Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


Peter A. Bertocci (left) with Boston University graduate students, October 2, 1959


Essays by Me

Essays by Others


A review of Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. I (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967). All page references cited in the review are to this book.  From The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 23, No. 3 (March 1970), 527-552.

Posted May 24, 2008


Susan K. Langer’s Theory of Feeling and Mind

Peter A. Bertocci


I find Susanne K. Langer’s Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Volume I, fascinating.  I am not sure that my interpretation is correct, but the work of such a sensitive, broadly cultivated philosopher warrants analysis.  After Volume II appears we shall have a form of naturalism that feeds on such thinkers as James, Santayana, Bergson, Croce, and Whitehead, and is inspired by a concern that the aesthetic life become a formative factor in metaphysical theorizing.

While I cannot conclude that Langer is successful so far in this formidable undertaking, I find myself not only resonating to much that she sets out but also applauding the attempt to develop a philosophy of mind in a new key.  Surely, to decide what we mean by mind without reference to the mind-in-art is myopic philosophizing.  No systematic metaphysician can but be grateful for the attempt to show that in the nature of feeling as found in art there is a kind of organization that will enable us to get beyond the persistent frustrations created by a dualistic view of mind and body, and will possibly give us a clue even to the dynamics of physical beings.

Does Langer manage to balance herself on this philosophic tight-rope when it is so easy to sway from the organic to the aesthetic and from the aesthetic to the organic, and to do so because balance must be achieved as one sways?  The risk of a slip on this tight-rope is great and I can only admire even when I think I see her lose her balance.  In the first part of this limited essay I shall discuss her theory of feeling and mind generally; in the second and third parts I shall be expounding and evaluating her attempt to escape dualism and to account for the unity and continuity of mind respectively.


I. Is Feeling the Key to the Mind-Body Problem?

Langer’s empiricism is restricted by neither a theistic teleology nor by any scientific framework that amputates problems which do not fit the Procrustean bed of its method.  Her central vision of man involves total qualitative difference between man and animal.  Poetry is no “mere” animal reaction formed by natural selection.  “Some animals are intelligent, but only man can be intellectual” (pp. xvi, xvii).

Langer is unyielding in her anti-reductionism; but she is also adamant in refusing to travel some non-zoological bridge across the Rubicon between mind and body.  Neither an extension “upward” from the physical nor an extension “downward” from the nonphysical will do.  She places her trust in what she calls “a biological theory of feeling” (pp. xviii, xix).

But why feeling?  And why feeling as expressed in art and not in religion or morality?  First, because works of art are always “images of the forms of feeling,” and their expressiveness “can rise to the presentation of all aspects of mind and human personality” (p. xviii).  Second, because in such feeling she thinks she can find a means of avoiding any sharp breaks between mentality and vitality.

How does she manage this?  As far as I can see, by finding a common factor in organic life and in art. In her own words:

The fact that expressive form is always organic or “living” form made the biological foundation of feeling probable.  In the artist’s projection, feeling is a heightened form of life; so any work expressing felt tensions, rhythms and activities expresses their unfelt substructure of vital processes, which is the whole of life.  If vitality and feeling are conceived in this way there is no sharp break, let alone metaphysical gap, between physical and mental realities, yet there are thresholds where mentality begins, and especially where human mentality transcends the animal level, and mind, sensu stricto, emerges. (p. xix)

Of course there is much more in such a summary statement than meets the eye.  But it helps us to focus on the underlying problem right away.  Exactly what is involved in the relation of the “heightening” of feeling in the artist’s projection and the heightening of the tensions in the vital process?  Is there enough similarity or identity to justify this biological view of feeling?  In the last analysis it seems to me asserted as a hypothesis which will presumably enable one to escape a metaphysical gap.  Yet in almost the same breath what is asserted is both continuity and a mild break between the organic and the mental.  For feeling as mentality transcends vitality.  Is what I have called a mild break not a break?  Langer in her anti-reductionism and in her resistance to identity theories of mind and body calls for recognition of real discontinuity; yet in her antidualism she insists on continuity.  But in either case her direct appeal is to the kind of feeling as expressed in art.  Whether this way of dealing with what for her are impasses is viable remains for us to see.

(a) What is feeling?  There is no doubt that, for Langer, feeling is the mark of mentality.  But how is feeling defined?  Ordinarily we think of that range of experiences which we classify as pleasant or unpleasant.  At the very outset Langer rejects such a view as too restrictive.  She admittedly uses feeling “in the broad sense of whatever is felt in any way, as sensory stimulus or inward tension, pain, emotion or intent,” as “the mark of mentality” (p. 4).  Thus, organic activity as such, as in plants, is not mental, since in them there is no perceiving and controlling of the environment as in animals.

Langer asks us to avoid another “basic misconception . . . the assumption of feelings (sensations, emotions, etc.) as items or entities of any kind, whether produced by physiological processes, or independent of them. . . . This is a genuine metaphysical fallacy” (p. 19).  Rather must we realize that feeling is a verbal noun that originates in the verb “to feel,” that is, “to do something, not to have something” (p. 20), such as a feeling or a sensation.

It is this reconstructed view of feeling that is to save us from physicalism and dualism.  It is proposed on the assumption that the existence of organic life is the acceptable base for this non-entitative theory of feeling.  Hence Langer says: “What is felt [as the object of feel] is a process, perhaps a large complex of processes, within the organism.  Some vital activities of great complexity and high intensity, usually (perhaps always) involving nervous tissue, are felt; being felt is a phase of the process itself.  A phase is a mode of appearance, and not an added factor” (p. 21).

