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Langer, Susanne


LANGER, SUSANNE . Susanne Katherina Knauth Langer (18951985) was a German-American philosopher. She was born the second of five children in an affluent banking family. Educated at the Veltin School in Manhattan, Langer primarily spoke German as a child. Nurtured in a culturally rich environment, she developed an interest in aesthetic forms that would mark her philosophy. Educated at Radcliffe College, she tutored there (19271942) and held positions at the University of Delaware (1943), the Dalton School (19441945), New York University (19451946), Columbia University (19451950), Northwestern University (1951), Ohio State University (1951), the University of Washington (19521953), the New School (1950), the University of Michigan (1954), and Wesleyan University (1954). Her first permanent appointment was at Connecticut College for Women (19541962) in New London. In her later years (19621985), she lived alone in a farmhouse in Olde Lyme, Connecticut, and her research was funded by the Edward J. Kauffmann Foundation. By this time in her life, she had been honored with many degrees, the Radcliffe Founders Award, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She died at the age of eighty-nine, only three years after her final book appeared.

Although Langer was a philosopher, her later insights on symbols, myth, and aesthetic experience made her influential throughout all of the humanities. Langer's early writing demonstrates her interest in symbols and their relationship to human potential. Influenced by Alfred North Whitehead's earlier work on symbols, Langer's Practice of Philosophy (1930) considers the nature of revolutionary thinking, anticipating paradigm theories of science. An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937) argues that logic is a concept central to philosophy, not mere tautology, but part of meaning.

Langer's mature work begins with Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942). Here she names the symbolic as the defining mark of humanity and develops a theory that originates symbolic action in feeling rather than logic. In doing so, she frees the binaries of mind and body, reason and impulse, autonomy and law. According to Philosophy in a New Key, from the flux of bodily sensation (the sense data), human minds constantly abstract the forms that affect them. Symbols are far more than communicative devices or descriptions of the empirical world; the brain endlessly makes them, as evidenced by dreams, religious experience, art, ritual, and even science. For Langer, symbols worked as both an end and an instrument, a human characteristic and compulsion. All of one's conceptions are only held through symbols. While the biological and social origin of the symbolic is inflected differently in myth, religion, art, or science, the human drive to symbolize characterizes every form, and they are equally human acts of meaning-making.

An account of human emotion, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953) extends the symbolic into forms that are less linguistic, and it offers a fuller account of expression and reception. Langer extends the earlier example of music to develop an aesthetic theory that includes the place of time, virtual space, magic, poesis, and traumatic forms. She argues that art is a symbolic form that through its dynamic structure expresses the forms of experience that language is unfit to convey. Languagelimited by its discursive, sequential formcannot express the emotional content as well as can presentational forms, such as music and painting. The creation of aesthetic forms, however, is not an emotional experience; it is an intellectual one of understanding and objectifying emotions.

Langer's philosophy is often connected to that of the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Although they were friendsshe translated Cassirer's Language and Myth (1946)too frequently their philosophical systems are collapsed and fruitful distinctions lost to the detriment of each. Unlike Cassirer, who values science over art, and reason and numbers over feeling and language, Langer offers a nonhierarchical model of symbolic forms, one based in biological evolution (Mind, 19671982), and she avoids a communicative model of language, instead conceiving language as forming and expressing concepts. Furthermore, Langer developed a full aesthetic theory and, through it, a more complex sense of symbolic reception and production.

Langer's own influence has been significant if underrecognized. Although women philosophers faced resistance in the mid-twentieth century, Langer's books were widely read. Her work remains vital to theology, rhetoric, and aesthetic philosophy, and references to her writings continue to appear in anthropology, psychology, education, and communications.


Langer's books include a collection of German children's stories, The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales (Greenwich, Conn., 1923); as well as The Practice of Philosophy (New York, 1930); An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (Boston, 1937); Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (Cambridge, Mass., 1942); Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key (New York, 1953); Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures (New York, 1957); Philosophical Sketches (Baltimore, Md., 1962); and Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, 3 vols. (Baltimore, Md., 19671982). Langer's papers are housed at the Houghton Library at Harvard University; a large collection of her annotated books are archived at Connecticut College. For the most complete bibliography, see Rolf Lachmann, "Der Philosophische Weg Susanne K. Langer (18951985)," Studia Culturologica 2 (1993): 65114. Donald Dryden's biography in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 270: American Philosophers before 1950, edited by Philip B. Dematteis and Leemon B. McHenry (Farmington Hills, Mich., 2003), pp. 189199, offers a full picture of her intellectual life. A centennial retrospective symposium on Langer appears in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 33 (1997): 131200.

Arabella Lyon (2005)

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