Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Process Studies, 26:1-2, 1997, 62-85. 

Anthony Flood

November 25, 2008


Whitehead’s Influence on Susanne Langer’s Conception of Living Form

Donald Dryden


Susanne Langer’s first contact with Alfred North Whitehead occurred in 1924, when she was a graduate student at Radcliffe.  In the years that followed, his continuing presence as a teacher, lecturer, writer, dissertation advisor, colleague, and friend interacted with other important influences to shape the subsequent direction of her philosophical development, leading eventually to the formation of the project of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling in the mid-1950s.

Langer dedicated her best-known work, Philosophy in a New Key, to “Alfred North Whitehead, my great Teacher and Friend.”  But as Langer herself pointed out in the preface, “the writings of the sage to whom this book is dedicated receive but scant explicit mention” (PhNK xv); and the same is true of the rest of Langer’s published writings.  Whitehead’s name seldom appears, though I will argue that his influence on her work is nonetheless profound and unmistakable.  Beginning in the 1920s Whitehead helped to shape Langer’s perspective on the history of human thought, the origins of the modern world, and the resulting contemporary situation in philosophy, which she presented in her first book, The Practice of Philosophy, in 1930, and which continued throughout her career to influence her understanding of the explanatory demands that guided her philosophical activity.  She shared Whitehead’s belief in the need to transcend the limitations of scientific materialism; and she recognized, as he did, that recent advances in the sciences, together with the exhaustion of the generative ideas that had initiated the modern era in science and philosophy, provided the opportunity for a rebirth of philosophical creativity.

After working out the general theory of symbolization that she presented in 1942 in Philosophy in a New Key, and the comprehensive theory of art that followed with the publication of Feeling and Form in 1953, Langer began to realize that the conception of human mentality she had been trying to develop, and the characteristics of feeling that her study of the arts had impressed upon her, would need to be supported by far-reaching changes in the conceptual underpinnings of biological thought. Throughout this period Whitehead’s general conception of the nature of actuality exerted an indirect influence on the development of Langer’s understanding of the dynamics of feeling and its underlying basis in biological processes.  And beginning in the mid-1950s Whitehead’s concept of the actual entity exerted a catalytic influence on the construction of the conceptual framework—including the pivotal concept of the act—that Langer developed to support the project of Mind.

Langer’s act concept, like Whitehead’s concept of the actual entity, was central to the achievement of an explanatory project that was the final outcome of an evolving constellation of interacting interests and concerns.  Over the course of her career, Langer worked her way back and forth between the fields of art, human mentality, and living nature; and every insight gained in one field reflected back upon and illuminated the others, in a dialectical process that led to an increasing clarification of the essential characteristics of the intricate dynamic patterns variously exemplified in the domains of art, feeling, and living form.  Because I believe that particular concepts cannot be adequately understood without considering the larger purposes they have been developed to serve, I have approached the central problem of this essay—an attempt to provide the background for a comparative understanding of the concepts of act and actual entity—through a comparison of the explanatory projects they supported.  I will therefore begin by presenting a summary of Whitehead’s larger metaphysical project and his reasons for undertaking it.  I will then trace the formation and development of the constellation of interests and concerns whose interactions shaped the course of Langer’s philosophical activity, explaining where and how the achievements of Whitehead’s metaphysical period exerted their influence, and how the resulting interactions eventually culminated in the project of the Essay on Human Feeling.


Scientific Materialism and the Project of Whitehead’s Metaphysics

Whitehead’s metaphysics can be seen as a response to the limitations of what he called “scientific materialism,” which had itself originated as a consequence of fundamental changes in the understanding of matter, motion, body, and nature worked out in opposition to the Aristotelian tradition by thinkers in the 16th and 17th centuries.  As Whitehead described it, scientific materialism presupposed “the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations . . . following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being” (SMW 17); and it involved a fundamental duality between “on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time,” and “on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering” (SMW 55). As worked out in the physics of Descartes, the properties of material bodies could be derived from the divisibility of extended substance and the capacity of individual portions to undergo motion, or change of place; and the motion of an individual body could only be brought about by the impact of some other body that was already in motion.  Since matter itself was devoid of any principle of self-generated change, process or change was excluded from the nature of matter.  This, as Whitehead put it, is the doctrine that “process can be analyzed into compositions of final realities, themselves devoid of process” (MT 96).

But Whitehead extended his criticism to include the more general metaphysical background of European thought, in particular “the notion that the subject-predicate form of statement conveys a truth which is metaphysically ultimate” (PR 137), and that “the final metaphysical fact is always expressed as a quality inhering in a substance” (PR 157-158).  It was this “substance-quality metaphysics,” Whitehead argued, that “triumphed with exclusive dominance in Descartes’ doctrines” (PR 137).

It was Descartes who realized most clearly that the modern conception of physical existence would require a reconstruction of most of natural knowledge; and he demonstrated the possibility of giving mechanical explanations for the phenomena of celestial and terrestrial mechanics, the physical and chemical properties of matter, the composition and function of living bodies, and the complex behavior of animals.  But he also realized that the defining attributes of the mind, as disclosed in his own experience, were incompatible with the properties of matter, and that minds must therefore be essentially incorporeal or nonphysical.

Like Descartes before him, Whitehead realized that the scientific advances in his own time entailed a new conception of the nature of things.  “The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible,” he wrote in Science and the Modern World.  “Time, space, matter, material, ether, electricity, mechanism, organism, configuration, structure, pattern, function, all require reinterpre-tation” (SMW 16).  In criticizing the limitations of scientific materialism, Whitehead did not hesitate to acknowledge “its astounding efficiency as a system of concepts for the organization of scientific research” (SMW 54).  Like all thought, it was based on a set of abstractions; and “it directed attention to just those groups of facts which, in the state of knowledge then existing, required investigation” (SMW 17).  It enabled knowledge in chemistry and physics to be formulated” with a completeness which has lasted to the present time” (SMW 16); but it had become “entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived” (SMW 17).  The development of quantum theory, for example, has confronted us with characteristics of atoms and their constituents that compel us “to revise all our notions of the ultimate character of material existence” (SMW 35).  It was not only in physics, however, that the inherited scheme of thought had become “too narrow for the concrete facts which are before it for analysis” (SMW 66).  The need to move beyond the limitations of current scientific thought into “a wider field of abstraction” had become “especially urgent in the biological sciences” (SMW 66) and in psychology (SMW 16).  But more generally, Whitehead argued, the replacement of scientific materialism by more adequate modes of abstraction “cannot fail to have important consequences in every field of thought” (SMW 36).

