Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reasons and knowledge

Jean Kazez posts an interesting passage from Derek Parfit's On What Matters:
It is sometimes claimed that we have reasons to enjoy, or be thrilled or in other ways moved by, great artistic works. In many cases, I believe, this claim is false. We can have reasons to want to enjoy, or be thrilled or moved by, these artistic works. But these are not reasons to enjoy, or to be thrilled or moved by, these works.  We do have reasons to admire some novels, plays or poems, given the importance of some of the ideas that they express. But poetry is what gets lost in the translation, even if this translation expresses the same ideas. And we never have reasons to enjoy, or be moved by, great music.   If we ask what makes some musical passage so marvellous, the answer might be ‘Three modulations to distant keys’. This answer describes a cause of our response to this music, not a reason. Modulations to distant keys are like the herbs, spices, or other ingredients that can make food delicious. When someone neither enjoys nor is moved by some great musical work, this person is not in any way less than fully rational, by failing to respond to certain reasons.
This seems an odd way to talk about literature. Let's say a novel expresses the idea that racism is evil. Is that a reason to admire the novel? If the book is badly written then I think it might be a reason to it, or at least not to be too harsh in our criticism of it. "Although the author plainly means well, I'm afraid that I cannot recommend..." Is that admiration? I think that what I admire in a case like this is the author's intention or sentiments, not the novel itself.

It's also an odd way to talk about music. We never have reasons to enjoy great music? I imagine that Parfit would agree we have reasons to listen to great music. What would a reason to enjoy it be? Maybe that is Parfit's point. But I think a reason might be "this bit" or "the bit with the flute" or "the way the guitar sounds like a bagpipe." Then Parfit might say that those are the reasons why someone likes the music, they are what someone likes in it, but they are not reasons for liking it or to like it. The bit with the flute, or the flute playing, is the bit you like best, just as someone might like the cilantro most in a dish of food. So "it's got cilantro in it" might be one's reason for liking a dish, but it is not a reason to like it. It is more like a cause than a reason in the relevant sense. I wonder though. Can I know what causes me to like things, necessarily? Or rather, is my knowing what I like about something the same as knowing what causes me to like it? It doesn't seem like it to me. You can know what you like without having a clue why you like it.

The important idea for Parfit, I think, is that it is not irrational to dislike cilantro or the flutey bit or whatever. But I'm not sure it is as simple as that. Is it rational to admire great ideas? Is it more rational to do so than it is to admire great musicianship or composition or cooking or any kind of artistry? Anyone who does not enjoy or feel moved by these things is missing something. If they are, say, deaf then this has nothing to do with their rationality, but otherwise I think it does. What the connection is, exactly, I am deliberately leaving vague. But I think there is one.

I was reminded of all this by Alex Rosenberg's piece in The Stone, in which he suggests that neither literary criticism nor fiction (nor history!) provides knowledge. He ends with an interesting use of what I will call the second-person 'we':
What naturalists really fear is not becoming dogmatic or giving up the scientific spirit. It’s the threat that the science will end up showing that much of what we cherish as meaningful in human life is illusory.
It is clear enough that Rosenberg does not exactly cherish the work he describes as "fun, but not knowledge." At least this is clear to anyone who reads the post and comments on this at New APPS. As Jon Cogburn says there:
Has Rosenberg ever even read the Times Literary Supplement or the New York or London Reviews of Books? When did this casual philistinism combined with such unjustified, blanket dismissals of the life works of others become acceptable enough for one of our brethren to manifest it in the New York Times of all places? Has he even ever seriously read an issue of the Sunday Times, which includes its fair share of literary criticism? How could, barring radical skepticism which would entail that science doesn’t deliver knowledge, one possibly say that the epistemic standards of these publications don’t deliver knowledge? And the same holds for the parade of intellectual bogeymen that precedes his idiotic statement about literary criticism. Shame!
My suspicion is that behind Rosenberg's apparent philistinism and Parfit's obscure thoughts (obscure to me, not having read his very long book in which, perhaps, he explains them very well) is a vestige of the old distinction between the cognitive and the emotive. So poetry, as Parfit seems to see it, can contain ideas, but these are expressible in prose and what gets lots in the translation is only the poetry, not the ideas. (He doesn't quite say that, but that's what I suspect he means.) And Rosenberg distinguishes science, which gives us knowledge, from the cherished fun of literature or rather what sounds an awful lot like continental philosophy (frighteningly referring to all the liberal arts while having the emotive meaning: Boooo!!!).

Here, as elsewhere, we seem to me to have the phenomenon of one group looking at the ends of the spaghetti (or the heads of the hydra) and seeing their obvious distinctness while another group looks further down, perhaps missing the ends or heads completely, and insisting that the distinction is illusory. Less metaphorically, there is an obvious difference between straightforward expressions of facts, on the one hand, and music or highly poetic language on the other, but seeing this difference should not blind us to the similarities and connections that might nevertheless exist and even matter. It might not even be possible to separate the two completely without killing the beast we want to understand.

Not getting a fact or not seeing is truth is missing something about the world. So is not seeing what is good about a piece of music. (And so is thinking you're hearing a flute when perhaps it's just a man going "woo woo".)


  1. rosenberg:

    'Can science and naturalistic philosophy do without them? This is a different question from whether people, as consumers of human narratives and enjoyers of literature, can do without them.'

    i read this as implying that for the naturalistic philosopher a la rosenberg, there is a question as to whether one's antecedent attachments to valuable human activities are going to persist unchanged after doing philosophy, beginning to do philosophy, or doing philosophy with integrity. it seems that talking about them as 'fun but not knowledge' is a pretty glib way of accepting that the resultant change is drastic, negative (from the point of view of the value of criticism or literature), and yet not really a matter for concern (to the naturalistic philosopher).

  2. The passage you quote sounds relatively reasonable. But he does talk about them as fun-but-not-knowledge, and I agree with you about what this implies. Not good.

  3. I don't see what is so objectionable about the passage from Parfit, and I even thought immediately that I understood well what he was getting at.

    To me, the difference between "having reasons to enjoy great music" and "having reasons to listen to great music" is that enjoyment is not something that can be willed. (While listening of course is.) And it is because of this that whatever one might feel like offering as a reason for one's enjoyment will always in some sense turn out to be a cause as opposed to a reason. This is so even though, as you say yourself, "you can know what you like without having a clue why you like it".

    It is my experience - after a lifetime of argument about aesthetic value judgements in everyday life - that people simply cannot be argued into enjoying something that they're not already enjoying of their own accord. The only exceptions seem to be technical misreadings (such as the one Wittgenstein had with the poet Klopstock, Lectures on Aesthetics, I, §12). But hearing something the way it was meant to be heard and not enjoying it does not seem to me to be irrational, just as Parfit says.

    In his lectures, Wittgenstein emphasises that there is such a thing as an educated taste or cultured taste - indeed, his whole thinking on aesthetics passes through this idea a bit more than has even been palatable for many aestheticians. In this, he falls in line with your claim that "anyone who does not enjoy or feel moved by these things is missing something". But he also says that any deterioration in the cultured taste is not necessarily always something to be deplored, that "the word may be used without any affective element; you use it to describe a particular kind of thing that happened" (I, §34), and that he even "might approve deterioration" (I, §33).

    Immediately after this (I, §35), he goes on to say that "in order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living". ("Ways of living" is the most idiomatic English translation for Lebensformen, whose translation Anscombe infelicitously established as "forms of life".) Tastes change, and what is enjoyable in one way of living is not necessarily enjoyable in later ones. If "not seeing what is good" aesthetically about something is "missing something about the world", as you say, then how is this squared with intertemporal variation in taste? If we do not see what is good about 1970s clothing, hairstyles and interior decoration, or are embarrassed to think that ancient Greek statues were originally painted gaudy colours reminiscent of Jesus dashboard figures, then are we missing something about the world that people in the 1970s or in ancient Greece were not?

    Rosenberg, on the other hand, is just unspeakable. You quickly progress from "I might as well be talking to this wall here" to "I might as well be banging my head on this wall here".

  4. I don't find Parfit's claims objectionable, just puzzling. And the fault may well be all mine. My problem is largely that I'm not sure what it means to have a reason to do something. If it's something like a desire plus a belief then I don't see this applying to liking music, but I have some doubts about that model of reasons for doing things. The desire to hear violins and the belief that this music includes violins is a reason to listen to the music but not to like it. But I'm not sure about this model, as I say, and some of the things Parfit says just sound a little odd to me. Maybe my hearing's off.

    For instance, I just do not have a clear sense of what he means when he says that, "We do have reasons to admire some novels, plays or poems, given the importance of some of the ideas that they express." But I've already mentioned that. Then there's this: "If we ask what makes some musical passage so marvellous, the answer might be ‘Three modulations to distant keys’. This answer describes a cause of our response to this music, not a reason."

    I agree that this is not a reason but a cause, but is it the only kind of answer that could be given? Writing about music does not consist only of this kind of thing, after all. Or think of literary criticism. A poem about a train ride might 'work' because it sounds like a train, and this would be a causal matter. Or psychologists might find that certain rhythms and sounds make us happy, and the poem's appeal might be explained in this kind of way. These are crude examples, but some literary criticism does at least mention things like this. But that isn't all it does. There is such a thing (I believe) as an explanation of why a novel is good, why a performance of a play is good, why a piece of music is good, and so on. And these are not wholly causal explanations. Someone who can produce such an explanation knows something that others do not. And, I want to say, an account of what is good about a piece of music gives reason(s) to like the music. Not in a way that is detachable from the account itself and its terms, necessarily, but reason(s) all the same. But maybe I'm just muddled.

