SAAP 2009: Anonymous Paper Submission
Knowledge and Truth in the Philosophy of Susanne Langer
Although Susanne Langer never developed a systematic epistemology in the traditional sense of the term, it is possible to reconstruct some of the main points of a general theory of knowledge and truth with the help of her earliest published writings. Langer believed that all human knowledge is provisional, and that both knowledge and experience are essentially dependent upon a range of symbolic resources—embodied in language, myth, ritual, and the arts, as well as in the sciences and other specialized forms of inquiry—for their construction, stabilization, elaboration, and transformation. Because the human world is symbolically, culturally, and historically constituted, the configurations of knowledge and experience exhibit recurring patterns of formation and transformation that are closely tied to the generation, exhaustion, and renewal of symbolic resources that are embodied in a variety of cultural products built up and maintained by cultural practices.
Susanne Langer never developed a systematic epistemology in the traditional sense of the term. Important epistemological themes appear in her earliest work; and she originally planned to conclude the three volumes of Mind with a theory of knowledge and truth. But “the hindrances of age,” as she wrote toward the end of her life, made it necessary “to curtail the work at what should have been its height” (M 3:201);[i] and the promised epistemology was never written.
It is possible, however, to reconstruct some of the main points of a general theory of knowledge and truth with the help of Langer’s earliest published writings, which pre-date Philosophy in a New Key and have received little attention from scholars interested in her work. In contrast to what would become one of the central preoccupations of analytic epistemology and the philosophy of science, for example, Langer rejected the view that knowledge can be grounded on a secure foundation and that language provides an accurate representation of an independently determinate reality. A careful study of her writings shows that Langer saw all human knowledge as provisional and essentially dependent upon cultural resources for its construction, stabilization, elaboration, and transformation. She took the broadest possible view of the range of symbolic resources that are utilized by human beings in the construction of knowledge and experience, and argued for the importance of language, myth, ritual, and the arts in making the human world, a process Langer called the “symbolic transformation of experiences” (PNK, 44). Finally, Langer rejected the traditional formulation of the subject/object dichotomy in philosophy, arguing instead that the contrasting characteristics of experience we call “subjective” and “objective” are built up and maintained by a dialectical interplay of processes she called objectification and subjectification, both of which are essentially dependent upon cultural resources.
History and the Shifting Horizon of Human Experience
In Philosophy in a New Key, Langer argued that “every civilization has its limits of knowledge—of perceptions, reactions, feelings, and ideas” (PNK, 5)—that define what she called “the intellectual horizon of an age and a society” (PNK, 6). These limits, furthermore, are set primarily by the conceptual resources with which the people of a specific time and place meet and formulate their experiences. They are “tacit, fundamental way[s] of seeing things” (PNK, 6) that are seldom stated explicitly; and, as Alfred North Whitehead observed, they “appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.”[ii] These assumptions find expression, Langer argued, in the forms of the questions people ask, for every question determines a range of possible answers, in that “only a certain number of alternatives… will complete its sense” (PNK, 4). Disagreements, disputes, and controversies may arise within the limits set by the fundamental questions, however, for unconsciously shared assumptions may still allow for a divergence of conflicting constructions. Thus it is the formulation of problems, rather than the solutions offered to them, that defines the intellectual horizon of an age. The answers that result from inquiry “establish an edifice of facts;” but it is the questions directing the inquiry that
make the frame in which [the] picture of facts is plotted. They make more than the frame; they give the angle of perspective, the palette, the style in which the picture is drawn—everything except the subject. In our questions lie our principles of analysis, and our answers may express whatever those principles are able to yield. (PNK, 4)
By means of a fundamental set of conceptual resources, a common world of experience—and a common framework that defines the possibilities for disagreement and controversy—can be built up and shared by the people living in a particular time and place. But “however wide it may be,” Langer adds, quoting from the historian C. D. Burns, “that common world also has its horizon; and on that horizon new experience is always appearing.”[iii] What is new must be met and assimilated, however, and our first recourse is to the familiar conceptual resources that have been made available to us by the tradition within which we formulate our experience. But experiences that are truly novel may threaten to strain the conceptual resources at our disposal. We may encounter things “of which [our] tradition [gives] no adequate account” (PNK, 6), and we may be forced to reconstruct our conceptual resources to meet the challenge of genuine novelty. If the resulting reconstruction is far-reaching, the horizon of experience will shift radically, and a whole new world of questions will open up:
A new idea is a light that illuminates presences which simply had no form for us before the light fell on them. We turn the light here, there, and everywhere, and the limits of thought recede before it. A new science, a new art, or a young and vigorous system of philosophy, is generated by such a basic innovation. (PNK, 8)
Such far-reaching changes in the configuration of thought and experience reach down beneath the surface level of theories to the substratum of more fundamental conceptual resources. The introduction of what Langer calls generative ideas alters the very “terms in which theories are conceived” and questions formulated (PNK, 8) and leads to the revitalization of intellectual effort. Enthusiastic proponents caught up in the excitement of intellectual renewal feel a “liberation from time-worn, oppressive concepts, from baffling limits of inquiry,” and are likely to “[hail] the new world-picture with a hope of truer orientation in life, art, and action” (PNK, 12).
