Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 15:4, 2001, 272-285.  How one evaluates an interpretation of human consciousness in terms of biological process will depend on how one understands biology.  Is life exhaustively the product of chemical efficient causality (and chemistry, in turn, wholly an efficient-causal product of physics)?  Or is this “ascent” in itself at least partly expressive of final causality? 

The author’s excellent biographical monograph is a gift to anyone interested in Langer.  See also his “Susanne K. Langer and American Philosophic Naturalism in the Twentieth Century” on this site.

Anthony Flood

April 21, 2008


Susanne Langer and William James: Art and the Dynamics of the Stream of Consciousness

Donald Dryden

Duke University


1.   The Natural Sciences and the Phenomenology of Consciousness 

A naturalistic approach to the study of the mind that takes consciousness seriously must have resources for carrying out a systematic exploration of the phenomenology of conscious experience.  If the phenomena of consciousness can be adequately understood only within the larger framework of organismic and evolutionary biology, then a naturalistic theory should be able to work out phenomenological distinctions for the description of human experience that are more consonant with the results of the neurosciences and evolutionary theory than any that are currently available (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991).  But if phenomenology and the natural sciences are to be treated with equal respect (Flanagan 1992), then we can expect phenomenological explorations of consciousness to make demands on biological theory as well; and a complex interplay between the work of phenomenological analysis and developments in psychology and the biological sciences will likely lead to significant reformulations of the basic terms in both domains.

For a naturalistic theory of consciousness, the objects of study are the phenomena of subjective experience—the first-person, experiential perspec-tive, the “what-it-is-like-to-be” (Nagel 1979) of events that centrally involve the brain/mind embodied in a living organism, which in turn is situated within a particular ambient or life-world.  But as William James recognized more than a century ago, the intricate dynamic patterns of immediate experience—the comings and goings of sensations, perceptions, moods, emotions, fantasies, and thoughts that compose the fabric of mental life that he called the stream of consciousness—are difficult to observe because of their very immediacy. Because the constantly moving stream of conscious experience will not stand still to be looked at, it usually passes unrecorded, its dynamic forms never attaining the kind of stable formulation that would catch and hold them, making them available for study and, eventually, for more systematic understanding.

In The Principles of Psychology, in his famous chapter on “The Stream of Thought,” James observed that one of the most obvious characteristics of conscious experience is that it is constantly changing, with brief periods of rest punctuating periods of passage or transition in which the movement seems to be directed from one point of rest toward another: “Like a bird’s life,” he wrote, “it seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings” (1890, 243).  The periods of rest he called the substantive parts of the stream—the definite images, the terms of thought, the clear and distinct ideas that keep their form long enough to be singled out, lifted from the stream, and named.

Words are well suited to the substantive parts of the stream, but the transitive parts—the periods of transition—are more difficult to catch hold of.  “The rush of the thought,” James observed, “is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. . . . The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly to see how the darkness looks” (244).

James believed that the momentary resting points of experience, which lend themselves so well to naming, “form but the very smallest part of our minds as they actually live” (James 1890, 255), but they have long occupied the center of attention in psychology because their clarity and distinctness give them such a natural affinity to language.  The moving passages of experience, on the other hand, correspond to what James called the “innumerable relations and forms of connection between the facts of the world,” relations which “are [so] numberless, [that] no existing language is capable of doing justice to all their shades” (244-45).  “It is just this free water of consciousness,” James maintained, “that psychologists resolutely overlook.  Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it.  With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.  The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it” (255).  James repeatedly emphasized that all of these indefinite features of experience are among its most important characteristics, and he therefore urged what he called “the re-instatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life” (254).

Writing more than half a century after James, the American philosopher Susanne Langer made a similar argument for the inadequacy of language as a means of capturing the essential features of conscious experience.  Language “is our normal and most reliable means of communication,” Langer argued, but it is “almost useless for conveying knowledge about the precise character of the affective life” (1957b, 91).  Crude designations like “excitement,” “calm,” “joy,” “sorrow,” “anxiety,” “terror,” “love,” and “hate,” noted Langer, “tell us as little about [subjective] experience as general words like ‘thing,’ ‘being,’ or ‘place’ tell us about the world of our perceptions” (1957b, 91).  The subjective aspects of experience form an intricate dynamic pattern of tremendous complexity, which usually slips through the net of discursive resources that language makes available to us:  “The ways we are moved are as various as the lights in a forest; and they may intersect, sometimes without canceling each other, take shape and dissolve, conflict, explode into passion, or be transfigured.  All these inseparable elements of subjective reality compose what we call the ‘inward life’ of human beings” (Langer 1957b, 22.

