Reassessing Susanne Langer: Forty Years After the Essay on Human Feeling



Panel Discussion Proposal




Three participants




Reassessing Susanne Langer: Forty Years After The Essay on Human Feeling

            Susanne K. Langer (1895–1985) developed over the course of an academically unconventional career spanning practically 50 years a unique and powerful way of ‘practicing philosophy.’ It is as remarkable for its substantive insights as for its exemplifying of a method. With the classic pragmatists she shares, in many ways, a repudiation of ‘pure’ philosophy. Philosophy, she was convinced early on, was to proceed in close connection with ‘the sciences.’ But rather than following the crowd and slavishly imitating the physical sciences, with which she was clearly familiar, Langer turned to a complex mix of psychology, primarily in its Gestalt form, studies of the imagination, language theory, mathematics and symbolic logic, evolutionary biology, and the history of culture, especially the history of myth and religion.

She shares a ‘semiotic’ orientation with Peirce and a recognition that a sufficiently radical reflection on the ‘logical’ leads to an extended and novel reformulation of the ‘symbolic.’ The permanent focus of her work, already apparent in her first published book, The Practice of Philosophy,  and culminating in her last work, became, as a result, the problem of ‘meaning’ and the multiple forms in which it is embodied. She shares with John Dewey a recognition of the centrality of the ‘biological’ for establishing the place of human beings in the world. Like his, her philosophical project remained resolutely, but non-reductively, naturalist. She shares with William James a concern for the nature of the self and for consciousness and hence her work is also informed by a deep commitment to the philosophical implications of a broad-based psychology. She shares with George Herbert Mead an emphasis on the intertwining of the communicative and intellectual dimensions of language, making language one of the pivots of the symbolic processes that constitute humanization. Finally, she shares with her teacher, Whitehead, a broad metaphysical interest and a dedication to the philosophical procedure of progressive generalization of concepts, searching, always in close contact with empirical research of every kind, for concepts that exemplify the necessary precision and scope to frame a universal categorial scheme.

These concerns and philosophical procedures culminate in her massive trilogy, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, which occupied her last years and which is an attempt to construct a comprehensive model of mind and its place in nature. Arthur Danto described this work as “one of the most audacious philosophical visions of recent times.”

            The year 2007 will mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Langer’s trilogy, the last volume of which was published in 1982. We propose to devote a panel session, with three participants, to an examination of her work, focussing on the continuities, deepenings, and transformations between this final work and her previous ones. Placing Mind in the general context of the development of the great themes of the American philosophical tradition, it will ask what is of permanent value in her philosophical project, focussing on the complex relationship between her substantive claims and her methodological procedures. Much is living and very little is dead in Langer’s philosophy. Her breadth of vision, her conceptual flexibility, her sensitivity to fact, and her central framework of the diverse logics of symbolic transformation and of meaning-making reward the closest attention. It is important that her work be seen as a whole, principally as having a thematic core around which variations are developed. This is truly a polyphonic or multi-voiced approach to philosophy. It is integrative, open, relevant, and irretrievably stimulating, engaging, from a distinctive point of view and with precise intellectual tools, central problems of human beings as symbol users and meaning-makers. Upon these problems Langer’s way of doing philosophy casts a clear and sharply focussed light.

            The panel will consist of the following papers:

1. Placing Langer’s Philosophical Project

2. Vital Rhythm and Temporal Form in Langer and Dewey

3. Susanne Langer: The Philosopher as Prophet and Visionary

            The first paper examines pivotal contexts of Langer’s whole philosophical project, the second paper examines the deep affinities between the central aesthetic focus of Langer work and John Dewey’s culminating masterpiece, and the third paper explores the heuristic fertility of Langer’s later work for a reconstruction of the human sciences, including biology.


Placing Langer’s Philosophical Project


            The sources of Langer’s philosophical project are of an extremely heterogeneous sort, on multiple levels. It is precisely this heterogeneity that makes ‘placing’ her philosophical achievement so difficult and at the same time so rewarding. On the one hand, she herself makes constant reference to parallels to her project, starting from cutting edge work in philosophical logic, exemplified by Frege, Russell, and Whitehead, and the comprehensive  and multi-disciplinary study of symbol systems and passing through, in her later writings especially,  fundamental and diverse work in the foundations of biology, psychology, and anthropology. On the other hand, Langer’s acknowledgement of a deep parallelism of concerns was not always positive. The recognized parallelisms did not always lead to a positive evaluation, and when they did they often were evaluation of non-philosophical sources. In fact, many of her distinctively philosophical remarks are perfunctory, negative, or dismissive. This is especially the case with respect to the classic work of Peirce and Dewey toward which Langer is not generous. She shows little substantive awareness of Peirce’s semiotic importance, which in fact has many points of intersection with her work, and she almost stubbornly refuses to confront in any serious way Dewey’s contribution to aesthetics or his clear and precise attempt to construct a naturalist model of the place of mind in nature, two of her principal concerns.

