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Philosophy in a New Key by Susanne K. Langer

Reviewed by Jeff Riggenbach

This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read—and one of the most far-reaching. In Philosophy in a New Key, Dr. Langer has set out to discuss the role of symbolism in human life and to show that the analysis of human mental processes as symbolic processes can provide a new and synoptic understanding of man and his mind. She has succeeded brilliantly—not only in showing that symbolism is central to human mental functioning, but also in using her “new key” to unlock dozens of perplexing problems in fields as diverse as cultural anthropology and musical aesthetics.

Briefly, Dr. Langer’s thesis is that while the methodology of the perceptual level of consciousness is the recognition and interpretation of signs—perceptual clues to the presence of significant objects—the methodology of the conceptual level of consciousness, the methodology which distinguishes human mental functioning from animal mental functioning, is the creation, recognition and interpretation of symbols—perceptual concretes which stand for and call to mind concepts. “Rationality is the essence of mind,” she writes, “and symbolic transformation its elementary process.” Moreover, and this is Dr. Langer’s most original and important application of her theory, there are two distinct kinds of symbolism—discursive and presentational.

The difference between the two is that “discursive symbolism is always general, and requires application to the concrete datum, whereas non-discursive symbolism is specific, is the ‘given’ itself, and invites us to read the more general meaning out of the case.” The most highly developed form of discursive symbolism we possess is language; the most highly developed form of presentational symbolism we possess is art. And, as Dr. Langer argues brilliantly and at some length, each type of symbolism is rational, logical and necessary. Each does something the other cannot do. “Language, in its literal capacity, is a stiff and conventional medium, unadapted to the expression of genuinely new ideas, which usually have to break in upon the mind through some great and bewildering metaphor. But bare denotative language is a most excellent instrument of exact reason; it is, in fact, the only general precision instrument the human being has ever evolved. Ideas first adumbrated in fantastic form become real intellectual property only when discursive language rises to their expression. That is why myth is the indispensable forerunner of metaphysics; and metaphysics is the literal formulation of basic abstractions, on which our comprehension of sober facts is based.”

Philosophy in a New Key, then, is an elaboration of what it means to say that man is a being of conceptual consciousness and that his cognitive functioning must be logical. It is an excellent companion volume to Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, showing as it does what happens to concepts after they have been formed. And it is indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the cognitive status of art or the logical status of his non-linguistic mental operations.

[This review was first published in Libertarian Review, January 1974, Vol. III, No. 1 and was posted on Objectivist Living with the author's permission on Friday, October 13, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]

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Feeling and Form by Susanne K. Langer

Reviewed by Jeff Riggenbach,

with comments by John Hospers and a rejoinder by Riggenbach

In 1914, well over 2000 years after Plato undertook the first systematic philosophical study of art, Clive Bell declared that it “is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that.” Nearly 50 years later, Ayn Rand could still lament that “While physics has reached the level where men are able to study subatomic particles and interplanetary space, a phenomenon such as art has remained a dark mystery, with little or nothing known about its nature, its function in human life or the cause of its tremendous psychological power.”

But is the record of those 2400 years really so barren? Are we really no closer to the truth about art than we were when Plato began writing about it in the Ion? The fact is, the record is not a totally barren one: a good deal is known and on record about the nature and function of art. The problem is that the most valuable books and articles are scattered far and wide. Many of them are out of print, and a number of the others are so obscure that not even an unusually large library can be counted upon to have them all. Moreover, the literature of the subject is large enough that even an active intellectual working in the field, like Bell or Rand, would be hard-put to keep up withal of it; they could easily have missed works that might have changed their gloomy views of the situation.

And for the general reader, things are even worse. Surely it is unreasonable to expect him to read his way through Kant, Coleridge, Valery, Hulme, Pound, D. G. James, George Moore, Ransom, Hospers, Croce, Beardsley, Gass, William J. Handy, Marcus Hester, and Rand (to mention only the most significant writers in literary aesthetics), then sift the valuable ideas out of their books and work his own integration of these valuable ideas into some kind of coherent theory of art. Even having done so, he would lack necessary information about the other primary and performing arts, and he would still have ahead of him a fascinating body of knowledge, compiled mostly by logicians, psychological theorists and philosophers of science, pertaining to the logical and psycho-epistemological methods appropriate to the appreciation of art. Altogether it is a formidable job.

