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Baggini: Melody Thinker

Interview by Hugh D. Reynolds.

‘Music can take us to somewhere removed from the contingencies of each day. Through art, we’re reminded of another important dimension of life which can get lost.’

Julian Baggini is preparing to become philosopher in residence at St George’s, an acclaimed music venue in Bristol, UK. What’s always impressed me about Baggini’s philosophy is that he’s not afraid to do it in public. Rather than retreating from the mess of the real world, he embeds his work within it. As someone for whom both music and philosophy provide escape from daily life, I was intrigued to know what Baggini is getting up to with this musical venture. So, I went to talk to him about it.

3:AM: We’re used to the idea of an artist or writer in residence; how does a philosophical residency compare?

JB: Having a philosopher in residence seems more natural than a writer in residence. Philosophers can engage and get people examining their assumptions. It’s not about being there to pontificate, it’s about generating more reflective, analytic discussion that people are going to be interested in.

3:AM: I hear you’re going to lead discussions on topics in the news: The Philosophical Times. Shouldn’t philosophers take a wider, timeless, view: standing aloof from current affairs and the thick of it?

JB: I wouldn’t say timeless; that’s an illusion. Our role is to put things in a broader context. So often that context is lacking from news analysis. For example, when people get upset about a particular injustice there are lots of assumptions being made about what justice is.

3:AM: Are philosophers only useful in describing what’s going on – or can they, should they, be prescribing cures for the world’s ills too?

JB: The danger with philosophers prescribing is that they are, almost by definition, generalists. Most practical prescriptions require specialist knowledge, but that’s not to say that their job is never to argue for an ought.

I have an interest in corporate ethics. There’s a big ought there about how organisations need to think about the character of their organisation. Virtue Ethics is something I can advocate for, but how that is implemented will require the input of people on the ground.

3:AM: So you’re not here as an expert and you’re not upholding the conscience of society. Are you here to challenge? Provoke? Whistle-blow? How does asking more questions help?

JB: Asking the right question is often a very important thing. Last week I was on a panel talking about the liberal elite and someone in the audience asked: ‘Why aren’t we talking about the conservative metropolitan elite?’ That’s a really good question.

The role of a good question is to jolt you out of the assumptions you’re making in your way of thinking about things. But it’s more than asking questions. We should also offer things that are more constructive. I don’t like the idea of the philosopher as a Socratic gadfly, creating trouble and showing people why they’re wrong. We shouldn’t disrupt for the sake of it.

3:AM: Many newspapers have an overt position on the politics of the day. By contrast, arts organisations often claim a neutral stance: they say they just want to ‘facilitate conversations’ amongst their audiences. Is it really possible, or desirable, to take a balanced view when division is so abundant?

JB: Taking a balanced view isn’t the same as ending up completely neutral. Where you start and where you end are different places. Everyone should take a balanced view, in the sense of taking into account everything relevant to the debate. You have to consider contrary opinions as well. You may end up very firmly on one side of the debate, or you may not. People confuse taking a balanced view with coming to an agnostic conclusion, and these are two different things.

3:AM: I read there’s some debate amongst philosophers about how much music might liberate us from daily life. [See for example Peter Kivy ‘Philosophies of Arts: An Essay in Differences’ (Cambridge 1997) or Alan Goldman on ‘The Value of Music’ (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 1992)]

Is music an escape for you? A retreat from the real world?

JB: I don’t think of it as an escape from the real world, because it doesn’t take us to an unreal world. It is a liberation from the mundane. It’s easy to get caught up with the practicalities of life. Music can take us to somewhere removed from the contingencies of each day. Through art, we’re reminded of another important dimension of life which can get lost. Humans are odd animals. We’re rooted in the present and we’re culturally and historically located, but through imagination and intellect we can grasp and appreciate things which aren’t specific to our times. It’s quite remarkable capacity really.

3:AM: You’ve said in a previous interview you gave to 3:AM: ‘One of the problems we face is not the absence of truth, but its overabundance.’ So is there too much news, or too much of the wrong kind of news?

