Thick Aesthetic Concepts in Extreme Metal

My last post got me thinking about why it’s so difficult to explain the appeal of extreme metal to people that don’t like the genre. Part of me was concerned that this task was not simply hard but perhaps not possible at all. I feel like the appropriate response to someone who asks what there is to like about extreme metal is the apocryphal reply that Satchmo gave  to someone who asked what jazz is: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know”. After considering it further, I think there’s something philosophically interesting about the way that people in the scene communicate with each other about their passion that might explain why this problem feels so intractable.

In the mid-80s a philosopher called Bernard Williams emphasised the importance to moral discourse of what he called “thick” ethical concepts. To get a feel for thick ethical concepts, one can contrast them with thin concepts of both a moral and non-moral variety. For example, the concept of size is a thin descriptive concept. If I say that John is tall, I am not passing moral judgement about him or invoking any kind of normative values in describing him as such. However, if I say that something he did was (morally) wrong, this judgement most certainly is evaluative, and my description of it does involve the use of normative values (namely, rightness and wrongness).

Thick ethical concepts constitute an entanglement of descriptive and normative features, they combine a judgement of fact with a judgement of value. For example, if I say that John is cruel then I am passing moral judgement on him in a way that I am not if I simply say that he has a tendency to cause unnecessary harm to others (or, at least, if there is moral judgement in this latter example it is merely implicit and not part of the meaning of the words themselves). However, I am also claiming that he has certain traits or performs certain types of actions. For instance, if John never gave money to charity, that might be reason for thinking him immoral or unethical, but it wouldn’t be sufficient for thinking him cruel, all things being equal. In this sense, cruelty has a descriptive, non-normative element to it that is absent in thin ethical concepts like ‘wrong’ or ‘good’.

Cruelty at its worst.

The notion of thick concepts, however, needn’t be restricted to ethics and can be extended into other areas of discourse that include value judgements, most notably to aesthetics. For example, if I say that a dress is elegant, I am not simply describing its shape or flow, but also voicing my aesthetic approval of it. Conversely, to say that a painting is garish is not only to describe its colour scheme but to condemn it on the basis of this choice of colours. In this way, aesthetic concepts often combine descriptive and evaluative elements.

No less than in other areas of art, metal too contains a myriad of thick aesthetic concepts. If anything, metal probably contains far more than other areas, given that many typical thin aesthetic concepts like beauty just aren’t appropriate for trying to pass judgement on the genre. Whilst the topic of discussion last time was death metal, I think that black metal is probably the sub-genre whose vocabulary is most inundated with thick aesthetic terms.

Much of the vocabulary used to describe this music draws heavily on themes central or related to the genre, which is tied to anti-Christianity, Satanism, Norway, paganism and nihilism: words like “grim”, “necro”, “brutal”, “krieg”, “misanthropic” and so on… Like the term elegance, however, many of these words not only describe the style of the music but also evaluate it positively. For example, to say that a black metal track is necro is, in part, to describe it as having lo-fi production values or a raw feel. However, the term also implies approbation or a sense of approval regarding its sound.

There is a debate within the literature as to whether or not it is possible to separate the evaluative and the normative aspects of thick concepts. Some, like prescriptivist R.M. Hare, believe that one can siphon off the descriptive element of thick concepts entirely, in a way that involves no commitment to any particular evaluative standpoint. For example, if one wanted to describe an action as “brave” without committing oneself to approving of the action, one might simply claim that it was performed without fear in the face of great danger. Since fear and danger aren’t themselves evaluative concepts, one has stripped the original term of its normative content entirely, or so the story goes.

Others, most notably Bernard Williams himself, have claimed that it is not clear that this sort of separation is possible in all, or indeed any, cases. John McDowell explains that the reason why one cannot simply separate off the descriptive element is because any accurate synonym for a thick ethical concept will inevitably bring in other evaluative terms at some point. For example, bravery is clearly not simply doing something without fear in the face of great danger, for this encompasses many stupid actions, or actions performed without knowledge of the danger in question, neither of which are brave. A more accurate description would be an action performed courageously, but of course courage is too a thick ethical concept, so unless this concept can also be explained non-evaluatively then this description fails in its task, for it sneaks value judgements into the extended description itself.

The upshot, according to Hilary Putnam, is that:

to use them [thick concepts] with any discrimination one has to be able to identify imaginatively with an evaluative point of view. That is why someone who thought that “brave” simply meant “not afraid to risk life and limb” would not be able to understand the all-important distinction that Socrates keeps drawing between mere rashness or foolhardiness and genuine bravery.

