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Apologia pro vita sua: my work in philosophy

Peter Kivy interviewed by Richard Marshall.

[photo: Charles Quigg]

3:AM: Peter Kivy, you are a leading figure in the philosophy of aesthetics, with particular interest in music and literature. Can you begin by telling us what made you become a philosopher and what were the philosophical puzzles that interested you?. Can you then tell us about the music problem, and in particular how emotions get into the music? After that can you say how you approach the old literature problem as to whether fiction, in particular, a novel, could be a source of knowledge? In doing so can you say why and how music and novels enthral us?

Peter Kivy:

(1) How I Began

I came to Columbia University in 1960 to obtain my Doctorate in Philosophy. I had behind me a Masters Degree in Philosophy from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I had also obtained my undergraduate degree in philosophy, and a Masters Degree in Musicology from Yale University. My graduate work in philosophy at Michigan ended with my realization that I had been bitten so deeply by the music bug that I was not yet ready to give up music, in some form or other, as my life’s work. And given my academic leanings, musicology seemed an obvious option. But two years in the Music History Program at Yale ended in convincing me that philosophy was meant to be my profession, music my avocation. So to the Columbia Philosophy Department I went.

On my first day there I was interviewed by the then chairman of the department, the late Robert D. Cumming, who looked over my relevant credentials, particularly my musicology degree and a paper I had published on Darwin’s theory of the origin of music, and declared: “Of course, Kivy, you will do aesthetics.” And that I did. In those days graduate students were obedient, and did what they were told. Needless to say, I have never regretted the decision Professor Cumming made for me.

Now when I made the decision to do aesthetics, or, rather, when the decision was made for me, I never in the world intended to combine it with my musical interests. Indeed, who in philosophy of art would have dreamed of such a thing in 1960? There was but the lone example of Susanne Langer’s chapter on music in Philosophy in a New Key, which had, in fact, made a considerable impression upon music theorists and musicologists, but was largely ignored by philosophers of art.

My first project in philosophy of art was work on eighteenth-century British philosophers, especially Francis Hutcheson, which turned out to be the subject of my doctoral dissertation and, in revised form, my second book, The Seventh Sense. But at the same time, I, like many others in the field, had become fascinated with Frank Sibley’s highly original and influential article, “Aesthetic Concepts,” which appeared in the Philosophical Review, in 1959. In that paper Sibley made what turned out to be the highly controversial claim that aesthetic terms or concepts were what he called “non-condition-governed”: that no enumeration, no matter how extensive, of non-aesthetic features in an object could ever logically clinch the existence of an aesthetic feature therein.

My first book, Speaking of Art, was an attempt to refute Sibley’s thesis. And it was my first project in contemporary analytic philosophy. (The book has long been out of print, and, no doubt, deservedly so. But Francis Sparshott, some years ago, informed me that it had been paid the ultimate compliment of being stolen from his university library.)

But by 1976, with two books behind me, one historical, and the other, although at the cutting edge of analytic aesthetics, basically in a negative vein, crying down what I thought was wrong, without any positive thesis to offer about what I thought was right, I found myself at what I perceived to be a philosophical dead end. I had some vaguely Wittgensteinian ideas that I thought might constitute a positive contribution to philosophy of art. However, having wasted an entire summer reading articles on what was known in the trade, at the time, as “Criteriology,” which, I suppose, might briefly be characterized as the view that if it looks like a duck and quacks, it must be a duck, I realized that there was no future for me as a Wittgensteinian in philosophy of art, and was beginning to wonder whether there was a future for me in it at all.

At this point in my philosophical career—and as it turned out, a turning point—I decided that, as a brief interlude between serious philosophical projects, I would try to write a small something on music and the emotions, a problem I had been thinking about since my undergraduate days, because of my love of Bach, and therefore my having some acquaintance with the Baroque doctrine of emotions in music, known, because of its flourishing particularly in Germany, as the Affektenlehre. My idea was to gussy up the eighteenth-century doctrine, for which I had some sympathy, in modern dress as an account of what we are doing when we describe art music of the Western canon in emotive terms. The result of the project was my first book on musical aesthetics, The Corded Shell, published by Princeton University Press in 1980. And so there the interlude was supposed to end. Little did I realize that the “interlude” would become the defining event of my career for many years to come.

Much to my complete surprise and utter delight The Corded Shell struck a responsive chord in the philosophical community. I had found an uninhabited niche and, following the old adage to strike while the iron is hot, I started writing on every musical topic I could think of that seemed to me might be susceptible of philosophical analysis, in the analytic tradition.

