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From Process Studies, Vol. 26, January 1998, 107-125.

Posted June 11, 2008


From Metaphysics to Art and Back: The Relevance of Susan K. Langer’s Philosophy for Process Metaphysics

Rolf Lachmann

A superficial evaluation of the relevance for one another of Alfred North Whitehead’s and Susanne K. Langer’s philosophies could go like this: whereas Whitehead’s philosophy centers around the development of a metaphysical system, Langer’s philosophy centers around a philosophy of mind. Metaphysics and philosophy of mind are separate philosophical disciplines.  Therefore, the question whether they relate to one another does not seem to be very promising.

But such a position would be in sharp contradiction to Whitehead’s and Langer’s understanding of the nature of philosophy, and it is possible to sketch a totally different picture of their projects.  According to Whitehead, metaphysics must include an interpretation of the whole range of human experience and human knowledge.  Therefore, Whitehead’s philosophy of organism includes a philosophy of mind.  Whitehead’s philosophy of mind, particularly his theory of symbolism, influenced Langer’s philosophy of mind.  Moreover, in later life Langer saw the decisive task of her work on the human mind in the attempt to develop a theory of the “life of the mind” which she constructed in terms of a process philosophical framework.  Finally, Langer always maintained the inevitability of metaphysics. Looked upon in this way, Whitehead’s and Langer’s philosophies stand in a close systematic relationship.

As usual, such simplifying sketches have both an aspect of truth and of falsehood.  In the following I intend to show how Langer’s theory of symbolism, particularly her theory of presentational symboliza-tion, can be understood as an application of one of the central positions of Whitehead’s metaphysics. Because of the particular assumptions of Langer’s theory of symbolism, her concept of presentational symbolization, and particularly of the art symbol, served as the starting point for her development of a theory of life.  This theory has strong parallels to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and is an important contribution to “process thought.” However, my ultimate goal is to assess whether Langer’s philosophy can also be regarded as a contribution to “process metaphysics.” For this I must first sketch Whitehead’s understanding of the nature of metaphysics.


Whitehead’s Concept of Metaphysics

Whitehead saw the goal of his philosophy, which he developed from the beginning of his American period in 1924, in the development of a metaphysical system.  Metaphysics is an attempt to attain the deepest and most comprehensive understanding of the nature of being.  Understanding the ultimate nature of being is the utmost and most ambitious philosophical goal.  One reason for this is that a metaphysical system, as Whitehead understands it, has to base its interpretations on the most basic experiences of, and insights into, the nature of reality as they are articulated for example in religious language.  Over and above that, a metaphysical system must be able to interpret all forms of knowledge as well as our everyday life experiences. “Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (PR 3).  The necessity of attaining an all-encompassing interpretation of everything that is accessible to the human mind makes the construction of a metaphysical system very difficult.  The goal of providing an interpretation of the whole range of our experience can be reached only by means of a sufficiently abstract conceptual scheme.  Whitehead draws attention to the necessity of an abstract theory as essential for metaphysics. “By ‘metaphysics’ I mean the science which seeks to discover the general ideas which are indispensably relevant to the analysis of everything that happens” (RM 72).  In another passage Whitehead stresses the same idea but also indicates the difficulty of explicating metaphysical truths.  “Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities” (PR 8).

Therefore, the construction of a metaphysical system cannot proceed as a mere integration of available knowledge.  Our everyday life knowledge is related to the particular circumstances and necessities of our ordinary pursuits.  Since metaphysical statements refer just to those characteristics which are exemplified in everything that happens, they are widely neglected by the basic principle of our perception: the “method of difference” (PR 4).  Because of their universal exemplification, metaphysical characteristics possess some kind of irrelevance for practical purposes.  Therefore, metaphysical characteristics are the outcome of a difficult effort of articulation and expression.  This method can be complemented by the method of “imaginative generalization” (PR 5). Starting from a particular field of observation the evinced characteristics may be capable of generalization for the construction of a metaphysical system.

Ordinary language basically fulfills practical tasks.  Therefore, it is not suitable for the construction of a metaphysical theory.  On the other hand, philosophical concepts are misleading because of their connotations and misleading associations due to their previous theoretical usages.  Therefore, in developing a new theory there is always a question whether the available concepts are sufficient for the task or whether one has to create new concepts with new meanings.  The particular kind of knowledge at which metaphysics aims forces us to recognize the unsuitability of ordinary language, and the available philosophical concepts are laden already with theoretical connotations.  Hence, the construction of a metaphysical system demands an analysis and criticism of meanings: “‘rational metaphysics’ . . . criticizes meanings, and endeavours to express the most general concepts adequate for the all-inclusive universe” (RM 71).  Metaphysics and the criticism and construction of meanings are tightly interwoven.

