Essays by Me
Essays by Others
Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol.
44, 1971, 94-110.
Posted May 1, 2008
Consciousness: The Contribution of Susanne K. Langer
Richard M. Liddy
In his preliminary description of the theme of this congress, Dr. Louis
Dupre noted the “breaking” of the myth from its primitive setting and
the various ways in which it survives, particularly in the arts
(primarily poetry) and in religion.
In addition, he
mentioned the work of the American philosopher, Susanne K. Langer, as
significant in this area. Conveniently, we have chosen as our theme
Mrs. Langer’s theory of symbolic consciousness with particular emphasis
on her aesthetics.
Langer’s main interest has been the nature of artistic consciousness.
Nevertheless, in her early and very popular work, Philosophy in a
New Key, she included an analysis of mythic consciousness with a
description of the fusion of aesthetic and mythical values.
Consequently, before detailing her explanation of art and its
distinction from literal consciousness, we have included a section on
Langer’s notion of myth as the origin of art and philosophy. We will
conclude this paper with a description of Langer’s latest work and our
own reflections on the drift of her thought.
Philosophy in a New Key: Presentational Symbols
Susanne Langer’s early philosophical work in the 1920’s can be situated
in the tradition of Anglo-American logical philosophy. She was
particularly influenced by the Whitehead and Russell of the Principia
Mathematica, the Wittgensteln of the Tractatus and her own
mentor at Harvard, Professor Henry M. Sheffer, who, she says, interested
her in the ‘‘unlogicized’’ areas of mental life.1
Under Sheffer’s influence she came to question the relations between
the complicated conventional symbols of mathematical logic and, on the
other hand, other areas of human symbolization, such as ordinary
language, myth, ritual and art. Ordinarily, the conventional wisdom of
the day relegated these latter areas to the non-scientific and,
therefore, non-intellectual, “emotional,” side of man.2
Rudolph Carnap, for example, had held that poetry was merely an
emotional catharsis of the poet aiming at the stimulation of the
percipient’s immediate emotion. Thus, lyrical verses were similar to
laughing or purely exclamatory emotional expressions; for any expression
that could not be measured by the exigent standards of natural science
must be relegated to the merely emotional.3
But 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 in particular to the highly “formal” character of these
non-scientific expressions. Ritual, for example, is not just a
momentary compulsive act, but a highly formalized, articulated, human
expression. Art 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.4
Langer calls these non-scientific symbols “presentational” because their
materials are the ordinary presentations of eye and ear, of sense and
imagination.5 They are
the sensitive or imaginative forms, the Gestalten, of art, the
gestures of ritual and the imaginative picture-stories of fairy tale and
myth. They include, then, not just the elements of sense and visual
imagination, but materials of aural and kinaesthetic imagination as
To these sensitive or imaginative elements meaning or import accrues.
Although, in this writer’s opinion Langer has never successfully
determined “the meaning of meaning,” nevertheless she was insistent on
the human and “meaningful” character of these presentational symhols.6
For, unlike mere signals which are rooted in biological reflexes and
are symptomatic of immediate emotional conditions, symbols are vehicles
of conception.7 They are
not mere biological symptoms of the physical presence of a thing or a
condition; they are symbols highly “charged” with humanly formulated
significance. For example, according to Langer, art symbolizes the
complexity of human feeling; ritual is a symbol of man’s permanent
attitude or orientation amid the terrifying forces of nature and
society; and the meaning of myth is man’s serious envisagement of the
world’s fundamental truths and the supreme concepts of life.8
Let us develop briefly Langer’s theory of myth as she presents it in
Philosophy in a New Key. There she quotes E. Bethe on the function
Myth is primitive
philosophy, the simplest presentational form of thought, a series of
attempts to understand the world, to explain life and death, fate and
nature, gods and cults . . . .9
Unlike the fairy tale, which has as its purpose to gratify wishes and to
supply vicarious experience, myth implies a religious seriousness.
