Langer, Susanne K. (1895–1985)
LANGER, SUSANNE K.
Susanne Langer was an American philosopher whose work remains significant because of her distinctive views on the philosophy of art, as expressed in her books Philosophy in a New Key (1942) and Feeling and Form (1953). Though now relatively neglected, various aspects of her views remain of interest, as shown by the following considerations concerning her most characteristic doctrines.
Langer rejects positivist views of meaning and thinking according to which only literal, scientific language has any objective significance—a view the consequence of which is that any other apparent kinds of meaning are mere subjective expressions of feeling (1957, ch. 4). Instead she argues that there is another kind of objective thinking that has a different kind of symbolic form. In place of the discursive, sequential structure of linguistic statements it uses a presentational symbolic mode, which communicates by showing rather than saying, as do images or pictures. Such presentational modes have their origin in low-level kinds of sensory experience, which provide the basis for the often metaphorical and imagistic experiences that underlie conscious thought (1957, chs. 4, 6).
As applied to the arts, Langer claims that all of the arts are to be explained in terms of such presentational symbolic forms. For example, pictures are able to communicate their content by showing or presenting—rather than by linguistically stating—their message (1957, ch. 4); while music, dance, and other art forms similarly present rather than state their meaningful content (1957, ch. 8; 1953).
But if such presentational forms do not communicate or express objective factual information, as do discursive linguistic forms, then what do they express? Langer's answer is that they express feeling —not the mere subjective feelings that the positivists rejected, but instead objective forms or structures of feeling that cannot be identified either with the betrayal of the personal feelings of an artist who creates an artwork, nor with the arousal of feelings in the audience who experience that work. For example, she says of music that it "is 'significant form,' and its significance is that of a symbol … which by virtue of its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience … Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import" (1953, p. 32). Thus artistic symbolic forms communicate, in virtue of their structure, the same forms of feeling that occur in sentient life generally.
The above views, that art involves nondiscursive symbolic forms that primarily communicate feeling, have been much criticized (e.g., see Davies 1994, ch. 3 for incisive music-related criticisms). However, there remain other, more neglected aspects of Langer's theory that are harder to dismiss, such as her view that art involves what she calls "semblance" (1953, ch. 4), a seeming or illusory quality that is both experienced as such—"The 'otherness' that gives even a bona fide product like a building or a vase some aura of illusion" (1953, p. 46)—and which also implies the objective unreality or virtuality of those forms themselves. This quality of semblance enables Langer to distinguish between, for instance, the actual spatial qualities of a sculpture or building when considered purely as a physical object, and its seeming spatial qualities, which in part constitute, on her view, the perceptually experienced symbolic artwork itself.
To be sure, such an account seems to imply that artworks are relative to perception in some way (Khatchadourian 1978), hence raising questions about their objective status that Langer does not answer, but many would view her general insistence on the objectivity and cultural independence of the symbolic forms of artworks as being too strong in any case. Independently of such issues of objectivity and semblance versus reality, Langer's resulting analyses are sometimes of interest in their own right, such as her account of the ways in which sculptures are able to organize the spaces in which they occur—unlike paintings, whose spatial worlds are self-contained; this is an account that connects with other significant differences between sculptural and pictorial forms (Hopkins 2004).
In terms of the general classification of theories of art, Langer's theory is an unusual combination of a formalist and an expression theory in that her view is that all artworks express feeling in virtue of their specific symbolic form. Probably one reason for her current neglect is that she in turn neglects issues of artistic intention and individual expression that generally are thought to be at least relevant, if not central, issues in the philosophy of art. Nevertheless, whatever her theoretical flaws may be, Langer remains an engaging and insightful writer whose previous wide popularity is not hard to understand.
See also Aesthetics, History of.
works by langer
Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942. 3rd ed., 1957.
Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art. New York: Scribner, 1953.
works on langer
Davies, Stephen. Musical Meaning and Expression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Hopkins, Robert. "Painting, Sculpture, Sight and Touch." British Journal of Aesthetics 44 (2004): 149–166.
Khatchadourian, Haig. "Movement and Action in the Performing Arts." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37 (1978): 25–36.
John Dilworth (2005)