We enjoy sounds. What about silence: the absence
of sound? Certainly not all, but surely many of us seek out, attend to, and
appreciate silence. But, if nothing is there, then there is nothing to possess aesthetic
qualities that might engage aesthetic interest or reward aesthetic attention.
This is at least puzzling, perhaps even paradoxical. In this paper, I attempt
to dispel the sense of paradox and provide a way to understand aesthetic
appreciation of silence. I argue that silence can have an aesthetic character
and can sustain the kinds of rich experiences apt for aesthetic assessment and
aesthetic appreciation; aesthetic experience;
aesthetic quality; John Cage; paradox of silence; silence; soundscape
We enjoy sounds. What about silence? Do we also
enjoy silence? Certainly not all—maybe not even most—but surely many of us seek
out, attend to, and appreciate silence. We move to the country, backpack in the
wilderness, or simply retreat to a quiet corner of the house. This might seem
odd. What's there to enjoy? If silence is the absence of sound, then there is
nothing there to appreciate. If nothing is there, then there is nothing to
possess aesthetic qualities that might engage aesthetic interest or reward
aesthetic attention. This is at least puzzling, perhaps even paradoxical. In
this paper, I attempt to dispel the sense of paradox and provide a way to
understand aesthetic appreciation of silence.
Over the last few decades, philosophical
aesthetics has dramatically expanded its range of inquiry from the traditional
topics of fine arts and natural environments to previously ignored areas,
including mass art, swamps and bogs, rock music, the everyday, food, sex, wine,
itches and scratches, video games, trash, and almost everything under the sun,
including darkness. As people are starting to recognize problems with noise and
opportunities for quiet, now is the time to extend philosophical aesthetics to
include appreciation of silence. Popular culture has seen a recent surge of
interest in silence, including interest in mindfulness meditation, forest
bathing, the quiet person, the health benefits of silence, digital detox
retreats, neurological regeneration, negative effects of noise, the fostering
of creativity, silence as a way of life, and silence as political gesture. The
Finnish Tourist Board employed the slogan, "Silence Please!," in its
2011 marketing campaign aimed at attracting visitors with the allure of natural
silence and beauty. The campaign cited a statistic from the European
Environment Agency, according to which, "Over 80% of Finland is categorised
as a silent area."
I will argue that silence and silences can have
an aesthetic character and can sustain the kinds of rich experiences that are
apt for aesthetic assessment and appraisal. In the first two sections, I argue
that we never experience absolute silence but that there is silence enough for
us to attend to and appreciate. I then go on to argue that we can have
rewarding and meaningful aesthetic experiences of silence. Lastly, I explore
the aesthetic value of silence and suggest that it is potentially salutary and
part of a flourishing life.
2. No absolute silence
Early in his 1961 collection, Silence, John Cage recounts his first experience with
the anechoic chamber at Harvard.
heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the
engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in
operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be
Oddly enough, even in an environment designed for
silence, Cage finds none. Initially, this might be surprising. But a moment's
reflection shows that our very capacity for auditory experience requires
functioning nervous and circulatory systems. What is
required for processing sound is itself something that produces sound, although
we might not be able to hear it. We will never experience absolute silence.
Silence can be distinguished from quiet. I can
ask my students to talk quietly with one another but I can't ask them to talk
silently. Silence implies quiet but quiet doesn't imply silence. Silence is the
"absolute zero" in the sound scale. Silence is binary: on/off. Quiet,
by contrast, comes in degrees. It can be close to but is not necessarily equal
to zero sound.
Nevertheless, there are English language contexts
of use in which this conception isn't right. Ordinary language is imprecise and
won't conform to the distinction between silence and quiet once it's made
precise. The Finnish Tourist Board, for example, cites a statistic according to
which "Over 80% of Finland is silent." If silence is an on/off
concept, this clearly can't be literally true.
Nevertheless, we can make do with something less demanding. Julian Dodd,
following Roy Sorensen, suggests that "what counts as silent is something
short of an absolute absence of sound, just as what counts as a straight line
in nature is some way short of what would count as such in a geometry class."
I will take this suggestion and allow, despite
what was said two paragraphs earlier, that we can speak of the relatively
silent, as opposed to the absolutely silent. Thus persons, places, situations,
and processes that make very little sound might equally be described as
"relatively silent" or "relatively quiet." A silent
retreat, for example, is only relatively silent. Or we might say that one of the things we
enjoy about silent retreats is the relative quiet, even if a plane occasionally
flies by overhead.
