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self-consciousness, aesthetics, music

Interview by Richard Marshall.


A.J. Hamilton is the jazzy funkster philosopher who riffs over a range of themes. He thinks about self consciousness, phenomenology, Gareth Evan’s account, Wittgenstein’s, philosophical aesthetics, Kant and Adorno, music as an art, the role of the public intellectual and the demise of expensive investigative journalism. This is a cool hand…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Andy Hamilton: At school I took Politics A level which covered political philosophy – Marx, Mill and Rousseau. But I wanted to study English Literature at university, and only transferred to philosophy after my first year at St Andrews. Much later I discovered aesthetics, which combines philosophy and the arts, which I guess is my true métier. I never thought I would get an academic job up until the point I actually got one. During my first PhD year, at the time of the Thatcher cuts, there was only one job for philosophy advertised in the UK. I thought of continuing as a piano teacher and music writer, which I’d done part time. Then I was fortunate to get a research post at Sheffield.

But maybe you wanted a more philosophical answer! I’m not sure I am “a philosopher” actually. I teach philosophy, certainly. But many, maybe most, academics are hacks, to use Lee Konitz’s term – journeymen and women of no marked originality. That’s inevitable. I favoured Philosophy as an academic career, over for instance History, which I might also have considered – because I was worried about how one’s research might be undermined by a simple empirical error. (I later discovered that was as unlikely to happen in History, as it was in Philosophy.) I appreciated not having the huge reading lists that History advocated. Philosophy involves reading relatively small amounts of material, with great intensity. That seemed to suit me. I remember finding Philosophy of Religion disappointing as an undergraduate, because it didn’t answer the Big Questions I thought it would. I guess after that, I gradually realised that progress in Philosophy would only ever be incremental.


3:AM: You’ve written about self consciousness and personal identity in terms of Analytic and Phenomenological approaches to self-consciousness. Can you say a little about what you take Analytic and Phenomenological to mean in this context and say how this veers away from other accounts?

AH: Well, to be honest, my account of self-consciousness owes more to Analytic than to Phenomenological traditions. But the vital thing derived from the latter is the importance, indeed centrality, of bodily self-awareness in self-consciousness. Bodily self-awareness is what physiologists call “proprioception” – one’s immediate awareness of bodily position, posture and movement. It means I don’t need to look and observe where my limbs are, or whether I’m sitting down; I “just know”. Without it, for instance, we would keep falling over, or rather, find it impossible to move in the first place – as do those unfortunate sufferers from “proprio-blindness”.

But there is no reason in principle why an Analytic account cannot accommodate this faculty of proprioception, and Anglophone philosophers – following the example of Gareth Evans – are increasingly doing so; it is just that those who have written most insightfully on it have tended to be in the Phenomenological tradition.

In fact, I’d add, on the question of Analytic versus Continental, of which Phenomenology is one strand: the distinction is increasingly outdated and was always inadequate. Anyone who cannot see something of value in both traditions must be pretty narrow-minded. As Mao said – even if he didn’t mean it – “Let a hundred flowers bloom”!

3:AM: Was the late Gareth Evans an important influence on your approach?

AH: Gareth Evans produced what still seems to me to be the most profound account of self-consciousness in the recent literature, the chapter on it in in his posthumous book The Varieties of Reference. When that book appeared in 1982, it provided an account of “I” that was diametrically opposed to Anscombe’s in “The First Person“, which had been exercising my attention (and a lot of other people’s of course). Anscombe argued, apparently following Wittgenstein – though the evidence is unclear – that “I” is not a genuine referring term. Evans regarded this as an “extraordinary” conclusion, but took her arguments seriously and attempted to undermine them. Though it’s only recently been pointed out to me, by my PhD student Peter Cheyne, I can see that from an early point, I was always keen to construct a dialectic between opposed positions. It was an approach encouraged by my supervisor Crispin Wright, and I benefitted immensely from frequent discussions with him.

