Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XXXIII:1, Winter
1997, 149-160. An informed critique from one who studied under
Bernard Lonergan and whose dissertation was on Langer’s philosophy of art.
Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy of Mind
Richard M. Liddy
I find it significant that Susanne K. Langer’s earlier work on art and
Philosophy in a New Key (1942) and
Feeling and Form (1953), received a significantly more positive
reception than her three-volume work Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling
(1967-1982). Her earlier works were very enthusiastically received and
even now, many years later, continue to have an influence.1
On the other hand, her later work explicitly dedicated to “mind,”
received, it seems to me, a decidedly less enthusiastic response. Apart
from some who appreciate her work as prefiguring recent advances in
biological science, there has not been a significant response from the
Why is this? Why the different reception? In a short paper on Langer’s
“philosophy of mind” I can only give a brief account of my own analysis;
but I am convinced that her later work is not about mind but rather
about the biological conditions for the emergence of mind. On the other
hand, her earlier writings on art and symbolism gave more scope to what
is specifically human in human mentality, and that is the source of the
continuing interest in those early writings.
My presentation will consist in three parts: first, the intellectual
character of artistic consciousness in her early work; secondly, her
writings on “mind” in her later work; and finally, an overall
I. The Centrality of “Understanding” in Langer’s Early Work
There were several basic philosophical influences on Langer’s early
work. The first was the modern studies of logic epitomized by the
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of Wittgenstein. Throughout Langer’s
writings I find the ghost of the early Wittgenstein: philosophy is a
clarification and construction of concepts with the aim of arriving at
one unifying language, one “conceptual system,” that somehow will relate
all our various languages to science. “Science,” never explicitly
analyzed, is the one outside limit of our knowledge. This assumption
that we can construct some basic language that will logically unite all
the various sciences and all the various languages, I find throughout
Langer’s work. Wittgenstein, of course, abandoned this view of
philosophy in favor of incommensurable “ordinary language games,” and in
the last pages of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling Langer
complains about his “despairing resort to behaviorism.”2
This idea of philosophy as the “logical construction” of basic concepts
to bring them in line with science is connected in Langer’s thought with
a commitment to a certain type of naturalism.
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.3
At the same time, in Langer’s early work her praxis is not just one of
conceptual clarification in order to bring other languages into line
with scientific language. In fact, she is intent on standing up to
those who would say that science alone represents the intellectual
character of the human person and she seeks to vindicate the
intellectual character of symbolic and artistic consciousness.
And here we find a further influence on her early work and that is the
neo-Kantian, Ernst Cassirer, whose Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
helped her to focus on what she called the “unlogicized” areas of life,
such as myth, ritual and art. Thus, in her 1942 Philosophy in a New
Key Langer sought to extend the vision of “logical philosophy” by
insisting on the “intellectual” character of these non-scientific areas
of human life. Contrary to “empiricist,” “positi-vistic,” behavioristic”
positions, Langer held that artistic creations were not merely emotive
expressions of present feelings; they are symbols of what transcends the
present. Far from being “signals” of immediately present objects, they
mediate meanings that are beyond the here and now.
This analysis of symbols as properly intellectual and not reducible to
immediate sense perception or emotive response is extended to all art
forms in Feeling and Form. There two elements stand out. On the
one hand, Langer emphasizes the fact that each area of art involves an
“aesthetic illusion,” that is, as she puts it, the very being of
aesthetic forms is to be perceived. “They exist only for the
sense or imagination that perceives them”; their perceptible character
is their entire being. Events recounted in a story are “as bad as they
sound.” As T. S. Eliot put it: “You are the music while the music
But Feeling and Form makes another point with equal emphasis.
The creation of a work of art involves, not just feeling-influenced
aesthetic experience, but also the idealization of experience, the grasp
of what is important in experience as important, and its objectification
in a work of art. Such objectification is a properly human and necessary
element in art. Prior to this creative act of symbolization the
aesthetic patterns are not fully and humanly known.5
Objective expression is necessary for the artists to “hold,” to “fix,”
to “contemplate,” to “understand,” the forms of their free,
feeling-influenced, aesthetic experience.6
Art, therefore, belongs to the same category as language. It is
intellectual. The appreciation of a work of art involves a mental shift
as radical as the change from hearing noises to hearing speech.7
The work of art effects the same sort of reorientation. Just as sounds
become words by reason of their “meaning,” so colors on a canvas become
a painting because of their artistic significance or “import.” This
import permeates the whole structure of the work and separates it from
the host of surrounding “insignificant” objects.8
Consequently, the “otherness” of the artistic is due not only to its
aesthetic character whereby experience, liberated from other more
practically oriented patterns of consciousness, lives its own life; but
also to the fact that it has been “created” by human intelligence and
invites human intellectual apprehension. Langer is quite clear in
asserting that art involves not only the level of perception and
experience, but also the level of insight, understanding, contemplation.
