In any case, I am going to pick out an application of this method, or a version of it, to the never-ending dispute about quality in music or what we mean when we talk about "good" music or "bad" music. The first thing to note is that a very large number of people who write about music, like Alex Ross at the New Yorker, avoid using those terms at all. I once wrote, after reading some Alex Ross, that he would likely prefer to stab himself in the ears with knitting needles rather than call a piece of music good or bad!
For a while now I have been working my way through a brilliant book on aesthetics by Monroe C. Beardsley. It is the best survey of the whole field I am aware of. One of the most interesting chapters, after a great number of preliminary questions have been discussed in previous chapters, is titled "Aesthetic Value" which is, of course, one of the ongoing themes in this blog.
There are many different kinds of philosophical methods, indeed, sometimes it seems as if philosophy is nothing but methodology and the examination of methodology. But one of the central methods is the crafting of questions--what are the right questions to ask? An intriguing twist on this is to look at a theory and see if it prohibits asking certain kinds of questions and whether that is appropriate. Let me give an example: we are aware of certain kinds of things when we listen to music, such as does it seem beautiful to us, is it enjoyable or the reverse, does it soothe or agitate and so on. We are also aware of other facts pertaining to the music: what medium is it presented in, mp3, vinyl, CD? There is also the question of cost: is it a free download, an inexpensive CD, a very expensive collected edition? It might be a live performance we are thinking of attending: is it free admission, are the tickets $10 or will it cost us $300 for a box seat?
I divided these questions up into categories to make the point that these categories are separate and easy to distinguish. The implication of this is that there may or may not be causal relationships between these categories. Just because we are listening to an mp3 of the Bach B minor Mass does not mean that the aesthetic value is low. Nor does paying for the most expensive seat at the opera guarantee that we receive high aesthetic value--the soprano may have a head cold that night! So the question of whether or not paying more guarantees higher aesthetic value is certainly an appropriate one. But if you look at the way pop music is covered in the mass media you might almost get the impression that higher record sales are somehow connected to higher musical worth (aesthetic value).
We live in the Age of Psychology so a lot of writers avoid any discussion of objective aesthetic value because they believe in a psychological or subjective definition of aesthetics: "X has aesthetic value" means "Someone likes X in a certain way, i.e. aesthetically." [From p. 513 in Beardsley's book.] One advantage of this sort of definition is that it is testable empirically. We can determine who the greatest composers or pop musicians are by simply polling people to see how many like them because "like" is the same as "aesthetically valuable." Of course there are those who will immediately start objecting that there are cultural and group differences. Elgar is a great English composer because most English people like his music. This what Beardsley calls an Impersonal definition because it does not refer to the speaker. A Personal definition would be "Elgar is a great composer because I like him!" We might even claim that "all red-blooded Americans would like the music of Charles Ives."
But here is where it gets interesting. This equation of aesthetic value with the likes of people, whether individual or en masse, has a problem. As Beardsley puts it:
All of the Subjectivist definitions render unaskable certain questions that people do ask, and that are perfectly good questions, and this shows that the definitions do not correspond to actual usage.If aesthetic value is defined in terms of the speaker's sensibility and that of his time, then when he says "This is good" he can only mean "I and most critics of my own time like this." He then may wonder if indeed the work is good. But in the Subjectivist definition, this question can only amount to:
"I see that I and most critics of my own time like this, but do I and most critics of my own time like this?"The Subjectivist definition renders this question unaskable because it becomes nonsensical. But it is not nonsensical to question our own tastes. We can indeed wonder if the tastes of our time do indeed recognize aesthetic value or not. In fact, this is pretty much what I do here on a regular basis.
The next time you are reading some writing on music, see if you can uncover what the hidden assumptions are and if the writer is asking good questions or just trying to avoid certain questions.
Time for some music! Our envoi today is the entirely suitable piece by Joseph Haydn. The Symphony No. 22 in E flat major is nicknamed "The Philosopher" from a manuscript dating from the composer's lifetime. The scoring is uniquely two English Horns, two horns and strings. The name might come from the question and answer kind of texture that begins the work. The performers are the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood.