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Susanne Langer Essay Topics


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.




Susanne Langer

Langer in 1945

BornSusanne Katerina Knauth
December 20, 1895
Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States
DiedJuly 17, 1985(1985-07-17) (aged 89)
Old Lyme, Connecticut, U.S.
Alma materRadcliffe College
(BA, 1920; PhD, 1926)
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolProcess Philosophy
Doctoral advisorAlfred North Whitehead

Main interests

Philosophy of mind, aesthetics

Notable ideas

Distinction between discursive and presentational symbols

Susanne Katherina Langer (néeKnauth; December 20, 1895 – July 17, 1985) was an American philosopher, writer, and educator and was well known for her theories on the influences of art on the mind. She was one of the first women in American history to achieve an academic career in philosophy and the first woman to be popularly and professionally recognized as an American philosopher. Langer is best known for her 1942 book entitled, Philosophy in a New Key. In 1960, Langer was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[1]


Born Susanne Katherina Knauth, Langer was raised in Manhattan's West Side in New York. She was the daughter of Antonio Knauth, an attorney, and Else Uhlich, both emigrants of Germany. Though she was American born, Langer's primary language was German, as it was strictly spoken in her household throughout her youth, and her German accent remained her entire life. She was exposed thoroughly to creativity and art, most specifically through music. She was taught to play the cello and the piano, and she continued with the cello for the remainder of her life. As a girl, Langer enjoyed reciting the works of great poets as well as traditional children's rhymes and tales. This sparked her love for reading and writing, and she would often write her own poems and stories to entertain her younger siblings. Her love of nature began during the summers her family spent in their cottage on Lake George. She married William Leonard Langer, a fellow student at Harvard in 1921, and in the same year they took their studies to Vienna, Austria. They had two sons and moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts before the couple divorced in 1942. She died July 17, 1985.[2][3]


Her early education included attendance at Veltin School for Girls, a private school as well as being tutored from home. In 1916, Langer enrolled at Radcliffe College. She earned the bachelor's degree in 1920 and continued with graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard, where she received the master's diploma in 1924 and the doctorate in 1926. She was a tutor in philosophy at Radcliffe from 1927 to 1942. She lectured in philosophy for one year at the University of Delaware and for five years at Columbia University (1945-1950). From 1954 to 1962 she taught at Connecticut College. She also taught philosophy at the University of Michigan, New York University, Northwestern University, Ohio University, Smith College, Vassar College, the University of Washington, and Wellesley College.[2]


Susanne Langer's unexplored thesis revolving around the connection of consciousness and aesthetics as well as her unusual use of language in her writing ultimately caused her to be scrutinized by her fellow scholars. However, it led her to further explore the complexity and nature of human consciousness.[4]

Langer's philosophy explored the continuous process of meaning-making in the human mind through the power of “seeing” one thing in terms of another. Langer's first major work is entitled, Philosophy in a New Key. It put forth an idea that has become commonplace today: that there is a basic and pervasive human need to symbolize, to invent meanings, and to invest meanings in one’s world.[5]

Beginning with a critique of positivism, the work is a study of human thought progressing from semantic theory through philosophy of music, sketching a theory for all the arts. For Langer, the human mind "is constantly carrying on a process of symbolic transformation of the experiential data that come to it," causing it to be "a veritable fountain of more or less spontaneous ideas".[6]

Susanne Langer's distinction between discursive versus presentational symbols is one of her better known concepts.[7] Discursive symbolization arranges elements (not necessarily words) with stable and context invariant meanings into a new meaning. Presentation symbolization operates independently of elements with fixed and stable meanings. The presentation cannot be comprehended by progressively building up an understanding of its parts in isolation. It must be understood as a whole. For example, an element used in one painting may be used to articulate an entirely different meaning in another. The same principle applies to a note in a musical arrangement—such elements independently have no fixed meaning except in the context of their entire presentation.[8]

Langer believed that symbolism is the central concern of philosophy because it underlies all human knowing and understanding.[9] As with Ernst Cassirer, Langer believed that what distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity for using symbols. While all animal life is dominated by feeling, human feeling is mediated by conceptions, symbols, and language. Animals respond to signs, but stimulus from a sign is significantly more complex for humans. The perspective also is associated with symbolic communication where animal societies are studied to help understand how symbolic communication affects the conduct of members of a cooperating group.

