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McTaggart, Whitehead, and a Virtue-based Approach to Aesthetics in Genres of Psychedelic Music

Steven Gimbel • Gettysburg College
Chandler Wyman • Gettysburg College

There is a long and treasured tradition in philosophical aesthetics dedicated to establishing criteria for evaluating musical composition, notably including Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgement, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s A Complete Dictionary of Music, and Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. These Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment discussions limit the music considered to the Western classical tradition.

In the twentieth century, there was resistance among major philosophical writers to considering popular music as a legitimate object of aesthetic study. Theodor Adorno famously argued that jazz was intellectually bankrupt, a mere repetitious and mindless output of the capitalist-constructed culture machine designed to monetize dehumanization. Later major names in aesthetics, like Roger Scruton, echoed these sentiments with respect to rock music:

Our judgements of works of music are not phrased simply in terms of what is “good” or “bad”, still less “beautiful” and “ugly”, but in terms of the aesthetic character of music, as this is revealed to the discriminating ear… Many people are moved by music that is not moving at all, but merely sentimental.[fn^1]

Theorists who did take popular music seriously, like Alain Badiou, did not seek to assess the music on its own terms, but rather to see it as a symbol through which to interpret the broader culture. The general sense was that popular music was insufficiently serious to warrant serious aesthetic consideration.

Contemporary aestheticians, like Theodore Gracyk, have sought to remedy this classist line by working to include rock music in the set of objects to which standard aesthetics applies:

Why, for instance, is the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” a great piece of rock, making it better than their “Jiving Sister Fanny”? I want to challenge the emerging orthodoxy that evaluations of this sort are radically different from typical evaluations of novels, symphonies, paintings, and texts of high culture. 2

Gracyk is correct that popular music deserves to be considered a legitimate object of aesthetic judgement utilizing the standard tools of the aesthetician. However, different genres ought to be judged according to different sets of criteria as they seek different artistic goals.

The goal of this article is to formulate a philosophical foundation for an aesthetic theory for psychedelic music. Psychedelic music, or psychedelia, emerged in the mid to late 1960s, in part as a response to the widespread use of mind-altering substances like LSD and psychoactive mushrooms, which cause the user to experience a warped sense of reality. The term “trip” is often used to describe the influence of these substances, indicating that the user will be going somewhere—at least in their head—that is, leaving the confines of the normal world and entering a sort of internal Wonderland. The music is intended to augment, replicate, or mirror this experience. It should be noted that a novel world is not created out of whole cloth, but that the new world is still connected, albeit more or less tenuously, to the real world.

The argument forming the basis of our claim that there are two primary forms of psychedelia that deserve their own aesthetic virtues proceeds in two parts, beginning with the metaphysicians of Cambridge University around 1900, with two figures emerging from F. H. Bradley’s group of British Hegelians: John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart who famously posed a riddle he contended demonstrated the unreality of time, and Alfred North Whitehead who constructed his process metaphysics, which sought to remove the object from its place of ontological centrality. We will not argue in favor of either McTaggart’s A-time or B-time, or in favor or against object or process metaphysics; nor will we argue that live or studio produced-music epitomizes an ideal form of psychedelic music. Instead, we will embrace both distinctions and argue that we need to distinguish between two different types of psychedelic music. One sort, typified by the Beatles’ groundbreaking album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, should be understood as embodying object-oriented B-time. Performances of the Grateful Dead, however, need to be understood as epitomizing process-oriented A-time.

With this distinction in hand, we can construct the groundwork for an emerging aesthetic account of each class by following David Woodruff in using Aristotle’s virtue ethics as a model for aesthetics. By using the results of the first part of the argument, the aesthetic virtues particular to the sub-fields of the genre emerge allowing for a teleological aesthetic theory to be set out.

McTaggart’s Theories of Time

McTaggart’s best-known work is his 1908 article “The Unreality of Time,” in which he aims to support the burgeoning British idealist movement by providing a reductio ad absurdum argument which concludes that our understanding of temporality is incoherent. He sketches two different notions of time which he famously calls A-time and B-time. He argues (1) that both are necessarily true and (2) that they are mutually exclusive. Since mutually exclusive alternatives cannot both be true, we must thereby surrender our notion of time.

Like most other philosophers of time, we reject the first part of the argument–neither understanding of time is necessary–but do embrace the two different approaches as the two inconsistent possibilities for the metaphysical nature of time. Indeed, we will ultimately argue that this distinction helps us understand different artistic orientations towards time.

McTaggart’s A-time is composed of three metaphysically distinct temporal realms: the past, the present, and the future. Moments of the past are fixed, their events and relations forever ossified into an unchanging set of historical facts. 3  The past is not only gone, it is frozen and forever unchanging. John Lennon was killed on December 8th, 1980. This can never be changed. It can only be remembered.

