The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

The pages on this website have been gradually developing, to give a coherent account of the Middle Way in theory. However, theory is never enough. I’d like the posts on this site to often have a more practical or inspirational flavour. Here’s an example to start off with. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra seems to me a strikingly inspiring example of the Middle Way in action. Here’s a video introducing it.

Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said have created something that integrates across entrenched boundaries and contributes to the breaking down of fixed metaphysical models that create conflict. They have done this, not through creating an idealised peace when the conditions for peace do not yet fully exist, but by creating some of the conditions for peace in shared meaning. If we recognise meaning as embodied rather than represented, music can be understood as highly meaningful to us because of its relationship to our basic physical processes – our pulse, heartbeat, physical movements and vocal processes. This sense of meaning forms a basis for metaphorical extension into the more abstracted meanings of language. A shared meaning based on music at least creates the conditions in which young people on different sides of the divide begin to talk to each other, and to recognise the meaningfulness of each others’ perspectives.

Robert Ellis

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

12 thoughts on “The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

  1. I listened to this orchestra with pleasure, some time ago, via my television. Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said certainly have created something special, a group of young people in times of conflict, who may not otherwise have come together to make music.
    I will give some thought to how the visual arts, in particular painting, can unite groups. Is there such a thing as good and bad art, Grayson Perry for example, shows why different sections of the public, have a preference for one style/genre, rather than another? Is it possible to have a Middle Way aesthetic?

    1. Hi Norma, I think there is such a thing as a Middle Way aesthetic, though it’s not something I’ve developed in great detail as yet. The underlying approach would be as in any other judgement – that we are more able to learn from experience if we avoid metaphysical assumptions. In art the metaphysical views might take the form of rigidity in allegiance to representation, or expression, or abstraction – or their denial. The most I have managed to write about this was in a chapter at the end of a book on ethics – see . I wrote this in 2006/7, and I’m not sure that I’d tackle it in exactly the same way the next time round, but it’s a start!

  2. Hi Robert, Thank you for your reply. I agree with you, there is a Middle Way aesthetic in the arts, my thoughts on the subject will be concerned, primarily, with painting. As I haven’t written an essay for many decades, I will write in bite – sized chunks from time to time, if that is acceptable.
    An Introduction. The ways in which painting can unite a group.
    Human beings are naturally creative, we have imaginations, a great bonus in evolutionary terms. Among the hunter gatherers in pre-history, living among small groups or tribes, there was someone, man or woman, we don’t know for sure, but most probably the male hunter, who possessed extra insight maybe or, had a special skill such as discovering the method of making paint from the soil around him, he would grind it down into fine particles and mix with water to make a thin paste, with which to paint animals on cave walls and rocks, some of this art still exists around the world, from the caves at Lascaux in France to the rocks in Australia, where aborigines painted stories of their creation myths in Dream Time.
    Paintings are two dimensional, there’s no getting away from that fact, but with our imaginations, we can be carried into new inner mental realms, where we may experience powerful emotions.
    Art, in particular painting, was used a teaching aid among groups, during religious ceremonies. Priests, who had recieved an education, could instruct the parishioners who had not had that opportunity. These people understood the pictures painted on church walls, the scriptures came alive for them, they had a slide show to enhance the spoken sermons. Priest and congregation were united by the same belief.
    Un -named monks worked on illuminated manuscripts, beautiful images adorned the pages of the scriptures, it was their life’s work. Young people, usually boys, in Renaissance times, worked for years under the tutorship of a master, to acquire the skills needed to paint, from mixing the paints to drawing from plaster models. The master painters in turn were bound to their sponsors, a pope or cardinal. To remain employed it was important to please those who paid them and yet painters somehow, even with the restrictions laid down as to subject matter etc. managed to produce paintings of sublime beauty. Artists need sponsors, even today, art collectors are the new sponsors! Rothko, when he painted a series of canvases to sell, was originally working for a restaurant owner, who wanted the paintings to hang on the restaurant walls, that didn’t happen in the end. I have seen them hanging in galleries.
    Posters are produced to promote a political creed, they are used as political rallying points for the masses. Communist Russia for example made use of posters by posting them on hoardings for all to see.
    Creating paintings can also be therapeutic, an effective way to release the mind from despair. From my own experience, when experiencing great sorrow, I painted at least twenty canvasses with geometric designs. By the very act of mixing and applying dozens of colours I became absorbed in my work, I achieved a calm mind. Jung, as many will know, painted mandalas, circles within squares, first invented it is thought, by Buddhsits living in the north of India. Jung wasn’t concerned wiith making a work of art, although they are wonderful, he was transported to the depths of his mind in his search for the unconscious. I am re-reading his book Memories Dreams Reflections, which I’ve had on my book shelf since 1963, when it was published.
    What we experience rather what we do is what really matters.

