Sunday, November 27, 2011

Relativism hasn't won--not completely

One of the things hampering criticism generally and music criticism in particular, is the assumption of relativism. The Latin maxim "de gustibus non est disputandum" meaning "there is no arguing about taste" is often used as a stopper to end any disagreements about taste. I dislike this kind of injunction on argument because, as one with some background in philosophy, I regard argument--the philosophical kind--as being the best way to uncover truths and untruths. The idea that all tastes are equivalent is an odd one. The perfect philosophical counter to the statement "everything is relative" is the rejoinder "is that an absolute truth?"

The idea of taste itself may seem a bit out of step with our times, but lots of valuable things are so that doesn't bother me in the least. Tastes do certainly vary from one person to another and, even more interesting, from one period in a person's life to another. I've just been reading in The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics (published in 2004 so reasonably up to date) and discovered a useful essay by Ted Cohen on "The Philosophy of Taste: Thoughts on the Idea". I won't recapitulate his discussion, but take it as a springboard for my own.

Just looking at a single person's history of taste, it is perfectly normal for it to change over time. Musically, for example, it is entirely usual for one's taste to change over time, especially if one is undertaking a course of study in music. With exposure to more and more different styles in music, different historical periods and with training in theory and audible recognition (ear-training), one's taste develops. It becomes possible to distinguish different kinds of music just as one might distinguish different varietals of grapes from going to organized wine-tastings. With the ability to distinguish French Baroque music from Italian or the lute fantasias of John Dowland from those of Francesco da Milano might also come the slightly different ability to distinguish greater from lesser quality--to be able to hear the difference between the counterpoint of Bach from that of, say, Telemann.

If one's taste can develop with exposure, training and study, then the only way to make sense of this is to assume something like a 'standard of taste'. One can only understand one's own improved taste over time in terms of being able to better distinguish the elements of a musical composition and comprehend better its structure and expression. To those for whom relativism is an 'absolute truth' this may well be anathema, but relativism exacts an enormous price: not only does it make it impossible to discuss disagreements over taste, it even makes it impossible to understand one's own improvement in taste over time.

I am always looking to improve my own musical taste because I believe there is a direct link between that and my compositional choices. It is of enormous benefit if I can look at something I just wrote and say, "hmm, well, that's not quite good enough..." If I can do that with my own music, then why can't I do that with the music of others? Assuming one has the necessary competence, of course.


Jon Silpayamanant said...

"necessary competence"

That's the problem, isn't it?

I think there are (as is usual with most things) at least two ways relativism is used--when philosophers make these kinds of distinctions it's usually to define a "naive relativism" with a more sophisticated and rarified relativism.

The relativism you're describing is that "naive relativism" -- usually invoked by layfolk or uncritical liberals, postmodernists, cultural critics.

But there is an important sense that the logic of relativism actually works as long as you know how it functions. Steven Hale wrote a brilliant piece that is a formal analysis of relativism and how it can be formulated in logical terms. It basically follows the same kind of logical structure as modal logics and deontic logics so is easily formalizable.

And that formalization can easily show the implication of deductive features of simple relativistic statements. It also shows that a modest relativism can be perfectly consistent (as far as most first order logics go).

Which means that "but relativism exacts an enormous price: not only does it make it impossible to discuss disagreements over taste, it even makes it impossible to understand one's own improvement in taste over time."

Isn't necessarily true. It may make it difficult to discuss disagreements and understand 'improvements' in taste, but there are perfectly quantifiable ways to show the structure of relativistic arguments and demonstrate which ones are true and which ones are false as well as which are sound and which are unsound arguments.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I am talking about naive relativism, but I wonder if the postmodernists and cultural critics would accept being categorized that way! That is a very interesting article by Steven Hale--how would you see it applying to music criticism?

Anonymous said...

Taste and evaluative judgment are different things. There's nothing wrong with preferring Telemann to Bach, a matter of taste, but as a matter of evaluation, I would argue that Bach is necessarily better than Telemann (the two competing exactly on the same turf). On the other hand, to say that Bach is better than John Coltrane is neither true nor false: it is meaningless because they operate in different, incomparable worlds. You might as well say that chocolate is better than the color red. Means nothing. However, to say that Bach is better than Lady Gaga is necessarily true even though they operate in different worlds. To argue why is easy and I won't bother doing so.

