Monday, March 24, 2014

One Sentence of Reid

Six days having passed since the last post, today’s offering seems late to me. But then, like Bob Cratchit coming to the counting house past opening time on December 26, I can claim I have been “making rather merry.” Not with Christmas punch, but with grandchildren. I’ve been getting up early to keep up with my reading, but then I and my brain are exhausted by the end of the day and not capable of writing intelligently. I’ve already read some Husserl this morning, but the kids are still in bed. So I’ll give it a shot. You can decide whether the word “intelligently” applies to the result.

Now what can I write about in just a few minutes? I finished the Koran several days ago, and I don’t know what to write about it. When I read Dickens or Boswell or Plato, I seem to know exactly what to say and feel confident about it. But I have no confidence that I understand half of the things in the Koran to say anything worthwhile at all about them. But then other things seem far too clear to me to comment on. As far as Husserl goes, I suppose I could take entire groups of chapters and assign them each to just one sentence of Reid that says the same thing only more clearly and (obviously) concisely.

Reid! There it is. I have something to say about Thomas Reid. This morning isn’t the time to go into detail. But I have time to praise one shortish passage about systems of definitions and ideas, the kind of thing you might learn in the first in a sequence of college courses.
    With regard to the utility of systems of this kind, men have gone into contrary extremes: some have treated them with contempt, as a mere dictionary of words; others, perhaps, rest in such systems, as all that is worth knowing in the works of nature.
    On the one hand, it is not the intention of such systems to communicate all that is known of the natural productions which they describe. The properties most fit for defining and distinguishing the several species, are not always those that are most useful to be known. To discover and to communicate the uses of natural substances in life, and in the arts, is no doubt that part of the business of a naturalist which is the most important; and the systematic arrangement of them is chiefly to be valued for its subserviency to this end. This every judicious naturalist will grant.
    But, on the other hand, the labour is not to be despised, by which the road to an useful and important branch of knowledge is made easy in all time to come; especially when this labour requires both extensive knowledge and great abilities. . . . There is an intrinsic beauty in arrangement, which captivates the mind, and gives pleasure, even abstracting from its utility.
This passage resonated with me as a music theorist. (And as a music theorist, I often say that things that agree with me “resonate” with me.) I work with systems: definitions of scales, chords, progressions, forms, embellishments, and so on. And I see many if not most music scholars – both in the field of theory and out – go to one of the two extremes. Either they despise the techniques of music theory as abstract and distanced from “real music,” or they dive in headfirst and embrace the most esoteric symbols and terms they can find or concoct.

Reid sensed himself alone in the field of philosophy, and I usually feel isolated in the community of musicologists. One sentence in Reid (again, just one sentence!) explains my frustration. I’ve assumed from the beginning that the systems of music theory, beautiful and captivating in themselves apart from their utility, explain something. I guess many of my colleagues don’t understand the utility of theory. Too often I’ve seen musicologists try to reach the end of explanation without the means of music theory. And far too often, I’ve been characterized as an “absolutist” or as “totally committed to the structure of the piece.” In all my publications, I’ve said things that should make it clear that I view theoretical structure in a much larger context. But I guess those parts haven’t resonated with my readers.

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