Consciousness and Cognition, 13 (2004) 254-267. This contribution
to Langer scholarship by Professor Dryden comments on Russell Epstein
paper in the same issue, “Consciousness, Art, and the Brain: Lessons
from Marcel Proust.” Links to Dryden’s other essays on Langer are
on our main Langer page.
Given the explanatory usefulness of this essay’s expansive footnotes, I
have decided to place them in the body of the text, setting them off
from the latter with narrower margins and a distinctive font color.
December 6, 2008
Memory, Imagination, and the Cognitive Value of the Arts
Memory has many aspects which psychologists have not discovered, but of
which the poet, who constructs its image, is aware. But the poet is not
a psychologist; his knowledge is not explicit, but implicit in his
conception of the image. The critic, analyzing the way the remembrance
of the virtual Past is made, is the person who is in a position to
discover the intricacies of real memory through the artistic devices
that achieve its semblance.
Langer, Feeling and Form
The theory of art is really a prolegomenon to the much greater
undertaking of constructing a concept of mind adequate to the living
Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. I
1. Voluntary and Involuntary Memory in Proust’s Theory of Art and
In a fitting tribute to
William James’s vision of psychology, Russell Epstein (2004) proposes
that the arts can contribute to the scientific study of consciousness
through the resources they provide for investigating the phenomenology
of conscious experience. Epstein makes sensitive use of Proust’s novel,
The Remembrance of Things Past, to argue that the task of the
writer is to “convey experience truly” (Epstein, p. 218), which for
Proust meant creating a work of literary art that makes explicit “the
whole nexus of associations, memories, and emotions”—usually present in
the “fringe” or background of consciousness—that gives each experience
its unique “savour and significance” and therefore constitutes its
“essence” (Epstein, p. 224). By creating “a work of art that brings this
savour into the foreground” (Epstein, p. 224), the writer is able to
convey the kinds of insights into the essential depths of experience
that Proust found in moments of involuntary memory.
Proust believed that
involuntary memories “re-instantiate a moment in the past as it actually
occurred” (Epstein, p. 217), recovering “the whole tangled web of
sensory, emotional, and appetitive experiences” which “made up these
earlier moments in time” (Epstein, p. 218). Voluntary memories, on the
other hand, give us “the experience as reworked by intelligence and at
least partially translated into concepts” (Epstein, p. 219), reflecting
the purposes of “the intellect,” which is interested primarily in
“generalizable knowledge about the world” (Epstein, p. 219). In taking
his inspiration from moments of involuntary memory, Proust sought to
capture “the ‘essence’ of things” (Epstein, p. 226)—the intimate
composition of those worlds which we call individuals” (Proust, quoted
in Epstein, p. 227)—and to convey it to others through his art.
Although there are some
difficulties with Proust’s views of memory that appear to present a
challenge to Epstein’s thesis, a careful reinterpretation of their
claims—aided by some long neglected insights into the nature of art and
consciousness from the work of the American philosopher Susanne
Langer—can lead to a deeper understanding of the significance that
memory might have for the creator of literary art.
It is now widely
recognized by researchers in the psychological sciences that “memory is
not a literal reproduction of the past, but instead depends on
constructive processes that are sometimes prone to errors, distortion,
and illusions” (Schacter, Norman, & Koutstaal, 1998, p. 290).
Especially prone to error, apparently, are people’s memories of “what
they used to think and feel” (Hyman & Loftus, 1998, p. 942).
Recollection of a past experience is “simultaneously constrained by
traces left in the mind by the event we are remembering itself, by
background knowledge of related material, and by constraints and
influences imposed by the situation surrounding the act of recollection”
(McClelland, 1995, p. 69). Remembering, in short, “is not a retrieval”
(McClelland, 1995, p. 69) but “a creative, constructive process” (Hyman
& Loftus, 1998, p. 945). Proust recognized that voluntary memories are
“structured by concepts” (Epstein, p. 219), but he believed that
involuntary memories give us “a ‘true’ re-instantiation of an earlier
experi-ence” (Epstein, p. 217) in which interpretation plays no
significant role. There are good reasons to believe, however, that
all acts of recollection are essentially dependent on conceptual
processes of some kind. Jean Mandler, for example, has argued that
recall requires images, and that images are not “uninterpreted copies”
of what a person has earlier perceived “but are constructed from the
underlying meanings a person has already formed” (Mandler, 1998, p.
276). Meanings, in turn, are essentially dependent on a system of
Mandler’s account rests
on a fundamental distinc-tion between perceptual and conceptual
processes, the latter constituting what Mark Johnson calls “a distinct
level of cognitive operations” (Johnson, 1987, p. 27). Initially,
elementary perceptual processes organize incoming perceptual information
into a stable world of objects and patterns and operate on segmented
perceptual displays to gener-ate perceptual schemas or prototypes that
are based on physical appearance or overall physical similarity. These
perceptual schemas figure in representations of sensorimotor
procedures—they are part of a system of procedural knowledge, itself
inaccessible to consciousness, that underlies adaptive sensori-motor
performance. A further level of processes operates on these elementary
formulations to produce image-schematic conceptual representa-tions,
or image schemas.1
Mandler offers the following definition of representation, which
I will adopt for the purposes of this paper: “Representation is defined
most simply as stored information. (The terms representation and
knowledge can be considered synonymous, but the term
representation emphasizes the format in which knowledge is stored.)
