Quantcast Richard M. Liddy, "Symbolic Consciousness: The Contribution of Susanne K. Langer"



Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol. 44, 1971, 94-110.

Posted May 1, 2008


Symbolic Consciousness: The Contribution of Susanne K. Langer

Richard M. Liddy 


In his preliminary description of the theme of this congress, Dr. Louis Dupre noted the “breaking” of the myth from its primitive setting and the various ways in which it survives, particularly in the arts (primarily poetry) and in religion. In addition, he mentioned the work of the American philosopher, Susanne K. Langer, as significant in this area.  Conveniently, we have chosen as our theme Mrs. Langer’s theory of symbolic consciousness with particular emphasis on her aesthetics.

Langer’s main interest has been the nature of artistic consciousness.  Nevertheless, in her early and very popular work, Philosophy in a New Key, she included an analysis of mythic consciousness with a description of the fusion of aesthetic and mythical values.  Consequently, before detailing her explanation of art and its distinction from literal consciousness, we have included a section on Langer’s notion of myth as the origin of art and philosophy.  We will conclude this paper with a description of Langer’s latest work and our own reflections on the drift of her thought.


Philosophy in a New Key: Presentational Symbols

Susanne Langer’s early philosophical work in the 1920’s can be situated in the tradition of Anglo-American logical philosophy.  She was particularly influenced by the Whitehead and Russell of the Principia Mathematica, the Wittgensteln of the Tractatus and her own mentor at Harvard, Professor Henry M. Sheffer, who, she says, interested her in the ‘‘unlogicized’’ areas of mental life.1  Under Sheffer’s influence she came to question the relations between the complicated conventional symbols of mathematical logic and, on the other hand, other areas of human symbolization, such as ordinary language, myth, ritual and art.  Ordinarily, the conventional wisdom of the day relegated these latter areas to the non-scientific and, therefore, non-intellectual, “emotional,” side of man.2  Rudolph Carnap, for example, had held that poetry was merely an emotional catharsis of the poet aiming at the stimulation of the percipient’s immediate emotion.  Thus, lyrical verses were similar to laughing or purely exclamatory emotional expressions; for any expression that could not be measured by the exigent standards of natural science must be relegated to the merely emotional.3

But contrary to such positivist views, Langer in her very popular, Philosophy in a New Key, vindicated the properly intellectual character of the non-discursive “presentational” symbols of myth, ritual and art.  Under the influence of the neo-Kantian, Ernst Cassirer, Langer pointed in particular to the highly “formal” character of these non-scientific expressions.  Ritual, for example, is not just a momentary compulsive act, but a highly formalized, articulated, human expression.  Art is not just the symptomatic expression of the artist’s immediate emotion aimed at the stimulation of immediate emotion in the percipient; it involves a stylized “formal” quality, an element of “psychic distance” that constitutes it as properly human.4

Langer calls these non-scientific symbols “presentational” because their materials are the ordinary presentations of eye and ear, of sense and imagination.5  They are the sensitive or imaginative forms, the Gestalten, of art, the gestures of ritual and the imaginative picture-stories of fairy tale and myth.  They include, then, not just the elements of sense and visual imagination, but materials of aural and kinaesthetic imagination as well.

To these sensitive or imaginative elements meaning or import accrues.  Although, in this writer’s opinion Langer has never successfully determined “the meaning of meaning,” nevertheless she was insistent on the human and “meaningful” character of these presentational symhols.6  For, unlike mere signals which are rooted in biological reflexes and are symptomatic of immediate emotional conditions, symbols are vehicles of conception.They are not mere biological symptoms of the physical presence of a thing or a condition; they are symbols highly “charged” with humanly formulated significance.  For example, according to Langer, art symbolizes the complexity of human feeling; ritual is a symbol of man’s permanent attitude or orientation amid the terrifying forces of nature and society; and the meaning of myth is man’s serious envisagement of the world’s fundamental truths and the supreme concepts of life.8

Let us develop briefly Langer’s theory of myth as she presents it in Philosophy in a New Key. There she quotes E. Bethe on the function of myth:

Myth is primitive philosophy, the simplest presentational form of thought, a series of attempts to understand the world, to explain life and death, fate and nature, gods and cults . . . .9

Unlike the fairy tale, which has as its purpose to gratify wishes and to supply vicarious experience, myth implies a religious seriousness.  While fairy-tale aims at imaginary fulfillment as a compensation for the shortcomings of real life, an escape from actual frustration and conflict, myth, on the other hand, involves a coming to grips with all the aspects of life, a serious envisagement of its fundamental truths: moral orientation, not escape.10  Typically, its theme is tragic, not utopian.  It often presents the need for a savior, frequently conceived in superhuman terms, whose realm is not some fairy-land of make-believe, but the real world of total human experience.