But how is the general reader to avoid it if he wants to get the most out of the art he exposes himself to? The point of contemplating artworks, after all, is the enjoyment we hope to gain from the experience. And the capacity to appreciate works of art (that is, to grasp their import) is fully as latent in the healthy human mind as the capacity to perceive entities or to form and manipulate concepts. But like these latter two capacities, it does not function automatically. We are not born knowing how to appreciate art any more than we are born knowing how to perceive or how to think conceptually. We have to learn to do each of these things. And the nonspecialist who nevertheless wants to burn with Pater’s hard gem-like flame, allowing art to give the highest quality to his moments as they pass, needs the facts in order to know ho to use his mind most effectively in pursuit of that purpose. To my knowledge there is only one philosopher or critic who has presented in one book the basic information a person needs to develop his capacity for art appreciation. The philosopher is Susanne K. Langer. The book, first published more than twenty years ago, is Feeling and Form: a Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key.

Feeling and Form elaborates the theory that a work of art is a presentational symbol of human feeling. “Feeling” is used here in a very broad sense, as roughly synonymous with “experience” or “awareness.” A work of art is a symbol of human feeling, Langer argues, because it concretizes and objectifies a concept of some kind of human experience. And the various branches of art are distinguishable from one another in terms of the kinds of conceived feelings they symbolize. Thus, the visual arts symbolize human experience of scene (in painting), kinetic volume (in sculpture) and ethnic domain (in architecture). Music symbolizes human feeling of temporal motion; literature, human feeling of past events or memory; drama, human experience of destiny through a sequence of causally fertile present acts; the dance (which Langer convincingly argues is a primary art), human feeling of bodily power, and so on. She also includes a brief appendix on the art of film-making, sketching the reasons for her view that films are not simply dramas preserved for later presentation, but constitute instead a fundamentally new art form.

The chapters on the dance, on music, and on drama are among the most important and among the most filled with brilliant insights: What are the factors that differentiate a technically perfect but artistically flawed performance of a musical work from an artistically successful but technically ordinary performance of the same piece? What is the difference between the creativity of the composer and the creativity of the performing artist? Is the dance still a primary art when it is set to music, as in ballet? What are tragedy and comedy, and what is their relation to drama? There are answers to all these questions, and the answers are related back to the basic theory and shown, in each case to be special instances of it. As Langer points out, “a true general theory has no exceptions, and when it seems to have them it is not properly stated.” And it may be sufficient, to distinguish Langer’s own general theory from every other I have encountered in the field of aesthetics, to say that it seems to have no exceptions.

[Hospers begins:] Letters to the editor usually take objection to something or other, and this is what I want to do now. I realize that Susanne Langer’s
Feeling and Form
still appeals considerably to nonaestheticians, but as the very numerous reviews of her books have made clear, the central theses of her aesthetics are build upon vaguenesses, equivocations, outright fallacies, and generalizations from a few cases to a whole class. That one can get some feeling for works of art from her work cannot be denied, but that her work contains a clear and coherent aesthetic theory can hardly be asserted any longer in view of the volley of unanswered criticisms of her theory. The central term, “presentational symbol,” for example, contains a nest of fallacies. See, for example, Morris Weitz’ devastating review of
Feeling and Form
, “Symbolism in Art” in the
Review of Metaphysics
, VII, pp. 466-81; Ernest Nagel’s review of
Philosophy in a New Key
Journal of Philosophy
, XL, 323-29; and C. L. Stevenson’s critique of the whole position in “Symbolism in the Non-representational Arts,” in my aesthetic anthology,
Introductory Readings in Aesthetics
(New York, Free Press, 1969.) (See also my own essay, “The Concept of Artistic Expression,” in the same volume.)

[Hospers continues with remarks about Riggenbach’s account of the great novels.] [John Hospers, Los Angeles, Calif.]

