Gods and Titans (2019)
James Tartaglia - vocals and alto saxophone
Andrew Bowie - tenor saxophone
Steve Tromans - piano
Mike Green - bass
Tymek Jozwaik - drums
Philosophy has come to seem like a specialist interest with little or no influence on our lives. On the contrary, argues James Tartaglia, it was the philosophy of materialism which taught us to turn from the gods to seek practical assistance from the titans, thereby reversing the moral of an ancient Greek myth to inspire the building of today’s technological world. As the largely unreflected belief-system it has now become, materialism continues to steer the direction of technological development, while making us think this direction is inevitable. By drawing on neglected idealist traditions of philosophy, Tartaglia argues for a new way of looking at reality which asserts our freedom to choose, reaffirms and builds upon our ordinary, everyday understanding, and motivates us to convert technological innovation into a process driven by public rationality and consent. With discussions ranging from consciousness, determinism and personal identity, to post-truth culture, ego-death and video games, this clear and accessible book will be of wide interest.
Abstract from Gods and Titans - James Tartaglia
This recording is based on my book Philosophy in a Technological World: GODS AND TITANS (2020). The songs correspond to 6 of the 8 chapters in that book and have the same titles. I use the ‘vocalese’ technique developed by Eddie Jefferson, which involves putting lyrics to classic improvised solos – all saxophone solos in this case. I don’t claim to have a good voice, far from it. I started singing as a response to the financial and logistical difficulties of continuing to make jazz-philosophy fusion a reality; a professional singer would need to make a major commitment to learning material of this complexity. Ideally, I’d have Kurt Elling singing these songs; and he is into philosophy, so Kurt, if you’re out there…. Obviously the philosophical content is highly superficial compared to the book. But the aim of jazz-philosophy fusion, as I conceive it, is to introduce ideas and inspire new thoughts. Books take the ideas to a new level of understanding, but reading a book is a commitment of a vastly different scale. You can read the lyrics to these songs here.
1. A world Without Philosophy
In the introduction to Gods and Titans, I discuss the extremely negative portrayals of philosophy which some famous scientists have presented to the general public in recent decades; the most famous is ‘philosophy is dead’ (Stephen Hawking). I argue that this attitude towards philosophy results from the scientists’ own unreflected commitment to a certain kind of philosophy, materialism, a commitment which was much rarer among earlier generations of scientists; not so long ago, there were eminent physicists who were idealists or dualists. In the first chapter, ‘A World Without Philosophy’, I apply my generalist conception of philosophy, as defended in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life (2016), to imagine the enormity of removing philosophy from our world, arguing that its absence from public debate contributes to many of the directions of technological innovation currently being pursued without adequate public consent. The solo I’ve put words to is by tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims on ‘Jive at Five’ (Count Basie and Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison), which is on Sims’ 1960 album, Down Home.
2. The Materialist Philosophy
Materialism, the view that reality can be completely described by physical science, has come to seem like simple common sense to many people who lack religious convictions. In fact it is a metaphysical philosophy that originated in ancient Greece, and which acquired its massive historical influence from being coupled with the political agenda of taking power from the hands of the church. In the twentieth century, the two great superpowers, the USA and Russia, united in their commitment to materialism, albeit for different reasons, and so did English-speaking professional philosophy, albeit for barely any reason at all, as I explain in chapters 2 and 3 of the book (this song is based on chapter 2). One key thing to remember when thinking about these issues is that materialism is not science, it is a philosophy; there are many other philosophies which are fully compatible with all the truths which science reveals about the world. No decent philosophy should present a conflict with science. The other thing to remember is that in order to rationally dismiss metaphysics altogether, as ‘positivists’ have been urging since the 19th century, you need a reason – positivists have never supplied a non-self-refuting one – and to dismiss it in our current climate is effectively to acquiesce in materialist metaphysics, which I think there is every reason to believe is both false and socially damaging. This is a Trinidadian calypso song by the Mighty Spoiler called ‘Bed Bug’; the most popular version is by the Bahamian calypsonian, Brownie.
3. a new Idealism
The solo used for this one is by tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray on a 1955 recording of ‘Hey There’ (R. Adler and J. Ross), made during the last year of his short life. It is a strong candidate for my favourite saxophone solo of all time. The lyrics concern chapter 4 of my book, the central one, in which I defend my idealist metaphysical understanding of reality. The leading idea of this idealism, as I say in the book, is that ‘consciousness encloses us within a phenomenal world, from the perspective of which there is always a transcendent reality’ – rather as dreams enclose us in a phenomenal world, from the perspective of which waking life is a transcendent reality. I present 5 direct arguments for idealism in this chapter, based on: (1) the fact that there is something rather than nothing, (2) the nature of conscious experience, (3) the distinction between concrete and abstract existence, (4) time, (5) the history of human beings as a species. The aim of this song is to provide some of the flavour of the theory, while hopefully inspiring thoughts in the general vicinity.
Technology is changing our lives at an ever-increasing rate. Some people are optimistic about where it will take us, others are deeply pessimistic, but few think there is anything we can do about it – technology has come to seem like a giant asteroid on a collision course with our planet, which some expect to hit and others expect to miss, rather than projects pursued by people racing to be part of the team that gets there first. I call this phenomenon ‘technoparalysis’ in chapter 5, and argue that materialism has a lot to do with it. This song is based on Stan Getz’s 1951 solo on ‘Don’t Get Scared’ (S. Getz), which has been used for vocalese before (King Pleasure’s ‘Little Boy Don’t Get Scared’).
Unlike mind, soul has become a dubious concept for today’s atheists, except in the metaphorical sense that, for instance, architecture might be criticised as ‘soulless’. And yet, as I explain in chapter 7, the main reason ‘soul’ ended up being associated with religious views is that René Descartes, in the 17th century, opted for ‘mind’ because he thought the connotations of ‘soul’ were too physical – which is pretty much the exact opposite of what people tend to think these days. This song uses four consecutive solos from a riotous 1976 recording of ‘Four Brothers’ (J. Giuffre) by the Woody Herman orchestra: (1) Stan Getz (tenor), (2) Al Cohn (tenor), (3) Zoot Sims (tenor), (4) Jimmy Giuffre (alto).
In the final chapter of the book, I discuss the balance we need to strike, in both personal and public life, between too much and too little respect for truth. In personal life, too much respect for truth produces insensitivity to other people’s feelings, while too little produces lies and bluff. In public life, too much respect results in lack of reflection on which of the potentially infinite number of truths about reality we want to uncover – collectively want, that is, so as to make human life better - while too little has led to the development of ‘post-truth’ culture. This calypso song uses Sonny Rollins' 1987 solo on ‘Duke of Iron’ (Rollins’ composition, named after a calypsonian); but I added a new melody.