Embracing mistakes in music and speech

Part of what I love about improvised music is the special relation to mistakes. If you listen to someone playing a well known composition, a deviation from the familiar melody, harmony or perhaps even from the rhythm might appear to be a mistake. But what if the “mistake” is played with confidence and perhaps even repeated? Compare: “An apple a day keeps the creeps away.” Knowing the proverb, you will instantly recognise that something is off. But did I make a downright mistake or did play around with the proverb? That depends I guess. But what does it depend on? On the proverb itself? On my intentions? Or does it depend on your charity as a listener? It’s hard to tell. The example is silly and simple but the phenomenon is rather complex if you think about mistakes in music and speech. What I would like to explore in the following is what constitutes the fine line between mistake and innovation. My hunch is there is no such thing as a mistake (or an innovation). Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re mistaken. Please hear me out.

Like much else, the appreciation of music is based on conventions that guide our expectations. Even if your musical knowledge is largely implicit (in that you might have had no exposure to theory), you’ll recognise variations or oddities – and that even if you don’t know the piece in question. The same goes for speech. Even if you don’t know the text in question and wouldn’t recognise if the speaker messed up a quotation, you will recognise mispronunciations, oddities in rhythm and syntax and such like. We often think of such deviations from conventions as mistakes. But while you might still be assuming that the speaker is sounding somewhat odd, they might in fact be North Americans intonating statements as if they were questions, performing funny greeting rituals or even be singing rap songs. Some things might strike people as odd while others catch on, so much so that they end up turning into conventions. – But why do we classify one thing as a variation and the other as a mistake?

Let’s begin with mistakes in music. You might assume that a mistake is, for instance, a note that shouldn’t be played. We speak of a “wrong note” or a “bum note”. Play an F# with much sustain over a C Major triad and you get the idea. Even in the wildest jazz context that could sound off. But what if you hold that F# for half a bar and then add a Bb to the C Major triad? All else being equal, the F# will sound just fine (because the C Major can be heard as a C7 and the F# as a the root note of the tritone substitution F#7) and our ear might expect the resolution to a F Major triad. Long story short: Whether something counts as a mistake does not depend on the note in question, but on what is played afterwards.*

Let this thought sink in and try to think through situations in which something sounding off was resolved. If you’re not into music, you might begin with a weird noise that makes you nervous until you notice that it’s just rain hitting the roof top. Of course, there are a number of factors that matter, but the upshot is that a seemingly wrong note will count as fine or even as an impressive variation if it’s carried on in an acceptable way. This may be through a resolution (that allows for a reinterpretation of the note) or through repetition (allowing for interpreting it as an intended or new element in its own right) or another measure. Repetition, for example, might turn a strange sequence into an acceptable form, even if the notes in question would not count as acceptable if played only once. It’s hard to say what exactly will win us over (and in fact some listeners might never be convinced). But the point is not that the notes themselves are altered, but that repetition is a form of creating a meaningful structure, while a one-off does not afford anything recognisable. That is, repetition is a means to turn mistakes into something acceptable, a pattern. If this is correct, then it seems sensible to say that the process of going through (apparent) mistakes is not only something that can lead to an amended take on the music, but also something that leads to originality. After all, it’s turning apparent mistakes into something acceptable that makes us see them as legitimate variations.

I guess the same is true of speech. Something might start out striking you as unintelligible, but will be reinterpreted as a meaningful pattern if it is resolved into something acceptable. But how far does this go? You might think that the phenomenon is merely of an aesthetic nature, pertaining to the way we hear and recontextualise sounds in the light of what comes later. We might initially hear a string of sounds that we identify as language once we recognise a pattern in the light of what is uttered later. But isn’t this also true of the way we understand thoughts in general? If so, then making (apparent) mistakes is the way forward – even in philosophy.

