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From The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 16, No. 2, December 1962, 349-365.  A relentless critique which Langer apparently never answered.  Auxier's “Susanne Langer on Symbols and Analogy: A Case of Misplaced Concreteness?” makes frequent reference to this essay.

Posted June 30, 2008

 Anthony Flood


Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol

Berel Lang

Langer’s designation of the art work as symbol has recurred in her writing.  It can be said, in fact, that the whole of her aesthetic theory depends finally on the questions of whether and in what sense the term “symbol” can be legitimately applied to the art work; and any systematic analysis of her thought must inevitably consider the manner in which she attempts to answer those questions.  That is no less the case, if, as our title suggests, her application of the term “symbol” ultimately fails.  It is specifically with the development in her thought leading to the “collapse of the symbol” that we will be concerned in the following pages.  In completing the theory of the art work as symbol, Langer discovers within it a particular cognitive content; and it is largely because of certain assumptions and oversights in her proposal of this content that the theory as a whole encounters difficulties.

Langer’s first book, The Practice of Philosophy (1930), is relevant to a discussion of the theory of the art work as symbol for the apparently perverse reason that it refers to the art work only tangentially.  Where symbolism is mentioned, it is described in general terms that are largely indifferent to its consequences for the theory of art.  It seems from this that Langer’s consideration of the connection between the art work and the symbol is propagated by an early interest in the symbol alone, and that only at a later stage in the evolution of her system does the idea of the symbol’s congruity to the art work occur to her.  This is not of itself a criticism of the system; but her eventual qualification of the description of art as symbol is pre-figured and underscored by the description’s synthetic origins. What seems to occur by the time Problems of Art appears (1957) is that an over-literal adherence to a metaphor—the art work as a symbol of the life of feeling—is discerned, and gradually but severely reduced; the symbol, in short, collapses.

The theory of symbolism presented in The Practice of Philosophy recalls the work on symbolism of Whitehead and the early Wittgenstein.2  In a proposal reflecting this influence, Langer describes the “symbol” and “object symbolized” as interchange-able terms.  When one entity is labeled the symbol of a second one, the reciprocal relation may be inferred; an object symbolized is itself a symbol.  There will be reasons for asserting that one side of a relation is the symbol and the other the object symbolized, but such reasons are extrinsic to the relation and can be reduced to the pragmatic standard which holds the object symbolized to be “of interest to the mind, and the other, in itself quite worthless. . . easy to recognize and manipulate.”3 The relation thus depends on the observer who takes note of it; part of his contribution is to determine the relative positions of the terms involved.

The relation itself, however, is more permanently fixed than is the position of its terms.  The principal requirement for a symbolic relation, Langer maintains, is that there shall be a correspondence or analogy in form between the terms of the relation. The symbolic relation “between any two things holds just in so far as the two things are analogous” (PP, p. 115).  For one entity to symbolize another, an element in one must correspond to some element in the other, and the two systems must themselves be circumscribed.  Since it is only when we are aware of the structure or form of a thing that it becomes available for comparison, the process of symbolization is dependent initially on the logical analysis of a single entity; when a second entity is discovered to be “put together in the same way,” (PP, p. 87) the symbolic process is consummated.

Langer’s proposals may be understood until this point as conventional statements which are true by definition.  But two suggestions that appear in that part of the book from which the references cited above are taken move close to the realm of the empirical and foreshadow the difficulties which later confront her in the approaches to a theory of art.  In the first of these, Langer suggests that there are “meanings” attributable to concrete experience which experience can be said to symbolize, but that those meanings need not and sometimes do not admit of verbal formulation.  Insight yielded by certain symbolic connections, Langer holds, is “incommunicable” (PP, p. 132) by the ordinary, public means of communication; there are, so to speak, ineffable areas which can nonetheless be symbolized, realms of experience open to sensation and to knowledge but closed to verbal articulation. The second proposal suggests that the content of a symbolic act, even though it is verbally incommuni-cable, achieves a cognitive force equal to that of any other sector of experience.  Thus, the art symbol “acts as a stimulus, puts us into rapport with a past event, is our present experience of that event, just as a proposition might be” (PP, p. 164).  There is, judging their effects, no difference in the grasp of their cognitive claims; the experience of art, no less than the transactions involving other symbolic forms, produces knowledge of a kind which is empirically determined, if not verifiable.

