Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XXXIII:1, Winter
November 28, 2008
Susanne K. Langer and American Philosophic Naturalism in the
The first volume of
Susanne Langer’s final project, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling
(Langer 1967), was greeted with a baffling array of conflicting critical
responses. One reviewer, for example, saw it as evidence of Langer’s
commitment to the reduction of psychology and the biological sciences to
physics, in which human mentality would be seen as merely “a higher
degree of [the] mechanistically determined complexity” (Liddy 1970,482)
that characterizes simpler physical phenomena; while another critic saw
Mind as the work of a romantic holist with a commitment to “an
arbitrary indeterminism” (“Review of Mind” 1968, xiv) and “a
philosophical antagonism to scientific analysis” (“Review of Mind”
In contrast to both of
these readings, I would like to offer an interpretation that sees
Langer’s work, taken in its entirety, as an ambitious attempt to
construct a theory of human mentality and consciousness that exhibits
“the kind of careful and reflective observation which the scientist
admires” (MacLeod 1967, 1543), while calling at the same time for “a
radically revised conception of the nature of the reality which all
sciences are trying to describe” (MacLeod 1967,1544). Seen from this
perspective, Langer’s work shares many of the characteristics that John
Ryder (Ryder 1994) has identified with American philosophic naturalism,
although in some respects Langer occupies a remarkable and unique
position when compared with other philosophers in the naturalist
tradition such as William James, George Santayana, John Dewey, Ernest
Nagel, John Herman Randall, Jr., or Justus Buchler.
Philosophy in a New Key,
which remains Langer’s best known work, appeared in 1942, just two years
before the publication of Naturalism and the Human Spirit (Krikorian
1944), an influential manifesto of American naturalism that included
essays by Dewey, Nagel, Randall, and others. Although Langer did not
contribute to that volume, she shared naturalism’s rejection of an
independent, supernatural realm of being in relation to which the
natural world would be regarded as secondary and dependent; and she did
not believe that anything like an immaterial soul animates the human
organism and survives it after death:
That man is an animal I certainly believe; and also, that he has no
supernatural essence, “soul” or “entelechy” or “mind-stuff” enclosed in
his skin. He is an organism, his substance is chemical, and what he
does, suffers, or knows, is just what this sort of chemical structure
may do, suffer, or know. When the structure goes to pieces, it never
does, suffers, or knows anything again. . . . It is really no harder to
imagine that a chemically active body knows, thinks, and feels, than
that an invisible, intangible something does so, “animates” the body
without physical agency, and “inhabits” it without being in any place.
(Langer 1957a, 40)
In common with other
naturalist philosophers, Langer accepted evolutionary theory as
providing the explanatory framework within which human life, its nature,
and its origins are to be understood. The human species is part of the
larger natural order, and any special characteristics that may
distinguish human mentality and human society from the rest of the
biological world are entirely the result of the evolutionary history of
life on earth:
Despite the vastness of time and change that must have prepared what we
call “the Mind” today, I hold that the elements of that marvelous
structure may all be found in nature, and the principles of its
formation are those of organic chemistry, electrochemical action, or
whatever substitutes for such current concepts the progress of
scientific thought may dictate in the future. (Langer 1982, 89)
In keeping with the
naturalist philosophers’ belief in a single natural order, Langer shared
their rejection of the Cartesian distinction between material and mental
The complexity of [biological] processes is beyond the imagination of
anyone who does not know some samples of them rather intimately . . .
The common-sense tenet that such products of nature cannot attain
feeling, awareness and thought loses its cogency when one is confronted
by the actual intricacies of [biochemical] organization. The bridge to
organism arises of itself, and the conviction that “extended substance”
cannot think and “thinking substance” cannot have material properties
appears as a medieval doctrine handed down to modern philosophy in
Descartes’ famous dictum, and with no firmer foundation than his word.
