A Fallacy Needing A Name

Jonathan Bellman

Surely there must be a name for the logical fallacy of extrapolating a universal principle from one’s own personal experience.  I look in vain for one in David Hacket Fischer’s classic Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970).  (This was a book of such a reputation that Richard Taruskin once referred to it as “a scurrilous tract”—if I remember correctly—but I was of the impression that he meant it affectionately.)  Perhaps the reason Fischer didn’t deal with it is that historians would not generalize from anything so unitary.  Still, it deserves a name, because at least in music it is all too common.

Here is an illustration. “Look, when I compose a symphony, I [do X]; when Beethoven composed a symphony, he [did X].”  I swear, that’s an exact quote of something I once heard.  One doesn’t know whether to laugh or weep.  It is as if the person is daring you to call him out.  “Are you kidding?  What are you thinking?  Beethoven, and…you?”  It does not matter that he may have accidentally been right.  A trivial example would be that, yes, you both put notes on paper.  That you write symphonies, however, does not privilege your experience in doing so to the point that you can explain others’ with any assurance.

It gets dicier, of course, when the matter under discussion is a skill I think I have. “Look, when I improvise, I [do X, or think Y]; so I know that when Chopin improvised, he…”  Don’t I know about improvising, having supported myself in dance studios for four years doing that?  So Chopin and I, we…wait a minute.  Did he think harmonically, or melodically?  Did he just play familiar figurations and travel well-trod paths?  Were some of his improvisations better than others, as with all of us, or was he just stratospherically beyond other musicians?  What about Liszt?  Anton Rubinstein?  Can I talk about them?  Because I hacked through ballet exercises, varying them in certain utterly predictable (to me, at least) ways, does that mean I can speak for the improvisation experience of all pianists, living and dead?

[Cue: Sound of a mousetrap being sprung.]  How can any of us be sure how people’s minds worked?  Particularly people whose minds are better than ours, by many parsecs?

At the moment, I’m writing (desperately, against the clock) a paper dealing with improvised ornamentation in certain historical styles, how important it is in certain repertories, etc., so these matters are much on my mind.  An improvisation event (not involving me, thankfully) is planned at the symposium I’ll be attending this coming week, so I’m hoping my doors will be blown off.  What if one actually had time to spend at the piano?!

I intend to report back.  Watch This Space.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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22 Responses to A Fallacy Needing A Name

  1. Jim says:

    Survivor fallacy

  2. Andrew W. says:

    Hi, from what I remember of logic, I think this fallacy is called “proof by example”.

  3. David Cavlovic says:

    “Look, when I’m on the toilet I take a shit. When Beethoven was on the toilet, he took a shit”. That’s about what person X is saying, and only reveals what a shit person X really is.

  4. Jonathan says:

    The False Consensus Effect seems to be what I’m talking about. Thanks for the very nice ten minutes bouncing around on Wikipedia.

  5. Ballet Improviser says:

    I likewise supported my PhD playing for class for a good number of years. But whether you or Chopin or me are the improvisers, (and I can say this with certainty – there was certainly no great originality in my approach to battements tendus), we nevertheless are all doing the same thing at a basic level.
    But at some point we are always going to have to extrapolate from a number of individual experiences. If you had a huge amount of time, you might (to keep the same example) be able to interview EVERY ballet pianist that improvises, analyze their work, and so on. So what’s the minimum number from which you can safely extrapolate more general theories?

  6. Jonathan says:

    The issue is not a sufficient number of ballet improvisors, to me, but rather what ir anything there is about our personal experience that could cast light on an improvisor like Chopin or Liszt. People rhapsodized about their playing, how it made them feel, the profound emotions they touched. Has that ever happened with our playing? Even, y’know, a BIG “adage”? I do remember a couple of times when people (once a visiting photographer, another time a dancer) responded to exercises with babbling, effusive praise–and in both cases the exercises were Bellmanizations of folk melodies, not my own “compositions.” “The Trees They Grow High,” filched from an Alan Stivell record, was the first case, and “Ower the Water,” about Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the second.

  7. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I wonder if talking to, say, 50 people in jazz would provide useful insights into Chopin or Liszt’s improvisations.
    I’m looking forward to hearing that paper, and am wondering: Jonathan, why did I publicize that symposium ahead of you?
    (For anyone in the Bay Area, it’s Stanford University’s Reactions to the Record II (http://music.stanford.edu/Events/StanfordMusicSymposium/index.html).

