Langer, Susanne Knauth (1895–1985)

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Langer, Susanne Knauth (1895–1985)

American philosopher, writer, and educator who was particularly concerned with art, logic and the mind. Born Susanne Katerina Knauth on December 20, 1895, in New York, New York; died on July 17, 1985, in New London, Connecticut; daughter of Antonio Knauth (a lawyer) and Else (Uhlich) Knauth; Radcliffe College, A.B., 1920, A.M., 1924, Ph.D., 1926; graduate study at the University of Vienna, 1921–22; married William Leonard Langer, on September 3, 1921 (divorced 1942); children: Leonard C.R. and Bertrand W.


Radcliffe achievement medal (1950); D.Litt., Wilson College (1954); D.Litt., Mt. Holyoke College (1962); D.Litt., Western College for Women (now Western College, 1962); D.Litt., Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts (1962); LL.D., Columbia University (1964); D. Humane Letters, Clark University (1968).

Selected writings:

The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales (Norcross, 1923); The Practice of Philosophy (Holt, 1930); Philosophy in a New Key (Harvard University Press, 1942); An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (Houghton, 1953); Feeling and Form (Scribner, 1953); Problems of Art (Scribner, 1957); Philosophical Sketches (Johns Hopkins Press, 1962); Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (Johns Hopkins Press, vol. 1, 1967, vol. 2, 1972, vol. 3, 1982).

Some philosophers stand out for their commitment to a revolutionary approach to philosophy as a discipline. Among the likes of Socrates, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who devised and implemented their own prescriptions for better approaches to the most profound problems, we must count Susanne Langer, who argued that philosophy would be revolutionized in the 20th century by the burgeoning knowledge of symbols and how we use them. Langer argued that philosophy passes through cycles in which a particular approach becomes exhausted and is succeeded by another. For her, the growing understanding of symbols was the new awareness which could revitalize philosophy, providing fresh perspective on the traditional problems. Philosophy is often considered to advance as issues become clarified by new approaches and problems become resolved. But Langer contended that for long periods of history philosophers will argue over the same questions in the same ways. According to her, this is initially observed in ancient Greek philosophy (4th century bce): the problems first addressed by Plato are not changed by his student Aristotle but approached in the same way. Because Aristotle comes to answers that oppose Plato's, between them they exhaust the potential for enlightening answers to their questions. Likewise, Langer believed that the philosophical problems first posed by Réne Descartes in the 17th century could no longer act as a fertile source of philosophical study due to the work of Immanuel Kant at the end of the 18th century. Descartes' position was that the mind and body are distinct substances mysteriously intertwined. We can progress no further with this than to say, with Kant, that all we know of the physical world, including our bodies, is structured by our minds. However, for Langer the new understanding of the pervasiveness of symbolic systems in our experience offers a fresh arena for philosophical discourse. Therefore, she devoted herself to the study of symbols and how they pervade human experience. In doing so, she linked together the diverse fields of the arts and sciences by considering how their methods are all similarly dependent on the manipulation of symbols.

Susanne Katerina Knauth was born in 1895 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Antonio and Else Knauth , who were German immigrants. Her father was a lawyer, who in his spare time played cello and piano and encouraged his daughter's love of music. She learned to play the cello and enjoyed this throughout her lifetime. Much of her education took place at home. Although she attended a French school in Manhattan, her schooling was interrupted by several years of illness: a druggist had filled a prescription for her incorrectly, and she suffered from cocaine poisoning. As a result, she was too ill to attend school and was tutored at home. In the summer, the Knauths went canoeing at Lake George.

Because the only language spoken in her home was German, when Susanne left home for Radcliffe College, after her father's death, it was the first time she spoke English in every aspect of her daily life. At Radcliffe, she had a distinguished undergraduate career, devising her own tricks for increasing her academic performance. For instance, although she had always been good at algebra, she had trouble with the spatial relationships of geometry. But by translating geometry into algebra in her head she was able to achieve excellence in every area of mathematics. This was very important, as much of her work involved logic and mathematics. Her problem with spatial understandings also made it difficult for her to remember some of the details from academic books and articles. So in her junior year she began to keep an elaborate set of card files for academic sources which she maintained and relied on for the rest of her life.

At Radcliffe, she met William Langer, a graduate student in history who went on to become a distinguished professor. Following their marriage in 1921, she did graduate work in logic at Radcliffe and spent one semester at the University of Vienna. The first book that she published, in 1923, was not philosophy but illustrated children's stories, The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales. She had two children, Leonard C.R. and Bertrand W., and went on to receive a master's degree in 1924 and a doctorate in 1926, remaining at Radcliffe as a tutor in philosophy.

