Thursday, 4 May 2017

Teaching, Music and the life of Emotions: a response to distinctions between thinking and knowing

Music makes tangible aspects of emotional life which underpin conscious processes of being – within which one might include learning, thinking, reflecting, teaching, acting, and so on. In education, we place so much emphasis on knowledge because knowledge can be turned into an object. People make absurd and indefensible distinctions between “thinking” and “knowing”, “reflecting” and “acting”, “creating” and “copying” partly because there is no framework for thinking beyond objects; equally nobody challenges them because they are only left with feelings of doubt or alienation that they can barely articulate. The emotional life cannot be objectified: it presents itself “through a glass, darkly”. Only the arts, and particularly music succeeds in “painting the glass”.

In Suzanne Langer’s view, composers and performers are epistemologists of the emotions: in their abstract sonic constructions they articulate what they know about what it is to feel. What they construct is a passage of time over which, they hope, the feelings of listeners and performers will somehow be coordinated to the point that one person might look at another and know that they are feeling the same thing. It is a coordination of the inner world of the many; a moment where the many brains think as one brain. This is the most fundamental essence of social existence.

We each have something of the composer in us in the sense that we (sometimes) express our feelings. But composers do more than this. They articulate what they know about what it is to feel, and their expression is a set of instructions for the reproduction of a temporal form. In mathematics, this kind of expression through a set of instructions is called “E-Prime” ( It’s a bit like the kind of games that people sometimes play: “think of a number between 1 and 10; double it; divide by …”. But similar in kind though such games are, they have nothing of the sophistication of music.

Great teachers do something similar to composers. To begin with, they work with in an immensely complex domain. Broadly, the teacher’s job is to express their understanding of a subject. But when we inquire as to what it is to "express understanding", we are left with the same thing as in music: it is to express what it feels like to know their subject. In great hands, the subject they express and the feelings they reveal are coordinated to the point that what is conveyed is their knowledge of what it is to feel knowing what they do.

Talking about emotions is difficult. It is much easier to talk of knowledge, or to talk about creativity, or thinking in loose rhetorical terms, avoiding any specifics. It is easy to point to pictures of brain scans and make assertions about correlations between neural structures and experiences - which somehow takes the soul of it and gives license to bullies to tell everyone else how to teach based on the brutal "evidence" of neuroscience. Any child will know they are lying. 

We can talk about emotion more intelligently. Wise heads in the past - some from cybernetics - made important progress in this. Bateson's concept of Bio-entropy is, I think the closest description we have of what happens (I had a great chat to Ambjörn Naeve about this yesterday). We should start with music: it is the essence of connotation. It presents the richness of the interaction of multiple descriptions of the world which was at the heart of Bateson's message. It is ecological, and it's ecology is so explicitly ruled by redundancies. And perhaps the most hopeful sign is that the very idea of counterpoint is beginning to take centre stage not just in the way that we analyse ecologies, but in the way that the quantum physicists are programming their remarkable computers. 

No comments: