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Susanne Langer

Susanne Langer
Langer in 1945
Born Susanne Katerina Knauth
December 20, 1895
Died July 17, 1985(1985-07-17) (aged 89)
Old Lyme, Connecticut
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Process Philosophy
Main interests
Philosophy of mind, aesthetics
Notable ideas
discursive vs. non discursive symbols

Susanne Katherina Langer (née Knauth) (December 20, 1895 – July 17, 1985) was an American philosopher of mind and of art, who was influenced by Ernst Cassirer and Alfred North Whitehead. She was one of the first women to achieve an academic career in philosophy and the first woman to be popularly and professionally recognized as an American philosopher. Langer is best known for her 1942 book entitled, Philosophy in a New Key.


  • Life 1
  • Philosophy 2
    • Rhetoric 2.1
  • Partial bibliography 3
    • Books 3.1
    • Partial list of publications 3.2
  • Notes 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Langer was born in Manhattan, the daughter of German immigrants Antonio Knauth, a lawyer, and Else M. (Uhlich) Knauth. German was spoken exclusively at home and she never completely lost her accent. As a girl, Langer learned to play both the cello and piano. For her early education she attended the Veltin School for Girls. She studied at Radcliffe College, receiving her bachelors degree in 1920 and her doctorate in 1926. Alfred North Whitehead was her dissertation adviser. She taught at Radcliffe, Wellesley College, Smith College, and Columbia University. She was a visiting lecturer at a number of other institutions.[1] In 1941 she met Ernst Cassirer, whose work The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, she had read in the 1920s. It had greatly influenced her thinking. Recognizing their common ground, Cassirer remained in close contact with Langer until his death in 1945.

In 1921 she married William L. Langer, who later became a history professor at Harvard. They had two sons, Leonard born in 1922 and Bertrand born in 1925. During the late 1930s they drifted apart and were divorced in 1942.

From 1952 to 1962, Langer was professor of philosophy at Connecticut College. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1960. In 1956 she was awarded a grant from the Edgar J. Kaufmann Foundation that allowed her to devote the remaining 25 years of her life to research and writing.

Langer died in Old Lyme, Connecticut on July 17, 1985 after finishing the third volume of her magnum opus, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.


Langer's philosophy explored the continuous process of meaning-making in the human mind through the power of “seeing” one thing in terms of another. Langer's first major work is entitled, Philosophy in a New Key. It put forth an idea that has become commonplace today: that there is a basic and pervasive human need to symbolize, to invent meanings, and to invest meanings in one’s world.[2]

Beginning with a critique of positivism, the work is a study of human thought progressing from semantic theory through philosophy of music, sketching a theory for all the arts. For Langer, the human mind "is constantly carrying on a process of symbolic transformation of the experiential data that come to it," causing it to be "a veritable fountain of more or less spontaneous ideas".[1]

Langer's distinction between discursive versus presentational symbols is one of her better known concepts.[3] Discursive symbolization arranges elements (not necessarily words) with stable and context invariant meanings into a new meaning. Presentation symbolization operates independently of elements with fixed and stable meanings. The presentation cannot be comprehended by progressively building up an understanding of its parts in isolation. It must be understood as a whole. For example, an element used in one painting may be used to articulate an entirely different meaning in another. The same principle applies to a note in a musical arrangement—such elements independently have no fixed meaning except in the context of their entire presentation.[4]

Langer believed that symbolism is the central concern of philosophy because it underlies all human knowing and understanding.[5] As with Ernst Cassirer, Langer believed that what distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity for using symbols. While all animal life is dominated by feeling, human feeling is mediated by conceptions, symbols, and language. Animals respond to signs, but stimulus from a sign is significantly more complex for humans. The perspective also is associated with symbolic communication where animal societies are studied to help understand how symbolic communication affects the conduct of members of a cooperating group.

The power of understanding symbols, i.e. of regarding everything about a sense-datum as irrelevant except a certain form that it embodies, is the most characteristic mental trait of mankind. It issues in an unconscious, spontaneous process of abstraction, which goes on all the time in the human mind: a process of recognizing the concept in any configuration given to experience, and forming a conception accordingly. That is the real sense of Aristotle’s definition of Man as “the rational animal.”[6]
—Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, page 58

Langer is one of the earliest philosophers who paid close attention to the concept of the virtual. Inspired by Henri Bergson's notions of matter and memory, she connected art to the concept of the virtual. For her, figuring out the space of an art work by its creator was no less than building a virtual world. She describes virtuality as "the quality of all things that are created to be perceived." For her, the virtual is not only a matter of consciousness, but something external that is created intentionally and existing materially, as a space of contemplation outside of the human mind. Langer sees virtuality as a physical space created by the artist, such as a painting or a building, that is “significant in itself and not as part of the surroundings.” She particularly considers architecture not as the realization of a space for being, but its conceptual translation into virtuality for perceiving: “The architect, in fine, deals with a created space, a virtual entity.” In contrast to Bergson, for Langer virtuality is tangible and can cause a contemplative interaction between humans and the machine.[7]

In her later years, Langer came to believe that the decisive task of her work was to construct a science and psychology based theory of the "life of the mind" using process philosophy conventions.[4] Langer's final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling represents the culmination of her attempt to establish a philosophical and scientific underpinning of aesthetic experience, relying on a three volume survey of a comprehensive set of relevant humanistic and scientific texts.[2]


