Wittgenstein on musical depth and our knowledge of humankind

In Garry L. Hagberg (ed.), Wittgenstein on Aesthetic Understanding. Palgrave-Macmillan. pp. 217-247 (2017)
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Wittgenstein’s later remarks on music, those written after his return to Cambridge in 1929 in increasing intensity, frequency, and elaboration, occupy a unique place in the annals of the philosophy of music, which is rarely acknowledged or discussed in the scholarly literature. These remarks reflect and emulate the spirit and subject matter of Romantic thinking about music, but also respond to it critically, while at the same time they interweave into Wittgenstein’s forward thinking about the philosophic entanglements of language and the mind, and also his pervasive pessimism as a philosopher of culture. In this essay I explore and explicate some of the major tenets of this unique position. I argue that Wittgenstein appropriates the Romantic focus on the specificity of musical expression by means of the idea that gesture consists in complex vertical interrelations between language games. Understanding what a musical passage is about logically presupposes a myriad of correlate moves in the entire range of our language-games. Wittgenstein explicates the notion of musical aboutness in terms of intransitive understanding, which expresses an internal relation conjoining musical gesture and our culture, our entire life in practice, whereupon the related concepts cannot be identified independently of the relation which holds them together. Wittgenstein responds to the Romantic focus on the unique knowledge of human life which is afforded by musical experience with his idiosyncratic later notion of Menschenkenntnis. I conclude that, in the context of Wittgenstein’s late work, ineffability pertaining to musical meaning is not a shortcoming, but rather constitutional of the type of games, which admit what Wittgenstein calls ‘imponderable evidence’, or indefiniteness.
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