Myth and Philosophy

One of the peculiarities of presentational symbols, and of myth in particular, is that there tends to be no differentiation or distinction between the symbol and its meaning or import.  A man, for example, is identified with his name.11  As Cassirer had noted:

It is typical of the first naive, unreflective manifestations of linguistic thinking as well as mythical consciousness, that its content is not sharply divided into symbol and object, but both tend to unite in a perfectly undifferentiated fusion.12

Consequently, according to Langer, the myth as serious symbol begins to wane as soon as the literal question of its factual content is raised and distinctions begin to be made.  “As soon as the interest in factual values awakes, the mythical mode of world-envisagement is on the wane.”13  A literal interest in ultimate issues is, then, at the origin of the discursive, distinguishing, differentiated thought of early philosophy.  Prior to that, myths, symbolic images and stories, were indeed the only material capable of symbolizing one’s fundamental orientation in the universe.

Common sense had never asserted itself against such stories, to make them look like fairytales or suggest that they were only figures of speech.  They were figures of thought, and the only figures of thought that really bold and creative thought knew.14

There is, then, the “breaking” of the myth in the early philosophers’ distinction between the myth and its meaning and their various attempts to develop clearly and literally that ultimate meaning of life and the universe.  But early myth found an outlet in another way, and that is, in art.  Let us present Langer’s description of the fusion of aesthetic with mythical values.


Myth and Art

Although myth is primitive philosophy and its purpose the serious projection of the fundamental truths of life, nevertheless its primitive materials are the fantasies and dream images of undifferentiated primitive consciousness; for these are the only symbolic materials there are.  Consequently, there is a long line of development from the beginnings of mythical conception to its final stabilized form in the great vehicle of myth, epic poetry.  For the imaginative dream materials of mankind, like the dreams of every individual man, have the protean, vague, inconsistent character of human dreams.

Mythological figures in their pristine stages have no fixity, either of form or meaning; they are very much like dream images, illusive, over-determined, their stories condensations of numberless ideas, their names the only evidence of any self-identity.15

It is only with the coming of poetry, the great vehicle of mythological tradition, that consistency and coherence exercise their peculiar restrictions on man’s rampant kaleidoscopic imagination.  For poetry demands form, a unity above the separate incidents, a beginning, climax and solution of the entire mythical drama.16  Aesthetic meaning accrues to the symbolic meaning of the myth.  And that brings us to the main interest of Langer’s work; that is, aesthetic and artistic form.


Philosophy in a New Key: Presentational Symbols

Langer’s classic work on art and the arts, Feeling and Form, was published in 1952.  Her approach there is much less genetic and historical, in terms of the origins of art, than analytical in terms of the active and operative elements in artistic consciousness.  Thus, she presents a unified conception of art as the objectification of a purely experiential pattern.17  As experiential, the pattern is merely aesthetic; its objectification is a work of art.  Let us consider the terms of this definition one by one.

First of all, as we noted previously, it involves a form, a pattern, a concrete set of internal relations between, for example, the colors and qualities of a picture, the proportionate importance of events in a drama, the ratios of musical motion.18  There may also be an external relationship, for example, between a representative painting and the object represented; but that relationship as such does not constitute the work as artistic.  Freudian psychologists and others who delight in “explaining” art in terms of the subconscious motivations of the artist in representing certain objects fail to grasp the specifically aesthetic level of concrete experiential patterns.19

Such a pattern, then, is an experiential one: a pattern or form in the concrete flow of acts of seeing, hearing, touching, feeling, imagining.  In fact, in several places Langer notes that the very being of these aesthetic forms is to be perceived.  They have no other existence apart from their being perceived.20  As aesthetic, these forms are as much in the concrete acts of perceiving, of seeing, hearing, touching, imagining, as they are in the objects perceived.  In fact, as many psychologists have pointed out, it is the very character of these experiential activities to organize and pattern their objects.21  Consciousness, even empirical consciousness, patterns what it perceives.  The elements of a limerick or a melody are easy to perceive and retain precisely because they are patterned; they are more than disconnected noises. Similarly, the imposition of a pattern or a decoration on a plain surface makes that surface more visible, more easily accessible to the eye.22

