The Other I

March 26, 2010

How do we know it’s true?

Filed under: Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 10:53 pm

I listened to a programme on two 20th century musical composers this evening – Henryk Gorecki from Poland and Arvo Part from Estonia.  I’d never heard of either of them before, but since I’m half Polish, I expected to prefer Gorecki.  I was surprised that it was Part’s music that resonated.

Part (unlike a talkative Gorecki) is an extremely shy man who does not give interviews easily.  But he said one thing over which I have been puzzling.  He was a mature composer before he ever heard Gregorian chant. But, he said, when he listened to it for the first time he was stunned.  “I knew,” he said, “that this was the truth.”

Okay, what do we mean when we say something like music is true?  It’s not what my mother meant when she said George Washington was telling the truth when he admitted he’d chopped down the tree.  It’s not what mathematicians mean when they it’s true that 2+2=4.  It’s not what a historian means when he says something is true.  It’s not even what believers mean when they say scripture is true.

Yet, we do somehow know that music is a language.  We know that music can communicate.  So music must be able to say something that is true.

I’ve been asking myself – and others – this question for some time now.  I know how we test the validity of scientific theories.  But how do we test the validity of music or art or poetry or sculpture or literature?

I asked a musician this question recently.  He gave me a long silent look which I recognized as the look I give when someone asks me a question and I think “I don’t know where to begin;  I think you need to read several books, or take several courses, or live several decades more before I can begin to explain.  You’re starting out with all the wrong assumptions.”

Then  he said that it was not in understanding the nuts and bolts – how chords were used or different rhythms or instruments were combined.  Finally he said “You listen.  Stop trying to analyze it.  Just listen.  Eventually you might just know whether it’s true, or whether it’s fake.”

So this is what I think he meant and what I’m beginning to think I also think:

There are some things that we apprehend directly.  I don’t mean necessarily immediately, but I mean without need for any additional confirmation.  Like seeing the color green, for instance.  I don’t need to analyze the light spectrum emanating from an object to confirm that what I am perceiving is green.  I apprehend it directly.  Could I be wrong?  Yes, I could be color blind.  But that doesn’t change the fact that there are some things I apprehend directly, that I do not need to analyze or prove further in order to know.  I might, on rare occasions, do some further tests to find out if this really is green or some trick of the light.  But it is not the test results that communicate to me what green is.  It’s the seeing the green.  And without that, all the test results in the world cannot communicate to me what green looks like.

I think the arts are very much like that.  We apprehend them directly.  We recognize directly that they are beautiful or truthful or profound.  Yes, the arts can also be analyzed – what century they reflect, who they were influenced by, how they broke with tradition or reworked some period.  These things are useful and often may increase our appreciation of the intrinsic value of the work.  But they are not the same thing and do not themselves constitute that immediate response which recognizes beauty or truth.

Can we be wrong in what we apprehend?  of course.  We can mistake tatty tawdry trash for great art.  We can be artistically “color-blind” or “tone-deaf” in some areas, unable to see or hear the beauty that is there.  And we can learn, as we mature, to recognize truth in ways that as children we do not.

But in the end, I think we know that art is great because many people recognize it as great.  Because we look at it, listen to it, and know directly that it is true.

On another day I will try to explain why I think the answer to this question matters.  At least to people like me who seem compelled to analyze absolutely everything.  (Well, half of me is Polish.  But the other half is German.)

I have many people to thank for their thoughts on this question, most recently the latest posts on the blog Thinking Makes It So.  My conclusions, however, are nobody’s responsibility but my own.  And I unreservedly reserve the right to change my mind.



  1. This addresses 2 separate groups: Language Purists, please take note. “Pärt” uses the same letter (not familiar to English-speakers) as in “Neeme Järvi” or the sound in “apple”. German “Umlaut”. It is a separate letter in its own right in Estonian.

    Music Purists: as one who tried her damnedest to appreciate Pärt’s compositions, I will drink to the fact that they are heavy. Just when you delude yourself into thinking that something is “like” something else that you know, he slips away, leaving your brain floundering…


    Comment by budavar — March 27, 2010 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

    • Oh I know, I know! I knew when I wrote it that “Part” wasn’t right. But how did you get the correct letter into your comment above? I couldn’t find anything on my keyboard that would add it. Ditto for all the other “foreign” letters that SONY didn’t put on the keyboard which I’m now using.


      Comment by theotheri — March 27, 2010 @ 2:51 pm | Reply

  2. Hello again,

    I find the simplest way to get eg ‘ä’ etc is to find ‘Character Map’ on your PC. If you’re using Windows XP you should be able to find it by clicking ‘Start’, then selecting ‘All programs’, then ‘Accessories’, then ‘System Tools’, then finally ‘Character Map’.

    If you can find it it will show all sorts of special characters to select & then copy & paste.

    Hope this makes sense. If you’re not using Windows XP I’m sure there will be an equivalent function somewhere…

    Thanks, Chris.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — March 30, 2010 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

    • Oh thank you! I found it. I didn’t know it was there – I’ve always just used the Insert Symbol function on the word processing program which assumes that the world either speaks English or with icons.


      Comment by theotheri — March 30, 2010 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

      • That’s another way! Use Insert Symbol, then select the same font as the one you’re using. You should get a scrolling window including loads of special characters…


        Comment by Chris Lawrence — March 30, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  3. What you say about ‘knowing directly’ may work for some arts (eg music – or at least some music), but I’m not sure it works exactly like this for all arts.

    For example a dramatic performance does require some interpretation, some mediation. It does not necessarily ‘declare itself’ as a play – someone who didn’t know anything about drama & stumbled into a theatre could mistakenly see a play as a piece of ‘real life’ or as a game.

    Also the audience normally has to understand the language the play is in to appreciate it for what it is.

    It could be that the immediacy of music, and therefore its capacity for being ‘directly known’ is related to its non-representational nature. To an extent music must be ‘heard as’ music (rather than eg noise or an alarm or warning) in order to be appreciated as music. But the issue is much more evident with representational artefacts.

    Not all language texts and 2D & 3D representations of things are created as, and intended as, works of art. For example there are dictionaries, menus, diagrams and toy animals. Part of getting to the point of appreciating the truth (or ‘truth’) of a work of representational art is seeing the object as a work of representational art, and not as an illustration, facsimile, or set of instructions.

    thinking makes it so


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — March 30, 2010 @ 5:27 pm | Reply

    • Yes. You are so obviously right that I won’t even try to explain how managed to walk into such a blind spot. Especially since one of my non-negotiable principles of cognition is that we never – are incapable of – perceiving anything (even something as simple as the color green) without also interpreting it in some way, however elemental the interpretation might be.

      Clearly, grasping any art including music involves some kind of interpretation.

      So back to the drawing board. Maybe I can come out some place a little less muddied on the next try.

      Thank you for your comment. I certainly needed it!


      Comment by theotheri — March 30, 2010 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

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