26. Early Voices on Reason versus Experience

In works of music that man who judges by rules, judges wrong.1


The fragments of Greek philosophy which have survived from the period before Socrates and Plato are characterized by an intellectual attempt to understand the material world. Of what elements is the universe composed? How did man and animal life evolve? What happens after death? These are the kinds of questions discussed in the fragmentary remains of their work.

As a natural extension of this line of inquiry, we find the fifth century BC philosophers beginning to think about how the mind is organized and they were unanimous in finding no alternative but that man must be ruled by Reason. But no matter how strongly these early philosophers argued that man must be ruled by Reason, common observation told them there was more to the story. In particular, emotions and the experience gained from the practical endeavors of life clearly played a role which could not be ignored. Their problem was that they couldn’t talk or write about the emotions and much of experience, so they tended to just create categories of relative importance, of which Reason was always being the most important.

Democritus, as an example, wrote,

There are two forms of knowledge, one legitimate, one obscure; and the following all belong to the obscure form, sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.2

They, like us before recently, had great difficulty talking about non-rational things. Today we have the great advantage in understanding the bicameral brain’s function, the left side being a library of data and the right side a library of our own experience. Because the left side, which is the only side which can read or write, tends to deny the existence of the right side, the general subject remains one difficult for many people to accept, in spite of the fact that the initial important research, by Dr. Roger Sperry, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

The real problem for any philosophy which generalizes that Reason must rule is that in the end the rational side of ourselves is not the real us. Everything understood by the rational area of our brain is second-hand information. Someone tells us, “two plus two is four,” and we memorize this. This fact has been recognized, if not talked about, for a very long time. Aristotle (b. 384 BC) states this in the very first sentence of his Posterior Analytics.3

All teaching and learning that involves the use of reason proceeds from pre-existent knowledge.

Clearly, the left side of our brain cannot be the real us, it is all someone else and all past tense. By simple observation and common sense the early philosophers sensed this and in order to account for “the rest of us,” they tended to center much of their thought in the concept of the “soul,” dividing the soul into regions to contain the emotions, the senses, and reason.

Toward the end of the sixth century BC, several philosophers began to isolate the separate natures of reason and experience. Gorgias, in particular, was on the correct path in coming to understand that we cannot really know something unless we experience it ourselves. This same philosopher was also the author of one of the most frequently quoted statements of the fifth century BC,

He who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not.

He was speaking of the theater and meant that one can be more honest with fiction, not running the personal risk involved in telling the truth in non-fiction. The member of the audience, it followed, was “wiser” as a consequence.

Leonardo da Vinci completely agreed, commenting that “Wisdom is the daughter of Experience.”4

Why, knowing what we know, how can we in the case of music education, abandon the value of the genuine experience and focus our teaching on what we can talk about—concepts. Concepts can be graded and accounted for. Too bad that in our so doing the subject of music is once again removed from the real us. Too bad that in so doing we are teaching about music and not music itself.

There were some early philosophers who refused to simply take Reason as the unquestioned master. Plutarch also pointed out that sometimes Reason grows out of experience, and he provided an example from his own life.5

Upon which that which happened to me, may seem strange, though it be true; for it was not so much by the knowledge of words, that I came to understanding of things, as by my experience of things I was then enabled to follow the meaning of words.

The Roman philosopher, Lucretius (99–55 BC), focused on the dependence of Reason on the senses, asking in one place,

Can anyone
Explain what bodily sensation is
Unless he trusts his own experience of it?6

This philosopher also noticed the curious characteristic of the feeling sense that we call today “phantom limb.” This is the perception that one can still feel a leg, for example, in that case where the leg in fact no longer exists. Reason, of course, had no explanation for this phenomenon so vividly illustrated by Lucretius.7

It is said scythe-bearing battle chariots,
Red-steaming from their killing course, can cut
Limbs off so quickly you can see them tremble
Or quiver on the ground, before their soldier
Has any inkling what has happened to him.
His fighting spirit pushes his attack
With what equipment he still has; he’ll charge
And never know his left arm and his shield
Are swept off with marauding chariot-wheels
And scythes and horses, while near by, a comrade
Lifts his right arm to scale a wall, and sees
His right arm isn’t there, or attempts to rise
While his leg is kicking at him from the ground.

We find one extraordinary argument that experience gives meaning to that most rational representative of Reason, grammar. This idea is worthy of thought when one remembers that all philologists today believe that music preceded speech in early man. In his treatise on Mathematics, Roger Bacon (b. ca. 1214 AD) contends that the theologian must have training in music in order to understand the Scriptures.8 One reason, of course, is simply to be able to fully understand the many references to music in the Old Testament. The second reason is relative to the many kinds of meters found in the old Hebrew text. Here he notes that while the grammarian may teach the practical rules, but only music gives “the reasons and theories” for these meters. In the same manner, he points to the issue of pronunciation, as the Scripture is filled with accents, longs, shorts, colons, commas, and periods.

All these belong causally to music, because of all these matters the musician states the reason, but the grammarian merely the fact.

