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From International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4, December 1994, 419-432.

Posted June 6, 2008


Langer, Language, and Art

Jerry H. Gill


Suzanne K. Langer needs no introduction for those who are the least bit acquainted with the field of aesthetics.  Her efforts to construct a comprehensive and articulate approach to the philosophy of art are as impressive as they are influential.  In addition, Langer’s concern to combat the effects of the monolithic and reductionistic emphases of modern logical empiricism are to be commended.  She has sought to overcome such philosophic intolerance by establishing a legitimate space for art and emotive expression alongside of logical and empirical expression.  Langer has systematically and cogently maintained that the former is every bit as important and cognitive as is the latter; art and science are construed by her as “separate, but equal.”

In this essay I would like to focus on Langer’s overall philosophy of art in terms of her fundamental distinction between the nature and function of language and art, respectively.  This distinction constitutes the true axis of her approach to and vindication of art as a significant cognitive dimension of human life.  Moreover, and ironically, it is precisely the absoluteness of this distinction that creates a fundamental tension or inconsistency within Langer’s overall philosophy as well.  In the latter part of this essay I shall seek to pinpoint both the cause and the effect of this tension, along with offering some suggestions concerning its resolution.  One hopes there are better ways to avoid reductionism than by resorting to the sort of dualism that characterizes Langer’s contrast between language and art.



The axis of Langer’s philosophy of art is her absolute dichotomy between the discursive and expressive functions of human symbolic communication.  The discursive function is served by language while the expressive function is served by art.  This all-encompassing dualism radiates throughout and controls every aspect of Langer’s systematic effort to understand and formulate the nature and meaning of aesthetic activity and prehension.  Although she acknowledges that both forms of communication arise from human consciousness and its attempt to articulate the various dimensions of human experience, Langer clearly thinks that there is a fundamental difference between those aspects of human life which pertain to “inner,” subjective experience and those that pertain to the “outer,” objective experience.  Discursive communication deals with the latter, while expressive communication is apropos of the former.

Here is how Langer introduces her notion of discursive thought and language:

The most astounding and developed symbolic device humanity has evolved is language.  By means of language we can conceive the intangible, incorporeal things we call our ideas, and the equally inostensible elements of our perceptual world that we call facts.  It is by virtue of language that we can think, remember, imagine, and finally conceive a universe of facts.  We can describe things and represent their relations, express rules of their interactions, speculate and predict and carry on a long symbolizing process known as reasoning.  And above all, we can communicate, by producing a serried array of audible or visible words, in a pattern commonly known, and readily understood to reflect our multifarious concepts and percepts and their interconnections.  This use of language is discourse; and the pattern of discourse is known as discursive form.  It is a highly versatile, amazingly powerful pattern. It has impressed itself on our tacit thinking, so that we call all systematic reflection “discursive thought.”  It has made, far more than most people know, the very frame of our sensory experience—the frame of objective facts in which we carry on the practical business of life.1

There is nothing surprising or original in this characterization of linguistic symbolization.  Through language we are said to “conceive” of ideas or names, “describe” objects in the physical environment, whether present or not, “represent” relationships between things, which constitute “facts,” stipulate rules of logic for the “reasoning” process, et cetera.  As Langer says at the close of the above quotation, discursive speech provides the form or framework whereby we structure and communicate about the sensory, factual aspects of our experience.  She goes on to add that this form of symbolization has rather strict limitations since it cannot communicate well, if at all, the subjective aspects of consciousness and inner perception.  Our knowledge of these dimensions of human experience, says Langer, “defies discursive formulation, and therefore verbal expression . . . . it is unspeakable, ineffable; according to practically all serious philosophical theories today, it is unknowable” (PA 22).  We shall return to the obvious, and to my way of thinking, unfortunately “positivist” flavor of such remarks a bit later on.

Langer introduces the expressive function of symbolic communication in the following manner:

A work of art presents feeling (in the broad sense I mentioned before, as everything that can be felt) for our contemplation, making it visible or audible or in some way perceivable through a symbol, not inferable from a symptom.  Artistic form is congruent with the dynamic forms of our direct sensuous, mental, and emotional life; works of art are projections of “felt life,” as Henry James called it, into spatial, temporal, and poetic structures.  They are images of feeling, that formulate it for our cognition.  What is artistically good is whatever articulates and presents feeling to our understanding. . . .  Form, in the sense in which artists speak of “significant form” or “expressive form,” is not an abstracted structure, but an apparition; and the vital processes of sense and emotion that a good work of art expresses seem to the beholder to be directly contained in it, not symbolized but really presented.  The congruence is so striking that symbol and meaning appear as one reality. (PA 25-26)