What is important about this phasal theory of feeling and mind must not escape us.  “Being felt,” is a phase that comes and goes in the organism. Langer compares it to the redness that appears as a phase of certain degrees of heat in the iron.  Feeling is “an appearance which organic functions have only for the organism in which they occur, if they have it at all” (p. 21).  Again, among the millions of biological processes that go unfelt in the organism, one may say that “some activities, especially nervous ones, above a certain (probably fluctuating) limen of intensity, enter into a ‘psychical phase’” (p. 22).  The immediately following passage is decisive:

This [psychical phase] is the phase of being felt.  It may develop suddenly, with great distinctness of quality, location and value-character, for instance, in response to a painful stimulus; or similarly, only with less precise location in the organism, like a shock of terror; or a deeply engendered process may go gradually, perhaps barely, into a psychical phase of vague awareness—come and gone—a sense of weariness or a fleeting emotive moment.  The normal substrata of a “feeling-tone,” from which the more acute tensions build up into specific experiences, is probably a dynamic pattern of nervous activities playing freely across the limen of sentience. (p. 22)

To summarize: the feeling phase of the intra-organic process is, if I may so put it, the “announcement,” the “product” of the organism’s own state.  This capacity for feeling, this being felt phase, is missing in inorganic things and plants.  Being felt includes a whole range of phasal events, moving from sensory awareness and specificity of response to fleeting, vague or intense emotive states (“terror” or “a sense of weariness”).  My exposition will continue in relation to several questions that this view of feeling, as a solution to the mind-body problem, must confront.

(i) If there are no feelings without intra-organic processes of a certain kind, and if these processes, as felt, are in a certain phase, does the “being felt” “appear” and “go” without modifying the processes? Will it do to answer (as in the quotation above) that a phase is a mode of appearance and not an added factor?  It is one thing to say that like the redness of heated iron it is not a thing, but, I must suggest, if it makes a difference it is an added factor of some sort that the ascription “phasal” must not deny.  Hence I think it reasonable to ask, even at this non-metaphysical level of analysis: What difference does “being felt” (or mentality) make to the intra-organic processes to which it is phasal or from which it “emerges” as phasal?

(ii) But is this view of feeling capable of keeping both direct experience and hypothesized fact together non-dualistically?  Thus, to say that “the normal substrata of ‘feeling-tone’ . . . is probably a dynamic pattern of nervous activities playing freely across the limen of sentience” (p. 22), is to be hypothetical, for certainly there is no direct experience of the neural activities as defined by the physiologist.  Being felt, mentality, adds something to them; the spectre of unwanted duality reappears. In a footnote on page 21 Langer says that, like William James, she is looking for a generic term for mental states at large, irrespective of their kind, but that unlike James she decided on feeling where James decided on thoughts.  One asks: Why?  And the only plausible answer seems to be that she thinks that feeling as she defines it can be “in” intra-organic states.  Interestingly enough, for James, in this period, thoughts as states of consciousness are together as owned in personal consciousness.  But for Langer intra-organic processes are by definition unaware of their “being felt” phase.  The problem we face here is whether Langer can point to any common factor that justifies the word “feeling” or “feelings”—apart from the problem of unity-continuity to be considered in section III below.

Further, if the neural activities as such are not themselves aware of the feelings which occur, why should feelings not be considered as epiphenomenal emergents despite protestations to the contrary? But if feelings have no autonomy, can they be possibly used to describe the experience, as phasal to our mental life, of the autonomy of feeling we find in art?  Let us take a closer look.

(b) Is dualism in fact avoided?  Langer is proposing a feeling (psychical) phase of a total organism that may be elaborated into the more specific experiences of sense, emotion, and thought. She continues to warn us against a substantive view of feeling, and yet seeks for some source of such unity and change as we find in “feeling.”  Hence she says, “it is this transiency and general ability of the psychical phase that accounts for the importance of preconscious processes in the construction of such elaborate phenomena as ideas, intentions, images and fantasies, and makes it not only reasonable but obvious that they are rooted in the fabric of totally unfelt activities which Freud reified with the substantive term “the Unconscious” (p. 22, italics added).  In place of a substantive Unconscious, and of a substantive ego or consciousness, she seems to root the transiency and lability of feelings in the fabric of totally unfelt activities.  But this fabric is presumably other than the activities as felt, and as fabric it has some “structure” or unity.  Why is one kind of “fabric” more acceptable than another?  And, in any case, to repeat, what difference do fruits make to the roots?

I realize that metaphors like “rooted in” must be seen for what they mean, and I suspect I am seeing a problem where Langer sees none.  For she goes on to claim that it is a philosophical error to believe that “desires, ideas or emotions cannot be psychologically engendered and psychologically modified if they are essentially physiological processes” (p. 23, italics added).  As correction for this error she proposes: “As soon as feeling is regarded as a phase of a physiological process instead of a product (perhaps a by-product of it), a new metaphysical entity different from it, the paradox of physical and psychical disappears; . . .” (p. 23).  I stop quoting in the middle of a sentence.  I wonder first what it means to say in one passage already quoted, that the felt are rooted in unfelt activities, and in the next moment to say that they are in no sense a product but essentially a physiological (unfelt) process?  We are back to the meaning of phasal.  If the psychological is not a new metaphysical entity, why does even the paradox die by calling it a phase and then holding that in this phase there can be autonomous engendering and modifying?

Again, if the psychological phase is essentially physiological, the changes or modification in it should, I would suppose, be essentially physiological, but this is denied.  We are in trouble with a theory in which the psyche is a phasal spin-off, “in” or “of,” the physiological processes; and at the same time is simply not defined or definable in physiological terms (such as growth and decay).  Langer’s feeling is not a physiological phase of this sort, for presumably feeling as psychical can itself be modified by its own kind of phases.  They do not decay and grow in any physiological way.

I had another reason for stopping midway in a sentence.  Having arrived at the psychic as essentially physiological, Langer now grants it the autonomy of its own elaboration. “. . . for the thesis I hope to substantiate here is that the entire psychological field—including human conception, responsible action, rationality, knowledge—is a vast and branching development of feeling” (p. 23).

