9 - The Beatles and Idealistic Monism
9 - The Beatles and Idealistic Monism
In 2006 Michael Baur of the Department of Philosophy at Fordham University compiled an impressive list of 18 essays from academics from various Philosophy Departments in the US and UK.
The Beatles and Philosophy: Nothing You Can Think that Can't Be Thunkwas the first time the Beatle phenomenon had been viewed from from different philosophical perspectives
Baur believes that in spite of their lack of interest in traditional philosophy and their explicit disavowals about the deeper meaning of their songs, it’s still relevant and important to approach and interpret The Beatles work from a philosophical point of view. He admits The Beatles probably never intended to be philosophical. In fact, their work is rather anti-philosophical. Yet they can still be observed from a philosophical perspective.
McCartney once revealed in an interview:
“Beatles songs are meant to be interpreted from different perspectives and on different levels so that you put your own meaning at your own level to our songs, and that’s what’s great about them.”
Baur says that Beatles music can be interpreted and appreciated in light of philosophical ideas and theories.
One such theory is what might be called “idealistic monism.”
He explains: “In general, monism is the philosophical view that all reality is a single, unified whole and that all existing things are modes or expressions of a single, underlying essence or substance. Idealistic monism is a specific version of monism. According to idealistic monism, all existing things are modes or expressions of a single essence or substance which is essentially mental or spiritual in nature.“
Idealistic monism is opposed to materialistic monism, according to which all existing things are modes or expressions of some underlying material substance. He points out that many Beatles songs and musical gestures reflect a commitment to a form of idealistic monism.
The essence of “idealistic monism”
Baur says much of the Beatles’ work can be understood as concerning itself with the claims of idealistic monism. They did not espouse idealism or monism in any well-developed, explicitly
philosophical way, but they said enough in their songs to make clear that they were concerned with the sorts of questions and quandaries that “idealistic monism” addresses.
They rejected the epistemological position which, in philosophical circles, has been pejoratively labeled naive realism. According to “naive realism,” we can know reality as it is in itself simply by allowing ourselves to be acted upon, or passively affected by reality as it exists on its own,
independent of our knowing it. For the naive realist, our knowledge of reality is immediate, direct, and involves no mediating activity.
Rejecting such naive realism, The Beatles tell us in Rain, that reality does not present itself to us in such a simple, straightforward way. Instead, what seems to project itself to us as reality is just a state of mind.
In Strawberry Fields Forever John sings nothing is real. Baur says that this tells us that The Beatles reject naive realism and (as far as epistemology is concerned) appear to adopt some form of idealism. The “real” is essentially mental or spiritual in nature.
But what kind of idealism do they adopt?
Baur suggests a prophetic form.
“They could not claim to know anything about reality that is worthy of, and capable of, being communicated to others. But again and again in their songs, The Beatles make clear that they have something of value to convey to us. They possess a kind of knowledge or insight that can be, and indeed ought to be, shared with others. For example, the protagonist in Rain plaintively addresses the listener by singing, ‘I can show you’, and ‘Can you hear me?’ The narrator in the song, while denying that anything is real in the naive realist’s sense, nevertheless invites the listener to share meaningfully in his experience of reality: Let me take you down- as they sing in Strawberry Fields Forever.
Baur claims the point is that at least something is real and that something is worthy of being known and communicated to others (for if this were not the case, The Beatles would not have written songs in the first place); but our access to this reality is not as simple and straightforward as the naive realist would have us believe.
But how is it possible to reject naive realism (and adopt some form of idealism), while nevertheless believing in the existence of some kind of reality that can be truly known and communicated to others? Baur suggests that for The Beatles—as for many philosophers— the solution to this problem can be found in one’s acceptance of epistemological idealism accompanied by an acceptance of metaphysical monism; in other words, if one accepts the philosophical position of idealistic monism.
Metaphysical monism in Beatle music
Baur points out that The Beatles consistently espoused the view that all things are fundamentally interrelated and part of a single, underlying reality. This was George Harrison’s core religious belief – and it also defined their unique sound: four parts coming together to create a whole – the oneness of their sound.
This commitment to metaphysical monism is evident in a number of songs that deal – on one level or another – with the unity and interrelatedness of all things- such as in the songs Tomorrow Never Knows, Within You Without You, The Inner Light, All You Need Is Love, and All Together Now. It is also evident in The Beatles’ obsession with writing and producing songs that could be appealing and catchy, while revolving around only one chord: If I Needed Someone, Paperback Writer, The Word, and Tomorrow Never Knows.
The American researcher believes that The Beatles seem to have sensed that what on one level appears to be merely unintended, unconscious, and lacking in purpose, is, on another level, actually no different from what is conscious, intended, and purpose-driven. They often incorporated mere coincidences, accidents, and outright mistakes into their finished work, thus implying that what is merely accidental, purposeless, and unconscious, is really the same as what is intended, i.e., purposeful.
An early example of this is the sound of guitar feedback at the beginning of their recording of I Feel Fine. They decided to leave it in even though it occurred as an accident when a guitar was placed too close to the speaker.
Another instance is Hey Bulldog. It was originally to be called “Hey Bullfrog” but during one of their recording sessions, Paul began to make barking noises in order to make John laugh; the barking noises were picked up by the recording equipment and then integrated into the song itself, which was then re-named Hey Bulldog.
Over time, The Beatles became very sophisticated and deliberate about creating opportunities for the occurrence of accidents and coincidences, which could then be integrated into their finished work.
Members of the orchestra employed on A Day in the Life were instructed to wear party masks and other strange outfits during the recording of the song (the conductor himself donned a bright red, artificial, clown-style nose). The intention was to create a fresh, uncontrolled context within which the conductor and orchestra members could react to each other in new and unexpected ways.
Another example is George’s composition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps which was motivated by a similar belief in the fundamental unity of all things (including the conscious and the unconscious, the intended and the unintended). Inspired by the I Ching (which also teaches about the fundamental unity of all things), he deliberately decided to write a song based on a seemingly random, unintended occurrence. He picked a book off the shelf with the intention of composing a song organized around the first words he encountered.
“By using backwards loopings in their recordings, The Beatles deliberately chose to undertake the creative process of music-composition blindly – or in certain a sense, unconsciously – so as to generate new and unpredictable results, and then – only later – to integrate those results into their finished work as if they were originally intended. Though they did not explicitly reflect on the philosophical implications of this practice of backwards looping, the implicit lesson of this practice is the same as the lesson to be found in idealistic monism. What is blind, unconscious, unintended, or without purpose is – after all – not essentially different from what is deliberate, conscious, intended, and purpose-driven.”