The aim of art is
insight, understanding the essential life of feeling.9
The artistic symbol,
qua artistic, negotiates insight, not refference.10
Analyses of art very frequently fail to take into account this
intellectual character. On the contrary, they consider art chiefly in
terms of immediate experience and/or, most frequently, immediate
emotion. The insufficiency of this tendency is in fact the major
emphasis in the chapters on art in Philosophy in a New Key and in
Feeling and Form. Art is the intellectual creation for our
contemplation of an affect-laden image that liberates us from the
demands of practical life and immediate emotion.
2. “Mind” in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling
It would seem that Langer’s work on art confronted her with the
following dilemma: how are we to reconcile intelligence, operative in
artistic creativity, with “feeling,” somehow involved in artistic
expression? That these two realms could be reconciled represented her
faith in “the unity of science, one and the same scientific framework
underlying all areas of empirical research.11
A cardinal assumption of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling was
that ultimately that one framework would form a logical continuity with
the science of physics; for “any science,” she notes, “is likely to
merge ultimately with physics as chemistry has done.12
This is a major assumption behind Langer’s work: that there is a
logical and conceptual continuity between all the sciences.
According to Langer the function of philosophy is to clarify language in
an effort to unify the languages of the different sciences.13
As physics deals with matter, res extensa, so also do the other
sciences, although at a higher degree of complexity.14
In biology Langer’s major adversary is vitalism:
the conception of “life”
as a special essence different from “matter,” something that pervades
“living matter,” and sets it apart from “mere matter” which obeyed the
laws of physics.15
In order to attain the logical coherence of biology with physics, Langer
assumes from the latter realm the basic concept of “natural event”; on
this foundation she is able to construct the basic biological notion of
“act” as a particular sort of event. This concept has the advantage of
not implying the prior notion of “agent,” and thus allows one to trace
the origins of life in the inorganic world; for “action,” the formal
aspect of “act,” is common to both living and nonliving beings.
If Langer’s basic argument for the reduction of biology to physics is
the a priori conviction that this must form one conceptual
framework around the one object, “matter,” she feels called upon to
proffer particular evidence for the biological status of “feeling.” She
finds this evidence in art. Invoking her own artistic studies, she
comes to the conclusion regarding feeling:
the fact that expressive
form is always organic or “living” form made the biological foundation
of feeling probable.16
For the work of art is the objective realization of a mental image; and
images reflect the biological sources from which they spring.
Psychologists, therefore, must go to artists to learn about feeling,
because art is a final symbolic form making revelations of truths and
facts about feeling, precisely the truths and facts that literal
scientific statement distorts. Once the artist has created the work of
art, the image of feelings, we may talk about them scientifically; “but
only artistic perception can find them and judge them real in the first
In my doctoral dissertation on Langer’s philosophy of art and an
extended review of the first volume of Mind: An Essay on Human
Feeling I analyzed Langer’s deeply held assumptions concerning the
nature of human knowing.18
Basically, in her view knowing is a bipolar activity in which the
“concepts” of scientific or philosophical thinking are the subjective
pole, “matter” is the objective pole, and some type of vision or
“looking” is the mediating activity.
Thus we “see” forms of feeling in works of art; and in metaphorical
activity we “see one thing in another,” life in the candle flame, death
in sleep, etc. This, she asserts, is the basis of all “higher”
differentiated activity. But she never analyzes “higher” differentiated
activity to verify whether it is indeed a fact that human knowing
consists essentially in “seeing.” Every example of mind Langer uses is
of undifferentiated consciousness, that is, mythical, metaphorical and
symbolic understanding. In these activities feeling and imagination
obviously blend into the pronouncements of intelligence.
The power of seeing one
thing in another, which begets our metaphors and conceptual models (the
oldest of which are myths of nature and human life), leads also to a
characteristically human thought process known as abstraction. By
logical intuition we see not only what is “the same” in two widely
different things, as for instance a burning candle consumed by its flame
and a living body consumed by its life, but also what makes them
different. As soon as the differences are dearly recognized, the common
element stands out against them and can be conceived alone as that which
both of those different things exhibit. In this way the concept, e.g.
