Sunday 18 November 2007

Judgement, understanding and contemporary music

My colleague Pat Bracken objected at a seminar last week to me suggesting that a clinical encounter between psychiatrist and patient / service user was a matter of judgement. My justification was that taking the idea of understanding patients seriously required aiming at getting their stories right (although rightness might be, say, narrative fit according to the patient) and the best word for aiming at rightness is ‘judgement’. (Additionally: judgement needn’t imply being judgemental and saying that psychiatric diagnosis / formulation is a matter of judgement doesn’t preclude other features of it such as interpersonal warmth.)

But I was asked later by Richard Gipps whether I really think that all understanding is a matter of judgement, with, further, the thought that judgement is matter of subsuming things (eg utterances) under concepts. I think that I do. But a weekend at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (coupled with a quick visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park) threatens that thought.

The question it raised was whether what I lack when I listen to a piece of music that seems simply unconnected poops and whistles is understanding in that sense, especially when contrasted with a piece in which there is a kind of repeated structure even though of a minimal form (James Wood’s ‘De telarum mechanicae’ was brilliant in this way). Still, in the latter case, it seems hard to think that it is a matter of bringing the experience under concepts. I have no vocabulary for it (the programme notes don’t encourage adoption of theirs; contrast the brilliance of architectural vocabulary).

Still, I think it is. One grasps at musical phrases, demonstratively labelled (a la McDowell’s description in Mind and World) as “like that!”, keeping that phrase in mind for a little while and thus navigates through the piece, even if falteringly and partially. Anything less than that isn’t any kind of understanding.

A few years ago, there was an excellent paper by David Bell (‘The art of judgementMind 1987) which suggested that a response to a Jackson Pollock was a good way of exemplfying the kind of judgement in Kant’s Third Critique. Reflective judgement, by contrast with determinate judgement is a mid way between subjective whimsy and fully conceptual judgement.

If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinate... But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely reflective. [Kant 1987: 18]

Bell suggests that the kind of understanding one has of Jackson Pollock is just such a preconceptual judgement. What's more he suggests Wittgensteinian support for this given Wittgenstein's suggestion that understanding music is a good comparison for understanding linguistic meaning. But I just don’t believe that there's any (conceptual) space for a third way here. It’s concepts or nothing!