According to Langer, what eludes the power of language is “the way feelings, emotions, and all other subjective experiences come and go—their rise and growth, their intricate synthesis that gives our inner life unity and personal identity. . . . This kind of experience is usually but vaguely known, because most of its components are nameless, 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” (1957b, 7).  Because language is quite inadequate to articulate “the actual flow and balance” (1957a, 101) of our inner life, the phenomena of feeling and emotion have often been regarded as formless, chaotic, and irrational.  But they only seem irrational, Langer argued, “because language does not help to make them conceivable, and most people cannot conceive anything without the logical scaffolding of words” (1962, 88).  This creates serious problems for introspection as a method for understanding conscious experience.

What both James and Langer seem to be arguing is that the life of feeling is ineffable—beyond the power of words to articulate.  But does this mean that it is essentially unknowable?  Is a science of consciousness that aspires to do justice to the protean character of conscious mental life possible at all?  Systematic knowledge must begin with some kind of formulation of experience, through which the phenomena we are trying to understand acquire their earliest objectification and provide the sort of publicly available, empirical data upon which later scientific work can be based.  If we cannot rely on language for much of the empirical knowledge of subjective experience that is indispensable for constructing a science of consciousness, then we must look elsewhere for the resources that will make it possible to “corral the ‘quicksilver of phenomenology’ into respectable theory” (Dennett 1978, 149).



2. The Arts as a Resource for Exploring the Dynamics of Subjective Experience  

If language is such a poor medium for formulating the dynamics of inner experience, are there other places we might look for a more adequate formulation of the phenomena that are the objects of psychological inquiry?  It was Langer’s thesis that “a naive but intimate and expert knowledge” (1967, 64) of the dynamics of conscious mental life can be found in works of art, which she defined as “perceptible forms expressive of human feeling” (1962, 84). “Feeling is like the dynamic and rhythmic structures created by artists” (1967, 64), where the realm of art is taken to include “painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, literature, drama, and film” (1962, 84).

Although only a scattering of evidence is currently available to support it, I would like to suggest that Langer’s thesis is nevertheless worthy of serious consideration.  The scientific study of consciousness is still in its infancy, and, as Langer observed, we must be careful not to jeopardize the growth of knowledge by “denying to our researches the free play which belongs to brain children as well as to animal and human infants” (1967, 53).  If the products of artistic creation might indeed offer resources for the investigation of consciousness that we may have overlooked, we should at least be willing to open the question for discussion.  Perhaps this will encourage the kind of creative philosophical and empirical work that would be needed to explore the question further.

In Langer’s definition of art, three terms require special attention: feeling, form, and expression.  To begin with feeling, it is important to emphasize that Langer uses the term in the broadest possible sense, as a generic term for conscious experience.  Early in The Principles of Psychology James discussed the need for “some general term by which to designate all states of consciousness merely as such, and apart from their particular quality or cognitive function” (185).  He considered “thought” to be “by far the best word to use” (186), but he acknowledged the difficulty of extending the term to cover sensations, and concluded 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” (186).  Langer’s choice of the term “feeling” can be seen as an attempt to deal with the same problem, for she stated unequivocally that she intended the term to refer to “what is sometimes called ‘inner life,’ ‘subjective reality,’ [or] ‘consciousness’” (1957b, 112)—to whatever can be said to enter conscious experience, from “the sensibility of very low animals [to] the whole realm of human awareness and thought” (1967, 55).

The term form, as Langer pointed out, is commonly used to refer to the shape of a thing, although we also speak of the forms of things that have no fixed shapes.  For example, when we “watch gnats weaving in the air, or flocks of birds wheeling overhead” (1962, 86), or a “funnel of water or dust screwing upward in a whirlwind” (1957b, 18), we are seeing dynamic forms, which are forms made by motion.  In its most general sense, then, a form is a complex relational structure—”a whole resulting from the relation of mutually dependent factors, or more precisely, the way the whole is put together” (1957b, 16).  In the case of a painting, for example, “a visible, individual form [is] produced by the interaction of colors, lines, surfaces, lights and shadows” (1957b, 128), or whatever else enters into the specific work.  In a dance or a musical composition, the form is transient and dynamic, but no less complex.  And in literary works, the form is given to imagination, as a “passage of purely imaginary, apparent events” (1962, 86).