Any organism that takes in information from the world in such a fashion
that it influences its later behavior is storing information and so can
be said to represent that information. All learning requires storage of
information and so requires representation in some form or other” (Mandler,
1998, p. 257). In a footnote Mandler adds: “Needless to say,
information from the world is transformed by the input process. Because
organisms add information of their own which is unrelated to the sensory
properties of the input, the notion of representation makes no
commitment to veridicality or the structure of the environment” (Mandler,
1998, p. 257).
Mandler proposes that image schemas are formed by an active,
attention-based process of perceptual analysis that operates
selectively to analyze perceptual arrays, abstracting some essential
aspects and using them to produce simplified, more abstract
representations. Although image schemas are inaccessible to
consciousness, they provide a network of underlying meanings from which
accessible concepts can be formed and brought to conscious awareness as
images, language, or other vehicles of thought that Mandler argues are
required for recalling the past, imagining the future, referring to
things and classifying them according to kinds, carrying out inferences,
planning, and making choices. The formation of image schemas occurs
simultaneously and in parallel with the activity of the sensorimotor
system, and image schemas form a network of conceptual representations
that can be acquired and elaborated prior to and independently of
An image is thus
an expression in consciousness of an underlying network of
image-schematic conceptual representations, where the term “conceptual”
is extended—as it is by Mark Johnson—to include “any meaning
structure whatever [italics added]” (Johnson, 1987, p. 17) and is
therefore not limited to propositional forms, traditionally understood.
In Mandler’s theory conceptual representations are “transformations of
perceptual information” (Mandler, 1998, p. 264) into analogical,
nonpropositional forms of representation; and I propose that imagination
can be defined as the set of capacities involved in constructing and
elaborating the network of image-schematic conceptual representations
that we use to formulate and organize our experiences—a process that
Langer calls “the symbolic transformation of perceptions” (Langer, 1953,
p. 128), or more generally, “the symbolic transformation of experiences”
(Langer, 1942/1957a, p. 44). Image schemas form an enormous store of
potentially accessible conceptual material, some of which is mapped onto
the propositional structures of language. But in Langer’s theory of
imagination, “things inaccessible to language . . . have their own forms
of conception” (Langer, 1942/1957a, p. 265); and vast regions of the
underlying network of meanings are mapped onto a variety of
nonpropositional forms—the material of dreams, myth, ritual, narrative,
and the arts—that Langer contends are all vehicles of conception,
insight, thought, and understanding.2
Langer first presented this thesis, along with the theory of symbolic
transformation, in her best-known work, Philosophy in a New Key
(Langer, 1942/1957a), the third edition of which is still in print.
At the center of human experience stands the activity that Langer calls
“imagining reality”—”conceiving the structure of it through words,
images, or other symbols, and assimilating actual [experiences] to [the
resulting conceptual structure] as they come” (Langer, 1962, p. 150).
Furthermore, the activity that Johnson calls “metaphorical projection”
(Johnson, 1987, p. xx) provides a basis for establishing conceptual
relations between domains of experience, connecting them together to
make the larger fabric of meaning that frames the human world. In this
sense, the framework of the human world is something
conceptual—perceptible only through symbols (i.e., vehicles of thought)3
Conceptual representations are “brought to mind,” or expressed in
conscious experience, as images, language, or other vehicles of thought,
which Langer calls “symbols” or “symbolic forms” throughout her
writings. Although Mandler once used these terms as well (e.g., Mandler,
1988), she reports that she stopped talking about “symbolic processes”
after 1988 because she had found the terminology “hopelessly
contaminated by varying interpretations of its meaning” (J.M. Mandler,
personal communication, July 5, 2003). Mandler’s theory allows access
to the resources of Langer’s work by interpreting symbol as a general
term for any of the forms in which image-schematic conceptual
repre-sentations appear or are expressed in conscious experience.
—and the world as it figures in human experience is conceptually
for example, can be understood as an elaboration of the imaginative
structures that we use to conceive the passage of events. Katherine
Nelson has argued that both specific and general mental representations
of events “are basic forms of cognition available in early childhood”
(Nelson, 1996, p. 190). Recent research has shown that elementary
perceptual processes parse the stream of experience into distinguishable
events “with boundaries, beginnings, and endings” (Nelson, 1996, p. 16)
that structure our experience of time into “meaningful units” (Polkinghorne,
1991, p. 140):
Temporal experience consists of drawing out from the continual flow of
successive moments episodic patterns by marking off beginning and ending
points. Linking events into a unified episode lifts them from their
temporal surroundings and yields a whole that is internally articulated
into its contributing parts. This configuration creates a temporal
part-whole relation through which events are grasped as temporal
Gestalten (Polkinghorne, 1991, p. 140).
characterizes narrative discourse as the expression of a set of
“cognitive structuring processes” (Polkinghorne, 1991, p. 137) that
build on these perceptual processes to formulate our understanding of
human actions, whole lives, and much larger histories. Forms of
narrative are therefore grounded in the general human capacity to
construct conceptual representations; and Nelson (1989) has presented
evidence that the capacity to understand and produce narrative
discourse, which appears during the third year of life, serves a primary
cognitive need to make sense of experience, rather than an
interest in communicating with others. Seen from this perspective, one
of the central cognitive tasks of childhood, and continuing throughout
life, is the work of construing reality—using the conceptual
representations expressed in language as “a way of coming to know about
the world” (Nelson, 1989, p. 17). The arts, along with the other
expressions of human imagination, make an essential contribution to this
2. Works of Art as Constructed Images
There are several
characteristics of images that are important for understanding
their role in human cognition and their relationship to works of art:
(1) An image is a
perceptible form—a gestalt structure consisting of parts standing in
relations and organized into unified wholes.4
But see Footnote 5 for an important qualifi-cation of this definition.
(2) An image is
abstract, selective, and interpretive.
(3) An image serves
essentially conceptual or symbolic purposes; it is first
and foremost a vehicle of thought.
(4) An image abstracts
the phenomenal character of an object, event, or
situation—”its immediate effect on our sensibility or the way it
presents itself as something of importance, magnitude, strength or
fragility, permanence or transience, etc.” (Langer, 1967, p. 59).
Langer notes that some
of the actualities we encounter have a predominantly imaginal status.
Rainbows, for example, or the world reflected in a mirror appear to be
fully concrete actualities although they are perceptible only through
the agency of a single sense. Langer calls such things virtual
entities, and the experience we have of them probably reflects a
fundamental principle of human cognition—metonymic understanding—in
which “we take one well-understood or easily perceived aspect of
something to represent or stand in for the thing as a whole” (Gibbs,
1994, p. 358).
All images are selective
and interpretive of the experiences they represent. There are a
multitude of ways in which any given experience might be construed—and
hence formulated and expressed in a constellation of images—and the
choices we make reflect the features that strike us as interesting or
compelling, alluring or unsettling, reassuring or terrifying, holy or
unholy, as the case may be. Mandler notes that conceptual
representations and the images to which they give rise are based on
“abstract characteristics” that “experiences have in common” (Mandler,
1992, p. 595). Langer emphasizes that “there is a kind of quality that
different colors, or even a tonal form and a visual one, may have in
common; even events may have the same quality, say of mystery, of
portentousness, of breeziness; and a word like ‘breeziness’ bespeaks the
qualitative similarity of some moods and some weathers” (Langer, 1967,
p. 106). Similarly, Epstein speaks of a “quality” common to different
“sensations, objects, situations, or events,” and he refers to events
that have a similar “emotional structure” (Epstein, p. 225). Although
Mandler herself does not consider the possibility, I propose that the
abstract characteristics she refers to as the basis of conceptual
representations might include the sorts of qualities that Epstein and
Langer are talking about—qualities derived from the affective and
motivational significance that experiences may have. “The universe
contains an infinite number of objects,” Epstein writes; and “we choose
what to look at [and, I would add, how we look at it] based on
our concerns, our memories, our sensibility” (Epstein, p. 228).
Experience as it is directly lived, Langer argues, is “qualitative in
[its] very constitution” (Langer, 1953, p. 223) and presents itself to
us in a mode “in which action and feeling, sensory value and moral
value, causal connection and symbolic connection are still undivorced”
(Langer, 1953, p. 217). In abstracting the phenomenal character of
lived experience, an image “shows how something appears” (Langer, 1967,
p. xix) to a particular sensibility or “apprehensive condition of the
soul” (Langer, 1967, p. 118).
A mental image is a
purely private occurrence. A work of art, by contrast, is what Langer
calls a “constructed image” (Langer, 1967, p. 94); that is, it exhibits
some of the important characteristics of mental images but is embodied
in an object or some other publicly accessible medium. Like an image,
for example, an artistic form is “a perceptual unity of something seen,
heard, or imagined—that is, the configuration, or Gestalt, of an
experience” (Langer, 1957b, p. 165).5
Note that Langer is here extending the definition of image beyond
its application to sensory forms in the strict meaning of the term. In
defining art as “the practice of creating perceptible forms expressive
of human feeling” (Langer, 1962, p. 84), Langer emphasizes that she is
using the term “perceptible” rather than “sensuous” because “some works
of art are given to imagination rather than to the outward senses,” and
adds: “A novel, for instance, usually is read silently with the eye, but
is not made for vision, as a painting is; and though sound plays a vital
part in poetry, words even in poetry are not essentially sonorous
structures like music” (Langer, 1962, p. 84). Later in the same essay
she repeats her definition of a work of art as a form in the
sense of “an apparition given to our perception,” and adds: “It may be a
permanent form like a building or a vase or a picture, or a transient,
dynamic form like a melody or a dance, or even a form given to
imagination, like the passage of purely imaginary, apparent events that
constitutes a literary work. But it is always a perceptible,
self-identical whole” (Langer, 1962, p. 86). Hence, Langer’s definition
of a work of art as a “perceptible form” (Langer, 1957b, p. 7) or
“constructed image” (Langer, 1967, p. 94) differs in significant ways
from Epstein’s “ordered set of sensory surfaces” (Epstein, p. 230),
which recalls David Prall’s concept of the aesthetic surface. (For a
further discussion of the limitations of Prall’s concept, see Langer,
1953, pp. 54-59).
A work of art, however, “is a much more intricate thing than we usually
think of as a form [or gestalt], because it involves all
the relationships of its elements to one another, all similarities and
differences of quality, not only geometric, or other familiar relations”
(Langer, 1953, p. 51). In a painting, for example, “a visible,
individual form [is] produced by the interaction of colors, lines,
surfaces, lights and shadows” (Langer, 1957b, p. 128). A work of art is
also like an image in being primarily a vehicle of conception, but a
conception of “things inaccessible to language” (Langer, 1942/1957a, p.