While fairy-tale aims at imaginary fulfillment as a compensation for
the shortcomings of real life, an escape from actual frustration and
conflict, myth, on the other hand, involves a coming to grips with all
the aspects of life, a serious envisagement of its fundamental truths:
moral orientation, not escape.10
Typically, its theme is tragic, not utopian. It often presents the
need for a savior, frequently conceived in superhuman terms, whose realm
is not some fairy-land of make-believe, but the real world of total
Myth and Philosophy
One of the peculiarities of presentational symbols, and of myth in
particular, is that there tends to be no differentiation or distinction
between the symbol and its meaning or import. A man, for example, is
identified with his name.11
As Cassirer had noted:
It is typical of the
first naive, unreflective manifestations of linguistic thinking as well
as mythical consciousness, that its content is not sharply divided into
symbol and object, but both tend to unite in a perfectly
Consequently, according to Langer, the myth as serious symbol begins to
wane as soon as the literal question of its factual content is raised
and distinctions begin to be made. “As soon as the interest in factual
values awakes, the mythical mode of world-envisagement is on the wane.”13
A literal interest in ultimate issues is, then, at the origin of the
discursive, distinguishing, differentiated thought of early philosophy.
Prior to that, myths, symbolic images and stories, were indeed the only
material capable of symbolizing one’s fundamental orientation in the
Common sense had never
asserted itself against such stories, to make them look like
fairytales or suggest that they were only figures of speech. They were
figures of thought, and the only figures of thought that really bold and
creative thought knew.14
There is, then, the “breaking” of the myth in the early philosophers’
distinction between the myth and its meaning and their various attempts
to develop clearly and literally that ultimate meaning of life and the
universe. But early myth found an outlet in another way, and that is,
in art. Let us present Langer’s description of the fusion of aesthetic
with mythical values.
Myth and Art
Although myth is primitive philosophy and its purpose the serious
projection of the fundamental truths of life, nevertheless its primitive
materials are the fantasies and dream images of undifferentiated
primitive consciousness; for these are the only symbolic materials there
are. Consequently, there is a long line of development from the
beginnings of mythical conception to its final stabilized form in the
great vehicle of myth, epic poetry. For the imaginative dream materials
of mankind, like the dreams of every individual man, have the protean,
vague, inconsistent character of human dreams.
Mythological figures in
their pristine stages have no fixity, either of form or meaning; they
are very much like dream images, illusive, over-determined, their
stories condensations of numberless ideas, their names the only evidence
of any self-identity.15
It is only with the coming of poetry, the great vehicle of mythological
tradition, that consistency and coherence exercise their peculiar
restrictions on man’s rampant kaleidoscopic imagination. For poetry
demands form, a unity above the separate incidents, a beginning, climax
and solution of the entire mythical drama.16
Aesthetic meaning accrues to the symbolic meaning of the myth. And
that brings us to the main interest of Langer’s work; that is, aesthetic
and artistic form.
Philosophy in a New Key: Presentational Symbols
Langer’s classic work on art and the arts, Feeling and Form, was
published in 1952. Her approach there is much less genetic and
historical, in terms of the origins of art, than analytical in terms of
the active and operative elements in artistic consciousness. Thus, she
presents a unified conception of art as the objectification of a purely
As experiential, the pattern is merely aesthetic; its objectification
is a work of art. Let us consider the terms of this definition one by
First of all, as we noted previously, it involves a form, 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.18
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
Such a pattern, then, is an experiential one: a pattern or form in the
concrete flow of acts of seeing, hearing, touching, feeling, imagining.