The special sense in which Langer considered works of art to express feeling must also be clearly understood.  Crying is often said to be an expression of sadness or grief, and laughter an expression of high spirits.  If a work of art were expressive of feeling in this sense, Langer argued, it would be a symptomatic expression of the artist’s currently felt feelings—”a confessional [or] a frozen tantrum” (1957b, 26).  But as Langer used the term in speaking of works of art, expression is to be taken in the sense of presentation, as when we say that a sentence presents or expresses an idea:

If an idea is clearly conveyed by means of symbols we say it is well expressed.  A person may work for a long time to give his statement the best possible form, to find the exact words for what he means to say, and to carry his account or his argument most directly from one point to another.  But a discourse so worked out is certainly not a spontaneous reaction. (1962, 87)

Langer called this conceptual expression.  “It is as a formulation of feeling for our conception that a work of art is properly said to be expressive” (1962, 89; emphasis added).  Yet a work of art is not a symbol in the usual sense because it has no conventional reference, and so, she decided, cannot be properly said to have a meaning.  In Ernest Nagel’s definition, for example, a symbol is “any occurrence (or type of occurrence), usually linguistic in status, which is taken to signify something else by way of tacit or explicit conventions or rules of language” (quoted in Langer 1957b, 130; emphasis added).  In contrast, Langer held that a work of art does not point beyond itself to something known by other means, for what is expressed in a work of art “cannot be grasped apart from the sensuous or poetic form that expresses it” (1957b, 134).

As a mere physical object, the work of art is just an arrangement of materials—pigments on a canvas in the case of a painting, gestures and other movements in a dance, words in a literary work, or tonal materials in a musical composition.  What draws our attention, however, is something that seems to emerge from the arrangement of colors, gestures, words, or tones that define the existence of the work as a physical object—a complex array of qualities that seems to be charged with life and feeling, and is imbued with a significance that reaches beyond the mere physical datum with which we are presented.  Yet what Langer called the import of art “is perceived as something in the work, articulated by it but not further abstracted” (1957b, 134).  As a complex relational structure, a work of art

is a much more intricate thing than we usually think of as a form, 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.  That is why qualities enter directly into the form itself, not as its contents, but as constitutive elements in it. (1953, 51)

In a work of art, wrote Langer, “the import permeates the whole structure, because every articulation of the structure is an articulation of the idea it conveys” (1953, 52).

What is the nature of this conveyed significance?  To answer that question, Langer pointed to the frequent use, made by critics and artists alike, of metaphors drawn from the realm of life and feeling to talk about artistic products: “Every artist finds ‘life,’ ‘vitality,’ or ‘livingness’ in a good work of art.  He refers to the ‘spirit’ of a picture . . . and his first task is to ‘animate’ his canvas” (1957b, 44).  Similarly, observed Langer, in a musical composition, “melodies move and harmonies grow and rhythms prevail, with the logic of an organic living structure” (1957b, 41).  What we hear in music, with apparent immediacy, is “a flow of life, feeling, and emotion in audible passage” (1957b, 41).  We seem to perceive feeling itself in the work; “but of course the work does not contain feeling,” observed Langer, “any more than a proposition about the mortality of Socrates contains a philosopher” (1967, 67).  We might say, then, that what a work of art expresses “is not actual feeling, but ideas of feeling; as language does not [convey] actual things and events but [expresses] ideas about them” (Langer 1953, 59; emphasis added); and in a work of art, according to Langer, “each aspect of feeling [is] developed as one develops an idea, fitted together for clearest presentation” (1957b, 8). 


3. A Cognitive Basis for the Expressiveness of Art: Experiential Realism and Metaphorical Projection  

How can works of art perform the cognitive and semantic functions that Langer’s theory attributes to them?  One answer is suggested by the work of George Lakoff (1987) and Mark Johnson (1987), who have argued that human experience is structured in significant ways prior to, and independent of, language and concepts, and that conceptual structures are meaningful because they are grounded in the kinds of experiences with real-world objects and situations that take place by means of general capacities such as gestalt perception, motor movements, and the formation of mental images.  It is this basic-level physical experience that provides the preconceptual foundation for language and other cognitive functions.