The two proposals are interrelated, and both are directly involved in the main theme of Langer’s work. This becomes apparent as we follow the theory of the symbol into her later books.  So far as the concept of the symbol itself is concerned, the later writings move with reasonable consistency from the basis laid down in The Practice of Philosophy.  Thus, in Philosophy in a New Key, Langer defines the symbol by the necessary but not sufficient condition (it must also have a perceiving mind) of “logical analogy.”4 Again, in Feeling and Form, she refers to the “congruence” between the symbolic form and the object symbolized, calling it the “prime requisite for the relation between a symbol and whatever it is to mean.”5  Her emphasis of this point extends into the Problems of Art, in which she summarizes the previous stipulations by defining the symbol as “any perceptible or imaginable whole that exhibits relationships of parts, or points, or even qualities of aspects within that whole, so that it may be taken to represent some other whole whose elements have analogous relations.”6

But if her formal description of the symbol remains constant, Langer’s “ontogenetic” theory of the symbol, which is not yet developed in The Practice of Philosophy and which arises in response to the stimulus of Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, contributes a new direction or “key” to its contextual possibilities.  The “new key” is described by Langer as “. . . a new general principle: to conceive the mind still as an organ in the service of primary needs, but of characteristically human needs. . . . The basic need, which certainly is obvious only in man, is the need of symbolization” (NK, pp. 38-39).  All ideation, all human response, proceeds not, e.g., by simple chains of association, but by a continuous transformation of those materials into symbolic forms (NK, p. 42).  Thus, “all forms of expressive acts—speech and gesture, song and sacrifice—are the symbolic transformations which minds of certain species, at certain stages of their development and communion, mutually produce” (NK, p. 49).  All levels of human activity are expressive, and the expressive forms evolve from one stage to the next, comprehending each of man’s activities, moving from the early stages of primitive gesture and ritual to the more complex activities found in civilized societies.  At one of those later points, art finds a place in the progression.  Once admitted to the progression, the work of art must, Langer supposes, exhibit all of the properties of the symbol, a move which is foreshadowed even in her earliest book where she suggests that there exists a certain “incommunicable insight” whose subject is “rhythms and form.” (PP, p. 162) But the main impact of the “new key” is not felt until, in the later books, Langer suggests that art is a symbol, and that all symbols display certain common properties.  It is in an attempt to synthesize those two principles that Langer elaborates her theory of art.

The synthesis developed by Langer emphasizes two distinctions.  The first of them (systematically, not chronologically) is one drawn between “sign” and “symbol,”7 “sign” referring to either focus of a relation established by juxtaposition.  An instance of the activity of a sign is represented in the power exercised by traffic signals: a red light, without possessing intrinsic relevance to the situation it commands, signifies something definite to the driver familiar with the conventions of the road.  The sign itself is unimportant; the color of the light, for instance, might be changed to blue and still command the same reaction.  Thus, an important property of the sign is that it is replaceable and ancillary.  If, on the other hand, a driver is reminded by the red light of blood spilt in automobile accidents and as a consequence forgets to stop, the sign function of the red light has been exchanged for a symbolic function.  What the red light lacks as sign and possesses as symbol is the intrinsic logical analogy with the object symbolized.  There is reason, of course, to expect that any two entities will possess some formally analogous elements, since analogies can be based on an indefinite number of properties.  But the common elements which might be found on any occasion can be consciously excluded from the functional behavior of the symbol, and thus do not necessarily interfere with its intended activity.

Langer elaborates her distinction between sign and symbol by schematizing the terms which each involves.  The sign comprehends a triadic relation of subject, sign, and object; the symbol, a four-termed relation which conjoins to symbol, subject, and object, the “concept” or what we have noted as the analogy of structural elements (NK, p. 54).  This distinction is an elementary one, arising from the ontogenetic analysis of the symbol, which shows, Langer claims, the range and nature of symbolic activity.  Other forms of life than man respond to signs, and man may be said to have passed through a stage of exclusive sign-usage on the way to acquiring his powers of symbolic expression; but the latter is an ability peculiar to him, permitting him to handle both sign and symbol functions.