As Ryder points out, one
of the major influences on the American naturalist tradition was
Spinoza, who saw matter and mind as aspects of a single substance,
“which he interchangeably called ‘nature’ or ‘God’” (Ryder 1994, 12);
and it is interesting to note in this regard that the title Langer gave
to the third part of the first volume of Mind: An Essay on Human
Feeling, in which she undertook the reconstruction of the conceptual
framework of biological thought in order to account for the evolution of
mind, was “Natura Naturans”—nature regarded as active, or “nature
bringing forth” (Langer 1972, 3)—an expression Spinoza had used for God,
or the one substance (Curley 1988,37).
frequently took pains to distinguish their position from any kind of
reductive materialism, and Langer was no exception. Dewey, Hook,
and Nagel, in a response to one reviewer’s claim that the authors of
Naturalism and the Human Spirit were offering nothing but
materialism under another name, argued that naturalism was definitely
not reductionistic (Ryder 1994, 105-107). Similarly, Langer repeatedly
argued that the effort to “bring mental phenomena into the compass of
natural fact” (Langer 1962, 25) did not mean that psychology would one
day be “reduced” to physiology (Langer 1962, 11), let alone to physics.
“Physics,” she stated unequivocally, “is not a suitable model” (Langer
1967, 17) for a science whose proper subject matter is mental phenomena,
subjectivity, or conscious experience (Langer 1962, 5). Although the
biological sciences make free use of physical concepts and methods and
do not hesitate to follow their own concepts “in a direction where those
ultimately become equivalent to physical terms” (Langer 1967, 262), if
we pursue our inquiries “in the opposite direction, where the study of
life broadens out into the investigation of higher organisms,
evolutionary processes, animal behavior and mental phenomena,” we are
likely to find that “the subject requires its own vocabulary”—one which
“reflects the peculiarity of its material” (Langer 1967,267). In
building upon the findings of the biological sciences, therefore,
psychologists need “not be afraid that too much physiological
explanation will make [them] ‘merely physiologists’ instead of
psychologists—any more than a physiologist has to take care lest his
advance to more and more chemical explanations may make him ‘merely a
chemist’” (Langer 1962, 16). Although psychology “should articulate” at
every stage of its development “with the rest of our scientific
thinking, especially with those fields that lie adjacent to it—biology
on the one hand” (Langer 1967, 17), and the humanities (Langer 1967, 53)
and social sciences (Langer 1967, 17) on the other—the proper
relationship between levels of organization in nature and the
disciplines that study them is not one of reducibility (Langer 1967,
criticized philosophers for working with a concept of mechanism
that was “still the traditional one of a machine made of prefabricated
inert parts, powered from a single source and designed to perform a
predetermined set of interlocking movements” (Langer 1967, 271). The
concept she made central to her reconstruction of biological theory, the
concept of natural events which she called acts, was designed to
force a fundamental change in the conception of biological phenomena.
The analysis of living matter as an intricate texture of natural events
exhibiting typical dynamic patterns leads, she argued, “not to inert
permanent bits of matter being rearranged by impinging forces, but to
further and further acts subsumed under almost any act with which one
chooses empirically to begin” (Langer 1967,273). The resulting picture
of biological processes which “grow up into self-sustaining rhythms and
dialectical exchanges of energy, forms and qualities evolving and
resolving, submicroscopic elements—already highly structured—merging and
great dynamisms emerging” (Langer 1967, 273) is far removed from the
concept of matter that dominated the physical sciences from the
beginnings of the modern era until well into the twentieth century.
The Uniqueness of Langer's Naturalism
naturalism can be regarded as occupying a region that borders, on one
side, on the traditional territory of Western philosophy—with its
interests in general metaphysical and epistemological problems—and, on
the other side, on the territory of the natural sciences—with their
affinity for reductive physicalism and eliminative materialism.
Langer’s uniqueness among American naturalist philosophers can be
defined in part by the extent to which she was able to hold both
philosophy and the sciences in creative tension throughout her career.
