Langer's Philosophy in a New Key

Paper 9, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 701, Spring 2003, taught by Dr. Majid Tehranian

Susanne Langer lived from 1895 to 1985. She was a student of Alfred North Whitehead. She was a tutor of philosophy from 1927 to 1942, a lecturer of philosophy at Columbia University, New York City, from 1945 to 1950, and a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College from 1954 to 1961. Though Philosophy in a New Key is her most famous work, Feeling and Form is a close second. She is known for her attempts to bring meaning to art. Here, I have focused on the her chapters concerning symbols, language, and music.

Langer is a semiotician, since she concerns herself with signs and symbols. A sign indicates something present in the environment. A sign is both motivated and constrained by the object it stands for. A symbol, on the other hand, can indicate an object even in the absence of that object. It allows us to conceive of an object.

Humans have a love for magic, ritual, art, and dreaming. This is so pervasive that there seems to be a human need to abstract and symbolize. If we were meant only to processes sense data from the environment, our habits of symbolizing would be counter-productive to our survival since language influences our understanding of the world. Language rarely provides the most simple or objective portrayal of reality.

Langer differentiates between discursive language and visual forms. Discursive language is composed of units strung out sequentially. Visual forms, on the other hand, present their components and the relationships between them simultaneously.

Languages consist of both vocabulary and syntax. This vocabulary consists of words that can be substituted for each other, either with synonyms or definitions. Syntax determines how words are combined to form new propositions.

A picture, as an example of a visual form, is composed of elements, but they are not separable, independent elements with meanings of their own. They are too complexly related to each other to separate. (This strongly reminds me of the difference between differentiable and separable highlighted in some of my readings of Eastern philosophy.) One may be able to differentiate the gradations of light and shadow in a painting from each other, but they are not clearly enumerable. Also, they cannot be defined in other terms. For example, in mathematics, the "words" "2 + 2" can be replaced by the synonym "4" and the meaning is the same. "Dog" can be replaced with "canine." But the curve of a painted jawline cannot be replaced with a definition or a synonym; it is too complexly bound to its context and related neighboring elements to be substituted.

Langer explores the nature of language and signification by looking at the behavior of chimpanzees and children. Chimpanzees have been observed as having significant objects. In a couple illustrative examples, one captive chimp harbored a terror for toadstools, and another feared burlap bags. What was interesting was that the fear did not seem to rise from a traumatic experience, but arose on the first experience. Langer likens this to the fear children can develop of ghosts or strange shapes in the darkness. There were cases of positive signification too--one chimp treasured a certain smooth rock and always carried it between her abdomen and thigh. What most of these cases seem to lack, however, is symbolism. Langer does give the example of a chimpanzee who would become very distressed in the absence of her keeper, though would be perfectly calm if given the keeper's overalls. Here, the overalls could be seen as a symbol for the keeper, since they allowed a conceptualization in the absence of the object the coverall signified.

Langer supposes that the significance of words probably begins as connotative. She cites the examples of babies learning their first words, where new words seem to be used to connote an emotion or state before they denote a specific object. Such language acquisition seems to depend on a baby's babbling and receiving a response from others. Similar processes were observed in "wolf children"--children raised by wolves who had never learned to speak--when people later tried to teach them to speak. They too seemed to use words connotatively first, though, having outgrown the babbling instinct, failed to learn many words, if any at all. Religious and other words have a connotative meaning with no real denotative sense, such as "hallelujah."

Langer also discusses metaphor. She believes that a metaphor is when a speaker uses a word to denote something as a presentational symbol for the object of the metaphor. So, in the sentence "The king's anger flared up", flared up denotes a fire. But it is not literally denoting that the king's anger is in fact a fire; rather, it is denoting a presentational symbol for the king's anger. The context reveals whether we should provide a literal or figurative interpretation. Rituals and the need to use symbols may be the start of language, but metaphor makes it relational, extending it to new forms. Metaphors can "fade" and become conventionalized, such as a fence or river "running", so that their presentational nature is not as evident.

Langer differentiates between discursive and nondiscursive languages. Discursive are languages that can be broken down into meaningful component parts. Discursive language is particularly apt for scientific undertakings. Nondiscursive language, such as used by visual forms, is more holistic and aids in the understanding of art.

Art is not a direct sensual pleasure. If it were, it would be hailed by the masses. Instead, appreciating art is generally a cultured or tutored task. We are inclined to say that works of art are significant forms. Langer chooses to investigate how they are significant by looking at music, since there is no (obvious) denotation or representation of some scene, object or fact.

Music can be judged on whether it is pleasing or displeasing, but Langer disregards this as too simple. Music conveys more than that. Perhaps music simply evokes an emotional response. This is true while listening to it, but the emotion does not usually last much pass the cessation of the music. Again, there seems to be more happening. Perhaps music is the self-expression of the composer's emotions, communicated (possibly through a performer) to the audience. But, if it is simply self-expression, this does not require music. It can be demonstrated by wailing, sobbing, shouts, etc. More importantly, it is not required that an emotion be present during either the composition or the performance of music.

Langer concludes that music in neither a stimulus to evoke an emotional response nor a sign of the presence of an emotion in the composer or presenter. Rather, it has emotional content in the same way that language has conceptual content: symbolically.

If so, is music a language? It could be a language of signs--onomatopoetic sounds signifying natural sounds. (So music could be compared to "sound-painting".) But we've said it is an exposition of feeling--it can describe feelings not present in us as words describe events and objects not before us. But what meaning is contained in music and how is it represented? Perhaps, since it is made up of separable items combined in different ways to from different results, music is a discursive language. The tones are like words and the harmony like a grammar. Yet this is inadequate, since tones do not have definitions or literal meanings.

Instead, as a presentational medium, music generates global forms that are connotatively similar to the forms of our inner experience--patterns of motion, rest, tension, release, agreement, discord, change. Critics point out that we can't sum up what music says or name the feelings that it signifies. But this assumes that languages can articulate the same forms as music (or vice versa). Because we can't denote it in a discursive language does not mean it does not exist. When we attempt to describe emotions in discursive language, we are usually limited to describing the situation or setting--like hiding your face, like watching the sunset after a long day on the beach, like stepping in someone else's chewing gum.

Langer says music reflects "the morphology of feeling." Though it lacks assigned connotations, it is still a significant form. She likens it to algebra, wherein variables such as x and y do not need assigned values to still express a relationship between them. As such, it can support multiple contents, like poetic words. This explains how the same music can support both a happy and sad interpretation.

Overall, it is refreshing to read a theory that includes how art signifies its meaning. However, I don't find Langer's description of how presentational forms carry meaning entirely satisfactory--particularly when it come to "the morphology of feeling". Her sections on language acquisition and signification sound interesting, but they are not supported by any serious empirical evidence--just a couple anecdotes about chimps, wolf children, and babbling babies.

Langer, Susanne. Philosophy in a new key: a study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.

"Langer, Susanne Knauth." <> Last Accessed: 08 May 2003.