The second distinction applies to the general province of symbolism, and delineates discursive from non-discursive or (as Langer calls the latter on occasion “intensive” (PP, p. 164) or “presentational” (FF, p. 29) symbolism.  The difference between the two types of symbolism becomes apparent in the process by which their “meanings” or structural analogues are developed and apprehended.  The structural analogue of discursive symbolism, on the one hand, is apprehended piecemeal.  Each element of a mathematical equation, for instance, is successively attended to and understood.  Langer uses the image in describing the discursive symbol of a clothesline on which clothes are strung side by side.  We are not obliged to take down all of them before we take down some of them (NK, p. 81). Apprehension of presentational symbolism, on the other hand, grasps the whole of the entity simultaneously, assimilating “one total expression without its being severally presented by its constituent parts” (NK, p. 191).  The languages of science and criticism, and any other use of language which permits comprehension of a single segment without reference to all others, employ discursive symbolism; where the entity presents itself as an integral whole, the term “symbolism” still applies, but it is of the different sort of “presentational symbols.”  It is in this second sphere of symbolism—and by and large constituting it—that Langer places the work of art.

The development of Langer’s conception of the art work can now be completed.  The art work is described as a symbol, and it must therefore share with some other entity an analogous logical or formal pattern.  It is, moreover, a presentational symbol, and thus its pattern must be immediately apprehensible.  And finally, we are informed as to what is communicated through the symbolic relation of which the work of art is one term.  The object thus symbolized, Langer holds, is the immediately ascertainable realm which she calls the “life of feeling,” a “life” analogous to the emotional phases in organic existence.  “The more you study artistic composition,” Langer writes, “the more lucidly you see its likeness to the composition of life itself, from the elementary biological patterns to the great structures of human feeling and personality that are the import of our crowning works of art; and it is by virtue of this likeness that a picture, a song, a poem is more than a thing—that it seems to be a living form, created not mechanically contrived, for the expression of a meaning that seems inherent in the work itself: our own sentient Being, Reality.” (PA, p. 58) “. . . What some people call ‘significant form,’ and others ‘expressiveness,’ ‘plastic value in visual art’ or ‘secondary meaning’ in poetry, ‘creative design’ or ‘interpretation’ or what you will, is the power of certain qualitative effects to express the great forms and the rare intricacies of the life of feeling.” (PA, p. 91)

Langer derives the terms of that symbolic relation from the rhythmic structure which characterizes the life of feeling and expression in the work of art.  Man incorporates in his life and activities a distinctive pattern or motion, unified and yet in process.  “The most characteristic principle of vital activity is rhythm.  All life is rhythmic; under difficult circumstances, its rhythms may become very complex, but when they are lost, life cannot long endure.” (FF, p. 126) The art work, Langer holds, expresses a similar principle: “All art has the character of life, because every work must have organic character, and it usually makes sense to speak of its ‘fundamental rhythm.’” (FF, p. 214) The elementary structure of organic behavior is a unified pattern of growth, of flourishing and decline, in which the organism both participates and is an observer. The art work achieves a semblance of the same organic behavior, and like the organism, it presents an image of tension and resolution (NK, p. 227), of the rhythmic “forms of life and sentience” (NK, p. 399).  “All the principles of rhythmic processes . . . must have their analogues in those of artistic creation.” (PA, p. 53) The analogical requirements of the symbolic relation are thus satisfied; and, as with all symbolic relations, the perceiver achieves knowledge through it of its structure and of the terms of its analogy.



What causes Langer to pause at this point in her description of the art work as symbol is the difficulty of specifying in an empirically verifiable form the analogy between the expression of the art work and the life of sentience.  The prerequisite which she sets for the symbol is not only that there must be an analogy between it and the thing symbolized, but that the means of determining that analogy should be known.  An index of correlation between anal-ogous points in the two entities must be available, as evidence of the supposed resemblance between art’s virtual form and the semblance of feeling and emotion.  But the discovery of such an index is hindered and perhaps prevented by the ambiguity of the art work, by its apparent correspondence to several sometimes conflicting emotional analogues and perhaps to none at all. Langer is conscious of the difficulties involved by that ambiguity; and if her attempt to answer it in Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form is less than adequate, her presentation in the Problems of Art seems to go as far as she can in evolving a reply from the general thrust of her position—so far, in fact, that her original intention seems to be materially altered in the process.

