From the Chaplain

The American Organist, July 2011 | Go to article overview

From the Chaplain


Music: An Antidote to Cognitive Imperialism

THE COLUMNIST and commentator David Brooks has written that one of the major ways we are changing as a culture is in how we understand human cognition. We are coming to see that our varied ways of knowing need to be integrated. Last March, Brooks began one of his columns by observing that an exclusive focus on rational ways of knowing distorts who we are as human beings. It makes us what he calls "divided creatures." In a culture of divided creatures, things operate this way: "Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions. This has created a distortion in our culture.

"When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things, like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. . . .Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is returning. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics, and so on. ... I suspect their work will have a giant effect on culture. It will change how we see ourselves."1

To assert that one way of human knowing is the only way of knowing, or the highest way of knowing, is what I call cognitive imperialism. It vanquishes other ways of knowing on the basis of the unfounded assumption that it is the only valid mode of cognition. To give you a feeling for how cognitive imperialism diminishes the richness of human experience and expression, here is a brief mental experiment, based on a presentation I heard some years ago.

If you want to define what a tiger is, you can turn to a dictionary and get a description in scientific language: "A large carnivorous feline mammal, Panthern tigris, of Asia, having a tawny coat with transverse black stripes."2 Or you might turn to a poet:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry? …

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