JB: It’s a bit of both. Rolling news has distorted what gets most attention. A great news story is taken to be one that is unfolding, or has just unfolded, and that’s not the same as what is most important. For example, the story about the kids trapped down a cave in Thailand. The story is gripping because there’s a drama unfolding. Though interesting, I doubt it’s the most important story of the day.

The 24-hour news cycle is problematic. It diverts the attention of reporters. Kate Adie has said something like this [As described in this Telegraph article from 2010]; in her day you’d go off, do your investigation and it would be put in a report at the end of the day. Now reporters are expected to be linking up live to the studio several times a day; it restricts how much they can actually go out and report.

Is it the wrong kind of news? Could it be more positive? Well, by definition, news is events driven. Often good news isn’t an event, it’s unfolded slowly. Most news is being driven by press releases, and that generates bogus events. The publication of a report can be an event even before it’s been published. Everyone is both sick-to-death and hypnotised by Brexit. For my money, too much of the reporting has been on the political manoeuvrings and not enough on what ought to be done. I don’t think any of us know, in any proper depth, what the real options are.

3:AM: World affairs have moved on a bit since our last conversation. Back then [November 2017] you said “What’s the best way to deal with a country like North Korea? Well, the logic: ‘be tough and unpredictable and write mad tweets in the middle of the night’, does not strike most of us as being sensible. If the end of this story is the collapse of the North Korean regime in a way that does not lead to disaster in the peninsular – then some of us may have to turn around and say, on that one, Trump was right.

Are you ready to say Trump is right yet?

JB: We get wedded to our worldviews. When someone is doing something we believe to be mistaken, we tend to think it’s not going to end well; but sometimes it does. It can do this for two reasons. Sometimes people are right on one specific even though they’re wrong on lots of other things. And secondly it can just be luck. My own view on Korea is that Trump’s foreign policy is reckless and dangerous. The stakes are too high to gamble, but he might be lucky. If we get peace in Korea, it might be because – more by luck than judgement – he was right and that was the way to deal with it.

The whole point with knowledge is: we never know anything about the world with absolute certainty. It’s always degrees of probabilities. Sometimes we can be right to believe something that turns out to be wrong. In other words, we’re right to think something is true because that’s what most of the evidence suggests, but it can turn out that it isn’t. We can be right to make mistakes. In the same way we can be wrong to get things ‘correct’. Trump’s reasoning is completely wrong even if he turns out to be correct. It’s like the person who bets their house on something unlikely happening, and then they win. You can still say the bet was stupid.

3:AM: Turning back to music, sometimes it is interpreted in political terms (e.g. Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches) even where there are no associated lyrics (e.g. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor). Is it possible to represent ideas – even promote specific ideologies – in non-vocal music, or are we hearing into it more than is there?

JB: Sometimes composers think that’s what they’re doing – and listeners may think that’s what they’re hearing – but I’m not convinced. Assuming no lyrical content, I don’t think music, by itself, has a meaning. Everything is what it is, not just in virtue of what it is in isolation, but how it relates to other things. When a piece of music has a certain history, a context that people know about, it will take on meanings. But they’re not there for someone who comes from Mars and hears it for the first time.

3:AM: How about emotion? What does it mean for a melody to be melancholic? Care-free? Playful?

JB: There seem to be more cross-cultural similarities than differences in the way we respond to types of music. It suggests there is something hard-wired (to use that horrible phrase) about our emotional responses, but it’s really a question for the musicologist who, for example, will know what keys induce what effects.

3:AM: Ten years ago you made a radio programme for the BBC: Julian Baggini’s Sound Philosophy, about sounds that have had an impact on your life. Can you sum-up how sound is important to you and your philosophy?