The future, unlike the past, is open in A-time. Events in the past happened, events in the future, because they are yet to happen, could happen in any number of different ways. The future can be changed, but the past cannot.

Between the open future and the fixed past is the single point of the present. The present, the now, is unique in that it is experienced. The past is remembered, the future can be envisioned in its multiplicity, but the present alone is capable of being lived. 4

In A-time, time flows. Humans, as conscious beings, are fixed, forever in the now, stuck in the present as moments move from the open future through our present and become transformed into a fixed past. Moments of time move and change their metaphysical status as they flow through and out of our consciousness. In A-time, we are fixed, time moves.

This is very different with B-time. B-time, or block time as it is sometimes called, is completely fixed. This is the idea that we live in a static, timeless, block universe. All experience of the passing of time is illusory. There is no metaphysical difference between past, present, and future. All moments of time exist simultaneously and necessarily in the relations they have always and will always have. 5  Time is like a movie, where the end is already printed on the film. The future is no more open than the past.

Time as a whole is determined in B-time. It does not flow. It is fixed. We, on the other hand, are the moving elements. In A-time, time itself flows past us. In B-time, time is fixed and our consciousness moves through it. The difference between past, present, and future is not a metaphysical difference in time, it is merely a difference in us. Our minds are only capable of remembering the past, only capable of experiencing the present, and incapable of any connection to events of the future. This is not because of any property of the moments of time, but only because of the nature of human consciousness. Time is fixed, we are moving through it, and the structure of our mind that provides us with the illusion that time is flowing.

So, we now have our first distinction. A-time is flowing time, composed of three different metaphysical realms–the fixed past, the experienced present, and the open future. B-time, on the other hand, is block time, fixed time, time in which all moments are and have always been fixed. B-time does not flow; rather, we move through it. The difference between past, present, and future is an illusion created by our limited temporal consciousness. The difference is not metaphysical, is not part of reality, is just a necessary part of our lived experience of time.

Whitehead on Object vs. Process Metaphysics

Whitehead, a contemporary of McTaggart’s at Cambridge, was less committed to the fashionable rise of Hegelianism, but in Hegel’s dialectical account of history Whitehead saw a profound insight regarding metaphysics. It was not original to Hegel, indeed Whitehead traces it back to Heraclitus and John Locke, but it was radical.

Metaphysics is the study of reality: What exists? What are its properties? What relations hold amongst the pieces? The standard answer to the question, “What exists?” is “Everything.” OK, that’s fine, but what exactly is included in “everything”? Are there material bodies? Are there non-material souls or minds? Is there a God? Please enumerate all the things in everything.

Once we have things, we have to accept that those things are not inert. They interact with one another. If two things come together, you have an event. This is not to say that a chair does not exist, but a person’s interaction with the chair and all the forces of the universe involved in that chair’s structure and location is the process that gives rise to the event, which we perceive as seeing a chair as an object. Stack events in an explainable fashion and you get a process. We live in a universe of processes, but metaphysically the starting point, the basic building blocks out of which everything is made, is the set of all things. This is the standard approach to metaphysics, what we can call an “object-oriented metaphysics.”

But in the case of Hegel, Heraclitus, and Locke, the whole question is answered in a fundamentally different way. Heraclitus said, “It is not possible to step twice into the same river,” 6  in other words, everything is flux. Hegel held the ultimate reality to be the dialectical unfolding of history as God’s search for self-actualization. 7  In other words, they make processes exist prior to objects. Contrary to the object-oriented metaphysics, we have a “process-oriented” metaphysics.

This is, perhaps, easiest to see in Locke’s notion of self-identity. If one were to ask you, “Who are you?” You might give your name, but that is just a label. Who are YOU? The obvious move is to say that you are your body.

The problem here is that you want to say that you are the same person who graduated from high school. You remember doing that. That you is the same you as the present you. But those are two different bodies. Hairstyles change. Waistlines change. Cells die and new ones come into being. The body that graduated high school is a different body than you have now, yet you are the same person who graduated high school.

So, what maintains self-identity over time is not your body, but rather, Locke argues, the set of all the events that happened to you, that is, the set of all the interactions that you have been a part of. Remembered or forgotten, the sum total of those life experiences is what makes up you. You are a line through time, a process.

What we think of ourselves, that is, being a body (object) through time, is the emergent property of the greater process:

in this alone consists personal Identity, i.e. the sameness of rational Being: And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past Action or Thought, so far reaches the Identity of that Person; it is the same self now it was then; and ’tis by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that Action was done. 8

Locke is not saying here that you do not exist as a material entity. You do. Your material self is real. But that real material body emerges out of a process.

