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P.D. Magnus

Historical individuals like Anas platyrhynchos and 'Classical Gas'

This is a paper about the ontology of musical works, with lessons from the philosophy of biology.

Versions available


In this paper, I explore and defend the idea that musical works are historical individuals. Guy Rohrbaugh (2003) proposes this for works of art in general. Julian Dodd (2007) objects that the whole idea is outré metaphysics, that it is too far beyond the pale to be taken seriously. Their disagreement could be seen as a skirmish in the broader war between revisionists and reactionaries, a conflict about which of metaphysics and art should trump the other when there is a conflict. That dispute is a matter of philosophical methodology as much as it is a dispute about art. I argue that the ontology of works as individuals need not be dunked in that morass. My primary strategy is to show, contra Dodd's accusation, that historical individuals are familiar parts of the world. Although the ontological details are open to debate, it is the standard opinion of biologists is that biological species are historical individuals. So there is no conflict here between fidelity to art and respectable metaphysics. What suits species will fit musical work as well.

Outline by section

  1. I introduce the opposition between revisionists and reactionaries.
  2. I review Rohrbaugh's argument and Dodd's objections.
  3. I consider whether pluralism could dissolve rather than resolve the disagreement. No, I argue, because even for the pluralist a core disagreement remains: just whether the view of musical works as historical individuals is even minimally sensible.
  4. I review the notion of species as individuals. Although this general idea is the majority view in biology, there is no consensus about the precise metaphysics of historical individuals. Nevertheless, it gives us a sketch which we can deploy to give Rohrbaugh's suggestion some ontological sophistication. Once we have done so, it becomes clear that Dodd's arguments against musical works as individuals simply miss the mark.
  5. I conclude with a discussion of the homeostatic property cluster (HPC) conception of species. An HPC is a regularity in the co-occurrence of properties, maintained by an underlying causal nexus. Although it is often taken to be an alternative to the view that species are individuals, it is better to think of individuals as a variety of HPC. With this in mind, I suggest that we can think of musical works as HPCs.


	AUTHOR = {P.D. Magnus},
	TITLE = {Historical individuals like \emph{Anas platyrhynchos} and `Classical Gas'},
	BOOKTITLE = {Art and Abstract Objects},
	EDITOR = {Christy {Mag U}idhir},
	PUBLISHER = {Oxford University Press},
	YEAR = {2013}

The first on-line draft of this paper was posted 30june2011.