In fact, in several places Langer notes that the very being of these
aesthetic forms is to be perceived. They have no other existence apart
from their being perceived.20
As aesthetic, these forms are as much in the concrete acts of
perceiving, of seeing, hearing, touching, imagining, as they are in the
objects perceived. In fact, as many psychologists have pointed out, it
is the very character of these experiential activities to organize and
pattern their objects.21
Consciousness, even empirical consciousness, patterns what it
perceives. The elements of a limerick or a melody are easy to perceive
and retain precisely because they are patterned; they are more than
disconnected noises. Similarly, the imposition of a pattern or a
decoration on a plain surface makes that surface more visible, more
easily accessible to the eye.22
According to Langer, these aesthetic patterns are purely experiential,
that is, they pertain to experience as such and not to experience as
subordinated to other ends. This is a central element in Langer’s
description of art. For most often human experience, sensation and
perception, is merely a function of practical cares in a ready-made
world. For example, the activity of seeing becomes the function of
noting the color of a traffic light according to which one steps on the
gas or the brake; one is interested in “getting somewhere.” But in
aesthetic experience one’s interest or attention is liberated from such
a care and captivated by the purely experiential qualities of things;
the colors and forms as seen and the sounds as heard.23
One is carried out of the ordinary everyday world of “things to get
done” into another world, another dimension of consciousness, that
artists describe as “strange,” “other,’ “unique,” “illusory.” This is
why Langer most often employs the term illusion to describe this aspect
of art: the liberation of experiential consciousness from other cares
and its entry into its own proper realm, a realm that from the viewpoint
of practical reality is illusory, “other.”
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 feelings.
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.24
This is why artists speak of works in organic terms, noting the “life”
in the patterns of a particular painting, while another work is said to
be “lifeless” or contain “dead-spots.”25
They are speaking of the proper intrinsic finality of their own
patterns of perceiving. As Langer often states, they develop “according
to the forms of feeling.”
We have been speaking about 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
earlier 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 in these purely experiential patterns as
important from this perspective and its expression or objectification in
what are known as works 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.26
Objective expression is necessary for the artist to “hold,” to “fix” to
“contemplate,” to “understand,” the forms of his free aesthetic
experience and feeling.27
The artist’s aim is to recreate in the concrete work of art a pattern
isomorphic with his own idealized free aesthetic experience.
In Feeling and Form Langer presents a detailed analysis of the
individual art forms, painting, music, etc., in terms of the particular
areas of perception that in those arts find liberation from practical
and alien concerns. This she calls the primary illusion of the
particular art form. For example, the primary illusion of painting is
virtual space in which consciousness is liberated from the common sense
experience of space, known by the collaboration of the various senses,
sight, hearing, touch, etc. and supplemented by memory and beliefs about
the constitutions of things, and finds release into a space that is
purely visual, entirely self-contained and independent. Within this
purely and natively visual space forms are constructed and ordered so as
to arrive at a complete “shaping” of a given visual field.28
Similarly, she analyzes the other primary illusions: music as virtual
time, a purely audible realm of multi-dimensional motion, tension, and
resolution; the dance as creating a realm of virtual “powers,” the
illusion of wills in conflict, drawing and driving the bodies involved
in gestures symbolic of deep centers of perception and decision;
literature as presenting the events of human life and experience, not in
their pure and logical facticity, but with all the illogical emotional
qualities that accompany these events in real living. And that brings
us to her distinction between literal and symbolic consciousness; for in
literature the very materials—words—are the vehicle of both literal and
Principles of Symbolic Consciousness
It is indeed in her analysis of the literary arts that the distinction
between literal and symbolic consciousness can most clearly be
seen—precisely because the very materials of literary art are words and
language with their literal meaning.29
In one of the finest chapters of Feeling and Form Langer
presents some of the principles of the literary creative
imagination—operative in both myth and literary art—as it presents
events of human life, not in their pure historical facticity, but with
all the illogical affective overtones that accompany these events in
Through the resources of sound and rhythm, assonance and sensuous
associations, the events portrayed in literature or in poetry become as
wonderful or as terrible “as they sound.” The emotional quality of the
event is immediately apparent in the telling. The writer creates events
in the mode of “naive experience” in which action and feeling, sensory
value and moral value, fuse into the verbal presentation.31
This principle is responsible for the many “illogical” poetic and
mythical usages of language.32
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, both joy and melancholy.
In literature there is, strictly speaking, no negative. The words,
“no,” “not,” etc., 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.
In the poetic illusion everything that is denied is thereby created and
forms the background for the final two verses.33
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 had Alice say: “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 what
Freud called condensation, and its effect is to heighten the emotional
quality of the created image, and to make one aware of the complexities
of feeling. Langer quotes Shakespeare:
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 wind.
