Peter Kivy, Sacred Music, and Affective Response: Knowing God Through Music


Knowing someone personally centrally involves engaging in various patterns of affective response. Inasmuch as humans can know God personally, this basic insight about the relationship between personal knowledge and affective response also applies to God: knowing God involves responding to him, and to the world, in various affectively toned ways. In light of this insight, I explore how one particular practice might contribute to human knowledge of God: namely, engaging with sacred music – in particular, sacred music in the Western, classical tradition. In investigating this topic, I tackle an issue at the interface between the philosophy of religion and aesthetics: sacred music’s capacity to arouse religious emotions. I use as a springboard Peter Kivy’s view that ‘music alone’ can only arouse emotions about itself. This view, I argue, has a counterintuitive consequence: the music in sacred works would play no part in arousing emotions with religious objects. In contrast, I develop an account of how music combines with religious factors to arouse religious emotions. I then draw out two consequences for how music can facilitate understanding between religious and non-religious outlooks. The upshot of all this, I suggest, is that by expanding the listener’s religious-emotional landscape, sacred music can enrich her knowledge of God – and that this is possible whether or not the listener subscribes propositionally to God’s reality or to any other religious doctrines.

Author's Profile

Julian Perlmutter
Highgate School, London


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