In an object-oriented metaphysics, the building blocks of reality are things and processes are made out of things. In a process-oriented metaphysics, the building blocks of reality are processes and things are made of processes. Whitehead creates his own version of process metaphysics.

For Whitehead, the process of creating a person from the processes of the universe is what he terms “concrescence.”

“Concrescence” is the name for the process in which the universe of many things acquires an individual unity in a determinate relegation of each item of the “many” to its subordination in the constitution of the novel “one” 9

It occurs in three stages: the responsive stage, the supplemental stage, and the satisfaction stage. In the responsive stage, there are a set of occurrences in the universe that are experienced. Fingers move on strings, electrical signals flow into amplifiers, soundwaves flow through the air resonating with eardrums, physiological signals are sent via flows of neurotransmitters. There are all sorts of interrelated processes occurring in the world and these give rise to feelings. “The first phase is the phase of pure reception of the actual world in its guise of objective datum for aesthetic synthesis.” 10  We sense the world by being a part of the interrelated processes that make it up. One result of this interactivity is the set of sense data we experience.

Once we are in possession of sense data, the second phase begins when we work to make sense of it. This involves two sub-phases. First is the creation of an aesthetic experience.

The second stage is governed by the private ideal, gradually shaped in the process itself; whereby the many feelings, derivatively felt as alien, are transformed into a unity of aesthetic appreciation immediately felt as private. 11

From the raw hearing of sound or seeing of color, the mind constructs an aesthetic experience. We move from a vibration of the eardrum, a release of neurotransmitters, and the firing of neurons to a lived experience of having seen or heard something.

At this point, the external situation has been turned into an internal, private experience. The second half of the second stage is cognitive. The mind takes the sense data and seeks to make sense of it, to understand it, to interpret it. There is a cognitive processing of what it is we have experienced.

Have you ever turned on the radio and heard a couple notes that sound strange until you realize what the song is and then they get reinterpreted in your mind to suddenly sound normal? That is the second part of the second stage in action. The first part of the second stage constructs the sense datum and the second part situates it in context and makes meaning of it. By the end of the second stage, then, the mind possesses a meaningful, private interpreted experience.

The third stage is to take the subjective experience created and share it with others. Moving it beyond your own mind and into the world through agreement with the experiences of others actualizes the potential fact coded in the experience.

Emotional feeling is still subject to the third metaphysical principle, that to be “something,” is “to have the potentiality for acquiring real unity with other entities.” Hence, “to be a real component of an actual entity” is in some way “to realize this potentiality.” … In more familiar language, this principle can be expressed by the statement that the notion of “passing on” is more fundamental than that of a private individual fact. 12

It is the intersubjectivity of having the private confirmed as public that fully actualizes the experience as fact.

These three stages, then, fill in Locke’s view of human identity as a bundle of experiences. In doing so, it gives a more complete picture of a process-oriented metaphysic. The self exists, but is built from experiences which start as integrated elements of an on-going world process that become formed into private experiences and are then confirmed socially as having been experienced more than privately. Humans are objects, real things in the world, but they are molecular, not atomic things. They are real things built out of pre-existing natural processes.

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as Object-based B-time

We now have two distinctions: McTaggart’s A-time vs. B-time and Whitehead’s distinction between object-oriented vs. process-oriented metaphysics. We will not argue for the correctness of either side of either distinction. Instead, we will combine them to elucidate different approaches to the creation of psychedelic music. We contend that works like the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ought to be seen as presupposing an object-oriented metaphysic paired with B-time, whereas the approach of jambands like the Grateful Dead proceed from a different set of presuppositions that assume A-time and a process-oriented metaphysic.

1966 and 1967 were formative years for The Beatles. They stopped touring just as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was released. While the rivalry with the Rolling Stones was a public relations move, the band itself always thought of the Beach Boys, with their pop hooks and tight harmonies, as the real competition they strove to keep up with. The intricacies of songs like “Good Vibrations” led the Beatles to re-envision what they could do as a studio band.

The single “Rain” and the album Revolver were released in 1966, representing the Beatles’ opening salvo in creating works of aural psychedelic art with tracks like “Yellow Submarine” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Studio tricks, layered tracks, and sound effects were combined to construct new worlds with more or less tenuous connections to the real world.

The Beatles had released two albums every year through 1966. It seemed strange when no album appeared in the first half of 1967. “Because we were done touring,” Paul McCartney reflected, “people in the media were starting to sense that there was too much of a lull, which created a vacuum, so they could bitch about us now. They’d say, ‘Oh, they’ve dried up.’” 13

The Beatles, of course, were anything but dried up. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in June and remained the top selling album for the rest of the year. The iconic cover pictures, a collection of individuals who never could have been at the same place at the same time, signals that what awaits the listener inside the sleeve is a portal to a new place outside of space and time, or at least outside the classical/conventional notion of space and time.