But nor did my uninhabited niche remain uninhabited for long, again much to my surprise and delight. For the appearance of my first book on what now was beginning to be called “the philosophy of music” emboldened others to begin writing on the subject as well.

However, as chance had taken a firm hand in making me “do aesthetics,” and chance again propelled me into musical aesthetics, chance appeared on the scene yet a third time, in the more recent past, to change my philosophical course. It happened in this way.

I had given a talk some years ago in Lund University on (of course) the topic I had become known for, and later that evening I was having an informal chat with one of the Lund philosophers, who asked me, in the course of the conversation: “And what else do you do?”

It came like a kick in the head. I did not want, like Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, to be known only for playing one part my entire life. What, then, should my next part be? The answer was not far to seek. I was, from my youth, an avid theater-goer and novel-reader. So philosophy of literature seemed the inevitable choice. Unlike musical aesthetics when I first ventured there, however, philosophy of literature was not relatively unexplored territory, but well-trodden ground. So I had a lot of catching up to to do. How successful I have been remains to be seen.

So now, having given this brief, and I hope not too self-indulgent Apologia Pro Vita Sua in philosophy, let me get down to business, and provide some comments on my work. I have taken the rather unusual course of making some comments of my own on what I have done in philosophy of art.

(2) The Music Problem

As I have just said, the problem I tackled in my first venture into what was to become “the philosophy of music” was the venerable problem of the musical emotions. My view was that the musical emotions of the garden-variety kind, sadness, joy, et alia, were in the music as perceived qualities of it, not dispositional qualities of the music to arouse such emotions in us. And I had an elaborate explanation for how this was the case. I now think, and have so thought for a long time, that my explanation was sheer nonsense. I still believe the emotions are “in” the music; but I haven’t a clue as to how they got there.

Furthermore, I have come to think that philosophers of music were, and still are, so obsessed with this problem—there is an endless flow of clever philosophy and bad psychology concerning it—that what I take to be the really pressing and philosophically interesting problem of music has been given far too little attention, and when it has been attemded to, the wrong path has been taken.

The problem I refer to is this. Pure instrumental music in the classical Western musical canon, is as enthralling, and deeply moving, to its devotees, as King Lear and Death of a Salesman are to theirs. The problem is how, why can what is ostensibly long sequences of meaningless sounds, be so enthralling, so deeply moving to those with ears to hear it.

It is quite natural, I think, though profoundly mistaken, to seek the answer in an analogy with the dramatic arts. After all, a fugue, or a symphony, like Lear or Salesman, consists in a series of perceived “events.” It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, in the Aristotelian sense; and in other ways, if it is well composed, it complies with other of Aristotle’s conditions on a well wrought tragic plot.

Now, the analogist’s explanation goes, we have a pretty good, believable explanation for what enthralls and deeply moves us in Lear or Salesman. We are enthralled by the narrative, by the unfolding dramatic events, and feel appropriate emotions towards the characters therein. The unfolding of fictional events, and the emotions those events arouse, are material enough for explaining our enthrallment and our deep emotional responses.

So, the analogist continues, we were wrong in describing pure instrumental music, absolute music as it came to be called, as a meaningless sequence of sounds. No. If one has ears to hear, it is a dramatic narrative, and, therefore, enthralls and moves us deeply in the same manner as Lear or Salesman.

Of course, how fictional characters, beings that do not exist, can move us emotionally, is itself an on-going problem in philosophy of literature. And as well, why fictional narratives enthrall us is another problem in philosophy of literature, which I will return to anon. But at least there does seem to be eminent plausibility in the notion that the travails of fictional characters do arouse genuine emotions in us, and the experience of countless audiences seems to attest to the fact that they do. And that we are enthralled by fictional narratives is a hard fact of life as well.

The problem for the musical analogist is to convince us that what has seemed to so many of us for so long as meaningless sound sequences are, so to say, hidden dramas in disguise. Who are the characters? What are the events?

At this point, primarily, though not exclusively, among musicologists, the concept of the so-called “plot-archetype” is invoked. Briefly put, three different movies, for example, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, and Bringing Up Baby, have different plots, but the same plot-archetype: in this case, the archetype, “from wrong mate to right mate,” or something of the sort. What distinguishes symphonies and string quartets from these examples is that they have, or exhibit plot-archetypes only, not plots, and that is why we cannot describe in them specific characters and events.

