Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



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From “Abstracts of Papers to be Read at the Forty-Second Annual Meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 39, No. 25 (December 3, 1942), 677-678.  A nearly effortless peek into her demanding theory of art.  I added “Building and Weaving” to render the original title more concrete to the visitor in a hurry.

 Posted June 10, 2008


Building and Weaving: Esthetic and Technical Metaphors as an Index to the Essential Unity of the Arts [Abstract]

 Susanne K. Langer

The thesis on which this study is based is that all art is in essence a semantic, giving formal expression to our understanding of human sentience.  That art somehow “conveys feelings” is a vague but widely accepted belief, which has given rise to extravagant claims to “translations” of artistic messages from one medium to another.  Program music, color symphonies, etc., are the result.  As great art they are certainly failures.  The reason is that without any methodical investigation of how the arts are related to each other, certain obvious abstractions—“tones” from music, “colors” from painting, etc.—are made to serve as the terms that are supposed to correspond each to each.

The people who know best what are the basic concepts of a subject are those who use them.  If there are common general concepts embodied in the several arts, we should find them in terms which painters, musicians, poets, etc., use in common.

Our most spontaneous method of expressing generalizations is the use of metaphor.  Therefore I undertook to examine the metaphors which various arts borrowed from each other (e.g., “chromatic” in music, “high tone” and “low tone” in painting) as an approach to the abstractable “lowest terms” of art.

The surprising result was that not conscious metaphor, but the unconscious metaphor of etymological changes—the ambiguous past meanings of words now perfectly fixed and literal—held the key to the basic unity of the arts.

There are two predominant classes of words in the language of the studio: terms for qualities and terms for technical skills.  Both have significant etymologies.  We may therefore speak of esthetic and technical metaphors, respectively.

Names of qualities, such as “bright,” “dull,” “clear,” have shifted their applications from one sensory field to another.  Names of colors have shifted from one meaning to another.  In every case, their abstractable root-meaning is determined by some affective property which must be common to the things they may denote.

Besides these qualitative terms, there are technical metaphors—most of them no longer regarded as metaphorical at all.  They go back, in the main, to two primitive activities: building and weaving.

Building is naturally the prototype of all construction.  Its terminology, its basic concepts of gravity and balance, run through all artists’ vocabularies.

An inordinate amount of technical jargon goes back etymologically to the art of weaving.  The reason is probably that weaving was the first craft to yield sheer pattern, design seen in its own right without functional interest.

Conclusion: All the arts are essentially craftsmanship for the purpose of achieving qualitative results.  The measure of artistic quality is its kinship with affective qualities.  Relationship of different sensory fields does not of itself imply the translatability of the arts, but merely their basic unity of purpose and technique.

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