  3. Hi Robert. Very good to see you highlighting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – I am a great fan. As you probably know they specialize in Beethoven. I’ve got the recordings as well as listening to their live concerts of the complete symphonies and I have never heard Beethoven played with such vigour and energy! Beethoven was almost an exact contemporary of Hegel (and a near contemporary of Fiche and Shelling). Therefore the influences of the times were the same on the philosophers and the composer, (one might say they shared the same Zeitgeist!) And strange to recount that I experience, when listening to Beethoven, a deep resonance with this heritage of the classical German philosophical tradition. (Before I study Hegel I listen to Beethoven – and somehow, as if by magic, it puts me in exactly the right mood and frame of mind not just to be able to tackle Hegel’s long and convoluted sentences; but at the same time also to appreciate his immense scope and vision!)

    But I must confess to a slight surprise at your support. At the times of the end of the eighteenth and bringing of the nineteenth century, on the continent, a metaphysical stance in philosophy was d’rigeur; and to be able to comment on metaphysics intelligently was the mark of the “Weltanshauung” that every well educated young man was expected to have. Philosophy without metaphysics was quite simply not philosophy! Therefore it was quite natural for Beethoven to cast his moral stance within a metaphysical principle: namely that “All men are brothers”. Metaphysical? Well, yes: it is an absolute universal principle that omits of no exceptions, is completely un-provable or, equally, disprovable. And, like all good metaphysical principles, you have the choice of either believing it or not. (From our post-feminist perspective one could also add that it is palpably un-true in that it excludes half the human race: namely women!) On account of its catch-all universality, and its un-provability, Popper and his Logical-Positivist precursors would have to declare it philosophically meaningless!

    Did Beethoven really believe all of this? Well, again, yes: without wanting to lapse into a “representational” theory of aesthetics, the more programmatic elements of his music clearly show it. Not only is it explicit in the adoption of Schiller’s great poem for the coral part of the ninth, but in the third symphony too. Here the heroic ideal of the first movement is treated to a funeral march in the second (as the exemplar of that ideal – Napoleon – tries to put himself above the “Brotherhood of Man” by declaring himself Emperor). The regaining of the ideal in the joyful third movement is followed by its expression of victory over historical adversity in the triumphal march of the forth.

    Now Barenboim (forever a practical man) together with Said (the more intellectual of the two) has brought into being a triumph of the metaphysical ideal over the over actual-political by getting the young people to come together and play music, with all the joy and zest for life that their age brings. And for them, Beethoven was the obvious composer of choice. Absolutely magnificent – but something I would have thought that “Middle Way” philosophy would have definitely not supported!

    1. Hi Padmadipa,
      Thanks for this. I am also a great lover of Beethoven. Not so much of Hegel, though of course he has some useful things to contribute. I have engaged with Beethoven for many years primarily by playing his sonatas on the piano (not always well!).

      However, I find your argument decidedly convoluted, and you have also misunderstood what I mean by metaphysics and what role I think it plays.

      I find your argument convoluted, even confused, because you seem to assume that because the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra plays lots of Beethoven, I should therefore support Beethoven’s metaphysical views – and apparently even Hegel’s by further association. None of this follows by any stretch of logic. I very much admire Beethoven’s music, as it happens (though even that would not follow from my admiration of the orchestra), but that would not require me to admire his metaphysical views. One basic psychological point here is that we all contain many views, some of them metaphysical and others not. I would certainly not define Beethoven solely in terms of metaphysical views he may have expressed on particular occasions.

