Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others


From Process Studies, 26 (January 1998), 86-106. The reader should not overlook the notes, wherein nearly half the text (including links to some of the cited papers) resides.  Auxier’s criticism of Langer, from a philosophical foundation not very different from my own, does not diminish my gratitude to Langer how her writings have illuminated for me what had been an opaque patch on my intellectual horizon: symbolism in general and art in particular, especially music.

Posted June 28, 2008

 Anthony Flood


Susanne Langer on Symbols and Analogy: A Case of Misplaced Concreteness?

Randall Auxier


Susanne Langer is the theorist who has so far made the most of the notion of the symbol as an analogy.  Analogy has proven to be crucial to most (if not all) process philosophies of language, and even though Langer is only a quasi-process philosopher, in my view, her account of analogy as it relates to the symbol is very suggestive from a process perspec-tive.  This is partly because Langer encountered a difficulty, as I shall argue, in her definition of the symbol which is illuminating, and provides some justification for placing some restrictions on the meaning of the term “symbol,” in process philoso-phies of language, and for distinguishing symbols from “signs” along lines suggested by Cassirer, among others.  This represents a refinement of Whitehead’s account of symbols as well, as I shall suggest in what follows.  I cannot undertake a total interpretation of Langer’s considerable corpus of writings, and I aim to rely to a large extent upon some thorough interpretive work that has already been done with regard to Langer’s strengths and weaknesses.  What is needed here is merely an explanation of what Langer has done, her results, and the difficulties she encountered in trying to construct her theory.  Then some suggestions for the use of analogy in process thought can be profitably made.

The question by which I will approach these issues is that of misplaced concreteness in Langer’s account of the process of symbolization, for that is what “analogy” is for Langer—the process by which an experience becomes a symbol, whether presenta-tional or discursive.  I argue that Langer’s account is guilty of misplaced concreteness, but in an interest-ing and unobvious way from which a great deal is learned.1


Langer’s definition of the symbol and its history

When Langer recognized that the various theories of the “symbol” and “symbolization” had begun to snowball in the 1940s,2 and when she saw that what the term “symbol” meant for, say, psychologists was quite different from what it meant for logicians, she responded to this by stating her intention to give an entirely general definition of the word “symbol.”  This definition would get at the heart of what all these thinkers in their various theoretical contexts were drawing upon in using the term.3  It is important to note that there is a “will to generality” evident in her work as soon as she recognizes that she had not previously made clear that her definition of the symbol aimed at being fully general, and was always intended to extend beyond aesthetics (where she had established herself as one of the leading theorists, if not the leading theorist).  Whether this will to generality was a giving of herself overly to abstraction, or misplaced concreteness, is open to debate, but I will mince no words in saying that in my view it amounts to that.  Generality and abstractness are not always the same, but in Langer’s case, the will to generality lands her in a pernicious abstractness she mistakes for concreteness.  At every step, in any case, it should be borne in mind that these definitions of Langer’s are not to be taken as solely applying to the symbolic form of art.4

Langer’s first book in philosophy, The Practice of Philosophy5 more clearly bears the mark of Whitehead’s influence6 than any other with regard to symbols.  Cassirer’s work had not yet exercised the considerable influence over her thought which only became apparent in her Philosophy in a New Key some twelve years later.7  Yet, The Practice of Philosophy is an important book, since, as Rolf Lachmann has put it, “the groundwork for all her further work is here already present.”8  In her earliest book (and in keeping with Whitehead9), Langer holds that the symbol and the object symbolized are interchangeable—either may be the symbol and the other the object, even though there may be pragmatic reasons for holding that one is the symbol rather than the other.”10  However, the relation, considered by itself, between symbol and object is more stable; in fact, it is perfectly so for Langer.  As Berel Lang puts it, “the principle requirement for a symbolic relation, Langer maintains, is that there shall be a correspondence or analogy in form between the terms of the relation.”11  Lang further summarizes this first definition of the symbolic relation by pointing out that “since it is only when we are aware of the structure or form of a thing that it becomes available for comparison, the process of symbolization is dependent initially on the logical analysis of a single entity.”12  Thus, after we have apprised ourselves of the “form” of an object or thing by “analyzing” it, we can look about for a second thing which has relevantly similar formal features, and on the basis of these formally similar features the symbolic relation is said to hold.13

Thus, a formal isomorphism is the basis of the symbolic relation, and Langer calls this “analogy.” Note that the process by which analogy is facilitated here is a movement from the concrete to the abstract, made possible by an “analysis,” or as Whitehead would call it a “reversion” and that the analogical relation is said to hold in virtue of a “similarity” of form.  This similarity is thought by Langer to be concrete, but it is in fact abstract.  In her description of the symbolic relation Langer has already departed from Whitehead in a crucial way.  For Whitehead, the theory of symbolic reference (i.e., the relation between a symbol and its meaning) is restricted to internal relations within a single percipient or perceptivity (whether that be a single occasion of experience, or a complex society of such occasions).14  His entire theory unfolds as internal to “experience,” the latter being understood in the broadest possible terms.  For Langer, however, the symbolic relation is the key to getting the things of nature (an sich, one is tempted to say) and the perceiving mind-brain-body-consciousness toge-ther—in short, she uses her symbol theory as an epistemic bridge which, while being far more sophis-ticated than the “red here now” of the positivists, still betrays a set of philosophical concerns foreign to Whitehead’s theory and akin to attempts (widespread at that time) to find a principle of verification.15  Clearly the parameters of these prob-lems Langer takes more from Russell and early Wittgenstein.

Langer’s process of symbolization via abstraction (the analysis of individual things in order to elicit their formal features16) makes the capacity for using some things to symbolize other things almost perfectly broad from the outset, so that, my cat (for instance) could symbolize or “stand for” any other thing (say, my stereo) in virtue of the fact that both are “things” (which is a sufficient formal similarity for symbolization).  A clearer example of the sufficiency of “thingness” as a formal similarity might be the way young boys are apt to use rocks to stand for the persons on their (American) football teams to demonstrate the desired formations and movements in an up-coming play.17  It is hard to imagine that a person has much more of a formal similarity to a small pebble than “thing-ness,” and insofar as we are indeed capable of using such things to “stand for” such other things, the basis of their analogical relation, on Langer’s account, must be formal similarity.  By the same token, one could also rearrange one’s friends to symbolize a pile of rocks (say, Stonehenge, or a “Pyramid” of cheerleaders, or even some less glamorous pile).  It must be the case, for Langer, that this similarity can become as abstract as the property of being-a-thing, and perhaps could extend even beyond this (although I do not immediately see how).