In Whitehead’s conception of the nature of actuality the “actual entities” or “actual occasions” are “the final real things of which the world is made up” (PR 18).  There is an inexhaustible multitude of actual entities; and although there are differences among them, they all exhibit the same generic features.  In a break with the tradition of substance-quality metaphysics, Whitehead argued that “the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change is completely abandoned” (PR 29).  The actual entity “is a process, and is not describable in terms of the morphology of a ‘stuff’” (PR 41). Process, in the fundamental meaning of the term, is “the becoming of actual entities” (PR 22); and an actual entity’s “‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming’” (PR 23).  An actual entity cannot exist as an unchanging substance, devoid of process, for a process of change is intrinsic to its existing.  Nor can an actual entity be conceived as anything that is or exists antecedently to its process of becoming, for “the process itself is the constitution of the actual entity” (PR 219).  Hence, “the ultimate realities are the events in their process of origination” (AI 236).

If there is a process of becoming, there must be some agency effecting that process; and as Ivor Leclerc pointed out in his commentary on Whitehead’s metaphysics, the agency that effects “the ‘transition’ or ‘process’ involved in the existence of an actual entity, must be the agency of that actual entity itself” (WM 70).  As Whitehead put it, “there is no agency in abstraction from actual occasions” (AI 294).  Each actual entity becomes by virtue of its own activity of self-creation.  “An actual entity,” as Leclerc explained, “is an acting entity” (WM 70).

The ‘process’ constituting the ‘becoming’, and thereby the ‘existence’ or ‘being’ of an actual entity is a ‘process of activity’, i.e. the ‘process’ involved in ‘acting.’  That is to say, actual existence involves ‘agency’, ‘acting.’ More precisely, actual existence, the existence of actual entities, is constituted by their ‘acting.’ (WM 70)

Because the process of becoming is the becoming of individual actual entities, actuality is not an undifferentiated, unbroken flux of becoming.  There is instead “a rhythm to process whereby creation produces natural pulsation, each pulsation forming a natural unit of historic fact” (MT 88).  Each actual entity is a unit process of becoming that is distinct from all others; it becomes as an epochal whole, with a beginning and a completion, and “each phase of the genetic process presupposes the entire quantum” (PR 89).  And because the being of an actual entity is constituted by its becoming, its being or existence necessarily comes to an end when its process of becoming is completed.  At the conclusion of the process it perishes.

Although the actual entities are thus self-created and atomic, they must not be conceived as wholly independent and separate, each originating out of nothing and succeeding one other without connection.  By the process that Whitehead called concrescence, the actual entity becomes by a “growing together” (AI 236) of the antecedent actualities into a novel unity effected by the agency of the actual entity itself.  “The data for anyone pulsation of actuality consist of the full content of the antecedent universe as it exists in relevance to that pulsation” (MT 89).  Hence, “the whole world conspires to produce a new creation” (RM 99); and the creative origination of actual entities is what Leclerc called “a vastly intricate mesh of interrelationship, in which each individual actual entity, directly or indirectly, inherits from all its antecedents and adds its contribution to all its successors” (WM 210).

In Whitehead’s metaphysics the basic activity of self-causation is not assigned to a single unique, transcendent actuality but is ascribed to each of the many actual entities as the essential characteristic that constitutes their very nature.  Each actuality is thus an individual instance of the generic activity of self-creation and embodies the ultimate metaphysical feature of all actual entities that Whitehead called creativity:

‘Creativity’ is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact.  It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.  It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity. (PR 21)

In Whitehead’s metaphysics, the basic activity of self-creation is generic to all individual actual entities; and the universe contains nothing beyond actual entities, each of which is a unit process of acting.  “Acting” is thus a generic feature of actuality in each of its individual instantiations; and the self-creative activity instantiated in the “act” whereby each individual actuality comes into being is itself sufficient to provide the ultimate ground for the existence of the universe, without the need to posit a transcendent creator.  For Whitehead, being or existence consists in the activity of becoming, which is itself a process of self-creation; and thus, as Leclerc explained, “the ‘existence’ of the universe is constituted by its ultimate nature as a perpetual self-creating activity” (WM 87).  In Whitehead’s words, “the universe is thus a creative advance into novelty. The alternative to this doctrine is a static morphological universe” CPR 222).


Langer’s Philosophical Development

It was Whitehead’s earlier achievements in logic and mathematics that first prompted Langer to seek out his guidance in the writing of her dissertation, and her earliest publications were on logical topics.1 But she also attended Whitehead’s graduate seminar in metaphysics during the fall of 1925, and the impact of some of the themes of Whitehead’s metaphysical period are already evident in her first book, The Practice of Philosophy, published in 1930.2  Drawing on Whitehead’s general historical perspective, as well as on Cassirer’s theory of myth as a stage in the evolution of human cognition, Langer presented the history of philosophy as a succession of epochs, each of which opens with the introduction of some novel “generating idea” (PP 173).  Conceptual novelties that are dawning in the rational consciousness of an era often make their first appearance in what are essentially mythical form because of the extreme difficulty of introducing” an idea which actually transcends all current modes of thinking” (PP 175).

Our first medium of understanding is the significant fiction.  A new idea is dimly apprehended, sometimes by many generations, before it becomes explicit enough to be stated literally and put to systematic rational uses.  Consequently a philosophical doctrine which inaugurates a new intellectual era is essentially a myth. CPA 177)

Langer’s assertion that philosophy “is mythical in origin and scientific in destination” (PP 178) was later echoed in Whitehead’s claim that philosophy is akin to mysticism, which he defined as “direct insight into depths unspoken” (MT 174).  The purpose of philosophy, Whitehead offered, “is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated,” thereby maintaining “an active novelty of fundamental ideas” (MT 174).  “All men,” he argued, “enjoy flashes of insight beyond meanings already stabilized” in language.  It is the role of philosophy—along with literature and the sciences—to find “linguistic expressions for meanings as yet unexpressed” (AI 227).

In Langer’s interpretation, the initially mythical apprehension of conceptual novelties provides new opportunities for rational construction. “Every myth must be redeemed by a scientific inspiration” (PP 211); and it is the task of philosophy to grasp the potential significance of the mythical formulations and to make them available for the purposes of more literal, systematic knowledge.

Langer argued that the real importance of a philosophical system lies in what she called its “logical language”-the conceptual framework, the basic concepts, terms, or primitive ideas in which its assertions are expressed, that determine the limits of formulation that are possible within its terms (PP 170).  In time, when these limits are reached, the problems the system has been able to formulate have received whatever answers are possible within its logical frame, and a period of great philosophical productivity is followed by stagnation and decline. Like a searchlight, a novel perspective at first widens indefinitely, then gradually fades; “the darkness is pushed back, but the new world-construction is fringed again with remote implicit problems that are peculiar to it” (PP 180).  What began with the excitement of a creative, mythical apprehension of unexplored possibilities gradually bogs down in paradox and exhausts itself in an endless round of refutations and counterarguments.  It is then that “human interest shifts to new problems, and the need of new perspectives becomes imperative” (PP 193).

