Essence and Non-Essence

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The absence of essentialism is a recurring motif in postmodern philosophy. In that line of thinking, there are no foundational or inherent characteristics that distinguish one entity, object or idea from another. Whatever essence or defining substance there appears to be is an illusion shaped in the mind of the perceiver. Even the concept of human nature comes into question. Without confidence in our suppositions or in data derived from reason and observation, there cannot be a stable or set core of human characteristics. Our personalities become a malleable matrix of personal and socially constructed thoughts, perceptions and experiences.

The notion that we are the product of dispositions and circumstances can be overstated. Physical and elemental properties, scientific laws, genetic encoding and other measurable aspects of the material world inform who we are and what we know. Still, the practice of critical self-reflection—the “post-modern pause”—does help us confront tendencies, proclivities and prejudices we unknowingly possess, and realize the degree to which the beliefs we hold are grounded in subjective consciousness. Whatever the limits of the postmodern position, it does force us to examine and re-examine our assumptions.

This is particularly valuable for subjects rooted in aesthetics, such as music. For the strict postmodernist, music has no essence defining its fundamental nature. Rather, it exists in boundless varieties, each with culturally based particularities and expectations.

It is hardly novel to suggest that musical reactions and assessments are dependent upon the listener’s prior conditioning and exposure. Musical conventions, like a modulation or turn of phrase, arouse generalized emotions for listeners familiar with those devices. Music tied to a holiday or special event brings entire communities into shared sentiments connected with that day. Melodies are often linked to one’s past, stirring feelings and memories of a particular time, place or relationship.

But these observations can be taken too far. Even without the questioning voice of postmodernism, it is clear that how we think and feel about music is largely the product of our composite identities. Yet postmodern claims are softened by the fact that musical signatures and strains are felt in similar ways across wide audiences (within a cultural setting). If we concede that musical appraisal is essentially subjective, then consensus response is a valuable rubric. Musical conventions, figurations, parameters, conclusions and expectations were not forced upon us or dictated from on high. They developed over time through an organic and collective process of experimentation, consolidation and familiarization. As such, standard reactions and attitudes toward musical stimuli are firmer than postmodernists would contend.

No experience, musical or otherwise, is entirely pure or unadulterated. However, this does not mean that qualities attributed to music are simply imaginary. Music appreciation occupies a middle ground, in which sounds are inextricably combined with multi-dimensional experiences. The music’s essence is both intrinsic and entangled with the listener’s personal history. The two cannot be separated.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

7 thoughts on “Essence and Non-Essence

  1. John Morton

    This is interesting, Jonathan. Despite our recent exchanges, where I was convinced we’d emerge from them agreeing to disagree, I now find myself agreeing with everything you write in this latest post. (Well-written, too.)

    My opinions, by the way, are home-brewed. I did read a book on these matters when I was a student in the late fifties but most of my ideas emerged from occasional ponderings as I write.

    I’m also a keen (AMATEUR) follower of physics, and ideas relating to essentialism may be pursued through this, more specialized, discipline. When I was around 14 years old I stood watching the fingers of the clock on my parents’ mantlepiece (we now have the same clock here) and, if I looked very closely, I could see the minutes finger moving. But one moment it was approaching the 12 and the next it had passed by. ‘How’ I wondered ‘can it ever be, say, 12 o’clock?’ I couldn’t accept the idea that the world behaved like this and I decided that time and movement proceeded by a series of discrete, stationary phases (presumably Planck-sized). There’s always something to spoil the fun and my idea, as you will know, was not new, although it rarely enters appropriate discussions these days. Continuity, as we understand it, may be an illusion, too. I also believe we must get rid of infinities. Without continuity and infinity everything begins to make sense.

    Whether or not the universe ultimately reduces down to a state of discreteness or a field of some kind or a weird combination of the two (wave/particle duality) is still not known.

    British mathematician Roger Penrose (he has a Facebook page) has an interest in the way in the human mind works. His book ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ is worth a look at. He is also interested in artificial intelligence. You can find him on YouTube.

  2. John Morton

    Interestingly, I was reading again about the net zero energy effect last evening due to my interest in inflation. I have three textbook appraisals of the origin and fate of the Universe from Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. They’re interesting to compare and jointly show how much we have to learn. For what it’s worth (remember my amateur status) I believe that the lightspeed limit on motion only applies to motion through space and not, as in the earliest moments of the universe, when light and the space it occupied moved together (as it still does). So there might have been time for information exchanges prohibited by conventional wisdom. I’m interested in field-drive propulsion for spacecraft and one proposition is that a gradient might be created in spacetime where the ship, or the part of the ship creating the effect, reacts with space itself, preserving energy/momentum conservation. We might be able to make the speed of light seem like a snails pace and find a new home in the stars. This lovely planet only has five billion years left, barring accidents and self-destruction.

    I’m not convinced that the effect of musical performance disappears as fast as some observers believe. There might be little-understood factors at work here, connected with the feel-good factor and the way our state of mind has physical manifestations. Some music is designed to give us a feel-bad response. Is life never simple?

    Returning to mentality, Roger Penrose notes that our perceived reality (as, for example, in connection with quantum wavefunctions) is associated with an observer state. But we don’t have an adequate theory of conscious observers and, in any case, the mind itself is part of the process.

    I suppose an area such as this, where the mind tries to understand itself, is bound to be the most difficult task we face.

    PS remember the answer to ‘life the universe and everything’ is…42

  3. John Morton

    Jonathan, I couldn’t access your contact details on your website so I’m using this route. I’m proposing to post a blog relating to the universality of music, quoting the various threads. I’ll need your OK on this. Nothing will be edited (except, possibly, where we meandered into physics).
    John Morton:

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      That should be interesting. You have my blessing.

      Regarding the contact details on my website, there is a contact link in the upper right hand corner. (I’m a little protective of my email address, given the public nature of the site and this blog.)


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