The mystery of Brahms

post by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T05:12:47.749Z · score: 5 (12 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 65 comments

I'm interested in how people form valuations of the opinions of others. One domain to study is art. We have a long historic record of how the elite arbiters of taste have decided what artists and what artworks were great.

This is more relevant to 21st century American thought than many of you probably think. The defaults we assume, the stories that are told on television and in our movies, the things taught in our colleges, were partly determined by assertions made by continental philosophers and psychologists of the 18th through 20th centuries, most of which they just made up. [1]

The process by which philosophers eventually get their views accepted into the Western canon looks the same to me as the process by which musicians or painters are accepted into or cast out of the Western canon. Neither has much to do with the quality of the product.

For centuries, artists have been judged not so much by the quality of their work as by its novelty, and by its ability to raise questions while resisting any definitive answers. As one art critic wrote, "Probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the Mona Lisa of literature."

Ironically, that was T. S. Eliot, just a few years before writing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and writing rave reviews of James Joyce's Ulysses.

I think novelty was the main criterion for artistic greatness by the middle of the 19th century. It was almost the only criterion, in all of the fine arts, by 1925.

But there is one artist who sticks out among the desperate attention-seeking artistes like an ordinary thumb: Brahms. Brahms accomplished something that, AFAIK, no one else had in any fine art, in all of European history going back to the Middle Ages. He made art in a style that had gone out of fashion before he was born, not ironically, not nostalgically, but because he liked it. As I understand it, Brahms was still writing symphonies in the style of Beethoven after Chopin and Liszt were dead. And his work became both popular, and accepted by the elite arbiters of taste into the canon, not for introducing any new style, but simply for being enjoyable. Or, as an unsophisticated ignoramus might say, good.

That would be analogous to a philosopher's ideas being accepted just for being correct!

Is that a fair representation? If so, why was he accepted into the canon, when anyone else who tried to just make good stuff would, I imagine, be laughed at or ignored? [2]

 


[1] Analytic philosophers were more rigorous, so nobody liked listening to them. There seems to be a Gresham's Law effect: The presence of bad philosophers who claim to have reached exciting conclusions without any nasty logic or math, makes it impossible for more rigorous work to get a hearing within society and the arts.

[2] I'm open to the idea that Robert Frost may be another exception, though I'm not aware of poems written in 1870 that could be mistaken for Robert Frost poems. I'll also note that people tried to stamp out appreciation for his poems because he wouldn't get with the Modernist program.

65 comments

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comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T11:39:17.268Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure Brahms was as unoriginal as you make out. In any case, his style is certainly no older than (say) mid-to-late Beethoven; Beethoven died in 1827 and I'm pretty sure that when Brahms was born in 1833 mid-to-late Beethoven wasn't "out of style" in any useful sense.

J S Bach's music was widely regarded as old-fashioned in his own lifetime, but if anyone's canon[1] he is.

Saint-Saëns was born later than Brahms but his music isn't any more "modern" than Brahms's, and he was both popular and well regarded by critics (not as well regarded as Brahms, but that's perfectly well explained by his not being quite as good).

[1] Pun not intended but deliberately left in once noticed.

I think the following is perfectly credible and consistent with Brahms's success:

  • To be regarded as a great artist, one must do impressive things.
  • Great skill is impressive. So is great novelty, at least if accompanied by sufficient skill.
  • So famous artists will tend to be skilled and original, but the exact proportions of skill and originality will vary.
  • Brahms was exceptionally skilled and (for a first-rank composer) relatively unoriginal. In comparison, e.g., maybe John Cage was exceptionally original and relatively unskilled.
  • That's all.

There's really only a puzzle if you insist on saying that success generally has nothing to do with skill, which sounds impressively cynical but really doesn't seem particularly likely to be correct.

comment by cousin_it · 2015-10-21T13:24:00.937Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

To be regarded as a great artist, one must do impressive things.

I'm not sure. There are many technically impressive artists who don't become popular because they don't bring anything new to the table.

My view is closer to Phil's idea of "novelty", but with a slight twist. I think art succeeds when it manages to enrich its audience in some new way. Repeating an existing idea usually doesn't count as much, because you can't enrich someone in the same way twice, but sometimes you can make an old art style cool again if people have sufficiently forgotten it. I suspect that looking for ideas that would feel "enriching" to today's audiences (this is admittedly vague) might be more useful than focusing on technique for ten hours a day.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T13:43:26.360Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I think I agree that some degree of novelty is required. (Reductio ad absurdum: A robot that generates copies of Beethoven's symphonies -- by some fancy process that doesn't explicitly involve copying them, but is none the less guaranteed never to generate anything Beethoven didn't already write -- is generating first-rate music but is also absolutely useless and would not be regarded as any kind of artist.)

