You Who Philosophize
Dylan: The Quarrel between
Philosophy and Poetry in
the Songs of Bob Dylan
KEVIN L. STOEHR
In a collection of essays that attempt to show how Bob Dylan and his songs can be used to discuss philosophy, it may not be out of place to ask whether one ought to adopt a philosophical approach at all when it comes to this prolific wordsmith. What are we doing, exactly, when we attempt to “philosophize Dylan”? Philosophers, of course, like to pose questions about the meaning and value of what they are doing. By philosophizing about philosophy itself, philosophers seem to reassure themselves that they are, in fact, doing philosophy. But what are we doing precisely when we attempt to philosophize about this legendary troubadour of our times?
We are searching, no doubt, for meaning and value in his life and lyrics. But what needs saying beyond the life and lyrics themselves? Philosophy, as the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle tells us, is a search initiated by a sense of wonder and a desire to understand. Yet Dylan asks, as if in retort: “But how long, babe / Can you search for what's not lost?” (“I'll Keep It with Mine”). And how long must we ponder before understanding, for example, what the jelly-faced woman means when she utters, “Jeeze / I can't find my knees?” (“Visions of Johanna”).
Does philosophy really have any place at all when it comes to an appreciative understanding of Dylan's musical poetry? For surely what Dylan does and has been doing for some time qualifies as a form of poetry. As the celebrated literary critic and Dylan scholar Christopher Ricks puts it in his recent book Dylan's Visions of Sin: “The case for denying Dylan the title of poet could not summarily, if at all, be made good by any open-