However, Langer is not at this stage thinking of analogy itself as something quite so abstract that “thinghood” could constitute a relevant “formal” similarity.  She calls for the analogy to be something verifiable to sense (i.e., the way that the red of the stoplight can remind one of the red of blood18), and this sort of literal-mindedness ultimately hinders her account of analogy, I will argue, but in an informative way for those of us who follow her.

At this point a bit of clarification regarding my charge that Langer will ultimately sacrifice her ideas to the idols of bloodless abstraction ought to be clarified a bit.  Lachmann holds that Langer’s enthusiasm for the formal/logical aspects of symbol theory abates after the publication of her An Introduction to Symbolic Logic in 1937.19  This is obviously true, but my claim that (ultimately) she is giving herself over to abstraction must not be confused with the claim that she is overly formalistic (and indeed formalism did haunt her early works, but I concede she outgrew it with the help of an increasingly strong attachment to field study and descriptive anthropology).  I employ the term “abstraction” here in Whitehead’s sense:

By “abstract” I mean that what an eternal object is in itself—that is to say, its essence—is comprehensible without reference to some one particular occasion of experience.  To be abstract is to transcend particular concrete occasions of actual happening.  But to transcend an actual occasion does not mean being disconnected from it.20

The sort of “will to generality” I have in mind, then, is not only a move into abstraction, but one which forgets the concrete world in favor of abstractions along the way.  Thus, making good on the criticism that Langer is overly committed to abstraction cashes out not in terms of formalism, but of scientism and verificationism—precisely the sort of problem Whitehead was attempting to overcome in Science and the Modern World.  In particular, the question is whether Langer remembers that the presentational symbol is from the outset already “abstract” in this sense as distinct from concrete. Whitehead continually reminds us that (what Langer calls) the presentational symbol is already abstract in this sense, a product of analysis, a reversion, and that no special powers are needed to make the leap from the direct perception of, say, the mass of colors assailing our vision, to the functional judgment “this is a chair.”  Whitehead points out that dogs and (to some small extent) even tulips can accomplish this sort of thing, and it actually requires discipline and study in humans to learn how not to make the inferential leap.21

The burden upon me, therefore, is not to show that Langer conflates logic and life, but that she mistakes the abstract for the concrete in Whitehead’s sense of these terms.  Her theory of analogy is the key to this error.  After The Practice of Philosophy, Langer’s departure from Whitehead picks up momentum and she never looks back.  Cassirer now becomes the dominant process-oriented influence on her thinking, although, unfortunately, his influence is not strong enough to lead her away from positivism and materialism.

Moving further into Langer’s career, then, the connection between analogy and the definition of the symbol persists and becomes further clarified.  As Lang points out, “in Philosophy in a New Key, Langer defines the symbol by the necessary but not sufficient condition (it must also have a perceiving mind) of ‘logical analogy.’”22  Whatever else a symbol may be, its relation to its object is secured only by a certain kind of “similarity,” or “semblance,” and this similarity is abstract (i.e., evokes and involves an eternal object along a route of mentality or reversion), to some degree.

Langer has herewith applied, illicitly perhaps, an abstract criterion (similarity of form, under the name “logical analogy”) into the realm of concrete, discretely existing individuals (those of which we have “direct experience, knowledge, or recognition” in Whitehead’s words23).  She has, in effect, asserted that the unity of the symbol and the thing symbolized is grasped by a mind through a formal comparison, that is, by seeing what is quite unchanging in each term of the relation; what remains invariant through a series of transformations, to put it in the language of Cassirer’s discussions of the group concept.24  She seems to have neglected the philosophical implications of Whitehead’s insight that the activity of mind or mentality is to take things apart which are experienced directly as together.

In her next two major works, Langer maintains this basic definition more or less consistently.  She explicitly links the function of abstraction to her definition of the symbol in saying that “a symbol is any device whereby we are enabled to make an abstraction.”25  Lang points out that “in Feeling and Form, she refers to the ‘congruence’, between symbolic form and the object symbolized, calling it the ‘prime requisite for the relation between a symbol and whatever it is to mean.’”26  In Problems of Art, Langer maintains that “any perceptible or imaginable whole that exhibits relationships of parts, or points, or even qualities of aspects within that whole . . . may be taken to represent some other whole whose elements have analogous relations.”27 Thus, Langer’s view of analogy, the ground of her definition of the symbol, is that analogy is a certain kind of relation which holds among relations.  The elements or parts of a given whole will when analyzed, exhibit certain internal relations.  Similar internal relations may show up among the elements within some other whole as well.  The external relation between these two sets of internal relations is described variously as “correspondence,” or “congruence,” “semblance,” or “similarity,” but all are captured in the term “analogy.”  For Langer this “similarity” of relation among elements must be verifiable in some way, and this is the demand that Berel Lang does not think she can maintain under pressure.28

Before proceeding further with this line of criticism, it would be well to point to another crucial distinction in Langer’s philosophy.  This is, not surprisingly, the distinctions among “sign,” “signal,” and “symbol.”  She uses these terms a bit differently than, for instance, Cassirer does.29  Further, she modifies her own distinction in moving from Philosophy in a New Key30 to Feeling and Form.  The latter work claims that “a signal is comprehended if it serves to make us notice the object or situation it bespeaks.  A symbol is understood when we conceive the idea it presents.31  Meanwhile a “sign” is the generic term which covers both signals and symbols.32   Signals and symbols stand in a logical relation. As Lang notes:

Langer elaborates her distinction between signal and symbol by schematizing the terms which each involves.  The signal comprehends a triadic relation of subject, signal, and object; the symbol [is] a four-termed relation which conjoins to symbol, subject and object, the “concept” or what we have noted as the analogy of structural elements.  The distinction is an elementary one, arising from the ontogenetic analysis of the symbol, which shows, Langer claims, the range and nature of symbolic activity.  Other forms of life than man respond to signals . . . but the ability of symbolic expression “is peculiar to him, permitting him to handle both sign[al] and symbolic functions.”33

Langer’s use of terms differs insofar as Cassirer allows the term “symbol” to carry the weight of being the generic term for all meaningful human activity.34  In 1953, Langer added the new blanket term, “sign” to stand for the purely abstract, generic category, while a signal was to be distinguished from a symbol in virtue of the fact that the latter expresses an “idea,” where the former merely attracts attention to a situation or object.  The expression of an “idea,” something admittedly abstract, by a symbol is what “analogy” accomplishes; it accomplishes the “presentation” of an idea, in Langer’s terms.

