Conference Report: Music and the Cosmos, 3-4 June 2017, Cambridge

This conference on “Music and the Cosmos” took place from 3-4 July 2017 in the 15th Century Munro Room in Queens’ College Cambridge. The aim of the conference was to explore the philosophical relevance of cosmic or metaphysical harmony for current debates on the philosophy of mind, by linking the experience of harmony to notions of sympathy. Attendees included philosophers, musicologists, historians, an economist, a psychoanalyst, artists, and scholars in English literature.

The event commenced with a welcome by the organisers, followed by an interview with the conductor Joolz Gale (ensemble mini, Berlin), conducted by Louise Braddock. Gale emphasised the importance of a conductor’s infectious enthusiasm for the musical piece. Lydia Goehr in her keynote presentation focused on ‘musica practica’ and the relation between art and science, bringing out the extent to which modern thinking has mystified the concept of music and harmony. Following, Tosca Lynch offered a close reading of some passages in Plato, bringing out the centrality of the concept of harmony and of musical imagery in the development of Platonic conception of the state. Henning Tegtmeyer presented a paper on Aristotle’s treatments of music, and discussed a controversy about the notion of inaudible sound or music. The final presentation was given by Jacomien Prins, who surveyed Renaissance conceptions of cosmic harmony, and the way they impacted on astronomy.

The first paper of the second day was by Chris Meyns, who analysed the role of harmony in explanation in early modern science and natural philosophy. Meyns drew out a central disagreement about the legitimacy of explanations that invoke sympathy or overall harmony to explain natural phenomena. Subsequently, Ewan Jones discussed the relation between rhythm and emotion in light of George Eliot’s use of the image of the mollusc, and suggested that accounts of sympathy as contagion influenced Eliot in her thinking about rhythm. After a short break Jacques Launay talked about his experimental research on music psychology, and explained how his group had identified different ways in which engagement with music is a predictor for sociability and solid group formation.

A panel discussion with Meyns, Jones, and Launay followed, discussing the value of the concept of sympathy in present-day physics and psychology. In the final session of the conference, Maarten Steenhagen argued for a Neo-Platonic reading of Hume’s notions of sympathy. Susanne Herrmann-Sinai closed the conference with a paper on Hegel’s aesthetics and philosophy of nature.

Dr Maarten Steenhagen
Queens’ College, Cambridge

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