Susanne K. Langer

(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111207251-Langer.jpg (National Archives) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: A leading American philosopher in an historically male-dominated field, Langer was one of the major influences on twentieth century thought in the fields of philosophy and aesthetics. Her work in the realm of “symbolic transformation” helped to establish logical philosophical framework for art and social science, areas not formerly thought to adhere to any ordered system of ideas.

Early Life

Susanne Katherina Knauth was born to Antonio and Else M. (Uhlich) Knauth on the Upper West Side of New York City just before the turn of the century. Along with her two brothers and two sisters, Susanne was surrounded by a rich German heritage of academic and artistic influences. Her father, a lawyer from Leipzig, was an accomplished pianist and cellist. One of his fondest diversions was to invite friends to his home to play chamber music in the evenings. The children all played musical instruments. Susanne was a pianist, but later, as an adult, she became a proficient cellist.

Else Knauth instilled a love of poetry in her children, and as a young child, Susanne often created and recited her own verses. Later, her creative flair extended to drama, and she wrote pageants drawn from classical subjects that she and her siblings presented to family and friends. A wealthy family, the Knauths had a vacation retreat at Lake George in upstate New York, where they spent many happy summers. A love of nature and of the natural sciences was born here that was evident in all aspects of Susanne’s later life and writings.

Else Knauth never became easily fluent in English, so German became the preferred language at home. This had its disadvantages when Susanne attended school, and as a result, much of her learning was self-motivated, with reading constituting a large portion of her activity. Her childhood thirst for knowledge of all subjects was prodigious: In a 1960 New Yorker interview with Winthrop Sargeant, she spoke of having read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason simultaneously as a teenager. In spite of the respect for knowledge in the home, Susanne’s father hated what he interpreted as masculine qualities in females and would not agree to send any of his daughters to college. After his death, however, Susanne enrolled at Radcliffe College with the encouragement of her mother. Out of her broad early education arose an interest in philosophy, and she received her bachelor’s degree in the field in 1920. In 1921, Susanne was married to William Leonard Langer, a Harvard graduate student of history, and the couple spent a year studying in Vienna, Austria. Upon their return to Massachusetts, Susanne began graduate studies in philosophy and earned a master’s degree in 1924 and her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1926. For the next fifteen years, she served on the Radcliffe faculty and taught occasionally at Smith and Wellesley Colleges as well, while her husband was a respected professor of history at Harvard from 1936 to 1964.

Life’s Work

Susanne Langer’s ventures as a published writer began not with philosophical works but with a volume entitled The Cruise of the Little Dipper, and Other Fairy Tales (1924). The book was illustrated by Helen Sewell, an artist who was a lifelong friend and upon whom Langer depended later for critique of her writing about aesthetics. Since childhood, Langer had been fascinated by the world of myth and fantasy. The subject carried over into her later work as myth became a central focus in her study of the human formulation of symbols. At Radcliffe, Langer was in contact with the major philosophical minds of the age, and their influence can be traced throughout her work. Her professors—Alfred North Whitehead, the English mathematician and philosopher, and Henry Sheffer—were largely the catalysts for her writing.

The Practice of Philosophy (1930), Langer’s first philosophical treatise, contained a preface by Alfred North Whitehead. The book discusses the purposes and methods of philosophy and the importance of symbolic logic in contemporary thought. The book’s premise was that training in logic frees the mind. Henry Sheffer’s influence on Langer is most obvious in her second book on philosophy, An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937). She employed his methods of symbolic logic to create a textbook on the subject and an essay on logic.

Langer defined philosophy as the clarification and articulation of concepts. She saw the purpose of philosophy as making explicit what is implicit in people’s beliefs and actions. An awareness that modern society seemed to function without a defined philosophical base was always of major concern to Langer. In 1942, she published Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. The book, which was dedicated to Whitehead, established Langer as a leading figure in the field of aesthetics.

The most direct influence on her thinking at this time was the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, whose 1925 book Sprache und Mythos was translated into English as...

(The entire section is 2118 words.)

