Category Archives: Philosophy

May I Share My Earworm?

Voilà: my new Philosophy & Music videoclip, which should warm you up to my three lecture course on music — how it moves us, why it matters.
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Reverend Father Adam, Whence Didst Thou Get Music?

What is the origin of music? — And how does music relate to language? Scientific research into these questions is booming. Psychologists, neurologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and musicologists are in the origins business. Despite the fact that we’ll never have the kind of evidence that may lead to a scientifically valid answer.

Theories may be fables. They still can be evaluated by how well they connect the things we know, and by their power to inspire new enquiries.

One idea that may seem obvious and common sense is that there are aspects of language — more particularly, of speech — that can be called ‘musical’ and expressive: the ‘rhythm’ and ‘melody’ of speech, or prosody. Rudiments of melody, or intonation, are present in the most basic human and animal vocal expressions — screams, calls, sighs, grunts, and so on. Continue reading

Whose mine?

The first instance of this peculiar abuse I encoutered was a beginner’s piano book. Not the one from which I myself learned the notes and keys – decently titled First Piano Book (Het eerste pianoboek, by Jan Bouws). Its abusive competitor was My First Piano Book (Mijn eerste pianoboek), by somebody calling himself Folk Dean.

Whose book is Folk’s? Folk’s, of course. Not mine or yours.

Despite, or thanks to its irritating title Folk’s (actually Theo’s) book seems to have been a commercial success. Its pronominal abuse (My first …) may have been fashionable on the pedogogical market when it first came out in 1957. But it truly boomed after Windows 95 put My Computer onto your desktop. Nowadays there is hardly a commercial or public website which does not have a corner reserved for you not called yours but mine. It feels both idiotic and intrusive – them using my word for what’s supposed to belong to me.

If you say I and I say I
you mean you, but I mean me.

Indexicals – those words that change meaning depending on who’s using them, or where, or when – are sophisticated and disconcerting. They subvert the desire, instinctive and infantile, for a stable relation between word and object.

And that’s maybe the main reason why this abuse of the possessive pronoun is so annoying – it addresses me (and you) as an infantile kind of person, a halfwit without powers of generalisation, a toddler for whom all mine is mine, as mother can only mean one mother: its own, not anybody’s female parent.

It even reaches down into my private parts (and yours). Chilling.
Nel mio intimo


Thoughts on Selves

Looking inward, I catch myself having certain thoughts and sensations. Thinking ‘I’m having this thought’ constitutes a second order thought. Having such second and higher order thoughts is what I am inclined to call ‘consciousness’, as against ‘awareness’, or unreflective wakefulness.

By linking these higher order thoughts to the constancy of proprioception, the active communion within my body, I create the experience of ‘self’.

‘Consciousness’, according to William James (1904), “is the name of a nonentity”, “the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy”. James based this judgment upon his own looking inward, shaped by his philosophical pragmatism. He did not deny the reality of consciousness as a ‘function’, but its existence as ‘entity’ or ‘thing’, and object of scientific enquiry.

One century after James discarded it, the ‘rumor’ persists. Intuitions different from James’s (or of contemporary eliminativists) continue to inspire philosophical and psychological theories. There seems to be something irreducible in our personal phenomenology, which, apparently, calls for a conception of consciousness as an entity which (obscurely) ‘supervenes’ upon physical reality.

Having higher order thoughts depends upon an ability to represent by means of generalised systems of signification. This, I suspect, is the origin of language (rather than the other way around); and it seems to distinguish humans from other animals, which do have representations, but no powers of arbitrary generalisation.

Our ‘selves’ are the product of self-representation or consciousness. As a human creation, consciousness does not belong to the natural world. It belongs to culture, and is irreducible to biology (and hence physics) in precisely the sense that a painting, qua artwork, cannot be reduced to molecules and atoms. To say that artistic qualities ‘supervene’ upon physical properties isn’t saying much, without stipulating the processes which give rise to these qualities. That is the subject matter of aesthetics.

Unlike outer-world creations such as paintings, individual consciousness is inaccessible to anyone but ourselves. But it is doubtful whether there would be much consciousness to think of without its being embedded in sociocultural life.