Notes on S. Langer

*Key terms and definitions

*Tanya was defining other key terms used by Langer

Form – Langer distinguishes between abstract form and a more precise form. In the abstract sense, form or “logical form,” is involved in the notion of expression and means structure, articulation, a whole resulting from the relation of mutually dependent factors” (Problems of Art, 16). But the more precise definition of form she uses is “the way the whole is put together” (16).

Langer is concerned with logical form, which art makes use of. She uses the example of lampshades to define logical form. She illustrates how we determine if two lampshades are the same by recognizing “interrelations among an object’s various dimension,” which cause us to see that “their respective spatial factors are put together in the same way” (P of A 17).

Route: the “journey” taken in looking at objects to determine common elements and/or spatial factors.

Some forms she points out can be dynamic. Ex. Waterfalls. The form of waterfalls is the form of motions. Rivers are dynamic too, but as she points out dried riverbeds hold the shape of a river, so “its shape is static, but it expresses the dynamic form of the river” (19). Here then is a relationship between a dynamic and static form—a relationship she says is very important.

Rule of translation: “one instance of logical form is shown to correspond formally to another” (19). In some cases, this translation is what makes the form distinguishable. This translation is abstract thought in action and again allows two seemingly different but analagous forms to be conceived as the same.

Expressive form: “any perceptible or imaginable whole that exhibits relationships of parts, or points, or even qualities or aspects within the whole, so that it may be taken to represent some other whole whose elements have analogous relations” (20).

A symbol is an expressive form because it represents that other analogous thing. Art, a non-discursive symbol, a developed metaphor, is an expressive form because it objectifies the subjective realm. It expresses what is unable to be expressed through language in a way that through route, the observer can (hopefully) understands an artist’s inner or felt life (experience + feelings) through his or her expressive form.

Art: a non-discursive symbol, a developed metaphor, the logic of consciousness, the objective presentation of subjective inner life intended to help audience understand the artist’s inner life (P of A 24) “Art is the objectification of feeling, and the subjectification of nature.”

Philosophy: “A philosophy is characterized more by the formulation of its problems than by its solutions of them” (Key p. 4) “formulation and logical exploration of concepts” (Process of Feeling 4)

Language acquisition: the process of accumulating more verbal symbols (Key 36)

Symbolic transformation: sensory experience + feelings > symbolization > felt as logical thought > discursive symbolism > expression through language OR sensory experience + feelings > symbolization > felt as non-logical thought or ineffable thought > non-discursive symbolism >expression through art (my interpretation)

Symbolism: Symbolism was the ‘new key’ to understanding how the human mind transformed the primal need to express oneself Peg Brand, “Susanne Katherina Knauth Langer” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London, 1998. (

Symbolization: the act of translating experience into symbols (my interpretation)

Psychical phase: felt process felt within the organ in which it occurs (P of F 10)

Consciousness: “the mode or degree of feeling which marks a creature’s mental activities as a whole at a given time” (P of F 13)

Act: special event within, part of a process, that is often unfelt (P of F 20)

Discourse—use of language in which “we can communicate, by producing a serried array of audible or visible words, in a pattern commonly known, and readily understood to reflect our multi-farious concepts and percepts and their interconnections” (P of A 21).

Notes on “The Process of Feeling”

In “The Process of Feeling,” Susanne Langer addresses the notion commonly held by social scientists that feelings, consciousness, and/or subjective experience cannot be described by science. Consequently, she claims, many social scientists think feelings, consciousness, and/or subjective experience can only be philosophized about with no foundation in science (3). Langer argues, however, that philosophy is based on the science of knowing. What is difficult, Langer admits, is figuring out the science of mental activities. She claims in order to develop a sound science of the mind a clear, meanings of working concepts such as “felt,” “subjective,” “conscious,” and “mental” need to be defined. After pointing out why psychology is inadequate for this project of the mind, Langer turns to the field of biology to see if she can get to the root of these concepts. She first defines “feeling” as anything that can be felt (8) and explains if one recognizes that feeling is part of an action or process rather than a final product, then it is possible to investigate of mental function (9-10).

In order to make this point clear, Langer then points out that feeling is the “general basis of all mental experience—sensation, emotion, imagination, recollection, and reasoning” (11) and explains the difference between the two categories of feeling—sensibility and emotivity—by pointing out the sensibility is process from the outside which is “felt as impact” while emotivity is process that begins from the inside and is “felt as action” (12). Another way of explaining this notion of feelings coming from outside and inside can be explained in terms of objecitivity and subjectivity. Langer explains that a high, almost overbearing, amount of objective sensory data is absorbed by our nervous system in every moment of our lives. Some of these sensory experiences are never felt, but some, the subjective ones, are felt as action (22). These subjective felt actions come in the form of concerted thought or distinct emotions, which lead to self-awareness. Langer concludes her essay by explaining that our brain’s tendency to express, form ideas, be logical, communicate is a self-motivated act to help us cope with life (24). Emotions triggered by objective experiences are actions within that lead to some kind of symbolic act.