It may help to rephrase the situation, and the predicament.  For Langer what we usually call the higher “mental” functions-like conceiving, acting responsibly, reasoning—are not to be separated, as by a dualist, from the category of physiological activities.  For they and their neighbors—sense perception, remembering, pleasant and unpleasant experience—are forms of a psychic phase of certain levels of intra-organic processes.  But, surely in some sense, feeling is the common thread of many elaborated phases that can be called by that name; for it provides some line of continuity between the physiological unfelt processes and the “felt” processes in their own branching developments. Thus, felt processes are not physiological processes. But neither are they said to be forms of something called “feeling.”  Langer says explicitly: “There is not some primitive form of feeling which is its ‘real’ form, any more than a bird is ‘really’ an egg or water is ‘really’ vapor” (p. 23).  Yet that she wishes to grant feeling(s) autonomy is clear from her denial that “all feeling is ‘really’ rationalization, all judgment ‘really’ emotional” (p. 23).

Such assertions make Langer’s intention and conclusions clear.  But can they exonerate her from the charge that there is more dualism in her emergent “phasalism” than she seems to realize? For dualism is rooted in the realization that the fabric of one kind of being (the physiological) is not the fabric of, but systemically different from, another kind of being or activity, in this instance “feeling.”

Furthermore, as already hinted, Langer’s own image of a branching of feeling suggests that there is something common to the branches which, so far, we have not been able to designate.  The problem remains even without this image.  “Feeling” here seems to include both too little—and too much.  I ask: What is it about “being felt” that is applicable to such qualitative variety as sense, emotion, and reason, for example?  Langer has already rejected the notion of particular phases of “primitive feeling,” and she clearly says: “Human emotion is phylogenetically a higher development from simpler processes [not from feeling], and reason is another one; human mentality is an unsurveyably complex dynamism of their interactions with each other, and with several further specialized forms of cerebral activity, implicating the whole organic substructure” (p. 23). Yet even for this hierarchy of levels the word “feeling” is used.  The question persists: Why can we unify such different processes as emotion, sensing, responsibility, and reason by reference to “being felt”?

And the worst is not yet.  For Langer says that unfelt vital processes become psychical only when they reach a certain state.  But if this is so, why not simply leave it that all the phases of “being felt” are, as the last quotation suggests, different phases of intra-organic activities and then specify what they are.  But Langer seems unable to rest without reference to the continuity of something called feeling.  Note the passage: “As there are many distinct nervous processes, some originating at the periphery of the central nervous system, others within it, especially in its core which is the brain, so there are many ways in which activities may be felt. The most important distinction within the realm of feeling is between what is felt as impact and what is felt as autogenic action.  The existence of these two fundamental modes of feeling rests on the nature of vitality itself” (p. 23).  The realm of feeling has modes, or poles, if you will—the sensory-perceptual pole and the emotion-responsibility pole.

I do not wish to gain critical capital from difficulties in avoiding entitative language that is not so intended.  But I know not how to escape the conclusion that “feeling” is used to characterize something common to phasal states of certain intra-organic levels.  Feeling, at the same time, involves new developments that simply cannot be “caught” either in the descriptive net of the physiologist or of the psychologist.  This is a striking weakness in a philosophical theory that seeks to discover relationships among the sciences to which their over-restrictive methodology blinds them.  For the theory of feeling and mentality that results has no recognizable basis in either.

Finally, the difficulties grow when we ask the question: What do we know through feeling when it is thus interpreted as being felt?  Langer says: “What is felt is always action in an organism, but some of it is felt in a special way, as encounter . . .” (p. 24, italics added).  This answer will hardly do.  It may well be that “being felt” has active organic processes as its “what.”  But surely this is not given as such in any vital or mental state.  Furthermore, in epistemic terms, we are being told that “being felt” is at once a kind of being that is not identical with the organic and yet can be aware of something, not itself, that is happening in the organic.  The feeling must be itself and yet “register” or “express” in its being some kind of active response which its living system has to the environment.  If I am correct “being felt” is the kind of being that can be itself and in some sense “represent” what is not itself.  This epistemic dualism is welcome to me.  But does it fit a theory of mentality which as a phasal stage of intra-organic processes is intended to avoid the dualism of “representative” cognition?

A longer essay might press similar related difficulties in this view of feeling.  For if feeling “expresses” in a psychical way, the improvisational, adaptive ongoings in the vital organism, must it not have both its own relatively autonomous life, and also be capable of adapting itself to its organism? Such epistemic dualism favors the metaphysical dualism from which a phasal theory of mind was to free us.  Once more, we have been told that feeling is a phasal phosphorescence of the dynamic interaction going on at a certain level of vital process and also that feeling has a being for itself, and, as it were, “branches out” on its own, as an agent in the creative advance. (See pp. 27, 28.)

What has been gained, then, by making “being felt” into an omnibus that carries every degree of cognitive function and expresses every degree of telic tension and direction?  I close this section by quoting a passage that provides both Langer’s perception of the gain, and confirmation, I think of my interpretation and concern:

If one conceives the phenomenon of being felt as a phase of vital processes, in which the living tissue (probably the nerve or a neuronal assembly) feels its activity, the problem . . . of how the nerve impulse can be “converted” into thought and thought into nerve impulse . . . becomes a different sort of problem.  The question is not one of how a physical process can be transformed into something non-physical in a physical system, but how the phase of being felt is attained, and how the process may pass into unfelt phases again, and furthermore how an organic process in “psychical phase” may induce others which are unfelt. . . . The proposed new concept of feeling, furthermore, permits a new way of construing the greater concept of mind. Instead of accepting “mind” as a metaphysical ultimate reality, distinct from the physical reality which subsumes the brain, and asking how the two can make “liaison,” one may hope to describe “mind” as a phenomenon in terms of the highest physiological processes, especially those which have psychical phases. (p. 29, italics added)

The reader will have to decide whether the questions I have asked do indeed allow us the avoidance of the dualism here hopefully suggested. The italicized clauses underscore my dilemma.  For in the first clause I am told that the tissue feels, when I thought feeling meant being felt.  In the second the feeling or psychic phase is given the autonomy that grounds a dualist’s case.  This construct of feeling was introduced to break a hopeless impasse, and as “at least coherent with the rest of biological inquiry and logically capable of solution” (p. 29).  But if a new kind of being—a psychical phase arising from unfelt phases and inducing unfelt phases—is being introduced, and with novel epistemic properties, why is this qualitative discontinuity, this shift to a new, autonomous category of being and “activity,” more coherent even with biological inquiry, let alone with feeling as expressed in art?

