More Stream of Consciousness blogging. In chapter 8, Dainton defines Strong Impingement as the thesis that
Phenomenal wholes have certain parts that possess intrinsic phenomenal features that reflect the character of that whole, and parts with the same character could not possibly occur except in a whole of the same or similar type.
He thinks that examples of strong impingement are at most extremely rare in our experiences. However, I think he really steps into it when he discusses, as one of the first few examples in his evaluation of strong impingement, the phenomenology of music. He writes:
The individual tones that make up a melody are heard as parts of a whole that evokes various responses in us. We might recognize that the notes form a melody without recognizing the melody as one we have heard previously. Or the melody might be familiar: as we listen we can anticipate the notes to come. In either case, the melody might produce affective and aesthetic responses, for example we find it beautiful but sad, or pleasurable but hackneyed. But as in the visual case, these responses involve our broader state of mind — they are not confined to the phenomenal characteristics of our perceptual experience — and they are produced by the melody as a whole, as it unfolds, rather than any particular note. Consequently, it remains unclear to what extent, if any, the intrinsic phenomenal characteristics of the constituent notes would be different if they were heard in isolation.
So Dainton doesn’t want to deny that something about our experience as a whole is altered by holistic aspects of our experience. But he doesn’t think what is altered can be said to be any of the “intrinsic phenomenal characteristics” of the parts of the experience.
This line doesn’t work too badly for visual experience. Dainton uses the example of an isolated eye versus the same eye framed by a cow’s head. Obviously the presence of the whole “cow’s head” experience alters our perception of the eye in some way — it is a now a cow’s eye, not just a disembodied eye, and we’re likely to unconsciously attribute cow-associated characteristics to it (passive, bovine, who knows). But Dainton would say that such attributions do not form part of the “intrinsic phenomenal characteristics” of the eye-experience. Instead, they are simply part of our overall mental state as we contemplate the eye.
I have my reservations about this claim, but these reservations turn into vehement objections when it comes to musical experiences. Consider any harmonic progression, let’s say a cadential progression, I-II-V-I. I would say that the strongest phenomenal characteristic of the V chord is not the phenomenal characteristics of the notes themselves (their pitch, timbre, loudness, etc.), but the “penultimate-ness” of the dominant harmony. A listener with perfect pitch may also be aware of the pitch-characteristics of the chord, and most listeners are going to be at least vaguely aware of the timbre, but the penultimate-ness would be stronger than all these other characteristics — and I’m not just saying this from a music theory perspective, but from a phenomenological perspective — the tension and drive towards the tonic that a listener would experience is far stronger than any of the other phenomenological characteristics of the chord. And the dominant-chord-like quality of V is of course due to the experience of the whole chord progression — alter some of the other chords, and we could easily change that quality to something quite different, say a tonic-like-quality (stability), or a dissonance (alien-ness).
Now this still doesn’t strictly rule out Dainton’s probable claim that the emotions we have upon the entrance of the dominant are simply due to our “mental background” and should not be attributed to the phenomenological characteristics of the chord itself. An extremely strong phenomenal quality could still be attributed to one’s “overall mental state”, rather than the experiental part itself. But let’s look again at Dainton’s reason for concluding that the emotional aspect of melodies aren’t “intrinsic phenomenal characteristics” of the components of melodies: “these responses involve our broader state of mind — they are not confined to the phenomenal characteristics of our perceptual experience — and they are produced by the melody as a whole, as it unfolds, rather than any particular note.” (Emphasis mine).
I think it is uncontroversial that the “melody as a whole” is a necessary context for us to experience the particular note as it is experienced — the note itself cannot do that. But the question is not the causal one of what is responsible for the particular note sounding (say) tense. It is whether we should attribute the tenseness we hear in the note to our “broader state of mind”, or to the note. To me, it is intuitively obvious that it should be the note. This is not something I feel to be in my overall mental state. It is not an unlocalized, pervasive presence. When the bittersweet Neapolitan 6th chord sounds, I want to point to it and say, that sounds bittersweet. It’s not that I feel bittersweet (I might, though). Instead, I am perceiving a phenomenal object in my experience to be bittersweet. And the phenomenal object is that chord. Or that cheerful motif. Or that dissonant, ominous trill in the bass. This localization of the experienced phenomenal quality cannot be explained away by any theory that says it is merely part of my overall mental state.
So I would conclude that Strong Impingement holds for musical experiences, to a significantly greater, or at least more obvious, extent than for visual experiences. And part of the reason why it seems to be important in musical experiences is because of the way meaning in music is created. Meaning in music is far more contextualized than meaning in visual experience (let us, for the moment, discount visual experiences containing linguistic images). For the class of humans who know what an eye is, we can imagine them having a “core” type of phenomenal experience (but not identical experiences) whenever they encounter eyes — it’s easy to recognize an eye as an eye outside of its usual position in the faces of animals. But it’s outright impossible to recognize a dominant chord as a dominant chord outside of its surrounding harmonic context. The intrinsic phenomenal characteristics of a chord are necessarily a product of its context, whereas it’s quite likely that that may not be necessarily (but could be contingently) so of a visual phenomenal object.
One is then almost inevitably led to the question of whether Strong Impingement holds for linguistic experience (not counting music as a language for now). Dainton thinks not, for largely the same reasons that he thinks it doesn’t hold for visual experience. And I think he’s right to judge linguistic experience similarly to visual experience in this respect, because most parts of our linguistic experience have strong phenomenal characteristics (by association) by themselves. Again, contrast this with music, where two identical chords, which by themselves are phenomenologically the same, can have vastly different phenomenological effects when placed in different contexts. This is true for some words in natural languages, e.g. “bank” in the English language. Dainton does consider “bank” in his discussion of linguistic experiences:
But even in this sort of case, the influence of context is limited: the sound or inscription ‘bank’ means either ‘place or institution where money is deposited’ or ‘the side of a river’; context merely makes it clear which of these meanings is intended.
I have to confess, though, that I don’t see how this resolves the issue. It’s true that the word “bank” means either financial institution or side of river, but we almost never experience it with the disjuncted meaning “either financial institution or side of river”. In all but a few cases of contextual ambiguity, we experience the sound or sight of the word “bank” as indicating exclusively one or the other of its two possible meanings, not as a two-valued ambiguity.
Cases like the word “bank”, though, are relatively less common in natural languages (in comparison to the “language” of music). I’d say linguistic experience is between musical and visual experience on the spectrum of experiences to which Strong Impingement applies.