JB: That was a fun programme, it was made with Tim Dee, a very creative Bristol based producer. The phrase: ‘the soundtrack to your life‘, for a lot of us it’s quite literal. I always have some song bouncing around my head, sometimes one I want to hear, sometimes not. I’ll send myself to sleep by putting on an album in my head. Music is very much part of our inner life. Sounds can be incredibly evocative, in the same way that smells and tastes can. But sounds can be conjured in memory in a way that it’s difficult for smells and tastes to be. Sometimes you get a little sniff or taste, but it doesn’t last, whereas you can almost completely reconstruct sounds in your head.

3:AM: Are there any criteria for what makes some music better than other pieces?

JB: I think there are differences between judgements of quality and judgements of preference. They’re not the same thing. Judgements of quality have a degree of objectivity. You can appreciate that a musical work is well constructed and performed, and still not really like it. You can really like something which you know to be crude, unsophisticated, and not even particularly good of its genre. The complicated grey area is that in every kind of music, people know a good hook when they hear it. Whether it’s a riff from the 1812 Overture or Smoke on the Water – but it’s very difficult to say what makes something better than something else.

3:AM: You once wrote [in ‘Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests’ (Profile Books 2008)], ‘…nor is there any evidence that musical taste is a marker of good moral character’. Music can bring us together across a moral gulf. It serves some kind of communal function. But what about those making the music. Do you separate out the artist and the work? Is it still OK to play Rolf Harris songs to my children?

JB: When you know that someone has morally troubling views and behaviours, if they’re writing novels or plays, you worry that something of their worldview is reflected in their works which you may not have noticed. You may be being beguiled by something. If it’s visual, abstract art or non-vocal music, that really shouldn’t apply. As a listener you should be able to set that aside. It’s good to remember not all talented artists are morally great people. Believing that, a venue may still decide not to book a performer. If there were a performer who is known to have sexually harassed people, I think it would be appropriate for them not to book that person. It wouldn’t be to say that the work they’ve produced in the past isn’t worth listening to, but you don’t support them directly.

3:AM: Are there philosophical questions around music, listening and performance that you’d like to explore over your residency?

JB: We’ll be having interviews with some of the performers who come to play. Artists and creative people have ways of understanding and being in the world which can be distinctive, and from which others can learn. The whole creative process interests me. For example, improvisation. I’m hoping to talk to jazz and other musicians about this fascinating phenomenon. The capacity to improvise is based upon a lot of hard work and practice; it relates to the Taoist concept of wu wei: effortless spontaneous action that is rooted in deep practice. The modern Western mind favours conscious rational deliberation – whereas most of what we do isn’t like that at all.

Another act I’m excited about seeing is Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble. There’s a whole question about natural/unnatural sounds and organic/inorganic instruments. There was so much snobbery around synthesisers when they were first used. Electronic music seems to emphasise the importance of different textures and tones. Classical and even a lot of rock music emphasises melody made by a particular set of instruments. With electronic music people are creating very specific sounds. That gives a lot of texture to a piece – which is really important.

3:AM: This residency will impact on cultural life at the music venue, but I’m interested in how it might shape the rest of your work. One of your books is about The Virtues of the Table: How to eat and think (Granta 2015), can we expect you to write about Virtues of the Concert Hall in the future? How to play, listen and think?

JB: I never got beyond grade 3 in piano, but I’m so interested in music and the making of music; I’m hoping this residency will inform that. There are certain things about musical creativity which make your mind work in very different ways to the way philosophical thinking does – though strangely, sometimes they can get you to the same place.

It’s an aspect of my mind that I don’t want to neglect. Some of my most rewarding experiences have been musical. Many years ago, I went to see the re-formed Pink Floyd at Wembley Arena. I remember how, when Dave Gilmour played that first single sustained note of Shine on You Crazy Diamond, it was a magical moment, I could have died there and then.

Music has that amazing capacity to do this. It has a spiritual character and gives people a sense of the ‘transcendent’… Well, I’m not sure if ‘transcendent’ is the right word, but you get a feeling of a connection which seems to be beyond time and space… though it isn’t.


Hugh D. Reynolds is a teacher, writer and learning project manager. Philosophy, science communication and culture are often at the heart of his research and writing – but he tries to keep a broad and curious outlook.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 19th, 2018.