Susanne K Langer: a snapshot – The Philosophers’ Magazine Archive



In her Philosophy in a New Key (1942) her intent was to authenticate a new notion of the “rational,” but how she does it is of fundamental importance. The classical tradition, Langer claimed, generally identified the rational with the “logical,” with discursive thought and objectivity. It then had the difficult task of explaining, or explaining away, such important human concerns as art, ritual, myth, and religion. Langer showed that these forms of meaning-making were embodied in vast sets of symbols and symbolic practices with their own distinctive “logic,” a non-discursive logic, quite different from the discursive logic of language and mathematics. They belonged to the domain of “presentational forms,” not “discursive forms,” a key distinction of her work. Presentational forms, Langer showed by an examination of their logic, are not mere effusions of an irrational subjectivity but articulations of the felt sense of things to which they give us unique access. They orient us in the world in the deepest existential manner, effecting participation in vital values and giving us visions, embodied in symbolic images, of our place in the cosmos. Langer, prior to extensive developments in semiotics, showed that they are worthy of philosophical study in their own right. Her work compares favourably in heuristic power with, and complements, C S Peirce’s great attempt to avoid logocentrism. We are a symbolic species at every level and not just language-endowed animals, although Langer held discursive symbols in the highest regard, as did her intellectual companion, Ernst Cassirer.

Langer was a devoted lover and practitioner of the arts, especially music, which she had studied in detail in Philosophy in a New Key. In 1953 she published Feeling and Form, a masterful generalisation and application to all the arts of the theory of music elaborated in that book. Its key idea was that feeling had a distinctive “morphology” that is exemplified in different ways in the different genres of art. Art works, she claimed, give us knowledge of or insight into ways of feeling the world in every shade of its expressiveness. They articulate feeling and are not mere expressions of personal feeling. They are presentational symbols and their meaning-contents are the “primary illusions” peculiar to each art form: virtual space in the pictorial and visual arts, virtual powers in dance, virtual experience and virtual memory in literature, virtual time in music, the ethnic domain in architecture, and so on. Langer showed art to be an authentic symbolic form and her notion of a “morphology of feeling” exhibited in the artwork is a permanent contribution to aesthetics.

In the last twenty-five years of her working life Langer attempted to develop the notion of feeling as a term to cover all the manifestations of minding. The result was Mind (1967-1982), published in three volumes over a fifteen year period, and which remained incomplete, due to her advancing age. It anticipated many of the current concerns in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and philosophy of mind. Its central idea is that feeling is an emergent property of natural processes but that its paradigmatic manifestation is the rise of symbolisation and the proliferation of cultural forms and their attendant conflicts and permutations. Central chapters in this book carry out and reformulate Langer’s central insight and claim: symbolisation and the power of abstraction are the keys to what it means to be human. In a return to and deepening of her initial proposals in her first philosophical work, Langer distinguished between generalising abstraction and presentational abstraction, the two fountainheads of all those frames of meaning in which we live out our lives. It was the working out of the implications of this distinction, present at the beginning of her intellectual journey, that forms the connecting link of her whole remarkable philosophical career.

Robert E Innis is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of Susanne Langer in Focus: The Symbolic Mind (Indiana University Press).

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