Bob Dylan and Philosophy
Edited by Carl Porter and Peter Vernezze
Volume 17 in the 'Popular Culture and Philosophy' series edited by William Irwin
ISBN 0-8126-9592-5
225 pages
Open Court Publishing Company, Illinois
Price: $11.67/£11.00

Bob Dylan and PhilosophyBob Dylan and Philosophy

Itís Alright, Ma (Iím Only Thinking)

Bob Dylan and Philosophy

a review by Paula Radice 


An interesting book this, being a collection of shortish pieces by philosophers and other academics - mostly but not exclusively American - on the relationship between Dylan and the art of thinking. Before those who are usually sceptical about academic treatises on Dylan start to run for the hills, it must be pointed out that this book is one of a series termed "Popular Culture and Philosophy", a series that includes such titles as "The Simpsons and Philosophy" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy", so it should be immediately understood that nothing too heavy is going on here. The assorted pieces are very readable, and accessible to all, not just to readers with a grounding in philosophical thought, and references to great thinkers or philosophical movements are all explained clearly, with no assumptions made as to previous knowledge. 

Moreover, it is very evident that they all spring from real reverence and appreciation for Dylan and his work. There is very little space given over to discussion of whether Dylan is or isn't a "real poet" - a completely pointless exercise - and it is treated as a "given" that Dylan can be considered seriously alongside the greatest of artists and thinkers without need for justification (as, of course, he deserves to be). This leaves the writers free to cut straight to the chase, and what distinguishes the collection is indeed its clarity and readability. After all, philosophers have by definition to be clear thinkers, and here they prove effectively to be the clearest of writers as well. 

Take for example James C. Klagge's chapter, "Great White Wonder: The Morality of Bootlegging Bob". In a very few pages, Klagge explores the ethical boundaries of bootlegging. He is definitely a man who knows his Dylan. He knows the songs that "we would not have if it weren't for the bootleggers", and the released songs which have arguably better unreleased versions; he knows that it was almost certainly the work of bootleggers in exposing unreleased Dylan songs that spurred Sony to release works like The Basement Tapes, Biograph and The Bootleg Series. He is also absolutely clear about the difference between bootlegging and piracy (something I am tired of explaining to people who want to borrow my CDS to put onto their MP3 players). He also knows that it has not always been Dylan who has had ultimate control of what is released; Columbia/Sony have been as guilty as the bootleggers of putting out material - like the Dylan LP - which Dylan never wished to see the light of day.

And he is clear that an artist like Dylan, with his intuitive approach to live performance, is bound to create in his fans the desire to capture moments of individual creativity: "...for artists and fans who value growth and expression, the variations are the lifeblood of performance..." Creating such art before an audience creates, perhaps, certain "rights" in the audience (to capture the moment) which stand alongside the artist's rights to privacy (which have perhaps already been compromised by the very willingness to be creative before an audience: "...artistic property rights already function in a very contingent manner. While they exist, they are often in competition with other rights"). 

Ethically, the illegal is not always immoral.  For Socrates and the Sophists, there was no objective right or wrong. On balance "bootlegs seem morally acceptable", but with certain conditions: the artist should be paid the appropriate royalties; laws of theft (e.g. of tapes from studios or sound desks) should not be broken; and (perhaps) only live performances should be distributed. (This last is the most problematic, of course: can we really argue that we should never have heard "Angelina" or "Blind Willie McTell", which might never have been officially released if not for bootlegging?) Mostly, it all sounds very reasonable, especially his suggestion that record companies might be better off leasing out the rights to distribute recordings of performances, given that the audience size for the recordings is not large enough (probably) for the companies themselves to find it profitable. An interesting and very readable piece. 

As to the rest of the book, in a few cases, I would actually have liked the pieces to have been more detailed and "academic", but they are all enjoyable. 

The concluding piece, by Kevin L. Stoehr, makes, for example, highly pertinent and thought-provoking reading, without getting bogged down in technicalities or academic-speak. "You Who Philosophize Dylan: The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry in the Songs of Bob Dylan" argues that Dylan's writing - rather like Nietzsche's - contains an inherent irony by seemingly attacking "reason" or philosophy (as opposed to the poet's felt intuition), but in a highly philosophical way that stimulates reasoned thinking in his audience. For example, he cites Dylan's discussion of how creativity works in his 1995 interview for U.S.A. Today:

If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You've got to  program your mind not to think too much.

On the other hand, as Stoehr argues, Dylan is also capable of discussing his writing in very conceptual terms, for example his explanation in the notes to Biograph of how Tangled Up in Blue was constructed. While Dylan, throughout his career, has seemed the ultimate advocate of art as a reaction to immediate intuition, "rather that the categorizing and ordering power of the intellect", he "cannot be pegged simply as "anti-philosophical" or even "anti-conceptual" ". 

In the end, though, Stoehr comes to this conclusion:

The genuine poet indicates the sickness and the danger so that we can find our own way out of the wilderness. The philosopher points to the darkness and makes us reflect upon it, but the poet has the potential to make us feel the darkness.

And while philosophy, by its very nature, tends to the general, Dylan's art is, as Christopher Ricks put it, "highly and deeply individual, particular...while valuing human commonalty".

Stoehr's final paragraph is great, and this line in particular strikes home: "Thus reason's pursuit of clarity and understanding is sparked by the resistance of that which lies beyond reason's boundaries". 

A wholly interesting book, useful to pick and choose from, and raising new questions and themes in an informed but accessible way. Recommended.

Signs on the windows 

The following links will take you to further pages mentioned in this article. Additional information is provided by reference to further links mentioned below. 

Bob Dylan and Philosophy can be purchased from Woodstock Publications here.

Another site which may interest you can be found at:

The Friedrich Nietzsche Society