At a silent retreat, I can encounter silence but I can also participate in or create
silence by refraining from making sounds, even if, as mentioned, a silent
retreat is not absolutely silent. Silence is not a thing; it is rather of
silences we encounter are the silences of things that participate in or remain
silent. For example, the silence encountered at a silent retreat is the silence
we participate in by refraining from talking.
Here it might be helpful to head off potential
objections regarding the possibility of absolute silence. Can't I be absolutely
silent simply by not talking? Not really. I can be 100% not talking, but I
can't be 100% silent altogether. But then, is the term without application? Can
anything or anywhere be absolutely silent? Well, it's surely not a metaphysical
impossibility. I suppose we could say that outer space is totally silent, as
there is no medium there to transmit a wave detectable by our ears. But outer
space should be seen as analogous to a giant and more extreme version of Cage's
anechoic chamber. Even in outer space we would still hear our nervous system
and our circulatory system.
Then suppose our ears were not sensitive to those
kinds of sounds, from our own bodies, and instead consider a situation in which our ears were sensitive to a
certain range of sounds but that in that situation there simply were no
instances of those sounds to hear. In that case, wouldn't there be total
silence for listeners like that? This kind of situation seems not merely
metaphysically possible but physically possible. And it's obviously not a
necessary truth that space is empty of sound waves. There might have been
something there, or we might have had some other kind of ears that would allow us
to detect plasma waves or solar wind or something.
Furthermore, pressing the objection just a bit,
lack of a medium is not necessary for absolute silence. There is total silence
when there is a medium but no wave disturbance or at the displacement node of a
standing wave where the intensity of the wave is zero. The latter is a dead
spot. Dead spots can also result from destructive interference when the net
wave amplitude drops to zero. Theoretically, these could occur instantaneously
at isolated points in space. It may happen all around us and regularly,
although we wouldn't notice. And, of
course, there is a possible world occupied by exactly one hydrogen atom that
makes no sound, even if there is no one to hear it. Aren't all these examples
of absolute silence?
The reply to such worries is simply that,
although theoretically such things could happen, none are examples of silence
that could be part of our experience. There is no absolute silence or, in any
case, as Cage observes, we never experience it. But we do encounter and
participate in relative silence and, as I will argue in the next section, this
provides silence enough for us to appreciate.
3. Silence enough
We (some of us) seek out and attend to what are
less-than-absolute silences, in the form of partial, intermittent, and
temporary absences of sound. What counts
as silence in these cases is contextual and is short of absolute silence. When we
escape noisy New York City for the silence of Long Lake deep in the
Adirondacks, there are still sounds there: the water gently dripping from the
oars, the eerie call of the loon in the distance, the wind rippling the water,
my squeaky life vest, my breath . . . It
is not absolutely silent. Nevertheless, such sounds might help to draw
attention to the relative silence there is. When we eat in silence at a silent
retreat, forks and knives clink against plates and each other and coffee cups
do the same. Refraining from making loud noises in such settings helps us to
focus on the silence. In another setting, a jet flying overhead might even be a
welcome reminder of the fact that one is deep in the silent wilderness.
In other cases, silence might consist in the
silence of some but not all of a group of things. McCoy Tyner sat out
"Chasin' the Trane" while the rest of the band played; his absence is
surprising and contributes a thrilling sense that the remaining trio has jumped
without a net. Only some of the volcanoes were erupting while others remained
silent, thus producing an air of ominous foreboding on the surrounding islands.
These cases don't involve absolute silence because the things being silent are
accompanied by things making sound. But the absences make an aesthetic
difference we can notice and attend to.
There are also silences in which every member of
a group is silent in some relevant respect. No one spoke at the silent retreat
but we all appreciated the unanticipated sense of intimacy this silence
fostered. All the musicians refrained from playing their instruments for four
minutes and thirty-three seconds, alternately bewildering and infuriating the
uninitiated members of the audience. The
peepers all stopped calling when they heard us coming up the trail, thus
alerting us to their charming presence, that had previously gone unnoticed. The
members of these groups are silent in some respects but not others. People
audibly shuffled their soles on the floor while walking the halls at the
retreat. Although the musicians didn't play their instruments, one of them
sniffled with a cold and another's phone rang. Some of the peepers plopped into
the water as they fell silent. That these partial silences don't involve
absolute silence is not a barrier to our attending to and appreciating them.
