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Summary Article: Langer, Susanne (1895–1985)
From Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Aesthetics

American philosopher, best known for her contributions to philosophical anthropology and aesthetics; one of the most important aestheticians of the twentieth century. Her views on art are integrated with a general philosophical position of some intricacy. Her aesthetic theory had its genesis in her book on the nature of symbolism and meaning, Philosophy in a New Key (first published in 1942), became the focus in its sequel, Feeling and Form (1953), and was expanded in the three volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967, 1972, 1982) In all these works, Langer wove together an astounding variety of influences with a sensitive understanding of art. The writings of A. N. Whitehead, Ernst Cassirer, Wittgenstein, C. S. Peirce, and Rudolf Carnap feature strongly in her work, not to mention those of biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and numerous writers on art. Only the portion of her work directly concerned with the aesthetic is considered here.

Langer began by accepting the great division made by positivism between cognitive and emotive expression, but it was her intention to rescue the emotive from being dismissed as meaningless by describing how it exhibits an alternative form of meaning best illustrated by art. Human beings are essentially symbolic animals; this capacity cannot be regarded as a mere extension of animal psychology. Her last work undertook to describe the “great shift” from the rhythmic patterns of organisms, to symbolic meaning, to mind. By then, in her view, feeling mediated between the biological and the symbolic, lying as it does at the very basis of rationality (1967: 23).

Symbolism is the capacity to think about something without implying that object's existence, differing in this way from the denotative function of a sign (or “signal”). Experience exhibits certain forms that provide the basis of abstractive rationality. With the early Wittgenstein, Langer holds that our discursive thought, expressed in language, offers logical pictures of states of affairs in the world. Because of its complex syntactic nature and immense vocabulary, language must build up its picture from discrete units governed by logical laws. It cannot even begin to present the world simul totum. Langer believes that here a crucial error has been made: since discursive language has been the medium of philosophical reflection, philosophy has been willing to identify meaning with discursivity. Hence the question “What is the meaning of art?” became an undesirable either/or: either a work had no meaning or its meaning could be translated into literal, pro-positional language. Her challenge is to offer a nondiscursive mode of symbolism, a “presentational” mode, which begins with the “grammar of the eye and ear” in sensation and then becomes highly articulated in art (1957a: 89).

Through symbolism we gradually organize our world of meaning. Even in perceiving ordinary objects, we are transforming a complex manifold of sensation into a “virtual world” of general symbols (1957a: 144). Beginning with dreams, our awareness of meaning grows through the use of metaphoric thinking. In tribal culture, the awareness of presentational meaning lies at the root of totemism. Myth constitutes a further development toward a symbolic understanding of the great forces governing human existence. But here, with Cassirer, Langer believes that a fork in the road is taken: discursive understanding must drop the metaphoric for the literal mode, aiming at metaphysical rigor and scientific description; the myth, further developed, becomes the epic – that is, art. Science and art are the two ultimate refinements of meaning, the one consuming our practical concern with nature, the other our power of “envisagement.”

In Philosophy in a New Key, Langer discusses music as the paradigm instance of presentational meaning because it best exhibits the distinctive concern with “pure form” (1957a: 208). All works of art aspire toward “significant form,” she claims, adopting Clive Bell's term while rejecting his psychologistic view that it expresses a distinct “aesthetic” emotion. Music is not a psychological expression of emotions, but a logical, symbolic expression about feelings. Thus it reflects the composer's knowledge of human feeling, not his emotional constitution at the time. Music seems to resemble language; we speak of its syntax and vocabulary. But it has no literal meaning: it is an “uncon-summated symbol” expressing “vital import.” It cannot achieve the denotational conditions of conventional linguistic reference. Music expresses the “forms of human feeling” and is “our myth of the inner life” (1957a: 235, 245; see also 1953: 27).

While the plastic arts, like painting, easily become “model-bound” and so become confused with the goal of literal representation, music demonstrates that art is truly about significant form. The plastic arts can express significant form through depicting objects; music does not. It is the work as a whole which bears artistic or “vital import,” conveying “knowledge by acquaintance” rather than indirect “knowledge about.” The arts in the past have drawn on myth and religion, but no longer need to do so. Art, thus liberated, can freely serve human expressivity.

