Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Some assert that it is a fallacy to compare cultural elements cross-culturally. Sometimes called the “incommensurability thesis,” this position posits that because objects, concepts and behaviors tend to have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. Variety negates universality. Basically a version of cultural relativism, this attitude emanates from three circles (or, rather, minorities within three circles): philosophers who attack commonalities in human experience; critics who over-emphasize outlier phenomena in order to challenge conventional assumptions; and ethnographers who argue for the absolute uniqueness of the populations they study, in part to elevate their own stature as privileged experts. Yet, just because human activities take heterogeneous forms does not eliminate the possibility of shared motivations.
Steven Pinker argues this point as it relates to the human capacity for language. He concludes in The Language Instinct: “Knowing about the ubiquity of complex language across individuals and cultures and the single mental design underlying them all, no speech seems foreign to me, even if I cannot understand a word.” This observation seems indisputable: language is a biological characteristic of the human species.
Philosopher of art Denis Dutton expands on Pinker’s claim in The Art Instinct. He asks: “Is it also true that, even though we might not receive a pleasurable, or even immediately intelligible, experience from art of other cultures, still, beneath the vast surface variety, all human beings have essentially the same art?” Dutton contends that, like language, artistic behaviors have spontaneously appeared throughout recorded human history. Almost always, observers across cultures recognize these behaviors as artistic, and there is enough commonality between them that they can be placed within tidy categories: painting, jewelry, dance, sculpture, music, drama, architecture, etc. To Dutton, this suggests that the arts, again like language, possess a general omnipresent structure beneath the varied grammar and vocabulary.
It should be noted that Pinker himself has elsewhere challenged this assumption. Most famously, he dubbed music “auditory cheesecake,” or a non-adaptive by-product (of language, pattern recognition, emotional calls, etc.) that serves no fundamental role in human evolution. It is not my intention here to place that hypothesis under a microscope or investigate the many arguments against it. (Perhaps, being a linguist, Pinker sees language as a sort of holy ground that mustn’t be stepped on by “lesser” human activities.) Wherever the evolutionary debates travel and whatever clues or counter-clues they accumulate, one thing is convincing: art appears rooted in universal human psychology.
Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.
“Perhaps, being a linguist, Pinker sees language as a sort of holy ground that mustn’t be stepped on by “lesser” human activities”
I will just say that as much as I adore the arts (I’m really into opera) there is a part of me deep down that agrees with Pinker. This excerpt from “The Language Instinct” says it for me:
As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science; even in the depictions of believers these are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. That ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is. So let me remind you with some simple demonstrations. Asking you only to surrender your imagination to my words for a few moments, I can cause you to think some very specific thoughts:
1. When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body suddenly becomes striped. He swims above the female and begins caressing her with seven of his arms. If she allows this, he will quickly reach toward her and slip his eighth arm into her breathing tube. A series of sperm packets moves slowly through a groove in his arm, finally to slip into the mantle cavity of the female.
2. Cherries jubilee on a white suit? Wine on an altar cloth? Apply club soda immediately. It works beautifully to remove the stains from fabrics.
3. When Dixie opens the door to Tad, she is stunned, because she thought he was dead. She slams it in his face and then tries to escape. However, when Tad says, “I love you,” she lets him in. Tad comforts her, and they become passionate. When Brian interrupts, Dixie tells a stunned Tad that she and Brian were married earlier that day. With much difficulty, Dixie informs Brian that things are nowhere near finished between her and Tad. Then she spills the news that Jamie is Tad’s son. “My what?” says a shocked Tad.
Think about what these words have done. I did not simply remind you of octopuses; in the unlikely event that you ever see one develop stripes, you now know what will happen next. Perhaps the next time you are in a supermarket you will look for club soda, one out of the tens of thousands of items available, and then not touch it until months later when a particular substance and a particular object accidentally come together. You now share with millions of other people the secrets of protagonists in a world that is the product of some stranger’s imagination, the daytime drama “All My Children”. True, my demonstrations depended on our ability to read and write, and this makes our communication even more impressive by bridging gaps of time, space, and acquaintanceship. But writing is clearly an optional accessory; the real engine of verbal communication is the spoken language we acquired as children….. In any natural history of the human species, language would stand out as the preeminent trait.
Thank you for this. I am a fan of Pinker (and this passage) as well. And, of course, “language should stand out as the preeminent trait.”
But this does not mean that language is the only essential or innate higher order human capacity. In fact, some theorists posit that language evolved out of singing — not the other way around.
I have been accused of being excessively music-centric in the same way that a linguist might be language-centric. It’s probably true, too.
Jonathan, if you refer back to our very earliest exchanges, you might come to the conclusion that the present post has swopped sides. Please don’t think I’m saying ‘I told you so’; we’re both too scientific in our approach to assume that stance. In any case, I’m sure you’re throwing another idea into the ‘pool’, in the never-ending, joint, search for ‘truth’, which is also a favourite method of mine.
At the time, I argued that regional variations are more relevant in the realms of popular culture (superficialities) and that musical forces in motion echo reality at a more fundamental level that is (more or less) common to all mankind: the kinetic nature of a melody is one example. We all experience the force of gravity and the passing of time.
At 14 years of age, English grammar school educated and with all which that implies, I discovered Bebop, of all things! My life would never be the same again. As I observed some time ago, pop fans might say ‘I don’t like heavy rock. I’m into gospel’ whereas it’s unlikely a lover of ‘straight’ music would say ‘I don’t dig Mozart, man. I’m more into Beethoven’.
CARA: the problem with language is that it is so limited. A person skilled in this area can prove almost anything and still be wrong, as any salesman or politician knows. The process can work backwards; instead of using language to communicate ideas we eventually allow, or admit to, only those ideas we can wrap up in well-constructed sentences. If we can do that, we’re happy. Interestingly, poetic language begins to approach the subtlety of music; an awareness occurs that is impossible to explain prosaically, although we find it difficult to let the event pass without trying to do so.
Thanks for this, John. I don’t doubt that I may have switched sides — and I may switch back at some point, too. Consistency has never been a goal of mine. These blogs reflect the moment in which they were written, rather a permanent view. As an eclecticist, I find rigidity of opinion to be rather bland; not to mention the possibility that contradictory views can all be a little bit correct, each in their own way. (This is especially apparent to me these days, as I’m editing together a book of 100+ of my blog entries. I may quote your “throwing another idea into the ‘pool’” line in the introduction — it sums up my approach rather nicely.)
All of that being said, I have written before on the innate ability of human beings to recognize music as music, regardless of whether or not we like or even understand what we hear. This is less about taste, and more about basic categories of sound stimuli. As I glossed over in this post, outliers (like “noise music”) do not damage the claim that music is something we know when we hear it — just as a painting is something we recognize when we see it, despite the existence of abstract divergencies.
To be continued (or departed from)…
I completely agree, although it might not seem to be the case(!). You may quote me at any time.
Thank you, sir.