Critiquing Musical Ineffabilism: Rereading Kant's 'Analytic of the Beautiful'

19th-Century Music (2022) 45 (3): 204–219.

Mapping out several interpretations of free play in Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique helps parse the argument that “music is ineffable.” Although the argument is an old one, recent scholarship by Carolyn Abbate, Michael Gallope, and others has helped the idea of music’s ineffability resurface in recent years as a special, dialectical property of music’s sonic presence that perpetually defers statements about music’s meaning. However, the polysemy that results from this deferral is anchored, by the claim that “music is ineffable,” in the ontology of a preconceived notion of what “music” is.

Examining the conceptuality of free play in Kant’s “Analytic of the Beautiful” helps shift the crux of music’s meaningful plurality away from the ontology of “music” to language—which delimits aesthetic experience as “music” and makes it available for contemplation. The ineffabilist arguments that musical experience precludes or overwhelms language accord with the interpretations of free play that Paul Guyer has called “precognitive” and “multicognitive.” In contrast, Guyer proposes his own “metacognitive” interpretation, which requires an aesthetic stimulus to be grasped with a concept before any cognition can take place. By linking the beautiful to both the subjectively agreeable and the objectively good, Kant’s “Analytic” endows every person with the capacity to experience beauty individually. As a result, the judgment of something as beautiful depends, not on universal criteria, but on a “sense in common” (Gemeinsinn), which Gilles Deleuze described as knowledge’s precondition of communicability. Kant’s principle of common sense is what empowers discourse to communicate a shared idea of beauty by continually brokering agreement among a diversity of personal ideals. The insight that knowledge of an aesthetic experience is always framed with a concept, whose meaning is only ever tentatively agreed upon, preserves and democratizes the meaningfulness of “music” by attaching it to an idea admitting of many ideals, free from ineffability’s strong ontological claim.