chapter  15
12 Pages

Music, Transcendence, and Philosophy

ByAndrew Bowie

In phenomenological terms any mode of being in the world can be understood in terms of ‘transcendence’, because the subject, by ‘intending’ anything in the world, takes itself beyond itself, becomes ‘ecstatic’, in order to understand, act and so on. Transcendence is here seen as a way beyond certain epistemological conceptions based on the idea of a division between subject and object, in favour of the idea that the subject is always already in the world. In Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, however, transcendence involves the extinction of the subject by dissolution into the ‘All’. Such dissolution relates to certain kinds of religious ecstasy which also lead to a transcendence of the self through loss of self. Here transcendence is seen in terms of existential responses to mortality and finitude: by renouncing individuation, which is the source of endless lack, the pain of temporal existence is to be escaped, even as the music of Tristan und Isolde embodies precisely the idea of endless lack until the harmonic resolution in the final bars. For Kant, in contrast, the transcendent – as opposed to the transcendental, which refers to conditions of possibility of experience – is what is beyond our capacity to know, which exceeds the bounds of experience and involves what he thinks of in terms of ‘ideas’, such as ‘immortality’ and ‘God’. In this case transcendence relates to the questionable claims of traditional metaphysics concerning the world as a whole: Kant does not reject what these claims were concerned with, seeing them as resulting from a natural tendency of human thought, but he restricts what can be warrantably asserted about the world to what can be an object of perceptual experience. The connection of music to transcendence has been seen in terms of all of these conceptions, all of which in some way point to a moving beyond the subject that music can enable. The massive contrasts between the conceptions, though, are an indication of fundamental philosophical divergences that one can use music to elucidate.