The difficulties for the realization of such a metaphysical system are impressive.  However, Whitehead even adds another aspect.  The final philosophical goal is the development of an “explanatory metaphysics” (FR 30).  Accordingly, philosophy has not fulfilled its overall task by the mere explication and systematization of the most general characteristics of all being.  Over and above that, philosophy has to discover the intrinsic nature, the ultimate causes and directions of all being and becoming.  The realization of this aim necessitates a consideration of the subjective, value-laden, and teleological nature of human consciousness as a clue to the inner nature of being.  The feasibility of such a project is the essence of what Whitehead calls philosophical “rationalism.”  The basic question of philosophy is understood fully only when it is understood as a question concerning the explanatory principles.  “Philosophers are rationalists.  They are seeking to go behind stubborn and irreducible facts: they wish to explain in the light of universal principles the mutual reference between the various details entering into the flux of things” (SMW 142).  It is this much more penetrating aim which Whitehead designates by the concept of “explanatory metaphysics” and gives the full meaning to the sentence: “The final problem is to conceive a complete [παντεληζ] fact” (AI 158).  An explanatory metaphysics is reached through the development of an abstract conceptual scheme which also interprets the internal, subjective and value-oriented nature of being.  It demands an adequate conception of the “complete” nature of “being” and “becoming.”

The basic idea in Whitehead’s answer to this metaphysical question is that being is essentially relational.  Thereby he rejects one of the leading ideas of modern natural philosophy; namely, the assumption of a passive and isolated substance which needs nothing but itself in order to exist.  The assumption of a substantial existence is supported by our language and everyday life experience.  In particular, ordinary language demands, through its syntax, that every activity be done by an actor and that every process presupposes an enduring substrate.  Thereby we are led to believe that we live in a world of things which do not change and whose being is not affected by their surroundings. According to this belief, relations are always “external relations.”  They are not essential to individual being. In the contexts of our everyday life, this belief proves to be more or less adequate.  However, as a basic position regarding the nature of being it is wrong. Against the deep-seated conviction that the relations of a particular thing are external to its being, Whitehead tries to prove that all relations are internal to its being; they constitute its very essence. Every being is constituted by its relations to other beings in its individual nature.  This is the core of Whitehead’s criticism of the notion of passive and isolated substances which he rejects as an understanding of “simple location.”  Enduring things are not uniform, undifferentiated and persisting realities but have to be conceived of as vast societies of processes in which defining characteristics are permanently reproduced.  The whole range of being, down to subatomic events, is to be understood as the processual and rhythmic constitution of individuals. The general structure of the processual units, the “actual entities,” is Whitehead’s central topic.


Langer’s Theory of Presentational Symbolism

In order to understand Langer’s evaluation of Whitehead’s development of his metaphysical system since 1924, one has to consider that Langer’s philosophical orientation was moulded by her studies in symbolic logic.  However, through her teacher Henry M. Sheffer, Langer had been introduced to Josiah Royce’s very broad understanding of logic and thought it was a promising approach.  The center of this approach is the concept of “form”: “Logic is the science of forms as such, the study of patterns” (PP 83).  Langer saw the fecundity of this broad conception of logic in the fact that it not only promised to account for the whole range of human knowledge and understanding as realized in language, science, and mathematics, but that it also implied a more encompassing theory of the human mind.  “Logic” makes it possible to see other forms of symbolization such as art, myth, and ritual as genuine forms of human understanding.  Meaning, according to Langer, is constituted by the recognition of forms and the use of some forms for the representation of other formal aspects.  One can trace back to the very beginning of her philosophical work Langer’s expectation and hope that this broad conception of logic could be the starting point for a fruitful and penetrating interpretation of the whole range of human existence (including myth, ritual, dream, morality, and psychological and social phenomena).

The center of her interest, however, was art. Langer aimed to show that art is essentially a particular form of understanding and she tried to discover the “logic” of its symbolical nature.  Her first interpretation of art as a particular form of symbolization (found in The Practice of Philosophy) is based on a general theory of meaning, which Langer claimed to be implicit in Whitehead’s Symbolism and in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philoso-phicus.  Her revised and very influential theory of symbolism in Philosophy in a New Key is characterized by a fundamental shift: the concepts of symbol, meaning, and form remain central, but her new theory is no longer based exclusively on the paradigm of symbolic logic.  Besides the logical and discursive mode, there is another fundamentally different mode of symbolization.  At the center of her new theory is the distinction between the “discursive” and “presentational symbolization.”

Her new theory of symbolization can also be understood as the application of a fundamental idea of Whitehead’s metaphysics.  Whitehead’s metaphysical position of the relational constitution of being is the basis of Langer’s concept of the presentational symbol.  This can be shown by a brief sketch of her leading ideas.

According to Langer, discursive symbolization proceeds essentially by the arrangement of stable and context-invariant meanings (words) in order to articulate a new meaning (sentence).  The stability and definiteness of meaning is based on conventional agreements and definitions.1  By means of definitions the meaning of a symbol becomes fixed in various usages in different contexts.  The individual context of such a symbol is “external” to its meaning.  The semantic elements function as a set of variable and manageable but stable “bricks.”  Therefore, the understanding of a composed symbol can proceed in a step by step manner.  For this reason and because of the particular subject-predicate structure of linguistic syntax, such symbolizations lead us to think in terms of self-identical objects.  “Discursive thinking, once started, runs in its own loosely syllogistic pattern from one proposition to another, actually or only potentially worded, but with prepared conception always at hand.  Where it seizes on any material—sensations, memories, fantasies, reflec-tions—it puts its seal of fixity, categorial divisions, oppositions, exclusions, on every emerging idea, and automatically makes entities out of any elements that will take the stamp of denotative words” (Mind I 155).

