Taruskinian Fallacies

Taruskin is a rhetorician of unsurpassed ability, and logical reasoning (in the classical sense) is always at the forefront of his assessments and critiques. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that he is so adept at pointing out fallacies in the way we think about music history. Below is a list of the fallacies gleaned from the first 500 pages of Vol.I. We will be adding to it as we move forward, I’m sure.

The Fallacy of “Essentialism”: This lapse in thinking occurs when we conceptualize any trait as the essence of something. For example: “Black musicians don’t have the same restrictive mind/body dualism as white musicians” (essentializes black musicians as not adhering to the mind/body split and white musicians as adhering to it. The essentialization here occurs on the grounds of race.); “Medieval music is harmonically simple while Renaissance music is more harmonically complex” (ascribes essential qualities – harmonic simplicity and complexity – to music from different eras which, as we have seen, are arbitrary constructions anyways.) For more, see p.381.

The Pathetic Fallacy: We commit this fallacy when we ascribe agency to music itself, not to the people creating it. Thus: “English descant delights in parallel thirds” (the music doesn’t “delight” in anything; the composers/performers did.); “The leading tone likes to resolve to the tonic” (leading tones don’t “like” to do anything other that what they are instructed to do by composers on a page and by singers in the throat.) See p.221.

The Organic Fallacy: This line of reasoning has been addressed frequently on the blog. The central assumption is that music grows and evolves just like a living creature. There is also the presupposition that music grows more complex with time, which is a misreading of evolutionary theory. For instance: “Beethoven was way ahead of his time when he wrote his Grosse Fuge” (one cannot be “ahead” or “behind” one’s time; one is  simply in one’s time.); “Debussy’s use of non-functional harmony led to a total breakdown in the tonal language that reached its climax in Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique” (Debussy did not develop into Schoenberg; atonality was not the natural byproduct of a process of organic development – it was its own culturally and temporally embedded musical process.) See all over the place, but especially p.142.

The Genetic Fallacy: We stumble into this fallacy when we equate origins with essence. Thus: “A drinking song could never be a national anthem” (a drinking song is a drinking song, thus not a national anthem, goes the argument – of course, any piece of music can be anything.); “Rock ‘n’ Roll is really just a latter-day development of the blues” (while blues may be an ancestor in rock’s family tree, rock came to occupy a different meaning and position in our culture.) See pp.221 and 472.

The Poietic Fallacy: This one mistakes music (and music history) for composition. Thus, the history of music is the history of what composer’s write. For example: “The music of the Trecento is filled with Landini cadences” (of course, only notated, composed music can be said to have this feature; everything that happened in the oral tradition is gone to us.). This one hasn’t come up yet in the OHWM, but I just encountered it in RT’s review of Susan McClary’s Festschrift.

If readers can think of any other Taruskinian fallacies, please submit them in the comments box and I’ll add them to the post. I’m sure I must have missed something..

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for explaining these clearly. I have very little background in fallacies so it’s good to hear definitions with other words.

    While reading these first 500 pages, I’ve noticed that when Taruskin brings up fallacies or takes a moment to correct misconceptions, he seems to be addressing received knowledge that I don’t always have. At these times I get the feeling that I’ve missed out on something, some part of musicology that “got it wrong” or overgeneralized or was somehow inaccurate. I mean, I can understand that, in theory, someone could say “medieval music is harmonically simple” but I have never heard that in class, nor have I encountered it in my readings. (Then again, I don’t read textbooks from the 1950s, where I suspect one might find such statements). He seems to be setting the record straight for people who may be familiar with an old style of musicology that isn’t taught currently. (Or maybe my professors from ca. 2001 were just really cautious.)

    Do you know what I mean? Has anyone felt the same? I’m not complaining; this just makes me hungry for a history lesson. I got a bit of a lesson recently: Somewhere in this volume, and I don’t remember where, Taruskin wrote how a certain piece was always known for X, when in fact it’s more like Y. (Sorry, I wish I could remember details better!) I checked out a recording of this piece and the author of the liner notes (written in the 1970s) in fact did strongly support X. That made me think, “This must be the type of thing Taruskin’s trying to correct.”