    While I'm speaking in a self-confessedly (possibly) muddled way, I'll add this. I also want to say that the music itself, or part of it, might be a reason to like it. "Why do you like this music?" "Listen." Wittgenstein says things like, "Hear this bit as a question," and that might work (I haven't had the experience of anything like that working, but I don't rule it out). But why not just "listen to the bass" or "listen to this bit" or "it's great because they just don't care!"? I think any of those might be keys or ways in to certain pieces of music. And I think this kind of thing might justly be called a reason for liking the music in question (and not just, as might be thought, an important step in a process of coming to like the music). That is, you might like it because of the bass or the band's attitude. And by this I mean you might like it for the bass, not that the bass causes your liking of it. And you might like the rest of the song as a kind of frame or setting for this great aspect of the song. So it's not that you only like the bass or whatever (just as you might not only like the chocolate chips in a cookie even if they are the best bit--a cookie is not just thinned out chocolate chips, as Wittgenstein nearly said). But I think I might be talking myself into incoherence, so I'll stop there.

  5. If we do not see what is good about 1970s clothing, hairstyles and interior decoration, or are embarrassed to think that ancient Greek statues were originally painted gaudy colours reminiscent of Jesus dashboard figures, then are we missing something about the world that people in the 1970s or in ancient Greece were not?

    Well, we might be. Or they might have missed something that we see. Or times might simply have changed. But people alive at the same time, sharing the same way of living, will vary in how well they learn to follow certain rules or play certain games. Some will get fashion, some will not. Some will get the music of the culture better than others. And so on. I don't think there's a sharp line to be drawn between learning to appreciate certain things and learning to engage in, or follow the rules of, certain practices. And that kind of inability, it seems to me, is at least close to an imperfection with regard to rationality.

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  7. And that kind of inability, it seems to me, is at least close to an imperfection with regard to rationality.

    Well, all I can really say to this is that, were I to speak of "imperfections with regard to rationality", this simply would not be the kind of case I would then have in mind. By which I mean that, were I to find myself in everyday life in a situation in which someone does not hear in what I consider good music the things that make it good for me, I would not be prepared to accuse them of an imperfection with regard to rationality. I would feel that it would be wrong of me to make this accusation.

    I'm afraid this makes me sound like a hostile caricature of a philistine Oxford ordinary language philosopher of the 1950s, but the risk of this is not enough to stop me from saying it.

    What I still remain completely mystified by is the upshot of your original post: that "not seeing what is good about a piece of music" is "missing something about the world". Isn't this the most clichéd possible textbook example of Moore's naturalistic fallacy? (Or are you one of those who believe they have their reasons for not considering the naturalistic fallacy a fallacy? Now that would be interesting to discuss.)

    I feel that I just simply must be missing something here, but I have no idea whatsoever what it could be.

  8. I think there are different, related conceptions of rationality. The opposite of rationality can be insanity, stupidity, inefficiency, or perhaps something else. Not liking good music, literature, or whatever is not insane or inefficient, but it suggests a certain insensitivity or dullness of mind, which is related to stupidity. Such a person would probably not get good grades in literature classes at school, for instance, which is one of the ways we typically assess intellectual ability. Of course it's possible to be intelligent but better at science, say, and it's possible to like most good literature but not this or that author or genre or poem. In fact, it might be impossible to like everything good. But there is good literature, to see it as good is to like it, and not to see it as good is to fail to see something true about the world. Or so I think.

    Wikipedia says: "Moore stated that a naturalistic fallacy is committed whenever a philosopher attempts to prove a claim about ethics by appealing to a definition of the term "good" in terms of one or more natural properties (such as "pleasant", "more evolved", "desired", etc.)"

    I don't think I'm saying anything like that. When I talk about seeing what is good about a piece of music I mean experiencing it as good, as enjoyable, as, perhaps I can say, music rather than mere sound (although there is more to proper appreciation than that). Appreciating good music, literature, etc. is, I think, similar to appreciating the value of a human life. I don't have enough confidence in my taste to call someone irrational if they don't share it, but I would call someone irrational who did not see any value in human life. This is not irrationality in Hume's sense (and perhaps Parfit's), but I think it is a perfectly good use of the concept.

    I have no settled view on the naturalistic fallacy, by the way. I used to accept it without much thought. Then I read Anscombe saying that she could never figure out exactly what it was meant to be (or words to that effect). And then I read a fairly detailed alleged demolition of it (I don't remember where, but I think it was one of the first things that came up online when I googled "naturalistic fallacy), and at the time this seemed persuasive. But I realize that none of this history constitutes a reason to reject Moore's argument.

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  10. Ah, so now I finally get it! This last recasting of yours did the trick. And so I no longer have that much more to say. Except perhaps that by "[n]ot liking good music, literature, or whatever" you probably mean something like "[n]ot liking any good music, literature, or whatever". Because personal tastes do vary. But in fact you alredy seem to say as much a bit later in the first paragraph of your comment.

    Next: Winch! (Already drafted, but I'm letting it simmer overnight.)

  11. Not liking any good stuff would be bad, yes, but not liking even one good thing is also bad in its way. As I said, I think it may well be impossible not to fail in this way. But it is still a kind of failure. There is goodness there to be appreciated and you are failing to appreciate it. This is perfectly normal, perhaps inevitable, but still a falling short (of an impossible ideal).

    Maybe it's misleading to call such falling short falling short, but I think a blind spot is a blind spot even if we all inevitably have them. Even if having blind spots is necessary for vision. Realizing that this kind of imperfection is probably inevitable might help us be less judgmental of the failures of others. You can't like everything. At least I suspect you can't.