Lonergan Workshop, vol. 11, 1995, 53-90.
Posted May 5, 2008
What Bernard Lonergan Learned from Susanne K. Langer
When I was asked to re-visit the subject of my doctoral dissertation
about Susanne K. Langer, finished almost twenty-five years ago, I did
not think that I would realize something new about myself—and about
Bernard Lonergan. For I wrote my dissertation during a time when I was
simultaneously wrestling with Lonergan’s thought. I was a young priest
in Rome and the Second Vatican Council had just ended unleashing a great
deal of change and turmoil in the Catholic Church. I was studying
philosophy: chiefly, Bernard Lonergan’s philosophy on the one hand and,
on the other hand, the work of Susanne K. Langer.
In Insight Lonergan had recommended Langer’s Feeling and Form
on artistic and symbolic meaning and in subsequent writings had
continued to recommend that work. But in the middle-1960’s, as I worked
on my thesis, Langer published another major work entitled Mind: An
Essay on Human Feeling.1
And when I figured out what Langer was saying in that latter work, I
experienced a big shock. That work, the three volumes of which occupied
the last years of Langer’s life, turned out to be a reductionist and
materialist account of human mentality. Ultimately, it reduced all human
mentality to feeling and feeling it reduced to electro-chemical events.2
The conflict that work set up in me became quite clear: who was right?
Langer or Lonergan? And more importantly, what were the facts? It was
quite an existential issue for me. Obviously, I came down on Lonergan’s
side of that issue (but not without some soul—and mind—searching); and
that is expressed in my dissertation.
But the point that comes home to me revisiting my thesis many years
later is not so much about myself, but about Lonergan. The reason I got
involved in Langer’s writings in the first place was that Bernard
Lonergan had discovered something very positive in her writings,
particularly in her major work on art, Feeling and Form. It was
that work that he invariably recommended when he spoke of artistic
meaning. And the point that has come home to me as I look back now is
how often, in dealing with Langer and other writers, Lonergan
accentuated the positive.
was a major effort to “develop positions” and “reverse
counter-positions.” What he did so often thereafter, as he read the
existentialists and other contemporary writers, was the latter: to set
whatever was right and true in an author within his basic positions
regarding knowledge, objectivity and reality; and to let whatever did
not fit within that context to fall by the wayside.
And that is what Lonergan did with Langer’s Feeling and Form. He
repeatedly asserted that he had learned a lot from it; and that is the
subject of this paper: what Lonergan learned from Susanne K. Langer.
According to Fred Crowe, Lonergan had not read Langer by the time he
finished Insight in 1953.3
Before the final publication of the book in 1956, however, he had added
two references to Feeling and Form, one a footnote to the section
on the aesthetic pattern of experience regarding her analysis of musical
insight; and a second note to the section on myth and allegory on the
sensible character of the initial meanings of words.4
Yet after the publication of Insight, he gave particular
attention to studying Feeling and Form, specifically in
preparation for his lectures on education at Xavier University in
Cincinnati in 1959. In March of that year he wrote to Fred Crowe:
On education course:
plan to integrate stuff on existentialists with theory of Art in S. K.
Langer (Feeling and Form), follower of Cassirer; eke out with
Insight, for intellectualist, scientific side; throw in a bit of
Now somewhere Lonergan quotes C.S. Lewis to the effect that a good book
is constituted by a good reader—and it seems to me that’s what happened
between Lonergan’s serious reading of Feeling and Form in 1959,
his translation of what he learned into his famous “notebook” and the
giving of the lectures at Cincinnati, now published in the Collected
Works as Topics in Education. In these lectures are found
the most extensive treatment of art in Lonergan’s corpus, a whole
chapter of 24 pages, the high point of a trajectory that goes from his
two pages in Insight to the three pages in Method in Theology.6
That Lonergan considered Feeling and Form to be a very good book
is quite evident from his positive references to it and from what was
evidently his conviction that he owed his definition of art to her. As
he writes in Method in Theology:
Here I borrow from
Suzanne [sic] Langer’s Feeling and Form where art is
defined as the objectification of a purely experiential pattern and each
term in this definition is carefully explained.7
And yet the interesting thing about this statement of Lonergan’s and
others like it is that this definition of art is nowhere to be found in
Langer’s Feeling and Form! Langer indeed has a number of
definitions of art, such as: “Art is the creation of forms symbolic of
human feeling”; “Art is the creation of forms expressive of human
feeling”; or “Art is the creation of perceptible forms expressive of
human feeling.”8 And yet
none of these are the definition of art that Lonergan continually
attributes to Langer.
Which only goes to show, I believe, the creative transformation that the
work of Langer—and other writers as well—went through, when Lonergan
focussed on them. I have no doubt that Lonergan’s definition of art is
clearer and leaner than Langer’s, because it is rooted in his own
explanatory understanding of human interiority.
what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the broad
lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed
base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of
It was because Lonergan understood understanding that he was able to
integrate into his own understanding the genuine insights of such
diverse thinkers as Jean Piaget, Ludwig Binswanger, Gilbert Durand, Paul
Ricoeur, Freud and Jung, Eliade and Voegelin, and so on—and in this
particular case, Susanne K. Langer. In the writings of each of these
authors, Lonergan was able to grasp what was of value, what was capable
of development, on the one hand, and what was perhaps not so helpful,
not capable of development on the other.
In the case of Langer’s Feeling and Form Lonergan was able to
highlight and enrich his own understanding of art from the basic ideas
and many illustrations, often from the writings and sayings of artists
themselves, found in Langer’s work. At the same time he, of course, had
no interest in the empiricist and reductionist leanings that I found
scattered in Langer’s” early writings and highlighted in her later,
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.
Let me add a word about the differing contexts of Lonergan’s writings on
art and his references to Feeling and Form. In the first place,
there is Insight. In that magisterial text the focus is on
insight into insight; and his major examples are from science and
mathematics, ‘the fields of intellectual endeavor in which the greatest
care is devoted to exactitude and, in fact, the greatest exactitude is
attained.”10 In that
context, art is treated in the chapter on common sense as subject within
the section on the aesthetic pattern of consciousness: the pattern that
focusses of the joy of conscious living itself. As consciousness is
free and can float in various directions determined by one’s interest,
one’s care, so it can float in a direction guided by a care just to
enjoy hliman experiencing for its own sake.
One is led to
acknowledge that experience can occur for the sake of experiencing, that
it can slip beyond the confines of serious-minded biological purpose,
and that this liberation is a spontaneous, self-justifying joy.11
With respect to this field of aesthetic experience, the artist discovers
“ever novel forms that unify and relate contents and acts of aesthetic~
experience.” Such insight into aesthetic patterns find expression, not
in concepts, but in the work of art itself.
The artist establishes
his insights, not by proof or verification, but by skillfully embodying
them in colors and shapes, in sounds and movements, in the unfolding
situations and actions of fiction. To the spontaneous joy of conscious
living, there is added the spontaneous joy of free intellectual
After another two paragraphs on the symbolic or mysterious dimension of
artistic creation, Lonergan quickly moves on to other patterns of
experience, particularly the intellectual pattern of experience. But
after having written Insight, where the goal is insight into
insight, Lonergan gradually entered into a more existentialist and
phenomenological context; he began to link what he had done on the
intellectual side of things to the insights of various other writers
into other areas of concrete human living.
Thus, in his 1959 lectures on education he sought to link his own
insight into insight with what Piaget had learned about growing
development in the human person, what Binswanger had learned about the
dreams of night and the dreams of morning, and what Langer had learned
about insight in the various forms of art. As he describes the aim olhis
lecture on art in these 1962 lectures:
Neither mathematics nor
natural science nor philosophy nor psychology is the same as life. I
propose to seek an apprehension of concrete living in its concrete
potentialities, through art today, and through history tomorrow.
He then speaks of all differentiation of consciousness as simply a
withdrawal for a return.
It is withdrawal from
total activity, total actuation, for the sake of a fuller actuation when
one returns. What one returns to is the concrete functioning of the
whole. In that concrete functioning there is an organic interrelation
and interdependence of the parts of the subject with respect to the
whole, and of the individual subject with respect to the historically
changing group. Art mirrors that organic functioning of sense and
feeling, of intellect not as abstract formulation but as concrete
insight, of judgment that is not just judgment, but that is moving into
decision, free choice, responsible action.13
Lonergan, as always, is thinking of the good as the conscious developing
subject; the subject with his concerns that defines the various horizons
of his world. It is in this context that Lonergan read Langer’s
Feeling and Form and translated what he read there into his own
thought and vocabulary.
