Imagination, Music, and the Emotions: a Philosophical Study

Imagination, Music, and the Emotions: a Philosophical Study Saam Trivedi has been a prominent figure in the analytic philosophy of music for a number of years. In his recent book Imagination, Music, and the Emotions: A Philosophical Study, he offers a summary of his criticism of available views and puts forward an alternative proposal based on the idea that the experience of musical expressiveness centrally involves imagination. Most of the book is occupied by the careful examination and rejection of alternative views. Once Trivedi has cleared the ground from these competitors, he proposes his own positive view. His account is imaginationist, in that he holds the experience of expressive music to essentially involve the faculty of imagination, although it may do so in different ways. An aspect of the book’s review of the extant literature commends particular praise: Trivedi offers a review of current accounts of the emotions and imagination. The latter is especially welcome, as accounts of musical expressiveness which rely, or appear to rely, on imaginative processes do not always clarify the sort of imagination underlying their view.1 The other review, concerned with recent accounts of emotions, is also useful, although not unprecedented. Trivedi’s preference is for a cognitive-affective view of emotions that has place for both the intentional components of (some) emotions and phenomenological feeling-states. The expository part of the book is rather thorough in examining the views advanced in the literature. This may make the reading tedious for those who are well-acquainted with the debate, but it may also make the book particularly suitable for use in the classroom as an up-to-date review of the discussions concerning musical expressiveness. While it is mainly concerned with the examination and criticism of available views, this part of the book also offers original insights. In this sense, the chapter regarding the debate between the metaphorist and the literalist view of expressive descriptions of music is particularly interesting. Trivedi convincingly argues that the fundamental problem is not whether the descriptions of music that feature emotion words and other psychological properties are literal or metaphorical. For, even if we agreed with the metaphorist that the linguistic descriptions indeed are metaphorical, we would still be left with the question of how such descriptions arise. And once one does that, Trivedi argues, one would also be forced to concede that such metaphors are only available to us because of an underlying resemblance between the music and human expressive behaviour—one that precedes the (allegedly) metaphorical description of music in terms of expressive properties. Trivedi’s argument is likely to convince those who, like myself, believe the issue of metaphorism vs. literalism to be more a debate regarding the reality of expressive properties rather than one about the nature of their linguistic description. I will now briefly discuss Trivedi’s own proposal and express concerns for two aspects of it. While he believes all musical expressiveness to require the faculty of imagination, Trivedi does not favour a monolithic account of the experience of expressive music. In this he follows a line that had been previously pursued by his former teacher Malcolm Budd.2 According to Trivedi, there are three main ways in which the experience of musical expressiveness involves imagination. First, we may imagine the music itself to be sad, happy, and the like. This involves a process of animation of the music, in that the music is imagined to be a live sentient being of the sort that could have mental states required to feel and express emotions. Second, we may imagine a musical persona expressing herself in the music. According to Trivedi, ‘we may imagine … that it is as if someone, we know not who precisely, is crying or wailing or laughing or otherwise expressing sadness or happiness or some other mental state through the music’ (139). I confess that it is not entirely clear to me how this is different from the first way of imagining: if that involved imagining the music as a live, sentient being who is manifesting emotional states in the music, then it would seem that the first way of imagining in relation to music really is a way of imagining the music as an indefinite persona. Third, we may imaginatively identify with the music, imagining that the emotional states the music is expressing are our own. Trivedi concedes that this list of the ways in which we imaginatively engage with expressive music is unlikely to be exhaustive. He seems to me fundamentally right in rejecting the idea that the experience of the music’s expressive character is phenomenologically unitary. There are various ways in which we can say we experience the musical emotions, and while some may be more basic, it is a mistake to dismiss the other ways as illegitimate. I offer here two critical comments on Trivedi’s view, the first concerning an objection he raises against resemblance theorists, and particularly Stephen Davies, and the second regarding Trivedi’s characterization of the basic way in which musical expressiveness involves imagination, that is, our imagining that the music itself is sad. Trivedi believes that a reason to prefer the imaginationist view to accounts such as Stephen Davies’ is that the latter proposals describes expressive properties as belonging to the music itself, and our descriptions of the music as, say, ‘sad’, as literal. Trivedi finds this puzzling and presents against such a view the unassailable claim that only beings with the appropriate mental state could be literally sad, happy, and so on. And by all accounts, music lacks mental states of any sort. Trivedi’s own account solves this puzzle by claiming that music is only imagined to be in such psychological states, thereby avoiding the implausible commitment to the view that music is itself literally