Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The history of philosophy is filled with attacks on what John Searle dubs “default positions”: pre-reflectively held assumptions about the world and our involvement in it. For example, most people would agree that a tree exists independently from our thoughts or experiences of it, that the meaning of the word “tree” is reasonably clear, that we can see and touch it, that its existence can be proven true or false, and that striking an axe against it will have consequences. Yet, philosophers have challenged each of these positions. George Berkeley rejected that physical things exist outside our perceptions (summed up in the popular expression, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”). Descartes considered sensory information unreliable. Hume questioned the reality of cause and effect.
Postmodern philosophy has multiplied these challenges beyond our ability to count them. Seemingly everything is a target for deconstruction. If a counterexample or conceptual weakness can be found, then we must discard what we thought we knew. Stretching the brain in this way can be healthy and even enlightening, but there comes a point when the questions themselves need to be questioned. Why would anyone dispute the existence of a tree, the properties of liquid water, or the movement of tectonic plates? For most of us, basic evidence is enough.
Searle stands out among contemporary philosophers for arguing that, in general, default positions are true and that attacks on them are usually mistaken. (The main exceptions being commonplace supernatural assertions, such as the independence of the mind/soul from the body.) If these presumptions were as false as the philosophers contend, then they would not have persisted through human history. Indeed, our daily existence revolves around “external realism”: an unconscious confidence in the realness of worldly phenomena, both natural (molecules, marmots, mountains) and human-dependent (money, marriage, mountaineering).
Music is no stranger to deconstructive inquiry. In the past, “What is music?” was answered in one of three ways: theoretical/mathematical, symbolical/mystical, or aesthetical/cultural. The question, if it was explicitly asked at all, was a launching pad to examine aspects of music and its reception. A good example is Isaac Leopold Rice’s 1875 book, which takes this question as its title. In current discourse, asking what music is can create a kind of barrier. Instead of an invitation to explore, it is an opportunity to dismantle. This tendency, combined with a hyper-focus on outliers, has subjectified music to the point of doubting its external reality.
To be fair, most modern-day scholars (including myself) recognize that no definition of music can satisfy all possibilities. Yet, while dispelling some generalizations, this does not prevent writing on music, let alone performing, identifying, and responding to it. When anthropologists observe that all human societies have music, it does not mean that all music is identical, or that we necessarily hear all music as music. The same could be said for almost anything made by human beings: chairs, homes, games, clothing, food, and so on. It can be fun to contemplate the astounding variety, but even the question “What is music?” presupposes that there is such a thing as music.
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