Susanne Langer’s work with symbolism and meaning has associated her with contemporary Rhetoric, although her influence in the field is somewhat debated.[8] Langer established the use of symbols as the “epistemic unit of community”,[8] suggesting that all knowledge in a community is gained and built from shared symbol systems within a given culture. Langer’s concept regarding language and dialogue may be understood to imply that language does not simply communicate, but it produces symbols from which humans then create their own reality.[9] Claimed support of this perspective is from Langer’s statement that “language is intrinsic to thinking, imagining, even our ways of perceiving”.[9]

According to Arabella Lyon, Langer's opinion is that meaning arises from the relationship between a community, its discourse, and the individual.[8] Lyon suggests that Langer’s work may be viewed as a contradiction to the comparatively traditional theories of Aristotle, by way of Langer’s argument that discourse is formed through sensory experiences shared between speaker and hearer, rather than through logic as advocated by the philosopher. Langer’s epistemic view of symbolism and language, which further examines the motivation of the speaker, the influential aspects of language that affect people, and the relationship between the speaker and the community,[8] are often reflected in aspects of modern rhetorical studies.

Partial bibliography


  • The Cruise of the Little Dipper, and Other Fairy Tales (1924 illustrated by Helen Sewall)
  • The Practice of Philosophy (1930, foreword by Alfred North Whitehead)
  • An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937), ISBN 978-0-486-60164-9
  • Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942), ISBN 978-0-674-66503-3
  • Language and Myth (1946), translator, from Sprache und Mythos (1925) by Ernst Cassirer, ISBN 978-0-486-20051-4
  • Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953)
  • Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures, 1957
  • Reflections on Art (1961) (editor)
  • Philosophical Sketches (1962), ISBN 978-1-4351-0763-2
  • Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, three volumes (1967, 1972, and 1982)

Partial list of publications

  • "Confusion of Symbols and Confusion of Logical Types", Mind 35, 1926, pp. 222–229 
  • "Form and Content: A Study in Paradox", Journal of Philosophy 23, 1926, pp. 435–438 
  • "A Logical Study of Verbs", Journal of Philosophy 24, 1927, pp. 120–129 
  • "The Treadmill of Systematic Doubt", Journal of Philosophy 26, 1929, pp. 379–384 
  • "Facts: The Logical Perspectives of the World", Journal of Philosophy 30, 1933, pp. 178–187 
  • "On a Fallacy in ‘Scientific Fatalism’", International Journal of Ethics 46, 1936, pp. 473–483 
  • "The Lord of Creation", Fortune 29, January 1944, pp. 127–154 
  • "Why Philosophy?", Saturday Evening Post 234, 13 May 1961, pp. 34–35, 54, 56 
  • " 


  1. ^ a b Dryden, Donald (2004), Susanne K. Langer (pdf), Duke University 
  2. ^ a b  
  3. ^ Hoffmann, Michael HG, Geist und Welt - durch die Symbolisierungen der Kunst betrachtet, a review of Susanne K. Langer, Die lebendige Form menschlichen Fühlens und Verstehens (The living form of human feeling and understanding). Munich: Fink, 2000. ISBN 3-7705-3462-X., IASL Online, retrieved 2010-03-19 
  4. ^ a b Lachmann, Rolf (January 1998), From Metaphysics to Art and Back: The Relevance of Susan K. Langer’s Philosophy for Process Metaphysics 26, Process Studies, pp. 107–125 
  5. ^ Littlejohn, Stephen W.; Foss, Karen A. (2008), Theories of Human Communication (9th ed.), Belmont, California: The Thomson Wadsworth Corporation, p. 105 
  6. ^ Langer, Susanne K. (1954), Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. (6th ed.), Cambridge: New American Library, p. 58 
  7. ^ Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 65 and 114–115.
  8. ^ a b c d Lunsford, Andrea (1995). Reclaiming Rhetoric: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 265–284. 
  9. ^ a b Innes, Robert (2008). Susanne Langer in Focus: The Symbolic Mind. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 

See also


  • Schultz, William (2000), Cassirer and Langer on Myth: An Introduction, Routledge,  
  • Innis, Robert E. (2009), Susanne Langer in focus: the symbolic mind, Indiana University Press,  
  • Dryden, Donald (2001), "Susanne Langer and  
  • Watling, Christine P. (1998), "The Arts, Emotion, and Current Research in Neuroscience", Mosaic 31, pp. 107–124 
  • Royce, Joseph R. (1983), "The Implications of Langer’s Philosophy of Mind for a Science of Psychology,", Journal of Mind and Behavior 4, pp. 491–506 
  • Shelley,, Cameron (1998), "Consciousness, Symbols and Aesthetics: A Just-So Story and Its Implications in Susanne Langer’s Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling", Philosophical Psychology 11, pp. 45–66 
  • Durig, Alexander (1994), "What Did Susanne Langer Really Mean", Sociological Theory 12, pp. 254–265 

External links

  • Langer, Susanne K. (Summer 1950), The Hudson Review III (2): 219–233 
  • Petri Liukkonen. "Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985)". Books & Writer's Calendar. Retrieved 2010-03-19. 
  • Anthony Flood. "Susanne K. Langer". Retrieved 2010-03-19.  Essays by and about Langer.
  • Harvard University Press Philosophy in a new key overview
  • A Summary of Susanne K
  • Susanne K. Langer at Library of Congress Authorities — with 20 catalog records
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