An Impressive Audio Archive of John Cage Lectures & Interviews: Hear Recordings from 1963-1991

History has remembered John Cage as a composer, but to do justice to his legacy one has to allow that title the widest possible interpretation. He did, of course, compose music: music that strikes the ears of many listeners as quite unconventional even today, more than a quarter-century after his death, but recognizable as music nonetheless. He also composed with silence, an artistic choice that still intrigues people enough to get them taking the plunge into his wider body of work, which also includes compositions of words, many thousands of them written and many hours of them recorded.

Ubuweb offers an impressive audio archive of Cage's spoken word, beginning with material from the 1960s and ending with a talk (embedded at the top of the post) he gave at the San Francisco Art Institute in the penultimate year of his life. There he read a 30-minute piece called "One 7" consisting of "brief vocalizations interspersed with long periods of silence" before taking audience questions which "range from inquiries about the process by which Cage composes, his lack of interest in pleasing an audience, his love of mushrooms, Buddhism, chance operations, and whether Cage can stand on his head."

Turn the Cage clock back 28 years from there and we can hear a spirited 1963 conversation between him and Jonathan Cott, the young music journalist later known for conducting John Lennon's last interview. "At every turn Cott antagonizes Cage with challenging questions," says Ubuweb, adding that he marshals "quotes from numerous sources (including Norman Mailer, Michael Steinberg, Igor Stravinsky and others) criticizing Cage and his music."




Cage, in characteristic response, "parries Cott's thrusts with a veritable tai chi practice of music theory." This contrasts with the mood of Cage's 1972 interview alongside pianist David Tudor embedded just above, presented in both English and French and featuring references to the work of Henry David Thoreau and Marcel Duchamp.

Cage has more to say about Duchamp, and other artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, in the undated lecture clip from the archives of Pacifica Radio just above. Have a listen through the rest of Ubuweb's collection and you'll hear the master of silence speak voluminously, if sometimes cryptically, on such subjects as Zen Buddhism, anarchism, utopia, the work of Buckminster Fuller, and "the role of art and technology in modern society." The contexts vary, both in the sense of time and place as well as in the sense of the performative expectations placed on Cage himself. But even a sampling of the recordings here suggests that being John Cage, in whatever setting, constituted a productive artistic project all its own.

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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.

Oxford’s Free Introduction to Philosophy: Stream 41 Lectures

You don't need to go to Oxford to study philosophy. Not when it will come to you. Above, find a playlist that features 41 lectures from Oxford's course called General Philosophy. Here's what it has to offer:

A series of lectures delivered by Peter Millican to first-year philosophy students at the University of Oxford. The lectures comprise of the 8-week General Philosophy course, delivered to first year undergraduates. These lectures aim to provide a thorough introduction to many philosophical topics and to get students and others interested in thinking about key areas of philosophy. Taking a chronological view of the history of philosophy, each lecture is split into 3 or 4 sections which outline a particular philosophical problem and how different philosophers have attempted to resolve the issue. Individuals interested in the 'big' questions about life such as how we perceive the world, who we are in the world and whether we are free to act will find this series informative, comprehensive and accessible.

Philosophers covered in the course include Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume.

The lectures can be accessed on YouTube, iTunes or the Web. General Philosophy will be added to our list of 150+ Free Online Philosophy Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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What Ancient Chinese Philosophy Can Teach Us About Living the Good Life Today: Lessons from Harvard’s Popular Professor, Michael Puett

It has at times been concerning for some Buddhist scholars and teachers to watch mindfulness become an integral part of self-help programs. A casual attitude toward the practice of mindfulness meditation can make it seem accessible by making it seem relaxing and effortless, which often results in missing the point entirely. Whatever the school, lineage, or particular tradition from which they come, the source texts and sages tend to agree: the purpose of meditation is not self improvement—but to realize that there may, indeed, be no such thing as a self.

Instead, we are all epiphenomenon arising from combinations of ever-shifting elements (the aggregates, or skandhas). The self is a conventionally useful illusion. This notion in the ancient Indian texts has its echo in Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s so-called “bundle theory,” but Hume's thoughts about the self have mostly remained obscure footnotes in western thought, rather than central premises in its philosophies and religions. But as thinkers in India took the self apart, so too did philosophers in ancient China, before Buddhism reached the country during the Han Dynasty.




Harvard Professor Michael Puett has been lecturing on Chinese philosophy to audiences of hundreds of students—and at 21st century temples of self-actualization like TED and the School of Life. He has co-authored a book on the subject, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, drawn from his enormously popular university courses, in which he expounds the philosophies of Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi. The book has found a ready audience, and Puett’s “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” is the 3rd most popular class among Harvard undergraduates, behind intro to economics and computer science. What Professor Puett offers, in his distillation of ancient Chinese wisdom, is not at all to be construed as self-help.

Rather, he says, “I think of it as sort of anti-self-help. Self-help tends to be about learning to love yourself and embrace yourself for who you are. A lot of these ideas are saying precisely the opposite—no, you overcome the self, you break the self. You should not be happy with who you are.” Lest this sound like some form of violence, we must understand, Puett tells Tim Dowling at The Guardian, that in “breaking” the self, we are only doing harm to an illusion. As in the Buddhist thought that took root in China, so too in the earlier Confucianism: there is no self, just a “a messy and potentially ugly bunch of stuff.”

While our current circumstances may seem unique in world history, Puett shows his students how Chinese philosophers 2,500 years ago also experienced rapid societal change and upheaval, as his co-author Christine Gross-Loh writes at The Atlantic; they navigated and understood "a world where human relationships are challenging, narcissism and self-centeredness are on the rise, and there is disagreement on the best way for people to live harmoniously together." A majority of students at Harvard are driven to pursue "practical, predetermined" careers. By teaching them Confucian and Daoist philosophy, Puett tries to help them become more spontaneous and open to change.

Whatever we call it, the interacting phenomenon that give rise to the self cannot, we know, be observed in anything resembling an unchanging steady state. Yet Western culture (for several motivated reasons) has lagged far behind both intuitive and scientific observations of this fact. Puett's students have been told, “’Find your true self, especially during these four years of college,’” and “try and be sincere and authentic to who you really are” in making choices about careers, partners, passions, and consumer products. They take to his class because “they’ve spent 20 years looking for this true self and not finding it.”

In the two lectures above—a shorter one at the top from TEDx Nashville and a longer talk above for Ivy, “The Social University”—you can get a taste of Puett’s enthusiastic style. Chinese philosophy, “in its strong form,” he says above, “can truly change one’s life.” Not by making us more empowered, personally-fulfilled agents who re-create reality to better meet our narrow specs. But rather, as he tells Dowling, by training us “to become incredibly good at dealing with this capricious world.”

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

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.

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