How To Philosophize: Part One



One of the tragedies of life is how seemingly few people are interested in philosophy as an active pursuit, as a way of being in the everyday world as opposed to academia where sweatered undergrads and bearded professors gather to drink coffee and say grand things about a bunch of 18th and 19th century Germans…who themselves sat around drinking coffee and saying things like weltanschauung, and Wir müssen die richtige Art und Weise kennen zu denken!! But philosophy is a grand adventure and just as relevant in Walmart as it is in Symbolic Logic classes.

So I have decided to use my blog to encourage you all to be philosophical, to see yourself and the world anew– no matter what race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age, or religion. You can even be a philosopher if you are Toronto Maple Leafs fan…especially if you are a Leafs fan (trying to explain to the world why we Leafs Nation members love them so much considering their annual win-loss ratio). But first… a (very) general summary of what happened in Western philosophy up to now.

Philosophy can be thought of as the consideration of three main lines of thought in Greek, Roman, and Western European history: (1) Metaphysics – what is the nature of our existence, (2) Epistemology – what is the nature of knowledge, and (3) Axiology – what is the nature of the values that we hold or aspire to. The way I see it, we have gone through Ten General Periods of philosophy so far. These have been:

  1. The Classical Mythologists(Hesiod and Homer) collected and wrote of the Greek myths.
  2. The philosophers after them and before Socrates (the Pre-Socratics) tried to figure how the world could be understood apart from the myths. What if the myths are indeed myths, how can we then explain how things are made and work…without referring to the gods?
  3. The Classical Philosophers(Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and others) wanted to know how we can define virtue, and become virtuous. What is the right way, or at least the bestway, to live?
  4. The Roman, Jewish, and Christian thinkers influenced by Greek culture (Hellenism) tried to analyze theology in terms of the Logos– the creative principle(s) organizing the Universe. Was God behind it, or part of the Logos itself? Also, how could one define virtue and be virtuous when the Roman state was in a constant state of war and trivial disputes?
  5. The Medieval philosophers in Europe and the Near East looked anew at the ideas of Plato in terms of the (possibly) mystical nature of the universe (NeoPLatonism). The rise of Catholic philosopher St. Augustine and Boethius, and Alcuin the Latinist brought scholarship to Europe through theological thinking and Latin study. Also, medieval Islamic philosophers (Al-Kindi, Al Farabi, Ibn Sina) contemplated Platonic thought and science in terms of their faith. The classic Greek works were saved from Christian and barbarian sacking though their translation into and transmission in Arabic and Persian by Islamic scholars – much of what we know of Plato would have been lost without it. When Petrarch (1304-1374) revived the study of the ancient Roman thinker Cicero, this is considered to be the start of the Renaissance.
  6. The Renaissance philosophers started developing scientific methods, principles, and ideas about human government. Rene Descartes became known as the “Father” of what would become Modern Philosophy by his study of morals as a science and what he saw as the separateness of the mind and one’s body (Cartesian Dualism). He thought the mind/body were separated by the pineal gland. He is known for saying “I think, therefore I am…”
  7. After Descartes, philosophers entered a so-called “Age of Reason” (the Enlightenment), and thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza and others saw truth as rational and deductive. Also the modern concepts of identity, the Self, and morality became important subjects, as well as the idea that Reality exists fundamentally in the mind. Mankind now attacked and questioned the authority of the Church (and Christianity in general), many rejecting the theological rationales for the existence of God.
  8. Late Enlightenment (and/or Pre-Modern) philosophers such as Immanuel Kant thought that truth had to be independent from experience, while Georg Hegel theorized that the properties we perceive in objects depend on how they appear, and are not inherent to the objects themselves – things have no properties independent of the mind. Hegel and others (after Kant) were considered to be part of a new German Idealism: a rejection of the aristocratic thinking and politics of the day. Later, Arthur Schopenhauer introduced a new sense of pessimism into philosophy, arguing in his essay On the Vanity of Existence that “Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.” The nineteenth century saw the arrival of Charles Darwin (Evolution), Søren Kierkegaard (Existentialism), and Karl Marx’s writing on the economic status of the working class (Marxism). Kierkegaard’s ideas on how the individual and his experiences are the starting point of philosophy – and how moral/scientific thinking alone cannot explain human existence – were and are a huge influence on modern philosophy.
  9. Though it is hard to say exactly when one philosophical age ends and another begins, the late 19th and early 20th century marks what is generally known as the Modern Era, arguably beginning with Frederick Nietzsche and his view that Life is without intrinsic value. His book The Will to Power and other works argue that though Christianity is a backward, anti-human religion, science has no inherent moral value and meaning either. Modern philosophy saw the rise and ongoing development of psychoanalysis (Freud), the study of signs and symbols (Semiotics), sociology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and Logical Positivism – philosophy as the logical clarification of thought (there are no specifically philosophical truths).
  10. The late 20th century saw the rise of what is known as PostModernism– a complicated set of ideas revolving around questions of authorship, and the idea that there is no such things as objective knowledge. Postmodern philosophy is also highly critical of the effects of mass media, capitalism, and commodity fetishism. The decade we are currently in (the 2010s) is considered by some to be part of a Post-Postmodern Era, also called Metamodernism or (µ-Modernism, and some consider it vacuous and narcissistic (the supposed vacuity of Internet users is creating the meaning of the content within it).  Others call this new era PostConceptualism –  a time marked by a “New Sincerity” defined by a rejection of Postmodern cynicism or irony, and the return to sincerity, enthusiasm, and sentiment in music, art, literature, etc. 

