Charles Murray and “The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental” (part 1)

Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950

In Chapter 5, “Excellence and its Identification,” of Charles Murray’s book (Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950) the author writes in the section titled The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental:

To accept the position I just laid out requires one to adopt considerable humility about the arts in which one is not an expert.  While I am free to not enjoy the music of Richard Wagner, it is silly for me to try to argue that Richard Wagner does not deserve his standing as one of the greatest composers.  That’s a matter of judgment and I’m not competent to judge (Mark Twain said that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” which seems about right to me).  Surrendering that independent judgment is irksome, and gets more so as one’s knowledge approaches the fringes of expertise.  I know more about literature than I know about music, and I nonetheless do not enjoy the later novels of Henry James that are most highly regarded by the experts.  But my wife is an expert on Henry James and over the years I have had to accept that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

In dealing with such situations, Hume’s distinction between sentiment and judgment is invaluable.  One is not required to surrender one’s opinions, but merely to acknowledge their nature.  I am not able to argue that the later Henry James does not write well; all I can do is assert that his later style is not to my taste–an assertion that is true and valid within its limits.  The cliché “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” is in this sense a precise and admirable preface to whatever comment comes next.

Setting aside some of the issues regarding excellence and music I mentioned in a previous post, I was struck by how much Murray’s sentiment [sic] regarding only being able to assert an opinion about our relationship to works of art was something I talked about in my undergraduate thesis.  Namely that most of the things we say about anything has to do with our relationship to that thing rather than about any Kantian Ding an sich (“thing-in-itself”).  His relationship to how Hume deals with that issue is probably a bit clearer than Hume himself ever was.

Regarding the issue of the judgments of experts, here we have a rather powerful argument (basically the whole of Murray’s book) about which, I would suspect, not many Western Classically-trained musicians and academics would disagree.  If we’re to get past the era of “Classical Music Expertise and Authority,” this is definitely one line of reasoning that needs to be addressed (and debunked?) thoroughly.

Murray does at least address one possible objection before launching into a history of the word Aesthetics:

Another bothersome implication of the position I have laid out is that I must have an answer to a charge that goes something like this:

If you think that we should take the word of experts about what’s good and bad, are you prepared to accept that John Cage and Andy Warhol belong up there with Brahms and Titian?  That melody and harmony are boring and outdated?  That representational art is boring and outdated?  That the concept of beauty is meaningless?  That’s what one school of experts is saying these days.

The direct answer to that objection is that I am choosing one type of expertise and rejecting another, allying myself with the classic aesthetic tradition and rejecting the alternative tradition that sprang up in 20C.

Fine and good–as this is probably the most used objection to post-postmodern position.  Murray prefaces his discussion about the history of Aesthetics with a mention of the cultural amnesia that has overtaken the West w/r/t our understanding of the history of beauty and refers the reader to Chapter 2 of his book where he does discuss forgotten knowledge (though mostly relegated to ancient history as opposed to the amnesia of more recent times).

But what happens if we don’t assume that the judgment of experts is any much more “objective” than the idiosyncratic (and usually anecdotal) sentiment [opinion] of the layperson?  What if expert opinion is just idiosyncratic (and usually anecdotal) sentiment [opinion] of the culture in which the body of experts hail?  In other words, what if experts in Western Classical Music are showing no more than an assertion that anything non-Western or non-Classical is not to their taste?

Greg Sandow, in a response to A.C. Douglas, gave an idea of what that would be like:

So now let’s talk about the person from India, possibly apocryphal, who thought all western music had only a single emotion, nostalgia. What — assuming that he’s real — could we learn from him? I might think, well, wow, that’s an extreme case of noncomprehension. But then how well do I understand Indian music? Can I even begin to perceive the emotions people in India hear in it? No way. I can’t even sense the emotional temperature of the various ragas, which in western terms would be like saying that major and minor keys sound the same to me. And don’t even get me started on the rhythms of Indian music, which I don’t know how to comprehend, or even to count.

So then, AC, to return to something you raised here earlier, wouldn’t it be perilous for me to decide that western art is better than nonwestern? Here we have what seems like a valid test case, western vs. Indian music. I can’t hear Indian music well enough to make any judgment. I can’t hear its profundities, if (as people from India think) it has them. And, equally, if some completely impartial and supremely well-informed judge should conclude that Indian music is trivial, compared to Bruckner — well, that’s something else I can’t hear. I can assume it, if I want to be careless. But no way can I hear it.

