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Anyone who understands Mozart or Beethoven hears consonance in their music. This is expressed primarily in tonality and rhythmical order. In tonal compositions there is an ordered progression of related tonalities (typically tertian sonorities) that finds its purpose and resolution in the home key. When the home key is reached, there is a sense of rest, of purpose attained. Consonance is the analogue of a rationally meaningful world.

My experience of living abroad in Taiwan, of living in an environment radically different from New Zealand is not like this. It is more like an atonal composition. In atonal compositions there is no home key, and therefore little sense of purpose or resolution. This is an exageration no doubt, but it illustrates a point. If you are so miserable, why bother staying? – What is ‘home’, anyway?

Whatever else it means, and I am able to offer no more than a furtive sidelong glance at it, I think it can be compared fruitfully with aesthetic appreciation. Wittgenstein discusses this in a remark published in Culture & Value, p. 58e. There he talks about art and how it is thought to convey a ‘feeling’. Wittgenstein partially agrees with this traditional characterization:

You really could call it, not exactly the expression of a feeling, but a least an expression of feeling, or a felt expression. And you could say too that insofar as people understand it, they ‘resonate’ in harmony with it, responds to it. You might say: the work of art does not aim to convey something else, just itself.

Is home a feeling? I am not referring to a single dwelling by ‘home’, which merely occupies the foreground of a much larger picture. I am attempting to capture something about the picture itself, of the whole. Wittgenstein’s term ‘felt expression’ suggests that the relation of art to the world is appreciative, art is appreciated for being important. This suggests a method of knowing through feeling, which is global rather than mundane in nature. Is there a unique kind of knowing proper to feelings?

Let’s look at Wittgenstein’s simile of ‘harmony’, or, as he says, art that resonates. The word ‘resonate’ is a verb meaning ‘to sound again’.  One who understands art ‘resonates’ in harmony with it. How? Wittgenstein says: one ‘responds to it’. This suggests that art is understood by a spontaneous act of perception, and not by diagnosis. One who responds to art may therefore convey his understanding by an answering expression or gesture as by some appropriate gesture in words (consider understanding facial expressions). I think that home is like this.

I do not ‘resonate’ in harmony with Taiwan. Is that clear enough to me? The person who lives here and ‘understands’ life in this country, is like someone whose total experience of Taiwan reverberates within him simultaneously as his own or as the music of Mozart does for millions, or as a piston fits into a cylinder, and so on. All the tonalities that sound off in a person and in the environment that exist in harmony form chordal structures, and stacked together they blend into one and sound off simultaneously, without effort or transition to something else.  

Experiences resonate within a person in sequence. Taken individually, they form melodies and play out in the course of a person’s life. The world is played out in a person just as a musical chord is played out in sequence or individual notes are played out in sequence to form melodies. A person ‘at home’ in a place anywhere in the world is like an harmonic progression, it seems to me, and one who is not, is nothing more than a dissonant interval. It is therefore up to this person to resolve the tension that wars within him.

It would be difficult to be at home in a world whose sum total musical experience consisted of Richard Clayderman, or Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Imagine what such a life would be like. Clearly, a question of balance between consonant and dissonant forces is necessary if home is to take root.


Image by Takahiko Masuda

From the New York Times, March 18, 2008

How do you know how someone is feeling? For people in Western societies, it is usually easy: look at the person’s face.

But for people from Japan and other Eastern societies, a new study finds, it may be more complex — having to do not only with evaluating the other person’s face but also with gauging the mood of others who might be around.

The differences may speak to deeply ingrained cultural traits, the authors write, suggesting that Westerners may “see emotions as individual feelings, while Japanese see them as inseparable from the feelings of the group.”

The findings are based on a study of about three dozen students in two groups — one Japanese, one Western — who were shown a series of drawings of five children. The volunteers were told that the drawings were going to be used in an educational television program and that the researchers wanted to see how realistic they were.

Sometimes the expressions of all the children in an image were the same, but more often they varied. The participants were asked to look at the face of the person at the center of the picture and rate it on a 10-point scale for happiness, sadness and anger.

The Western students did not much change their assessment of a character’s mood no matter what was happening with the other characters. But for most of the Japanese participants, it made a measurable difference. If the figure in the center had a happy face but those in the background were sad or angry, they tended to give the happy figure a lower score. If everyone was happy, they gave the figure in the center a higher one. When the images were shown to two other groups of students wearing equipment that tracked their eye movements, the researchers found that the Japanese spent more time looking at the children in the background of the pictures.