The relative silence of a wilderness area, such
as the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area outside of Boulder, Colorado, is spread
across a broad region. We escape there in part to enjoy the sounds of nature
but also the silence. In this case, the silence is a matter of the absence of
human-made sounds, including voices, vehicles, construction, and noise from
activities like mining and mechanized agriculture. Similarly, there is relative silence far out
on a large and isolated lake or in the middle of the ocean, although the waves
may lap. In these cases, too, we soak in the relative silence and it provides
an aesthetic reason for being there.
Silences can also be less than absolute in the
temporal, as opposed to sonic-intensity, sense. The duration of silences varies
widely. The tiny silences between musical notes last for less than a second; a
moment of silence at a wedding lasts for a minute or two; a silent retreat
lasts for a few days; our trip to the wilderness may last for a week or two;
and the silence in outer space may last billions of years. The environmentalist John
"Planetwalker" Francis remained silent for seventeen years,
traversing the Americas on foot to promote his cause.
That there is no absolute silence does not
prevent us from enjoying what silence there is. There is silence enough to
attend to. In "A Social—and Personal—History of Silence," Jane Brox
describes the silence in her old country house:
I live in a quiet house. On
a winter's day, I can hear snow landing on the windowpanes and flames muttering
on the stove, tires hissing on the wet street, my cats shifting in their beds.
When the weather grows warm, I open the windows, and sometimes a little talk
from passersby floats in. Even then, the quiet feels spacious—a place in which
my thoughts can roam as I work.
Brox, too, is not describing a situation in which
there is absolute silence but rather one in which there is relative silence.
What is important in such cases is the space that opens up, one that affords
listening but doesn't force it. The point here isn't that the silence frees Brox up to hear these
other sounds but rather that she is able to experience the silence itself.
Similarly, walking in a remote wilderness area, I
might stop, turn to my companion, and say, "Hear that? Listen to the
silence." At that point, we might notice the wealth of natural sounds made
audible by the absence of human noise. But we might also, once our attention
has been drawn there, simply savor the silence itself that had previously gone
unnoticed. In the latter case, the ambient sounds recede into the background as
the silence comes to the fore. This was what we came for.
Such examples help to show that in our ordinary
manner of thinking and speaking, although there is no absolute silence, there
is relative silence— and that is silence enough. An interruption of the
relative silence helps draw our attention to it. Or perhaps better: Hearing
sounds we know we wouldn't otherwise notice draws our attention to the silence.
In the next section, I will argue more specifically that there is silence
enough to appreciate aesthetically.
4. Aesthetic appreciation of silence
There is silence enough to attend to. Can we
appreciate it? If so, how?
a. Instrumental appreciation
We certainly appreciate silence instrumentally.
For someone who spends all day at a noisy construction site, the main attraction
of silence might well be the welcome contrast it provides and the profound
sense of relief it offers. A sense of
relief is part of the pleasure of escaping a children's birthday party or the
loud city or the factory or the neighbor's leaf blower or the constant
oppressive drone of twenty-first century audiovisual media. For anyone, really,
an escape from the noise to the quiet of the woods or the beach or the like
provides a welcome break from the frenetic pace and the sensory overload of our
We also flee the noisy traffic, rumbling
construction, loud conversations, and general hustle-bustle in order to
experience a soundscape otherwise ignored. Free from the noise, we can hear the
crickets and the frogs and the birds and the surf and the wind and the thunder
and the rain. We might even enjoy the sound of a jet far overhead or the rumble
of a tractor over the next hill or the gentle tings of a wind chime. In more
extreme cases, we might enjoy the occasion to listen to our heartbeat or the
ringing in our ears.
Often a crucial element of the reward is the
pleasure of solitude, the absence of other people. A friend of mine used to
like to joke, "I don't hate people; I just feel better when they're not
around." But the experience of silence can also be shared. At a silent
retreat, for example, it is the lack of chatter, not the lack of other people,
that is enjoyed together. This experience can be uniquely emotionally powerful.
A shared silence provides a kind of intimacy that is especially meaningful, and
one may take aesthetic pleasure in that. It is properly described as enjoying
the silence together. Good friends know that they can feel comfortable enough
to enjoy long silences together.
A growing body of empirical research points to
the positive health value of the experience of silence and the negative health
effects of noise. Exposure
to silence contributes to neural regeneration.
Appreciation of silence, we are learning, promotes human flourishing. Silence
provides the ideal occasion to observe, ponder, and appreciate that one exists.
