Friday, August 27, 2010

On Hanslick's "On the Musically Beautiful"

I finished reading Eduard Hanslick's "On the Musically Beautiful" last week. In many ways it is very clearly a product of its time and in one very surprising way it is ahead of its time (this will be addressed later).

Hanslick's critique of musical meaning is elegantly stated (if, at times, belabored and redundant). By contrast his attempt at a scientific analysis of what constitutes "beauty" in music is less than cogent.

He attempts to argue that "imagination" is that which endows a musical work with "beauty." His approach to this is based on a sort-of "it couldn't be this, so it must be this" mode of reasoning. In addition to being a shaky (nay, invalid) approach to philosophical (let along "scientific") argument, it seems to me that it does not necessarily follow, particularly in light of (and possibly in conflict with) his argument regarding "meaning" in music.

In short Hanslick argues (with absolutely success, in my opinion) that music is impotent to
convey emotions. This is a limitation, in some way, of all the arts: a painting cannot convey anything, it can only depict a set of circumstances--the meaning, he maintains, is extra-depictorial. For example, a painting of Prometheus Bound does not itself convey to us anything about the tragedy--it is only a depiction of a man chained to a rock being attacked by an eagle.

So it is with music, in fact music is far more limited in its power to depict. Painting can depict objects through literal representation (albeit, in two dimensions), it can depict actions (albeit as still-life). Music can only depict action as music exists only in time and not as object (although, this is itself a complicated aesthetic question!). So, music can convey events to the listener by imitating them (this is how we know music is depicting a storm, or the wind, or the ocean)--music conveys actions through abstraction. Music cannot convey abstractions, i.e. emotions.

So, this raises the question, what is imagination? How is it that the creative act (composing) endows a musical artifact with beauty? It seems to me that the notion of "imagination" is every bit as abstract as love or longing. If music cannot convey love or longing, how can music convey imagination? If love and longing are extra-musical interpretations, how is imagination any less extra-musical? So, in short, positing that imagination is the substance of beauty seems to me to be classic question-begging.

To be sure, I think there is an answer to this question--but Hanslick fails at answering it.

I will say, one of the things that frustrates me about a large portion of aesthetic writings I've encountered so far is their penchant for prescription. Many philosophers make descriptive statements about music and proceed to make prescriptive statements (Aristotle, for example) that do not follow from the description--you can't say what should be the case from what is the case. It's a fallacy that many otherwise good philosophers fall victim to when dealing in aesthetics and as such, I appreciate Hanslick's assiduous avoidance of the problem (this problem is known as Hume's Guillotine).

What's incredibly forward-thinking about Hanslick's book is his speculation regarding neurology (this struck me as being very similar to Darwin's speculations regarding DNA). At the time biology understood the physiology of the ear and they knew about neurons and the interaction of the body with the brain through the nervous system. What wasn't understood was exactly how the nervous system interacted with the brain--how were the stimulations sent through the tiny fibers transfered into the grey-matter and turned into sensations? Hanslick, in 1854, was already speculating that many of the answers to questions regarding musical perception and sensation are to be found in the study of the brain and the physiological interactions between the ear and the brain.

That, in my opinion, is stunningly brilliant thinking in the neurological dark-ages!

There have been several books published on this topic (books by Patel, Levitin and Huron to name only a few). The technology is still new and the extent of the research is still comparatively tiny--however, this has been one of the most fascinating and insightful areas of research into music to date (obviously, I suppose). There will no doubt be many more insights to be gained from neurology and this will certainly be an important facet to our understanding of aesthetics in the future.

We should, as Hanslick, assiduously avoid prescription, even in light of anything neurology might tell us.