As Whitehead later observed, “new directions of thought arise from flashes of intuition bringing new material within the scope of scholarly learning” (AI 108).  “An adventure of thought regarding things as yet unrealized” (AI 279) begins with “the leap of imagination [that] reaches beyond the safe limits of the epoch” and “produces the dislocations and confusions marking the advent of new ideals for civilized effort” (AI 279).   “The world dreams of things to come, and then in due season rouses itself to their realization” (AI 279).  At the culmination of this adventure, a certain type of perfection may be realized, and “this type will be complex and will admit of variation of detail” (AI 277).  But “the culmination can maintain itself at its height [only] so long as fresh experimentation within the type is possible” (AI 277), for “even perfection will not bear the tedium of indefinite repetition” (AI 258).  When minor variations have been exhausted, inspiration withers, freshness gradually vanishes, and static, decadent habits of mind replace “the ardor of adventure” (AI 257).   “Advance or Decadence are the only choices offered to mankind” (AI 274); and the only alternative to a slow decline is the creative advance that is inevitably accompanied by introduction of discord—” the positive feeling of a quick shift of aim from the tameness of outworn perfection to some other ideal with its freshness still upon it” (AI 257).  Because the nature of things is such that” no static maintenance of perfection is possible” (AI 274) and “there is no totality which is the harmony of all perfections” (AI 276), a living civilization can only be sustained by “the vigor of adventure beyond the safeties of the past” (AI 279). Adventure is essentially “the search for new perfections” (AI 258), and “without adventure civilization is in full decay” (AI 279).  The world is always “passing into a new stage of its existence” (AI 273); and although there are periods of “culminating greatness” when a happy balance is attained between “safety and adventure” (AI 173), history also discloses “the tragic transience of supreme moments in human life” (AI 109), for “Decay, Transition, Loss, Displacement belong to the essence of the Creative Advance” (AI 286).

Because the conceptual innovations of the 16th and 17th centuries that launched the modern development of the physical sciences received their most systematic and influential expression in the philosophical writings of Descartes, Langer referred to the last three centuries as “the Cartesian Age” (PP 196).  She pointed out that “not only all our traditional problems, but all our insoluble muddles and absurdities can trace their descent from him” (PP 197).  Descartes’ conceptual framework has provided “the logical frame wherein all our ideas are set” (PP 196); and although the modern era has been a period of immense intellectual productivity, Langer argued that “the Cartesian Age has passed its prime.  Its ultimate paradoxes, which mark the limits of a system, have all been reached, its problems have received whatever answers are possible within their logical frame” (PP 197).  Beyond the limits of the Cartesian legacy “we can see only in some radically different light” (PP 195).

In The Practice of Philosophy Langer also introduced the distinction between discursive and non-discursive symbolization that became the central theme of Philosophy in a New Key and provided the basis for her later theory of art.  All understanding, she argued, is based upon the perception of patterns, Gestalten, or forms in the most general sense (PP 166).  Not all the patterns we can appreciate can be expressed in language, however; and other symbolic forms may provide us with meanings that do not lend themselves to expression in the forms of discourse.  Different kinds of symbolic forms are appropriate to different kinds of subject matter; some of them fall readily into the discursive patterns of language, others require more complex presentations.  Works of art, for example, might provide a means of insight into “the endlessly intricate yet universal pattern of emotional life” (PP 161).

Whitehead’s general historical perspective is evident once again in Philosophy in a New Key, where Langer used the metaphor of “the horizon of experience” to argue that “every civilization has its limits of knowledge—of perceptions, reactions, feelings, and ideas” (PhNK 5), and that “the formulation of experience which is contained within the intellectual horizon of an age and a society is determined . . . by the basic concepts at people’s disposal for analyzing and describing their adventures to their own understanding” (PhNK 6). New experiences make their first appearance on the horizons of knowledge and furnish the basis for the conceptual innovations that Langer called “generative ideas in the history of thought” (PhNK 8). All generative ideas have their limits, however, and “the end of a philosophical epoch comes with the exhaustion of its motive concepts” (PhNK 9).  What begins as an exciting intellectual adventure eventually ends in sterile doctrine; and thought stagnates until a further shift of the philosophical horizon opens up another world of questions, and the adventure begins anew:

The mind of man is always fertile, ever creating and discarding, like the earth.  There is always new life under old decay.  Last year’s dead leaves hide not merely the seeds, but the full-fledged green plants of this year’s spring, ready to bloom almost as soon as they are uncovered.  It is the same with the seasons of civilization. (PhNK 17)

In Philosophy in a New Key, Langer argued that philosophy was once again undergoing a far-reaching shift in its fundamental generative ideas as part of a much wider transition within the history of Western civilization. “The springs of European thought,” she wrote, “have run dry—those deep springs of imagination that furnish the basic concepts for a whole intellectual order” (PhNK 293); and the conceptual forms that will emerge to replace them are still “in the mythical phase, the ‘implicit’ stage of symbolic formulation” (PhNK 293). Langer predicted, however, that the philosophical study of symbolization would probably play a central role in “the next season of the human understanding” (PhNK 25):

In the fundamental notion of symbolization . . . we have the keynote of all humanistic problems.  In it lies a new conception of “mentality,” that may illumine questions of life and consciousness, instead of obscuring them as traditional “scientific methods” have done. If it is indeed a generative idea, it will beget tangible methods of its own, to free the deadlocked paradoxes of mind and body, reason and impulse, autonomy and law, and will overcome the checkmated arguments of an earlier age by discarding their very idiom and shaping their equivalents in a more significant phrase. (PhNK 25)

Langer’s naturalistic perspective3 became explicit in Philosophy in a New Key and was combined with her claim—advanced there for the first time—that human mentality cannot be understood as “a highly integrated form of simpler animal activities” (PhNK 29).  Although “the function of symbolic transfor-mation [is] a natural activity, a high form of nervous response,” it is nevertheless uniquely “characteristic of man among the animals” (PhNK xiv) and expresses “a primary need in man, which other creatures probably do not have” (PhNK 40).  The symbol-making function is “one of man’s primary activities, like eating, looking, or moving about” and is “the fundamental process of his mind,” which “goes on all the time” (PhNK 41), expressing itself in the uniquely human activities of language, dreaming, ritual, myth, and the arts.  As a result of the evolution of this capacity, “man’s whole behavior-pattern has undergone an immense change from the simple biological scheme, and his mentality has expanded to such a degree that it is no longer comparable to the minds of animals” (PhNK 31).

Langer also presented the thesis that music might serve as a symbolic formulation of “the ever-moving patterns, the ambivalences and intricacies of inner experience” (PhNK 100-1) that language cannot express.  Musical structures “logically resemble certain dynamic patterns of human experience” (PhNK 226); that is to say, they exhibit formal properties similar to “certain aspects of the so-called ‘inner life’”—“patterns of motion and rest, of tension and release, of agreement and disagreement, preparation, fulfillment, excitation, sudden change, etc.” (PhNK 228). What music reveals is “the rationale of feelings, the rhythm and pattern of their rise and decline and intertwining” (PhNK 238); and a similar function may be performed by the rest of the arts (PhNK 257).