It is the most natural occasion for primordial wonder.
b. Aesthetic appreciation
I've established that we can attend to silence
and that we can appreciate it instrumentally, but what about aesthetically? I enter the anechoic chamber; I experience
the silence. Is it also possible for this experience to be an aesthetic
This might be taken to mean a couple of different
things: We might be asking something about the internal affective and cognitive
states of a perceiver. In that case, our question would be something like: Is
there special way of attending to silence that results in or amounts to having
an aesthetic experience? Alternatively, we might be asking something about the
external states of the perceiver's environment, including properties and
relations of the objects attended to. In that case, our question would be
something like: Do silences have aesthetic properties that can be part of the
content of experiences? I think that on either reading of the question, the
answer is yes. And, moreover, some ways of appreciating silence are more
rewarding than others. In particular, the manner of attending to quiet that
incorporates a mental stillness is a better way to appreciate silence than
What exactly are we supposed to do in order to
appreciate silence aesthetically? Is there a special attitude we adopt?
According to Iseminger, what is involved in aesthetic appreciation generally is
"finding the experience of a state of affairs to be valuable in
itself." Can we
appreciate silence in this way or must its value for us always be instrumental?
Silent retreats supply a good illustration. Here,
the silence is largely a matter of the absence of speech, which provides the
opportunity to listen, either to ordinarily ignored non-speech sounds or to
nothing at all. The absence of conversation might call our attention to the
passage of time or to ourselves or to own auditory capacities. Such retreats
typically include media blackouts that provide, if not necessarily a reduction
in audible noise, at least a reduction of the information noise that
accompanies the constant media hum of ordinary life. This enhances the
capacity, or at least furthers the opportunity, to attend to the silence. Obviously,
a silent retreat is not totally silent. The silence is intermittently
interrupted by the ring of the bell indicating that a session has finished.
This punctuates the silence and draws our attention to it once it returns.
Similarly, the silence is broken by the sounds of the dining hall or the wind
and rain at the windows and the roof, or the crickets or tree frogs or birds.
All of the oft-ignored sounds of daily life come into awareness once we are
afforded the opportunity to listen. But these sounds recede to the background
when the silence itself moves to the fore. We notice especially the absence of
the constant din of chatter, and we savor it.
that we can attend to silence with the appropriate state of mind, are there
properties of silence that we would want to call uniquely aesthetic? In other words, what about the content of
the experience of silence might make it count as aesthetic? As a step in this direction, consider Robert
Stecker's "minimal conception," according to which an aesthetic
the experience of attending
in a discriminating manner to forms, qualities, or meaningful features of
things, attending to these for their own sake or for the sake of this very
So can we find in silence forms, qualities, and
meaningful features we can attend to for their own sake or for the sake of the
I think that we can. Further, if so, then that
would also point us toward an answer to the equally important question of why
and how the aesthetic experience of silence can be valuable. Here, too, I
follow Stecker in holding that,
one does not have
[aesthetic] experiences, without one valuing them in one way or another . . .
aesthetic experience is always valued for itself, though the valuing needn't be
Wilderness areas provide refuge from the all too
familiar din of modern civilization. We delight in the multifarious
absences: of the clamor of construction,
of the roar of emergency vehicles, of the constant drone of traffic, and of the
noisy neighbors. On a windless night, after the birds have gone to sleep, there
is dead silence. It is then possible to appreciate the silence itself, for its
own sake and for the sake of that very experience. At such times, the silence
can be sublime, suggesting both mortality and infinite potential. At other
times, especially when alone or at night, the silence there can be mysterious,
alienating, or unnerving.
Beyond these kinds of qualitative properties,
silences take various forms, delineated by their borders. A silence can be
short and intermittent or lengthy and continuous. A prolonged silence between
movements of a symphony might provide a sense of relief and a moment for
reflection, while the very brief silence between numbers at a jazz performance
might produce a thrilling sense of urgency. A pregnant pause in conversation
can indicate irony, a warning, or a pun. In a jazz quartet, the silence of the
pianist sitting out is sonically very different from the silence of the drummer
The use of silence in Gustav Mahler's Second
Symphony, "Resurrection," is
especially illustrative. Mahler called
for a five-minute silent pause following the First Movement, the "Funeral
Rites." Because of the extended
duration of the pause, which is apt to cause misunderstanding, there is an
ongoing debate about whether conductors should honor Mahler's instructions. But
the pause serves a significant aesthetic function. The First Movement is,
according to one critic, "a massive and terrifying portrait of death." Mahler
called for the pause "in expectation that the audience would need to
recover from the intensity and scope of what they had just heard." As
Andrew Davis, Chief Conductor for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, puts it,
the pause provides the occasion to "stare into the face of
emptiness." If all
of this is right, we have a period of silence just as meaningful as the sounds
that constitute its temporal borders and serve as its host. The silence
provides the occasion to attend to an absence and to confront the looming
specter of our own ever-nearer and inevitable absence. The silence might be
described variously as haunting, ethereal, a profound relief, or perhaps
consoling or comforting.