Now you might object that the fact that something can be identified as an item in a language (or in music) does not mean that the content of what is said makes sense or is true. If I make a mistake in thinking, it will remain a mistake, even if the linguistic expression can be amended. – Although it might seem this way, I’d like to claim that the contrary is true: The same that goes for music and basic speech comprehension also goes for thought. Thoughts that would seem wrong at the time of utterance can be adjusted in the light of what comes later. Listening to someone, we will do everything to try and make their thoughts come out true. Trying to understand a thought that might sound unintelligible and wrong in the beginning might lead us to new insights, once we find ways in which it rhymes with things we find acceptable. “Ah, that is what you mean!” As Donald Davidson put it, charity is not optional.** And yes, bringing Davidson into the picture should make it clear that my idea is not new. Thoughts that strike us as odd might turn out fine or even original once we identify the set of beliefs that makes them coherent. — Only among professional philosophers, it seems, are we all too often inclined to make the thoughts of our interlocutors come out false. But seen in analogy to musical improvisation, the talk of mistakes is perhaps just conservatism. Branding an idea as mistaken might merely reveal our clinging to familiar patterns.


* See also Daniel Martin Feige’s Philosophie des Jazz, where this idea is discussed.

** The basic idea is illustrated by the example at the beginning of an older post on the nature of error.

“Is it ok if I still work on Descartes?” The canon does not have to be canonical

Browsing through the web today, I found the following passage on the webpage of one of the few leading journals in the history of philosophy:

“Ever since the founding of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, its articles (and its submissions) have been dominated by papers on a small, select coterie of philosophers. Not surprisingly, these are Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant.”

“Not surprisingly” can be said in many ways, but the place and phrasing of the passage suggest some sort of pride on part of the author. But the “coterie” is so small that it still makes me chuckle. Given that this is one of the general top journals for the whole of the history of philosophy, this narrowness should be worrying. Posting this on facebook lead to some obvious entertainment. However, I also recognised some mild expression of shame from those who work on canonical figures. And I sometimes caught myself wondering whether I should continue to work on figures such as Ockham, Locke, Spinoza and Hume. Should we feel ashamed of working on the canon? In the light of such questions, I would like to briefly talk about a different worry: that of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. More precisely, I worry that attempts at diversifying the canon can harm good work on and alongside the canon. Let me explain.

Currently, we are witnessing an enormous amount of initiatives to diversify the canon, both with regard to the inclusion of women as well as of non-western traditions. The initiatives and projects I know are truly awe-inspiring. Not only do they open up new areas of research, they also affect the range of what is taught, even in survey courses. This is a great success for teaching and research in philosophy and its history. On the one hand, we learn more and more about crucial developments in the history of philosophy on a global level. On the other hand, this increase of knowledge also seems to set a moral record straight. In view of attempts to make our profession more inclusive in hiring, it’s obvious that we should also look beyond the narrow “coterie” when it comes to the content of research and teaching.

Now the moral dimension of diversification might embarrass those who continue to do teaching and research on canonical figures. “Is it ok”, one might wonder, “to teach Descartes rather than Elisabeth of Bohemia?” Of course, we might reply that it depends on one’s agenda. Yet, as much as diversification is a good thing, it will put pressure on those who choose otherwise. Given constraints of time and space, diversification might be perceived as adding to the competition. Will publishers and editors begin to favour the cool new work on non-canonical figures? Will I have to justify my canonical syllabus? While I wouldn’t worry too much about such issues, we know that our profession is rather competitive and it wouldn’t be the first time that good ideas are abused for nasty ends. – This is why it’s vital to see the whole idea of diversification as one to enrich and complement our knowledge. Rather than seeing canonical figures being pushed to the side, we should embrace the new lines of research and teaching as a way of learning new things also about canonical figures. In keeping with this spirit, I’d like to highlight two points that I find crucial in thinking about the canon and its diversification:

  • Firstly, there are non-canonical interpretations of the canon. The very idea of a canon suggests that we already know most things about certain figures and traditions. But we need to remind ourselves that the common doxography does by no means exhaust what there is to be known about authors such as Plato or Kant. Rather we need to see that most authors and debates are still unknown. On the one hand, we gather new historical knowledge about these figures. On the other hand, each generation of scholars has to make up their minds anew. Thus, even if we work on on the most canonical figures ever, we can challenge the common doxography and develop new knowledge.
  • Secondly, the diversification should also concern neglected figures alongside the canon. Have you noticed that the Middle Ages are represented by three authors? Yes, Aquinas, Aquinas, and Aquinas! Almost every study dipping into medieval discussions mentions Aquinas, while his teacher Albert the Great is hardly known outside specialist circles. But when we talk of diversification, we usually don’t think of Albert the Great, Adam of Wodeham, Kenelm Digby or Bernard Bolzano. These authors are neglected, unduly so, but they normally aren’t captured by attempts at diversification either. They run alongside the canonical figures and weigh on our conscience, but they have not much of a moral lobby. Yet, as I see it, it’s equally important that the work on them be continued and that they are studied in relation to other canonical and non-canonical figures.

