Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268

Early twentieth century philosophy saw a turn away from attempts to define an objective reality that exists apart from human participants and toward attempts to define what humans can say about the world. With the work of eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, it became accepted that humans know phenomena, or ideas of things, and not things-in-themselves. Therefore, clarifying ideas and the ways that ideas are expressed eventually came to be seen as one of the chief jobs of philosophy, if not the sole job of philosophy.

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Because of the interest in clarifying the expression of ideas, a concern with meaning, in language and in mathematics, dominated the work of many of the most influential philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century. This concern led a number of philosophers to focus on symbols, meaningful sounds or objects that express thought and make communication possible. One of those philosophers was English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who worked on symbolic modes of thought in science. Susanne Langer studied with Whitehead while he was teaching at Harvard University. She was also heavily influenced by the early work in logic of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein and by the thinking of the German Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer on symbolic forms.

In addition to her academic training in philosophy, Langer studied music throughout her life. Thus, while Whitehead and Wittgenstein had concentrated on attempting to describe how human reason is expressed through symbols, Langer extended the study of symbolism to pre-rational, or nondiscursive, areas of life. She discussed how religious rites and artworks, as well as reason, may be seen as symbolic expressions.

Symbolism as the “New Key”

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

Langer introduces her work by suggesting that the answers that philosophers give are often less significant than the questions that they pose. The questions asked at different points in time indicate varying concerns and imply varying frameworks of thought. The most ancient Greek philosophers, such as Thales and Anaximenes, turned their attention to the question of the ultimate composition of the universe. Socrates, however, showed a new concern when he asked, “What is truth?” He was no longer interested chiefly in which answer about the universe was true, but in what truth itself may be and in what the value of truth may be. Much later, at the beginning of the modern era, the division of the world into inner experience and outer world generated questions about what humans can know about the world around them. Many of these questions, however, came to be seen as irrelevant and uninteresting as modern science stimulated a growing concern with testable facts. The facts of science, though, are not objects but concepts, representations of the world. Mathematics, the chief tool of most scientists, does not consist of things but of symbols that describe the relationships among things. Langer maintains that the “new key” in philosophy, the new philosophical framework, is symbolism.

Signs and Symbols

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

Langer distinguishes symbols from signs. Signs indicate things. To a trained dog, the spoken word “dinner” can indicate that a meal is about to be served. Symbols, however, represent things as well as indicate them. The word “dinner” may indicate to a human that food will arrive, but it can also stand for the idea of dinner and relate this idea to other ideas. People spend much of their lives engaging in symbolization, in relating ideas to other ideas. However, a large part of human expression has seemed perplexing and impractical to philosophers,...

(The entire section contains 1773 words.)

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