Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

 From The Antioch Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Fall 1958, 261-271.

“Susanne K. Langer, professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, is well known as the author of Philosophy in a New Key, Feeling and Form, and Problems of Art.  This paper, read at the Cooper Union in New York as part of the centenary celebration of the Great Hall, offers a sketch of philosophical work in progress under a research grant received by Connecticut College from the Edgar J. Kaufmann Foundation.”

An excellent introduction to what she means by symbol-making, man’s most distinctive attribute.

 Anthony Flood

Posted June 20, 2008

Man and Animal: The City and the Hive

Susanne K. Langer


Within the past five or six decades, the human scene has probably changed more radically than ever before in history.  The outward changes in our own setting are already an old story: the disappearance of horse-drawn vehicles, riders, children walking to school, and the advent of the long, low, powerful Thing in their stead; the transformation of the mile-wide farm into a tic-tac-toe of lots, each sprouting a split-level dream home.  These are the obvious changes, more apparent in the country than in the city.  The great cities have grown greater, brighter, more mechanized, but their basic patterns seem less shaken by the new power and speed in which the long industrial revolution culminates.

The deepest change, however, is really a change in our picture of mankind; and that is most spectacular where mankind is teeming and concentrated—in the city.  Our old picture of human life was a picture of local groups, each speaking its mother-tongue, observing some established religion, following its own customs.  It might be a civilized community or a savage tribe, but it had its distinct traditions.  And in it were subdivisions, usually families, with their more special local ties and human relations.

Today, natural tribes and isolated communities have all but disappeared.  The ease and speed of travel, the swift economic changes that send people in search of new kinds of work, the two wars that swept over all boundaries, have wiped out most of our traditions.  The old family structure is tottering.  Society tends to break up into new and smaller units—in fact, into its ultimate units, the human individuals that compose it.

This atomization of society is most obvious in a great cosmopolitan city.  The city seems to be composed of millions of unrelated individuals, each scrambling for himself, yet each caught in the stream of all the others.

Discerning eyes saw this a hundred years ago, especially in industrial cities, where individuals from far or near came to do what other individuals from far or near had also come to do—each a cog in the new machine.  Most of the cogs had no other relation to each other.  And ever since this shakeup in society began, a new picture of society has been in the making—the picture of human masses, brought together by some outside force, some imposed function, into a super-personal unit; masses of people, each representing an atom of “manpower” in a new sort of organism, the industrial State.

The idea of the State as a higher organism—the State as a super-individual—is old.  But our conception of such a State is new, because our industrial civilization which begets our atomized society, is new.  The old picture was not one of masses driven by some imposed economic power, or any other outside power.  The super-individual was a rational being, directed by a mind within it.  The guardians of the State, the rulers, were its mind.  Plato described the State as “the man writ large.”  Hobbes, two thousand years later, called it “Leviathan,” the great Creature.  A city-state like ancient Athens or Sparta might be “a man writ large,” but England was too big for that.  It was the big fish in the big pond.  The mind of Hobbes’s fish was perhaps subhuman but it was still single and sovereign in the organism.

Another couple of centuries later, Rudyard Kipling, faced with a democratic, industrialized civilization, called his allegory of England “The Mother Hive.”  Here, a common will dictated by complicated instincts, replaced even Leviathan’s mind; each individual was kept in line by the blind forces of the collective life.

The Image of the hive has had a great success as an ideal of collaborative social action.  Every modern Utopia (except the completely wishful Shangri-La) reflects the beehive ideal.  Even a statesman of highest caliber, Jan Smuts, has praised it as a pattern for industrial society.1  [1 Holism and Evolution (N.Y.: Macmillan Co., 1926).]  Plato’s personified State and Hobbes’s sea monster impress us as fantasies, but the hive looks like more than a poetic figure; it seems really to buzz around us.

I think the concept of the State as a collective organism, composed of multitudes of little workers, guided by social forces that none of the little workers can fathom, and accomplishing some greater destiny, is supported by another factor than our mechanized industry; that other factor is a momentous event in our intellectual history: the spread of the theory of evolution.

