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Is That All There Is?: Philosophy's Greatest Hits

Is That All There Is?: Philosophy's Greatest Hits
Photo by Paul Carroll

I love Queen, and the late Freddie Mercury had the best rock voice ever (in my opinion), so it pains me to say that some of music's worst thought-out lyrics are scrunched into the opening lines of "Bohemian Rhapsody."

"Is this the real life?/ Is this just fantasy?", the song begins, but mere breaths later, Freddie affirms there's "no escape from reality."

So, which is it? Is life a concrete and tangible occurrence, or is it but a dream? The only thing separating Mercury from these two opposing metaphysical viewpoints is being "caught in a landslide," which, come to think of it, could create the sort of existential moment that defines the rest of one's days.

So, in spite of his songbird voice, you might look to other musical artists for your philosophical cues. As long as we've been able to wonder what's it all about, Alfie, we've also been expressing these ideas through song. Here are a few that capture these heavy ideas better than others:

METAPHYSICS

Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?" Metaphysics is a far-reaching philosophical principle that asks the big questions, the kind that start creeping in around high-school freshman year when you begin to realize that you too will eventually have to leave school, go to work, maybe have a family, grow old and die.

But why? What's this all for? That sort of thing. Consider metaphysics the house and all the Kants and Kierkegaards the brooding inhabitants of its infinite rooms. Pop singer Peggy Lee's 1969 hit was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who wrote 1950s and '60s classics like "Hound Dog" and "Stand By Me." This one has been covered by Tony Bennett, Chaka Khan and PJ Harvey, among others.

"Is That All There Is?" suggests life's tragedies, joys and daily events all fall short of something special. Even death is seen as an ultimate disappointment. It might be the most depressing song ever to encourage dancing and boozing. But, by asking if this really is all there is, it opens the floor to further philosophical discussion.

MORAL DUALISM

Massive Attack feat. Mos Def, "I Against I" Have you ever imagined an angel on one of your shoulders encouraging upstanding behavior and a devil on the other promoting an evil, but possibly much more fun, agenda? If so, you have engaged in moral dualism, the philosophy that recognizes the constant human struggle between one's own good and evil selves.

Massive Attack and Mos Def double-teamed the subject in "I Against I," found on the Blade II movie soundtrack. Lines like "two of a kind but one won't survive, my images reflect in the enemy's eye and his images reflect in mine the same time" are not only friggin' cool, but also perfectly depict this inner, individual conflict.

FREE WILL

Rush, "Freewill" Free will waters down the determinist viewpoint. Whatever happens to us occurs because of our will to choose; in other words, had Henderson chosen a different route home, he might not have been shot. His fault. Many songs have addressed the subject but none more directly than this 1980 track from the cerebral Canadians.

DETERMINISM

Coed Pageant, "Henderson (Pt.1)" Coed Pageant is Bradley and Gretchen Bergstrand, a husband/wife indie-pop duo from Urbana, Ill. They made a Houston stop at Dean's On Main last year and wowed a small but rapt crowd with their introspective music. "Henderson (Pt. 1)" is one of my favorite songs from all of last year.

The song is a first-person narrative by Henderson, who is now dead but "was just walking home down North Grand Avenue" when he was struck by a stray bullet.

Just in case you were wondering, "intent don't mean a lot to the person who got shot by accident," according to Henderson. I had to ask whether the song is based on real-life events.

"Henderson is a character, but the song is rooted in experience," says Gretchen, who drums and adds vocals to Bradley's guitar-vocal lead. "We wrote the song together, actually started it a long time ago and it fell by the wayside. Mainly, philosophy-wise, it's deterministic."

Determinism is the philosophy that proposes everything that happens occurs in the only way it possibly could, given what occurs before it. The song uses lines like "there's no reason to guess or expect what comes next, but you will," to remind us what little control we have over the moments yet to come.

RATIONALISM

Supertramp, "The Logical Song" In rationalism, reason rises above experience to become the singular basis for true knowledge. It's okay as a philosophical theory, if you're an android with a 50 GHz processor. But if you are human, like the fellows in Supertramp, you might have doubts, which they expressed deftly (though not completely logically) in this tune.

CLASSICAL HUMANISM

Sly & the Family Stone, "Everyday People" This philosophical designation is part of the essentialist school, which says there are permanent and eternal attributes to subjects that make them what they are, or give them essence. The truest nature of humanity is unchangeable in this line of thinking, which is an opposite view of the better-known existentialist school of thought. Heidegger and his peers might not be fans of Sly's 1968 chart-topper and its notion that, butcher, baker, drummer -- doesn't matter, we're all everyday people (ooh, sha sha).

AGNOSTICISM

Pat the Bunny, "Jesus Does the Dishes" Folk-punk fans know Pat the Bunny in various forms -- as Wingnut Dishwashers Union, or Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains or with his latest band, Ramshackle Glory. In this song, he makes the perfect case for the religious philosophy that says it's beyond our abilities to know whether God or any deity exists.

"I don't believe in God, but I'm also not an atheist/ Because the universe is chaos and chaos picks favorites," he sings before acknowledging that, at the very least, "Jesus was a dirty, homeless, hippie peace activist who said 'Go out and find God' to anybody who would listen."

MATERIALISM

Mannie Fresh, "Real Big" In philosophy, materialism holds that matter is the stuff of reality. Naturally, the more matter you have, the more real you are. What genre of music lends itself better to this concept than rap?

In "Real Big," Mannie Fresh bolsters his Big Tyme reality with extra-large versions of cars, rings, jet planes, pockets, "badunkadunks," and so forth.

EPISTEMOLOGY

Ozzy Osbourne, "I Don't Know" Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how it affects beliefs, including philosophical ones. Leave it to Ozzy to boil down everything from Aristotle to Sartre as time-wasting gibberish.

"How am I supposed to know hidden meanings that will never show?" Ozz wails. "Don't look to me for answers, don't ask me, I don't know."



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