The study appears in the March issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. While the study offers hints into how different the world may look to people from different cultures, it raises as many questions as answers. “We don’t know exactly what’s going on,” said the lead author, Takahiko Masuda, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Still, the study fits squarely in a longstanding body of research into differences between Eastern and Western perceptions of the world around us.

Researchers studying paintings from the 16th through 20th centuries, for example, have found that in Western portraits, the subject took up a larger portion of the picture and was painted in a way to make the subject stand out, the study said. In Eastern portraits, the subjects tended to be smaller and to blend into the background.

Even now, the differences often remain. When Dr. Masuda and other researchers handed students cameras in an earlier study and asked them to take portraits, the subjects filled more space in the frame of the photographs taken by the Americans.

Many researchers have suggested that East Asians take a more holistic view of the world.

In the new study on faces, the findings may also reflect social differences, said Kristi L. Lockhart, a lecturer in psychology at Yale who has studied both cultures. Where Western societies tend to promote individuality, Eastern ones emphasize the needs of the group. So when a Japanese sees a happy person amid sad ones, it may be a bit unsettling. He may adjust his view of how happy that person is “because of his real desire to fit in with the group and to not be different,” Dr. Lockhart said.

80. East and West. Collective and Individual. Group geometry.

Western persons are interruptions in the undifferentiated continuity: we bob up and down like buoys in rough water seeking attention, vying to be received as individuals. There is no pattern apart from this continual seesaw, and the rough conditions are generated not by nature, but by us. Our movement is self-chosen. ‘What about me?’ is our battlecry.

Eastern persons (e.g., Taiwanese) are rather different. They do not bob or wobble individually, but tend to flow into each other like water in water. There is no leader, no collective ‘flock mind’, or ‘information center’. Distinguish behavioral qualities in university students in the USA and university students in Taiwan. A different paradigm is at play.

Compare the behavior of persons with the flock behavior of starlings when it returns to roost at dusk. Thinkers since Pliny the Elder have contemplated the synchronous movements of flocking birds. Let’s identify Taiwanese people as forming a class of persons akin to the starling flock, in terms of group behavior, and let’s contrast this arrangement with the behavior of western persons, caricatured above.

A prejudice in the West concerning Asia is that Eastern persons flock together because they are weak as individuals. This assumes that collectivism affords protection from hostiles or, to continue the analogy with starlings, ‘predators’. It is true that many flocking birds are weak fliers, and that they are not strong enough individually to escape from a hawk (compare mountain bluebirds who don’t forage in flocks, and are able as solitary fliers to outmaneuver hawks or falcons). Further, starling flocks also tend to ‘ball-up’ when attacked in flight. By contrast, when starling flocks return home to roost, they will spend an hour or more wheeling or turning before they land. If flocking is to avoid predation, then the longer they stay in the air, the more vulnerable they are to predators. Moreover, if Taiwanese flock for protection, who is the feared hostile? The PRC? This may have been the case during foreign occupation in Taiwan, but now?

But this question is wrong. There is no predator, for this flocking behavior is not directed at anything or anyone. It is undirected (like depression). I think it is largely expressive of unreflective continuity with the past, or rather, unchanging attitudes toward the past in Taiwan, which remain traditional and reproductive, and which simply have not been subjected to strong enough a challenge to change. No single stimulus is currently available which makes a direct appeal to reflect on the need to preserve the past in behavior and ways of living and acting. Can one say: the stimulus to reflect on the whole has yet to take root in Taiwan?


An essay adapted from the chapter in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia on Wittgenstein is here.

42. Dr. Richard R. Vuylsteke’s recent comments on the impoverished state of political leadership in Taiwan, made on his departure from the executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, are, in my humble opinion, much needed and provide essential feedback to those who have been elected to govern Taiwan.  

Taiwan is a small island country, and like all such places around the globe – especially those in Asia – its leaders exhibit more than their own fair share of imbred myopia and shortsightedness. We should not be at all surprised at the reaction of alarm and dismay with which the Taiwanese politicians greeted Vuylsteke’s remarks. Regrettably, they seem to lack all honesty of the intellectual sort or the kind of critical self-awareness which asks: ‘What is Vuylsteke saying? What really happened?’

