Dates: 1895-1985

Nationality: American

Susanne Katherina Langer (née Knauth) was an American philosopher of art, a follower of Ernst Cassirer. She is best known for her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key. She was born in Manhattan. She studied at Radcliffe College, and completed a doctorate at Harvard University in 1926. She taught at Radcliffe, Wellesley College, Smith College, and Columbia University. From 1952 to 1962, she was professor of philosophy at Connecticut College.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Susanne Langer’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 December 2010, 08:02 UTC, <>

Philosophy in a New Key, a survey symbolism, became a best-seller. Langer’s earlier absorption into symbolic logic is seen in her attempt to create a rational basis for aesthetics. The work was much influenced by Ernst Cassirer, whose Sprache und Mythos from 1925 Langer translated into English. Feeling and Form (1953) was written on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. It developed further the ideas of Philosophy in a New Key, and expanded her system of aesthetics from music to the other fields of arts, painting, poetry, dance, etc.

Like Cassirer, Langer argued that man is essentially a symbol-using animal. Symbolic thought is deeply rooted in the human nature – it is the keynote to questions of life and consciousness, all humanistic problems. “Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling,” Langer defined. She distinguishes between the open “presentational” symbols of art and “discursive” symbols of language, which cannot reflect directly the subjective aspect of experience. Langer’s view of language is not far from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s logical theory developed in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), but when Wittgenstein stopped on the threshold of the unsayable, Langer argued that “music articulates forms which language cannot set forth” – it shows what cannot be said.

Works of art do not directly express the artist’s experienced emotions, but rather an “idea” of emotion. Artists create virtual objects, illusions. Thus music creates an auditory apparation of time, “virtual time”, in painting “virtual space” is the primary illusion, poets create appearances of events, persons, emotional reactions, places etc, “poetic semblances”. Langer argues that musical forms bear a close logical resemblance to the forms of human feelings. Music is a “presentational symbol” of psychic process and its tonal structures bear a close logical similarity to the forms of feeling, “forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses”. The symbol and the object symbolized have a common logical form.

Langer also distinguishes art as symbol – the work of art as an indivisible whole – from symbols in art, which are elements of the work and often have a literal meaning. Langer’s unconventional use of the term “symbol” has been criticized by a number of philosophers, George Dickie included, but Monroe C. Beardley has noted in his book Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present (1966), that Langer’s general concept of art as symbol and its development “is carried through with great sensitivity and concreteness.”


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