Feeling and Form continues these general themes, applying them to the entire range of the arts. One of the strengths of this work lies in Langer's concrete applications. Her grander claim is to organize the whole of aesthetics by focusing on the question of creation. “Once you answer the question ‘What does art create?’, all the further questions of why and how, of personality, of talent and genius, etc., seem to emerge in a new light from this central thesis” (1953: 10). The perennial paradoxes that have stymied aesthetics, most notably that between “feeling and form” (feeling leading to subjectivist theories, form to objectivist ones), will disappear. Feeling and form are not opposed. Feelings may be objectively symbolized in certain forms, which then are capable of being abstracted in experience. Hence “art works contain feelings, but do not feel them” (1953: 22). Since “significant form” is the essence of art, art is defined as “the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling” (1953: 40). “Creation” must refer, then, to the creation of such symbols, not to the ordinary production of artifacts. One can produce painted canvases, but one may or may not create significant forms in the process.

Langer's discussion of “semblance” contains the cardinal points of her theory. Artworks are distinguished from ordinary objects above all by their sheer “otherness,” their “unreality,” giving a sense of illusion. The art image is not copied, but created, making a “virtual object.” Unlike ordinary objects, the virtual object does not exist for all the senses, but focuses instead on one or two. Adopting Jung's term, Langer calls this character “semblance,” though it also has strong affinities to what Schiller called Schein. The semblance or Schein of a work disengages us entirely from the practical demands of belief, making it a “strange guest” among “the highly substantial realities of the natural world.” Like discursive meaning, the presentational symbol reveals “a new dimension apart from the familiar world,” the dimension of articulate but nondiscursive feeling (1953: 50). Works of art are not representations of objects in the natural world so much as explorations in this dimension of meaning. And yet Langer insists that what art expresses are the forms of life, of vital feeling, “forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution,” and so on – “the elusive yet familiar patterns of sentience,” as she calls it elsewhere (1953: 27, 52). Art is “essentially organic,” creating the appearance of life (1953: 373). Her Essay itself addresses the question, “Why must artistic form, to be expressive of feeling, always be so-called ‘living form’?” (1967: xv).

The artist abstracts the significant form from experience and uses it to create an object that directly expresses it. Thus there can be no real distinction between the form and its “content.” The “content” of a work is its import, and this accounts for its “transparency,” its alien presence that reveals immediately a dimension of meaning, the idea of feeling. Insofar as a work of art confuses this significant form with other aims, such as utilitarian or representational ones, or simply fails to create a truly expressive form, it ceases to be art. There are no high or low arts, simply good and bad artworks. A great work, presumably, is one that powerfully expresses a highly significant feeling. This symbol of feeling is intuitively grasped. Even though a work may take time to unfold, from the beginning there is an “intuition of the whole presented feeling” (1953: 379).

All of these themes are developed in her last work, a work at once in the tradition of a philosophy of symbolic form, like Cassirer's, and a process metaphysics which, like that of her “great mentor” Whitehead, makes feeling and creativity the basis of nature. It would be easy to question some of the sharp distinctions she sets forth (especially the fundamental one of presentational versus discursive meaning); her eclecticism; the repetition of such central terms as “significant form” which remain nonetheless vague; the fact that, for all her stress on the “logical” nature of presentational symbols, they are objects of intuition pure and simple; and her claim that language has an origin in an expressive rather than a communicative need. But this would be to miss the fact that, in a century dominated by factual description and logical justification, Langer saw the problem of mind also in terms of symbol, ritual, myth, expression, and feeling. She argued for a view of nature in which form and creativity are at work in the very heart of things.

See also twentieth-century anglo-american aesthetics; aesthetic education; bell; emotion; expression; illusion; ineffability; symbol.

Primary sources
  • [1942] 1957a. Philosophy in a New Key. 3rd edn.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • 1953. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner.
  • 1957b. Problems of Art. New York: Scribner.
  • 19671972, 1982. Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Secondary sources
  • Bertocci, Peter. 1970. “Susanne K. Langer's Theory of Feeling and Mind”, Review of Metaphysics 23 527-51.
  • Budd, Malcolm. 1985. Music and the Emotions: The Philosophical Theories. London: Routledge & Kegan Paulch. 6.
  • Danto, Arthur C. 1984. “Mind as Feeling; Form as Presence”, Journal of Philosophy 81 641-6.
  • Davies, Stephen. 1994. Musical Meaning and Expression. Ithaca: Cornell University Pressch. 3.
  • Hagberg, Garry. 1984. “Art and the Unsayable: Langer's Tractarian Aesthetics”, British Journal of Aesthetics 24 325-40.
  • Laird, Addis. 1999. Of Mind and Music. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Welsh, Paul. 1955. “Discursive and Presentational Symbols”, Mind 64 181-99.
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