In what follows in our paper we will stick closely to the text of
Feeling and Form, chiefly because that is the text that Lonergan
refers to when he speaks of artistic and symbolic meaning and this is
the text he is thinking of when he said “I think Susanne Langer has a
wonderful analysis of artistic creation.”14
Our method will be more that of an interpreter than that of a systematic
presenter. Lonergan more than adequately, I believe, did the latter.
Susanne K. Langer
Philosophy in a New Key
Susanne Knauth Langer was born on the upper west side of Manhattan in
1895 to German immigrant parents. Her father, a lawyer, played the
cello and the piano, and as a child Susanne learned to play both
instruments. Her future writings on art, therefore, are from the point
of view of someone who loved to play and to listen to music.15
In 1920 she obtained her bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe College; in
1924 a masters in philosophy from Harvard; and in 1926 a doctorate from
Harvard in 1926, writing her dissertation on the topic: “A Logical
Analysis of Meaning.”
Because of the times, her early philosophical work took place in the
context of Anglo-American logical philosophy. This is obvious in her
early works, The Practice of Philosophy of 1930, and her
Introduction to Symbolic Logic of 1937. She was particularly
influenced by Bertrand Russell, the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus
and her own mentor at Harvard, Henry M. Sheffer. It was Sheffer, she
says, who interested her in the “unlogicized” areas of mental life and
in the relationship between the complicated symbols of mathematical
logic and, on the other hand, other areas of human symbolization, such
as ordinary and literary language, myth, ritual and art.16
The conventional positivist wisdom of the day tended to relegate all
these areas to the non-scientific and therefore non-intellectual,
“emotional,” dimension of the human person.
Consequently, in 1941, contrary to such positivist views, Langer in her
very popular Philosophy in a New Key, vindicated the properly
intellectual character of the non-discursive “presentational” symbols of
myth, ritual and art. Under the influence of the neo-Kantian, Ernst
Cassirer, Langer pointed to the highly “formal” character of these
nonscientific expressions. Art, for example, is not just the
symptomatic expression of the artist’s immediate emotion aimed at the
stimulation of immediate emotion in the percipient; it involves a
stylized “formal” quality, an element of “psychic distance” that
constitutes it as properly human.
Cassirer had emphasized this formal, symbolic, quality in art and other
‘symbolic forms.” Such forms are distinguished from merely “passive
images” in that they are not just given, but are created by the human
mind itself. Hence, an historic and analytic study of these various
symbolic forms—language, myth, religion, art—can provide a
“phenomenology of human culture,” the human person’s ongoing discovery
Langer calls these non-scientific symbols “presentational” because their
materials are the ordinary presentations of eye and ear, of sense and
imagination.18 They are
the sensitive or imaginative forms, the Gestalten, of art, the
gestures of ritual and the imaginative picture stories of fairytale and
myth. These include not just the elements of sense and visual
imagination, but materials of aural, kinaesthetic and literary
imagination as well.
To these sensitive or imaginative elements meaning or import accrues.
Although, in this writer’s opinion, Langer never successfully
determined the meaning of meaning, nevertheless she was insistent on the
human and “meaningful” character of these presentational symmbols.19
For unlike mere signals which are rooted in biological reflexes and are
symptomatic of immediate emotional conditions, symbols are, as she puts
it, vehicles of conception.20
They are highly “charged” with human formulated significance. In
Philosophy in a New Key Langer analyzes art, especially music, as
symbolizing the complexity of human feeling; ritual as symbolizing the
human person’s permanent attitude or orientation among the terrifying
forces of nature and society; and myth as the serious envisioning of the
fundamental concepts of life.
The key term in the transition of Langer’s interest from the symbolism
of logic to these other presentational symbols was the term “form,” the
basis, according to the early Wittgenstein, of the symbolic character of
language. In the Tractatus, for example, he uses an image that Lonergan
also would invoke:
There is a general rule
by means of which the musician can obtain the symphony from the score,
and which makes it possible to derive the symphony from the groove on
the gramophone record, and using the first rule, to derive the score
again. That is what constitutes the inner similarity between these
things which seem to be constructed in such entirely different ways.21
But unlike Wittgenstein, Susanne Langer was unable to abstain from
questions of psychology. In seeking an explanation for the possibility
of non-linguistic symbolism, she turned to the school that seemed most
to emphasize “form,” that is the Gestalt psychologists of
Wertheimer, Kohler and Koffka. These emphasized the fact that concrete
sense experience is itself a process of perceiving total forms. Where
previous experimental psychology assumed individual isolated impressions
which by a process of association coalesce to form a totality, the
Gestalt psychologists emphasized the primacy of form, ‘the whole,”
over individual impressions in perception. As Langer wrote in
Philosophy in a New Key:
Gestalt-psychologists are right in their belief that Gestaltung is of
the very nature of perception, I do not know how the hiatus between
perception and conception, sense-organ and mind-organ, chaotic stimulus
and logical response, is ever to be closed and welded. A mind that
works primarily with meanings must have organs that supply it primarily
In Topics in Education Lonergan takes up this theme of the
formative aspect of human perception. As the human person moves from the
disordered and chaotic “dreams of night” to the “dreams of morning,” the
selective character of human perception becomes more pronounced.
The difference between
the dream of morning and the dream of night that is under the influence
of digestive functions and organic disturbances is that there is more
pattern to the dream of morning. Consciousness is a selecting, an
organizing. And being awake is more organized than the dream of
morning. Patterning is essential to consciousness. If one hears a tune
or a melody, one can repeat it; but if one hears a series of street
noises, one cannot reproduce them. The pattern in the tune or melody
makes it more perceptible, something that consciousness can pick out and
be conscious of, so to speak. Similarly, verse makes words memorable.
One can remember ‘thirty days has September, April, June, and
November,” because there is a jingle in it, a pattern to it.23
Lonergan’s point—and Langer’s—is that artistic meaning is found only in
the symphony: that is, in the concrete pattern of the musical sounds.
There may also be an external relationship, for example, between a
representative painting and the object represented; but that
relationship as such does not constitute the work as artistic. Freudian
psychologists and others who delight in “explaining” art in terms of the
subconscious motivations of the artist in representing certain objects
fail to grasp the specifically aesthetic level of concrete experiential
pattern. As Langer puts it:
Interest in represented
objects and interest in the visual or verbal structures that depict them
are always getting hopelessly entangled. Yet I believe artistic meaning
belongs to the sensuous construct as such; this alone is beautiful, and
contains all that contributes to its beauty.24
Feeling and Form
Langer’s classic work on art, Feeling and Form, published in
1953, is a development of the theory she began in Philosophy in a New
Key. Here her approach is much less genetic and historical, in
terms of the origins of art, and more analytical in terms of the
concrete and operative elements in artistic consciousness.
The unifying term between the two works is, of course, form: that is, a
pattern, a concrete set of internal relations between, for example, the
colors and qualities of a picture; the proportionate importance of
events in a drama, the ratios of musical motion.25
Langer uses many terms to designate the precise character
of this concrete unified whole that is the work of art. In the
following sections we will consider it as ‘the aesthetic illusion”; as
“vital form” (that is, articulated according to the forms of feeling);
and finally, as “commanding form” (that is, under the control of free
human creativity). We will also add sections on the creative process and
on the principles of artistic and symbolic imagination.
1. The Aesthetic Illusion
In Feeling and Form Langer develops her conviction that the
meaning or “import” of art belongs to ‘the sensible construct as such,”
the pure perceptible form. She does this by speaking of the aesthetic
world as the realm of “illusion,” and less frequently, “appearance” or
By characterizing the aesthetic as illusion Langer does not intend to
contrast the realm of art with that of reality as such, but only to
contrast it with the realm of practical reality.26
Accordingly, aesthetic illusion implies, first of all, the
liberation of perception from servitude to the realm of practical
interests, and secondly, the concentration of attention on that world
which, from the viewpoint of practical interest, is a world of illusion,
of “mere appearances.” That new world is a world in which perception is
its own end and finds its own line of development.
Langer notes the common sense conviction that the aesthetic and artistic
always have the character of strangeness, otherness.27
Since “one’s world” is determined by one’s interest,
attention, care, this “otherness” implies a shift of attention away from
the ready-made world of normal living: in Coleridge’s terms, ‘the world
of selfish solicitude and anxious interest.”28
It implies a shift of attention from the world of practically
interesting ‘things” to the world of “appearances as such.” The world
of appearances, of shapes, sounds, colors, and so on, is always a
possible object of interest; for even so non-sensuous a thing as a fact
appears this way to one person and that way to another.29
Nevertheless, we are usually not interested in the world of
appearances. Appearances are valued only as indications of the ‘things”
in question. Entering a room in normal daylight, we notice its
contents, a red sofa, for instance; but we tend not to notice the
gradations of red or even the appearance of other colors caused by the
way the light strikes the sofa at that particular moment.30
Langer illustrates our customary obliviousness to
appearances with the following quote from Roger Fry:
The needs of our actual
life are so imperative that the sense of vision becomes highly
specialized in their service. With an admirable economy we see only so
much as is needful for our purposes; but this is in fact very little,
just enough to recognize and identify each object or person; that done,
they go into our mental catalogue and are no more really seen. In
actual life the normal person really only reads the labels as it were on
the objects around him and troubles no further. Almost all the things
which are useful in any way put on more or less this cap of
Nor, according to Langer, is this freedom from practicality maintained
by considering the aesthetic the realm of “make believe.”
The function of artistic
illusion is not “make-believe,” as many philosophers and psychologists
assume, but the very opposite, disengagement from belief—the
contemplation of sensory qualities without their usual meanings, of
“Here’s that chair,” ‘that’s my telephone,” etc. The knowledge that
what is before us has no practical significance in the world is what
enables us to give attention to its appearances as such.32
Not only is the aesthetic experience a liberation from the cares of
practicality, it is also a liberation from intellectual constraints.
The free exercise of
artistic intuition often depends on clearing the mind of intellectual
prejudices and false conceptions that inhibit people’s natural
responsiveness. If for instance a reader of poetry believes that he
does not “understand” a poem unless he can paraphrase it in prose, and
then the poet’s true or false opinions are what makes the poem good or
bad, he will read it as a piece of discourse, and his perception of
poetic form and poetic feeling are likely to be frustrated . . .
Similarly, if academic training has caused us to think of pictures
primarily as examples of schools, periods, of the classes that Croce
decries . . . we are prone to think about the picture, gathering quickly
all available data for intellectual judgments and so close out and
clutter the paths of intuitive response.33
Langer often expresses the liberating character of the aesthetic and
artistic by speaking of the essentially “abstract” character of the
aesthetic illusion; and by this she means its separation from every
other world, particularly the world of practical interest.
All forms of art, then,
are abstracted forms; their content is only a semblance, a pure
appearance, whose function is to make them, too, more apparent—more
freely and wholly apparent than they could be if they were exemplified
in a context of real circumstance and anxious interest. It is in this
elementary sense that an art is abstract. Its very substance, quality
without practical significance, is an abstraction from material
existence . . . This fundamental abstractness belongs just as forcibly
to the most illustrative mural and most realistic plays, provided they
are good after their kind, as to the deliberate abstractions that are
remote representations or entirely non-representational designs.34
As this abstraction, or separation, from other worlds takes place, a
“new world” emerges. Langer’s most frequent illustration is from
pictorial art. The “image created by the painter on the canvas does not
take its place as a new ‘thing” beside the other things in the studio.”35
The painter has added nothing to the paints and the canvas. And yet,
through his disposition of the paints on the canvas the created image
begins to emerge, and this image seems to abrogate the very existence of
the canvas and the paint. With the emergence of the artistic semblance
these concrete materials become difficult to perceive in their own
right. Perception is liberated from the world of practical materials—of
canvas and paint.36
Consequently, when Langer speaks of illusion as the very “stuff” of art,
the “new dimension” in which the artistic form is presented, she means
not only the liberation of perception from servitude to practical
interests, but also the entry of perception into its own world of pure
sensation, pure imagination, pure perception. This is the result of the
liberation of perception from all other interests and other worlds; and
this is what is implied by saying that aesthetic meaning belongs to the
sensuous construct as such, the pure perceptible form,
sheer visions or images, and that appearances are appreciated for
their awn sake and not as indications of the ‘things” in question. All
such expressions in Langer’s writings imply that the very being of
aesthetic and artistic forms is to be perceived. As she puts it,
‘they exist only for the sense or imagination that perceives them.”37
The perceptible character of an aesthetic form is its entire being.
Thus, with regard to pictorial art,
The surest way to
abstract the element of sensory appearance from the fabric of actual
life and its complex interests, is to create a sheer vision, a datum
that is nothing but appearance and is indeed avowedly an object only for
sight . . . That is the purpose of illusion in art: it effects at once
the abstraction of the visual form and causes one to see it as such.38
Now one of the fundamental convictions of Lonergan’s epistemology is a
conviction first formulated by Aristotle: that knowledge is primarily by
identity between the knowing and the known. Only secondarily, with the
differentiation of consciousness does there arise the clear distinction
between subject and object. As Aristotle put it, sense in act is the
sensible in act, and intellect in act is the intelligible in act. Lonergan
speaks of this initial stage as the stage of elemental meaning, prior to
the clear distinction of a meaning and a meant. Such is the meaning of
the work of art as described by Langer. As Lonergan puts it:
Some people will say
that art is an illusion, others that art reveals a fuller profounder
reality. But the artistic experience itself does not involve a
discussion of the issue. What we can say is that it is opening a new
horizon, it is presenting something that is other, different, novel,
strange, new, remote, intimate all the adjectives that are employed when
one attempts to communicate the artistic experience.39
According to Langer, each of the art forms have their own primary
illusion: that is, they exist in their own realm of liberated
orientation of a particular area of perception, away from other worlds,
particularly the world of practical activity, introduces it into a world
of its own, its own “virtual” realm of illusion.41
For example, in the plastic arts vision enters into a realm of “virtual
space,” liberated from its normal practical orientation within common
sense space.42 Common
sense space is gradually constructed by the collaboration of the various
senses, sight, hearing, touch, and so on, supplemented by “memory,
recorded measurements, beliefs about the constitutions of things,” and
so forth.43 The plastic
arts, on the other hand are constituted by an orientation into a realm
that is purely visual, and in which all the constitutive elements are
Pigments and canvas are
not in the pictorial space; they are in the space of the room, as they
were before, though we no longer find them there by sight without great
effort of attention. For touch they are still there. But for touch
there is no pictorial space. The picture, in short, is an apparition.
It is there for our eyes but not for our hands, nor does its visible
space, however, great, have any normal acoustical properties for our
ears. The apparently solid volumes in it do not meet our commonsense
criteria for the existence of objects; they exist for vision alone. The
whole picture is a piece of purely visual space.44
Painting creates a realm Langer calls “virtual scene.” Sculpture and
architecture are other modes of virtual space creating the illusions of
volume in space and the arrangement of space. She speaks of sculpture
as creating the illusion of kinetic volume and architecture as creating
the illusion of “ethnic domain,” a “world” that is the counterpart of
the “self” whose semblance of kinetic volume is created in sculppture.45
The inter-related shapes and volumes of a picture or a piece of
sculpture define an autonomous realm of space, which is purely visual.
Within this space forms are constructed and ordered so as to arrive at
a complete “shaping” of a given visual field; it is “infinitely
plastic,” whether in two or three dimensions. Lines, which in common
sense space indicate a relationship among ‘things”—fore-shortening—in
art serve only to mediate between the several layers of design in a
complex visual space. In his lecture on education Lonergan refers to the
following quote from Adolf Hildebrand, found in Langer:
Let us imagine total
space as a body of water in which we may sink certain vessels, and thus
be able to define individual volumes of water without, however,
destroying the idea of a continuous mass of water enveloping all.46
Music, on the other hand. creates an entirely different illusion which
Langer calls “virtual time,” totally different from the abstract clock
time by which we measure our lives. Music is created for the sense of
hearing alone and consists in movements, tensions, resolutions and even
“rests” that create a virtual world into which the musician helps us
Dance creates the primary illusion of “virtual powers,” that is the
visual expression of “wills” in conflict and resolution.
