Rationality & relativism

Continuing thoughts of postmodernism and historicism, crucial elements of general public debate have become rationality and especially relativism. The latter is first a direct outgrowth of democracy, and the basic notion that each person gets one vote. It would be easy enough to deconstruct the notion by dwelling on the facts that most people either vote as they are told or simply do not vote, and of course the same dynamic holds for artistic relativism. However, relativism is not only a naïve conclusion, it is a fiercely defended intellectual position, one which strikes at the core of human closeness. It is not enough to demonstrate that even instantaneous equality does not yield equality over time, due to interactions among views, because it is precisely those interactions which the hard-core relativist seeks to censure. Not everyone is as informed as everyone else, not everyone is even as talented as everyone else, not everything is as good as everything else, and ultimately the supposed egalitarian cuteness of our new "up is down" world is just as oppressive as any other intellectual foundation. The dangerous distinction is in the fundamental contradiction of the stance, that the imposed egalitarianism isolates people by removing any framework for bettering themselves or indeed for knowing each other intimately.

An aggressive application of such relativistic views must result in solipsism, simply because if I have no reason to believe that something good for me might be good for you, ultimately we stop communicating altogether. Solipsism is like a disease, and is self-fulfilling. Widespread cynicism is a symptom of the societal infection, but indicates at least a desire to fight, if not a means for doing so. The disease is fully actualized in the relativist's dream of a simulated existence in which no firm convictions can be registered and no differences noticed, a world of insipid mush where no one is ever offended. (Those offended by insipid mush must be run out of town.) It is an easy position to adopt, a seductive trap, because it lets one believe what one wants without having to defend it. If one can believe what one wants, why not believe something interesting? That is the essence of my thoughts on interpretive space, but it is more than that. Relativism, or shall we say deconstruction, is right about one thing, namely that all arguments are eventually circular. They are about connecting one idea to another, presumably to something one already believes. One could have started out believing the first thing, and then arguing for the other. The measure of such a thing is not that it can be done, but the richness of the various material it connects. The argument becomes not something with a beginning and an end, but a mass of connections which allow one to view epistemological constructs as topological spaces. Of course the solipsistic space is quite a small one.

More than that, expression is implicitly contradicted by its nature, both on a cosmological level as well as the level of formal logic (provided it is rich enough to construct the integers). The ideas of deconstruction are true of necessity, and the contradictory stance of relativism is simply less rich than most. It is this logical necessity which leads to misdirection on a more fundamental level, the maya of Nada-Brahma. The difference is on the level of the connectedness of human consciousness, or indeed the lack of difference — all difference or no difference, a simultaneity which is the inherent spark of contradiction driving the world at its most succinct (purushaprakriti or the descent of epistemology from ontology). So... rationality. I discussed two years ago the means by which Ockeghem's music exemplifies non-rational thought, and then by extension the way medieval music as a whole can unify these patterns of thought. This is not to say that people will be receptive to non-rational modes of thought, since after all "rational" is used widely as nearly synonymous with "good" and indeed decades after it was proved (by Gödel) untenable according to its own propositions, logical positivism has many vocal adherents. The Enlightenment is, after all, still seen as an enlightenment. We can mock the past or other ideas for not stating that the Earth revolves around the Sun instead of vice versa, yet what we are really mocking are not mistakes but differences in priorities. From the Earth, the Sun does go around, and the medievals did have the correct epicycles. What they did not have was a simple enough description to allow a mathematical abstraction. Such is an example of unpopular relativism within rationality.

The motivation for addressing non-rational modes of thought, especially in art music, is the conceptual power of lateral thinking and the way it can allow one to circumvent mental blocks. Not only is strictly rational thinking fundamentally contradictory, but it is itself specifically opposed to such a fact. Many ideas — solutions — are simply impossible for the rationalist, and cannot even be placed into the rationalist's terms. Such a communication by negation is most succinct in the "Not this! Not that!" aphorism on which Sankaracharya commented extensively. But music, by its nature, need not be so confrontational. Indeed by illustrating such contradictions of form boldly, some postmodern styles are alienating listeners to legitimate ideas which could be put to them less explicitly. The beauty of the correlative world of myth is that ideas flow freely there, often sheltered from such rationalist notions as causality. Stories of this sort have a demonstrated educational effectiveness, but have largely been abandoned (or sanitized) in our era. The same combination of conventional framework and lateral correlation is found in medieval courtly love songs, and indeed in many musical genres of the era. Today, music without words presents itself as a natural outlet for recapturing a mythical atmosphere, although it would be a mythical atmosphere abstracted from semantics. The danger in any less boldly explicit abstraction lies precisely in the growing dominance of relativism and the resulting inability to generate communion obliquely. The situation comes down in at least one sense to the lack of a unified tradition, a dilemma not easily or maybe even desirably resolved, but one which must be addressed.

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Todd M. McComb