sad. However plausible it may seem, Trivedi’s strategy ignores first, Davies’ qualification that the music’s expressive properties are response-dependent, rather than mind-independent attributes possessed by the certain sound sequences or structures, and second, that, when Davies holds that music is literally sad or happy, he is simply stating that the music can be literally predicated of the secondary sense of these terms, which refers to the behaviour typically associated with the emotion in question—the tragic mask is literally sad in this sense. With these qualifications in place, it is hard to see how Davies’ view is any more mysterious than Trivedi’s own. But let us now leave these considerations aside, and move on to a critical examination of Trivedi’s positive view. As noted earlier, he holds a pluralistic account of the experience of expressive music. What unifies the various ways in which we experience music as expressive of emotions is the involvement of imagination. Of the most basic of such involvements, Trivedi writes the following: ‘The first way of imagining the music to be sad or happy is that often we may animate the music without always being aware that we are doing so’ (135). To clarify and illustrate this, he adds: ‘Animating the music is … very similar to what we do when we see comic strips or animation films and imagine … that the talking and expressive cars, trees, sun, etc. we see in them are themselves sad, happy, etc.’ (135). In this passage, we are offered an analogy between the way in which we animate music and the way we experience the expressive character of fictional entities in a depictive context. To be sure, this is just an analogy, but in order to clarify anything, an analogy between two things needs to be clear as to what is common to the things in question. With regard to the analogy offered by Trivedi, I note two problems. First, is it clear that the animation process Trivedi is describing necessarily involves imagination? That it may do is not implausible, but it is also far from being uncontroversial. Trivedi considers this process as akin to the animation process Kivy appealed to in defending his contour theory. According to Kivy, the way we mistakenly perceive, say, a stick as a snake, responds to an evolutionary logic according to which it is better to be safe than sorry, as it were.3 Regardless of the empirical plausibility of the claim, there is no reason to assume that such a process involves imagination, and indeed there are reasons to confine it to perception: what is going on is simply a perceptual bias that prompts a mistaken judgement, or perhaps a mere ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This seems to be rather remote from, say, the experience of seeing faces in the clouds or a happy sun in a comic strip. But let us now leave these worries aside and move to the second problem. Regardless of the plausibility of Trivedi’s claims regarding the involvement of imagination in animation, a more substantial issue undermines the analogy between animating comic strips and animating music. The cases discussed by Trivedi are representational contexts. That is, unlike pure music, they represent people and objects doing something and looking in such-and-such a way. For instance, we see the car’s smile and upturned front part and we imagine the car as happy. But an obvious analogue for this is unavailable in the musical case, for there is nothing like a clear representational context from which we can read off the music’s expressive character. We can appreciate the asymmetry if we look at the way in which we may resolve disagreement about expressive character in the two cases. The representational content in comic strips and animated movies functions as a benchmark from which to assess disputes when disagreement arises. The car has features analogous to those presented by happy human beings and to these features we refer in arguing about the car’s expressive character. What would count as such a benchmark in the musical case? Trivedi may answer that it is the music itself, with its ebb and flow. But the situation would not be analogous to the animated movie or comic strip cases, in that there is no similar agreement about the extra-musical resemblances the music displays. In fact, I suspect there is much less agreement about these than about the music’s expressive character. If things are the way I suggest, while it may be true that animated movies engage our imagination in the way suggested by Trivedi, no similar engagement is required in the musical case. Indeed, when expressive music quite clearly does engage our imagination, things often go the other way around: we perceive the music’s expressive character, and this may lead us to imagine the music as something that could express itself in such-and-such a way. The asymmetry between the two cases points to a difference in their phenomenology. Resting the claim that musical expressiveness requires imagination on the analogy with representational contexts may be a problematic move, unless the ground of the analogy is specified further. Regardless of these issues, and of many others that better critics than myself will undoubtedly raise, Trivedi’s book remains a thought-provoking and up-to-date reading for anyone interested in the problem of musical expressiveness. Footnotes 1 I am thinking particularly of Levinson’s contention that listeners always hear a musical persona expressing herself in the music, albeit often only in a backgrounded manner, as in his ‘Musical Expressiveness as Hearability-as-Expression’, in Matthew Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 192–206. 2 Malcolm Budd, Values of Art: Pictures, Poetry and Music (London: Penguin, 1995), 154–155. 3 Peter Kivy, Sound Sentiment: An Essay on the Musical Emotions, including the Complete Text of The Corded Shell (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989), 57–58. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Aesthetics Oxford University Press