      Even more importantly, you need to separate the meaning of Beethoven’s music from the beliefs that may be in some ways associated with it – just as you need to separate, say, Jesus’s kindness from his belief in the imminent coming of the Kingdom. Beethoven’s music is mainly meaningful in a direct physical relationship with our experience, and it conveys what he found meaningful – at a far deeper level than any belief. In this I follow the embodied meaning theory of Mark Johnson, whose work I would recommend. It is this that makes his music so profound, and any metaphysical ideas he may have had are very peripheral indeed to that meaning.

      Then you also claim that “All men are brothers” is a metaphysical belief. I would not agree with you about this, either. One of the basic features of metaphysical claims is that they are representational, assuming some truth-out-there that is represented by a metaphysical proposition. But Beethoven, I think we can be fairly sure, did not hold this claim ‘literally’ – he did not believe that all men had the same mother and/or the same father. “All men are brothers” is mainly a way of giving further emotional meaning to the concept of all men by saying that we should feel towards them the same affection as we should towards our brothers. It is a expanding the meaning of ‘all men’ in the same way as the final stage of the metta bhavana meditation tries to do.

      So, the confusions here are legion. You have attributed a ‘metaphysical’ claim to Beethoven that is just a metaphor, attributed belief claims to music that is mainly about meaning regardless of belief, failed to appreciate the complexity of the role metaphysics plays in the minds of individuals, and attributed an approval to me of lots of things that were neither expressed in my blog post nor follow from it. Sorry to be so negative – but since I know you, I think you can cope with this!

  4. Oh, and another point I forgot, Padmadipa. You wrote “Now Barenboim (forever a practical man) together with Said (the more intellectual of the two) has brought into being a triumph of the metaphysical ideal over the over actual-political by getting the young people to come together and play music”.

    I would say the exact opposite. Far from being a triumph of the metaphysical ideal, the activity of the orchestra brings together young people who have been brought up in societies that are mired in political metaphysics: whether this is Zionist or Arab nationalist, not to mention the possible religious accompaniments. The orchestra gives them the opportunity (as I said in the blog post) to find shared meanings. That creates one of the conditions in which they might then manage to start loosening those metaphysical assumptions. This is political pragmatism at its best, in a triumph over metaphysical absolutism.

  5. Thanks for that Robert – that’s great. If I understand you rightly then you seem to me to be making two points here: firstly one’s appreciation of what Barenboim is doing for peace in the Middle East (and indeed in the world) is independent of a musical appreciation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, or appreciation of the nature of the music of Beethoven. But secondly you also seem to be suggesting that your appreciation of what they are doing at a moral-political level is also independent of their understanding of the moral implication of their work as artists.
    Your first point is a good one, and in general I would hold it to be true. But simply to make a distinction between the moral and the aesthetic is at the same time not to preclude that there may also be a connection between the two. Or, perhaps at some level, one can be seen as a reflection of one of the other. My remark about the emotional way the music of Beethoven puts me in touch with the philosophy of Hegel is meant to be more of subjective statement about myself, and I just offered it up as a curious fact of my own experience. I feel that we cannot go much further here, on this line of enquiry, as I am unfamiliar with the work of Mark Johnson that you recommend.
    On the second point: of course you are perfectly entitled to have your own take on the role the actions of the orchestra has in performing Beethoven on political morality. But at the same time you run the risk of imputing motives to other people that they would not necessarily hold to themselves – and that is just simply weird! My point here was that Beethoven probably saw the “Brotherhood of Man” thesis quite differently from you. (I say “probably” as I am not completely sure as I am not a Beethoven scholar but I feel fairly confident of this in that I think he did hold conventional Christian beliefs of his day). The “Brotherhood of Man” idea was a moral common place among enlightenment thinkers of his time and I am suggesting that most of them understood it in terms of us all having a soul, or that in essence we were all one, or all shared in a world spirit etc. In other words (with the exception of Hume) they thought of it in terms of some sort of abstract essence inherent in each individual that links us all together. This sort of “essentialism” is clearly a metaphysical claim, and is represented by the “Brotherhood of Man” idea and fits exactly with your definition: “One of the basic features of metaphysical claims is that they are representational, assuming some truth-out-there that is represented by a metaphysical proposition”!
    You then seem to me to have shifted the goal posts by proclaiming that is not a metaphysical proposition but a metaphor. (And clearly it is a metaphor at one level as to take it literally that we all have the same biological mother and father is absurd). But that aside, we are entitled to ask: what exactly is it a metaphor of? If you were to reply of our common human experience, then I am afraid that does not quite do it; for when one thinks in terms of concrete humans, for just as many experiences that I have in common with my fellows I can think of an equal number that are entirely different. One needs something a bit firmer as a foundation if you are attempting to build moral philosophical theory.
    In terms of the actual motivations of Barenboim and co, then you are probably going to get as many different answers as there are members of the orchestra: there is a delightful piece in the video clip where Barenboim says that what they are doing is not political and the very next second one of his students says that it is! In general it is interesting to note that the reinvention of enlightenment ideas in politics has come back into fashion since the fall of communism. To me the very success and popularity of the orchestra is a clear reflection of that. And yes, my final remark about the triumph of metaphysics was meant to be provocative, but only partly so – there is also a serious point in there. Just think for a moment of, say, Voltaire, Kant and Hegel. All three lived through horrific wars themselves, and they we all highly sensitive to the human sufferings caused by those wars. No doubt if we imagine them able to see the work of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra today, then Kant would explain it in terms of an example of his concept of the Perpetual Peace; Hegel the supreme working out of the Absolute Idea etc. Therefore what is needed, philosophically, is something that is a better exposition than those offered by these giants of the enlightenment which is ultimately based on their respective metaphysical systems. And that is still in the wanting.

