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".)