Language and the Arts

Last night I attended a lecture that is part of a series called Recovered Voices. It’s an initiative aimed at highlighting composers whom were suppressed by the Nazis. This week’s lecture was particularly interesting for me, as it took on a philosophical slant. The following stood out to me: from a practical standpoint, how do we-if at all-encourage people to attend concerts that highlight these voices (this will be an interesting usage of the term, as will be evident in a minute) without it seeming to exploit music that may have originated under horrible circumstances? If music director’s opt to highlight these pieces, do they have a responsibility to highlight the circumstances and context under which the music was composed when presenting the pieces to a wider audience? This will largely depend on how we philosophically understand music, or the meaning of it (if it has meaning at all). The following is an excerpt from the supplemental reading of the lecture (which I recommend reading as it will be much more succinct with expertly observations):

“Of course the battle for and about musical meaning has been going on for centuries.  For some, music is nothing more or less than the relationship between tones in “musical space,” gloriously abstract and preferably untainted by too much contact with other aspects of reality.  Others insist on a general connection between human states of mind and behavior and musical gestures, while still others wish to forge closer connections, arguing, as did Mendelssohn, that music is actually the most precise commentary on human existence.  Finally, in Terezín artists and musicians also used music as a means for sending messages that exposed the propaganda lie of the camp.”

I’ve often wondered how we view the meaning of art. It’s communicative but is there a meaning to these pieces? Additionally it seems like (at least from personal reflections on my own experiences, which is a weak measure) different arts will lead to different reflections (perhaps differently depending on the person).

I remember some years ago, I went to the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA) for guided tour that coupled the paintings of an era/location with foods that may have been served during that era and location. My food motivation runs deep.

As we walked through the exhibit the guide explained the context of the paintings and what made them so remarkable (the food if you were wondering, was not remarkable. Though I met a German who was a professional sommelier of water…yes, water).

The following paintings stood out to me (keep in mind this was some years ago):


John Singer Sargent, "Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston Davis," 1890

The portrait on the left is of Maria and Livingston Davis, a mother and son from a prominent family. Though visually it is striking, it’s significance comes from context. Looking at it from today’s perspective it may seem like any other nice depiction of a mother and son, however this type of posture and the tenderness depicted in the painting is in context extremely unusual, especially of a family of prominent class. Paintings like this were typically very postured, perhaps even rigid, to signify class. Here there is a warmth and casualness that is extremely unusual.

The other is a commissioned portrait (possibly) of Captain Paul Cuffee, a freed slave who became a prominent and wealthy business man. Though the painting is not a technically remarkable portrait, the significance of the painting comes from the ability of Paul Cuffee to commission such a portrait. It is extremely meaningful in context.

Perhaps we may say that that context doesn’t give the painting itself meaning, but only our understanding of it. Is that so? (Spoken language relies on understanding meaning from context quite a bit)

Now with this lecture that touched on the meaning of music and it’s ethical applications, especially when we consider music composed under horrible circumstances, I wonder how far we take context to understanding the meaning of music (if it has meaning at all).

Thinking about this now, I think there are two concepts to flesh out: enjoyment and meaning. It SEEMS from my own perspective (which is a horrible metric) like context is less important for the enjoyment of music than it is with artwork, which I wonder if it may get confused with meaning. For example, I truly enjoyed learning about the context of the paintings, it made it more meaningful to me. But with music I’m not sure that understanding the context affects my enjoyment of music. This may be a bit too centric to my own experience, but I think it may be a valid point with respect to the arts. Does something become more meaningful if it becomes more enjoyable? What do we mean by ‘meaningful’ when we talk about the arts?

More things for me to think about.

Why Aren’t Women in Philosophy?


Every few months, I either see or am sent an article about the relationship between women and philosophy. I’m always happy to discuss almost anything- but I’m a little perplexed as to the mystery behind the question; “why aren’t women in philosophy?”.

I should say, I’m not an expert on femaleness. I barely understand my Natasha-ness. But here’s my two cents (I was waiting for a flight so excuse my irritability. Wrote this as a Facebook post but wanted to journal this thought):

It’s a little like a B rated fast food joint-with good food-wondering why it can’t get more female and minority customers…when the online reviews are bad, when the lines are stupidly long, when you’ve been told there’s a good chance you’ll be harassed both in line and if you meet the employees, when you meet good employees but they consistently tell you the wait isn’t worth it unless you really want it, when the cost is expensive, and when you (as a woman or monitory) are told when you get to the front the employees will probably ignore you (intentionally or not) and pick the male customers behind you. On top of that-just for good measure-when you do get your order there’s a good chance you’ll get food poisoning. 

Given that there are other options, most rational people would chose another option…since there are better options. There are a few of us who just really, really like the food. And then there are the women and minorities who really, really, really like the food. And then a lucky few of us who know good people within the field who help us get through the shitty lines.

When your prospects for a decent job after six long years of intensive graduate studies is at best precarious unless you go to a top program, when quite a few talented students from middle class and lower income backgrounds are burdened with crippling student loan debt from undergraduate studies and can’t postpone payments for years (and then MAYBE have a job that can pay that plus living costs), when increasingly the masters route is given as the go to (when a masters in philosophy doesn’t have a lot of value above the undergraduate degree in and of itself AND you have to pay for it), when the mantra seems to be “don’t do it”, when the institution seems to trip over its feet when it’s presented with problems-mostly imo because quite a few of the people within academia have the life skills of a pre-teen (and a lot of the time act like it), and then after dealing with all of that you’re told your work won’t be respected or valued and there’s a good chance you’ll be harassed, just because you’re a minority and/or a woman-what intelligent person, especially from a middle to lower class background, would be rational to chose philosophy when almost anything else would on paper be a better risk for investment in terms time, intellect, economic prosperity, and frankly personal safety.
Philosophy is a privilege at its best, and at its worst like a bad retirement home.

