Every philosopher eventually stumbles upon the question of method. How should philosophical texts be approached, read, interpreted, and assimilated into one’s philosophical project? How should philosophical inquiry proceed? What are the sources of a genuine philosophical method? Conversely, is method even necessary, or does it impede philosophical reflection?
Recently, I have been thinking through these questions with my colleague Cynthia R. Nielsen, who blogs at Per Caritatem. We have been exploring the methodological potential of jazz improvisation. The possible relationship between jazz improvisation and philosophical methodology arose during a discussion of Nielsen’s dissertation and her forthcoming book titled Foucault and Self-Writing: On the Art of Living as Improvisation (forthcoming, Wipf & Stock 2012.) Nielsen, who is both a philosopher and a jazz guitarist, has been writing at the intersection of music and philosophy for some time (see her “What Has Coltrane to Do With Mozart: The Dynamism and Built-in Flexibility of Music,” Expositions Vol 3 No 1 (August 2009): 57-71,) but recently jazz improvisation has begun to inform her approach to philosophical inquiry in a fresh and innovative way.
In the following interview, Nielsen explains her “improvisational approach” to philosophy, and sketches out the practical application of this approach, it benefits, and its limitations.
The Relative Absolute (TRA): Giorgio Agamben has written in The Signature of All Things: On Method that “reflection on method usually follows practical application, rather than preceding it (p. 7). Now that you are nearing the end of your dissertation, and with a new book project underway, do you find yourself reflecting on method?
Cynthia R. Nielsen (CRN): Yes and no. That is, for some time now I have been working with the idea of an improvisational hermeneutic, influenced and inspired in many respects from H-G. Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. My experience has been very similar to what Agamben expresses in the quote above, viz., my thoughts on method (in so far as I would even want to call what I do a “method”) or on how I approach texts, has come after the fact. Since my undergraduate degree is in the field of music–jazz studies and performance–musical analogies come somewhat naturally to me, as I find that they help to clarify and communicate aspects of philosophy and theology in new and refreshing ways.
TRA: In your article, “What has Mozart to Do with Coltrane? The Dynamism and Built-in-Flexibility of Music,” you argued that musical compositions are not “fixed,” but rather, are dynamic and fluid — open to revision and innovation. Given, that both music and philosophy are rooted in “traditions” that are capable of being developed, do you see a “built-in-flexibility” in the philosophical tradition?
CRN: Absolutely! Part of what I attempted to show in my article is that music–whether jazz or classical–like texts exhibits a flexible ontology, allowing for future generations to expand and co-create new variations on a yet recognizable theme. In other words, I do not view musical compositions or texts as static entities written by a sole author. This is not to deny a primary place to the so-called “original author,” but it is to affirm that a text, like a musical piece, takes on a life of its own and continues to be, in a sense, co-written by multiple interpreters/performers–those who take up the text/piece at a later date, approaching it in a different historical epoch and having different concerns and questions. Take, for example, a text like Plato’s Republic. When you consider how many different readings of Plato there are and how many new insights have arisen from different groups approaching the text with different questions, you begin to see just how flexible the ontology of texts can be. Yet, if we apply the principle of charity, we can see that the different schools of interpretation are still dealing with the text, even if they come up with radically diverse conclusions. Gadamer speaks of this phenomenon as the ever-present interplay of identity and difference in hermeneutics.
TRA: Given that the aims of music and philosophy are significantly different, the former being aesthetic delight and the latter being truth, do you think the “improvisational approach” to the philosophical tradition might compromise its aim. That is, does the improvisational method move us closer to the truth, or does it merely give us variations on a theme?
CRN: Given our finitude, we only grasp truth partially and from a certain perspective. In my view, an improvisational approach to texts affirms our finitude and keeps us within what Joyce Schuld calls “an ethics of humility.” I can’t claim that my interpretation is the only true interpretation possible–such a position, in my opinion, denies our finitude (not to mention our fallibility,) and it suggests that historical situatedness, cultural backgrounds, and so forth–what Gadamer calls somewhat provocatively–our “prejudices” (from the Latin, praejudicium, meaning pre-judgment) or hermeneutical horizons have no role in our interpretative activity. I do not find that at all convincing, or true to experience. In short, I think that this approach to texts does move us closer to truth, but it never gives us the last word on truth.
TRA: Billy Taylor has demonstrated that there is an inherent structure to jazz improvisation, in which the rhythm, melody, and harmony of a particular musical composition are changed in order to express a new interpretation. You have pointed this out in your work, as well. Is it possible to map this structure of improvisation onto philosophical inquiry? That is to say, are there elements of philosophy that are analogous to the rhythm, melody, and harmony of music, and can these be improvised upon?
CRN: There are so many analogies, I am not sure where to begin. In my recent work on Foucault, for example, I compare his archaeological method to the activity of a music theorist concerned with discovering the rules, formal aspects and so forth which structure, for example, the symphonic composition (a jazz piece works here as well). Then one might think of Foucault’s genealogical approach as concerned with the diachronic aspects of the piece, the particular linear movements, colorings etc. of the melodic lines themselves. Here one retraces specific melodic lines in the larger piece, attempting to discern the “causal” convergences–all of course arising contingently and not by necessity — that make that particular melodic line what it is. One might also think of the melody of piece as that which identifies the piece, which is not to say that the melody has to be played exactly the same in order to be played “correctly,” “truly,” and so forth. Consider the many variations on jazz standards–for example, the tune, “All the Things You Are,” whether played by John Coltrane or by Pat Metheny, the tune is completely and easily recognizable as “All the Things You Are.” However, if you were to analyze the notes of the melodies played, there would not be a one-to-one correspondence. With each performance (think “interpretation”) of a piece (think “text”), new ways of inflecting the melody–rhythmically, harmonically, etc. arise. Once again, we have Gadamer’s interplay between identity and difference in which interpretations are co-productions, not (repetitive) re-productions.
TRA: What do you see as the limitations of an “improvisational approach” to the philosophical tradition?
CRN: I would not want to present it as the only correct way to approach texts, as it is one way to engage texts and to pass them on by “infusing” them with new life. If I take my analogue from jazz, there are those who try to transgress strictures simply for the sake of transgressing. That is, some might say, “let’s forget the text altogether.” That is by no means what I am suggesting, as that would, in my mind, result in a loss of continuity with one’s tradition, and consequently, a loss of the wealth and insights of great thinkers of the past–those who have shaped, whether we like it or not, who we are today.
TRA: Can you think of classical or medieval thinkers that took advantage of the “built-in-flexibility” of the philosophical tradition and improvised on it to express central philosophical ideas in a new mode?
CRN: St. Augustine comes readily to mind, as I recently finished a chapter devoted to his work. In the City of God, for example, Augustine engages in what Foucault calls “reverse discourse,” that is, deploying the common, well-known “discursive elements” of hegenomic discourses by infusing fragments of those discourses with new meaning in order to develop a counter-narrative. Augustine takes up commonly accepted political and philosophical notions from the Western tradition–views on justice, reason ruling the passions, and so forth–and turns them on their head in order to show that the Roman glory narratives are actually veils to cover the violence of ancient imperalism. One could also bring Augustine into conversation with Gadamer, as both hold that multiple true meanings of the same text are possible. If you are interested in this topic, I engage these two thinkers in my article, “St. Augustine on Text and Reality (and a Little Gadamarian Spice),” Heythrop Journal 50 (2009): 98–108.