Maybe the dialectical approach is not so unusual, but I do stress it to an unusual degree. Perhaps my interest in it goes back to studying the account of free speech in Mill’s “On Liberty” – which itself seems to have been influenced by Coleridge’s concern with polarities. It is, I believe, essential to philosophy, which is a method of critical thinking that flourishes in, and is presupposed by, a liberal society.

3:AM: Before saying how you use Wittgensteinian approaches to self and self identity could you sketch out what you take Wittgenstein’s approach to be and how it differs from other approaches?

AH: His account is notable for denying that in central kinds of use, “I” is a genuine referring expression. These are the uses that I call – following Gareth Evans and others – “immune to error through misidentification”. They are cases such as avowals of sensation, belief, and so on, where I cannot be mistaken about who is in pain, or who believes something; but they extend further than avowals, to memory, and to bodily awareness and non-mental states. The latter is what Wittgenstein stressed, though he wouldn’t appreciate the language in which I’ve expressed the point, perhaps. (Anscombe seemed to think that he regarded “I” as never genuinely referring, but I think this is probably a mistake.)

3:AM: You apply Wittgenstein’s insights into self and self-identity to the epistemology of memory and bodily awareness don’t you? How does this work?

AH: I stress that although memory and bodily awareness seem to relate to different kinds of self-ascription, they can both be regarded as genuinely self-conscious in giving rise to this phenomenon of being “immune to error through misidentification”. You are right that this is an epistemological feature – it relates to what one knows, and how one gains the knowledge, viz. through fully self-conscious ways of knowing. However, I do worry that this account is insufficiently Wittgensteinian and therapeutic; it is misleading, really, to describe Wittgenstein as having an account of “the self”. His non-referential account of “I” is meant to deny that there is any such entity. I do not want to be seen as addressing anything like the “metaphysics of the self”. I am an anti-metaphysician, that is, I think that metaphysical debate requires therapeutic treatment. It’s not quite that, as you put it yourself, Wittgenstein holds that things like selves are just reifications of language; I’d be happier to say that one should talk of persons rather than selves, as these seem to be third- as much as first-personal entities. (Actually I wouldn’t be as hostile to metaphysics as Wittgenstein was; it’s interesting that he wrote little about space and time, where metaphysics seems inevitable.)


3:AM: Is your idea that the memory criterion of personal identity has credibility?

AH: I think there is truth in it – that is, it conveys the benign circularity of the concepts of memory and personal identity. This is the circularity that I call “conceptual holism”, which seems to be surprisingly neglected in Analytic philosophy. Conceptual holism stresses that philosophy involves synthesis as well as analysis; or rather, than analysis must involve synthesis. It must involve elucidating the connections between fundamental concepts such as memory and personal identity, such that they cannot be understood independently of each other. That is, there is a necessary and benign circularity in philosophical analysis. In this case, I argue that the concepts of memory and personal identity arise together, and must be understood together; one cannot understand one without understanding the other. Conceptual holism implies a distinctive resolution of Euthyphro dilemmas such as that between religion and ethics – which concerned Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro. Some concepts are so fundamental that one cannot accord priority to one over another – either, for instance, to memory, or to personal identity.

3:AM: You adapt Merleau-Ponty and his approach to the body into your account don’t you? How does this work?

AH: I drew on Merleau-Ponty because he seemed to recognise, more clearly than Husserl, that the body is known immediately and is not a purely physical entity. However, I find his work difficult and have not yet devoted the effort to it that I should have. It’s on my list!

3:AM: So how would you summarise the answer to the question, ‘What am I?’

AH: This question is getting a bit metaphysical. I would say that I am an essentially embodied thinking thing, I guess.

3:AM: You’re also a philosopher of aesthetics and music in particular. What do you say aesthetics is and why do you think it is ‘essentially democratic’? This doesn’t seem obvious – there are those who’d say its for the aesthete or connoisseur, for a kind of elite, and that classical music is elitist too – so why is that just wrong?

AH: Philosophical aesthetics – because not all aesthetics is philosophical – considers fundamental questions about art and beauty that are not answerable wholly within the disciplines in question, by which I mean the arts. Artists have an obvious and central contribution to make in answering these questions, and philosophers should consider what they have to say; but the reverse is also true. Philosophical questions about the arts include, obviously, “What is art?”, “What is beauty?”, “What is an aesthetic judgment?”, “Is music the universal art of sound?”, “Can radically abstract painting be distinguished from design?”…I’m not sure I’d say that addressing these questions is an essentially democratic process; maybe it should be, in that anyone ought to be able to understand philosophical questions, given appropriate education. What I think is essentially democratic is artistic criticism. It is implicit in Hume’s essay “Of the Standard of Taste” – though he might not have acknowledged it – that anyone can become a true critic, through experience of, and practice in considering, a range of artworks. Scholarship is not essential, and indeed may be counterproductive.


3:AM: You disagree with some of your contemporaries like Fred Beiser when they claim that aesthetics was an eighteenth century invention don’t you?

AH: This is a very tricky question, and I’m not an historian or an art historian, just a philosopher. I wouldn’t say aesthetics was “invented” in the 18th century; “discovered” would be better, but even this view might be too radical. What happened in that century was a unification and codification of both art and aesthetics. The art historian Oskar Kristeller argued that the “modern system of the fine arts” only appears at that time – poetry, drama, music, painting, sculpture and architecture are regarded as species of the same genus. Plato for instance did not have this overarching concept. And Kant separated the value-spheres of aesthetics and ethics, bringing together philosophy of art and philosophy of beauty, including an aesthetic attitude to nature. (In the Middle Ages, a religious conception had made beauty and moral goodness inseparable.) So modern aesthetics began with Hume and Kant, even though many of its materials are found in Plato and Aristotle.

I should say that I wouldn’t regard myself as an expert on this. I read historians and art historians, and try to make a judgment. Philosophers have a contribution to make here, it cannot just be the historians who decide whether aesthetics was an 18th century invention.

3:AM: You say both Kant and Adorno are important to your approach? Is it the notion of disinterest that you find so potent in Kant?

AH: Kant is the greatest philosopher to have addressed aesthetics. That’s because he is probably the greatest philosopher to have addressed anything. He understands that aesthetic judgments have the paradoxical feature of being subjective, yet making a claim to objectivity. Disinterestedness is in fact a deeply problematic notion. One should recognise one’s own tastes for what they are, but – against what Kant suggests – that does not invalidate them as an ingredient of aesthetic judgment. Kant fails to recognise the intrinsic value of dialogue and discussion in aesthetic judgment; Hume is superior in this respect.

3:AM: Adorno you say attempts the difficult task of trying to unify aesthetics and art analysis, criticism and history, something that Hegel also attempted but few others. Can you say what you mean by unifying these elements?

AH: Well, I feel it is essential that people working in aesthetics should be art-lovers who respond to philosophical problems that arise in the arts. They don’t have to be art or music historians, but they should want to immerse themselves in the arts. There is a tendency, instead, for philosophers to import issues into aesthetics from other areas of philosophy, in particular metaphysics and to a lesser extent philosophy of mind, when these questions have no real bearing on the arts as they are practised. Hence rather otiose debate on the ontology of the artwork, or on whether it is “rational” to be moved by fiction – debates that artists and artlovers would have difficulty understanding, or taking seriously. Adorno recognised this problem, hence his motto (from Schlegel) for Aesthetic Theory: “In that which is called philosophy of art, usually one thing is missing; either philosophy or art”. Philosophical aesthetics should try to ensure that neither is missing.


Perhaps I have an advantage in that I am what some would regard as a trained musician. But this training wasn’t that unusual – I had piano lessons till the age of 18, and went through the grade exams. Later I took some jazz improvisation courses and had a few lessons in jazz piano and jazz singing – in the case of the latter, really to learn something of what was involved. That was it. I am fortunate in that I’ve been able to find ways to connect my love of music with my academic profession in philosophy.