However, there is another type of symbols which Langer calls “presentational symbols,” and which function according to other principles.  First of all and most important is the fact that presentational symbols are not based on a vocabulary of defined symbols with stable meanings.  The meaning of a picture, for example, is not understood successively by noticing the meanings of all its symbolic elements. It is understood only by grasping the whole articulation at once.  The elements of a picture do not have their meanings fixed independently of the relations in which they stand towards other elements.  What they mean depends upon their position in a particular setting.  Likewise, to use a different example, the meaning of a piece of music can be understood only through perceiving the whole concrete arrangements and interactions of its melodic and tonal elements.  One tone in itself is almost meaningless.  The individual position of any tone modifies the meaning of the whole musical expressiveness.  Hence, the elements of the structure constitute the structure and are at the same time constituted by the relational pattern. Presentational symbols operate with elements which have no context-invariant and stable meaning.  Since the individual elements do not have in abstraction of their position any constant meaning, the meaning of the elements cannot be known or learned in advance. Therefore, an understanding of presentational symbols cannot proceed in successive steps but presupposes a synoptic grasp of the whole relational individuality.2

The meanings of all other symbolic elements that compose a larger, articulate symbol are understood only through the meaning of the whole, through their relations within the total structure.  Their very functioning as symbols depends on the fact that they are involved in a simultaneous, integral presentation. (PNK 97)

Presentational symbols are therefore always singular symbols.  They do not lead to the development of a symbol system (Mind I 84), and allow no definition, translation, or syntactically guided arrangement (PNK 94).

The basic idea of the difference between presentational and discursive symbolization is now clear.  Whereas discursive symbolization works with stable and externally related elements that provide thinking with “substantial elements” and facilitate a “mechanistic arrangement” of “bricks of meaning, presentational symbolization is highly context-sensitive and the outcome of a dynamic interaction of individual elements.  At a first glance, the unhandiness and singularity of the presentational symbols seem to be a major disadvantage of this kind of symbolization.  However, they are particularly apt for the symbolic expression of certain kinds of experience which can be expressed only very inadequately in discursive symbols.  Because of their relational essence, presentational symbols can adequately objectify phenomena which have an analogous nature: the structures, processes, and dynamics of our inner life and feeling.

In order to understand this position one has to consider another assumption.  According to Langer, the basic process of all human thinking and conception is an abstraction of forms and a recognition of formal analogies:

The power of understanding symbols, i.e. of regarding every-thing about a sense-datum as irrelevant except a certain form that it embodies, is the most characteristic mental trait of man-kind.  It issues in an unconscious, spontaneous process of abstrac-tion, which goes on all the time in the human mind: a process of recognizing the concept in any configuration given to experience, and forming a conception accord-ingly.  That is the real sense of Aristotle’s definition of man as “the rational animal.” (PNK 72)

This ability and proneness to abstracting forms begins with human perception and extends into all other and higher forms of human mental functionings.  The recognition of analogies is the essential principle of all symbolization.  Langer uses the concept “intuition” for this basic human ability.

Intuition is, I think, the fundamental intellectual activity, which produces logical or semantical understand-ing.  It comprises all acts of insight or recognition of formal properties, of relations, of significance, and of abstraction and exemplification.” (PA 66)

This principle makes it clear why Langer regards presentational symbols as apt means for the symbolic expression of dynamic and interactively constituted phenomena.  Because of their semantical nature—the relational constitution of their meaning—these symbols have formal characteristics which are also typical for the morphology of our inner life and feeling.  On the basis of this premise, Langer develops an interpretation of the meaning of musical symbols in Philosophy in a New Key and extends it, with some minor revisions, in Feeling and Form, to a comprehensive philosophy of art.

As may be clear by now, Langer’s distinction between discursive and presentational symbolization can be understood as an application of Whitehead’s basic metaphysical position in the context of a theory of symbols.  In contrast with discursive symboliza-tion which proceeds as a “mechanistic-like” articulation of meaning with the help of stable meanings, there is another mode of symbolization which proceeds as an “organismic-like” articulation of meaning on the basis of highly context-sensitive elements.  The central idea of presentational symbolization—the relationally constituted nature of meaning—is the central idea of Whitehead’s organismic philosophy of being as developed in his concept of actual entity.

There is another aspect of Langer’s philosophy of art that can be introduced by referring to Whitehead’s Symbolism.3 Whitehead introduces in Symbolism the distinction between two basic modes of experience Which he calls perception in the mode of “causal efficacy” and perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy.”  The former refers to our direct feeling of the efficacious environment acting upon us.  This feeling is vague but very massive and of high emotional importance.  Thereby we directly feel the existential relevance of our environment upon our being.  Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy, on the other hand, consists of trivial but clear and distinct perceptions of our sense-organs which allow a very differentiated reference to particular aspects of our surroundings.  In our everyday life we use the distinct but trivial perceptions as clues for the anticipation of the massive forces that surround us.

