Why we will always need scholars of culture

Have a listen to this 11 minute BBC programme about language, evolution and the universal grammar:

BBC Barry Smith Noam Chomsky Universal grammar

My first response: Very interesting of course. Universal grammar thing—yes—there’s been quite a bit of stuff over the years about what we call cognitive musicology. There’s some interesting stuff in this line but a lot of it has been purely theoretical about the timing and interface of development between music and language (which came first? did music lead to language? did we communicate with language or music in ye olde days?). Also though, there has of course been lots of linguistic—inspired research in musicology too about grammars etc. (Feld etc. in ethnomusicology). What we’ve not been able to do yet is actually the bit that provides any neuro-cognitive evidence of the mechanisms for how we perceive music—although we do know that there is good evidence (last few years actually) that music is understood via embodiment (Leman, Ole Kuhl, Forceville etc.) I.e. we hear music through our bodies via conceptual metaphors.

BUT, the problem here though is that cognitivists and science in general views relativism in musicology with suspicion—and tends to formulate theories based purely on Western experience, whereas of course ethnomusicologists know that Western experience is only one interpretation of a musical life. E.g. lots of scientists and social scientists actually think pitch is understood vertically—so that high pitch = higher up. However, ethnomusicologists will tell you that is pretty arbitrary: Zbikowski for example cites some other ways in which different musical cultures have metaphorically understood pitch: high as sharp—low as heavy (ancient Greek music theorists); high as small—low as large (Java/Balinese musicians); high as young—low as old (Suya Indians in Amazon Basin). So high pitch doesn’t necessarily cognitively map onto vertical conceptual metaphors (there are other ways of doing it). Which is a problem for any kind of universalism and therefore a problem for neuro-deterministic views of culture. See also this blog post about hearing with our bodies.

This is a big issue today and increasingly a problem in my view—we are constantly being told that some neuro-scientist or other has explained what ‘love’ is or how we ‘understand’ attraction etc.—These are usually based on pretty simplistic scans of the brain which show which bits ‘light up’ or what circuitry is being used—they don’t of course ‘explain’ anything; they tell us which physical bit of our brains are being used to understand something cultural—that is why we’ll always need scholars and critics of culture!

Happy New Year, if you got as far as this, thank you and well done.

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