thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Ludwig van, and all that jazz

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WH Auden

WH Auden

Second in a series beginning with Art in the family.

This continues (but does not complete!) the discussion from the previous post, responding to the question:

…how do you validate the arts? how do we validate a conclusion that Beethoven is great music? or Da Vinci a great painter, or Auden a great poet?

If the various arts – and therefore different works of art – only exhibit ‘family resemblances’ (or overlapping similarities), then it may not be possible or appropriate to evaluate them in the same way.

The other suggestion I made last time was that the idea of family resemblances between the arts and between works of art frees us – and possibly also requires us – to be quite liberal with the categories we place our arts and works of art in. The great thing about categories is that something can be in more than one category at the same. Some but not all art is representational, some but not all art is ‘plastic’, and so on.

Beethoven in 1804

Beethoven in 1804

To take the example of Beethoven, we can say the works of Beethoven are ‘great music’ without having to be too explicit what exactly we mean by ‘music’ – or, perhaps more simply, what we would include in the category of ‘music’ and what we’d leave out. If we think Beethoven is ‘one of the greatest’, we usually mean he is ‘one of the greatest among people who are doing or have done the kind of thing Beethoven did’.

A thought experiment. Imagine asking 100 randomly selected people whether or not they agree with the statement: ‘Beethoven was one of the greatest out of the group of people who are doing or have done the kind of thing Beethoven did’. Then ask each person who agreed with the statement to list all the people they think belong in that group. Obviously a very difficult if not practically impossible exercise. But not logically impossible.

I think we would be surprised if even two people came up with the same list. We would be gobsmacked if everyone did. All or most people may well include Mozart, Brahms, JS Bach and Chopin – maybe Verdi and Wagner as well. Some would know far more names than others. But even among those who knew of George Gershwin, maybe some would include him and some would exclude him. And what about Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk? Bob Dylan? Carole King?

It seems transparently clear what we mean when we say the works of Beethoven are among the greatest music ever created. We may think we know exactly what we mean when we say it. But as soon as we try to explain what we mean it gets very confusing.

George Gershwin in 1937

George Gershwin in 1937

At least part of the problem is to do with comparatives and superlatives. We are saying Beethoven is the best, or one of the best, in his category, which means he is better than a long list of others. But there are no strict criteria for describing what that category is or who or what is in it.

Compare this with other far less problematic examples. If Sally is top of her class this is because there is no doubt who Sally’s classmates are and because there are clear rules for calculating class positions, typically based on averages of examination marks in a finite set of subjects. Similarly for who comes first, second and third in a half-marathon, or which team won the English Premier League in the 2008/2009 season.

In comparison with examples like these, to call Beethoven ‘one of the greatest composers’ is almost to commit a category error (no pun intended). The category error in this case would be to evaluate a person or artefact in terms (ie using terminology and/or logical structures) which do not and cannot apply to that person or artefact.

On the face of it, someone standing by his or her judgment that the works of Beethoven are among the greatest music ever (and including within it the implicit assumption that that judgment was coherent and intelligible) could have to navigate at least three levels of arbitrariness:

(i) The issue of what belongs inside the category and what doesn’t.

(ii) The issue of whether there is a hierarchy of sub-categories within the category.

(iii) The issue of personal taste.

Issue (i) we have already discussed. But even once we’ve made some decisions about what’s in and what’s out, we could then have issue (ii) to face.

Duke Ellington in 1943

Duke Ellington in 1943

Imagine for the moment that we have decided our category includes Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Haydn, Vivaldi, Chopin, Schubert, Verdi, Wagner, Elgar, the Scarlatti and Bach families, Purcell, Gershwin, Debussy, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Bartok, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk (and a whole host of other ‘Early’, ‘Classical’, ‘Romantic’, ‘Late Romantic’ etc names); but excludes Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Carole King and Cole Porter.

We have ‘solved’ issue (i) but only by arbitrary fiat. If we include Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk (because they are ‘major jazz composers’) and Gershwin (because he wrote Rhapsody in Blue and classical orchestras sometimes play it), why would we exclude Cole Porter? Ellington, Monk, Gershwin and Porter all produced ‘jazz standards’ and/or contributed to the that nebulous ‘Great American Songbook’. But if Cole Porter then why not Bob Dylan or Carole King?

Issue (ii) is similar to issue (i) but inside the set rather than at its boundary. If we are saying that Beethoven is (for the sake of argument) the greatest composer in the set, are we not implying that what Beethoven achieved in his context was somehow greater than what the others achieved, in theirs? But those contexts were different. Beethoven was doing a different kind of thing, in a different context, from what (say) Purcell or Duke Ellington were doing in theirs.

We cannot have it both ways. Either we are claiming that in some way, at some level, what Beethoven was trying to achieve was the same as what Purcell, Elgar, Ellington and the Scarlattis were trying to achieve – and Beethoven was the best. Or we are claiming that, for whatever reason, what Beethoven was trying to achieve – and because of his historical (etc) context was in a position to achieve – was somehow ‘higher’ or of greater value than what other individuals were trying and in a position to achieve. This second alternative is what I mean by issue (ii) – whether there is a hierarchy of subcategories such that the subcategory Beethoven belonged to was for some reason and in some sense ‘higher’ or ‘richer’ than others.

That subcategory may not have to be the ‘highest’ or the ‘richest’. But if, instead of living through and contributing to the transition between Classical and Romantic music, Beethoven had lived 100 years before JS Bach, would he have been able to produce compositions which we would now be regarding as among the greatest in the world?

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker

At the risk of over-egging the pudding I shall try another way of illustrating issues (i) and (ii) – plus the related issue of whether they really are distinct or one and the same. For some people the ‘best’ Classical or Romantic sonata – say a piano sonata or violin sonata – will always trump the ‘best’ jazz solo by (say) Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. They may or may not have reasons, eg that Classical or Romantic music is always ultimately ‘serious’ in a way that jazz can never be. For some other people the ‘best’ jazz solo will always trump the ‘best’ Classical or Romantic sonata – for example because it is navigating possibilities the Classical or Romantic composers never even dreamed of. For other people of course there will be no question of one trumping the other: they are doing different things, in different worlds.

All of which brings us close to issue (iii), about personal taste.  To be continued…

© Chris Lawrence 2010.

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Written by Chris Lawrence

21 February 2010 at 11:52 pm

One Response

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  1. Ah! it’s been worth waiting for. I knew you’d tackle this issue from a completely different perspective than my own – not to mention with a great deal richer philosophical background.
    What I am now eagerly looking forward to is your discussion of issue iii. Because I think that is at the nub of the question.
    And I know once I read your view, I’m going to have to start doing some hard thinking about it again myself.

    A hundred large thank you’s. For the lot, including your wonderful reference to TheOtherI. Thinking Makes It So, as you must know, is also on the top of my Best Blogs list. Terry

    Terry Sissons

    22 February 2010 at 5:18 pm


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