Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
“I think therefore I am.” This phrase has been repeated in countless writings, courses, discourses and ruminations since they first appeared in René Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637). Much of Western philosophy sides with this Cartesian principle, which argues that the act of thinking is the only certain proof that a thinker exists. While specific thoughts can (and should) be doubted if there is reason to do so, the fact that someone is thinking those thoughts cannot be challenged. It is the only thing one can be certain of.
Whether or not one agrees completely with this reductionist approach or accepts the mind-body dualism it rests upon, it does give due consideration to the connection between thought and identity. Ideas about the external world are born from the internal processes of perception, pondering and projection, which are necessarily subjective and usually malleable. One’s notions about the world create the world for that person. The same goes for how one perceives oneself in the world, both in terms of self-image and the role that one plays. Thus, we might extend the aphorism “I think therefore I am” to include “What I think is who I am” (acknowledging that the first statement is objective and the second is subjective).
It is possible, then, to understand all works of the mind as autobiographical. Essays, equations, illustrations, engravings, enquiries and inscriptions need not tell an oral history or communicate a narrative to divulge details of the author’s experience. The particular thoughts one thinks and the way those thoughts are expressed are, in a basic sense, who that person is. The creation defines the creator.
To be sure, each person who encounters the final product will interpret (or recreate) it all over again. Even the maker him or herself will appreciate it differently with each exposure. But regardless if the work is artistic, utilitarian or somewhere in between, it reveals the person’s mind, and is thus the most that can be known of who that person is.
Music provides an illustration. Traces of influence, flashes of inspiration, flights of ingenuity, records of experience, translations of feelings, indications of aptitudes, attestations of predilections are all stored in the sounds and silences, rhythms and phrasings, harmonies and dynamics, articulations and voicings of a piece. It is the activity of the mind made audible. It is the self made audible.
Music is also autobiographical in that it captures a moment in time. It is a snapshot of a creative and reflective instance in one’s always-changing existence. The sounds capture the nuances of the moment. They stem from a mind in constant shift. Music written at any other time would be different. Each piece is like a page in a diary.
Granted, the language of music can be abstract. It may contain the essence of the composer, but that essence is not always clear or universally understood (or understood the same way each time it is heard). This, too, is representative of the mind-located identity. Like all thoughts, musical thoughts are elusive and temporary. Yet they do not have to be definite or straightforward to be evidence of the thinker’s realness or constitutive of the thinker’s identity. To think up music is to exist; the music that is thought up is who the composer is.
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