So, now that we know where we are and what has happened…how do we actually become philosophers ourselves? 

First of all, we can start by considering ourselves philosophers. How is it that we can say this without having read Plato, or maybe taking a Philosophy 101 class? This is because what philosophy is, and always was, was something that starts from life – your life. The search for questions and answers starts within your life – within the situation of living, right now, where you sit. No need for a toga, or a fancy suit – your life is a rich vein of living no matter what it is. You are “in” your Life 24/7, and thus you don’t need to think thoughts irrelevant to your life and its relationship to other lives. But that raises the question of what are the relevant questions to your life?

In my case I looked into what I was passionate and curious about – jazz improvisation, Zen Buddhism, and so on and found the things that I really wanted to philosophize about: things that were really important to me, things that I really wanted to know. This is really important as it makes our life exciting and filled with passion. In fact, I was (and am) so passionate about it I travelled to monasteries in Western Japan and South Korea to study Zen meditation, as well as played freely improvised music in numerous clubs and halls throughout South Korea, Japan, China, and Vietnam, then wrote a book about free form jazz and Zen Buddhism (my doctoral dissertation).

My desire to philosophize led me to travel the world and enjoy amazing experiences. This something anyone can do if they plan and strategize their life around the pursuit of knowledge, you don’t even have to travel any further than your own local library. The world opens up in your mind and heart when you ‘seek to know.’ In fact there are so many fantastic, factual books about Zen and East Asian culture you don’t have to spend the thousands of dollars it takes or suffer through the negative aspects of world travel (disease, jet lag, cancelled flights, etc). The German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers said in his book Way To Wisdom that:

“The ascent of philosophical life is the ascent of the individual man. He must accomplish it as an individual in communication and cannot shift responsibility to others. We achieve this ascent in the historically concrete elective acts of our life, not by electing any so-called world view (weltanschauung) laid down in propositions.”

“Let us not heap up philosophical possessions, but apprehend philosophical thought as movement and seek to deepen it…Let each of us as an individual immerse himself in his own historicity, in his origin, in what he has done; let him possess himself of what he was, of what he has become, and of what has been given to him.”

So why don’t we take him at his word and begin our philosophical journey? First we find somewhere to live, food, money, a good night’s sleep, love and so on. These questions of daily living may not be very philosophical, but we still must then carry on with logic and/or common sense – although sometimes what we think is common sense actually turns out to be illogical. So to begin we must know a few things about philosophical or analytical thinking.

There are definable standards for the foundation of both our daily and philosophical thinking. We can look at our thoughts and see if we are objectively thinking clearly. These standards are:

  1. CLARITY: What we say is clear and completely understandable. It always amazes me how undergrad philosophy students of all people fail on this first point so often. But most are young – victims of their own (commendable) enthusiasm – and are so excited about their first real analysis of the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, for example, that they can’t wait to tell all their friends about what they know and spout it out for everyone to hear at parties. But complete clarity is the top priority and any philosopher worth the name can make a subject clear to anyone at any level through the use of the appropriate language level. Clarity means you could explain Immanuel Kant’s view(s) on morality to your 7-year-old niece and turn around and defend your understanding of it to a tenured philosopher professor at Harvard. This is the golden rule, but it is not that hard to live up to. Be clear and you will always be on the right track, even if you don’t use fancy words.
  2. ACCURACY: What you say should be correct. Thus make sure you know what you are saying, know it to be true. What you think and say should be free from error, and be changed the instant you discover an error. Philosophy means leaving your ego at the door and be ready to argue, contemplate and grow.  Philosophy is NOT finding the right answer to something or everything, Philosophy is a set of tools to help you think and understand the world. NO philosopher has ever found the one right answer that solves morality for all people at all times for every situation. This enters the realm of the religious, so make sure you are clear if you are speaking philosophically or theologically. Nothing wrong with either but there is often a fine line between stating what is good, and what your God says is good. Just be clear which is which, and why.
  3. PRECISION:What you say must be exact to the appropriate level of detail. You don’t have to solve the great questions of life every time you consider the nature of what is good behaviour in your life. Make the level of your argument clear and you won’t get sidetracked into defending a universal position on morality when you are just trying to get your kids to be quiet in the car!
  4. RELEVANCE:This too is another major problem in many philosophical discussions – the topic gets sidetracked into something else. This is usually how fights get started. Discussions about the legacy of the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Maple Leafs often de-evolve quickly in Toronto bars on a Saturday night and soon someone is questioning the marital fidelity of the other’s mother, and fists start flying. Thankfully this happens very rarely in philosophy, although I once attended a composer’s conference where one of the attendees was so incensed that my work was included in the proceedings that she vigorously insisted I was a “charlatan” whose graphic scoreswere a mockery to “serious” music and then proceeded to leave the room in a fuming rage! Strangely enough, word got out around Athens (Greece) about the happening and it almost tripled the expected attendance of my concert the following evening! No such thing as bad press…I was performing in Paris three days later and even had a couple of curious audience members ask me Êtes-vous le charlatan?!
  5. DEPTH:Your precise, accurate statements and ideas should also contain the appropriate amount of depth. Those big fancy words have their right place in philosophical discussions, so make sure you know exactly what they mean and use them to add the appropriate nuance and subtle meaning to your thinking. These big words are nuanced because they have interrelationships with other big words and knowing one means you will have considered the others that play into its overall meaning. Once again you don’t have to be fancy, just know what you are saying and know the exact meaning of what you say. Make sure you are clear if you are using a word like Communism, because what Karl Marx meant by ‘Communism’ and what Soviet Communismbecame were two very different things.
  6. BREADTH:This ties in with Depth, as you need to know what others before you thought about the things you are thinking about. You don’t have to memorize a long list of philosophers and read every single book on philosophy. But if you think about morality a lot, look up moral philosophy and find out who thought about it most often. You will find much to think about in the present, and in the past – including Aristotle’s ideas about ethics, medieval philosopher St. Anselm’s thoughts about how ‘just by thinking about God we can know he exists,’ and why Thomas Aquinas thought that “all that is good is God.” You don’t have to agree or disagree with any of it, but knowing as much as you can about other thinkers will always help you towards finding your own (unique) thoughts.
  7. FAIRNESS:This is one aspect of thinking that many media outlets and public “intellectuals” completely fail at.  What we think must never be self-serving, or contain a vested interest in thinking a certain thought for our own gain. IF we are wrong about something, and it can be proven we are wrong we mustadmit it, and re-think our position. It is the ONLY way we can have a true discussion about anything. Trying to be right about everything all the time is arrogant, narcissistic, and not philosophical. Having a philosophical position does not make “us” right, it makes what we hold to to be correct, no matter who we are. Facts are facts, so we must make sure we are humble in this regard. Also, it is not philosophical (or nice) to take a “I told you so” approach to philosophy. We are not philosophers to be better than others or to be “right.” We are philosophers to be philosophers. This ties in to how we use logic.
  8. LOGIC:What we think and say must make sense. Our ideas must begin correct and end correct as best we can manage. Thus we must avoid certain fallacies, or illogical ways of thinking. Many fallacies are common, and people use them in the false belief they are ‘right’ when in fact they are wrong about what they think. This is where what some see as common sense is actually closer to nonsense. But thankfully most fallacies are rather easily spotted if you know where to look. Once again, in philosophical fairness, the first place we look for fallacies should be in our own thoughts. As a very famous “theologian” once said, “First remove the plank from your own eye to more clearly see the speck in your brother’s eye…”