In The Practice of Philosophy, published in 1930 with a preface by the esteemed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (who had instructed her at Radcliffe), Langer argued for the importance of mathematics and logic to philosophy. According to her, philosophical technique is characterized by abstraction: extracting a concept from the variety of its occurrences. For example, looking at beauty in general rather than at any number of beautiful things in particular, and finding its general form, helps us to order our ideas for the pursuit of philosophical insight. Such analysis may solve problems or reveal them, and logic and mathematics are especially helpful because they concern meanings and ideas, rather than facts. "Logic is the science of forms as such, the study of patterns," she wrote. In An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937), she explains how our reasoning about things is symbolized in the study of logic.

A further argument from The Practice of Philosophy is that philosophical problems change over time and that the 20th century, with all its new mathematical and logical knowledge, brings a new age to philosophical thought.

The progress of philosophy is not so much from premises to conclusions as from commonly accepted conclusions to their premises. Science grows in scope; philosophy increases in depth. It is the substructure, not only of science, but of all experience.

Philosophy can take its old understandings and renovate them, using new skills in mathematics and logic to discredit parts of it and to revitalize others. Thus, she did not consider even her own ideas to be final.

In 1942, Langer published Philosophy in a New Key, one of the bestselling books ever published by Harvard University Press. In it, she applied the method of philosophy prescribed in The Practice of Philosophy to the discipline of philosophy itself, by examining how reasoning has operated in the history of philosophy. She built on the argument that mathematical and logical knowledge will revitalize philosophy and began to take what she considered to be the new direction necessary for philosophical progress.

As every shift of tonality gives a new sense to previous passages, so the reorientation of philosophy which is taking place in our age bestows new aspects on the ideas and arguments of the past. Our thinking stems from that past, but does not continue it in the ways that were foreseen. Its cleavages cut across the old lines, and suddenly bring out new motifs that were not felt to be implicit in the premises of the schools at all; for it changes the questions of philosophy.

Langer built on the philosophy of symbols developed by Ernst Cassirer, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein, and opposed the view popular among her contemporaries that moral statements, art and metaphysics (the study of what exists) are simply emotional expressions. According to Langer, there are two types of symbolism. Discursive symbolism is constructed from a given syntax and a vocabulary and provides literal meaning. This includes logic and mathematics and most of natural language. Non-discursive, or presentational, symbolism (for example, art) conveys meaning which is not literal and refers to no particular individual experience. Nevertheless, art is symbolic and not just expressive.

Susanne Knauth Langer">

A screaming baby gives his feeling far more release than any musician, but we don't go into a concert hall to hear a baby scream; in fact, if that baby is brought in we are likely to go out. We don't want self-expression.

Susanne Knauth Langer

Langer argued that the use of symbols distinguishes humans from animals:

The symbol-making function is one of man's primary activities, like eating, looking, or moving about. It is the fundamental process of his mind, and goes on all the time.

It is not just that humans have a broader use of gestures and therefore a broader range of signals. Signals are only representative pictures of things. Symbols, on the other hand, may be used as signals, but they are abstractions which also may point to nothing in particular. They can represent things that are not in our immediate environment. A dog can only respond to "dinner" with the expectation that food will be forthcoming, that is, as a particular experience. But humans can consider "dinner," can take it as a concept for reflection: do we want dinner? how will we get it? etc. For us it can be more than a signal; it can be a symbol. "Symbols are not proxy for their objects, but are vehicles for the conception of objects."

After her divorce in 1942, Langer spent five years teaching at Columbia and eight years at Connecticut College, occasionally taking sabbatical leave or acting as a visiting scholar at other colleges. In 1953, she published Feeling and Form, which develops the philosophy of art posited in Philosophy in a New Key into a comprehensive theory of aesthetics. Langer defined art as "the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling," and argued that it has four distinguishing characteristics: art is (1) created; (2) an expression of human—not personal—feeling; (3) symbolic; and (4) meant for contemplation.

Langer opposed the traditional view, known as self-expression theory, that art is an expression of personal feeling, "a symptomatic expression of currently felt emotions." According to this view, meaning must be representational; a symbol must make reference to some particular thing that can be experienced. Any other expression is simply an extension of emotion, like a laughter or a cry, and not a representation of anything experienced. Langer argued that although art may be used for personal expression, such as on a greeting card, this is only one use of art. Not any exclamation can be considered art. A baby's cry may be very expressive, but we would not consider it art. Moreover, if personal expression were the key to artistic creation, then art about negative feelings, such as despair, would be virtually nonexistent because such feelings interfere with one's ability to produce art.