Imagination, Music, and the Emotions: a Philosophical Study

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Oxford University Press
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© British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com
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0007-0904
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10.1093/aesthj/ayy005
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Abstract

Saam Trivedi has been a prominent figure in the analytic philosophy of music for a number of years. In his recent book Imagination, Music, and the Emotions: A Philosophical Study, he offers a summary of his criticism of available views and puts forward an alternative proposal based on the idea that the experience of musical expressiveness centrally involves imagination. Most of the book is occupied by the careful examination and rejection of alternative views. Once Trivedi has cleared the ground from these competitors, he proposes his own positive view. His account is imaginationist, in that he holds the experience of expressive music to essentially involve the faculty of imagination, although it may do so in different ways. An aspect of the book’s review of the extant literature commends particular praise: Trivedi offers a review of current accounts of the emotions and imagination. The latter is especially welcome, as accounts of musical expressiveness which rely, or appear to rely, on imaginative processes do not always clarify the sort of imagination underlying their view.1 The other review, concerned with recent accounts of emotions, is also useful, although not unprecedented. Trivedi’s preference is for a cognitive-affective view of emotions that has place for both the intentional components of (some) emotions and phenomenological feeling-states. The expository part of the book is rather thorough in examining the views advanced in the literature. This may make the reading tedious for those who are well-acquainted with the debate, but it may also make the book particularly suitable for use in the classroom as an up-to-date review of the discussions concerning musical expressiveness. While it is mainly concerned with the examination and criticism of available views, this part of the book also offers original insights. In this sense, the chapter regarding the debate between the metaphorist and the literalist view of expressive descriptions of music is particularly interesting. Trivedi convincingly argues that the fundamental problem is not whether the descriptions of music that feature emotion words and other psychological properties are literal or metaphorical. For, even if we agreed with the metaphorist that the linguistic descriptions indeed are metaphorical, we would still be left with the question of how such descriptions arise. And once one does that, Trivedi argues, one would also be forced to concede that such metaphors are only available to us because of an underlying resemblance between the music and human expressive behaviour—one that precedes the (allegedly) metaphorical description of music in terms of expressive properties. Trivedi’s argument is likely to convince those who, like myself, believe the issue of metaphorism vs. literalism to be more a debate regarding the reality of expressive properties rather than one about the nature of their linguistic description. I will now briefly discuss Trivedi’s own proposal and express concerns for two aspects of it. While he believes all musical expressiveness to require the faculty of imagination, Trivedi does not favour a monolithic account of the experience of expressive music. In this he follows a line that had been previously pursued by his former teacher Malcolm Budd.2 According to Trivedi, there are three main ways in which the experience of musical expressiveness involves imagination. First, we may imagine the music itself to be sad, happy, and the like. This involves a process of animation of the music, in that the music is imagined to be a live sentient being of the sort that could have mental states required to feel and express emotions. Second, we may imagine a musical persona expressing herself in the music. According to Trivedi, ‘we may imagine … that it is as if someone, we know not who precisely, is crying or wailing or laughing or otherwise expressing sadness or happiness or some other mental state through the music’ (139). I confess that it is not entirely clear to me how this is different from the first way of imagining: if that involved imagining the music as a live, sentient being who is manifesting emotional states in the music, then it would seem that the first way of imagining in relation to music really is a way of imagining the music as an indefinite persona. Third, we may imaginatively identify with the music, imagining that the emotional states the music is expressing are our own. Trivedi concedes that this list of the ways in which we imaginatively engage with expressive music is unlikely to be exhaustive. He seems to me fundamentally right in rejecting the idea that the experience of the music’s expressive character is phenomenologically unitary. There are various ways in which we can say we experience the musical emotions, and while some may be more basic, it is a mistake to dismiss the other ways as illegitimate. I offer here two critical comments on Trivedi’s view, the first concerning an objection he raises against resemblance theorists, and particularly Stephen Davies, and the second regarding Trivedi’s characterization of the basic way in which musical expressiveness involves imagination, that is, our imagining that the music itself is sad. Trivedi believes that a reason to prefer the imaginationist view to accounts such as Stephen Davies’ is that the latter proposals describes expressive properties as belonging to the music itself, and our descriptions of the music as, say, ‘sad’, as literal. Trivedi finds this puzzling and presents against such a view the unassailable claim that only beings with the appropriate mental state could be literally sad, happy, and so on. And by all accounts, music lacks mental states of any sort. Trivedi’s own account solves this puzzle by claiming that music is only imagined to be in such