On the basis of this distinction, Langer’s position can be reconstructed in the following way: although in our everyday life we make use of perceptions in their function as signals in order to cope with practical options and necessities, the real use of our perceptions as symbols begins at the point where we transcend the practical attitude.  When this takes place the bonds between perceptions in the mode of presentational immediacy and causal efficacy are dissolved.  We are confronted with distinct perceptions without any practical function.  This renders them meaningless (in terms of practical signification).  But these perceptions are now open for the acquisition of new meaning-relations on the basis of their formal analogy with other experiences. These nonpractlcal experiences are objectified in such free perceptions in the mode of presentational immediacy.  The possibility of this functional shift implies an elementary understanding of art:

The function of artistic belief is not “make-believe,” as many philoso-phers and psychologists assume, but the very opposite, disengage-ment from belief—the contempla-tion of sensory qualities without their usual meanings of “Here’s that chair,” “That’s my telephone,” . . . The knowledge that what is before us has no practical significance in the world is what enables us to give attention to its appearance as such.  Everything has an aspect of appearance as well as of causal importance. (FF 49)

Works of art are the result of the voluntary manipulation of our distinct perceptions (tones, colours, patterns), free of all practical reference, aiming at the articulation and objectification (on the basis of formal analogies) of those ephemeral forms of experience which, because of their dynamic nature, resist any adequate articulation in discursive symbolization.  This abstraction from all practical reference permits our distinct perceptions to become symbols for particular aspects of our experience.


Art as a Heuristic of Living Processes

The publication of Feeling and Form marked a major turning point in Langer’s philosophical work. Despite her wide success, Langer no longer confined her studies to philosophy of art and the nature of symbolization but began to extend her work into new directions.  Her perception of mainstream behavior-ism and the resulting sterility of psychological research led her to focus on a particular implication of her position, something that promised to be a fruitful starting point for the development of a new scientific approach to the human mind.  The relevance of Langer’s philosophy of art stemmed from the fact that behaviorism prohibited any reference to the subjectivity of persons and demanded a restriction of all scientific research to the objective aspects of behavioral reaction.  In her philosophy of art, Langer saw the possibility of referring to our subjective life without thereby falling back into introspectionism.  Art symbols are objectifications of our subjectivity which open the way to a more comprehensive study of psychological and mental phenomena.  Moreover, a systematic study of works of art can help us to construct a conceptual scheme which proves to be adequate for the whole range of subjective life.  This may offer a fruitful starting point for scientific perspectives.  The main reason for this expectation has already been mentioned: the thesis that a symbolic relation is based upon the recognition of an analogy of form between the symbol and the symbolized phenomenon.  In regard to art this means that there is an analogy of form between the work of art and the forms of our “‘inner life’—physical or mental” (PNK 228).

In this sense, works of art have a heuristic relevance for problems of biology and psychology. Langer remarks already in Feeling and Form: “There are many psychological questions, too, that naturally arise, some of which might lead right to the heart of anthropology and even biology.  Such issues I shall reserve for a subsequent work” (FF 370).  According to Langer, the heuristic relevance is supported by the fact that works of art objectify not only our morphology of feeling but of “felt life.”  In order to be able to symbolize patterns of feeling, works of art first have to construct a living matrix, out of which particular articulated structures emerge.  Therefore, works of art must achieve the semblance of “depth,” “growth,” “dynamic going on,” “complexity,” “unity” and “individuality.”  Works of art objectify not only forms of feeling but also basic underlying characteristics of all feeling: “many aspects of life that never rise to feeling may appear in the art symbol” (Mind I 199).

Reaching this point, the depicted strands of argumentation mark a circle.  Beginning with Whitehead’s basic position of an organismic constitution of being, the first step is Langer’s application of this idea in her theory of presentational symbolization.  Since symbolization presupposes a formal analogy between the symbol and the symbolized, one can make the second step as far as the particular nature of artistic symbolization is concerned: organismically constituted works of art can serve as a heuristic for the conceptualization of the organismic nature of “felt life.”  However, this argumentation does not completely come back to its starting point, since Langer does not aim at a metaphyssical system but regards her position as starting point for the scientific understanding of the human mind.  Whether this final step back to metaphysics is a conclusion prepared for in Langer’s philosophy remains to be seen.


Langer’s “Metaphysics of Life”

Langer’s Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling is a contribution to the foundation of the sciences and to the understanding of the whole compass of human phenomena.  In the “Introduction,” Langer develops a sharp criticism of contemporary psychology and the social sciences which have been misguided by Logical Empiricism’s physicalistic and objectivistic methodology.  Against these methodological restric-tions, she insists on the necessity of beginning scientific research with a systematic study of the phenomena in question, in order to develop concepts which prove to be adequate.  The natural sciences, too, did not begin by gathering data but with the development of basic concepts by which the data could be brought into systematic relations.  In the same vein, scientific research into the human mind and human culture has to begin with the construction of working concepts by which the phenomena can be brought into systematic relations, which organize the data in new ways and allow the formulation of interesting hypotheses.

Langer bases her study of the phenomena of human mental life on structures of works of art. Indeed, we all have a direct knowledge about the structures of our inner life.  However, this direct acquaintance is not explicit knowledge.  The most adequate knowledge of the forms of feeling is objectified in works of art.  Although these objectifications do not compose a systematic and integrated understanding, a study of their structures and means of composition can be the basis for the development of a conceptual scheme for the understanding of the forms of feeling and even their underlying processes.  The validity of this heuristic of art is proven in Part II of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, which also exposes the premises of Langer’s theory of symbolism.  Almost all of the concepts and principles which Langer introduces later in connection with biological results, are first derived from her analysis of works of art.  After her heuristic study of art in Part II Langer makes almost no further reference to works of art.  In the succeeding parts of the book, art remains in the “philosophical background” (Mind I 257).

