Chuck Schuldiner Project

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The meaning behind Death's The Philosopher

The Philosopher is the ultimate track off of Death's 1993 release Individual Thought Patterns. It is often viewed as one of the greatest lyrical works of the bands front man Charles “Chuck” Schuldiner. In it, Schuldiner uses the character of 'The Philosopher' as a synecdoche to criticize modern philosophy. This begs the question, how exactly do the lyrics of The Philosopher show Schuldiners negative view of philosophy in the mid 1990s? The response should become much more clear after a stanza by stanza analysis of the song. Each stanza (as well as the refrain) seems to communicate a new reason to discard modern philosophy and to show another reason as to why philosophers in general should not be trusted. It is truly impressive to see how in just thirteen lines Schuldiner manages to tear apart the prime tenets of 'the art of thought'.

In the first stanza Schuldiner immediately questions the credibility of philosophers in general. It directly showcases his belief that there is no use for philosophy in any society. With the very first line Schuldiner uses a burst of rhetoric to cast aside their apparent merit. He writes “Do you feel what I feel, see what I see, hear what I hear”. He repeats this idea at the end of the stanza too, saying; “ Do you live my life or share the breath I breathe”. In short, he is trying to prove that the philosophers 'dream world' is very different from his 'reality'. (A concept touched on by his good friend and collaborator Paul Masvidal in his classic song Veil of Maya) The purpose of this verse seems to be to give the reader a sense that philosophers are not to be trusted as they try to make conjectures about lives they could never fully understand as they are not their own. It shows his negative viewpoint by casting aspersions upon some of the essential concepts of philosophy by saying that no one can be fully understood by another human being, he further questions the tenets of philosophy in the next verse.

Throughout this second stanza Schuldiner seemingly looks down upon some of the basic processes behind philosophy. When he says “Ideas that fall under shadows that stand tall” he is using a memorable meter and rhyme scheme to create a sort of slogan for his anti-philosopher message. The phrase 'Ideas that fall' seems to be making reference to some of the core ideals of philosophy, which, as we have already seen, Schuldiner views as false. According to him these very ideas are “Thoughts that grow narrow upon being verbally released”. One reading of the text would suggest that Schuldiner is saying their core doctrines can not even be put into words because it prevents them from seeing the true nature of reality and thus creating flawed ideologies. Yet because the philosophers can not escape this bind Schuldiner states “Your mind is not your own”. That is to say, that the character of The Philosopher (who is the “You” in this song) is so entrenched in his own paradigms that he no longer has full control of his mind. (Another concept heavily dealt with in the music of Paul Masvidal as well as in the works of the more contemporary lyricist Peter Tomis). In sum, this further proves to the reader that philosophers, as we have them today, have no real merit, and that therefore, as stated in the following verse, they should have no right to tell anyone how to live.

The third stanza, deals directly with the preaching of philosophers. This introduces a running theme that is apparent throughout Schuldiners body of work, his idea that people should 'Practice what they preach'. (An idea that is also thoroughly dealt with by the band Testament) In this stanza Schuldiner successfully outlines why philosophers should not be allowed to preach their ideals to the people. Schuldiner says of 'The Philosopher' “You preach about how I'm supposed to be, yet you don't know your own sexuality”, which essentially is his way of saying that if one can not understand basic truths about themselves they should not be telling others how to live. This is also another example of Schuldiners superior use of rhythm and meter to give his songs a sense of flow. He further derides philosophers by saying of them “What sounds more mentally stimulating is how you make your choice”. That is, they do not care about what is logical or correct, but only what is complex and interesting. This suggests that the philosophers are directly violating one of their own core concepts, Occams Razor, making them hypocrites on top of everything else. Through this stanza Schuldiner is telling readers (or listeners as the case may be) that they should not pay attention to philosophers because they fail to practice as they preach, this obviously furthers his agenda.

So finally we arrive at the refrain which is repeated twice in the text. Once right after the first stanza as a sort of prelude of things to come and then at the end of the piece as a sort of summary of the message of the song. The refrain successfully distills the essence of the poems message into a sparse four lines. (One containing a mere two words). The first two lines deal with stanzas two and three respectively. Line two of the refrain reads “Lies feed your judgment of others” which is immediately reminiscent of the line “Your mind is not your own”. I think that this is referring to the problems with the paradigms of modern day philosophy. The second line of the refrain “Behold how the blind lead each other” seems to be a direct reference to the idea in the third verse that philosophers are really no greater than the rest of us and in fact quite a bit worse. Suffice to say that they do not 'see' (in reference to the idea of the 'blind leading') into the human psyche. The ultimate line of the refrain is possibly referring to the premier verse when it says “You know so much about nothing at all” which is touched on when Schuldiner initially uses rhetoric to question what philosophers really can claim to know. (Seeing as they do not, feel, see, or hear the same thing as him). In essence this is really just a summary of the text, it would seem that no new ideas are introduced but the old ones are reinforced, providing the metaphorical final nail into the coffin of philosophy.

To finish, the song The Philosopher clearly depicts Chuck Schuldiners reasons for disliking philosophy as it is in our world today. By looking at each stanza in depth the reasons that Schuldiner dislikes it become fairly clear. Each stanza has one fairly clear main idea which furthers his agenda. He sees philosophers as not truly understanding any individual humans psyche (as seen in the first stanza), he also believes that their paradigms are null and void and furthermore limit their perception of the world (as discussed in the second), and finally Schuldiner believes that they have no right to preach their way of living onto others as they have yet to even know their 'own sexuality' (A concept dealt with in the third). However, at this point, one must ask themselves the question, this anti-philosopher ideology is a sort of philosophy in and of its self. Does this make Chuck Schuldiner himself a hypocrite?


  1. Brilliant stuff. You should read up on Qualia to better understand the first paragraph, I feel.