Philosophy Susanne Langer
Lona Gaikis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0401


Logician and philosopher of art Susanne K. Langer (b. 1895–d. 1985, née Knauth) has been a rather elusive protagonist in 20th-century philosophy. Mentioned alongside key thinkers such as Charles W. Morris or Abraham Kaplan in establishing the field of formal symbolic logic, she dedicated her early research to the study of symbols and contributed essential introductory literature. The young scholar—she was a student of Henry M. Sheffer and later completed her doctoral studies with Alfred N. Whitehead—continuously challenged analytic philosophy with audacious propositions and controversial semantic hypothesis. As philosophical hybrid, not only advancing elements from Whiteheadian process thought but sharing essential roots in Ernst Cassirer’s theory of symbolic form, the disputability in Langer’s theory, spans the continental divide. Langer introduced a “new key” to philosophy by emphasizing musical form in the making of meaning. Her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art was a best-seller yet had little impact on major academic discourses. Herein she establishes the generative idea for a musical matrix from which symbolic articulation takes place in relational structure. Her aim was to address the problem of conceptualizing unlogicized areas of life, respectively myth, ritual, and arts. Growing emphasis placed on logical analysis rigidly divided the natural sciences and the humanities into “two cultures.” Whatever was excluded, following Langer, could nevertheless be reintroduced to the domain of genuinely intelligible symbols by expanding the spectrum of symbolic forms. Her semiology conceptualizes language, science, and logic hitherto as discursive form but adds artistic expression as presentational symbol to the semantic toolkit. She aimed to lever culture, religion, and artistic expression as equal mental resources for higher cognition. This emerges from her notion of logical symbolization as form, rather than determined by a concept of truth, which distinguishes her from her contemporaries in logical positivism. Langer’s core hypothesis suggests an art symbol analogue to feeling. Her theory, highly informed by process metaphysics, critiques and further supplements its ontology by advancing to scientific validation through empirical research. This culminates in a philosophy of mind enriched by anthropological, biological, and neuro-physiological studies in her magnum opus Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling III written between 1967–1982. Langer’s philosophy accounts for art’s epistemological import, hereby continuing a pluralistic approach with regard to the evaluation of its plentiful forms of expression.

Contextualization and Currency: General Overviews

Only a few reviewers have grasped the whole of Susanne K. Langer’s life and academic achievements. Significant monographs compiling her fifty years of practice in philosophy and the fabric of interweaving concepts growing within her work are rare and took a long while to appear in Anglophone academia, of which Innis 2009 is the first to fully encompass her semiology. However, as reviewed in monographs outside the United States such as Kösters 1993, Lachmann 2000, and Dengerink-Chaplin 2019, the pluralism of Langer’s research touches on a variety of access points from philosophy, arts, psychology, and epistemology. This makes its full theoretical body difficult to position and unlock. Kösters 1993 introduces Langer’s theory of pre-symbolization and vital form in art to German-speaking academia as continuation of continental philosophy and thereto relating critique of pragmatism. Lachmann 2000 emphasizes the emerging of Langer’s theory from process philosophy. The most recent monograph, Dengerink-Chaplin 2019, contextualizes Langer to transcend the continental divide. She traces formative philosophical influences and consequently reveals frequent misinterpretations. While philosophic analysis in light of the logic of symbols and process philosophy comprehends Langer’s proposition, reviews from musicology seem to miss the point. The illumination of Langer’s conceptual roots in Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic form and Alfred N. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism redirects attention to her neglected position. Auxier 2008 draws a clear triangle among Langer, Whitehead, and Cassirer, whereas Innis 2007 focuses particularly on Langer’s semiology and its modification of the semiotic turn. Lachmann 1997 discusses Langer 1988 (cited under Primary Sources) in respect to its continuation and contribution to Whitehead’s semantic and process theory. Along with a new generation of philosophers, who are challenging philosophical divides and scrutinizing doctrines, Langer’s ideas have surfaced as fruitful and forward-thinking approach. Dryden 2007 embraces her visionary and broad-ranging conceptual and empirical analysis as anticipatory and seeding for cognitive science. Due to her later empirical turn and deviation from semiotics, Langer is discussed in postmodern media theory by Massumi 2011. The rise of philosophies contending new materialism(s) in van der Tuin 2016 situate Langer as an heir of post-structuralism. These recent appearances account for a currency in her work and indicate further reviews in the proximate future.

  • Auxier, Randall E. “Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) & Suzanne Katherina (Knauth) Langer (1895–1985).” In Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought: Thematic Entries; Biographical Entries; Critical Apparatus, 552–570. Vol. 2. Heusenstamm, Germany: Ontos Verlag, 2008.

    Compact philosophical analysis on the historical influence and conceptual parallels in Langer’s philosophy of symbols, Whitehead’s semantic theory and Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic form. Auxier reveals a significant triangular relation in advancing an aesthetic theory from symbolization. He further illuminates conceptual relations in the contemporaries Cassirer and Whitehead that are quite different in philosophic tradition and outset.