“matter being consumed by its own activity,” is abstracted.19
It is on the basis of her assumptions regarding scientific knowing,
therefore, that Langer arrives at the hypothesis that feeling, globally
including all subjective, conscious, mental activity, is merely a
heightened form of biological activity, itself a complexus reducible to
electro-chemical events. Feeling is matter at its most complex.20
It is not another “thing,” “entity” or separate
“substance,” but rather a phase of biological process which passes above
a certain limen of intensity so that the living tissue “feels” its own
activity.21 To clarify
the assertion that feeling is not a “thing,” she notes that it is
similar to the reflection of a tree in a pool of water; just as the
reflection is not another “thing,” but the tree’s appearance, so feeling
is merely the appearance which organic functions have for the organism
in which they occur.22
By defining “feeling” as “appearance,” she apparently believes that she
has “solved” the problem of consciousness. My own conviction is that
rather than solving the “problem” of consciousness, she has merely (by a
bit of conceptual legerdemain) “defined” it away!
As Langer reaches the end of her three-volume work, she seems to be
aware that she has left something out—a dimension that because of age
and failing eyesight she is not able to treat.
This study of mind
should culminate, of course, in a well constructed epistemological and
possibly even metaphysical theory, at least as firmly founded on other
people’s knowledge and hypotheses as any earlier parts of this essay
which have been written in preparation for such a reflective conclusion.
But the hindrances of age—especially increasing blindness—make it
necessary to curtail the work at what should be its height . . . .23
The final short section that does complete her work continues what she
has been emphasizing throughout her work: her effort to show the origins
of differentiated thought in undifferentiated activity. That is, our
human awareness of “number,” the origins of mathematics, originates in
dance as the “number sense” is transferred from feet to hands by the
beat of the drum. These types of analyses are, I would say, symptomatic
of her whole work; that is, it is an effort to explain all human “higher
level” activities—mathematics, science, morality, religion—by a
single-minded focusing on the biological conditions that prefigured the
emergence of those higher level activities.
3. Evaluation of Langer on Mind
The Canadian philosopher, Bernard Lonergan, was once asked about “the
biological basis of thought.” He replied:
The biological basis of
thought, I should say, is like the rubber-tire basis of the motor car.
It conditions and sets limits to functioning, but under the conditions
and within the limits the driver directs operations.24
Lonergan’s own work, especially his Insight: A Study of Human
Understanding, is a generalized empirical method that explores not
just the data of sense, as is Langer’s exclusive emphasis, but also the
data of human consciousness, especially the data of scientific
consciousness. By beginning with the analysis of scientific
method, you are in the best position for framing the question of what in
fact you are talking about when you speak of “mind.” By highlighting
the structure of scientific consciousness right from the beginning
Langer might have been in a better position to highlight what she had
emphasized in her early work, the intellectual and creative activity of
If Langer had followed this path, she might have clarified right from
the start the fact that the sciences are not linked purely logically,
but rather methodologically: they involve operations that go beyond
logic. Scientific method includes more than the logical operations of
describing, formulating and deducing concepts; it moves beyond this
group to include the activities of inquiry, observation, discovery,
experiment, synthesis, verification. A careful analysis of this set of
human operations illustrates the fact that modern science derives its
distinctive character from the grouping together of logical and no
logical operations. The logical tend to consolidate what has been
achieved. The non-logical keep all achievement open to further advance.
The conjunction of the two results in an open, ongoing, progressive and
I am not saying that Langer herself was not a very intelligent woman.
Nor am I denying that in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling she has
made some contribution to analyzing the biological systems and
activities that provide some of the conditions for the emergence of
“mind” from underlying levels. I would leave it to the biologists to
determine her contribution. But as Arthur Danto noted in the Foreword
to the abridged edition of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling,
Langer’s commitment to survey all the relevant science,
. . . resulted in an
unwieldy book and one, moreover, in hostage to its empirical materials,
which in the nature of scientific advance went out of date . . . .26
Nevertheless, although much of what Langer relates of empirical science
might in fact go out of date or be set within a new context, still
“there is no revising the reviser.” That is, there is a structure to
scientific method according to which some positions will be judged
inadequate and other new ones will be judged more on the mark.
Underlying scientific advance there is the invariant yet dynamic
structure of scientific consciousness.27
In other words, one cannot feel one has “explained” the human mind when
one has elucidated the underlying biological conditions for the
emergence of mind. “Mind” is a level of functioning and reality in its
own right and one should analyze that functioning before assuming that
it can be “logically” assimilated to “feeling” and the levels of
In a response to the first draft of this paper I was asked if all
naturalisms, including Langer’s, are necessarily reductive. I would
reply that a naturalism (that is, a philosophy that takes empirical
science seriously) need not be reductive if it asks all the relevant
questions and does not declare certain questions out of bounds: the
nature of human intelligence, consciousness, etc. After focusing on
artistic consciousness in her early writings, I find that the method
Langer employed in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling prevented her
from focusing on human conscious activity in its most differentiated
exercise. When one is treating of human consciousness, one cannot feel
that one has “explained” human questioning, insight, freedom,
conscience, culture, politics, religion, etc., when one has identified
some of the conditions for the emergence of these realities. In fact,
these realities, as any higher level realities are not “logically”
reducible to the conditions for their emergence.
Although Langer is opposed to the crass reductionism of nineteenth
century determinism, hers is a less crass but still reductionistic
1. define “mind” as undifferentiated artistic, mythical or
metaphorical consciousness where visual imagination, feeling and
“seeing” are prominent;
2. offer as an “explanation” of mind the highlighting of the
biological conditions for the emergence of mind.
I believe that it is for these chiefly methodological flaws that
Langer’s later work received a significantly less enthusiastic response
than her earlier fine work on art.
I am told that Philosophy in a New Key has been the largest
selling paperback in the history of the Harvard University Press. And
in twenty-two volumes of The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan,
now being published by the University of Toronto Press, Langer’s
Feeling and Form holds a prominent role for its analysis of
aesthetic and artistic consciousness. Cf. especially Volume 10,
Topics in Education where the ninth chapter (pages 108-232) is
dedicated to interpreting Langer’s philosophy of art.
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling III (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1982) 206.
Philosophy in a New Key
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  third ed 1957) 44. Cf.
Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner’s, 1953) 129.
Feeling and Form, 48, 50. This is an interesting illustration of
Aristotle’s dictum in the De Anima that knowledge is rooted in
identity: “sense in act is the sensible in act; intellect in act is the
intelligible in act.” (De Anima III, 431b). In aesthetic
experience there is an identity of subject and object. Feeling and
Form emphasized a type of knowing that takes place, not primarily
through confrontation, but through identity.
Philosophical Sketches (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962) 80;
Problems of Art (New York: Scribner’s, 1957) 24-25; 68; 94-95.
Feeling and Form, 84.
Problems of Art, 92; cf. Philosophy in a New Key, 188.
Feeling and Form, 22.
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins) 262.
Cf. Michael H. McCarthy, The Crisis of Philosophy (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1990) on the history of analytical
Perhaps a clue to this change in Langer’s own understanding of mind can
be gathered from two quotes from her writings, some thirty years apart.
In a very early work of 1930 she makes the statement that modern
physics, Einstein’s reinterpretation of nature, has made the traditional
mind-body problem seem somewhat naive; it has dissolved the Cartesian
division of reality into res extensa and res cogitans,
since “it does not operate with res extensa.” The Practice of
Philosophy (NY: Henry Holt, 1930) 198. Some thirty years later,
however, she has changed her mind on the Cartesian equation: “The
metaphysical status of “feeling,” “contents of consciousness,”
“subjectivity,” or of the private aspects of experience generally, has
been an asses’ bridge to philosophers ever since Descartes treated
res extensa and res cogitans as irreducible and
incommensurable substances. The physical scientists have not
encountered this dilemma because their entire interest lies in physical
phenomena, res extensa.” Philosophical Sketches (New
York: New American Library, 1964) 11.
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling I, 316.
Cf. Richard M. Liddy, Art and Feeling: An Analysis and Critique of
the Philosophy of Art of Susanne K. Langer (Rome: 1970; listed in
Dissertation Abstracts, Ann Arbor, MI, 1971); also review of Susanne K.
Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol I, in
International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 10, n. 3 (1970) 481-484.
Philosophical Sketches, 133.
Ibid., 15; 30.
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling III, 201.
Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection (Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1972) 35.
Cf. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1990) 6.
Arthur C. Danto, “Foreword,” Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on
Human Feeling, abridged edition by G. Van den Heuvel (Baltimore: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) vi.
Cf. Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992) Chapter 11, “The
Self-Affirmation of the Knower,” 343-371. In this work Lonergan
analyzes the structures of classical and statistical scientific
questioning, outlines a world-view of “emergent probability” that flows
from the combination of those structures in the various areas of
scientific research and roots all methods of questioning in the
consciousness of the human subject.
Richard M. Liddy page
Susanne K. Langer page