Hear a 19-Hour Playlist of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Favorite Music: Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and… Yvette Guilbert

Among his many varied interests—which, in addition to philosophy, included aeronautical engineering and architectureLudwig Wittgenstein was also a great lover of music. Given his well-deserved reputation for intellectual austerity, we might assume his musical tastes would tend toward minimalist composers of the early 20th century like fellow Austrian Arnold Schoenberg. The “orderly serialism,” of Schoenberg’s atonal music “does seem an obvious complement to Wittgenstein’s philosophy,” writes Grant Chu Covell. “Observers have wondered why the famously arrogant thinker who attempted to infuse philosophy with logic didn’t find Schoenberg’s 12-tone system attractive.”

But indeed, he did not—in fact, Wittgenstein despised almost all modern music and seemed to believe that “nothing of value had been composed after the 19th century’s demise.” While his philosophical work made as radical a break with the past as Schoenberg’s theory, when it came to music, the philosopher was a strict traditionalist who “liked to say that there were only six truly great composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Labor.”

This last name will hardly be familiar to most readers. Labor, a blind organist and composer, was a close friend of the Wittgenstein family and a teacher of Ludwig’s brother Paul (and of Schoenberg as well). Although he lived into the twentieth century, Labor mainly drew his influence from early music.

The extravagantly wealthy Wittgensteins were a musical family—both Ludwig’s older brothers became musicians. Wittgenstein’s parents and grandparents knew Brahms, adopted violinist Joseph Joachim, a distant cousin, into the family, and frequently hosted such luminaries as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Ludwig himself learned to play the clarinet and “was a fastidious listener,” Covell notes. “Acquaintances marveled at his virtuoso whistling. His repertoire included Brahms’ Haydn Variations and other symphonic works. He would unhesitatingly correct others’ inaccurate humming or singing.” He supposedly had an “untiring obsession with perfect recreations of the classics.”

The philosopher’s perfectionism lead to some harsh critical judgments. “Brahms is Mendelssohn without the flaws,” he wrote. He declared Mahler “worthless… quite obviously it took a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music.” What did Wittgenstein value in music besides an ideal of perfection? Grammar, silence, and profundity. “The music of the Baroque era… made use of the special effect of silence,” writes Yael Kaduri at Contemporary Aesthetics. “The general pause of the Baroque was used to illustrate concepts such as eternity, death, infinity and silence in vocal music.” These concepts “did not disappear in the transition to the classic era.” Haydn’s music in particular “contains so many general pauses that it seems they form an intrinsic component of his musical language.”

Wittgenstein had other criteria as well, much of it, surely, as enigmatic as the principles that governed his thought. What does become clear, Covell argues, is that “Wittgenstein could only have been attracted to common-practice tonality, with its codified rules and delineation between ornament and form.” He needed “a system the details of which enhance an underlying structure.” In the playlist above, you can hear a selection of the philosopher's favorites. Compiled by Wittgenstein biographer Ray Monk, the playlist omits Haydn, for some reason, but includes Wagner and Romantic composer Georges Bizet.

You’ll also find one rare exception to Wittgenstein’s obsession with classical musical order: cabaret actress and singer Yvette Guilbert, favorite subject of artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and onetime star of the Moulin Rouge. The famously solitary, severe, and ill-tempered philosopher may have, it seems, nurtured a softer side after all.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to the Existentialist Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Possibilities

Among the vogue names of midcentury Western philosophy, few ever rose to such cultural heights as that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Fans once dropped it whenever they could, and made sure to be seen reading Being and Nothingness wherever they could. But why did his particular ideas so captivate his readers, and what — now that French philosophy fever has, for the most part died down — do we still stand to gain from familiarizing ourselves with them? This six-and-a-half-minute animated Sartre primer from Alain de Botton's School of Life can get us started understanding them.

Sartre's entry in the accompanying site The Book of Life breaks his existentialist philosophy down into four key insights: "Things are weirder than we think," "We are free," "We shouldn’t live in ‘Bad faith’," and "We’re free to dismantle Capitalism."