In watching a dance, you
do not see what is physically before you—people running around or
twisting their bodies; what you see is a display of interacting forces,
by which the dance seems to be lifted, driven, drawn, closed, or
attenuated. The physical realities are given . . . but in the dance
they disappear; the more perfect the dance, the less we see its
actualities. What we see, hear and feel are the virtual realities, the
moving forces of the dance, the apparent centers of power and their
emanations, their conflicts and resolutions, life and decline, their
Literature creates an illusion of virtual life, of memory as in lyric
poetry, myth, legend or the novel. The drama introduces a person into
the experience of the impending future, tragic or comic as the case may
be. And the film extracts us from the present world and introduces us
into another created present world—a quasi dream-world experience into
which we too can enter.
2. Forms of Feeling
According to Langer, these purely perceptible forms are expressive of
human feeling. They not only involve the exclusion of other practical
and intellectual cares, but they also involve a release into their own
line of development, determined by a retinue of affects and feeling.
This accounts for the peculiar “logic” of artistic patterns, with their
own proper rhythm of tensions and resolutions, their increasing
variation and complexity within a unity. This is why artists speak of
works in organic terms, noting the “life” in the patterns of a
particular painting, while another kind of work is said to be “lifeless”
or to contain “dead-spots.”
In Feeling and Form Langer takes the case of pure design as a
touchstone for her explanation of this “vital” character of art. She
notes that all over the world in such unrelated cultural products as
Chinese embroideries, Mexican pots, Negro body decorations, and English
printers’ flowers, one finds an astonishing similarity in basic
decorative forms and designs. The vital character of these forms—lines
and zigzags, circles and scrolls, balanced and repeated—can easily be
seen by comparing them with strictly geometrical forms.48
These latter, all defined and expressed with geometrical exactitude,
invariably seem “empty,” “dead,” “unfelt.” Pure design, on the other
hand, with no representative intent, gives the semblance of “movement,”
“growth,” life,” “feeling.”
Langer roots this life of purely perceptible forms in what Albert Barnes
called our “general need of perceiving freely and agreeably . . . the
need of employing our faculties in a manner congenial to us.”49
In Feeling and Form she notes that this congeniality finds an
“instinctive basis in the principles of perception.” Previously, in
Philosophy in a New Key, she noted that in music we deal with “free
forms following inherent psychological laws of rightness.”50
These psychological laws and principles determine a certain
inevitability in aesthetic form, making it “necessary” or “inviolable.”
They are the foundations from whence springs the “decorum” or “fitness”
of decoration, for example. Langer’s general term for these principles
of free perception is ‘the forms of feeling.”
In Langer’s earlier aesthetic writings there is an implied dichotomy
between the forms of perception, “purely perceptible forms,” and ‘the
forms of feeling.” But her later writings tend to erase that trend and
emphasize the close connection between the two elements in such a way
that the proper character and development of purely perceptible forms is
intimately rooted in the forms of feeling. The beginning of this
emphasis can be found in Feeling and Form where she says of the
aesthetic object that “It gives us forms of imagination and forms of
feeling inseparably.” 51
In emphasizing the “organic” character of aesthetic form, Langer notes,
for example, the rhythmic character of works of art: the consummation of
one event is simultaneously the preparation for another, creating the
setting up of new tensions by the resolution of former ones. Thus, in
our paradigm case:
Decoration may be highly
diversified or it may be very simple; but it always has what geometric
form, for instance, a specimen illustration in Euclid, does not
have—motion and rest, rhythmic unity, wholeness. Instead of
mathematical form, the design has—or rather, it is—”living” form, though
it need not represent anything living, not even vines or periwinkles.52
The effect of this “life” within each of the primary illusions is to
make the perceptible forms more perceptible.
The immediate effect of
good decoration is to make the surface, somehow, more visible; a
beautiful border on textile “not only emphasizes the edge but enhances
the plain folds, and a regular allover pattern, if it is good, unifies
rather than diversifies the surface. In any case, even the most
elementary design serves to concentrate and hold one’s vision to the
expanse it adorns.53
3. Created Forms
We have been speaking about what Lonergan would call Langer’s
descriptions of aesthetic forms as purely experiential patterns. But,
according to Langer, art includes, besides this purely experiential
element, the further element of its objectification, what we call “works
of art.” This connects with her early recognition of the intellectual
character of the various presentational symbols. For artistic creation
involves, not just feeling-influenced experience, but the idealization
of experience, the grasp of what is important from this perspective as
important, and its expression or objectification in a work of art. Such
objectification is a properly human and necessary element in art; for
prior to this the aesthetic patterns are not fully and humanly known—not
even to the artist himself.54
Objective expression is necessary for the artist to “hold,” to “fix,” to
“contemplate,” to “understand,” the forms of his free aesthetic
experience and feeling.55
The artist’s aim is to recreate in the concrete work of art a pattern
isomorphic with his own idealized free aesthetic experience.
There is, therefore, in art an intellectual component that makes it
comparable to another uniquely human objectification, that is,
language. Art, in fact, belongs to the same category as language. The
appreciation of a work of art involves a mental shift as definite and
radical as the change from hearing the sound of squeaking or buzzing to
hearing speech, when suddenly in the midst of “insignificant”
surrounding noises a single word is grasped. The whole character of our
hearing is transformed, the medley of physical sounds disappears, the
ear receives language, perhaps indistinct by reason of interfering
noises, but struggling through them like a living thing.56
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 its artistic significance or “import.” This import
permeates the whole structure of the work and separates it from the host
of surrounding “insignificant” objects.57
Consequently, the “otherness” of the artistic is due not only to its
aesthetic character whereby experience, liberated from other patterns,
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.”58 The
artistic symbol, qua artistic, negotiates insight, not reference.”59
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. It is in opposition to this trend, characterized occasionally
as “empiricist,” “positivist,” “behaviorist,” that much of Langer’s
early work was written; 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.
The history of art has been the history of artists’ efforts to attain
ever more integrated, disciplined, and articulated forms. Sheer
emotional self-expression requires no such effort and is in fact an
obstacle to artistic creativity.
An artist working on a
tragedy need not be in personal despair or violent upheaval; nobody,
indeed, could work in such a state of mind. His mind would be occupied
with the causes of his emotional upset. Self-expression does not
require composition and lucidity; a screaming baby gives his feeling far
more release than any musician, but we don’t go into a concert hall to
hear a baby scream; in fact, if that baby is brought in we are likely to
go out. We don’t want self-expression.60
Nor does the appreciation of art consist in the achievement of some
rarefied “aesthetic attitude” or “aesthetic emotion” in the percipient.
It is neither sheer catharsis or incitement.61
Langer contends that most art critics tend to discount
both these “subjective” elements and treat the emotive aspect of a work
of art as something as “objective” as the physical form or pattern
itself. The “mood” of a painting is taken as given with the painting,
totally penetrating it along with its sensuous qualities. People in the
closest contact with art can appreciate this feeling without themselves
cultivating an emotional “aesthetic attitude.” A quick glance at a page
can tell them whether or not a poem is successful, “expressive” even
though “the light of one bare bulb makes the room horrid, the neighbors
are boiling cabbage, and our shoes are wet.”62
According to Langer, this degradation to “mere human sympathy” is what
Edward Bullough would call a loss of “psychical distance.” Bullough
describes the character of this relation in the following way:
Distance . . . is
obtained by separating the object and its appeal from one’s own self, by
putting it out of gear with practical needs and ends. But . . .
distance does not imply an impersonal, purely intellectually interested
relation. On the contrary, it describes a personal relation,
often highly emotionally colored, but of a peculiar character.
Its peculiarity lies in that the personal character of the relation has
been, so to speak, filtered. It has been cleared of the practical,
concrete nature of its appeal.63
Such artistic distance is such that the artist need not have directly
experienced himself the feeling he represents in his art.
It may be through the
manipulation of his created elements that he discovers new possibilities
of feeling, strange moods, perhaps greater concentrations of passion
than his own temperament could ever produce, or than his fortunes have
yet called forth.64
In handling his own
creation, composing a symbol of human emotion, he learns from the
perceptible reality before him possibilities of subjective experience
that he has not known in his personal life.65
Nevertheless, this artistic distance is not to such an extent that it
bears no relation at all to the artist’s experience.