This process is dependent upon the formal, logical analysis of the two objects involved (and both the signal and the symbol must have some concrete existence, for only on that condition can the formal relations among their elements be analyzed), and then it is also dependent upon the recognition that the two sets of relations adduced in such analysis are “similar,” or “congruent.”  Langer says:

Such formal analogy, or congruence of logical structures is the prime requisite for the relation between a symbol and whatever it is to mean.  The symbol and the object symbolized must have some common logical form.  But purely on the basis of formal analogy, there would be no telling which of two congruent structures was the symbol and which the meaning, since the relation of congruence, or formal likeness, is symme-trical, i.e., it works both ways . . . . There must be some motive for choosing, as between two entities or two systems, one to be the symbol of the other.  Usually the decisive reason is that one is easier to perceive and handle than the other.35

Thus, faced with the choice between having the marks “cat” stand for the animal, or having the actual animal stand for the marks, it is evident that pragmatic considerations do in fact supervene.  What is important, however, is that the symbol is here taken to be a concrete physical existence, which dwells among the other existences on equal ontological terms, even if disparate pragmatic ones. This is, therefore, a formal isomorphism through analogy, but whether it constitutes misplaced concreteness has not yet been shown.  That question depends upon whether the formal aspect of a thing makes the thing what it is due to its immanence in the particulars, which makes possible the analysis, or whether the form is primarily a contribution of consciousness to the constitution of the “object” in the Kantian sense.  This is a very old problem—is being prior to knowing or knowing prior to being?

This brings up a rather important point.  Langer usually eschews doing metaphysics.   Instead she puts her energy into what Stefan Morawski calls “her reiterated polemics with empiricism, naturalism, and with neo-positivist philosophers of science, her insistent cutting herself off from metaphysics and psychology.”36  This clearly is not the influence of Whitehead,37 but of two other primary sources: Wittgenstein and Russell.  This is not to say that Langer denies the centrality of metaphysical assumptions and speculations to all acts of human knowing.  She openly acknowledges that metaphysics does maintain a presence in all significant human activities.38  Nevertheless, she subordinates it to theories of knowledge.  She quotes with approval Whitehead’s definition of metaphysics as “the most general statements we can make about reality.”39  Yet, all of these statements must be revisable, for Langer, in light of what we learn in attempting to verify or falsify them—mainly through science.40  Thus, metaphysics is anthropomorphized in that our own description of the universe is the starting place of metaphysics, as opposed to starting with the universe itself, and then seeing our description of it as a unique aspect of that selfsame whole.  In other words, the forms cannot be immanent in the things themselves for Langer if she holds metaphysics to be subordinate to the empirical theory of knowledge, since making a claim that forms are immanent will always be derivative, and perhaps unverifiable.  One can hold that metaphysics is primarily descriptive without subordinating it to science, as Whitehead does, but if one does subordinate metaphysical descriptions to scientific verification, one has eliminated the possibility of claiming that things are what they are due to the presence of an immanent form which makes them amenable to our process of symbolization.  We are close now to seeing why Langer is guilty of misplaced concreteness.

Metaphysics, if we examine not only what it says, but also include why human beings are motivated to describe the universe in metaphysical terms, is the desire to say something true about the universe, to describe the universe as it is.  We may admit that we fall short, but we do not desire to fall short.  This desire, an eros for truth, is not philosophical if once it is admitted that the desire is really to say something revisable in light of further discoveries about the universe.  This latter is not the philosophical urge, but a loss of philosophical nerve.  Metaphysics must be bold or it is not sincere.  It seems unlikely that Langer wanted her materialistic views to be revised.

Langer, as I stated, adopted the generic term “sign” under which the symbol and the signal are to be subsumed.  In virtue of what, then, can symbols be said to be a kind of sign?  This may not at first seem like a metaphysical question, but given Langer’s position so far, it becomes one indeed.  We can only say that the relation between signs and symbols arises from some analogous, formal, logical, congruent structure, for otherwise it could convey no meaning.41  Here, I think, we encounter an equivocation, for the status of a general term like “sign” is not clear.  Signals and symbols can both be analyzed, and the similar relations among their respective elements compared, because both have a physical existence and therefore a sensuous content (in Langer’s terms, these symbols have a “presentational” aspect as well as a “discursive” one42).  The term “sign” is not so clearly in the same realm—it may fail the requirement of having a presentational aspect when it is used merely to group two other terms beneath it, for the basis of this grouping is not analogy (similarity of logical form arrived at through abstraction from what was “presented”).  In fact, qua general term, it can have no physical existence, and cannot be perceived except as what it is not by definition.  We perceive the marks “s i g n,” but insofar as we do, it functions as a symbol (if it expresses a meaning) or a signal (if it merely attracts our attention to a situation).  In neither case is it a “sign,” but always either a symbol or a signal.  It may then be fairly asked how we can possibly come to know that there is some similarity, congruence, or analogy in the formal logical structure of “signs” and “symbols,” since clearly Langer wishes to use the former as a “symbol” of the latter.

The problem is that no prior “logical analysis” of the term “sign” (to reveal the internal logical structures of its “elements”) is possible.  This is because it has no discrete individual existence; it is purely “discursive” and “presents” nothing to sense, qua sign.  It is an abstract idea which has left the concrete world behind, and it has no real home in the realm of time and process, except by becoming what it is not (and here is the way in which Langer equivocates, illicitly importing abstract, atemporal ideas into her temporal analysis without offering the metaphysical grounding).43

Her urge is at one and the same time to say something true about the universe, and to schematize the temporal realm while individuating the atemporal or abstract realm.  This is not a bad thing, but it can be rather confusing when it is not made clear what is being done (viz., metaphysics).  It is now possible to resume the account of the development of Langer’s definition of the symbol with greater clarity.