            ‘Placing’ Langer, consequently, will involve both a ‘seeing of connections’ in ways that Langer did not and also an evaluation of just how Langer effectively appropriated her sources in novel ways. For Langer, especially like James, Peirce, and Dewey, worked philosophically in close relationship to the empirical sciences, both natural and cultural, whose leading ideas she both generalized, when appropriate, and attempted to ground, when necessary. It is this double-bladed, or dual-track, approach that makes Langer’s work so interesting: she is very clearly ‘doing philosophy’ and at the same time she is ‘enriching philosophy’ by subsuming philosophically relevant results of the sciences. She is also ‘enriching the sciences’ by her attempt to construct a philosophical framework for rightly situating and interpreting their results. The upper blade of philosophical reflection and the lower blade of the empirical sciences are inextricably connected and dual functioning ‘cutting edges’ of Langer’s work.

            Langer, first of all, ultimately wants to offer an interpretive framework, a set of general categories, a conceptual scheme. For, in her conception, philosophy is essentially concerned with the analysis of meanings, a position she held to for the whole trajectory of her working life. Two exemplifications of this conception are found in her reliance, in multiple ways, on Whitehead and Cassirer, two very differently oriented but clearly related thinkers. The drive toward system and an emphasis on ‘the logical’ that mark her work is due to Whitehead. The centrality of systems of signs and meanings, indeed, their focal placement in philosophical reflection, is due to Cassirer. Their influence permeates her work both methodologically and substantively.

            Secondly, Langer appropriated a massive amount of ‘leading ideas’ from the empirical sciences, often in a rather unorthodox way. This is shown in perspicuous fashion in her reflections on the imagination and on the nature of abstraction, which play pivotal roles in her model of mind and in her aesthetics. It is very illuminating to see just how Langer approached these two topics and what her sources were. The tension between philosophical reconstruction and empirical resources is clearly evident here. Aesthetics is seen to have deep connections with both the practices and the reflections of practitioner of the arts, with classic and fairly neglected psychological work on the creative imagination, and with some of the thorniest issues dealing with the roots, both biological and psychological, of form perception. The interweaving of the aesthetic, the biological, and the psychological is very important.

            Thirdly, there are remarkable unattended to parallels between Langer’s whole way of doing ‘philosophy in a new key’ and certain strands in the pragmatist tradition. I will explore this topic by means of sketching the answer to the following questions: (1) Why did Langer marginalize Peirce and Dewey and (2) Where are the real points of fruitful connection between them? While the answer to the first question has to do with the sociology of philosophy and with psychological temperament, the answer to the second is clearly substantive. As to Langer’s relation to Peirce, both shared a ‘semiotic’ view of the nature of consciousness, which is always defined by mediation and by meaning, and the great Peircean triad of iconicity, indexicality, and symbolicity is present and operative in Langer, although she derives it from quite different sources. As to Langer’s relation to Dewey, focussing primarily on the aesthetic dimension,  it is the categories of ‘expression’ and of ‘quality’ that join them together, something that Langer herself did not, or would not, see.

            This paper will, accordingly, be divided into three sections.

1)     Between Whitehead and Cassirer

2)     Imagination and Abstraction: Unorthodox Sources

3)     Pragmatist Parallels: Semiotic Triads and Expressive Quality





Vital Rhythm and Temporal Form in Langer and Dewey





            Early in Feeling and Form, her landmark work in aesthetics, Susanne Langer disparages “the pragmatic outlook” in philosophy for its purported reduction of human experience, including aesthetic experience, to “’drives’ motivated by animal needs” (1953: 35).  Her dismissive criticisms of John Dewey’s aesthetics are particularly notable.  In Art as Experience, Dewey critiques what he calls the “museum conception of art” (LW10:12), the idea that aesthetic experiences of artworks are ontologically independent of other modes of experiencing and that proper aesthetic perception must be not merely disinterested, but removed as far as possible from embodied life (LW10: Chs. 1 and 2 passim).  Langer’s reading of Dewey’s critique is a reductive distortion; she claims that his position entails that “aesthetic values must be treated either as direct satisfactions, i.e., pleasures, or as . . . means to fulfillment of biological needs” (1953: 36).  In addition, Langer misunderstands Dewey’s criticism of the tendency to treat the distinction between the “artistic,” constructive process of creation and the “aesthetic,” receptive process of perception as if it were a dichotomy.  In an extended discussion, Dewey examines how the activities of both artist and perceiver are simultaneously constructive and receptive (LW10: 53-61), but Langer so misunderstands Dewey on this point that she attributes to him the very dichotomy that he rejects (Langer 1953: 397 n. 4).  What she thinks to be a rejoinder to Dewey is in fact consistent with his own view: “Actually, of course, we move freely from one attitude to the other; every responsive person has some creative imagination, and certainly every artist must perceive and enjoy art, if only to be his own first public” (ibid.).

