Philosopher Professor Cornel West visited the Royal Society of Edinburgh to deliver the Gifford Seminar – part of the annual series of Gifford Lectures held in partnership with the University of Edinburgh.

“Since the blues is rooted in catastrophe and swing is rooted in different forms of time and timing, and improvisation is rooted in making the right choices and judgements in practical wisdom, I think that it leads directly to philosophy because philos-sophia means love of wisdom.  

Professor Cornel West
Professor Cornel West delivering his Gifford Seminar at the RSE – Picture by Stewart Attwood Photography
Cornel West, Mona Siddiqui sitting at a table
Professor Cornel West (second from left) with Professor Jeffrey Stout, Professor Mona Siddiqui OBE FRSE and Professor David Kim at the RSE
– Picture by Stewart Attwood Photography

In his lectures – Jazz-soaked philosophy for our catastrophic times: From Socrates to Coltrane – West has used jazz as a simple rubric to suggest a way through the catastrophic times that humanity currently finds itself living in.  

Where jazz and philosophy meet

How can jazz music be used as a template for people to navigate difficult times in their own lives – or more widely for humanity to navigate difficult times?

The three major pillars of jazz music are the blues – according to West “tragicomic catastrophe lyrically expressed” – swing, or “myopic time opened to new possibilities” – and finally improvisation, “practical wisdom and timely interventions unleashed”. 

Cornel West wearing a suit and sun glasses
Picture by Stewart Attwood Photography

Blues music essentially began as a chronicle of the enslavement and disenfranchisement of black people in the early United States. It is instantly recognisable to musicians as having a “Blue Note” – a flattened note that differentiates it from other, more classical, music.  

Swing is a term used in music, particularly in relation to jazz, to describe a different conception and expression of time signatures, again, as opposed to more classical types of music. Duke Ellington, among many others, popularised an entire subgenre of swing music in the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally, an important component of jazz is the prevalence of improvisation – the ability to adapt and play something new “in the moment”.

Professor West said: “Since the blues is rooted in catastrophe and swing is rooted in different forms of time and timing, and improvisation is rooted in making the right choices and judgements in practical wisdom, I think that it leads directly to philosophy because philos-sophia means love of wisdom.  

“You can’t talk about what it means to be human, as a wisdom lover, without talking about catastrophe in one’s life. The death of one’s parents; the betrayal of one’s friends; any sickness or despair and so forth.  

“These are issues that every human being has to come to terms with, and every human being has to have some kind of practical wisdom in terms of improvisational skills, knowing what to say, what to do, and how to act at particular moments. 

So what happens is that now we shift from music as just a form of entertainment to music as a particular human response to catastrophe, to time feeling as if it is closed in upon us, to what kind of improvisational modes do we have of acting and doing, and that takes us right back to Plato and Socrates, right back to Erasmus, to Vico, through the philosophical tradition.” 

Music as a way for people to find peace of mind and direction

It would appear that music and philosophy go hand in hand, throughout history, and the virtuosos of the philosophical world speak a similar language to the virtuosos of the musical world.

Virtuosic blues player Jimi Hendrix appeared on the Dick Cavett Show in 1969 – against the backdrop of another catastrophic period in human history with the likes of the Vietnam War – and said that he believed that people will soon begin to use music and other artistic pursuits to find peace of mind, satisfaction and direction in their lives, more so than politics.  

Professor West added: “As someone who has been shaped and moulded in the American Experiment and the American Empire, if American politics were one tenth as wise and caring as American music, we would have a different kind of society. It would be more egalitarian, there would be more of an embrace of each other and our humanity at the deepest level. There’s no doubt that Jimi Hendrix has got a deep, deep insight.” 

Tom Welling et al. standing in front of a crowd
The seminar invited challenging and thoughtful questions from an engaged audience – Picture by Stewart Attwood Photography

Incidentally, before his death in 1970, Hendrix had plans to work with another jazz great in Miles Davis, through connections with singer-songwriter Betty Davis, Miles Davis’ second wife. 

One different interpretation of time in jazz, known as swing, shows that time can be viewed differently, not simply as a rigid constraint. 

Professor West explained: “Duke Ellington said “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. He also said that black musicians, black life, black people, have made dissonance a way of life. Now, what is dissonance? It’s a kind of Blue Note, it’s a kind of dignity, it’s a note of defiance, it’s a note of determination, so it has got to have a groove. And what is that groove? Well, it gives you an energy, a vitality, a vibrancy, in the face of what? Misery; hatred; trauma; terror and so forth.  

“And this is true for human beings all around the world. Everybody is wrestling with forms of catastrophe. Everybody is wrestling with ways that they have been traumatized. So, there are all these different forms, and it all has to do with what? Our deep, common humanity, as various as it is. And in a certain sense I think a jazz-soaked philosophy is a profoundly humanistic philosophy, that’s really what it comes down to.” 

Where can people begin their own philosophical education?

The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s mission is to make knowledge useful, and Professor West suggested some reading to give people a start in their own philosophical education. 

“For me, always start with Plato’s dialogues: The Apology; The Crito; The Phaedo; and especially The Republic. From there I would read Augustine’s Confessions, and from there I would read David Hume’s dialogues on natural religion,” he said. 

“That is the greatest philosophical work of art in the English language, there’s nothing like it. And it takes you right to the question of how to wrestle with what it means to be human. It’s called the Problem of Evil but that is really what he is wrestling with, and there has been nobody like him. Now, he’s got politics and he’s got certain prejudices that we can call into question when we look back, but in terms of the core of what he’s wrestling with, right here in Edinburgh, there is nothing like it.” 

Professor West added that American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was an inspirational work for his own philosophical understanding. 

A man wearing a suit and tie
Picture by Stewart Attwood Photography

About the Gifford lectures

For over a century, the Gifford Lectures have enabled a distinguished international field of scholars to contribute to the advancement of theological and philosophical thought. They were established under the will of Adam Lord Gifford, a Senator of the College of Justice, who died in 1887 and is buried in the old Calton cemetery in Edinburgh. The lectures began in 1888 and have been delivered almost continuously since that time and are held at each of the four ancient Scottish universities. For over a century, the lectures have enabled an eminent field of scholars to advance philosophical and scientific thought.

The RSE and the University of Edinburgh unite annually to present the RSE Gifford Seminar, providing a unique overview of the Gifford Lecture Series for the year.

Learn more about the Gifford Lectures