  8. rootlesscosmo says:

    What if one actually had time to spend at the piano?!
    Blues in B flat, man. Can’t go wrong.

  9. The example in your post (“Beethoven and…you?”) made me think of this for some reason:
    “I’ll always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined for 70 points.”
    – former Chicago Bulls center Stacey King, spoken after a game where Michael Jordan scored 69 points.

  10. lylesan says:

    “Grandiosity” in the psych diagnosis sense might be a little bit of what’s going on as well. That inflated sense of ego can easily set you up for false assumptions.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Wes F–My Dad frequently quoted the fly riding on the elephant’s ear: “We sure made that bridge shake, didn’t we?”

  12. Formally it’s an association fallacy: “if X is true for thing Y of type Z, then X must be true for all things of type Z.”
    But it also betrays a kind of Projection Bias – a cognitive bias in which people assume others to have similar qualities to themselves (usually a defense mechanism).

  13. Jonathan says:

    Association Fallacy meets Projection Bias. Good, good.

  14. Matthew says:

    The Association Fallacy via Projection Bias discussed in the above post, that my (Y) experience of making music (X) is necessarily similar to Beethoven’s (because we are both humans (Z)?), is often countered in philosophy of mind by arguing that the nature of X is incommunicable or singular (a familiar argument in Romantic music and literary criticism). Though you and I might agree that the rose is red, I could see red where you see blue. Douglas Hofstadter argues in I am a Strange Loop (my pop-philosophy of mind Christmas reading) that most people would think the same argument applied to notes as ludicrous, especially as notes take on less abstract, physical sensations as they become lower. As Hofstadter believes there to be a network of physical correlates rendering a reliable “feeling” of red in all of us, I would argue that there were enough constants in Beethoven’s life (the style of his music education, his musical influences and aspects of his social context and personal life, you name it) that, if discovered or re-created, could genuinely allow a performer or composer to claim a bit of Z-ishness with Beethoven.
    Of course I realise there is a difference between basic sensory processing and the complicated socio-cultural conditioning of higher order musical abstractions. Even learning a new language can conjure a radically different view of the world in a person, let alone living in a different time and place. Nevertheless, I hold out the hope of imbibing Beethovenness or Chopinness one day!

  15. Bob says:

    Hi Jonathan. This prompted me to do some fun quick reading on Solipsism, the related philosophical principle to this fallacy. [aside: my diss was on 16th-cent. improv– very interesting subject!]

  16. Jonathan says:

    Hi, Bob. Singing over the book and related practices, or instrumental improv? Would you recommend anyone who does it The Way It Should Be Done?

  17. jensen says:

    dude you are so right

  18. Will says:

    hi Jonathan, looking forward to the paper (and glad I’ll hear it before Friday)! here’s hoping liszt v. thalberg goes well (and please be kind when reporting back…)

  19. Jonathan says:

    Hi, Will! I’m really looking forward to hearing you. I’ll say on the blog, “Sadly, Cheng relied a tad overmuch on the chromatic appoggiatura, which was once or twice used in circumstances that, perhaps, might not have been unimproved by instead judicious use of the Schleifer…”

  20. Jonathan’s good question has another aspect to it, or perhaps a corollary: how much can we imagine what someone from the past might have thought or reacted is s/he were alive today?
    Historians (you know, people in what I call “history history” or “real history” as opposed to music history) are very sensitive to this. Maybe allergic. They tend to be wary of statements such as “If Liszt were alive today, he’d be in favor of [name your favorite cause].” Their argument is that you can’t possibly put a person from the 1840s down into the year 2009; Liszt wouldn’t be the same Liszt if he had grown up in America in the 1970s.
    But, but, but . . . there _is_ some kind of continuity between then (and there) and now (and here). The causes for which Liszt fought (valiantly, sometimes self-servingly, etc.) are not entirely unrelated to the ones that many of us see facing us today, such as tolerance for and active encouragement of cultural diversity.
    So maybe there _is_ something to be said for emphasizing what Liszt of the 1840s might think about the US in 2001, if he could magically be set down here for a few hours.
    Of course, while he’s here, I hope he’d play some of his own music, or Chopin’s, or Beethoven’s, or one of his transcriptions from a Wagner opera.

  21. Ralph Locke says:

    In the previous comment, I meant to write:
    line 3: if [not “is”] s/he were alive….
    4th line from the end: might think about the US in 2009 [not “2001”]

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