Wittgenstein, Modern Music, and the Myth of Progress

In Ilkka Niiniluoto & Thomas Wallgren (eds.), On the Human Condition – Essays in Honour of Georg Henrik von Wright’s Centennial Anniversary, Acta Philosophica Fennica vol. 93. Helsinki: Societas Philosophica Fennica. pp. 181-199 (2017)
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Abstract
Georg Henrik von Wright was not only the first interpreter of Wittgenstein, who argued that Spengler’s work had reinforced and helped Wittgenstein to articulate his view of life, but also the first to consider seriously that Wittgenstein’s attitude to his times makes him unique among the great philosophers, that the philosophical problems which Wittgenstein was struggling, indeed his view of the nature of philosophy, were somehow connected with features of our culture or civilization. In this paper I draw inspiration and courage from Von Wright’s insistence that trying to understand Wittgenstein in relation to his times is a philosophic task in its own right in order to probe into a relatively obscure region in Wittgenstein’s thought: his relation to the music of his times. It is a topic, on which Von Wright, and most other prominent Wittgenstein scholars, have said very little, but it is also one, which Wittgenstein himself attested was so important to him that he felt without it he was sure to be misunderstood. I offer textual and historical evidence in support of my claim that, parallel to Wittgenstein’s exposure to Spengler’s Decline of the West in 1930, he was also introduced to the music theory of Heinrich Schenker, which helped him to articulate, partly by way of critique, a complex and unique position concerning the modern music of his times, which exhibits his rejection of what Von Wright later dubbed ‘the myth of progress’. As Von Wright observed in other regions of Wittgenstein’s work, he believed also with regards to the arts and to music in particular, neither in a brilliant future nor in the good old days. I argue that Wittgenstein actually made a distinction between three kinds of modern music: (a) bad modern music, which is clearly a case of confusing means for ends, the hallmark of the myth of progress, as Von Wright observed; (b) vacuous modern music, which embodies some sort of diffidence, a difficulty to see through the omnipresence of what Von Wright called (following Habermas) a ‘colonialization’ of reified measures of progress; (c) good modern music, a paradoxical notion for Wittgenstein, which betokens the unlikely yet possible striving to penetrate through what appears as dissolution of the resemblances which unite this culture’s ways of life by rendering this condition as expressible and intransitively understandable. In the context of this third category, I offer an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s complex remarks on the music of Gustav Mahler, which palpably show that the problem of good modern music and the problem of philosophizing in the time of civilization were one and the same in Wittgenstein’s mind. I conclude that, with regards to Von Wright’s own critical view of the modern myth of progress, we can learn from Wittgenstein that progress in the realm of art is closely aligned with the ideal of the perfection of man, yet transcending a social or political context. It is the ideal of cultural cohesion: affinity that the arts show to other human practices and cultural artifacts of its period. Wittgenstein’s tentative notion of good modern music (and its circumscription by his notion of the music of the future) may show its true colors when viewed in the context of Von Wright’s plea not to abandon work for progress as a critical task.
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