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Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985)


American philosopher and educatior, whose most widely read and discussed book is Philosophy in a New Key (1942), a systematic theory of art. This Harvard bestseller became a standard text in numerous undergraduate philosophy classes. Susanne Langer work is not easy to summarize, but one of her major ideas was that works of art are expressive forms, or "iconic symbols" of emotions.

"In the fundamental notion of symbolization  mystical, practical, or mathematical, it makes no difference  we have the keynote of all humanistic problems. In it lies a new conception of 'mentality,' that may illumine questions of life and consciousness, instead of obscuring them as traditional 'scientific methods' have done." (from Philosophy in a New Key)

Susanne Katherina Knauth Langer was born in New York City, the daughter of Antonio Knauth, a well-to-do lawyer, and Else M. (Uhlich) Knauth. Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and settled eventually in Manhattan's Upper West Side. At home they spoke German and Langer herself never lost her German accent. As a result of cocaine poisoning she suffered in infancy, she had chronic health problems.

Langer was educated at a private school. At home she learned to play the piano and cello quite well. Later music had also a central role in her philosophical system. Already at an early age, she had  also cultivated a passionate interest in philosophy.

After receiving her B.A. in 1920 from Radcliffe College, Langer went to Europe, where she studied at the University of Vienna in 1921-22. She then returned to Radcliffe, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1926 with her dissertation dealing with logical analysis of meaning. Her first published article, 'Confusion of Symbols and Confusion of  Logical Types' (1925) appeared in the prestigious British journal Mind. In the mid-1930s, she was one of the founder of the Association for Symbolic Logic and served as a consulting editor for its journal until the end of 1939.

In 1921, she married William L. Langer, a professor of history at Harvard; they had had two sons. Their house in Cambridge was situated at 72 Raymond Street. While giving a lecture in 1938, William Langer had a sudden panic attack and was unable to speak. Although speaking in public was an ordeal for him during the next two decades and his chronic stage fright was never resolved, he continued as a teacher and lecturer and had an outstanding career as a America's most distinguished historian of Europe. In the late 1930s, Langer and her husband began to drift apart and eventually they divorced in 1942. William Langer married Rowena Morse Nelson in 1943.

At Radcliffe Langer studied under the eminent mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), who wrote the prefatory note to her book The Practice of Philosophy (1930). From 1927 to 1942 Langer was a tutor in Philosophy at Radcliffe. After working as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware, she was a lecturer at Columbia University. Langer was a visiting professor at New York University, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, Ohio State University, Columbus, University of Washington, Seattle, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 1954 she was appointed professor of philosophy at Connecticut College in New London. She was also a member of the faculty. In 1961 she became professor emerita and reserch scholar in philosophy. Langer was elected in 1960 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She held also honorary degrees from several American colleges and universities. In 1950 she received Radcliffe Alumnae Achievement Medal. In spite of her fame, Langer remained at the edge of contemporary academic philosophy.

Langer's first book was a collection of fairy tales, The Cruise of the Little Dipper (1923). It was illustrated by Helen Sewell, to whom she dedicated one of her later work, Problems in Art (1957), based on her lectures.

By dedicating Philosophy in a New Key to Whitehead, "my great Teacher and Friend," Langer acknowledged his influence on her thought. However,  except some quotations and references to Whitehead's publications she has surprisingly little to say about his work in the text. When  Langer's book was released by Penguin Books in 1948 in paperback form it  became a best-seller and made her a celebrity in the philosophy of art. By 1951 it had sold more than 110,000 copies.

Like Whitehead and his student Bertrand Russell, Langer was a system builder in the old style: all of her works were interconnected. ('Susanne K. Langer, 1895-1985' by Richard E. Hart, in The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy, edited by Armen T. Marsoobian and John Ryder, 2004, p. 241) Philosophy in a New Key was also much influenced by Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), whose Sprache und Mythos from 1925 Langer translated into English, but during her career she never dealt with myth as widely as Cassirer did in his writings.  Langer's earlier absorption into symbolic logic is seen in her attempt to create a rational basis for aesthetics. Feeling and Form (1953), dedicated to Cassirer, was written on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. It developed further her ideas on symbolic forms (which include among others language, scientific knowledge, ritual, myth, music – many possible symbolic forms were left unmentioned), and expanded her system of aesthetics from music to the other fields of arts, painting, poetry, dance, etc.

In the essay 'A Note On The Film,' which appeared in Feeling and Form, she developed her theory of film, in which she argued that "Cinema is "like" dream in the mode of its presentation: it creates a virtual present, an order of direct apparation. That is the mode of dream. . . . In its relation to the images, actions, events that constitute the story, the camera is in the place of the dreamer. But the camera is not a dreamer. We are usually agents in a dream." Admitting that the analogy of film to dream has been remarked by several people, Langer refers to The Dramatic Imagination: Reflections and Speculations on the Art of the Theatre (1941) by  Robert Edmond Jones, in which he says that the motion pictures "have the rhythm of the thoughtstream and the same uncanny ability to move forward or backward in space or time." Langer's theory received little attention from film scholars and theorists at the time when it was written and later it was ignored by the new wave of directors who all had their own ideas about the film.