In other words, the canon does not have to be canonical. The upshot is that we need as much work on canonical as on non-canonical figures in all senses of the word. We hardly know anything about either set of figures. And we constantly need to renew our understanding. Competition between these two areas of research and teaching strikes me as nonsensical. There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with working on canonical figures.

Philosophical genres. A response to Peter Adamson

Would you say that the novel is of a more proper literary genre than poetry? Or would you say that the pop song is less of a musical genre than the sonata? To me these questions make no sense. Both poems and novels form literary genres; both pop songs and sonatas form musical genres. And while you might have a personal preference for one over the other, I can’t see a justification for principally privileging one over the other. The same is of course true of philosophical genres: A commentary on a philosophical text is no less of a philosophical genre than the typical essay or paper.* Wait! What?

Looking at current trends that show up in publication lists, hiring practices, student assignments etc., articles (preferably in peer-reviewed journals) are the leading genre. While books still count as important contributions in various fields, my feeling is that the paper culture is beginning to dominate everything else. But what about commentaries to texts, annotated editions and translations or reviews? Although people in the profession still recognise that these genres involve work and (increasingly rare) expertise, they usually don’t count as important contributions, even in history of philosophy. I think this trend is highly problematic for various reasons. But most of all it really impoverishes the philosophical landscape. Not only will it lead to a monoculture in publishing; also our teaching of philosophy increasingly focuses on paper production. But what does this trend mean? Why don’t we hold other genres at least in equally high esteem?

What seemingly unites commentaries to texts, annotated editions and translations or reviews is that they focus on the presentation of the ideas of others. Thus, my hunch is that we seem to think more highly of people presenting their own ideas than those presenting the ideas of others. In a recent blog post, Peter Adamson notes the following:

“Nowadays we respect the original, innovative thinker more than the careful interpreter. That is rather an anomaly, though. […]

[I]t was understood that commenting is itself a creative activity, which might involve giving improved arguments for a school’s positions, or subtle, previously overlooked readings of the text being commented upon.”

Looking at ancient, medieval and even early modern traditions, the obsession with what counts as originality is an anomaly indeed. I say “obsession” because this trend is quite harmful. Not only does it impoverish our philosophical knowledge and skills, it also destroys a necessary division of labour. Why on earth should every one of us toss out “original claims” by the minute? Why not think hard about what other people wrote for a change? Why not train your philosophical chops by doing a translation? Of course the idea that originality consists in expressing one’s own ideas is fallacious anyway, since thinking is dialogical. If we stop trying to understand and uncover other texts, outside of our paper culture, our thinking will become more and more self-referential and turn into a freely spinning wheel… I’m exaggerating of course, but perhaps only a bit. We don’t even need the medieval commentary traditions to remind ourselves. Just remember that it was, amongst other things, Chomsky’s review of Skinner that changed the field of linguistics. Today, writing reviews, working on editions and translations doesn’t get you a grant, let alone a job. While we desperately need new editions, translations and materials for research and teaching, these works are esteemed more like a pastime or retirement hobby.**

Of course, many if not most of us know that this monoculture is problematic. I just don’t know how we got there that quickly. When I began to study, the work on editions and translations still seemed to flourish, at least in Germany. But it quickly died out, history of philosophy was abandoned or ‘integrated’ in positions in theoretical or practical philosophy, and many people who then worked very hard on the texts that are available in shiny editions are now without a job.

If we go on like this, we’ll soon find that no one will be able to read or work on past texts. We should then teach our students that real philosophy didn’t begin to evolve before 1970 anyway. Until it gets that bad I would plead for reintroducing a sensible division of labour, both in research and teaching. If you plan your assignments next time, don’t just offer your students to write an essay. Why not have them choose between an annotated translation, a careful commentary on a difficult passage or a review? Oh, of course, they may write an essay, too. But it’s just one of many philosophical genres, many more than I listed here.