In Feeling and Form, published in 1953, the characteristics of both art and feeling began to emerge with increasing clarity and detail, along with a growing appreciation for the probable foundations of feeling in biological processes.  “The so-called ‘inner life’—our whole subjective reality, woven of thought and emotion, imagination and sense percep-tion—is entirely a vital phenomenon” (FF 127).  The life of feeling

is a stream of tensions and resolutions. Probably all emotion, all feeling tone, mood, and even personal” sense of life” or “sense of identity” is a specialized and intricate, but definite interplay of tensions—actual, nervous and muscular tensions taking place in a human organism. (FF 372)

Consciousness itself, she argued, “is an intensified vitality, a sort of distillate of all sensitive, teleological, organized functioning” (FF 127).  “Vital organization is the frame of all feeling, because feeling exists only in living organisms; and the logic of all symbols that can express feeling is the logic of organic processes” (FF 126).

Langer also began to emphasize that the apparent permanence exhibited by living things is not the passive endurance of an inert material substance but the persistence of a form “made and maintained by complicated disposition of mutual influences among the physical units (atoms, molecules, then cells, then organs), whereby changes always tend to occur in certain permanent ways” (FF 66).  This permanence of form is “always, at every moment, an achievement, because it depends entirely on the activity of ‘living,’” which “is itself a process of continuous change.”  Hence, “the permanence is a pattern of changes” (FF 66).

The basis of organic unity is what Langer called “the principle of rhythmic continuity” (FF 127). Rhythm is the principle “that organizes physical existence into a biological design” (FF 126), beginning with the most basic processes of metabolic action; and although it is widely assumed that rhythm refers primarily to the regular recurrence of similar events, Langer argued that simple periodicities are only a limiting case of the functional involvement of successive events—“the preparation of a new event by the ending of a previous one” (FF 126)”—that is the essence of rhythm in a more general sense.

All works of art—painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, drama, poetry, and other forms of literature—present “the appearance of life, growth, and functional unity” that are “essentially organic” (FF 373); and it is because of their capacity to present the dynamic patterns of living form that the arts can provide “a symbolic presentation of the highest organic response, the emotional life of human beings” (FF 126).  Hence all art “is envisagement of feeling” (FF 380).

Langer recognized that her theory of art raised “many psychological questions . . . some of which might lead right to the heart of anthropology and even biology” (FF 370); and from all the available evidence, the scope and design of the Essay on Human Feeling took shape within a few years of the publication of Feeling and Form in 1953.  By her own account, the project of Mind grew out of an effort to answer the fundamental question of why” artistic form, to be expressive of feeling, [must] always be so-called ‘living form’” (Mind I xv); and Langer soon realized that the answer to this question would require “a new, fairly extensive study of actual living form as biologists find it, and of the actual phenomena of feeling, to which we have at present no scientific access” (Mind I xvi).

Langer began to read extensively in the specialized literature of the biological sciences, and some of the results of her investigations are already evident in the essays that were collected in Problems of Art, published in 1957, and in unpublished manu-scripts from the period.4 While continuing to emphasize the general function of the arts in presenting forms expressive of human feeling, Langer began to explore the dynamics of felt experience in greater detail.  She argued that “the subjective aspect of experience, the direct feeling of it,” is an “aspect of the intricate web of life [that] defies discursive formulation, and therefore verbal expression” (PA 22); and she continued to attack the view that “feeling is a formless, total organic excitement” (PS 94), “a disturbance in the organism, with no structure of its own” (PA 7).  The basic forms of feeling “are vital forms; their coming and going is in the pattern of growth and decline, not of mechanical occurrences; their mutual involvements reflect the mold of biological existence” (PA 46).

As a result of her investigation into the nature of actual living form, Langer became more deeply impressed by the extent to which every part of every cell of a living organism is constantly being broken down and replaced.5  All living things

are characterized by what we call organic process—the constant burning-up and equally constant renewal of their substance.  Every cell, and indeed every part of every cell (and the functionally distinct parts are infinitesimal) is perpetually breaking down, and perpetually being replaced.  The cell, the tissue composed of diverse cells, the organ to which the tissue belongs, the organism that subsumes the organ—that whole vast system is in unceasing flux. (PA 47)

The apparent permanence of a living organism “is not endurance of a material, but of a functional pattern” (PA 48) containing “a myriad of distinct activities represented by [seemingly] permanent structures, and coinciding with each other in ways that seem a miracle of timing and complementation” (PA 49).  And the entire complex network of events that constitutes a living organism is, as Langer had first argued in Feeling and Form, “rhythmically conditioned, sometimes interconnected not only by one chain of events but by many, functioning in many different rhythmic relationships at once” (PA 51).

By 1957, therefore, Langer had become fully convinced of the importance of conceiving of living form as an intricately textured dynamic form, “that is, a form whose permanence is really a pattern of changes, [whose] elements are not independent parts, but interrelated, interdependent centers of activity” (PA 52) held together by multiply coordinated rhythmic interactions.  Langer’s thinking had thus advanced to the point that the influence of Whitehead’s metaphysics could serve as a catalyst for the construction of the act concept and its derivatives, which would provide the conceptual foundations for the project of Mind.


Reconstructing the Foundations of Biological Thought as a Basis for the Theory of Mind: The Act Concept and Its Derivatives

By the time Langer wrote the introductory essay to Philosophical Sketches, published in 1962, the overall conception of the project of Mind and her reasons for undertaking it had fallen into place. Consciousness, or subjectivity, she argued, is the proper subject matter of psychology; but the difficulties of dealing with mental phenomena had forced the discipline to divert its attention to other things, such as overt behavior or the activity of the brain and nervous system, which were thought to be more amenable to scientific investigation.  The methods of psychology, she wrote, “are all evasion and circumvention,” and as a result the discipline is unable “to deal conceptually with its own essential subject matter” (PS 4-5).  “The most pressing need of our day [is] to bring mental phenomena into the compass of natural fact” (PS 25).  This would require “a conceptual framework for the empirical study of mind” (Mind 1 257) that is grounded in the biological sciences (PS 17).  But “our basic philosophical concepts are inadequate to the problems of life and mind in nature” (Mind I xvii), and therefore “our advanced biological theory does not lead systematically into an equally advanced psychology” (OS 315).