Langer’s aim to develop a biologically based conceptual scheme, “adequate to the greatness of the reality it is supposed to make comprehensible” (Mind I xvii), is centered around the concept of “act.” Acts are spatio-temporal processes.  They always emerge in a stream of other acts and give rise to new ones.  In this role, they are the basic elements of self-maintaining and self-reproducing systems which are essential characteristics of all life.  Acts have a beginning and an end.  They are motivated through an “impulse,” undergo an “acceleration,” and reach a climax at which the act enters into its “consummation.”  The final phase is the “conclusion” or “cadence.”  The indivisible wholeness of an act rests on the fact that its initial phase is the building up of a store of energy which has to be spent by the act.  Acts effect a sometimes minor, but always definite, change in the whole stream of acts out of which arise new acts.  The phenomenon of life is thus understood to consist of interactions and concatenations of myriad acts which, by integration into super-acts, build up all organic functions and behavioral actions.  Acts can be expanded or contracted and even be reduced to a static electro-chemical pattern.  In such a state they can persist for long periods without actualization of their impulse.  The genetic code is nothing but a set of such “frozen” acts which enter their actualization when their environmental conditions become supportive.

Langer puts great emphasis on a detailed definition of the act concept, always proving its aspects both by reference to the phenomena of life and to the concepts and results of biology.  She introduces a number of further concepts which specify the act concept (action, activity, pression, motivation, impulse, facilitation, etc.).  Thereby a differentiated conceptual scheme is introduced which is able to interpret and reinterpret the phenomenon of life and explicate its overall structure.

In addition, Langer refers to a number of “principles” of life.  Principles do not characterize single acts but general tendencies of the act stream. The basic principles are the principles of individuation and involvement which refer to the tendencies of differentiation and separation and to the tendencies of integration and unification.  However, evolutionary processes are never dominated by only one of these principles.  They always show a complex dialectic of both developmental aspects.  In addition to these basic principles, there are a number of other principles by which Langer is able to interpret important features of living processes and relate them to the acts.

This brief sketch of Langer’s conceptual scheme may be sufficient to prove a general point: the act concept and the additional concepts and principles which clarify the act concept are not introduced in order to replace the particular concepts of biological research.  Their task is to be more abstract in order to express the general structural characteristics of all living phenomena.  Langer’s conceptual scheme is an explication of the general structure of all living phenomena.  Hence, her theory can be called a “metaphysics of life.”

As the term “metaphysics of life” indicates, Langer’s theory of act shows in a number of ways a great affinity to Whitehead’s conception of metaphysics and the content of his organicism.  First and foremost, there is a parallel aim of Langer’s theory of act and Whitehead’s metaphysics in so far as both theories are directed to the explication and definition of a conceptual scheme adequate for a whole range of being.  The decisive difference is that Langer does not aim at an explication of the basic structure of all being.  This would lead to a metaphysical system in the strict sense.  Langer restricts her theory to the sphere of life.  As far as the content of their theories is concerned, there is an obvious parallel between the concept of the act and the concept of the actual entity.  Both concepts refer to processual units and are characterized according to their phases and their internal as well as external relations.  Moreover, act and actual entity play a central role in both theories, as Whitehead expressed by the “ontological principle.”  However, since Langer aims at a scientific framework, the concept of act is freed from various functions and interpre-tations which the actual entity has to fulfill because of its metaphysically central position.


Langer’s Concept Of Metaphysics

In the preceding sections it has been shown that Langer’s thought marks a circle: the starting point as well as the result comprise an organismic model which is mediated by her theories of symbolism and art.  However, the organismic theory which serves as her starting point (Whitehead’s philosophy of organism) has a totally different philosophical status than the organismic model which she develops.  The circle is therefore complete in terms of its content but not in terms of its philosophical meaning.  Is it possible to make this move to a metaphysical system in Langer’s philosophy?

At this point it is interesting to consider that Langer never criticized metaphysics.  Quite the contrary, she always regarded metaphysics as an essential and even indispensable philosophical endeavor.  Beginning with her The Practice of Philosophy and up to her final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Langer always maintained that metaphysics, understood in a proper sense, is the ultimate and essential goal of philosophy.  This may be shown in more detail.

Langer’s understanding of the nature and aim of philosophy in The Practice of Philosophy bears a close resemblance to Whitehead’s understanding.  In her critical explication and discussion of various contemporary concepts of philosophy, she comes to the conclusion that the proper goal of philosophy lies in a “synoptic” view of the whole world.  Langer finds a similar view in the following remark by Bernard Bosanquet:

The essence of philosophy lies in the connected vision of the totality of things, maintaining in every point the subordination of every element and factor to every other element and factor as conditioned by the totality . . . . It includes the whole spectacle of life.  And nothing can be affirmed as true in philosophy which does not sustain itself in a thinking process to which the whole of experience is contributory. (PP 15)

The resulting question is, then, how such a synoptic view can be reached.  In answering this question, Langer formulates a thesis which is decisive for her whole philosophical work: philosophy has the same task as any other “rational science”—the “pursuit of meaning” (PP 21)—the critical examination and logical analysis of concepts.  “Pursuit of meaning,” however, is more than just an analysis of concepts and conceptual relations.  Very often, phenomena have been conceptualized in an inadequate way.  Here, misconceptions are only enlarged through mere analysis.  Analysis does not offer any new solutions or conceptual perspectives. Therefore, a purely analytic understanding of philosophy is insufficient.  It has to be complemented by the task of conceptual invention and construction. According to Langer, the major part of philosophy is the construction of new concepts with new implications.  This philosophical goal is fully realized in a metaphysical theory:

A metaphysical system, like a logical system, is an attempt to see all its propositions as implications of a few fundamental, clearly determined notions.  Just as the rational sciences deduce new explicit knowledge from a handful of carefully chosen, accepted premises, so metaphysics tries to comprehend all the working notions of science and of common life, as implications of a few very general tenets. (PP 32)

Here, Langer means by “implications” both the indication of necessary connections with other concepts as well as the “explication” of the new perspectives which result from a new conceptual scheme by virtue of its power of reinterpretation. Both of the central characteristics of Langer’s understanding of the ultimate aim of philosophy—(1) that metaphysics should be synoptic and (2) that it must engage in concept construction—are very close to Whitehead’s understanding of philosophy.

