Philosophers On Bob Dylan’s Words, Ideas, and His Nobel Prize Win

Philosophers On Bob Dylan’s Words, Ideas, and His Nobel Prize Win

Yesterday, Bob Dylan was selected as the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Dylan is the first musician to win the award, and there has been controversy over the boundary redefining move, as well as reflection on the significance of his work.

In light of the news, I invited a few philosophers to discuss some of the philosophical issues arising in Dylan’s work or his winning the Nobel. As with previous installments in the “Philosophers On” series, these remarks are not comprehensive statements, but rather focused thoughts on specific issues, meant to prompt further discussion, here and elsewhere.

Contributing are Elizabeth Brake (Arizona State University), Avery Kolers (University of Louisville), and Jonathan Neufeld (College of Charleston). Thanks to the three of them for participating in this post.

The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to explore the ways in which philosophers can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to public conversations about current events, as well as prompt further discussion among philosophers about these events. All are welcome to join the discussion.

Please share the post with others, and feel free to provide links in the comments to relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere.

Readers may also be interested in checking out Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Thinking).


Freedom and Other Philosophical Themes in Dylan’s Lyrics
Elizabeth Brake

I was asked to write on philosophical themes in Dylan’s lyrics. They are many: Justice. Freedom. Inequality. Oppression. Sex, love, family, war. God. Personal identity. Free will. Epistemological skepticism. Metaphysics and the philosophy of time. What major philosophical themes does he not glance at? That would be a shorter list. Dylan is not engaged—luckily—in theory-building or argument, but certain philosophical preoccupations haunt his lyrics.

I first heard Dylan while I was riding in the family car sometime around 1983. My clergyman father, who had been involved in the civil rights movement, turned up the radio and hushed us.  “Listen to this song,” he said. It was “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As a budding moral and political philosopher, I was initially hooked by the folky “protest songs” of the early Dylan, the songs taking a stand against racial and socioeconomic injustice, war-mongering, and hypocrisy. These songs depict and decry racial equality and miscarriages of justice (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), economic inequality and, indeed, grinding poverty (“Ballad of Hollis Brown”), social exclusion (“Chimes of Freedom”), and the senseless hatred and subordination of, and politically motivated provocation of violence towards, some groups of people (“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Masters of War”).

As I kept on listening to Dylan, I heard, beyond the electrifying attacks on social injustice, articulations of romantic love and longing and other fine-grained emotional states, meditations on mortality, and through it all a steady engagement with the fundamental ethical question: how to live. Dylan articulates an ethical ideal of personal freedom that reminded me of a philosopher similar to Dylan only in the sometimes cryptic nature of his writing: G.W.F. Hegel.

In my 2006 essay on Dylan, I argued that his lyrics seemed to praise what Hegel calls negative freedom. As I wrote in the opening of that essay:

Bob Dylan stands for an ideal of personal freedom, in some sense.  He (or his lyrical persona) won’t stick around in a bad situation (“Don’t Think Twice”), consent to be owned (“It Ain’t Me Babe”), be someone’s boss (“It Takes a Lot to Laugh …”), try to please (“It’s Alright Ma”), answer reporters’ clichéd questions, stick to folk songs, or work on Maggie’s farm “no more.”  There are many things he won’t do: but what will he do?  This is a lot of negativity: if he just keeps on keeping on, where will he end up? (for the rest of this essay, click here)

As readers of Hegel know, negative freedom is an inadequate conception of freedom: for one thing, refusals cannot constitute a person. (For Hegel, freedom requires self-definition.) But Dylan’s lyrics suggest this point too: along with (sometimes in tension with) the insistence that freedom involves resisting social norms is a persistent recognition of the need for or hold of some norms “outside the law”: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”) Moral concepts of desert and obligation underpin reactions to deception (“I did it … because he lied,” “I Want You”), and broken promises—whether those of Sweet Marie to her lover or a broken social contract.