Or in other words, everyday logic can give way to sheer absurdity; that absurdity provides us glimpses of the vast and usually unacknowledged possibilities of life (which exist not least because nothing has any fixed purpose); we have an obligation to acknowledge those possibilities and our freedom to choose between them; and we need not live under a system that operates to limit those possibilities. But how do we actually act on any of this?

On the most basic level, Sartre helps us realize that "things do not have to be the way they are." He "urges us to accept the fluidity of existence and to create new institutions, habits, outlooks and ideas. The admission that life doesn’t have some preordained logic and is not inherently meaningful can be a source of immense relief when we feel oppressed by the weight of tradition and the status quo." That notion must have exuded a special appeal in the postwar West, when the enormous growth of large-scale industrial and corporate organizations started to make life seem frighteningly regimented.

Things may look quite different here in the 21st century, nearly 40 years after Sartre's death, but even after all our supposed enlightenment and empowerment since then, we'd do well to heed his insistence that nothing in our lives, or thoughts, or our economy really has to be the way it is. And since none of it, in his view, came down to us divinely ordained, we can change any of it whenever and however we wish. We have that great power, but with great power, as the Spider-Man comics say, comes great responsibility. No wonder we so often prefer to pretend we have no choice.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Noam Chomsky Explains What’s Wrong with Postmodern Philosophy & French Intellectuals, and How They End Up Supporting Oppressive Power Structures

Noam Chomsky has always had irascible tendencies—when he doesn’t like something, he lets us know it, without ever raising his voice and usually with plenty of footnotes. It’s a quality that has made the emeritus MIT professor and famed linguist such a potent critic of U.S. empire for half a century, vigorously denouncing the Vietnam War, the Iraq War(s), and the possibility of a catastrophic war with North Korea. Chomsky isn’t a professional historian or political philosopher; these are avocations he has taken on to bolster his arguments. But those arguments are strengthened by his willingness to engage with primary sources and take them seriously.

When it comes, however, to his much-publicized feud with “Postmodernism,” a term he uses liberally at times to describe almost all post-war French intellectual culture, Chomsky rarely confronts his opponents in their own terms. That’s largely because, as he’s said on many occasions, he can’t make any sense of them. It’s not exactly an original critique. Mandarins of French thought like Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Baudrillard have been accused for decades, and not without merit, of knowingly peddling bullshit to a French readership that expects, as Michel Foucault once admitted, a mandatory “ten percent incomprehensible.” (Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu asserts that the number is much higher.)

But Chomsky’s critique goes further, in a direction that doesn’t get nearly as much press as his charges of obscurantism and overuse of insular jargon. Chomsky claims that far from offering radical new ways of conceiving the world, Postmodern thought serves as an instrument of oppressive power structures. It's an interesting assertion given some recent arguments that “post-truth” postmodernism is responsible for the rise of the self-described “alt-right” and the rapid spread of fake information as a tool for the current U.S. ruling party seizing power.

Not only is there “a lot of material reward,” Chomsky says, that comes from the academic superstardom many high-profile French philosophers achieved, but their position—or lack of a clear position—"allows people to take a very radical stance… but to be completely dissociated from everything that’s happening.” Chomsky gives an example above of an anonymous postmodernist critic branding a talk he gave as “naïve” for its discussion of such outmoded “Enlightenment stuff” as making moral decisions and referring to such a thing as “truth.” In his brief discussion of “the strange bubble of French intellectuals” at the top of the post, Chomsky gets more specific.

Most post-war French philosophers, he alleges, have been Stalinists or Maoists (he uses the example of Julia Kristeva), and have uncritically embraced authoritarian state communism despite its documented crimes and abuses, while rejecting other modes of philosophical thought like logical positivism that accept the validity of the scientific method. This may or may not be a fair critique: political orientations shift and change (and at times we accept a thinker's work while fully rejecting their personal politics). And the postmodern critique of scientific discourse as form of oppressive power is a serious one that needn't entail a wholesale rejection of science.

Are there any post-structuralist thinkers Chomsky admires? Though he takes a little dig at Michel Foucault in the clip above, he and the French theorist have had some fruitful debates, “on real issues,” Chomsky says, “and using language that was perfectly comprehensible—he speaking French, me English.” That's not a surprise. The two thinkers, despite the immense difference in their styles and frames of reference, both engage heavily with primary historical sources and both consistently write histories of ideology.

