FEssays on the Origins of Western Music

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FEssays on the Origins of Western Music
David Whitwell

Essay Nr. 21: On Reason vs Experience

In works of music that man who judges by rules,

judges wrong.
The fragments of Greek philosophy which have survived from the period before Socrates and Plato are characterized by an intellectual attempt to understand the material world. Of what elements is the universe composed? How did man and animal life evolve? What happens after death? These are the kinds of questions discussed in the fragmentary remains of their work.

As a natural extension of this line of inquiry, we find the fifth century BC philosophers beginning to think about how the mind is organized and unanimous in finding no alternative but that man must be ruled by Reason. But no matter how strongly these early philosophers argued that man must be ruled by Reason, common observation told them there was more to the story. In particular, emotions and the experience gained from the practical endeavors of life clearly played a role which could not be ignored. Their problem was that they couldn’t talk or write about the emotions and much of “experience,” so they tended to just create categories of relative importance, Reason, of course, always being the most important. Democritus,2 as an example, wrote,

There are two forms of knowledge, one legitimate, one obscure; and the following all belong to the obscure form, sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.3
They, like us, had great difficulty talking about non-rational things. We, at least, have some advantage as a result of clinical brain research in knowing that not only is the right hemisphere of the brain mute, but the rational areas seem to deny its very existence.4

The real problem for any philosophy which generalizes that Reason must rule is that in the end the rational side of ourselves is not the real us. Everything understood by the rational areas of our brain is second-hand information. Someone tells us, “two plus two is four,” and we memorize it. This fact has been recognized, if not talked about, for a very long time. Aristotle (born 384 BC) states this in the very first sentence of his “Posterior Analytics.”

All teaching and learning that involves the use of reason proceeds from pre-existent knowledge.5
Clearly, this side of ourselves cannot be the real us, it is all someone else. By simple observation, as we said, and common sense the early philosophers sensed this and in order to account for “the rest of us,” they tended to center much of their thought in the concept of the “soul,” dividing the soul into regions to contain the emotions, the senses, and reason.

Toward the end of the sixth century, B.C., several philosophers began to isolate the separate natures of reason and experience. Gorgias, in particular, was on the correct path in coming to understand that we can not really know something unless we experience it ourselves. This same philosopher was also the author of one of the most frequently quoted statements of the fifth century:

He who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive

and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not.
He was speaking of the theater and meant that one can be more honest with fiction, not running the personal risk involved in telling the truth in non-fiction. The member of the audience, it followed, was “wiser” as a consequence.

Theages, as probably most early philosophers, equated Wisdom as the end of reason. Today we would say knowledge is the end of reason; Wisdom is the end of experience.6 The difference between the two is the story of some of the most interesting writing by earlier philosophers, those courageous men who understood the importance of defending the whole us against the tyranny of Reason. This is fundamental background reading for those who desire to understand the importance of music.

In modern society, especially in the field of education, we still suffer from the singular value the early philosophers awarded to “Reason.” How familiar sounding is this warning by Parmenides (second half of the sixth to the first half of the fifth century BC), founder of the Eleatic School of philosophy. The senses, and experience, are real, but it is Reason, and not they, that is to be trusted.

You must debar your thought from this way of search, nor let ordinary experience in its variety force you along this way, allowing the eye, sightless as it is, and the ear, full of sound, and the tongue, to rule.7
Why, knowing what we know, does this judgment still control education? Probably for the same reasons that frustrated the early philosophers, we find it difficult to “talk” about the non-rational parts of our experience, no matter how important they are. The modern tyranny is “accountability.” How can we defend what we cannot talk about? And so, in the case of music education, we abandon the value of the genuine experience and focus our teaching on what we can talk about – concepts. Concepts can be graded and accounted for. Too bad that in our so doing, the subject of music is once again removed from the real us.

There were some early philosophers who refused to simply take Reason as the unquestioned master. Even Plato in one place seems to suggest that some form of personal experience may be a pre-requisite of “knowledge.”

But then, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes.8
Plutarch also pointed out that sometimes Reason grows out of experience, and he provided an example from his own life.9

Upon which that which happened to me, may seem strange, though it be true; for it was not so much by the knowledge of words, that I came to understanding of things, as by my experience of things I was enabled to follow the meaning of words.
The Roman philosopher, Lucretius (99 – 55 BC), focused on the dependence of Reason on the senses, asking in one place,

Can anyone

Explain what bodily sensation is

Unless he trusts his own experience of it?10
This philosopher also noticed the curious characteristic of the feeling sense that we call today “phantom limb.” This is the perception that one can feel a leg, for example, in that case where the leg in fact no longer exists. Reason, of course, had no explanation for this phenomenon so vividly illustrated by Lucretius,

It is said scythe-bearing battle chariots,

Red-steaming from their killing course, can cut

Limbs off so quickly you can see them tremble

Or quiver on the ground, before their soldier

Has any inkling what has happened to him.

