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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.
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.
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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.
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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, since many modes of expression, including ritual and art, do not convey logical meaning. Langer suggests that these modes of expression are symbolic transformations of experiences that cannot be conveyed by means of language alone.
The meaning of signs and symbols has both a logical and a psychological aspect. Logically, anything that has meaning must be capable of conveying the meaning. Psychologically, anything that has meaning must have meaning for someone, for a subject. The logical relationship between a sign and its object is a one-to-one correlation. One part of the pair, the object, is more interesting to the subject, the person involved, and the other part, the sign, is more readily available. Symbols follow a more complex logic. In addition to the object, the symbol, and the subject, there is a conception. In other words, the symbol refers not just to the concrete object but also to the abstract idea of the object. The word does not simply indicate the dinner about to arrive; it also refers to the idea of dinner in discussions, for example, of cooking. The denotation of a symbol is its relationship with the object. The connotation of a symbol is its relationship with the conception of the object. The three most common meanings of the word “meaning,” then, are signification, denotation, and connotation.
Langer based her view of the nature of symbols on the “picture theory” of language proposed by Wittgenstein in his early work. Wittgenstein proposed that propositions or statements present pictures of some part of reality. In this view, both things and relations among things are projected into language. Some of those influenced by the early Wittgenstein argued that because language is a picture of some state of things, in order to be meaningful statements either must be true by definition or must be provable as true or false. Statements that cannot be logically worked out in the manner of equations or at least proven in theory do not provide a picture of any state of affairs outside language. Therefore, mystical, metaphysical, and poetic statements are simply confused thinking or expressions of emotion that are mistaken for meaningful propositions.
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Philosophy in a New Key accepts the argument that only statements with a clear, provable relationship to arrangements of objects are meaningful in language. However, it rejects the assumptions that language is the only means of expressing thought and that everything that cannot be expressed through thought is merely formless emotion. Instead, Langer maintains that language is one form of symbolism, discursive symbolism, in which objects and relationships among objects are represented. There is also, however, a nondiscursive symbolism made up of presentational forms. Feelings have definite forms that can be presented to thought through arrangements of shapes or sounds.
In her discussion of language, Langer suggests that even this primary form of discursive symbolism may have its roots in connotation, in the emotional significance that concepts hold for human beings. She points out that the speech of small children seems to arise from playing with sounds and with ideas attached to sounds and objects, rather than from practical desires to communicate needs. Expression through language enables people to bring objects, events, and actions into their minds, to hold onto things by means of their symbols.
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Sacramental rituals and myth are two areas of human symbol making, areas that have often been ignored or misunderstood by philosophers who approach the mind only in terms of reason. Sacred objects are symbols that express powerful psychological reactions to fundamental experiences such as life and death. These psychological reactions often result in physical movements, such as raising one’s hands or dropping to one’s knees. When these movements become repeated gestures before the sacred objects or group, the gestures are formalized as rituals.
While ritual, according to Langer, originates from significant movements, myth originates from fantasy. The most subjective and private form of fantasy, in her view, is the dream. Folktales are somewhat less private, because they are shared and traditional stories, but they still express individual fears and desires. Myth expresses general ideas, conceptions of the state of humanity and the universe, in the form of fantasy. Langer sees mythological thinking, as an expression of general ideas, as a necessary forerunner of metaphysics. In turn, metaphysics, consisting of abstract statements about the ultimate nature of things, is the forerunner of the abstractions of science.
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In the eighth chapter of Philosophy in a New Key, entitled “On Significance in Music,” Langer presents her theory of music. She rejects the two most common theories of expression in music, the self-expression theory and the semantic theory. The first holds that music is the pouring out of the emotions of the composer or performer. If this were the case, according to Langer, it would be difficult to explain the difference between a musical composition and a sigh or a scream. The semantic theory, the theory that music is a language that conveys messages, also seems inadequate to her. If music is a language, what is the meaning of each of its notes and what information does it communicate? Her own theory adopts parts of each of these others. Music does express feelings but not as an outpouring of emotion. It also has symbolic significance but not discursive significance. Instead, it is the logical expression of feelings. It formulates the inner life of human beings and presents this inner life to conscious awareness.
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Langer summarizes her general view by arguing that people live in a fabric of meaning. Even facts are not realities that are automatically given but are instead intellectually formulated events. To formulate events intellectually is to conceive of them as symbols. Philosophy should therefore concern itself with symbols in order to clarify meanings. A philosophy that knows only inductive or deductive logic will overlook a vast array of symbols and find itself unable to explain much of human life.
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Langer, William L. In and Out of the Ivory Tower: The Autobiography of William L. Langer. New York: Neale Watson Academic Publications, 1977. In this autobiography, Susanne K. Langer’s husband from 1921 to 1942 discusses their courtship and marriage but devotes little attention to his former wife’s work as a philosopher.
Lyon, Arabella. “Susanne K. Langer: Mother and Midwife at the Rebirth of Rhetoric.” In Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition, edited by Andrea A. Lunsford. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. In a feminist view of Langer’s work, Lyon discusses the philosopher’s life and writings and maintains that it is scandalous that historians of ideas have paid so little attention to this widely read thinker. She defends Langer’s originality and creativity and points out how Langer’s ideas differed from those of philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer, who are sometimes thought to be the sources of Langer’s work.
Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980. The novelist Walker Percy makes use of Langer’s work in this book of essays on language and meaning. Chapter 14, “Symbol as Need,” presents a discussion of Langer’s view of symbolization as a basic human need.