Indeed, one wonders whether such psychic feeling that “stands, in fact, in the midst of that vast biological field which lies between the lowliest organic activities and the rise of mind” (p. 32) is hardly even a “bastard” kind of mind, to adapt Plato’s expression.  Has it been experienced on land or sea by any person?  This reconstruction of feeling, a turning point in natural events (see p. 32), is supposed to permit “one to construe the more impressive form of mentation—symbolic expression, imagination, proposition, thought, religious conception, mathematical abstraction, moral insight—as functions of [does this not mean product?] that most complex of all organs, the human brain, with intense and prolonged psychical phases” (p. 32).  But surely such feelings, as we directly experience them, are eviscerated in this reconstructed concept—a Berkeleyan abstract idea if there ever was one.


II. Does Living Form in Art Reflect or Parallel Organic Activity?

My dissatisfaction with Langer’s view of feeling has centered on the contention that this reconstructed view, proffered to provide a continuum between the vital and the mental, actually loses continuity with anything persons experience as feeling.  The dissatisfaction does not decrease as I try to grasp the contention in her important chapter, “On Living Form in Art and Nature.”  (See pp. 199-244.)  I had hoped that I would find in feeling as expressed in art a basis for a better resolution of the problems of mind.  But I continue to find that when I expect Langer to show how the aesthetic does provide a key to reasoning about the person as a whole, or to natural processes, she sometimes moves from what must be a hypothetical view of vitality to the more experiential theory of art, and sometimes from the latter to the former.  I no sooner think that the aesthetic will lead me to understand the (non-aesthetic) natural than I find the kinship between art and nature is controlled by the natural.  And yet not quite; for her view of the artistic expression of feeling at points seems to affect the way in which the natural is conceived.  Langer’s attempt to hold the artistic and the natural together will be the focus of my analysis in this section.

As we have already seen, “feeling is a culmination of vital process.”  But the question is whether we can confidently continue: “. . . any articulated image of it [feeling] must have the semblance of that vital process rising from deep, general organic activities to intense and concerted acts, such as we perceive directly in their psychical phases as impacts or felt actions” (p. 199).  But let us grant the control of the dynamism of the vital in “living form” in art.  Can the next sentence be readily granted, once we ask what “reflects” means?  “Every artistic form reflects the dynamism that is constantly building up the life of feeling” (p. 199).  Again, granted that growth is the dynamism that “records itself in organic forms,” can we readily go on to assert that this growth “is the source of almost all familiar living shape” if we keep the meaning of “growth” in aesthetic, moral, and religious experience before us?

And that we may not is suggested by a sentence in the same context.  “Hence the kinship between organic and artistic form, though the latter need not be modeled on any natural object at all” (p. 199, italics added).  We have no sooner been told that the dynamism in artistic form has kinship with the growth-dynamism in the organic, than we are also told (what is also repeated elsewhere) that artistic form “need not be modeled on any natural object.”  I take this to leave open the possibility that growth as perceived in a work of art need not have kinship with, or reflect, organic growth.  The same Langer who wishes continuity with the natural—no “sharp breaks”—is the aesthetician who cannot but recognize the discontinuity of art.  She says: “Elements in art have not the character of things, but of acts.  They are ‘active’, ‘act-like’.” And, she continues, “in a broad sense which I find far more useful for philosophical purposes, any unity of activity is an act” (p. 202).

The concept of act here broached is the pervasive metaphysical category and it will concern us soon, but at the moment we are concerned with whether the artistic form of feeling controls her description of it.

Again, Langer’s insistence on continuity with the organic keeps on obscuring the controlling image. Thus she says: “All artistic elements whatsoever—all distinguishable aspects of the created world—have formal properties which, in nature, characterize acts. Inviolability, fusability, and the revival or retention of past phases in succeeding ones are some of those properties.  Another very important one . . . is the relation of elements to the whole, which is very complex. . . . Every element seems to emanate from the context in which it exists” (p. 204).  Here we are told what we find in art and as characterizing acts in nature.  But the same passage continues to tell us that such elements are “a manifestation of the internality of relations among created forms, which is a principle of art, but not of life.”  And Langer immediately continues: “But it parallels a biological condition: in life, every act is motivated by a complex of past and/or concomitant acts. . . .” (p. 204, italics added).

My uneasiness stems from my uncertainty as to what force is to be given to words like “emanate,” “parallel,” “cognate,” and “echoes.”  Again, in the same context, Langer seems to set off from the dialectical interdependence which creates both the unity of the work of art and its rhythm.  She is also impressed by the way in which the primary illusion in a work of art, interacting with the variable secondary illusions that come and go, nevertheless remains steady and complete.  But now, underscoring the richness of such potentiality in art, she boldly continues:

In nature, such indefinite potentiality is the essence of bodily existence, which feeds the continuous burgeoning of life.  Life is the progressive realization of potential acts, and as every realized act changes the pattern and range of what is possible, the living body is an ever-new constellation of possibilities.  In art the elusiveness of secondary illusions serves to give the work of art as a whole something of the same character: it seems to have a core from which all its elements emerge—figurations and rhythms and all the qualities to which these give rise. (p. 206)

It must be emphasized that in these passages Langer is fully aware of what is perceived in the art object on its own as expressive form, as semblance. She does not identify, for example, the individuality of a work of art with some “vital form” or organic process, for that individuality is “a quality, as virtual as all other artistic qualities” (p. 209).  Nor does she suggest a “one-to-one correspondence” between aesthetic form and vital form.  In view of this, one wonders whether the kinship and parallelism she asserts to exist in living form in art and nature does so only because so much is left out that would threaten such a claim.