What Eleanor Rosch identified as basic-level concepts correspond to this preconceptual structure and are understood directly in terms of it (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991).  Basic-level concepts include such things as physical objects (chairs, tables, cats, dogs, books), actions (running, walking, eating, drinking), and properties (tall/short, hard/soft, heavy/light, hot/cold, and basic colors—black, white, red, green, blue, yellow).  Basic-level concepts represent an intermediate level of conceptual organization.  What Lakoff and Johnson call basic does not mean primitive.  Although their wholeness seems to make them psychologically more basic than their parts, basic-level concepts are not atomic building blocks of cognition but have an internal structure that can be discriminated and articulated.

One of the ways in which preconceptual experience is structured is in terms of what Lakoff and Johnson call kinesthetic image schemas—basic patterns that continually recur in our everyday interactions with the external environment.  One of the most pervasive features of experience, for example, is of our bodies as containers and as things in containers.  We ingest and excrete various substances, take air into our lungs and breathe out again, move into and out of rooms and other enclosed spaces, and perform countless other actions based on in-out orientations.  Johnson calls this the CONTAINER schema.

Consider just a small fraction of the orientational feats you perform constantly in your daily activities—consider, for example, only a few of the many in-out orientations that might occur in the first few minutes of an ordinary day.  You wake out of a deep sleep and peer out from beneath the covers into your room.  You gradually emerge out of your stupor, pull yourself out from under the covers, climb into your robe, stretch out your limbs, and walk in a daze out of your bedroom and into the bathroom.  You look in the mirror and see your face staring out at you.  You reach into the medicine cabinet, take out the toothpaste, squeeze out some toothpaste, put the toothbrush into your mouth, brush your teeth, and rinse out your mouth.  At breakfast you perform a host of further in-out moves—pouring out the coffee, setting out the dishes, putting the toast in the toaster, spreading out the jam on the toast, and on and on. (Johnson 1987, 30-31)

The CONTAINER schema has a wholeness that makes it psychologically basic, but it is a structured whole—a gestalt with internal structure or articulation.  As a consequence of its configuration, the CONTAINER schema exhibits a basic logic that contributes to the preconceptual structuring of experience.  It is inherently meaningful by virtue of its grounding in physical experience, and because of this it can serve as the grounding for more abstract kinds of conceptual organization.  For example, Lakoff and Johnson argue that features of the CONTAINER schema form the basis of the Boolean logic of classes.  Other basic structures that continually recur in everyday experience provide the basis for the schemata of paths, links, forces, balance, up/down, front/back, part/whole, and center/periphery.

The semantic theory which Lakoff and Johnson call experiential realism characterizes meaning in terms of embodiment, that is, in terms of the biological capacities, and the physical, psychological, and social experiences of human beings functioning in a human environment.  Human conceptual structures are meaningful because they are embodied—they arise from and are tied to our preconceptual bodily experiences.  The structures of preconceptual experience are directly meaningful because they are directly and repeatedly experienced in the course of our everyday functioning in the environment.  Basic-level concepts are in turn directly meaningful because they are directly tied to the structural aspects of preconceptual experience.

More abstract conceptual structures arise by a process of spontaneous metaphorical projection from the domain of basic physical experience to more abstract domains.  In domains, that is, where there is no clearly discernible preconceptual structure to our experience, we spontaneously import structure via metaphorical mappings that ultimately derive their meaningfulness from their ability to match up with preconceptual structures.  Abstract conceptual structures are therefore indirectly meaningful—they are understood by means of their systematic relationship to the directly meaningful structures of preconceptual experience.

What this might tell us about the projection of the dynamics of felt experience into works of art is suggested by Johnson’s discussion of some experiments in visual perception performed by Rudolf Arnheim.

In Arnheim’s experiments (1974), subjects were shown a solid black disk that had been placed in various positions on a white square surrounded by a black border, and were asked to consider the experience of balance or lack of balance that it gave them—whether the disk appeared to be solidly at rest, pulled in a certain direction, repelled by some contour of the square, and so on.  Most subjects described a sense of tension, which varied with the position of the disk on the white space.  The disk appeared to be out of balance in relation to the background, for example, when it was placed slightly up and to the right of the center, and it seemed to seek out, or be pulled toward, the imagined center of the square.  When the disk was just above the center line and close to the right edge, subjects experienced the disk as “drawn toward” the right edge of the square.  If the disk was gradually moved closer to the edge, there was a point at which subjects usually reported that it got “too close” and was “repelled” by the right boundary.

