Peter Kivy’s Bach Bird Example, de Saussure, and the Already Present Significance of Music and Language

In Michael Krausz’s article, The Tonal and The Foundational:  Ansermet on Stravinsky, Krausz argues against Ansermet’s claim that Stravinsky’s atonal music is both sub-standard and unnatural.  Krausz approaches the issue from a non-foundationalist epistemology, “which assumes that there are no uninterpreted facts of the matter and no single ahistorical Archimedean interpretive framework from which we can make our cultural entities intelligible” (383).  To illustrate his point, Kraus cites Peter Kivy’s example of the “Bach-bird,” whose song brings to Kivy’s mind, Bach’s Little Organ Fugue in C.

While my musical consciousness is busy fitting the Bach-bird’s song into a possible Western notation, based on major and minor seconds, the Indian’s musical psyche is just as busy accommodating it to the world of microtones.  Does he hear the cheerfulness of the Bach-bird’s song?  Why should he?  He doesn’t hear the same ‘music’ in it that I do.  I should no more expect him to hear the cheerfulness in the Bach-bird’s song than the cheerfulness of Bach’s fugue.  For he would need my musical culture to hear both of them; and that, by hypothesis, he does not have” (Peter Kivy, The Corded Shell, p. 92, as cited in Krausz, 383).

Kivy’s point is that in light of the fact that scales in the Western musical tradition are based on sequential patterns either alternating between major and minor seconds or composed of either major seconds (whole-tone scale) or minor seconds (chromatic scale), we in the West are accustomed to hearing music whose harmonies and melodies are based on these particular scales.  In Indian and other non-Western music, the scales themselves are different and contain, as Kivy observes, “microtones,” that is, intervals smaller than minor seconds.  Consequently, the harmonies and melodies derived from non-Western scales sound very different from those based on major and minor seconds.  For many musically socialized in the West, Indian music sounds dissonant or out of tune; however, to those having grown-up listening to Indian or non-Western music whose scales contain microtones, the same music is considered consonant and beautiful.

Kivy’s observations seem analogous to Ferdinand de Saussure’s claims regarding language.  That is, according to de Saussure, every meaningful sound is immediately connected with a certain concept. When I say the word “tree” to a community of English language speakers, this word/sign doesn’t somehow connect with a distinct universal concept “tree” shared by human beings. Rather, when I say tree to my fellow competent English-speakers, the sign is already meaningful—it already signifies.  This is the point de Saussure makes when he claims that the sign is composed of two parts: the signifier (the “sound-image”) and the signified (the concept). By itself, the signifier signifies nothing.  Stated otherwise, the signifier (“sound-image”) always signifies in connection with the signified (concept). This is markedly different from an Aristotelian view of language.  For Aristotle, concepts are shared by all human beings and can be arrived at through a process of abstraction.  Aristotle does acknowledge that the particular word that one might attach to a universal concept is conventional and depends upon one’s culture and language community.  Thus, if I am Russian, I will attach the word “дерево” to the concept, tree; if I am Czech, I will attach the word “strom,” to the same concept. This view suggests that there is a kind of universal language of concepts that maps on at a later stage to particular, spoken languages.  De Saussure finds this untenable, as we think in particular languages, whose words derive their meanings from within or internal to the language system itself. Moreover, de Saussure highlights the non-necessary connection between the mental image of an object and a particular word in a spoken language.  In other words, to the question, “why is the mental image of this object possessing leaves and a trunk associated with the word “tree” in English?”, de Saussure answers, “it is a social convention.” This is not to say that one individual within a particular language community can call an object whatever he or she decides to call it. As Heidegger might put it, we are, after all, thrown into our language communities and find ourselves already immersed within a language that, as it were, has us. Similarly, de Saussure’s point is once you are “in” a particular language community, the arbitrary origin of the connection becomes stable and even something to which I, as an individual member of that community, must submit.

Part IV: Gadamer’s Ontological Perspectivism: A Way Around Relativism and Dogmatism

Given Gadamer’s rejection of a foundationalist paradigm of knowledge, he does not attempt to provide indubitable justification for his ontological views.   According to Gadamer, all forms of foundationalism fail to demonstrate that their own claims are indubitable; hence, he “rejects the possibility of a reflexive self-grounding of any philosophical position.”  Rather, as we have seen, Gadamer speaks of our grasping truth in the context of our various dialogical interactions.  In addition, Gadamer claims that “there is kind of self-validating truth that is available to those who are willing to participate in the dialogue of question and answer which we find in the philosophical tradition” (p. 12).  These self-validating truths do not purport to present us with certainty, yet they can be known and are (as the name suggests) true.  Many truths, such as those found in the human sciences, are simply part of our experience and are either taken as valid on their own terms or are rejected (p. 12). Rather than attempt to find a place outside of our experience upon which to stand so as to justify our experience of these truths, Gadamer endeavors to

offer a holistic explanation of that experience that attempts to understand it by thinking through the question of how mind and reality must be related to each other in order to make this experience possible.  This is an explicitly circular procedure that avowedly accepts its circularity but does not concede that such circularity is logically vicious.  Even logic itself rests on experiences of self-evidence that it cannot deduce (p. 13). 

Here Gadamer is operating against the grain of much of modern epistemology in that he assumes that our experiences are true “until their limitations are dialogically demonstrated.”  In other words, Gadamer offers a hermeneutics of trust rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion, and his position is not ignorant of the problems of modern epistemology.  Incarnating his own understanding of hermeneutics, Gadamer is in dialogue with the present (modern epistemology) and he also pulls from ancient philosophy, particularly Plato’s reflections on the connection between beauty and truth.  For example, in his book, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, Gadamer writes,

Plato describes the beautiful as that which shines forth most clearly and draws us to itself, as the very visibility of the ideal.  In the beautiful presented in nature and art, we experience the convincing illumination of truth and harmony, which compels the admission:  “This is true.” […] The beautiful […] gives us an assurance that the truth does not lie far off and inaccessible to us, but can be encountered in the disorder of reality with all its imperfections, evils, errors, extremes and fateful confusions.  The ontological function of the beautiful is to bridge the chasm between the ideal and the real (pp. 14-15; as quoted in Wachterhauser, p. 13).

Here we have the self-validation of the beautiful whose connection with truth is not to be equated with certainty, as no truth-claim is beyond doubt.  Yet, according to Gadamer, the true manifests itself in the beautiful in that the true possesses a kind of luminosity or radiance.  With this claim, we see Gadamer drawing from the “metaphysics of light” tradition that Plato assimilated via Parmenides.  “In fact, Gadamer argues that ‘the close relationship that exists between the shining forth [Vorscheinen] of the beautiful and the evidentness [das Einleuchtende] of the understandable is based on the metaphysics of light.  This was precisely the relation that guided our hermeneutical inquiry’ (Truth and Method, 483).” Moreover,  Gadamer believes that  a critical  reworking of this tradition “can point the way beyond the impasses of skepticism and foundationalism by giving us the resources to rethink the concept of a self-validating or self-illuminating truth that does not make the fateful mistake of equating such ‘light’ with certainty” (pp. 13-14). 

In short, Gadamer’s neo-ancient view of truth, wherein truth presents itself as beauty and evinces a luminosity or radiance that is self-validating, does not deny the possibility of encountering truth, yet it does perhaps encourage us to embrace a more humble view of truth and in so doing to acknowledge our finitude in a non-despairing way. 

*Unless otherwise noted, all citations are taken from Brice R. Wachterhauser, Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontololgy.  Evanston:  Northwestern Univ. Press, 1999.