Vinyl Analysis: Metal IRONy: Installment #1-The Philosophy of “The Philosopher”

Heavy metal questions nearly everything.  It’s the purpose of the genre, really.  It pushes musical boundaries.  It challenges time-honored assumptions.  Metal is not afraid of God. Or Satan.  Or…Plato?

In teaching my Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre class, I have had many students present the Death song “The Philosopher” off their 1993 album Individual Thought Patterns.  The basic theme of the song lies in the chorus: “Lies feed your judgement of others / Behold how the blind lead each other / The philosopher: You know so much about nothing at all.” The attitude here is one of the first or second year college student.  The questions that arise early in a university education ultimately lead to a reexamination of basic assumptions.  As evidenced by the lyrics above, “The Philosopher” strikes a defiant tone, giving the student an opportunity to challenge the university, the underpinnings of the Western intellectual tradition, and perhaps the basic philosophical bent of this humanities professor.

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The Metal IRONy lies in fact that this song, this album, and this band sustain the Western philosophical tradition.

W.K.C. Guthrie argues in The Greek Philosophers from Thales to Aristotle that “[t]he lifeblood of philosophy is controversy” (67).  Thus, the student, who undoubtedly finds this song, and its use in a class presentation, to be an act of defiance, in truth engages in the controversy that makes philosophy philosophy.  Perhaps the student didn’t stop to think that a heavy metal class in a university in the Bible Belt providing a safe space for this defiance had already spilled a little of this lifeblood on his or her behalf.

But for all the defiance assumed to reside in using this song in class, the initial choice of the song probably lies in the premise that the song itself defies philosophical thought.

Not on your lifeblood.

The challenges articulated in this song derive from basic western philosophy.  In the main, an introduction to philosophy course will offer a view of philosophy dividing the discipline into five branches, following, more or less, depending on the book you use, this model:

  1. Metaphysics-the study of reality
  2. Epistemology-the study of knowledge
  3. Logic-the study of thought patterns
  4. Ethics-the study of proper behavior
  5. Aesthetics-the study of beauty and perception

Of course, the beauty of the model is that you can suddenly find yourself in the middle of a different branch than you thought you were in the middle of.  While the divisions comfort us with uniformity, taxonomy, and the ever-reassuring numbered list, the truth is that there are no branches of philosophy “but thinking makes it so.”

So, as we will see, the lyrics of this song actually harness the five branches model.  To be fair,  philosophy has done a remarkable job building a framework for our thoughts.  It’s likely that  Chuck Schuldiner and my students and the university and you and me cannot really escape the model.  We are so accustomed to it that it’s there whether we mean for it to be there or not.

For convenience, let’s have a look at the lyrics:

Do you feel what I feel?  See what I see.  Hear what I hear?
There is a line you must draw between your dream world and reality.
Do you live my life or share the breath I breathe?

Lies feed your judgement of others.
Behold how the blind lead each other.
The philosopher: You know so much about nothing at all

Ideas that fall under shadows of theories that stand tall
Thoughts that grow narrow upon being verbally released
Your mind is not your own; what sounds more mentally stimulating is how you make your choice
So you preach about how I’m supposed to be, yet you don’t know your own sexuality

Lies feed your judgement of others.
Behold how the blind lead each other.
The philosopher: You know so much about nothing at all

So, the first three lines fall under the standard philosophical branches of metaphysics and epistemology (which go together like peas and carrots because you can’t know reality without thinking about how you know).  We see three (touch, vision, hearing) of the five senses referenced, the epistemological method of empiricism (philosophy based on the five senses).  Then the question of perception the emerges between dreams, reality, and what constitutes life-the distinctions between them falling rather firmly under metaphysics.  Taken together, the use of these questions-that we feel, see, hear, dream, and breathe-reflects a basic use of logic; that is to say, if the number of common elements amasses sufficiently, we must be more or less endowed with similar capacities-a standard act of classification required by most philosophers before a question is interrogated.

Next, the chorus adopts an ethical stance, asserting that our knowledge lies in “lies” and that the “blind lead each other,” a sense-based metaphor criticizing the fact that we are being led by the philosopher who claims to know but does not.  This notion calls up the Socratic Irony of who knows that he knows not knows more than he who thinks he knows but does not know.  IRONically, when this death metal song (think aesthetic defiance) is used in class, it seems to be chosen to illustrate that the university-symbolized by the philosopher and/or my class and/or myself-may “know so much about nothing at all.”  Somehow, however, (perhaps it’s all that defiance), the fact remains that the premise of this song is a “judgment of others” based on the thoughts of someone who has given no real reason for us to believe him.

Then the next verse holds that theories control ideas, and then ideas are weakened once spoken, that our mind becomes so deprived of thought that all we really think about is how we think we think about how we think.  Intended or not, there seems a touch of deconstruction in this progression, and this is undoubtedly an epistemological discussion.  The next line-“So you preach about how I’m supposed to be, yet you don’t know your own sexuality”-steps from epistemology to ethics, seemingly reasserting the premise that the blind lead the blind, that those who presume to tell us how to act are no more prepared to contemplate choices than we are, suggesting that anyone telling anyone how to act is inherently unethical.  Again, the IRONy rises to the surface.  We are being exhorted to question the right of another to guide our thoughts by someone telling us not to allow another to guide our thoughts.  Somehow, the aesthetic form of a death metal song-because metal questions everything-makes the arguments offered here authoritative by the mere suggestion of controversy, which makes the IRONy doubly IRONic because controversy is the lifeblood of philosophy.

But the fact may well be that we are being led by lies to judge others by someone who knows an equal amount about nothing at all as anyone else.  I’m a doctor of philosophy, so who knows what I do or don’t know, or know I know, or know I don’t know, or don’t know I don’t know.  After all, I’m talking about the guy who’s talking about the guy who knows about nothing at all.

Think about it.

****

Written by Dr. Metal

Vinyl Analysis #3

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