Susanne Knauth Langer

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Susanne K. Langer

One of the most widely read philosophers of the twentieth century, Susanne K. Langer (1895–1985) was also a pioneer in the field and one of the few modern thinkers who devised a rigorous, systematic, philosophical theory that accounted for artistic expression and tried to relate it to other activities of the human mind.

In the terminology of philosophy, Langer was an aesthetician—a specialist in the branch of philosophy dealing with beauty, art, and the human perception of these subjects. She was often considered a maverick, for these considerations had played only a minor role in philosophy for many decades before she began to write. Even within the field of aesthetics, Langer was unusual; she had little interest in the concept of beauty. Instead, she believed that art and music were fundamental forms of human activity, related to and equal in significance to spoken language although different in their basic structures. Langer's book Philosophy in a New Key (1942) was for many years one of the most frequently assigned philosophy books in liberal arts college courses.

Talked for 40 Minutes on Frogs

The daughter of a German-immigrant lawyer, Langer was born Susanne Knauth on December 20, 1895, in New York, New York. Her mother never learned to speak English well, and Langer herself grew up speaking German and always spoke English with a slight accent. As a small child she suffered a severe case of cocaine poisoning due to a prescription error, but she recovered. Langer grew up with two sisters and two brothers in a household that valued serious study and music. At first the young Susanne was most fascinated by natural phenomena, and she loved to wander on hiking trails when the family made trips out of New York. Her relatives called her the Forest Witch. Someone gave her a book about frogs, and she was asked to give a little talk about the amphibians to her family. They got an idea of her powers of concentration when she delivered a well-organized 40-minute lecture, never referring to any notes.

Langer was schooled partly at home, owing to her initially limited English skills. Later she attended the private Veltin School in New York. She read voraciously, and was interested in difficult works of philosophy from the start. "In my early teens, I read Little Women and [German philosopher Immanuel] Kant's Critique of Pure Reason simultaneously," she told Winthrop Sargent of The New Yorker. As a young woman, Langer was for the most part an independent learner. She wrote a play called Walpurgisnacht that was performed in a woodland grove by a group of her family members.

Langer's father did not believe that his daughters should go to college, but she was encouraged by her mother and entered Radcliffe College. At that point, she took a more systematic approach to her studies. She liked her philosophy courses, especially logic, and she benefited from having top American philosophers, including Harvard's Alfred North Whitehead, as professors. The precision of Langer's mind was demonstrated anew when she asked Whitehead for his opinion of a German children's song she had learned years before; the song referred to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and said that "each has at her side/the handsomest prince." (The tale was told in a 1960 New Yorker profile of Langer.) Were there two princes, Langer wanted to know, or just one, sitting between the two fairy tale characters? Whitehead agreed with her that there was just one prince.

Before she graduated from Radcliffe in 1920, she met Harvard graduate student William Langer. The two fell in love, married in 1921, and went to Vienna, Austria, together for a year. The couple had two sons. "It is questionable whether two deeply preoccupied parents can create the ideal environment for a family of children," Langer told Sargent. But she remained close to her sons in old age. After William Langer got a job teaching at Harvard, the family moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Susanne Langer earned Master's (1924) and Ph.D. (1926) degrees at Radcliffe, and the school hired her as a philosophy tutor the following year.

Wrote Children's Book

Langer's first published book was not a work of philosophy at all. In 1923 she wrote a children's book, The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales. The drawings were done by Helen Sewell, who went on to become a leading children's book illustrator. The book was reprinted in 1963 but remains a rare artifact of Langer's early career. A children's book might seem tangential to Langer's main interests, but some felt, given the important role myth would play in her system of philosophy, that the book showed her coming to grips with the ideas that fascinated her. Langer's next two books were textbooks: The Practice of Philosophy appeared in 1930, and An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, published in 1937, continued to be used in college courses and was reissued in 1953. These books, again, were more than detours in Langer's path toward original thought; they looked toward contemporary issues in philosophy and gave full weight to meaning and symbol in the human mental makeup.

Langer was influenced by German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, who came to the United States after the Nazis rose to power. Cassirer's belief that religion, science, art, and myth were different but coequal branches of human thought had a fundamental impact on the ideas Langer expressed in Philosophy in a New Key, which for many years was one of the best-selling titles in the catalog of Harvard University Press. The book eventually sold more than a half million copies. "I believe that in this physical, space-time world of our experience there are things which do not fit the grammatical scheme of expression," Langer wrote. "But they are not necessarily blind, inconceivable, mystical affairs; they are simply matters which require to be conceived through some symbolistic schema other than discursive language." With their children grown, and with that book having established Langer's reputation, Langer and her husband divorced in 1942.