Prior to the appearance of the Problems of Art, Langer is consistent in her designation of the art work as a symbol.  It is true that in Philosophy in a New Key, after a detailed discussion of music and its structure analogical to the life of feeling, she includes in a summary of her position an important qualification: “. . . Music has all the earmarks of a true symbolism except one: the existence of an assigned connotation.... Music at its highest, though clearly a symbolic form, is an unconsummated symbol.” (NK, p. 240, emphasis added) But in Feeling and Form, although in the early stages she again uses the phrase “unconsummated symbol” with reference to the art work, she later, with a note of impatience, acts to “consummate” the symbol, maintaining that the assigned correlation so far lacking can in fact be attributed to the work of art (FF, p. 374).  The reservations which she had previously admitted are overcome, and a literal description is offered of the work of art as symbol of the life of feeling.

But there is a difference between asserting a relation and arguing for its existence; and the evidence which Langer calls on to support her proposal of the symbolic relation is based largely on what seems for Langer so obvious an analogy between the patterns of feeling and the forms of emotion which are expressed by art that it does not need to be argued.  She writes, for instance, in Feeling and Form, appealing to an uncertain source of empirical testimony: “Nothing demonstrates more clearly the symbolic import of virtual form than the constant references one finds, in the speech and writings of artists, to the ‘life’ of objects in a picture. . . and to the picture plane itself as an ‘animated’ surface.  The life in art is a ‘life’ of forms.”  (FF, p. 79) Or again, in the Problems of Art, “Another metaphor of the studio, borrowed from the biological realm, is the familiar statement that every art work must be organic.  Most artists will not even agree with a literal-minded critic that this is a metaphor. . . . It does not refer to biological functions like digestion and circulation.  But—breathing?  Heartbeat?  Well, maybe.  Mobility?  Yes, perhaps.  Feeling?  Oh yes, certainly.” (PA, p. 44) So far as evidence is adduced by such statements, it is the evidence given by observers unspecified except in the second case as artists.  For the rest—and those passages are by no means unique8—we have the simple reiteration of her position, with no appreciable effort to determine the grounds of the experience described, a procedural tactic which is perhaps as much a consequence as a cause of the systematic objection she is eventually forced to admit.  The assertion she makes predicates certain characteristics of the work of art; but the evidence she presents for the assertion refers not so much to the structural character of art as to the response of the perceiver, and usually of a special perceiver at that.

A number of peripheral arguments advanced by Langer in the process of building this description of the art work as symbol seem equally oblique.  She attempts, for example, to convince her readers of a dilemma from which the only route of escape is provided by her theory.  Thus, referring to Hanslick’s criticism of the emotive theories of art, she suggests that Hanslick and his followers must themselves finally choose between music as “significant or meaningless,” (NK, p. 237; cf. FF, p. 52) the latter term being used pejoratively and clearly determining the issue’s outcome in her own mind; “significant” she takes to imply art as a symbolic form.  An additional example of tendentious reasoning appears in her comments on the analogy between music and feeling, which conclude in an effort to make a virtue of what looks to be at best harsh necessity: “It is a peculiar fact that some sad and some happy conditions may have a very similar morphology.  At first sight, that looks paradoxical; but it really has perfectly good reasons which do not invalidate the notion of emotive significance, but do bear out the right-mindedness of thinkers who recoil from the admission of specific meanings.  For what music can reflect is only the morphology of feeling, and it is quite possible that some musical forms may bear a sad and a happy interpretation equally well.”9  The reason, we are told, why it is difficult to assign emotive meanings is not because of inadequacies in our indices or in our apprehension, but because of ambiguities in the work itself which encourage a variety of interpretations.

