Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XXXIII:1, Winter 1997, 161-182.

November 28, 2008


Susanne K. Langer and American Philosophic Naturalism in the Twentieth Century

Donald Dryden


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” 1968, xviii).

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 substance:

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. (Langer 1967,273-274)

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).

Naturalist philosophers 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, xviii).

Furthermore, Langer 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

American philosophic 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 material.1

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).

Like philosophic 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 1967,424-425)

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 humanities.

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 1957a, vii)

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, “mind”—“any 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 1961, 56).

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 her vision.



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 (1976, 1980).

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 (1987,1993), Lakoff(1987).

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).  



Bechtel, William

1986 The nature of scientific integration. In W. Bechtel (Ed.), lntegrating Scientific Disciplines, (pp. 3-52). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.

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 Gruyter.

Brandon, Robert N.

1990 Adaptation and Environment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Callebaut, Werner

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.

Flanagan, Owen

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.

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(Author unknown)

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