Susanne Knauth was born on 20 December 1895 in New York City. In 1920 she graduated from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, and married a historian, William L. Langer, in 1921. She went with her husband to study at the University of Vienna and then came back to Radcliffe to get a MA in 1924 and a PhD in philosophy in 1926. Langer taught at Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Smith colleges on temporary positions, despite her quality as a philosopher, and raised a family. She received a divorce in 1942, and in 1943 she taught philosophy at the University of Delaware, and from 1945 to 1950 lectured at Columbia University. She was professor of philosophy at Connecticut College from 1954 until her retirement in 1962. In 1960 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She died on 17 July 1985 in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Early in her career, Langer did what many have done since – she wrote an introductory logic text. In some ways, this was a conventional exposition, based on the Whitehead-Russell system of logic. In other ways, it was unconventional and as such an anticipation of her future thought. Chapter 1 is entitled, “The Study of Forms,” which presented logical form as a special case of form, or structure, in general. She compared and contrasted logical form with musical form (1937, pp. 24ff), and biological or physical form (1937, p. 37). The focus on structure and form, a keen sense of the ubiquity of form and structure, and of the importance of a sense of that ubiquity, remained with her throughout her life.
Langer’s first significant work, Philosophy in a New Key (1942), became very popular, especially outside the academy, although it was hardly a traditional work. The basic project of the book was, in its historical context, remarkable. The previous fifty years of philosophy had seen a swing from the dominance of idealism at the end of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth to the dominance of scientific conceptions of philosophy such as logical positivism. Langer aimed to reject both of these dogmatic approaches, while taking from each what she saw as their truth. She took from idealism a focus on the mind as an ordering device operating with structures of symbols, but rejected its repudiation of any reality beyond the mind. She took from positivism the mind as a grasper of reality, but rejected what she saw as its narrow emphasis on the methods of science. She brilliantly understood what the majority of interpreters (especially the logical positivists themselves) had not understood, how Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of the relation between language and the world was fundamentally one of great abstractness. It presented a form, which could be filled out in many ways. It was not at all an assumption of the model that language meant the language of science. Langer herself explored the possibility that language could include the presentational symbolisms of the emotions, the language of ritual and myth, and – most significantly for her future work – the language of music and the arts.
The chapter on music (1942, pp. 204ff) began with Clive Bell’s famous idea of significant form as the key to the understanding of art. Langer proceeded to link significant form with artistic expressiveness: the significance of significant forms was exactly that they were expressions of feeling. Langer both adopted and yet transformed current notions. Her view was not formalist, in the sense that the internal structure of the form in itself was what counted. Rather, what mattered was the mind whose feeling the form expressed. But her view was formalist, in that the expression was significant by virtue of its form. She spoke of a “new philosophy of art, based on the concept of ‘significant form’” (1942, p. 205). It was new, because it linked form and expression in a distinctive way.
This link of expression and form was then developed at length in Langer’s best-known work of aesthetics, Feeling and Form (1953). She subtitled the book, “A theory of art developed from Philosophy in a New Key,” and suggested that Feeling and Form could be regarded as “in effect, Volume II of the study in symbolism that began with” the earlier book (1953, p. vii). Langer famously defined art as “the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling” (1953, p. 40). Music was “a symbolic expression of the forms of sentience as [the composer] understands them” (1953, p. 20). For Langer, these symbols were fundamentally abstract in character. “All forms in art, then, are abstracted forms: their content is only a semblance, a pure appearance, whose function is to make them apparent – more freely and wholly apparent than they could be if they were exemplified in a context of real circumstance and anxious interest. It is in this elementary sense that all art is abstract.” (1953, p. 50) “The symbol is, from first to last, something created. The illusion, which constitutes the work of art, is not a mere arrangement of given materials in an aesthetically pleasing pattern; it is what results from the arrangement, and is literally something the artist makes, not something he finds.” (1953, p. 67) Langer applied this general theory in subsequent chapters to the vast range of types of art – painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, drama, and film.
One can appreciate Langer’s proposal by beginning with the notion of symbol. Take the apparently simplest cases of so-called representational painting: Peter Rubens’s portrait of his son; Pieter Brueghel’s painting of a rural scene in The Harvest; and John Constable’s painting of Salisbury Cathedral. Already it is clear these are not simple cases. Conventions of perspective and style are employed; choices are made about point of view, palette and color effect, balance, and so forth. We can complicate the matter by considering Lucien Freud’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II; Jean-Claude Monét’s painting of Rouen Cathedral; Vincent van Gogh’s haystacks. Style and theory of painting, choice of mode of representation become more prominent. Move on now to a cubist picture which might be of a guitar, or a woman and child, only in some quickly becoming unfamiliar sense. Or consider paintings of scenes which are in a representational style, but the scenes are mythical. Now move on yet again to strictly abstract painting: the looming rectangles of Mark Rothko, Frank Stella’s concentric arcs, and so forth. Turn now to music: begin with Joseph Haydn’s clock symphony, or Olivier Messiaen’s birdcalls, and end up with Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets. Move on to poetry, to dance, to sculpture, to film. At this point, it seems crazy to think of all these kinds of art as standing in one and the same relationship to some one kind of thing. Langer’s answer was that it is not crazy; you just have to think abstractly enough, and you have to focus on the right kind of thing. Representational painting is a useful model for interpreting Langer, not because she generalized from the concrete way in which such a painting seemingly mirrored its subject, but because she abstracted from that concrete example a relationship that can be carried over to other kinds of art. Wittgenstein famously said he thought of the picture theory of language when he saw in a courtroom the model of a traffic accident used to assist the court to see what had happened. But the way in which for him language mirrors the world is much more abstract than the concreteness of the courtroom model. So it was for Langer. Linguistic symbols in the strict sense were discursive or referential. There were also what she called “presentational symbols” (1942, p. 96ff). These symbols presented whole forms wordlessly and indivisibly; these were the forms of art. We understand both forms of symbol as related in the same abstract way to what they symbolize.