For example, it is not at all clear to me that if “in art all motion is growth, although the lines and volumes and tensions that seem to grow never reach any increased dimensions” (p. 213), that such growth is the appearance of life.  Assuming that in art there is growth, decay, rise, crisis, cadence, do these in art actually parallel “the phases of growth and decay, rise and crisis [which] constitute the all inclusive ‘greatest rhythm’ of life . . . .” (p. 213)? There may well be a tour de force in the suggestion that the growth and decay, the rhythm of biological life as interpreted biologically, is cognate or parallel or echoes “living form” in the artistic sense, especially if we take living form to include “an adventure in the growth and precision of feeling by virtue of its expressibility” (p. 213).

I suggest another example of the gaining of kinship through what seems to be an association that in fact loses concrete continuity to abstraction. Langer, elaborating a quasi-Kantian view of the “telic directedness of creation without practical purpose” (p. 218), emphasizes that in artistic creation there is “the recurrent progression from potentiality to realization, every decision producing new possibilities and offering new choices” (p. 219).  And she understandably adds: “This dynamic pattern belongs to art itself, because it is an inescapable pattern of life.  That is why a really ‘living’ work always seems reasonable in every respect, yet not predictable, as though it could, nevertheless, have been different” (p. 219).

However, in this context Langer also emphasizes that in art we have a dialectic or polarity of freedom and inevitability.  This is not found as such in “the perpetual advance of life from one situation to another” (p. 221), for as articulated in art the dialectic is “completely abstracted from actual life,” transformed, projected in sensuous terms.  Here an artistic image of dynamic unity and creativity is in mind; art in its expressiveness actually gives us a dimension of being not discoverable elsewhere.  But once more she reverts to the organic parallel: “in art, as in life, and nowhere else in the universe as we know it, we find the conditions of necessity and freedom” (p. 221).

I would have expected to read that in art, as not in life, we find necessity and freedom, as these are revealed at the aesthetic level (assuming Kant to be correct).  For, one might press, aesthetic semblance in great art is what it is; it is native to no other dimension of being, biological, moral, intellectual, or religious. 

It seems clear, then, that when Langer keeps her gaze fixed on art, she sees a singular kind of unity, organization, and growth.  But in her concern to find continuity between art and nature she presses for a parallelism or kinship between artistic semblance and felt and unfelt activities, by way of a “living form,” that in fact cannot be concretely assimilated either to art, or life, or nature.  As we found in our analysis of feeling, the cost for this theoretical transaction is the loss of the very singularity that was to help in illuminating nature and mind.

In a word, in this naturalism there is an unwitting straddling of the way of emergence and the way of reductionism.  The concern to stay with natural categories forces Langer to appeal ultimately to biological categories for clarification of feeling and “living form,” despite the promise to illuminate nature and mind by the aesthetic-artistic phase of the psychical.  Yet even the vital level is itself hardly recognizable in biological terms, owing to the influence of her aesthetic theorizing on this analysis.


III. Art, Individuation, and Mind

In this last section, I turn explicitly to the way in which the analysis of act suffers from the same theoretical ambivalence and invites other difficulties. I shall pay special attention to the treatment of individuation and continuity.

To begin with, in Langer’s view there is in artistic individuation more than individuality or uniqueness. Artistic individuation involves elaborations that are integrated in, or subordinated to, unifying or individuating processes.  Thus, noting that “this dialectic of separation and connection is typical of organic structure” (p. 228), Langer ties the artistic and the organic together by saying that “in art is the image of individuating force, unequal growth, which underlies all morphology and is the fundamental mechanism of evolution; hence its power to raise artistic expression to a level of complexity that reflects not only universal vital rhythms, but particularly human ones” (p. 229, italics added). Thus the dialectical individuating force underlying all morphology and “the particularly human ones” are linked; and the artistic, in the last analysis, finds the “ground” in the organic.  And yet, despite this linkage and grounding, there is something about artistic individuation that defies identification with the organic.  Thus Langer says: “The art symbol, however, reflects the nature of mind as a culmination of life, and what it directly exhibits, first of all, is the mysterious quality of intangible elements which arise from the growth and activity of the organism, yet do not seem entirely of its substance” (pp. 229, 230, italics added).

With this conception of continuity and differentiation we are now familiar.  Our concern is to ask how Langer’s conception of artistic unity is related to the unity of the act, her substitute for entitative substances in other systems.

(a) Langer’s account of the unity of an act

(i) In a work of art, there is, on Langer’s view, “the semblance of substantiality,” that is, neither substance, nor unreality.  This would seem to mean that no semblance, no projection exists in a work of art as a “thing.”  They exist for a creator or the perceiver of the work.  If the motion of Shiva Nataraja “seems perfected, not suspended,” in the actual image, if the “balletic leap, for instance, may appear as soaring flight” (see illustrations, pp. 234, 235), the seeming and appearing are aesthetically neither physical motions nor biological motions.  As appearance or seeming they involve the psychic reality of creator and percipient.