Langer’s contemptuous treatment of Dewey is highly peculiar, not so much because it reflects a common bias against pragmatism among the philosophers of her era, but because her theory of aesthetic form relies upon a concept that is equally central to Dewey’s aesthetics.  Both Langer and Dewey maintain that aesthetic forms, including art “objects,” are not static entities, but are by their very nature temporal.  Both thinkers base this claim upon very similar concepts of rhythm as that which shapes and constitutes aesthetic forms.  Langer begins her analysis of the rhythmic principle in art with the consideration of music, which she maintains is a “tonal analogue of emotive life” (1953: 27), and therefore the most obvious example of a “significant form,” a complex symbol that conveys an understanding of emotion through conceptual but nondiscursive means.  Langer argues, though, that rhythm is present in all art forms, not only in music.  It is not identical with or reducible to musical meter.  Its essence is “the setting-up of new tensions by the resolution of former ones.”  The presence of rhythm enables us to “sense a beginning, intent, and consummation, and see in the last stage of one the condition and indeed the rise of another” (ibid.: 127). 

Much of Dewey’s discussion of the role of rhythm in generating aesthetic forms is strikingly like Langer’s.  His description of the formal conditions for aesthetic experience is reminiscent of the standard sonata-form model for the first movement of a classical symphony: a “progressive massing of values,” the creation of “suspense and anticipation of resolution,” a consummation that is not a closure or stopping point, but a fulfillment that is carried forward into further experiences (LW10: 142, 144).  Like Langer, Dewey maintains that rhythmic tension, resistance, and consummation constitute “the common pattern of art, the ultimate conditions of form” (ibid.:155).  As for Langer, rhythm is not to be confused with meter.  Uniformly even sequence is not rhythm (ibid: 158; see also Langer 1953: 111-112).  Rhythm consists of “ordered variation of changes” (ibid.: 158); An adequate aesthetic theory, Dewey insists, “can be based only upon an understanding of the central role of energy within and without, and of that interaction of energies which institutes opposition in company with accumulation, conservation, suspense and interval, and cooperative movement toward fulfillment in an ordered, or rhythmic experience.  Then the inward energy [of the artist] finds release in expression and the outward embodiment of energy in matter [i.e. the artwork] takes on form” (ibid.: 165).

Dewey and Langer also agree that the rhythms that constitute aesthetic forms emerge from and are reflective of the vital rhythms that characterize human life and experience in general.  “Vital organization is the frame of all feeling,” maintains Langer (1953: 126), ‘because feeling exists only in living organisms; and the logic of all symbols that can express feeling is the logic of organic processes.  The most characteristic principle of vital activity is rhythm.”  Dewey offers an extensive account of how the inescapable participation of the human organism in the rhythms of nature—day and night, the course of the seasons, sleeping and waking, for instance—“induced [man] to impose rhythm on changes where they did not appear. . . . The formative arts that shaped things of use were wedded to the rhythms of voice and the self-contained movements of the body, and out of the union technical arts gained the quality of fine art” (LW10: 153).  Contrary to Langer’s misreading of Dewey as a biological reductionist, he cautions, “The supposition that the interest in rhythm which dominates the fine arts can be explained simply on the basis of rhythmic processes in the living body is but another case of separation of organism from environment” (ibid.: 155).  Such a supposition assumes that “environment” is reducible to “biological environment.”  But, Dewey argues, the delight we take in rhythmic aesthetic forms is due to “the fact that [rhythmic portrayals and presentations] are instances of the relationships that determine the course of life”--not solely those relationships that are biologically determined, but those which we might call “of the spirit” as well.

Given the fact that such a rich concept of rhythm informs both Langer’s and Dewey’s theories of aesthetic form, it behooves us to ask why Langer so completely misread Dewey’s aesthetic project and seemed unable to grasp how close this aspect of it was to her own. One part of the answer may well lie in her commitment to the view that aesthetic emotions—the emotions involved in creating, perceiving, and interpreting artworks—are entirely different from the emotions involved in everyday experience.  Dewey would certainly criticize this view as a manifestation of the “museum conception of art” (LW10: 9-12), and would likely argue that positing a separate category of “aesthetic emotions” has the result of disconnecting feeling from embodiment (see LW10: 26-28).