A notable feature of the record is that the disk was not “banded,” that is, the usual gaps between songs were not present, making it difficult to know where on the album to put the needle down if one wanted to start with a track other than the first on the side. This made the album continuous, and so the listener was expected to experience it as a whole. Prior to Sgt. Pepper’s, the unit of popular music was the song. Albums were mere containers for songs. The revolutionary nature of the work was to invert that, making the unit the album and the songs as derivative elements of the album. It was the album as a whole, as a unified entity that was the work of art.

By seeing the album as the work of art and not merely as the “carrying case” for ten to twelve independent works of art, the approach to popular music itself changed. This radical shift in scope opened the door for the concept albums and rock operas that would follow. 14

The album opens incongruously with the sound of a tuning orchestra (which is odd given that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is itself a brass band) and crowd noises, as if we were attending a live performance. The listeners close their eyes and enter a new world in which the band to which they are listening, the Beatles, is no longer the band that is playing, but a new band in a new context. We are in a world within a world, unsure how this new world reflects the reality of the real world. The framing of the album with its opening number and its reprise as the penultimate track is designed to create levels of reality. By listening, we leave the real world, and enter into the world of the fictional band that had been put together twenty years ago today when Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. That world contains other worlds, such as the one of Lucy who possesses diamonds in the sky, which is a world of tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Each of these worlds possess different degrees of congruence with the usual world. Through the experience of the virtually continuous album, we are transported in and out of worlds with different emotional colors and rhythms and with varying degrees of connectedness to what we usually think of as reality.

This new set of worlds created by the album is a temporal experience, an experience in time. However, that temporal experience is encoded onto the album, etched in vinyl. Billy Shears appears and asks us what we would think at 2 minutes and 43 seconds into the world every time. The world is different from ours, but listen after listen it is the same as itself. It is a different world in which time is fixed.

But not only is time fixed, time is transformed into space. Henri Bergson points out that the human intellect “spatializes the universe,” that is, turns time into space. That is literally true in this case. Each moment of time in this world is a particular place on the record. If one were to take the groove that spirals inward on the disk and stretch it out linearly, that length, that space would be the time of the world of Sgt. Pepper’s. In its spatial properties are encoded the happenings of the world. It is very much a block world exactly as McTaggart’s B-time specifies. We may or may not know if she’s leaving home or if he was going to blow his mind out in a car when we first set the needle down, but she did and he did and she will and he will every single time we set down the needle. Every aspect of the world that is created in the artwork pre-exists in the physical properties of the record album itself and every token, each individual platter of vinyl, is of the same type, that is, has the same world pressed into it.

In making the album, in constructing the world, what John, Paul, George, Ringo, and George Martin did was create our experience by creating a material object. The object creates the experience. The album literally and metaphorically contains a new world as a potentiality we can actualize by playing the record. The vinyl album with its particular series of bumps in its specific groove are the real things in this world that create the experiences of that world. The object precedes the experience. Starting in 1967, when they helped launch the psychedelic era with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles did so with a studio-centric approach to psychedelic world-creation that combines an object-oriented metaphysic with a B-time.

The Dead Show as Process-based A-Time

The musical ethos of the Grateful Dead is completely different. The Beatles saw themselves as gods and guides–a god creates a world and a guide escorts a visitor through it. What the soundscapes of Sgt. Pepper’s did was to open the door to a fully-formed alternative reality which could be lavishly populated and layered with intentionally pre-located stimuli for the listener to discover and re-experience on subsequent visits. Again, Heraclitus wrote that no one can step in the same river twice, but that is not necessarily true with the constructed worlds of object-oriented B-time psychedelia.

Emerging from the Acid Tests and Be-In’s of the mid-1960s, the Grateful Dead had a different approach to psychedelic music. Instead of seeing themselves as gods and guides, creating and populating a new world, their approach was to begin with the assertion that music emerges from this world. A god exists outside of its creation; the Grateful Dead, on the other hand, performed from a metaphysical standpoint anchored fully within a pre-existing world shared with the audience. They approached psychedelic music as world-reflection, rather than world-creation.

World-creation means that the goal of the psychedelic art is to remove the audience from the world normally inhabited and mentally experience what it would be like to experience existence in a different, intentionally created world. The listener is metaphorically transported through an artistically constructed experience into a realm where the furniture of the world and the rules by which it behaves are different. The audience plays little to no role in the construction of this world. The artist is the sole or primary author of the alternative created reality, beginning with a blank canvas, which is filled intentionally to align with the vision of the artist.

World-reflective psychedelia, on the other hand, is a cooperative artistic endeavor in which the art develops out of the specifics of the context. The work reflects the experience and mood of both the audience and the players, the place in which it occurs, and externalities that might be defining elements of the lived context. The work of art is a performance that emerges from and is reflective of the lived and living situation.