This summary is the best I can do to translate Langer’s theory of the mental workings of our inner life. I think I follow Langer but I get confused at very end when she begins to speak of the objective and subjective. Rather than trying desperately to understand the final part of her explanation though, I am going to read on to see if next excerpt would clarify this one. I think it will, but at the same time, often the more I go back and reread somone’s theories, the more confused I get. Hopefully this will not happen.

What I can say is that much of what Langer says in this excerpt is intriguing. I find it interesting that I have tended to pass certain feelings or thoughts off as part of my unconscious mind buying into the belief that there is no other possible explanation for mental functions. I have always been a bit troubled by the concept of the unconscious. I have always perceived it to be this black hole/cauldron in our minds that sucks up memories and lets them fester until they affect our actions in uncontrollable often self destructive ways. Langer’s explanation of the mind is comforting to me. It helps me feel as if my brain really is in control and is behaving in my best interest. It does not always react to every sensory experience because I would go crazy if it did. But with Langer’s theory, there doesn’t seem to be some black hole lurking in my brain. Rather the brain is choosing to dispose of sensory experiences that I don’t need to absorb and react to.

Philosophy in a New Key—Symbolic Transformation

Rather than summarize the entire article here I am going to try to translate in my own words how I perceive Langer’s theory of symbolic transformation. I have worked really hard to grasp this theory and here is the formula I came up with:

Symbolic transformation: sensory experience + feelings > symbolization > felt as logical thought > discursive symbolism > expression through language OR sensory experience + feelings > symbolization > felt as non-logical thought or ineffable thought > non-discursive symbolism >expression through art (my interpretation)

Symbolization, Langer says is the “essential act of thought” which is why it must precede thought (41). The act of symbolization, if I am understanding it, is the act of translating experience into symbols. By saying that “symbolization is pre-rationative rather than pre-rational” (42), Langer means that symbolization occurs before the thought process begins, before the reasoning begins. Experience is immediately transferred to certain kinds of symbols which are then symbolized into ultimately other kinds of symbols. Symbolization, then, is different from symbolism because the outcome of symbolization is either discursive symbols or non-discursive symbols. Some acts of symbolization lead to ideas and others don’t.

Langer explains we do not express ideas simply for the “sheer expression of ideas” (43). Yes, we do express ideas for practical reasons, but we also express ideas to survive. She points out that expressing ideas is important, but expressing ideas is not the only kind of symbolic process that we use to make sense of experience and feelings (45). Speech is only one end result of symbolic transformation. Ritual, for instance, is another—the kind done for survival (45). Langer explains why it is important to understand that speech is only one kind of symbolic process. She says this acknowledgment is important because most people assume two things: one that language is only means of articulating thought; two, that everything which is unspeakable is feeling. She says though that “presentational symbolism” is another way in which we articulate thought, only these thoughts are often ineffable. “Presentational symbolism” or non-discursive symbolism is needed to articulate thoughts that discursive language (denotation) can’t adequately express (97). Langer explains that felt action is most often what can not be expressed through language. She says music, art, dance, myth, (perhaps not in this text but elsewhere in her scholarship) religion are symbolic making systems that articulate this felt action.

In this excerpt, Langer provides scientific based justification for opening the canon. Earlier we read an argument by Gaines to expand the canon by enlarging our notions of what constitute rhetoric. Here Langer provides sound reasoning as to why we should do just that. She illustrates how non-discursive acts are meaning making acts that are an articulation of ideas. In a sense then, these non-discursive acts—dreams, myths, religion, dance, art—are driven by motives. That motive as she explains in “Problems of Art” is expressiveness, the drive to help one’s audience understand his or her inner life. Therefore, these non-discursive symbol making acts are worthy of rhetorical study since they are means of persuading one to understand.

“Problems of Art” (written before the other two)

Langer begins by explaining how important it is when researching to find similarities and explore those similarities in order to discover relations and abstract principles and/or find differences and discover where differences end and essence appears (14). She claims that only at this deep level of investigation can one see the true essence of Art. She then asserts that expressiveness is the same in all art works—expressive forms created for our perception through sense or imagination which express human feeling (14-15). After making this big claim, she defines form (see definition of form above in my list of terms and definitions), “expressive, and “created” in order to defend it. She claims discourse—use of language in which “we can communicate, by producing a serried array of audible or visible words, in a pattern commonly known, and readily understood to reflect our multi-farious concepts and percepts and their interconnections” (21) is used to expressive logical ideas, knowable and definable. Yet, she explains, that discursive formulation cannot expressive subjective aspects of experience (22). These subjective aspects, this inner life, which we try to define with names of emotions, is unable to be articulated through language because one it is partly unknowable but two our intuitive understanding is wider than our discourse (23). Langer explains, we result to metaphor in these exact situations, for metaphor, which is not a language, is an idea which allows us to say one thing but mean another because of analogous relations (23). What she says we must understand toward the end of this lecture is that art, an extended metaphor, presents felt action for contemplation; therefore, what determines good art is its ability to articulate and present “feeling to our understanding” (25). Art is an expression then of a “conception of life, emotion, inward reality”—a ineffable logic of consciousness itself” (26).