But this horse will not run, as I have argued on numerous occasions, and to no avail. It is planly a logical howler to attribute a plot-archetype to an artistic artifact that does not have a plot. One determines the plot-archetype by first determining the plot. A plot arch-archetype without a plot, in a work of art, is the grin without the cat.

Furthermore, again as I have pointed out numerous times before, again to no avail, it is wondrous strange that someone like me, who does not hear stories in absolute music, and there are, I dare say, many more like me, can emerge from a concert of absolute music and honestly say, “I had an enormously satisfying artistic experience.” But if the music tells a story, then I would be something like a person who attended a performance of Schiller’s Don Carlos, thoroughly enjoyed it, had “an enormously satisfying artistic experience,” but admitted to not understanding a word of German. “I was enthralled by the sounds,” she says.

Finally, let me add that it is very common among musicologists and philosophers to think they have made out a case for some piece of absolute music’s “telling a story” if they have made out a case for the composer’s having intended to tell such a story in the music. But a small dose of Grice is a quick cure for this malady. For, it will be recalled, Grice placed two conditions on successful utterance meaning: intention to mean p, and the choice of a vehicle of meaning that has some real, palpable probability of conveying his intention to others. And in the case of absolute music, the second condition is never met, witness the fact that thousands of listeners have heard the music and not the story, the composer’s intention to the contrary notwithstanding. Intentions, after all, even intentions to mean, can fail.

Conclusion: the dramatic analogy simply will not solve the problem of why we are so enthralled and so deeply moved by the classical canon of Western absolute music. What will solve the problem? I wish I knew. It is the problem of the philosophy of music, as I see it. And if I ever return to the philosophy of music, it is the problem that will enthrall me.

(3) The Literature Problem

When I first ventured into the philosophy of literature, wandered might perhaps be the better word, I naturally enough centered my attention on the novel—“everyone’s art,” so to say. It is easy to find large numbers of intelligent, well educated citizens who have little interest in the visual arts, or who have little interest in classical music, or who would never be found reading a poem. But I think you would be hard put to it to find any literate person, no matter how disengaged from the world of the arts, who does not read a novel from time to time. And having been an avid novel-reader myself, with at least a respectable background of training in lit-crit and literary theory behind me, the novel beckoned as a subject for philosophical analysis.

Again, it was natural for me, as a philosopher, to be attracted, in philosophy of literature, by what, after all, was the oldest question in philosophy of art, namely, whether or not fictional art works could be a source of genuine knowledge, with Plato famously denying that they could, Aristotle famously affirming that they could. And it was natural enough, again, that given their obsession with epistemic matters, philosophers should transfer this obsession to contemporary philosophy of literature and make it one of the central subjects of the discipline, if not the central subject. So to what, as a philosopher, I was naturally inclined to take as the central question in philosophy of literature, I naturally turned my attention.

My first project in philosophy of literature was a modest one. At the time, and I think still, the question of whether fictional literature can be a source of knowledge is taken by philosophers, not surprisingly, to be the question of whether it can be a source of philosophical knowledge, with moral philosophy frequently holding pride of place as the most likely candidate. Furthermore, the most common argument against the claim that fictional literature can be a source of philosophical knowledge is what might be called the “argument argument,” to wit, that it is the essential nature of philosophy to present logical arguments for its claims, and such arguments are conspicuously absent from literary works, even if there are philosophical claims therein.

My modest suggestion, based, as much of my work in philosophy of art is, on my own experience, was that in lieu of presenting logical arguments for philosophical (and other) claims they might make, fictional works, rather, stimulate readers, in what I called the “gaps” and “after life of the reading experience, to ponder upon, and make arguments to themselves as to the truth or falsity of the claims, the “gaps” being the times in between readings of the novel, since a novel seldom is or can be read at one go, the “after life” being the time after the reading of a novel is completed, while it still remains in the reader’s consciousness as food for thought.

My proposal met with some approval. And I still think it may have some legs. But, interestingly, I experienced a similar reaction in my first venture into philosophy of literature as I had experienced in my first venture into philosophy of music, as previously described. For just as I had come to believe that philosophers’ obsession with the problem of the emotions in music had kept them from coming to grips with what I came to see as the central question in the philosophy of music, I now came to believe that their obsession with the knowledge question in fictional literature had kept them from addressing what I was beginning to believe, and still do believe, is the central question in philosophy of literature. And, as you shall see, I think the two cases are interestingly similar.

