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15 November 2010

Phenomenology of Ornithology

You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

Listening to Hubert Dreyfus lecturing on Heidegger, this quotation from Charlie Parker popped into my head. I heard it years ago and it immediately became etched into me, eager as I was to learn saxophone. It seems like a banal truism on the face of it, until its real depth and wisdom become apparent. Just with regard to music, it pinpoints an important truth about playing an instrument, namely that to be able to transcend technique you must master it.

Parker knew this well, having become an acknowledged master on his instrument after many years practising for, many say, fourteen hours a day. That such a superhuman, obsessional effort can result in the amazing physical effortlessness you can see in the video is magical and almost incongruous.

Dreyfus in the lecture criticizes the idea that when you carry out an activity you are always following rules, and that when you become skilled it is only because you are able to follow the rules more easily and more quickly. The story goes that when you learn to tie your shoelaces you first need to learn a rule, or a set of procedures, and after a while it becomes second nature, because you are applying the rules without thinking about them. Dreyfus – along with Heidegger and, I would guess, Wittgenstein – says that this is wrong: once we have become skilled, we no longer need the rules at all; rules are only for learning, and the later-developed skill is not somehow reducible to them. In our everyday tasks, and in our skillful activities, we are bound up in the world, underlying and prior to contemplation, algorithm execution, decision-making, and other cognitive or rational states.

We Don’t Need Invisible Stabilizers

Dreyfus uses a nice little example to illustrate the point. When you were a child you needed stabilizers (“training wheels”) to learn how to ride a bicycle, and when they were finally taken off, you could still ride it. The traditional philosopher asks, what the hell happened to the stabilizers? They must be somehow operating invisibly!

No! What has changed is that you are riding the bicycle in a different way. You have overcome the need for stabilizers in developing a different mode of doing the thing called cycling: the skillful mode, rather than the learning mode.

Parker knew all this, and surely we all know it, just from our own experience – which phenomenology tells us is the most solid foundation and starting point for any philosophy. I know from my own experience in teaching saxophone that I just don’t have any knowledge, normally construed, of the explicit rules that dictate where to put my fingers to play a G major scale. I found it incredibly difficult to communicate my ability to students, and had to study the intricacies of technique myself, before lessons. I simply don’t know where I am putting my fingers when I play, and when I do have to pay attention to my finger movements, to correct bad habits, it’s very difficult to keep the music going.

I am not putting my finger on this key down here while keeping these three keys up here closed with these three fingers; I am just playing F#. I am at one with the instrument and, in my small way, at one with the world. An excellent and popular phrase for this is in the zone. As Parker advised, I learned the technique and eventually forgot it. Now I “just wail”, and the meaning of this “and just wail” is skill, the absorption of the rules. Perhaps absorption is not even strong enough: overcoming might be better.

What I get from Dreyfus is the idea that this kind of skill is a paradigm for all human everyday activity. When you enter your bedroom at night you do not locate the door-handle in your field of view and consciously reach for it, judging how much pressure will be required to turn it sufficiently. You just enter the room, and you don’t remember having turned the handle at all. You probably don’t even have a recollection of what the handle looked like.

Demolishing the Tradition

The mistake of assuming some kind of mental rule-following is representative of a whole bunch of mistakes that philosophers have been making ever since Plato and Aristotle, at the root of which lies a faulty or superficial picture of what human beings are, a picture that includes the idea that we are subjects contemplating objects; that we are mental beings; that we have inner representations of the world around us; that language is the expression of concepts and propositions; and that we operate in the world either like machines with powerful information processors or like “rational animals” applying our cognitive faculties to our everyday tasks.

According to Dreyfus et al, being human is just not like that, at least not at a fundamental level. We are “always already in the world”. Many of the perennial problems of philosophy, such as scepticism and knowledge, could be dissolved if we accept this.

I find Dreyfus very convincing, and he has persuaded me that I’ve got to read Heidegger’s Being and Time. The Big H appears to have been the most profound philosopher of the twentieth century, along with Wittgenstein. But Heidegger will take my studies in a very different kind of direction, away from the analytical tradition. But that’s alright: the analytic-continental divide in philosophy is rather embarrassing anyway.

If my first impressions are right, Heidegger is with Wittgenstein in his demolition of the tradition. But where Wittgenstein said that the basic stuff of life is beyond language, Heidegger – though he agreed that ordinary language had been so corrupted that it could not be used to illuminate human being – nevertheless decided to give it a shot. He tried to get to the bottom of being.

Note about the title of this post: non-jazz-lovers may be interested to learn that Ornithology is a famous piece by Parker. Its title is derived from his nickname “Bird”.

The full lectures of Dreyfus’ Berkeley course on Heidegger are available in podcasts here

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