Instead, art is an expression of the form of feeling, notes Langer, where feeling is considered to encompass a wide range of experiences:

forms of growth and attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm or subtle activation and dreamy lapses—not joy or sorrow perhaps, but the poignancy of both—the greatness and brevity and eternal passing of everything vitally felt.

Feeling is "unlogicized mental life," that element of experience which escapes discursive symbolism, but which can be captured in the presentational symbolism of art. Art symbolizes our thoughts about the way emotions are experienced, but does not express emotion itself.

Feeling and Form is one of Langer's best-known works, and it continues to act as a resource in contemporary philosophy of art. She expands on its themes in other publications. The Problems of Art (1957) is a collection of letters and articles relating to her earlier work. Reflections on Art: A Source Book of Writings by Artists, Critics and Philosophers (1960) is an anthology of works by other writers who influenced the views presented in Feeling and Form.

When Langer retired from teaching, she looked to larger philosophical problems surrounding her theory of aesthetics. Philosophical Sketches (1962) is a collection of papers which she delivered to audiences on topics ranging from art to biology. Here, she expressed the view that mathematical study has been exhausted, and she argued that this opens up potential for exploring the use of symbols in less abstract sciences such as psychology.

She proceeded to work out a philosophy to address the reasoning processes of the sciences in her final and largest work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. It was completed over many years of her retirement, living alone in a red farmhouse in Connecticut. Her home was not tidy but brimming with the sources that inspired her work. She kept fish and tadpoles in aquariums and jars—inspiration for the philosophy of biology developed in Mind. The house was filled with books in English, German, and French, and a grand piano sat in the same room where her cello and two violins resided in a glass case.

Even past the age of 70, Langer was described as "alert and erect with notable vitality" and frequently spent ten hours a day reading and writing, still relying on her intricate system of index cards. She claimed to have "a mind like fly paper" that sometimes became crowded with information, even as trivial as jingles or advertisements from childhood. In order to capture inspirations, she kept note cards by her bed and learned to write neatly in the dark.

Her spare time was spent on housework, reading poetry, and playing music in a string quartet with friends. She would have preferred more time to practice the cello but found that the necessary concentration detracted from her work, so she focused instead on philosophy. Langer often visited her sons and enjoyed the outdoors, frequently driving off in her station wagon to spend some time in her green canoe "The Creek Mouse." Each summer, she spent a week camping and canoeing with a friend, and believed that this revitalized her work.

Mind has over 1,000 pages, and was published in three volumes in 1967, 1972 and 1982. It concerns a question that arises out of Feeling and Form: why is it important that art have an organic, life-like form? She explored the methods of art, biology, social theory, and psychology, and the importance of imagery to these disciplines:

There is value in images quite apart from religious or emotional purposes: they, and they only, make us aware of the wholeness and over-all form of entities, acts, and facts in the world; and little though we may know it, only an image can hold us to a conception of a total phenomenon, against which we can measure the adequacy of scientific terms wherewith we describe it.

So she built on her exposition of art from the earlier Feeling and Form, applying that book's theory of symbols to the life sciences. She also argued that biology and psychology are hindered by their adoption of the inorganic images of physics. The argument from Philosophy in a New Key has continued as well. Langer posited that the evolution of feeling distinguishes humans among animals, that the artist or the scientist is enabled by systems of symbols to come to understandings that surpass individual experience. She opposed the distinction between mind and body which obsessed philosophers from the time of Descartes, and she argued that feeling, including rational thought, is what is essentially human: we have no experience outside of our bodies. Susanne Langer died after a long illness on July 17, 1985, in New London, Connecticut.


Greer, William R. "Susanne K. Langer, Philosopher, is Dead at 89," in The New York Times. July 19, 1985, p. A12.

Lord, James. "A Lady Seeking Answers," in The New York Times Book Review. May 26, 1968, pp. 4–5, 34.

suggested reading:

Curran, Trisha. A New Note on the Film: A Theory of Film Criticism Derived from Susanne K. Langer's Philosophy of Art. NY: Arno Press, 1980.

Ghosh, Ranjan Kumar. Aesthetic Theory and Art: a Study in Susanne K. Langer. Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1979.

Catherine Hundleby , Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, Canada

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