Arnheim concluded from these experiments that we spontaneously project a structure of tensions and forces into visual configurations—a structure whose source Mark Johnson attributes to the ongoing experience of establishing and maintaining physical balance in our everyday interactions with the world, beginning with the experience of learning how to walk and extending to experiences of physical activity of all kinds.  Therefore, in Johnson’s view, the balances and forces perceived in visual configurations involve “a metaphorical projection of schematic structure from the realm of physical and gravitational forces and weights [as experienced] to a domain of visual forces and weights in ‘visual space’” (1987, 99).

The projection of certain kinds of felt experience into the characteristics of perceptual gestalten is not limited to visual perception, however.  Langer argued, for example, that similar projective processes may account for some of the most salient characteristics of music.  Although music is constructed from tonal materials—sounds with varying degrees of pitch, loudness, and duration, and a wide variety of unique timbres that distinguish the different musical instruments—whenever these tonal materials are arranged to beget a musical impression, what emerges is

an obvious illusion, which is so strong that despite its obviousness it is sometimes unrecognized because it is taken for a real, physical phenomenon: that is the appearance of movement.  Music flows; a melody moves; a succession of tones is heard as a progression.  The differences between successive tones are steps, or jumps, or slides.  Harmonies arise, and shift, and move to resolutions.  A complete section of a sonata is quite naturally called a “movement.” (Langer 1957b, 36)

In music, the appearance of movement is a powerful illusion, but the intricate patterns of movement we perceive are not at all like the simple physical oscillations by which sounds are produced and propagated.  Like the structure of tensions and forces that Arnheim’s subjects reported “seeing” in simple perceptual patterns given to the sense of vision, music presents an appearance of moving tensions and forces that structure perceptual forms given to our sense of hearing.  And just as we may project our ongoing experiences of establishing and maintaining physical balance into the forces and tensions that appear as a hidden structure in pictorial space, so we may also project our felt experience of time into the tonal forms of music.  As Langer pointed out,

our direct experience of time is the passage of vital functions and lived events, felt inwardly as tensions—somatic, emotional, and mental tensions, which have a characteristic pattern.  They grow from a beginning to a point of highest intensity, mounting either steadily or with varying acceleration to a climax, then dissolving or letting go abruptly in sudden deflation, or merging with the rise or fall of some other, encroaching tension. (1957b, 37-38)

But “instead of vaguely sensing time as we do through our own physical life-processes” (Langer 1957b, 38), music enables us to hear time in its passage.

In general, we could argue that, in virtue of fundamental cognitive processes that give rise to the spontaneous metaphorical projection of nonpropositional structures from one domain of experience into another, “music sounds as feelings feel.”  Likewise, as Langer concluded, “in good painting, sculpture, or building, balanced shapes and colors, lines and masses look as emotions, vital tensions and their resolutions feel” (1957b, 26; emphasis added).  “Artistic form is congruent with the dynamic forms of our direct sensuous, mental, and emotional life; works of art are projections of ‘felt life’ . . . into spatial, temporal, and poetic structures.  They are images of feeling, that formulate it for our cognition” (1957b, 25).

Indeed, without their projection into physical media, it is likely that most of the dynamics of conscious experience would pass unrealized.  In a very real sense, we would never know what they were like if we could not encounter their projected forms in the objects we have created to express them.  It is the products of artistic creation, Langer contended, that “objectify feeling so that we can contemplate and understand it” (1957b, 90).  Because its forms are finally incommensurable with the forms of language, “the only way we can really envisage vital movement, the stirring and growth and passage of emotion, and ultimately the whole direct sense of human life, is in artistic terms” (1957b, 71).  Every work of art “is a purified and simplified aspect of the outer world, composed by the laws of the inner world to express its nature” (1957b, 11).  The primary function of art, in Langer’s view, “is to make the felt tensions of life, from the diffused somatic tonus of vital sense to the highest intensities of mental and emotional experience, ‘stand still to be looked at,’ as Bosanquet said, ‘and, in principle, to be looked at by everybody’” (1967, 115).  