But I suggest that the degree of novelty required is fairly small. How valuable would it be to the world if someone were able to write another nine symphonies just as good as Beethoven's but that don't enlarge our understanding of music any more than if, say, Beethoven had been able to work twice as fast and lived slightly longer, and had written them as his numbers 1.5, 2.5, ..., 9.5? Pretty damn valuable, I think. If someone found the manuscripts of nine other symphonies Beethoven actually did write but for some reason never released to the world, it would be very exciting and I bet there'd be no shortage of performances and audiences. Or: Pick one of Haydn's 104 symphonies. It probably doesn't really enlarge the world of music much beyond the other 103, but the world would definitely be poorer for its absence.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T15:54:55.367Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story called "The Quixote of Pierre Menard", about a man who rewrites Don Quixote word-for-word. But because he writes it from a modern perspective, it has a different meaning, and is a different work of art. :)

It seems unreasonable to me to suppose that there aren't already people writing Beethoven-style symphonies as well as Beethoven did. We probably have many times as many composers as talented and as well-trained as Beethoven was. Composers today have recorded music, easy access to scores, synthesizers, all sorts of advantages. And they've heard Beethoven. They should be better than Beethoven. My guess is nobody pays any attention to them.

(And if somebody wrote plays today in the style of Shakespeare, and they were as good as Shakespeare's, I don't think anyone would publish them. Publishers would laugh at the artificial, overly-stylized language, the monologues, the poetic form, the coincidences, the crude sexual puns. Everything people love about Shakespeare is considered bad writing today.)

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-10-21T17:26:41.694Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Why does it seem unreasonable to suppose that? The space of possible music is not quite Hilbert-space huge, but it's really, really huge.

So, to produce something like Beethoven, you have to be aiming rather specifically for that.

Very few composers frequently go into another composer's space and produce great music there. John Williams comes to mind as a good candidate, but he's not quite Beethoven-level. Why don't they? Novelty-seeking is an excessive explanation. There is plenty of good stuff left in those veins, but by going there, you're putting yourself directly up against Beethoven. There is somewhere you could go where you would stand out more. The obvious exception is when you're trying to fit a particular space due to a program that you didn't set (which handily explains Williams).

Once musicians have saturated music-space somewhat, you won't need a specific reason to returning to these spaces. As noted above, that could be a while.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-21T16:29:38.993Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, Borges' story is very clever, but part of why it's funny and intriguing is that in fact no one would react as Borges-pretending-to-be-a-critic-writing-about-Menard does even though there's an argument of sorts to be made that they should. And, actually, if someone were really able to make a robot that could regenerate Beethoven's symphonies (but nothing else) from scratch without having the equivalent of the actual symphonies wired in, that would be really interesting. Anyway, we digress.

I don't think the factors you list give sufficient reason to expect that there are people writing Beethoven-like symphonies as good as Beethoven's. Countervailing factors:

  • Most of those people aren't steeped in the same tradition as Beethoven was; they will (of course) have more exposure to music that came after Beethoven, and less to (most) music that came before, and their training will have been shaped by everything after Beethoven, etc., etc., etc. (They didn't do as Menard did in the Borges story!) So the music they write will not naturally come out like Beethoven's.
  • Most music-creators these days aren't trying to write Beethoven-like symphonies. The great majority of music-creators these days aren't even working in the classical tradition; most who are aren't writing symphonies; most who are aren't emulating Beethoven. (And I will hazard a guess that the most talented ones are particularly unlikely to be dedicating their talents to emulating Beethoven.)

Everything people love about Shakespeare is considered bad writing today.

Those things aren't considered bad when Shakespeare does them, nor when other rough contemporaries of his do them (so it's not just that there's a special case for Famous Shakespeare). Pinter's plays are pretty stylized and he won a Nobel prize. There's a big (albeit ridiculous) monologue in "Waiting for Godot" and no one seems to object. T S Eliot got away with writing a couple of plays in verse and I'm not aware that it harmed his reputation.

It's perfectly true that most plays these days aren't written in Shakespeare's style, but I don't think it's because that style is considered bad. It's just not what people do nowadays.

comment by cousin_it · 2015-10-21T14:01:05.253Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, once you've been enriched by some art style, you want more of it to recapture the high. That's what's happening now with /r/hpmor and also with all the nostalgic game kickstarters. I guess that effect is responsible for most art consumption worldwide. Maybe an artist should decide whether they're going for "enrich" or "recapture" (or some combination) and plan accordingly.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T16:50:59.085Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's exploration vs. exploitation again.

comment by bogus · 2015-10-21T14:00:46.263Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think art succeeds when it manages to enrich its audience in some new way.