But to say that he does
not render his own emotions would be simply silly. All knowledge goes
back to experience; we cannot know anything that bears no relation to
our experience. Only, that relation may be more complex than the theory
of direct personal expression assumes.66
Art involves, then, the intellectual creation of an affect-laden image
free from immediate emotion. As Langer puts it:
There are usually a few
philosophical critics . . . who realize that the feeling in a work of
art is something the artist conceived as he created the symbolic form to
present it, rather than something he was undergoing and involuntarily
venting in an artistic process. There is Wordsworth who finds that
poetry is not a symptom of emotional stress, but an image of it—“emotion
recollected in tranquility;” there is a Riemann who recognizes that
music resembles feeling, and is its objective symbol rather than its
physiological effect; a Mozart who knows from experience that emotional
disturbance merely interferes with artistic conception.67
The choice of the term “artistic conception” is perhaps not a happy one,
for it suggests expression in concepts and that is a characteristic of
literal, not artistic, meaning; and Langer herself in her later work
agreed with Kant’s analysis of art as non-conceptual.68
Nevertheless, her point is that artistic imagination is
freely directed by, under the control of, impregnated with, the
intellectual character of artistic insight.
In Feeling and Form Langer uses musical creation to give a
description of the creative process, based on an intellectual grasp of
the fundamental aesthetic form.69
First of all, this grasp is rooted in artistic genius,
which Langer clearly distinguishes from talent. The latter is the basic
ability to handle the sensuous materials, something closely linked with
bodily feeling, muscular control, and soon. Artistic genius, on the
other hand, is not just a higher degree of talent; it is the power to
grasp—or as she puts it, to “conceive”—the “commanding form,” the matrix
of the work-to-be, its general structure, the proportions and degrees of
elaboration among the qualities of a picture, the events of a drama, the
ratios of musical motion, an so on.70
Langer speaks of artistic genius with respect to artistic creativity;
and such creativity certainly has an influence on the prior selectivity
of artistic perception.
Prior to artistic conception or “insight,” artistic genius, it would
seem, anticipates this activity. This is why the artist first
contemplates his materials to see what feeling they might express. For
different materials mediate different areas of aesthetic experience.71
This anticipation is not proper just to the artist; it characterizes
any lover of art.
The outstanding instance
of what one might call “intuitive anticipation” is the excitement that
seizes a real lover of drama as the curtain goes up.72
It would seem that this a priori intellectual orientation toward
the grasp of aesthetic form constitutes a certain artistic heuristic
structure. Furthermore, since there are various primary illusions,
various areas of aesthetic experience to be unified by artistic insight,
it would seem that in each of these areas there are corresponding
artistic heuristic structures. This seems to be the ultimate
interpretation of Langer’s various primary illusions. This seems to be
why de facto we have the various art forms that we do.
A great part of Langer’s work can be seen as a clarification of the
nature of these structures, these various art forms. In each area
experience seeks liberation. If, for example, one’s anticipation is
practically oriented with regard to pictorial art, or purely literally
oriented with regard to poetry, one will necessarily be led to
misconceive and misapprehend this particular art.
With regard to music Langer notes the same frustrating influence of
alien intellectual apprehensions.
The listener, untroubled
by self-consciousness and an intellectual inferiority complex, should
hear what is created to be heard. I think the greater part of a modem
audience listening to contemporary music tend to listen so much for new
harmonies and odd rhythms and for new tone-mixtures that they never
conceive the illusion of time made audible, and of its great movement
and subordinate play of tensions, naively and musically at all.73
Genuine artistic anticipation, this a priori ability for free
artistic creativity, unencumbered with false psychological or
theoretical anticipations, can deepen and develop. Thus, practice in
sustaining musical attention results in “a special intelligence of the
ear” capable of grasping the “logical connectedness” and progression of
tonal sequences.74 This
ability makes it possible to follow with easy attention extended or
involved musical compositions. Langer contrasts this ability with mere
passive hearing, equated with inattention.
The radio of course,
offers all the means of learning to listen, but it also harbors a
danger—the danger of learning not to listen; and this greater perhaps,
than its advantage. People learn to read and study with music—sometimes
beautiful and powerful music—going on in the background. As they
cultivate inattention, or divided attention, music as such becomes more
and more a mere psychological stimulant or sedative. In this way they
cultivate passive hearing, which is the very contradiction of listening.75
This growth in artistic attention in the various areas of aesthetic
perception is the primary pre-requisite for the exercise of artistic
Thus, listening is the
primary musical activity. The musician listens to his own idea before he
plays, before he writes.76
4. The Creative Process
Artistic imagination exercises itself in the free creation of aesthetic
forms. This is why artists are said to “contemplate” the aesthetic
materials or medium. By the use of their free imagination they search
out “the feeling it contains,” the aesthetic forms this particular
material can possibly express. For different materials are said to have
A competent painter,
accepting a commission for a portrait, a mural, or any other “kind” of
work, simply trusts that, contemplating the powers of the medium, he
will have a sudden insight into the feeling it can express; and working
with it, he will pursue and learn and present that feeling. What he is
likely to say, however, is that if he thinks about the commissioned
subject long enough, he will know “what to do with it.”78
It is obvious then that it is in the artist’s free imagination that the
materials are “transformed” into artistic forms. Because the artist can
imagine the sensuous materials according to his aesthetic anticipation,
he is said to perceive the materials selectively. It is imagined
aesthetic perception, guided by artistic creativity, that Langer is
speaking of when she says that the primitive portrays practical objects
according to “the selective, interpretative power of his intelligent
Cezanne claimed that he was faithfully representing “Nature,” but it is
obvious from his writings that he is speaking of nature transformed by
his creative imagination.
reflections, that always center on the absolute authority of Nature, the
relation of the artist to his model reveals itself unconsciously and
simply: for the transformation of natural objects into pictorial
elements took place in his seeing, in the act of looking, not the act of
painting. Therefore, recording what he saw, he earnestly believed that
he painted exactly what “was there.”80
It is with reference to imaginative “inward hearing” that the
intellectual grasp of musical form takes place. That the imaginative
“inward hearing” of the composer is grounded in this grasp of musical
form is clear from Langer’s writings.
Inward hearing is the
work of the mind that begins with conception of form and ends with their
complete presentation [that is, “the structural elements, the harmonic
tensions and their resolutions”] in imagined sense experience.81
This grasp of artistic form impregnates and determines the quality of
the composer’s “inward hearing.” It is supported by all sorts of
symbolic devices: the guidance of printed scores, the specific though
minute muscular responses of breath and vocal chords that constitute
subvocal singing, perhaps individual tonal memories and other references
The first stage in artistic creation, therefore, is entirely immanent,
the sudden recognition of the total artistic form in imagined
experience. From that moment on the artist’s mind is no longer free to
wander irresponsibly. It is under the tutelage of the “commanding
In some sense the “commanding form” is “impersonal,” but as such it is
not restrictive but enriching; for in the recognition of this matrix
lies all the tendencies of the work.83
Every option in the development of the composition is seen
in terms of this whole.
The significance of this grasp of “commanding form” in “inward hearing”
can be seen more precisely in the distinction between artistic
composition and performance. For both are governed throughout by
the demands of the commanding form.
Performance is the
completion of a musical work, a logical continuation of the composition,
carrying the creation through from thought to physical expression.
Obviously, then, the thought must be entirely grasped, if it is to be
carried on. Composition and performance are not neatly separable at the
stage marked by the finishing of the score: for both spring from the
commanding form and are governed throughout by its demands and
But the inward hearing of the composer under the aegis of this form
stops short of just that determinateness of quality and duration that
characterizes actual sensation.
This final imagination
of tone itself, as something completely decided by the whole to which it
belongs, requires a special symbolic support, a highly articulate bodily
gesture: overtly, this gesture is the act of producing the tone, the
performer’s expression of it; physiologically, it is the feeling
for the tone in the muscles set to produce it.85
Actual performance, though guided by the same commanding form grasped by
the composer in inward hearing, is a new creative act; for it demands a
decision as to precisely what every tone will “sound like.”
If he is not the
composer, then the commanding form is given to him; a variable but
usually considerable amount of detail in the development of the form is
given; but the final decision of what every tone sounds like
rests with him. For at a definite, critical point in the course of
musical creation a new feeling sets in, that reinforces the tonal
imagination and at the same time is subject to it.86
Langer notes that artistic performance can be very close to symptomatic
and emotional “self-expression.” But, she points out, as long as
personal feeling is concentrated on and subordinated to the commanding
form of the piece, the latter is the very nerve and “drive” of the
artist’s work.87 It is
similar to the public speaker intent primarily on his meaning, not mode
of expression: “rem tene, verba sequuntur.” If, on the other
hand, the performer lets his own need for some emotional catharsis make
the performance simply his “outlet,” the work will lack intensity
because its expressive form will be inarticulate and blurred. Art
begins only when a formal factor is recognized as the framework within
which the chance attributes of immediate emotion can occur. Similarly,
the speaker becomes “oratorical” when lack of attention to meaning
results in misplaced emphasis.
The primacy of artistic insight is evident. This insight impregnates
the artist’s or performer’s imaginative envisioning of his work—even the
“muscular imagination” of its performance. An artist’s hands,
supplemented by his familiar instrument, become intuitively responsive
to his understanding of the commanding form. No one could possibly
figure out, or learn by rote, the exact proper distance on the
fingerboard for every possible interval; but conceive the interval
clearly and finger will find it precisely.88
Similarly, the perfection of the dance depends upon the conception of a
“body-feeling” in which no movement is automatic, but every voluntary
muscle, even to the fingertips and eyelids, cooperates in the expression
of the rhythm prefigured in the first intentional act.89
5. The “Laws” of Imagination
The distinction between literal and artistic meaning comes to the fore
in treating of the literary arts. For here the materials are words and
language that tend, in people like Langer and ourselves, toward literal
meaning. But such literal meaning characterized by the discursive form
of language, by distinctions of A from non-A, cannot grasp the complex
life of feeling, or as Langer puts it, the “essential dialectic of
In addition, unlike language, which is a symbolism, a system of
conventional symbols, a work of art is a single, indivisible symbol.91
The appreciation of a work of art always begins with a single intuition
of its total import, and increases by contemplation as the expressive
articulation of the artistic form becomes apparent. Language, on the
other hand—discourse—involves the “passage from one intuition, or act of
understanding, to another.”92
Finally, the import of a work of art cannot really be paraphrased in
discourse. Even an art such as poetry, which evidently involves
assertions with literal meaning, defies literal translation.93
For even though the material of poetry is discursive, its significance,
or “vital import,” is not. That import is expressed by the poem as a
totality and cannot be grasped by a literal paraphrase. All art as
such is untranslatable. Langer notes that poetry “translated” into
other languages may reveal new possibilities for its skeletal literal
ideas and rhetorical devices, but the product is a new poem.
By speaking of feeling as the import of art Langer means the whole of
feeling-influenced life, including the life of thought. The distinction
between feeling-influenced consciousness and differentiated discursive
thought can best be seen in her writings on poetry. For here she
explicates what she calls the “laws” of each form of consciousness. The
distinction between the two forms becomes clear because in poetry the
very materials of the art are expressions of literal consciousness.
For Langer all poetic art, including literature, drama and the film,
creates the illusion of “virtual life.” Since its materials are words
and statements, the temptation is to ask: “What is the author trying to
tell us?” instead of “What has he created?” The product of poetic art, “poesis,”
is the appearance of “experiences,” the semblance of events lived and
felt. These. events are unified into a simplified whole in which they
are much more fully perceived and evaluated than the events of a
person’s actual history.94
But just as painting, sculpture, and architecture are different modes of
virtual space, literature, drama, and the film are distinct modes of “poesis.”
In literature the primary illusion of virtual, entirely experienced,
“life,” is in the mode typified by memory. Actual experience is usually
ragged and unaccentuated, a welter of sights, sounds and feelings.95
It is only half perceived. Memory, however, functions by
selecting and sifting these experiences and giving them a closed
distinguishable form and character.
Lyric poetry, for example, brings out the highly perceptible character
of these virtual events. The smallest event, the occurrence of a
thought or feeling, is presented in such a way that its emotional value
is immediately apparent.96
The poetic aspect of the event is given directly in the telling: it is
as terrible or as wonderful as it “sounds.”97
The poet creates events in a psychological mode rather than as a piece
of “objective” history. It is the mode of “naive experience” in which
action and feeling, sensory value and moral value, are still undivorced.98
In a highly original chapter Langer presents the laws and “logic” of
imagination which guide literary production.99
The cardinal principle of imagination is what Freud called
It refers to the fact that every product of imagination comes to the
percipient as a qualitatively direct datum. The emotional import of the
datum is perceived as directly and immediately as the datum itself.
This is what is referred to when a poetic presentation, even of a
speculative thought, is said to have an “emotional quality.”
This principle is responsible for many “illogical” poetic and mythical
usages of language.101
Instead of the principle of the excluded middle characteristic of
logical thought, poetry often contains what Freud called
“over-determination.” Thus, instead of “either A or B,” poetry combines
opposites: both love and hate.
In literature there is strictly speaking no negative. The words, “no,”
“not,” and so on, create by contrast what they deny: and this creation
is an integral part of the literary illusion. Langer refers to
Swinburne’s “The Garden of Proserpine,” in which almost every line is a
Then star nor sun shall waken
Nor any change of light:
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight:
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal;
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night.
Everything that is
denied is thereby created and forms the background for the final two
Another characteristic of literary and mythical imagination is the
tendency for variations on the same theme. Instead of the proof
required by logical thinking, mere reiteration is often sufficient to
create the semblance of reasoning. (As Lewis Carroll’s Bellman says,
“If I say it three times it’s true.”)
Instead of the logical development of one theme, the literary
imagination often simultaneously develops many themes. This is Freud’s
principle of condensation, and its effect is to heighten the “emotional
quality” of the created image and to make one aware of the complexities
of feeling.103 Langer
And Pity, like a naked newborn babe,
Striding the blast, or Heaven’s Cherubim, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown
The literal sense of phrases indicating “that tears shall drown the
wind” and that a newborn babe and a mounted guard of cherubim will
blow a deed in people’s eyes is negligible. And yet, the poet has
created an exciting figure, the created image of complex feelings.
These are some of the principles of literary imagination. The poet
creates a total illusion of human experience according to these
principles, an experience which thereby becomes emotionally transparent.
In lyric poetry the experience is minimal, “the occurrence of a living
thought, the sweep of emotion, the intense experience of a mood.”104
The difference between lyric poetry and other literary products is not
radical. It is the frequency and importance of certain practices, such
as metrical versification, speech in the first person, intense imagery,
and so on, that makes lyric poetry a special type of “poesis.”
Other types of literature exploit more powerful techniques of creating
the illusion of life in the mode of memory—especially the element of
narrative. The “story-interest” in the folk ballad and the medieval
“romance” becomes so powerful that the hypnotic powers of rhythmic
speech are no longer necessary to maintain the artistic illusion.105
But the difference between poetry and prose fiction is
primarily technical, that is, in the materials employed—not in the
illusion created. Both use proper techniques to create the semblance of
life fully felt. While the medieval “romance” took as its motif the
social world in which individuals participated according to their
status, the modern novel takes as its pervasive theme the evaluation and
hazards of individual personality. Yet, the novel is still the
experience of created life and not sociological or psychological theory.
Langer notes that it is the particular ‘slant” in which events are
recounted—whether in the medieval romance or in the modem novel- that
constitutes the “poetic transformation” which transcends the particular
materials of character study, psychological insight, and so on.106
In the same way speculative and moral beliefs, all
assertion of facts, as used in literature, are not debatable.
Their literary value depends entirely on their use to create the
semblance of life—its seriousness and difficulty, the sense of strain
A word on drama. Though literature and drama are both poetic, creating
the illusion of virtual history, drama is not strictly literature. For
it does not create virtual events that compose a “Past,” but rather
immediate visible responses of human beings oriented toward a virtual
“Future.” Certainly, the theater creates a seemingly perpetual present
moment; but as Langer points out, it is only a present filled with its
own future that is really dramatic. In actual life the impending future
is often only vaguely felt; we recognize a distinct situation only when
it has reached, or nearly reached, a crisis.108
But in the theater we see the whole set-up of human
relationships and conflicting interests long before any abnormal event
has occurred that would, in actual life, have brought it into focus.
This illusion of a visible future is created in every play; it is the
primary illusion of “poesis” in the mode peculiar to drama. While the
literary mode is the mode of Memory, the dramatic is the mode of
Finally, a word on art criticism. Any attempt of criticism to convey
“the meaning” of a work of art, even of literature, is by that very fact
an exercise in literal, not aesthetic, symbolism. This is the sense of
Langer’s reservation of the term “meaning” to literal symbolism, while
she speaks of the “import” of art.109
Artistic expressiveness, unlike literal meaning, cannot be demonstrated.
It cannot be pointed out, as the presence of this or that color
contrast, balance of shapes, and so on, may be pointed out. For either
it is grasped directly and as a whole by one act of aesthetic
perception, or it is not grasped at all. “No one can show, let alone
prove to us, that a certain vision of human feeling . . . is embodied in
This does not mean, however, that works of art cannot be criticized.
