Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Beauty, Goodness, and Truth

The grouping of beauty, goodness, and truth as three related “transcendental” qualities of being seems to have originated in the fifteenth century with Marco Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s “Philebus” dialogue. It then resurfaces throughout the history of philosophy, probably most notably in the three “critiques” of Immanuel Kant, the Critique of Pure Reason (truth), the Critique of Practical Reason (goodness), and the Critique of Judgment, whose first half focuses on aesthetics (beauty). This Kantian framework, in turn, may have provided the foundation for much of the thinking that can be found in Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action. Since much of my thinking about music came out of trying to approach performance as a form of “communicative action,” it may be time to tie this together with yesterday’s thoughts about time.

Habermas’ approach begins by recognizing that communication is a particular instance of personal interaction and that all personal interactions are distributed across three independent “worlds,” the objective, the subjective, and the social. This tripartite division is basically another take on Ficino as handed down through Kant. The objective world is the world of “pure reason,” the subjective world is the world of personal “judgment,” and the social world is the world of “practical reason,” based on goodness for the benefit of all. Each of these worlds, in turn, provides its own approach to the verb-based nature of time. The objective world deals with the mathematics of time-based functions with particular attention to the nature of continuous functions and how they can be manipulated. The subjective world, on the other hand, deals with the passing of time as a psychological phenomenon. This is where we move into the domain of Gerald Edelman, most specifically his book The Remembered Present. The idea behind the title of that book is that “mind” has to “process” the “stimuli of the present.” That processing is not instantaneous; so, by the time the processing has been completed, what mind takes to be the present is actually a memory of what had been perceived in a very recent past.

This is all very well and good until we have to worry about “now” in a communicative setting. It was one thing to be even remotely aware that a subjective “now” is actually an objective “then;” but things become more complicated when we move into the social world. What happens when someone uses “now” as a cue to say, “It is time to press that button?” In many respects that is the ultimate simplification of what it means for a performing musician to follow a conductor’s beat.

However, the complexity of the social world becomes more evident when we think about a string quartet, rather than an orchestra. This is a group of four individuals that, somehow or another, have to establish a shared concept of how time is passing, maintaining that agreement through some form of ongoing monitoring. Indeed, music itself clearly resides in Habermas’ three worlds. The objective world is the world of notation with its associated rules of interpretation. However, an expressive interpretation of that notation requires a move into the subjective world; but that move only goes far enough to cover solo performance. As soon as more than one performer is involved, performance is firmly ensconced in the social world. Performance is thus a matter of how each individual juggles reasoning in the objective and subjective worlds in order to communicate effectively with the rest of the ensemble in the social world.

Sadly, while Habermas appreciated that there was more to linguistics than semantics and pragmatics, he does not seem to have had much background and/or interest in music. Thus, like Kant, all he can provide is a framework for thinking about the performance of music. Putting flesh onto that framework is the task that still needs to be done.

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