265). Works of art “abstract from experience certain aspects for our
contemplation. But such abstractions are not concepts that have names .
. . Artistic expression abstracts aspects of the life of feeling which
have no names” (Langer, 1962, p. 94). And in contrast to the privacy of
a mental image, the artist’s insights are set forth, worked out, and
brought to completion through their embodiment in an object; and
in this way, Langer argues, they are made publicly available, publicly
knowable, and, in all these senses, objectified.
An image, whether
spontaneous or constructed, is always a vehicle of conception. And what
a work of art presents, or formulates for our conception, is an image of
some aspect or dimension of conscious experience, which Langer
calls “feeling” and defines quite broadly to include the entire gamut
of subjective reality, “woven of thought and emotion, imagination
and sense perception” (Langer, 1953, p. 127), and extending from “the
sensibility of very low animals [to] the whole realm of human awareness
and thought” (Langer, 1967, p. 55).6
Langer’s use of “feeling” as a generic term for conscious experience
has led to frequent misunderstandings and has been a major source of
confusion in interpreting her work. Langer states unequivocally that she
is not using the term “in the arbitrarily limited sense of ‘pleasure or
displeasure’ to which psycho-logists have often restricted it” (Langer,
1962, p. 8), nor is it a synonym for emotion (probably the most common
misreading of her use of the term), but is to be taken “in [the] widest
possible sense” (Langer, 1962, p. 8), to refer to “what is sometimes
called ‘inner life,’ ‘subjective reality,’ [or] ‘consciousness’”
(Langer, 1957b, p. 112). William James, in The Principles of
Psychology, discusses the difficulty of choosing a single general
term “by which to designate all states of consciousness merely as such,
and apart from their particular quality or cognitive function” (James,
1890/1983, p. 185). He judges “thought” to be “by far the best word to
use” (James, 1890/1983, p. 186), but acknowledges the difficulty of
extending the term to cover sensations; and he concludes that “in this
quandary we can make no definitive choice .... My own partiality is for
either FEELING or THOUGHT. I shall probably often use both words in a
wider sense than usual,” to refer to “mental states at large,
irrespective of their kind” (James, 1890/1983, p. 186). Langer’s choice
of the term “feeling” can be seen as an attempt to deal with the same
All these subjective aspects of mental life—”the way feelings, emotions,
and all other subjective experiences come and go” (Langer, 1957b, p.
7)—form an intricate dynamic pattern of tremendous complexity. “The
ways we are moved,” Langer notes, “are as various as the lights in a
forest” (Langer, 1957b, p. 22). Much of what we experience,
furthermore, “defies discursive formulation, and therefore verbal
expression” (Langer, 1957b, p. 22); and “no matter how keen our
experience may be, it is hard to form an idea of anything that has no
name. It has no handle for the mind” (Langer, 1957b, p. 7). Through
works of art, however, Langer believes that we can have access to
genuine knowledge of aspects of the life of feeling that are “verbally
ineffable” (Langer, 1957b, p. 26) but can nevertheless be expressed by
means of “form and color, tone and tension and rhythm, contrast and
softness and rest and motion” (Langer, 1957b, p. 95) in some artistic
medium. A work of art “formulates our ideas of inward experience, as
discourse formulates our ideas of things and facts in the outside world”
(Langer, 1962, p. 90); and the arts make the myriad forms of subjective
reality “apparent, objectively given so we may reflect on [them] and
understand [them]” (Langer, 1957b, p. 73). Art is indispensable as both
a product and an instrument of human insight because it makes possible
the formulation of the verbally ineffable patterns of subjective
experience, “that elusive aspect of reality that is commonly taken to be
amorphous and chaotic”; that is, art “objectifies the subjective realm”
(Langer, 1957b, p. 26).
A literary work, for
example, presents what Langer calls a virtual history—an image of
human experience in the mode typified by memory, which represents “life
as a realm of events completed, lived, as words formulate them—events
that compose a Past” (Langer, 1953, p. 306). Langer argues that actual
experience, as it unfolds in the present, is a “chaotic advance”
(Langer, 1953, p. 266), dominated by the exigencies of practical action,
in which thoughts, fantasies, beliefs, and expectations are usually
“fragmentary, transient and often indefinite” (Langer, 1953, p. 212);
and that experience takes on form and character only retrospectively, in
the process of recounting it to ourselves and to others—that is, in
remembering and retelling. “Memory is a special kind of experience,
because it is composed of selected impressions, whereas actual
experience is a welter of sights, sounds, feelings, physical strains,
expectations, and minute, undeveloped reactions. Memory sifts all this
material and represents it in the form of distinguishable events”
(Langer, 1953, p. 263), shaping experience “into a distinct mode, under
which it can be apprehended and valued” (Langer, 1953, p. 262).
