Getting Better at Criticism
Last week, I got to hear Wycliffe Gordon play Amazing Grace live.
It was awesome.
And then, he pulled out his mute.
No recording’s gonna do this justice:
I had never heard someone play trombone so dynamically—breathy, delicate, articulate at one moment; sharp, overpowering, cranky the next; with that soulful wah-wah sound all the way through.
Trombone is a tremendously difficult instrument. Just hitting all the right notes cleanly is tough enough as you slide from one position to the next, but I’d never thought to describe anyone’s trombone playing as delicate.
But recognizing that the trombone can be played delicately is a mind-blowing shift—just like that, we’ve doubled the possibility space of criticism, because now we can evaluate trombone-playing as either delicate or not.
I’m not saying that delicate play is intrinsically good or better, but adding to our critical vocabulary lets us observe more fine-grained distinctions.
And these keener distinctions help us perceive, appreciate, and respond to value in new ways. They can guide us to try out new stuff and assess the results with greater curiosity, care, and sophistication than before.
Okay great, but what does it mean to get better at criticism?
Hopefully, we’re not just making things more complicated. What we really need is a sense of progression, a sense in which our understanding of things is deepened and improved relative to what it was before.
But in general, getting better at describing, explaining, and criticizing isn’t a matter of going from 90% to 92% accuracy. We have lots of conflicting values in our theory construction and theory assessment.
Take science. In science, we want our theories to be elegantly generative: It’s great if just a few principles can give us tons of rich implications.
But we’d also like our theories to have maximal coverage, to be able to account for as many observations as possible.
And these two are going to strain against one another.
I can achieve fuller coverage by throwing in a few ad hoc constraints: Okay well our base theory can’t account for whatever the heck just happened in this experiment, so we can just stipulate that at that time and place, the laws of physics seemed to work this way instead of that way.
Ta-da! Phew, now my theory’s right 100% of the time.
Okay that’s great, but we’ve lost any sort of interesting explanatory unity we were hoping for!
Alright now for some real armchair jazz analysis from an amateur:
So much of what we love in jazz is the play between complex dissonance and incomplete resolution. And recognizing that the trombone can be played delicately—that it can be more than a cannon in the brass section—affords us new avenues to explore that relationship, and maybe even discover other valuable possibilities.
With that in mind, here’s my recap of the jazz case:
I went in with a certain understanding of what trombone-playing could be like.
Wycliffe shattered that by putting on a performance that exploded the boundaries of what I thought trombonists could achieve. For me, it was a totally novel aesthetic experience.
In response, I was compelled to extend my critical vocabulary to try to better account for the new possible kinds and sources of value his play unearthed.
Going forward, that vocabulary gives me a better handle not only on what he did that was amazing, but also what other possibilities might be worth experimenting with or seeking out.
Right now I’m toying with a definition of our values as
the kinds of considerations we recognize within our critical practices.
(And of course, we can get it wrong!)
I’m still working on this, but I do like that this definition defines monism very clearly. Monism is when we recognize only one kind of consideration within our relevant critical practices:
Utilitarians only recognize Utility (roughly, pleasure minus pain) within our moral practices.
Pick your favorite Evil Corporation. I bet they only recognize Profit within their business practices, social consequences be damned.
I once had a manager who only recognized Hours Looking Busy and didn’t seem to care what I was actually doing with that time as long as I was duly frowning at my computer monitor…
But when we try to come up with reasonable examples of critical practices where we only recognize one kind of value, it’s pretty hard.
Take speedrunning a video game. It turns out there are actually tons of values lurking beyond “finishing the game as quickly as possible.”
Do we want to exploit game-breaking glitches or not? Over time, most speedrunning communities develop more and more world record categories, so there can be one world record fully leveraging the game-breaking glitches, and another world record playing around them to preserve other kinds of skills. These communities recognize that both kinds of speedruns can afford us with very different sorts of valuable experiences and challenges, and that it’s probably a waste of time to argue over which set of speedrunning rules is the singular Best.
Virtually all of our critical practices are super open-ended: We continually recognize new kinds of value (e.g. our increasingly expansive notions of social equality) and sometimes dispense with old values (e.g. chastity) that no longer shed much useful light on our considered judgments as a whole.
So, the first step to getting better at criticism is working to improve (and typically, expand) our critical vocabulary so we can figure out what we’re working with! Since we probably don’t know everything there is to know about what is or might be valuable, it’s a solid place to start.
But if you’re spending all your time trying to boil down and reduce our critical practices to just one or two values instead, I think you’re doing criticism poorly. Sure, your critical proposal will do great in terms of simplicity or elegance.
But how will it do in terms of coverage?
Or in terms of giving the right kinds of reasons for our judgments?
Can it fully account for every sort of conceivable value we might encounter within our relevant critical practices?
I’m pretty skeptical. I guess I really am a precautionary pluralist after all.
(But all my opponents are grossly indelicate.)