On the one hand, much of
Langer’s writing does not read like traditional philosophy at all.
There is almost nothing in the body of her work to compare with the
more general metaphysical or epistemo-logical arguments that are central
to such books as Dewey’s Experience and Nature, Randall’s
Nature and Historical Experience, Roy Wood Sellars’ Principles of
Emergent Realism, or Buchler’s Metaphysics of Natural Complexes.
In this respect both Philosophy in a New Key and Mind: An
Essay on Human Feeling have much in common with William James’
Principles of Psychology, as well as more recent work in the
philosophy of science that makes little use of traditional philosophical
idiom and is heavily involved in the interpretation of empirical
But the commitment of
naturalist philosophers to take the methods and results of the natural
sciences seriously has sometimes led them to compromise their
antireductionism or, in some cases, to abandon it completely. Ernest
Nagel, for example, who in his earlier writings was a champion of
antireductionism, helped to formulate the classical model of theory
reduction in the sciences (Nagel 1961). Many of the contributors to
Naturalism and the Human Spirit looked to “the scientific method” to
make significant contributions to the progress of human understanding.
But it was their understanding of the imperatives of the scientific
method that led many philosophers, in the middle decades of the present
[20th] century, to adopt some version of behaviorism; it was their
commitment to evolutionary theory that made many thinkers sympathetic to
the arguments of sociobiology; and it is attention to developments in
the neurosciences that has more recently pushed a number of philosophers
toward some version of reductive physicalism in the philosophy of mind.
Although William James was able to take an active interest in the
sciences of his day without losing his critical distance, philosophers
working in the latter half of the twentieth century have had a more
difficult time maintaining a commitment to the sciences while avoiding
the temptations of reductionism.
But Langer, who never
raised the banner of “the scientific method,” was particularly
successful at holding philosophy and the sciences in reflective
equilibrium during the middle decades of the twentieth century, when
many philosophers either succumbed to the pressures of reductionism or
abandoned the sciences altogether for linguistic analysis. In
maintaining the central commitments of the naturalist tradition through
a long dry season, Langer’s thought was prophetic in anticipating the
rebirth of naturalism among recent thinkers in philosophy and the
sciences, whose work embodies a perspective that has been called
nonreductive physicalism (Beckermann 1992).
According to one recent
account, nonreductive physicalism recognizes “an indefinite but
interlocking range of distinct subject matters: Physics, chemistry,
neurophysiology, and so on” (Teller 1992, 182) but holds that many of
the terms which occur in biology, say, or in neurophysiology “most
likely do not reduce to (cannot be defined in terms of) those in
physics, past or future” (Teller 1992, 182). Indeed, “physics itself
involves exactly the same kind of non-reducing diversity: One will no
more reduce aerodynamics than neurophysiology to quantum mechanics.
These subject matters are distinct but they are not disconnected. They
hang together in a larger ‘naturalistic’ framework” (Teller 1992, 182).
Thus, to say that all mental states are physical “must be read as all
mental states [are] part of the naturalistic order, presumedly each with
a physical realization, but with no definition ‘in the language of
physics’” (Teller 1992, 183).
naturalism, nonreductive physicalism assumes that the world contains
only physical objects, their properties and relations, but differs from
traditional materialism in emphasizing that increasing complexity
has marked the evolution of living things and might itself account for
the natural emergence of genuine novelties, including consciousness.
In keeping with that
perspective, Langer defined the project of Mind as an attempt to
account for “the veritable gulf that divides human from animal
mentality, in a perfectly continuous course of development of life on
earth that has no breaks” (Langer 1967, xvi). In undertaking what she
called “a new attack on the problem of mind in the context of natural
history, without resort to metaphysical assumptions of non-zoological
factors for the explanation of man’s peculiar estate,” Langer saw her
main challenge as that of keeping “the biological concept[s] adequate to
the greatness of the reality [they are] supposed to make comprehensible”
(Langer 1967, xvii).
