Phenomenological Approaches to Studying Wagner

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Phenomenological Approaches to Studying Wagner

Post by djcmusicology » Mon Nov 14, 2011 10:27 pm

Hello everyone. I am new to the forum, so allow me to introduce myself. My name is Daniel and I am a graduate student and teaching assistant in musicology and philosophy at the University of Idaho. In August of 2011, I completed a Bachelor of Arts in Music History and Literature with a minor in Philosophy from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where I was both an Undergraduate Research Assistant and Research Associate in musicology. I have two main research areas. FIrst is my work on Wagner, on which I have written and presented several papers at musical society meetings and academic conferences. They include "Did Richard Wagner Have Borderline Personality Disorder," "Hurn and Root's The Truth About Wagner: Revisiting a Controversial Book After Eighty Years," and my most current project, "Won't the Real Phenomenologist Please Stand Up: Husserlian Motivations of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk." I am happy to report that this last project will be not only the subject of my M.A. thesis, which will count for both the M.A. in musicology and the M.A. in philosophy, but will also be a presentation for the National Wagner Society in Washington, D.C. I would like to introduce that project here and to ask the members of the forum for any input or suggestions they may have.

While the Hegelian, Feuerbachian, and Schopenhauerian implications of Wagner's works have been heavily emphasized within the scholarly literature, the phenomenological perspective of his works has not been addressed to the same extent, if at all. (I mention that phrase because many of the scholars on musicology, philosophy, and German studies that I have contacted have told me that they are aware of no projects that address this issue and that mine is the first of its kind.) However, upon closer examination, and contingent upon a familiarity with Continental philosophy, distinctly phenomenological motivations underlie Wagner's artistic reforms.

I make my case on three points. First, I argue that the gesamtkunstwerk concept itself was phenomenologically motivated in that the individual arts were to be combined for their immediate and collective apprehension. This is in line with the concept of constitution under the phenomenological reduction, as explained in one of the Routledge articles, wherein a die is not perceived as a die by perceiving six individual sides, but rather by synthesizing them into the concept of a die. Second, I argue that the construction of the Bayreuth theatre, specifically tailored to the performance of his works, was phenomenologically motivated in that he was attempting to elevate the consciousness of the theatrical experience over and above that of the Italian theatres of which he was so critical. For this point, I tie in some of the work of Pannill Camp, a theatre professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who maintains that "the architectonics of Husserlian phenomenology" are manifested in the "architecture of the modern theatre." FInally, I argue that the implementation of the leitmotif system was phenomenologically motivated in that the correspondence of a motive with a character, object, event or idea constitutes the "noetic act," while the correspondence of a motive with this or that particular character, object, event or idea constitutes the "noesis," or "meaning giving aspect" of the act.

I am happy to report that this project has been positively reviewed by philosophers and musicologists throughout the world and has been considered a highly original project and offering a new philosophical perspective through which Wagner can be approached. I was wondering if anyone had any input on this project that they would like to share.

Any inpt or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,
Daniel John Carroll, B.A.
Graduate Teaching Assistant, School of Music
The University of Idaho
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Re: Phenomenological Approaches to Studying Wagner

Post by parzival » Thu Nov 17, 2011 12:28 pm

Hi Daniel,

This sounds very interesting, although I know next to nothing about Husserl, and I've certainly never heard of him in connection to Wagner. I'm curious though as to how you are defining Gesamtkunstwerk, whether you are working primarily with Wagner's theory of it or the actual implementation (if at all) into the music dramas themselves. I've always found the theory and practice problematically incongruous.
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Re: Phenomenological Approaches to Studying Wagner

Post by djcmusicology » Tue Nov 22, 2011 8:14 pm

Thanks for the message. Sorry for the delay in responding, but there were some technical difficulties with logging in with my username and password that I had to get straightened out.