In actual memory,
recalled events may include sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, along
with kinesthetic sensations and complex emotional qualities. But
because language plays such a central role in the formation of human
memory, an arrangement of words alone—if carefully chosen and
composed—can stand in for the more complex experiences of actual
remembering, and narrative discourse can capture and convey much of the
appearance of actual lived experience. In a literary work the people,
things, events, and situations are “created by words alone” (Langer,
1953, p. 216). Yet the virtual events that compose the work, though
simplified, are “at the same time much more fully perceived and
evaluated than the jumble of happenings in any person’s actual history”
(Langer, 1953, p. 212). Langer notes that “the ‘livingness’ of a story
is really much surer, and often greater, than that of actual experience”
(Langer, 1953, p. 292); and she adds: “We sometimes praise a novel for
approaching the vividness of actual events; usually, however, it exceeds
them in vividness” (Langer, 1953, p. 292). In sum, literary composition
depends on the general cognitive capacities that underlie metonymic
understanding, as well as on the formulative power of language, to
create the semblance of “a reality lived and remembered” (Langer, 1953,
p. 273), which is virtual memory, “or history in the mode of an
experienced Past” (Langer, 1953, p. 279), expressing the “logic” of a
particular sensibility, through a use of the resources of language
alone. Literary art creates an image of lived experience in the mode
typified by memory, and this is one reason that memory figures so
prominently in Proust’s aesthetics.
Yet the semblance of “a
history entirely ‘experienced’” (Langer, 1953, p. 264) is only the
mode in which events appear in a literary work. Langer emphasizes
that the “fabric of virtual events” (Langer, 1953, p. 228) created by
literary composition need not be explicitly presented as anyone’s
experiences, impressions, or recollections. Furthermore, the essentially
experiential character of virtual events may not even derive from
the characteristic mode of experience of a single human consciousness,
but from a shared sensibility that might be common to the people of a
particular time, place, and social setting—either actual or fictitious.
A work like the Odyssey, for example, or War and Peace,
may present “the very elaborate composition of virtual events filling .
. . an extended, imaginary ‘social consciousness’” (Langer, 1950-51, p.
In Langer’s view, each
of the great orders of art creates the semblance of a different aspect
or dimension of conscious experience. Each of the arts “begets a
special dimension of experience” that is “a special kind of image” of
some aspect of subjective reality (Langer, 1957b, p. 81). Langer calls
this the primary illusion of an art—”a special sort of
appearance, in terms of which all its works are made” (Langer, 1957b, p.
The term illusion has frequently been used in art criticism to
refer to the appearance that works of art present of being detached
or set off from the surrounding world of actuality (Langer, 1953, p.
46). Langer states emphatically that this is not a claim that
art is essentially “make-believe, deception, or escape from truth”
(Langer, 1957b, p. 30), but rather that a work of art functions like
an image. An image, in Langer’s view, is a purely virtual
object, something that exists “only for the sense or the imagination
that perceives [it]” (Langer, 1953, p. 50). A visual image, for
example, is “a purely virtual ‘object’” because “its importance lies in
the fact that we do not use it to guide us to something tangible and
practical, but treat it as a complete entity with only visual attributes
and relations. It has no others; its visible character is its entire
being” (Langer, 1953, p. 48). Similarly, a painting “is there for our
eyes but not for our hands, nor does its visible space, however great,
have any acoustical properties for our ears. The apparently solid
volumes in it do not meet our common-sense criteria for the existence of
objects; they exist for vision alone. The whole picture is a piece of
purely visual space. It is nothing but a vision” (Langer, 1957b, p.
28), “given only to the sense of sight” (Langer, 1953, p. 49). Although
an object with artistic merit like a vase or a building is “there” for
more than just vision, it “presents itself so emphatically to the eye
that it acts like a vision” (Langer, 1957b, p. 42). In this way, “real
objects, functioning in a way that is normal for images, may assume a
purely imaginal status” (Langer, 1953, p. 47). The visual appearance of
a vase, for example, “is so strikingly revealed that all one’s interest
in the object centers on its visual aspect,” and “the object itself
seems like a sheer vision” (Langer, 1953, p. 302). It “arrests one
sense so exclusively that it seems to be given to that sense alone, and
all its other properties become irrelevant. It is quite honestly there,
but is important only for (say) its visual character. Then we are prone
to accept it as a vision; there is such a concentration on appearance
that one has a sense of seeing sheer appearances that is, a sense of
illusion” (Langer, 1953, pp. 49-50). Because the term “illusion” has so
many misleading associations, however, Langer often uses the terms
semblance or apparition to refer to the essentially
imaginal status of a work of art.
The primary illusion created by a literary work, for example, is “the
appearance of ‘experiences,’ the semblance of events lived and felt”
(Langer, 1953, p. 212), a virtual past, or virtual history
“in the mode typified by memory” (Langer, 1953, p. 264).8
Langer argues that drama, which is often treated as a literary art, is
in fact “as different from genuine literature as sculpture from
pictorial art, or either of these from architecture” (Langer, 1953, p.
306). Whereas “literature projects the image of life in the mode of
virtual memory,” which presents us with “finished realities,” or “life
as a realm of events completed, lived, as words formulate them—events
that compose a Past” (Langer, 1953, p. 306), drama gives us “immediate,
visible responses of human beings” (Langer, 1953, p. 306). “Drama,
though it implies past actions (the ‘situation’), moves not toward the
present, as narrative does, but toward something beyond; it deals
essentially with commitments and consequences” (Langer, 1953, p. 307).
Every human act “springs from the past,” but what makes an act
important for the purposes of drama is that it is “directed toward the
future, and is always great with things to come” (Langer, 1953, p. 306).