Perhaps this is just to say that there are glimpses of a severe deontological morality throughout Dylan’s work. But this is juxtaposed with another theme running through Dylan’s lyrics and persona: questioning the existence of a stable, autonomous self who can be held morally responsible. As the narrator of “Most of the Time” might suggest, we are responsible for our actions … most of the time. Dylan the performer suggests a Protean, unstable self, not responsible for his past (implicit) promises (to faithfully produce acoustic protest folk songs); like a series of counter-examples against Kantian models of autonomy, the lyrics suggest that our most important moods and moments arise from somewhere outside conscious choice and are in fact recalcitrant (“Love Sick”). This extends to questioning free will itself (“Are birds free of the chains of the skyway?,” “Ballad in Plain D”). While Dylan’s mastery of morally motivated insult and invective rivals Shakespeare’s, his lyrics also suggest the ultimate futility of judgment: “She knows too much to argue or to judge.” (“Love Minus Zero, No Limit”)

Dylan returns again and again to another ethical issue, one less explored by contemporary ethicists but familiar to the Stoics: how to live in the consciousness of certain death and loss (“I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard/ I wonder who they’re ringing for,” “Standing in the Doorway”—echoing John Donne; of course, they are tolling for each of us). Dylan’s late work is especially steeped in nostalgia, or longing for the past, and the recognition that what we have now will eventually be lost: “When you think that you lost everything/ You find out you can always lose a little more” (“Trying to Get to Heaven”). But Dylan’s lyrics have grappled with mortality and loss from early on: “he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright Ma”) simultaneously suggests an existentialist act of self-creation, but also that we are all heading towards death. So too the Proustian theme of the insistent intrusion of the past into the present, imbuing present experience with the knowledge of loss and the impermanence of the present, has been there since the beginning: perhaps most memorably in “Visions of Johanna” or “Tangled up in Blue.” These songs express a sense that memory mediates the present, and (at least subjectively) is as real as present experience. The yearning for the past recalls not only Proust but also the opening of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”—“April is the cruellest month … mixing/ Memory and desire.”

Memory raises other philosophical questions. Songs like “Visions of Johanna” and “Tangled up in Blue,” along with the epic “Brownsville Girl,” suggest the slipperiness of memory, the ways in which we rewrite or simply forget the past, suggesting epistemological skepticism; for example, the narrator of “Brownsville Girl” seems to confuse events which he experienced with those which happened to a character in a movie starring Gregory Peck. A conversation lifted almost word-for-word from The Great Gatsby suggests a more metaphysical quandary: “She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past’. I say, ‘You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can’.” (“Summer Days”) (More on the themes of the last two paragraphs in my 2009 essay “‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’: freedom and the past in Dylan’s recent work.”*)

I’ve mentioned Donne, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, and Proust, in keeping with the Academy’s decision to view Dylan as a writer. (Where are the women? The Dylan-like narrator of “Highlands” is asked if he reads “women authors”; he defensively replies that he reads Erica Jong.) Just as Dylan rearranged and rewrote old folk tunes and blues music (I was once amazed and amused to hear the origins of “The Levee’s Gonna Break” in a Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie song, “When the Levee Breaks”), so his work assembles a deeply individual voice from the words of other authors (and rural dialects, the Bible, advertising slogans, old newspapers and Civil War history, and whatever else he could find to read, a process he describes in his memoir, Chronicles). The lyrics are deliberately intertextual, fashioning a voice out of allusions in a way parallel with the way he fashions a performance persona out of available models (suggesting, again, problems of personal identity). One last, cryptic, resonance is with Henry James: “She knows there’s no success like failure And that failure’s no success at all.” (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”) Besides showcasing Dylan’s tremendous use of paradox, this recalls a speech made to Lambert Strether of The Ambassadors: “Thank goodness you’re a failure … Look about you—look at the successes.” (I.iii) Once again we are presented with a reminder that how we live is perhaps the most important question of all, and that what counts as failing or succeeding at life is something we must figure out for ourselves.

* In The Political Art of Bob Dylan (2nd ed.), ed. David Boucher and Gary Browning (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2009): 184-206.

Bob Dylan and Epistemologies of Ignorance
Avery Kolers

In an early song that influenced me profoundly, Bob Dylan perfectly describes institutionally diffuse moral responsibility. “Who Killed Davey Moore,” he asks, setting up a murder mystery that the narrator-detective sets out to solve over the course of the song. He interrogates several suspects: the referee, the manager, the crowd, the boxing writer, but each pleads innocent. Finally even “the man whose fists laid him low in a cloud of mist” denies responsibility:

I hit him, I hit him, yes it’s true
But that’s what I’m paid to do
Don’t say murder, don’t say kill
It was destiny, it was God’s will.

So it’s all God’s fault. As Dana Carvey’s Church Lady would say: “isn’t that conveeenient.”

Some thirty years after he wrote that song, Bob Dylan received a lifetime achievement Grammy. The Academy, suspecting after a mediocre dozen or so years* that Dylan had run out of gas, hoped to usher him out the door with a handshake and a prize. It was February, 1991. General Norman Schwartzkopf had just done his best impression of Hernan Cortes. George H. Bush’s popularity almost hit 90 percent. Dylan thanked the academy for its recognition by giving a little speech and then playing “Masters of War,” a screed against the military-industrial complex:

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know I can see through your masks.