The literal sense of the
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.34
These are some of the principles of the symbolic imagination that
distinguish it from the differentiated, distinguishing character of
literal thought that is unable to capture this essential complexity of
concrete human living. Only literature can present the experiences of
life in their naive emotion-laden transparency.
We have been presenting Langer’s theory of art and her description of
characteristics of symbolic consciousness as opposed to literal
scientific consciousness. Langer’s most recent work, however,
especially Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, has consisted in her
attempts to reconcile these rather concrete psychological analyses with
the empiricist philosophy which is still orthodoxy in most
Anglo-American universities. Concretely, her problem is what to do with
terms such as insight, meaning, intellect, etc., really the operative
terms in her explanation of art as a properly human objectification.
Ultimately, the solution she arrives at in her latest work is that by
understanding or insight is meant a fusion of images in a process that
she identifies globally as “feeling” and that ultimately is a complexus
of electro-chemical events.35
The determining influence in this reductionist movement of Langer’s
thought is her preoccupation with remaining “scientific” and by science
she means, not the facts of scientific consciousness, but the
contemporary reductionist philosophy of science in which all the
sciences, even the human sciences, are ultimately reduced to physics.
As she notes: “Any science is likely to merge ultimately with physics as
chemistry has done.”36
If we would fault Langer for the inadequacy of her conclusions, chiefly,
the reduction of “mind” to feeling and electro-chemical events, we would
also point out the root of that inadequacy in her methodology.37
Thus, although her ultimate explicit court of appeal is “science,” she
never analyzes differentiated literal, scientific activity. She assumes
that it too is a merely imaginative enterprise; for human mentality is
at most a fusion of images under the pressures of underlying processes.
The only introspective evidence she supplies for such a reduction is
her analysis of undifferentiated artistic and mythic consciousness in
terms of vision and visual imagination: 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.38
This, she notes, is the basis of all “higher” differentiated symbolic
I would suggest, however, that a more sophisticated introspective
technique, beginning with an analysis of the exigent processes of
scientific consciousness, would show the impossibility of reducing such
consciousness to elements, such as vision, imagination and feeling,
easily identifiable in undifferentiated consciousness.39
If one is not to be trapped into an infinite series of “higher looks” by
which one looks at his looking, and then looks at that look, he must
admit that it is only because the human spirit already transcends sense
that people like Langer can present presumably intelligent and
reasonable descriptions of sensitive and aesthetic experience.
For in Langer’s aesthetics it can clearly be seen that art involves a
two-fold freedom: from biological and practical necessity on the one
hand, and from the wearying constraints of theoretical exigencies on the
other. As such art is a reflection of the freedom of the human person
himself, not just in his free decisions, but even in the freedom of
human consciousness itself from underlying physical and biological
determinisms. An important function of art, therefore, is precisely to
make human life more livable by recreating the freedom of the human
subject from every determining and wearying pattern, from every “rut”
into which a person can fall; and such freedom is in direct, although
implicit, contradiction with any reductionist or determinist philosophy
which, forgetting the subject, would deny his freedom.
Finally, in sharp distinction from Langer’s empiricist philosophy we
would note an aspect that is totally missing from her work on art, and
yet was adumbrated in her early description of myth; that is, a full
analysis of its symbolic aspect. For art is a reflection of
feeling-influenced human living; but human feeling is never merely
sensitive, let alone merely biological or physical. Man understands; he
is not only intelligible, but actively intelligent; he is spirit, and
that spirit finds resonances in his being in feelings of wonder, awe,
adventure, mystery, holiness. It is because of this that man finds a
beauty, a splendor, a plus in the material world, that he refuses to be
content with calling a spade merely a spade, that through his sensitive
being the material world becomes for man a cipher, a revelation, an
unveiling, of the One who is not seen, touched, grasped, yet
There is then to art, to the extent that it is truly reflective of deep
centers of human feeling, this symbolic aspect, without which it becomes
mere aestheticism, escape, distraction, technique. The value of
Langer’s work lies in the fact that her excellent analyses of artistic
consciousness are capable of being assumed into this perspective of the
freedom of the human subject and the spiritual presence thru art of the
One whom St. Augustine called pulchritudo pulchrorum omnium—the
beauty of everything that is beautiful.