So that means we must know (what I call) the Big Eleven: the eleven most common fallacies (mistaken beliefs based on faulty arguments) people use. We are all guilty at one point or another of accidentally allowing one or two to slip in to our everyday thinking, especially when we are passionate about an opinion. But an opinion is not an argument, thus we must keep fallacies out of our best thinking. We must be dedicated to the avoidance of fallacies, especially the following eleven.

The first is the Hasty Generalization. We all use this occasionally. A young heavy metal drummer might say: “Jazz is stupid!” Clearly, it is not a universal truth that jazz is (or is not) stupid, or based on stupidity. It is a difficult art to perform properly and takes years of intensive study to improvise in a profound manner. Clearly our young drummer is making a hasty generalization based on his love of what he thinks is not stupid: heavy metal. Jazz, by comparison, is stupid to him. The Hasty Generalization is often preceded or followed by a Weak Analogy: for example, both saxophones and fully automatic assault rifles are made of metal so we should ban both! So does this mean my AK-47 and my vintage Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone should go in the garbage? Very weak analogy! Clearly I am using a very silly example, but often Weak Analogies are at least a little silly.

Both fallacies are often part of an Argument Ad Ignorantium, arguing from ‘ignorance’ of what is actually true.  Theists will often argue that since God has not been proven to not exist, their beliefs are justified. Alternately one might argue that since it has yet to be proven true, God doesn’t exist. No matter which “side” you are on though, both arguments are fallacies. This is why true atheism is actually not “a-theism” at all. True atheism is a rejection of the evidence presented by theists as proof of their god(s) existence. Thus everyone is an atheist when it comes to not believing another’s supposed evidence. Christians for example accept Christ, and reject Hinduism, as it is a “false” religion with what they consider to be imaginary gods. They reject the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutra, and other books as sources of truth. To use a rather awkward term, they are “Hindu a-theists.” Thus, there are no true atheists who reject the idea that there could be a god or gods of some sort in some form in this Reality, or Universe, or in another. There is no proof to the contrary, so it remains a possibility. But this also is not “agnosticism” either, as science has proved so many facts about physical reality that negate a significant number of the claims of various religious texts (a kind of literary atheism). Either way, to claim theism or atheism on the basis of this fallacy is an error in thought.

I will continue this subject in Part Two of this series.



1000 Plus Days…

oc and i

It has now been 1096 days since my beloved teacher Ornette Coleman had his last living birthday. I wish I had something profound or poignant to say but I just don’t. I can only reflect on the joy of our time together and the loneliness in the wake of his passing. So I thought I would take a moment of blog silence for him…

(two minutes)

the world is lonely and we make it happy by loving others.”



The Bones of Time…

ornithomimus 2

The Bones of Time

Upon reading poet Robert Okaji’s poem Ritual, I was reminded of a recent experience.

Recently I had the privilege of examining up close (touching) the right foot bones of an Ornithomimid dinosaur, dated to 75 million years old. I overlaid my hand on the bones, and felt a rather profound kinship through touch, examining each for minutes at a time. I wish I were a true poet like Robert who could put into literary colors what the passing of 75 million years into my soul felt like. This 6 foot 5 inch dinosaur spent its life prowling and eating, then lay in the ground for millions of years before being unearthed by paleontologists and preserved for study. Think about it. Mankind came onto the scene millions of years after its death. The ancient Sumerians, the pyramids, ancient China, Jesus Christ, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Van Gogh, the airplane, the car, computers, the Internet… all the while this Ornithomimid laid in the ground, a 75 million year journey into my hands.

