Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895 - July 17, 1985) née Susanne Katherina Knauth, was an American philosopher of art, a writer, and an educator. She was best known for her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key in which she elaborated a rigorous, systematic, philosophical theory that accounted for artistic expression and tried to relate it to other activities of the human mind. Influenced by Ernst Cassirer, she developed a theory of “presentational symbolism,” which proposed that human beings dealt with phenomena which were difficult to express in ordinary language by using symbols such as music, art, and myth-making. Langer distinguished between “discursive” symbols found in scientific and ordinary language, and “nondiscursive” symbols found in art and other types of human expression. She attempted to demonstrate that the “iconic symbols” of human emotion used in artistic expression, could be understood in terms of conventions and semantic rules, just as linguistic expressions were. These symbols, she suggested, represented more than the expression of an individual artist’s emotion, and could enable the artist and his audience to experience moods and passions they had never felt before.
Suzanne Langer is not often cited by modern professional philosophers, but her doctrine has become an integral part of the "collective unconsciousness” of many persons concerned with art and music in the English-speaking world.
Susanne Katherina Knauth was born December 20, 1895, in New York City, to Antonio Knauth, a well-to-do German immigrant lawyer, and Else M. (Uhlich) Knauth. Her mother never learned to speak English well, and Langer grew up speaking German and always spoke English with a slight accent. Langer was raised with two sisters and two brothers in a family that valued serious study and music. As a young child she was fascinated by natural phenomena and loved to wander on hiking trails when the family traveled out of New York, earning the nickname “the Forest Witch.”
Langer received her early education at home, owing to her limited knowledge of English. When she was older, she attended the private Veltin School in New York. A voracious reader, she was interested in difficult works of philosophy from the start. "In my early teens, I read Little Women and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason simultaneously," she once told Winthrop Sargent of The New Yorker. As a young woman, Langer wrote a play called Walpurgisnacht that was performed in a woodland grove by a group of her family members.
Langer's father did not believe that his daughters should go to college, but her mother encouraged her to enroll at Radcliffe College. She studied philosophy under leading American philosophers, including Alfred North Whitehead. Before graduating from Radcliffe in 1920, she met Harvard graduate student William Langer. They were married in 1921, and went to Vienna, Austria, for a year, returning to the United States when William Langer got a job teaching at Harvard. The couple had two sons.. Langer received and her PhD from Radcliffe College in 1926, and was hired by the school as a philosophy tutor the following year. Langer taught philosophy at Radcliffe from 1927 to 1942. She also taught at University of Delaware, Columbia University, New York University, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, University of Washington, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 1954, she was appointed professor of philosophy at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.
In 1923 Langer published her first work, a children’s book called The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales, with drawings by Helen Sewell, who went on to become a leading children's book illustrator. Her next two works were textbooks, The Practice of Philosophy (1930), and An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937) which continued to be used in college courses and was reissued in 1953.
In 1942, influenced by the thought of Ernst Cassirer, she published, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, which became for many years one of the best-selling titles in the catalog of Harvard University Press and eventually sold more than a half million copies That same year, Langer divorced. Langer’s fame grew as Philosophy in a New Key found a readership among undergraduate philosophy and liberal arts students interested in the nature of creative expression, and in 1945, she was hired as a lecturer in philosophy at Columbia University in New York, where she remained until 1950.
In 1954, Langer got a job teaching at Connecticut College; she moved out of New York to a farmhouse in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where she lived alone and devoted herself to writing. She bought a small rural retreat with no electricity in Ulster County, New York, where she could indulge her passion for walking. She collected small animals like lizards and frogs and kept them as pets and continued to enjoy performing classical music on the cello and piano. In 1962, she retired from Connecticut College and devoted the rest of her life to writing full time, supported at first by a grant from a foundation, the Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Trust, and giving guest lectures at various academic institutions. During the 1960s, Langer was awarded honorary degrees from Columbia and several other schools.
Langer spent the last years of her life completing a massive study of the human mind entitled, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, which appeared in three volumes in 1967, 1973, and 1982. The study attempted to incorporate feeling into a grand scheme of human thought, and covered a variety of academic disciplines in a manner that was new to the discipline of philosophy. Langer stopped writing only when she was nearly completely blind, just before her death at age 89, on July 17, 1985.
Suzanne Langer was one of the most widely read philosophers of twentieth century American philosophy. Aesthetics, the branch of philosophy dealing with beauty, art, and the human perception of these subjects, had played only a minor role in philosophy for many decades before she began to write. Her main body of work, Philosophy in a New Key, Feeling and Form, and Mind aimed to establish a sound and systematic basis for an understanding of art, the causes behind its creation, its value for human consciousness, and basic guidelines upon which individual works might be judged and evaluated.
Like other modern thinkers, Langer sought to explore seemingly irrational aspects of the human mind. She pointed out that language was only one form of expression, and used a theory of symbolism to give art the same status as science in giving meaning to human experience.
