I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You: 7. The Philosophy Of Modern Song

by Jochen Markhorst

VII        The Philosophy Of Modern Song

I traveled the long road of despair
I met no other traveler there
A lot of people gone, a lot of people I knew
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you

Granted, Graham Chapman contributed more to Hegel’s popularity in a three-minute skit than Dylan did in half a century of songs and writing.

In Monty Phyton’s Philosophers’ Football Match (1972), Archimedes has his Eureka moment in the very last minute, runs off with the ball, passes to Socrates, who with a falling header leaves German goalkeeper Gottfried Leibniz without a chance. It is the winning goal. Referee Confucius blows the full-time whistle moments later: end result 1-0 for the Greek philosophers.

The German protests, however, do make sense. Karl Marx is indeed right: in the replay, we see Socrates clearly offside. But alas; in 1972, we do not yet have VAR. And so the protest by captain Georg “Nobby” Hegel is brushed aside, despite its profound truth (“Hegel is arguing that reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics,” according to commentator Michael Palin). He could also have further argued that Archimedes is not a philosopher at all, and thus wrongly plays on the Greek philosophy team. On the other hand: Wittgenstein plays with the Germans, and Ol’ Ludwig is an Austrian – so Nobby Hegel perhaps wisely does not raise that point.

But Dylan’s spreading of Hegel’s wisdom is, whether consciously or subconsciously, at least somewhat more substantive than that of John Cleese and his pals. In the 1960s, Dylan shares Hegel’s insights about the unattainability of true freedom with us, in more accessible images than the gruff German does in his Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 1821), anyway.

Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?, the concluding, rhetorical question of the vicious “Ballad In Plain D”, for example, or it is not he or she or them or it/That you belong to (“It’s Alright Ma”) relatively insightfully summarise Hegel’s laborious attempts to explain what “negative freedom” is – and Dylan’s conclusion from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” negativity don’t pull you through is also quite catchier than the endless paragraphs in which Georg Wilhelm Friedrich actually asserts the same thing.


The same goes for Hegel’s reflections on self-awareness and the essence of an individual, on Truth and Morality. In poetic one-liners such as I can only think in terms of me (“Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word”) or in “I Shall Be Released” or How does it feel to be on your own or It’s only me (“Every Grain Of Sand”): here the Phänomenologie des Geistes (The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807) resounds, there echoes The Philosophy of the Objective Spirit… Dylan and old Hegel are definitely kindred spirits.

In the twenty-first century, Dylan then seems to take it a step further. Dylan never mentions the name “Hegel”, but the very title of his The Philosophy Of Modern Song (2022) seems at least to nod firmly to Hegel’s The Philosophy of Fine Art, and also promises a similar message. Which is indeed there.

At the very end of the exhaustive, four-volume Philosophy of Fine Art, Hegel reveals his insight, the insight for which Dylan needs far fewer words: Art, says Hegel, is not only “the most generous reward for the severe labours of our contact with objective reality and the grievous pains of knowledge,” but above all bestows on us “a revelation of truth”. Which is almost a refrain in Dylan The Philosophy Of Modern Song.

“What is it about lapsing into narration in a song that makes you think the singer is suddenly revealing the truth?” asks Dylan as early as Chapter 1, Detroit City – Bobby Bare. “El Paso” presents “truth that needs no proof,” and Dylan’s analysis of the oeuvre of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong is entirely Hegelian:

“Everything they wrote is meaningful and true to life. It’s the way things really are. They saw it and told it, relentlessly. They look into the darkness and shine the light.”
(Chapter 17, Ball Of Confusion – The Temptations)

Just a few examples demonstrating affiliation. There are dozens, and in fact the whole book is a demonstration of Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes.

The congeniality even seems to run so deep that Dylan unwittingly quotes him verbatim, one might suspect at the seventh verse of “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”. The long road of despair is an image every philosophy student encounters with Hegel as he struggles through the interminable introduction to Phänomenologie des Geistes. Hegel warns that the road to true knowledge inevitably leads to the loss of what we experience as truth. Which is not easy. “Er kann deswegen als der Weg des Zweifels angesehen werden, oder eigentlicher als Weg der Verzweiflung – It can therefore be seen as the road of doubt, or more accurately as the road of despair.”

Coincidence, probably. The kindred spiritness is a given, but this particular choice of words can presumably be traced to the creative ambition to avoid clichés. After all, the metaphor has been fairly milked since Al Dubin’s ″Boulevard Of Broken Dreams″ (1933). Hank Williams varies thereon with “Lost Highway”, the Stanley Brothers claim “Highway Of Regret”, Elvis walks to his Heartbreak Hotel along Lonely Street, which Kitty Wells tries to hijack (“Lonely Street”, 1958), Doc Pomus then renames that to “Lonely Avenue”, and for Dylan that leaves only “Desolation Row” in 1965. All variations, of course, on Hegel’s original, on Weg der Verzweiflung, Road of Despair.

And on that road, Dylan’s narrator experiences exactly that, what Hegel demands of the seeker of Truth: das pure Für-sich-sein, as the old philosopher calls it, “the pure being-for-itself”. Self-consciousness “ist wohl seiner selbst gewiß, aber nicht des Andern – is aware of himself, but not of the other.” Or, as Dylan puts it a lot more poetically: I met no other traveler there.

Georg “Nobby” Hegel will have nodded approvingly.


To be continued. Next up I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You part 8: There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:



  1. As the greatest of philosopher of all is said to have said, “It ain’t over til it’s over”.

    I’d assert any mini or macro philosophical outlook Dylan might hold is cyclical in nature, not one that views an individual’s life span, and/or historical events happening around him or her, as a potential progressive journey to a higher plane of civilization –
    That’s the way the fuzzy ‘science’ of Apollonian “philosopher” Hegel would have it.

    Dionysian Friedrich Nietzsche’s poetic “philosophy”, seemingly cyclical too, makes no claim of an ultimate heaven-on-earth awaiting in the wings of the future for all humankind.

    Frostian Dylan appears to walk down a middle path between the two.

  2. Bob Dylan is the most Sincere Emotionala d loving Person I have ever known through song! They Portray his life’s experiences in Amazing way’s,if you are lucky enough to be part of this for real Take the Opportunity given to you and go down the path with him in his unpretentious way realising the truth in his his word’s do not give up an opportunity when lucky enough to have it from a True love such as Bob’s don’t lose out for any reason because of not knowing where this will may take you! When True Love Conquer’s All! ❤️

  3. Herbert Read Philosophy of Modern Art
    “The Philosophy of Modern Art is perhaps a grandiloquent
    title for a collection of essays written on various occasions
    over a period of fifteen years. I cannot claim that I had
    a coherent plan in mind all this time, and different purposes
    have required different styles of address. To mention one
    particular anomaly: the reader is bound to be disconcerted
    by the way I shift with little or no warning from the posi-
    tion of the spectator ab extra to that of the creative artist.
    But what, if not philosophic, is this activity I have in-
    dulged in, not only in this book, but for the best part of
    a lifetime? It is not critical, for I have never pretended to
    assess the value of particular works of art, or to arrange
    artists in an hierarchy of worth. It is not historical, for
    though I am conscious of connections, and eager to trace
    the re-emergence of traditions, I am not systematic enough
    to give the complete picture of a period, nor confident
    enough to define a school or classify a generation. The
    method I adopt may be called philosophic because it is the
    affirmation of a value-judgment….”

  4. Theirs is a hollow victory. They are deceived
    But you my brother and my ghost, if you can go
    Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use
    In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved
    (Herbert Read: To A Conscript)

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