Note on Machine Phenomenology and the Politics of Sounds

  1. The ontological question: What is sound? is typically inflected in a Platonic fashion. It asks after the unitary nature of audibilia.
  2. Main Kinds of Auditory Ontology

Proximal – sounds are private, non-representational sensations or qualia

Medial – ‘sounds are compressive waves in an elastic medium’ (Locke)

Locative – sounds are ‘found where they are heard’

  • Locative property theories – Sounds as properties of sounding objects
  • Located Event theories – sounds are events in sounding objects/or disturbances of a medium in sounding objects (Located Event Theory – LET)

Each of these accounts can defended on the grounds that it captures certain intuitive beliefs about sounds or features of our auditory phenomenology:

Proximal theories comport with the idea that phenomenal properties of sounds – how they appear to humans – are essential. If there were no particulars exhibiting these idiosyncratic qualities, there would be no sounds. But the best candidate for the bearers of such qualities are auditory sensations or representations. Sonorous properties that we hear in sounds, it seems, may be ontologically dependent on human auditory perspectives.

A thought experiment to support the proximal approach: Imagine creatures whose sensory systems were responsive to features that medial and locative theories identify as sounds but which do not experience them as sounds. Perhaps some creatures see compressions waves or vibrations, while others feel them in a tactile way.

According to Proximal theories, such creatures would not experience sound at all. They would have distinctive ways of tracking the events that we hear as sound.

Medial theories capture the intuition that if there were no compression waves in elastic media there would be no sounds. For example, if all that existed were atoms floating in a vacuum, there would be no sounds However, medial theories see less able to address the locatedness of sound and can be integrated into Located Event theories (O’Callaghan 2007, 26).

Locative Theories comport well with another feature of auditory phenomenology – namely, that sounds provide distinctive information about sounding objects and seem to be located where we hear them.

So for locative theories sounds are not in the head or mind and not in media, but occur in places.

Located Event theories are particularly sensitive to the temporal character of sounds. For the LET, sounds are transient particulars with specific temporal profiles (envelopes). The properties of sounds (high low, soft loud) are grounds for assigning them to objects or places (O’Callaghan 2007, 17-19). They are properties of auditory events rather than the auditory particulars themselves.

The idiosyncratic nature of auditory properties can be integrated into this view by treating phenomenal properties of auditory events as accidental and related to a human auditory perspective, while their physical properties are essential (Casati and Dokic 2005a, p. 179). Such accidental properties supervene on base physical properties of sound but are not identified with the dispositions to produce them. For this account sounds are non-phenomenal but some of their accidental properties phenomenal.

The problem with this supervenience view, roughly, is that it divides hearing into property and event hearing and thus doesn’t capture the way auditory properties – such as envelope in timbre – just are their temporal development over their duration (Roden 2010, 147). A sounds envelope is an essential physical property of the sound, analogous to spatial shape (Roden 2010, 148).

  • Ontology and Sound art

3. Can sound art help us do auditory ontology?

Against: The ontology of sound aims to see how our theoretical claims regarding sound hanging together. Sound art does not provide us with extra theoretical claims but novel auditory experiences. Hence sound art doesn’t add anything relevant to the ontology of sound.

For: Theoretical claims about sound are ultimately responsive to the range of auditory experiences as well as scientific theories of sound under reflective equilibrium (which is why LET seems to trump medial theories while accommodating them in certain respects). The wider that range, the more accurately our concepts of sound reflect the diversity of audition.

By adding novel auditory experiences (machining phenomenology) sound art adds to the range of theoretical claims that ontology has to work with and thus help refine it. To take a relatively simple example, the synthesizer envelop control helps us to understand sonic timbre as a partly temporal feature of the sound’s duration; thus as composed by primary rather than secondary properties (Roden 2010, 147-8).

4. Slack Metaphysics and the Aesthetic Edge

A more radical proposal for the priority of auditory aesthetics:

Maybe there is no single truth or essence of sound that a final and complete auditory ontology will produce. Likewise, there  is no essence to the entities apt for our aesthetic interest in sound.

If we take these assumptions together machining phenomenology is not a matter of providing a wider corpus of evidence with which to refine our philosophical accounts of the nature of sound. Machines produce new auditory natures. Sound is not one because Being is not one.

Examples of slack metaphysics:

  • Casati and Dokic’s event theory identifies sounds with generative processes in sounding objects. But where is the process? If the process depends on a wider system like a musician or a digital audio system, does it extend into the containing system? This seems to be true of algorithmically produced sound which depends entirely on the input from the computer to the speaker via the DAC.
  • But this has the peculiar consequence that, in such cases, algorithmic processes do not merely produce sounds but are parts of some sounds.
  • As opposed to Casati and Docik’s LET theory, Casey O’Callaghan’s 2007 relational event theory identifies sounds with disturbances of a medium in sounding objects. The theories have different consequences for where we place sounds and when. But these implications do not seem important – they are differences that make no difference.
  • Maybe, then, sound is metaphysically indeterminate. That is, the indeterminacy of what and where sound is not a matter of it being indeterminately represented but a matter of not being determinately any one kind of thing.


If sound is not one (isn’t a plurality united by an essence) then auditory art and technology are means of liberating the multiplicity of sound through the production of new auditory species or natures. Auditory technics is auditory ontology, to the degree that the production of auditory species (whether or not this is due to human agency) extends what sound can be. In this way, auditory technics and ontology is more like politics, extending possibilities of being, than it is a science.


Casati, Roberto, and Dokic, Jérôme. 2005a. Sounds. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Accessed 5 September 2005.

Casati, Robert, and Dokic, Jérôme. 2005b. la philosophie du son, Accessed 3June 2005.

O’Callaghan, C., 2007. Sounds: A philosophical theory. Oxford University Press.

Roden, D., 2010. Sonic art and the nature of sonic events. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 1(1), pp.141-156.

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