Music, Philosophy, Modernity

Review of Music, Philosophy, and Modernity by Andrew Bowie. Cambridge U.P. 2007 . pp. 428 .£55.00 (hbk).

Music has long puzzled philosophers. According to Andrew Bowie, the puzzle relates
to some of philosophy’s weightiest and most valuable considerations, from the concept of truth to the phenomenon of human value. It is these considerations, seen under the intellectual light that music sheds on them, that are his chief subject in Music, Philosophy, and Modernity.

As Bowie makes clear, however, the value that the consideration of music brings to philosophy lies not primarily in any attempt to solve music’s ‘problem’ , but in the effort to return the puzzlement with which musical significance manifests itself in the mind to the spirit of philosophy. Regarding the philosophy of music, ‘not as the philosophy whose job is conceptually to determine the object “music” , but rather as the philosophy that emerges from music’ (p. 11), Bowie argues that we should take our philosophical cue from the fact that we do experience music as significant and expressive, and not from its failure to conform to models of signification and emotional expression the precise nature of which is in any case seldom the object of
general agreement. As Bowie puts it, ‘[m]usic’s meaning might lie precisely in the fact that we cannot say in words what it means – why does music exist at all if what it “says” could be said just as well in other ways? ’ (p. 3).

In many respects, the fact that these are the guiding sentiments and motivations of a philosophical history of music and modernity or more properly, a musical history of philosophical modernity is, as they say, ‘music to the ears'. For it is certainly the case that much philosophy of music, at least from a musicologist’s perspective, could benefi t from listening more closely. None the less, there will be many, not least among the readership of this journal, in whom the attempt to philosophize
from such a position will arouse deep and uncomfortable suspicions of obfuscation, even defeatism. It should therefore be stated with due prominence that the greater part of the philosophical content of Bowie’s book is of genuine import, and his conclusions well deserve being weighed seriously by those whose conception of musical philosophy is more orthodox....

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