You’ll be forgiven for concluding…that the Acid Test was a celebration of barely controlled anarchy. Not so. It was in fact totally uncontrolled anarchy, ordered only by those same mysterious laws that govern the evolution of weather patterns, or the turbulence in rising smoke. 15

Norman Hartweg’s posters served as publicity and an invitation in asking a question: “Can you pass the Acid Test?” Such a question is only a question if the answer is unknown at the time. The Grateful Dead were listed on the poster as “happeners,” a term worth unpacking. A happening is an occurrence, a process. A “happener” is an object that emerges from the process. Right away, we see a shift occurring from an object-oriented to a process-oriented metaphysics.

At the Acid Tests, the Grateful Dead could play or not play as the moment dictated to them. 16  They were not the only stimuli for their fellow trippers: poetry, some written and some improvised; objects that produced strange noises; light shows were also present with a lack of planning or choreography; there was stimuli aplenty. Spontaneity was connected to a sense of authenticity. The tools for strangeness would be provided, but how–and indeed, if–they would figure into the evening’s happening was underdetermined. It was only through the lived interactions of the particular individuals who were there and the accidents, or synchronicities, that unexpectedly appeared as a result that the happening would happen. In the creation of the world of Sgt. Pepper’s, George Martin’s hands were firmly on the wheel; Ken Kesey, on the other hand, explicitly kept his hands off the wheel in the emergence of the world during the Acid Tests.

In an interview with Steven Gimbel and Jessica Wahman in 2006, Bob Weir said that the emotional driver of each show emerged from what he termed, “the azimuth.” He explained that the azimuth was the area between the crowd and the stage, a region in which no one was in control, but which had an energy that was influenced by both sides. The band’s playing would feed it and feed off of the contribution from the crowd. The playing would both reflect the energy of the audience and affect that energy. There was not a prescribed, predetermined world that was to be imposed upon the audience by the playing of the band, this was not an exercise in world-creation, but rather a dedication to a presence in a pre-existing shared world which would both be reflected in the music and shaped by it.

This is what was implied by the lyric “the music plays the band” in the song “The Music Never Stopped.” The song itself is a reflection on the Dead’s approach to music and is a clever inversion. It is certainly true that the band plays the music, that is a trivial truth; but what is more interesting is that in allowing themselves to be open to the moment, the converse also holds. It is a metaphysical statement by lyricist John Perry Barlow about the nature of the performance.

This is not to say that this sort of world-emergent psychedelia kept all involved fully connected to the world with the intertwined relationships of the players and the audience. It is, after all, psychedelic music, and the effect of being immersed in the music at a show certainly did take the listener somewhere beyond the auditorium in which it was performed. But, in its openness and randomness, it differs from the sort of psychedelia typified by Sgt. Pepper’s.

This notion of world-reflection and world-emergence would be the main lesson the Grateful Dead would take from Acid Tests and would become the foundation of their improvisational approach, although shades of it appear from the earliest moments of the band’s history. From their earliest gigs, Weir described play as “We weren’t done playing, but the tune was over.” 17  This famous quotation plays on an ambiguity–song as object and song as process. If you see the song as an object, as metaphysically prior to the performance of it, then it tells you when it is over. It has a structure and a coda and to play the song is to obey it as a thing. The object creates and constrains the process.

But if a song is seen as a process, as an occasion, as a playing, then it does not determine how it unfolds or how it ends. It is the unfolding, the playing, that makes it the song. In this case, there is an object, but the process creates the object.

As far as the relation to A- or B-time goes, the open-endedness of A-time is what we see with the live performances of the Grateful Dead. The B-time object album version of the song can be played live, even with the same timing, in the same key, etc., but because it is not just a recording being played, there is an open-endedness that is only present with A-time. Even in the recording studio, the exact notes that will be played are not ingrained in the minds of the musician.

To say “we weren’t done” requires there to have been doing, this doing was the song. The process is being privileged over the object. The object exists–no one would say the band did not play, say, “Midnight Hour,” but the song was not the formal object, but the result of the playing.

We see it also in the band’s openness to bootlegging of concerts. Jerry Garcia famously said to David Letterman in 1982, “When we’re done with it, they can have it.” Bootlegging was, at the time, seen as a crime, as theft of the object possessed by the band. But what we see in Garcia’s response is that the object is not primary. The happening, the process is what is important. The product that emerges, the entity is derivative and inferior. The taped show is an object, but it is not the object of value. It was the experience, the process, the playing, that is real and meaningful.