Langer takes great care to emphasize that she is not thinking of expression in art as certain “emotivist” philosophers have spoken of ethical and/or religious discourse.  For her, art functions as a symbol system through which artists formulate and express the idea of various feelings, rather than merely releasing or venting them.  These feelings are expressed through presentation in symbol form in art, rather than signified through representation in discursive speech.  In a sense, Langer can and should be understood as engaged in an effort to broaden the meaning of the term “symbol” so as to designate more than the mere communication of information and concepts by means of representation.  In the vocabulary of current discussion, it might be said that she is concerned with understanding symbolic activity more in terms of semiotic than syntactics and semantics.  As she puts it:

According to the usual definition of “symbol,” a work of art should not be classed as a symbol at all.  But that usual definition overlooks the greatest intellectual value and, I think, the prime office of symbols—their power of formulating experience and presenting it objectively for contemplation, logical intuition, recognition, understanding.  That is articulation, or logical expression.  And this function every good work of art does perform. It formulates the appearance of feeling, of subjective experience, the character of so-called “inner life,” which discourse—the normal use of words—is peculiarly unable to articulate, and which therefore we can only refer to the general and quite superficial way. (PA 132-33)

Although she clearly wants to separate the functions of language and art as forms of symbolic formulation, Langer does indicate that they both arise within the metaphoric mode of communication. She maintains that metaphor is the pivotal process for the growth of human understanding since “it is the natural instrument of our greatest mental achievement—abstract thinking” (PA 104).  In discursive communication, we move from the familiar to the unfamiliar by means of metaphorical expressions, which extend the conceptual meaning of common terms by connecting them up in unfamiliar and surprising ways.  Langer says:

When we use a word for breath to mean the element of life, we use it metaphorically, just as when we use words like “brilliance,” “enlightenment,” and other expressions literally referring to light, to denote intelligence.  Originally these are all metaphors directly conveying an image; and it is the image that expresses the new insight, the nameless idea that is meant.  The image, the thing actually named, is the literal meaning of the word; the metaphorical sense is the new concept which (when it is first encountered) no word in the existing vocabulary literally denotes. (PA 105)

In like manner, according to Langer, our efforts to present the feel and structure of our “inner life” through symbolic expression follow a similar metaphoric pattern.  At this crucial juncture, however, Langer makes an interesting, albeit puzzling move.  Rather than see this common rootage in the metaphoric mode as a way to unite discursive and expressive communication, she contends that metaphor itself transcends language and is, thus, to be understood as exclusively presentational and expressive, rather than in any way discursive.  This is how she puts it:

The principle of metaphor is simply the principle of saying one thing and meaning another, and expecting to be understood to mean the other.  A metaphor is not language, it is an idea expressed by language, an idea that in its turn functions as a symbol to express something.  It is not discursive and therefore does not really make a statement of the idea it conveys; but it formulates a new conception for our direct imaginative grasp. (PA 23)

This move is puzzling because metaphor is universally classified as a linguistic device or genre within language, but it is interesting to see the way Langer employs it as a crucial feature of the transformative process in art.  In addition, however, this move strikes me as both unfortunate and problematic, because it betrays a shallow understanding of linguistic communication on Langer’s part.  Once again, it will prove fruitful to return to this issue a bit later on.

In general, then, Langer views language as an indirect, representational symbol system by means of which we formulate logical and factual relationships that exist in the physical world and conceptual thought.  Nouns are used to label and refer to objects and qualities, verbs to depict actions, and sentences to represent the relationships among them, be they physical or conceptual.  The focus in language is on semantic and syntactic meaning and sequential and consistent thought, all represented by various conventional symbols and patterns (PA 130-31).  “Language is the symbolic form of rational thought. . . . The structure of discourse expresses the forms of rational cognition; that is why we call such thinking ‘discursive’” (PA 124-25).  According to Langer, the symbols comprising language all function in a “non-iconic” fashion—they do not embody their own meaning, they merely signify it.

It is scientific activity, of course, which has given rise to the refinement and ever-increasing power of discursive communication (PA 174). As the necessities of practical life become increasingly complex, it becomes necessary to refine and develop our vocabularies and theories in order to deal with fresh discoveries and inventions. Thus our discursive symbol system must become increasingly abstract and generalized. In this way it becomes farther and farther removed from the experiential dimensions of existence. In other words, since discursive communication is inherently indirect and representational, the symbols and their various patterns can actually take on a life of their own at the purely conceptual level.