    1. Hi Padmadipa,
      I think the basic problem here is that you do not understand me correctly, and do not understand the position I am putting forward on either metaphor or metaphysics. It would take me too long to explain it all here, but there are plenty of materials available both on this website and also in more detail in my books if you are interesting in understanding it. Both the things you present me as saying in your first paragraph are wrong, and I am not saying either of them. You seem to have just projected your accustomed ways of thinking onto what I actually said.

      What you take to be moving the goal posts is me making two separate points with a hypothetical relationship – firstly that if Beethoven did have any metaphysical beliefs, these would have to be seen in perspective as only one factor that influenced him, and secondly that the Brotherhood of Man is not an example of a metaphysical belief. A metaphor in terms of embodied meaning is not a metaphor ‘of something’, because there is no base representational position – rather the Brotherhood of Man is a metaphor in the sense that Beethoven would find it meaningful by metaphorical extension from his basic physical experience. I agree with you that Beethoven may have held metaphysical beliefs as well, but our metaphysical beliefs do not necessarily have to dominate our lives. I am arguing that the meaning of his music, either to him or to us, is far more basic than that.

      One of the key distinctions I want to make is between meaning and belief. A great deal of traditional Western thought is based on the assumption that meaning can be understood in the terms of belief, but meaning is a far more basic condition, developed out of our physical experience, which belief can then be built on. Music is a particularly good example of something we find meaningful at a far more basic level than any belief, so it can bring people together at the level of meaning prior to any discussion of beliefs. I think that Barenboim probably has a good grasp of this important point, which is far more important than any appeal to the metaphysics of the enlightenment.

      I don’t suggest that we continue this discussion on the basis of misunderstanding one another. If you are interested in understanding where I’m coming from, I suggest you read either my ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ series (the third one, on meaning, is due out soon, and I could send you the draft if you want), or Mark Johnson’s ‘The Meaning of the Body’, or both.

      1. Hello Robert, yes I think we will have to leave it for the moment as the gap between us is too great and not going to be bridged through just a blog post. But I just want to thank you for initially putting Barenboim and his orchestra out there, on your site, as I think we can both agree that his work is a force for the good (despite our very different reasons for supporting it!) and therefore from my point of view the more people who are introduced to his wonderful project the better. Good luck!

  6. Hi Padmadipa
    Here’s a Youtube link to a talk by George Lakoff who collaborated on a book with Mark Johnson entitled “Metaphors we live by”. You might find it helpful in trying to understand where Robert is coming from regarding metaphors in terms of embodied meaning.

    Frameworks, Empathy and sustainability

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