Humanities and Arts

Looking for Profundity (in All the Wrong Places)

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It does not happen very often that one short paper opens an entire new subfield of a philosophical discipline. But this is exactly what Peter Kivy’s 1990 paper “The Profundity of Music” achieved. In a couple of years after Kivy’s paper appeared, all philosophers of music, who previously, like Charles Swann in Marcel Proust’s novel (Proust (1913) 1992), would have found it difficult to utter the word ‘profound’ unironically, all began took this concept very seriously. The problem Kivy (1990) draws our attention to is this: we do call some musical works profound. However, Kivy argues, given that a work is profound only if it is about something profound and given that music (or “music alone”) is not about anything, this leads to something of a paradox: how can music be profound if it is not about something profound?My aim in this article is to give a Kivy-esque answer to this question, which might be more consistent with Kivy’s work in the philosophy of music in general than Kivy’s own take on the profundity of music. The upshot is that what makes a work profound is not that it is about something profound, but that it actively challenges any straightforward interpretative activity (while at the same time nudges you to keep on trying to interpret it). I argue that this line of argument is very much in tune with Kivy’s general theoretical commitment that “music alone isn’t about anything” (1990, 204)