Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Silence Revisited: Taking the Sight out of Auditory Qualities

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Silence Revisited: Taking the Sight out of Auditory Qualities

Article excerpt

In the beginning of the thirteenth book of the Odyssey, Homer describes the end of a discourse given by Odysseus stating:

He ceas'd; but left so pleasing on their ear

His voice, that listening still they seem'd to hear.

A pause of silence hush'd the shady rooms: ...(1)

Such a passage expresses the most distinctive elements that separate humankind from other known forms of life, namely, the ability to speak, to listen, and to perceive silence. Of these three capacities, perhaps the perception of silence, while fascinating, is also the most misunderstood.

At best, silence is a slippery topic. On the surface, silence might be easily explained as merely the absence of noise or the cessation of speech. Yet, these are only the dispositions for the experience of silence. Where silence can express itself in a solitary walk, the sadness of death, or in the calm of a serious argument, we are able to attribute various layers of meaning to the experience of silence as well as distinguish its presence qualitatively by employing such terms as deep silence,(2) true silence,(3) or open silence.(4)

My purpose in this essay is to pursue a discussion of silence along two lines--one negative, the other positive--in hopes of broadening the margins of how we think silence philosophically. First the negative. Studies in the past have investigated silence far too narrowly and abstractly. One recent study, by Dauenhauer, for example, delimits "the complex phenomenon" of silence by contrasting its essential connection with utterance or discourse.(5) Yet, as critics pointed out, silence may not bear any essential relationship to discourse per se. The essential link seems to arise from the more obvious contrast between silence and sound.(6) In other words, the dialectic between utterance and silence must be preceded by a much larger dialectic that must be taken into account first, namely, the dialectic between noise and silence.(7) Meanwhile, other studies, while adding valuable insights to the study of silence, have too easily turned it into an abstraction. Picard's study, for example, referred to silence as "an autonomous phenomenon," or worse, "a substance."(8) In places, Ihde refers to silence as a "non-experience" that lacks humanly perceived presence.(9)

In regard to the perception of silence, I am suspicious of studies like the one by Dufrenne which disperses the unique significance of auditory perception into a general discussion of synaesthesia.(10) Undoubtedly, to my mind, there is something like synaesthesia at work in our embodiment in the life-world,(11) but such discussions of this general sensibility do not really account for the fact that the eye and ear are two distinctly different perceptual fields.(12) A general synthesis of this sort is a type of reductionism that tells us very little about the unique contribution of each of the physical and cognitive senses.

Then, there is the positive line of inquiry. Silence is essentially intertwined or equiprimordial with the fact that we make oral sounds, that we hear, and that we listen.(13) Silence is not an ideal presence that exists between the oral sounds of our verbal discourse. The oral sound, and the silence it punctuates, are both differing levels of audition. The sound of spoken words and silence do not stand in opposition to one another-they are modulations in our ability to perceive auditory qualities in the ambient environment.

It seems futile to continually insist on pitting silence against what we think to be its opposite, namely, what we hear and listen to. Is silence ever the ideal and the total other of sound? Does silence not lie somewhere on the scale that marks the entire range of sonic perceptions in the life-world? Are not the oral rhythms of voice and speech an integral part of these sonic-perceptions? In short, before any philosophical analysis of silence can be fruitful, it must be presumed that silence is foremost an aural perception that draws on our ability to make oral sounds and to listen. …

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