Instead, the past seven years have witnessed cross-party and cross-faction rhetorical vendattas, flying kitchen appliances as hurled projectiles in the Legislative Yuan, and a deep pettiness of personal interaction. The public image of the Taiwan politician has turned sour, very sour indeed. One sincerely hopes that this fallow soil may yet still produce the kind of political genius able to strengthen the political, economic and social status of Taiwan by the year 2020. But it is unlikely.


Earlier, we discussed the Augustinian picture with reference to the meaning of music, and later compared music to the purpose of dance. We concluded that no model for music already exists in reality. A music theme or melody doesn’t have meaning because it approaches or corresponds to an extra-musical paradigm.

In this post we ask again: does music point to anything beyond itself? While we view the claim that music is transcendent as a piece of mystery-mongering or as piously sentimental, there is nonetheless evidence in Wittgenstein’s Zettel that music points beyond itself to something extra-musical:

For how can it be explained what ‘expressive playing’ is? Certainly not by anything that accompanies the playing. – What is needed for the explanation? One might say: a culture. – If someone is brought up in a particular culture – and then reacts to music in such-and-such a way, you can teach him the use of the phrase “expressive playing”. (Z 163)

According to Wittgenstein, the impression a music theme or melody makes on me is connected with things in its culture or environment. What things? For one, music is connected with language. One may say that it ‘points’ to the language. But what does this mean? Let’s consider some of the kinds of statement one makes when impressed by music:

a. ‘This theme expresses disagreement’.

b. ‘Here it is as though a conclusion were being drawn’.

c. ‘This theme replies to what came before’.

d. ‘The music is blue like every working Monday’.

e. ‘The repeat is necessary’.

These statements presuppose my understanding of and familiarity with expressions of disagreement, conclusions, replies, colors, necessity, respectively. They presuppose the meaning of these words in the language, and can only be explained by reference to the primary sense of the words, but not vice versa. The meaning of ‘blue’ in (d) is not like the blue of the sky, and we can just as little explain the meaning of “e” is yellow’ by comparing it with a sample of yellow (PI, p.216). The sense is just different here. We may say therefore that statements (a)-(e) employ the words in a ‘secondary sense’.

Music interacts with language. Our experience of music – one may talk thus – is as the rhythm and intonation of the language we speak every day; is as our daily thoughts and emotions. Music becomes a part of our language; it becomes incorporated in it. One never knows when one is making a memory – nonetheless, music and talk of it becomes a part of the collective memory of a culture.  Minimally, we conclude that music ‘points beyond itself’ to language.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000)

Here is a delightful morsel from Willard van Orman Quine (Word and Object, 1960): given all available material evidence, it is impossible to determine which one of mutually incompatible translations of a text is the correct one. While what is really best in any book is always translatable, the hard truth is that translation is the art of failure. It is not merely poetry that is lost in translation: linguistic meaning too is only ever an echo. 

Let’s rework Quine in this way: given all available material evidence, it is impossible to determine which one performance of a music score is the correct one. Is it always thus? What is our attitude to the various performances of a score, say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Do we prefer a performance of it by one orchestra over another? Yes, typically we do. We all have our favorite music recordings. We prefer one performance over another by the same orchestra on different occasions, or by the same orchestra but with a different conductor, concertmaster, principal trombone, etc. etc, and so on. And this only for classical music in our western society.

In all such cases, do we contrast performances only in terms of correctness? But, what is the standard of comparison here? Well, one might rank one performance higher than another in terms of fidelity to the score. For example, the Klemperer recording of the Ninth (1957) is highly regarded for the self-control with which the conductor Otto Klemperer observes the tempo marking ‘Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso’ in the first movement. We could explain our preference for this recording of the Ninth by citing that as the reason. Suppose we say this. It is conceivable that, in this case, the Klemperer recording of the first movement is correct (to the score). One would need a trained ear to make this sort of judgement. Nonetheless, we could, if so inclined, rank one recording of the Ninth higher than another of the same piece using the score as the standard. But imagine a case in which musical appreciation consisted only in such judgements!

