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Langer, Susanne

(20 December 1895–17 July 1985)
  • Connie C. Price

Langer, Susanne K. (20 December 1895–17 July 1985), philosopher, was born Susanne Katherina Knauth in New York City, the daughter of Antonio Knauth, an attorney, and Else Uhlich. Her parents had emigrated from Germany. Susanne attended Veltin School, a private school only a few blocks from their home on Manhattan’s West Side, and she was tutored at home. Throughout her youth, German was her primary language. Her childhood was rich with artistic exposure and development, especially in music. She learned to play the cello and the piano, and she continued with the cello for the rest of her life. Susanne acquired the habit of reciting the works of great poets as well as the traditional children’s rhymes and tales. She also wrote her own poems and stories, mainly to entertain her younger siblings, and she was an avid reader. “In my early teens, … I read Little Women and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason simultaneously” (quoted in Sargent, pp. 90, 92). Her love of nature began during the summers her family spent in their cottage on Lake George.

Langer enrolled at Radcliffe College in 1916. She earned the bachelor’s degree in 1920 and continued with graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard, where she received the master’s diploma in 1924 and the doctorate in 1926. She was a tutor in philosophy at Radcliffe from 1927 to 1942. She lectured in philosophy for one year at the University of Delaware and for five years at Columbia University (1945–1950). She also taught philosophy at the University of Michigan, New York University, Northwestern University, Ohio University, Smith College, Vassar College, the University of Washington, and Wellesley College. In 1921 she married William Leonard Langer, a fellow student at Harvard who later became a prominent historian, and in 1921–1922 they studied in Vienna. They had two children; the couple divorced in 1942.

Langer’s first book was The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales (1923). As early as 1924, Langer published articles in such prestigious journals as the Journal of Philosophy and Mind. Her first book in philosophy was The Practice of Philosophy (1930), with a prefatory note by Alfred North Whitehead. An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937) was one of the best of the early texts in the field. Published in 1942, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art was a signal work in the ontology of absolute originations in experiences. The book quickly became a part of the canon in the history of ideas. For over half a century it has been a required text in graduate and undergraduate courses in philosophy, linguistic and critical studies, the arts and arts education, and the social sciences.

New Key demonstrated the influences on Langer’s thought by two living philosophers. The first was her teacher at Harvard, Alfred North Whitehead, and the second was Ernst Cassirer, a German émigré from the Nazi regime. Cassirer was a neo-Kantian thinker who contributed to the field of theories of symbolization. In New Key, Langer argued that the making of symbols is the constitutive activity of art, myth, rite, the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy. She stated, “It is a peculiar fact that every major advance in thinking, every epoch-making new insight, springs from a new type of symbolic transformation” (p. 200).

Langer denied the rational/nonrational dichotomy that is usually ascribed to intellectual versus creative discourses. The wide recognition that New Key received (and rightly so) for being a work in aesthetics tends to overshadow the volume’s innovative articulation of a new empiricism, which is enriched in her work with a historical turning and openness to the complexities of actual experiences in creativity and invention. Gilles Deleuze once said of Whitehead that his thought had served to “reunite the two parts of Aesthetics so unfortunately dissociated: the theory of the forms of experience and that of the work of art as experimentation” (Difference and Repetition, p. 285). The statement aptly describes Langer’s ideas as well, especially her arguments in New Key. In her belief that art theory must be interdependent with a theory of mind, she drew from Cassirer’s view that Kant’s critical epistemology should apply not only to questions about the conditions for reasoning and judgment, but also to the phenomenology of knowledge. She argued in New Key that artists engage in the Kantian apperceptive and critical ways of thinking when they create their works; artists, she said, disclose the realm of feeling rather than, as is often assumed, express their own emotions.

Langer’s discussion of language was central to her study of symbol in New Key. She argued that language is complete, in the sense that all languages have histories that are generated by a universal psychological quality, the desire for expression. Before words and as the origination of meaning, there were the cries and evocations of ritual. Language, she believed, is not mainly propositional; rather it is a function which contextualizes symbols into relationships among ideas. The evolution and history of language, like that of the mind itself, have comprised occasions of sublime sensibility to new insights. Perpetual growth in language demonstrates the increasing liberty to “assign meanings” to life, work, and the metaphysical problems. She said that “the notion that the essence of language is the formulation and expression of conceptions rather than the communication of natural wants (the essence of pantomime) opens a new vista upon the mysterious problem of origins. For its beginnings are not natural adjustments, ways to means; they are purposeless lalling-instincts, primitive aesthetic reactions, and dreamlike associations of ideas that fasten on such material” (p. 118).

Langer concurred with Cassirer’s argument that language gives birth to reason and to abstract thought. This claim reverses the positivists’ view that language is primarily a behavior or a given set of signs, preceded in ontological importance and in evolutionary development by the cognitive powers. She argues that “the mind, like all other organs, can draw its sustenance only from the surrounding world; our metaphysical symbols must spring from reality. Such adaptation always requires time, habit, tradition, and intimate knowledge of a way of life.” And further, “the transformation of experience into concepts, not the elaboration of signals and symptoms, is the motive of language. Speech is through and through symbolic; and only sometimes signific” (pp. 291, 126).

Langer wrote Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953) during her years at Columbia University. In this volume, she elaborated the themes of New Key by discussing the specific arts. Philosophically speaking, she postulated such concepts as a “created” and a “virtual” space through her discussions of painting, the dance, and film. She also reflected on the concept of time in her considerations of a “virtual memory” and a “virtual present.” Her ideas about the unconscious, in Feeling and Form and in her other works as well, are similar to those of Søren Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson, and Deleuze in that she discerned the unconscious as originative, rather than structured.