psychological states, thereby avoiding the implausible commitment to the view that music is itself literally sad. However plausible it may seem, Trivedi’s strategy ignores first, Davies’ qualification that the music’s expressive properties are response-dependent, rather than mind-independent attributes possessed by the certain sound sequences or structures, and second, that, when Davies holds that music is literally sad or happy, he is simply stating that the music can be literally predicated of the secondary sense of these terms, which refers to the behaviour typically associated with the emotion in question—the tragic mask is literally sad in this sense. With these qualifications in place, it is hard to see how Davies’ view is any more mysterious than Trivedi’s own. But let us now leave these considerations aside, and move on to a critical examination of Trivedi’s positive view. As noted earlier, he holds a pluralistic account of the experience of expressive music. What unifies the various ways in which we experience music as expressive of emotions is the involvement of imagination. Of the most basic of such involvements, Trivedi writes the following: ‘The first way of imagining the music to be sad or happy is that often we may animate the music without always being aware that we are doing so’ (135). To clarify and illustrate this, he adds: ‘Animating the music is … very similar to what we do when we see comic strips or animation films and imagine … that the talking and expressive cars, trees, sun, etc. we see in them are themselves sad, happy, etc.’ (135). In this passage, we are offered an analogy between the way in which we animate music and the way we experience the expressive character of fictional entities in a depictive context. To be sure, this is just an analogy, but in order to clarify anything, an analogy between two things needs to be clear as to what is common to the things in question. With regard to the analogy offered by Trivedi, I note two problems. First, is it clear that the animation process Trivedi is describing necessarily involves imagination? That it may do is not implausible, but it is also far from being uncontroversial. Trivedi considers this process as akin to the animation process Kivy appealed to in defending his contour theory. According to Kivy, the way we mistakenly perceive, say, a stick as a snake, responds to an evolutionary logic according to which it is better to be safe than sorry, as it were.3 Regardless of the empirical plausibility of the claim, there is no reason to assume that such a process involves imagination, and indeed there are reasons to confine it to perception: what is going on is simply a perceptual bias that prompts a mistaken judgement, or perhaps a mere ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This seems to be rather remote from, say, the experience of seeing faces in the clouds or a happy sun in a comic strip. But let us now leave these worries aside and move to the second problem. Regardless of the plausibility of Trivedi’s claims regarding the involvement of imagination in animation, a more substantial issue undermines the analogy between animating comic strips and animating music. The cases discussed by Trivedi are representational contexts. That is, unlike pure music, they represent people and objects doing something and looking in such-and-such a way. For instance, we see the car’s smile and upturned front part and we imagine the car as happy. But an obvious analogue for this is unavailable in the musical case, for there is nothing like a clear representational context from which we can read off the music’s expressive character. We can appreciate the asymmetry if we look at the way in which we may resolve disagreement about expressive character in the two cases. The representational content in comic strips and animated movies functions as a benchmark from which to assess disputes when disagreement arises. The car has features analogous to those presented by happy human beings and to these features we refer in arguing about the car’s expressive character. What would count as such a benchmark in the musical case? Trivedi may answer that it is the music itself, with its ebb and flow. But the situation would not be analogous to the animated movie or comic strip cases, in that there is no similar agreement about the extra-musical resemblances the music displays. In fact, I suspect there is much less agreement about these than about the music’s expressive character. If things are the way I suggest, while it may be true that animated movies engage our imagination in the way suggested by Trivedi, no similar engagement is required in the musical case. Indeed, when expressive music quite clearly does engage our imagination, things often go the other way around: we perceive the music’s expressive character, and this may lead us to imagine the music as something that could express itself in such-and-such a way. The asymmetry between the two cases points to a difference in their phenomenology. Resting the claim that musical expressiveness requires imagination on the analogy with representational contexts may be a problematic move, unless the ground of the analogy is specified further. Regardless of these issues, and of many others that better critics than myself will undoubtedly raise, Trivedi’s book remains a thought-provoking and up-to-date reading for anyone interested in the problem of musical expressiveness. Footnotes 1 I am thinking particularly of Levinson’s contention that listeners always hear a musical persona expressing herself in the music, albeit often only in a backgrounded manner, as in his ‘Musical Expressiveness as Hearability-as-Expression’, in Matthew Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 192–206. 2 Malcolm Budd, Values of Art: Pictures, Poetry and Music (London: Penguin, 1995), 154–155. 3 Peter Kivy, Sound Sentiment: An Essay on the Musical Emotions, including the Complete Text of The Corded Shell (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989), 57–58. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com

Journal

The British Journal of AestheticsOxford University Press

Published: Mar 10, 2018

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