Surely, talk of correctness fails to exhaust all that might be said of the ‘meaning’ of the piece. We may judge a piece of music to be ‘correct’, and other performances of it as ‘incorrect’ – though it is strange to say this – but such talk is within the ambit of our larger attitude which regards a performance of music, especially in the classical tradition, always as interpretation. We speak of ‘correct music’ without thereby meaning that it is not an interpretation. Provision is made for this. Only a philosopher would say otherwise. And we remind ourselves here that music is interpretation in the case when one wishes to make judgements of correctness the sole criterion of musical appreciation. Again: nothing is lost to the other who disregards Klemperer’s Ninth in the face of one who thinks it correct.

According to Witgenstein, there are laid up in the forms of our languages and in the metaphors and similes we use as a matter of course, emblematic illustrations of our concepts. The picture of blindness as a darkness in the soul or that a person has a soul are examples of such iconographic representations.

At play in academia is the picture that illustrates the scholar as a stick figure with an inflated head. Many academics and institutions cleave to this form of representation. It influences academic experience, academic relations and academic values. The picture encourages the view that mind matters most. By contrast, the body is the incubator that digests and secretes. It is like a hollow test tube acting as pedastal for the overblown head that crowns and overcomes it.

The picture encourages false seriousness in human relations. For one wants to be seen to be extended beyond the mere obviousness of one’s body. In academic writing, the hold of the picture has been detected and is called ‘false difficulty’. Nonetheless, it is still widely judged to be a sin of the mind, not of the will. The air of soleminity at academic gatherings, such as the conference and lecture, gives to the feeling that something of vital importance is transpiring. The strong inclination to think this may show the resolve of the picture only, through whose spectacled frame we see whatever we look it. The appeal to tradition, to the great minds whose passing we still mourn and in whose name we speak in hushed tones: we merely curl and caress with our fingers the conceptual frame that sits on our nose. Don’t we ever wish to take them off? 

Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan

It is testimony to the strong hold of the Augustinian picture in our life that we even say of music that it necessarily ‘points to something beyond itself’. Of course, one is not preoccupied with this thought as one listens to music, much less when ones dances to it or with it; nonetheless, we do seek to explain the meaning of music, and this by means of philosophy terms and concepts, and so it is natural to want to say this. For there is similarity between music and language. Superficially, it does not strain the mind to conceive of music notes as words, melodies as phrases, or symphonies as sentences. Nor, therefore, to take the next step, to conceive of the ‘meaning’ of music as something extra-musical. The model is already familiar to us by now: Here is the money, there is the cow I buy with it. Name and object. But if we choose to assimilate music and the Augustinian picture we should be inclined to ask: what object?

What could this extra-musical something possibly be in a particular case? That no material object is immediately forthcoming doesn’t deter us in the least. For we simply add that music points beyond itself, and swirl our hands upward. We may even develop this thought and claim that music is ‘transcendent’ or ‘spiritual’. Yet, are we aware here of our unconscious adherence to the Augustinian picture? Where music suggests an object and there is none, we are strongly inclined to say: there is a spirit. Compare this with Investigations, remark 36: ‘…because we cannot specify any one bodily action which we call pointing to the shape (as opposed, for example, to the colour), we say that a spiritual activity corresponds to these words…Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit‘. It is mistaken to suppose that a spirit is present when language suggests a body and there is none. Why? Pointing is a bodily act, although it is not as a bodily act that pointing to the colour is distinguished. Much less pointing by a sort of abstract substance, like a spirit. In the case of music, it seems we have music and referential failure. But we press on undeterred and say that music points to something abstract, immaterial.

The purpose of music, if it makes sense to speak thus, is not to ‘point’ to anything. Compare music to dance. What is the purpose of dance, broadly understood? Well, one dances to occupy a particular place on the floor. I make this step and move here, make another step and move further there, and so on for the duration of the routine (or, until the music lasts). And if I have a partner, we move in tandem, together thus-and-so through action and reaction. The purpose of dance is to represent itself in space, as it were. The meaning is the position in space it refers to. This seems quite wrong. When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way. Similarly, when we listen to or play music, our purpose is not to arrive at a certain place (e.g., the final cadence). It is to enjoy the way itself. We are the way and the wayfarers.

The meaning of music can be as little severed from the music itself as expressive playing can be severed from the passage that carries it. And when one listens to music, it is the same: one becomes as expression as one who lives in a solilquoy or a conversation. One lives as the music.

My post The Augustinian Picture and the Meaning of Music features on the Hamilton Institute homepage and under Philosophy.

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

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