Radiohead and Philosophy: On Rhetoric

rhetoric. by http://www.flickr.com/photos/x1brett/

To get started, check out the music video below, done by Radiohead in collaboration with Project EXIT:

In Radiohead and Philosophy I wrote about the way that this video utilizes rhetoric – a combination of logos (logic), pathos (passion), and ethos (ethics, or reputation). Let’s dig a little deeper into ways we could analyze the argument against child labor.

We can choose from many different ethical theories to make our case, but let’s try to keep it simple since we just want a brief example. The basic principle of utilitarianism is that what is right is the action which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We could spend a lot of time splitting hairs over different formulations of this principle and exactly what we mean by “greatest good”, but again, let’s try to keep it simple. Assuming we accept the basic principle of utilitarianism, it does not seem like exploiting children for labor brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The good of my being able to purchase cheap shoes does not outweigh the negative impact of this way of life for so many children. Therefore, the conclusion is that I should not purchase shoes from companies that exploit children, and of course, no company should exploit children. So there we have it – an admittedly brief and simple version of what can stand in as a philosophic argument against child labor.

Now, let’s stop and ask some questions. First, were you convinced by the argument? Second, how did it make you feel? If you can accept the basic principle of utilitarianism, then you probably should be convinced that the argument is correct. If you just don’t like utilitarianism, we could easily make the same argument from another ethical theory, though. Actually, we might not even need a theory to justify our thinking that this exploitation is bad. On some level, we just feel that it is. But what is the impact of an argument like this? Did it rile you up and cause the same feelings and thoughts that the All I Need video caused? Possibly for a few it did, but more than likely the somewhat vague “argument” of the video caused a much stronger reaction than the clear and precise philosophic argument. But how could that be? How can Radiohead argue about the way the world is without using anything like what we consider a traditional argument?

To answer that question, we’re actually going to have to look back toward philosophy again! Aristotle wrote extensively on the topic of rhetoric, which is the practice of writing or speaking skillfully. He divides the art of rhetoric into three distinct categories: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos deals with the credibility of the one making the argument, pathos deals with the emotional appeal being made, and logos deals with the logical reasoning of the argument. This distinction gives us a much easier way to understand the difference between the two arguments we’ve been looking at.

The history of western philosophy has focused heavily on the importance of logos. In ancient Greece, the Sophists wrote about and went around teaching the art of rhetoric, often for a fee. For them, rhetoric meant giving a convincing speech – even if it wasn’t necessarily accurate; in other words they ignored the logos aspect. This disregard for the so-called truth upset the philosophers like Socrates and Plato, who were contemporaries of the Sophists. Socrates and Plato argued against the position the Sophists took. They believed in one truth and found it appalling to charge money for helping others discover this truth. Because Socrates and Plato have been taken as the founding fathers of philosophy, their view of the Sophists has been mostly adopted, and therefore, at least for most of the history of western philosophy, the emphasis has been placed on logos while ethos, and especially pathos, have been downplayed.

All I Need: All About the World

Perhaps you’re wondering if our foray into the history of philosophy was really necessary? The main point is that traditionally philosophical arguments focus on arguments using logos, or logic. Historically, our culture has widely accepted this as the standard for argument. But if music is able to make an argument about the world, it seems to do it outside of this logos. I argue that if we can accept music as producing emotions, then perhaps its form of argument is that of pathos.

The question remains though, does a song draw only on pathos? Television commercials might be understood as also using the pathos form of argument. They play on basic needs and emotions of humans, and sometimes draw on celebrities (ethos) to make the point. These commercials do seem to have some power over us, even if it is subconscious, but it would be quite a stretch to say that they are arguing a point. Yet, I want to make this claim about Radiohead. What’s the difference?

There’s another philosophical distinction we can make that may help us better understand this difference. The logical positivists make a distinction between cognitive information and expressive information. Cognitive information tells us something about the world and it should be possible at least in theory to verify whether a cognitive statement is true or false. For example, consider the statement “The moon is made of cheese.” This is a cognitive statement because we can determine whether it is true or false by either using a powerful telescope or actually going to the moon to examine it. In Ancient Greece, they weren’t able to actually do either of these tests, but the statement was still testable in theory, and thus cognitive.

Art, on the other hand, is typically taken to be expressive. It is not typically understood as saying anything about the world. We feel uncomfortable calling a painting or a song true or false. Rather, the point is that a work of art expresses something. While most think Radiohead and other bands create music that is mainly expressive and emotional, there is a way to see it as also being cognitive, as I argue in this essay.

Even if we grant that it is possible for a song to tell us something about the world – and that’s actually quite a leap, philosophically speaking – there’s still the huge question of exactly what it is about the world we can discover. How is it that reacting emotionally to a song actually tells us anything at all? The song All I Need can help us sort out how all this might actually work.

What should be an easy case can become quite complicated. If we wanted to boil things down we might say that at the very least we know from listening to All I Need something about how Thom Yorke feels about the world. But do we for certain? Are we positive that he wasn’t writing ironically? Or that maybe he tossed a bunch of words into a bag and drew them out randomly, arranging them into a song as he went? Unless Thom himself came right out and explained his writing methods and thoughts in detail, we’d never really be certain that the lyrics truly expressed his feelings about something.

Part of the problem in trying to determine what we can learn about the world through a song is that very often we can’t even all agree on what certain lyrics mean. Aside from a simple raw emotional reaction when we hear All I Need, what is it actually saying? Scouring the internet and various message boards, I judge that most people seemed to agree at the time it was released that it is some sort of love song. Some thought of it as very simple love song, while others believed it to have a bit of an edge. Perhaps the character of the song is desperate and only staying with this person that they don’t even really like, just because they’re not able to get anyone else. I could keep listing more and more interpretations that people have given, but I’ll stop here before I start sounding too much like one of your old English lit teachers. There’s an easier answer that is literally right under our nose – ourselves.

It should be fairly obvious that we can learn about ourselves through a piece of music. Think back to the lyrics “I only stick with you because there are no others. You are all I need.”  When we hear these lyrics put together with the slow and almost haunting music, most of us will reflect on our own lives. We ask ourselves questions. Am I only staying with my partner because there’s no one else? Maybe they are all I need but do I want more? It could very well be that these thoughts were already dancing around in your subconscious, but it wasn’t until you heard the song that they came welling up to the surface. The song gives us a focused idea on which we can sit back and reflect. We can try to apply it to our own lives. Any song we listen to has the potential to cause us to reflect on our own lives and thus learn something about ourselves and the world.

Sometimes a song can take this a step further, perhaps in a case where the writer is actually trying to make some sort of argument about the world.

The true power of the All I Need video and song stems from its combining all three forms of rhetoric. The power of the entire argument together seems to be more than the sum of each of the parts. The song itself is still expressive, but it is more than just that. Although in this case it was the video that added a great deal of the argument, lyrics alone are often capable of this type of argument. Radiohead has produced a compelling argument about the world which does not resemble the traditional philosophical argument praised by logical positivists. It is this ability to make me think about things that always causes me to eagerly await each new album!

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