Music and Anti-Scientism, by Tiger C. Roholt

I often write about the experience of music, drawing upon phenomenology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of perception.  I have written about rock, hip-hop, and jazz, examining musical nuances (a.k.a. “expressive variations”), the feel of rhythm (groove), etc.  Here, I want to discuss a more foundational question about how we ought to approach the examination of music in general.  My topic in this post is anti-scientism (a topic broached in a recent CRC post).  I will reiterate some claims made by a music theorist who was heavily influenced by phenomenology, Thomas Clifton (1935-1978), and I’ll emphasize his debt to Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  What follows is a glance at a reasonable anti-scientistic position one may adopt vis-à-vis certain phenomena.

Scientism is the view that the model of the natural sciences should be the model for all knowledge acquisition.  Is this model a good one for examining music?

Scientism typically involves an emphasis on objective, detached observation, and relatedly, the viability of removing the object under investigation from its context.  Anti-scientism, contrariwise, involves the claim that there is no objective, detached standpoint from which to observe (there is no “view from nowhere”), and, abstraction is not the preferred mode of examining all phenomena.  If one believes that there are phenomena that cannot be elucidated through scientific investigation, value-laden phenomena such as music are likely to be high on that list.

In Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology (1983), Thomas Clifton claims that music cannot be distinguished from mere sounds by examining sound-events alone: “music, whatever else it is, is not factually in the world the way trees and mountains are” (p. 3); “there is no empirical difference between sound and music, the difference is decided by human acts” (p. 272).  Listeners constitute music; listeners bring music into being.  Mere sounds do not become music as long as they are experientially separated from the listener.  A certain kind of perceptual activity closes the experiential gap between sounds and a listener; this gap-closing is what Clifton calls possession.

Without going into detail about Clifton’s concept of possession, I want to highlight that he understands possession in terms of Heidegger’s distinction between presence-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) and readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit). A few words on that distinction.  Pieces of equipment are items we use in order to accomplish something (a hammer, a writing pen, shoes). We can make sense of a hammer in two ways. First, a hammer can be rendered intelligible as a self-sufficient substance with properties (it might have a brown, wooden handle, a shiny metal head, and weigh 5 pounds). This is the “way of being” (mode of intelligibility) called presence-at-hand.  But according to Heidegger, this is not the way of being of equipment.  Rather, equipment is understood holistically in terms of what it is used for; that is, in terms of its function in an equipmental whole; this is the way of being (mode of intelligibility) called readiness-to-hand.  Thus, a hammer is properly understood as a thing for pounding nails, in connection with wood, carpenters, cabinets, houses, and so on.  If we want to understand a piece of equipment properly (in accord with its way of being), we should not rely on detached observation (the latter is how we would discover its properties in present-at-hand terms).  In order to understand a piece of equipment we must use it. Loosely speaking, one might think of this as a way of drawing a distinction between understanding an object from a detached (present-at-hand) perspective, on the one hand, and an engaged (ready-to-hand) perspective, on the other.  (See Heidegger’s Being and Time [1927], and Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World [1990]).

Now, consider that we can make sense of sounds in either of these two ways.  Treating the sounds made by an orchestra performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as mere sounds is to remain disengaged, detached; it is to characterize the sounds as present-at-hand.  Clifton suggests that possession involves rendering sounds intelligible as equipment; through an engaged perspective, we use sounds musically. When sounds are musical, they are ready-to-hand; once we possess the sounds, music emerges, the sounds acquire musical meaning and value.  “In a sense, the present-at-hand is always there, just as the sounds of a melody are always there, but to the degree that the thing (the melody) has value, we don’t notice it as a mere acoustical event” (p. 291).  “In other words, prior to the music’s being ready-to-hand, its sounds already occupy a definite position in objective space-time.  They lie there, up there on the stage, or coming out of a speaker.  With the possessive act, this relation is changed . . . . the sounds of music comprise the equipment which we use to accomplish the task of discovering sense in the music” (p. 292).

In what way does this view constitute a potential criticism of, or challenge to, the scientific investigation of music?  If we accept Heidegger’s distinction between presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand, and Clifton’s application of it to music, then we will find fault with experiments in which music is treated in present-at-hand terms, where scientists aim for a kind of methodological detachment.  For example, we will most likely not accept the relevance to music of a psychology experiment that involves subjects reporting on their perceptions of sine tones presented in no musical context; in such a case, the subjects are reporting on their perceptions of sounds rather than music.  What should we say about experiments that involve subjects reporting on perceptions of, for example, a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth?  Even though the stimulus is a musical recording, that does not guarantee that the subjects are reporting on engaged musical experiences; they may be reporting on detached perceptions of the recording. We will want to know just how the experiment is devised so as to ensure engaged experience.  Finally, even if psychologists ensure that their subjects are reporting on engaged experiences of music, in drawing conclusions based on such reports, we will want to ensure that psychologists do not themselves make sense of the reports in present-at-hand terms.

Related worries are raised by Continental philosophers, sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu, and others, who focus on the roles of history, social class, and politics in understanding music.  Beyond the above worry, the thought here is that a psychologist  who investigates music abstractly illegitimately sets aside music’s historicity and socio-political context.  If the investigator takes herself to be a purely objective observer, she fails to consider the way in which she, herself, is situated in a context that has shaped her perspective.

Tiger Roholt earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University.  He is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Montclair State University.  His writing includes the article “Philosophy of Music” in The Grove Dictionary of American Music, second edition, Ed., C.H. Garrett (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), and “Musical Experience, Philosophical Perspectives,” in The Oxford Companion to Consciousness, Eds., Bayne, Cleeremans, and Wilken (Oxford University Press, 2009).

His blog/website is here:

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1 Comment »

  • Barbara Cantalupo says:

    I take exception to this premise:

    “Listeners constitute music; listeners bring music into being. Mere sounds do not become music as long as they are experientially separated from the listener.”

    Music always exists with a listener: the musician. Therefore, sounds produced by a musician (not random sounds not produced by humans) ALWAYS have a listener. Therefore, it is impossible to have music without a listener.


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