March 27, 2016

Boulez the Cartesian

…I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation…
Rene Descartes [1]

…if you do not make a clean sweep of all that you have inherited from the past … and adopt an attitude of fundamental doubt towards all accepted values, … you will never get any further.
Pierre Boulez [2]

[My first fully serial composition] was an experiment in what might be called Cartesian doubt: to bring everything into question again, make a clean sweep of one’s heritage and start all over again from scratch.
Pierre Boulez [3]

Pierre Boulez had a reputation as a Cartesian, and not just because he was French and in France Descartes inspires the kind of reverence accorded to vodka in Russia or to Jesus in the American South.  From his late twenties to the end of his long life, Boulez repeatedly described his musical theorizing as a Cartesian project of employing radical doubt to challenge every aspect of musical tradition with the aim of rebuilding compositional practice from scratch on the new foundation of integral serialism.[4] 
     Boulez’s Cartesianism has been duly noted by musicologists, though always in passing and without judgment, the way one mention’s a man’s height or his place of birth.  But why?  Imagine if it had been discovered that Boulez was inspired by, say, Mein Kampf.  Surely musicologists would have taken a close look at the relevant parts of that book, identified all sorts of bad thinking behind the words, and adjusted their assessment of Boulez’s intellect accordingly.  Since deranged tyrants do not have monopoly on bad thinking, my guess is that the free pass given to Boulez’s Cartesianism is due to the common acceptance of Descartes’ reputation as a great thinker.  In light of this reputation, a brief mention of Descartes’ ideas which inspired Boulez is all that needs to be said in the context of a musicological discussion.
     The only problem with this way of treating Boulez’s Cartesianism is that, as a philosopher, Descartes was not a great thinker.  Not even a good one.  Which is to say he was pretty bad (though not as bad as some other members of the Great Philosophers Club).  And if Boulez was inspired by bad thinking imported from Descartes’ philosophy, this non-musical blind spot is worth noting for the sake of a more complete (and more realistic) perspective on the man.

So let’s take a quick look at the source of Boulez’s inspiration. Descartes was unhappy with philosophy as it was practiced in his time, especially with epistemology (theory of knowledge) which he thought insufficiently restrictive to prevent falsehoods from hiding among our most fundamental beliefs.  To correct this perceived inadequacy, he proposed to rebuild the entire system of knowledge from the ground up on the foundation of absolute certainty, with the said foundation admitting only those beliefs whose truth is immune to even the most radical, outrageously improbable doubt.  The result of Descartes’ effort – first presented in his Discourse on Method and later expanded in Meditations on First Philosophy is a striking example of how a man with a prodigious talent for mathematics can abandon logical rigor, and even common sense, when his mind turns to philosophy.[5]
     In these works Descartes employs his method of radical doubt to undermine the certainty not only of beliefs derived from the senses (along with all of empirical science which depends on such beliefs), but also of the most elementary propositions of mathematics (such as '2 + 3 = 5') and thus of basic principles of logic as well.  With seemingly nothing left to put into his promised foundation of knowledge, he proudly announces his discovery of the now famous “I think, therefore I exist” argument which yields the first item of genuine knowledge: his absolutely certain belief in his own existence as a thinking entity.  This belief cannot be mistaken because even mistaken beliefs require the existence of a mind (self) whose beliefs they are.
     Unfortunately, nothing significant whatsoever follows from this bit of self-knowledge; and since Descartes never intended to give up mathematics and basic science, he quickly moves to arguments for the existence of God who (not being a deceiver) will guarantee the truth of everything Descartes perceives "clearly and distinctly".  It is only this Divine underwriting of his "clear and distinct perceptions" that enables Descartes to reclaim his mathematical knowledge and his knowledge of the external (material) world: "And so I very clearly recognize that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends alone on the knowledge of the true God, in so much that, before I knew Him, I could not have a perfect knowledge of any other thing."[6]

Setting aside the fact that Descartes' arguments for the existence of God are fallacious (as all such arguments are), and also the fact that his “I think, therefore I exist” is a pointless detour on the way to a purely theological foundation of knowledge, one can only marvel at the level of delusion which allowed Descartes to grant absolute certainty to the existence of God, but not to "any other thing", including the premises and the logic of arguments by which he proves to himself that God indeed exists.  When done marveling, one may also wonder how Descartes’ philosophy could have possibly survived into the present day, except perhaps as a message of hope for undergraduates who flunked an introductory calculus course.  (The message: Argumentative grandiloquence, unmoored from logic and common sense, can propel you to fame and glory, or at least give you the status of an intellectual, so long as you keep away from mathematics and the exact sciences.) 