But how, then, is this “substantial” dimension of a work of art so dependent on the organic?  Langer’s phenomenology of art has no place in it for dimensions used by biochemist or physiologist, since the semblance of substantiality cannot be expressed in unfelt organic processes.  Indeed, it is this phenomenology that re-enforces her theory of mind-body.  Note the description of secondary illusions:

All secondary illusions, whether they serve primarily to intensify the expressiveness of a piece or whether they create a quintessential moment, have the same character of coming into existence from nowhere, apart from the virtual substance of the work (which is anchored in the primary illusion according to its proper mode), and fading again into nothing.  In their very nature, therefore, they project the outstanding attribute of human mentality, the termination of autonomous acts in psychical phases that resemble those of perceptual acts in many respects, that is to say, the occurrence of images. (p. 240, italics added.)

In this passage the autonomy of the aesthetic experience as part of the phasal psychic is stressed, and in this context we are left without any doubt that Langer wishes to “gain some biological and psychological insights through the suggestiveness of artistic forms” (p. 244).  It is clear that because a symbol always presents its import in simplified form, and because art is “incomparably simpler than life” (p. 244), we can find in it suggestive analogies for the biological and psychological phenomena.  Even more specifically, Langer says that “the theory of art is really a prolegomenon to the much greater undertaking of constructing a concept of mind adequate to the living actuality” (p. 244).  My thesis has been that Langer in fact loses the singularity and the autonomy of the aesthetic when she turns around and regards the psychic and artistic semblance as a reflection of organic activities with which it has kinship. (See also pp. 199, 214, 219, 221.)

(ii) The question that remains, once we are clear about individuation and “substance” in art and the aesthetic experience as such, is whether it does affect Langer’s conception of the unity and continuity of “act,” the ultimate ontic unit of Natura naturans. The act is a theoretical construct.  It is needed in part because “there is little doubt that every attempt to produce life from lifeless substances, without any vital germ to animate them, has so far met with failure” (p. 258).  We must therefore not identify the inorganic with the living.

Furthermore, while others have succumbed to the temptation to talk of progressive phases in the realm of life, because it is so difficult to find clear-cut boundaries in the evolutionary plant and animal, Langer prefers to regard phases as only pragmatic. What must be realized is that “the continuous process is not composed of discrete episodes, but it has peaks of activity which are centers of recognizable phases, though these have no precise start or finish lines.  What we need, then, by way of analytic terms are units with definite centers and labile limits” (p. 260).  But there is no point in talking about a center of a phenomenon unless it is indivisible and has “internal structure” which locates it in the continuum of life.

(iii) Langer adds that such a “fecund and elastic concept” can describe a broad spectrum of natural events at least on the earth.  Acts “arise where there is already some fairly constant movement going on,” which, on accelerating to a certain point, reaches a point of change in which the movement subsides and the “consummation of the act” takes place (p. 261).  “The subsequent phase, the conclusion or cadence, is the most variable aspect of the total process.  It may be graduated or abrupt, seen as a clearly identifiable course, or merge almost at once into other acts, or sink smoothly, imperceptibly back into the minutely structured general flow of events from which the act took rise.  An act may subsume another act, or even many other acts” (p. 261).

It is this broad concept of acts which forms the basis of the psychic within the wider realm of zoology especially.  Acts are clearly non-entitative; they are analyzable yet indivisible, and partially autonomous units which form the “intricate dynamism of life” and become more and more concentrated and intense, finally reaching “the phase of being felt, which I have termed ‘psychical’” (p. 260).  As Langer goes on to indicate, this emergent act is essentially telic, but need not be conscious; it may extend “downward” to the “limits of distinguishability” (p. 264).

It is this telic activity that defines the intrinsic unity of the act.  “What gives every act its indivisible wholeness is that its initial phase is the building up of a tension, a store of energy that has to be spent; all subsequent phases are modes of meting out that charge, and the end of the act is the complete resolution of the tension” (p. 268).

(iv) If we now ask what is the key that guides this conception of act-ive unity, the influence of Langer’s theory of art is clear. Once more rejecting both mechanical and “soul” models, she suggests “that the artist’s symbolic projection provides a principle of analysis . . . the principle of distinguishing within a dynamic whole . . . articulated elements, which nonetheless are indivisible within themselves, and inalienable from the whole, if they are not to give up their identity” (pp. 272, 273).

(b) Is Langer’s account of the unity and continuity of acts adequate?

(i) Granted the tensive unity of the act, what makes possible the continuation of acts?  We have already seen that Langer rejects the “initial assumption of a physical, psychical, or ‘psychophysical’ entity, the subject, agent, or individual” (p. 307), in favor of the functional concept of individuation.  This process consists of acts, each motivated by a vital situation, “a moment in the frontal advance of antecedent acts composed of more and more closely linked elements, ultimately a texture of activities” (p. 311).  Since “the development of beings with minds is probably the highest individuation the world has known” (p. 312), the critical problem is to show how both the telic unity and continuity of mind is to be conceived.

For Langer some non-vital chemical transformations may be “act-like,” but they are not bona fide acts because “they do not develop into a self-continuing system of actions proliferating and differentiating in more and more centralized and interdependent ways; that is they do not enter into the constitution of an agent” (p. 314).  But what is an agent?  “An agent is a complex of actions, and all actions that belong to that complex are acts of that agent. All true acts, therefore, are to some extent involved with other acts...” (pp. 314, 315). This means that the unity of the acts does not originate in “act-like” chemical actions. Indeed there is no explanation of “how some of the [“act-like”] chemical actions... ever became involved with each other so as to form centers of activity which maintained themselves for a while amid the changes of forming and dissolving compounds around them” (p. 315).  The most Langer suggests is that such “centers” need not have been self-perpetuating from the beginning, and “the first proto-organisms might have been of short duration” (p. 315).

The appearance of agent-unity in a world where there was at best only act-like chemical change does not seem to bother Langer.  Any such concern, she thinks, stems from the metaphysical failure of thinking of life as something—a spark of life—that somehow came from outside the purely physical stream, to make liaison with the lifeless matter there (p. 316).  “The escape from the dilemma” is “to abandon the metaphysical dualism of ultimate substantiae, and try to make the logically more amenable system of physical, chemical and electrical events yield a functional explanation of vital and—in due course—of mental phenomena” (p. 316, italics added).