Langer argued that both
the origin of life and the evolution of human mentality could be seen as
examples of turning points in natural history, when
true novelties emerge from conditions that did not presage them, though
retrospectively they may be seen to have set the stage for them. A
truly novel phenomenon is one that could not have been imagined or
conceptually constructed before the first instance of its kind had
occurred. It has, therefore, the sem-blance of a saltus naturae;
but it is possible, with some philosophical patience and thought, to
treat such genuine novelties as emergent presentations instead of
resorting to new metaphysical noumena, and thereby hold to the unity of
nature that underlies the possibility of any natural science. (Langer
Langer’s approach to
interlevel and intertheoretic relations in the sciences anticipates
recent treatments of “reductionism” in philosophy and the sciences.2
Although Langer looked forward to a time when psychology would run
“smoothly downward into physiology,” she also pointed out that this did
not mean that psychology was in “danger of being reduced to physiology
and therewith losing its own identity” (Langer 1962, 11). “It is even
conceivable,” she wrote, “that the study of mental and social phenomena
will never be ‘natural science’ in the familiar sense at all, but will
always be more akin to history” (Langer 1967, 53).
In the last few years
the subject of consciousness has suddenly become the focus of
study from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.3
But Langer was far ahead of her time in arguing for this approach, and
her work anticipated recent developments in evolutionary and
developmental biology that are likely to be of central importance to any
understanding of the evolution of human mentality. She recognized the
limitations of “adaptationist” explanations in evolution (Gould &
Lewontin 1979), for example, and made what Stephen Jay Gould was later
to call “exaptation” central to her account of the evolution of mind
some twenty years before Gould “baptized” the concept in 1982 (Gould &
Vrba 1982).4 Two other
areas in which Langer anticipated recent work include the importance of
the self-organizing properties of complex systems in both developmental
and evolutionary biology5
and the central importance of metaphorical and other imaginative
processes in human language and cognition.6
The Role of Philosophy in the Growth of Knowledge
The success with which
Langer was able to hold philosophy and the sciences in balance was due
in part to a conception of philosophy and its role in the development of
knowledge that was unique among her contemporaries. In common with many
philosophers, Langer drew a sharp distinction between conceptual and
empirical issues in the construction of knowledge. Philosophical
questions, she repeatedly pointed out, are
radically different from scientific questions, because they concern the
implications and other interpretations of ideas, not the order of
physical events; their answers are interpretations instead of factual
reports, and their function is to increase not our knowledge of nature,
but our understanding of what we know. (Langer 1953, 6)
It would be a serious
mistake, however, to suppose that Langer considered conceptual and
empirical issues to be independent of one another. In fact, she saw them
as intimately connected and in practice inseparable. The conceptual
framework of knowledge provides the very terms in which facts are
expressed, giving us what are “essentially ways of saying things, that
make for special ways of seeing things” (Langer 1967, xxii). What we
call a fact is always based on a particular formulation of
experience, and any given formulation “is not necessarily the only
possible one” (Langer 1930, 142). Because “understanding does not
consist merely of appropriate reaction to a given, pre-formed universe”
(Langer 1930, 151), facts themselves can be “differently formulated,
according to the notions through which they are apprehended” (Langer
1930, 143). If “the basic assumptions implicit in our formulation of
‘facts’” (Langer 1967, 316) in any field of inquiry undergo fundamental
change, the effect “is apt to be revolutionary” (Langer 1967, 52).
Although this view of scientific change has become familiar to post-Kuhnian
philosophers, Langer had worked out many of its details by 1930, with
the publication of her first book, The Practice of Philosophy.