In time, however, every generative idea reaches it limits. “After a while the confusions and shadows inherent in the new vision [become] apparent” (PNK, 12), and subsequent efforts are directed at trying to find ways to escape from the dilemmas created by the very generative ideas that initially opened up such exciting vistas for thought and experience. When “all answerable questions that can be formulated in its terms have been exploited” (PNK, 9), the intellectual era that first opened up with the introduction of a novel intellectual vision comes to an end “with the exhaustion of its motive concepts” (PNK, 9).
It is this recurring pattern of generation, exhaustion, and renewal of conceptual resources that defines the historical shifts in the horizon of experience and the successive reconfigurations of human knowledge that accompany them.
The Horizon of Experience as “Logical Perspective”
Upon closer examination, Langer’s vision of knowledge and history can be seen to involve a radical redefinition of the traditional meanings of “truth,” “knowledge,” and “reality;” and one point of entry into this alternative epistemology can be found by reconsidering Langer’s metaphor of the horizon in the light of her earlier work, in which she gave explicit attention to the relevant epistemological questions. The notion of a “horizon” that she developed in Philosophy in a New Key (1942) is borrowed from the domain of visual experience; but in The Practice of Philosophy (1930) Langer warned that the underlying visual metaphor can lead us astray when we apply it to epistemological problems. A visual perspective reveals an object only partially, she noted, as it appears to an observer who occupies a particular standpoint in visual space; and we can imagine describing the object from a succession of different standpoints and then combining all the various partial perspectives to come up with a more complete description of the object until, in the limit, we approach what Langer calls “an absolutely true description” (PP 136) of the object we are studying. This is possible, Langer argued, because all the different visual perspectives share common points within a single logical system, namely visual space (PP 136-137).
Langer contrasted the notion of a visual perspective with what she called a logical perspective in order to develop a quite different view of the relations between reality and its possible descriptions. Different systems of geometry, for example, represent different logical perspectives, each of which is designed to describe the actual world by presenting patterns that are supposed to be found in it (PP 135). But alternative geometries may be incommensurable, even though they supposedly apply to the “same” actual space. How then can any geometry “be said to present the form of any real thing or event” (PP 135)? Langer’s response is that the question itself is based on a mistaken assumption. “There is no such thing,” she asserted, “as the form of a real thing, or of an event” (PP 135).
As Langer explained it, “all concrete reality has a multiplicity of possible forms” (PP, 136), any one of which corresponds to a unique logical perspective that will be expressed in our descriptions of it. Any one of the perspectives we take can present us with “a pattern which is to be found in the actual world” (PP, 135). But “there are many patterns possible within the same reality” (PP, 135–136); and because different patterns will appear under different formulations, some of which may be incommensurable, it does not make sense to talk about combining “all possible perspectives” to yield an “absolutely true description” that answers to the form of “reality” (PP, 136–137).
What we usually have in mind when we speak of the form of anything, she explained, is “the class of all possible forms under which the object in question can be conceived” (FLP, 437). This, however, assumes “a single system wherein all these forms are conceived” (FLP, 437). But “an object may be analyzed into forms which do not presuppose each other, and which are neither supplementary nor contradictory to one another, but simply incommensurable” (FLP, 437). A single concrete experience, therefore, “is capable of exemplifying various forms, though it can display only one form at a time” (PP, 138).
Truth, as Langer defined it, is a relation between a description or “symbolic pattern” (PP, 135)—which always embodies a particular logical perspective—and the matrix of concrete experience, “which, with reference to one set of basic concepts, has one shape, and with reference to another set, takes on another perspective” (PP, 136). Truth is “the relation which holds between a symbolic structure and any one of its possible objects” (PP, 139); and a proposition, for example, or other symbolic structure which is “true,” is true to something else. As she explained:
We can symbolize certain situations in the world by abstracting some of their logical [i.e., structural] features and finding other specific structures exhibiting these same abstractable characteristics; by virtue of this sameness the thing which we choose to treat as a symbol is ‘true’ to the other, which we take for the object. (PP, 140–141)
A symbolic structure “is not a reproduction of its object, but an expression—an exhibition of certain relevant moments [i.e., features], whose relevance is determined by the purpose at hand” (PP, 141).