The symbol system involved in artistic expression, on the other hand, is “iconic” in nature, and thus it directly presents the context and structure of “felt life.”  “Artistic expression abstracts aspects of the life of feeling which have no names, which have to be presented to sense and invitation. . . . Form and color, tone and tension and rhythm, contrast and softness and rest and motion are the elements that yield the symbolic forms which can convey ideas of such nameless realities” (PA 94-95). In Langer’s view the artist draws upon his or her understanding of a particular aspect or contour of the emotional dimension of experience and finds a way to express this understanding in the elements of a given medium which serves as its symbolic formulation.  The work of art in question constitutes the artist’s creation, a “virtual reality” above and beyond the specific materials and physical features of the given medium.

In the same way as the work of art transcends the mere “stuff” out of which it is created, so the feeling expressed by the work must be distinguished from the individual emotions of both the artist and the prehender.  The creative imagination and skill of the artist enable him or her to render or “transform” the imitative and/or emotional specifics involved in and with the work into an aesthetic entity or “apparition.” In Feeling and Form, Langer puts it this way:

The purpose of abstracting vital forms from their natural exemplifications is, of course, to make them available for unhampered artistic use.  The illusion of growth, for instance, may be made in any medium, and in numberless ways: lengthening or flowing lines, that represent no live creatures at all; rhythmically rising steps even though they divide or diminish; increasing complexity of musical chords, or insistent repetitions; a centrifugal dance; poetic lines of gradually deepening seriousness; there is no need of “imitating” anything literally alive in order to convey the appearance of life.  Vital forms may be reflected in any elements of a work, with or without representation of living things.2

Initially, in Feeling and Form, Langer spoke of works of art as “symbolic forms” which express concrete feelings.  This locution, however, has the disadvantage of entangling one in all of the conceptual and psychological confusions surrounding the notion of “symbols.”  Upon shifting to the term “significant form,” made famous by Clive Bell, Langer once again became uneasy, this time because of the overly informational connotations of the word “significant.”  In like manner, she was unhappy with speaking of the “meaning” of a work of art; both of these terms seemed to have too many direct ties to signification and representation.  On the advice of Melvin Rader and Ernest Nagel respectively, she switched to speaking of “expressive form” and its “import,” rather than of “significant form” and its “meaning” (PA 127).  “A work of art is an expressive form created for our perception through sense or imagination, and what it expresses is human feeling” (PA 15).

Art, then, according to Langer, is the formulation of iconic images, which embody their import rather than refer to it, out of the elements afforded by a given physical medium.  What is created are “virtual entities” or “apparitions” whose reality is rendered no less real by the fact that they transcend the physical dimension of experience.  These “apparitions” formulate and express a non-discursive import, one which goes beyond even the illusionistic and/or symbolic character possessed by a given work.

All such elements, however, are genuine symbols; they have meanings, and the meanings may be stated.  Symbols in art connote holiness, or sin, or rebirth, womanhood, love, tyranny, and so forth. These meanings enter into the work of art as elements, creating and articulating its organic form, just as its subject-matter—fruit in a platter, horse on a beach, a slaughtered ox, or a weeping Magdalene—enter into its construction.  Symbols used in art lie on a different semantic level from the work that contains them.  Their meanings are not part of its import, but elements in the form that has import, the expressive form.  The meanings of incorporated symbols may lend richness, intensity, repetition or reflection or a transcendent unrealism, perhaps an entirely new balance to the work itself.  But they function in the normal manner of symbols: they mean something beyond what they present in themselves. (PA 136)

It should be noted that although she understands language and art to be quite separate modes of communication, Langer insists that they both involve abstraction and cognition.  For language, abstraction takes the form of generalization, while for art it remains concrete.  This difference is related to that between the representational character of language and the presentational quality of art.  What is represented can be symbolized by general descriptions and formulae, but whatever is presented can be symbolized only in concrete specifics.  Cows and quarks, for instance, can be represented by words like “cow,” “angus,” and “bovine,” or “quark,” “76.3,” etc., in sentences describing their characteristics and behavior.  Any painting or drama involving cows or people, however, must incorporate particular instances thereof.   These artistic creations, nonetheless, remain abstract in the sense that they also “go beyond” the particulars with respect to the feelings they communicate by means of the “virtual reality” which they present.  Langer says:

To create a sensory illusion is, then, the artist’s normal way of making us see abnormally, abstractly.  He abstracts the visual elements of experience by canceling out all other elements, leaving us nothing to notice except what the virtual space looks like. This way of achieving abstraction is different from the usual way practiced in logic, mathematics, or science.  In those realms, i.e., the realms of discursive thinking, the customary way to pass from concrete experience to conceptions of abstract, systematic relation patterns is through a process of generalization—letting the concrete, directly known thing stand for all things of its kind. (PA 32)