The problems facing psychology—and, by implication, the social and cultural sciences on the one hand, and the biological sciences on the other—are “deep seated and conceptual” (GS 316), and reflect the philosophical legacy of the 16th and 17th centuries that Whitehead had called “scientific materialism.”  Concepts borrowed from the physical sciences” do not lend themselves readily to the expression of psychologically important problems” (Mind 1 43).  As Langer had argued many years before, the “springs of imagination” that had furnished “the basic concepts for a whole intellectual order”—the “generative ideas” contributed by Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and the rest of the founders of modern thought—“have run dry” (PhNK 293), leaving us with “the deadlocked paradoxes of mind and body, reason and impulse, autonomy and law” (PhNK 25).  Beyond the limits of the modern era, “we can see only in some radically different light” (PP 195).  But “the introduction of a new concept—of an idea which actually transcends all current modes of thinking, and is truly not a concatenation of old ideas—is always a matter of extreme difficulty” (PP 175).  Because the more familiar uses of language reflect established habits of mind, a really new conceptual formulation is literally “inexpressible by reason of its novelty” (PP 176) and is therefore apt to make its first appearance on the horizons of rational consciousness, “in more or less mythical form.”6

Every great philosophical system “must, in its original form, be regarded as a myth, which sets forth freshly and naively some new point of view [and] reveals new opportunities for rational construction” (PP 178).  Because there is no language to express genuinely new conceptions, their initial formulation is apt to be “clothed in an extravagant metaphorical form.”7  Often “we feel the mythical import of a system which in itself is fantastic” (PP 220). Although we cannot regard the system as literally believable, it nonetheless strikes us as “profound and important” (PP 220) because we sense “the presence of some buried meaning,” which indicates that “the strange doctrine is worthy, not of belief, but of contemplation” (PP 220).

Langer regarded Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” as essentially a myth, a fantastic biological metaphor that was nonetheless profound and important because of the conceptual resources it could provide for her efforts “to break through current forms of thought in biology to form a framework for biological theory which will naturally result in a theory of the human mind.”8  In an unpublished manuscript, Langer refers to White-head’s metaphysics as “a strange creation by a great scientist,” which, like most great metaphysical systems, “goes beyond the inventor’s literal conception; it is a genuine philosophic myth—not an allegory or consciously poetic statement, but a living myth, intended as literal truth.”  The power of all great philosophic myths lies in the novel possibilities for conceptual formulation that they make available to the work of systematic, rational construction; and in the course of creating his “cosmological myth of a divine universe striving for self-realization and enjoying its existence,” Whitehead

proposed or pointed out so many things that hold true for terrestrial life and especially for human feeling, that even a person who finds his metaphysical use of these ideas fantastic may have recourse to his books again and again for the ideas themselves, because of their applicability within biological and psychological contexts.9

Langer believed that “a new conceptual vocabulary” was required “to make a new frame” (GS 316) for thinking about “the problems of life and mind in nature” (Mind I xvii), including what she considered to be “the central problem of . . . the nature and origin of the veritable gulf that divides human from animal mentality, in a perfectly continuous course of development of life on earth that has no breaks” (Mind I xvi).  The biological concepts that would be needed to construct the foundations of such a theory must therefore be “adequate to the greatness of the reality [they are] supposed to make comprehensible” (Mind I xvii). The reality we are trying to understand is feeling—“what is sometimes called ‘inner life,’ ‘subjective reality,’ ‘consciousness’—there are many names for it” (PA 112).  But systematic knowledge of any realm of phenomena requires an initial fund of images whereby the phenomena we are trying to understand can be objectively seen and intimately known, and can furnish us with the kind of empirical data upon which all later scientific work must be based.10

The most serious problem facing a naturalistic study of the mind is “the lack of suitable images of the phenomena that are currently receiving our most ardent scientific attention, the objects of biology and psychology” (Mind I xviii).  Images borrowed from the physical sciences, although suitable to the realm of inorganic nature, do “not fit the forms of life very far above the level of their organic chemistry” (Mind I xviii).  Works of art, however, provide “images of the forms of feeling” that “can rise to the presentation of all aspects of mind and human personality” (Mind I xviii) and are therefore an invaluable source of insight into the dynamics of subjective experience that can serve as a measure of the adequacy of our theories and “a touchstone to test the scope of our intellectual constructions” (Mind I xix).  Indeed, the better one knows the forms of feeling—as revealed in the works created by artists—“the more there is to account for in the literal, sober terms of biological thinking” (Mind I xix).

In constructing the concepts that she hoped would provide the framework for a more adequate biological theory, Langer drew upon the resources of Whitehead’s metaphysics; and following Whitehead’s lead in taking “the event as the ultimate unit of natural occurrence” (SMW 103), Langer built her framework around the concept of the act, which she defined as “an event, a spatiotemporal occurrence” (Mind I 304) that is “the unit of vital process” (GS 316).  The act concept “applies to natural events, of a special form which is . . . characteristic of living things, though not absolutely peculiar to them” (Mind I 261).

In Whitehead’s conception of the universe as a process of creative activity, “actuality is constituted by individualizations of the ultimate creative activity,” and “the creative process consists in individual epochal units of activity, the actual entities, perpetually superseding each other” (WM 209).  The creative activity of the universe is “the realization of events disposed in an interlocked community” (SMW 152), and “the only endurances are structures of activity” (SMW 108).  In Langer’s conception of vital processes, every act “arises from a matrix of other, concomitant acts, and spends itself in the same stream of act-engendered acts as part of the self-propagating process” (GS 317).  Acts are therefore not material parts of a living thing but “elements in the continuum of a life” (Mind I 261); they are always found within “a matrix of activities [that] is a physiological continuum, a living system, presented as a whole by reason of the involvement of its acts with each other” (GS 317).  These and other principles of the structure of acts “set the phenomena of life apart from those of inorganic nature” (Mind I 413).

The act concept enables the biological sciences to make connections with chemistry and physics and therefore allows the study of mind to articulate with the rest of the natural sciences:

The analysis of acts leads one, not to inert permanent bits of matter being rearranged by impinging forces, but to further and further acts subsumed under almost any act with which one chooses empirically to begin.  At length [one eventually reaches] a level of proto-acts—events which belong to chemistry or electrochemistry as much as to biology, because they exemplify the character of acts in many respects, yet not in all. (Mind I 273)

For Whitehead, the process of creative activity is not an undifferentiated flux of becoming but exhibits a “rhythm” or “natural pulsation” (MT 88), in which successive actual entities each have a beginning, reach a completion, and perish.  Every actual occasion is a unit process of becoming that is distinct from all others and becomes as an epochal whole, in which “each phase of the genetic process presupposes the entire quantum” (PR 89).  Similarly for Langer, the sort of thing we call an event “is not simply anything that goes on in an arbitrary segment of time” but is rather “a change in the world having a beginning and a completion” (FF 50).  As a particular kind of natural event, every act exhibits a characteristic sequence of phases that Langer calls the “impulse, rise, consummation, and cadence” (GS 318).  Acts begin with “a formative phase, the impulse” (GS 316), after which

they normally show a phase of acceleration, or intensification of a distinguishable dynamic pattern, then reach a point at which the pattern changes, whereupon the movement subsides.  That point of general change is the consummation of the act.  The subsequent phase, the conclusion or cadence, is the most variable aspect of the total process.  It may be gradual or abrupt, run 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.” (Mind J 261)