c. The Silent Sonata: Cage's
Silence can exhibit and express aesthetic
qualities but has no qualitative character of its own; there is nothing
analogous to the black of darkness. Nevertheless, we can still appreciate a
period of silence appropriately framed, perhaps in a way analogous to how we
appreciate a framed work of art, like Ad Reinhardt's all black Abstract Painting. Cage's 4'33"
is the obvious example, although he compares his work not to Reinhardt's black
paintings but to Rauchenberg's White Painting.
There is a long-standing debate about the
ontological status of Cage's "silent work,” and this matters for how we
are to think about its aesthetic character and about silence more generally.
What does 4'33" consist of? Does the piece consist of a period of
silence lasting four minutes and thirty-three seconds? Or does it consist of
the ambient sounds in the performance space made audible by the silence of the
performers during that increment of time?
The question about content is distinct from the
question about what the audience is supposed to attend to during a performance
of the work. We really have two
questions: (1) what is the content of 4'33"?; and (2) what are we supposed to
listen to during a performance of 4'33"?
Ordinarily, the answers will be the same: what we
are to attend to just is the content of the work. Other sounds that
occur during a performance are extraneous distractions. The content of
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the same as what we are to attend to. But Cage's
piece, trafficking as he does in irony, presses us to call into question this
ordinary assumption. What we are supposed to attend to at a performance of
4'33" might come apart from the content. Thus, one might, in effect, take
the whole piece to be a kind of aesthetic device, the content of which is
itself uninteresting, but that draws our attention to something that is
worthy of attention. Something like this position is defended recently by
While listeners new to the
piece might, for a very short while, try to pay close attention to the
performance's content, they will soon discern that, since this content consists
in silence, there is nothing there that rewards such attention. And it is just
this realization that will prompt them to direct their focus onto things outwith the performance's content: the sounds occurring around
them. These environmental sounds do not, then, distract our attention from the
performance's content; on the contrary, this content, once grasped, compels us
to look beyond itself, to the sounds of the environment, for aesthetic
This provides Dodd with the framework to argue,
contrary to prevailing opinion, that 4'33" really does comprise
silence and not the ambient sounds during its performance.
I think Dodd is right that the content of 4'33"
is the silence itself rather than the ambient sounds in the performance hall.
But I disagree with what he seems to take for granted, namely, that in silence
"there is nothing there that rewards attention." The silence of 4'33"
is tantalizingly puzzling, deliciously infuriating, and endlessly amusing. We
can compare and contrast the aesthetic qualities of various performances of the
piece, despite their all consisting in silence. A performance in front of an
unsuspecting audience might be bewildering; a performance of the same piece
during a silent retreat might be exhilarating; while a third performance might
be amusing if performed for an audience on a runway at JFK Airport. By contrast, the ambient sounds of the
performance space have none of these qualities.
The aesthetic rewards of silence are not confined
to ironic or sophisticated contrivances like Cage's. Ian Phillips mentions
compelling examples from the music critic Alex Ross that highlight the
expressive power of silences in musical performances. He cites
thundering silences and animating silences and beautifully hushed silences
employed as meaningful musical devices. Earlier, we noted that a long pause
between movements in Mahler's Second Symphony provided both profound relief and
the opportunity to stare into the abyss.
5. Context and degree of freedom
In the main, I want to recommend the experience
of silence as something positive. But if ‘aesthetic’ is understood as aesthesis
and hence value-neutral, the aesthetics of silence should include negative
experience, also. After
all, silence can be . . . disquieting . . ., as when
one endures the cruelty of the silent treatment. Similarly, when Rachel Carson,
in Silent Spring, draws our attention to the disappearance of birds
singing, we experience this silence as ominous and eerie. And the painful
sorrow we feel in the absence of a loved one's voice is something we experience
as a part of grief. Of course, it could go either way. Dan Moller, in "The
Boring," offers a wonderful illustration: "the awkward silence in the
car on the way home from the first date is the glorious silence on the way home
from the fourth or fifth."