In addition, according to Langer, the end result of both discursive representation and expressive presentation, in language and art, respectively, is a form of cognitive understanding.  In the former case what is involved is rational conception, while in the latter case it is artistic perception.  In connection with this aesthetic version of cognitive activity, Langer introduces the notion of “intuition.”  Artistic perception is not based on an inductive or deductive process as a process of sequential thought.  What is perceived in an art work is grasped directly, rather than indirectly, by means of insight.  Here is a passage which is typical of Langer’s approach to this issue:

But vital import, or artistic expressiveness, cannot be pointed out, as the presence of this or that color contrast, balance of shapes, or thematic item may be pointed out by the discerning critic.  You apprehend expressiveness or you do not; it cannot be demonstrated.  One may demonstrate that such-and-such ingredients—chords, works, shapes, or what-not—have gone into the structure of the work; one may even point out pleasant or harsh sensory effects, and anybody may note them.  But no one can show, let alone prove to us, that a certain vision of human feeling (in the widest sense of the word “feeling”) is embodied in the piece. This sort of feeling, which is not represented, but composed and articulated by the entire apparition, the art symbol, is found there directly, or not at all.  That finding of a vital import is what I mean by “artistic perception.” It is not the same thing as aesthetic sensibility; it is insight. (PA 60)

It seems clear that Langer is not using the notion of intuition in any mystical or mathematical sense. She borrows John Locke’s interpretation of this cognitive faculty, reserving it for that “fundamental intellectual activity comprising all acts of insight or recognition of formal properties, of relations, of significance, and of abstraction and exemplification” (PA 66).  It is more basic or primordial than beliefs about truth and falsity—it simply is and is grasped as it is.  One might suggest that Langer could also draw here on Aristotle’s notion of intuition as that faculty which renders inductive activity possible and/or Kant’s concept of “mother wit” out of which arises the “categories of the understanding.”  At any rate, Langer connects intuitive activity with aesthetic prehension in the following manner:

Such perception is, I think, intuitive.  The import of a work of art—its essential, or artistic, import—can never be stated in discursive language.  A work of art is an expressive form, and therefore a symbol, but not a symbol which points beyond itself so that one’s thought passes on the concept symbolized.  The idea remains bound up in the form that makes it conceivable.  That is why I do not call the conveyed, or rather presented, idea of meaning of the sensuous form, but use the philosophically less committal word “import” to denote what that sensuous form, the work of art, expresses.

The act of intuition whereby we recognize the idea of “felt life” embodied in a good work of art is the same sort of insight that makes language more than a stream of little squeaks or an arabesque of serried inkspots.  The great differences between artistic import and meaning in a strict sense, lie in the disparity of the symbolic modes to which, respectively, they belong. (PA 67)



The chief area of difficulty, as I see it, in Langer’s philosophy of art pertains to the viability of those art forms which take language as their medium, namely, poetry and creative writing.  On the face of it, given the way she has systematically dichotomized language and art as modes of communication, it would appear that Langer has essentially eliminated the possibility of such art forms.  This is, of course, a rather shocking result, and a result which might well cause one to doubt the wisdom of such a thorough-going separation between art and language.  Langer, herself, seems aware of the negative potential of such a conclusion, and she wrestles mightily to overcome it without dismantling her overall position. In order to trace her efforts in this regard, we must return to her point of departure, that is, to her claim that both art and discursive expression “spring from the same root, namely, the impulse to symbolic expression” (PA 177).  Langer asserts that both representational and presentational symbolism arise from the urge to go beyond established cognition and usage, to express realities and relationships for which we do not already have appropriate symbols, to communicate about the unfamiliar by means of stretching and bending the familiar.

It will be recalled that Langer suggests that in such situations we resort to metaphor, a device which lies at the root of both discursive and expressive communication (see PA 23 quoted above, pages 421-22).  Surely that is a peculiar and puzzling statement for Langer to make, that “metaphor is not language.”  It is, to be sure, necessitated by her insistence that language and art be thought of as absolutely distinct, if poetry and story are to be preserved as viable art media.  The main device in all linguistic art would seem to be metaphor; thus either metaphor must be viewed as not language, per se, or all so-called linguistic art must be set aside.