These bones are all that remain of this one creature, and yet they are the bones of life, of our understanding (paleontology). They teach us, enlighten us, and hopefully humble us as we consider how short the life of a man is when compared to all time preceding it. This one right foot took me out of my Self and put me into its time, into the bones of time itself.

Life is short; spend it writing poems, making music, blogging, painting and so on. Cover time’s bones with your Life…


The Analects of Na-neun: (63)

Analect No. #63

A short history of our misplaced gaze:
Begin with the ground thumping songs of other people.
Entrance to the fierce cavern (the library of rats and
the locust hammer).
Her goose lute; rinsing echoes from her mouth,
She is the second song of her mother.
Professing plainness and simplicity:
Yet she sports a pheasant’s poverty.

Will you sing then “The Indoctrinated Child” again, then again, pleasing us? We that remain wine blossoms?
We fall off the pissing cart!
But, tied by blood to the Sobbing Smoke,
We speak through days in an opiate hour:
Crimson silk for the handmaid’s knife.



© 1999 Daniel Schnee
© 2017 Daniel Schnee

D.P. Marshall and the Diallelon.

sunshine hope


D.P. Marshall Vs. Fatuity

Though I myself blog about both academic and commercial topics, I very rarely discuss the work of others, save for the occasional link. But in this case I am making an exception, as fellow blogger D. P. Marshall has asked me to reply to his two part series on the lack of critical thinking in modern society. Before I start though, I would like to give you all a sense of where both of us Daniels are coming from in our positions on this topic.

Daniel Paul Marshall is an expatriate living in South Korea, hailing from the West Midlands of England. A very gifted writer of both prose and poetry, he also built (by himself) a café and guesthouse on the island of Jeju where he lives with his wife. His philosophical influences are Thomas Nagel, Albert Camus, and George Santayana. In my own research for my various degrees I have exhaustively studied Zen Buddhism and Japanese art culture (i.e. their combined influence on American culture in the 1950s), focusing especially on the ensuing art of free jazz. Thus, my approach to any criticism or writing comes from this training at least subconsciously, if not directly (Dogen Zenji, Junichiro Tanizaki, Shozo Shimamoto, Kenko Yoshida, and others). 

In his essays Marshall lays out a major criticism of our current educational system: society, in general, is not trained to objectively think about things before they decide what to think about an issue, they just judge stuff without any reasonable thought put into why. This is due to the economic aspects, because thinking objectively (a.k.a. critically) about things is not necessary for modern workers and their mundane jobs. If your company succeeds, and the government gets their taxes then all is good in the world. And whenever someone actually does think critically about an issue, then that analysis is easily shot down with the idea that every is entitles to their own opinion, like one person’s random thoughts on the stock market are the same as someone else’s in depth study of economic trends. This is completely unacceptable to Marshall, and bothers him deeply. As he sees it, a diallelus, a problem requiring justification (which then can lead to another argument which requires further justification), is the foundation for critical thought.

Marshall then explains just what he means by criticism: the variety found in literary criticism, as humans use literary devices all the time in our understanding and expression of Life itself. This is where he takes what I think is a slight turn from his original argument, a slight turn towards the ditch rather than the road. We do indeed use literary devices in our lives, but there needs to be a distinction made between literature and communication. For example, one almost invariable (in my experience) communicates with much less effectiveness having learnt Japanese in university for example than one who has gained the (exact) equivalent level of communication (verbs, nouns, etc.) by spending the equivalent amount of time with Osakan housewives.

This is due to the subject matter. Whereas the Canadian college student must learn how to say “As for me…” in college to pass a standardized test, Osakan housewife Japanese is by its very nature communicative of information vital to the circle of her friends who must live it’s effects and possible complications: the Canadian college student living in Japan for one year must learn when to say what via negative grammar and body language. Via negative grammatical form for example, the Osaka housewife will ask a guest if their feet are cold, the common implied request given for one to please put their socks on before entering an area with tatami mats. 

(Note: it is also not taught or learnt through literary forms that my own name (sh-NAY) must be mispronounced (shoe-ney) in Japan in order to be polite, as it is correctly pronounced like a strident command to die: “shii-ney”). 

Marshall corrects this emphasis later though with a return to the idea of one’ critical faculties, wherein learning to communicate resides. He also rightfully brings us to the idea of “shaming”, the (often misused) idea of morally policing society: judging instantly on gut feeling rather than thinking about the context and ramifications of such action, as in the case of Justine Sacco who was fired for a misunderstood Tweet about AIDS and racial discrimination.

Once again this becomes another slight wobble on Marshall’s road. Understanding thought then as a literary “technique” will not necessarily inculcate wisdom, no matter how intelligent one is. I have seen this phenomenon often in universities, wherein distinguished professors make extremely baffling personal choices which would make their ability to think critically about their academic suspect seem suspect as well: joining socially pernicious cults, destroying marriages through questionable behaviour and so on.

Marshall corrects himself again then with a renewed focus on ideology: the negative moral policing that provokes rather than engages people. Quoting Northrop Frye, he reminds us that to argue with an ideologue is to “lose”, as you can only counter an (unreasonable) ideologue with a counter ideology: soft for soft, hard for hard. This unfortunate position, as Marshall demonstrates with various issues around discrimination against Muslims in the U.K., illustrates both the solution and genesis of the problem.