The most basic thesis would be that the aesthetic
character of silence, whether negative or positive, is determined by what is
absent or by what disappears. This thesis is highly plausible if, as we would
expect, the aesthetics of silence is grounded in the metaphysics. As I argued
earlier, silences are ontologically dependent. They are of things and
are located roughly where the silent things are or perhaps where the sound
would've been. The
semantic and/or aesthetic features of silences will then depend on what is
But context matters, too. The semantic features
of silences will also depend on historical, cultural, and socio-linguistic
factors. As Sorensen puts the point:
Since silence conveys
nothing on its own, it is usually sensitive to context. Depending on the
circumstances, silence can convey assent, dissent, or uncertainty. Its message
is heavily context-dependent. Silence can be an expression of respect. One of
the rituals of Armistice Day is a two-minute silence held at 11 a.m., ‘the
eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month' (the time at which the
1918 armistice went into effect, bringing World War I to a close).
Context helps to direct our attention to the
relevant absence, in this case, the absence of the fallen heroes. Accordingly,
we can modify the basic thesis to respect these contextual features. The
semantic-cum-aesthetic features of the silence are determined by what is
absent, together with contextual factors that fix the identity of the silence.
Context dependence is not unique to silence. In a
well-known and influential paper, Kendall Walton argues that aesthetic features
of artworks are category-dependent. in the sense that the identity of the work
and hence its aesthetic features depend on how the work is conceptually
situated among the other elements of an appropriate comparison class, such as
genre or oeuvre. This is
why fans of swing music might find a bebop work, like "Salt Peanuts,”
turgid and tedious— "How are we supposed to dance to this?"—while
bebop fans might find a modal jazz piece like Coltrane's
"Impressions" bland and inexpressive—"Where's the key? It sounds
like four guys playing four different songs."
This line of argument can be extended to other
areas of aesthetic appreciation. Allen Carlson, for example, extends Walton's
reasoning to the aesthetics of nature and environments where the relevant
categories are supplied not by art history or art theory but by the natural
sciences, like geology and biology.
Accordingly, appropriate appreciation of whales requires comparison to members
of the class of mammals, to which they belong, rather than to the members of
the class of fish, to which they do not.
Is aesthetic response to silence category-driven
in this way? Surely it can be. Consider the use of silence in music. The
five-minute silence following the first movement of Mahler's Second Symphony
comes as a relief, while the only slightly-shorter silence of Cage's silent
piece causes anger and consternation. Music-historical and music-theoretical
knowledge can provide appropriate conceptual framing in these sorts of cases.
Similarly, our appreciation of the natural silence deep in a rainforest might
be driven by an understanding of the sound-dampening properties of the foliage,
an understanding of basic acoustics, or perhaps wave-mechanics.
But it would be too strong to claim that this
sort of knowledge is necessary in all cases. Once the silence in the forest has
been pointed out, we don't need a scientific understanding in order to
appreciate it aesthetically; that might even be distracting. I don't
think a strong cognitivist position is a good fit for the aesthetics of
silence. Instead, I encourage a
moderate non-cognitivist position together with the view that aesthetic
appreciation of silence is something we can cultivate with practice.
Of course, surely appreciation of silence admits
of a considerable degree of freedom, depending, for example, on conditions of
observation and the perceptual capacities and cognitive make-up of observers.
But this does not make the aesthetics of silence uniquely "observer
relative." True, aesthetic response to silence depends on the sonic
context in addition to the beliefs, expectations, intentions, and general
psychological profile of the listeners. But this is to be expected. The Grand
Tetons are magnificent in Wyoming but barely noticeable in Nepal. And they are
magnificent, in neither case, if our eyes are closed or we're not paying
attention or are distracted by reports of recent attacks by Grizzly Bears.
Interest in the psychological and physical health
benefits of silence has been gaining momentum in recent years, as worries about
overstimulation and media saturation rise in the public consciousness. Finland proudly adopts
silence as part of its national identity for its tourism literature. But the
appreciation of silence as an aesthetic delight valuable for its own sake is
something that has been under-explored. One reason for this is, no doubt, that,
people already know how to do it; we don't need instructions.
Nevertheless, it's not that simple. The
value is not always immediately apparent. Cage's 4'33" is
mystifying to the uninitiated. A typical response is anger, which was precisely
how it was received at the debut performance, in Woodstock in 1952. Cage recalled
much later that "they didn't laugh—they were irritated when they realized
nothing was going to happen, and they haven't forgotten it 30 years later:
they're still angry." Cage
adds that he even lost friends because of what happened that night.