    1. Mabel—Your comments remind me of a subtitle that they should have added to the publication: The Oxford History of Western Music, _and How it Got that Way_. Taruskin includes almost as much history of the discipline of modern musicology as he is history of early western music. This I think comes out of a self-conscious upheaval over the last, say, 30 years in the discipline, which puts the spotlight on _how_ we do history as much as _what_ history we’re talking about. Taruskin’s is the first general, comprehensive history that focuses so much on it though (that I know of). You may know that there is a 1 volume textbook version of the OHWM coming out in the future. They are going to have to whittle the page count down somehow—I wonder if the historiographical sections will end up on the cutting room floor.

  2. Just to chime back in here—the poietic fallacy has indeed been mentioned, at the beginning of Vol. 2. See pages 12-13.

  3. Thanks for posting this list. The main problem with these fallacies is that they are not not fallacies in the same sense that standard logical fallacies are. The term “fallacy” has a nice scholarly ring to it that alerts you that you have done something wrong, which is why Taruskin uses the term. But his “poietic fallacy,” for instance, is not a fallacy in the same sense that a false dichotomy, equivocation, or an ad hominem argument is. The latter are clear violations of the standards of good argumentation, mistakently or deceptively presenting two compatible positions as though they were logically incompatible, trying to use a word in two ways at the same time, or introducing irrelevant information as a means of clinching an argument. But the “poietic fallacy” is in fact not a fallacy in the same sense at all. It is the result of an the attempt to ban certain modes of making sense of art from acceptable discourse. If it were a fallacy, then all writers would agree that it violates some basic rule of argument, historical method, etc. But Taruskin admits on p. 13 that the poeitic model is appropriate in some context. Ergo, it is not a fallacy.

    This censorious habit arose out of New Criticism, I believe; Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “intentional fallacy” is paradigmatic of this sort of attempt to treat a rival theory as a schoolboy error.

    Each of Taruskin’s supposed fallacies represents an approach that he apparently disapproves of. By calling it a “fallacy,” he borrows the authority of the logic without using logic. In fact, some the examples given above commit the “red herring” fallacy.

  4. Re-post without typos:

    Thanks for posting this list.

    The main problem with these fallacies is that they are not fallacies in the same sense that standard logical fallacies are. The term “fallacy” has a nice grade-school ring to it that alerts you that you have done something wrong, which is why Taruskin uses the term. But his “poietic fallacy,” for instance, is not a fallacy in the same sense that a false dichotomy, equivocation, or an ad hominem argument is. The latter are clear violations of the standards of good argumentation, mistakenly or deceptively presenting two compatible positions as though they were logically incompatible, trying to use a word in two ways at the same time, or introducing irrelevant information as a means of clinching an argument. But the “poietic fallacy” is not a logical fallacy. It is an attempt to ban certain modes of making sense of art from acceptable discourse. If it were a fallacy, then all writers would agree that it violates some basic rule of argument, historical method, etc. But Taruskin admits on p. 13 that the poietic model is appropriate in some contexts. Ergo, it is not a fallacy. If one used the poietic model in every possible context, you would be using a bad historical methodology, but the poietic model still wouldn’t be a fallacy. It would only be a fallacy if you claimed that the poietic model was universally valid. But if you did this, you wouldn’t be a historian (or at least not a credible one).

    This censorious habit arose out of New Criticism, I believe; Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “intentional fallacy” is paradigmatic of this sort of attempt to treat a rival theory as a schoolboy error.

    Each of Taruskin’s supposed fallacies represents an approach that he apparently disapproves of. By calling it a “fallacy,” he borrows the authority of Logic without sticking to logic. In fact, some the examples given above commit the “red herring” fallacy.

    In addition, in the “essentialist fallacy” paragraph above, his claim that in the sentence cited, “harmonic simplicity” and “harmonic complexity” are being treated as essences doesn’t pass the laugh test. They are clearly being used as general descriptions. When he claims that periodization into different eras is an “arbitrary construction,” he is surely not serious. All post hoc periodizations are contingent, but they are not all arbitrary.

    I’ll stop here. Dr. Taruskin is often a brilliant stylist, but if you do a bit of digging, you’ll start to see how passages that seem brilliant often don’t hold up to detailed scrutiny.

  5. The “pathetic fallacy,” as defined here, isn’t a fallacy at all. It’s merely a rhetorical device. To say music “delights” in something is just a shorthand way of saying it does that thing a lot. One could more accurately say composers delighted in such and such, but why bother? The meaning is clear. I’m reminded of those literal-minded grammar mavens who object to saying “The White House today announced …” because, obviously, the White House can’t say anything. Well, duh. The mistake here is believing that words can only mean one thing a time. We’ll call it the Literalist Fallacy.

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