Ultimately we arrive at Marshall’s closing argument: that it is difficult for people to think, as they confused over it is to really criticize something: not subjective resistance, but pure objective observation. To be wrong is not to be shamed, but to grow. But Marshall’s final point is the third wobble: critical thinking is a device for regulating society’s behaviour: for keeping an informed eye on ourselves.

There is more to human thought than purely objective and subjective thought. It is not polar, but rather a continuum or a dialectic, when subjective concepts of social responsibility are held by the individual. The key is Marshall’s use of the word “regulate”: which carries an implicit morality. Who is it who can’t think, and who will be in charge of regulating them? An educated public? There can be no unified “informed” public by its very definition without an utopian educational system. Without the negatives provided in Marshall’s posts, the results will be improving the common denominator in society’s equal, elevating the average person, the sin qua non for the need. I doubt this is Marshall’s intended implication. But if we are using literary devices as our basis, then the “regulation of the status quo” is relevant.

On a personal level Marshall also seems to be driving at (or at least I get the sense of), the removal of ignorance from those who seem to be permanently ignorant and quite proud of it. This is a kind of “Literary Nihilism” common in both Marshall’s essays and his poetry: the irredeemability of the willfully ignorant. No matter how much we “regulate” society’s behaviour, no matter how informed the eye we keep trained on ourselves, these irreparable intellects will move unchecked in our halls and public forums.

I blame this on the 19th century poet/artist William Blake. Born in the 18th century and dying in the 19th, Blake was the connective tissue between two aesthetic worlds, the Enlightenment and Romantic eras: a son of both and yet not either. Blake was eventually hailed as genius by later generations, but in his own thought of as a reasonably skilled madman. Whereas Enlightenment art was essentially performance of ideal methods (the execution of proper techniques), Romantic art was the expression of artistic identity, the relation of the artist to the work. Blake, though not given his due as such, inhabited a unique position between the two. Blake’s art was the expression of identity through individual imagination (Romantic) with lines as the ideal aspects of the artwork (Enlightenment). Blake was a transitional figure, and as such I see Marshall as his community’s Enlightenment essay man of the rational, the ordered, seeking the consonant utopias of form and structure in thought (while working as the literate Romantic who when not sullenly tilting at idiots, writes imaginative poems of variety and dissonance).

Blake conceived of a variety of perfections, and Marshall sees himself failing at satisfying his own. But if Blake, unbeknownst to his detractors, redefined literary world’s relationship between the poem and the poet, then maybe Marshall will succeed at reestablishing and reforming his eagerly sought thoughts and thinkers in his desired milieu; darkness be damned, with any luck the diallelon will return to our hearts and minds like a lost language: existence ceasing to be, as Santayana said, a “mad and lamentable experiment”. I am still not sure D. P. Marshall can be convinced otherwise.

But I doubt I am correct in my assumption (for a limited time). Marshall still carries the banner of philosopher Thomas Nagel, one of his influences. If we paraphrase Nagelian phenomenology, put simply, if we put aside scientific assumptions about how others think and what is right for them to think, while also requiring we put our own “objective experiences” aside for the moment (how it “feels” to be right), we cease being right, and move to a state of merely having a set of correct facts in our head. This is a different state of being than “being right (emphasis on “being).

I think this is the way forward (here comes the Zen). We cease to “be right” and connect with Marshall’s target society over the facts qua collective betterment. As we cannot control others, we can promote fact as for us all, facts as impersonal objects. As such truth is not insulting or threatening to one ensconced in falsehood. I specifically use the word “ensconced” as belief feels warm, while facts can make one feel cold, unsafe and unprotected: abandoned by their former womb. Marshall need not apply his literary nihilism here. There is no Self to be monitored.

Thus ceases the sound of one mind napping.




Upon further reflection, I think I have now read Daniel Paul Marshall meaning of “critical thinking” on terms closer to his own. Though literary critique is the angle from which he moves through his essays, maybe it is the idea that within critical thinking lies an inherent “critique”. I hint at this in the essay above, but never fully grasped its wider implications and effects. 

For me it is being critiqued which is so vital to becoming good at music, and especially thinking. Any diallelus, a few “feet” in, dies with most of what passes for “thought” these days. But being forced to confront the death of our dailleli is nourishing not diminishing. Maybe we need to teach that critique/critical thinking are two sides of a coin that will save our collective lives from the ills and ignorances of society. Of course, I can say that as I have had the LUXURY of a very long term education, which many have zero access to. But if people find ways to be critiqued they can then save thousands of dollars in tuition fees and living expenses: avoid at least a few of the negative aspects of standardized schooling. 

My career as a musician rests on a foundation of constant critique in both a personal and commercial manner by those around me. The best critique necessarily evoke critical thought: objective analysis of the matter at hand; problem solving rather than ad hominem attacks. But even if there is ad hominem intention (personal attack), it can still be taken in as a possible area of reform, and the cycle of ignorance ends at least 50%, what we can manage on our own part. With this in mind, D. P. Marshall’s ideas are clearly much needed reforms in today’s educational system. 

Maybe then we can move towards Karl Jasper’s vision for us and himself: 

“The ascent of philosophical life is the ascent of the individual man. He must accomplish it as an individual in communication and cannot shift responsibility to others. We achieve this ascent in the historically concrete elective acts of our life, not by electing any so-called world view (weltanschauung) laid down in propositions.”

“Let us not heap up philosophical possessions, but apprehend philosophical thought as movement and seek to deepen it…Let each of us as an individual immerse himself in his own historicity, in his origin, in what he has done; let him possess himself of what he was, of what he has become, and of what has been given to him.”






