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Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985)


American philosopher and educatior, whose most widely read and discussed book is Philosophy in a New Key (1942), a systematic theory of art. This Harvard bestseller became a standard text in numerous undergraduate philosophy classes. Susanne Langer work is not easy to summarize, but one of her major ideas was that works of art are expressive forms, or "iconic symbols" of emotions.

"In the fundamental notion of symbolization  mystical, practical, or mathematical, it makes no difference  we have the keynote of all humanistic problems. In it lies a new conception of 'mentality,' that may illumine questions of life and consciousness, instead of obscuring them as traditional 'scientific methods' have done." (from Philosophy in a New Key)

Susanne Katherina Knauth Langer was born in New York City, the daughter of Antonio Knauth, a well-to-do lawyer, and Else M. (Uhlich) Knauth. Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and settled eventually in Manhattan's Upper West Side. At home they spoke German and Langer herself never lost her German accent.

Langer was educated at a private school. At home she learned to play the piano and cello quite well. Later music had also a central role in her philosophical system. After receiving her B.A. in 1920 from Radcliffe College, Langer went to Europe, where she studied at the University of Vienna in 1921-22. She then returned to Radcliffe, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1926 with her dissertation dealing with logical analysis of meaning. In 1921 she married William L. Langer, a professor of history at Harvard; they had had two sons. While giving a lecture in 1938, William Langer had a sudden panic attack and was unable to speak. Although speaking in public was an ordeal for him during the next two decades and his chronic stage fright was never resolved, he continued as a teacher and lecturer and had an outstanding career as a America's most distinguished historian of Europe. In the late 1930s, Langer and her husband began to drift apart and eventually they divorced in 1942. William Langer married Rowena Morse Nelson in 1943.

At Radcliffe Langer studied under the eminent mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote the prefatory note to her book The Practice of Philosophy (1930). From 1927 to 1942 Langer was a tutor in Philosophy at Radcliffe. After working as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware, she was a lecturer at Columbia University. Langer was a visiting professor at New York University, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, Ohio State University, Columbus, University of Washington, Seattle, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 1954 she was appointed professor of philosophy at Connecticut College in New London. She was also a member of the faculty. In 1961 she became professor emerita and reserch scholar in philosophy. Langer was elected in 1960 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She held also honorary degrees from several American colleges and universities. In 1950 she received Radcliffe Alumnae Achievement Medal. In spite of her fame, Langer remained at the edge of contemporary academic philosophy.

Langer's first book was a collection of fairy tales, The Cruise of the Little Dipper (1923). It was illustrated by Helen Sewell, to whom she dedicated one of her later work, Problems in Art (1957), based on her lectures.

Philosophy in a New Key, a survey symbolism, became a best-seller. Langer's earlier absorption into symbolic logic is seen in her attempt to create a rational basis for aesthetics. The work was much influenced by Ernst Cassirer, whose Sprache und Mythos from 1925 Langer translated into English. Feeling and Form (1953) was written on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. It developed further the ideas of Philosophy in a New Key, and expanded her system of aesthetics from music to the other fields of arts, painting, poetry, dance, etc.

Like Cassirer, Langer argued that man is essentially a symbol-using animal. Symbolic thought is deeply rooted in the human nature – it is the keynote to questions of life and consciousness, all humanistic problems. "Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling," Langer defined. She distinguishes between the open "presentational" symbols of art and "discursive" symbols of language, which cannot reflect directly the subjective aspect of experience. Langer's view of language is not far from Ludwig Wittgenstein's logical theory developed in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), but when Wittgenstein stopped on the threshold of the unsayable, Langer argued that "music articulates forms which language cannot set forth" – it shows what cannot be said.

Works of art do not directly express the artist's experienced emotions, but rather an "idea" of emotion. Artists create virtual objects, illusions. Thus music creates an auditory apparation of time, "virtual time," in painting "virtual space" is the primary illusion, poets create appearances of events, persons, emotional reactions, places etc, "poetic semblances." Langer argues that musical forms bear a close logical resemblance to the forms of human feelings. Music is a "presentational symbol" of psychic process and its tonal structures bear a close logical similarity to the forms of feeling, "forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses." The symbol and the object symbolized have a common logical form.

Langer also distinguishes art as symbol – the work of art as an indivisible whole – from symbols in art, which are elements of the work and often have a literal meaning. Langer's unconventional use of the term "symbol" has been criticized by a number of philosophers, George Dickie included, but Monroe C. Beardley has noted in his book Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present (1966), that Langer's general concept of art as symbol and its development "is carried through with great sensitivity and concreteness."

After receiving a research grant from the Edgar Kaufmann Charitable Trust, Langer wrote the three-volume Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967-1982), her last book, dealing with "actual living form as biologist find it... and the actual phenomena of feeling." Part of the year Langer lived in an old New England farmhouse in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where she could work in peace and quietness. By the publication of the third volume, Langer was 87. The conclusion of the essay was abrogated due to her poor eyesight. Langer died in Old Lyme, on July 17, 1985.

For further reading: Cassirer and Langer on Myth: An Introduction by William Schultz (2000); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Art as Language: Wittgenstein, Meaning, and Aestehtic Theory by G.L. Hagberg (1995); Thinkers of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical, Bibliographical and Critical Dictionary, ed. by E. Devine (1983); Aesthetric Theory and Art: A Study in Susanne K. Langer by R.K. Ghosh (1979); Susanne Langer's Theory of Music as Symbol of Feeling: A Critique by Rita LaPlante Raffman (1978); Harmony Through Resolution by Richard Jackson Bremer (1975); Aesthetics: An Introduction by George Dickie (1971); Famous American Women by H. Stoddard (1970); Music and Human Feeling in Susanne Langer's Aesthetic Theory by Beverly Wayne Shirbroun (1964); Susanne Langer's Music Aesthetics by Fred Blum (1954); 'Symbolism and Art' by Morris Weitz, in Review of Metaphysics, VII (1954); 'Philosophy in a New Key' by Ernst Nagel, in Journal of Philosophy, 40 (1943). See also David Marans: eLogic Gallery, Complete and Open-Access   

Selected works:

  • The Cruise of the Little Dipper, and Other Fairy Tales, 1923 (illus. by Helen Sewall)
  • The Practice of Philosophy, 1930
  • An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, 1937
  • Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, 1942
  • Language and Myth / Ernst Cassirer, 1946 (translator)
  • Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, 1953
  • Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures, 1957
  • Reflections on Art, 1958 (editor)
  • Philosophical Sketches, 1962
  • Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, 1967-1982 (3 vols.)

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