“In the fundamental notion of symbolization … we have the keynote of all humanistic problems.”
“Meaning accrues essentially to forms.”
— Susanne K Langer, Philosophy in a New Key
Susanne K Langer devoted her whole professional life to exploring the connection between the concepts that frame the epigraphs above. A philosopher working outside all conventional labels from the professional side, she nevertheless pursued a “way of thinking” that exposed the inside of the life of meaning. Langer is both a source of deep insights and a model of how to do philosophy in a new key. Her marginalisation is our intellectual loss.
Langer’s analyses of the processes of symbolisation and the grasp of form established clear systematic relations between language, art, myth, and ritual as equally valid objective forms of meaning-making. Langer gives us indispensable tools for understanding the root factors of how it is that human beings come to live in frames of meaning that they have produced and which are the sources of their greatest achievements and of their greatest failures. While not denying, as a non-reductive naturalist, that human beings were animals, she explored in great detail how the formation of symbolic images effected the “great shift” that allowed them to emerge as a species living in an open “ambient” and not a relatively closed environment limited by their biological inheritance. This open ambient, Langer asserted, is created and supported by different systems of signs and symbols and define the horizons of their feeling, acting, and thinking. Langer’s lifework was the exploration of these systems.
In a series of books so rich in insight and so supported by such a wide range of sources that they explode any purely academic way of “doing” philosophy, Langer constructed a system of philosophical concepts that she used to establish that symbolisation is rooted in the grasp of forms. She showed that the grasp of form goes all the way down to the primordial levels of sentience and all the way up to the supreme achievements of human culture. This is the great arc of her concerns: pushing meaning down and up in a continuum of meaning-bearing forms. Her method of “progressive generalization” is exceptionally fertile. It allowed her to frame in a coherent way the problem of symbolisation on the conceptual and descriptive levels and support it by philosophically important non-philosophical materials from a variety of disciplines. Langer was anything but an armchair philosopher arguing with opponents with a sharp analytical knife. Although a proponent of the creative imagination, she did not propose wild speculative schemes unsupported by any empirical grounding, but she was not averse to speculation.
Langer’s first book, The Practice of Philosophy (1930), proposed that the job of philosophy is to “see possibilities of interpretation” and not to engage in the cut and thrust of the demolishing of “literal propositions.” Her goal, pursued throughout her whole life, was to “attain a new orientation” and to make philosophy, as she put it, “a definite branch of human learning” and not just a set of practices of a contentious group of arguers. For her philosophy was, or should be, “the pursuit of meaning” not in “any one restricted sense but in all its varieties, shadings and fulnesses.” It involved the extension of “meaning” to what she called in her Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937) the “great storehouse of forms,” the “orders in which any things whatsoever may be arranged, the modes under which anything whatever may present itself to our understanding.” A study of the “logic of signs and symbols” underlying this great storehouse of forms became Langer’s life work and yielded a wealth of insights.
In her Philosophy in a New Key (1942) her intent was to authenticate a new notion of the “rational,” but how she does it is of fundamental importance. The classical tradition, Langer claimed, generally identified the rational with the “logical,” with discursive thought and objectivity. It then had the difficult task of explaining, or explaining away, such important human concerns as art, ritual, myth, and religion. Langer showed that these forms of meaning-making were embodied in vast sets of symbols and symbolic practices with their own distinctive “logic,” a non-discursive logic, quite different from the discursive logic of language and mathematics. They belonged to the domain of “presentational forms,” not “discursive forms,” a key distinction of her work. Presentational forms, Langer showed by an examination of their logic, are not mere effusions of an irrational subjectivity but articulations of the felt sense of things to which they give us unique access. They orient us in the world in the deepest existential manner, effecting participation in vital values and giving us visions, embodied in symbolic images, of our place in the cosmos. Langer, prior to extensive developments in semiotics, showed that they are worthy of philosophical study in their own right. Her work compares favourably in heuristic power with, and complements, C S Peirce’s great attempt to avoid logocentrism. We are a symbolic species at every level and not just language-endowed animals, although Langer held discursive symbols in the highest regard, as did her intellectual companion, Ernst Cassirer.
Langer was a devoted lover and practitioner of the arts, especially music, which she had studied in detail in Philosophy in a New Key. In 1953 she published Feeling and Form, a masterful generalisation and application to all the arts of the theory of music elaborated in that book. Its key idea was that feeling had a distinctive “morphology” that is exemplified in different ways in the different genres of art. Art works, she claimed, give us knowledge of or insight into ways of feeling the world in every shade of its expressiveness. They articulate feeling and are not mere expressions of personal feeling. They are presentational symbols and their meaning-contents are the “primary illusions” peculiar to each art form: virtual space in the pictorial and visual arts, virtual powers in dance, virtual experience and virtual memory in literature, virtual time in music, the ethnic domain in architecture, and so on. Langer showed art to be an authentic symbolic form and her notion of a “morphology of feeling” exhibited in the artwork is a permanent contribution to aesthetics.
In the last twenty-five years of her working life Langer attempted to develop the notion of feeling as a term to cover all the manifestations of minding. The result was Mind (1967-1982), published in three volumes over a fifteen year period, and which remained incomplete, due to her advancing age. It anticipated many of the current concerns in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and philosophy of mind. Its central idea is that feeling is an emergent property of natural processes but that its paradigmatic manifestation is the rise of symbolisation and the proliferation of cultural forms and their attendant conflicts and permutations. Central chapters in this book carry out and reformulate Langer’s central insight and claim: symbolisation and the power of abstraction are the keys to what it means to be human. In a return to and deepening of her initial proposals in her first philosophical work, Langer distinguished between generalising abstraction and presentational abstraction, the two fountainheads of all those frames of meaning in which we live out our lives. It was the working out of the implications of this distinction, present at the beginning of her intellectual journey, that forms the connecting link of her whole remarkable philosophical career.