His fighting spirit pushes his attack

With what equipment he still has; he’ll charge

And never know his left arm and his shield

Are swept off with marauding chariot-wheels

And scythes and horses, while near by, a comrade

Lifts his right arm to scale a wall, and sees

His right arm isn’t there, or attempts to rise

While his leg is kicking at him from the ground.11
We find one extraordinary argument that experience gives meaning to that most rational representative of Reason, grammar. In his treatise on “Mathematics,” Roger Bacon (born c. 1214) contends that the theologian must have training in music in order to understand the Scriptures.12 One reason, of course, is simply to be able to fully understand the many references to music in the Old Testament. The second reason is relative to the many kinds of meters found in the old Hebrew text. Here he notes that while the grammarian may teach the practical rules, only music gives “the reasons and theories” for these meters. In the same manner, he points to the issue of pronunciation, as the Scripture is filled with “accents, longs, shorts, colons, commas, and periods.”

All these belong causally to music, because of all these matters the musician states the reason, but the grammarian merely the fact.
This idea is worthy of thought when one remembers that all philologists today believe that music preceded speech in early man.

Bacon, by the way, is sometimes credited as being the first to clearly point to the separate hemispherical functions of the brain. He does this in a passage where he argues that Reason is never certain until it tests its contentions by experience.

For there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely, by reasoning and experience. Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, or does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience....13
This idea, that Reason can not rest until it has been proven by experience, is one often used by those who doubted the primacy of Reason. This was a point made frequently by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

No human investigation can be called true science without passing through mathematical tests; and if you say that the sciences which begin and end in the mind contain truth, this cannot be conceded, and must be denied for many reasons. First and foremost because in such mental discourses experience does not come in, without which nothing reveals itself with certainty.14


To me it seems that all sciences are vain and full or errors that are not born of experience, mother of all certainty, and that are not tested by experience, that is to say, that do not at their origin, middle or end pass through any of the five senses.15


Experience does not err….16
Voltaire agreed, writing in an essay, “The Ignorant Philosopher,”

we know nothing in the world but by experience.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) went even further writing that we should trust Reason only in the absence of personal experience. “We should honor and believe these old books, where there is no test other than experience.”17 Indeed, in numerous places Chaucer clearly states that various kinds of knowledge is proven only by experience. For example, with regard to the fact that there is a limit to one’s lifespan, Chaucer says we need no authority for this, as it is proven by experience.18 Or regarding the significance of dreams, “This has been well founded by experience.”19 Even, Chaucer says, where the Bible does not suffice, experience will teach you.

And yf that hooly writ may nat suffyse,

Experience shal the teche....20
Michel Montaigne (1533 – 1592), after first suggesting that it is only when reason fails us that we make use of experience, makes a comment similar to the previous one by Chaucer,

Were I a good pupil there is enough, I find, in my own experience to make me wise.21
We must add that there were still some philosophers, especially Churchmen, who refused to recognize the importance of experience. A case in point is St. John of the Cross, an old style Church philosopher so severe the he seems to us to belong in the darkest of the Dark Ages. He begins his major treatise, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” by declaring that in his writings he will not rely on his own experience or on science, “for these can deceive us.” All answers will come from the Scriptures!22

Some writers found cases in which direct experience was more valuable than extended rational study, as we see, for example, in Giraldi Cinthio’s Discorso intorno al comporre dei romanzi of 1549.

To a man not of dull or of weak intellectual capacity, one day’s conversation with a man who is learned, prudent, and expert in composing and who will talk of things related to it will do more than a year’s study....
A similar remark was made by Voltaire in a letter to Père Porée. Voltaire contends that the artist learns by experience, and not from books.

No matter how many books are written on the technique of painting by those who know their subject, not one of them will afford as much instruction to the pupil as will the sight of a single head by Raphael.23
In particular, when it came to “doing” things, the actual exercises of one’s life or profession, a number of early philosophers were quick to place more value on personal experience than on Reason or learning. Socrates, in taking this stand, pointed to the example of midwives. Speaking of the fact that only women who have had child-bearing experience should act as midwives, we read,

Socrates. It is said that Artemis was responsible for this, because though she is the goddess of childbirth, she is not herself a mother. She could not, indeed, allow the barren to be midwives, because human nature cannot know the mystery of an art without experience....24
Aristotle took an even broader view, with respect to “doing” and he went on to contend that it is from these direct experiences that character is formed.

Of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts....