Langer’s rationale for this bold and paradoxical exclusion of metaphor from language as such is to be found in her particular account of how metaphors operate.  As concrete items in any expressive symbol system, metaphors play off of the conventional use of discursive terms in order to “say one thing and mean another,” thereby mediating and symbolizing a reality entirely distinct from that referred to at the discursive level, a fresh “virtual reality.”  See, for example, PA 105 (quoted above, page 421).

In the final essay in Problems of Art, Langer directly addresses poetry as a creative art form. After offering some interesting musings about the philosophy of language in the twentieth century, musings to which we shall return in the final section of the paper, Langer faces the question of how poetry, which on one level is clearly comprised of words and formal patterns, actually transcends their discursive function in creating an “apparition” at the level of creative art.  She focuses on the formulative function of language as distinguished from the discursive function by means of which the poet is said to have “transformed” the symbols involved into vehicles of emotional expression rather than information.  This transformative process is described in the following way:

Language is the material of poetry, but what is done with this material is not what we do with language in actual life; for poetry is not a kind of discourse at all.  What the poet creates out of words is an appearance of events, persons, emotional reactions, experiences, places, conditions of life; these created things are the elements of poetry; they constitute what Cecil Day Lewis has called “the poetic image.”  A poem is, in precisely his sense, an image.  This image is not necessarily visual; since the word “image” has an almost irresistible connotation of visualness, I prefer to call the poetic image a semblance.  The created poetic semblance need not be a semblance of corresponding actual things, facts, persons, or experiences. It is quite normally a pure appearance, a sheer figment; it is essentially a virtual object; and such a virtual object is a work of art.  It is entirely created.  Its material is language, its motif, or model, usually discursive speech, but what is created is not actual discourse—what is created is a composed and shaped apparition of a new human experience. (PA 148)

Langer demonstrates how this process works in the case of Robert Browning’s infamous little song in Pippa Passes:

The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;

The year’s at the spring

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven —

All’s right with the world!

She argues, quite cogently, that the rhythm and structural form of this poem are more crucial to its significance, or “import,” than are the representational symbols out of which it is constructed.  Far from being an affirmation of Browning’s confidence in God’s omnipotence, and a hymn of “Christian fatalism,” this poem expresses the emotional acknowledgment that everything is ready for a fresh adventure, by means of the implicit metaphor of a maritime roll call, an “All present and accounted for, Sir!”  Langer rightly insists that we pay attention to the sound of the poem.

An odd structure: each short line a complete statement, and in the first three lines the same colloquial turn of phrase, shifted from one colorless assertion to another until, in the third occurrence, it sounds artificial; then, the first image.  The pattern of the verses is insistently schematic: three lines saying something is “at” something, then a statement of condition; three more lines saying something is “on” or “in” something, and another statement of condition, this time entirely general, universal.  What does it sound like?—A roll call for “all aboard.”  This man is here, that man is there—one at this, one at that—the side is clear; each on his post, the captain up there in his place—she’s trim! (PA 156)

On the basis of such insights and analyses, Langer concludes that in poetry and creative writing the words employed do not function in their normal, discursive manner, but serve rather as the elements out of which the artistic apparition is created, much like notes and chords or paints and canvas are employed in creating music and paintings.  This is what she means when she says that “metaphor is not language.”  Because the linguistic artist seeks to express specific feelings in the “virtual reality” created out of the words used, the latter do not represent any real, outer reality, but rather mediate an aesthetic import to the prehender.  Langer explains:

Poetic statements are no more actual statements than the peaches visible in a still life are actual dessert.  The real question is what the poet makes, and that, of course, depends on how he goes about it.  The task of poetic criticism, then, is not to learn from any and all available records what was the poet’s philosophy, morality, life history, or psychosis, and to find the revelation of his own experiences in his words; it is to evaluate his fiction, the appearance of thought and feeling or outward events that he creates. (PA 152)

An interesting parallel to this posture toward poetry and creative writing can be found in Langer’s treatment of dance as an art form.  Here, too, she wants to stress the idea that what is created in dance transforms the physical particulars constituting it, namely, the specific bodies and movements involved, into a “virtual reality” or “apparition” which transcends these physical particulars.  “The physical realities are given . . . .  All these are actual.  But in the dance, they disappear; the more perfect the dance, the less we see its actualities” (PA 6).  Thus the bodies and movements of the dancers are similar to the words employed metaphorically in the linguistic arts, according to Langer.  To put the point in Plato’s idiom, they are but the “occasions” within or out of which the work of art arises.

