Between Rationalism and Empiricism: (Mis)Reading Mattheson Reading Descartes
A number of scholars have considered Mattheson as a rationalist who turned Cartesian psychology into systematic music theory by way of formulating the Affektenlehre. More specifically, his exploration of the musical affections in Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739) is an adaptation of Descartes’s treatment of the passions in Les passions de l’âme (1649) to music. Scholars who dispute the validity of this dominant view claim that Mattheson was not so much a rationalist as an empiricist, more an advocate of the sensuous than a champion of the intellectual. In other words, he had no intention of creating a rationalistic, formalized Affektenlehre à la Descartes but merely attempted to describe his own highly subjective listening experiences. A critical assessment of these two conflicting interpretations of Mattheson encourages us to go beyond such simplistic labels as “rationalist” and “empiricist” so as to arrive at the prospects for painting a more comprehensive, more elaborate, and more accurate picture of Mattheson the musician, theorist, and aesthetician.