It is partly through the interplay between Foucault and Chomsky’s ideas that we might find a synthesis of French Marxist post-structuralist thought and American anarchist political philosophy. Rather than seeing them as professional wrestlers in the ring, with the postmodernist as the heel and headlines like “Chomsky DESTROYS Postmodernism,” we could look for complementarity and points of agreement, and genuinely read, as difficult as that can be, as many of the arguments of postmodern French philosophers as we can (and perhaps this defense of obscurantism) before deciding with a sweeping gesture that none of them make any sense.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Epicurus and His Answer to the Ancient Question: What Makes Us Happy?

These days the word Epicurean tends to get thrown around in regard to things like olive oil, cutting boards, and wine aerators. The real Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher of the third and fourth century BCE, might not have approved, knowing as he did that happiness doesn't come from products that signal one's appreciation of high-end comestibles. But where, then, does happiness come from? Epicurus devoted his school of philosophy to finding an answer to that ancient question, and these two brief animated introductions, one by Alain de Botton's School of Life and one from Wireless Philosophy, will give you a sense of what he discovered.

Epicurus proposed, as de Botton puts it, that "we typically make three mistakes when thinking about happiness." Number one: "We think happiness means having romantic, sexual relationships," never considering the likelihood of them being "marred by jealousy, misunderstanding, cheating, and bitterness."

Number two: "We think that what we need to be happy is a lot of money," without factoring in "the unbelievable sacrifices we're going to have to make to get this money: the jealousy, the backbiting, the long hours." Number three: We obsess over luxury, "especially involving houses and beautiful serene locations" (and, nowadays, that with which we stock their kitchens).

Only three things, Epicurus concluded, can truly ensure our happiness. Number one: "Your friends around," which led the philosopher to buy a big house and share it with all of his. ("No sex, no orgy," de Botton emphasizes, "just your mates.") Number two: Stop working for others and do your own work, which the members of Epicurus' commune did in the form of farming, cooking, potting, and writing. Number three: Find calm not in the view out your window, but cultivated within your own mind by "reflecting, writing stuff down, reading things, meditating." The big meta-lesson: "Human beings aren't very good at making themselves happy, chiefly because they think it's so easy."

Wireless Philosophy's video, narrated by University of California, San Diego philosophy professor Monte Johnson, draws more rules for happiness from the teachings of Epicurus, breaking down his "tetrapharmakos," or four-part cure for unhappiness:

  1. God is nothing to fear
  2. Death is nothing to worry about
  3. It is easy to acquire the good things in life
  4. It is easy to endure the terrible things

Johnson expands on the fine points of each of these dictates while accompanying his explanations with illustrations, including one drawing of the bread on which, so history has recorded, Epicurus lived almost entirely. That and water made up most of his meals, supplemented with the occasional olive or pot of cheese so that he could "indulge." Not exactly the diet one would casually describe as Epicurean in the 21st century, but dig into Epicureanism itself and you'll see that Epicurus, who described himself as "married to philosophy," understood sensual pleasure more deeply than most of us do today — and a couple millennia before the advent of Williams-Sonoma at that.

To further delve into this philosophy, read Epicurus' classic work The Art of Happiness.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Theorist Judith Butler Explains How Behavior Creates Gender: A Short Introduction to “Gender Performativity”

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in one of the most famous articulations of the difference between sex and gender. By this, de Beauvoir does not mean us to believe that no one is born with reproductive organs, but that the social role of “woman” (or for that matter “man”) comes from a collection of behaviors into which we are socialized. The distinction is crucial for understanding most feminist and queer theory and the variety of human identity more generally, yet it’s one that too often gets lost in popular usage of the words sex and gender. Biology does not determine gender differences, culture does.

Gender becomes naturalized, woven so tightly into the social fabric that it seems like a necessary part of reality rather than a contingent production of history. Just how this happens is complicated—we don’t invent these roles, they are invented for us, as Judith Butler argues in her essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.”

