Monday, 29 June 2015

Husserl and the Perceptual mystery of Melody

For Husserl, the relationship between time and perception was of fundamental importance. He knew that time was the Achilles heel of most theories of consciousness. Today, I think we are more ignorant of the problem than ever before: our computer technology compensates with rich reductionist models of how we think perception might work, all the time overlooking the obvious ontological assumption of the 'ticking clock' by which any "mechanism" must coordinate itself. Many cyberneticians have at least acknowledged the problem - although few solutions are proposed: the best, I think, it an argument for a kind of temporal immanence which mathematician Louis Kauffman has been exploring using category theory. Interestingly, there are many parallels between Kauffman's work and Husserl's - particularly in the essentially transcendental model of perception that they both subscribe to (which in cybernetics was originally developed by Heinz von Foerster)

For Husserl, the problem of time reveals itself most acutely in the question of how it is we perceive a melody. He says (quoted in Blattner, 1999)
The matter seems very simple at first: we hear the melody, that is, we perceive it, for hearing is indeed perceiving. However, the first tone sounds, then comes the second tone, then the third, and so on. Must we not say: When the second tone sounds, I hear it,  but I no longer hear the first tone, etc.? In truth, then, I do not hear the melody but only the single present tone. That the elapsed part of the melody is something objective for me, I owe - or so one will be inclined to say - to memory; and that I do not presuppose, with the appearance of the currently intended tone, that this is all, I owe to anticipatory expectation. But we cannot be content with this explanation, for everything we have said carries over to the individual tone. Each tone has a temporal extension itself. When it begins to sound, I hear it as now; but while it continues to sound it has an ever new now,and the now that immediately precedes it changes into a past. Therefore at any given time I hear only the actually present phase of the tone, and the objectivity of the whole enduring tone is constituted in an act-continuum that is in part memory, in smallest punctual part perception, and in further part expectation. This seems to lead back top Brentano's theory. Here, then, a deeper analysis must begin.
I remember thinking like this when I was a teenager (I was an odd teenager). I wish I had known then that truly great minds also think these thoughts. Unfortunately, the education system often fails in the business of making sure important knowledge gets passed on. Most shocking for me was that nobody in the music department in Manchester University (where I studied) has the slightest time for this kind of thinking - apart from the professor, Ian Kemp. I think this may still be true, although there has recently been a resurgence of work in 'Music and Philosophy'.

Elsewhere, Husserl elaborates (Blattner, p201)
But the apprehending regard is not directed toward the phase actually sounding now, as if the sound which is apprehended were purely and simply the sound taken in this strictly momentary now. To lay hold of such a now, such a phase of duration, as a moment and to make it an object for itself is rather the function of a specific act of apprehension of another kind. If we apprehend the sound as enduring, in short, as "this sound" we are now turned toward the momentary and yet continuously changing present (the phase sounding now) but through and beyond this present, in its change, toward the sound as a unity which by its essence presents itself in this change, in this flux of appearances. 
To me, Husserl seems very close to Bergson here. Alfred Schutz, who developed Husserl's work, made some important connections with Bergson's philosophy. Schutz's contribution to music theory (which I've written about previously) succeeds I think because Schutz sees the problem of perception and time in the same breath as the problem of intersubjectivity: perceiving time, and indeed, perceiving melody, is fundamentally about knowing one another. It is tuning-in to one another.

This is why I think this stuff, though so difficult, is so important. We have become rather skilled at tuning-out from each other. It's a catastrophic path.  Even musicologists are guilty of this. Most of them don't get the way Husserl (or Schutz) thinks. I think the reason is because it means music isn't "about" sound. It is simply being.

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