A good idea at the time

In light of this month’s excursion into all things Walter Benjamin, it’s worth asking the question: how come seemingly all the serious philosophical thinking about music comes from Europe?

Well, in considering that question, meet Charles Sanders Peirce: middling Harvard student, Confederate sympathizer, scandal-mongering adulterer, destitute ne’er-do’well—and, oh yeah, genius. Peirce co-founded semiotics, coined the term “Pragmatism,” and has, over the past seventy years or so, become recognized as one of the greatest philosophers this country ever produced, even as the majority of his writings remain, amazingly, unpublished.

In 1877-78, Peirce wrote a series of articles for Popular Science Monthly magazine called “Illustrations in the Logic of Science,” in which he laid out much of the foundations of Pragmatist philosophy (Peirce would come to prefer the term “pragmaticism,” to distinguish his own ideas from what he saw as distortions that crept in as the concepts became popularized). Peirce characterizes intellectual activity as a dialectic between doubt and belief, almost in a dissonance-consonance relationship of necessary resolution:

Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least effect of this sort, but stimulates us to action until it is destroyed. This reminds us of the irritation of a nerve and the reflex action produced thereby; while for the analogue of belief, in the nervous system, we must look to what are called nervous associations—for example, to that habit of the nerves in consequence of which the smell of a peach will make the mouth water.

(Peirce always disdained philosophical systems or methods that involved starting from blank slates of belief or knowledge, which he regarded as pointless fictions.) So the question is how one gets from doubt to belief. Peirce breaks that down into four categories:

  • Tenacity. The most basic method: you choose something to believe, and you stick with it, not allowing any doubt or questions to creep in. Peirce illustrates tenacity with most forms of religious or dogmatic belief.
  • Authority. Top-down prescribed belief. Peirce attributes this primarily to totalitarian governments, maintaining a belief system and eliminating the possibility of doubt via force and intimidation.
  • Apriority. Peirce regards this as the most pernicious method of getting from doubt to belief, in large part because he sees it as having distorted so much of the Western philosophic tradition. It seems relatively objective: analyze knowledge as a series of logical expansions and inferences from a series of a priori assumptions. But Peirce is skeptical of such assumptions—they are accepted in as much as they seem reasonable, that is, as they seem to conform to rational thought, but Peirce points out that there’s no objective guarantee that what we consider to be rational thought isn’t just an illusion, and possibly a faulty one at that:

    This method is far more intellectual and respectable from the point of view of reason than either of the others which we have noticed. But its failure has been the most manifest. It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion, and accordingly metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement, but the pendulum has swung backward and forward between a more material and a more spiritual philosophy, from the earliest times to the latest.

  • The scientific method. This, then, is Peirce’s favored method: hypothesis and experimentation, making valid philosophical results as easily reproduced as scientific ones.

  • Now, how would these various ways of bridging the gap between doubt and belief apply to judgments about music? I would guess that most people use some combination of tenacity and apriority: for various reasons (lack of time, lack of interest, ease of availability, what have you) we might decide what they like and stick with it, or else we form musical taste based on what we find appeals to us (a process that corresponds exactly with Peirce’s characterization of the a priori method of reasoning: “The very essence of it is to think as one is inclined to think”). Or maybe, perhaps, we move from one to the other as we go through life. I can’t imagine, in this day and age, musical tastes being controlled by authoritarian methods, except in rather isolated instances.

    That leaves Peirce’s scientific method to determine if a given piece of music is true, or whatever the musical equivalent of “truth” is. And therein lies the problem: what, exactly, would that equivalent be? What kind of objective data could one extract from a piece of music to measure its quality or validity? Well, none, really—and that’s why Peirce’s work never really concerned itself with music.

    But Peirce’s methods, in the form of pragmatism, ingrained themselves into American philosophy. Not always smoothly—Peirce himself parted ways with his fellow pragmatist William James, largely over the idea that truth was mutable, that is, what is “true” can become not true and even then true again, depending on the situation. And the European analytic tradition remained long skeptical of pragmatism on similar grounds. The seams within the pragmatic tradition itself start to show as later pragmatists took on art. John Dewey took up the subject in 1934 in Art as Experience, in which he attempted to pin down the nature of the individual artwork by analyzing it in the context of the entire process by which it was created. In a way, Dewey is trying to circumvent the need for a priori notions of beauty or expressivity by embedding artistic activity within a social and communicative framework. But as the philosopher Morton White has pointed out, Dewey nevertheless played a little fast and loose with apriority:

    In his Logic [: The Theory of Inquiry, 1938] Dewey makes a distinction between what he calls “existential” and “ideational” propositions which resembles that between synthetic and analytic statements. Thus Dewey says:

    Propositions… are of two main categories: (1) Existential, referring directly to actual conditions as determined by experimental observation, and (2) ideational or conceptual, consisting of interrelated meanings, which are non-existential in content in direct reference but which are applicable to existence through the operations they represent as possibilities.

    I realize, of course, that he follows this with a kind of pragmatic incantation, for he says that “in constituting respectively material and procedural means, the two types of propositions are conjugate, or functionally correspondent. They form the fundamental divisions of labor in inquiry.” But this is an experimentalist’s blessing of a distinction which one does not expect to find Dewey making after he has criticized the “sharp division between knowledge of matters of fact and of relations between ideas.”