Gender identity “is a performative accomplishment,” she writes, “compelled by social sanction and taboo…. Gender is… an identity instituted through a repetition of acts.” For a somewhat more straightforward summary of her theory of “performativity,” see Butler in the Big Think video above, in which she describes gender as a “phenomenon that’s being produced all the time and reproduced all the time."

Still unclear? Well, it’s complicated, but so is every other facet of human identity many people take for granted, especially people whose gender expression doesn’t threaten strict societal norms. For a more thorough overview of these concepts, see the Philosophy Tube video above, which explains Butler’s theory and a number of other terms central to the discourse, such as “gender essentialism” and “social constructivism.” One thing to note about Butler's theory, as both she and our philosopher above explain, is that “performativity,” though it uses a theatrical metaphor, is not the same as “performance.” Gender is not a costume one puts on and takes off, like a Shakespearean actor playing male characters one night and female characters the next.

Rather, the technical term “performative” means for Butler an act that not only communicates but also creates an identity. Some examples offered above of performative speech include saying “guilty” at a trial, which turns one into an inmate, or saying “I do” at a wedding, which turns one into a spouse. Performative acts of gender do a similar kind of work, not only communicating to others some aspect of identity, but constructing that very identity, only they do that work through repetition. As de Beauvoir argued, we are not born a self, we become, or create, a self, through social pressure to conform and through “reiterating and repeating the norms through which one is constituted,” Butler writes.

As we might expect of any cultural construct, gender norms vary widely both inter- and intra-culturally and throughout historical periods. And given their constructed nature, they can change in any number of ways. Therefore, according to Butler, “there’s not really any grounds,” as our philosophy explainer puts it, “for saying that somebody’s ‘doing their gender wrong.’”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Concepts of Freedom & “Existential Choice” Explained in an Animated Video Narrated by Stephen Fry

The non-existence, or non-importance, of the self has for millennia been an uncontroversial proposition in Eastern thought. But Western thinkers have tended to embrace the concept of the isolated self as, if not sufficient, at least necessary for a coherent account of human life. Yet there are many ways to describe what it means to have a self—an ego, an individual identity. Is the self a product of culture, history, and economy? Is it a collection of subjective experiences to which no one else has access? Is it constituted only in relation to other selves, or in relation to an ultimate, unchanging, all-powerful Self?

For the Existentialists, the self can be a prison, a trap, and a source of great anxiety. Heidegger called selfhood a condition of being “thrown into the world.” By the time we realize where and what we are, according to restrictive categories of historical thought and language, we are already there, inescapably bound to our conditions, forced to perform roles for which we never auditioned. Jean-Paul Sartre took this notion of “thrownness” and gave it his own neurotic stamp. We are indeed tossed into existences against our will, but the real condemnation, he thought, is that once we arrive, we have to make choices. We are doomed to the task of creating ourselves, no matter how limited the options, and there is no possibility of opting out. Even not making choices is a choice.

This extreme kind of free will, as Stephen Fry explains in the short, animated video above, stems from the problem of human nature—there isn’t any. “According to Sartre, there is no design for a human being,” says Fry, or in Sartre’s famous phrase, “existence precedes essence.” There is only the absurdity of arriving in a world with no plan, no God, no universal codes or fixed standards of value: just a dizzying array of decisions to make. And yet, rather than making life trivial, the absurd condition described by Sartre lends substantial weight to all of our choices, for in making them, he claimed, we are not only creating ourselves, but deciding what a human being should be.

Illusions of certainty and necessity obscure the contingent nature of existential choice, both the true inheritance and the unremitting burden of every individual. What we become in life is up to us, Sartre thought, a proposition that causes us a good deal of anguish, since we cannot know the outcome of our choices nor understand the world in which we make them beyond our limited capacity. And yet, we must act, Sartre thought, “as if everyone is watching me.” This is not a pleasing thought, even if, for many, the idea might actually lead to more careful, sober, and deliberative decision-making—that is, when it doesn't lead to paralyzing dread.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Hours of Lectures by Michel Foucault: Recorded in English & French Between 1961 and 1983

Tucked in the afterward of the second, 1982 edition of Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow’s Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, we find an important, but little-known essay by Foucault himself titled “The Subject and Power.” Here, the French theorist offers what he construes as a summary of his life’s work: spanning 1961’s Madness and Civilization up to his three-volume, unfinished History of Sexuality, still in progress at the time of his death in 1984. He begins by telling us that he has not been, primarily, concerned with power, despite the word’s appearance in his essay’s title, its arguments, and in nearly everything else he has written. Instead, he has sought to discover the “modes of objectification which transform human beings into subjects.”