According to Langer, these aesthetic patterns are purely experiential, that is, they pertain to experience as such and not to experience as subordinated to other ends.  This is a central element in Langer’s description of art.  For most often human experience, sensation and perception, is merely a function of practical cares in a ready-made world. For example, the activity of seeing becomes the function of noting the color of a traffic light according to which one steps on the gas or the brake; one is interested in “getting somewhere.”  But in aesthetic experience one’s interest or attention is liberated from such a care and captivated by the purely experiential qualities of things; the colors and forms as seen and the sounds as heard.23  One is carried out of the ordinary everyday world of “things to get done” into another world, another dimension of consciousness, that artists describe as “strange,” “other,’ “unique,” “illusory.”  This is why Langer most often employs the term illusion to describe this aspect of art: the liberation of experiential consciousness from other cares and its entry into its own proper realm, a realm that from the viewpoint of practical reality is illusory, “other.”

According to Langer, these purely perceptible forms are expressive of human feeling.  They not only involve the exclusion of other practical and intellectual cares, but they also involve a release into their own line of development, determined by a retinue of affects and feelings.  This accounts for the peculiar “logic” of artistic patterns, with their own proper rhythm of tensions and resolutions, their increasing variation and complexity within a unity.24 This is why artists speak of works in organic terms, noting the “life” in the patterns of a particular painting, while another work is said to be “lifeless” or contain “dead-spots.”25  They are speaking of the proper intrinsic finality of their own patterns of perceiving.  As Langer often states, they develop “according to the forms of feeling.”

We have been speaking about Langer’s descriptions of aesthetic forms as purely experiential patterns.  But according to Langer, art includes, besides this purely experiential element, the further element of its objectification, what we call “works of art.”  This connects with her earlier recognition of the intellectual character of the various presentational symbols.  For artistic creation involves, not just feeling-influenced experience, but the idealization of experience, the grasp of what is important in these purely experiential patterns as important from this perspective and its expression or objectification in what are known as works of art.  Such objectification is a properly human and necessary element in art; for prior to this the aesthetic patterns are not fully and humanly known—not even to the artist himself.26 Objective expression is necessary for the artist to “hold,” to “fix” to “contemplate,” to “understand,” the forms of his free aesthetic experience and feeling.27  The artist’s aim is to recreate in the concrete work of art a pattern isomorphic with his own idealized free aesthetic experience.

In Feeling and Form Langer presents a detailed analysis of the individual art forms, painting, music, etc., in terms of the particular areas of perception that in those arts find liberation from practical and alien concerns.  This she calls the primary illusion of the particular art form.  For example, the primary illusion of painting is virtual space in which consciousness is liberated from the common sense experience of space, known by the collaboration of the various senses, sight, hearing, touch, etc. and supplemented by memory and beliefs about the constitutions of things, and finds release into a space that is purely visual, entirely self-contained and independent.  Within this purely and natively visual space forms are constructed and ordered so as to arrive at a complete “shaping” of a given visual field.28

Similarly, she analyzes the other primary illusions: music as virtual time, a purely audible realm of multi-dimensional motion, tension, and resolution; the dance as creating a realm of virtual “powers,” the illusion of wills in conflict, drawing and driving the bodies involved in gestures symbolic of deep centers of perception and decision; literature as presenting the events of human life and experience, not in their pure and logical facticity, but with all the illogical emotional qualities that accompany these events in real living.  And that brings us to her distinction between literal and symbolic consciousness; for in literature the very materials—words—are the vehicle of both literal and artistic meaning.


Principles of Symbolic Consciousness

It is indeed in her analysis of the literary arts that the distinction between literal and symbolic consciousness can most clearly be seen—precisely because the very materials of literary art are words and language with their literal meaning.29  In one of the finest chapters of Feeling and Form Langer presents some of the principles of the literary creative imagination—operative in both myth and literary art—as it presents events of human life, not in their pure historical facticity, but with all the illogical affective overtones that accompany these events in human life.30  Through the resources of sound and rhythm, assonance and sensuous associations, the events portrayed in literature or in poetry become as wonderful or as terrible “as they sound.”  The emotional quality of the event is immediately apparent in the telling.  The writer creates events in the mode of “naive experience” in which action and feeling, sensory value and moral value, fuse into the verbal presentation.31

This principle is responsible for the many “illogical” poetic and mythical usages of language.32 Instead of the principle of the excluded middle, characteristic of logical thought, poetry often contains what Freud called “over-determination.” Thus, instead of “either A or B,” poetry combines opposites—both love and hate, both joy and melancholy.

