Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The External Musical World in Knowledge and Practice

A blog post by Jesse Limbacher, submitted to the San Francisco Symphony Social Network with the provocative title "Why Music?," sent me back to review one of my own posts, entitled "Our Knowledge of the Musical World," only to discover that I had written it exactly one year ago. I had chosen my title as somewhat of an homage to Bertrand Russell's book, Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method of Philosophy. However, such an homage may have been misplaced, since I am not sure it makes sense to think about music as strictly an "external world" set of phenomena; and I suspect that Limbacher's post piqued my attention, at least in part, because it was trying to take such an "external world" stance. This seems to be leading me down two paths, one concerned with the nature of the musical world and the other concerned with whether or not it makes sense to talk about having knowledge of it.

I would have to review Russell's book to confirm this, but I am pretty sure that he used the phrase "external world" to denote "external to self." This is a very Cartesian approach, which Daniel Dennett came to call the "Cartesian Theater" perspective. The Wikipedia entry for Cartesian Theater includes the following excerpt from Dennett's book, Consciousness Explained:

Cartesian materialism is the view that there is a crucial finish line or boundary somewhere in the brain, marking a place where the order of arrival equals the order of "presentation" in experience because what happens there is what you are conscious of. [...] Many theorists would insist that they have explicitly rejected such an obviously bad idea. But [...] the persuasive imagery of the Cartesian Theater keeps coming back to haunt us — laypeople and scientists alike — even after its ghostly dualism has been denounced and exorcized.

The theorists Dennett has in mind are those who view reality as constructed, rather than presented to the senses; and Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann made a strong case that such construction is a social process, rather than simply a product of stimuli "processed by an individual self." Since I have tried to make the case that the performance of music resides as much in the social world of engagement among performers as it does in the objective world of technique and the subjective world of interpretation, I support Dennett's rejection of Cartesian materialism and recognize that it may be more appropriate to talk about "constructed musical reality" than about the "musical world."

So, does it make sense to talk about our having "knowledge" of this "constructed musical reality?" I suppose the intuitive answer to this question would be, "Why not?" However, as Russell liked to observe, we should only use words when we know what they mean; and "knowledge" has been a difficult case that goes all the way back to Plato's "Theaetetus." About half a year ago, I summarized this particular dialog as follows:

It begins with the quest for a definition of knowledge. Each time Theaetetus proposes a definition, Socrates elegantly unravels it. Thus, in the final paragraphs of the dialogue Socrates as much as says that, while they did not achieve their goal, the journey towards that goal was still worth making.

For me the most interesting part of that journey involved the discovery that talking about knowledge led to deep exploration of three others equally challenging concepts: being, description, and memory. Think of these concepts in terms of three primary questions:

  1. What is?
  2. How do we account for what is when talking with others?
  3. How do our past experiences with what is impact our present behavior?

I would not suggest that these questions are any easier than the question of defining knowledge. However, I would argue that such simple reductive formulations give us a better start down a path of inquiry than more abstract questions about the nature of knowledge. Besides, I have already spent a fair amount of time knocking my head over the question of description in music to recognize that I am not yet ready to ramp up to a higher level of abstraction; and I have not even scratched the surface when it comes to questions about being and memory! One thing I suspect, though, is that my inquiry will have less to do with Russell's deeply cherished scientific method and more to do with social theory!

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