This distinction may seem abstruse, a needlessly wordy matter of semantics. It is not so for Foucault. In key critical difference lies the originality of his project, in all its various stages of development. “Power,” as an abstraction, an objective relation of dominance, is static and conceptual, the image of a tyrant on a coin, of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan seated on his throne.

Subjection, subjectification, objectivizing, individualizing, on the other hand—critical terms in Foucault’s vocabulary—are active processes, disciplines and practices, relationships between individuals and institutions that determine the character of both. These relationships can be located in history, as Foucault does in example after example, and they can also be critically studied in the present, and thus, perhaps, resisted and changed in what he terms “anarchistic struggles.”

Foucault calls for a “new economy of power relations,” and a critical theory that takes “forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point.” For example, in approaching the carceral state, we must examine the processes that divide “the criminals and the ‘good boys,’” processes that function independently of reason. How is it that a system can create classes of people who belong in cages and people who don’t, when the standard rational justification—the protection of society from violence—fails spectacularly to apply in millions of cases? From such excesses, Foucault writes, come two “’diseases of power’—fascism and Stalinism.” Despite the “inner madness” of these “pathological forms” of state power, “they used to a large extent the ideas and the devices of our political rationality.”

People come to accept that mass incarceration, or invasive medical technologies, or economic deprivation, or mass surveillance and over-policing, are necessary and rational. They do so through the agency of what Foucault calls “pastoral power,” the secularization of religious authority as integral to the Western state.

This form of power cannot be exercised without knowing the inside of people’s minds, without exploring their souls, without making them reveal their innermost secrets. It implies a knowledge of the conscience and an ability to direct it.

In the last years of Foucault’s life, he shifted his focus from institutional discourses and mechanisms—psychiatric, carceral, medical—to disciplinary practices of self-control and the governing of others by “pastoral” means. Rather than ignoring individuality, the modern state, he writes, developed “as a very sophisticated structure, in which individuals can be integrated, under one condition: that this individuality would be shaped in a new form and submitted to a set of very specific patterns.” While writing his monumental History of Sexuality, he gave a series of lectures at Berkeley that explore the modern policing of the self.

In his lectures on "Truth and Subjectivity" (1980), Foucault looks at forms of interrogation and various “truth therapies” that function as subtle forms of coercion. Foucault returned to Berkeley in 1983 and delivered the lecture “Discourse and Truth,” which explores the concept of parrhesia, the Greek term meaning “free speech,” or as he calls it, “truth-telling as an activity.” Through analysis of the tragedies of Euripides and contemporary democratic crises, he reveals the practice of speaking truth to power as a kind of tightly controlled performance. Finally, in his lecture series “The Culture of the Self,” Foucault discusses ancient and modern practices of “self care” or “the care of the self” as technologies designed to produce certain kinds of tightly bounded subjectivities.

You can hear parts of these lectures above or visit our posts with full audio above. Also, over at Ubuweb, download the lectures as mp3s, and hear several earlier talks from Foucault in French, dating all the way back to 1961.

When he began his final series of talks in 1980, the philosopher was asked in an interview with the Daily Californian about the motivations for his critical examinations of power and subjectivity. His reply speaks to both his practical concern for resistance and his almost utopian belief in the limitless potential for human freedom. “No aspect of reality should be allowed to become a definitive and inhuman law for us,” Foucault says.

We have to rise up against all forms of power—but not just power in the narrow sense of the word, referring to the power of a government or of one social group over another: these are only a few particular instances of power.

Power is anything that tends to render immobile and untouchable those things that are offered to us as real, as true, as good.

Read Foucault’s statement of intent, his essay “The Subject and Power,” and learn more about his life and work in the 1993 documentary below.

Foucault's lecture series will be added to our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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