I think this is right. There is some novelty in the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart or Brahms, but it's not the great originality that, say, Beethoven was known for. Mozart's style wasn't even about finding something old and making it cool again; much of his production was about engaging with the common styles and idioms of the day and adding just enough compelling subtleties to keep his audience interested. Much of modern music works pretty much the same way: top 40 tracks are often dismissed as rehashed and unoriginal, but they all have something interesting about them which helps explain their popularity.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T15:29:20.114Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Mozart lived in the middle of neoclassicism. Novelty wasn't considered very important then. Beethoven's music was one of the watermarks in the rise of the importance of novelty.

Re. originality in popular music, see this video. Don't miss the section starting at 2:39. This video by the Axis of Awesome is fun, too. Pop music, like popular literature, doesn't have the same pressure for novelty. Mainstream pop music today has little stylistic novelty; that gets shunted into sub-genres. A lot of pop music today is difficult to distinguish from music made in the 1990s. The difference between pop music in 1960 and 1964 was much larger than the difference between 1990 and 2015.

comment by satt · 2015-10-23T00:44:08.954Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Re. originality in popular music, see this video. Don't miss the section starting at 2:39. This video by the Axis of Awesome is fun, too.

I'd thought the first video was going to be this one!

I'm sympathetic to the idea that pop music is decreasingly original & novel, but these videos are pretty slender evidence for it. The problem with invoking these videos is that they're sampling on the dependent variable: they pick out small subsets of recent country songs or recent pop songs which go together attention-grabbingly well. But precisely because they go together attention-grabbingly well, they're very likely unrepresentative of country/pop music as a whole.

(Also, even ignoring the unrepresentative sampling, these videos mainly just mean that particular chord progressions are popular. Comments on the Axis of Awesome video mention how the sketch plays on the fact that I-V-vi-IV is a popular chord progression, which it is. But that speaks only to harmony, not melody or arrangement.)

A lot of pop music today is difficult to distinguish from music made in the 1990s. The difference between pop music in 1960 and 1964 was much larger than the difference between 1990 and 2015.

Those claims sound likely on first hearing, but I doubt them more as I think about them. It's easy to have the wrong idea about what charting pop music sounded like in a certain year.

One can think of 1964 and imagine the charts were being revolutionized by a deluge of songs as memorable & novel as "You Really Got Me", but looking at Billboard's top 10 singles for 1964, I have a hard time picking out even half a dozen which stand out to me like that. (Admittedly, that's more than I can pick out from the 1960 chart.)

As for 1990, I surprised myself twice over! After I started thinking to myself along the lines of, "new wave and hip hop were well established by then, and I guess it wasn't long before grunge became a big deal, so maybe there was a lot from those genres?", I checkity-checked myself by pulling up Billboard's 1990 list. When I saw New Kids on the Block, Michael Bolton, Rod Stewart, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, I thought, "oh, wow, yeah, right, guess I was wrong".

But then I looked again and saw more. Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" (Wikipedia: "incorporat[ing] dance-pop and industrial music, also using elements of hip-hop and funk rock"); Biz Markie's "Just a Friend"; Madonna's "Vogue" (Wikipedia: "a dance-pop and house song with notable disco influence" and "a spoken rap section"); Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" (Wikipedia: "in the style of new jack swing, a late-80s hybrid of R&B and hip hop"); Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart"; UB40's reggae-fication of The Temptations' "The Way You Do the Things You Do"; and Prince's "Thieves in the Temple" (Wikipedia: "a unique sound, starting quietly with echoed keyboards and vocals before the main section of the song booms in with a pulsating synth bass, syncopated drum machines, Middle Eastern melodies and opera-like layered vocals"). That last one's not on YouTube 'cause Prince and his record company are like super picky about people uploading his studio recordings.

It follows that my idea of the music crashing into the US charts in 1990 was patchy & incomplete. So who knows; maybe it is more different to today's US pop than 1960's was from 1964's? The test that'd answer that question would be taking a representative sample of charting songs from 1960 onwards and analyzing them systematically for diversity.

comment by satt · 2015-10-23T00:50:28.308Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Come to think of it, I remember a paper — "The evolution of popular music: USA 1960–2010" — which has some relevance. The punchline?

We show that, although pop music has evolved continuously, it did so with particular rapidity during three stylistic ‘revolutions’ around 1964, 1983 and 1991.

1964 and 1991, ehh?

comment by bogus · 2015-10-21T16:32:42.916Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Re. originality in popular music, see this video. Don't miss the section starting at 2:39. This video by the Axis of Awesome is fun, too.

