Abstract: This paper explores Susanne Langer’s account of myth as found in Philosophy in a New Key. This account shows Langer’s admirable attempt at historical thinking. In contrast to accounts which explain away and dismiss a whole period of western thought’s history, Langer’s finds mythic thinking a place in this history. She writes a history based on a hierarchical progression, but she finds significance in an abandoned mode of thinking. She genuinely wrestles with the problem myth presents to philosophy rather than declare it a pointless problem. This potentially leads to a better historical understanding of the place and function of philosophy.
2009 SAAP paper submission
Langer’s Account of Myth as an Example of Historical Understanding of Philosophy
Southern Illiniois University at Carbondale
Though not all philosophy is Platonic, the discipline as a whole has maintained the quest given to Socrates by the Delphic oracle – to know itself – as one of its main priorities. In order to know itself, philosophy examines what it does and how it can do it better. What philosophy does is thinking and in order to follow this priority well, it is not enough to examine its current mode of thinking and those surrounding it. Since modes of thinking are historically developed, philosophy needs to turn its critical eye to its history. But the history of thought does not begin with the identifiable origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. A good historical examination of the history of thought needs to go back to the oldest documented thought found in myths. This paper explores Susanne Langer’s rather admirable attempt at such historical understanding. I say ‘admirable attempt’ because the details of the description of myth we find are riddled with problems. I will not discuss those in any detail here. Those problems aside, however, There is value in Langer’s attempt of understanding the history of our own thinking as philosophers and contemporary westerners.
To give a serious account of myth is not easy for the empirically minded philosophies of today. Myth presents a challenge by offering unusual assumptions of what is real, alive, and what is in today’s terms called agency is often attributed to strange characters. Many philosophers have a difficult time explaining and analyzing the story of Zeus who turns into a bull in order to abduct Europa for example. Why did people compose such stories? Did they believe them? What kind of people would come up with them? How are we different from them? Empirically minded people know that bulls are no gods in disguise and do not abduct people. In other words, philosophers often find themselves embarrassed when confronting myth for serious analysis. In order to save themselves the embarrassment, philosophers often offer dismissive accounts of myth, whereby they no longer need to worry about the challenges it poses, and can move on with their work.
To dismiss mythic thinking is to claim that it has no significance whatsoever for our current philosophical explorations. We can identify two main types of dismissive accounts of myth in circulation. First, we see the dismissive attitude in schools of thought which identify all thinking with the use of propositions. They identify myth as “folk thinking.” If myth advances its own propositions, it is most often seriously mistaken. If it addresses philosophical questions about the way things really are, myth consistently falls short. As a mode of thinking, it is primitive, and its import for today’s philosophical explorations is negligible. But while it fails to address accurately how things are, it gives us a primitive, and therefore raw and unhampered, account of how things appear or how they feel. Such an account of myth certainly saves philosophers from embarrassment when they encounter the problem. In addition, this account allows philosophers to portray their own way of thinking as undoubtedly superior.
Another dismissive account presents mythical thinking as more useful. Myth and mythic thinking are seen as a function of language. Language is seen as a sophisticated evolutionary tool for survival. The benefits of language are obvious – it allows for increased social organization and places humans in a better position in the race for survival compared to other organisms. Mythic thinking, then, can be explained as having developed out of necessity and serving the species well. According to this view, humans are able to stay on top in the race for survival because they are able to satisfy their animal needs better through the use of certain types of thinking and communication. But humans recently invented better tools than myth. It is no longer needed, and is thus replaced. This account also explains myth away rather than analyzing it. It discusses myth from a distance, without wrestling with myth and its content. We simply need to know that mythic thinking led, at one point in history, to certain evolutionary benefits. It no longer leads to those benefits, and thus has been abandoned. Since it has been abandoned and no longer provides for our needs, we have nothing to learn from it. Thus, once again, we shelve it away and perhaps engage in it only out of curiosity and to satisfy our sentimental streak. These accounts are not responsible, because they are dismissive. In developing an account along those lines, philosophy avoids its embarrassment by simply avoiding the subject altogether and leaving it to disciplines such as anthropology or literature.
Susanne Langer is a philosopher well aware of the importance of developing a responsible account of mythic thinking, and of the dangers found in simply explaining it away. She develops an explicit account of myth in a chapter of Philosophy in a New Key titled “Life-Symbols: The Roots of Myth.” For the purposes of this paper I will limit myself to discussing primarily this text, though we also find ideas pertaining to myth in Philosophical Sketches and Feeling and Form.