Art’s forms were symbolic of feeling; that was the sense in which they were for Langer expressions of feeling. That notion can also be built up from a simple-looking case. We begin with ordinary expressions of anger, say, or fear, or joy, or pride. Then we move from the painter throwing their brush across the room in anger, to Edvard Munch painting his famous scream. Then we move to a complex poetic expression of love, and on to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems expressing the existential abyss of a wavering religious faith. Eventually here too we reach abstract expressionist painting, or dance, or sculpture, or – what in many ways is Langer’s paradigm – music. What makes the angry throw not a work of art, and The Scream or The Hawk works of art is the unique complexity of the symbolic form embedded in those artifacts, and the unique complexity of the feeling which that symbolic form symbolizes. The symbolic form is in the artist’s mind; they make it appear in the artwork they create. The form symbolically mirrors the feeling.
Langer took from the expression theory of art the thought that art was the realization of feeling. She took from formalism the thought that what made an artifact an artwork was its form. She made the essence of art the realization of the symbolic form of feeling – not the expression of feeling, nor the realization of symbolic form, but both combined. She interposed between the artist and the artwork a symbolic, presentational form in the artist’s mind; artistic creativity was the fashioning of an artwork which had that same form.
Despite the length at which Langer explained her view, and the detail of its application to cases, aestheticians have found her view elusive. Some have been unsympathetic critics. George Dickie, for instance (1971, pp. 80–81), dismissed her theory on the grounds that she leaves out the convention which, in Dickie’s view, is needed to link the symbol with what is symbolized. But Langer deliberately omitted such a convention: here, the Wittgensteinian roots of her view manifested themselves. Following Wittgenstein, Langer talked about projections, not conventions. Take a map drawn on Mercator’s projection. Mercator’s projection, as a way of mapping the world, is a convention. But now imagine the relationship of the map to the world prescinding from its conventionality, looking at it as an internal relation. The convention is not fundamental; we can stand outside it and study it. But the relation of language to the world, and of art’s symbolic forms to the feelings they symbolize, is fundamental. We cannot stand outside it, but only within it, and postulate it as a way to make sense of art.
Even John Casey, an interpreter astute enough to see how important Wittgenstein was to Langer, falters here. He takes the symbolic form to be intended by Langer to explain an artwork’s meaning, and then complains, “Mrs. Langer’s attempt to establish a natural, non-conventional form of meaning rests on the assumption that meaning is an extra entity” (1966, p. 70), which is an assumption which Casey rightly rejects. But Langer rejected it too. Is it is proper to speak of the symbolic form as a meaning? It is certainly what it is that plays in the case of artistic symbols the same role that meaning plays in relation to purely linguistic symbols. To call that meaning, though, is to obscure the abstractness of the relationship which is identical in each case. Be that as it may, the relationship is internal to the symbolic form and the feeling. The relationship between a mirror-image and what produces it is not an extra entity, but is internal to that relationship.
Francis Sparshott senses well that Langer’s view was not any straightforward version of the expression theory of art, in that what matters for Langer was the mental symbolic form of the feeling, not the actual feeling itself (1982, pp. 218–19). Langer thus avoided the naïve view that a piece of music, for example, was sad because it expressed some actual sadness being felt by the composer. But he believes Langer paid a price for this avoidance. Sparshott argues that, if the symbolic form of feeling thus becomes independent of any actual feeling, then it is no longer clear in what sense art is to be thought of as expression (1982, pp. 320–22). In Sparshott’s view, Langer ended up with a theory of art as imitation, not as expression. It is not clear how far Sparshott’s argument is really an objection, as opposed to an exposition. It would be an objection if it could be shown that Langer’s view was forced endlessly to vacillate between the expression view and the imitation view; but that case is not made out.
Langer’s philosophy was a new key implied a whole theory of the mind, as well as a whole theory of art. After the completion of her theory of art, she turned her attention to developing further the theory of the mind. Some preliminary essays appeared in 1962, but the whole theory appeared only in her final, and by far longest, work: Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967–82).
Mind can only be described as a work of staggering erudition and ambition. The key to the work is a simple inversion. One might think that sentience is the most general category of mentality, and feeling to be one form that sentience takes, perception another, say, abstract calculation another. Langer turned such a thought on its head. Feeling was the most general category of mentality; perception, or abstract calculation, were thus modes of feeling. The theory was continuous with her interest in art, in that art and the creation of art operated as a running example through out the book of mentality itself. Art was not so much one form of mentality, as the essence of mentality. As Arthur Danto showed, the work seems to rely on an important insight into the mind. There is something that it is like to be me from the inside, and propositional knowledge will never reveal that. Danto refers to this “something” as a “densely knotted tissue of feeling of which we are enfabricated” (1984, p. 646). Langer’s work may be seen as an attempt to present this densely knotted tissue.
Altogether unlike Langer’s theory of art, her theory of the mind has received virtually no attention either inside or outside the philosophical academy. It is not difficult to see why. The work appeared just as cognitive science was in its infancy, and it was not hard to judge that this new and exciting discipline offered more promise for the understanding of mentality than Langer’s reduction of mentality to feeling. Humanistic psychology of the kind Langer’s work represented rapidly became unfashionable in philosophy and psychology alike. However, Langer’s theory of art remains still one of the most interesting, most subtle, and most challenging theories in twentieth-century philosophy of art.