In drama the future “is made before our eyes” by agents who,
“consciously or blindly,” are “makers of the future” (Langer, 1953, p.
307). “The theater creates a perpetual present moment” that is
essentially dramatic because it is “filled with its own future”—a
future that is created by “the ominous forward movement of consequential
action” (Langer, 1953, p. 307). Drama creates “a virtual history in the
mode of dramatic action” (Langer, 1953, p. 307) that Langer terms a
virtual future. In the theater, the “illusion of a visible
future”—the appear-ance of the future as already “embryonic in the
present”—”is created in every play” (Langer, 1953, p. 311). The
essential dramatic quality is this “peculiar tension between the given
present and its yet unrealized consequent” (Langer, 1953, p. 311), which
“makes the present action seem like an integral part of the future,
howbeit that future has not unfolded yet” (Langer, 1953, p. 308).
Literary works “project a history in retrospect, whereas drama is
history coming” (Langer, 1953, p. 321).
The primary illusion of the plastic arts—in which Langer includes
painting, sculpture, and archi-tecture—is “virtual space in its
several modes” (Langer, 1953, p. 102). And the primary illusion of
music is virtual time, “an auditory apparition” of felt time (Langer,
1957b, p. 37), or “time as we know it in direct experience” (Langer,
1953, p. 112).
3. Language and the Semblance of Lived Experience
The way an experience is
formulated—the language that is used in remembering and retelling
it—expresses its effect on our sensibility, for every experience leaves
the mark of its appearance and emotional value on the choices of
language we make in recounting it. The way language is used, Epstein
notes, “conveys a network of significances by which a particular person
. . . assigns meanings to individual elements of the world” and reveals
“how a specific mind interacted with a specific world context” (Epstein,
p. 229) to bring forth experiences whose distinct “savour and
significance” (Epstein, p. 224) are captured and conveyed by the
language used to formulate them. The things that are noticed and
emphasized; the things that are left out or pushed into the background;
the associated thoughts, feelings, and impressions that come to mind;
the choice and order of words; the length, rhythm, and complexity of the
sentences; the directness or indirectness of expression; the uses of
verb tense and mood; even the sounds of the words themselves—which “can
influence one’s feeling about what they are known to mean” (Langer,
1953, p. 258)—all these and many other factors bespeak a particular
“apprehensive condition of the soul” (Langer, 1967, p. 118), a unique
mode of thinking and feeling that enters into the very events that
figure in the telling.
The way a language is
used expresses a unique mode of thinking and feeling; but a language is
also the creation of a social group, whose culture and history have
shaped the “network of significances” carried by the language as it
enters into the formation of every individual consciousness and provides
“the mold of our individual experience” (Langer, 1953, p. 220). To
paraphrase Epstein, the way language is used conveys a network of
significances by which a particular history of use by a community of
language users has assigned meanings to individual elements of the
world, and reveals how that community has interacted with specific
social-cultural contexts throughout its history. Hence, the meanings of
a language exist independently of any particular language user. They
have been built up over a long history of efforts by speakers and
writers to develop and refine the resources of the language in the
service of formulating the experiences of the community and its members;
and the history of those efforts is embodied in an accumulated oral
tradition or recorded in written texts that are available to anyone who
understands the language.
Every language user
draws upon this public fund of meanings in shaping and expressing his or
her own sensibility; and the literary artist is someone with a
heightened sensitivity to the possibilities given in the language for
creating the semblance of a unique sensibility. Because language is an
essential ingredient in the creation of every actual subjectivity—the
individual consciousness, that is, of every actual person—language
alone, by the power of metonymic understanding, can be used to create
the semblance of the unique mode of apprehension that is characteristic
of a particular sensibility, individual or collective, real or
imaginary. In this way every literary work creates what Langer calls a
“virtual subjectivity” (Langer, 1953, p. 257).
The art of literary
composition, like all the arts, “makes [the logic of consciousness]
apparent, objectively given so we may reflect on it and understand it”
(Langer, 1957b, p. 73). The “objectivity” of a literary work lies in
the public accessibility of the work itself, of other written texts, and
of a wider body of utterances that have become part of a history of
meaning-making in which the language has played an essential part, and
which is therefore potentially recoverable by anyone familiar with the
texts. A passage of writing that reflects a sensitivity to the
resources that have been built into the language by a history of use
will convey those meanings to a suitably prepared reader because it will
activate an entire network of implicit understandings, a network that
has been laid down as a result of the reader’s exposure to the uses of
language embodied in other texts. “In this sense,” Langer observes,
“the [literary work] ‘exists’ objectively whenever it is presented to
us, instead of coming into being only when somebody makes ‘certain
integrated responses’ to what [the writer] is saying” (Langer, 1953, p.
Epstein defines a work
of art as “an ordered set of sensory surfaces” (Epstein, p. 230) that
are carefully chosen and technically well-executed for the purpose of
evoking in the beholder a background (or underlying network of
associations) that is similar in important respects to “the whole
tangled web of sensory, emotional, and appetitive experiences” (Epstein,
p. 6) in the mind of the artist that commanded the creation of the work
itself. What an artist tries to achieve in creating a work of art,
Epstein believes, is a “transfer of consciousness” (Epstein, p. 228, n.