What these mashup videos show is that a lot of modern songs are essentially variations on a single ground bass. Whether this means that they "lack novelty" arguably depends on what exactly you mean by novelty (I certainly agree that Mozart was not original in the way Beethoven was), but even Beethoven wrote in this musical form (see e.g. his 32 Variations in C minor)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-22T02:15:45.115Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You missed the section starting at 2:39, didn't you?

comment by bogus · 2015-10-22T18:00:27.847Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I just don't think that it proves much, beyond what I wrote above. Given how consonance and dissonance work, it's somewhat to be expected that playing many variations at once on the same ground can result in (consonant) music.

comment by Wes_W · 2015-10-22T00:56:59.699Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If I were making music in the style of someone who died six years before I was born, people would probably think I was out of style. I'm not sure if this is the historical fallacy I don't have a name for, where we gloss over differences in a few decades because they're less salient to us than the differences between the 1990s and the 1960s, or if musical styles just change more quickly now.

comment by Memory_Slip · 2015-10-22T03:21:31.725Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It seems that the pace of change in music waxes and wanes, and does not seem to be accelerating. The twenty year gap from 1955 to 1975 is enormous. From 1995 to 2015, not so much.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-22T09:15:59.450Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, I agree; Brahms was quite old-fashioned. But Phil specifically said that Brahms's was writing music in a style that "had gone out of fashion before he was born", which I think is clearly not true.

comment by Wes_W · 2015-10-22T15:41:00.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're right, I missed that line.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-10-21T14:50:27.455Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Phil, did I ever recommend Galenson's Old Masters and Young Geniuses to you? I think you'd appreciate it; an economist whose hobby is art history tries to figure out whether artists get better or worse with age, and finds two clusters, one of which relentlessly gets better and one of which peaks early, and identifies the core difference between them. (The first are more like artisans, who slowly get better at their craft through experimentation, and the second make conceptual contributions, but once those are made, they're spent.)

comment by passive_fist · 2015-10-29T22:12:31.442Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder if this view is useful for studying the careers of scientists as well. I can certainly think of scientists who would fall into either category. Gauss and John Bardeen were probably artisans, whereas Einstein was more of a conceptual contributor.

Norbert Wiener might be something of an anomaly: A child prodigy who also had a pretty amazing career later in life. Although that's not surprising since Wiener is anomalous in a bunch of other ways as well.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T19:56:48.381Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No; thanks! Can you remember instances of people he put in each cluster? I'd think Mozart would be a young master, and Beethoven an old genius.

I don't know that anybody gets better over time in literature, at least technically. I wonder whether there's any correlation between a novel's (rank order / total number of novels) and its status. An analysis would be muddied by the anecdotally-observed effect that the more critically acclaimed an author's novels are, the slower he writes them. (Seems to be cause-effect, since the long interval, or cessation of writing, usually comes after the critically acclaimed novel.)

comment by CronoDAS · 2015-10-22T17:41:09.802Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know that anybody gets better over time in literature, at least technically.

Terry Pratchett.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-10-24T02:36:16.090Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Galenson's example is Twain.

What do you mean by "better technically"? Joyce's work became more complicated and difficult to read. Does that count as getting better technically? I think most authors improve technically, but decline in inspiration.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-10-30T01:10:13.071Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can you remember instances of people he put in each cluster? I'd think Mozart would be a young master, and Beethoven an old genius.

I finally remembered this comment while at home and able to access the book. His name for the artisan category was "experimental," which makes more sense. Another distinction that I forgot to mention is that people tend to talk about the 'body of work' of experimentalists as important, but single works by conceptual artists stand out. If the same paintings show up in art books, then the artist is more likely to be conceptual; if every art book includes a piece by someone but they all pick different pieces, then the artist is more likely to be experimental.

Turns out he has a section on poets, and another on novelists. Among the 20th century poets, he lists Frost, Williams, Stevens, and Lowell as experimental, and Pound, Cummings, Plath, and Eliot as conceptual. For novelists, he lists Dickens, Henry James, Twain, and Woolf as experimental, and Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, and Melville as conceptual.

(He ranks Ulysses as more important as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is itself more important than Finnegan's Wake.)

comment by satt · 2015-10-27T00:25:12.501Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know that anybody gets better over time in literature, at least technically.

DublinersPortrait of the ArtistUlyssesFinnegans Wake?

Edit: haha, and only now do I see Douglas_Knight had the same thought.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-24T09:34:50.853Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know that anybody gets better over time in literature

Maybe Thomas Hardy, though assessing that is complicated by the fact that he basically switched completely from novels to poems partway through his career and it's not clear how you compare the quality of such different forms.

Maybe Shakespeare; looking at a chronological list of his plays I certainly see a higher density of ones I know to be good later on. (But Shakespearean chronology is uncertain and I'm not familiar with all his plays.)

