STEPHEN DAVIES ON THE ISSUE OF LITERALISM

Matteo Ravasio, University of Auckland

 

ABSTRACT  In this paper, I will discuss Stephen Davies’s defence of literalism about expressive properties in music. I will start with a brief outline of two opposite approaches, the metaphoricist and the literalist. As the claims defended by these two accounts are relative to a specific class of emotional descriptions of music, it is useful to specify the scope of the linguistic expressions in question. These are descriptions of music that attribute psychological properties to it, particularly properties related to the emotional sphere. Music is described as ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘despairing’, ‘joyful’, and so on, and these adjectives are presumably not meant to indicate the actual possession of emotional states by the music. Although agreement about these descriptions is hardly ever complete, all the evidence suggests that competent listeners reliably produce similar descriptions of the expressive qualities possessed by music. Davies’s defence of literalism is centred on the concept of polysemy. According to him, the use of emotion words in describing music bears a relation to the central use, in which these words denote psychological states, but it is not identical with it: emotion words refer in the musical case to the presentation of behavioural correlates of emotions. The use of emotion words in describing music is therefore not metaphorical, but polysemous and literal. I will argue that there is a class of polysemous uses of emotion terms in describing music that has not been analysed by Davies. I conclude by presenting the consequences of my claim for the phenomenology of music listening.

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