Such efforts to establish what Langer takes to be the cognitive content of art are less than convincing. Quite apart from the objections which have been suggested, however, it is unfortunate that she should spend so much of her effort away from and in effect undercutting more fundamental parts of her theory. Even before the question arises of how we can verify the supposed analogue, we have to take account of the assumption underlying its derivation, which holds that there are certain “unspeakable” things which are no less real for the fact that they cannot be verbalized or even specified; and that those things are revealed by the work of art.  There is, Langer suggests, an entire realm of “life” which can be cognized and which, because of its importance, ought to be known, but which cannot be articulated in the forms available to discursive language.10  In Feeling and Form she even describes quite graphically what it is that cannot be articulated: “There is a great deal of experience that is knowable, not only as immedi-ate, formless, meaningless impact, but as one aspect of the intricate web of life, yet defies discursive formulation, and therefore verbal expression; that is what we sometimes call the subjective aspect of experience, the direct feeling of it—what it is like to be waking and moving, to be drowsy, slowing down. . . . Such directly felt experiences usually have no names—they are named, if at all, for the outward conditions that normally accompany their occurrences.” (FF, p. 21)

Now, assuming that to be the case, it may be less distressing that a precise correlation of the art work and the symbolized life of feeling cannot be effected: any such correlation is apodictically precluded by one of its prospective terms.  The very attempt to justify the correlations by way of proofs which refer the parts of the art work to categories like “sad” or “happy” (as Langer did above) is foredoomed and ultimately irrelevant: if discursive formulation is impossible, then to speak of music as “sad” or “happy” at all is misleading and futile.  But the matter unfortunately cannot be allowed to rest with that.  It might be further argued that the objection initially raised has only been deferred, since once we admit that there may not be a specific correlation between the symbol and object symbolized, we are forced to ask what evidence could be presented for the very existence of the ineffable.  “Effable” proofs have been represented as necessarily inadequate; and we are thus confronted with an assertion which precludes the possibility of its verification.

Langer’s anticipation of this criticism, and one of the most interesting though generally neglected aspects of her thought, appears in her description of intuition.  It is through intuition that the observer establishes his initial rapport with both discursive and non-discursive symbols and the objects they symbolize.  Unlike several other terms she employs, “intuition” is consistently used by Langer to refer to the process of immediate apprehension, distinct from and prior to the understanding and not subject to judgments of either truth or error.11  There is nothing mystical about intuition; it is the hypothetical basis of all judgments, enabling the judgments to be made, and acting, on Langer’s comparison, a part similar to that of Locke’s “natural light.”  We are aware of its activity because of its consequences—we recognize the “felt life” and we are aware of the special nature of the work of art, just as we know that language as it appears on the printed page, even before we grasp it conceptually, is more than simply an “arabesque of serried inkspots” (PA, p. 67).

Langer’s use of the term “intuition,” moreover, is univocal.  Although at one point in the Problems of Art she attempts to distinguish between “artistic” and “discursive” intuition (PA, p. 166), a more characteristic tendency favors a single definition for both of them.  She maintains, for instance, that “intuition is the basic process of all understanding, just as operative in discursive thought as in clear sense perception and immediate judgment. . . .”  (FF, p. 29) This unified theory, however, is not without problems of its own, because the process of intuition which results in the apprehension of both discursive and non-discursive symbolism is in one sense held to be identical for both of them; yet it must also provide grounds for asserting a distinction between them. What we have seen to be identical, however, was the accomplishment of intuition; the fact, in other words, that intuition enabled understanding to operate with respect both to discursive and to non-discursive symbolism.  That does not imply that the machinery of intuition is the same in both cases, and an important internal difference appears between the two, precisely in that respect.  The concept of abstraction is relevant here, since abstraction is fundamental to the process of intuition, and intuition is the inclusion of abstraction as a characteristic of all apprehension.  “There is no sense in trying to convey reality pure and simple.” (PA, p. 92) Assigning to abstraction the role of extracting from reality the cognitive elements which are to be symbolically apprehended or projected, Langer asserts that there are at least two alternative paths followed by abstraction: one, employed by science, moves inductively to increasingly general categories, and the other attempts to make its subject concrete and functions in the production and appreciation of art. The former proceeds from a sequence of individual entities to a concept which incorporates their common characteristics (cf., e.g., PA, p. 177). Articulation, on the other hand, makes no effort to found itself in the parsing and correlation of general characteristics, but works rather so to simplify an entity that its structure or form “shines forth” in the totality immediately apprehended by artistic intuition.  (The two modes of abstraction are apparently supposed to occur for both creator and observer, during the production of the art work as well as during its apprehension.)  It is, to return to an earlier point, on the basis of intuition thus analyzed and found to underlie the two forms of abstraction, that Langer discovers the life of feeling in art. Accordingly, evidence for the existence of either the pattern of emotion referred to or of its “unspeakable” nature must depend on a systematic testing of the processes of intuition and abstraction.