Langer’s view that aesthetic symbolic forms are “semblances” or “illusions” and that the semblance of a thing “is its direct aesthetic quality” (Langer 1953: 50) would also be problematic for Dewey.  Works of fine art, according to Langer, are pure semblances or appearances; the entirety of their being consists in“how they appear.”  The function of semblance is to create “a new dimension, apart from the familiar world,” in which forms are “set free from their normal embodiment in real things so that they may be recognized in their own right” (ibid.: 50).   Musical “motion,” for example, is a semblance of physical displacement (ibid.: 108), and the “primary illusion” of music is the semblance of vital growth and movement (ibid.: 117-118; 129-132).  Dewey, on the other hand, tends to describe artworks—their creation, performance, and reception--in terms of processes of enactment rather than as appearances.  In Langer’s view, an artwork appears as a form constituted dynamically through rhythm; in Dewey’s, an artwork is a nexus of relationships which enact vital rhythms (e.g., LW 10: 30, 33, 60, 66-71, 153).   From the point of view of Dewey’s theory, treating aesthetic forms as pure appearances or illusions risks divorcing art from lived experience, regardless of how closely the form of the illusion may resemble the forms of “real” experience.  Langer, on the other hand, would certainly find in Dewey’s enactment model the same crass utilitarianism that she imagines to be characteristic of pragmatist theories in general.

Despite Langer’s misunderstanding of Dewey, her account of rhythm in aesthetic form provides a complement to his.  In particular, her analysis of rhythmic form in Western art music, informed by her own considerable musical training, is invaluable.   Although Dewey’s discussion of rhythm is compelling, the arts he analyzes in terms of it are the literary and the visual.  Langer is correct in her claim that the import of music is “the pattern of sentience—the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known” (1953: 31).  As such, its place in a theory of art and aesthetic experience must be central.


Susanne Langer: The Philosopher as Prophet and Visionary


Susanne Langer’s work, taken as a whole with Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling as its defining achievement, anticipated significant developments of theory and approach in a number of disciplines, including the biological, psychological, social, and cultural sciences, as well as in philosophy. Although some of these developments had already begun to appear as long ago as the late 1980s—some twenty years after the publication of the first volume of Mind—they have emerged with increasing clarity only in the last decade.

In philosophy, Langer’s work anticipated a return—after the arid analytical decades of the mid-20th century during which much of her published work appeared—to the more robust, nonreductive naturalism of the classical tradition in American philosophy, as exemplified by the work of Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey. In psychology and the related sciences of mind and brain, the central theme of the Essay on Human Feeling—that subjective experience in all its varieties is the defining subject matter of psychology—anticipated the wave of consciousness studies that began to appear in the early 1990s. Langer’s argument for the nonpropositional, metaphorical bases of human cognition—which she introduced in The Practice of Philosophy, published in 1930, and developed throughout her career—anticipated the work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and other researchers in philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, and developmental psychology on the embodied nature of human language and thought. And Langer’s theory of scientific knowledge, which received its most explicit treatment in The Practice of Philosophy, can be seen as one of the earliest statements of a position that philosopher of science Ronald Giere has recently developed under the name of perspectival realism, which offers a way of resolving the apparent conflict between a realistic understanding of scientific knowledge (i.e., that science is a representational activity which gives us knowledge of the world) and the recognition that the sciences are human practices which are socially, culturally, and historically situated and therefore essentially expressive of human interests and purposes.

In the biological sciences, the conceptual framework that Langer introduced in the third part of the first volume of Mind—in which the phenomena of organismic, developmental, and evolutionary biology are interpreted in terms of units of process that she termed acts—anticipated the recent turn to the study of self-organizing networks at every level of biological organization, along with the growing use of the resources of dynamical systems theory to model their behavior, which have begun to transform the biological sciences in the first decade of what historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller has called “the century beyond the gene.” And in the study of human evolution, what Langer called “the central problem” of the Essay on Human Feeling—which she described as “the nature and origin of the veritable gulf that divides human from animal mentality, in a perfectly continuous course of development of life on earth that has no breaks” (Langer 1967, xvi)—has in the last ten years moved from being a heretical thesis that Langer advanced in isolation from most of her contemporaries to a subject of serious study by researchers in evolutionary and developmental biology and neuroscience.

In looking more closely at some of the themes that are central to Langer’s project and at relatively recent work in a number of disciplines that she anticipated but apparently did not influence, I will argue that the totality of Langer’s work makes sense only from the perspective of these developments, and that this is one of the major reasons that her late work—beginning with the Philosophical Sketches in 1962 and extending over the fifteen years between the publication of the first volume of Mind in 1967 and the third volume in 1982—was largely ignored at the time of its first appearance and has continued to receive little attention in the years since her death in 1985. But I will also argue that these later developments receive an added dimension of significance when interpreted in the light of Langer’s work, which provides a commanding vision of one way in which all the various strands to be found in recent developments might be woven together to construct a coherent naturalistic perspective on the nature and evolution of life and mind in general, and of human mentality and human culture in particular; and it is because of its power as an interpretive framework that Langer’s work deserves our renewed attention and provides unexpected rewards to the labor of exegesis and interpretation.