Features Previous Next The body and mind conundrum PREMA NANDAKUMAR The Hindu Tuesday, August 21, 2001 THE CARTESIAN MIND - Reflections on Language and Music: Nirmalangshu Mukherji; Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla-171005. Rs. 200.
IS THE mind (thought) independent of a physical presence? And, is the physical presence made a viable instrument only by the existence of the mind? The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) posited the principle, "cogito, ergo sum'' (I think or I am thinking, therefore I am). Can the absence of thoughts mean an absence of person? The author of the book under review raises some interesting questions in this regard springing from the Cartesian dictum and expresses his indignation at the treatment meted out to Descartes by the so-called post-modernists: "As far as I can see, targeting Descartes is about the only thing that binds them together. Descartes has been characterised as one of the principal architects of modernism, which is thought to be something like a crime against humanity that was perpetuated for over 400 years. His mind-body dualism is thought to be closely linked to much of the pillage of the environment and conflict between people. Given that Descartes is viewed as the principal progenitor of what is called the dualistic mode of thinking, I have actually heard distinguished speakers link this mode of thinking to the bombing of Hiroshima.'' Proceeding to re-state in clear terms the Cartesian idea of mind, he feels that the relationship or non-relationship of body and mind remains a conundrum since thoughts cannot be considered as independent phenomena. They have to be located somewhere - in speech or gestures or music. "The Cartesian mind concerns the unique human ability to generate discrete infinities for a certain class of interpretative/symbolic systems, which has two paradigmatic instances: language and music. ''After probing the language theories that have been systematised during the last two decades (Chomsky and the rest), the author is unable to escape the conclusion that each new conceptual and theoretical innovation makes any conclusion difficult, if not impossible. "Is there a limit somewhere with respect to how abstract one can get?'' However, the author plods on bravely through the maze of post- modernist linguistic diction and enters the realm of music. Language and music were inter-related concepts in the Vedic period. The West considered mathematics and music as inter- related since the latter has a pitch system that is universal. In recent times we have had Ludwig Wittgenstein using music systems to explain linguistic structure. But then, there are also the arguments that deny music the status of a language in conveying thoughts. Does music have a syntax or semantics or phonology? Nor can we compartmentalise the two by asserting that music expresses emotion while language conveys thoughts.Though we have moved far in linguistic research, there has been no appreciable exploration of music: "In general, it seems to me that there was a fairly rich tradition of investigation on the language-music issue in both the Indian and the Western traditions. The advent of Cartesianism in philosophy and the related development of formal systems of 'pure' music in the Western tradition (especially by Bach) essentially scuttled the unifying spirit of the investigation. In the Indian tradition, almost all forms of creative intellectual investigation came to a halt around the 14th century. Thus, it seems to me, the very issue came to be ignored in either tradition.'' One wonders whether this is due to the closeness of music with an aesthetic view of life. You should enjoy the rose, not murder it by dissection. Such cutting up by the post-modernists has already played havoc with our appreciation of literature. Perhaps at some stage the critics of musicology realised the wisdom of Yajnavalkya's advice to Gargi: "Do not push your inquiry too far, lest your head fall away separated. You should not seek to question about deities who are not to be reasoned about.'' The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says that on hearing this, Gargi, the daughter of Vachaknu, kept silent. As Wittgenstein advised us while concluding his Tractatus: "where one cannot be certain, it were best to remain silent.''