Jane Austen, kinda; the novels for which she's famous were written in the last six years of her life. (But, tragically, all Austen's works are early works; she died at 41.)

Dostoyevsky's first published work was in 1846 (when he was 25). The earliest "big name" one would be "Notes from Underground", 1864, age 43, more than half-way through his writing career (his last novel was "The Brothers Karamazov" from 1879).

Goethe was already something of a big name at 25, but his best novel is probably Wilhelm Meister (age 46) and his best play Faust part 1 (age 59).

I dunno; it looks to me as if writers get better, get worse, stay about the same, or evolve their style in ways that make comparison difficult, and all of those happen pretty often.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-29T03:46:10.604Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What I should have said was, I don't know if there is much tendency for writers to improve over time. If you looked at a sample of 100 writers, you'd expect half of them to have done their best work in the second half of their careers if the distribution were random. To me, the random hypothesis seems closer to reality than the hypothesis that writers improve with time after they become successful.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-29T14:41:57.384Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

OK, that I can believe. But I can also easily believe that some writers genuinely get better and some genuinely get worse. (I'm sure almost all get better at first, prior to their first successful publication, but that's kinda separate.)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-22T02:14:00.771Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A few minutes with Google turns up what a day on LessWrong did not:

Brahms was discovered by Robert Schumann in 1853. Schumann was at the time probably the most influential music critic in the world, and one of the most-respected composers. And he took Brahms on as... well, I can't tell from Google, even with dozens of hits, what their relationship was, but Brahms is usually described as Schumann's "protege" or "pupil". And Schumann promoted Brahms relentlessly for the next 2 years, until he (Schumann) went mad.

comment by Creutzer · 2015-10-22T12:56:22.986Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To be fair, if there is a mystery at all, then this only pushes it one step further: Schumann wasn't any more radically innovative than Brahms and yet was extremely influential and is still regarded as a composer of the first rank.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-22T19:27:17.837Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not familiar with Schumann. Googling music theory forums indicates he's respected today mainly for his compositions for piano, while his symphonies are held in low regard. I'm now listening to his piano concerto in A minor, finished in 1845. I'm not very familiar with the 1830s or 1840s, but it doesn't sound anything like music from the 1820s or earlier.

I don't think music like this could have been written before Schumann. The piano necessary to play it didn't exist. Some key moments in the development of the piano:

The music forums say Liszt and Ravel's works required the double escapement, and some say Chopin's did, while one argues Chopin's pianos didn't have it. No word on Schumann.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-23T15:53:58.226Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Is it very weird of me to find extremely odd the combination of

  • confident pronouncements about whether a piece of music written in 1845 could have been written in the 1820s
  • confident pronouncements about the processes by which music made its way into the canon in the 1800s
  • apparently being completely unfamiliar with Robert Schumann until the last few days?

I mean, it's not as if Schumann is obscure or third-rate; he was, as you say, enormously influential in shaping critical opinion and he was a composer of the first rank (yes, especially for piano, but it's not like no one plays his symphonies any more). Doesn't being "not familiar with Schumann" strike you as a disqualification for telling us what the "main criterion for artistic greatness" was (in the context of music) in the mid-to-late 19th century? I mean, what business have you saying such things when you're "not familiar" with someone who was both central in deciding "artistic greatness" then, and one of the leading exemplars of "artistic greatness" then?

I'm aware that this sounds rude, and I'm sorry about that. But there does seem to be something of a disconnect between your willingness to complain of how little artistic success for 19th-century musicians had to do with quality, and there being at least one really big hole in your knowledge of that period.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-10-23T21:07:42.742Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No, it is not at all weird for you to think along those lines. It is merely incorrect.

comment by othercriteria · 2015-10-28T22:39:43.925Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Seconding all of gjm's criticisms, and adding another point.

The sostenuto (middle) pedal was invented in 1844. The sustain (right) pedal has been around roughly as long as the piano itself, since piano technique is pretty much unthinkable without it.

comment by Creutzer · 2015-10-23T12:16:33.287Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's true, and these technical developments were crucial for 19th century piano music, but keep in mind that harmonic language and musical form are quite independent from this and are highly relevant domains of innovation and creativity.

In any case, I'm not quite sure what the point is that you're trying to make.

comment by Irgy · 2015-10-21T11:13:51.126Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You can do it first or you can do it best, usually both are different artists and each is well known. I think there's plenty of examples of both in all fields. Rachmaninov for instance is another classical (in the broad sense) composer in the "do it well" rather than "do it first" camp, he was widely criticised as behind the times in his own era, but listening now no-one cares that his writing music sounds like it's ~150 years old but written only ~100.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-10-21T09:05:45.811Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Analytic philosophers were more rigorous, so nobody liked listening to them.