This response is not surprising. Challenging
works and performances from Duchamp, Stravinsky, Picasso, Dylan, Coltrane, The
Sex Pistols, and Snoop Dogg have also produced uproars. Eventually we work out
strategies that help us to overcome the consternation and to learn to
appreciate (or not) such works. Part of this process has to do, no doubt, with
our recognition that works of art like these are designed with the intention to
produce a certain kind of response in an audience.
But what are we to say when the relevant guiding
artistic intentions are lacking? Can those instances of silence exhibit the
"features of unity, complexity, and intensity . . . that reward
disinterested and sympathetic attention and contemplation"?
I have claimed that people regularly seek out and
appreciate silence in places like wilderness areas and at silent retreats. In
the previous section, I gave examples of experiences of silence involving a
wide range of aesthetic properties and that produce a wide range of aesthetic
experiences. Silences can be calming and soothing or unnerving and frightening.
They can be intermittent, momentary, brief, or prolonged. Silence at the beach
is hard to hear when the surf is high. It might be complemented, for some time,
by the lapping of waves but then, at some later time, give over altogether to
the roaring, crashing surf. The silence in the backyard might be unpleasantly
by the neighbor's leaf blower or lawn mower but we welcome it when it returns
after the yard work is finished. Silences can vary from the total silence of
outer space that we never experience to the respectful quiet of a study nook in
the library to the noisy silence outside Cage's New York City apartment. When I
ask for silence in the classroom, if we take a moment, we can savor it.
Silences in conversation are especially pregnant with meaning. They can be
cruel, sarcastic, respectful, and humorous, like the pause before a pun.
When we enjoy the silence, there is no aesthetic
object in the ordinary sense but neither do we just aimlessly space out. To
appreciate silence the way I recommend, we need to be attentive and to value
both what we're attending to and how we attend to it. That is, we need to value
both the silence and our experience of it.
Note that what we do is teachable. I might direct
your attention to the silence, not for some other purpose but as something to
appreciate for its own sake. We do this all the time. We ask our children to
quiet down in the arboretum or the botanical garden or on a quiet forest path.
Some of this is out of respect for others who want to enjoy the quiet
tranquility but it is also to teach our children, by showing them how to do
that very thing themselves.
As Cage advised, we can find silence even in
traffic noise. He could well have been joking about the traffic. I advise
seeking at least relative silence. Listen to it, not the other stuff. Let the
sounds recede to the background and allow the silence to come to the fore.
There are still sounds, even if just your heartbeat or the ringing in your
ears. Let those go. Allow the mind to still. Don't enter into a trance. Don't
allow yourself to daydream. Focus on the silence in the fore, and let the
daydreams recede and pass.
Out in the
open, freed from sounds, silences can exhibit emotion properties, such as when
they are melancholic or alienating or comforting or liberating. A shared
silence at the retreat might be reverential. At night in the desert the
prolonged quiet can be sublime, in the Kantian sense.
Listening to silence with a still mind, the most
meaningful comes to the fore. It is not surprising, then, that many of us find
the experience of silence deeply moving. This needn't involve anything
mysterious or paradoxical, even though initially it might seem as though there
is nothing there to appreciate. On the contrary, silence exhibits a rich
aesthetic character that we can appreciate for its own sake, if we attend to it
in the right way. It is time we give silence its due.
Erik Anderson is Chair and Professor of
Philosophy at Drew University in Madison, NJ. His research interests include
aesthetics and metaphysics.
Published on January 23, 2020.
 On silence as a way of life, see Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (Berkeley:
 VisitFinland, "Slow Life," https://www.visitfinland.com/article/slow-life/, accessed July 9, 2019.
 John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan
University Press, 1961), p. 8.
 This is a contentious point in philosophy of mind. Is it a truth of
metaphysics that I must be embodied in order to have sensory experience?
Gertler offers a Cartesian-style argument against this claim. I take it that
Cage is not addressing a metaphysical issue of this kind, and that he is
instead restricting his observations to what can be said about the lives of
ordinary human beings. Brie Gertler, "In Defense of Mind-Body
Dualism," in Reason and Responsibility 13th edition,
eds. Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau (New York: Cengage, 2007), pp.
 For an extended treatment of Cage on this point, see Kyle Gann, No
Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (Yale University Press,
 Julian Dodd, "What 4′33″ Is," Australasian Journal
of Philosophy, 96 (2018), 629-641; ref. on p. 634; Roy Sorensen,
"Hearing silence: The Perception and Introspection of Absences," in Sounds
and Perception, eds. Matthew Nudds and Casey O'Callaghan (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2009), pp. 126-145.
 Here, too, I follow Sorensen and Dodd.