Langer believed that the
limits of knowledge are set by the “formulative notions with which the
mind meets experiences” (Langer 1957a, 8); and the intellectual horizon
of an age, a society, or a discipline is therefore defined by the
fundamental conceptual resources at its disposal. It is on the horizons
of knowledge, however, that new experiences first make their appearance;
and because of their novelty, they may elude the resources of the more
literal regions of language that are better suited to the expression of
the familiar. Genuine novelty is therefore apt to make its first
appearance in the guise of what Langer called “the significant fiction”
(Langer 1930, 177), a metaphorical or figurative apprehension of what
points in the direction of “inarticulate, unprobed, new departures”
(Unger 1930, 132) in human understanding. But because the novel
formulation is literally inexpressible by reason of its novelty, it is
apt to be misunderstood, even by the thinker who first conceives it; and
generations may pass before the figurative insight becomes “explicit
enough to be stated literally and put to systematic rational uses”
(Langer 1930, 177).
Langer regarded the
movement from nondiscursive, metaphorical apprehension to literal
comprehension as “the normal advance of human thought and language in
that whole realm of knowledge where discourse is possible at all” (Unger
1957b, 24). And she saw philosophy as playing a central role as midwife
in the gestation and birth of literal understanding:
The process of philosophical thought moves typically from a first,
inadequate, but ardent apprehension of some novel idea, figuratively
expressed, to more and more precise comprehension, until language
catches up to logical insight, the figure is dispensed with, and literal
expression takes its place. Really new concepts, having no names in
current language, always make their earliest appearance in metaphorical
statements; therefore the beginning of any theoretical structure is
inevitably marked by fantastic inventions. (Langer 1957a, x-xi)
Every formulation of
experience has its limits; and new, unexplored possibilities of thought
are always beckoning on the horizons of understanding. Because the
reconstruction of experience always grows out of a confrontation with
novelty, it cannot be carried out without some sensitivity to the
conceptual possibilities that may lie hidden in the initially fantastic
deliverances of figurative thought; and because reality is
inexhaustible, while our resources for understanding it are finite, the
reconstruction of experience is a never-ending process, giving rise to
the recurring pattern of generation, exhaustion, and renewal of
conceptual resources that defines historical shifts in the horizon of
experience and the successive reconfigurations of human knowledge that
accompany them. What we call philosophy, according to Langer, is just a
more specialized form of the essential human activity of making sense of
what we know by building, maintaining, and, when necessary, rebuilding
the conceptual resources that enable us to keep our experiences in
order, in the world of common sense as well as in the sciences and the
Although Langer argued
that facts are dependent upon the notions through which they are
apprehended, she also recognized that philosophical work cannot be
carried out in an empirical vacuum. Because of the intimate connection
between conceptual and empirical matters, Langer believed that any
philosopher wishing to make a meaningful contribution to the empirical
disciplines cannot escape the responsibility to become proficient in the
science whose conceptual resources are the object of her work.
“Whenever a philosopher writes a great deal about history without
becoming a historian,” she wrote in 1930, “or about mind without
becoming a psychologist, we may suspect his doctrine of being sterile”
(Langer 1930, 209). Although this has become widely accepted in recent
years as a requirement for doing philosophy of science (Callebaut 1993),
Langer recognized its importance from the beginning of her career.
From Philosophy in a New Key to the Project of Mind
Because of Langer’s
belief in the importance of mastering the empirical material in the
disciplines in which she did philosophical work, large parts of
Philosophy in a New Key read more like a work of psychology,
anthropology, or intellectual history than traditional philosophy. In
Philosophy in a New Key, Langer developed a general theory of
symbolization but saw her work as contributing to a much wider change in
a set of generative ideas which, though essential to the growth of
modern thought, had reached the limits of their usefulness and were
ready for replacement. The growth of science and technology since the
seventeenth century had gradually eclipsed “the exhausted philosophical
vision” of the Cartesian Age (Langer 1957a, 15); but the successes of
the physical and biological sciences had not been matched in psychology
and the social sciences. When she wrote Philosophy in a New Key,
Langer believed that the study of symbolization would furnish the
generative ideas for “the next season of the human understanding”
(Langer 1957 a, 25) in those disciplines that deal with mind and
society. In pursuit of this lead, she took the theory of music that she
had proposed in that book and developed it into the more general
philosophy of art which, more than anything else, seems to have defined
her place in the history of twentieth century philosophy, to the extent
that she is remembered at all. Feeling and Form, in which she
developed her theory of art in great detail, reads more like a
traditional work of philosophy than anything else she wrote; and by the
mid-1950s Susanne Langer had become known to her contemporaries
primarily as a philosopher of art.