Acts are thus “peaks of activity which are centers of recognizable phases, though these have no precise start or finish lines” (Mind I 260); and because they exhibit a characteristic dynamic form that can be empirically found in the continuum of biological processes, they are not artificial units of analysis.  Furthermore, they cannot be regarded as homogeneous but must have internal structure.  “A homogeneous quantity is always theoretically divisible; if it is taken as a unit, it is so by fiat, and then the analytic procedure has an arbitrary basis and is to that extent ‘artificial’” (Mind I 260).  Acts are “units by virtue of inviolable structure” that “cannot be divided without losing their identity,” though they do exhibit an internal structure that can be analyzed; and “a structural center determines and locates each unit” (Mind I 261).  Acts are thus “articulated elements,” distinguishable “within a dynamic whole (i.e., a whole held together only by activity),” which are “indivisible in themselves, and inalienable from the whole, if they are not to give up their identity” (Mind I 272-273).

The act concept is exemplified “at all levels of simplicity or complexity, in concatenations and in hierarchies, presenting many aspects and relationships that permit analysis and construction and special investigation” (Mind I 261).  Indeed, Langer argued that “the manifold biological principles that lie in the formal structure and relations of acts operate throughout the realm of animate nature” (Mind I 415).  Acts “show as much tendency to become expanded and elaborated into wholes as to yield further and further subordinate elements, to the limits of distinguishability” (Mind I 264).  The functional subunits of acts “close in on themselves to present in miniature the typical act form, and in contrary perspective acts merge and grow into whole lives, still maintaining that same essential structure” (Mind I 264).

An act may subsume another act, or even many other acts.  It may also span other acts which go on during its rise and consummation and cadence without becoming part of it.  Two acts of separate inception may merge so that they jointly engender a subsequent act.  These and many other relations among acts form the intricate dynamism of life which becomes more and more articulated, more and more concentrated and intense, until some of its elements attain the phase of being felt . . . and the domain of psychology develops within the wider realm of biology, especially zoology. (Mind I 261)

In limiting feeling to an aspect of specifically biological processes taking place under special conditions—such as those requiring “very complex integrated functions” that are  “likely to be limited to the highest, most elaborated anatomical structures” and probably” always [involve] some nervous tissue” (PS 9)—Langer departed from Whitehead’s more general definition of feeling as “the positive species of ‘prehensions’” (PR 41), whereby items in the universe make a positive contribution to an actual entity’s “own real internal constitution” (PR 41). Langer rejected Whitehead’s metaphysical definition because of her belief that feeling was not a universal characteristic of actuality as such but “an entirely new phenomenon” that emerged “in the evolutionary course of life” (Mind I 444) and was therefore found only in certain kinds of living organisms.

Whitehead’s identification of “positive prehension,” a cosmic principle of process as such, with “feeling” seems to me unfortunate, for it precludes any detailed study of that most interesting phenomenon which distinguishes psychology from physiology, just as the phenomena of organic functioning distinguish physiology from chemistry and physics (the boundaries between sciences being always somewhat fluid).11

Unlike the specialized phenomenon of feeling, however, the basic principles exhibited by acts reappear “on different levels of life and in many different contexts,” and are therefore applicable to “the whole realm of biological sciences,” including “psychology and the historical disciplines” (Mind I 409-410).

Every act arises from what Langer termed a situation which is always a matrix or “stream of advancing acts which have already arisen from previous situations (Mind I 281).  The process whereby distinguishable acts arise from the “constellation of other acts in progress” is a basic causal relation obtaining among acts, which Langer defined as induction (Mind I 281). “One act, or a complex of acts, may be said to induce a new act; ultimately the entire situation, whatever its stage at the time in question, induces any and every act” (Mind I 281).

Outside events which impinge on a living system are also a source of causal influence.  Normally, an external event that makes peripheral contact with the ongoing system of acts “falls at once under the sway of vital processes, and becomes an element in a new phase of the organism; that is, it engenders a new situation” (Mind I 283).  It is the resulting change in the matrix of acts in progress that affects the production of subsequent acts.  “The only way an external influence can produce an act is to alter the organic situation that induces acts; and to do this it must strike into a matrix of ongoing activity, in which it is immediately lost, replaced by a change of phase in the activity.  The new phase induces new distinguishable acts” (Mind I 283).  This “indirect causation of acts via the prevailing dynamic situation” is what Langer calls motivation (Mind I 283).

A change in the situation in the matrix that induces an act is at the same time an integral part of the act itself.  It is this initial phase of the act that Langer terms its impulse.  Langer points out that an impulse is usually thought of as “a homogeneous discharge of energy, the equivalent in animate nature of a force, or impetus, in the inorganic realm” (Mind 1 291).  Because it is a vital process, however, an impulse is far more complex than anything found outside the context of life.  An impulse is an incipient act, “an offshoot of a fluid situation which, because of its unstable character from one moment to another, is probably never altogether determinable” (Mind 1 291).  As the initial phase of an act, however, it “is already an articulated process” (Mind 1291).  An impulse is a store of energy built up within the matrix, a complex pattern of tensions that determines the presumptive shape and scope of the act, giving an “indivisible wholeness” to the course of its actualization.  Once the overall form of an act has been established in the impulse,

all subsequent phases are modes of meting out [the initial] charge, and the end of the act is the complete resolution of the tension. Sometimes an act is complicated in its buildup, that is, a number of more or less independently originating charges summate to create a synthetic high tension; its inception, then, is widely based in the organism, and despite the apparent singleness of the pool, each contributive charge may require its own release; the act, therefore, has to be correspondingly complex.  Also, a tension in process of being spent may be reinforced by a new charge which enters its path and heightens its potential again. (Mind I 268-269)

The great advantage of regarding the impulse as the initial phase or starting point of an act is that “this conception takes one smoothly from the determining conditions to the organic act, because the impulse is the first phase of the act itself, even while it expresses the entire relevant situation” (Mind I 299).  A further advantage of regarding the essential form of an act as established in the formation of its impulse is that it allows for potential acts to be “construed in terms of natural science, which can admit only actual occurrences to its realm of causes and effects” (Mind I 299).  A potential act is an impulse, and as such it is a real, physical event, although it may take place below the threshold of observability by currently available techniques.  Not every impulse, however, is carried out, or actualized. The subsequent development of an impulse “may be wholly suppressed by the actualization of another, incompatible impulse” (Mind I 299); and for every actualized impulse there are usually a numberless crowd of others “which reach only a momentary state of incipience” because some other act “abrogates their expression” (Mind 1303).