Bacon, by the way, is sometimes credited as being the first to clearly point to the separate hemispherical functions of the brain. He does this in a passage where he argues that Reason is never certain until it tests its contentions by experience.

For there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely, by reasoning and experience. Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, or does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience.9

This idea, that Reason cannot rest until it has been proven by experience, is one often used by those who doubted the primacy of Reason. This was a point made frequently by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519),

To me it seems that all sciences are vain and full or errors that are not born of experience, mother of all certainty, and that are not tested by experience, that is to say, that do not at their origin, middle or end pass through any of the five senses.10

Experience does not err.11

Voltaire agreed, writing in an essay, The Ignorant Philosopher, “We know nothing in the world but by experience.” And on the idea presented above by Leonardo, that even in the case of science, understanding can happen only after having passed through the senses, Voltaire, in a letter to Père Porée. Give such an example,

No matter how many books are written on the technique of painting by those who know their subject, not one of them will afford as much instruction to the pupil as will the sight of a single head by Raphael.12

Aristotle took an even broader view, contending that it is from these direct experiences that character is formed.

Of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts …. It is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre players are produced … For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also … Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.13

Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576) was another who placed greater value on experience than on simply “knowing,”

Perhaps someone will quite rightly ask whether the same people who know these rules also play well or not. For it seems to be a different thing to know and to execute … The same question arises in other discussions. Is a learned physician also a skilled one?… For although acumen depends on both knowledge and practice, still practice and experience can do more than knowledge.14

Cardano’s suggestion above that a fine physician must also have experience reminds us of a similar observation by Montaigne, who recalled that Plato once wrote that,

If doctors want to know how to cure syphilis it is right that they should first catch it themselves!15

Leonardo pointed out that even in writing, experience determines the value, “Experience has been the mistress of those who wrote well.”16 And the great playwright, Lope de Vega reminded his listeners that Love is something which can be understood only by experience, “Let no man speak Love’s name that has not felt his power.”17

For the early philosophers, the issue of the importance of experience over mere knowledge seemed nowhere more obvious than in the case of Music. The reader has seen above, Aristotle’s observation, “lyre players learn by playing the lyre,” and in a similar vein we find,

The art of music causes the man to be a musician.

Boethius (475–524)

For in any art those things which we know of ourselves are much more numerous than those which we learn from a master.18

Guido of Arezzo

For it seems impossible that anyone should become a builder who has not first built something; or that anyone should become a harpist who has not first played the harp.19

Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274)

Practice is the best teacher of any subject. One learns music by playing.20

Erasmus (1469–1536)21

And even in the case of composition we find that Charpentier, the seventeenth-century French composer, concluded his book on the rules of composition by admitting, “Practice teaches more about this than all the rules.”

All of these views are based on the one great Truth about Music: the ear is the judge, not the eye. To which Voltaire adds the comment,

Is it not an amusing thing, that our eyes always deceive us, even when we see very well, and that on the contrary our ears do not?22

And finally, Voltaire added a very important thought which we all should remember, namely that the very best composers and the very worse composers all composed according to the same musical rules!23

A closing observation: in the Pre-Renaissance, beginning in the twelfth century, the “dark ages” finally begins to give way to a new spirit of hope and optimism. This helped fuel a great improvement in secular music which led to widespread hiring of individual musicians by courts and cities. This was followed by the arrival of Humanism in the late Renaissance, which finally brought emotions back into music and ended the Church Era during which music was categorized as a branch of mathematics. This made possible an era of great enthusiasm for the performance of music, documented in the music we all know.


  1. The Works of Voltaire, [1901]. XXI, 250 ↩︎
  2. The exact dates of Democritus are not known, but we understand him to be earlier than Plato as Aristoxenus, in Historical Notes, tells us that Plato wanted to burn the entire works of Democritus. ↩︎
  3. Trans. Tredennick, Harvard University Press, 1960 ↩︎
  4. Literary Works of Leonardo, ed. Richter, II, 240 ↩︎
  5. Life of Demosthenes ↩︎
  6. The Way Things Are ↩︎
  7. Ibid., III, 641 ↩︎
  8. Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, trans. Burke, I, 259 ↩︎
  9. Experimental Science, 1 ↩︎
  10. Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Richer, I, 33ff ↩︎
  11. Ibid. II, 240 ↩︎
  12. Quoted in Clark, Theories of the Drama, 279 ↩︎
  13. Ethica Nicomachea, 1103a.25ff ↩︎
  14. The Book of Games, trans. Gould, 225 ↩︎
  15. Republic, III, 408 D-E ↩︎
  16. Op. cit., I, 116 ↩︎
  17. The Knight from Olmedo ↩︎
  18. Consolationes Philosophiae, trans. Fox, XVI, iii ↩︎
  19. Micrologus, 1026–1028, quoted in Strunck, 117 ↩︎
  20. Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, trans. Rown, 684-685, (IX.L.7:C1850) ↩︎
  21. “Adages,” Complete works 1902, XXXII, 25 ↩︎
  22. Philosophical Dictionary, under “Prejudice” ↩︎
  23. Letter to Porée (1730), quoted in Clark, Op. cit., 279 ↩︎