With roots in logic, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind,
Susanne Langer sought to explicate the meaning and cognitive import of art
works by developing a theory of symbolism that located works of art at the
centre of a network of relations based firmly on semantic theory. Art
works were nondiscursive, presentational symbols that expressed an
artist’s ‘life of feeling’, by which observers, through a process of
immediate apprehension (or intuition) came to acquire knowledge.
Langer was educated at Radcliffe College and briefly attended the
University of Vienna. She held the post of tutor at Radcliffe from 1927 to
1942, followed by positions at the University of Delaware (1943), Columbia
University (1945–50), the Connecticut College for Women (1954–62), and a
number of visiting positions.
Langer’s early writings prefigure her later theorizing on art.
The Practice of Philosophy was
influenced by work on symbolism by Whitehead and the early Wittgenstein.
For Langer, the relation between a symbol and the symbolized object
depended solely upon analogy of form; only by studying the structure of an
entity and its comparable analogue could the symbolic relationship be
established. The logical analysis of symbols—as analogues to one’s
of meanings that were incommunicable by ordinary, public discourse.
Symbols, through nondiscursive form, achieved cognitive weight and force
equal to the original experience. As such, they transmitted knowledge of
the ineffable. Her second text, An Introduction
to Symbolic Logic, moved beyond a presentation of standard
techniques in symbolic logic to an exploration of its conceptual
Her explicit theory of art began with Philosophy
in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art.
Combining her interest in the nature of knowledge with a longstanding wish
to actualize a complete theory of mind (realized decades later with the
publication of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling),
she expanded her discussion of symbols by focusing on the role of human
reason in ritual acts and the creation of art objects. Challenging
traditional philosophical approaches, which had previously located the
focus of attention in theories of taste, beauty or notions of aesthetic
value, she sought to alter radically the most basic questions in the
philosophy of art. Symbolism was the ‘new key’ to understanding how the
human mind transformed the primal need to express oneself. All forms of
human activity, including ‘speech and gesture, song and sacrifice’ were
seen as expressive. The mental work of symbolic transformation resided in
abstracting a gesture or an object from reality. Symbols, in contrast to
signs (later called signals), gave expression to thoughts that went beyond
what could be expressed in language. Therefore, a wide range of symbols
evolved over time: simple ones became complex; ritual (or convention)
became art. Art became the conveyor of inner life: artists expressed
‘ideas of feeling’—‘formulation
and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions and resolutions’—not
their own actual or personal feelings. The artistic significance of music,
for instance, consisted in pure form—‘the
from its literal content (what, if anything, it represented).
Feeling and Form, written eleven years
later as a sequel to Philosophy in a New Key,
art was characterized as the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.
Every work of art involved (1) abstraction from actuality, thereby
becoming mere semblance, a created realm of illusion, (2) plasticity (the
capacity of being manipulated in the interests of expression), and (3)
expressiveness whereby the symbol became transparent. A focus on the
meaning of art works was replaced by a discussion of their import or
significance. Intuition became the link between the qualities of the art
work that constituted it a symbol and the import the work of art held for
the observer. Through intuition, we perceive the ‘felt life’ of the
Problems of Art, a collection of
essays originally delivered as lectures, Langer refined her views: a work
of art was a form expressive of human feeling, created for our aesthetic
perception through sense or imagination. Emphasizing the role that
artistic intention played in creative activity, she traced the unity of
the arts to their semblance of organic form. Insight (understanding of the
essential life of feeling) was designated the aim of art.
Reflections on Art, a collection of
twenty-six essays ranging over music, art, dance, poetry, film and
architecture, focused on two main issues: expressiveness and semblance.
Her list of contributors included artists and ‘lay aestheticians’, as well
as professional philosophers. Her final work,
Mind, ambitiously sought to explicate the role feelings play as
the mind functions uniquely in humans, and in particular how an artist
projects an idea of feeling by means of art.