A Beginner’s Guide To Frank Zappa (Pt. 2).


A Beginner’s Guide To Frank Zappa: Part Two
The Early Albums

As I mentioned in Part One of this series, Frank Zappa was an American rock guitarist and composer mainly active from the mid-Sixties to the late-Eighties. And what made him so interesting and so polarizing was that he created a great quantity (and quality) of material. There was almost literally not a style of music that he could not, did not, or at least partially include in his writing, in often very humorous ways. He also recombined and reintroduced musical or lyric material from previous works, sometimes from many decades earlier (“The Torture Never Stops”, “Zoot Allures”, “(More) Trouble Every Day”, etc.) in fascinating new ways as part of his overall working concept entitled “Project/Object”, which he described as:

“… a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’ Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: a novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel. Or: Rembrandt got his ‘look’ by mixing just a little brown into every other color — he didn’t do ‘red’ unless it had brown in it. The brown itself wasn’t especially fascinating, but the result of its obsessive inclusion was that ‘look.

I am not obsessed by various words, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, and videos for no other reason than to unify the ‘collection’“.

So, to help guide you through Zappa’s voluminous archive, I have chosen to introduce you to a few of Zappa’s early LPs (1966 – 1970) as a structural guide to his later works. For an introduction to specific songs, click here.

Freak Out!

Recorded March 8-16, 1966, and released on June 27 that same year, Freak Out! is the first LP through which anyone (in the general populace outside of southern California) discovered Zappa and his band the Mothers of Invention. And even though the album’s title implies the contents are exclusively avant-garde, psychedelic, or crazy sounding, the music itself is more often closer to mainstream than not, though it wanders into avant-garde sound art (inspired by the likes of pianist Cecil Taylor, for example, in “The Return of The Son Of Monster Magnet” (especially around 11m:10s). A nice example of both is the song “Who Are The Brain Police?” which contains both standard 60s rock sounds, influence from North Indian music, and musique concrète (a mix of sounds and music that seem to have no relationship to each other and their usual sources, used as a form of sound collage). 

As such it is on tracks like this that we hear what would become the stereotypical Zappa modus operandi of later years (“Who Are The Brain Police?”), (“Help, I’m A Rock”, the ending of “It Can’t Happen Here”, etc.). These, in particular, set the tone for Zappa’s coming career, and provide an excellent context in which to study later works. This context is essentially the following:

  1. His work is laden with socio-political satire, especially over what he saw as the more vapid aspects of celebrity and sexual behavior of his time.
  2. He mixed disparate elements of various musical styles (often through tape editing, musique concrète, and/or in-studio improvisation) into one unique whole, which made him a bona fide musical genius.
  3. He was a virtuoso guitarist, though he was self-taught and his method unorthodox.

Absolutely Free

 Though Zappa had previously released Freak Out! as a member of The Mothers of Invention (which I will shorten to TMOI for brevity’s sake), it is with the release of the album Absolutely Free that we see what we might call the “stereotypical” solo Zappa emerge: rock songs mixed with sound effects and various sound collages, improvised socio-political dialogues, etc. Thus, I am will be mixing Frank Zappa solo work and work by TMOI to give you a sense of the interrelationship between the two.

Recorded November 16-18, 1966, and released May 26, 1967, Absolutely Free was released at a time when artists such as Petula Clark were releasing sugary pop hits such as “Don’t Sleep In The Subway” and the Beatles the same with “All You Need Is Love”, and “Penny Lane”. Thus, Zappa’s musical collage of themes taken from classical composer Igor Stravinsky, free jazz, and doo-wop on the track “Amnesia Vivace” would have (and did) seem like an all out attack on the sensibilities of the average listener of the day, let alone those who appreciate each of these styles individually. Ironically, Zappa’s appropriation of such styles was done so masterfully, it was not apparent to many average listeners to begin with unless one had an education in classical music, jazz, and the popular music of the day! For example, the ballad “Duke Of Prunes” and “The Duke Regains His Chops”, minus the satirical lyrics, are well written and stylistically as “inside” as any other pop song of the day. Other songs such as “Invocation & And Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” demonstrate the band members ability to either solo with or support Zappa in his role as bandleader, so Absolutely Free is often the choice of band members and fans alike as an early favorite. 

(Note: each side of the original LP was meant to be an interconnected type of “underground” oratorio, and arguably all Zappa works are part of the greater Project/Object “oratorio” Zappa created over his musical lifetime). 

Lumpy Gravy

 Recorded in February 1967, released August 1967, and later extended and reissued on May 3, 1968, this is Zappa’s first solo album, surprisingly, an album of orchestral, musique concrete, and surf music, which further added to Zappa’s mystique. As Lumpy Gravy and Absolutely Free ostensibly were released around the same time, it is easy to see how diverse a reaction would have been engendered. Those who would accuse Zappa of being a “freak” (part of the hippy culture around him) could not accuse him of mere musical shock value, those who would condemn rock music as not serious could not deny Zappa’s talent, and so on. It is also a point of contention for those critiquing Zappa that his songs and LPs almost invariably had comical titles, thus “hiding” how thoroughly serious he was about his music and the depth of his talent. The album We’re Only In It For The Money for example, includes a song simply titled “Hot Poop”. But to his fans this was and is one of the most entertaining and endearing aspects of his work, how musically seditious his work was; in my own case how liberating it was to be a young musician who was turned on to Zappa while my peers were not.