Appreciation of the total artistic illusion comes first; but the
recognition of how that illusion was made is a product of analysis
reached by discursive reasoning.111
The critical judgment of art is guided by the virtual
result, the symbolic illusion the artist has created. Particular
materials or techniques are neither good nor bad, strong nor weak, but
must be judged entirely in terms of the artistic result. That is why
criticism can never arrive at criteria of artistic excellence, that is,
expressiveness. There can be no rule for artistic success. Langer
remarks that although it is possible to show the causes failure in
poetry, it is not always possible to explain how a poem has succeeded.
Langer agrees with R. G. Collingwood that candor is the standard between
good and bad art. Bad art results from the interference of extraneous
emotion with the imagination and expression of feeling; and art thus
corrupted at its source, is not true to what candid expression would be.112
What then did Bernard Lonergan learn from Susanne K. Langer? First of
all, in Feeling and Form Langer provided Lonergan with the
materials concerning the meaning of art that facilitated his own
definition of art as the objectification of a purely experiential
Secondly, even though Lonergan in Insight had written of the
aesthetic pattern as the liberation of experience from “the confines of
serious-minded biological purpose,” Lonergan learned much more from
Langer about the concrete details of this process of liberation, as it
takes place in the particular art forms. In each of these aesthetic
areas there is a liberation of “the ready-made subject” from his or her
“ready-made world.” As he noted at the end of his analysis of art in
Method in Theology,
Again, let me stress
that I am not attempting to be exhaustive. For an application of the
above analysis to different art forms in drawing and painting, statuary
and architecture, music and dance, epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry, the
reader must go to S. K. Langer, Feeling and Form. The point I am
concerned to make is that there exist quite distinct carriers or
embodiments of meaning.113
Thirdly, even though in Insight he had written of art as
providing “the spontaneous joy of free intellectual creation,” from
Feeling and Form Lonergan learned a great deal more about the
concrete process of artistic creation and appreciation. In particular,
in Insight he footnoted Langer’s analysis of musical creation,
the grasp of the commanding form and its articulation in a symphony, a
song, and so on. Writing of artistically differentiated consciousness
in Method in Theology, he says:
Its higher attainment is
creating; it invents commanding forms; works out their implications;
conceives and produces their embodiment.114
In words almost out of Langer herself, Lonergan writes:
The process of
objectifying involves psychic distance. Where the elemental
meaning is just experiencing, its expression involves detachment,
distinction, separation from experience. While the smile or frown
expresses intersubjectively the feeling as it is felt, artistic
composition recollects emotion in tranquility. It is a matter of
insight into the elemental meaning, a grasp of the commanding form that
has to be expanded, worked out, developed, and the subsequent process of
working out, adjusting, correcting, completing the initial insight.
There results an idealization of the original experiential pattern. Art
is not autobiography. It is not telling one’s tale to the psychiatrist.
It is grasping what is or seems significant, of moment, concern,
import, to man. It is truer than experience, leaner, more effective,
more to the point. It is the central moment with its proper
implications, and they unfold without the distortions, interferences,
accidental intrusions of the original pattern.115
Another theme that appears in Lonergan’s writings on art after reading
Feeling and Form is the theme of the organic character of the
feelings associated with the artistic image.
So verse makes
information memorable. Decoration makes a surface visible. Patterns
achieve, perhaps, a special perceptibility by drawing on organic
analogies. The movement is from root through trunk to branches, leaves
and flowers. It is repeated with varying variations. Complexity mounts
and the multiplicity is organized into a whole.116
In summary, Langer provided for Lonergan a wealth of material, both from
her own experience and understanding and from the testimony of other
artists and philosophers of art on aesthetic experience and artistic
Finally, we can conclude by noting what Langer might have learned from
Lonergan. First of all, she might have learned a more accurate and
explanatory account of human interiority that would have set her fine
work on art into a wider context.
For example, because of what became evident in her later writings, an
inadequate insight into insight, Langer fails, it seems to me, to note
the intentional character of human feelings. Not only do our human
feelings reflect their organic depths, but they also involve awarenesses
of human values: vital, social, cultural, personal, and religious.
Consequently, Lonergan can write of our purely experiential, aesthetic,
To them accrue their
retinue of associations, affects, emotions, incipient tendencies. To
them also there accrues the experiencing subject with his capacity for
wonder, for awe and fascination, with his openness to adventure, daring,
This is what in Insight Lonergan called the operator on the level
of our sensitive being: corresponding to the notion of being on the
intellectual level. There is, then, in Lonergan there is a wider
significance to the theme of art as liberation. For the question can be
asked: liberation for what? In A Second Collection he speaks of
it as the liberation of the ordinary person’s ordinary experience into
the known unknown, the realm of mystery.
There’s imagination as
art, which is the subject, doing—in a global fashion—what the
philosopher and the religious person and so on do in a more special
fashion. It’s moving into the known unknown in a very concrete, felt,
Elsewhere he says:
It is a withdrawal from
practical living to explore possibilities of fuller living in a richer
world. Just as the mathematician explores the possibilities of what
physics can be, so the artist explores possibilities of what life,
ordinary life, can be.119
Finally, in Topics in Education Lonergan sets art within its
ultimate significance, without which, he says, art can become just play
or aestheticism. He refers to Socrates’ indictment in Athens for saying
that the moon was just earth and the clouds just water.
Art, whether by an
illusion or a fiction or a contrivance, presents the beauty, the
splendor, the glory, the majesty, the “plus” that is in things and that
drops out when you say that the moon is just earth and the clouds are
just water. It draws attention to the fact that the splendor of the
world is a cipher, a revelation, an unveiling, the presence of one who
is not seen, touched, grasped, put in a genus, distinguished by a
difference, yet is present.120
He refers to Saint Augustine:
St. Augustine says in
his Confessions that he sought in the stars, and it was not in
the stars; in the sun and the moon, and it was not in the sun and the
moon; in the earth, the trees, the shrubs, the mountains, the valleys,
and it was none of these. Art can be the viewing this world and looking
for the something more that this world reveals, and reveals, so to
speak, in silent speech, reveals by a presence that cannot be defined or
got hold of.121
It seems to me that in Susanne K. Langer’s Feeling and Form
Bernard Lonergan grasped in a fuller way what the experience of art
Susanne Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. I
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967). Volume II and Volume III
published in 1972 and 1982 respectively. Abridged edition of three
See Richard M. Liddy, Art and Feeling: An Analysis and Critique of
the Philosophy of Art of Susanne K Langer (Ann Arbor: University
Microfilms, 1970); also,
Susanne K Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. I, in
International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 10, n.3 (1970) 481-484.
[posted on this site.—A.F.]
See Frederick E. Crowe, Lonergan (Collegeville, MN: The
Liturgical Press, 1992) 50. See also the editorial note in Insight:
A Study of Human Understanding, Collected Works of Bernard
Lonergan, Vol. 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992) 791:
“Langer’s work was confirmatory for him of what he had already written.”
Insight 208, 567.
Bernard Lonergan, Topics in Education, Collected Works of Bernard
Lonergan, vol. 10, eds. Robert M. Doran and Frederick E. Crowe (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1993) xii-xiii.
See “Time and Meaning,” a lecture given to the academic community of
Regis College, Toronto, September 16, 1962; published in Bernard
Lonergan, 3 Lectures (Montreal: Thomas More Institute Papers,
1975) 36-37, 50-51. References to Langer are scattered throughout
Lonergan’s various courses and institutes on method. Among other places
see unpublished lecture at Thomas More. Institute, “The Analogy of
Meaning,” September 25, 1963, where he also refers to a book published
two or three years ago by Rene Huighe, Art and the Soul, L’Art
et L’Ame, profusely illustrated and studying the meaning in
Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and
Herder, 1972) 61. In his lectures on education he says: “I propose to
reflect on a definition of art that I thought was helpful. It was
worked out by Susanne Langer in her book, Feeling and Form. She
conceives art as an objectification of a purely experiential pattern.
If we consider the words one by one, we will have some apprehension of
what art is, and through art an apprehension of concrete living.”
Topics in Education, 211. In his 1962 lecture on “Time and Meaning”
he says that he is following Susanne Langer’s Feeling and Form,
“which I found very illuminating on the nature of art.” (3 Lectures,
Feeling and Form 40; 60; Susanne K. Langer, Problems of Art
(New York: Scribner, 1953) 63; other definitions can be found in my
doctoral dissertation, Richard M. Liddy, Art and Feeling 31-32.