In succeeding expositions, Langer revised this understanding of philosophy showing her strong orientation towards logic.  She later de-emphasized the importance of the logical connections to other concepts as essential for conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, she insisted on the tasks of conceptual analysis and conceptual construction as essential for philosophy and metaphysics.  In Philosophy in a New Key she writes: “metaphysics is, like every philosophical pursuit, a study of meanings” (PNK 85). And again in Feeling and Form: “The business of philosophy is to unravel and organize concepts, to give definite and satisfactory meanings to the terms we use in talking about any subject (in this case art); it is, as Charles Peirce said, ‘to make our ideas clear’” (FF vii).

In later publications, Langer refers frequently to Whitehead’s concept of metaphysics as the search for the most general ideas relevant to all being. Against the objections of positivistic thinkers Langer maintains:

. . . both Lord Russell and Mr. Ryle hold with the positivists and most behaviorists that metaphysical issues should be left alone.  The general conviction of those schools is that metaphysical ideas are irrelevant to science, since they apply to the universe as a whole, about which nothing can be really known.  But the truth is, I think, that all scientific analyses when pursued far enough go down to implicit metaphysical propositions, which need not be about the universe as a whole, but about the nature of things in it.  Whitehead once defined metaphysics as “the most general statements we can make about reality.”  Whether we make them or not, their content is assumed in less general assertions, because they embody our basic concepts; and if these do not fit whatever aspects or items of reality we are talking about, we raise insoluble problems, as in unpurified psychological theory. (PS 6-1)

In this sense, metaphysical notions underlie also our sober formulations of facts: “. . . metaphysical . . . in its perfectly respectable sense of dealing with the basic assumptions implicit in our formulation of ‘facts’” (Mind I, 316).4  At the same time Langer emphasizes the creative nature of metaphysical reflection:

Yet metaphysics is the mainstay of philosophy.  Logic is merely a tool; ethics and aesthetics and the “social sciences” are derivatives from a more general interpretation of experience.  This general interpretation is exactly what we mean by metaphysics.  To say that we have outgrown the need of metaphysics is to say that we have no further need of any interpretation—and that is a momentous statement.  It means that we are satisfied either with the face values of things or with the unconscious interpretations of common sense, and are prepared to go on without philosophy. (EE 772)

In the same vein Langer remarks at the end of the Introduction to Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, confronting the positivists:

But I do not reject or even deprecate metaphysics; only it seems to me to be the natural end, not the beginning, of philosophical work.  A. N. Whitehead once defined metaphysical statements as “the most general statements we can make about reality.”  Such state-ments, to be valid, must be built up by processes of generalization of systematic knowledge, not made on a basis of preconceived generality; and being attained stepwise, they are not likely to be ultimate, but only to be our furthest reaches of thought. Whether this essay attains to any such synoptic view—or even glimpses of truly metaphysical value—will have to be judged at its conclusion. (Mind I xxii)5

This list of passages suffices to prove Langer’s understanding and lifelong high valuation of metaphysics as the ultimate goal of philosophy.

Langer’s primary aim in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling was not the construction of a metaphysical system, although by reason of the above quoted passage, she was not totally guiltless of this misunderstanding.  So Herbert Read, in a book review, understood Langer to be more ambitious: “But her final purpose, which begins with the publication of the present volume, is metaphysical: she has the ambition to present a new philosophical system.”6  Langer felt totally misunderstood and wrote to Read: “what in the world gave you the impression I was offering a new system of philosophy?  The reader, I am afraid, will expect to find a metaphysical system based on aesthetics; . . . my aim is to construct a conceptual framework for all biological thinking, from biochemistry to neuro-psychology.”7  In her answer to Read’s response she continued: “I . . . objected only because you seemed to be ascribing too much to me.  A new system of philosophy implies something applicable to inorganic as well as organic matter, something more comprehensive than I had in mind.”It is not Langer’s primary aim in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling to offer a metaphysical system, but one can question whether it implies novel perspectives for process metaphysics.  This is possible due to (1) Langer’s process-philosophical approach and (2) her affirmation of metaphysics as the ultimate goal of philosophy.  Can we regard the theory of act as a contribution to process metaphysics?