Langer published Problems of Art, a collection of her lectures, in 1957 and the edited collection, Reflections on Art: A Source Book of Writings by Artists, Critics, and Philosophers, in 1958. Philosophical Sketches (1962) introduced the ideas that were to be central in her three-volume work on the philosophy of mind. During the course of her career, she also published essays on world peace and on the philosophy of education.

In 1954 Langer joined the faculty at Connecticut College in New London, where she was a professor of philosophy until 1962. In 1956 she received a research grant from the Edgar Kaufmann Charitable Trust of Pittsburgh and turned her attention full-time to writing, while sustaining her title and appointment at the college. In the later years, she occasionally taught classes to have intellectual feedback from students with regard to her research and ideas and sometimes to supply a course at the college’s request. She worked in her home in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and she often went to her cabin in the woodlands of Ulster County, New York, to work in solitude and to enjoy hiking, canoeing, and camping. In 1961 she visited Japan, where she addressed the Japan Association for the Philosophy of Science.

Langer published Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling in three volumes (1967, 1972, 1982). The third volume was concluded in outline form because of Langer’s advancing blindness and other health problems. An abridged edition (by Gary Van Den Heuvel, 1988) included a foreword by Arthur C. Danto. Mind is primarily a study of evolution, which in her account, is a composite of the living world's dynamic and heterogeneous processes. The human brain, argued Langer, is the condensation of many physiological ways of patterning in evolution. For the early humans, language was the phenomenal assemblage of these complex patternings; the physiology of hand, posture, and central nervous system was the contingent material condition that enabled symbol making to begin in a conscious, enduring way. Once this process was actualized, she speculated, humanity and culture appeared, fully realized, with great speed. Humans were, in effect, fully human from the start.

Langer used a cross-disciplinary approach in her study of evolution. She garnered data from biology, the social sciences, and art as well as from philosophy. In a feature article about Langer in the New York Times Book Review, James Lord says of her broader conceptual purposes in Mind: “To challenge the existing boundaries of scientific thought! Not by chance, not by the single intuitive tour de force that is occasionally the happy experience of the laboratory scientist, but by the deliberate and rigorous exercise of intellect” (p. 4).

Langer perceived a continuity among species. Much of the argument of Mind is that “feeling,” and even the completions of “repertoires” of acts, was characteristic even of the origins of life. However, she did not regard the continuations of feeling across the span of evolution to consist of obedience to any a priori natural laws. She argued, for example, that animals do not have society or politics; there is no territory, competition, leadership, or goal such as survival except in humans. For the human, symbol making is a transformation of much of the instinctual in animals.

In the philosophical debate on the question of freedom versus determinism, Langer’s thought served the “interest” of ontological freedom. In Mind, she poignantly refuted two prominent theories about the nature of the mind, both of which are highly deterministic. The first theory is geneticism. Langer did not believe that evolution is reducible to material units, first causes in a mechanistic sequence of natural selection. She argued that evolution has been, rather, the process of organisms’ making new and unforeseeable responses to one another and to such nonliving events as the elements, seasons, and habitat. The second of the two theories she refuted is cognitivism, the doctrine that consciousness is a projected rationalism, simulable in a totalized way. “Instead of trying to understand the mind as software for the brain,” said Melvin Woody in a commentary on her thought at the time of her death, “she conceives of mental life as rooted in sentience, in the feelings that enable the simplest of organisms to adapt to its environment. Then she traces how the evolution of higher forms of life yields expanded awareness of the surrounding world.”

Langer died at her home in Old Lyme. Thus far in our nation’s history, there have been few great American philosophers, perhaps ten at the most. Interestingly, two of these, Hannah Arendt and Langer, were women. Although she was stubborn in her disavowal of feminism, still, for the women in an intractably male profession, Langer’s accomplishments remain a source of pride and assurance. It would be legitimate even to appropriate her thought to feminism, if the latter were understood, as it is among some philosophers, to be similar in meaning to Whitehead’s idea of an “event.” Neo-vitalistic and visionary, Langer’s discourse thus becomes a feminism, in that it serves to create new levels of thinking and to negotiate “transformations” in the destiny of values.

Langer contributed to an extraordinary number of areas of philosophy, including philosophy of language, metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of science, epistemology, logic, aesthetics, theories of creativity, and philosophy of mind. Social and political themes also are evident in her texts. As an example of these, one can consider her polemics against the reification that, she believed, afflicted the “common-sense” philosophies of the mid-twentieth century: reification, for example, of the cycle of stimulus and response, and of evolution as a narrative of progressive historical improvement.

In a hermeneutical way, Langer’s understanding of time, movement, and mentation melded with her poststructuralist interrogation of discursive localities, of nature and life, and of the differences to be constituted in the future. Regarding the two philosophical areas in which she has received the most acknowledgment, namely aesthetics and philosophy of creativity, Langer changed their very directions of inquiry, with her idea of the aesthetic turn as an accumulation of perspectives about feeling. It is art, she thought, that generates the consideration of the affects and their importance, and it is because the realm of feeling can be perceived as originative of values and of thinking, that evolution has occured, and continues.


Langer bequeathed her papers to the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and her library to Connecticut College, New London. A complete bibliography of primary and secondary sources by and about Langer is by Rolf Lachmann in “Der Philosophische Weg Susanne K. Langers (1895–1985),” Studia Culturalogica 2 (1993): 65–114. Meaningful appraisals of her life and thought are in Winthrop Sargent, “Philosopher in a New Key,” The New Yorker, Dec. 1960, pp. 71–96; and in James Lord, “A Lady Seeking Answers,” New York Times Book Review, May 1968, pp. 5, 32. See also Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times, 19 July 1985, and a “Commentary” by J. Melvin Woody on the occasion of her death is in The Day (New London, Conn.), 28 July 1985.