I confess that the force of “logically more amenable” is lost on me.  I wonder also whether functional explanation is here really explanatory.  Is the “break” between the “act-like” chemical and the bona fide vital somehow really overcome by a “shift” (however small) from the chemical to the vital?  Is there anything more than verbal in the claim that “the heightening” of chemical action supplants “the incursion of an ontologically unique “living spark” (p. 316)?  And will her resort to phenomena, like the “stabilizing,” “concentrating,” “perpetuating” of non-vital activities, actually support the shift from the “act-like” to the act?  We are simply admonished not to think of life as some essence that any given physical object possesses, but as “a wide, varied and unbelievably complex functional pattern” (p. 313), that appears here and there on earth.  We are supposed to be satisfied by thinking of the telic impulse that defines act as the consequent of acceleration, ferment, or heightening of non-telic electro-chemical events.

(ii) Let us set these qualms aside and assume the arrival of the telic impulse, without which no selective unity is possible.  How is the continuity of the agent forthcoming?  The answer seems to be that the sequence between telic acts is the continuity. “Rhythmic concatenation is what really holds an organism together from moment to moment; it is a dynamic pattern, i.e., a pattern of events into which acts and act-like phenomena very readily fall: a sequence wherein the subsiding phase, or cadence, of one act (or similar element) is the up-take for its successor” (p. 323).  But what is rhythm?  “The essence of rhythm is the alternation of tension building up to a crisis, and ebbing away in a gradu-ated course of relaxation whereby a new build-up of tension is prepared and driven to the next crisis, which necessitates the next cadence” (p. 324).

To summarize: the vital element manages to sustain itself in its own aim even as it integrates or amalgamates other acts into its own life.  The impulsive act dies if it cannot accept them in any way.  Again, within the lifetime of one act—which is all that is at issue at the moment—unity maintains itself by its capacity to survive interplay with other acts in its ambient.

(iii) If this is a fair account, then I wonder whether we must not avoid the imagery of one act fulfilling itself and, in perishing, passing its act-ive unity on to the next “moment.”  For what does “passing itself” on mean?  I can see that an act may wither and die; and that it can (as happens in individuating organization with other acts) live in harmony with other acts (rhythm).  But how can it “pass itself” on to a future that is not there yet to receive it?  Again, from the point of view of any one actual moment there is no future being to which one’s identity may be “passed.”  This image is probably born of our tendency to look back from any present act and, distinguishing different stages in a line of development, picture its history as a string, or series of acts whose identity has somehow remained. We then say that moment “a” has passed on its identity to the next moment “b.” I submit—and I realize that much in Whitehead and Hartshorne support Langer here—that such a transaction does not and cannot take place.

I am suggesting that in a non-entitative view of substance—which I, like Langer, find reasonable—the process of self-sustaining identity is no simple process of passing on self-identity.  I am urging that if any act is a unified now, then it cannot pass itself on to a future that is non-existent.  Only one other non-substantive alternative seems open to me, and I make bold to suggest it, all too briefly, here.

(iv) A unified act can indeed be its own “drop” of being, and its own kind of being.  That is, it is telic in its own active unity together with whatever limits of flexibility (potentiality) help to define its scope.  I assume, agreeing with Langer, that its unity is not the mere collection of other acts; I assume too that its monadic “windows” are open to its ambient, namely, other acts (or the conditions of acts).  This means that what future it will have—if it has any at all—depends solely on its capacity to maintain its own unified qualitative being even as it selectively responds to what is consistent with its own continuance.  An act does not pass on its unity after (presumable) self-fulfillment.  Given its own complex unity it responds selectively to its ambient and in fact maintains its self-identity without being static, and thus achieves continuity.

This basic paradigm of the continuity of unified act, which I find in my self-experience, is not picturable as “passing on.”  The phases of this continuity are phases in the being of an act (or agent) which in responding to its ambient simply finds that it has survived as a dynamic, self-identifying telic unity.  If, with Langer, we give up entitative unities, we cannot substitute a process in which unit-acts have continuity because they pass their unity on from one moment to another.  Acts may, of course, die, or pass out of being.  But once they come into being (whatever the process), they have only one alternative: either they proceed to fulfill the impulsive nature that activates their potential, or they die.  If they do continue in their unity (survive), it is because they are able to meet both internal demands for variation and to survive the interchange with their present vital, psychic, and non-vital environment.

But now the whole model of successive identity needs revision.  We must not succumb to spatializing serial identity, that is, to think of continuance in terms of “passing on” our identity from one point in a series to another.  Nor can we think of self-identity as we experience it in ourselves as a mathematical or logical identity—two equals two.  It is identity provided in the fact of telic change.  The growth is always from within the identity of a unitas-multiplex-unified and telic from its inception—and able to sustain its complex unity at every moment in its history, but not as an inflexible, rigid, completely unchanging “core.”  Yet, despite the conflicts within its complex nature, and despite the challenges to its very being, its task is to nourish itself and grow in an ambient that is basically supportive.

There is no image that will quite do.  But I can say that any active unity is pregnant with its own future, in the sense that its future will be affected by its own capacity to “ingest” and transform what it has been able to assimilate to itself from the ambient.  But the future act is not the offspring of the pregnant now that dies in the future.  The “future” is the “mother” who is pregnant, whose “offspring” are its present in another phase of its unity-in-variety.  The best example of this is, as I have hinted, my experience of myself.  For I am not the (mathematical) same from moment to moment; yet I know my experience as mine, I suggest, not because I pass myself on from one moment to another, but because I am able to maintain, and re-form and enrich within limits, the telic unity that constituted me from the beginning of my being.