3:AM: In your book you argue for an aesthetic conception of music as an art. What’s so special about music and how is it understood through its history?

AH: For much of its history, music was a low-status art, or at least a low-status activity – one has to be careful here, given the lack of a system of the arts till the 18th century, so that comparisons that come naturally to us, would not have been made in pre-modern eras. Then in the 19th century the situation was reversed, and Pater was led to declare that all art aspires to the condition of music. Actually I think that music does in some respects still have a low status – musicians are apparently meant to live on air, while their work is downloaded for free and they are asked to play at the London Olympics for nothing. The claim I made about an aesthetic conception says that music is essentially an art – but “art”, I argued, can have either a capital or a small “a”. That means it is at least a craft, and is therefore meant to reward aesthetic attention. Muzak and commodified pop music are contemptible for that reason, as they fail to aspire to this end. That’s not a philosophical claim by the way – that they’re contemptible. But that’s how an aesthete, which I am in the sense of believing that art is valuable in itself, will regard them. People are squeamish about condemning commodified pop, but here I’m not even talking about music as commodified as ABBA – which I think has genuine musical content. I mean rather the huge quantities of dross that fail even in the very mean intention of being commercially successful. Maybe that makes me an elitist…


3:AM: Isn’t there a tension in your approach that you chose Adorno and Roger Scruton as key influences in your approach to understanding music as an art given that both are pretty well known to be elitists which you disavow? So how do they help your arguments?

AH: In every thinker that one admires, there are aspects of their thought that one doesn’t admire – it’s almost inevitable, unless one wants to be a disciple. It’s a question of how much these undesirable elements can be bypassed or eliminated. For instance, Scruton’s anti-modernism has caused musicologists to neglect his work, when I don’t think that it is an essential feature – or at least, one can read past or avoid it. That is true of the elitism of both Scruton and Adorno. Their virtues transcend their vices, if you like. Scruton has so many deep and interesting things to say about music, which he is led to by taking seriously the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, even though those thinkers had little to say about music. For instance, the acousmatic thesis, which says that we spontaneously abstract from the physical causes of the sounds, in listening to them as music; Scruton’s claim here is too strong, I have argued, but he is skilled at raising deep issues where debate in Anglo-American aesthetics is confined to too narrow a range of questions.

3:AM: You’ve written outside of the academy and in some pretty hip places. Do you think that being a public intellectual is these days more important than ever given the way universities and humanities and arts are being attacked?

AM: Well, maybe in a very minor way I am a public intellectual. And there aren’t many major ones, it’s true. Actually I don’t think the shortage of intellectual or at least pseudo-intellectual comment in public affairs is the main problem. The blogosphere, and what is left of the press, is full of comment. What is increasingly lacking is journalism, especially expensive investigative journalism. People are no longer willing to pay for news in print, and have mostly never paid for it online. So how can politicians be held to account for their misdemeanours and incompetence? That is what really worries me. Politicians are increasingly in thrall to corporate interests – look at the way that Shadow ministers defer to Price Waterhouse Cooper for instance. Academic research is still independent, but because of funding mechanisms – in which the humanities are being forced to follow a natural sciences model – it is becoming hard to avoid collective projects that reinforce conservative tendencies and tend to restrain individual creative achievement.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that would help us go further into your philosophical worlds?

AH: How about the following titles which I think are really excellent in their own areas?
Schoenberg by Charles Rosen, a short, incisive account of one of the towering geniuses of modern music.
The Invention of Art by Larry Shiner – teaches us to reflect on the historical contingency of the artworld.
The Imperfect Art by Ted Gioia, an imaginative account of the values of the jazz and improvised music.
Pride and a Daily Marathon by Jonathan Cole: account of the life of Ian Waterman, who was left by a rare infection without most of his bodily self-awareness, and which he learned to use vision to compensate for.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks: case-studies pondered by philosophers of mind, psychology and psychiatry.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 28th, 2015.