Bryan Townsend said...

Taste, as the article I referenced mentions, has two implications: one is a preference for better things ("his taste in clothing is impeccable"). The other suggests the ability to discriminate, as a wine aficionado can tell cabernet sauvignon from pinot noir ("his taste in wine is very accurate when it comes to identifying the grape"). David Hume identified these two meanings in his 1757 esssay "Of the Standard of Taste". I think that you are equating taste with preference, which is likely the way they tend to be defined now. But 'taste' has a long history in the field of aesthetics.

Certain arguments, such as the one "who is better, Bach or Coltrane" are so difficult, given the incomparables you mention that they are rarely worth the trouble.

Anonymous said...

You're right. I meant taste in the sense of preference.

I guess I don't understand the relativism of taste in the other sense. Why would a relativist deny the notion of improvement in taste if taste is understood as the ability to discriminate and to identify the fine-grained structure of a work of art without evaluative component? The ability to distinguish between wines is an objective, absolute notion that can be tested empirically and transcends relativism. Why then would taste make it impossible to discuss disagreements, if these are NOT evaluative judgments over preferences? Counterpoint has strict rules and baroque music can be graded by these rules. Music that's harmonized in parallel thirds is bad baroque music. But these are objective criteria that no relativist could object to.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that there is a lot of unconscious relativism that can be a serious obstacle to criticism in the sense that it forestalls evaluation: "everyone's taste is equally valid" is a maxim of relativism. There is a connection between taste as the ability to distinguish and taste as the ability to evaluate. Criticism in the sense of evaluation of the arts is a complex endeavor. Most disagreements are not over the facts of the matter: "the second entry comes after three half notes a fifth above" but rather the evaluations. Observations such as "Telemann's counterpoint is dull and predictable" are evaluative, though based on analysis.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

but I wonder if the postmodernists and cultural critics would accept being categorized that way!

Not likely, given the connotations the word "naive" has, but I'm sure you understand how philosophers usually intend it to mean and it's not necessarily a criticism as much as it's a descriptive term to highlight an intuitive versus critical/analytic usage.

That is a very interesting article by Steven Hale--how would you see it applying to music criticism?

Well, I think it's a good thing that these kinds of statements can be shown to have a logical structure but obviously the truth value of them is something external to the logical structure itself. but I think most of the issue with naive relativistic statements is precisely this lack of understanding of the logical structure.

It's not necessarily something that will help music criticism itself per se, but getting technical or logical issues out of the way can at least clear up the field for evaluating the truth value.

I've said plenty about Hume, taste and sentiment in one of my critiques of Charles Murray's Index of Western Classical Music elsewhere so won't rehash some of those issues here.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the link. I don't get over to your blog often enough. Reading some of your posts on Charles Murray, I think you have some telling criticisms: one, that Murray facilely dismisses non-Western 'named' composers through sheer ignorance and two, that the judgment of experts is often flawed. But this seems to go too far:

"But what happens if we don’t assume that the judgment of experts is any much more “objective” than the idiosyncratic (and usually anecdotal) sentiment [opinion] of the layperson? What if expert opinion is just idiosyncratic (and usually anecdotal) sentiment [opinion] of the culture in which the body of experts hail? In other words, what if experts in Western Classical Music are showing no more than an assertion that anything non-Western or non-Classical is not to their taste?"

Yes, it is possible for an 'expert' to be ruled by sentiment or familiarity, but then he wouldn't be much of an expert, would he? And I, for one, would probably stop relying on his judgment. But it is possible both to make flawed judgments and valid ones. I think Hume's distinction is an important one. Certainly when I want to make some sort of judgment or evaluation, the first thing I do is to examine whether it is coming from mere sentiment or from objective examination. The key, I think, is to offer the reasons for the judgment. Absent them, all one can determine is whether one agrees or not. But with the reasoning laid out, well, that is a different matter. A true expert is one that can reason to a conclusion.