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No True Scotsman

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No True Scotsman

Ted Gioia churns out a remarkable number of posts full of interesting and diverting information. So usually all I have to say, is more power to him. But occasionally I have to stop and ponder, as I did with his latest: Naysayers Will Tell You This Isn't Really Classical Music—Don't Believe Them (the link goes to a substack article the whole of which is only available to subscribers--but I am only going to talk about the first part).

Here is the interesting bit:

I almost feel I have to apologize every time I use the term classical music. That label carries such a heavy burden nowadays, and inevitably conveys a sense of tepid conformity.

But not today.

I don’t need to make apologies for any of this music. Each of these albums pushes beyond the tight definitions of concert hall fare. Even better, they sound great. I just wish every evening at the philharmonic was this much fun.

Of course, around here we don't use the term apologetically, but simply understand it to be a kind of shorthand for "music in the Western European tradition associated with the development of music notation from around the year 1000 CE and subsequent developments of that tradition as it has been emulated outside Western Europe to the present day." Or, more simply, "classical music."

But I want to use the occasion of Ted's post to look at the methodology of names and terms, which is why I chose the weird title of this post: "no true Scotsman." This is a reference to an old and venerable fallacy where counterexamples are excluded through rhetorical means. The Wikipedia example is:

Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."

Person B: "But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge."

Person A: "But no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."

Adapting to Ted's post, he puts up some music clips that he suggests we accept as "classical music," but just more fun than the "tepid conformity" of the usual fare. He anticipates the shoddy defence that "this is not real or authentic classical music because no true classical music does what this does." That's a "no true Scotsman" riposte. You always have to beware of words like "true" or "authentic" because they attempt to win an argument by not having one! But we also have to beware of Ted's rhetoric as well. He goes on to say:

Naysayers will tell you this isn’t classical music, but don’t believe them. Their carping is all the more reason to listen.

Anyone who is of a different opinion is a "naysayer" and hence mistaken. This is also an attempt to win the argument by not having it. There is also a nod in the same direction when he refers to "tight definitions of concert hall fare." That is loaded with assumptions. Time to get away from the tedium of dreary concert hall fare governed by tight definitions of classical music!

Well sure, there is some truth in that, a grain or two. But I strongly suspect that most concert organizers from sea to sea are actually striving to tread the path between programming too many old favorites and programming too few. They are in the business, after all, of getting "bums in seats" as I have heard it described. Ted's argument for listening to the clips he puts up is simply "they sound great," there was actually no need for the low swipes at classical music fuddy-duddies. He could have simply said, "here are some really great clips of music that is partially inspired by classical music." That says the same thing without insulting anyone.

A different kind of issue that comes up is that of the problem of universals. In philosophy this is a long-standing debate as to the nature of qualities that seem to have existence in many entities. These things, like roundness or color, are found in many objects so they have a universal quality. For Plato, these universals are real, more real than their imperfect instantiations in the world. Aristotle thought of them more as formal causes, blueprints or essences of individual things. In the middle ages some thinkers solved the problem by saying that universals had no existence other than labels, this position is called nominalism. It should be obvious that, given the nature of both art and history, the idea of a "tight definition" of classical music or any other artform, is absurd and not one actually held by anyone--a straw man in other words.

So, in order to avoid falling into either the unwarranted insinuations of Ted's post or the fallacious defence of a "no true Scotsman" argument, I rely once again on reference to a tradition that is easily traceable from the early compositions of the Notre Dame school, to the somewhat different tradition of the Aquitanian trobadors, to the Italian trecento madrigalists and on and on. The tradition always was open to different influences, especially from popular and folk sources, usually an oral tradition that began to be notated when it was used in "classical music." This tradition has just gone on and on and thinking of it just in terms of "tightly defined concert hall fare" is remarkably short-sighted.

Here is an early trecento Italian madrigal by Jacopo da Bologna:



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