Any quick summary of Philosophy in a New Key would distort more than it clarifies, but it can be said that the idea of the "symbol" was central to the book. For Langer, the making of symbols or representations was what distinguished humans from other animals. Symbols, Langer argued, might be "discursive," and the primary example of a set of discursive symbols was language, which in previous philosophies of meaning had nearly always held a central place. Langer, however, pointed out that language could embody a phenomenon only in sequential expressions, not in simultaneous ones.

Certain phenomena were being discussed at the time, due to the work of Sigmund Freud—for example, dreams and feelings-and they were notoriously resistant to expression in language. Humans, Langer reasoned, dealt with these phenomena through the use of "presentational" symbols such as music, art, and myth-making, as ways of bringing meaning to a realm that language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had called "unspeakable."

Langer's philosophy was not simple, but she had a lucid prose style, influenced by that of British philosopher Bertrand Russell, that yielded its secrets to concentrated reading. Her ideas were novel and her mode of expression unique, but her attempt to come to grips with seemingly irrational aspects of human mental activity had many parallels in the ideas of other key modern thinkers. In rejecting the absolute primacy of discursive scientific reasoning, Sargent pointed out, "Mrs. Langer finds herself in the company of some modern psychologists, notably the disciples of C.G. Jung, but she is a far more lucid and coherent thinker than Jung, and, unlike him, she abhors the easy, irrational path of mysticism." Philosophy in a New Key began to find a readership among undergraduate philosophy and liberal arts students interested in the nature of creative expression, and Langer's fame grew. She was hired as a lecturer in philosophy at Columbia University in New York in 1945, remaining there until 1950.

Lived in Rural Locations

Langer expanded on the ideas of Philosophy in a New Key in two more books, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953) and Problems of Art (1957). In Feeling and Form she drew distinctions between the ways the arts shaped the basic materials of feeling. Each art form focused on a different aspect of human experience: music was concerned with time, for instance, art and sculpture with space, and dance with what Langer called virtual power. Problems of Art collected some of Langer's public lectures and featured accessible observations on common topics of discussion related to the arts and creativity. Langer refined the common notion that a work of art expresses the feelings of the artist, arguing that the artist expresses "not his own actual feeling, but what he knows about human feeling." She added (as quoted in the New York Times) that "once he is in possession of a rich symbolism, that knowledge may actually exceed his entire personal experience." In 1954 Langer got a job teaching at Connecticut College. She moved out of New York and bought a farmhouse in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Living alone and filling index cards with ideas, Langer devoted herself more and more to writing. She sought still greater solitude by buying a small rural retreat in Ulster County, New York, which had no electricity and which offered her unlimited opportunities to indulge her girlhood passion for walking in the woods. Langer collected animals like lizards and frogs, which she kept as pets and gave erudite literary names. She disliked any kind of background music or extraneous noise, but she continued to enjoy performing (on cello and piano) and hearing classical music. She told Sargent that she concentrated on music so intensely that listening to a half hour of music took as much effort for her as ten hours of writing philosophy—which she did in longhand.

Langer retired from Connecticut College in 1962 and devoted the rest of her life to writing full time; supported at first by a grant from a foundation, the Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Trust. She remained in high demand as a guest lecturer at various academic institutions, and though she enjoyed her simple, rural lifestyle, she was not averse to marathon car trips to reach these destinations. Sometimes, almost as a break, she contributed articles to general-interest magazines, but it was the life of the mind that absorbed her the most. "I'm really happy," she told Sargent, "as long as I have a theory." Langer was awarded honorary degrees from Columbia and several other schools in the 1960s.

Having a theory kept Susanne Langer going for a long time. The last years of her life were devoted to the completion of a massive study of the human mind that attempted to incorporate feeling into a grand scheme of human thought. The study, entitled Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, appeared in three volumes, in 1967, 1973, and 1982; it ranged across many academic disciplines in a manner that was new to the discipline of philosophy. Langer kept writing almost until her death at age 89, on July 17, 1985, stopping only when she was nearly completely blind.


New York Times, July 19, 1985.

New Yorker, December 3, 1960.


Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005.

"Susanne K. Langer," Books and Writers, (December 21, 2005).