* In view of the teaching practice that follows from the focus on essay writing, I’d adjust the opening analogy as follows: Imagine the music performed by a jazz combo solely consisting of soloists and no rhythm section. And imagine that all music instruction would from now on be geared towards soloing only… (Of course, this analogy would capture the skills rather than the genre.)

** See Eric Schliesser’s intriguing reply to this idea.

Against allusions

What is the worst feature of my writing? I can’t say what it is these days; you tell me please! But looking back at what I worked hardest to overcome in writing I’d say it’s using allusions. I would write things such as “in the wake of the debate on semantic externalism” or “given the disputes over divine omnipotence bla bla” without explaining what precise debate I actually meant or what kind of semantic externalism or notions of the divine I had in mind. This way, I would refer to a context without explicating it. I guess such allusions were supposed to do two things: on the one hand, I used them to abbreviate the reference to a certain context or theory etc., on the other hand, I was hoping to display my knowledge of that context. To peers, it was meant to signal awareness of the appropriate references without actually getting too involved and, most importantly, without messing up. If you don’t explicate or explain, you can’t mess things up all that much. In short, I used allusions to make the right moves. So what’s wrong with making the right moves?

Let me begin by saying something general about allusions. Allusions, also known as “hand waving”, are meant to refer to something without explicitly stating it. Thus, they are good for remaining vague or ambiguous and can serve various ends in common conversation or literature. Most importantly, their successful use presupposes sufficient knowledge on part of the listener or reader who has to have the means to disambiguate a word or phrase. Funnily enough, such presuppositions are often accompanied by phrases insinuating the contrary. Typical phrases are: “as we all know”, “as is well known”, “famously”, “obviously”, “clearly”, “it goes without saying” etc.

Such presuppositions flourish and work greatly among friends. Here, they form a code that often doesn’t require any of the listed phrases or other markers. They rather work like friendly nods or winks. But while they might be entertaining among friends, they often exclude other listeners in scholarly contexts. Now you might hasten to think that those excluded simply don’t ‘get it’, because they lack the required knowledge. But that’s not true. Disambiguation requires knowledge, yes, but it also and crucially requires confidence (since you always might make a fool of yourself after all) and an interest in the matter. If you’re unsure whether you’re really interested, allusions used among scholars often closely resemble the tone of a couple of old blokes dominating a dinner party with old insider jokes. Who wants to sound like that in writing?

Apart from sounding like a bad party guest, there is a deeper problem with allusions in scholarly contexts. They rely on the status quo of canonical knowledge. Since the presuppositions remain unspoken, the listener has go by what he or she takes to be a commonly acceptable disambiguation. Of course, we have to take some things as given and we cannot explicate everything, but when it comes to important steps in our arguments or evidence, reliance on allusions is an appeal to the authority of the status quo rather than the signalling of scholarly virtue.

I began to notice this particularly in essays by students who were writing their essays mainly for their professors. Assuming that professors know (almost) everything, nothing seems to need unpacking. But since almost all concepts in philosophy are essentially contested, such allusions often don’t work. As long as I don’t know which precise version of an idea I’m supposed to assume, I might be just as lost as if I didn’t know the next thing about it. Thus the common advice to write for beginners or fellow students. Explain and unpack at least all the things you’re committed to argue for or use as evidence for a claim. Otherwise at least I often won’t get what’s going on.

The problem with that advice is that it remains unclear how much explanation is actually appropriate. Of course, we can’t do without presuppositions. And we cannot and should not write only for beginners. If allusions are a vice, endless explanations might fare no better. Aiming at avoiding every possible misunderstanding can result in an equally dull or unintelligible prose. So I guess we have to unpack some things and merely allude to others. But which ones do we explain in detail? It’s important to see that every paper or book has (or should have) a focus: this is the claim you ultimately want to argue for. At the same time, there will be many assumptions that you shouldn’t commit yourself to showing. I attempt to explain only those things that are part of the focus. That said, it sometimes really is tricky to figure out what that focus actually is. Unpacking allusions might help with finding it, though.