As I discuss the gesamtkunstwerk, I discuss it from the standpoint of Wagner's ideal theatrical drama as it was proposed in his writings. I know that there has been a discrepancy observed between his writings and the actual product, particularly by Bryan Magee in The Tristan Chord, but I seek to focus on how it was expounded in his theoretical prose works.

Daniel John Carroll, B.A.
Graduate Teaching Assistant, School of Music
The University of Idaho
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Joined: Thu May 26, 2011 7:55 am

Re: Phenomenological Approaches to Studying Wagner

Post by feuerzauber » Thu Nov 24, 2011 12:25 am

Daniel, what an insight!

It may turn out that Richard does a better job than Edmund.

I consider Husserl's methodology to be essentially sound. I consider his system to be misguided, untenable and, for reasons unfortunately necessarily explained below, destructive to the scientific and social enterprises he wished to clarify.

I enjoy the imaginary world the composer created – it is the stuff of our idealized hopes, despair, passions – a triumph of our emotional humanity.

I scoff at the idealized world the philosopher created in order to achieve the impossible – the attainment of static absolutes that compel humanity to comprehend them intellectually and to conform to them socially.

The composer constructed his world and explanatory apparatus in thrall to a feverish but cerebral artistic impulse.

The philosopher constructed his world and apparatus in order to discover the self-evident, the a-priori, the incontrovertible, that with which we cannot disagree — in parody, the philospher's stone.

But we do disagree. In practice, Husserl seeks to unite the way things appear to us and the way we comprehend these appearances, in a manner that is absolutely contrary to the way science works with abstractions (theory) and appearances (practice).

The mighty Weierstrass, Weyl and co. supported Husserl's mathematics-inspired quest. This makes one thing incontrovertible — Husserl's quest was truly well motivated.

The image of Rembrandt's evangelist Matthew – with God's angel dictating the evangel to him as he ponders inspired on the cusp of penning it – came to mind as I read Husserl's adventures in the realm of transcendental consciousness. Like Hegel, he teaches us how to tap directly into essences – the ethereal world behind the world.


Appearance and reality don't coincide. That is the problem.

Normal daily practice is obviously a solution. Science demonstrably another. Husserl's phenomenology a contender.

Now, it would scarcely have escaped scientists' attention if as scientists they somehow managed to confront the world substantially differently from the way they do as day-to-day citizens. On the contrary, as scientists they are concerned to replicate systematically what works daily for all of us.

Science is – in vernacular – "daily practice on steroids". It is quite clearly both in origin and in needs a socially necessary product. That should be warning against confident claims of anything in it or of it being self evident – our social history is replete with confrontations between and forced impositions of self-evident principles – evidence of their non self-evident status.

Thomas Kuhn pointed out that, if science is to communicate, it must adopt conventions – agreed-upon principles, agreed-upon procedures, agreed-upon exemplars (the origin of his paradigms). The composite enterprise operates as if it were self evident, and must be assimilated as such by its practitioners (us of shared convention), if it is to be a collaborative social enterprise and satisfy our social needs.

This implies that self-evidence is itself a social necessity – the implications of this are enormous. But social necessities are anything but absolute and eternal. Consequently Husserl's stasis is ultimately obstructionary. His static approach forces him to impose inflexible concepts and standards upon our changing social needs and practices. That is why I find his phenomenology socially intolerable.


The specific a-priori truths that inspire Husserl's enterprise are, of course, those sanctioned by his academic colleagues – logic and mathematics. [The status of the rest is rent by dissension. By contrast, our composer Richard, had mere impresarios, investors, singers, audiences, critics, creditors... to contend with.]

Husserl proceeds from his private particular truths to public general truths – all within the realm of a shared transcendental consciousness.

He expressly employs a deliberately first-person, anti-historical, anti-relative, purely-cerebral, experience-bracketing methodology, which he justifies on the "self-evident" grounds that the science of science cannot be science.

It is necessarily "self evident" that Husserl's first-person encounters of the transcendental kind are the same as ours, because our shared transcendental consciousness is "self-evidently" universal.

