- Response to Philip Alperson, “Robust Praxialism and the Anti-aesthetic Turn”
Due to space limitations, only a few points of Philip Alperson’s paper can be briefly addressed.1
Concerning praxialism, Alperson confirms that regarding “music as a species of art” leaves out much of what music has to offer. He acknowledges that “music is produced and enjoyed in a wide range of contexts and circumstances in which music can be understood as having many different kinds of functions” and that it “comprises a network of multiple overlapping and at times even conflicting sub-practices” worthy of preservation and transmission via education. Yet these diverse but central praxial functions have been ignored, even denigrated, by traditional aesthetics and music education philosophy predicated on aesthetics.
In contrast, Alperson notes that praxial philosophy argues inductively from the empirical evidence of music’s many functional values. Thus, he argues, philosophical inquiry should start with the ample evidence of music’s praxial diversity instead of “attempting a totalizing account of the philosophy of music education based on some essentialized notion of music.” [End Page 196]
Yet his “robust praxialism” is predicated on an essentialized notion: that music’s praxial appeal depends on its aesthetic essence. Despite frequent aesthetic qualifiers, he altogether fails to distinguish aesthetic experiences ontologically from prosaic experiences, aesthetic properties epistemologically from non-aesthetic properties, or aesthetic values from musical values or praxial benefits.2 Instead, he equivocates that “there are many ways to construe the idea of aesthetic experience and aesthetic qualities.”3
Then he claims that, lacking aesthetic essentialism, the praxialism of David Elliott, Wayne Bowman, and Thomas Regelski fails to robustly account for why people are drawn to music.4 He ignores Elliott’s account of music’s capacity for eliciting affective experience and “flow”5 and fails to engage Bowman’s arguments against the philosophical imprecision of aesthetic theorizing. Against these straw-man tactics, I will briefly summarize why praxialism does without aesthetics.
“Aesthetics” has traditionally been used to refer to (conflicting) theories of a transcendental, other-worldly ontology experienced contemplatively, via a disinterested aesthetic attitude, practiced competently by ideally informed listeners, in special moments of leisure. Praxialism eschews such metaphysical speculations and stresses music’s down-to-earth values, appeal, and pragmatic benefits. Thus, a more robust rationale and pragmatic basis for music education results that is intelligible to music teachers, students, and society.
For praxial theory, meaning, value, and appreciation are seen in use. Following Wittgenstein, “we don’t start from certain words”—that is, from aesthetic terms— “but from certain occasions or activities”—respectively, from particular musical practices. “Appreciation” is thus shown empirically by people’s musical choices.6
Secondly, praxialism dispenses with aesthetics because, as Alperson admits, the many terms, concepts, and speculative aporia7 upon which conventional aesthetics depends are irreparably contested.8 Aestheticians agree on just about nothing!9 In fact, Alperson himself critiques the leading schools of aesthetics. However, analytic philosophers increasingly have noted the problems of aesthetics; 10 have criticized aesthetics for lacking philosophical substance and rigor;11 and one concludes that, “viewed as a univocal concept, aesthetic experience seems too confused to be redeemed as useful”12 and thus deserves critique.13
Concerning the relevance of aesthetics, Christopher Small writes of a history of musical aesthetics:14
[I]t bore very little relation to anything I recognized in my own musical experience, as listener, or as performer, or as composer. . . . I just could not make myself believe that so universal, and so concrete a human practice as music should need such complicated and abstract explanations.15 [End Page 197]
Philosopher Michael Proudfoot agrees that
such an inadequacy to our experience of art has been evident, a result, I believe, partly of aestheticians’ preoccupation with what it is to treat something ‘aesthetically’, and partly from a concentration on works of art in isolation from the circumstances in which they are actually created or appreciated.16
Alperson does acknowledge music’s praxial circumstances, but argues that “it is possible to save the idea of aesthetic experience and the attitude appropriate to its contemplation by widening the range of what might be thought to be a candidate for appreciation...