Does anybody like listening to Hegel and other similar obstrusive writing? Being hard to read and not fun to read doesn't seem a barrier to success.

comment by turchin · 2015-10-21T09:33:30.280Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hegel was popular lecturer.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T17:01:53.594Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I was wondering the very same thing as I wrote the post. Kant and Hegel are the two founders of continental philosophy, and both are difficult to read. Pretty much all 20th century continental philosophers are terribly hard to read.

I would speculate that, while people might not be sure they understand Kant & Hegel, they also can't be sure they don't understand them. They require no math; they are analogical enough that reading them is more like reading literature than math. A person reading Kripke either understands it or does not. Reading Heidegger is more like reading Tolstoy; you feel you can always go back to it and discover more.

Perhaps more importantly, they tackle bigger questions. Analytic philosophers start with questions they think they can answer; continental philosophers start with questions they want the answers to.

Also, continental philosophers can never be refuted. The logical positivists made the mistake of stating their claims clearly enough that people could listen to less-precise statements claiming to refute them, and believe they'd been refuted.

Here's a random excerpt from Kant:

It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be taken to be good without limitation, except a GOOD WILL. Understanding, wit, judgement and whatever else the talents of the mind may be called, or confidence, resolve and persistency of intent, as qualities of temperament, are no doubt in many respects good and desirable; but they can also be extremely evil and harmful if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature, and whose distinctive constitution is therefore called character, is not good. It is just the same with gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honour, even health, and the entire well-being and contentment with one's condition, under the name of happiness, inspire confidence and thereby quite often overconfidence as well, unless a good will is present to correct and make generally purpo­sive their influence on the mind, and with it also the whole principle for acting; not to mention that a rational impartial spectator can never­ more take any delight in the sight of the uninterrupted prosperity of a being adorned with no feature of a pure and good will, and that a good will thus appears to constitute the indispensable condition even of the worthiness to be happy.

Here's a random excerpt from Bertrand Russell, an analytic philosopher:

Traditionally, there are two sorts of data, one physical, derived from the senses, the other mental, derived from introspection. It seems highly questionable whether this distinction can be validly made among data; it seems rather to belong to what is inferred from them. Suppose, for the sake of definiteness, that you are looking at a white triangle drawn on a black- board. You can make the two judgments: "There is a triangle there", and "I see a triangle." These are different propositions, but neither expresses a bare datum; the bare datum seems to be the same in both propositions. To illustrate the difference of the propositions: you might say "There is a triangle there", if you had seen it a moment ago but now had your eyes shut, and in this case you would not say "I see a triangle"; on the other hand, you might see a black dot which you knew to be due to indigestion or fatigue, and in this case you would not say "There is a black dot there." In the first of these cases, you have a clear case of inference, not of a datum.

Kant is talking about good and evil, delight, happiness, character, honor, etc., while Russell is talking about looking at triangles. Which one are people going to want to read?

comment by pragmatist · 2015-10-21T18:38:01.668Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Kant is talking about good and evil, delight, happiness, character, honor, etc., etc, while Russell is talking about looking at triangles. Which one are people going to want to read?

Except Kant also talked quite a bit about triangles and Russell also talked quite a bit about good and evil. And Kant discussed perceptual epistemology a whole lot more than Russell did. The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant's most significant work, is about epistemology, not ethics.

Also, while much of twentieth-century continental philosophy does build on Kant (although a lot of it is a reaction against Kant), so does much of twentieth-century analytic philosophy. In many ways, the true heirs of Kant in the twentieth century were the logical positivists. Their epistemology was closer to Kant's than any prominent continental philosopher's was. So Kant has just as much claim to being a founder of analytic philosophy as he does to being a founder of continental philosophy.

Kant was not the most lucid writer, but his style was not remotely "analogical" or "literary" (look through Kant's famous Transcendental Deduction and see whether those descriptors seem apt).. And much of Kantian philosophy is precisely formulated and subject to falsification. In fact, quite a bit of it has been falsified (his contention that space is necessarily Euclidean, for instance).

comment by Creutzer · 2015-10-22T13:07:54.525Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed. Kant is a poor example for offensive continental philosophy because while he was a very bad writer, but you can reconstruct sensible ideas he was trying to express, at least when it's not about ethics. The really offensive philosophy is the one where the obscurity of the writing is not accidental in this way, but essential, and where the whole thing falls apart once you try to remove it.

