Tag Archives: René Descartes

Default Music

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.

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


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.

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