Langer never gets very specific about how this transformative and mediational process works.  The way in which words, paints, sounds, marble, film, bodies, etc., by virtue of being arranged according to certain formal patterns, actually create another aesthetic reality is not made very clear.  Perhaps this is as it should be, since a degree of mystery is necessary to account for emergent reality in any dimension of human experience.  It does seem, however, that especially with respect to the logic of metaphor Langer could go a good deal further toward clarity while still avoiding reductionism in the arts. There are thinkers who have shed a good deal of light on the topic and on whom Langer could have drawn in her treatment of the linguistic arts.  We shall consider some of these in the next section of the present paper.  We can conclude this section with the following summation by Langer of her overall point of view regarding the nature of artistic expression:

It means to make an outward image of this inward process, for oneself and others to see; that is, to give the subjective events an objective symbol.  Every work of art is such an image, whether it be dance, a statue, a picture, a piece of music, or a work of poetry. It is an outward showing of inward nature, an objective presentation of subjective reality; and the reason that it can symbolize things of the inner life is that it has the same kinds of relations and elements.  This is not true of the material structure; the physical materials of dance do not have any direct similarity to the structure of emotive life; it is the created image that has elements and patterns like the life of feeling.  But this image, though it is a created apparition, a pure appearance, is objective; it seems to be charged with feeling because its form expresses the very nature of feeling.  Therefore, it is an objectification of subjective life, and so is every other work of art. (PA 9)



In spite of her creative and insightful efforts to explain away the problem posed for the linguistic arts by her sharp separation between language and art, I do not think Langer has succeeded.  In my view her insistence on this dichotomy distorts and impoverishes both art and language as fundamental dimensions of human experience.  Moreover, as we have learned in the political arena, “separate but equal” usually turns out to mean less than equal for one branch of any such division.  Within the philosophical arena this policy invariably leads to the very sort of “second-class” citizenship for the arts that Langer is seeking to avoid.  In her efforts to establish artistic formulation and expression as fully cognitive alongside of logic and science, she has bought into the philosophical presuppositions that gave rise to the very “positivism” which initially banned the arts, along with ethics and religion, from the domain of cognitivity by labeling them “emotive” in nature.

To begin with, for all of its insight and eloquence with respect to the nature of artistic creation and prehension, Langer’s philosophy of art distorts and impoverishes the aesthetic dimension of experience by limiting it exclusively to the expression of feelings.  It surely is possible to acknowledge that the emotional thrust of art is a vital, if not the most vital, aspect of its character, without going so far as to claim that this is its only purpose or effect.  At the heart of Langer’s position lies the belief that emotional awareness can in fact be cognitive in its own right, and this commitment empowers her thoroughgoing dualism.  I am convinced, however, that this means of legitimizing the cognitivity of the arts is as wrong-headed as it is ineffective since it distorts our understanding of emotional life.  Far better is that approach proposed by Israel Scheffler in his book In Praise of the Cognitive Emotions.3

My main concern here, however, is not with understanding correctly Langer’s treatment of the emotional dimension of life, but with her view of language in relation to art.  Specifically, I would suggest that her chief difficulty stems from her shallow account of the dynamics of the metaphoric mode of expression.  As many of the quotations in the previous sections clearly indicate, when Langer speaks of the process by means of which the “materials” or the physical particulars constituting a given medium become elements in a work of art, she views it as a fundamental or ontological “transform-ation.”  Moreover, she invariably goes on to claim that after this transformation takes place, and the work of art exists as a “virtual reality” in its own right, then the prehender no longer perceives or experiences the materials or physical particulars. There is, indeed, a strong element of Platonic dualism at large in Langer’s position.

This dualism is especially troublesome in her account of the role of metaphor in the linguistic arts. For here she is forced to say that “metaphor is not language” to maintain that the conventional meanings of the words employed in a poem are essentially irrelevant to its formal structure and import as an aesthetic reality.  Surely this is at best confusing and at worst blatant nonsense.  To be more specific, in her analysis of Browning’s poem the insight into its “All present and accounted for, Sir!” character does not negate the fact that this roll call pertains to certain aspects of the creation and to God the creator—and that our awareness and appreciation of this poem hinges on our knowledge of the conventional meanings of the terms used to designate these aspects, including the term “God.” If this were not the case, Browning could have used any words whatsoever, and surely Langer would not wish to assert such an obviously self-stultifying conclusion.

What has gone wrong here is that Langer has failed to acknowledge that in the transformative process by means of which the materials of a given medium become aesthetic elements and thereby give rise to a work of art, these materials also continue to function as physical particulars.  The physical dancers involved in creating a dance do not cease to be or be seen as dancers, nor do paints, sounds, or stones cease to exist in the physical dimension of human experience.  Rather, by means of the transformative process, the aesthetic dimension is mediated in and through the physical dimension.  More pointedly, the words employed in creating a poem do not cease to function according to their conventional meanings, but the poem’s aesthetic import arises out of these meanings, is supervenient to them.  Thus, metaphorical expression has and must have double meaning.  But in following out the a priori dictates of her initial commitment to the absolute separation between language and art, Langer has been forced to deny, or at least ignore, this symbiotic character of aesthetic awareness in general and of metaphorical expression in particular.