Analytical philosophers also do not routinely scoff at Kant except for 1) his lack of skill as a writer and 2) his ethics.

comment by pragmatist · 2015-10-22T15:10:17.089Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know of many analytic philosophers who scoff at his ethics, although there are certainly many who disagree with it. There are also many analytic philosophers who consider his ethics to be a significant advance in moral reasoning. As an example, Derek Parfit, in his recent book, constructs an ethical system that tries to reconcile the attractions of both consequentialism and Kantian deontological ethics.

Kant's discussion of the categorical imperative, especially the first formulation of the imperative (act according to the maxim that you would will to be a universal law), prefigures various contemporary attempts to reformulate decision theory in order to avoid mutual defection in PD-like games, including Hofstadter's notion of superrationality and Yudkowsky's Timeless Decision Theory. Essentially, Kantian ethics is based on the idea that ethics stems from nothing more than a commitment to rational decision-making and common knowledge of rationality among interacting agents (although with Kant it's not so much about knowing that other agents are rational but about respecting them by treating them as rational). I don't fully agree with this perspective, but I do think it is remarkably astute and ahead of its time.

comment by Creutzer · 2015-10-22T16:03:41.742Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In my experience, many people hold that when trying to derive the KI in the groundwork, he just managed to confuse himself, and that the examples of its application as motivated reasoning of a rigid Prussian scholar with an empathy deficit.

The crucial failure is not that it is nonsensical to think about such abstract equilibria - it is very much not, as TDT shows. But in TDT terms, Kant's mistake was this: He thought he could compel you to pretend that everybody else in the world was running TDT. But there is nothing that compels you to assume that, and so you can't pull a substantial binding ethics out of thin air (or pure rationality), as Kant absurdly believed he could.

comment by pragmatist · 2015-10-22T16:13:47.163Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I absolutely agree that Kant's system as represented in the Groundwork is unworkable. But you could say the same about pretty much any pre-20th-century philosopher's major work. I think the fact that someone was even trying to think about ethics along essentially game-theoretic lines in the 18th century is pretty revolutionary and worthy of respect, even if he did get important things wrong. As far as I'm aware, no one else was even in the ballpark.

ETA: I do think a lot of philosophers scoff (correctly) at Kant's object-level moral views, not only because of their absurdity (the horrified tone in which he describes masturbation still makes me chuckle) but because of the intellectual contortions he would go through to "prove" them using his system. While I believe he made very important contributions to meta-ethics, his framework was nowhere near precise enough to generate a workable applied ethics. So yeah, Kant's actual ethical positions are pretty scoff-worthy, but the insight driving his moral framework is not.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-22T15:11:17.624Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My random sample was from his ethics, though I didn't pull it from there intentionally. I took the first book by Kant that showed up in a search of my computer.

Who were Kant's contemporary philosophical competitors?

comment by Val · 2015-10-21T14:23:11.097Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think you underestimate the influence of both ancient Greek philosophers and Christianity in the formation of modern Western philosophy. They didn't usually just made things up, and even in the cases when they did, they were trying to find support for it in the works of philosophers and theologians of the past.

Even with art it's not as simple as depicted. Until the early 20th century, every school of art (at least in painting and music) was built upon (and drew inspiration from) a previous one.

comment by turchin · 2015-10-21T09:02:31.103Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I love Brahms but I personally can hear that he is much "newer" than Beethoven. Also I think that idea of canon and novelty as only explanation of quality of art is oversimplified. It is very complex topic about which hundreds of high quality books are written. Second half of 19 century and the beginning of 20th century was marked by two efforts to recreate previous styles. First was eclectic architecture which tried to recreate previous styles formaly. The second one is Art Nouveau, which tried recreate a spirit of Medieval and other arts. Mostly all this efforts failed as we could easily recognise now 19 and 20 century artworks.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T18:36:58.015Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Note that I said entering canon has little to do with quality. People have the idea that great art is made by great artists, but these things are separate. A great artist, under today's rules, is one who advances the art. The art the great artist makes may be very poor, because it's an early attempt at a new style, like the novels of James Joyce and William Faulkner.

Your point about architectural styles is good, but I'd be cautious about inferences drawn from decor & the ornamentation of buildings, including 19th century revivalism, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco.

(The grouping together of structure and decoration under the term "architecture" always confuses me. It must make architecture very difficult.)

There are two opposed philosophies of art. The first, the Platonic, says that art should reinforce society's traditional and transcendent "truths". This basically controls Greek art from Homer until at least just before Euripides, and then Roman and Christian art, up until about the time of Shakespeare (and was still the "common-sense" view of society at large through maybe 1800). The second, the subversive, says art should focus our attention on the cracks in society's traditional "truths". This has dominated from maybe 1800 until now.

The more affordable an art form's products are, the more subversive it becomes.