Adhering to Cassirer's notion of man as the "symbol-using animal," Lagner argued that symbolic thought is the keynote to questions of life and consciousness, all humanistic problems. "Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling," she defined. Philosophy differed from science in that it was not concerned with the discovery of facts but the analysis of meanings, which are "embodied in forms" and have their own distinctive kind of structure and history. She distinguishes between the open "presentational" symbols of art and "discursive" symbols of language, which cannot reflect directly the subjective aspect of experience. The meaning of presentational forms emerge from fusion of sense and perceptible form, thus the presentational symbols are "not general descriptions but patterns of feelings, with the latter not directly expressing the experienced emotions but  being an aesthetic eloboration of the nature of our emotions." (Semiotics and Art Theory: Between Autonomism and Contextualism by Madeleine Schechter, p. 16, 2008)

Langer's way of extending abstract logical concepts into the study of art and mind distanced her from analytical philosophers, who were concerned, in a much narrower sense, about concepts and propositions, or "scientific sentences". However, at Radcliffe the Harvard logicial Henry M. Sheffer had introduced her to the field of formal logic. Her view of language is not far from Ludwig Wittgenstein's logical theory developed in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), but when Wittgenstein stopped on the threshold of the unsayable, Langer argued that "music articulates forms which language cannot set forth" – it shows what cannot be said.

What becomes of the theory of art as expression of emotion, Langer clarifies her stance by stating in Problems of Art, that a work of art "expresses a conception of life, emotion, and inward reality. But it is neither a a confessional, nor a frozen tantrum: it is a developed metaphor, a non-discursive symbol that articulates what is werbally ineffable – the logic of consciousnes itself." [p. 26] The concept of feeling is used in its broadest sense, covering everything from physical sensation and pain to the most complex emotions and intellectual tensions.

Works of art do not directly express the artist's experienced emotions, but rather an "idea" of emotion, or as she writes in Philosophy in a New Key: "Music is not self-expression, but formulation and representation of emotions, mood, mental tensions and resolutions – a 'logical picture' of sentient, responsive life." Artists create virtual objects, illusions. Thus music creates an auditory apparation of time, "virtual time," in painting "virtual space" is the primary illusion, poets create appearances of events, persons, emotional reactions, places etc, "poetic semblances." Langer argues that musical forms bear a close logical resemblance to the forms of human feelings. Music is a "presentational symbol" of psychic process and its tonal structures bear a close logical similarity to the forms of feeling, "forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses." The symbol and the object symbolized have a common logical form.

Langer also distinguishes art as symbol – the work of art as an indivisible whole – from symbols in art, which are elements of the work and often have a literal meaning. Langer's unconventional use of the term "symbol" has been criticized by a number of philosophers, George Dickie included, but Monroe C. Beardley has noted in his book Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present (1966), that Langer's general concept of art as symbol and its development "is carried through with great sensitivity and concreteness."

After receiving a research grant from the Edgar Kaufmann Charitable Trust, Langer wrote the three-volume Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967-1982), her last book, dealing with "actual living form as biologist find it... and the actual phenomena of feeling." Part of the year Langer lived in an old New England farmhouse in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where she could work in peace and quietness. By the publication of the third volume, Langer was 87. Although she considered this work her magnum opus, it did not attract much professional attention in philosophical circles. The conclusion of the essay was abrogated due to her poor eyesight. Langer died in Old Lyme, on July 17, 1985. Her unpublished manuscripts are held in The Houghtob Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

For further reading: 'Susanne Langer and the Woeful World of Facts' by Giulia Felappi, in Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy,  Volume 5, Number 2 (2017); Susanne Langer in Focus: the Symbolic Mind by Robert E. Innis (2009); 'Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985)' by Donald Dryden, in Key Writers on Art: The Twentieth Century, edited by Chris Murray (2003); Cassirer and Langer on Myth: An Introduction by William Schultz (2000); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Art as Language: Wittgenstein, Meaning, and Aestehtic Theory by G.L. Hagberg (1995); Thinkers of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical, Bibliographical and Critical Dictionary, ed. by E. Devine (1983); Aesthetric Theory and Art: A Study in Susanne K. Langer by R.K. Ghosh (1979); Susanne Langer's Theory of Music as Symbol of Feeling: A Critique by Rita LaPlante Raffman (1978); Harmony Through Resolution by Richard Jackson Bremer (1975); Aesthetics: An Introduction by George Dickie (1971); Famous American Women by H. Stoddard (1970); Music and Human Feeling in Susanne Langer's Aesthetic Theory by Beverly Wayne Shirbroun (1964); Susanne Langer's Music Aesthetics by Fred Blum (1954); 'Symbolism and Art' by Morris Weitz, in Review of Metaphysics, VII (1954); 'Philosophy in a New Key' by Ernst Nagel, in Journal of Philosophy, 40 (1943). See also David Marans: eLogic Gallery, Complete and Open-Access   

Selected works:

  • The Cruise of the Little Dipper, and Other Fairy Tales, 1923 (illus. by Helen Sewall)
  • The Practice of Philosophy, 1930
  • An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, 1937
  • Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, 1942
  • Language and Myth / Ernst Cassirer, 1946 (translator)
  • Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, 1953
  • Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures, 1957
  • Reflections on Art, 1958 (editor)
  • Philosophical Sketches, 1962
  • Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, 1967-1982 (3 vols.)

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