Feeling and Form
appeared in 1953. But Langer’s interests had already begun to shift
significantly within a few years of its publication. Although she had
earlier looked to a general theory of symbolization to breathe new life
into the human and social sciences, she gradually came to understand the
problem in much broader terms; and the search for a solution took her,
quite unexpectedly, into the biological sciences. As she explained to
her friend Wesley Wehr at the time,
For all these years I’ve been talking about the livingness of
art, how performances of music can seem alive. Until I realized one
day, not so long ago, that I had written so much about this living
quality which art has—and I didn’t even know what life is! I
realized that it was time to become a student again, this time in
biology. (Wehr 1993, 22)
And so Susanne Langer,
by then close to sixty years of age, began to audit classes from her
colleagues in the biology department at Connecticut College, where she
had joined the faculty in 1954. In a letter to Wesley Wehr, dated
December 21, 1956, she wrote:
The connection of art-theory with theory of mind is taking visible
shape. Toch [probably a reference to Toch 1948] was full of leading
ideas, and the book looks as maltreated as a library copy already. That
sort of thing in the arts, and technical stuff in biology and neurology,
seem to be my proper food at present. Arnheim’s Art and Visual
Perception belongs there, too; but so do quite different things,
such as Spiegelman’s article on “Physiological Competition in
Morphogenesis,” or Penfield’s studies of encephalograms in The
Cerebral Cortex of Man, and twenty other things I’ve recently
abstracted. You put all the abstracts together and then read them in
one long sitting, and they illuminate each other. (Wehr 1993, 20)
In a prefatory note,
written in 1956, to the third edition of Philosophy in a New Key,
Langer indicated the project in which she had become engaged:
Even as the third edition goes to press, the philosophy of art here
engendered has in turn become a mere station in the progress of ideas.
These ideas, tentative and imperfect as their expression in this first
book had to be, now promise to transcend the realm of “aesthetics” (to
use the unfortunate current word), and lead us to a new philosophy of
living form, living nature, mind, and some of the very deep problems of
human society that we usually designate as ethical problems. (Langer
By the early 1960s she
was able to be more specific about the nature of the project and her
reasons for undertaking it. In the introductory essay to
Philosophical Sketches, published in 1962, Langer argued that
consciousness, or subjectivity, is the proper subject matter of
psychology. The difficulties of dealing with mental phenomena, however,
had forced psychology to divert its attention to other things, such as
overt behavior or the activity of the brain and nervous system, which
were thought to be more amenable to scientific investigation. “The most
pressing need of our day,” she wrote, is “to bring mental phenomena into
the compass of natural fact” (Langer 1962, 25). But it is here that “an
unresolved philosophical problem” (Langer 1962, 7) has inhibited
theoretical thinking in psychology and the rest of the social sciences.