Langer is one of the earliest philosophers who paid close attention to the concept of the virtual. Inspired by Henri Bergson's notions of matter and memory, she connected art to the concept of the virtual. For her, figuring out the space of an art work by its creator was no less than building a virtual world. She describes virtuality as "the quality of all things that are created to be perceived." For her, the virtual is not only a matter of consciousness, but something external that is created intentionally and existing materially, as a space of contemplation outside of the human mind. Langer sees virtuality as a physical space created by the artist, such as a painting or a building, that is “significant in itself and not as part of the surroundings.” She particularly considers architecture not as the realization of a space for being, but its conceptual translation into virtuality for perceiving: “The architect, in fine, deals with a created space, a virtual entity.” In contrast to Bergson, for Langer, virtuality is tangible and can cause a contemplative interaction between humans and the machine.[10]

In her later years, Langer came to believe that the decisive task of her work was to construct a science and psychology based theory of the "life of the mind" using process philosophy conventions.[8] Langer's final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling represents the culmination of her attempt to establish a philosophical and scientific underpinning of aesthetic experience, relying on a three volume survey of a comprehensive set of relevant humanistic and scientific texts.[5]

History of feeling[edit]

Langer's desire to study the mind and its connections with art was rooted in her theory that works of art are representations of human feeling and expression. This led Langer to construct a biological theory of feeling that explains that "feeling" is an inherently biological concept that can be connected to evolutionary genetics. In her essay, Mind, Langer goes into depth to connect the early evolution of man to how we perceive the mind today. She explains that early organisms underwent refinery through natural selection, in which certain behaviors and functions were shaped in order for them to survive. Langer describes the body's organs to all operate within a specific rhythm, and these rhythms must cooperate with one another to keep the organism alive. This development, Langer explains, was the beginning of the framework for the Central Nervous System, which Langer believed to be the heart of cognitive interactions among humans.[4]


Susanne Langer's work with symbolism and meaning has led to her association with contemporary rhetoric, although her influence in the field is somewhat debated.[11] Langer established the use of symbols as the "epistemic unit of community",[11] suggesting that all knowledge in a community is gained and built from shared symbol-systems within a given culture. Langer's concept regarding language and dialogue may be understood to imply that language does not simply communicate, but it produces symbols from which humans then create their own reality.[12] Claimed support of this perspective comes from Langer's statement that "language is intrinsic to thinking, imagining, even our ways of perceiving".[9]

According to Arabella Lyon, professor at State University of New York, Langer holds that meaning arises from the relationship between a community, its discourse, and the individual.[11] Lyon suggests that Langer's work may be viewed as a contradiction to the comparatively traditional theories of Aristotle, by way of Langer's argument that discourse forms through sensory experiences shared between speaker and hearer, rather than through logic as advocated by the philosopher. Langer's epistemic view of symbolism and language, which further examines the motivation of the speaker, the influential aspects of language that affect people, and the relationship between the speaker and the community,[11] are often reflected in aspects of modern rhetorical studies.


Langer's works were largely influenced by fellow philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead, an English mathematician and philosophy professor, was Langer's professor at Radcliffe. Whitehead introduced Langer to the history of human thought, the origins of the modern world, and contemporary philosophy. He helped shape her perspective on these topics which she presented in her first text, The Practice of Philosophy. Throughout her career, Whitehead continued to influence her understanding of the complicated world of human thought which guided her to pursue a philosophical career. She shared Whitehead’s belief in going beyond the limitations of scientific research and believed that along with the new-found thinking and ideas that had initiated the modern era in science and philosophy, the opportunity for a rebirth of philosophical creativity would arise. Langer dedicated Philosophy in a New Key, to "Alfred North Whitehead, my great Teacher and Friend."[6]

Susanne Langer's other main influence was the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Cassirer was a neo-Kantianist who studied the field of theories of symbolization. Cassirer influenced much of Langer's ides in Philosophy in a New Key, where she stated that the creation of symbols is the essential activity of art, myth, rite, the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy. She stated, "It is a peculiar fact that every major advance in thinking, every epoch-making new insight, springs from a new type of symbolic transformation". She drew from Cassirer's view in her belief that art theory must be independent with a theory of mind.[2]


Susanne Langer is not an extremely well known philosopher; however, her work has influenced and continues to influence many. As one of the first female philosophers, her work has posed as an inspiration to many fellow women to pursue a future in philosophy and other related fields. Her imaginative views on the connections of art and aesthetics with the human mind were revolutionary during her time and sparked a wide interest in the complexity of human consciousness. Although her work is not often cited by today's philosophers, her theories on presentational symbolic activity are part of the "collective unconscious" where philosophy and psychology meet anthropology.[13]

Selected publications[edit]


  • The Cruise of the Little Dipper, and Other Fairy Tales (1924 illustrated by Helen Sewall)
  • The Practice of Philosophy (1930, foreword by Alfred North Whitehead)
  • An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937), ISBN 978-0-486-60164-9
  • Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942), ISBN 978-0-674-66503-3
  • Language and Myth (1946), translator, from Sprache und Mythos (1925) by Ernst Cassirer, ISBN 978-0-486-20051-4
  • Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953)
  • Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures, 1957
  • Reflections on Art (1961) (editor)
  • Philosophical Sketches (1962), ISBN 978-1-4351-0763-2
  • Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, three volumes (1967, 1972, and 1982)