Langer was influenced by the philosophy of symbolic forms of German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (who came to the United States after the Nazis rose to power), and by his belief that religion, science, art, and myth were different but coequal branches of human thought. Philosophy in a New Key (1942) developed her own theory of presentational symbols, maintaining that the making of symbols, or representations of meaning, was what distinguished humans from other animals. At that time, the work of Sigmund Freud had engendered discussion of the significance of phenomena such as dreams and feelings, which were difficult to express in ordinary language. Langer reasoned that humans dealt with these phenomena and gave them meaning through the use of "presentational" symbols such as music, art, and myth-making. Langer distinguished between “discursive” symbols found in scientific and ordinary language, and “nondiscursive” symbols found in art and other types of human expression. A primary example of a set of discursive symbols was language, which had always taken prominence in previous philosophies of meaning. However, as a means of expression, language had certain restrictions; it could only embody ideas in sequential expressions, not simultaneous ones.
I believe that in this physical, space-time world of our experience there are things which do not fit the grammatical scheme of expression, but they are not necessarily blind, inconceivable, mystical affairs; they are simply matters which require to be conceived through some symbolistic schema other than discursive language.
Langer was not especially interested in defining the concept of beauty. Instead, she believed that art and music were fundamental forms of human activity, which, though different in structure from spoken language, should be regarded as equal in significance. Langer proposed that works of art expressed “iconic symbols” of human emotion, and that these expressions could be understood in terms of conventions and semantic rules, just as linguistic expressions were. Her professor, Alfred Whitehead, had analyzed the significance of symbolic modes in giving meaning to science; Langer attempted to attach a similar meaning to art.
Langer made a rigorous examination of the symbolic structure of art, comparing its symbolic workings to disciplines such as language and mathematics which made use of “discursive forms.” She also examined the symbolic forms of art in relationship to forms found in nature, including those embodied within biological processes.
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 (Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key).
Langer expanded on the ideas of Philosophy in a New Key in two more books, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953) and Problems of Art (1957). In Feeling and Form, she examined the ways in which the different arts shaped the basic materials of feeling. Langer defined all works of art as “purely perceptible forms that seem to embody some sort of feeling." She identified each art form with a different aspect of human experience: Music was concerned with time, art and sculpture with space, and dance with what Langer called “virtual power.” Problems of Art was a collection of Langer's public lectures and contained observations on the arts and creativity. She proposed that arts such as dance and music were a form of knowledge and truth. Langer argued against the common notion that a work of art expresses the feelings of the artist, suggesting instead that the artist expresses "not his own actual feeling, but what he knows about human feeling." Once an artist had mastered a rich symbolism, she added, that symbolism could take him far beyond the experiences of his own personal life. Music, she said, was neither the cause nor the cure of feeling, but a form of logical expression, or language, of emotions which could enable listeners to experience moods and passions they had never known before.
"Artistic truth," so called, is the truth of a symbol to the forms of feeling nameless forms, but recognizable when they appear in sensuous replica. Such truth, being bound to certain logical forms of expression, has logical peculiarities that distinguish it from prepositional truth: since presentation symbols have no negatives, there is no operation whereby their truth value is reversed, no contradiction (Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key).
Langer made a distinction between philosophy and the scientific process, explaining that philosophy was a process of making sense out of existing experience, while science was a process of adding new elements to human experience. The task of philosophy was to question the truth of facts and laws, beliefs and hypotheses; and to “reflect on the meaning of our own words, and on the implications of the statements we are entertaining." Philosophy primarily made use of language, rather than things or actions.
Langer identified language as a creation of humans, which expressed the relationships among acts or things, and either explicitly or implicitly made reference to reality. All human languages possessed grammatical structure and a standard vocabulary. Words were the ultimate semantic elements of speech, keeping their “root” and their identity no matter how they were modified or moved around in a sentence. Words initially became attached to objects as their names, then became generalized and were used to refer to general concepts rather than individual objects. In this way language became symbolic.
Language, in its literal capacity, is stiff and conventional medium, un adapted to the expression of genuinely new idea, which usually have to break in upon the mind through some great and bewildering metaphor.
Art, on the other hand, has no consequence; it gives form to something that simply there, as the intuitive organizing functions of sense give form to objects and spaces, color and sound. (Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key)
Langer was also interested in drama. In Feeling and Form, she wrote that drama is a “special poetic mode,” and that the dynamism of dramatic action is not so much a result of a play’s visible action (mirroring actual experience, which Langer calls “ragged, unaccentuated”), but of its location at the intersection of “the two great realms of envisagement—past and future.” A key element of drama was its creation of a “virtual history” that was transparent to an audience, and which could be obliquely, but wholly, apprehended in each moment of action (“we can view each smallest act in its context, as a symptom of character and condition”). Dramatic action contained “latent form” that was suggested or developed as the play unfolded, and which came fully into view only at the end, when it was understood as the fulfillment of Destiny. Drama was a process of “history coming” rather than “history in retrospect,” of motivation rather than causation.
With the rise of postmodern theory, Langer is now largely neglected, but she was an important figure in mid-twentieth century American philosophy. Although she is not frequently cited by professional philosophers, her doctrine, particularly with respect to presentational symbolic activity, might be said to have become an integral part of the "collective unconsciousness” of many persons concerned with art and music in the English-speaking world.
A clear example of her legacy is found in the fifth chapter of neuroscientist Howard Gardner’s 1982 book Art, Mind, and Brain. A Cognitive Approach to Creativity, dedicated exclusively to her thought. Recent advances in neuroscience, explaining the distinguishing characteristics of the interplay between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and the essential role of emotion as a mediator, have given the work of Susanne Langer deeper significance.
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