First biologists, then psychologists, and finally sociologists and moralists have become newly aware than man belongs to the animal kingdom.  The impact of the concept of evolution on scientific discovery has been immense, and it has not stopped at laboratory science; it has also produced some less sober and sound inspirations.  The concept of continuous animal evolution has made most psychologists belittle the differences between man and his non-human relatives, and led some of them, indeed, to think of homo sapiens as just one kind of primate among others, like the others in all essential respects—differing from apes and monkeys not much more than they differ from species to species among themselves.  Gradually the notion of the human animal became common currency, questioned only by some religious minds.  This in turn has made it natural for social theorists with scientific leanings to model their concepts of human society on animal societies, the ant hill and the beehive.

Perhaps it were well, at this point, to say that I myself stand entirely in the scientific camp.  I do not argue against any religious or even vitalistic doctrines; such things are not arguable.  I speak not for, but from, a naturalist’s point of view, and anyone who does not share it can make his own reservations in judging what I say.

Despite Man’s zöological status, which I wholeheartedly accept, there is a deep gulf between the highest animal and the most primitive normal human being: a difference in mentality that is fundamental.  It stems from the development of one new process in the human brain—a process that seems to be entirely peculiar to that brain: the use of symbols for ideas.  By “symbols” I mean all kinds of signs that can be used and understood whether the things they refer to are there or not.  The word “symbol” has, unfortunately, many different meanings for different people.  Some people reserve it for mystic signs, like Rosicrucian symbols; some mean by it significant images, such as Keats’ “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance”; some use it quite the opposite way and speak of “mere symbols,” meaning empty gestures, signs that have lost their meanings; and some, notably logicians, use the term for mathematical signs, marks that constitute a code, a brief, concise language.  In their sense, ordinary words are symbols, too.  Ordinary language is a symbolism.

When I say that the distinctive function of the human brain is the use of symbols, I mean any and all of these kinds.  They are all different from signs that animals use.  Animals interpret signs, too, but only as pointers to actual things and events: cues to action or expectation, threats and promises, landmarks and earmarks in the world.  Human beings use such signs, too; but above all they use symbols—especially words—to think and talk about things that are neither present nor expected.  The words convey ideas, that may or may not have counterparts in actuality.  This power of thinking about things expresses itself in language, imagination, and speculation—the chief products of human mentality that animals do not share.

Language, the most versatile and indispensable of all symbolisms, has put its stamp on all our mental functions, so that I think they always differ from even their closest analogues in animal life.  Language has invaded our feeling and dreaming and action, as well as our reasoning, which is really a product of it.  The greatest change wrought by language is the increased scope of awareness in speech-gifted beings.  An animal’s awareness is always of things in its own place and life.  In human awareness, the present, actual situation is often the least part.  We have not only memories and expectations; we have a past in which we locate our memories, and a future that vastly over-reaches our own anticipations.  Our past is a story, our future a piece of imagination.  Likewise our ambient is a place in a wider, symbolically conceived place, the universe. We live in a world.

This difference of mentality between man and animal seems to me to make a cleft between them almost as great as the division between animals and plants.  There is continuity between the orders, but the division is real nevertheless.  Human life differs radically from animal life.  By virtue of our incomparably wider awareness, our power of envisagement of things and events beyond any actual perception, we have acquired needs and aims that animals do not have; and even the most savage human society, having to meet those needs and implement those aims, is not really comparable to any animal society.  The two may have some analogous functions, but the essential structure must be different, because man and beast live differently in every way.

Probably the profoundest difference between human and animal needs is made by one piece of human awareness, one fact that is not present to animals, because it is never learned in any direct experience: that is our foreknowledge of Death.  The fact that we ourselves must die is not a simple and isolated fact.  It is built on a wide survey of facts, that discloses the structure of history as a succession of overlapping brief lives, the patterns of youth and age, growth and decline; and above all that, it is built on the logical insight that one’s own life is a case in point.  Only a creature that can think symbolically about life can conceive of its own death.  Our knowledge of death is part of our knowledge of life.

What, then, do we—all of us—know about life?

Every life that we know is generated from other life.  Each living thing springs from some other living thing or things.  Its birth is a process of new individuation, in a life-stream whose beginning we do not know.

Individuation is a word we do not often meet.  We hear about individuality, sometimes spoken in praise, sometimes as an excuse for being slightly crazy.  We hear and read about “the Individual,” a being that is forever adjusting, like a problem child, to something called “Society.”  But how does individuality arise?  What makes an individual?  A fundamental, biological process of individuation, that marks the life of every stock, plant or animal.  Life is a series of individuations, and these can be of various sorts, and reach vanous degrees.

Most people would agree, off-hand, that every creature lives its life and then dies.  This might, indeed, be called a truism.  But, like some other truisms, it is not true.  The lowest forms of life, such as the amoeba, normally (that is, barring accidents) do not die.  When they grow very large and might be expected to lay eggs, or in some other way raise a family, they do no such thing: they divide, and make two small ones ready to grow.  Well now, where is the old one?  It did not die.  But it is gone.  Its individuation was only an episode in the life of the stock, a phase, a transient form that changed again.  Amoebae are individuated in space—they move and feed as independent, whole organisms—but in time they are not self-identical individuals.  They do not generate young ones while they themselves grow old; they grow old and become young ones.

All the higher animals, however, are final individuations that end in death.  They spring from a common stock, but they do not merge back into it.  Each one is an end.  Somewhere on its way toward death it usually produces a new life to succeed it, but its own story is finished by death.

That is our pattern, too.  Each human individual is a culmination of an inestimably long line—its ancestry—and each is destined to die.  The living stock is like a palm tree, a trunk composed of its own past leaves.  Each leaf springs from the trunk, unfolds, grows, and dies off; its past is incorporated in the trunk, where new life has usually arisen from it.  So there constantly are ends, but the stock lives on, and each leaf has that whole life behind it.

The momentous difference between us and our animal cousins is that they do not know they are going to die.  Animals spend their lives avoiding death, until it gets them.  They do not know it is going to.  Neither do they know that they are part of a greater life, but pass on the torch without knowing.  Their aim, then, is simply to keep going, to function, to escape trouble, to live from moment to moment in an endless Now.

Our power of symbolic conception has given us each a glimpse of himself as one final individuation from the great human stock.  We do not know when or what the end will be but we know that there will be one.  We also envisage a past and future, a stretch of time so vastly longer than any creature’s memory, and a world so much richer than any world of sense, that it makes our time in that world seem infinitesimal.  This is the price of the great gift of symbolism.

In the face of such uncomfortable prospects (probably conceived long before the dawn of any religious ideas), human beings have evolved aims different from any other creatures.  Since we cannot have our fill of existence by going on and on, we want to have as much life as possible in our short span.  If our individuation must be brief, we want to make it complete; so we are inspired to think, act, dream our desires, create things, express our ideas, and in all sorts of ways make up by concentration what we cannot have by length of days.  We seek the greatest possible individuation, or development of personality.  In doing this, we have set up a new demand, not for mere continuity of existence, but for self-realization.  That is a uniquely human aim.

But obviously, the social structure could not arise on this principle alone.  Vast numbers of individualists realizing themselves with a vengeance would not make up an ideal society.  A small number might try it; there is a place, far away from here, called the Self-Realization Golden World Colony.  But most of us have no golden world to colonize.  You can only do that south of Los Angeles.

Seriously, however, an ideal is not disposed of by pointing out that it cannot be implemented under existing conditions.  It may still be a true ideal; and if it is very important we may have to change the conditions, as we will have to for the ideal of world peace.  If complete individuation were really the whole aim of human life, our society would be geared to it much more than it is.  It is not the golden world that is wanting, but something else; the complete individualist is notoriously not the happy man, even if good fortune permits his antics.

