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Book Review


By Catherine H. Zuckert


The Montréal Review, June 2020


Michael Davis. The Music of Reason: Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Plato. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.


 In The Music of Reason Michael Davis seeks to lead his readers to see that ‘reason’ or ‘logos’ (the ancient Greek word that can be translated as word, speech, or reason) has an a-rational source in a certain duality in the human soul. In perceiving something we are always simultaneously aware, somehow, that we are perceiving it. In other words, the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are both always perceived to be present as different and yet indissolubly linked.

In his introduction or “prelude,” Davis contrasts this “musical” understanding of human reason and knowledge with the scientific understanding of reason modelled on mathematics introduced by René Descartes.  However, Davis observes, Descartes’s own autobiographical account of the way in which he came to this new understanding and his characterization of the account of the intelligibility of the world he formulated on the basis of this new understanding as a “fable” points to a difference between the method Descartes prescribed and the way in which he came to formulate it.  The “musical” understanding of reason Davis is going to put forward is thus both more fundamental and encompassing than the “scientific” understanding based upon it.

In order to re-discover and resuscitate this “musical” understanding of reason, Davis examines the works of three philosophers often thought to be particularly poetic. Indeed, academic philosophers have often denied that Rousseau and Nietzsche are properly characterized as “philosophers,” partly because their works are so obviously literary.  No one denies that Plato is a philosopher, which, as Davis points out, is ironic, because Plato is the exemplar of poetic or musical discourse. He is the only philosopher to have presented his thought exclusively in the form of dialogues in which he himself never stated what he thought directly; he merely related the speeches and deeds of others. 

Why should we care about the character, the status, and ground of our reason? It is not merely thought to be the source and foundation of our knowledge, Davis reminds us. It is the faculty or capacity long thought to distinguish human beings from other animals. It is the ground or source, therefore, not simply of our knowledge generally, but more specifically of our self-knowledge. And it is impossible to conceive except in conjunction with the capacity for language.

For that reason, Davis begins his study of the “music of reason” with an analysis of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Language. What that analysis shows is that Rousseau discovers that language has two related, but distinct functions: articulation and communication. Human beings would not develop language if they did not perceive the existence of another being with the capacity to understand them and so conceive a desire to communicate.  Gestures might appear to constitute the first, potentially universal “language,” but gestures are highly dependent upon the context, ambiguous, and limited in communicative scope. Words or signs thus become necessary to articulate and so communicate what is meant, although words, too, are ambiguous. Neither the articulation nor the communication of meaning is ever perfect; in fact, the two always exist in tension with one another, because communication is always to another. As Rousseau reminds us, there is no universal or natural language; there are only languages. In human life nature is always mixed with convention.

Speech or reason is the foundation not merely of our knowledge. As Davis and Rousseau both remind us, it is also the prerequisite and foundation of all political associations. The analysis of the fundamentally ambiguous character of our speech, which is both natural and conventional, thus has political implications as well.

The political implications of the irresolvable duality at the core of the human soul are not the primary focus of the analysis of Nietzsche’s account of The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music that follows. But Davis points toward them when he follows Nietzsche’s analysis of the two fundamental drives he calls the Apollinian and Dionysian that characterize all human life. These drives are the source of all art or poetry in the broad sense of “making” from their “first” and natural manifestations in dreams and intoxications to their possible re-unification and transformation in a new and distinctly German form of tragedy in the future.

The part of the manuscript devoted to an analysis of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy is central and longest. This text would appear to offer most extensive support for Davis’s central contention, because Nietzsche argues most explicitly for the a-rational source of reason or science in two naturally opposed, but indissolubly bound drives. The text itself is also complicated by the fact that Nietzsche later added an “Attempt at Self-Criticism” as a new preface. Readers are thus led—or forced—to look at the argument from a dual perspective, that of the young Nietzsche and that of his later critic.

As in his analysis of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Language, so in writing about The Birth of Tragedy, Davis presents his reader with a clear outline of the organization and structure of the text before explaining clearly how and why each section follows from the previous. As a result, one comes to see not only that Davis is an extraordinarily talented teacher, able to lead his students to follow his argument step by step, partly by explaining and annotating all the references to other texts they may not know. One also sees that Davis is not merely or primarily trying to explicate texts. He is explicating the texts as a means of provoking his readers to think about the paradoxes they contain and the questions to which those paradoxes point. He is thus trying to lead them to understand what philosophy is not merely by describing it or its results, but by leading them to engage in it along with him.

As in Rousseau’s Essay, so Davis argues that what is first presented as a historical development in Nietzsche’s account of “the birth of tragedy” is not really that. Just as the tension between articulation and communication in language always exists, so the tension between the Apollinian and Dionysian persists—in different forms.  These texts are themselves different manifestations of the “indeterminate dyad” that characterizes all human experience. (And human experience is, after all, all that we have.)

Davis’s own analysis of “the music of reason” does not proceed chronologically, therefore.  From Rousseau and Nietzsche, and to a certain extent like Rousseau and Nietzsche, he returns in part three to Plato. His analysis of the Lesser Hippias allows Davis to be more reflective about the character of his own enterprise, because this dialogue to some extent constitutes an interpretation of another text, parts of Homer’s Iliad. He argues that Plato’s dialogue is more purely “musical” or poetic than the prose writings of Rousseau and Nietzsche, who should have been “singing” according to their own analyses. (Davis draws on the etymology of ‘music’ from the Greek ‘mousike,’ the art inspired by the Muses. In his “Coda,” he notes the etymology Socrates humorously suggests in the Cratylus from the verb, môsthai [to yearn] and that suggested in The Oxford Dictionary from the “Proto-Indo-european root *men- [“to think”].) As Plato demonstrates in the form as well as the content of this dialogue, the truth cannot be spoken or communicated directly.  Although he like Rousseau and Nietzsche writes a monologue rather than a dialogue, Davis indicates the “musical” character of his own writing in which he interrogates the authors of the texts he analyzes as Socrates does Hippias by beginning with a “prelude” and ending with a “coda.” Indeed, I am not sure that I have read any other book or manuscript in which the author so perfectly enacts the substantive content or contentions in writing about it.

Davis is an established scholar who has developed a distinctive voice.  He has spent most of his professional career teaching at Sarah Lawrence, where they do not have “standard” departments or disciplines.  Unlike many professional philosophers, Davis does not write into or about controversies in the scholarly literature.  He writes for a broader, wider audience of readers concerned about the character of learning, reason, human communication, and living well. He demonstrates his learning by using the three languages in which the three texts he explicates reveal their meaning—not merely in the words but also in the grammar of the sentences—and by explaining the references in these texts to others and incorporating them into his own analysis.  But he concentrates on the texts and not the “literature.” Davis’s most obvious intellectual debt is to his friend and mentor, Seth Benardete, as is clear from the footnotes. But unlike Benardete (at least in my experience), Davis makes both the textual basis and the reasons he comes to the conclusions he does crystal clear. The concern with the relation between poetry and philosophy can be found in both authors and in Davis’s other books.  As in The Music of Reason, however, Davis roots in argument in a careful analysis of a particular text or texts. He is truly an original thinker whose writings deserve more attention than they have yet received.


Catherine H. Zuckert is an American political philosopher and Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form (1990),  Leo Strauss on Political Philosophy (2018), and Machiavelli’s Politics (2017).




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