    Perhaps it is only a coincidence that, in White’s words, Dewey unwittingly “provides wonderfully elaborate quarters for a rationalistic Trojan horse” at nearly the same time he tackles the philosophy of art, but at the very least, it shows why others in the tradition that Peirce jump-started might tread gingerly around the topic of artistic purpose and meaning. (This post doesn’t take the pragmatic tradition much past Dewey, but as varied as the field has become, pragmatic aesthetics have tended to follow Dewey’s lead in concentrating on the social construction of art while demurring any questions of definite meaning or interpretation.)

    (As an aside, it’s worth noting that Dewey was, of course, also a pioneering educational reformer, whose ideas did much to shape educational policy in this country throughout the 20th century and beyond. I admit that I don’t know very much about Dewey’s educational philosophy, but I’m intrigued by this analysis by White, in the same book:

    [Dewey] also knew that by studying technology in its historical setting, the student can come to understand something about the interplay between scientific advance and social demands, and about the integrity of culture

    —which sounds an awful lot like Walter Benjamin.)

    It’s one-dimensional to propose the simple causality that philosophies of music are comparatively rare in America because pragmatism took hold. I don’t think pragmatism would have taken hold, after all, if there wasn’t some sort of intellectual need or ferment already idiosyncratically present in the collective stream of American life. In his history of the early pragmatists, The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand suggests that the philosophy was, in part, a turn away from more absolutist 19th-century metaphysics that, to the earliest practitioners’ minds, resulted in the cataclysm of the Civil War. “Pragmatism,” Menand writes, “was designed to make it harder for people to be driven to violence by their beliefs.” (It’s analogous to the often-suggested analysis that atonality was a rejection of aesthetic views that led to World War II.) But there’s a subtle dark side to that: if absolutes sparked the war, technology and mechanization made it the defining event it turned out to be. The acceleration of industrial and financial power in post-1865 America was born in the industrialized killing of the war. (Compare the atomic bombs that woke up Godzilla.) Often to the dismay of figures like James and Dewey, pragmatism seemed to dovetail with the unsentimental Darwinian capitalism that came to define American society and power.

    This summer, much satirical hay was made of the fact that, for a time at least, various user-generated Internet polls had The Dark Knight, the new Batman movie—currently the third-highest grossing movie of all time in the U.S.—listed as the greatest film of all-time, period. But the question of whether it’s the highest-grossing movie because it’s the greatest movie, or the greatest movie because it’s the highest-grossing movie, is not a trivial or shallow question in light of the past century-and-a-half of American history. The market, and the mechanisms of the market, are deeply ingrained in American society (and, increasingly, the rest of the world), and that’s reflected in the intersection between the pragmatism and aesthetics. If the philosophy is attempting to undermine subjectivity, what data are left for a “scientific” analysis of art and culture? Before the advent of sophisticated neuropsychology, you only had the market: a numerical reflection of an artistic artifact’s predominance in the community, and, in the absence of any other objective criteria, a stand-in for its value and importance. Even armed with the knowledge that the existence of the market places its own limitations on the possibilities of artistic expression, it’s hard to disassociate decades and decades of the weaving of market effects into everyday perception from our thinking.

    Peirce himself occasionally touched on musical themes:

    In this process [of moving from doubt to belief] we observe two sorts of elements of consciousness, the distinction between which may best be made clear by means of an illustration. In a piece of music there are the separate notes, and there is the air. A single tone may be prolonged for an hour or a day, and it exists as perfectly in each second of that time as in the whole taken together; so that, as long as it is sounding, it might be present to a sense from which everything in the past was as completely absent as the future itself. But it is different with the air, the performance of which occupies a certain time, during the portions of which only portions of it are played. It consists in an orderliness in the succession of sounds which strike the ear at different times; and to perceive it there must be some continuity of consciousness which makes the events of a lapse of time present to us. We certainly only perceive the air by hearing the separate notes; yet we cannot be said to directly hear it, for we hear only what is present at the instant, and an orderliness of succession cannot exist in an instant. These two sorts of objects, what we are immediately conscious of and what we are mediately conscious of, are found in all consciousness. Some elements (the sensations) are completely present at every instant so long as they last, while others (like thought) are actions having beginning, middle, and end, and consist in a congruence in the succession of sensations which flow through the mind. They cannot be immediately present to us, but must cover some portion of the past or future. Thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations. (“How To Make Our Ideas Clear,” 1878)

    But thinking about music in a Peircean way has been largely in the context of semiotics, not logic, or pragmatism, or “pragmaticism.” Peirce himself would foreshadow European criticisms of Jamesian pragmatism as sacrificing the idea of enduring philosophical truth for more temporal practicalisms. The scientific Peirce ended up espousing a not very small-p pragmatic view of intellectual enquiry. “True science is distinctively the study of useless things,” he wrote. “For the useful things will get studied without the aid of scientific men. To employ these rare minds on such work is like running a steam engine by burning diamonds.”

    One comment

    1. While I’m happy to see any discussion of CSP and Pragmatism here on the interwebs, I fear that you tend to miss impact of pragmatism on musical thought in America and in Europe. One must concede the point that music doesn’t feature heavily in the philosophical discourse, but we do have to remember two factors in considering that – first, the high threshold which music technical language presents (often minimized), and second, the rise of music cognition as the dominant realm of these questions.But if we consider the how the question of musical meaning is being considered within the music theoretic discourse, then the traces of Pragmatism are quite easy to read, (see Nattiez, Cook, etc.). The Goehr-Dodd debate feels so much like a reenactment of the James-Royce debate that I sometimes expect to see period costumes.

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