The fact is that the greatest possible individuation is usually taken to mean, “as much as is possible without curtailing the rights of others.”  But that is not the real measure of how much is possible.  The measure is provided in the individual himself, and is as fundamental as his knowledge of death.  It is the other part of his insight into nature—his knowledge of life, of the great unbroken stream, the life of the stock from which his individuation stems.

One individual life, however rich, still looks infinitesimal: no matter how much self-realization is concentrated in it, it is a tiny atom—and we don’t like to be tiny atoms, not even hydrogen atoms.  We need more than fullness of personal life to counter our terrible knowledge of all it implies.  And we have more; we have our history, our commitments made for us before we were born, our relatedness to the rest of mankind.  The counterpart of individuation from the great life of the stock is our rootedness in that life, our involvement with the whole human race, past and present.

Each person is not only a free, single end, like the green palm leaf that unfolds, grows in a curve of beauty, and dies in its season; he is like the whole palm leaf, the part inside the trunk, too.  He is the culmination of his entire ancestry, and represents that whole human past.  In his brief individuation he is an expression of all humanity.  That is what makes each person’s life sacred and all-important.  A single ruined life is the bankruptcy of a long line.  This is what I mean by the individual’s involvement with all mankind.

All animals are unconsciously involved with their kind.  Heredity governs not only their growth, color and form, but their actions, too.  They carry their past about with them in everything they do.  But they do not know it.  They don’t need to, because they never could lose it.  Their involvement with the greater life of the race is implicit in their limited selfhood.

Our knowledge that life is finite and, in fact, precarious and brief, drives us on to greater individuation than animals attain.  Our mental talents have largely freed us from that built-in behavior called instinct.  The scope of our imagination gives each of us a separate world, and a separate consciousness, and threatens to break the instinctual ties of brotherhood that make all the herrings swim into one net, and all the geese turn their heads at the same moment.  Yet we cannot afford to lose the feeling of involvement with our kind; for if we do, personal life shrinks up to nothingness.

The sense of involvement is our social sense.  We have it by nature, originally just as animals do, and just as unconsciously.  It is the direct feeling of needing our own kind, caring what happens.  Social sense is an instinctive sense of being somehow one with all other people—a feeling that reflects the rootedness of our existence in a human past.  Human society rests on this feeling.  It is often said to rest on the need of collaboration, or on domination of the weak by the strong, or some other circumstance, but I think such theories deal with its modes, and ignore its deeper structure; at the bottom of it is the feeling of involvement, or social sense.  If we lose that, no coercion will hold us to our duties, because they do not feel like commitments; and no achievements will matter, because they are doomed to be snuffed out with the individual, without being laid to account in the continuity of life.

Great individual development, such as human beings are driven by their intellectual insights to seek, does of course always threaten to break the bonds of direct social involvement, that give animal life its happy unconscious continuity.  When the strain gets hard, we have social turmoil, anarchy, irresponsibility, and in private lives the sense of loneliness and infinite smallness that lands some people in nihilism and cynicism, and leads others to existentialism or less intellectual cults.

It is then that social philosophers look upon animal societies as models for human society.  There is no revolt, no strike, no competition, no anti-anything party, in a beehive.  As Kipling, fifty years or more ago, represented his British Utopia that he called the Mother Hive, that ideal State had a completely cooperative economy, an army that went into action without a murmur, each man with the same impulse, the moment an enemy threatened to intrude, and a populace of such tribal solidarity that it would promptly run out any stranger that tried to become established in the State and disrupt its traditions.  Any native individual that could not fit into the whole had to be liquidated; the loss was regrettable, but couldn’t be helped, and would be made up.