As the title of the chapter suggests, Langer presents myth as a symbolic activity. She relates it to other such activities – language, ritual, art, etc. While accepting wholeheartedly “man’s zoological status” (Langer 1962, 111), she claims that these symbolic activities mark “a deep gulf between the highest animal and the most primitive human being: a difference in mentality that is fundamental” (Ibid). In claiming this, Langer declares her intent to regard myth as a serious subject deserving our attention. She seeks not to explain it away, but to find its place in the history of thought leading up till today. If symbolic activities (myth included) separate us from the animals, they are something practical and no mere play. Further, if they are an essential part of what makes us human, in our quest to know ourselves we cannot afford to dismiss them.
If myth separates us from the animals by virtue of being a symbolic activity, we would do well to pay attention to Langer’s account of symbolizing given in Philosophy in a New Key. In the chapter titled “Symbolic Transformation” we read that “it is the power of using symbols – the power of speech – that makes him [man] lord of the earth” (Langer 1956, 26). She opposes the second dismissive account discussed above on the basis of its “tendency to identify the ‘real’ or ‘ultimate’ motive conditions of human action with the needs of primitive life, to trace all wants and aims of mankind to some initial protoplasmic response” (Langer 1956, 28). That is, all human endeavors are simply sophisticated tools for satisfying the basic needs for food, shelter, etc. But she claims in “Man and Animal: the City and the Hive” that the “difference in mentality between man and animal seems… to make a cleft between them almost as great as the division between animals and plants” (Langer 1962, 113). Langer believes that symbolizing is something unique to humans and it satisfies our unique needs.
The animal mentality provides for no more than the ability to use signs. The behavior of any dog can be an example. When the word ‘dinner’ is pronounced, the dog expects that dinner will be coming. With a dog, “you cannot make any communication… that is not taken as a signal for something immediately forthcoming” (Langer 1956, 31). Through the use of symbols, on the other hand, humans are able to achieve much more complex task. We are able to speak about things in their absence, without expecting them to appear before us. The difference between the use of signs and symbols marks the difference between vocal and verbal activity, between influencing behavior and genuinely communicating. Considering this gulf between humans and animals, Langer thinks it is difficult to reduce all human behavior to complex ways of satisfying something which is at bottom what she calls “ape ways.”
Langer points out that if humans were to simply use symbolizing, whether in the form of language, myth, ritual or art, in order to influence each other’s behavior for the sake of simple animal needs, that would be very impractical. If animals grow wiser with time and experience, humans are a strange speies of animal. Old people “are stuffed with above the average with superstitions, misconceptions, and irrational dogmas. One may hazard the guess that erroneous identifications in human beings are pickled and preserved in words, and so not the subject to the constant check of the environment” (Langer 1956, 35). Similar judgment can be pronounced about ritual and “word-magic.” If practicality is considered only in the context of simple “ape ways,” then symbolic activities as those mentioned are not practical at all. But then why do we continuously engage in them? Are they mere “luxury product of the mind” (Langer 1956, 37)? Such a conception does not help us explain why so many devote their lives entirely to art, or why we blame barbarians to damaging the Parthenon. Langer thus concludes that we should regard symbolic activities as satisfying characteristically human traits: “Instead of assuming that the human mind tries to do the same thing as a cat’s mind… I shall assume that the human mind is trying to do something else; and that the cat does not act humanly because he does not need to” (Langer 1956, 39).
Here we can see Langer’s intent to examine myth (as a species of symbolizing) rather seriously. She examines in detail one of the dismissive accounts of myth and criticizes it. She does not wish to see myth as mere play or a sophisticated animal tool. After refusing to see “the difference… between organismic will and moral will, between hungry meows and harvest prayers, between faith in the mother cat and faith in a heavenly father, as a difference of complexity, abstractness, articulateness, in short: a difference of degree” (Langer 1956, 39), Langer is prepared to engage in genuine analysis of the very content of myth, rather than pronounce a dismissive judgment from a distance. Langer claims that the needs satisfied by symbolic activities are not only distinctly human, but also primary (Langer 1956, 41). One of those needs is to understand the world.
