Friday, April 9, 2010

Propositioning society

One of my recent concert announcements included the following exhortation:
Since music gives audible form to the intangible patterns of shared perceptual experience on which our common life depends, nothing less than the future of civilization may hang upon your efforts to promote organ recitals.
It was intended as a joke, of course. But I think there's something here that's important.

The issue is this: can all human knowledge be articulated in a propositional form? Or does our store of knowledge and experience include non-propositional knowledge, things that can never be expressed in the form of a statement?

I know, for example, that two and two are four, and that a piece of white phosphorus will ignite if I expose it to air. These are very different types of knowledge, but they're both propositional. However, I also know how to play the organ, which is at its core a non-propositional form of knowledge. There are any number of statements that might be relevant to my knowledge of how to play the organ (sit on the bench facing the keydesk; place your music on the stand with the right side up; extend your hands toward the keyboard with palms facing downwards, etc., etc.) but it's not clear that my ability to play the organ can be reduced to these statements. Imagine that a person was able to empirically describe every action that an organist must take in order to play a two-hour recital, but when asked to demonstrate their knowledge was unable to perform any of the actions they described: would we say that this person knew how to play the organ? Clearly not. The best we can manage is "This person knows a lot of information about how a person capable of playing the organ would play the organ," which in the final analysis is not enough to impress a paying audience.

Most of our knowledge is like this; it involves some propositional content expressed in the form of statements embedded in non-propositional content derived from our life experience. You may know that a piece of white phosphorus ignites in air, but do you know how to share this information with your friend using audible speech? You may know that two and two make four, but can you walk across the room without falling down? If not, it's going to be a long day.

All of this is interesting because our experience of music is one of the purest possible examples of non-propositional knowledge. In fact, it's not clear that anything about music can be expressed directly in a propositional form at all. One can certainly know a great many propositional statements about music, but none of them address the musical experience directly. Knowledge of the history, aesthetics or political context of a composition may affect our musical experience, but it's not itself the content of that experience. Likewise, learning music theory teaches us to analyze the musical score, which puts it at a substantial remove from the actual listening experience; at best, if the performance is faithful to the score, it might correlate to your analysis of the piece. If we try to describe the musical experience itself, we are forced to use metaphors ("lively," "hopeful," "sorrowful,") that seem to evoke the important aspects of that experience. And while this disjunction between academic theory and lived reality is familiar in many of the other arts, music has the additional disadvantage that the object of our musical experience is an intentional object (that is, an object that we've constituted ourself in our imagination) rather than a physical phenomenon (like a sculpture, painting, or a group of oddly-dressed people saying things in iambic pentameter). The result is that music is as far removed from the world of propositional statements as a human activity can possibly be.

Our experience of the world, then, necessarily depends on some combination of propositional statements and non-propositional knowledge. In some disciplines, like the natural sciences, propositional knowledge is clearly the most important; in others, like music, the essence of the art form seems to be wholly non-propositional. Healthy individuals and societies must accept that both ways of knowing are necessary to our existence, and allow for both in the makeup of our major institutions. In practice, however, since the rational madness of the Enlightenment, non-propositional knowledge always loses out - it's hard to justify why music is important, or what role tradition ought to play, when the answer expected (ie: a proposition expressing utilitarian value) is by nature foreign to the concept you're trying to defend. Yet these non-propositional aspects of experience - music, art, tradition, friendship, religious experience - are the ones that ultimately hold society together. When everything in human life has to be explained in propositional form and defended by a cost-benefit analysis, we lose something essential in our human nature. This, of course, is the mistake behind all radical politics - the assumption that everything in society is susceptible to rationalist analysis, that the world is essentially a puzzle to be solved, and that uniformly applying a single principle to everything in society will make all of our problems disappear. This doesn't work, and we prove it doesn't work every time we listen to a piece of music.

If all of this were true, of course, it would follow that artists and particularly musicians have the most to lose when traditional social mores are attacked. The context in which they work depends for its very meaning on a community of listeners who share a common reserve of non-propositional knowledge. Political radicalism, antitraditional ideologies, and other reductionist approaches to human life threaten this consensus, both by direct attack on the concept of "non-propositional knowledge" and by undermining the traditional institutions on which that knowledge depends. If musicians were to act according to their own self-interest, therefore, they ought to be known for their stalwart traditionalism, and their violent opposition to any forces that undermine social cohesion. Anyone who knows anything about musical history, however, is aware that this is not the case, and hasn't been for centuries - Beethoven was infatuated with Napoleon, Wagner was exiled from Germany after participating in an ill-conceived attempt at a revolution, Stravinsky was an admirer of Mussolini, and Webern explicitly endorsed the Nazi regime. The radical antinomian sentiments in much popular music since the 1960s are not a departure, but a continuation of the same trend. Should it be surprising that music is becoming an increasingly irrelevant part of our common life, when the very foundations of that common life are so little valued by musicians themselves?

Two points, then, come out of all this. Firstly, that economists are wrong: humans don't work toward their own self-interest. Very few people are capable of perceiving what actions ultimately benefit them - myself very much included - and most of us are probably continually undermining our own interests by ill-considered actions of various sorts. Secondly, that I am running out of procrastination methods and should get to work on my taxes.


Steven said...

1) I enjoyed this. Thank you.

2) I must try that thing with white phosphorus...

3) Taxes...ugh.

Chris said...

Thanks for posting, I enjoyed reading this well written blog. I'm intrigued by your suggestion, however, that musicians don't value the foundations of common life. As you pointed out earlier, music rests in the realm of non-propositional knowledge, and as such it posesses certain transcendent qualities. Things done in the name of social cohesion all too often seems to ignore transcendent qualities. Even religion, which supposedly places great importance on transcendental ideals, gets caught up in the fickle labels of "Christian," "Catholic," "Protestant," "Jewish," etc. My point being that, perhaps by ignoring the tangible "common ground" between us, musicians are capable of revealing the intangible and transcendent common ground we all share. After all it is said that music is the universal language. Anyways, I'm glad I stumbled across this post!