Langer, Susanne (Katherina)K (nauth)

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LANGER, Susanne (Katherina)K (nauth)

Born 20 December 1895, New York, New York; died 17 July 1985

Daughter of Antonio and Else Uhlich Knauth; married William L. Langer, 1921 (divorced); children: two sons

Susanne K. Langer received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees all from Radcliffe College; she also studied for a year (1921-22) at the University of Vienna. Langer served as a tutor in philosophy at her alma mater from 1927 to 1942 and taught at theUniversity of Delaware in 1943 and at Columbia University from 1945 to 1950. She was professor of philosophy at Connecticut College for Women from 1954 to 1962. She has been the recipient of numerous research grants and honorary degrees. Langer had two sons, was divorced in 1942, and lived in Olde Lyme, Connecticut.

While Langer is best known for her philosophy of art, her extensive writings in aesthetics are part of an exploration of a larger question about the workings of the human mind. It is her interest in the human ability to symbolize that unifies works as seemingly dissimilar as her study of symbolic logic, her works on the creation and appreciation of art, and her Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967, 1972, 1982), which comprised three volumes.

In her first major work, The Practice of Philosophy (1930), Langer introduces many of the themes that engage her later thinking. Intended as an introduction to philosophy, the book defines philosophy as the search for the logical connections between meanings and contrasts it with science, which seeks the empirical connections between facts. The study of symbolic logic, the logic of relations, is therefore an indispensable preliminary to the study of the more engrossing problems of metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.

Langer outlines a theory of meaning intended to present a general pattern common to all the various "meaning situations," including dictionary definition and emotional import. This common pattern is the triadic relationship between object, symbol, and interpreter, when the symbol and the object have some similar internal structure. The notion of similarity of structure in symbol and object symbolized leads to the suggestion that emotional and aesthetic experiences, which have structures so unlike that of our "discursive" syntactical languages, are best symbolized by the structures of myth, ritual, and art.

In this early work, Langer presents the outlines of a theory of a form of understanding that, even though nondiscursive, is reasoning; that, like all understanding, "involves the appreciation of symbolic structures qua symbolic"—and that, as the "personal discovery of meanings through myth, ritual, and art, highly individual, and awe-inspiring by its subtlety, is the very acme of logical procedure, and the refinement of intelligence."

In An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937), Langer sets out at length the system whose value she had proposed in The Practice of Philosophy. Yet Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbols of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942) is the explicit exposition of the theory of symbolism which had only been indicated in her two earlier works. The "new key" is the focus upon symbol-using as the essence of such diverse enterprises as mathematics, science, psychology, and art. Langer does not claim to have been the first to strike this new key, but only to have recognized it and to have shown how some of the chief questions of philosophy have been transposed into it.

In Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key (1953), Langer applies the theory of art proposed in the earlier book to the various major art forms. The arts are alike in that they all create forms symbolic of human feeling; they differ in that each creates a different "primary illusion." The function of artistic illusion is not "make-believe," but rather, "disengagement from belief"—the contemplation of sensory qualities without any practical overtones. In art, forms are freed from their common uses; this is in order that they may act as symbols, may become expressive of human feeling.

All the essays in Philosophical Sketches (1962) are preliminary studies for a complete philosophy of mind, which is attempted in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. Langer's stated purpose in this work is to understand "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." She develops the thesis that the departure of human from animal mentality "is a vast and special evolution of feeling in the hominid stock," a development so great it adds up to a qualitative difference that sets human nature apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The fault she finds in most previous theories of mind is that they borrow their images from physics, and such images are inadequate to the richness of mental phenomena. Langer, in contrast, turns to works of art, which, as "images of the forms of feeling," can more adequately reveal the psychic life.

Langer's own works exhibit what she finds in the course of evolution: a process of growth in which there is no break in continuity from the beginning to the present and yet in which there is considerable development and enrichment. Her writings are from the earliest characterized by an exceptional sensitivity to both art and the dynamisms of the subjective life; she has combined with this sensitivity a familiarity with a broad range of scientific research.

Langer has acknowledged the influence of such diverse thinkers as Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, and Ernst Cassirer; however, she is an original thinker whose insights have transformed what she received from others. She presented her insights within the framework of an overall empiricist philosophy, but even those who question this framework find much to value in her work. Langer's sensitivity to the life of feeling and her refusal to consign art (and myth, and ritual) to a place of less importance than that held by the discursive enterprises assure her a place of lasting influence among philosophers, art theorists, and the lay public.

Other Works:

The Cruise of the Little Dipper, and Other Fairy Tales (1923; revised 1963). Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures (1957).


Abel, S., "Susanne Langer and the Rhythm of Dramatic Action" (thesis, 1984). Barth, E. M., Women Philosophers: A Bibliography of Books Through 1990 (1992). Blair, R. L., "A Langerian Analysis of Chekhov's Major" (thesis, 1986). Cochrane, J. S., "Toward a Satisfactory Approach to Religion and the Arts Based Upon Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism and Susanne K. Langer's Philosophy of Art" (thesis, 1986). Curran, T., "A New Note on the Film: A Theory of Film Criticism Derived from Susanne K. Langer's Philosophy of Art" (dissertation on film, 1980). Feder, M., "The Semblance of Self: A Critique of Susanne Langer's Expressionist Aesthetics" (thesis, 1980). Greenfield, G., Literary Cognition (dissertation, 1986). Harding, S. and M B. Hintikka, Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and the Philosophy of Science (1983). Johnson, J. R., "The Primacy of Form: A Study of the Philosophical Development of Susanne K. Langer with Implications for Choral Music" (thesis, 1990). Kidneigh, B. J., "The Potential Rhetorical Power of Myth: An Account Based on the Writings of Cassirer, Langer, and Burke" (thesis, 1990). Lathy, E. D., "Metaphor, Symbol, and Utterance the Reality of Relation in Susanne Langer and Mikhail Bakhtin" (thesis, 1985). Liddy, R. M., Art and Feeling: An Analysis and Critique of the Philosophy of Art of Susanne K. Langer (1970). Light, L. W., "Formalism, Expression Theory, and the Aesthetics of Susanne Langer" (thesis, 1980). Malhotra-Hammond, V., "Toward a Sociology in a New Key: An Inquiry into Dramatistic Social Theory" (thesis, 1980). McCall, M., "Symbol, Art, and Human Feeling in Susanne Langer's Philosophy of Art" (thesis, 1983). Morosoff, D. A., "Humans as Symbol Makers and Symbol Users: The Development of Susanne Langer's Philosophical Anthropology" (thesis, 1997). Nolan, F. J., "The Aesthetic Theory of Susanne Langer" (thesis, 1984). Phelan, C. M., The Influence of Susanne K. Langer's Symbolic Theory of Aesthetic Education (1981). Smith, N. R., "The Usefulness of Susanne K. Langer's Structural Analysis for Philosophy of Religion" (thesis, 1984). Waithe, M. E., A History of Women Philosophers (4 vols., beginning 1987). Watkins, G. K., "A Dramatic Application of Susanne Langer's Aesthetic Symbolism" (thesis, 1989). Young, C. M., "Similarities in the Symbolic Theories of George Herbert Mead and Susanne K. Langer" (thesis, 1986).

Reference works:

CA (1974, 1986). CB (Nov. 1963). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCAS.

Other references:

BJA (Oct. 1968). Gregorianum (1972). JAAC (1955-56, 1968, 1970, 1972). Personalist (1965). Process Studies (Fall 1974). Review of Metaphysics (1954, 1961-63, 1970).



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Langer, Susanne (Katherina)K (nauth)

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