(v) In trying to suggest a different model for the continuity of any one primitive act-ive unity, I have already been talking about individuation through involvement—what Langer calls the rhythmic concatenation of acts into a more or less harmonious whole.  But in passing I wish to make what is not a facile confession.  I do not claim to know the technical how of interaction between the act and its varied ambient, and that is not an issue here.  I, like any non-monistic philosopher who disclaims that beings are modes of any One, be it Matter or Mind, am faced with the necessity for holding to interaction, at some point, as an ultimate kind of relation in which active units of being are involved. Without appealing to pre-established harmony I am trying to protect both that intrinsic unity, which, as Leibniz says so well, cannot come into being bit by bit, and also to open the monadic windows in a way that does not lose the self-identity in change. Langer, I think, is trying to do the same thing.  Our disagreement about the “break” or “shift” from non-vital act to vital act does not affect the agreement that the act is a unity and a telic one.  But it seems to me that on her account of self-continuity, self-identity would not be preserved.  I also think that her account of individuation, of the organization of acts so that they constitute organisms of some degree of complexity, will not quite do.  But the issue is not how interaction occurs, but the way in which we are to conceive the rhythmic concatenation that “really holds an organism together from moment to moment” (p. 323).

(vi) We have already noted that at the very beginning of the life process Langer postulates “strong ruling tendencies toward organization, which led to increasing interdependence [involvement] of actions and eventuated in the formation of biological mechanisms” (pp. 322, 323).  These self-sustaining, living, act-ive systems are self-propagating; “Every event is prepared by progressively changing conditions of the integral whole” (p. 322).  On Langer’s view, then, individuation presupposes integration of functions, that is, “establishment of self-contained, stabile, vitally active systems” (p. 342).  Well and good. If we ask: Is such individuation an assembly, a collection, of convergent lines?  The answer is negative.  Langer’s emphasis on subordination, on dovetailing of activities within the system, on the exclusion of some activities from any particular phase or stage of the system, suggests a continuing system.  But is the individuation a momentary marriage of convenience, or, to change the figure, a convenient hierarchy established among the lines of activities, with the result that the unity is functional only in terms of the purposes of our description?  Or is it indeed a more complex agent-unity that has an integrity of its own, a new autonomous unity in relation to all else?

I cannot say with certainty.  I suspect that Langer would decry the latter as suggesting something entitative, and would not be pleased with the former as suggesting something too mechanical.  But her ontogeny of individuation leaves much to be desired, although her manner of speaking may belie her intent.  She does speak of a build-up of systems of activities that initially need not have belonged together.  But her rejection of the mechanical model does not keep her from thinking of elementary acts as somehow going into the making of new wholes.  It is indeed an advance to think of these elements as dynamic acts, themselves complex unities.  But elementary dynamic acts nevertheless “make up” activities; and at any moment “many” elementary activities go into the make-up of a new “individuated” system.  Thus, individuation tends to be more of a functional collection than perhaps she intends.

No doubt many instances we call “individuation” are no more than such “parasitical” unities.  But I make a counter-suggestion to describe the new systems that are new complex unities.  Why not consider individuation the development of a unified holistic agency of which what Langer calls acts are not component unities but rather distinctions discernible within the complexity of the wholistic [sic] agency?  On this view, there is no interaction within a whole that in fact is a convenient get-to-gether for mutual survival.  Again, on this view there are no acts which come to arrange themselves in wholes because they are in fact subservient slaves of a dominant telic agency which guarantees their survival.  Rather is any agent-activity, however complex or simple it may be, a complex unity—within which we may be able to distinguish pseudo-”acts.” But as a complex unity to which other “acts” have contributed, it does not “contain” them, or “order” them as slaves, or as instrumentalities.  For it is what it is by its own creative response to them; and that response constitutes it a more complex and, at the same time, a richer unity.  Thus, an agent-whole is never a convenient built-up; it is given, and given as complex in different degrees of scope.  It may be host to, be helped or hindered by parasites; but they are not “parts” of it.  They have so interacted with it that its richer unity is its own growth as an agent-whole.

If we do not grant this different model of individuation, are we not left with unities, called agencies, which are relatively accidental, accepted by all components until a more convenient one is available?  Is not this suggested by such passages as the following: “The power of on-going rhythmic acts, and the entrainment of smaller cycles by larger ones, is the main principle of integration in organic structure” (p. 354)?  Strife is justice, said Heraclitus. I should wish to contend (and often I think Langer does) that the justice of unity is its strife—and especially if artistic experience is to be used as a paradigm.

(vii) Much more needs to be said of course.  But in closing perhaps I can summarize the counter-suggestive view of unity and self-continuity of act and individuation—what I might call temporalistic self-sustaining unity.  Any organic or psychic act-unity (or agency) worthy of the name, is sufficiently complex, both as actual and potential, to enable it to interact with its ambient in a way consistent with its own given telic potential.  If it cannot, it dies; it goes out of being.  But if it lives it maintains its self-identity as far as possible, not simply by conserving itself, but by “increasing” itself.  Again, its own existence at any moment hangs on whether, in its interplay with its ambient, it can maintain itself against destruction, on the one hand, and creatively sustain its own being by selecting among the nurturant elements in its ambient not as its slaves but renewing itself because of the interaction.

This capacity for self-renewal, for creativity within limits, is a metaphysical postulate that requires further justification.  But unless something like it is hypothesized, one is hard put to account for the unity and continuity, the continuity-within-dynamic-unity, that we do find, I would suggest, both in our experience of ourselves as persons, and in the forms our experience takes when we are “engaged” in aesthetic creation and appreciation.  It is this quality of personal agency—reflected in artistic and moral experience in particular—that “shines by its own light.”  I prefer to face the problems in dualism (if need be) than surrender to even a fascinating attempt to understand it as a form of the organic. Nevertheless, I look forward to the metaphysical vision Susanne Langer will spread before us in her second volume.  For in such systematic integration the human venture in metaphysics is inspired and sustained.

Peter A. Bertocci page