Myth, Langer writes, is akin to dream in that it originates in fantasy (Langer 1956, 171). But unlike the primitive fairy stories or their later and more mature manifestations – the fairy tales – myth is not mere wishful thinking worked into fantastic narratives. Myth shows concern with the most fundamental and distressing struggles of humankind and perhaps possible ways of coping with them. It is “a recognition of natural conflicts, of human desire frustrated by non-human powers, hostile oppression, or contrary desires… its ultimate end is not a wishful distortion of the world, but a serious envisagement of its fundamental truths; moral orientation, not escape” (Langer 1956, 176). Its insight into life makes myth systematized. There is continuation between the carious narratives. While myth originates in fantasy, it aims at “understanding actual experience” (Langer 1956, 177). This understanding, however, is not attempted in the form of propositions as it is often done today: “The hero’s exploits are largely make-believe even to their inventors; but the forces that challenge him are apt to be taken seriously” (Langer 1956, 185).
Langer gives an example of the type of understanding through symbols that goes on in myth by summarizing a series of Polynesian myths. The hero Maui is discarded at birth by his mother Hina because he is weak. He was later rescued and received by his family as a foundling. Throughout Langer’s account, we see Maui performing various heroic feats, many of which involve struggle with natural elements. During his adventures, Maui encounters various female characters, all of them named Hina (or something similar which Langer identifies as derivative of Hina), who claim to be his ancestors. Why would several female characters share the same name?
Langer sees a clue in the meaning of the word Hina – moon. Our most immediate intuition is to see in Hina the moon personified. Hina is a human symbol of the moon. We know that the moon is not animate and does not possess the qualities of Hina. Langer, on the other hand, claims just the opposite to be the case. Hina is not a symbol of the moon, “but the moon is a symbol of Hina, Woman” (Langer 1956, 190). The moon lands itself as a symbol quite easily “by reason of its spectacular changes” (Ibid). When a man encounters a woman, he is confused by the variations in her body. He has trouble comprehending a process “too slow to exhibit a pattern for easy appreciation. One needs a symbol, to think coherently about it” (Langer 1956, 191). Langer sees in woman one of the great mysteries of nature to primitive reflection. The symbol in this case is Hina the moon, by virtue of certain similarities – “it expresses the whole mystery of womankind, not only in its phases, but in its inferiority to the sun, its apparent nearness to the clouds that veil it like garments… and the complicated time-cycle of its complete withdrawal… are not to be underestimated as symbolic factors” (Langer 1956, 191). A notable difference between woman and moon is the fact that the variations are seen more easily in the latter. We should also not be deceived by the erroneous doctrine that “a savage thinks everything that acts on him must be a person like himself, and attributes human forms, needs, and motives to inanimate objects because he cannot explain their activities any other way” (Langer 1956, 192). If Hina shows the moon functioning as the symbol of woman, the male hero, such as Maui, Hiawatha, Balder or Prometheus, is a symbol of all mankind. When a hero symbolizes all mankind in a single figure and battles the forces of nature, “it is his incarnation that leads his elemental ancestors, brethren and opponents to be personified” (Langer 1956, 193). What we observe in the adventures of Maui is not the naïve personification of moon, but the lunarization of Hina.
This point marks Langer’s reply to the first dismissive account of myth described at the beginning of this paper. According to this account, myth presents a series of incorrect propositions about the nature of the world. But we do not have in myth the misplacement of animate behavior. The myth tellers do not believe that the moon behaves just as woman does – she talks, she has desires, interacts with other humans. For Langer “the savage does not, in his innocence, ‘think’ the moon is a woman because he cannot tell the difference… he sees Woman in it, and names it Woman, and all its acts and relationships that interest him are those which carry out that significance” (Langer 1956, 193). She sets an opposition between the age of myth-making and the age of literal-mindedness and doubt. At this stage, there is no doubt being cast over the myths, whereby the question arises whether they are subject to correct or incorrect religious belief. The symbolic conceptions which we find in myth are not “propositions to which one says yea or nay; but neither are they literary toys of a mind that ‘knows better’” (Langer 1956, 195). Langer claims that the ancient Greek did not believe in Apollo the way the American fundamentalist believes in Jonah and the Whale. Apollo was not a literary fancy - whether anyone believed in his deeds was not important: “they were expressions on his character and seemed perfectly rational” (Langer 1956, 196). The stories of his deeds were not doubted, as they made no claims about matters of fact. Langer calls them figures of thought.