7) from himself to the beholder that allows the beholder to “partake in
the consciousness of the artist” himself (Epstein, p. 227). Epstein
seems to use the terms “evoke,” “induce,” and “convey” more or less
interchangeably; but in Langer’s theory there is an important
distinction between “evoking” or “inducing,” on the one hand, and
“conveying,” on the other. The former terms belong to a
“stimulus-response” theory of art that Langer rejects; the latter
implies a theory that is distinctly “cognitive” (Langer, 1962, p. 93;
see also Langer, 1957b, p. 25; Langer, 1967, p. 111). For Langer, every
work of art is “a perceptible form” (Langer, 1957b, p. 7) or
“constructed image” (Langer, 1967, p. 94) in which the insights of the
artist are given to perception or imagination as aspects of the work
itself—they are embodied, “objectified,” and appear as factors in
the total semblance that is the work of art—and are therefore
conveyed to the prepared perceiver, as a carefully formulated
sentence conveys a thought to someone who understands the language in
which it is expressed, rather than being “evoked” or “induced” in the
beholder by the work, as Epstein proposes.9
See Footnote 5 for a discussion of the difference between Langer’s
“perceptible form” and Epstein’s “ordered set of sensory surfaces.”
A person is an artist,
Langer observes, “by virtue of his intuitive recognition of forms
[expressive] of feeling [i.e., of the logic of consciousness], and his
tendency to project emotive knowledge [i.e., knowledge of the dynamics
of subjective experience] into such objective forms” (Langer, 1953, p.
390). But what is thereby realized through the expressive possibilities
of some artistic medium may transcend the artist’s own past experience
and may become for the artist himself, as well as for the beholder, an
instrument of further insight and discovery. “Although a work of art
reveals the character of subjectivity, it is itself objective; its
purpose is to objectify the life of feeling. As an abstracted form it
can be handled apart from its sources and yield dynamic patterns that
surprise even the artist” (Langer, 1953, p. 374), allowing him to
realize “possibilities of subjective experience” in his own work “that
he has not known in his personal life” (Langer, 1953, p. 390).
It follows from Langer’s
theory that there is a dialectical relationship between art and
imagination. The different dimensions of imagination that govern the
patterns of conscious experience find their expression in the arts; and
imagination serves the uniquely human need for constructing and
elaborating the image-schematic conceptual representations that are
essential for structuring perception, understanding, action, and
feeling. Each of the great orders of art reflects a different aspect of
the network of conceptual representations that frames and supports the
One of the most promising directions for future research is suggested by
Langer’s claim—developed at length in Feeling and Form (Langer,
1953)—that each kind of art is best suited to express a different aspect
or dimension of conscious experience and its image-schematic conceptual
underpinnings. Drawing and painting, for example, serve the processes of
visual imagination; music reflects and organizes our sense of
experiential time; literary imagination governs the retrospective
formulation of lived experience in remembering and retelling through the
use of the resources of language and narrative; narrative imagination
shapes our conceptions of human action and the course of human lives,
and elaborates the basic forms of historical understanding; and dance
uses “the unbroken fabric of gesture” (Langer, 1957b, p. 10) to
formulate our conceptions of powers, or centers of living force, whose
actions arise as an expression of intention and will. I have discussed
these and other examples further in a separate work (Dryden, 2004).
The arts in their turn guide and shape the forms of human imagination,
and hence the forms of conscious experience, which—like all forms that
are mediated by society, culture, and history—are subject to historical
development and change. What Epstein (following Zeki) refers to as the
“constancies” (Epstein, p. 238) that find their expression in visual and
narrative art are therefore better understood as “relatively enduring
forms or patterns” that are themselves not permanent but change and
develop over time.11
Langer argues, for example, that changes in the forms of visual
imagination—which is concerned with aspects of the underlying network of
image-schematic conceptual representations that are especially suited to
visual presentation and elaboration—have been reflected in, and in turn
been influenced by, changes in pictorial space that can be seen in the
history of drawing and painting (Langer, 1966, p. 42; Langer, 1967, p.
87). Similarly, Katherine Nelson (2000, 2003) has argued that the
dialectical interaction between forms of narrative imagination—which is
concerned with the activity of imagining, or making conceivable, the
structure of events, human actions, and longer histories—and forms of
narrative discourse can be seen in the history of literature.