It is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre players are produced.... For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also.... Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.25
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375) would appear to agree completely with Aristotle when he maintains that it is a man’s personal experience, not merely knowledge, which makes him productive. In this passage he seems to infer that experience and the man become one.

It is difficult for anyone to accomplish anything in which he has not had any experience.... This is the reason a worker is able to use his tools -- a man is known according to his inner nature.26
Girolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576), one of the most prolific philosophers of the Renaissance, testified,

I have been more aided by experience than by my own wisdom or by the faith in the power of my art.27


Perhaps someone will quite rightly ask whether the same people who know these rules also play well or not. For it seems to be a different thing to know and to execute.... The same question arises in other discussions. Is a learned physician also a skilled one? In those matters which give time for reflection, the same man is both learned and successful, as in mathematics, jurisprudence, and also medicine....

But in those matters in which no time is given and guile prevails, it is one thing to know and another to exercise one’s knowledge successfully, as in gambling, war, dueling, and commerce. For although acumen depends on both knowledge and practice, still practice and experience can do more than knowledge.28
Cardano’s suggestion above that a learned physician may or may not be a skilled one reminds us of a similar discussion by Montaigne, who recalled that Plato29 once wrote that we should never submit ourselves to a doctor unless he himself had had the same illness and cured himself. This leads Montaigne to make the observation,

If doctors want to know how to cure syphilis it is right that they should first catch it themselves!30
There is one more story regarding medicine and experience which we should mention, found in the correspondence between Descartes and the princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. In 1645, the princess was suffering from “a slow fever and a dry cough.” Descartes wrote her that the commonest cause of slow fever was sadness and its cure was the mastery of reason over the passions.31 But when Elizabeth challenged Descartes, pointing out that she found it necessary to make decisions on the basis of her experience, and not on Reason, Descartes quickly retreated.

I do not doubt that your Highness’ maxim is the best of all, namely that it is better to guide oneself by experience in these matter than by reason. It is rarely that we have to do with people who are as perfectly reasonable as men ought to be, so that one cannot judge what they will do simply by considering what they ought to do; and often the soundest advice is not the most successful.32
To return to the subject of “doing,” we might also point out that Izaak Walton, in his The Compleat Angler, mentions an author, a Mr. Hales, who was ridiculed for writing a book on fencing. This was, Walton points out, because “that art was not to be taught by words, but practice.”33 Leonardo da Vinci found that even writing, an essentially rational occupation, was based on experience.

They will say that I, having no literary skill, cannot properly express that which I desire to treat of; but they do not know that my subjects are to be dealt with by experience rather than by words; and experience has been the mistress of those who wrote well.34
The 16th century Spanish playwright, Fernando de Rojas, suggested that it was experience which made the difference in all professions, observing that “Experience makes men artists in their profession.”35 The most famous Spanish playwright of this period, Lope de Vega, pauses to remind his listeners that Love is something which can be understood only by experience.

Let no man speak Love’s name that has not felt his power.36
The early philosophers also often point to music as something which must be learned by experience, not from books. We have seen, above, Aristotle observe, “lyre players by playing the lyre,” and in a similar vein we find,

The art of music causes the man to be a musician.37

Boethius (475 – 524)
For in any art those things which we know of ourselves are much more numerous than those which we learn from a master.38

Guido of Arezzo, Micrologus (1026 – 1028)
For it seems impossible that anyone should become a builder who has not first built something; or that anyone should become a harpist who has not first played the harp.39

Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274)
Practice is the best teacher of any subject. One learns music by playing.40

Erasmus (1469-1536)
Who is it that procured you that judgment in music? It was the application of mind in observing musicians.41

Francois de Salignac de La Mothe-Fenelon (1651 – 1715)
And even in the case of composition we find some writers who question the value of the written rules. Charpentier, the 17th century French composer, concludes his book on the rules of composition by admitting,

Practice teaches more about this than all the rules.
To which Voltaire added,

The composer of Armide and Issé [Lully], and the worst of composers, worked according to the same musical rules.42
He perhaps would have given one reason why in the case of music the “rules” do not make the difference,

Is it not an amusing thing, that our eyes always deceive us, even when we see very well, and that on the contrary our ears do not?43
Finally, in the Pre-Renaissance, beginning in the 12th century, the “dark ages” finally begins to give way to a new spirit of hope and optimism. This helped fuel a great improvement in secular music which led to widespread hiring of individual musicians by courts and cities. This was followed by the arrival of Humanism in the Renaissance, which finally brought emotions back into music and ended the Church era of music categorized as a branch of mathematics. This made possible an era of great enthusiasm for the performance of music, documented in the Renaissance music we all know. Curiously, according to one very important observer of the early Renaissance music scene, Johannes de Grecheo, the theorists, the last protectors of Reason in music, seem to have retreated.