After Charles Murray summarizes the Western Aesthetic tradition he defends his acceptance (i.e. his choice to  ally himself with that tradition) contra “dogmatic postmodernists” and what he sees as an extreme reluctance to be “judgmental” in any arena including the arts:

My first objection to this stance is that being nonjudgmental is internally contradictory and an impossibility.  Return to the extreme cases: If you refuse to accept that there are any objective differences, expressible as continua from negative to positive, between the nude painted on black velvet and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, between a Harlequin romance and Pride and Prejudice, between How Much Is That Doggy in the Window and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik you are not standing above the fray, refusing to be judgmental.  It is a judgment on the grandest of all scales to say that How Much Is That Doggy in the Window is, in terms of its quality as a musical composition, indiscriminable from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  And if you really believe it, you have also made a sweeping judgment about the capacity of the human mind to assess information.

So being “nonjudgmental” is a judgment in and of itself in two ways.  The first is in the equivocation of any two works of art since there is purportedly no way to distinguish between the two in terms of quality.  The second is that sweeping judgment about the capacity of the human mind to assess information.

I would say that Charles Murray has made some sweeping judgments of his own.  His ignorance of notated music and composer attribution in non-Western cultures’ music notwithstanding — (as I mentioned in the Charles Murray and Excellence in Music post) though that is a sign of how information, and thus how contexts for judgments, get transmitted — he has made a sweeping judgment about the capacity of the human mind to make the assumption that there is one context for judgment that can and should be allied with above and beyond others.

That capacity extends to different and non-related aesthetic traditions about which the experts can say nothing since those traditions stand well outside of their expertise.  As he said, “One is not required to surrender one’s opinions, but merely to acknowledge their nature” and to rephrase the second half of that:

“Western Classical Music experts are not able to argue that Demetri Kantemir, Hampartsoum Limondjian and Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande were not important enough to be counted among the list of Murray’s 522 significant figures in Music; all that they can do is assert that these composers and theorists works and the musical traditions within which they’ve composed and theorised is not to their taste, or rather, is not within their realm of expertise.”

Granted, I’m not being entirely fair here as Murray’s list is for “Western Music” – and there’s a whole different can-o-worms to be opened with regards to what counts as “Western” that will have to wait for a future post – but his claim that the “lack of a tradition of named composers in non-Western civilizations means that the Western total of 522 significant figures has no real competition at all” is, as I stated in that previous post, false.  I doubt the author is being disingenuous, merely ignorant of the limits of his [and the musical experts] knowledge (i.e. lack of expertise) about music.

But in stating that he’s not an expert in music (thereby deferring to the experts with his choice of texts for the compiling of his inventory) while also claiming a “lack of tradition of named composers in non-Western civilizations” and expecting us (or at least me) to not question his conclusion that the “Western total of 522 significant figures has no real competition at all” is asking a bit much, in my opinion.  Especially as there are several hundred, if not several thousands of composers and music theorists in non-Western traditions that predate his cut-off point of 1950.


  1. The first thing I thought when I read this was the Zen saying “only don’t know.”

    But besides that, I’m trying to figure out how this is relevant to me where I’m at with the cello. I am, after all, nothing close to an expert. Yet, I feel like there’s something applicable to those of us non-experts in what you’ve just said. I just don’t know what it is.

    This post also made me think about my indecision about playing cello when I was still settling on which instrument I wanted to try. At the time I was very concerned because, while I loved the sound of the instrument itself, I absolutely hated classical music. I was torn at the time because I loved the sound of the cello but really loved listening to fiddle music (which I don’t really like on cello) and wanted to play it. I ended up choosing cello (obviously) in the hopes that as I learned to play the instrument, my knowledge of music would broaden and I would grow to enjoy classical music. I understood I knew nothing of music, but figured that when I started learning my tastes would change. I’m incredibly grateful I had that insight and even more grateful I acted upon it.


  2. I think one point I’m trying to make is that even the experts aren’t experts. What good does do someone if you’re, say, an expert on heart physiology if you don’t know what relationship the heart has to the body or if you think that as long as you keep the heart alive then it’s ok if the brain dies?

    It’s one of the things I used to do while I was seriously considering comparative neurocognition–if we can catalog the way people make justifications (how, when, how often, etc.) we can start learning about how and why folks feel the need to, say, make disparaging remarks about people outside their “ingroup.”

    I kept coming upon Richard Nisbett’s work the deeper I got into this, and then he publishes a book that summarizes his research and written for the layman.

    It was a sort of minor revelation to me to realize that someone has already been doing what I’ve wanted to do up till that time–and he approached it from the psychological side. Then I started discovering that there were psychologists working on the margins of the field who were not making the assumption that most if not all the human behavior universals have been pretty much discovered.

    That’s the main problem and paradox about knowledge–the certainty of knowledge means that there’s no more to be learned. A kind of arrogance/ignorance (I sometimes like to spell that ignore-ance) that come in tandem for those folks who are absolutely certain that they have the (and usually, the only) answer.

    The main message, though, is that Buddhist one about not mistaking your finger for the moon when you use your finger to point at it! 🙂


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