To replace the formal song, represented by, say, sheet music, with an event in which the song emerged from the performance of it, implies that the process could evolve in unexpected ways. Unlike the album, which has the beginning, middle, and end pressed into itself physically, and therefore adopts a standing of B-time, this sort of exploratory approach not only adopts a process-oriented metaphysic, but one that embodies an open A-time. Where the world-creation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band requires a B-time that transforms time into space, the Grateful Dead’s improvisational, exploratory approach privileges the temporal. Indeed, within the formal structure that emerged in the 1980s for Dead shows, the middle of the second set would include “Space,” which was a part of the show dedicated to unstructured auditory exploration. The lack of structure in this part of the show shows that where the album turns time into space, the Grateful Dead transformed “Space” back into time.

So, we see two completely different approaches to psychedelic music. On the one hand, there is the Beatles’ world-creation approach which requires an object-oriented metaphysic coupled with a commitment to B-time. On the other hand, we get the Grateful Dead’s improvisational approach which requires a process-oriented metaphysic coupled with A-time. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this distinction is the opening seven and a half minutes of The Grateful Dead Movie, in which an animated montage that is clear object-oriented B-time psychedelia gives way to an in-progress performance of “U.S. Blues.” That this is an example of process-oriented A-time is made very clear when we see the band playing to an enthusiastic audience. The shift from an object-oriented B-time approach to a process-oriented A-time approach is viscerally accessible, the difference obvious to the mind when we move from the constructed animated psychedelia to the cooperative world-reflecting nature of the show.

These distinct approaches would create a schism that allowed for the development of quite different sorts of psychedelic, post-psychedelic, and neo-psychedelic music. The object-oriented B-time approach gave rise to concept albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, and The Wall; rock operas like The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia; art rock from bands such as Genesis, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; dream pop, shoegaze, and ambient music from bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Air. The process-oriented A-time approach to psychedelic music is consistent with the improvisational approaches of jazz, blues, and bluegrass, which allowed it to incorporate these approaches in its development through figures like Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers Band through Little Feat and The Radiators, and into the contemporary jamband scene shaping groups like Phish, String Cheese Incident, and Railroad Earth.

Responses to Criticisms

One may be concerned that the distinction between object-oriented B-time psychedelic music and process-oriented A-time psychedelic music collapses when the latter is recorded, and vice versa when the recording of an object-oriented B-time work is played. Any recording turns the process of performance into an object to be played and any playing turns the object into a process. Hence, this is a distinction without a difference. Such a critic might, for example, argue that in taping the Dead show, the process has become materialized, turned into a linear sequence of magnetized sections along a tape. Does this not reduce the process A-time psychedelic back into the object-oriented B-time? The tapes are objects unto themselves. They were traded, prized, labeled in terms of soundboard or audience, judged according to generation. Aren’t all artifacts of the performance thereby of the same sort?

The intention in the recording studio is to produce an object, the album. Improvisation is, therefore, not necessarily intrinsic to process-oriented psychedelic music. Instead, what is most fundamental to process-oriented metaphysic psychedelic music is the prioritization of it and the reflective-world, which we see explicated out of Grateful Dead’s live music for example.

The response to this concern is to note that there are processes in an object-oriented metaphysic and there are objects in a process-oriented metaphysic. The difference is not in existence, but in priority. In an object-oriented metaphysic, the processes are built out of objects. In a process-oriented metaphysic, the objects are built out of processes. The question here is whether the recording is an attempt to document a performance (in which case the performance is prior to the documentation) or if the object creates the world through its playing (wherein the object precedes the performance).

In the case of bootlegs and soundboard recordings, the case is straightforward. But produced live recordings with overdubs in which there was never any specific performance that correlates with the recording can, in some cases, be considered process-oriented A-time psychedelia. Such recordings can be thought of providing the Platonic Form of the performed song. It is what Jean Baudrillard termed a “simulacrum.” “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” 18

Consider Frank Zappa’s song “Ship Arriving too Late to Save a Drowning Witch,” which was purportedly never performed correctly all the way through because of the length and complexity of the song. The recorded version on the album of the same title contains no instrumentation or effects that were not mirrored in live performance. Every element of the canonical studio version was attempted in good faith in live performances.

Contrast this with the album’s lone hit, “Valley Girl,” which is an object-oriented B-time track. Here, the focus is on the vocals of Moon Unit Zappas impersonation of the rhythm, upspeak, and lingo of Southern California upper-class teens of the period. The precision of the impersonation is what makes the song what it is. The recording is not meant to represent a performance, but rather to be a self-contained work. As such, it should be seen as an object-oriented B-time work.

These are distinct in their approach despite the fact that both are idealized studio artifacts. The first is designed to simulate a Platonic form of the performance of the song, whereas, in the case of the latter, the album contains a fully formed, self-contained piece of audio art unto itself; not a perfect image of what a performance might sound like.