Also, though this is Zappa’s debut solo effort, due to contract issues he himself could not appear as a musician on it, thus he wrote, created, and conducted music exclusively. It is also on this recording do we hear the Zappa classic “Oh No!” later appearing on such LPs as Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Make A Jazz Noise Here. “Oh No” is what can be called the stereotypical sound of his more “sweet” sounding melodies.

We’re Only In It For The Money

Recorded various dates between March – October, 1967, and released March 4, 1968, this Mothers of Invention LP was recorded right before Lumpy Gravy, and thus represents a kind of intermingling of Frank Zappa’s solo efforts and the return of the Mothers. It is also on this recording we hear a particularly fascinating use of mixed time signatures (“Flower Punk”), a creative technique Zappa would use in a very distinct way, apart from the manner in which the progressive rock bands such as RUSH, Genesis, YES, and others who would follow. Zappa would also use what are known as contra-metric rhythms: where the standard composer might put four notes Zappa would include five, where six may go Zappa would include seven. This, combined with time signatures such as 5/8 or 7/4 meant that Zappa could write extremely difficult music in all of the genres he had mastered, which were many. The live album Make A Jazz Noise Here (recorded in various locations in 1988, released in 1991) contains many examples of contra-metric rhythm as well as difficult horn section arrangements played almost to perfection, a major feat for any brass on woodwind player.

Uncle Meat

 Recorded between September 1967-68 and released April 21, 1969, this particular LP is one of the longer ones available, each side running approximately an hour. It was also intended to be the soundtrack to a then unfinished science fiction movie about an insane genius who plans to take control of the world from his secret base in an old Van Nuys garage. Also notable about this particular album in general is its inclusion of the lead sheet music for two songs, the main theme (“Uncle Meat”) and the main theme to a series of variations known as “King Kong”. As Zappa’s music is notoriously difficult to transcribe without some sort of assistant technology, having these two examples available as an overall guide to Zappa (most notably his use of sixteenth note clusters and eighth note triplet groupings) is extremely invaluable to both fans and musicians alike, and an excellent insight into how Zappa created the “stop/start” quality of his percussion writing in particular (i.e. the aforementioned contra-metric and time signature techniques). The highlight of this particular recording though is the theme and extended soloing over the chords to “King Kong” (Parts 2 to 6), which are akin to the tonal explorations of such bands as Pink Floyd but with more free form elements occasionally surfacing. Similar soloing also occurs in the song “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution”, wherein Zappa plays his guitar over a vamping rhythms section and free form percussion.

Weasels Ripped My Flesh

A (mostly) live recording, captured between December1967 and August 1969, and released on August 10, 1970, this TMOI album, like its predecessor, contains contra-metric, humorously titled songs (“Prelude To The Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask”) and free form elements, but returns to the single disc format. For example, the title track is a figurative “wall” of sound with all members playing as many notes as they can, creating a surprisingly beautiful dissonant soundscape (if played at low volume). As such, the LP realizes what might seem like the eponymous ethos of Freak Out! though the previous LPs exist in between.

This ethos is result of the influence of certain people listed in the liner notes included on Freak Out!: free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, free jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy (who is both an influence on Zappa and included in a song title “The Eric Dolphy Memorial BBQ”), classical composers such as Stravinsky and Stockhausen, blues artists such as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Willie Dixon, Guitar Slim, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, and a wide variety of writers, painters and other influences: sitarist Ravi Shankar, painter Salvador Dali, cymbal maker Avedis Zildjian, writer James Joyce, etc.

But any hint of that ethos, like on any other Zappa recording, is balanced by its opposite, like for example a vocal version of “Oh No” (heard earlier on Lumpy Gravy), in which Zappa questions the basis of the Beatles “All You Need Is Love”.

Oh no, I don’t believe it
You say that you think you know the meaning of love
You say love is all we need
You say with your love you can change
All of the fools, all of the hate
I think you’re probably out to lunch

Oh no, I don’t believe it
You say that you think you know the meaning of love
Do you really think it can be told?
You say that you really know
I think you should check it again
How can you say what you believe
Will be the key to a world of love?


Sun Ra and Myth Science…


Sun Ra: Angels and Demons At Play/The Nubians of Plutonia

サン・ラー: ザー・ニュービーアンズ・オブ・プリュートニア
1969 Saturn Research LP 406

Plutonian Nights (4:22)
The Lady with the Golden Stockings (7:41)
Star Time (4:18)
Nubia (8:14)
Africa (5:06)
Watusa (2:36)
Aethiopia (7:12)

サン・ラー: エーンジェルズ・アンド・ディーモンズ・アット・プレー
1965: Saturn LP 9956-2-0

Tiny Pyramids (3:28)
Between Two Worlds (1:56)
Music from the World Tomorrow (2:20)
Angels and Demons at Play (2:51)
Umack (3:46)
Medicine for a Nightmare (2:16)
A Call for All Demons (4:12)
Demon’s Lullaby (2:35)

 As an anonymous jazz critic lamented in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, “with the current lack of new ideas in jazz, charlatans have a chance too” (1970, No. #47, p. 228), referring to pianist Herman Poole Blount, whose music has been the focus of much debate, criticism, appreciation, and analysis. So why did this occur? The following story will begin to shed some light on Blount and his music.