What Langer here calls an “expression” is what she earlier termed a correspondence of configuration (LAM, 145) between abstractable features of a symbolic structure and some other aspect of concrete experience, which is taken to be the object. And because
an object may have various and variously expressible aspects, all symbolization is necessarily selective. This means, in the end, that all understanding is selective, and the great work of science is to find out those ways of conceiving an object which shall be most appropriate to certain purposes. (PP, 142; italics in original)
Because “reality” dictates no uniquely adequate, “absolutely true” description of itself, there is room for choice in the recognition of what configurations are important for a given purpose. The challenge faced by any mode of inquiry, therefore, is to find those ways of conceiving its “objects” which are most appropriate to its purposes, although none of the possible choices of logical perspective is “absolutely true.”
What we call “facts,” in Langer’s account, are “the basic formulations of any system of apprehension” (PP, 150); and because understanding “does not consist merely of appropriate reaction to a given, pre-formed universe” (PP, 151), “the facts themselves might be differently formulated,” depending upon “the notions through which they are apprehended” (PP, 143). We may suppose, therefore, that “in a single Reality there may be many truth-forms, [and] there is probably in one experiential matrix a disjunction of individual facts” (PP, 143; emphasis added). The number of possible forms, that is, “which in actu are mutually exclusive” (PP, 143) is virtually inexhaustible. Summing up her view of understanding and truth, Langer writes:
The potential ways of understanding, the forms actually contained in the world, are many, and our choice must be made according to our intellectual purposes; but we cannot formulate reality otherwise than by the pattern it actually has from the points of reference we have chosen. Any entity which expresses such a pattern is a symbol; it is “true” to experience in so far as the analogy [or correspondence of configuration] holds. But as there might be many formulations of experience, there is probably no eminently true proposition (or other expression), hence no such thing as the truth. (PP, 150)
In Philosophy in a New Key, Langer explained that sense experience, for example, which we are apt to think of as giving us direct, unmediated contact with the outer world, is itself a process of formulation:
The world that actually meets our senses is not a world of “things,” about which we are invited to discover facts as soon as we have codified the necessary logical language to do so; the world of pure sensation is so complex, so fluid and full, that sheer sensitivity to stimuli would only encounter what William James has called… “a blooming, buzzing confusion.” Out of this bedlam our sense organs must select certain predominant forms, if they are to make report of things and not of mere dissolving sensa. (PNK, 89)
The senses exhibit “a tendency to organize the sensory field into groups and patterns of sense-data” (PNK, 89) that are subject to further spontaneous abstractive processes under the influence of more central processes in the brain, to furnish the mind with a wealth of potential symbolic material for a variety of purposes. The outer world of ordinary sense experience is just “the real world construed by the abstractions which the sense-organs immediately furnish” (PNK, 92). But other symbolic materials, derived by higher-level abstractive processes from the same sensory sources, may be put to quite different uses, making possible a number of different forms of conception, or what Nelson Goodman called “ways of worldmaking.” Thus “the world of physics is the real world construed by mathematical abstractions” (PNK, 92); but “objectivity” does not attach uniquely to any one privileged form of conception. “There is, in fact, no such thing as the form of the ‘real’ world; physics is one pattern which may be found in it, and ‘appearance,’ or the pattern of things with their qualities and characters, is another” (PNK, 91).
Art and the Horizons of Inner Experience
But the outer world is not the only aspect of reality that enters into our experience. The same sensory processes that furnish the materials for the construction of ordinary sense experience provide for the creation of a seemingly inexhaustible variety of artistic forms that Langer argued play a role in the formulation of inner experience that is comparable to the role played by language and the elementary abstractions of the senses in constructing our experience and knowledge of the outer world:
What discursive symbolism—language in its literal use—does for our awareness of things about us and our own relation to them, the arts do for our awareness of subjective reality, feeling and emotion; they give inward experiences form and thus make them conceivable. The only way we can really envisage vital movement, the stirring and growth and passage of emotion, and ultimately the whole direct sense of human life, is in artistic terms. (PA 71)
The phenomena of conscious mental life that James called the stream of consciousness form an intricate dynamic pattern of tremendous complexity, which usually slips through the crude net of descriptive resources that language makes available to us. Langer argued, however, that the products of artistic creation contribute to the formulation of our ideas of inner experience, thereby providing us with a kind of understanding that eludes the resources of language in its ordinary uses.