Langer addresses the two dismissive accounts of myth, and is willing to engage in a genuine analysis of the content of myths, rather than pronounce judgments from a distance. It remains now to examine how she places mythic thinking in the history of our thought. Langer’s distinction between sign and symbol use hints at her hierarchical view of the development of thought. Mythic thinking belongs to this hierarchical development. It is a lower stage of thought which eventually gives way to higher ones. Myth belongs to savages, and the difference “between savage and civilized mentality is, after all, one of naïve versus critical thinking; bizarre and monstrous imagery pops into the heads, too, but is rejected almost instantly by the disciplined reason” (Langer 1956, 181).
While myth’s purpose is philosophical, it belongs to a low stage in the logical progression of thought. Thus, it reaches its limitations before it can become genuine philosophy – it becomes exhausted before it can do more than express general ideas. As soon as myth is exhausted, it is “superceded by a discursive and more literal form of thought, namely philosophy” (Langer 1956, 201). But myth is not replaced because it was found mistaken: “The vital ideas embodied in it cannot be repudiated because someone discovers that the myth does not constitute a fact” (Langer 1956, 202). Langer reminds us that myth is an indispensable forerunner of metaphysics. Once replaced, the symbols of myth live on in a way, in “a new symbolic mode of art” (Langer 1956, 203).
Langer presents the history of thought as a logical progression from lower to higher forms. However, even in such a narrative, she finds a place for myth which requires of us a genuine engagement with the mythic thinking. The engagement does not result in dismissing myth either as a wrongheaded approach to reality or in explaining it away easily so that we never have to worry about it again. Quite the opposite: despite attributing mythic thinking to “naïve savages” without any sober and disciplined reasoning, Langer claims in the end that there is something quite valuable in mythic symbolism. It endures even after end of myth as a live and viable form of thinking and gives rise to art. And art for Langer is by no means a lower form of symbolic activity, subordinated to the elaborate forms of discursive thinking exhibited in science and philosophy. It is another important dimension of experience, which we neglect at our own risk.
The account of myth that we find in Philosophy in a New Key is not without problems. To be sure, one can take serious issue with a number of claims that we find in the work. An approach which explains mythic thinking through a concept that is not itself present in that mode of thinking – the symbol defined in the fashion of logic – seems quite suspicious. The very beginning of the chapter, declaring that the roots of myth are fantasy, that is, story which cannot be believed can be problematic as well. We can revise quite seriously the narrative that we find in the development of thought – its origins in dream, the fork in the development whereby myth and fairy-story depart, the subsequent stage of coherent mythical stories, epics, and so forth. The claim that the moon lends itself as a symbol for woman because, while it is understood as an inanimate shining disk by early thinkers, it has structural similarities with the behavior of women is also subject to doubt. Langer declares herself a type of naturalist. Thus, she works hard to avoid all claims of super-natural origins. This leads her to declare anything non-physical non-actual. In Feeling and Form we see the distinction between actual and virtual reality. Symbolic creations fall into the second category. This acts as a limitation to the power of myth, as its creations and effects are seen as illusions, virtual powers and realities. One would expect that if Langer were to refer to the creations of art and myth as real, the importance which she ascribes to myth in the history of thought would have been better explained.
All these issues, and more, taken aside however, I believe that there is value in Langer’s endeavor. One can see quite clearly the motivations behind her discussion. There are several things at stake. In this narrative there is a certain ontology of human beings. Langer struggles against the will to reduce human behavior to animal desires. At the same time she opposes conceptions of human behavior that place excessive emphasis on rational thinking and neglect such pursuits as art. Langer engages in a genuine examination of the history of thought without being resolved from the start to dismiss a large portion of that history. That is a tendency which I find quite admirable, even if there may be plenty of reason for disagreement with claims within that discussion.
Auxier, Randall, “Susanne Langer on Symbols and Analogy: A Case of Misplaced Concreteness?” Process Studies, 26:1-2 (1997), 86-106
Campbell, James, “Susanne Langer’s Conception of Philosophy” Transactions of the C.S. Pierce Society, XXXIII/1 (Winter 1997), 133-147
Langer, Susanne. (1953) Feeling and Form; New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Langer, Susanne. (1962) Philosophical Sketches; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press
Langer, Susanne. (1956) Philosophy in a New Key; Cambridge: Harvard University Press