Imaginative Generalization and the Fallacy of Hasty Generalization

This question can be answered in various ways.  On the one hand, whether in accordance with Langer’s own position or not, it seems to be a very plausible and fruitful approach to interpret Langer’s theory of life with regard to its value for a process metaphysics.  Even if it is true that Langer explicitly restricted the theory of act to the interpretation of the structures and dynamics of life, the theory of act could turn out to be valuable also for inorganic existence and even for all being.  In so far as one is willing to see Langer’s theory of act in this way, the outcome shows great closeness to Whitehead’s metaphysics.  However, Langer’s theory results in more than that.  It can also be regarded as the basis for an extension of Whitehead’s metaphysics since it includes a far more developed conceptualization of the developmental tendencies of elementary processes.   Whitehead restricted almost his whole attention to the definition of actual entities, thereby neglecting tendencies in the interaction of actual entities and the resulting developmental directions and dynamics.  To be sure, they are not totally missing in Whitehead’s metaphysics.  He speaks of societies—structured, corpuscular, and noncorpus-cular—and of subservient and regnant nexūs.  However, they are not the focus of his attention and have not been the subject of a comparable differentiated conceptualization.  This is just what Langer’s theory of act does by introducing various principles of life.  The principles of individuation and involvement, and the principles of rhythm, dialectic, entrainment, implementation, pression, facilitation, reduction and extension of acts, the principle of tolerance and others can be regarded as complementing Whitehead’s metaphysics if it can be proven that they are not only relevant characteristics of living existence.9

It is, however, an open question whether Langer herself would have been willing to take that step.  It is explicitly not her aim to use her theory of act so as to draw a fundamental distinction between the spheres of living and lifeless being.  Her only goal is to explicate a structure which can be identified as essential for all life.  Therefore, Langer does not rule out the possibility that the theory of act is also applicable to inorganic being.  Its validity, however, has to be shown by a separate investigation which Langer did not have in mind.  She would have demanded that further investigation.

This gives us a clue to another and decisive point. Langer’s understanding of philosophical work is characterized by a greater methodological discipline and rigor than Whitehead’s.  This concerns various aspects.  First, all her theoretical constructions are based on comprehensive studies of the respective phenomena and their theoretical interpretation, all of which is made explicit by numerous references. Langer’s philosophy of art as well as her philosophy of mind show an intimate firsthand knowledge of the problems and literature.  Secondly, in opposition to the widespread assumption that access to our subjectivity needs no methodological guidance, Langer was aware that our naïve descriptions of our own subjective life are highly suspicious and easily misguided by common sense and ordinary language. She accepts the phenomenological position that the philosophy which studies the study of structures of our inner life has to be guided by method.  However, she diverges from phenomenology by claiming that it is art which, by reason of its peculiar symbolic structure, can provide an adequate approach to subjectivity.

Langer’s shift of emphasis can be shown by another look at the above quoted passage from Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling:

But I do not reject or even deprecate metaphysics; only it seems to me to be the natural end, not the beginning, of philosophical work.  A. N. Whitehead once defined metaphysical statements as “the most general statements we can make about reality.”  Such statements, to be valid, must be built up by processes of generalization of systematic knowledge, not made on a basis of preconceived generality; and being attained stepwise, they are not likely to be ultimate, but only to be our furthest reaches of thought. (Mind I xxii)

No doubt, Whitehead would have supported Langer’s concluding remark that there can be no ultimate metaphysical knowledge. However, the keywords “generalization of systematic knowledge,” “attained stepwise” and the criticism against a “preconceived generality” can be read as an allusive comment on Whitehead.  Langer’s above-mentioned two positions demand a careful step by step procedure, which thereby subdues hasty “imaginative generalization.” Langer never would have written: “In describing the capacities, realized or unrealized, of an actual occasion, we have, with Locke, tacitly taken human experience as an example upon which to found the generalized description required for metaphysics” (PR 112).  She would have seen in such a procedure a far too hasty generalization of particular results. Such a quick shift from particular results to sweeping generalizations fall for Langer under the “fallacy of hasty generalization.”10

This attitude is very obvious in her philosophy of art.  After having developed her interpretation of music as a realm of expressive symbols, she poses the question whether the given interpretation can be extended to provide a general philosophy of art. Langer’s answer is:

[W]e should take warning against the fallacy of hasty generalization—of assuming that through music we are studying all the arts, so that every insight into the nature of music is immediately applicable to painting, architecture, poetry, dance, and drama; . . . A basic unity of purpose and even of general method for all the arts is a very inviting hypothesis, and may well be demonstrable at the end; but as a foregone conclusion, a dogmatic premise, it is dangerous because it discourages special theories and single-minded, technical study.  General theories should be constructed by generalization from the principles of a special field, known and understood in full detail.  Where no such systematic order exists to serve as a pattern, a general theory is more likely to consist of vague generalities than of valid generalizations. (PNK 209-10)

This position is more than a mere stress on methodological discipline.  It implies a cautious attitude in regard to interpretations which are not made sufficiently plausible or validated.  In this respect, Langer obviously held Whitehead’s philosophy to be guilty of too bold and far-reaching positions.  This is evident in a note which Langer wrote in preparation to her Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling: “It [Whitehead’s philosophy] is in some ways faulty; esp., I think, in the treatment of feeling as an ingredient in nature instead of a phenomenon.  This ingredient, or element in nature, is mystical; and Process and Reality is a cosmic myth of biology.11  In this context, it is not Langer’s criticism of Whitehead’s concept of feeling but her general evaluation of Process and Reality as a “cosmic myth of biology” that is interesting.  It implies that she regarded Whitehead’s metaphysics to be unsystematically developed and insufficiently proved.