 Douglas Kahn makes a similar point about sounds otherwise
undetectable to unaided human hearing. "John Cage: Silence and
Silencing," The Musical Quarterly, 81 (1997), 556-98.
 Again, I follow Sorensen and Dodd. See too, Ian Phillips,
"Hearing and Hallucinating Silence," in Hallucination, eds.
Fiona Macpherson and Dimitris Platchias (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), pp.
Frances, Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking, 17 Years of Silence
(National Geographic, 2009).
 Jane Brox, "A Social—and Personal—History of Silence," The
New Yorker, April 3, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/kinds-of-silence.
 On the notion of "affording listening," see Phillips,
"Hearing and Hallucinating Silence."
 See, for
example, Rebecca Beris, "Science Says Silence Is Much More Important to
Our Brains than We Think," Lifehack, June 6,
2019, https://www.lifehack.org/377243/science-says-silence-much-more-important-our-brains-than-thought; Daniel
B. Gross, "This Is Your Brain on Silence." Nautilus, August
24, 2014, https://nautil.us/issue/16/nothingness/this-is-your-brain-on-silence; Carolyn
Gregoire, "Why Silence Is So Good for Your Brain," Huffington Post,
January 9, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/silence-brain-benefits_n_56d83967e4b0000de4037004; and,
David R. Vago and Fadel Zeidan, "The Brain on Silent: Mind Wandering,
Mindful Awareness, and States of Mental Tranquility." Annals of
The New York Academy Of Sciences, 1373, (2016), pp. 96–113.
Imke Kirste, Zeina Nicola, Golo
Kronenberg, Tara L. Walker. Robert C. Liu, and Gerd Kempermann. "Is
silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult
hippocampal neurogenesis," Brain Structure and Function, 220
"The Aesthetic State of Mind," in Contemporary Debates in
Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Matthew Kieran (Malden, MA:
Blackwell, 2006), pp. 98–110; ref. on p. 99.
 Robert Stecker, "Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Value,"
Philosophy Compass, 1 (2006), 1-10; ref. on p. 4. Malcolm Budd offers
something similar: "a response [is] aesthetic insofar as the response is
directed at the experienced properties of an item, the nature and arrangements
of its elements or the interrelationships among its parts or aspects, and which
involves a felt positive or negative reaction to the item, considered in itself
... so that what governs the response is whether the object is intrinsically
rewarding or displeasing to experience in itself." The Aesthetic
Appreciation of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 213.
 Robert Stecker, "Aesthetic Experience," p. 9.
 Matthew Hodge, The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour, November 12,
 George Grella, New York Classical Review, Oct. 29, 2018, https://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2018/10/bychkov-czech-philharmonic-stake-a-mahler-claim-with-a-memorable-resurrection/
Davis, Mahler's Symphonies: an online guide, November 7, 2014,
 See Kyle Gann, No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"
(Yale University Press, 2010), p. 160.
 Dodd, "What 4'33" Is," p. 635.
 Stephen Davies defends the "ambient sounds" position in
"John Cage's 4'33": Is it music?" Australasian Journal
of Philosophy, 75 (1997), 448-62.
 Phillips, "Hearing and Hallucinating Silence," p. 335.
 Special thanks to an anonymous referee for this point and for some of
the examples that follow.
 Dan Moller, "The Boring," Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism 72, (2014): 181-91, quotation, p. 189.
 Sorensen, "Hearing silence," pp. 139-40.
 Sorensen, "Hearing Silence," p. 145.
 Kendall Walton, "Categories of Art," Philosophical Review,
79 (1970): 334-67.
 Allen Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment (New York:
Routledge, 2000), pp. 54-71.
 See for example, Jennifer Judkins, "The Aesthetics of Silence in
Musical Performance," Journal of Aesthetic Education, 31 (1997): 39-53;
and Andrew Kania, "Silent Music," Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism, 68 (2010); 343-53.
 For a moderate non-cognitivist position, see Noël Carroll, "On
Being Moved by Nature," in Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, eds.
Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (Cambridge University Press, 1993) pp. 244-66.
 Dana Klisanin, "Media Saturation and Your Health," Psychology
Today, August, 14, 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/digital-altruism/201308/media-saturation-your-health
 Richard Kostelanetz, Conversations with Cage, (New York:
Routledge, 2003), p. 65.
 I borrow this language from Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Art (New
York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 172-3.
 I would like to thank two anonymous referees, Jill Cermele, Adam
Goldstein, Seung-Kee Lee, Denise Vigani, and especially Kevin Melchionne for
their many thoughtful comments and helpful suggestions.