Psychology, she argued, has been unable to deal conceptually with its
own essential subject matter:
Psychology, which is no longer as young as its apologists like to
consider it, does not grow apace with other new sciences, for instance
biology, because its conceptual framework is too weak to allow the heavy
strains of bold speculative hypothesis to be laid on it. The
psychologist is not free to use his scientific imagination because the
edges of his field are carefully staked out and blocked with warnings
against the quagmires and pitfalls of wrong “isms.” Those edges have to
be cleared before any edifice of science can be built that may
ultimately demand great space. (Langer 1962, 5 -6)
By 1967, with the
publication of the first volume of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling,
the overall structure of the project, and the problem it was designed to
address, had become clear. “Our basic philosophical concepts,” she
wrote, “are inadequate to the problems of life and mind in nature”
(Langer 1967, xvii). What was needed was “a conceptual framework for
the empirical study of mind” (Langer 1967, 257) that would be grounded
in the biological sciences. The following year, Langer explained her
project in an interview published in the New York Times Book Review:
“What I am trying to do is to break through current forms of thought in
biology to form a framework for biological theory which will naturally
result in a theory of the human mind” (Langer, in Lord 1968, 4). But
the effort to build such a theory did not need to begin with the
formulation of a definition of the subject matter itself—in psychology,
more than a perfectly satisfactory definition of ‘matter’ was
ever needed to beget physics” (Langer 1962, 7). What was needed, she
argued, was something less ambitious but no less important to the
development of systematic thought: a set of working concepts,
adequate to the problems of “conceiving mind as a natural phenomenon”
(Langer 1967, xxii), in terms of which our knowledge of mental phenomena
may be handled. This was to be the achievement of the Essay on Human
Feeling. Given the right working concepts, Langer believed, the
study of mind should lead “down into biological structure and process .
. . and upward to the purely human sphere known as ‘culture.’” The
conceptual framework that raises “problems of natural science takes one
just as surely into humanistic ones; the differences between them are
obvious, but not problematical” (Langer 1967, 32). She believed that
the state of knowledge in the human sciences was ripe for a breakthrough
that would lay the philosophical groundwork for moral and social
thinking, as the “new natural philosophy” in the Renaissance had given
the physical sciences “the impetus that still carries them” (Langer
The three volumes of
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling appeared to a mixed critical
reception and had little influence on subsequent work in either
philosophy or the sciences. That Langer understood her philosophical
project as a contribution to psychology and the biological sciences is
evident throughout the work but is underscored by a remark she made to
her friend Wesley Wehr. In a review of the first volume, the English
philosopher Herbert Read had referred to the book as “a metaphysical
system.” Wehr reports that Langer was incensed. “I should think,” she
told him, “that by now Sir Herbert would know the difference between ‘a
metaphysical system’ and a scientific line of inquiry” (Wehr 1993, 15).
Conclusion: The Originality of Langer’s Project
Susanne Langer’s thought
shows a strong affinity with the tradition of American philosophic
naturalism, although it is distinguished by an originality and
resourcefulness that enabled her to remain faithful to the central
commitments of that tradition during a time when others were tempted to
compromise or abandon them. Langer herself disliked anything that
called itself an “ism.” But her work clearly embodies the traditional
commitments, both to the sciences and to antireductionism, that have
defined American philosophic naturalism since the time of William James:
Naturalism holds that all distinguishable subject matters form a
connected collection of facts, open to study by a range of interlocking
methods. The subject matters start with the many subjects treated by
physics, and continue through chemistry, neurophysiology, and all the
subjects of the social sciences . . . . Naturalism is compatible with
the contem-porary conclusion that there is no reduction of all subject
matters to a master subject (“Physics”), and that many facets of the
naturalistic subject matter will involve intricately entwined relations.
But all subject matters connect with each other, directly or
indirectly. (Teller 1992, 182)
I believe that the
relative neglect of Langer’s work is largely due to the profound
originality of her project, which begins to make sense only when taken
in its entirety, with Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling as its
defining achievement, and interpreted in the light of relatively recent
work in philosophy, evolutionary biology, and cognitive science which
Langer’s work anticipated but apparently did not influence.
