motor intentionality and groove

One of the ideas I leverage in my book, Groove, is the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of motor intentionality.* Phenomenologists use the term “intentional” to refer to our directedness toward something. Merleau-Ponty’s idea is that, in certain movements, our bodily directedness toward objects constitutes a kind of practical, noncognitive understanding of them. (For example, I have a practical rather than intellectual understanding of the shape and flimsiness of this Coke can through the movements of my fingers and thumb.)

It’s commonly believed that a groove is, in some sense, the feel of a rhythm. But the feels of grooves seem somewhat mysteriously embodied. I try to make sense of this through a particular characteristic of motor intentionality. Notice that our motor-intentional understanding of something can be effective or ineffective. (A faulty understanding may result in my not succeeding in picking up the Coke; the can may slip from my hand, spill.) Merleau-Ponty believes we experience this wrongness and rightness of our bodily understanding as bodily feelings of tension, equilibrium, etc. I think that when we move to music we are attempting to understand it, bodily, through our movements.

I argue that this felt, affective dimension of motor intentionality is the basic nature of the feel of a groove. The embodied understanding of a groove, on the one hand, and the feel that informs this motor-intentional activity, on the other, are two sides of the same coin: to “get” a groove just is to comprehend it bodily and to feel that comprehension.

*For more on motor intentionality, see Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Also see Sean D. Kelly’s “Merleau-Ponty on the Body: The Logic of Motor Intentional Activity,” Ratio XV, no. 4 (2002): 376– 91. For more on Merleau-Ponty in general, see Taylor Carman’s Merleau-Ponty. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.


Notes On Tiger C. Roholt’s “Groove: a phenomenology of rhythmic nuance”

Thanks to Thomas Brett for this thoughtful review.



Tiger C. Roholt’s Groove: a phenomenology of rhythmic nuance is a splendid, rigorous, and brief (140 pp) book that makes a compelling case for something many musicians already know something about: groove. Groove is the feel of a rhythm–that quality of musical time that can make it seem as though the music is pushing ahead or laying back. How a single musician, let alone an entire ensemble, has groove is somewhat mysterious. In a way, the ability to produce and perceive groove is a kind of body knowledge and its feel aspect “is a musician’s datum” (105). Roholt designs his book around four propositions: first, grooves have a feel; second, grooves somehow involve the body and its movement; third, to understand a groove is to feel it; and finally, feeling and understanding a groove does not occur in thought or in listening, but through the body (2).

Roholt introduces his topic…

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endorsements for Groove

These four endorsements appear on the back cover of my book, Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance:

“For decades, philosophers and theorists of music have been promising an embodied phenomenology of music. Tiger C. Roholt’s Groove is an original and insightful essay that makes good on that promise. Roholt challenges analytic and quantificational approaches to rhythmic nuance and argues that grooves are non-conceptual, felt, and understood through bodily engagement. Full of smart musical examples and sound arguments, Groove is much more than just a book on rhythm or drumming. It is a cornerstone for any future phenomenology of music.”
BRIAN KANE, Associate Professor of Music, Yale University, USA

“Tiger C. Roholt’s energetic new study of a neglected but undeniably central aspect of rhythm represents a major step forward in understanding how and why music moves us as it does. Roholt writes both as a philosopher and as a player, which readers will quickly see is a great advantage on this topic, and he knows the value of examples, many of which are thoroughly absorbing in their own right. Roholt describes the motor-intentional process that actualizes the implicit groove of a song, giving us a new appreciation of the embodied character of this kind of aesthetic experience and the ‘groove-completing’ role of the listener. A wonderfully interesting study.”
GARRY L. HAGBERG, James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics, Bard College. USA

“Exploring uncharted philosophical territory, Tiger C. Roholt’s smart, thorough account of groove pushes us to rethink the nature of music and musical engagement. Experiencing music is not merely Continue reading

why study philosophy (#4)

