The ancient symbolic depiction of knowledge as a key is an example of pictographic/ideographic communication, and falls under semiotics (as opposed to linguistics).

Previously on this blog, I have written about the compatibility between anthropology and Hayekian/spontaneous order approaches to explaining the process by which human societies and cultures develop and evolve. While that piece hovered above the surface at the theoretical level, this essay will flesh this theory out by diving deeper into the world of anthropology and its complementary disciplines of musicology and art history. But before those discrete examples can be presented, just a tad bit more theory needs to be laid out; I assure you, this won’t be painful!

The disciplinary focus of anthropology is knowledge; how it is used within people groups, how ideas are transmitted between them, and how successful certain systems of knowledge are at being passed down and harnessed by others, even after the original discoverer(s) have long died. In this view, a cultural system can be defined (from the inside out) as a “complex, largely interconnected whole that consists of the knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, skills, and habits learned from parents and others in a society….the primary adaptive mechanism for humans.” Stated differently, culture functions as a system of shorthand, encoded information that teaches a person particular conceptions of how the world works, what social norms are expected of their behavior, and any other types of practical knowledge that would be necessary for living in a particular location in time and space.

From this perspective, language as a transmitter of ideas is one type of knowledge-sharing system, but it stands along a line of many other complementary systems. To bring this yet closer to the ground, one can think of a specific cuisine, say Italian food, as functioning in an anthropological sense to teach individuals living on the Apennine Peninsula exactly what types of native vegetation are healthful and edible in that region. By making garlic, olives, and (after the 18th century) tomatoes a standard part of the cuisine, Italians need not continue the discovery process of trying out the local vegetation to see which plants are poisonous, which plants are helpful for physical ailments, and which plants can be eaten. The shorthand information contained within cuisine communicates to the eater all of this information implicitly, allowing subsequent generations of Apennine peoples to make use of the knowledge their ancestors had to learn for the first time.

As Hayek thoroughly realized, not all knowledge can be communicated through explicit language, a point that led him to admonish “we must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function;” or in other words, the price system functions as the “language” of the market. Where linguistic forms fail in sharing embodied knowledge, other “languages” such as music and art can fill the gap. It is this recognition that explains Kant’s description of music (and its visual corollary of art) as Sprache der Affekte (language of the affections) which enables humans to express unnennbaren Gedankenfülle (an ineffable, unspeakable wealth of thought). In short, the ideas expressed in these non-linguistic forms properly belong to the realm of the aesthetic philosophy.

Adding to the explanatory utility of any language system is the idea of embedded knowledge, in which layers upon layers of knowledge are “built-in” to a finished product or concept. In an economic sense, Leonard Reed’s “I, Pencil” best captures the phenomena of how many knowledge systems can feed into one concept or item, and that when humans can make use of more and more layers of knowledge easily, this leads to advanced understanding and functionality. The remainder of this essay will deal with two discrete examples, and I have deliberately chosen non-English language sources as a way to remove familiarity and prove the universalized communicative ability of the arts.

The 2010 single “Je Veux” (“I Want”) by French pop singer Zaz may be casually listened to simply for a diversion, but paying closer attention reveals her armchair philosophizing, as well as the layers of embedded meaning she employs. After naming off aspects of materialism (a hotel room at the Ritz, jewelry from Chanel, a limousine), Zaz rejects these as proper elements of her freedom, offering instead an alternative philosophy:

Je veux de l’amour, de la joie, de la bonne humeur
Ce n’est pas votre argent qui fera mon bonheur
Moi je veux crever la main sur le coeur
Allons ensemble, découvrir ma liberté
Oubliez donc tous vos clichés
Bienvenue dans ma réalité
I want love, joy, good humor
It is not your money that will make me happy
Me, I want to die with a hand on my heart
Together let’s discover my freedom
Forget, then, all your clichés
Welcome to my reality





Whether or not you agree with Zaz’s description of freedom, the fact remains that she has decided to embed her life philosophy within a song. Moving past the explicit lyrics, the layered, syncretic understanding of freedom in “Je Veux” is reflected in its setting as a gypsy-jazz, Stéphane Grappelli/Django Rheinhardt-inspired track. The associations of jazz music and personal freedom are long-standing, and need no further explanation here (see my previous post on jazz and freedom for this connotation). In her song “Les Passants” (“The Passers”), Zaz describes watching passersby, and the hustle and bustle of their adult lives in comparison to the simplicity of a child that doesn’t base his opinions on the judgments of others. She expresses that “Chaque jugement sur les gens/Me donne la direction à suivre/Sur ces choses en moi à changer, qui m’empêchent d’être libre,” or basically that the judgments of other people give her the direction that she needs to follow to change things in her life, but that this ultimately keeps her from being free. It is evident then that a predominant theme of Zaz’s music is the human quest to discover personal freedom on one’s own terms. A powerful life philosophy, indeed.

Ai WeiWei’s “He Xie” at the Hirshhorn Museum makes the visual statement that the price for a “harmonious” China is borne on the backs of the dead and silenced.

Chinese political dissident and visual artist Ai WeiWei also has used his art to communicate satire and critique his government. His 3-d graphic piece “He Xie” features 3,200 ceramic crabs, and is premised upon the fact that the word “he xie” in Chinese can mean both “harmonious” and “river crab” depending on its tonality (see this explanation of tonal language). By embedding his art with this homophonic play on words, WeiWei gives visual form to “harmony” in China by showing how the live river crabs stand and walk on the backs of dead ones, an obvious illusion to the silencing of opposition and lack of open Internet access that characterizes the established order of the Chinese state.

What both of these artists demonstrate is that the aesthetic realm of music and visual art can adequately communicate knowledge and share ideas in ways equally effective as linguistic systems of knowledge, sometimes with even more permanence and poignancy. Freedom as a philosophical conception does not only exist within words, nor does philosophy only speak to the realm of the linguistic, thanks to its fifth branch of aesthetics; for if that were the case, the world would be a bland, muted place indeed.