Whenever an act is induced by a change in the vital situation, such as the life process itself constantly engenders (thereby motivating an endless stream of acts), it is likely that not only the impulse of that act, but also one or more conflicting impulses or alternative potential acts are formed, which are doomed to speedy abrogation.  This play of impulses forms the dynamic matrix of life, a plexus even more involuted and compounded than the metabolizing, differentiating, ever-changing structure that is the material organism, because the latter consists only of actualized events, but the life comprises also all the potential acts which exist only for milliseconds or less. (Mind I 304)

Whenever a situation gives rise to  “impulses whose realizations would run counter to each other” (Mind I 304), the organism is presented with what Langer calls an option; and she is quick to point out that many options “are presumably decided automatically” (Mind I 304), that is, below the threshold of consciousness.  Indeed, the matrix of impulses at even the lowest levels of biological organization

is so dense that every impulse meets some competition; consequently wherever an actualization occurs there has been an option which the actualization has decided.  This fundamental structure of animate process is what makes life irreversible.  Most options are decided almost instantaneously and by millions, but the fact that potential conflicts lie everywhere indicates that options belong the very nature of acts. (Mind I 436)

In introducing the act concept, Langer had pointed out that the act form itself is not peculiar to vital processes but can often be found in simple chemical reactions that occur outside of living systems.  What distinguishes these events from “true acts” is that “they do not develop into a self-continuing system of actions proliferating and differentiating in more and more centralized and interdependent ways” (Mind I 314).  Every act, therefore, “arises from a matrix of other, concomitant acts, and spends itself in the same stream of act-engendered acts as part of the self-propagating process” (OS 317).  Such a matrix of interdependent and self-propagating activities constitutes what Langer calls an agent.  “An agent is a product and producer of acts; a living being” (GS 317).  Defined in this way, agents “cannot figure as ultimate unanalyzable entities” (Mind I 307) but are built up of acts; and acts, defined as natural events of a particular sort, do not entail the prior assumption of an agent.

In the protracted processes that led to the increasing interdependence of activities and the eventual formation of living systems at the beginning of life, the most important source of functional involvement and continuity that Langer singles out is the establishment of rhythms—a principle she had first discussed in Feeling and Form and had elaborated in greater detail in Problems of Art.

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 uptake for its successor.  It occurs in non-vital as well as in vital processes, but in the latter it is paramount, and reaches degrees of differentiation and intensity unrivaled by anything in the inanimate realm. (Mind I 323)

All the processes involved in biosynthesis, cellular respiration, and intermediary metabolism are “unbroken rhythmic series of acts, largely of a dialectical sort, every cycle engendering its own repetition in completing itself’ (Mind I 325).  By further rhythmic concatenation these acts—which are still close to the molecular level—build into con-tinuous series that are “self-sustaining by virtue of the cyclic structure of their elements” (Mind I 324). At all levels of biological organization, most of the processes we can distinguish

are summations of smaller ones; and the summations take the form of rhythmically concatenated acts, which either summate or differentially interact to produce larger rhythms.  The parabolic curve which expresses the typical act form emerges again and again, at each level of integration, in the physiological rhythms of every organism; and this form, with its main phases of inception, acceleration, consummation and cadential finish, is what makes the rhythmic pattern, and is accordingly the basis not only of the distinguishable unit acts in a continuous activity, but also of their self-concatenation, and the consequent self-perpetuation of the continuum.” (Mind I 324)

Although the “presumptive shape and scope” (Mind I 299) of an act is “prefigured in its impulse” (Mind I 300), the course of its further development is subject to a variety of further influences for which Langer introduced the general term pressions:

“Pression” is a general designation for a class of relations which obtain between situations and acts: those relations that determine the form of an act in the course of its development, i.e., beyond its determination in the generating impulse, and conversely, such as shape a situation for subsequent or sometimes concurrent acts. (Mind I 370)

Beginning with its formation in the impulse, every developing act “presses to actualization,” expanding

as far as its initial impulse and the buffering impulses of acts entrained by it or implementing it can press, and as its situation permits.  Since the most immediate part of its situation is formed by other acts in process or impulses pushing toward actualization, it gathers their impressions as it moves to its own consummation.  Its form, prepared in the impulse, evolves under impression and compression in conflict with contemporary acts, and in the confines of the situation established by its entire past of former acts—back to the beginning of life.  If the conditions it encounters do not let it come to consummation as a whole, it is repressed; it may be consummated belatedly, or some of its elements may find their own expressions or be dispersed to other superacts.  If it never, or scarcely, gets under way from its central impulse at all, it is suppressed, and its abortive dynamism adds itself to the unanalyzable matrix of the agent. (Mind 1376· 377)

Seen from the perspective provided by Langer’s conceptual framework, the advancing course of life emerges from “the pressure of billions of impulses, ever pushing to actualization in every single organism, entering or failing to enter the moving stream of acts that constitutes the life of the agent, and beyond the agent, the stock, and enfolding the stock, the whole teeming life process on earth” (Mind I 377).  At every level, a living system is seen as “a fabric of burgeoning acts, in literally billions of pressive relations which automatically adjust the elements of that incredibly complex dynamism to each other” (Mind I 370).

Langer concludes that the principles governing both evolution and development “spring from the nature of acts” (Mind I 371), for the patterns of developmental and evolutionary processes are” inherent in acts, and in all the complexes they form: lives, populations, stocks, and finally the whole history of life on earth that we usually mean by ‘evolution’” (Mind I 371).  “The causes of evolution lie in the dynamic properties of acts and act-engendered entities” (Mind I 408).  Hence, evolution is primarily “a pattern of acts rather than of the anatomical changes that form the record of acts” (Mind I 396).


Conclusion: Langer’s Use of Whitehead’s Metaphysics

It is important to distinguish Langer’s indirect use of Whitehead’s metaphysics from a detailed, systematic application of Whitehead’s metaphysical categories.  In Process and Reality, Whitehead defined his metaphysics as an “endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (PR 3).  A metaphysical system is adequate, in Whitehead’s definition, if “everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme,” and “there are no items [of experience] incapable of such interpretation” (PR 3).

Since Whitehead himself made no attempt to demonstrate the complete adequacy of his system, many of his followers have taken on the task of extending its applicability by offering systematic interpretations of particular domains of inquiry.  Thus Donald W. Sherburne, in A Whiteheadian Aesthetic, undertook what he called “an attempt to operate with Whitehead’s categories” (WA 4) in order “to bring the aesthetic interests into relation with Whitehead’s concepts” (WA 7).  Although he conceded that “Whitehead’s system undoubtedly requires many modifications” (WA 8), Sherburne considered his own work as contributing to “a verification of the claim, made by Whitehead, that his system is applicable and adequate as well as coherent and logical” (WA 8); and he hoped that his book would “encourage further attempts to rework the Whiteheadian categories, where needed, in an effort to achieve maximum coherence as an ever firmer foundation for demonstrated applicability” (W A 8), thereby “strengthening the appeal of Whitehead’s philosophy” (WA 5).