4. Involuntary Memory Revisited: Memory and the Intimation of
What, then, is the
significance of memory for the art of literary composition? Although
there is no special class of memories that can give “a ‘true’
re-instantiation of an earlier experience” (Epstein, p. 217), there is a
sense in which the kinds of memories that Proust calls involuntary can
nevertheless tell us something significant about “what experience is
‘really like’” (Epstein, p. 219). Proust’s two kinds of memories
probably mark the end points of a graded series of memory experiences,
all of which are structured by conceptual processes, but which differ in
the extent to which they highlight selections from the associative
network in the background of experience. As more and more strands of
the “tangled web of sensory, emotional, and appetitive experiences”
(Epstein, p. 218) that make up the associative background rise to
prominence in the act of recollection, the kinds of conceptual processes
required to structure the memory images become more complex, and their
reliance on analogical, nonpropositional forms of representation becomes
more significant. The characteristic that makes these kinds of memories
important to a literary artist such as Proust is not their
veridicality—their historical truth, or the truth of factual
descriptions to actual occurrences, however subjective or detailed—but
their intimations of artistic truth—the insights they can offer
into the depth and complexity of episodes of conscious experience—the
actual as well as the merely possible, however fantastic or unreal—and
the incentives they can therefore provide to the process of artistic
Proust’s “moments bienheureux” (Epstein, p. 217) can provide the
initial suggestion of an “idea” of feeling—a
complex quality to be achieved—that
the writer then tries to develop further in the composition of a
literary work. The initial inspiration may be indispensable, but its
promise can only be fulfilled at the conclusion of the artist’s labors,
which for a writer involve the achievement of “a well-wrought style”
(Proust, quoted in Epstein, p. 224)—that
is, a mastery of the resources of language for the purposes of creating
the semblance of lived experience. More generally, what the artist
first glimpses in whatever inspires the labor of creation is the
possibility of constructing an image or complex perceptible form that
expresses, in some artistic medium, an insight into some aspect or
dimension of what Langer calls “the logic of consciousness” (Langer,
1957b, p. 26) so that others, as well as the artist, can contemplate and
5. Postscript: Langer, Art, and the Scientific Study of
Epstein’s work provides
valuable support for the efforts of other writers—such
as Bruce Mangan, David Galin, and myself—who
have argued that the arts offer a wealth of untapped resources for
exploring the phenomenology of conscious experience. But all of us have
a predecessor whose contributions to this project deserve wider
recognition. Susanne Langer explored the importance of the arts for the
scientific study of consciousness during the 1950s and 1960s, in the
course of developing a systematic and comprehensive theory of the arts
and a conceptual framework for the biological sciences that she believed
would support an evolutionary account of the nature and origin of human
mentality and its expressions in language and culture.12
For a discussion of Langer’s life and work, see Dryden (1997a, 1997b,
2003). For a somewhat different perspective on Langer’s theory of art
and its relationship to James’s account of the stream of consciousness,
see Dryden (2001). One of the consequences of Langer’s theory of art
and imagination is that the key to understanding the nature, origin, and
functions of the arts lies in the evolutionary history of the human
imagin-ation. For a discussion of Langer’s account of the evolution of
the human brain and its capacity for culture in the light of recent work
in biological anthropology and evolutionary theory, see Dryden (2004;
see also Dryden, 1999, for a discussion of the relevant work of Terrence
In direct opposition to the behaviorism that dominated psychology during
those decades, Langer believed that consciousness or
subjectivity is the proper subject matter of psychology (Langer,
1962, p. 4), and that “a conceptual framework for the empirical study of
mind” (Langer, 1967, p. 257), grounded in the biological sciences, is
“the most pressing need of our day” (Langer, 1962, p. 25). Langer argued
that if psychology had a set of working concepts adequate to the
problems of “conceiving mind as a natural phenomenon” (Langer, 1967, p.
xxii), the study of mind should lead “down into biological structure and
process,” as well as “upward to the purely human sphere known as
‘culture’” (Langer, 1967, p. 32).
Perhaps her most unusual
claim, however, was that the arts could provide insights into the
phenomena of conscious experience that are available in no other way,
and that a detailed study of works of art was therefore essential for
developing an adequate science of “life and mind in nature” (Langer,
1967, p. xvii). Every artist, she believed, has implicit, intuitive
knowledge about some aspect of subjective reality that is reflected in
the works he creates; and although the artist is not a psychologist and
has no special scientific knowledge of the reality that finds
expression in his work, his intuitive insights are set forth, worked
out, and brought to completion through their embodiment in an object
and are therefore publicly available for study in the work itself. As
“a purified and simplified aspect of the outer world, composed by the
laws of the inner world to express its nature” (Langer, 1957b, p. 11), a
work of art sets some “piece of inward life objectively before us”
(Langer, 1957b, p. 24) so we can “contemplate and understand it”
(Langer, 1957b, p. 90), and it does so “with a degree of precision and
detail beyond anything that direct introspection is apt to reveal”
(Langer, 1967, p. 69). In this way the arts provide a unique access to
many of the psychological phenomena that “we are seeking to understand
in the systematic concepts and language of science” (Langer, 1967, p.
xx), provided we can become “intellectually at home in both realms”
(Langer, 1967, pp. xix-xx).
Although Langer was
highly regarded as a philosopher of art in the 1950s, her later work met
with a mixed critical response when it first appeared and has been
largely neglected ever since, especially in psychology and the
biological sciences, to which she had hoped to contribute.13
The reasons for this neglect are complex, and I have discussed them at
some length elsewhere (Dryden, 1997a).
Yet I believe her work offers some of the resources that are needed to
give a more precise characterization of the relationship between art and
the “fringe” of conscious experience that Epstein has importantly
brought to our attention; and the entire body of Langer’s writings, when
taken together with more recent work in the psychological sciences,
provides a basis for building on Epstein’s perceptive contribution by
reinterpreting it as a special case of a more general theory of
imagination, cognition, art, and consciousness. Finally, Langer’s work
has much to offer in support of James’s overall vision of psychology,
which has been taken up in recent years by a number of writers,
including Epstein, who have begun to demonstrate its relevance to the
study of the phenomenology and neurobiology of conscious-ness. James is
now widely recognized as an ally and a contemporary. The same
recognition, I believe, should be accorded to Susanne Langer; and it is
my hope that Epstein’s essay—and the ongoing conversation to which he
has made such a valuable contribution—will lead to a recognition, long
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