To come back to the point with which we began, if this second viewpoint is correct (that it is not possible to separate the descriptive and evaluative elements with any precision) then it will prove to be extremely difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t already share an aesthetic appreciation of metal what exactly there is to like about it. Since much of the vocabulary used to talk about the music is thick, any attempt to voice an appreciation of the music in terms accessible to someone who doesn’t already appreciate it will leave out some of the content available in a description using thick concepts.

For example, the album Under a Funeral Moon by Darkthrone is extremely necro. If I was to simply say this to someone who didn’t enjoy black metal, they wouldn’t understand what I meant. But if I was to explain to someone that I liked it because it had bad production values, this simply wouldn’t capture my reason for liking it at all. Bootlegs of Madonna gigs probably have bad production values, but I don’t like them as a result, and they’re certainly not necro. 

Madonna ist nicht Krieg.

However, I have hope that in the case of metal at least, the problem is not completely intractable. My reason for thinking this is that there are descriptions in purely thin non-evaluative terms that, whilst not fully capturing the content of the thick terms themselves, might help bridge the gap between those who appreciate the genre and those that don’t. For example, if I said to someone that I like Under a Funeral Moon because the low production values help create a dark atmosphere, whilst not synonymous with ‘necro’, this hopefully provides enough information for the person to “imaginatively identify” with my aesthetic “evaluative point of view”, even if they don’t share that point of view themselves.

So that’s it for this post. We’ve gone from ethics to aesthetics to the grim and frostbitten realms of black metal (another topic for a future post: the postmodern irony that pervades the language of black metal fandom). Hopefully you’ve learnt something about philosophy, or perhaps got some insight into metal, or even both! This sort of connection between hobbies and interests of mine and philosophy is likely going to be the topic of a number of posts to come in the future, as philosophy generally tends to pervade how I think about things and I hope it sheds some light on aspects of things that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Interminable Oscillations #1: An Overview

I mentioned in my last post that one of my goals was to explain what I care about and, hopefully, why. As an academic-in-training, most of my mental energy is spent thinking about philosophy. In fact, even when I’m not spending my time actually doing philosophy I have a tendency (no doubt common to those going into the profession) to over-think and over-analyse the everyday. A lot of what I’m going to post on this blog is going to fall into this latter camp, documenting my attempt to deconstruct and analyse pretty much everything I come into contact with, from the inefficiency of bus seating arrangements (more on that later) to TV shows and books.

However, I’m currently spending most of my time at the moment writing a paper about John McDowell’s philosophy of perception. In the process of getting myself acquainted with McDowell’s ideas over the last few years, I’ve noticed some common themes that run throughout almost all of his career. Whilst there are many distinct aspects to his theory of experience and perceptual knowledge – his disjunctivism, his conceptualism, the influence of Kant, his understanding of fallibility – it can sometimes be hard to see how they connect together. However, the more of McDowell I read, the more convinced I am that he’s simply drawing out the consequences of a conception of experience that he’s had since the early 80s, albeit emphasising different aspects on different occasions. In order to explain this, however, one needs to have a grip on what these different aspects are. In light of this, my plan is to explain these different aspects one by one, sometimes focusing on individual papers, other times focusing on general themes and motifs that crop up over the course of several papers, with the aim of giving a good understanding of what McDowell thinks and how it all fits together.

To begin with, I want to provide an overview of (to my knowledge) everything McDowell has published [EDIT–discovered some more replies to critics. The search is ongoing.] almost everything McDowell has published that’s directly relevant to his philosophy of perception (including his epistemology of perception). Aside from the fact that it will serve as a reference for the papers I mention in the posts that follow, it will also give a good overview already of what McDowell is interested in and how these interests develop and repeat over the course of his career.

The man himself, laying the philosophical smack down.

The Overview:

1983: Criteria, Defeasibility and Knowledge (published in Meaning, Knowledge and Reality)

An article ostensibly debating the intricacies of Wittgenstein scholarship with Crispin Wright, but typically cited as the canonical exposition of ‘epistemological disjunctivism’. The reason for this is that towards the end of the paper, McDowell explains his rejection of ‘highest common factor’ accounts of experience and his disjunctive understanding of appearances. Whether or not McDowell is making an epistemological point or a metaphysical one is debatable, however, and something that will come under discussion in a later post.

1986: Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space (published in MK&R)

Another article in which McDowell commits himself to disjunctivism, this time both about singular thought and perception. The overall discussion is an attempt to explain a conception of object-dependent singular thought in the manner of Evans, but in the process McDowell explains his disjunctive conception of experience and contrasts this with what he calls a ‘Cartesian’ view of subjectivity.

1994: The Content of Perceptual Experience

The primary focus here is on Dennett’s account of conceptual content as a ‘welling up’ of the content of sub-personal systems. Important largely because McDowell explains his understanding of the relationship between personal and sub-personal systems and the distinction between enabling and constitutive explanations. The overall point being made is key for understanding how McDowell conceives of the relationship between scientific accounts of perceptual systems and philosophical accounts of experience.

