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From International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1970, 481-84.   A review of Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. I, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1967, xxiii + 487.   The title of this review as posted here is mine.  Another critique of Langer's book is Peter A. Bertocci, Susan K. Langer’s Theory of Feeling and Mind, posted elsewhere on this site.

Anthony Flood

Posted May 1, 2008


“Biological Thinking”: The Methodological Inadequacy of Susanne K. Langer’s Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling

Richard M. Liddy 


The major thesis of Susanne Langer’s latest work is that the “organic” character of artistic expression is the pre-scientific clue to the continuity between human consciousness, biological feeling, and electro-chemical process.  Just as a great deal of practical mechanics aided the development of modern physics, so the artistic expression of the forms of feeling can provide contemporary psychology with a “naive yet expert knowledge” with which to direct its investigations.  The outcome of such investigations is here anticipated: “Once the image of life is recognized in its artistic projection, where it is seen to include all mental life, we have some measure of adequacy for the terms of a conceptual structure which can support biological thinking of a sort that, in due course, will pose and resolve psychological issues” (p. 257).

The emphasis of this first of a projected three-volume work is on “biological thinking”; the remaining two volumes will deal with the “shift” to human mental life, social theory, morality, and epistemological questions.  Nevertheless, Langer’s whole methodology is prefigured in the present volume; and it is with regard to that methodology that we will structure the remainder of this review.

It would seem that the vexing psychological questions arising from Langer’s very significant work on art, particularly Feeling and Form, confronted her with the following dilemma: how reconcile intelligence, epitomized by logic, with feeling, somehow the object or import of artistic expression? That these two realms could be reconciled represented her faith in “the unity of science” (p. 262), one and the same scientific framework underlying such diverse areas.  A cardinal assumption of the present work is that that framework is ultimately the one science of physics—to which the remaining sciences, including the human sciences, are logically reducible.  For “any science,” she notes, “is likely to merge ultimately with physics as chemistry has done” (p. 52).  That chemistry has done so—as if the terms and relations that constitute the periodic table could be deduced from the laws of physics—is not even questioned.

What does Langer mean by physics?  In Philosophical Sketches, a series of exploratory essays prior to the present work, Langer noted that the physical scientists have not been haunted by the mind-body problem bequeathed to modern psychology by Descartes’ bifurcation of nature into res extensa and res cogitans; for “their entire interest lies in physical phenomena, res extensa.”  It seems evident that for Langer physical science is a purely conceptual structure descriptive of at least indirectly observable or imaginable objects, variously termed “matter,” “material substance,” “res extensa.”

The construction of the abstract scientific terms by which res extensa can be described is a philosophical task.  Consequently, Langer’s aim is the philosophical reconstruction of biology and psychology; that is, a search for the basic concepts capable of bringing these sciences within the same conceptual frame as physics.  As physics deals with res extensa, so also do these sciences, although at a higher degree of mechanistically determined complexity.  In biology, for example, Langer’s major adversary is the straw-man of vitalism: “the conception of ‘life’ as a special essence different from ‘matter,’ something that pervaded ‘living matter’ and set it apart from ‘mere matter’ which obeyed the laws of physics” (p. 316).  In order to attain the logical coherence of biology with physics, Langer assumes from the latter realm the basic concept of “natural event”; on this foundation she is able to construct the basic biological notion of “act” as a particular sort of event.  This concept has the advantage of not implying the prior notion of “agent,” and thus allows one to trace the origins of life in the inorganic world; for “action,” the formal aspect of “act,” is common to both living and non-living beings (pp. 304–7).

But Langer’s chief interest is psychology, and here again she seeks a basic concept which will allow the integration of “our observations of mental phenomena” into the whole scientific framework. Just as “act,” the basic concept of biology, shows the continuity and even the ultimate equivalence of this science with physics, so with regard to human mentality Langer arrives at the philosophically constructed term, “feeling,” which allows her to bring the whole realm of the psychological within the orbit of electro-chemical events.  She defines feeling as “anything that can be felt” and under this rubric she includes both sensibility, “felt as impact” and establishing the objective realm; and emotivity, “felt as action” and accounting for the subjective world. The latter world includes intelligence, “felt as thought,” and even “the very interesting ‘sense of rightness’ that closes a finished thought process, as it guarantees any distinct intuition” (p. 147). Although this seems the very opposite of emotion, nevertheless, “the wide discrepancy between reason and feeling may be unreal; it is not improbable that intellect is a high form of feeling—a specialized intensive feeling about intuitions” (p. 149).

Thus, on the basis of her assumptions regarding science, Langer arrives at the hypothesis that feeling, globally including all subjective, conscious, mental activity, is merely a heightened form of biological activity, itself a complexus reducible to electro-chemical events.  Feeling, therefore, is matter at its most complex (p. 67).  It is not an added “thing,” “entity” or separate “substance,” but rather a phase of biological process which passes above a certain limen of intensity so that the living tissue “feels” its own activity (pp. 27–29).  To clarify for us the assertion that feeling is not a “thing,” etc., she notes that it is similar to the reflection of a tree in a pool of water; just as the reflection is not another “thing,” but the tree’s appearance, so feeling is merely the appearance which organic functions have for the organism in which they occur (pp. 15 & 30).

Yet, quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.  If Langer’s basic argument for the reduction of biology to physics is the a priori conviction that this must form one conceptual framework around the one object, res extensa, she feels called upon to profer particular evidence for the biological status of feeling, including, as we noted, intelligence and rationality.  Conveniently, she finds this evidence in art.  Invoking the conclusions of her own artistic studies, she comes to the conclusion regarding feeling: “the fact that expressive form is always organic or ‘living’ form made the biological foundation of feeling probable” (p. XIX).  For the work of art is the objective realization of a mental image; and images reflect the biological sources from which they spring.  Psychologists, therefore, must go to artists to learn about feeling, because art is a final symbolic form making revelations of truths and facts about feeling, precisely the truths and facts that literal scientific statement distorts.  Once the artist has created the work of art, the image of feelings, we may talk about them scientifically; “but only artistic perception can find them and judge them real in the first place” (p. 81).

If we would fault Langer for the inadequacy of her conclusions, chiefly, the reduction of “mind” to feeling and electro-chemical events, we would also point out the root of that inadequacy in her methodology.  Thus, although her ultimate explicit court of appeal is “science,” she never analyzes differentiated scientific activity.  She assumes that it is a merely imaginative enterprise; for human mentality is at most a fusion of images under the pressures of underlying processes.  The only introspective evidence she supplies for such a reduction is her analysis of undifferentiated artistic and mythic consciousness in terms of vision and visual imagination: thus, we “see” forms of feeling in works of art; and in metaphorical activity we “see one thing in another,” life in the candle flame, death in sleep, etc.  This, she notes, is the basis of all “higher” differentiated symbolic activity.

I would suggest, however, that a more sophisticated introspective technique, beginning with an analysis of the exigent processes of scientific consciousness, would show the impossibility of reducing such consciousness to elements, such as vision, imagination and feeling, easily identifiable in undifferentiated consciousness.  It would seem that only a maieutic tool—such as is found in the first five chapters of Bernard Lonergan’s Insight—could assist in such a philosophical conversion needed to conceive “mind,” not visually or imaginatively, but in terms of its own (one’s own) intellectual and rational processes.  Such a construction would succeed where Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling fails: it would provide an adequate philosophical ground for Langer’s previous fine work on art.