In literature there is, strictly speaking, no negative.  The words, “no,” “not,” etc., create by contrast what they deny and this creation is an integral part of the literary illusion.  Langer refers to Swinburne’s “The Garden of Proserpine,” in which almost every line is a denial:

Then star nor sun shall waken

Nor any change of light;

Nor sound of waters shaken,

Nor any sound or sight:

Nor wintry leaves nor vernal;

Nor days nor things diurnal;

Only the sleep eternal

In an eternal night.

In the poetic illusion everything that is denied is thereby created and forms the background for the final two verses.33

Another characteristic of literary and mythical imagination is the tendency for variations on the same theme.  Instead of the proof required by logical thinking, mere reiteration is often sufficient to create the semblance of reasoning.  As Lewis Carroll had Alice say: “If I say it three times it’s true!”

Instead of the logical development of one theme, the literary imagination often simultaneously develops many themes.  This is what Freud called condensation, and its effect is to heighten the emotional quality of the created image, and to make one aware of the complexities of feeling.  Langer quotes Shakespeare:

And Pity, like a naked newborn babe,

Striding the blast, or Heaven’s Cherubim, hors’d

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye

That tears shall drown the wind.

The literal sense of the phrases indicating that “tears shall drown the wind” and that a newborn babe and a mounted guard of cherubim will blow a deed in people’s eyes is negligible.  And yet, the poet has created an exciting figure, the created image of complex feelings.34

These are some of the principles of the symbolic imagination that distinguish it from the differentiated, distinguishing character of literal thought that is unable to capture this essential complexity of concrete human living.  Only literature can present the experiences of life in their naive emotion-laden transparency.


Final Comments

We have been presenting Langer’s theory of art and her description of characteristics of symbolic consciousness as opposed to literal scientific consciousness.  Langer’s most recent work, however, especially Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, has consisted in her attempts to reconcile these rather concrete psychological analyses with the empiricist philosophy which is still orthodoxy in most Anglo-American universities.  Concretely, her problem is what to do with terms such as insight, meaning, intellect, etc., really the operative terms in her explanation of art as a properly human objectification.  Ultimately, the solution she arrives at in her latest work is that by understanding or insight is meant a fusion of images in a process that she identifies globally as “feeling” and that ultimately is a complexus of electro-chemical events.35  The determining influence in this reductionist movement of Langer’s thought is her preoccupation with remaining “scientific” and by science she means, not the facts of scientific consciousness, but the contemporary reductionist philosophy of science in which all the sciences, even the human sciences, are ultimately reduced to physics.  As she notes: “Any science is likely to merge ultimately with physics as chemistry has done.”36

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.37  Thus, although her ultimate explicit court of appeal is “science,” she never analyzes differentiated literal, scientific activity.  She assumes that it too 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.38  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.39

If one is not to be trapped into an infinite series of “higher looks” by which one looks at his looking, and then looks at that look, he must admit that it is only because the human spirit already transcends sense that people like Langer can present presumably intelligent and reasonable descriptions of sensitive and aesthetic experience.

For in Langer’s aesthetics it can clearly be seen that art involves a two-fold freedom: from biological and practical necessity on the one hand, and from the wearying constraints of theoretical exigencies on the other.  As such art is a reflection of the freedom of the human person himself, not just in his free decisions, but even in the freedom of human consciousness itself from underlying physical and biological determinisms.  An important function of art, therefore, is precisely to make human life more livable by recreating the freedom of the human subject from every determining and wearying pattern, from every “rut” into which a person can fall; and such freedom is in direct, although implicit, contradiction with any reductionist or determinist philosophy which, forgetting the subject, would deny his freedom.

Finally, in sharp distinction from Langer’s empiricist philosophy we would note an aspect that is totally missing from her work on art, and yet was adumbrated in her early description of myth; that is, a full analysis of its symbolic aspect.  For art is a reflection of feeling-influenced human living; but human feeling is never merely sensitive, let alone merely biological or physical.  Man understands; he is not only intelligible, but actively intelligent; he is spirit, and that spirit finds resonances in his being in feelings of wonder, awe, adventure, mystery, holiness.  It is because of this that man finds a beauty, a splendor, a plus in the material world, that he refuses to be content with calling a spade merely a spade, that through his sensitive being the material world becomes for man a cipher, a revelation, an unveiling, of the One who is not seen, touched, grasped, yet nevertheless, present.40  There is then to art, to the extent that it is truly reflective of deep centers of human feeling, this symbolic aspect, without which it becomes mere aestheticism, escape, distraction, technique.  The value of Langer’s work lies in the fact that her excellent analyses of artistic consciousness are capable of being assumed into this perspective of the freedom of the human subject and the spiritual presence thru art of the One whom St. Augustine called pulchritudo pulchrorum omnium—the beauty of everything that is beautiful.