It would be false to see this cautious and disciplined attitude as a criticism of speculative philosophy.  Langer emphasizes the necessity of speculative philosophical interpretation and sees her work (in regard to a particular range of phenomena) as just such a speculative attempt.  In Part I of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, she writes: “Any science is likely to merge ultimately with physics, as chemistry has done, but only in its mature stage; its early phases have to be its own, and the earliest is that of philosophical imagination and adventure” (Mind I 52).  It seems as if in this sentence one could hear an echo of Whitehead.  Langer develops her concept of act as a speculative conceptual construction.  However, she develops her suggestions and interpretations in close contact with the available scientific data and a methodologically guided envisagement of the phenomena which she wants to explain.  Her kind of speculative philosophy is of a more disciplined variety.

If this interpretation is correct, it is not surprising that Langer never referred to Whitehead’s most encompassing definition of metaphysics as “explanatory metaphysics” (FR 30). To be sure, there is nothing which definitely rules out even such a far-reaching aim from the scope of Langer’s understanding of philosophy. But Langer’s reservations about “cosmic myths” and her emphasis on systematically attained knowledge would imply an even greater carefulness If not hesitation in the construction of such a system.



It can be said that in regard to their actual achievements, Whitehead’s and Langer’s philosophies aim primarily at different theories.  In regard to the potential fruitfulness, there is a real contribution of Langer’s philosophy to process thought.  The most fundamental difference lies in her emphasis on methodological rigor.  Whitehead was strongly inclined towards speculation and the attempt to attain ultimate insights.  Therefore he was ready to admit that “philosophy is akin to poetry” (MT 49-50).  Yet one should not overemphasize these methodological differences.  It is probably more a shift of emphasis.  But it is just this shift of emphasis which perhaps makes Langer’s method more adequate for any further attempt at the construction of a metaphysical system.



DM      Susanne K. Langer and Eugene T. Gadol. “The Deepening Mind: A Half-Century of American Philosophy.” The American Quarterly 2 (1950): 118-32.

EE       Susanne K. Langer. “End of an Epoch.” Atlantic Monthly 147 (1931): 772-75.

FF       Susanne K. Langer. Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.

Mind   Susanne K. Langer. Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol. I: 1967, Vol. 2: 1972, Vol. 3: 1982.

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

PNK    Susanne K. Langer. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

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

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


1 It is important to consider that discursive symbolization is not the same as language. Moreover, this is not a theory of the origin of language.  Ordinary language is a mixture of discursive and presentational forms of symbolization. Langer’s example for discursive symbolization is ideal language as it is striven for in the natural sciences or in artificial symbol systems.

2 This does not rule out a temporal order of the elements as is the case with music. The decisive point is in which way the elements are contributory to the meaning.

3 Langer does not indicate her source of the concept of “presentational” symbolization.  Here, naturally, Whitehead’s concept of “presentational immediacy” comes to mind.  However, another major influence of her thinking, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, also uses the distinction between “Präsenz” and “Repräsentation.”  See E. Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen I (Darmstadt: Wissenschaft-liche Buchgesellschaft, 1988) 33.

4 See also PNK 201-202 and DM 121: “The ill repute into which metaphysics has fallen is not so much a deserved censure of the pursuit itself as a protest against old doctrines associated with its name.  To call a question ‘metaphysical’ is currently considered, by many scholars, tantamount to calling it ‘nonsensical.’  But metaphysics, properly speaking, is simply the study of basic assumptions, and the metaphysical question is a question of what, ultimately, we are talking about when we speak of ‘the world,’ or ‘fact,’ or ‘experience.’  There is as much metaphysics involved in scientific thinking as in theological, as much in radical empiricism as in idealism, or, for that matter, in mysticism . . . . If, therefore, I refrain from applying the word metaphysics to good theories about the nature of the world and of our understanding, that is a concession to fashion; for academic fashion, like social etiquette, respects the associations of a term rather than its actual significance—a foolish practice, of which philosophers should not be guilty.”

5 In a foreword to the final and incompleted Part VI, “Mathematics and the Reign of Science,” Langer writes: “This study of mind should culminate, of course, in a well-constructed epistemological and possibly even metaphysical theory, at least as firmly founded on other people’s knowledge and hypotheses as any earlier parts of this essay which have been written in preparation for such a reflective conclusion” (Mind III 201).

H. Read, “Describing the Indescribable,” Saturday Review, 15 July 1967, 32.

7 Langer to Herbert Read, August 4, 1967.  In: Susanne K. Langer Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

8 Langer to Herbert Read, August 16, 1967.  In: Susanne K. Langer Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

9 For some of Langer’s principles there is already a certain basis in Whitehead’s writing.  This seems to me to be particularly the case regarding Langer’s principles of individuation and involvement. Whitehead makes frequent use of an interdependence of liberty and compulsion” (AI 56), “routine and understanding” (AI 90), “scholarship and speculation (AI 108), “the rhythmic claims of freedom and discipline” (AE, chapter II), “spirit of change and the spirit of conservation” (SMW 201), and “order and love (AI 292) as essential conditions of depth of experience and intensity.  Langer’s principles of individuation and involvement express just this dialectic as phenomenal tendencies of living development without, however, having Whitehead’s evaluative meaning.

10 See PNK 209, Mind I xvii.

11 “Note—metaphysics” in Card File: Finished Chapters 1-5. In: Susanne K. Langer Papers. Houghton Library. See also Mind I 336, where Langer indicates her deviation from Whitehead s organicism.

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