Constraints on Manipulations of Emotions by Music: A Critique of Tom Cochrane's Assumptions

By Konecni, Vladimir J. | Philosophy Today, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Constraints on Manipulations of Emotions by Music: A Critique of Tom Cochrane's Assumptions


Konecni, Vladimir J., Philosophy Today


In a chapter that compared the respective roles of emotion and reason in art-music composers' creative process, I suggested that emotivism was the currently dominant position in the study of, and talk about, music. ' I defined it informally as a general proclivity for excessive insertion of emotion and feeling into both scientific and lay accounts of mental life, needs, and motivation in daily behavior, in matters artistic - especially musical - and non-artistic.2 1 begin this brief article with a mention of emotivism, because it is an insufficiently recognized backdrop for a number of contemporary debates in the philosophy of music. Somewhat paradoxically, it seems to be a cognitive stance taken by many philosophers and experimental psychologists of music, one that reflects their (I would claim) unwarranted acceptance of a quasi-ideological cultural context that has been characterized by many as deeply antiintellectual.3

The preceding comments are offered as an oblique introduction to my critical analysis of an important recent article that can be regarded as the epitome of one aspect of emotivism - the near-arbitrary blurring of boundaries of the human emotional system in its interaction with the environment, and more specifically, the musical environment. Having been published with high visibility, in the lead position in an issue of a premier journal of philosophical aesthetics, undoubtedly contributed to the attention the article has received - as have its provocative assumptions about the nature of human emotions and their relationship to music expression, music listening, and music production. The character of the various assumptions and the manner in which they are combined - implying an almost completely unconstrained plasticity of the human emotional life with regard to its manipulation by music - turn my critique into a case study of a telling example of emotivism applied and in action.

In the following critical observations, I address a variety of theoretical issues in relation to (the validity of) assumptions made by Tom Cochrane in his article "Expression and extended cognition."4 My remarks are limited - as are Cochrane's - to expression and experience of emotion (and do not refer to other affective states, such as moods). Furthermore, as is the case with Cochrane's discussion, mine is limited to music. The latter decision, on my part, was necessitated by the specific or idiosyncratic features that the ideas of extended cognition acquire when applied to the domain of music by Cochrane. In short, in this article, I question the additional assumptions that Cochrane appears to have had to make in order to apply the notion of "extended mind" to music, rather than the notions of extended cognition (or of "active externalism") themselves.5

The critique is divided into nine brief sections, all addressing Cochrane's assumptions and, in several instances, generalizations. One problem with the assumptions is the manner in which ideas from the philosophical, as well as the bioand socio-psychological, theories of emotion are treated. Another concerns Cochrane's interpretation and application of philosophical theories of music expression. And the third is Cochrane's rather uncritical reliance on an unconventional, highly speculative neuroscientific account by Istvan Molnar-Szakacs and Katie Overy of the "mirror-neuron" system - applied by them to humans and to music - for the purpose of developing, with the additional aid from the concepts of empathy and "contagion," a view of human emotions as an improbable system of essentially unconstrained plasticity and permeability by music.

The article concludes on a note of moderate encouragement: Because the musician, the instrument, and the improviseaTcomposed" music are characteristically and interestingly intertwined in jazz improvisation, this may be the only fertile ground for extended cognition in music, the cost being, however, that any claims to generality are sharply curtailed. …

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