The Morphology of the Symbol

As metaphysical questions closed in on Langer and her analogical account of symbolic relations, one might imagine that she would have responded by giving a general metaphysics, or a systematic exposition of the “things that are” insofar as we can speak of them (as Whitehead suggested).  This was what Cassirer’s response had been, and such concerns are quite likely what motivated him to write the fourth volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.44  Langer’s response was not this at all. Instead of giving more general accounts of the metaphysical grounding of language and the source of intelligibility as such, she instead narrowed her focus considerably and sought grounding for her theory of symbols in empirical studies, mainly biological and anthropological.  Such is the thrust of her three volume magnum opus, Mind: An Essay in Human Feeling.45  In the opening lines of the first volume she gives a programmatic statement of her aim:

The main task entailed by the undertaking of a new attack on the problem of mind in the context of natural history, without resort to metaphysical assumptions of non-zoological factors for the explanation of man’s peculiar estate, is to keep the biological concept adequate to the greatness of the reality it is supposed to make comprehensible.46

Langer has beaten back the philosophical urge and decided to make biology and zoology do the work of metaphysics, believing that “biology” (as if it were a concrete existence rather than a set of abstract descriptions) could succeed in giving us concepts which are “adequate” to the greatness of the reality of “man’s peculiar estate.”  Langer has gone wholly the way of scientism and positivism by 1967,47 and seemingly forgotten her very own arguments regarding the necessary role of metaphysics in knowing only a few years earlier in “The Processes of Feeling.”  This I suspect is the outcome of having fully subordinated the metaphysical urge to the epistemological standpoint—something Cassirer never did, in spite of his staunch advocacy of the epistemological standpoint.  Langer’s attempt to reconcile Wittgenstein, Cassirer and Whitehead in a single system has raised a number of eyebrows, and her interpreters do not generally hold her to have been successful in the attempt. By 1967, all of Langer’s cards were finally on the table, and her lot was cast for literal-minded, empirical explanations of the rise of metaphor, language, symbols, etc.

In spite of this, however, the old problem haunts her.  Langer finally ceases to use “analogy” as the term for her “relation of choice,” in her magnum opus,48 but the analogical relationship is still quite visible, even in her last work.  The new chosen term is “projection” in 1967, and she describes it as follows:

“Projection” is really a word-of-all-work; sometimes it is used to denote a principle, as I just used it above in saying that a projection is a principle of presentation.  Sometimes it is applied to the act of making the presentation, i.e., setting up the symbol; and finally, perhaps most often, we call the symbol itself a projection of what it symbolizes.  In this sense art may be said to be a projection of the artist’s idea into some perceptible form.49

Here it is clear that the term projection is being used equivocally, and admittedly so, to resolve the difficulty of making something which has no physical existence into something which does.50  The “form,” stable and atemporal, is given an existence wherein it becomes a “symbol,” and all by way of human creation.  This hardly answers for us the question “what is an idea”?  We mayor may not wish to accept the biological, anthropological, zoological explana-tion Langer gives of the rise of thinking; we mayor may not find it satisfying, but in any case it is not metaphysics, she insists.  It does, however, attempt to replace metaphysics.  Just a single paragraph later than the text quoted above, it becomes perfectly clear that for Langer, “projection” is now doing the work formerly done by “analogy”: “Evidently the process of projection rests on the recognition of one and the same logical form in different exemplifications, which are, therefore, different expressions of it.”51

At this point in the text Langer inserts the following footnote:

W.W. Skeat, in An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1910) points out that the word “like,” had an original meaning of “form.”  See the entry “Like (I) similar, resembling (E) ME lvk, lik; . . .  Dan. lig.; Sw. lik . . . All signifying ‘resembling in form,’ and derived from the Teut. sb. *likom a form, shape, appearing in AS lic, a form, body.’52

It is clear enough that projection is a process of “likening,” and that Langer herself associates this with “form.”  She expressly wishes us to associate “projection” with the giving of form, and this is in turn the logical unity of the “symbol” itself.  The point is that whatever unity we can get from the symbol is imported from what I have been calling the abstract realm.  These are not immanent forms found in things themselves, these are forms immanent in the activity of mind, which are “projected” in the three-fold sense described above.  It is not an accident, in my view, that Langer settles upon a term like projection which makes more apparent the active character of mind or consciousness.  She had leaned in this direction all along.  The irony is that she would be a materialist at the same time, but given the derivative status of metaphysics, this really only implies that metaphysical descriptions are most verifiable when they proceed upon an hypothesis of materialism.  The actual work of “metaphysics” is being accomplished with the equivocation in the word “projection.”  Contrary to Langer’s view, the stable and intelligible element in the flux, which is what form is, must be brought in from beyond the flux and given to the symbol—somehow.  The process by which we recognize this, and by which we carry it out, may be called projection or analogy, but it is the same in any case, and question-begging in a vicious sense in every case to slap a label on it and ignore the difficulties it portends.

Langer equivocates also on the term “form,” just as Cassirer had done,53 and she is quiet forthright about the fact.  Unlike Cassirer, however, Langer has no metaphysical “energy” to which these equivocations have recourse.54  Speaking the Unity of the One as such is not among Langer’s aims in giving her account of mind.  It is among Cassirer’s aims, although he was wise enough to know that he must ultimately fail to bring the One to language.

Langer’s theory seems to me rather confused by comparison, but there can be little question that she employed the idea of “likening” with an empirical and philosophical force that surpasses Cassirer.  He had not himself been taken with this idea—analogy, likening, etc.—in the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Langer uncovered the basic structure of analogous relations, but because she sought to render everything verifiable in a narrow sense (in line with her resolute materialism), she was always at a loss to account for the process of likening itself, except in metaphysical terms which lacked a metaphysical system in which they could themselves be schematized.  In short, Langer needed a general, perfectly abstract account of signs wherein all possible terms could be interrelated to all others in virtue of abstract operations (as distinct from concrete functions).  This account of abstract operations (sign-interaction, semiology) could have accompanied her concrete account of symbols as genetically produced or created bearers of meaning in the temporal realm via concrete functions.  The latter account she has in great detail, but the former account is almost entirely missing, or, as in the case of her book on symbolic logic, so mixed in with her account of symbols as to render the two inextricable (which makes the entire account a metaphysical hodgepodge that is not exactly false, but terribly unclear).  This unclarity leads her in the end to forget when she is dealing with abstractions and when with concrete existences. Her will to generality creates for her a debt which only metaphysics can repay.  Yet, Langer believes with almost metaphysical confidence that “whenever we meet with a genuine paradox in philosophy, we may know, of course, that we have reasoned from false premises.”55  This can only be true if the universe either contains no paradoxes and language can be made adequate to that fact, or if it does not matter whether the universe contains paradoxes since they are merely linguistic problems in any case.  How could one distinguish between these two claims?  Both are metaphysical—the first trying to say something true about the universe, and the second trying to say something true about the universe by claiming that it does not matter what is true of the universe.