At the time Langer was
writing, it was almost impossible to stake out a position on the
evolution of mind and consciousness that was both strongly anti-reductionistic
and thoroughly naturalistic; and the moves that she made in carrying out
her project were prophetic. They anticipate developments whose
implications are only gradually becoming clear, and the totality of her
work only makes sense in the light of these developments. But it could
also be argued that these later developments receive an added dimension
of significance when interpreted in the light of Langer’s work, for it
still stands without equal in its grasp of the whole—at least of one
possible whole, of one way in which all the various strands might be
woven together to produce a coherent naturalistic perspective on the
nature and evolution of human mentality.7
In his book
Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead observed that “new directions of
thought arise from flashes of intuition bringing new material within the
scope of scholarly learning” (Whitehead 1933, 108). Susanne Langer’s
genius lay in being able to see beyond the limited alternatives of her
own time to a vision of life and mind within a nature that was far
richer with possibilities than were dreamed of in the philosophies of
most of her contemporaries, as well as by many of those who came after
her, even down to the present day. We have barely begun to catch up to
1 Examples can be found in the work
of Robert Brandon (1990) and William Wimsatt (1980) in the philosophy of
biology; and Owen Flanagan (1992), Evan Thompson (1994), and Stephen
Toulmin (1967) in the philosophy of psychology.
2 See in particular Bechtel (1986),
Bechtel & Richardson (1992), Gould (1982b), McCauley (1986), and Wimsatt
3 See for example Flanagan (1992),
Searle (1992), Varela, Thompson & Rosch (1991), as well as any issue of
the recently established Journal of Consciousness Studies.
4 One of the best ways to understand
what Langer was trying to do in Mind is to read Gould’s essay,
“Exaptation: A Crucial Concept for an Evolutionary Psychology” (1991),
in which he proposes an explanation for the evolution of the human
brain, with its capacity for consciousness and culture, that shows
remarkable parallels with the essential elements of Langer’s account.
5 See, for example, Stuart Kauffman’s
extensions of nonlinear dynamics to the study of biological phenomena
(Kauffman 1993); Gould’s discussions of the ways in which apparent
discontinuities in evolution and development can arise when small
inputs, channeled through complex biological systems at crucial moments
in their history, can engender large and unexpected results (Gould
1982a, 1986); and recent critiques of gene-centered views of development
(Gray 1992, Griffiths & Gray 1994, Nijhout 1990, Oyama 1985).
6 See Gibbs (1994), Johnson
7 Fortunately I am not alone in my
evaluation of the significance of Langer’s work. A German philosopher,
Rolf Lachmann, has arrived at a similar interpretation and is currently
finishing a book—the first to look at Langer’s work as a whole—that will
focus on Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. I find it ironic,
however, that Langer has until recently been a prophet without honor in
her own country, whose originality has had to wait for its proper
appreciation upon the scholarship of a Continental philosopher. Lachmann
has also published the most complete bibliography of primary and
secondary sources on Langer’s work (Lachmann 1993).
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Bechtel, William., & Richardson, Robert C.
1992 Emergent phenomena and complex systems. In A. Beckermann, H. Flohr,
& J. Kim (Eds.), Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of
Nonreductive Physicalism, (pp. 257-288). Berlin, Germany; New York,
NY: Walter de Gruyter.
Beckermann, A., Flohr, H., & Kim, J. (Eds.).
1992 Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive
Physicalism, (pp. 257-288). Berlin, Germany; New York, NY: Walter de
Brandon, Robert N.
1990 Adaptation and Environment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
1993 Taking the Naturalistic Turn or How Real Philosophy of Science
is Done. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Curley, Edwin M.
1988 Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
1992 Consciousness Reconsidered. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr.
1994 The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and
Understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Gould, Stephen J.
1982a. Change in developmental timing as a mechanism of macroevolution.
In J. T. Bonner (Ed.), Evolution and Development, (pp. 333-346).
New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.
1982b. Darwinism and the expansion of evolutionary theory. Science,
1986, January. A short way to big ends. Natural History, 18-28.
1991 Exaptation: A crucial tool for an evolutionary psychology.
Journal of Social Issues, 47(3), 43-65.
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1930 The Practice of Philosophy. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
1953 Feeling and Form. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
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