Yet the beehive really has no possible bearing on human affairs; for it owes its harmonious existence to the fact that its members are incompletely individuated, even as animals go.  None of them perform all of a creature’s essential functions: feeding, food-getting, nest-building, mating, and procreating.  The queen has to be fed and tended; she has only procreative functions.  She doesn’t even bring up her own children; they have nurses.  The drones are born and reared only as her suitors and when the romance is finished they are killed, like proper romantic heroes.  The building, nursing, food-getting, and fighting are done by sterile females who cannot procreate; amazons who do all their own housework.  So there is not only division of labor, but division of organs, functional and physical incompleteness.  This direct involvement of each bee with the whole lets the hive function with an organic rhythm that makes its members appear wonderfully socialized.  But they are really not socialized at all, any more than the cells in our tissues are socialized; they are associated, by being un-individuated.

That is as far away from a human ideal as one can get.  We need, above all, a world in which we can realize our capacities, develop and act as personalities.  That means giving up our instinctive patterns of habit and prejudice, our herd-instincts.  Yet we need the emotional security of the greater, continuous life—the awareness of our involvement with all mankind.  How can we eat that cake, and have it, too?

The same mental talent that makes us need so much individuation, comes to the rescue of our social involvement: I mean the peculiarly human talent of holding ideas in the mind by means of symbols.  Human life, even in the simplest forms we know, is shot through and through with social symbols.  All fantastic beliefs in a Great Ancestor are symbolic of the original and permanent life of the stock from which every individual life stems.  The Totem, the Hero, the Sacred Cow, these are the most elementary social symbols.  With a maturer view of the world, and the development of religious ideas, the symbolic image of Man is usually taken up into the greater view of a divine world-order and a moral law.  We are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  If Adam and Eve were simply some human couple supposed to have lived in the Near East before it was so difficult, this would be an odd way of speaking; we don’t ordinarily refer to our neighbor’s children as Mr. Brown’s boys and Mrs. Brown’s girls.  But Adam is Man, and Eve is Woman (the names even mean that): and among us transient little mites, every man is Man, every woman is Woman.  That is the source of human dignity, the sense of which has to be upheld at all levels of social life.

Most people have some religious ritual that supports their knowledge of a greater life; but even in purely secular affairs we constantly express our faith in the continuity of human existence.  Animals provide lairs or nests for their immediate offspring.  Man builds for the future—often for nothing else; his earliest great buildings were not mansions, but monuments.  And not only physical edifices, but above all laws and institutions are intended for the future, and often justified by showing that they have a precedent, or are in accord with the past.  They are conveniences of their day, but symbols of more than their day.  They are symbols of Society, and of each individual’s inalienable membership in Society.

What, then, is the measure of our possible individuation, without loss of social sense?  It is the power of social symbolism.  We can give up our actual, instinctual involvements with our kind just to the extent that we can replace them by symbolic ones.  This is the prime function of social symbols, from a handshake, to the assembly of robed judges in a Supreme Court.  In protocol and ritual, in the investment of authority, in sanctions and honors, lies our security against loss of involvement with mankind; in such bonds lies our freedom to be individuals.

It has been said that an animal society, like a beehive, is really an organism, and the separate bees its organic parts.  I think this statement requires many reservations, but it contains some truth.  The hive is an organic structure, a super-individual, something like an organism.  A human city, however, is an organization.  It is above all a symbolic structure, a mental reality.  Its citizens are the whole and only individuals.  They are not a “living mass,” like a swarm of semi-individuated bees.  The model of the hive has brought with it the concept of human masses, to be cared for in times of peace, deployed in times of war, educated for use or sacrificed for the higher good of their state.  In the specious analogy of animal and human society, the hive and the city, lies, I think, the basic philosophical fallacy of all totalitarian theory, even the most sincere and idealistic even the thoroughly noble political thought of Plato.

We are like leaves of the palm tree, each deeply embedded in the tree, a part of the trunk, each opening to the light in a final, separate life.  Our world is a human world, organized to implement our highest individuation.  There may be ten thousand of us working m one factory.  There are several millions of us living in a city like New York.  But we are not the Masses: we are the Public.

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