  • "Confusion of Symbols and Confusion of Logical Types", Mind, 35, 1926, pp. 222–229 
  • "Form and Content: A Study in Paradox", Journal of Philosophy, 23, 1926, pp. 435–438 
  • "A Logical Study of Verbs", Journal of Philosophy, 24, 1927, pp. 120–129 
  • "The Treadmill of Systematic Doubt", Journal of Philosophy, 26, 1929, pp. 379–384 
  • "Facts: The Logical Perspectives of the World", Journal of Philosophy, 30, 1933, pp. 178–187 
  • "On a Fallacy in 'Scientific Fatalism'", International Journal of Ethics, 46, 1936, pp. 473–483 
  • "The Lord of Creation", Fortune, 29, January 1944, pp. 127–154 
  • "Why Philosophy?", Saturday Evening Post, 234, 13 May 1961, pp. 34–35, 54, 56 
  • "Henry M. Sheffer", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 25, 1964, pp. 305–307 

See also[edit]



  • Borchert, Donald M. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. Print.
  • Campbell, James. "Langer's Understanding of Philosophy." Transactions Of The Charles S. Peirce Society 33.1 (1997): 133. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
  • Connie C. Price. "Langer, Susanne K." American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Accessed March 14 2016. 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press.

Further reading[edit]

  • Schultz, William (2000), Cassirer and Langer on Myth: An Introduction, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-8153-2465-2 
  • Innis, Robert E. (2009), Susanne Langer in focus: the symbolic mind, Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0-253-22053-0 
  • Dryden, Donald (2001), "Susanne Langer and William James: Art and the Dynamics of the Stream of Consciousness", The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 15 (4), pp. 272–285, doi:10.1353/jsp.2001.0036 
  • Watling, Christine P. (1998), "The Arts, Emotion, and Current Research in Neuroscience", Mosaic, 31, pp. 107–124 
  • Royce, Joseph R. (1983), "The Implications of Langer's Philosophy of Mind for a Science of Psychology,", Journal of Mind and Behavior, 4, pp. 491–506 
  • Shelley, Cameron (1998), "Consciousness, Symbols and Aesthetics: A Just-So Story and Its Implications in Susanne Langer's Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling", Philosophical Psychology, 11, pp. 45–66 
  • Durig, Alexander (1994), "What Did Susanne Langer Really Mean", Sociological Theory, 12, pp. 254–265 

External links[edit]

Poster with a quotation of Susanne Langer in Portuguese
  1. ^"Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A"(PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved March 11, 2017. 
  2. ^ abc"American National Biography Online: Langer, Susanne K". www.anb.org. Retrieved 2016-03-23. 
  3. ^Liukkonen, Petri. "Susanne Langer". Books and Writers (kirjasto.sci.fi). Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 4 July 2013. 
  4. ^ abShelley, C 1998, 'Consciousness, Symbols and Aesthetics: A Just-So Story and its Implications in Susanne Langer's 'Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling', Philosophical Psychology, 11, 1, pp. 45-66, Philosopher's Index, EBSCOHost, viewed 4 April 2016.
  5. ^ abHoward Gardner, "Philosophy in a New Key Revisited: An Appreciation of Susanne Langer" Art, Mind, and Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity, New York: Basic Books, pp. 48–54
  6. ^ ab"Dryden, "Whitehead's Influence on Susanne Langer's Conception of Living Form"". www.anthonyflood.com. Retrieved 2016-03-23. 
  7. ^Hoffmann, Michael H. G., Geist und Welt – durch die Symbolisierungen der Kunst betrachtet, a review of Susanne K. Langer, Die lebendige Form menschlichen Fühlens und Verstehens (The living form of human feeling and understanding). Munich: Fink, 2000. ISBN 3-7705-3462-X, IASL Online, retrieved 2010-03-19.
  8. ^ abLachmann, Rolf (January 1998), From Metaphysics to Art and Back: The Relevance of Susan K. Langer’s Philosophy for Process Metaphysics 26, Process Studies, pp. 107–125
  9. ^Littlejohn, Stephen W.; Foss, Karen A. (2008), Theories of Human Communication (9th ed.), Belmont, California: The Thomson Wadsworth Corporation, p. 105
  10. ^Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 65 and 114–115.
  11. ^ abcdLunsford, Andrea (1995). Reclaiming Rhetoric: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 265–284.
  12. ^Innes, Robert (2008). Susanne Langer in Focus: The Symbolic Mind. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  13. ^"Susanne Langer - New World Encyclopedia". www.newworldencyclopedia.org. Retrieved 2016-04-27. 

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