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The Music of Dialogue in Philosophy

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 26, 2009

Philosophy has a symbiotic relationship with dialogue stretching all the way back to Socrates who used dialogue to facilitate the philosophical process and thereby distinguished philosophy from the rhetoric of the Sophists. The latter group of philosophers applied argument in an eristic way, which is to say, in a combative mode where the two parties were pitted against one another in a battle, one of which would come out on top as victor. Socrates developed the dialectic mode of argumentation which united the interlocutors in a collaborative task to seek understanding together, challenging one another within this spirit of collaboration. To illustrate this distinction think of the concerto form in music (the word ‘concerto’ has its roots in combat and opposition): for the eristic model think of the piano concertos of Prokofiev or Rachmaninov where the instrumentalist is pitted against the full forces of the orchestra, and for the dialectic-model think of the A minor piano concerto of Schumann where the piano part is integrated into the orchestral part to produce a richer but collaborative overall effect.

To help understand the role of dialogue in the philosophical process I would like to ask you to listen to some more music. First of all, we shall listen to Beethoven’s masterpiece in disciplined, sustained thought: the first movement of the Fifth Symphony in C minor. The first thing we notice is the clarity of the opening idea: dun-dun-dun-dah (this is one of the only pieces of music where this wording will make sense). The second thing we notice is how everything that follows is generated from this single-cell idea. However, everything seems to respond in a dialogue with whatever came before. It begins to sound like people talking but always on the same topic and in direct response to each other. This is not café-chat – it is a philosophical argument. A good philosophy discussion or essay should follow a similar structure and be held together by the same discipline as Beethoven’s first movement.

However, this is the art of the philosophical expert. When learning philosophy the model is different. Before the interlocutors have learned the disciplines needed for such a taut argument they need to explore more freely but be moving toward the discipline of Beethoven’s Fifth. For this we shall turn to the first movement of Sibelius’ Second Symphony in D major. In common with the Beethoven this symphony also begins with a simple idea but in contrast it then introduces another simple idea until there are a number of what seem to be unrelated fragments rather than fully formed ideas. The fragments then spend the next five minutes or so toying with each other and restating themselves in various ways – inversions and modulations etc – interweaving and dancing with each other until they begin to find some cohesion which reaches its climax in the development section when all the ideas combine to be able to make a sustained and glorious argument which culminates with the huge brass statement. The symphony then returns to the fragmentary ideas but seen from a different perspective: all the original ideas have been in some way altered by their journey, and any good discussion should leave its participants slightly changed by the end.

Whereas Beethoven’s exposition is fully formed and stated in the first few minutes of the symphony, Sibelius’ full expression of the ideas of the opening of the symphony do not find their voice until about two thirds into the movement. This is how a philosophy discussion should be played out when it is the Socratic dialectic that is being pursued. The Beethoven is the essay and the Sibelius is the dialogue such as you would find in Plato’s works and also in Hume and Berkeley among others.

When working with children doing philosophy it is the Sibelius-model that we are looking to for the shape and form of a discussion. The facilitator provides the first theme to which the children then respond in various ways and sometimes in seemingly unrelated ways, but then the facilitator brings the fragments together and allows them to develop in relation to each other building and growing. If introducing the ideas of the philosophers (with any age-group) then allow the play of ideas to outline and intimate their ideas so that you have a context in which to then introduce them. This avoids arbitrariness and engages the students with the philosopher’s ideas, as they will resemble the ideas of the students themselves. 



One Response to “The Music of Dialogue in Philosophy”

  1. Red Baron said

    Interesting in the context of this morning’s Desert island Discs.

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