As I indicated earlier on, it seems clear that the root of the problems with Langer’s overall philosophy of art, as provocative and powerful as it is, lies in her acceptance of the presuppositions which underlie, rather than counteract, the positivism of the twentieth century.  In brief, this boils down to buying into the “picture theory” of meaning as propounded by the likes of Bertrand Russell in his “Lectures on Logical Atomism,” Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth, and Logic.  Langer’s acceptance of this brand of positivism, with its fundamental commitment to cognitivity as representational and informative, is clearly evident in her early and highly influential book Philosophy in a New Key.  The following passage from this book serves as a case in point:

Since any single sense-datum can, logically, be a symbol for any single item, any arbitrary mark or counter may connote the conception, or publicly speaking: the concept, of any single thing, and thus denote the thing itself.  A motion of fingers, apprehended as one united performance, became the name of a substance to little deaf-and-blind Helen Keller. A word, likewise taken as a sound-unit, becomes a symbol to us, for some item in the world.  And now the power of seeing configurations as symbols comes into play: we make patterns of denotative symbols, and they promptly symbolize the very different, but analogous, configuration of denoted things.  A temporal order of words stands for a relational order of things.  When pure word-order becomes insufficient, word-endings and prefixes “mean” relationships; from these are born prepositions and other purely relational symbols.  Just as mnemonic dots and crosses, as soon as they denote objects, can also enter into diagrams or simple pictures, so do sounds, as soon as they are words, enter into word-pictures, or sentences.  A sentence is a symbol for a state of affairs, and pictures its character.4

Rather than question the basic and debilitating dualism inherent within this view of language offered by “logical empiricism,” Langer accepted it and then sought to establish artistic expression as parallel to and equally cognitive as representational expres-sion.  Such an effort, no matter how valiant, was doomed to failure from the outset.  Thus, shying away from the reductionism implicit in a “substitutionist” view of metaphor, the view entailed by logical positivism, Langer opted for the unhappy conclusion that “metaphor is not language.”  To make a long story short, Langer was backed into a corner by her initial acceptance of the “picture theory” of meaning, a corner which forced her to deny, or at least overlook, the symbiotic character of all human symbolic expression, including and especially that of the metaphoric mode.

As is well-known by now, the crucial short-coming of the view of expression and cognitivity upon which Langer chose to ground her philosophy of art is its incredibly narrow understanding of the nature and function of linguistic communication.  In order to overcome both the specific and foundational difficulties in her philosophy of art, Langer needs a much broader and deeper view of how language actually works in human experience.  Specifically, such a view must take into account (1) the many and varied non-representational uses of speech, (2) the primordial character of the metaphoric mode, and (3) the axial character of gesture in all forms of expression.  Let me conclude with a brief presentation of these three themes.

The later work of Wittgenstein has both provided and spawned an entirely fresh appreciation for the vast multiplicity of linguistic expression.  The notions of “language-game” and “family resemblances” have virtually revolutionized our understanding of the use and meaning of language.  Moreover, Wittgenstein’s reflections on the nature and grounds of cognitivity5 have triggered a wide variety of explorations into the role of social acknowledgment6 in the “construction” of both knowledge and reality. Furthermore, J. L. Austin’s investigations7 into the performative character of much linguistic communication have gone a long way toward dissolving the monolithic hegemony of the “picture theory” of meaning.  The acknowledgment of the importance of “illocutionary” (purpose) and “perlocutionary” forces (response) in the determination of linguistic meaning essentially undermines the neat dualisms inherent within the philosophy to which Langer’s approach is tied.

More specifically, it is now possible to see that the dichotomy between discursive and expressive modes of communication is as impossible as it is unnecessary.  Each and every form of linguistic expression must be understood as comprised of several dimensions or forces acting simultaneously to create the meaning appropriate to the context. Thus, representation cannot be parsed off from the other functions of human discourse as neatly as Langer maintains; nor can the emotive force or presentational quality of aesthetic expression be said to stand independently of discursive form.  For example, while the utterance “the door is open” can serve equally well as a literal description, a metaphorical invitation or encouragement, and as an imperative meaning “close the door,” it can also function as an example in a philosophy class, a private joke among students who are tired of this example, and as a metaphoric warning signal.  Moreover, these various “meanings” overlap, intertwine, and trade off of each other in fascinating and generally intractable ways.