  • Dengerink-Chaplin, Adrienne. The Philosophy of Susanne Langer: Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

    Stressing Langer’s agenda of embodied meaning and eliminating misconceptions in the interpretation of her discourse on feeling, Dengerink Chapman scouts the nucleus of form in logic. She encompasses the development of Langer’s theory of mind from continental philosophy, process, and organicism and how it distinguishes from its positivist lead. Langer contributes to philosophy by reflecting its matters in science thereby responding constructively to deficiencies detected much later by postmodern philosophers.

  • Dryden, Donald. “The Philosopher as Prophet and Visionary: Susanne Langer’s Essay on Human Feeling in the Light of Subsequent Developments in the Sciences.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 21.1 (2007): 27–43.

    DOI: 10.1353/jsp.2007.0020

    Developments in psychological and biological science anticipated in Langer 1988 (cited under Primary Sources) are highlighted and reveal seeding ideas relevant to the subsequent cognitive revolution. Langer’s strong engagement with empirical and medical study of mind and her faithfulness to a semantic theory of arts preempt later advances in neurophysiological networks that open the field to intersections between biology and structural analysis in neurolinguistics or neurophenomenology.

  • Innis, Robert E. “Placing Langer’s Philosophical Project.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 21.1 (2007): 4–15.

    DOI: 10.1353/jsp.2007.0022

    Innis contextualizes Langer’s attempt to revoke the dichotomy between formal logic and the philosophical reflection of experience within the American philosophical tradition. This paper highlights her endeavor particularly in light of its continental roots (Cassirer) and in contrast to contemporaries in the same field (Peirce and Dewey). Reflects Langer’s advance toward a non-reductive naturalism and anti-substantialist philosophy of mind.

  • Innis, Robert E. Susanne Langer in Focus: The Symbolic Mind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

    Innis reviews Langer’s semiological foundation in prism of the semiotic turn. He gives insight to fundamental theoretical aspects and evaluates Langer’s critique of symbols in regard to her overall philosophic aspiration at that time—why it had been worth contesting. Innis identifies potentials in capturing experience as form by means of logic in the art symbol. He traces confluences in the history and contemporaries of American philosophy.

  • Kösters, Barbara. Gefühl, Abstraktion, Symbolische Transformation. Edited by Wolfgang Hogrebe. Studia Philosophica et Historica. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1993.

    First concise monograph to grasp the scope of Langer’s central concepts and to promote these in light of a philosophy of life (Lebensphilosophie). While most Anglo-American discourses focus on Langer’s theory of symbols, reviewers such as Kösters, informed by continental philosophy, highlight phenomenological aspects and its vitalist premise. She emphasizes Langer’s attempt to naturalize the transcendental mind as mental and physical capacity to symbolize and embedded in a living organic matrix.

  • Lachmann, Rolf. “From Metaphysics to Art and Back: The Relevance of Susan K. Langer’s Philosophy for Process Metaphysics.” Process Studies 26 (1997): 107–125.

    DOI: 10.5840/process1997261/226

    Summarizes central research from Lachmann 2000 in English. Lachmann accounts for parallels between Whitehead’s process philosophy and Langer’s applied organicism in her theory of living forms and symbolization. He asks whether Langer’s work reciprocally contributes to advancing process metaphysics even while turning to empirical studies of body and mind. Lachmann’s review is a comprehensive source for the later terminology emerging from Langer 1988 (cited under Primary Sources).

  • Lachmann, Rolf. Susanne K. Langer. Die lebendige Form menschlichen Fühlens und Verstehens. Munich: Fink Verlag, 2000.

    A monograph by German researcher with access to archive material. Substantial and comprehensive publication compounding Langer’s life achievement with historical and biographical material and relevant theoretical influences. Lachmann extracts leading concepts from her later philosophy of mind, directing these to organicism and influences from process philosophy. Langer’s advanced operative concepts “living form,” “feeling,” and “act” are engaged with in great detail.

  • Massumi, Brian. “The Thinking Feeling of What Happens: Putting the Radical Back in Empiricism.” In Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011.

    Massumi accounts for Langer’s notion of living form in abstract ornament (Langer 1953, cited under Primary Sources) in context of the affective turn. His compilation of texts from the early millennium on media theory, art, and subjectivity articulate a poststructuralist critique. He highlights semblance as primarily bodily activity in the perception process. What Massumi prominently terms Thinking-Feeling, originates in Langer’s sense for virtual movement that occurs through physical stimulation before cognitive processes even take effect.

  • van der Tuin, Iris. “Bergson Before Bergsonism: Traversing ‘Bergson’s Failing’ in Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy of Art.” Journal for French and Francophone Philosophy 24.2 (2016): 176–202.

    DOI: 10.5195/JFFP.2016.776

    Reviews Langer’s Feeling and Form in the heir of Deleuzian philosophy and reads diffractively along his term Bergsonism. An agenda of living form—supplementary to Bergson’s vitalism—is uncovered in Langer’s theory of art. Distinguished in distancing from Bergson’s anti-scientism, van der Tuin opens fruitful avenues of study regarding the question: what does art create? in Langer 1953 (cited under Primary Sources). Van der Tuin nears both in their emphasis on how matter becomes form through situated experience.

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