But no, you’re right. I have no clue why philosophy can’t get more quality people. The mystery persists.


On the painting: I’m learning to watercolor. The painting included is a painting I worked on during a trip. Amateur, but I’m having a lot of fun with it.


-Natasha Haddal

Book Review: What Love Is and What It Could Be by Carrie Jenkins


This won’t be a review so much as a personal musing prompted by the book. I could go on at length-and I may edit this post probably as time goes on. It’ll be a development of thought rather than a final thought. There’s a lot to discuss, plenty I probably have missed with this first pass. I wanted to start something though because I think-like Jenkins-that this topic has been sadly neglected by the philosophical community. In short, I highly recommend this book not only as an introduction in to the philosophy of love, but in to philosophy itself. It’s rare to find a text that has combined intellectual humility, rigor, and accessibility.

On to the musing:

I finished What Love Is and What It Could Be, by Carrie Jenkins about two weeks ago, thinking about how I wanted to approach talking about this-whether it be from a philosophical or a personal standpoint. Ultimately, this will be a personal reflection on a point or two that I’ve picked up. The book is rich with interesting ideas that I think I could write on about but for the sake of this post, I’ll just pick a couple of points.

Philosophically, it has a few new-to-me conceptual terms. Amatonormativity perhaps being the principle one; an exclusive, central romantic relationship is regarded as the norm for all and we all seek those relationships.

Carrie has good reason for arguing against this way of thinking-an important one being that she is in a polyamorous relationship. So understandably-being outside of what is considered the “norm”-she would question what then is romantic love and how her experiences fit in to that role.

Carrie Jenkins-Ichikawa argues for an understanding of love that combines a biological and social understanding; biological machinery embodying a social role.

At first blush, this intuitively seems right. She presents great cases (I’m trying not to spoil the book too much). However, it’s left me with more questions than answers. I believe this is because

Coming in to this, I wanted to understand what love is. Using Jenkins understanding, we get a very broad functional definition. We could use this definition-using an example- to explain what language is in a very similar way (biological machinery embodying a social role). So we’re describing the machinery-the input and outputs- but not the machine itself.

This is all fair for Jenkins to do, by the way. I think I agree-I have some more thinking to do. However from a personal standpoint, I want to understand love itself; the love I have for my dog vs. my family and friends vs. a lover is all very different-same, but different. What is that? Why is that? The machinery explains it to some degree, but in what way is the machinery and social roles different than say, language?

So in order to use Jenkin’s work, first course for me was to try and place this within my own experiences:

Personally, I felt vindicated by her defense of those of us who haven’t been in romantically loving relationships. You are often assumed “incomplete”. Do I feel lonely sometimes? Yes. Is it difficult? Sure. However, I have great joy in being alone as well. There are emotional and physical experiences that I’ve had that many people will never be able to experience. That doesn’t-in my eyes-make them incomplete people in my mind. They are simply different. I do hope to be in a romantically loving relationship one day and have the privilege of feeling those wonderful feelings and intimate bond that comes with romantic love. I do however see myself as a wholly rich person. Romantic love does not fill in a person; it enriches one as any experience can.

This lead me to my next question. Though I have never been in a romantically loving relationship, I have been in love-or at least I thought I had been. Without getting in to much detail, I-or at least I believe I had-loved a man. He however didn’t love me back. Nothing to blame him for, I understood perfectly well that it wasn’t anything to be upset about. It happens; love is not always reciprocated. I just happened to develop feelings I had no control over and he didn’t develop the same. Nevertheless, it was a painful experience and surprisingly so. Rationally, I understood that there was nothing to be upset about. That understanding unfortunately was not my compatriot many nights when I felt the burden of pain, which has a way of rehashing old pain and insecurity I thought died long ago. Love I suppose is powerful in that way-it forces you to feel. But, was this love?

From Jenkin’s conceptualization, I’m not sure I get the answers. Moreover, I think we get the mechanism of love, but I’m not sure I understand yet how to understand love itself. If what I experienced is different than romantic love, what about that makes it a different experience than those who have experienced loving relationships? Was it love that I experienced? It’s hard for me to say right now. I do think though that I’ve come out of this understanding how to conceptualize the mechanisms for those feelings.

In short, I’m still left wondering how to understand my own experience. I need to think more about what I’ve read but in doing so, this book achieved what it set out to do; to have a philosophical discussion about love. It sets the groundwork for serious discussions about love that have gotten left behind.

I’ll end with these thoughts:

In Confucianism, concepts like “goodness” are not definable in the abstract sense; it’s a response. We feel it and once we know it, we should bring it out. (The Path by Michael Puett and Chrstine Gross-Loh). Love-I suspect-would be similarly fruitless. Though I appreciate the humility this emphasizes, this approach to it’s full extent is deeply unsatisfying to me on a philosophical level.

A philosophy mentor of mine provided me with this quote-as an answer for a separate question- from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

“Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts.”

I think Jenkin’s brings about the best of both world’s here; intellectual humility and clarity of thought upon which to build excellent literature on the topic. From my own standpoint, she gave me the freedom to think about love in a more grounded way, and in my own way. This book brought back an elation to continue this journey. Moreover, as a budding philosopher I’m excited because this isn’t something an armchair will solve.

With whom am I viewing?


am a



Well, I just received my Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. I’m handling post-graduation life very well, as you obviously can see…




Anyway, I’ve always been a very active member on the world wide web but for the most part it has been quiet and anonymous. Now, it is time for me to create my own presence here (especially since the job market seems to depend on it). I’ve seen a lot of things, done a bunch of stuff, and love to discuss just about everything.

So here I am…now…


OK definitely now!

eh, maybe.