Option (B)

Towards the end of Daniel C. Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, he proposes a sort of Faustian bargain.

A) You solve the major philosophical problem of your choice so conclusively that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, part of the field closes down forever, and you get a footnote in history).


B) You write a book of such tantalizing perplexity and controversy that it stays on the required reading list for centuries to come.

Which would his fellow philosophers choose?

Dennett noticed that “[s]ome philosophers reluctantly admit that they would have to go for option (B). If they had to choose, they would rather be read than right. Like composers, poets, novelists, and other creators in the arts, they tend to want their work to be experienced, over and over, by millions (billions, if possible!). But they are also tugged in the direction of the scientist’s quest. After all, philosophers are supposed to be trying to get at the truth”.

For musicians, like Dennett implied, it would seem like (B) would be the obvious answer. Why would we not want to be heard by as many people as possible?

The practice of music could be like making messages and putting them in a bottle and trying to direct it towards someone. Further hopes hedge on that we made the bottle look appealing enough for these people to open. But that is not all either.

Then, we hope that these people will then read the little note over and over again. And that is just the beginning. Afterwards, we pray that these people will send the notes to their friends and make copies and keep circulating the note.

Some score big while others have bottles that are still drifting in the sea or messages left in the sand. This is the price we pay for pursuing (B): Attention or Obscurity.

Obscurity is the fascinating factor of Dennett’s bargain. It is the driving force. Do you want your work to live on forever or be forgotten (even if from time to time we foggily recall that your studies solved that problem we had that is now common knowledge)?

In some way, music is driven by obscurity. Do you want your art to live on (to continually play shows and be listened to) or be thrown to the side? What if your musicianship is not remembered? Could all that effort we put in be for trying to make an impression on as many people’s memories as we can?

To put all the eggs in that basket has a hint of unreason. Not everyone plays a guitar or is in a band in order to be remembered. Option (B) is not everything to everyone. Yet the existential question option (B) poses to us as people in music deserves more time for interrogation.


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