Susanne K. Langer
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.
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.
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...
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