To take one more example, consider the evolution of the images surrounding the names given to O. J. Simpson, the great football star of a few years back. Seeking to avoid his given name (Othinel [sic: “Orenthal” was meant.—A.F.] James), while in college Simpson went by his initials “O. J.”  This coincided with the Californian nickname for orange juice, so Simpson became known as “The Juice.”  A few years later as a professional, the offensive linemen who did the blocking for Simpson began to call themselves “The Electric Company,” trading on the children’s television program of the same name. When asked why they chose this name for themselves, the players answered “Because we bring you the Juice.”  The criss-crossing of the metaphorical images and meanings even in this relatively simple example defies the strict dichotomy between discursive and expressive communication.

Langer herself suggests an interesting antidote to the narrowness entailed in such a dichotomy, but unfortunately she never follows it up.  In the midst of expounding her dualistic view, she does acknowledge that a deeper understanding of the manifold character of linguistic meaning is needed, and she mentions the seminal work of Ernst Cassirer and Benjamin Lee Whorff in this regard.  She actually says: “More promising, however, than the semantical approach to poetry is the approach from poetry to semantics” (PA 150).  She then proceeds, however, to insist that poetry is not discursive but formulative and creative, completely unrelated to description and/or the communication of information (PA 151). This does not signal an approach “from poetry to semantics,” but rather it marks a veering away from semantics altogether, a complete separation of the two.

Had Langer followed up on her own suggestion, she might have discovered the primordial character of poetic and/or metaphoric expression in relation to every form of human discourse.  Although space will not permit even an initial exploration of this important theme, it may prove helpful at least to mention two thinkers who have developed the poetic approach to semantics adumbrated by Langer.  One pioneer in this investigation is Owen Barfield, whose book Poetic Diction8 is devoted to establishing and exploring the various levels of metaphor at work in everyday as well as theoretic discourse.  More recently, Mark Johnson, in his book The Body in the Mind,9 has provided a veritable tour de force in analytic philosophy by way of demonstrating that even the more precise language of science and philosophy is grounded in and continues to trade off of deep or “root” metaphors embedded in ordinary language.  Rather than coming after literal speech as a means of illustrating and embellishing it, metaphoric expression must come first since so much of literal speech is composed of dead metaphors.

Finally, the phenomenological work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty10 has gone a long way toward tracing the anchorage of all speech in bodily gesture and onomatopoeia.  The conceptual bridge between embodiment and movement as the fundamentally human mode of existence and literal or discursive speech is clearly the metaphoric mode.  Bodily perception and orientation are our means of finding our place and our way in both the physical and social environment, and thus any symbolic communication and expression must derive from this axis.  Since it is logically impossible to begin language with precise meanings, the initial significance level must be that of ambiguity and vagueness.  Such open-texture provides the very heartbeat of metaphoric expression, which in turn may lead to more precise or literal speech.  This progression is clearly evident in a child’s initial acquisition of language.  At first all meanings are discerned in relation to bodily movement and audial and visual perception.  Every symbol “means” many things.  Gradually symbols are associated with increasingly discrete aspects of the environment, but the overlap and stretch factors remain constant.  Eventually a child learns to separate out these various levels and functions, but as Wittgenstein reminded us, no language is ever “complete.”

The point of all this in regard to Langer’s philosophy of art is to indicate how necessary and possible it is to broaden one’s view of the nature of language by incorporating the axial character of metaphoric expression at square one.11  After having separated language and art at the outset, Langer was hard pressed to explain the place and function of metaphor.  By beginning with metaphor, however, as the primordial mode of human expression, she not only would have been able to provide a more satisfying account of how metaphors work, but she would have been in a position to develop a more integrated, holistic philosophy of art.



1 Problems of Art (New York: Scribners, 1957), p.21; hereafter PA. I have relied most heavily on this book of Langer’s, since it reflects a more succinct and refined version of her philosophy of art.

2 Feeling and Form (New York: Scribners, 1952), p.310.

3 New York: Routledge, 1991.

4 Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1942), p.16.

5 See especially On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969).

6 Everything from N. R. Hanson’s The Pattern of Discovery (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1958) and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970) to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979) and Hilary Putnam’s Mind, Language and Reality (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975).

7 See especially How To Do Things With Words (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962).

8 Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973).

9 Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987.

10 See especially his Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Humanities Press, 1961).

11 See my “Metaphor and Language Acquisition,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 24, no. 2 (1986). 

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