Symbols as Temporal Communicators: A Suggested Definition

It seems that a gap or a fracture in the Langer’s notion of the symbol has been demonstrated.  She endeavored throughout her career to close the gap operationally with her theory of analogy, and as her thought became more empirical, with “projection.” Obviously we cannot in process thought dispense with the “will to generality,” nor with the fallibilism Langer so wisely maintained.  But the will to generality tempts us to reason abstractly about relations and then superimpose the results of these reasonings upon our concrete reality.  This temptation betrays a metaphysical problem which cannot be ignored.  The mere assertion of a material-istic, or even naturalistic stance does not solve the problem.  In order to alleviate this confusion and expose the covert equivocation between the purely abstract and purely concrete realms of meaning, I propose that process thinkers should limit the definition of “symbol.”  Henceforth, “symbol” might be employed to mean “a discretely existing, genetically produced or created communicator of temporal meaning, whose unity derives from the notion of the possibility of formal similarity, taken from the abstract (i.e., non-temporal) realm.”  Just as the possibility of individuation might be employed in comprehending the sign, the possibility of formal unity is employed in grasping the symbol.  A symbol bears meaning in a different way from a sign.  A sign bears meaning as a result of possible relations which can be displayed between it and other signs abstractly, and in virtue of its peculiar relation to an object, with “object” defined as “distinctness from all other signs.”  This is a purely abstract definition for a purely abstract set of relations and operations, since “object” can be taken to be the least abstract abstraction, its individualization and self-sufficiency having been included already in its conception.  Given the a strictness of the definition of the sign in Langer’s thought (an idea well worth pursuing), the philosophical task is to show how something so general can come to be individuated.  For signs so defined, individuation comes about through its relation to an object (again, also an abstraction, but the lowest level of abstraction).  In order for a sign to have meaning it must be possible to show the way in which it is like the other signs (via operations) and how it is made unique though its relation to an object in a single occurrence of semiosis (or “symbolic reference,” in Whitehead’s terms).  In this way it is possible show how the sign is One, and yet signs are Many.

For the symbol, the situation is reversed.  Symbols, as concrete existences, accrue meaning as they evolve.  This symbolic accrual (their past, both in the sense Whitehead brings out in the concept of “causal efficacy,” and in the sense of their ideal histories) individuates them.  The philosophical task is to show how it is that symbols are one with their own general meanings, in spite of their uniqueness and individuality—those things which follow from the fact that they exist concretely in time.  The meaning, that is, the possible, formal, intelligible unity of a symbol, is always bound up with whatever temporal, natural and ideal history the symbol itself has traversed.  Whitehead was opening up this very line of thinking in the second half of his book on symbolism.

A straight-forward example of such a concept could be seen in the swastika.  Prior to the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich the symbol meant good luck, normally.56  Rudyard Kipling made this very symbol his own, placing it in bas-relief on the cloth covers of his books.  A group of historical events has made it impossible for that symbol to impart to us the whimsical optimism it might once have conveyed to people from the cover of a volume of Kipling’s poetry.

This is not because the symbol functions as a sign, standing in an abstract, referential relationship to an object, or even to a determinate doctrine.  To say this would be to confuse its significant aspect with its symbolic aspect.  The presence of an abstract relation to some object is not the reason that the swastika has changed its meaning.  Rather, the change is due to its concrete association with a set of concrete historical events.  These events are carried forward in the collective cultural memory, condensed and presented in the symbol itself.  The whole lot of historical doctrines and events is most effectively communicated in the presentation of the concrete symbol itself to any member of a culture who knows what meanings have accrued in the symbol (which is to say, any member of a culture for whom this particular symbol can express its symbolic meaning at all).  Presenting the symbol itself will have much greater communicative impact than any verbal recapitulation or description of Nazi ideology and history, given as an explanation of that to which the symbol refers.  It seems to me that such a speech could never succeed in conveying to a group of listeners the sorts of reactions they should or could have to the symbol itself.

It should be further noted that this historical association relieves “symbols” from the arbitrariness of the sign/signified relation which derives from its abstract character (for in principle, any sign can stand for any object abstractly considered, as I have pointed out earlier).  Symbols are different: one could not simply step forward with a new symbol (something other than the swastika), and announce that henceforth it should convey all the meanings one would normally get from the swastika, and the swastika could then be freed for its former use.  We would immediately see the folly in this, but it illustrates that the symbol has something very like a concrete “life of its own,” owing to its place in the cultural memory and its continued concrete existence.  It is something different in kind from the referential relationship of manipulable signs and their respective objects.  It is this quality we cannot afford to forget in our reasonings about symbolism, and it is this that Langer never could fully accommodate.

Naturally, symbols can function as signs, and signs can operate as symbols, which is one source of the confusion.  The division between these which is here proposed is not accomplished through taxonomically determining which things in our language are signs and which are symbols in either mutually exclusive or overlapping sets.  Rather, an expressive act is a symbol when considered from a certain point of view, and a sign when considered from a different one.57  Even though the symbol is independent of reference to any object (i.e., it carries its own meaning forward with a high degree of autonomy), it is inextricably tied to its own natural and ideal history.  The sign, on the contrary, is free of all history and temporality, but it stands in a necessary and mutually determining relation to its object, without which it is not intelligible, and has no meaning.

This points to a certain relation between space and time, which is of interest to process thinkers.  Indeed, the temporally bound symbol stands in a certain relation to its own general meaning, or idea, or form, and time is thereby “spatialized” (in Bergson’s sense of the term).  The sign stands in a certain relation to its individuated object, and is thereby “temporalized” (in Heidegger’s sense of the term).  These two relations, the significant relation between space and time, and the symbolic relation between time and space, stand in a relation to one another.  That relation is “analogy,” much in the sense in which Langer used it, but with the metaphysics now explicit.58  The relation between time and space is like the relation between space and time.  It seems like a simple enough statement.  In fact, I would maintain that it is almost perfectly simple.  It is so simple that it has practically no content, which may make it something like a metaphysical first principle.