In contrast to this more doctrinaire “Whiteheadian” approach, Langer regarded Whitehead’s metaphysics as richly suggestive but did not take his categoreal scheme as the basis for her work.  She did not offer a Whiteheadian psychology, a Whiteheadian evolutionary biology, or a Whiteheadian foundation for the cultural and social sciences.  The most fruitful method of establishing general propositions, she argued, “is that of progressive generalization from concepts that prove fertile in a limited way, that is, concepts which tend to expand and gradually become applicable to more and more phenomena” (Mind I xxi).  Although the generalization of systematic knowledge in this way is often done by scientists, it is “philosophical in essence” because it depends upon the construction of adequate concepts, and “philosophy is the construction of concepts to work with” (Mind I xxi).

In addition to drawing upon the resources of Whitehead’s metaphysics, therefore, Langer looked at the working vocabulary of research biologists, geneticists, physiologists, evolutionary theorists, and field zoologists (Mind I 264) and argued that the act was among “the basic concepts with which the biological sciences at all levels tacitly and happily operate” (Mind I 262).  The widespread, if tacit, recognition of “the act as the basic phenomenon” (Mind I 264) in the realm of life was an example of what Langer called the process of “prephilosophical abstract conception” that is often “involved in the thinking of empirical scientists” (Mind I 271).  It is to these concepts that “professional philosophers who concern themselves with the nature of life and mind,” as well as “philosophizing scientists themselves” (Mind I 262), should look when constructing more fundamental concepts, for “concepts which serve without stint or hazard in a limited field, where they are freely mingled and manipulated, should be capable of some consistent logical formulation in wider systematic thought, such as is the philosopher’s business” (Mind I 271).

Susanne Langer referred to Alfred North Whitehead as her “great inspirer” (Mind I 336, n 53), as well as her “friend and revered teacher” (PS 104).  In constructing the conceptual framework for the Essay on Human Feeling, Langer was guided by what she called “the mythical import” of Whitehead’s metaphysical vision, which she regarded with a “reverence” that she took to be “inspired by the presence of some buried meaning” (PP 220).  Langer believed that Whitehead’s metaphysics, like all great philosophical systems in their original form, could reveal “new opportunities for rational construction” (PP 178) and was therefore “profound and important” (PP 220).  Rather than become caught up in what she regarded as the “bootless controversy over the literal value of its essentially figurative propositions” (PP 178), Langer aspired to be the creative thinker who “snatches at the dimly suggested, dynamic concept under all these phantasms, and makes language conform to the needs of its expression” (PP 180).  Although we may fail to comprehend some genuinely new idea when it is initially presented to us in mythical form, Langer advised that “the most enlightening way of reading metaphysics” (PP 220) is to take seriously our intuition of its significance, for it indicates that a metaphysical system we may not regard as literally plausible is nonetheless worthy of contemplation.  “With increased mental adroitness, long familiarity, and more imagination, we shall find its significance, and frame it in words—use the notion, express the philosophy, which our forerunner merely dreamt” (PP 221).  This was the lasting gift of Whitehead’s metaphysics to the project of Mind.



1 Langer entitled her doctoral dissertation “A Logical Analysis of Meaning” and was awarded the Ph.D. in philosophy from Radcliffe in 1926.  That same year her first published article, “Confusion of Symbols and Confusion of Types,” appeared in the journal Mind, after Whitehead had submitted it with his endorsement to the editor, G. E. Moore.  It was a criticism of the theory of types that Russell had developed in the second edition of Principia Mathematica.  Two additional articles on logical topics soon followed in the Journal of Philosophy: “Form and Content: A Study in Paradox” in 1926, and “A Logical Study of Verbs” in 1927.

2 The Practice of Philosophy was Langer’s first book in philosophy.  She had published a collection of her own stories for children, The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales, in 1923.

3 For a further discussion of Langer’s fundamental commitment to a naturalistic perspective, see my article on “Susanne K. Langer and American Philoso-phic Naturalism in the Twentieth Century,” Trans-actions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 33 (1997): 161-182.

4 See “Philosophical Implications of the Theory of Art Contained in Feeling and Form,” “Reconsidering the Function of Symbols,” and “Symbolism and Human Mentality,” in the Susanne K. Langer Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

5 Langer discusses this general characteristic of living things at greater length in the first volume of Mind, where she cites some of the research that led to its discovery (Mind I 320).

6 Susanne K. Langer, “De Profundis,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie 28 (1974) 453.

7 Susanne K. Langer, “The Lord of Creation,” Fortune Magazine, (January 1944) 154.

8 Langer, In James Lord, “A Lady Seeking Answers,” New York Times Book Review, (May 26, 1968) 4.

9 Langer Susanne K. Langer, “On Whitehead,” (Unpublished manuscript, n.d.), Susanne K. Langer Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

10 “Our first acquaintance with the material of any research has to be negotiated by images which organize and present the phenomena as such, for it is always phenomena that we ultimately wish to explain, and this requires detailed empirical knowledge.  Such knowledge cannot be gathered without some systematic device whereby observations can be made, combined, recorded and judged, elements distinguished and imaginatively permuted, and, most important, data exhibited and shared, impressions corroborated” (Mind I 68).  An image shows us how something appears; and “only an image can hold us to a conception of a total phenomenon, against which we can measure the adequacy of the scientific terms wherewith we describe it” (Mind I xviii).  Without an adequate image of the phenomena we are trying to understand, “we cannot ask questions about the empirical data with which knowledge begins, because the image enters into the objectification of the data themselves.  Unless they are objectively seen and intimately known we cannot formulate scientific questions and hypotheses about them” (Mind I 65).

11 Susanne K. Langer , “On Whitehead.”



AI           Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas. [The text contains the abbreviation, but the published list of references omits the title.]

FF           Susanne K. Langer. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.

GS          Susanne K. Langer. “The Great Shift: Instinct to Intuition.” Man and Beast: Comparative Social Behavior. Eds. John F. Eisenberg and Wilton S. Dillon. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971 (313-332).

Mind I    Susanne K. Langer. Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.

MT          Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought. [The text contains the abbreviation, but the published list of references omits the title.]

PA          Susanne K. Langer. Problems of Art. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.

PhNK     Susanne K. Langer. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

PP         Susanne K. Langer. The Practice of Philosophy. New York: Henry Holt, 1930.

PS          Susanne K. Langer. Philosophical Sketches. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962.

RM          Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making. [The text contains the abbreviation, but the published list of references omits the title.]

SMW      Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World. [The text contains the abbreviation, but the published list of references omits the title.]

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