My first full-length project in philosophy of literature, The Performance of Reading, was not, as a matter of fact, motivated by my concern with what I have come to think of as the central question in philosophy of literature, namely, the question of why human beings are and, apparently have been, since they were human beings, so enthralled with fiction: or, in other words, from childhood to senility, so eager to be told a story. Rather, the book was motivated by the problem of the ontological status of silently read literature, principally the novel, which I attempted, in the spirit of Ockham’s Razor, to make a case for as a performing art.

But what became clearer and clearer to me while working on the book, and in the aftermath, was that I was becoming less and less interested in the novel as philosophy, or the source of some other form of knowledge, and more and more convinced that the story is the thing. Good novels are praised as “page turners.” And when asked whether you liked the last novel you read, you say: “It was great; I just couldn’t put it down.” What you don’t (usually) say is: “It was great; I learned so much about philosophy.” Why was it a “page turner”? Not because you couldn’t wait to learn more philosophy but because you couldn’t wait to see how the story turned out. Why couldn’t you put the novel down? Not because you were enthralled by the philosophy but because you were enthralled by the story. But why are we enthralled by stories, which is to say, fictional narratives? As John Searle observes: “It is after all an odd, peculiar, and amazing fact about human language that it allows the possibility of fiction at all.”

In my second substantial venture into philosophy of literature, Once Told Tales, I began to deal with the question. But I by no means reached a satisfactory conclusion. What I was interested in was why, even though the story is the thing, we wish to experience the same story more than once, and other traditional questions as well.

However, in perusing the present ruminations on the philosophy of literature, I have come to see a significant parallel between the music question, and the literature question, with which I will make an end.

When faced with the question of what so enthralls us about absolute music, sequences of meaningless sound, the philosopher’s natural instinct is to seek, so to speak, something in it that we may have missed, beyond the pure musical sounds, that enthralls us for reasons that we understand. And what the philosopher comes up with is fictional narrative which, contrary to appearances, absolute music embodies. And since it is clear what enthralls us about fictional narrative, it now becomes clear what enthralls us about absolute music. In a word, it is not “absolute.”

But, lo and behold, when we enter the realm of philosophy of literature, we discover that we do not really know what enthralls us about narrative fiction. We do not know why story-telling so enthralls us. And, again, the philosopher’s instinct is to find something beyond the story, hidden in the story, which, on first reflection, we have missed, that does enthrall us, and for reasons that we do understand. And, not surprisingly, the philosopher comes up with knowledge. For, as Aristotle long ago put it: “learning things is most enjoyable, not only for philosophers but for others equally, though they have little experience of it” (Poetics IV).

Well, this horse won’t run either. I by no means have given up the idea that silently read fiction can be a source of knowledge. But I have become more and more convinced that it is a philosopher’s obsession to place so much emphasis on it in the philosophy of literature. The story is the thing. And until we understand our enthrallment with story-telling, we will not understand literary fiction.

But when we ask a question, surely, if it is an intelligible question, we have to have at least some idea, no matter how vague, about what an answer to the question might look like. I am possessed by the question: Why are we so enthralled by, obsessed with fictional story-telling? To quote Searle again: “…[W]hy do we attach such importance and effort to texts which contain largely pretended speech acts?….I do not think there is any simple or even single answer to that question.” And here is my worry. I am not certain I have a clear idea, or any idea, for that matter, of what an answer to my, and Searle’s question might look like.

I am reminded here of an encounter I was once told of—perhaps an apocryphal anecdote—of Martin Heidegger with G.E. Moore. Heidegger asked: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Moore’s reply was: “Why not?”

I confess that I find the question, Why is there something rather than nothing?, unintelligible because I just cannot imagine what an intelligible answer to that question might look like. And there are times when I have similar qualms about what I have come to see as the central question in the philosophy of literature. Why do we find fictional narratives, why do we find story-telling so enthralling? Perhaps the only answer is the answer Moore gave to Heidegger. Why not?

3:AM: And finally, for those of us here at 3:AM curious to delve further into your philosophical world, are there five books that you could recommend to us, other than your own?

PK: Sure:
Ted Cohen, Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor (Princeton University Press, 2008).
David Davies, Philosophy of the Performing Arts (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
Peter Lamarque, The Philosophy of Literature (Blackwell, 2009).
Dominic McIver Lopes, Beyond Art (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Norton, 2000).


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 10th, 2014.