[Riggenbach begins with a response to comments by S. Anders and John Hospers, and he continues:] [W]hile a majority of the most acute critics of literature are professors, the nature of the American academic system is such that, across the board, literature is unquestionably the most incompetently taught subject currently offered at universities.

Philosophical aesthetics may not be far behind, though, if Weitz, Stevenson and Nagel are taken in their critiques of Susanne Langer, as representative of academe’s best. Weitz declares that “Mrs. Langer’s whole theory of non-discursive symbolism seems to be rooted in her picture or mirror theory of language,” a statement which, even if it were true (which it isn’t) and even if it were proved true (or even argued for) by Weitz (which it isn’t) wouldn’t preclude the possibility (never entertained by Weitz) of the same theory of non-discursive symbolism being rooted in a different theory of language (the one sketched by Rand in her
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
, for example). Weitz goes on to announce that Langer’s conception of music I rooted in a Bergsonian conception of time; and that, he declares, is “no theory at all, but an exercise in bad grammar.” What follows, his argument for this view, makes his own general position quite clear: the world is made of words; the work of philosophy is to determine the meaning of words, which is to say, how they’re used in different sentences; no enquiry need ever be made into what in reality the words designate. To such a mentality, the work of a Bergson or a Langer—the attempt to achieve the greatest possible clarity and precision in the use of symbols to describe the real world (which is conceived as the proper subject of philosophical thought)—must seem paradoxical and muddled indeed.

Stevenson sets out to show that the sine qua non of Langer’s approach to aesthetics—the general theory of signs—is unnecessary to deal adequately with the major philosophical problems posed by works of art. He proceeds by sketching a theory in which the general theory of signs is brought back in through the back door (under an assumed name—that of “sense” as it is applied to linguistic structures). His article, thus, stands better as a confirmation of Langer’s method than as a critique of it. And while Nagel’s remarks on
Philosophy in a New Key
are somewhat more sophisticated than Weitz’s and Stevenson’s, they have in common a gift for misunderstanding which, at times, seems positively willful. And just why there should be such misunderstanding of Langer is profoundly unclear to me. The distinction between presentational and discursive symbolisms is, on the other hand, quite clear, and I believe it to be presented clearly and unequivocally in Langer’s books. A considerably more intelligent and constructive response to Langer’s theory of art may be found in Herbert Read,
The Tenth Muse
(New York, Grove Press, 1957).

And as for Langer’s ideas “still appealing considerably to nonaestheticians,” it might as easily (and as accurately) be said that Adam Smith’s
Wealth of Nations
still appeals considerably to noneconomists. There is among too many libertarians a ready tendency to question the intellectual establishment only with respect to political and economic issues, as if the same intellectuals who advocate institutionalized theft, slavery, and murder may safely be relied upon to honor the truth about philosophy and art. In fact, they may not be. On the contrary, in my experience, the more valuable an idea is for serious students of a field, the more likely that idea is to be regarded as either “radical” or “discredited” by the intellectual establishment. [Jeff Riggenbach, Los Angeles, Calif.]

[This review was first published in Libertarian Review, December 1975, Vol. IV, No. 12, and the subsequent discussion appeared in July-August 1976, Vol. V, No. 4) and was posted to Objectivist Living with the author's permission on Friday, October 13, 2006.]

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I want to go on record here as saying that I think Susanne Langer's Feeling and Form is one of the most important books ever written on aesthetics. In my most recent Journal of Ayn Rand Studies essay (linked below), I show strong and wide similarities between Langer's view of art and the model presented in Rand's The Romantic Manifesto.

Langer and Camus: Unexpected Post-Kantian Affinities with Rand's Aesthetics (in Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, Fall 2005

Comments and questions about this essay are welcome.


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I appreciate your posting of this, Roger. Aesthetics is a long way from being one of my strong suits insofar as on a discussional level, but as with a lot of people I know what I find pleasing even if I can't always say why.

I also enjoyed the fact that Jeff wrote the review, I like reading his posts from Solo, especially when he is in a somewhat combative mood. :)


Edited by L W HALL
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