Insight, 22 (xxviii); our first reference is to the collected
work edition, the second to the prior editions.
Insight 14 (xx).
Insight 207-208 (184).
Insight 208 (185).
Topics in Education 209.
A Second Collection 224.
See Langer’s obituary in the New York Times, July 19, 1985, 12.
Langer, Problems of Art 125. Also, Susanne K. Langer,
Philosophy in a New Key (New York: New American Library, 1948)
On Cassirer’s influence on Langer, see Art and Feeling 20-24.
Langer, Philosophy in a New Key 83-86.
In Feeling and Form Langer makes a distinction between the
meaning of literal discursive symbolism and the “import” of art. See
Langer, Philosophy in a New Key 61-70.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.0141, 39.
Lonergan refers to this example in Topics in Education 211.
Langer, Philosophy in a New Key 84.
Topics in Education 212.
Langer, Philosophy in a New Key 178.
Langer, Feeling and Form 18.
Langer, Feeling and Form 22. The use of the term “reality” with
its metaphysical overtones is studiously avoided by Langer.
Langer, Feeling and Form 45, 50. See Topics in Education,
Liddy, Problems of Art 32.
Langer, Feeling and Form 29.
Liddy, Problems of Art 27.
Quoted from Roger Fry, Vision and Design, in Philosophy in a
New Key, 238. Lonergan usually illustrates this characteristic of
art through his standard example of waiting for a stop light: “The
significance of art is a liberation from all the mechanizations of
sensibility. The red and green are signals that let you take your foot
off the brake and put it on the accelerator. There’s the routinization
of sensibility—the ready-made man and the ready made world, with set
reactions responding to stimuli—and art liberates sensitivity, allows it
to flow in its own channel and with its own resonance.” A Second
Feeling and Form 30.
Feeling and Form 397.
Feeling and Form 50-51.
See Problems of Art (New York: Scribners, 1957)28.
See Problems of Art 127: “One does not see a picture as a piece
of spotted canvas, any more than one sees a screen with shadows on it in
Feeling and Form 50; see 48.
Problems of Art 81-32.
Topics in Education 216.
See Philosophical Sketches (New York: New American Library; 1964)
76: “I say ‘perceptible’ rather than ‘sensuous” forms because some works
of art are given to imagination rather than to the outward senses. A
novel, for instance, usually is read silently with the eye, but is not
made for vision, as a painting is; and though sound plays a vital part
in poetry, words even in poetry are not essentially sonorous structures
like music. Dance requires to be seen, but its appeal is to deeper
centers of sensation. The difference between dance and mobile sculpture
makes this immediately apparent. But all works of art are purely
See Feeling and Form 49-50.
See Feeling and Form 69ff.
Feeling and Form 73.
Problems of Art, 28. Because it depends on a completely
different, “liberated,” orientation of consciousness, the virtual space
of the visual arts cannot even be said to be “divided” from “actual
common sense space, but is entirely self-contained and independent. See
Feeling and Form 72ff.
It is interesting to note that in Topics in Education, Lonergan
supplements Langer’s analysis of sculpture with reference to
Merleau-Ponty’s work on the constitution of ourselves as a certain
feeling space; and her analysis of architecture with reference to
Heidegger on architecture as objectified space. See Topics in
The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture (New York: 1932)
53-55; quoted in Feeling and Form 75; commented on by Lonergan,
Topics in Education, 223-224.
Problems of Art, 5-6.
Feeling and Form 61ff.
Albert Barnes, The Art in Painting (New York, 1928) 29; quoted in
Feeling and Form 61.
Philosophy in a New Key 203.
Feeling and Form 397.
Feeling and Form 63.
Feeling and Form 88-89.
Feeling and Form 389.
Philosophical Sketches 80; Problems of Art 24-25; 68;
Feeling and Form 84.
Feeling and Form 52.
Problems of Art 92; see Philosophy in a New Key 188.
Feeling and Form 22.
Problems of Art 25. Lonergan says: “Art is not autobiography; it
is not going to confession or telling one’s tale to a psychiatrist. It
is grasping what is or seems significant, of moment, of concern, of
import to man in the experience.” Topics in Education 218.
Feeling and Form. 33ff.
Feeling and Form. 211.
Edward Bullough, “’Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and as an
Aesthetic Principle,” British Journal of Psychology V (1912) 91;
quoted in Philosophy in a New Key 189-190.
Feeling and Form 374.
Feeling and Form 390.
Feeling and Form 390.
Feeling and Form 152.
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling 218.
Feeling and Form 120ff.
Feeling and Form 407-409.
See Feeling and Form 85: “One cannot always do the same things
with diverse materials. The translucency of glass allows the making and
use of special color elements that paint on a wooden ground could never
create; therefore glass painting and wood painting set the artist
different problems and suggest different ideas to be brought to
Feeling and Form
Problems of Art 41.
Feeling and Form 146-147; See 135ff.
Feeling and Form 147-148.
Feeling and Form 147-148. The first step in artistic creation,
then, is attention to the artistic materials for the “feeling” they can
express. The grasp of this new possibility of aesthetic experience
often comes as a sudden “flash” or “click.” See Feeling and Form
Feeling and Form 85.
Feeling and Form
Philosophy in a New Key 213.
Feeling and Form 67.
Feeling and Form 137.
Feeling and Form 137.
Feeling and Form 121ff.
Feeling and Form
Feeling and Form 137-138.
Feeling and Form 139.
Feeling and Form 142ff.
Feeling and Form 144-145.
Feeling and Form 202-203.
See Susanne Langer, “Abstraction in Art,” Journal of Aesthetics and
Art Criticism, XXII (Summer, 1964) 389.
“Abstraction in Science and Abstraction in Art" posted
elsewhere on this site.--A.F.]
Feeling and Form 369.
Problems of Art 68.
See Problems of Art 140ff.
Feeling and Form
Feeling and Form
Feeling and Form 268.
Feeling and Form 214. See Lonergan, Topics in Education
228-229. “We speak of people calling a spade a spade. Shakespeare
remarks that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But it is
also true that one can say something, and someone else will remark, “It
sounds so horrible (or dreadful, or wonderful) when you put it that
way.” There is a way of putting things that can be horrible or
wonderful. Making a spade it spade may be all very well, but it may be
very horrible. Why is that so? Why can there be ways of saying things
that are wonderful and horrible, when words are just tools for conveying
meaning? The fact is that words have not only their proper meanings,
but also a resonance in our consciousness. They have a retinue of
associations, and the associations may be visual, vocal, auditory,
tactile, kinesthetic, affective or evocative of attitudes, tendencies
and evaluations. This resonance of words pertains to the very genesis,
structure and molding of our consciousness through childhood and the
whole process of our education. It pertains to the dynamic situation in
consciousness that the words provoke.”
Feeling and Form 216-217.
Feeling and Form 236ff.
Feeling and Form
Feeling and Form 242.
Feeling and Form 243.
Feeling and Form 244.
Feeling and Form 259.
Feeling and Form 286.
Feeling and Form 293.
Feeling and Form 219ff.
Feeling and Form 308.
Feeling and Form 31-32.
Problems of Art 60.
Feeling and Form 406.
Feeling and Form 380-381. She refers to R. G. Collingwood,
The Principles of Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938) 219, 282.
Method in Theology 64.
Method in Theology 273.
Method in Theology 64.
Method in Theology 61. Again, Method in Theology 62: “The
required purity of the existential pattern aims not at impoverishment
but at enrichment. It curtails what is alien to let experiencing find
its full complement of feeling. It lets experiencing fall into its own
proper patterns and take its own line of expansion, development,
organization, fulfilment. So experiencing becomes rhythmic, one
movement necessitating another and the other in turn necessitating the
first. Tensions are built up to be resolved; variations multiply and
grow in complexity yet remain within an organic unity that eventually
rounds itself off.”
Method in Theology 62.
A Second Collection 224.
Topics in Education 217.
Topics in Education 222.
Topics in Education 222. See Method in Theology 272, on
how joining artistic consciousness to religious sensibility heightens
religious expression. “It makes rituals solemn, liturgies stately,
music celestial, hymns moving, oratory effective, teaching enabling.”
Richard M. Liddy page
Susanne K. Langer page
Bernard Lonergan page