Relative Abstraction and Instrumental Music

A short question with a long introduction:
In past years, my philosopher kids and I discussed the question of relative abstraction. There’s a rather large definitional problem here that for this post I choose to ignore. Whatever relative abstraction is, it is a kind of intellectual construct that I’m not sure will get one very far. Still, it is fun to kick it around. The motivation for our discussions came from their frustrations with teaching symbolic logic, something philosophy graduate students do to earn their keep and something some philosophers do their whole career. It turns out that there are very few C students in a beginning symbolic logic class. About half the class thinks it is the easiest math class they have ever taken. Those in this category can almost always get a B with almost no effort and an A with minimal effort. Then there is the other half of the class that just doesn’t get it. No matter how hard they or their teacher tries, they can’t figure it out. With great effort, some of these students can earn a D. And believe me; for many of them a D is a hard earned grade. A shocking number of these students either accept their fate and drop the course or work up their best explanation for falling. The question we would kick around was, “Is there a correlation between ability in symbolic logic and the ability to deal with abstraction?” A discussion of this question easily slips into a discussion of what constitutes abstraction and that leads to the question of relative abstraction.
There’s actually a literature on this but, to my shame, I don’t know it very well and won’t bother with it here. I will ask, “Without worrying about any truth claim, which of the follow two statements is the more abstract?” 1) If you see a star, it is night. 2) If P then Q. I trust (hope) that most abnormal readers will think that statement 1 is less abstract than statement 2. My guess is that most readers will see my last sentence, the one beginning “I trust . . .,” as midway between statement 1 and statement 2 on some scale of relative abstraction but there might be room to argue the point.
Just so you’ll know where I’m coming from, I’ve always thought that any good poem was less abstract than any written history and that applied mathematics was more abstract than both poetry and history and that symbolic logic was the most abstract of any of the previously mentioned expressive genres. While poetry and symbolic logic may not define the ends of the continuum, I think that most other expressive genres, or at least specific examples of expressive genres, can be placed between them. I don’t want to argue the point just now but I, if you’ve made it this far, I did want you to know where I stand. Yes, I do think poetry is among the least abstract of human expression.
Well, Shirley and I have been listening to a series of lectures on the history and language of music by Robert Greenberg. In the lecture we watched last night, Greenberg made the following claim, “Instrumental music, the most abstract of the arts, truly develops during the Baroque Era.” The historical part of the claim is, I think, banal. What I find abnormally interesting is the sub-claim that instrumental music is the most abstract of the arts. Greenberg made a reasonable case for this claim. Now my question is this, is instrumental music more abstract than symbolic logic? Yeah, I know that even putting aside the problems of exactly how to define “abstract,” the problem is multidimensional. But it is the nature of a multidimensional problem that a given object in multidimensional a space will project on to every axis of that space. Where does instrumental music project on the abstraction axis?

2 thoughts on “Relative Abstraction and Instrumental Music”

  1. How about this: Instrumental music might position itself in both ends if the axis: As a vehicle of expression / in the impression music creates, it is akin to poetry, but even beyond the abstraction of language. In structure, however, music resembles mathemathics. Thanks for the fun chain of reasoning.

  2. Geir,
    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you found this fun. I do worry that your response highlights the problem of definition. Still trying to avoid that problem as much as I can, I will note that poetry is generally (there are exceptions) quite specific with regard to emotion and the motivation for that emotion. On the other hand, instrumental music is, in and of itself, completely devoid of motivation and in general, while emotive, the details as expressed in the music are far from specific. Sometimes we do know the occasion or motivation for a piece of instrumental music but that is always a contingent and never an intrinsic knowledge.

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