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