A second criticism contends that the two cannot be distinct as they are not mutually exclusive. Surely, there are tracks that represent both structures. Consider, for example, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s studio version of “Third Stone from the Sun.” The track is largely instrumental, with the trio playing its blues-infected psychedelia like few others could. It is very much in the process-oriented A-time model. Yet, throughout the piece, an object-oriented B-time background is provided. We get the sort of studio tricks that we find in the Beatles’ recordings, such as disconnected vocal tracks that are sped up or slowed down, and layering of unusual sounds. As such, the objection goes, since we can have both of these in one song, they cannot be mutually exclusive, and hence, there must not be a distinction.

It is certainly true that the object-oriented B-time approach and the process-oriented A-time approach can be blended. But the existence of water does not deny the existence of hydrogen and oxygen. Hybrids–cases of improvisation performances over pre-recorded tracks–are certainly a reality. While this might lead to the consideration that these two approaches are ends of a spectrum, extremes of a continuum of psychedelic art, these examples seem to be more a mixture of the distinct approaches than a middle-ground utilizing both. This, however, we will leave for others to debate.

Aesthetic Virtues

The philosophical payoff of this distinction is that if the two different approaches see the artistic project differently, they will differ in their artistic goals. As such, when we judge examples of each, we will use different criteria. Despite the fact that both are to be considered psychedelic, what we look for in successful instances of each will be distinct. Utilizing a virtue approach to aesthetics along the lines of David Woodruff, the aesthetic virtues will differ for object-oriented B-time psychedelic music compared to those of process-oriented A-time psychedelic music.

This discussion is based upon the Aristotelian approach to ethics. Aristotle argued that all humans have the same telos, the same final cause, that is to say, the same potentiality they strive to actualize in the living of their individual lives. The lives may differ in the details, but the potentiality comes from species membership and therefore is the same for all. Any act that actualizes this potential is morally good and any act that moves one away from actualizing their potential is morally wrong. We describe the characteristics of the personality of the person that facilitates the actualizations as virtues and those that lead away are considered vices. What the specific virtues and vices are, therefore, depend upon the telos they serve.

Recently, this approach has been moved into epistemology by thinkers like Ernest Sosa 19  and Linda Zagzebski. 20  Virtue epistemology looks at the aim of acquiring knowledge and the sorts of intellectual and cognitive characteristics that would serve it, such as open mindedness, and deems these virtues. Instead of a formal, logical approach to epistemology, we should judge someone a good knower if they embody epistemic virtues.

Woodruff makes the same sort of move in extending the Aristotelian approach to the aesthetic as well. To do so, Woodruff must see artistic creation as a teleological endeavor. Framing the telos in terms of motivations, Woodruff explains the basis of the approach:

The different virtues are each case of motivations deriving from a root motivation. The specific motive of the virtue is a form or specification of the root motivation. According to my theory, the root motivation of the aesthetic virtues is appreciation. A theory will be a virtue theory of esthetics if it has a similar structure, but, as was noted earlier, it might dif­fer according to the root motivation or the hierarchy of subsequent motiva­tions involved. 21

There is a universal motivation that forms the telos of all artistic acts, appreciation; different species of artistic act will instantiate that telos differently and thereby have different specific artistic virtues.

In distinguishing between object-oriented B-time psychedelia and its process-oriented A-time cousin, we have done some of the work needed to develop a Woodruffian set of virtues for each.

In the case of the object-oriented A-time approach, the goal is world-building, that is, the construction of a complete alternative reality in which to embed the listener. Appreciation consists in fully enmeshing oneself in that world, in surrendering to it, and in allowing the music to lead the listener on a tour of that new constructed world. Successful instances of this sort of art would thereby be those that succeed in creating a lush auditory alternative reality and the virtues would be those that facilitate this. Three such virtues might be tightness in production, complexity in sound design, and innovativeness.

By “tightness in production,” we mean that the experience of the constructed world hides the construction. When listening to the music, one is able to fully immerse one’s consciousness in the new reality without reminders of the process. An associated vice would be sloppiness wherein auditory gaps or unintended sounds keep the listener from being able to fully bathe themself in the alternative world. Alternatively, the presentation could be so overwhelming that the listener does not feel invited into the world, but aurally assaulted by it, leading to a lack of cognitive association.

“Complexity in sound design” refers to the sort of layering, moving sounds around stereophonically to different locations, and other techniques that take full advantage of the nature of the artform. In being freed from the constraints of performance and performability, object-oriented B-time psychedelia is granted tools that live or pseudo-live type art cannot use. Effective and creative use of them would be virtuous.

“Innovativeness” is a related, but distinct virtue. To find new ways to use old tools or new tools to use is an artistic virtue. George Martin’s use of unexpected instrumentation and playing tracks backward would be instances of this.