This is, at this point, only a suggestion for thinking, but the possibility of developing Langer’s theory of analogy in light of an explicit metaphysics of the symbol and the sign is worth pursuing.59



1 If it needs to be established that Langer would consider “misplaced concreteness” a fallacy, she says: “The fallacy which, I think, vitiates almost all of modern philosophy, and which we owe in large measure to the reputed father of that subject, is the metaphysican’s tendency to treat concepts as entities.”  “The Treadmill of Systematic Doubt,” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 26 (1929), 383. Whether Langer’s sense of the fallacy agrees in every respect with Whitehead’s is a more complicated question, but Whitehead’s account will be employed here.

2 Langer had actually begun to notice the problem as early as 1926.  See her article “Confusion of Symbols and Confusion of Logical Types” in Mind, Vol. 35 (1926), 222-9.  The theories of symbolization began to snowball in response to this problem.

3 Susanne Langer, “On a New Definition of ‘Symbol,’” in Philosophical Sketches (New York: Mentor Books, 1964), 55-6.

4 Further evidence of Langer’s “will to generality” is plain in Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942), 138-9, among numerous other places.   

5 Susanne Langer, The Practice of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1930).

6 Cf. Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (New York: Macmillan, 1927).  Cf. also Berel Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” in the Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 16 (December 1962), 350.  As Rolf Lachmann puts it, “Zugleich führt Über Whiteheads Symbolism ein direkter Weg zu Langers Äesthetik (auch zu ihrem Begriff der ‘präsentativen’ Symbolisierung)).” See Lachmann, “Der philosophische Weg Susanne K. Langers (1895-1985),” in Studia Culturologica, 2 (1993), 71.

7 Langer had, however, read Cassirer prior to writing The Practice of Philosophy, as evidenced by her several citations of Cassirer in that volume.   It must also be borne in mind that the path of influence went both ways with Cassirer and Langer—his An Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944) was clearly influenced by Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key.

8 Lachmann, “Der philosophische Weg Susanne K. Langers (1895-1985),” 67.  Lachmann recounts in a way I cannot here the various stages in the development of Langer’s thought, and he gives specific attention to how these developments refine the relation between symbolization and analogy. Lachmann’s extensive bibliography of primary and secondary writings related to Langer (91-114) is also of tremendous value in coming to terms with Langer’s thought.  Translations of Lachmann are my own.

9 See Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 9-10.

10 Langer, The Practice of Philosophy, 124; cited by Berel Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 350.  Regarding the pragmatic motives for using one thing to symbolize another, Whitehead aptly notes that, “the more usual symbolic reference is from the less primitive component as symbol to the more primitive as meaning. Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 10.

11 Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 350. Cf. Langer. The Practice of Philosophy, 115.

12 Ibid. 350.

13 Langer, The Practice of Philosophy, 87; cited by Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 350.

14 See Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 9-10.

15 In all fairness to Langer, it should be pointed out that Whitehead himself must confront, in his own way, the problem of verification, and he attempts to do so in his distinction between “presentational immediacy” and “causal efficacy,” Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 21-59.  He posits a “direct recognition” which is “devoid of symbolic reference” (19), and then the challenge is to show how the content of such experience comes to have a symbolic character.  Having admitted that some common structure is needed in order to synthesize variant modes of experience (49), and assuming that direct recognition is a mode of experience, Whitehead provides only a disappointing “sense data” theory which endows these data with an ambiguous relational function-bridging perceptive and conceptual experience, and the two kinds of perceptive experience with one another (see pp. 21-2, 50).  None of this explains how direct recognition becomes symbolic, although it seems it is supposed to have done so.  Whitehead works this problem out further in Process and Reality, but this further effort is beyond our present scope.  Thus, in Symbolism, instead of developing a theory of analogy (as he perhaps should have), Whitehead distinguishes between two modes of presentational immediacy (location and sense data), and although this enables him to provide an interesting account of the relations between perception (as already symbolic) and conception, it does nothing to abrogate the problem of verification initially created by the claim that there is direct recognition devoid of any symbolic reference.  All Whitehead says is that direct recognition conditions symbolization by providing criteria which the latter must “satisfy” (7), and that among the conditioning factors is the past or history. To Whitehead’s credit, he never claims that he will demonstrate this relation, but only “illustrate” it (7), from which we might infer that he takes this as a First Principle in the Aristotelian sense (that which cannot be demonstrated, but only pointed out in its omni-pervasive instances).  However, Whitehead also seems to despair of even a thorough illustration of the principle that there is both direct experience and a means of transcending it, when he invokes with favor Santayana’s claim that to maintain the contrary commits one to “the solipsism of the present moment” (28-9).  We later see Langer and Cassirer attempting to address this same problem in the distinctions among existential situation, signal, sign and symbol.

If anything rescues Whitehead’s account, it is that he fully acknowledges throughout that all his distinctions are abstractions which do not wholly capture the things for which they are taken to stand. Why he posits direct recognition is unclear, but the theory of prehension in Process and Reality may be thought of as taking up the problem again (without the complicating presence of an attempt to construct a symbol theory), and may be traced backward into Whitehead’s earliest philosophical efforts and his reading of Hume.

16 Samuel Bufford has argued that this process of abstraction actually constitutes an entirely different theory than the more familiar theory of the presentational symbol.  See his “Susanne Langer’s Two Philosophies of Art,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Arts Criticism, Vol. 3) (1972-1973), 9-20.)  I think Bufford is correct to see that two, perhaps incommensurable, theories are being put forth in Langer’s work, but wrong to claim that the second, the one which “holds that works of art abstract aspects of the world around us or our own experience to enable us to perceive these aspects more clearly” (10) appeared for the first time in Langer’s article “The Primary Illusions and the Great Orders of Art,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. 3 (1950), 219-33 (see Bufford, 9, 16).  All of the essential features of “the perceivability theory” as Bufford calls it, were present from Langer’s earliest work, and certainly, as Lachmann has indicated, in The Practice of Philosophy.  Bufford is correct to see its gradual emergence and eventual dominance of her view, as evidenced by its final triumph in “A Chapter on Abstraction” from Mind: An Essay in Human Feeling, Vol. I, 153 ff.

17 For those who find my examples somewhat pedestrian, please consult Whitehead’s more elegant example of the same principle using poets and trees in Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 12.  Although I came to it independently, my analysis here bears many similarities to that of Timothy Binkley in his article “Langer’s Logical and Ontological Modes,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 28 (1969-1970), 455-464, esp. 461-462.  Binkley uses this insight to a very different end, that of showing that “music is not essentially significant form,” since he claims it matters whether the music is symbolizing the feeling or the feeling is symbolizing the music.

18 Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 353.

19 See Lachmann, “Der philosophische Weg Susanne K. Langers,” 67-8.

20 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 925), 159.

