Music and mysticism

Nick Zangwill
University College London
Music seems mysterious, and our experience of some can have a peculiar depth. I think we should embrace this mysteriousness and not try to explain it away. There is something about music and our experience of it that is indescribable, and sometimes wonderfully indescribable. I here explore a view of music that is unashamedly mystical. However, this mysticism takes a particular form. Near the entry on “music” in Robert Audi’s Dictionary of Philosophy (Audi 1999) is an entry on “mysticism” by William Mann, in which he writes: Mystics claim that, although veridical, their experience cannot be adequately described in language, because ordinary communication is based on sense-experience and conceptual differentiation: mystical writings are thus characterised by metaphor and simile. I think that we should embrace just such a view of music. Music has what are sometimes called ‘ineffable’ qualities — qualities that we can think of but that are literally indescribable. And our experience of music has ineffable qualities. We reach for metaphor and simile to describe aesthetic properties that cannot otherwise be described (Zangwill 2001, chapter 10). Metaphor and simile are the best we can do to capture the aesthetic nature of music, and our experience of it. Only by means of metaphor and simile can we describe music and our experience of it, and even then our description is doomed to inadequacy. There is a reality in the music and in our experience of it that escapes literal description, and we gesture at it by any means at our disposal. But we inevitably fail to capture its true character. Metaphor and simile are the best we can do, however, and some metaphorical descriptions are better than others. But the character of the music and of our musical experience is ultimately ineffable. To ward off one source of..
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