4. Art and the Objectification of Feeling  

Artistic creation is therefore a process of objectification.  Because the artist’s insights into the dynamics of subjective experience are inseparable from her explorations of the expressive possibilities of some medium, her insights are set forth, worked out, and brought to completion through their embodiment in an object.  In this way they are made publicly available, publicly knowable, and, in all these senses, objectified.  The resulting work of art sets some “piece of inward life objectively before us so we may understand its intricacy, its rhythms and shifts of total appearance” (Langer 1957b, 24); it is “a perceptible form that expresses the nature of human feeling—the rhythms and connections, crises and breaks, the complexity and richness of what is sometimes called man’s ‘inner life,’ the stream of direct experience, life as it feels to the living” (1957b, 7).  “Art makes feeling apparent, objectively given so we may reflect on it and understand it” (1957b, 73).

In making an understanding of subjective life publicly available, the artist is not referring to something that is otherwise available as an object of knowledge outside his work.  In this sense a work of art should not be thought of as the artist’s comment on anything, for a comment always directs our attention “to something distinct from the words, gestures, or other signs conveying it” (Langer 1953, 394).  According to Langer, however, the artist is not saying anything,

not even about the nature of feeling; he is showing.  He is showing us the appearance of feeling [i.e., what it is like], in a perceptible symbolic [i.e., metaphorical, in the sense developed by Johnson 1987] projection; but he does not refer to a public object, such as a generally known “sort” of feeling, outside his work.  Only in so far as the work is objective, the feeling it exhibits becomes public; it is always bound to its symbol [i.e., to its concrete embodiment, which is the work of art itself].  The effect of this symbolization [i.e., metaphorical projection, embodiment, and objectification] is to offer the beholder a way of conceiving emotion [and, more generally, the entire realm of subjective experience]; and that is something more elementary than making judgments about it. (1953, 394)

Art is indispensable as both a product and an instrument of human insight because it makes possible the formulation of what is otherwise inaccessible to us through the discursive resources of language.  The artist, wrote Langer, “formulates that elusive aspect of reality that is commonly taken to be amorphous and chaotic; that is, he objectifies the subjective realm,” and the work that he produces “articulates what is verbally ineffable—the logic of consciousness itself” (1957b, 26).

As a product of human insight, the work of art sets forth its creator’s conception of some aspect of felt experience.  But what is thereby expressed may transcend the artist’s own experience and may become for the artist himself, as well as for the beholder, an instrument of further insight and discovery.

The artist need not have experienced in actual life every emotion he can express.  It may be through manipulation of his created elements that he discovers new possibilities of feeling, strange moods, perhaps greater concentrations of passion than his own temperament could ever produce, or than his fortunes have yet called forth.  For, 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, 374)

It is by virtue of these cognitive functions that art may also play a role in the cultural construction of felt experience.  Langer argued that every human society has a characteristic undercurrent of feelings that are peculiar to it, which every member of the society shares to some degree, and within which every individual “develops his own life of feeling within the frame of the style prevailing in his country and his time” (Langer 1962, 95).  This background of feeling, Langer believed, is deeply influenced by the products of artistic creation that form part of the cultural environment. 


5. Art and the Biological Foundations of Conscious Experience  

Perhaps the most exciting implication to emerge from this view of art concerns the possible contribution that the products of artistic creation might make to the study of the mind.  For it is through works of art that what is otherwise known only to the organism in which it occurs—the subjective experience of life in its passage—becomes “embodied in an object, ‘objectified’” (Langer 1967, 143).  By presenting the forms of feeling “with a degree of precision and detail beyond anything that direct introspection is apt to reveal” (Langer 1967, 69), works of art can provide us with a wealth of naive but exact and intimate knowledge—empirical knowledge—of the dynamic patterns of subjective experience whose biological foundations we ultimately wish to explain.

In the light of Langer’s argument about the importance of art in giving us insight into the nature of conscious experience, I find it particularly interesting that William James, whose contributions to the phenomenology of consciousness are a landmark in the history of psychology, had exceptional artistic abilities and early in his life gave serious thought to becoming an artist.  At the age of eighteen he committed himself to an apprenticeship with the highly regarded painter William Morris Hunt, but left after a year to begin studies at Harvard University, where he went on to a career in psychology and philosophy.

But James continued to draw for another ten years and maintained his interest in art throughout his life.  As he later told his brother, he envied Henry’s belonging to the world of art because “away from it, as we live, we sink into a flatter, blanker kind of consciousness, and indulge in an ostrich-like forgetfulness of all our richest potentialities”—potentialities that “startle us now and then when by accident some rich human product, pictorial, literary, or architectural slaps us with its tail” (quoted in Leary 1992, 155).  The historian of psychology David Leary has argued that James’s “artistic sensibility and experience were critically important in the development of his psychological and philosophical thought” (1992, 152).  These characteristics may also account for his remarkable sensitivity to the phenomenology of conscious mental life, as shown, for example, in James’s famous chapter on “The Stream of Thought” from The Principles of Psychology (1890).

