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.