- Wittgenstein as Philosophical Tone-Poet: Philosophy and Music in Dialogue by Béla Szabados
Béla Szabados’s book promises to give “the first in-depth exploration of the importance of music for Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life and work.” This is an important task, though not as unexplored as the book’s somewhat limited bibliography suggests. As correctly stated on the back cover, Wittgenstein’s remarks on music are essential for understanding his philosophy. However, while evoking a great majority of his remarks on music, this book does not really address Wittgenstein’s specifically philosophical concerns. What are typically seen as key arguments of Wittgenstein’s work—for example, his early “picture theory of meaning” or his later “private language argument”—are merely mentioned and not explained in light of Wittgenstein’s remarks on music. Instead, the goals of the book lie elsewhere. The great bulk of the book is dedicated to arguing against the reading of Wittgenstein as a “lifelong musical formalist.” However, unlike Szabados’s 2006 article on the same topic, the book does not cite its sources here. Szabados also evokes affinities between Wittgenstein and Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Cage. For example, Wagner is claimed to be the source of Wittgenstein’s notions of “unspeakable content,” and Mahler to be an older brother to Wittgenstein with whom he identified and shared a cultural ideal. While interesting, these conclusions are unexpected, at least for those who are familiar with Wittgenstein’s remarks on Wagner as a bourgeois composer, on Mahler’s music as “worthless,” and on music as “coming to a full stop with Brahms,” long before Schoenberg’s abandonment of traditional tonality or the musical experiments of Cage.
According to Szabados, the early Wittgenstein may have been a formalist, given that logical form must be “dug out from the surface grammar of language and that the structure of the compositions has to be unearthed from the morass of feelings.” By contrast, the later Wittgenstein [End Page 560] abandons the Tractarian “transcendent” perspective, focusing on music in interaction with the “immanent,” historically and culturally varying forms of life instead. Setting aside the fact that “transcendence” (by contrast to “transcendental”) does not occur in Wittgenstein’s early work, Szabados’s portrayal of formalism is not fair to Eduard Hanslick’s text. Hanslick, the main proponent of musical formalism, explicitly denies the transcendent perspective, writing that “our view is to the prevailing view as the notion of immanence is to that of transcendence.” According to Hanslick, musical aesthetics should start from the concrete reality of tonally moving forms, not from a “metaphysical concept of beauty” designed for the sake of “system-building.” Moreover, in contrast to what Szabados claims, Hanslick’s phrase “the musically beautiful” does not refer to a “single property in the music that corresponds to its correct application” but is used as an equivalent for the specifically musical. Nor does Hanslick deny the possibility of musical imitation or reference, only its aesthetic relevance. Finally, Hanslick does not try to “capture musical meaning via formulating or following explicit rules” but grants that describing music in such terms makes “a skeleton out of a flourishing organism.”
Szabados admits that Hanslick and the later Wittgenstein are in agreement in their rejection of causal theories of musical meaning. However, by contrast to the formalist emphasis on the disinterestedness of aesthetic perception, Wittgenstein “encourages emotional and personal involvement” in our musical experiences and stresses the “cultural resonances in a work of art.” True, Wittgenstein connects the understanding of music to the understanding of an entire culture. But, again, the implicit charge on formalism of such a dissociation of music from its historical context seems to be more based on a negative preconception of formalism than on a careful reading of Hanslick, who characterizes melody and harmony as historically developing “creations of the human spirit” and argues only against the reduction of musical aesthetics to art history. In short, if Szabados’s portrayal of formalism were correct, Wittgenstein would do well to stay clear of such a view. But...