Susanne K. Langer, Problems of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 1953), p.125.
Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (New York: New
American Library, 1948), pp. 78-87.
Rudolph Carnap, Philosophy and Logical Syntax (London: Routledge
and Sons, 1935), p. 28.
Cf. Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in
tranquillity.” Quoted in Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p.176.
Philosophy in a New Key, pp. 83-86.
In Feeling and Form Langer makes a distinction between the
meaning of literal discursive symbolism and the “import” of art. Cf.
Philosophy in a New Key, pp. 61-70.
Ibid., chaps. VI-VIII.
E. Bethe, Mythus-Sage-Märchen (1905), quoted in Philosophy in
a New Key, p. 153.
Philosophy in a New Key, pp. 151-155.
Cf. H. Frankfort, Before Philosophy (Baltimore: Penguin Books,
1949), p. 21: “A name, a lock of hair, or a shadow can stand for the
man because at any moment the lock of hair or shadow may be felt by the
primitive to be pregnant with the full significance of the man. It may
confront him with a ‘Thou’ which bears the physiognomy of its owner.”
Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, I (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1953), pp. 88-89; quoted from Philosophy in a
New Key, p. 208,
Philosophy in a New Key, p. 173.
Ibid., p. 168.
Ibid., p. 169.
Ibid. Cf. her quote from
Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (New
York: Macmillan, 1908), p. 164: “Art which makes the image, literature
which crystallizes attributes and functions, arrest and fix this
shifting kaleidoscope: but, until the coming of art and literature and
to some extent after, the formulary of theology is ‘all things are in
The formulation of this definition on the basis of Langer’s aesthetics
is the work of Rev. Bernard
Lonergan, S.J. in his private lectures on the philosophy of
education and on method in theology. Langer’s essentially similar
formulations call be found in Feeling and Form, pp. 40 and 60;
Problems of Art, pp. 53, 80, 109 and 111; Philosophical Sketches
(New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 76 and 80.
Feeling and Form, p. 18.
Philosophy in a New Key, p. 178: “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.”
Feeling and Form, pp. 48 and 50.
Wolfgang Kohler, Gestalt Psychology (New York: R. Liveright,
1929), especially chap. V, “Sensory Organization.”
Feeling and Form, p. 61.
Ibid., pp. 49-51; Problems of Art, pp. 27ff., Coleridge
called this realm of normal living “the world of selfish solicitude and
Problems of Art, pp. 44ff.
Feeling and Form, pp. 79-82.
Ibid., p. 389.
Philosophical Sketches, p. 80; Problems of Art, pp. 24-25,
Feeling and Form, chap. V.
Langer is unable to formulate a clear-cut “aesthetic” distinction
between the two types of expression, although she is certain of the
distinction. Consequently, she is forced to adopt as her only mode of
differentiation the method of listing and describing the various
characteristics of each type of consciousness. Cf. Philosophy in a
New Key, pp. 87-89, 197; Feeling and Form, pp. 29-32;
Problems of Art, p. 68. Her approach is descriptive, not
Feeling and Form, chap. XIV.
Ibid., pp. 216-217.
Ibid., pp. 241-244.
Ibid., p. 243.
Ibid., p. 244.
Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, I (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins Press, 1967).
Ibid., p. 52.
Cf. our own study, Art and Feeling; An Analysis and Critique of the
Philosophy of Art of Susanne K. Langer (Rome: Graziani, 1970), chap.
Mind; An Essay on Human Feeling, pp. 59-62, 105; Philosophical
Sketches, p. 131.
Cf. Lonergan, Insight, chaps. I-V,
The author has been influenced in these reflections by private lectures
of Bernard Lonergan on the philosophy of education.
Richard M. Liddy page
Susanne K. Langer page