Listening to Jazz Knowingly and Authentically: The Epistemology and Ontology of Jazz

Listening to Jazz Knowingly and Authentically: The Epistemology and Ontology of Jazz
Victor L. Schermer By

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I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen. —Ernest Hemingway
"What a peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call 'thought.'" —David Hume

I deliberately used the words "epistemological" and "ontological" in the title in order to attract your attention. If you don't know what they mean, you're going feel put off or curious. If you do know, you're going to wonder what they have to do with jazz. Either way you're going to think consciously about what you just read, and if you do, you'll be ahead of most of mankind, who respond unreflectively to what goes on around them, the blind leading the blind. For better or worse, that includes too many jazz fans. They like the atmosphere of the music, whether sad or upbeat. They enjoy the rhythmic pulse or getting in a certain mood. But all too often they aren't really listening attentively or thinking clearly about what the musicians—who have spent much of their lives using jazz as a form of introspection and self-expression, are "trying to say." People mostly think of jazz as entertainment, and, except for the devoted aficianodos, they don't really listen carefully to what's being played and reflect upon its underlying meaning.

By sharp contrast, the branches of philosophy called epistemology and ontology are all about thinking reflectively and clearly. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that weighs in about the nature of all knowledge: how do I know that I exist, or that there are fireflies in the summer night, or that E-mc2? Ontology is the study of being in the world, how consciousness and things come to be, what it means to "exist," and whether the world exists independently of thought. Many are put off by such questions because they require great effort to answer and challenge many of the assumptions that we live by on a daily basis. Do you know what it means to be? Do you consciously exist?

Philosophy is a difficult mental discipline. It asks hard questions that most folks would rather skip. It's like being kept in school after class or forced to walk through an endless maze. In spite of its punishing demands, a few wayward individuals pursue philosophy passionately, as if it were an obsession, as if it were the only pursuit that means anything. If they are really good at it, they either become adored by their followers, or like Socrates, condemned to death for their heretical views, or like Ludwig Wittgenstein, live alone in an isolated village in Norway or work as a porter in a London hospital -a humble existence for someone who came from a wealthy family and became a radical and revered thinker. When was the last time you saw a philosopher on a talk show?

Philosophers struggle with the most fundamental questions of life. How do we know what we know? What does it mean "to be?" What is "the good?" Does life have any meaning or purpose? If you think about these questions long enough, they put considerable stress on your mind. Unlike science, there are no answers that everyone can agree upon. The good news for philosophers is that, when they hit the nail on the head, they have the privilege of participating in forming great insights and understandings that propel human destinies and move humanity forward. Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Heidegger have transformed the sciences, art, religion, and society in radical ways. The price of being a philosopher is high, but so are its rewards.

What's This Got to Do with Jazz?

By now, you're frustrated and wondering what philosophy has to do with jazz. My answer is that grappling with these seemingly abstract and thorny philosophical questions can make us better listeners and deepen our appreciation and understanding of the music. For now, I'm asking you to take that on faith, but I hope to justify it in what follows. Please be patient, and read on!


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