1994 (1996 for the second edition): Mind and World (a book based on a series of lectures)

Initially and, I imagine, somewhat unusually, my first introduction to McDowell wasn’t with this book, nor did it make much of an impression on me when I first read it. However, slowly I’ve come to see its importance. It includes everything from Kant, Gadamer, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, empiricism, naturalism, there’s even some proto-disjunctivism thrown in for good measure. I think any summary of the book would not begin to do it justice, so I’ll just leave it there!

1995: Knowledge and the Internal (published in MK&R)

This is one of the first of a series of articles explaining the details of some central topics broached in Mind and World. The focus of this paper is the Sellarsian idea of experience as a ‘standing in the space of reasons’ that informs McDowell’s strong internalism about perceptual knowledge. The focus is almost solely on epistemology, which I think makes this the clearest exposition of  a purely epistemological disjunctivism.

1998: Having the World in View; Sellars, Kant and Intentionality (published in a collection of the same name: Having the World in View)

A series of three lectures delivered on Kant and Sellars that massively refines McDowell’s Mind and World account of experience in the process. Lecture one is some heavy-duty Kant scholarship, arguing with Sellars over how to understand Kant’s notion of intuitions. Lecture two applies this idea to his Mind and World conception of experience. Lecture three applies the idea to intentionality and, specifically, singular thought. Also the first clear exposition of McDowell’s shift away from propositional content towards intuitional content.

1999: Naturalism in the Philosophy of Mind (published in The Engaged Intellect)

Another paper elaborating some key ideas from Mind and World, this time the clash between a scientific understanding of experience as a natural phenomenon and the neo-Kantian/Sellarsian idea that experiences are rational occurrences – ‘standings in the space of reasons’. There’s a bit of Frege debate too, this time with Millikan.

2000: Experiencing the World (published in TEI)

Another one in the ‘why do I keep having to explain Mind and World to people’ series, this time a fantastic little article explaining the ‘transcendental anxiety’ about the possibility of empirical content that McDowell takes to be at the heart of Mind and World. This is one I’ll have to come back to later, partly just because it’s a great article, but mostly because it beautifully ties together many of the themes that run throughout the rest of these papers.

2002: Knowledge and the Internal Revisited (published in TEI)

A response to Brandom’s criticism of Knowledge and the Internal. A great one for understanding the connection between disjunctivism and Mind and World.

2006: The Disjunctive Conception of Experience as Material for a Transcendental Argument (published in TEI)

The title pretty much says it all; it’s an attempt to undermine scepticism using the resources made available by McDowell’s disjunctive conception of experience. This article should have put to bed all of the claims that McDowell is only a disjunctivist about epistemology, but apparently the misunderstandings still continue. There is also a very interesting connection to Mind and World that I’ll come back to at some point.

2007: What Myth? (published in TEI)

A response to Dreyfus’s criticisms of Mind and World, primarily centring around the idea of embodiment. There’s a nice little section full of the two of them arguing over how to interpret Aristotle, too.

2008a: Avoiding the Myth of the Given (written for a festschrift called Experience, Norm and Nature)

An article supposedly clarifying McDowell’s shift away from propositional content and towards intuitional content. The account of intuitional content given here is far less clear than the one from Having the World in View, though McDowell does explain the difference from propositional content more clearly. It’s also not clear whether McDowell intends this to be an abridged version or an amendment, though. Safe to say that whilst the article is interesting, it feels as if half of the important links have been left out.

2008r: Responses (part of the festschrift, responding to the essays in it)

Much as it sounds, it consists of a responses by McDowell to a number of articles written for a festschrift dedicated to his ideas. Interesting primarily because he addresses some of the in-fighting that’s gone on between disjunctivists (who are already few in number), in the form of responses to Charles Travis and Bill Brewer.

2010: Tyler Burge on Disjunctivism

A good article replying to Burge’s criticisms of disjunctivism. Makes clear exactly what he thinks the relationship is between the results of vision science and philosophical accounts of experience (drawing on some ideas from The Content of Experience) and has a really clear explanation of his understanding of the fallibility of perceptual capacities.

2011: Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge (book based on lectures)

Much of the same material as in the Tyler Burge article, but with a Sellarsian twist, plus even more on fallibility in capacities.

So, that about does it for the overview! Hopefully this will be of use to some people who have read some of McDowell’s articles and want to know where to move on. Plus it should be a lot of use for us in the future when it comes to spelling out the details of McDowell’s account of experience and understanding how it’s developed over time. For now, that’s it!

Keep an eye out for more posts under the banner of “Interminable Oscillations” where the McDowellian fun will continue.