But survive it did.  The general Cartesian idea of wiping the slate clean – be that slate philosophical, social, political, or aesthetic – and rebuilding everything from the ground up on the foundation that is perfectly secure, just, rational, beautiful or whatever proved irresistible to generations of radicals and aspiring revolutionaries.  The attraction is easy to understand.  The promise of a better world built on the ruins of the old one need not be in the least realistic to serve the aims of pathologically ambitious outsiders for whom the shortest path to power begins with the destruction of the existing order of things.  Which is pretty much how the pathologically ambitious young Boulez approached the existing order of things in music shortly after the end of the Second World War.
Whatever one thinks of Boulez as a thinker, his enthusiasm for a philosophical doctrine as loopy as Descartes’ epistemology shows that his analytical gifts did not extend to matters outside music.[7]  After all, it is not hard to see that, while skepticism is essential for epistemological hygiene, radical skepticism of the kind represented by Descartes’ method of doubt is simply incoherent.  One cannot meaningfully doubt everything (and reject anything that can be doubted ‘in principle’) if only because any kind of intellectual scrutiny must presuppose some logical principles along with some premises to which these logical principles are to be applied. 
     It also doesn’t take much to see that Descartes’ obsessive insistence on absolute certainty as a guarantee of truth (and thus of genuine knowledge) is pure wishful thinking.  Certainty, which is a state of mind (an attitude toward propositions) has no logical connection to truth, which is an objective, semantic property of propositions. (This is why Descartes had to invoke a non-deceiving God as a way of connecting certainty with truth.)  Even in pure mathematics, where claims of knowledge enjoy by far the greatest security, there are examples of  propositions whose truth was once thought to be absolutely certain yet which later were shown to be false.[8]
     For a music theorist supposedly well acquainted with Descartes’ writings, such follies should have served as a warning against (a) rejecting any aspect of traditional compositional practice just because its necessity can be doubted ‘in principle’, and (b) dogmatically proclaiming some alternative system of organizing sounds as the only acceptable foundation of compositional practice.  Yet these were just the things Boulez did when he proceeded to extend the already developed serial organization of pitch to other musical parameters, while dismissing as “useless” those of his contemporaries who did not acknowledge “the necessity” of the serialist framework.  And although later in life Boulez came to admit that integral serialism was an aesthetic mistake[9], he never raised the question of whether this mistake may have been due in part to his infatuation with Descartes’ philosophy.

1.  Descartes, R., Mediations on First Philosophy, tr. by E.S. Haldane, Cambridge U. Press, 1911, p.6

2.  Boulez, P., Orientations, Harvard U. Press, 1986, p.446.

3.  Boulez, P. and C. Deliege, Conversations with Pierre Boulez, Eulenburg Books, 1976, p.56

4.  As far as I know, Boulez’s earliest public reference to Descartes' method of doubt is in his 1954 essay “The Composer as Critic” (reprinted in Orientations).  There are also references to Descartes in Boulez’s private correspondence, e.g., his 1959 letter to Stockhausen where he writes about rereading Descartes in preparation for his lectures at Darmstadt.  A late life reference to Descartes can be found in Boulez’s interview with David Walters in Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives, Ashgate, 2010, p.309.

5.  Descartes is not the only such case.  Leibniz is another example, a mathematician of genius whose philosophical writings (e.g., Monadology) occasionally border on lunacy. 

6.  Meditations on First Philosophy, p.25, italics mine.

7.  That being said, Boulez’s Cartesianism strikes me as a minor embarrassment compared to extra-musical enthusiasms of other well known avant-garde composers associated with the Darmstadt School, e.g., Eastern mysticism (Stockhausen), Communism (Nono, Maderna), and Maoism (Cardew).

8.  Such examples include: (a) The whole is greater than the part. This logical axiom (fifth common notion) from Euclid’s Elements is false in set theory; (b) The sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180°.  This theorem of Euclidean geometry is false in hyperbolic and elliptic geometries; (c) The boundary of a finite area has finite length.  This proposition fails for finite areas with fractal boundaries. 
     It is also worth noting that among theorems of modern mathematics there are propositions which in Descartes’ time would have been viewed as manifestly absurd (necessarily false), e.g., those asserting the existence of space-filling curves, or the possibility of dividing a sphere into finitely many parts and reassembling these parts into two spheres each having the volume of the original one.

9.  A good example is Boulez’s 1997 remark, “In my youth I used to think that music could be athematic. I am now convinced that music must be based on recognizable musical objects.” (Quoted in Whittall, A., “Carter’s Symphonia and Late-Modern Thematicism”, Elliott Carter Studies, Cambridge U. Press, p.60)


Tim said...

"That being said, Boulez’s Cartesianism strikes me as a minor embarrassment compared to extra-musical enthusiasms of other well known avant-garde composers associated with the Darmstadt School, e.g., Eastern mysticism (Stockhausen), Communism (Nono, Maderna), and Maoism (Cardew)."

I promise to approiately roll my eyes throughout Sinfonia. Brown's freedom, how foolish! Cage's anarchy, what a doofus! Xenakis's game theory, how infantile!

Darmstadt was a terrible place.

Leroy V said...

Nive post Boom, too bad Boulez didn't choose Husserl instead... :)