Many years ago, a volunteer at the Edmonton Jazz Festival was assigned diving duties for Blount, to transport he and members of his group the Sun Ra Arkestra between Calgary and Edmonton for their respective festivals. Over the three-hour journey, Blount spent much of the time scribbling in a small black notebook, often pausing to think and look out the window. The volunteer was extremely curious about the contents of book, and made it his mission to peak inside of it at any given opportunity. During a brief pause at a gas station to refuel, the band exited to buy snacks, presenting the driver with his opportunity. It turned out to be a small collection of crossword puzzles. But why was the driver obsessed with Blount’s book?

Blount, who later changed his named to Sun Ra, was a particularly unique jazz musician who engaged in what is known as myth science: imagining science fiction themed futures through costumery, lighting, music that often was avant-garde, poetry, his public interviews and so on. Ra proclaimed that he was from Saturn and/or went to Saturn and came back to play cosmic music that would bring about world peace.

Because of this the mystique and legend surrounding Ra was such that the aforementioned jazz festival driver was immensely interested in peaking into Ra’s black notebook to see if there was anything of philosophical or literary importance, any arcana he could glean and share with his friends: wisdom or creative mythology that would give the driver social capital amongst his peers (status via participation in the Ra mythos through personal contact with the master myth-scientist himself).

Sun Ra would later become associated with what is known as “Afrofuturism”: an African-American movement combining science fiction, mythology, philosophy, fantasy, and social critique, what Paul Jasen (in his book Bass, Bodies and the Materiality of Sonic Experience, p. 200) calls “application of imaginative force to the alteration of lived reality” with which African Americans might invent their own “Alter Destiny”. As Ra himself states, “myth permits man to situate himself with the past and the future. What I am looking for are the myths of the future, the destiny of man… if one wants to act on the destiny of the world, it’s necessary to treat it like a myth” (as quoted in Graham Locke’s book Blutopia, p. 61). Ra’s myth-science itself was highly influential and immense, drawing upon ancient hermetic writing, religious texts, theosophy, contemporary science fiction, and cryptic numerology, and was instrumental in reviving African-American interest in ancient Egypt. Ra called his various assembled sidemen “tone scientists”, and even had the chance to make a science fiction film based on his philosophy (Space is The Place: directed by John Coney, 1974) in which he battles NASA scientists and a pimp-Overlord to save the black youths of Oakland, California and recruit them for his Saturn colony.

The soundtrack to this film though may be where casual fans of Ra get their perceptions of him and his avant-gardism/myth-science, as the opening track (“It’s After The End of the World”), for example, is a series of chromatic organ chords mixed with shrieking saxophone, which one could certainly (non-pejoratively) imagine as some kind of attempt at space-jazz. Other tracks on the album contain enough free form and structural elements as to stereotype Ra as avant-gardist, whether one enjoys such music and ideology, or not. This raises the issue whether myth “science” can provides any guarantee that any/all mythologies will avoid inculcating actual delusion, cult behavior, oppression, or other modes of thought and action that are intellectually suspect, or obscure social reality. Ra was briefly affiliated with the Back Panthers until he left the group due to ideological issues. But as Ra’s is a creative jazz-based uplifting Afrofuturism, it would seem that Ra’s “myth-sciencing” succeeded at both an Afro-positive/literally universal version of the future, where musicians like Ra engaged in what Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka called “philosophical sagacity”, in both academic and the non-written “wise man” traditions (such as the griot, folk singer, etc).

So having said that we arrive at Sun Ra’s music and the man himself, a supposed mythic jazz figure who supposed played cosmic, (often but not exclusively) free form “space music” literally and possibly exclusively. But what we find on these two LPs, sold on CD as a double album, is something potentially much more interesting and less stereotypical than that. Though the Second Wave of free jazz was now established (performers who came along after the innovations of saxophonist Ornette Coleman) when this LP was released, Sun Ra’s music closer to the First Wave on The Nubians of Plutonia, with compositions like “Plutonian Nights” and “Star Time” sounding more like loose versions of songs from the hard bop genre of jazz, as the recording session for this LP’s songs was done approx. ten years earlier. These same recording sessions also produced the piece “Africa” which is difficult to describe without referring to several genres of music: doo-wop, free jazz, traditional African rhythm, and so on.

The music on the LP Angels And Demons At Play also challenges the notion that Ra was some kind of mystic ergo his music would be de facto psychedelic in a jazz format, as evidenced by “Tiny Pyramids” (actually written by Ronnie Boykins), with its carefully composed introduction and strict time keeping in the rhythm section. Most famous of the songs collected on this LP though are “A Call For All Demons”, or possibly “Angels And Demons At Play”, which one would assume use extensive free jazz soloing to create a “demonic” (atonal, dissonant, wild) feel. But the former is a standard sounding hard bop take on both Latin rhythm and the blues, while the latter is what is known as a “vamp (song played over a single chord or two) in the time signature of 5/4. In fact, a “Call For All Demons” is included in what is known as The Real Book, a large volume of transcribed songs bassist Steve Swallow (due to copyright: “allegedly”) compiled as a working musician. The original Real Book has been covertly copied or sold in the thousands over the decades, possibly in a million copies combined, as it is the essential jazz sheet music collection, and Ra is included. The song “Music From The World Tomorrow” though does reinforce Ra’s reputation as a free form tone scientist, with its chromatic chords, bowed/plucked zither, extensive percussion, and bowed bass. Thus, it is easy to isolate and promote this track as an “example” of Sun Ra’s greater oeuvre.

Ultimately, what the aforementioned examples illustrate is that Ra was more than just an avant-gardist, myth-scientist, hard bop pianist, or any other moniker. He was an important part of jazz history and it’s development, a very interesting thinker, a highly creative artist, and a great performer throughout his career.