"Fine art" decor (or at least revivalism, nouveau, and Art Deco), is made to decorate and celebrate the homes and the places of powerful of the wealthy and the powerful. As such, it runs in the opposite direction from the rest of the art world; it is subservient to the current power structure. Hence all these backwards-looking movements in decor, like Art Nouveau and Art Deco, which resurrect Platonic styles.

comment by bogus · 2015-10-21T19:23:32.345Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A lot of art is not made either to reinforce societal truths or to subvert them. If it's made for any purpose, it's just to look pretty. This applies especially to the more "ornamental" and "decorative" arts and crafts. This sort of art is not talked about much, precisely because it does not deal much with "society's traditional and transcendent truths" (whatever that means) so it's harder to say anything worthwhile about it, but it's probably a lot more important and salient to most folks than things like painting or sculpture, which are what first comes to mind when talking about "art".

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-22T02:18:58.039Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When I say "the fine arts", I'm trying to exclude all that, and talk about the stuff that gets studied in college and written about in journals, and whose artists used to be patronized by nobility and now get invited to parties in Manhattan.

comment by bogus · 2015-10-22T18:17:39.709Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

True, but it's not clear that it should be excluded, especially when talking about things like decor. For that matter, one could argue that even the cheapest and most trivial cultural artifact reflects the society it is a product of, and to this extent it is "subservient" to social truths. And even the most "subversive" art ends up saying a lot about the way our society actively celebrates some sort of subversion. Which is certainly a social truth that has its own notable legacy and perhaps even "tradition".

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-22T19:14:27.091Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When the question is how artists are accepted into the canon defined by the elite gatekeepers--the journal editors, the critics, the department chairs at major universities--then those things should be excluded, because they aren't part of the phenomenon being studied. They are more strongly governed by different rules.

comment by Fluttershy · 2015-10-21T13:06:02.911Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

.

(I'm rather confident that this comment wasn't harmful, but I'm deleting it anyways, in case I was wrong.)

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-10-21T17:28:41.933Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, ah, who is Bad Horse? Unless that'd be POWER WORD-ing someone, in which case why did you bring it up?

comment by Fluttershy · 2015-10-21T18:34:09.422Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-10-22T22:24:29.273Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, you didn't. I mis-worded a reminder to check whether the information is private, making it read more aggressively than I meant.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T19:08:44.795Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know what Power Wording is either, and Google doesn't help. Link?

comment by CronoDAS · 2015-10-22T17:31:34.507Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

From context, it looks like it means one of two things:

1) Some people you don't mention by name on websites, because they Google their name and, when they find it, show up and cause trouble.

2) Revealing something about someone that they'd rather keep private, a.k.a. "outing" or "doxing"...

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-10-22T22:22:31.647Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's #2 - I've heard it used as an analogy to the D&D spells 'Power Word Stun' and '... Kill'. If you have an anonymous handle somewhere, then either in or out of its context, to hear of the other one could have a stunning and alarming effect.

In any case, I see from Fluttershy's comment that this is fairly public, in which case 'power word' does not apply.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-10-21T05:58:43.810Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The Pre-Raphaelites claimed to go back to an earlier style, hence the name, though I'm not sure they actually did.

comment by Jazz · 2015-10-27T00:24:11.731Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"The presence of bad philosophers who claim to have reached exciting conclusions without any nasty logic or math, makes it impossible for more rigorous work to get a hearing within society and the arts." +1

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2015-10-21T15:06:17.599Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

See also Moldbug's commentary about how Thomas Carlyle was once considered the greatest writer in English after Shakespeare, but was then so utterly cast out of the canon, because of his reactionary political views, that Moldbug only discovered him because of the advent of Google Books.

comment by satt · 2015-10-23T01:10:47.703Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I doubt that. Comparing how often Thomas Carlyle's mentioned in English books relative to Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens, and John Ruskin — contemporary celebrity writers & critics mentioned in Carlyle's Wikipedia article by their full names — suggests Carlyle's maintained a respectable level of fame, even as his star's dimmed since his 1880s peak. (While the heavyweights, Dickens & Mill, consistently beat Carlyle, Carlyle roughly matches Ruskin, and in British books Carlyle soundly beats Emerson, who seems more of an American taste.)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-10-21T20:09:26.513Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I can tell from Google, Carlyle wrote one novel, which he published as non-fiction. He was known for writing essays. A writer's reputation, when writing essays, depends on the correctness of his conclusions, not on his style. Carlyle's beliefs are now believed by most people to be incorrect. In any case an essay writer really isn't in this competition. If you want to consider them, though, add Pierre Bayle to the list of once-famous but now forgotten.

I wonder whether the Carlyle Group, a multi-national financial company worth $36 billion, really named themselves after the hotel...