What is poetry? Mere word play? A pretty, or at any rate striking, way of expressing thought and emotion?
I was recently interviewed by the rapper-singer-writer Dessa for a BBC podcast. Whenever I’m interviewed, I like to do some research on the interviewer beforehand to get a sense of their personality, interests, and style. In this case, doing this required me to immerse myself in Dessa’s music, which I found very powerful and evocative. While listening to a particularly riveting piece called “Velodrome,” I was suddenly struck by the thought that listening to this piece is philosophically enlightening.
I felt that I came to know something that I hadn’t known before listening to it. True, the lyrics are philosophical—they’re about determinism, and they reference the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas (not surprisingly, Dessa was a philosophy major in university). But that isn’t why I came away from the song with the deep sense that I gained some new philosophical knowledge from it.
I was perplexed. If someone were to ask me what the song taught me, I’d be at a loss for words. How could a song increase my philosophical knowledge? I think that I now have an inkling of how music can give us knowledge. What I have to say is very hard to articulate, and I fear that it will sound like the worst sort of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Still, I’ll give it a shot.
Mostly, when people talk about knowledge they’re concerned with what philosophers call “propositional knowledge.” Propositional knowledge is knowledge of facts, and it can be clearly articulated in language. Knowing that Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system is an example of propositional knowledge. And it can be expressed precisely by the sentence “Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system.”
The knowledge that I’ve acquired from listening to “Velodrome” isn’t propositional knowledge. The song didn’t present me with any new facts, and the knowledge that it gave me can’t be expressed in sentences. “Velodrome” gave me a new experience of the world around me. It gave me new experiential knowledge.
We usually acquire experiential knowledge of things by coming into contact with them. The first time you taste chocolate, you gain experiential knowledge of the taste of chocolate. After tasting it, you know what chocolate tastes like, even though you could never put this into words. If an alien from a distant planet were to ask you what exactly chocolate tastes like, you wouldn’t know what to say. You’d know it, of course, but you couldn’t put your knowledge into words.
Another important distinction between the two kinds of knowledge is that propositional knowledge requires what philosophers call justification. A justified claim is one for which there is good evidence. The claim that Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system counts as knowledge because it’s justified by astronomical observations. But experiential knowledge doesn’t need justification. It’s self-justifying. If you ask me how I know that I’m having a certain experience—say, the experience of a chocolatey taste on my tongue—all that I can reasonably say to you is “I know because that’s my experience!”
Experiential knowledge is a two-way street. Experience gives us access to certain features of the world, but in experiencing these things we ourselves are modified by them. Experiences “make an impression” on us, quite literally by altering the neural connections in our brains. And these changes affect our capacity for further experiences. That’s why (for example) human relationships can have such a powerful effect, for good or for ill. A traumatic relationship—say, betrayal by a loved one—may change a person by sensitizing them to aspects of human behavior that otherwise wouldn’t have been on their radar.
Now, imagine that there’s a device that attunes people to certain aspects of the world. It enables them to experience familiar things in unfamiliar ways by adjusting their sensitivities rather than presenting them with new things, and enlarges their stock of experiential knowledge by making them receptive to features of the world that were previously inaccessible or accessible only with difficulty. If such a device existed, would you use it? Of course, you would! In fact, the device exists, and you already use it. The device is called “music.”
Music gives us knowledge by deepening and expanding our capacity for experience. It somehow opens new channels in our mind, giving us access to features of the world that were previously inaccessible. The knowledge gained from music isn’t something that can be put into words (as the great jazz musician Thelonious Monk once remarked, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”). And it’s pointless to demand justification for it (ask me how I know that “Velodrome” has given me new knowledge, all that I can say is “I just know”).
Even though I can’t explain how music leaves me with understandings that I didn’t have before, it’s plain to me that it gives me knowledge that’s different from but every bit as significant as, and almost certainly more impactful than, the knowledge that I glean from books, lectures, or arid reasoning from premises to conclusions.