Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, January 31, 2011


As indicated in Part 1 my principle interest in Kant's evaluation of music in his CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT is not so much to defend music as one of the fine arts, though I'll be referencing a later philosopher who mounted such a defense. My principle concern is with Kant's justification for giving music a low rating, in part because "it merely plays with sensations." (See PART 1 for the full quote.) Elitists often argue against modern popular fiction on the basis that it invokes nothing but base sensation, as against whatever "fine art" they may be advocating. This is at best a partial truth, but one that does not stand in light of a pluralist aesthetics.

One can't help but wonder how Immanual Kant could have viewed music as possessing no qualities of sublimity, given that his lifetime intersected those of both Bach and Mozart. It may have to do, as Susanne Langer suggests, with his over-valuation of "Reason" as the most important quality of mankind's essence. Though Langer's PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY does not address Kant's objections to music specifically, it seems likely that she read the JUDGMENT given that (1) as an academic discipline of post-Kantian Ernst Cassirer, she would have been expected to be familiar with Kant's major works, and (2) some of her own qualifications of music's powers seem to reflect those of Kant.

For instance, she admits that music's effects for its listeners seem transitory, even as Kant asserts. However, in keeping with her idea of the "gesture," on which I expounded here, she adds that music is more than just a play of sensations: that it is a "formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions and resolutions-- a 'logical picture' of sentient, responsive life, a source of insight, not a plea for sympathy." The idea that feelings might have had a logic of their own, apart from their ability to suggest concepts, does not seem to have loomed large in Kant. Langer imputes this logic to the connotations attached to images as well:

Images] are not only capable of connoting the things from which our sense-experience originally derived them... they also have an inalienable tendency to 'mean' things that have only a logical analogy to their primary meanings.-- Langer, NEW KEY, p. 145.

Langer admits that music is a "limited idiom" (p. 246). This resembles Kant's pronouncement that music "cannot bring about a product that serves the concepts of the understanding as an enduring vehicle, a vehicle which commends itself to these
very concepts, for furthering their union with sensibility" (Section 330). And Langer almost seems to be agreeing with Kant on music's low pecking-order among the fine arts when she says that "music at its highest, though clearly a symbolic form, is an 'unconsummated symbol.' Articulation is its life, but not assertion; expressiveness, not expression."

Yet clearly Langer disputes Kant's notion that music "merely plays with sensations" by saying that there is a logic behind its representation of emotions, and in its ability to evoke the meanings latent in emotional states:

"The assignment of meanings is a shifting, kaleidoscopic play, probably below the threshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking."

And later, quite in contrast to Kant's views on "understanding:"

"Because no assignment of meaning is conventional, none is permanent beyond the sound that passes; yet the brief association was a flash of understanding."

Though I've not referenced Langer's concept of the "unconsummated symbol" earlier here, I find in it an apt metaphor for the way symbolic forms operate in the fiction of thematic escapism. In popular fiction one often finds such archetypal symbolic forms as "overreaching power-seekers" or "deceptive femininity," but they have not been either brought into line with either Langer's "discursive thinking" or Kant's "sensibility." Thus such symbols, like those of presentational symbolism generally, operate "far below the level of speech."

On a side-note, it's odd that though Langer defends the "kaleidoscopic play" of musical symbols, in chapter 7 of KEY she is less than charitable toward what she terms "fairy-tales" as against the more serious myth-stories:

"For the fairytale is irresponsible; it is frankly imaginary, and its purpose is to gratify wishes, 'as a dream doth flatter.'" (p. 175)

Nevertheless, Langer's insight improves upon that of Kant, whose tendency is to regard the "free play" of emotions and associations as the cultural equivalent of lollygagging. But Kant's insights upon the sublime will prove more significant in further considerations of the nature of metaphenomenality.

No comments: