A Reference Guide for Rhythm in Post-Hegelian Philosophy

This is a reference guide for rhythm in the work of various philosophers – where it appears and how it’s used. Perhaps unexpectedly, the category is actually one that crops up fairly regularly in continental philosophy but is not discussed at length and so is often overlooked. However, comparing and contrasting various approaches to rhythm is a helpful, alternative perspective on the relationships between thinkers. The list is not comprehensive, but it is a start and hopefully others will add more in the comments.

  1. GWF Hegel: Perhaps unsurprisingly, rhythm appears in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (approx. p 35-40 in the 1977 Miller translation) and, as with several other thinkers, it is used as a way to talk about reality as an “organic whole” in motion. A common characteristic of thinkers who use rhythm in this way is their tendency to associate their work with Heraclitus (which you can find in “Heraclitus” in Lectures on the History of Philosophy vol 1).


  1. Friedrich Nietzsche: Within the space of a single page in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche associates both the Apollonian and the Dionysian with two different senses of rhythm. The Apollonian is associated with “the wave-like beat of rhythm” and the Dionysian with “the full gestures of dance, the rhythmic movement of all the limbs” (Smith, 2008, p 26). This is based in an early lecture called “Rhythmische Untersuchungen,” (KGW II/3, S. 312) (It is, unfortunately, only available in German but Elaine P. Miller has written a great summary that quotes a lot from the original: “Harnessing Dionysos: Nietzsche on Rhythm, Time, and Restraint,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 17 (1999)). In this lecture, Nietzsche differentiates between Greek time-rhythm that mathematically marks intervals of time and rhythms of bodily forces. Like Apollo and Dionysius, while the two rhythms are often opposed to one another, they in fact work together to constitute the whole of reality, which Nietzsche, like Hegel, associates with Heraclitus’ Dionysian approach to reality (Ecce Homo, Large, 2007, 47-48).


  1. Henri Bergson: Though not always explicit, rhythm pervades Bergson’s philosophy. Bergson thought about reality in terms of duration, as constant motion and flux, such that what we perceive as stable identities are in fact illusions (schemas). In his book Matter and Memory, Bergson says that rhythm mediates pure duration into different levels of being and consciousness through matter. It is the interface of stability and flow. However, an entity is not consigned to a single rhythm, other rhythms (such as that of the arts) may break in and suspend our natural rhythms (Time and Free Will (1950), 14).


  1. Emile Benveniste: All of the approaches to rhythm given thus far can be summed up under Benveniste’s definition of a fluid form. Benveniste opposes the idea that rhythm is a flow, but nor is it a structure or form that holds something in place. Rather, it is an improvised, fluid form with no organic consistency. He claims this comes from the Greek word rhusmos, first used to denote a change in the shape of an alphabetical character. You can find his definition on p 332-3 of Problèmes De Linguistique Générale.


  1. Henri Meschonnic: Meschonnic’s understanding of rhythm is usually mentioned in the same breath as that of Benveniste. He similarly argues for a rhythm beyond metrics and regularity, however he is unique in asserting that the definition of rhythm itself is always in flux. As such, his majesterial work on the subject, Critique du Rythme: Anthropologie Historique du Langage, does not offer a definition but simply analyzes the history of the concept. Unfortunately, as with Benveniste, it is only available in French.


  1. Gaston Bachelard: Bachelard’s objective is to counter Bergson’s metaphysics of duration and continuity. Being and time are not a continuous flow. Rather, being is discontinuous because it is always interrupted by nothingness. Reality is not a pure duration but a dialectic between being and nothingness and we work to construct continuity out of discontinuity. However, Bachelard also appeals to the category of rhythm in describing his approach to reality in his book The Dialectic of Duration.


  1. Martin Heidegger: This is the most explicit connection between rhythm and Heraclitus. The only place that Heidegger explicitly describes rhythm is in his Heraclitus Seminar (p 55). Drawing on several other authors, he speaks of rhythm as imprint, a force that precedes the human and so binds him or her. In describing rhythm as a restraint, he describes it in terms similar to beauty, which binds the forces of physis (the Dionysian forces of reality at war with each other). As with Nietzsche, rhythm therefore represents the encounter between a form, such as that of art or language, and the struggling, chaotic forces of nature.


  1. Jacques Derrida: Derrida refers to rhythm in his introductory essay to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s book Typographies, titled “Desistance.” In this essay Derrida refers to rhythm as always preceding the subject as repetition and spacing. In other words, he talks about rhythm in the same sorts of ways that he talks about différance, so understanding how he thinks about différance will give you a sense of what he thinks about rhythm as well.


  1. Gilles Deleuze: Deleuze discusses rhythm in two places: In Difference and Repetition, difference is associated with the third synthesis, which divides two sorts of time from each other as well as holding them together. He and Guattari also have an essay in A Thousand Plateaus called “1837: Of the Refrain” in which rhythm is the communicability between “heterogeneous blocks of space-time,” holding them together in their heterogeneity. So, in both cases rhythm functions for Deleuze to hold heterogeneous or opposed dimensions of reality together in a way that does not overcome that heterogeneity.


  1. Julia Kristeva: In Black Sun, Kristeva describes the relationship between melancholia and poetry. Rhythm features in her exploration of how the typical relationship between (dominant) symbolic language and the semiotic body becomes overturned and uncoupled in these two events. The rhythms of the body come to dominate in both instances, which has powerful implications for how poetry can be a kind of counter-depressant. She calls this the chora, which she also describes as rhythmic in Revolution in Poetic Language.


  1. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe: Lacoue-Labarthe’s work, often associated with that of Jean-Luc Nancy, explores the instability and loss of the subject, particularly through the interface of philosophy and the arts. Rhythm features in his essay “The Echo of the Subject,” in Typographies as that which makes the subject possible. However, its instability makes it a troublesome ground and it therefore also tends to disrupt the subject.


  1. Giorgio Agamben: Agamben explicitly considers rhythm in one chapter in his book The Man Without Content, in which he considers Hölderlin’s phrase “all is rhythm,” and follows various explorations until he comes to a definition of rhythm as that which introduces a stop into the flow of time in which we have the opportunity to recapture our shared humanity. Ideas about rhythm appear implicitly again, particularly in The Time that Remains.


  1. Henri Lefebvre: Perhaps the most sustained thinker of rhythm, Lefebvre developed a method for analyzing the various patterns and flows of modern life through a method he calls rhythmanalysis, which can be found in the short book by the same name.

4 replies »

  1. Interesting catalogue of historical ideas on rhythm.
    The notion of god seems improbable to me.

    The idea of rhythms, regularities, is fundamental in a modern understanding of reality.
    It is in the nature of light, and all matter.
    It builds into all layers of life, and all modern computational machinery.
    The primary clock on any computer is nothing more than an oscillator, and from that oscillation derives all ability to calculate.

    It seems that our awareness is clocked at quite a low frequency, varying between about 3 and 200 cycles per second in various states of consciousness.

    So thank you for that brief catalogue of some notions of rhythm in philosophy over time.


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