1 Susanne K. Langer, Problems of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p.125.

2 Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (New York: New American Library, 1948), pp. 78-87.

3 Rudolph Carnap, Philosophy and Logical Syntax (London: Routledge and Sons, 1935), p. 28.

4 Cf. Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”  Quoted in Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p.176.

5 Philosophy in a New Key, pp. 83-86.

6 In Feeling and Form Langer makes a distinction between the meaning of literal discursive symbolism and the “import” of art.  Cf. pp. 31-32.

7 Philosophy in a New Key, pp. 61-70.

8 Ibid., chaps. VI-VIII.

9 E. Bethe, Mythus-Sage-Märchen (1905), quoted in Philosophy in a New Key, p. 153.

10 Philosophy in a New Key, pp. 151-155.

11 Cf. H. Frankfort, Before Philosophy (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1949), p. 21:  “A name, a lock of hair, or a shadow can stand for the man because at any moment the lock of hair or shadow may be felt by the primitive to be pregnant with the full significance of the man.  It may confront him with a ‘Thou’ which bears the physiognomy of its owner.”

12 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, I (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), pp. 88-89; quoted from Philosophy in a New Key, p. 208,

13 Philosophy in a New Key, p. 173.

14 Ibid., p. 168.

15 Ibid., p. 169.

16 Ibid. Cf. her quote from Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1908), p. 164: “Art which makes the image, literature which crystallizes attributes and functions, arrest and fix this shifting kaleidoscope: but, until the coming of art and literature and to some extent after, the formulary of theology is ‘all things are in flux’.”

17 The formulation of this definition on the basis of Langer’s aesthetics is the work of Rev. Bernard Lonergan, S.J. in his private lectures on the philosophy of education and on method in theology. Langer’s essentially similar formulations call be found in Feeling and Form, pp. 40 and 60; Problems of Art, pp. 53, 80, 109 and 111; Philosophical Sketches (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 76 and 80.

18 Feeling and Form, p. 18.

19 Philosophy in a New Key, p. 178: “Interest in represented objects and interest in the visual or verbal structures that depict them are always getting hopelessly entangled.  Yet I believe artistic meaning belongs to the sensuous construct as such; this alone is beautiful, and contains all that contributes to its beauty.”

20 Feeling and Form, pp. 48 and 50.

21 Wolfgang Kohler, Gestalt Psychology (New York: R. Liveright, 1929), especially chap. V, “Sensory Organization.”

22 Feeling and Form, p. 61.

23 Ibid., pp. 49-51; Problems of Art, pp. 27ff., Coleridge called this realm of normal living “the world of selfish solicitude and anxious interest.”

24 Problems of Art, pp. 44ff.

25 Feeling and Form, pp. 79-82.

26 Ibid., p. 389.

27 Philosophical Sketches, p. 80; Problems of Art, pp. 24-25, 68, 94-95.

28 Feeling and Form, chap. V.

29 Langer is unable to formulate a clear-cut “aesthetic” distinction between the two types of expression, although she is certain of the distinction. Consequently, she is forced to adopt as her only mode of differentiation the method of listing and describing the various characteristics of each type of consciousness. Cf. Philosophy in a New Key, pp. 87-89, 197; Feeling and Form, pp. 29-32; Problems of Art, p. 68.  Her approach is descriptive, not explanatory.

30 Feeling and Form, chap. XIV.

31 Ibid., pp. 216-217.

32 Ibid., pp. 241-244.

33 Ibid., p. 243.

34 Ibid., p. 244.

35 Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967).

36 Ibid., p. 52.

37 Cf. our own study, Art and Feeling; An Analysis and Critique of the Philosophy of Art of Susanne K. Langer (Rome: Graziani, 1970), chap. III.

38 Mind; An Essay on Human Feeling, pp. 59-62, 105; Philosophical Sketches, p. 131.

39 Cf. Lonergan, Insight, chaps. I-V,

40 The author has been influenced in these reflections by private lectures of Bernard Lonergan on the philosophy of education.

Richard M. Liddy page

Susanne K. Langer page