In Langer’s conception, artistic creation is a process of objectification. Because the artist’s insights into the dynamics of subjective experience are inseparable from his explorations of the expressive possibilities of some medium, his insights are set forth, worked out, and brought to completion through their embodiment in an object. In this way they are made publicly available, publicly knowable, and, in all these senses, objectified. The resulting work of art sets some “piece of inward life objectively before us so we may understand its intricacy, its rhythms and shifts of total appearance” (PA 24); it is “a perceptible form that expresses the nature of human feeling—the rhythms and connections, crises and breaks, the complexity and richness of what is sometimes called man’s ‘inner life,’ the stream of direct experience, life as it feels to the living” (PA 7). In this way, “art makes feeling apparent, objectively given so we may reflect on it and understand it” (PA 73).
Art is indispensable as both a product and an instrument of human insight because it makes possible the formulation of what is otherwise inaccessible to us through the discursive resources of language; and by virtue of these cognitive functions the arts play a role in the cultural construction of subjective experience. Langer argued that every human society has a characteristic undercurrent of feelings that are peculiar to it, which every member of the society shares to some degree, and within which every individual “develops his own life of feeling within the frame of the style prevailing in his country and his time” (PS, 95). This background of feeling, Langer believed, is deeply influenced by the products of artistic creation that form part of the cultural environment.
As the arts provide essential insight into the patterns and contours of subjective experience and shape the background of personal feeling shared by the members of a society and an era, they also contribute to what Langer called “the subjectification of nature” (PA, 73), which is “the converse and complement” of their role in “the objectification of feeling” (PA, 72). In seeing, hearing, and reading works of art, we receive an education in artistic sensibility that teaches us to appreciate the potential artistic significance of aspects of ordinary reality. “Whenever art takes a motif from actuality,” Langer writes, such as “a flowering branch, a bit of landscape, a historic event, or a personal memory,… it transforms it into a piece of imagination and imbues its image with artistic vitality. The result is an impregnation of ordinary reality with the significance of created form” that makes “reality itself a symbol of life and feeling,” and thereby “personally [and humanly] significant” (PA, 73). Because “the arts objectify subjective reality, and subjectify outward experience of nature” (PA, 74), Langer believed that an education in the arts provides an education in feeling that is essential to human flourishing.
Conclusion: The Dialectical Constitution of Human Experience
I began this paper by introducing the notion of the horizon as Langer’s central metaphor for the limits of “perceptions, reactions, feelings, and ideas” (PNK, 5) that characterize an age and a society—a unique configuration that is determined by the conceptual resources with which the people of a specific time and place meet and formulate their experience. For the convenience of exposition, I have presented the inner and outer worlds as separate domains of experience—the former expressed and shaped by the products of artistic creation and the latter by the symbolic resources of sense experience, language, and the more specialized modes of knowledge and inquiry—in accordance with what Langer described as the familiar “dichotomy of subject and object, perceiver and perceived,” the basic metaphysical dualism which traditional epistemology has assumed “to be simply given in the nature of things and ineluctable” (M 1:31).
But Langer rejected the assumption “that some phenomena are intrinsically objective and others intrinsically subjective” (M 1:38). Instead, she argued that many important phenomena of mind and culture can only be understood by assuming a “dialectical interplay between subjective and objective elements in human experience” (PS 13), in which the boundary between them is constructed and maintained by a variety of imaginative and conceptual processes and is capable of undergoing intriguing shifts and reversals. Subjectification and objectification are the terms Langer used for the fundamental processes—essentially dependent upon the use of cultural (or what she called “symbolic”) resources—in which the contrasting characteristics of experience we call “subjective” and “objective” are built up, stabilized, and transformed, and with them, our conception of what constitutes the “inner” and “outer” world.
The configurations of human experience exhibit recurring patterns of formation and transformation that are closely tied to the generation, exhaustion, and renewal of conceptual resources that are embodied in a variety of cultural products built up and maintained by cultural practices. As Langer sought to portray it, the very form of the human world—the configurations of what we take to be the inner and outer worlds and the shifting boundary between them—is uniquely dependent on the contingencies of time and place and on the cultural resources that are available for its construction.
[i] I have used the following abbreviations in referring to the works of Susanne Langer:
FC “Form and Content: A Study in Paradox,” Journal of Philosophy 23 (1926), 435-438.
FF Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner’s, 1953).
FLP “Facts: The Logical Perspectives of the World,” Journal of Philosophy 30 (1933), 178-187.
LAM A Logical Analysis of Meaning (Radcliffe College: unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1926).
M Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, three volumes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967, 1972, 1982).
PNK Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, , third ed. 1957).
PA Problems of Art (New York: Scribner’s, 1957).
PP The Practice of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt, 1930).
PS Philosophical Sketches (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962).
[ii] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925); quoted in PNK, 5.
[iii] C. D. Burns, “The Sense of the Horizon,” Philosophy 8 (1933), 301-317; quoted in PNK, 5..