When we look at process-oriented A-time psychedelia, the telos is different and therefore the virtues should be as well. Instead of world-creation, the aim is world-reflection, to connect in a deeply human way with the audience and to reflect the vibe of the lived and shared context. The virtues associated with this sort of approach must reflect this motivation. Among these we could count depth of feeling, integration, and improvisational openness.

By “depth of feeling,” we are referring to the notion that is often called “soul.” This is the quality of performance that conveys a sense of authenticity in the expression of human emotional experience. Players who perform with depth of feeling leave the appreciative audience member moved, emotionally affected by the performance. The associated vices would be flat and sappy. To see the former, consider the band DEVO, which intentionally sought to remove the soul from music and see what would remain. The latter is exhibited in cheesy love ballads, where the feel of the song is so melodramatic that it undermines any true feeling of care or affection.

“Integration” is the sense of responsiveness to the context. To succeed in world-reflection, one must be able to “read the room,” that is, to identify the vibe, to be in touch with emotional state of the audience, the feel of the location, and an understanding of the full range of relevant factors that make that place and time what it is. Some audiences are more playful, others highly charged, some thoroughly phlegmatic. A performance succeeds when it connects with the audience. This is not to say that the performance does not affect the room and change its feel. Of course, it does. But there is a difference between lifting up a room, inspiring what had been a dead audience, and playing against the room.

“Improvisational openness” augments integration. Where integration requires the performer to emotionally bond with the audience, openness is the virtue of finding unexpected emotional and artistic avenues to explore with the audience. Bands that sound just like their album when playing live do not allow themselves to explore, to search for something more within the work. As such, the audience knows what they will get beforehand and the performance is static. In the case of bands that are improvisationally open, there is a sense of creation in the performance. This, of course, comes with a risk–not all experiments succeed; but when they do, the result is a transcendent performance that would not have been possible but for this virtue.

So, there must be different aesthetic virtues by which we judge the quality of the different sorts of psychedelic music. But we do group both sorts under the same genre. Are there virtues that apply across psychedelic types? It does seem that there is. Both world-creation and world-reflection as means of creating a psychedelic experience share certain aims, that is, the appreciative listener comes to the work with certain common motivations. If the music is to engulf the listener, there must be a cognitive/emotive connection. As such, textual richness would be a virtue that we seek from all psychedelic music. Good psychedelia “goes somewhere,” or “takes the listener on a journey,” rather than remaining static. As such, the virtue of being “multiply located” would be a mark of quality. That journey is of higher quality if it is smooth, if the piece has “flow.” Harsh, unexpected changes making the world discrete instead of continuous would constitute an aesthetic vice. So, there certainly are virtues that apply to the genre as a whole, but the distinction upon which this article is based allows for a fuller list of aesthetic virtues for the two different approaches to psychedelic music.


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Steven Gimbel is a Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College and author of Isn’t that Clever: A Philosophy of Humor and Comedy (Routledge), The Grateful Dead and Philosophy: Getting High-Minded about Love and Haight (Open Court), Einstein: His Life and Times (Yale), and Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion (Johns Hopkins).

Chandler Wyman is a graduate of Gettysburg College, double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science with a minor in Peace and Justice Studies. Wyman’s philosophy studies focused on the concepts of free will and time.


  • Theodore Gracyk, “Valuing and Evaluating Popular Music,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57 (1999), 205.
  • J.M.E. McTaggart, “The Unreality of Time,” Mind 68 (1908), 458.
  • McTaggart, “The Unreality of Time,” 485
  • McTaggart, “The Unreality of Time,” 461.
  • Heraclitus, “Fragments,” in Philosophical Classics: From Thales to Occam (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1961), 16.
  • G.F.W. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  • John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Yorkshire: Scholar Press, 1970), 181.
  • Alfred Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: Macmillan, 1930), 321.
  • Whitehead, Process and Reality, 323.
  • Whitehead, Process and Reality, 323.
  • Whitehead, Process and Reality, 326.
  • Mikal Gilmore, “Inside the Making of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’,” Rolling Stone, June 1, 2017.
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not, of course, the first coherent rock album. As a referee correctly noted on an earlier draft, Revolver and Rubber Soul should be seen as complete statements. Indeed, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson thought so. “Wilson said, ‘Rubber Soul is a complete statement, damn it, and I want to make a complete statement, too!’ (qtd. in White 251-252.).” We would like to thank the reviewer for this insight.
  • Phil Lesh, Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006), 68.
  • Dennis McNalley, A Long, Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead (New York: Broadway, 2002), 117.
  • McNalley, A Long, Strange Trip, 91.
  • Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 2.
  • Ernest Sosa, A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge (New York: Oxford, 2007).
  • Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • David Woodruff, “A Virtue Theory of Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 35 (2001), 25.