Reading Analogically: Notes On Western Logic And Eastern Dialecticism In Richard Nisbett’s “Mindware”


In one of the more fascinating sections of Richard Nisbett’s gripping book Mindware, there is a comparison between the principles of Western logic versus those of Eastern dialecticism. As I read through the comparison I thought about how these different mindsets might manifest themselves in musical contexts. Let’s take a look.

Three principles underlie the foundations of Western logical thought. The first principle has to do with the singularity of identity. “A = A…A is itself and not some other thing.” The second principle is that of noncontradiction. “A and not A can’t both be the case.” The third principle is that of the excluded middle. “Everything must either be or not be.” Something in between being and not being can’t be true. Similarly, three principles underlie the stance of Eastern dialecticism. First is the principle that reality is change: “What is currently true will shortly be false.” The second principle is that contradiction underlies change: “Because change is constant, contradiction is constant.” And the third principle concerns holism: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Parts are meaningful only in relation to the whole.”

Reading these contrasting worldviews it strikes me how inherently musical the Eastern dialectical perspective is. When you think about it, music is continual change and contradiction (or “contrast” in music speak) whose parts cohere in a way that makes them more than a bunch of sounds simply sounding together. The meaning of a sound is always in relation to another sound. Take a triad for example:


You can hear each of its three pitches (root, third, and fifth) individually yet together they melt into something more. Even on this elementary level music is the ultimate gestalt art form.

Stringing chords such as triads together into a sequence can produce beautiful flows of continual change. Consider a Bach chorale:

The principles of Western logic evoke different associations in that they remind me of some of the rigidities of Western music. Take tempered tuning. We not only say that the frequency of 440hz (hertz is the measurement for vibrations per second) is the note “A” but also that if we deviate a few Hertz up or down from that number the A is out of tune. In other words, a pitch can’t be in tune and out of tune–or to use Nisbett’s formulation, A literally speaking can’t be both itself and some other thing at the same time. In Western music our sense of pitch and melody is constrained to twelve fixed tones (the seven white notes and five black notes on the piano) and anything in between these fixities is a “blue” note, out of tune, left out, unsounded, ignored, or just wrong.

I leave you with two further examples, one Western, the other Eastern. My point is not to illustrate Western logic versus Eastern dialecticism by mapping them onto Western and Eastern music but rather to simply demonstrate how deeply different our world’s musics can be. The first example is another piece by Bach–his brief Prelude in C Minor from the Well Tempered Clavier. I love this piece, partly because I can actually play it and also because of how it moves. The music drives forward, changing just a note or two each measure to create shifting harmonies. Its rhythm is built from steady 16th notes and the overall feeling is one of determination, of trying to reach a goal.

The second piece is a traditional composition for the Qin, a Chinese zither. “Wild Geese Descending On The Sandbank” dates from the seventeenth century and the notation for the music indicates both the notes and inflections for pitch bends and other effects outside the pitch domain. There is a lot of space in the time of this music which has the effect of spurring the imagination. The overall feeling of the piece is one of stasis.

We might say that the musics in these two examples are dialectics with their own logics. Each involves change too, just in different ways towards different ends.

One thought on “Reading Analogically: Notes On Western Logic And Eastern Dialecticism In Richard Nisbett’s “Mindware”

  1. Excellent! I’ve always been a fan of so-called “blue” notes finding their way into music (many times in the form of a slightly out-of-tune instrument that just “works”. In these days of auto-tune and perfect pitch I feel like that outside-the-pitch magic is missing from a lot of contemporary Eastern music. Really interesting take on this.

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