Susanne Langer

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Susanne Langer
Susanne Langer 1945.jpg
Langer in 1945
Born Susanne Katerina Knauth
December 20, 1895
Died July 17, 1985(1985-07-17) (aged 89)
Old Lyme, Connecticut
Alma mater Radcliffe College
(BA, 1920; PhD, 1926)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Process Philosophy
Main interests
Philosophy of mind, aesthetics
Notable ideas
Distinction between discursive and presentational symbols

Susanne Katherina Langer (née Knauth) (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.


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 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.[1][2]


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). 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.[1]


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.[3]

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.[4]

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".[5]

Susanne Langer's distinction between discursive versus presentational symbols is one of her better known concepts.[6] 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.[7]

Langer believed that symbolism is the central concern of philosophy because it underlies all human knowing and understanding.[8] 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.[9]

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.[7] 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.[4]

The 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.[3]


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.[10] Langer established the use of symbols as the "epistemic unit of community",[10] 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.[11] 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.[10] 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,[10] are often reflected in aspects of modern rhetorical studies.


Cover of a Portuguese book about Susanne Langer

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.” [5]

Susanne Langer's other main influence was a German philosopher named 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.[1]


Susanne Langer is unfortunately 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 may have been a significant start to the "collective unconscious", a term used widely among today's psychologists.[12]


  1. ^ a b c "American National Biography Online: Langer, Susanne K.". Retrieved 2016-03-23. 
  2. ^ Liukkonen, Petri. "Susanne Langer". Books and Writers ( Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 4 July 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Shelley, 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.
  4. ^ a b Howard 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
  5. ^ a b "Dryden, "Whitehead's Influence on Susanne Langer's Conception of Living Form"". Retrieved 2016-03-23. 
  6. ^ Hoffmann, Michael HG, 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
  7. ^ a b Lachmann, 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
  8. ^ Littlejohn, Stephen W.; Foss, Karen A. (2008), Theories of Human Communication (9th ed.), Belmont, California: The Thomson Wadsworth Corporation, p. 105
  9. ^ Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 65 and 114–115.
  10. ^ a b c d Lunsford, Andrea (1995). Reclaiming Rhetoric: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 265–284.
  11. ^ Innes, Robert (2008). Susanne Langer in Focus: The Symbolic Mind. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  12. ^ "Susanne Langer - New World Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2016-04-27. 


  • 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)

Additional Sources[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 Mon Mar 14 2016. 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press.