In a characteristically American orgy of affected ignorance, mainstream culture pretended not to have understood a word he’d said. Dana Carvey immortalized the Incomprehensible Bob: ask him a question and he replies, “Mrph eharrreeehddan.” Had he been drunk? Stoned? Golly, what was that all about?

Most famously, in 1965, Dylan went electric and gave up “protest folk.” He stopped writing songs that were “taken from the newspaper,” where “nothing ha[d] been changed except the words.” He explored the inner world. Notoriously—incomprehensibly, in retrospect—live audiences booed him while he sang the best songs they’d ever heard. They wanted affirmation. They wanted politics.

But politics was what they were getting, if only they could know it. As Mike Marqusee has shown, Dylan’s early electric stuff is so overtly political—from “Maggie’s Farm” to “Ballad of a Thin Man”—that it is hard to believe anyone actually failed to hear it. Perhaps what they disliked was that they, whom Tom Lehrer called “the folk-song army,” were now no longer unambiguously on the side of the angels. Suddenly the folk song army was Maggie’s Brother.

I try my best to be just like I am
But everybody wants you to be just like them
And they say ‘sing while you slave’ but I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

In the years after he stopped making so much “topical” music, Dylan carried the torch for folk music—the people’s music—even after the Folk Song Army had more or less moved on. Yet unlike newer groups that have claimed the mantle of “Americana” for a southern-inflected (and all too often with “southern-sympathies”) white sound, Dylan has called us to account—we, who are among the killers of Davey Moore. For fifty-five years he has been a musical Socrates insisting that we recollect what it is more convenient to forget, calling our attention to what we would rather not know, and sometimes lambasting us for our obtuseness.

*To be sure, Mediocre Bob is not mediocre in any real sense. In the relatively forgettable period between Desire and Oh Mercy, Dylan produced some abiding masterpieces that would have made the career of most other singers. A particular favorite of mine is “Brownsville Girl,” which has its own epistemological problem at the center: not just the identity of title character herself, but that of the man they travel cross-country to visit: “the only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter / Was that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.”

The Boundaries They Are A Changin’
Jonathan Neufeld

The genre police are out in full force after Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday. The comedian Rob Delaney put the philosophical worry most sharply:



How is it that a songwriter won a prize for literature? Isn’t this just a mistaken application of the term writer? The Nobel is reserved for actual writers, literary writers, not songwriters. It seems as though the Nobel committee has made a kind of category mistake.

What kind of a worry is this? On the one hand, it looks like it might just be rooted in a problem of definition of artistic categories. Anna North in the New York Times and Stephen Metcalf in Slate both argued that Dylan should not have received the prize, and each of them relies on the claim that the Nobel committee made a category mistake. North writes, “Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist… Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.” Metcalf makes the point that to write lyrics differs in kind from writing literature even more directly. After juxtaposing what he takes to be an excellent poem and one of his favorite songs of Dylan, he writes, “The first is poetry, the second are lyrics. You don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, as they say, and if you want poetry, you don’t go to Bob Dylan.”

What is interesting to note in these and a number of similar cases is the role marking out the boundaries of music and literature plays. In isolation, boundary policing looks like it might just involve clarifying or making more explicit our definitions of songwriting and literary writing. But, in each case, far more than a clear definition is at stake and the boundary police make this explicit. In calling attention to the boundaries of a category of art, they are ultimately interested in defending a particular way of engaging in literary practice. (For Metcalf, preserving the core characteristic of reading quietly to oneself. For North, preserving and cultivating a reading instead of a listening audience.) Calling attention to definitions and boundaries (often as though they are obvious!) seems to be happening at just the moment they are contested. Or, in a more institutionalist mood, it happens at just the moment when the boundaries are in fact changing because of a decision by major authoritative organization in the artworld

All of this might just seem obvious in the case at hand. But I think this struggle shows us something about the role definitions of categories of art in general, even in the most abstract philosophy of art. What we are doing when we mark out the boundaries of our categories, artforms, genres, and even ontologies is engaging in a bit of artworld advocacy—“Of course this is how practice of literature should go, right?” Just as Metcalf and North (and many many others) are participating in and attempting to shape an art public with their boundary policing, so too are philosophers.

Discussion welcome.

(top image: sculpture by Oliver Jeffers)


There are 4 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address