reports blog about the under-representation of women in academic philosophy. The speculations about the reasons for the dearth of female philosophers include the following possibilities: (1) that the way in which philosophers talk about our profession (using language about arguments, defending our positions, attacking our opponents’ assumptions, etc.) puts off women who tend to be less aggressive and competitive; (2) the perceived impracticability of philosophy and the lack of a clear path to a non-academic job; (3) the lack of female role models; and (4) the lack of a serious effort by the profession to reach out to women.

It continues to puzzle me why more women don’t study philosophy, though I tend to believe that the final two reasons above offer far more promising explanations than the first two. I’ve been thinking, though, about my own experience teaching pre-college students. Over the past ten years I’ve probably had a dozen or so experiences in which a student (anywhere from age 10-17) has told me, “I think I’d like to be a philosopher when I grow up.” And they have all, 100% of them, been girls. I’m not sure what that experience adds to this discussion, but it does at least give some weight to the idea that female role models make a difference.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listening to Our Children

Somewhat frequently I receive email messages or other communications from parents asking me about how to introduce philosophy into their conversations with their children. The main advice I give people is to listen for the philosophical questions kids ask. I don't believe that bringing philosophical dialogue into your relationships with your children is about teaching them philosophy and looking for opportunities to do so (as we do with, say, teaching kids to read or learn math facts). It is really much more about listening and developing an ear for recognizing kids' philosophical questions.

As parents, we are often quick to answer our kids' questions. (That's a big part of the job of parenting, after all!) And I think that really that’s the most significant impediment to talking about philosophy with our children. Parents are often uncomfortable having conversations with our kids in which we don’t have the answers, and not very skilled at picking up on those questions for which an answer from us is not really what is sought.

You don’t need to have taken any philosophy classes to start these conversations with your children. We all have philosophical questions. Who am I? Why is there something rather than nothing? What does it mean to live a good life? Why am I alive? What is time? And kids have these questions too. In my experience, when you open the door to a discussion about questions like this with your child, he will be eager to explore them with you.

Your child might ask, for example, “Why are people so mean?” Instead of talking about the reasons you think people can be mean, whatever they are, you might instead respond by saying, “What were you thinking about when you asked that?” or “Why do you think people are mean?” or “Do you think some people are mean people, or do they just do mean things? Why?” Now it might be that in this case, what your child really does want is an explanation from you about why some of the kids at school are picking on her. But maybe not.

Being open to picking up on when a question might be philosophical creates the possibility of talking about these larger, fundamental questions. It can add a new dimension to your relationship with your child to examine together questions for which neither of you have the answers, questions that continue to be profoundly mysterious. In these kinds of conversations you can inquire together in a way that allows for a kind of equal give-and-take that is not present in most aspects of the parent-child relationship, deepening your relationships with your children. I have found that years of these kinds of discussions with my own children, now all teenagers, have really helped to develop a strong foundation for what these days are often more personally challenging conversations.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dreams and sleep

This week the fifth grade students and I talked about dreams and sleep and the mysterious world of non-waking life. Our conversation, excerpted below, ranged from an exploration of dreams and nightmares and why they occur the way they do, to wondering about whether all of life is a dream or illusory in some way. We started by talking about the ways in which sleeping is different from being awake.

One student suggested that perhaps sleep is closer to death than being awake.

“Well,” another student responded, “I think that sleeping is more like unconsciousness than death. Sleeping is really not close to death. I mean, you have to sleep to live. If you don’t sleep, then you will be dead.”

“When you’re sleeping you dream, and when you’re unconscious you dream, but when you die you don’t dream,” offered a third student.

“How do we know that?” asked another. “Nobody knows unless they’re dead whether dead people dream or not. No one comes back after they’re dead and tells us that they dream or they don’t.”

“Whenever I have dreams,” one girl described, “my parents ask me what happened. They tell me that when you dream, your subconscious mind is telling you things that when you’re awake you don’t consider. I don’t think that when you sleep you’re close to being dead. Sleep is part of being alive.”

“I think that a part of your mind takes notes on everything you do, and these come out in your dreams. Dreams get you to deal with things in your life that maybe you are trying not to deal with.”

“So then you have to be thinking when you dream because your mind is working. Without thinking there would be no dreams,” declared a student.

We talked about whether the mind stops working at death, and whether you can ever stop your mind from working when you’re alive. We discussed why we dream, and why some dreams are nightmares, and whether we can ever control our dreams.

“I have a dream about Voldemort from Harry Potter,” one student said. “He’s wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and he rides a bike. He tries to get into our house. He climbs up the outside of the house and starts slamming on the doors, trying to find a way in. I’ve had this dream a few times. It scares me.”

“You can think about things during the day and keep yourself from dreaming about them at night,” suggested another student.

“I wonder if we are really a dream right now,” a boy asked.

“Sometimes,” a girl responded, “I think that maybe we’re all dolls being played with, like my sister playing with dolls. Like maybe there are people much bigger than us just playing with us, like we’re their dolls.”