Susanne K. Langer

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Langer’s philosophy brought attention to the importance of symbol making in human mental activity. Her best-known work, Philosophy in a New Key, sold more than 500,000 copies during Langer’s lifetime.

Early Life

Susanne Katherina Knauth was the second of three daughters born to a well-to-do family of German immigrants living in Manhattan. Her father was a corporate lawyer who also owned a substantial portion of the German American bank of Knauth, Nachod, and Kühne. Her mother’s family owned a textile plant in Germany. This background meant that Knauth enjoyed a great many material and cultural advantages during her childhood.

Music and art were central to the life of this wealthy, cultivated family. However, Knauth’s father opposed higher education for women, and he discouraged his daughters from entering college. This attitude made life difficult for Knauth, who had developed an interest in intellectual questions. After her father’s death, her mother helped her gain admission to Radcliffe College, a prestigious women’s college and the sister school to the then all-male Harvard. She was therefore already twenty years old when she began her advanced education. In 1920, she earned her B.A. degree from Radcliffe.

During her senior year at Radcliffe, she became acquainted with William Leonard Langer, a Harvard graduate student who later became a prominent historian. Years afterward, in his autobiography, Langer confessed that his future wife seemed more interested in logic and music than in romance, and he expressed the view that Knauth’s mother and sisters had talked her into agreeing to marry him. The wedding was held in early September of 1921, and Susanne Knauth acquired the surname that would appear on all of her philosophical writings. The couple then left immediately for ten months in Europe, where William Langer was to do research for his doctorate in history, funded by a fellowship and a generous monetary wedding gift from Susanne’s mother.

After their return to the United States, Susanne enrolled as a graduate student in philosophy. Once a week, she would usually take the train from Worcester, Massachusetts, where her husband had taken a teaching position at Clark University, to Cambridge, Massachussets, to attend the Harvard lectures on logic by Henry Sheffer or to take part in a seminar run by the famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s use of the idea of symbolic modes of thought in science influenced Langer greatly, and her philosophy is sometimes seen as an effort to extend Whitehead’s symbolic approach to artistic expression.

She gave birth to two sons: Leonard, in 1922, and Bertrand, in 1925. Despite the increasing responsibilities of family life, she earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard in 1924 and a doctorate in 1926. Her first book, The Cruise of the Little Dipper, and Other Fairy Tales, a study of myth and fantasy, was published in 1924.

Life’s Work

After finishing her doctoral degree, Langer worked as a tutor at Harvard and taught at Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Smith Colleges. Her first strictly philosophical work, published in 1930, was The Practice of Philosophy. Seven years later, she completed a textbook, An Introduction to Symbolic Logic. This book showed the interest in symbols that was to characterize her thinking throughout her life, but in it she emphasized the intellectual and logical character of symbols, paying little attention to the symbolization of feeling, the hallmark of her later writings. She presented logical symbols as a response to the inadequacy of natural language for conveying precise ideas in scientific fashion.

After the publication of An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, Langer became dissatisfied with the reduction of human experience to logic and began to believe that feeling could also be interpreted in terms of symbols. The year 1942 saw two critical events in Langer’s life: She was divorced from her husband, and she published Philosophy in a New Key. The basic theme of her most popular book was the distinction between discursive and nondiscursive symbols. Discursive symbols, found in scientific and natural language, are those that give form to the logical concepts of discourse. Nondiscursive symbols, found in art, give form to feeling. Langer maintained that attention to symbolic activity as a basic function of the human mind was the “new key” struck by modern philosophy.

Although Philosophy in a New Key met with wide acceptance among educated readers in general, it received relatively little attention from professional philosophers. Many academic reviewers dismissed her book as a popularization of the literature on signs and symbols. Some saw her thinking as derived from the writings of the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, whose work Langer appreciated. Langer acknowledged Cassirer’s influence and translated his book Sprache und Mythos (1925; Language and Myth, 1946). Her skillful writing did indeed present philosophy in a manner that general readers could understand and enjoy, and she did...

(The entire section is 2140 words.)