21 See Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 3-5. 

22 Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 351. Cf. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 139.

23 See Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 6-7.

24 See Cassirer’s discussion of the mathematical theory of groups in “The Concept of Group and the Theory of Perception,” in Philosophy and Phenomen-ological Research, Vol. 5. No. 1 (September. 1944), 1-35; and, “Reflections of the Concept of Group and the Theory of Perception,” in Symbol, Myth and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 271-91.  For Cassirer, grouping must be understood as a concrete activity in which function and grouping are inseparable.  See Substance and Function, trans. M. and M. C. Swabey (New York: Dover Books, 1950 [1923]), 7.  The inseparable group/function relation is the way to encounter a universal as a phenomenon for Cassirer.  Donald Phillip Verene makes this point in “Cassirer’s Philosophy of Culture,” in International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 22, no. 2 (June, 1982), 142; and again in “Cassirer’s Symbolic Form,” in Il cannocchiale, Vol. I, No.2, 1991, 300.

25 Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Scriber’s, 1953), xi. “ ‘

26 Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 351; Langer, Feeling and Form, 27

27 “Susanne Langer, Problems of Art (New York: Scriber’s, 1957), 20; cited by Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 351-2.

28 Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 355-6.  One of the most creative attempts to rescue Langer from herself on this point is Forest Hansen’s strangely plausible if outlandish use of Gestalt psychology to argue that Langer’s term “symbol,” after she changed it to “expressive form” in the aftermath of Feeling and Form, is actually just a version of mimesis, and Langer’s aesthetic theory a version of classicism.  See “Langer’s Expressive Form: An Interpretation,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 27 (1968-9), 165-180.  Hansen’s view is so strange that I can bring myself to no clear opinion about it, except that it makes one think.  A less bizarre effort in a similar direction is Richard Norton’s article “What Is Virtuality?,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 30 (1971-72) 499-505.

29 See Casslrer, An Essay on Man, 31-5. ‘

30 See Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 31 ff.

31 Langer, Feeling and Form, 26.

32 See Langer, Feeling and Form, 26, note.  Langer claims to follow Charles W. Morris in this particular use of terms, and states her wish to have it retroactively applied to Philosophy in a New Key where the word “sign” was used for what she now means by “signal,” and where, to her chagrin, no generic term for signals and symbols was introduced. That omission is rectified, supposedly, by this new use of the word “sign.”  To elaborate further a point made in an earlier note, Cassirer probably took his distinction between signal (used interchangeably with “sign”) and symbol from Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key (1942), because the first time he ever made such a distinction was in An Essay on Man (1944), even if he made it differently from Langer.

33 Lang, “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol,” 353. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 54.  I have changed the term “sign” to “signal” in this passage in accordance with Langer’s expressed wishes in Feeling and Form, 26n.

34 This created a fundamental ambiguity in her distinction between “sign” and “symbol” which was roundly criticized and thoroughly exploited by Fen Sing-nan in “Meaning and Existence,” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 50 (1953), 206-16.  Whether her move in Feeling and Form resolves the ambiguity as Fen characterized it would be a paper unto itself.  Fen also suggested a way of distinguishing signs and symbols which departs from my own suggestion in what follows and might be consulted as an alternative.  I think Fen’s alternative goes astray, but haven’t space to take up the particulars of it here. Max Rieser had earlier taken a different tack on Langer’s signs/symbols distinction, but with the same result, in his article “Brief Introduction to an Epistemology of Art,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 47 (1950), 695-704—which may have helped to prompt Langer’s 1953 revision.

35 Langer, Feeling and Form, 27.

36 Stefan Morawski, “Art as Semblance,” Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 81, No. 11 November 1984, 655

37 Wayne A. Dalton has endeavored to show how Langer’s aesthetic theory does indeed fit in with Whitehead’s metaphysics in spite of her disclaimers.  Cf. Dalton, “The Status of Artistic Illusion in Concrescence, Process Studies, Vol. 4 (Fall 1974), 207-211.

38 See Langer, “The Process of Feeling,” in Philosophical Sketches, 13-5.

39 Langer, Philosophical Sketches, 15.

40 For example, she says “All forces that cannot be scientifically established and measured must be regarded from the philosophical standpoint, as illusory; if, therefore, such forces appear to be part of our direct experience, they are ‘virtual,’ i.e., non-actual semblances” in Feeling and Form, 188.   Note how this statement (what can be quantified is real, everything else is illusion) exemplifies the very view Whitehead tries to get beyond in Science and the Modern World.

41 It may be objected that I have conflated what Langer calls “denotative” and “connotative” functions of symbols in claiming that the relation among the terms “sign,” symbol,” and “signal,” must be analogy.  Analogy reigns in the realm of “presentational” symbols for Langer, but it may not be readily apparent whether it also dominates the realm of “discursive” symbols, particularly given her claim that “the forms of feeling and the forms of discursive expression are logically incommensurate, so that any exact concepts of feeling and emotion cannot be projected into the logical form of literal language,” Problems of Art, 91.  In point of fact, however, analogy (later “projection,” see below) must constitute the ground of denotative relations as well as connotative relations for Langer, something she seems to have realized while working on Feeling and Form. As Lachmann says:

During her work on Feeling and Form, Langer came to a fundamental insight regarding the implications of her view of symbol theory: if the symbol relation is tied to the existence of a logical analogy between the symbol and thing symbolized . . . then one can also read this relation in reverse. (Lachmann, 74)

The deeper reason Langer is committed to the commensurability of presentational and discursive is that she is, as Arthur Danto puts it, “a resolute materialist” (Danto, “Mind as Feeling . . .” cited below, 642) and presentational symbols are prior to discursive symbols in Langer’s materialistic anthropology.  Thus, all symbols have a presentational aspect (which is connotative), but some also come to have a discursive aspect (which is both connotative and denotative).  There are no purely denotative symbols, but there are purely connotative symbols (e.g., art objects) for Langer. This means that that analogical relation which grounds presentational, connotative symbols must also be at the bottom of discursive, denotative symbols.  Thus, it is not illicit to seek the analogical ground of a relation among discursive symbols, which is what I was doing when I asserted that some such relation must obtain between “sign,” “symbol,” and signal.” Cf. Robert E. Innis, “Art Symbol and Consciousness: A Polanyi Gloss on Susanne Langer and Nelson Goodman,” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 17 (December 1977), 455-60 for the way in which these relations are sorted out.  The basis for these claims in Langer’s text comes primarily from Philosophy in a New Key, 89ff., and Feeling and Form, 27-40, and must be taken to be in conflict with her claim above Problems of Art.  See W. E. Kennick, “Art and the Ineffable,” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 58 (1961), 309-20 for a fairly convincing account of why Langer cannot maintain the incommensurability of discursive and presentational symbols.  

