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 a set of beliefs that makes them coherent. — Only among professional philosophers, it seems, we are 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.


* Nicer still is this resolution: You hold that F# for half a bar and then add a F# in the bass. All else being equal, the F# will sound just fine (because the C Major can be heard as a D7 add9/11 without the root note) and our ear might expect the resolution to a G Major triad.

** See also Daniel Martin Feige’s Philosophie des Jazz, p. 77, where I found some inspiration for my idea: “Das, was der Improvisierende tut, erhält seinen spezifischen Sinn erst im Lichte dessen, was er später getan haben wird.”

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

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.

Originality: What is a reformulation? (Part II)

In my last post, I claimed that originality amounts to nothing but the reformulation of theses or arguments. Although that might sound dismissive, I’m afraid I have to say quite a bit more about the topic of originality. So more posts will follow in due course. It worries me that such a central concept is still much in the grip of an unfounded genius cult. Being as unclear as the notion of clarity itself, it creates anxieties in students and gives undue power to examiners and reviewers. On the other hand, I would like to stress that I think very highly of reformulations and thus of what I call originality. In what follows, I’d like to say a bit more about reformulations.

Let me start with a clarification. I’m talking about originality in philosophy. Once you move outside that narrow field, there are more ways of being original. Already historians of philosophy, for example, can be original by starting to work on a new text, a forgotten author or by invoking new technology such as distant reading. Moreover. recombinations of technologies and traditional approaches in the humanities can bring about a lot of new insights. But there are limits. Once we return to the business of asking questions and giving reasons, we are back to our linguistic basis. – Let’s now move on to reformulations.

Before any reformulation can count as original, it has to count as rational, at least in the sense that it is accepted by our interlocutors. To count as rational, any formulation has to meet three agreement constraints. One’s claim has to agree

(1) with facts (i.e. non-textual phenomena)

(2) with oneself (i.e. with one’s own other beliefs etc.)

(3) with others (fellow academics, canons, authorities)

Constraint (3) is crucial. I might assume to be in agreement with facts or myself as much as I want, being rational is a matter of being in agreement with a community. This is why originality can’t completely transcend the community. Being original is not something you can ascribe to yourself; it’s the community that attributes that status to you.

Within these constraints, we might encounter various kinds of reformulations. Starting from a repetition (in a different context), a reformulation might be a variation, an opposition (in the sense that saying “not-p” requires saying “p”) or a recontextualisation. In this sense you might say that Descartes’ cogito is a variation on Augustine’s cogito, or that Walter Chatton’s anti-razor is an original opposition to William of Ockham’s razor. What makes these items original? I’d say it’s the fact that these theses have been given a decided new twist or turn. Their originality can be seen, as it were, because the initial thesis is still identifiable. They changed the topic or direction of the conversation while remaining in agreement with a community.

Personally, I think the most interesting cases of originality occur when a claim is reformulated such that it is received by different communities. The point is that constraint (3) might work for more than one community. I can think of quite a number of cases where this happened. John Locke combined bits of an Aristotelian theory of language with Pufendorf’s political theory. This way, his theory of language became relevant for different philosophical topics and communities. Another example is Robert Brandom’s reformulation of (a Habermasian) Kant and Hegel that migrated into new communities, even in Germany. The most recent (and for me rather impressive) example is David Livingstone Smith’s reformulation of Ruth Millikan’s teleosemantics within the context of a theory of ideology. (By contrast, I find that attempts to shun another community are often rather uninspiring: hello, continental-analytic divide…)

So, yes, I’m not trying to be dismissive when construing originality as a kind of reformulation. Quite the contrary! But I find it helpful to consider the social constraints that govern the notion of rationality and originality, not least to explore the possibilities of transcending or merging communities.


On a personal note, given the time of the year, I’ll have to reduce the frequency of my posts for the following weeks. But I’ll be back soon with more on these issues.

Originality? – Don’t make a fool of yourself! (Part I)

What is originality? I have been studying and even teaching philosophy for quite some time now, but I still don’t know what fellow philosophers really mean when they say that something is original. Kurt Flasch, my thesis advisor in the nineties, used to say that you become original once you forget where you’ve read your claims. I am myself a bit more positive. I think one can be original in finding a good reformulation of an existing claim or argument. But that’s all there is to it, really. So if you think that originality has to do with novelty, think again.

Why do I believe that originality is not about novelty? Well, I assume that philosophy is an on-going conversation. And in a conversation, conversational rules apply. Reformulating a point is great. It might highlight unexpected aspects or trigger interesting associations. But don’t start talking about things that don’t relate to the current exchange. People will just think you’re weird.

I’m not saying this to discourage anyone from trying to be original. But originality is always listed as a crucial assessment criterion, no matter whether it’s about student essays, PhD dissertations or grant applications. Yet, as far as I can see it doesn’t amount to more than this: reviewer has not thought of the idea in quite those terms. – Again, that’s fine. But let’s be clear about what it amounts to.

When I ask students what they want to achieve in their work, they often reply that they wish to say something original. In order to find out what they mean by that, I have designed a little test. I let them write a small paragraph on a topic of their choice. When I look at what they’ve written, I almost always find something that sounds like it’s coming straight out of a handbook on the issue. – Why, I ask, did you write this? We knew that already. A particularly ambitious and honest student once replied: “Well, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.” – I guess that is what it comes down to. Wanting to be original might just mean wanting to belong. Belong to that that club in which everyone is original.