The kind of phenomenological explorations of consciousness that art makes available may also have an important contribution to make to the work of reconstruction in biological theory that I believe will be required if we want to understand conscious experience as a natural phenomenon.  Langer argued that the characteristics of vitality, organic form, and livingness that are exhibited in works of art point toward the biological underpinnings of felt experience:

The fact that expressive form [in art] is always organic or “living” form [makes] the biological foundation of feeling probable.  In the artist’s projection, feeling is a heightened form of life; so any work expressing felt tensions, rhythms and activities expresses their unfelt substructure of vital processes, which is the whole of life. (1967, xix)

What this suggests, Langer argued, is that consciousness is not a peculiar product of biological processes—a curious emanation whose relation to physical events in the central nervous system is merely contingent, like that of a cause to its distinct effect—but might better be regarded as a phase or aspect of their occurrence, something that is intrinsic to and dependent upon certain modes of neural activity and organization.  “It is a misconception,” Langer argued,

to think of sentience as something caused by vital activities.  It is not an effect, but an aspect of them. . . . Sentience arises in vital functioning rather than from it; life as such is sentient.  Naturally, then, life as it is felt always resembles life as it is observed. . . . [Feelings] are, indeed, like high-lights on the crests of the turbulent life-stream.  Naturally, then, their basic forms are vital forms; their coming and going is in the pattern of growth and decline, not of mechanical occurrences; their mutual involvements reflect the mold of biological existence. (1957b, 46)

Most of the events that make up the life of an organism, such as the basic physiological functions of digestion, circulation, and endocrine action, as well as many of the routine activities of the central nervous system, are normally not felt at all.  But when some activity rises above a certain threshold of yet-to-be-defined nervous system parameters, it becomes conscious.  It has crossed what Langer called the limen of sentience and goes into psychical phase.  Activities within the organism that rise to the level of feeling include events primarily sensory or primarily motor, as well as a number of other activities or functions that are variously felt as thought, recollection, effort, strain, excitement, fear, anticipation, and so on through the entire gamut of subjective experiences that build up the phenomenal worlds of human beings and other living creatures.

It seems reasonable to suppose that conscious experiences—regarded as neurophysiological events—have characteristics that distinguish them from other, unfelt, activities.  And although, as Thomas Nagel has argued, “the properties that make them experiences exist only from the point of view of the types of beings who have them” (1979, 213), it seems likely that not just any sort of biological activity can be felt.  Conscious experiences probably have certain characteristics, specifiable as dimensions of complex neurophysiological proces-ses, that can be explored through the joint application of first-person and third-person perspec-tives.  If, as Langer believed, “the mechanisms of felt activity are heightened forms of unfelt vital rhythms, responses, and interactions,” then “a psychology oriented by this concept of feeling [will run] smoothly downward into physiology [but] without the danger of being reduced to physiology and therewith losing its own identity” (1962, 11).

If felt experiences—rather than being simply products of brain function which give no clue about the nature of the underlying neurophysiological processes that are continually bringing them forth—are instead looked upon as a heightened form of life whose dynamic patterns express the unfelt substructure of vital processes that support them, then the kinds of distinctions that could emerge from an experiential or phenomenological analysis of conscious mental life—greatly expanded and enriched by the resources that the study of art makes available—might suggest some new basic concepts for biology and psychology.  In the complex interplay between the work of phenomenological analysis and developments in psychology and the biological sciences, the basic terms in both domains are likely to undergo significant reformulation.


Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolf.  1974.  Art and Visual Perception: The Psychology of the Creative Eye. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1978. Brainstorms. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Flanagan, Owen. 1992. Consciousness Reconsidered. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 1. New York: Dover.

Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langer, Susanne K. 1953. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner.

­­­———. 1957a. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. 3d ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

———. 1957b. Problems of Art. New York: Scribner.

———. 1962. Philosophical Sketches. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

———. 1967. Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. Vol. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Leary, David E. 1992. “William James and the Art of Human Understanding.” American Psychologist 47.2: 152-60.

Nagel, Thomas. 1979. Mortal Questions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Langer main page