At the present time it happens that many people seek the practical side of this art, but few pay attention to its speculative character. And, for this reason, many speculative thinkers make a secret of their calculations and their discoveries, not wishing to reveal them to others….44

1 “Remarks on M. Pascal’s Thoughts,” in Philosophical Dictionary, “Taste,” in The Works of Voltaire (New York: St. Hubert Guild, 1901), XXI, 250, 256.

2 The exact dates of Democritus are not known, but we understand him to be earlier than Plato as Aristoxenus, in Historical Notes, tells us that Plato wanted to burn the entire works of Democritus.

3 Quoted in Milton C. Nahm, Selections from Early Greek Philosophy (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1964), 197.

4 The first important research was conducted by Dr. Roger Sperry, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his findings in the organization of the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

5 Trans., Hugh Tredennick (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).

6 As did Leonardo da Vinci, who observed, “Wisdom is the daughter of Experience.” Jean Paul Richter, ed., The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (London: Phaidon, 1970), II, 240.

7 Fragment seven, quoted in Giovanni Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 88.

8 Republic., VII, 518c.

9 “Life of Demosthenes.”

10 The Way Things Are., III, 351.

11 Ibid., III, 641.

12 This entire discussion is found in “Mathematics,” in The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, trans., Robert Burke (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), I, 259.

13 Ibid., “Experimental Science,” I.

14Jean Paul Richter, ed., The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (London: Phaidon, 1970), I, 31ff.

15 Ibid., I, 33ff.

16 Ibid., II, 240.

17 “The Legend of Good Women,” line 27.

18 “The Knight’s Tale,” 3001.

19 “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” 4168.

20 “L’Envoy de Chaucer a Bukton,” 21. For additional references to understanding being proven by experience, see “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” 468; “The Friar’sTale,” 1517; “The Sumner’s Tale,” 2057; “The Merchant’s Tale,” 2238; “Troilus and Criseyde,” III, 1283; “The House of Fame,” II, 370; and “Romaunt of the Rose,” 5553.

21Michel de Montaigne, Essays, trans., M. A. Screech (London: Penguin, 1993), III, xiii, 1218.

22 “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979), 70. Juan de Yepes y Alverez (1542-1591), known as St. John of the Cross, was imprisoned for a time by the Inquisition for his liberal views, although the modern reader is hard pressed to find such views in his surviving works.

23 Letter to Père Porée (1730), quoted in Barrett Clark, European Theories of the Drama (New York: Crown, 1959), 279.

24 Theaetetus, 149c.

25 “Ethica Nicomachea” 1103a.25 and following.

26 “A Warning against Credulousness,” in The Fates of Illustrious Men, Louis Hall, trans., (New York: Ungar, 1965), 25.

27 Quoted in Oystein Ore, Cardano The Gambling Scholar (New York: Dover, 1953), 47.

28 The Book on Games of Chance, trans., Sydney Gould (New York: Dover, 1953), 225.

29 Republic, III, 408 D-E.

30 Michel de Montaigne, Essays, trans., M. A. Screech (London: Penguin, 1993), III, xiii, 1218.

31 Quoted in Descartes Philosophical Letters, trans., Anthony Kenny (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 161.

32  Letter to Elizabeth, May, 1646, quoted in Ibid., 195. Elizabeth (1618-1680) was a princess Palatine of Bohemia.

33 Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), 6. Izaak Walton (1593-1683) is best known for his biographies of contemporary English writers.

34Quoted in Jean Paul Richter, ed., The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (London: Phaidon, 1970), I, 116.

35 Fernando de Rojas, Celestina, trans., James Mabbe (New York: Applause Publishers, 1986), 37.

36 Lope de Vega, The Knight from Olmedo, trans., Jill Booty, in Lope de Vega, Five Plays (New York: HIll and Wang, 1961), 179.

37 Boethius, Consolatione Philosophiae, trans., Samuel Fox (London: George Bell, 1895), XVI, iii.

38 Quoted in Strunck, Op. cit., 117.

39 Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, trans., John Rowan (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961), 684-685 (IX.L.7:C 1850).

40 “Adages,” in The Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), XXXII, 25.

41 Fenelon, The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses, Book XII, (London: Garland Publishing, 1979, facsimile of the 1720 edition), Book XXIV, Op. cit., II, 270.

42 Letter to Père Porée (1730), quoted in Barrett Clark, European Theories of the Drama (New York: Crown, 1959), 279.

43 Philosophical Dictionary, “Prejudice,” in The Works of Voltaire (New York: St. Hubert Guild, 1901), XII, 290.

44  Johannes de Grocheo, De Musica (c. 1300), trans., Albert Seay (Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music Press, 1967), 2.

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