Langer, though not repudiating prima facie her early position, modifies it by the time she hints at the two forms of intuition in Problems of Art; and with those modifications her position assumes its latest form.  We recall that Langer claimed that one entity symbolized a second one when a structure common to both was known.  That structure, or concept, was taken to be the “meaning” of the entity, the concept being considered apart from the individual conceptions of it by either the artist or the observer (NK, pp. 61, 71).  The concept itself is a necessary ingredient of the aesthetic transaction, although it tends to disappear, overwhelmed by the blanketing conceptions of those who create it or those who perceive it.  Most important, however, it is supposed to exist; in the case of art, the concept is that of feeling which thus provides the cognitive content of the experience of art.

The methodological difficulties which threaten such a position have been anticipated here; they were formulated effectively and in a form to which Langer gave serious consideration by Ernest Nagel’s review of Philosophy in a New Key.12  Nagel points out in his essay that Langer’s use of the terms “symbol” and “meaning,” with reference to the work of art and the life of feeling respectively, distorts the accepted usage of the terms and even, it might now be added, what Langer herself intended by them.  In acknowledging the cogency of Nagel’s remarks, Langer, tentatively in Feeling and Form (cf., e.g., p. 29) and with more conviction in the Problems of Art (cf., e.g., p. 127), attempted to replace the term by others—in the case of “meaning,” for instance, by “import”13 and “significance”14—at once more general and more vague.  The shift is naturally reflected in her dealings with the notion of abstraction, and it becomes increasingly clear that what Langer calls “the life of feeling” after this point is no longer referred to; it is rather embodied or expressed in the art work in such a way as to produce in the observer a characteristic sense of “vital import.”  The art work and its “meaning” are not to be distinguished; the art work no longer symbolizes.



This move is more than simply a shifting of semantic furniture.  The basic distinction which Langer persistently affirmed between “sign” or “signal” and “symbol” collapses, and, at least so far as the art work is concerned, becomes irrelevant. The collapse is necessitated by the aspects of the distinction on which Langer placed most weight, not because the distinctions were “wrong,” but because they were unable to meet the demands made of them.  In the definition given by Philosophy in a New Key, for instance, a distinction had been drawn between the three-termed relation of the sign and the four-termed relation of the symbol.  That implied that the symbol—as opposed to the sign—possessed an intrinsic connection to the concept or analogy of form.  But Langer herself recognizes finally that if she is consistent in her usage, the symbol in its failure as a description of the art work is not so different from the sign after all: both move in steps from one entity to another or others, and the fact that the symbol takes an additional step in that process emphasizes rather than denies the effects of the referral.  Langer admits as much when she writes in Problems of Art that “a genuine symbol is only a sign; in appreciating its meaning our interest reaches beyond it to the concept” (PA, p. 133).  And with that recognition, Langer’s thought experiences a crisis.  The “symbol,” which was supposed to make provision for all that needed to be said about the work of art, has to be discarded.  The structure in terms of which the art work had been defined is threatened, and the theory of which it is a part hangs in the balance.

The threat, though, does not produce the repercussions in Langer’s thought which might be anticipated. What Langer is apparently even more firmly convinced of than her characterization of the art work as symbol is the proposal which she had added to it, that the work of art is an expression of the concept of feeling.  So she concludes the passage cited immediately above by describing the properties of that relation which she continues to uphold.  “But a work of art does not point us to a meaning beyond its own presence.  What is expressed cannot be grasped apart from the sensuous or poetic form that expresses it.  In a work of art we have the direct presentation of a feeling, not a sign that points to it.” (PA, pp. 133-34) Such a statement attempts to overcome the limitations which Langer has now admitted in the theory of the work of art as symbol. The art work does not refer, as the term “meaning” would suggest it does, to an independent concept; rather it incorporates in itself the “life of feeling,” the charged emotional pattern that Langer presents as the distinctive ingredient of art.