Some Deeper Reasons

Scott Samuelson considers the more profound benefits of studying philosophy in this Wall Street Journal article from March, 2014. Reacting to the many, recent employment-based arguments for studying philosophy, Samuelson writes, “America should strive to be a society of free people deeply engaged in ‘the pursuit of happiness’, not simply one of decently compensated employees. A true liberal-arts education furnishes the mind with great art and ideas, empowers us to think for ourselves, and appreciate the world in all its complexity and grandeur.” Samuelson in Wall Street Journal

In “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers,” (April 2014, The Atlantic), Samuelson explains why philosophy (and the liberal arts in general) are socially valuable for working class individuals:

Traditionally, the liberal arts have been the privilege of an upper class. There are three big reasons for this. First, it befits the leisure time of an upper class to explore the higher goods of human life. . . Second, because their birthright is to occupy leadership positions in politics and the marketplace, members of the aristocratic class require the skills to think for themselves. Whereas those in the lower classes are assessed exclusively on how well they meet various prescribed outcomes, those in the upper class must know how to evaluate outcomes and consider them against a horizon of values. Finally (and this reason generally goes unspoken), the goods of the liberal arts get coded as markers of privilege and prestige, so that the upper class can demarcate themselves clearly from those who must work in order to make their leisure and wealth possible.

why study philosophy (#3)

Learn to think clearly.

In the 2013 Salon article,  “Be employable, study philosophy,” Shannon Rupp writes, “…a smattering of undergrad philosophy classes taught me something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought. Name me one aspect of your life that doesn’t benefit from being able to think something through clearly.” (The article was originally published in The Tyee.)

(Via the great page, “Philosophy: What Can It Do For You?” compiled by Tomás Bogardus.)

why study philosophy (#2)

Here are four more articles that address possible practical benefits of studying philosophy.

“The Unexpected Way Philosophy Majors Are Changing The World Of Business” (Huff Post College, 2014). In this article, Carolyn Gregoire argues that “Philosophy and entrepreneurship are a surprisingly good fit.” “In fact,” she writes, “many leaders of the tech world—from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman to Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield—say that studying philosophy was the secret to their success as digital entrepreneurs.”

Philosophy is Back in Business” (by Dov Seidman, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of LRN; appeared in Business Week, January, 2010).  Seidman claims that insights from philosophy are valuable in the business world, and argues in favor of hiring philosophy majors:  “Forget economics. Philosophy offers a deeper, broader way of thinking to help guide companies through times made tougher by overspecialized experts.”

Continue reading

why study philosophy? (#1)

Occasionally I post links to news items, data, or discussions that illuminate practical reasons one might study—or major in—philosophy. This is salary survey data from PayScale Inc. (2008), which suggests that people with undergraduate degrees in philosophy fare quite well financially—especially in mid-career. The Wall Street Journal refers to this study:

Your parents might have worried when you chose Philosophy or International Relations as a major. But a year-long survey of 1.2 million people with only a bachelor’s degree by PayScale Inc. shows that graduates in these subjects earned 103.5% and 97.8% more, respectively, about 10 years post-commencement. Majors that didn’t show as much salary growth include Nursing and Information Technology.

There are some surprising numbers in this study; for example, the mid-career median salary for those with philosophy undergraduate degrees is $81,200; while it is $72,100 for those with undergraduate degrees in Business Management.

Referring to this and other data, a 2009 Forbes article entitled “The College Degrees With The Biggest Salaries,” reports,

For starting salaries, engineering and things like nursing are pretty strong,” says Dr. Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at PayScale. “But the list reorders further into people’s careers. . . . If you looked at the pay of people 15 years out, philosophy is actually in the top 10%.”

about me

I am an associate professor of philosophy at Montclair State University. My research is phenomenology—meaning in life, philosophy of technology, philosophy of art/music. My Ph.D. is from Columbia University; my B.A. is from the University of Minnesota.

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