Continuing on Johann Gottfried von Herder's “The Causes of Sunken Taste among the Different Peoples in Whom It Once Blossomed” (1775), then moving to “On the Influence of the Belles Lettres on the Higher Sciences” (1781), “Does Painting or Music Have a Greater Effect? A Divine Colloquy” (1785), and the sections about music and dance from the Critical Forests: Fourth Grove (written 1769).
Completing the first essay, we discuss Herder's positive account of what grounds good taste in society.
In our second essay, "On the Influence of the Belles Lettres on the Higher Sciences," Herder went on to consider aesthetic education. Much like Allan Bloom, he urged direct study of the classics, and stressed that this can't be just an intellectual exercise, but that we have to cultivate the senses. Herder's overall approach was very much empirical: We need to use the senses and an examination of history rather than a priori principles to determine the principles of aesthetics or any other aspect of philosophy. The "belles-lettres," or popular writings of the day written for the sake of being pretty, could well serve as a primer for cultivating the skills that enable more abstract thought about weighty matters of philosophy, politics, etc.
“Does Painting or Music Have a Greater Effect? A Divine Colloquy” compares the vividness of visual presentation with the deeper, more emotional effect of music. It's a dialogue featuring Apollo and the Muses, where the muses of Painting and Music are debating, and eventually Poetry is called in to be the mediator, and so Herder reveals that he thinks the addition of poetry helps music by making its lessons concrete (contra Kant, who thought that music was polluted by imagery, whether brought in by lyrics or in some other way). Likewise, it's paintings that picture exalted themes (e.g., religious imagery) that are most effective: it's the presence of ideas and poetry behind the picture that really allow it it resonate with spectators. Here's that New Yorker cartoon about the muses that Seth talks about.
We don't spend much time with Critical Forests, Fourth Grove, but it's here that (following Alexander Baumgarden) he gets more specific about what an aesthetic education actually amounts to, and consequently what in music in particular he thinks is central, which is melody, not harmony. We didn't invent music by listening to birds, who we don't understand, but by expressing emotion, so the most primitive kind of music would be a shout, which is then refined over time into a melody, and it's this simple, distinct melody that we can all follow that is really what pierces our hearts according to Herder, the rest (the structure, the harmony) being merely additional decoration that can easily be overused, making the work less tasteful.
Putting the pieces together here, an education based in a grasp of melody would engender using ideas clearly, rooting them firmly in experience, not running away with pretentious system-building.
Much of this should sound familiar to those who heard our episode on Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, as he (a century later) engaged in a similar kind of social critique based on taste. Like Kant, Herder was trying to strike a balance between empiricism and rationalism, but Herder's thought was much more concrete and historical, anticipating post-Kantians like Nietzsche and Hegel.
End song: "Dear Resonance" by our guest John "Jughead" Pierson's band Even in Blackouts from his album Zeitgeist's Echo (2005). Hear him interviewed about his music on Nakedly Examined Music #58. Also, check out this one-man short play he wrote and performs in, featuring narration by Cecil from the Welcome to Nightvale podcast.