The implication is clear, however, that this development can not dispel the objections raised against Langer’s earlier designation of the art work as symbol.  She continues even now to base the particularized import of the work of art and its cognitive content on her idea of intuition.  That idea, because its sole means of verification rests finally on the individual experience of the spectator, is bound to face objections not very dissimilar from those which confronted the theory of the art-symbol.  What emerges from such a theory, one can predict, will be less a consensus than a conflict.  Opinions may be quite clear at times, for instance, on the emotional analogue presented by a particular art work—but there is no apparent necessity for agreeing that such an analogue must be recognized before one can appreciate the distinctiveness of the generic art work.  One may discover in art a variety of analogues aside from that of emotion, or then again, if we are to listen to many sophisticated opinions, instances where no analogues to emotion or to anything else are evident.  We see the probability of this divergence clearly in Langer’s impression that Schumann’s Arabesque “achieves a feeling of elaborated thought where no thought really has beginning or end, or of motion in a maze yet without dizziness.” (PA, p. 88) Her description may strike us as apposite—but surely there are many possibilities of interpretation, both metaphoric and literal, which it leaves unnoticed: the sense of “motion in a maze” is a highly personal image.  We are not certain that “feeling” is the primitive term which Langer has taken it to be; and although there is admittedly no reason, so long as we restrict ourselves to reports from individual experience, for categorically denying that feeling is the distinctive quality conveyed by the art work, neither is there any apparent basis for categorically affirming it.  There is, moreover, no possibility of moving further in the analysis or of reducing the difficulties, since the method by which they are produced is the one to which Langer has restricted herself.

The sequence of Langer’s argument thus begins and ends in the experience of the perceiver who is informed by the work of art of a pattern of emotion. The argument rests finally on the individual judg-ment; and we must suppose, so long as we are unwilling to grant special priority to Langer’s response, that her description applies specifically to her own reaction to art rather than to a universal or necessary response.  This would not constitute a serious objection if Langer also demonstrated that her reaction had grounds in the objective structure of the work of art; such a move would reveal at least the potential generality of her own judgment.  But Langer does not deal very fully with these issues. Her thinking on art assumes as its first task the discovery in art of the qualities which make it a symbol; and one has the sense that out of those beginnings, Langer presses an analysis of what the aesthetic transaction would be if the art work were a symbol—an effort which is seriously threatened when she discovers that the art work is probably not a symbol at all.  The strain is underscored by the attempt in Feeling and Form to distinguish among the art media, a project which could be fruitful if the ontology of the art work were adequate, but which seems there a labored and often arbitrary variation on the basic—and arbitrary—theme that art communicates to the perceiver a semblance of the life of feeling.  It may be, as Langer claims, that the encounter with the work of art offers to the perceiver an important and distinctive mode of knowledge.  Such an hypothesis would significantly extend the scope of cognitive relevance beyond the “discursive” symbolism to which it is often arbitrarily restricted.  But support for the proposal must be found in the structure of the art work as well as in reports on aesthetic experience. Until we know why knowledge acquired from art takes the form assigned it by Langer, we must hesitate at her description of that form.  And the collapse of the symbol makes the relevance of her discussion of art’s cognitive significance more, not less, problematic.



1 Work on this essay was supported by a grant on the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation.

2 Cf. especially A. N. Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (Cambridge, 1928), Ch. 2.

3 The Practice of Philosophy, (New York, 1930), p. 124.  Cited hereafter as PP.

4 Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge, Mass., 1942), p. 139.  Cited hereafter as NK.

5 Feeling and Form (New York, 1953), p. 27. Cited hereafter as FF.

6 Problems of Art (New York, 1957), p. 20. Cited hereafter as PA.

7 The distinction between sign and symbol is first drawn in NK, pp. 31 ff.  In FF, p. 26, Langer replaces “sign” by “signal” so that both symbols and signals may be grouped under the general heading of “sign.”

8 Cf., e.g., FF, pp. 28, 59, 78; NK, pp. 100, 245; PA, pp. 53, 58.

9 NK, p. 238; cf. also the criticism of C. C. Pratt, NK, p. 245.

10 Cf. NK, pp. 282 ff., where Langer opposes Carnap on this point.

11 Cf., e.g., PP, pp. 44, 45; FF, pp. 378, 397; PA, pp. 61, 66.

12 Reprinted in E. Nagel, Logic without Metaphysics (Glencoe, Ill., 1956).

13 Cf. FF, p. 52; PA, pp. 67, 127.

14 E.g., FF, p. 32; PA, pp. 34 ff.

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