Given such unconsciously loaded dice, the fact that he actually delivered so little in the way of incontrovertible self-evidence I take as circumstantial evidence that he made a grave mistake in hastily dismissing scientific methodology. Perhaps he lacked the scientific imagination (more likely the social background) to work out how to employ science to the problem at hand – universals. Salutarily his non science seems directly the result of lack of science.

Ultimately Husserl can't bracket out the social world. His foundation miracle – turning privileged particulars into democratic universals – is performed by agency of "empathy". Empathy – that somewhat imperfect evolutionary conduit of sociability (which can only be understood scientifically) – plays the crucial role of phenomenology's pivotal middle term.

Only niggling self doubt could have induced Husserl to pollute his transcendental system with such material sociability. To me he diminishes an otherwise bravura performance when his phenomenology can choose exactly what it needs to bring itself to closure.

From where I sit, Husserl – under a self-imposed degree of difficulty – flops his competition dive. His judges miss the social "substance", and empathetically award gold.


Like Jefferson, we only hold truths as self evident by conviction. That's precisely why we need science.

No matter how hard a black slave and a white master practice away at Husserl's phenomenological reduction upon the concept of "empathy" they are unlikely to arrive at the same self-evident universal. The master, equally trapped by his social position and subject to the shared illusion of his epoch, can only accede to the just claims of empathy so far.

Our non-Husserlian social world is shockingly replete with consciously sinister instances of "empathy" not conforming to its Husserlian norm that raise scarcely a ripple.

We incarcerate transgressors of property rights. We torture withholders of privileged information. We agonize over labour conditions just short of impeding delivery of our latest iPad. Advertisers practice the art of manipulating empathy. Royalty, theologians, and co. cultivate the ritual of it. Forget tabloid press, politicians, salesmen, warming skeptics... lest the catalogue of acceptable abuse "stretch out to the crack of doom".


Stollen. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments."

Stollen. Husserl's analytic tools are powerful (like Hegel's despite his system) and, of course, they perfectly match your enterprise.

Abgesang. If (to me) Husserl has blind spots, so do we all. I have confidence in your steadfastness (like Shakespeare's lover's love) not to bend to my carping "remover to remove" – unavoidably Beckmesserian – interference. I have confidence in your ability to expose any/all of my errors/misunderstandings, but I don't expect you thereby to divert your energies.

You have more important considerations, for which I unreservedly proffer encouragement. I look forward to reading your Meisterwerk (if you should place it in the public domain), and jealously empathize with your youthful entry upon the wondrous threshold of becoming a Meister.
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Re: Phenomenological Approaches to Studying Wagner

Post by alberich00 » Thu Nov 24, 2011 8:48 am

Dear Daniel and Feuerzauber:

I thank Feuerzauber for his enlightening introduction to some of the problems which belabor Husserl's thought, but I have to confess total ignorance of Husserl's thought. Currently I'm trying to compensate for many years out of the reading loop (devoted instead to deep analysis of a very few texts), by putting together a reading list to which I'll devote the remainder of my life. However, in spite of my ignorance, from Feuerzauber's description it sounds as if Husserl embarked on a sort of Platonic enterprise, an effort to establish some apriori and universal forms not as the distillate of empirical evidence but in spite of it. In any case, I must draw up a list of 20th century thinkers whose work I've neglected, and get down to it. Unlike Harold Bloom (whose legendary capacity for speed-reading with comprehension I envy), my reading tends to be plodding and clumsy and slow: I often have to re-read difficult paragraphs ten times or more to attain enlightenment.

To address Daniel's point, I have insufficient knowledge of phenomenology to make a worthwhile contribution to this discussion. I was wondering therefore if Daniel and/or Feuerzauber or any other interested parties could provide some insight into the essentials of phenomenology in general, but also, and especially, as they may relate to our experience of Wagner's music-dramas. Also, I'm curious: did Husserl have anything interesting to say Wagner in particular or aesthetic experience in general?
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