Sunday, November 11, 2007

The philosophy of music

Modern scientists tend to possess an almost complete ignorance of philosophy, which renders many of their more general claims naive and parochial. Conversely, however, much of 20th-century philosophy was driven by a careerist desire to build an academic discipline which could stand independently of scientific discovery and understanding. Many 20th-century philosophers received an arts-based education just as narrow as that of modern scientists, and, lacking an understanding of science, strove to build an 'analytic philosophy' centred around the analysis of natural language. These philosophers sought to believe that their discipline was logically independent of science because their careers were dependent upon such a claim.

This is not what philosophy should be. Philosophy should be the great over-arching, unifying, synthesising discpline. In an age of deepening academic specialisation, philosophy should be reacting against this trend. Philosophers should be competent in the arts and the sciences. In particular, a lack of mathematical and scientific competency in a philosopher should be considered a crippling disability, comparable to a lack of logical competency.

A perfect example of the lack of ambition and imagination in modern philosophy is provided by Andrew Kania's survey of the philosophy of music. The key phrase in this account can be found in the preamble, where Kania states that the work considered is "in an analytic vein." This, amongst other things, is philosophic code for "there will be no discussion of scientific research here." The ensuing discussion therefore makes no reference either to neuroscience or biological evolution. Vital issues such as the purported universality of musical appreciation, or the emotions evoked by some music, can only be fully understood by integrating conceptual discussion with evidence from neuroscience and cognitive evolution theory.

Which parts of the brain are activated during the production and appreciation of music? What types of interaction occur between the cerebrum (the part of the brain responsible for conscious thought), the cerebellum (the part of the brain responsible for unconscious, 'second-nature' behaviour), and the amygdala (the 'levers' of the emotions). When music is emotionally ambiguous or neutral, but nevertheless evokes an aesthetic appreciation in the listener, which parts of the brain are then activated? How do such patterns of brain activity help us to understand music, if at all? All the scientific theory and evidence here needs to be incorporated into the philosophical discussion if the philosophy is to be of any real interest or relevance.

What role, if any, does music play from the perspective of biological evolution? What light, if any, can evolution throw upon the ontology of music, and the emotions sometimes expressed by music? Consider the following argument by John Barrow: "neither musical appreciation, nor any dexterous facility for musical performance, is shared by people so widely, or at a high level of competence, in the way that linguistic abilities are. In such circumstance it is hard to believe that musical abilities are genetically programmed into the brain in the way that linguistic abilities appear to be. The variations in our ability to produce and respond to music are far too great for musical ability to be an essential evolutionary adaptation. Such diversity is more likely to arise if musical appreciation is a by-product of mental abilities that were adaptively evolved primarily for other purposes. Unlike language, music is something that our ancestors could live without," (The Artful Universe, p196). Is this true? Kania's survey does not enable one to access such discussions, because such discussions are not within its remit.

There is a need for broadly-educated philosophers, with sufficient will and courage to look beyond their careerist aspirations, and to write genuinely unifying, all-embracing philosophy; work which cannot be published because it doesn't fall into the narrow domain of any particular journal; work which doesn't, therefore, enable those philsophers to gain promotion by increasing their citations ranking.

Am I asking too much?

12 comments:

elberry said...

You are asking way too much, but it's a good idea. Academia is all about narrowness, defending a tiny patch of turf, knowing nothing (and not being interested in) anything else.

i was surprised to find, as an undergraduate, that i'd often read more than my tutors - apart from the millions of words of crappy student essays they had to read, they also had to read all the latest 'research', utterly forgettable dross - hence no time to read 'primary texts' out of curiosity. i remember one of my tutors being genuinely incredulous when i explained (from my GCSE Physics know-hot) how electricity is generated: she thought it too amazing for words.

i don't necessarily think a philosopher need know much about science, but i think if he doesn't he should make it clear that he's omitting a large area of human knowledge (or speculation), that his philosophizing is, as it were, detached from experimental data & scientific theory. Knowledge or speculation is only deceptive & spurious if it make unwarranted claims, but then every book tends to make itself out to be the daddy, the definitive word.

Gordon McCabe said...

Indeed.

So how is electricity generated? Being able to evoke amazement in non-experts could make you the new Adam Hart Davis.

Doug Hudson said...

"Philosophy should be the great over-arching, unifying, synthesising discpline."

And I thought that was mathematics!

Gordon McCabe said...

Ah, sadly, mathematics captures merely the structure of things.

Peter Burnet said...

Very inspiring, Gordon, but aren't you up against the inherently reductionist nature of modern science and the almost visceral reaction of many scientists to the limits of science. Having been on the anti-scientism side of many arguments, particularly on Darwinism and radical materialism, I am struck by how modern materialist/science advocates are so often inexorably drawn to simplistic, one-size-fits-all material explanations for absolutely everything, which leads them to defend the most implausible tales, like some of the wilder evolutionary just-so stories. So often I've wanted to scream virtually at an adversary that if he would just say "I don't know", I'd have a much harder time of it.

Gordon McCabe said...

Well, I don't really know about that, Peter...

What's your definition of reductionism and what's your definition of materialism?

Peter Burnet said...

Sorry Gordon, I've been distracted. I'm simply referring to scientism's increasingly dogged and hostile insistence in excluding that which is not observable, measurable or predictable from reality. It seems to me that if you are going to attempt an overarching philosophy of everything, you may need more than a lab and a slide rule, not to mention a disdain for those without them.

It is sort of the obverse of the (apocryphal?)story of Roger Bacon who scandalised a group of scholastic theologians in the Middle Ages who were trying to use theology to figure out how many teeth a horse had. He suggested they just go outside and count them. Apparently the poor dears never recovered.

Gordon McCabe said...

I'm glad we cleared up the issue of reductionism and materialism.

Doesn't scientific realism propose that there is an objective world beyond that which we observe and measure?

Peter Burnet said...

Well, I'm sure some scientific realists do--probably the best ones--but that raises another issue. There seems to be a growing gulf between what sophisticated theoretical science says and what the populist versions of it preach. Obviously Dawkins, Dennett and co. are the current examples and the attacks of some renowned atheist scientists on them does the whole discipline great credit. Unfortunately, there seems to be a paucity of that kind of public challenge and a free pass given to a lot of nonsense. It is really more the populist versions that disturb me, not the least because the others are largely incomprehensible to me. :-)

Music is a pretty good example of what I am trying to get at, because it is a traditional challenge to Darwinist reductionism--nobody can come up with a persuasive survival advantage. The science that simply assumes there must be one and so is reduced to making up improbable just-so stories is feckless in my view, and highly unlikely to lead to anything momemtous philosophically. But if you mean something far beyond that, the best of luck.

Gordon McCabe said...

There's no need to show that the appreciation of music confers a survival advantage, merely that it is the by-product of capabilities which do confer such an advantage.

Peter Burnet said...

But how could you "show" (as opposed to just posit) that it is a by-product of anything? In theory, I mean.

Gordon McCabe said...

It's not pure mathematics, so there's no need to derive such a thing from theory alone. One might use various brain-scanning technologies to observe the patterns of brain activity when people listen to music. One might thereby establish that the appreciation of music is a different application of the same neural mechanisms which are known to confer a survival advantage.