42 The distinction Langer makes between presen-tational and discursive symbols is an elaboration and refinement of the distinction Whitehead introduces at the beginning of Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 2-5. See also Lachmann, 71.

43 A clear summary of the way in which Langer equivocates on the terms “symbol” and “form” can be found in Morawski’s “Art as Semblance,” 658-9.  Langer meets this problem head on very early in her career in her short article “Form and Content: A Study in Paradox,” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 23 (1926), 435-8.  There she acknowledges that eliciting a form from its object is “abstraction,” while bringing a content to its form she terms “interpretation.”  However, she thinks that once we relinquish the assumption that there is “the form of a thing,” the paradox disappears.   This willingness to relinquish the idea that the forms of things are immanent within them and make them the things they are is important to my later argument.

43 See Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 4: Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms, ed. Donald Phillip Verene and John Michael Krois, trans. John Michael Krois (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).  Cassirer’s dissatisfaction with his attempts to do this may account for why he never published it, or at least, had not published it when he died, in spite of having worked on the project off and on for some seventeen years.

45 Langer, Mind: An Essay in Human Feeling, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1967, 1972, 1982).

46 Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. I, xvii.

47 See Richard Liddy’s critique of development in Langer’s thought in Art and Feeling: Analysis and Critique of the Philosophy of Art of Susanne K. Langer (Roma: Graziana, 1970), or, for a summary, “Symbolic Consciousness: The Contribution of Susanne K. Langer,” in Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol. 45 (1971), 94-103, esp. 102-3.  For precisely the opposite interpretation of volume one of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, see Peter A. Bertocci, “Susanne K. Langer’s Theory of Feeling and Mind” in Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 23 (1969-1970), 527-551.  There Bertocci sees her view as an alternative to scientism (534) boldly asserting that Langer “is unyielding in her anti-reductionism” (528).  I cannot concur, although it gives me pause when two intelligent people read the same book and come to opposite conclusions.

48 Although Langer makes no mention of it, it may be that Berel Lang’s article on her analogical “arabesque” drove her away from the term “analogy,” and perhaps even from metaphysics. Lang’s article was published in one of the most widely read and respected journals of that day (and of ours) and Langer could not have failed to read it.  There was not such a plethora of literature on her theory that something so prominent as this could be ignored.

49 Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. 1,75.

50 Arthur Danto has pointed out this same difficulty in an article on Langer. In discussing Wittgenstein’s influence of Langer, he says:

Wittgenstein was driven to the extreme of pictorializing language in order to connect it to the world, since the projective relationship supposedly exemplified in pictorial represen-tation must have struck him as clearly understood or at least perspicuous.  But in fact only in the case of quotations is a projective relationship between sentence and subject plausible, and it is not the projective relationship which explains how pictures in fact present

This, Danto believes, is a problem which Langer inherits.  Danto, “Mind as Feeling; Form as Presence: Langer as Philosopher,” Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 81, No. 11 (November 1984), 645.

51 Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. 1, 75-6.

52 Ibid., 76n.

53 Cassirer equivocates in the sense that form admits of two fundamental meanings.  In discussing the problem of “techne,” he says that “the world of technique . . . first begins to open itself up and surrender its secrets when one also goes back from the forma formata to the forma formans, from that which-has-become to the principle of becoming.”  Cassirer, “Form und Technik,” in Kunst und Technik, ed., Leo Kestenburg (Berling: Wegweiser Verlag, 1930) 19, my translation.  The German passage is as follows: “Die Welt der Technik . . . beginnt sich erst zu erschließen und ihr Geheimnis preiszugegen, wenn man auch hier von der forma formata zur forma formans, vom Geworden zum Prinzip des Werdens zurückgeht.”  Cassirer makes the same distinction in the same way in Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 4, 18-19.  Cassirer is making new use of the traditional distinction between natur naturata and natur naturans, but the old distinction tended to conceal the role of language in making such distinctions.  Cassirer’s new version calls attention to the way in which language divides.

54 See Cassirer, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 4, 16; Cassirer’s first published definition of “sym-bolic form” in 1921 is quite helpful here: “Under ‘symbolic form’ should be understood every energy of mind [Energie des Geistes] through which a mental content of meaning [geistiger Bedeutungsgehalt] is connected to a concrete sensory sign [konkretes sinnliches Zeichen] and made to adhere internally to it.”  Cassirer, Wesen und Wirkung des Symbolbegriffs (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1969), 175.  This passage is cited by John Krois in Cassirer: Symbolic Forms and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 50, and it is his translation I am using here.  Verene also quotes this passage in several of his works on Cassirer.  The idea of the symbolic form as an energeia runs throughout Cassirer’s work, and the fact that this is a part of his metaphysics becomes clear in Vol. 4 of Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.

55 Langer “Facts: The Logical Perspectives of the World,” In The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 30 (1933), 181.  See also “Form and Content: A Study in Paradox,” 436-7.

56 Cf. Harold Bayley, The Lost Language of Symbol-ism, 2 vols. (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1912), Vol. 1, 81; Vol. 2, 121.

57 This could perhaps be said of Cassirer’s distinction between sign and symbol, but so far as I am aware, no one has ever done so.  I have chosen to use the terms “sign” and “symbol” by orienting myself on both Langer’s and Peirce’s use of the word “sign,” such that my employment of the terms then becomes the reverse of Cassirer’s.  This is mainly a pragmatic decision since in this day and age Cassirer is lamentably so little read, while Peirce is familiar to many or most (which is not lamentable).

58 See Langer’s discourse on “The Value of Analogy” and the following discussion in her An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, 2nd ed. (New York: Dover Books, 1953), 29-39.

59 I would like to thank Rolf Lachmann, Lewis Ford, Barry Whitney and William McClellan for help at various stages on this essay.  The basis for the essay is to be found in my dissertation, Signs and Symbols: An Analogical Theory of Metaphysical Language (Emory University, 1992), but has now been revised so completely as to be hardly recognizable.  I should also thank my graduate assistant Eric D. Reiss for his efforts in gathering materials for these revisions.

Langer main page