“Sound” according to Aristotle’s De Anima (418a12) and George Berkeley’s First Dialogue, is the special, or proper, object of hearing. G. J. Warnock, in his Berkeley, interprets this as meaning that sound is the “tautological accusative” of hearing: Sounds can only be heard and must be heard if anything is heard.
Hearing receives attention in philosophy mainly for its differences from seeing. Two respects in which listening and hearing differ from looking and seeing are (1) that there is nothing analogous, in seeing, to hearing the sound of something, and (2) that, in telling where something is, there is nothing analogous, in listening, to our having to look in the right direction.
Warnock’s explanation of the first of these differences is that we establish the presence and existence of an object by sight and touch, and then proceed to distinguish the object thus established from its smell and taste and the noises it makes.
|G. J. Warnock|
He mentions, as reasons for not ascribing such primacy to hearing, that inanimate objects often do not make any noises, that animate ones make them only intermittently, and that it is often difficult to tell where a sound is coming from.
There would be a further reason if, as P. F. Strawson maintains (in Individuals, p. 65), a universe in which experience was exclusively auditory would have no place at all for spatial concepts. This reason would be decisive if in a nonspatial world there could be no concept of an object (Individuals, Ch. 2).
Strawson asserts that we can discover some spatial features of things by listening (for instance, sounds seem to come from the left or right), but denies that such expressions as “to the left of ” have any intrinsically auditory significance. In accordance with this, G. N. A. Vesey labels knowing where a sound comes from by listening “borrowed-meaning” knowledge.
|P. F. Strawson|
Berkeley makes use of the fact that we talk of hearing sounds caused by things, together with the principle that “the senses perceive nothing which they do not perceive immediately: for they make no inferences,” to gain acceptance of the view that we cannot properly be said to hear the causes of sounds.
We can see directly (otherwise than by reflection) only what is on the same side of our heads as our eyes. Knowing in what position we have had to put our heads—in what direction we have had to look—to see an object, we know in what direction the object is. Hearing is not limited in this fashion, and so we identify the position of a merely seen object and a merely heard object very differently.
|Hearing is not limited|
Furthermore, if Strawson and Vesey are right about spatial expressions not having an intrinsically auditory significance, we cannot hear that one object is to the left of another as we can see that one object is to the left of another.
It might be concluded that knowledge that the source of a sound is to one’s left, gained by listening, must be mediated knowledge—that is, must have involved the making of an inference. To be valid, this conclusion would require the further premise that acquiring a perceptual capacity is invariably a matter of learning to interpret one thing as a sign of another.
|G. N. A. Vesey|
An alternative hypothesis would be that the only interpretation involved is at the physiological level; that is, that differences in the stimuli to the two ears which, in a person whose experience was exclusively auditory, would have no counterpart in experience, would, in a person who knew what it was to see and feel things as being on his left or right, subserve his hearing things as being on his left or right.
B. O’Shaughnessy (“The Location of Sound”) asserts that hearing where a sound comes from is noninferential and immediate. He contends that the seeming mysteriousness of the fact that listening can tell us where a sound is coming from is the result of our thinking of what is heard as a complex of two elements, “the sound itself ” and “its coming from the left” (defining “the sound itself ” as what is auditory—evidence of a “metaphysical theory of the sensory substratum”), and then having to think of its coming from the left either as “part and parcel of the sound” or as something we experience “other than and additional to the sound itself ” but somehow related to it.
|source of a sound|
That the sound is coming from the left, O’Shaughnessy holds, is neither part of the sound, nor something else we experience; nor is it something “we simply know.” The mistake lies in our thinking of what is heard as a complex, and O’Shaughnessy sees this as a result of our having “the idea that a thought or meaning is a complexity.”
Sound is a Lockean secondary quality. Hylas, in Berkeley’s First Dialogue, accordingly distinguishes between sound as it is perceived by us (“a particular kind of sensation”) and sound as it is in itself (“merely a vibrative or undulatory motion in the air”). Consideration of this philosophical position would not seem to raise issues peculiar to sound.