I really responded strongly to this lecture. One reason, and I am kind of embarrassed to say this because I seem to have epiphanies or come to certain understandings much later in life than some, is that I finally understand what people say when they say good art is a piece that moves you. In hearing this expression, I always thought that meant that in order for a piece of art to be good, I had to be moved by it. But Langer complicates this interpretation. According to her, good art moves one to understand what the artist is saying about our inner lives. Good art then depends our understanding of ourselves.

I also really appreciated the section on metaphor. Langer defines metaphor in a way that completely explains why we use them and why we should use them. As a short story writer, in the past I have tended to use metaphors too readily. I don’t think I understood why I was using them; I just knew other writers used them, and some who used them exceptionally well (Flannery O’Connor) were good writers strictly because they were masters of the metaphor. What I now realize is that we should reserve using metaphors for their functional purpose—to express our inner life our felt actions which we can not find words to express. I wonder if Flannery O’Connor realized this….

Langer’s definition of discourse is also interesting. She says discourse is the use of audible words which everyone in a particular community can understand. In the chapter of Philosophy in a New Key, “Discursive and Presentational Forms,” she discusses how words have fixed meanings (94). Words do have fixed meanings in discourse communities. The interesting thing to me is that a word’s meaning is only fixed for a particular discourse community and that once you step outside that community the meaning of the word might very well change. So do words really have fixed meanings then or only in discourse? Langer seems to answer this, according to Lyons; “A word can function many contexts, even create new meaning through new contexts” (274). But according to this, the function of a word changes rather than the meaning itself. For some reason, it is difficult for me to see the difference between meaning and function. I’d like to go this section of Langer’s text and read more.

“Susanne K. Langer: Mother and Midwife at the Rebirth of Rhetoric” –Lyons (1995)

In this article, Lyons attempts to demonstrate that Langer’s identification of feeling happening before logic, her emphasis on cultural construction of language and knowledge, and her refusal to privilege language over other forms of non-discursive systems positions Langer not only as a leader in the rebirth of rhetoric but also a leader in feminist thought. After pointing out how Langer has never been fully received or recognized for her work, Lyons translates Langer’s work from philosophy to rhetoric by demonstrating that Langer was concerned with both ways (systems) of knowing and discourse; more so, Langer was concerned with language and social change, motivation of a speaker, the aspects of language that move others, and the connections between speaker and audience (269 – 272). In Philosophy in a New Key, Lyons points out that Langer “demonstrates that thinking, feeling, society, and language are all inseparable” by showing that meaning is created through social interaction and shared interpretation, which is only made possible by community (272). Langer, according to Lyons, thus not only claims meaning of language is determined by communal beliefs and rituals, but that change in meaning is only possible through shared experience as well. [Here, Langer is addressing my question about meaning vs. function.] Language, Langer explains, is necessary for communities because it is the means by which society like the individual copes with the world. Therefore, communities are motivated to create meaning through language to make sense of their world and function within it (274). Change in meaning is made possible in discourse, explains Langer, in three mediated: a.) individual conception can offer new insights which are adopted by community; b.) people together can understand this new insight through metaphor (discursive or non-discursive); c.) and because discourse is stratified within a community, underlying discourses can influence dominant ones (275). Lyons argues that it is this mediation or “intimacy” between speaker and audience that makes Langer’s philosophical work so progressive in terms of rhetorical theory.
Lyons then turns toward pointing out that even though there is no proof that other rhetorical theorists working toward new understandings about the motive of language, Langer’s theories must have influences major rhetorical theorists such as Burke, Perelman, and Olbrechts-Tyteca. Lyons points out that whereas Burke once thought language was a “violence” used on others, later, supposedly after Langer’s Philosophies in a New Key, he came to see that language was more communal than that. His theory of identification and/or consubstantiality” is similar to Langer’s theory on the purpose of art. Lyons also points out that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca who once thought language was motivated by the need to persuade came to see that a “community of the minds” was more accurate (280). Therefore, although there is no proof, Langer’s work did seem to influence major rhetoricians in our field.
Lyons then explains how a re-reading of Langer’s work can posit Langer as a feminist. She points out that by demonstrating how feelings were the basis in thought and language, Langer “confronted a logocentric, individualistic model of philosophical thought” (282). Also, by “applying her understanding that ‘transformation of experience into concepts…is the motive of language’ and here concern with change in discursive systems, she worked towards describing a semiotic model that privileged her expereience (282). Lyons also argues that Langer’s work addresses notions of difference by “transforming attributes of women’s differences [thought processes] into the basis of all human processes” (282). For these reasons, Lyons sees Langer’s work as subversive to the tradition of a male-dominated knowledge of philosophy and language. At the end of her essay, Lyons reiterates that for all the reasons she covered in her essay, Langer “created space for the rebirth of Rhetorica” (283).

Lyons makes a smart rhetorical move at the end with the phrases “creating space” and “Rhetorica.” I wonder why though she chose to not use “Rhetorica” in the title. I suppose she is trying to argue that Langer feminized the rhetorical tradition and, therefore, changed the shape of Rhetoric. Upon first reading, I really felt Lyons argument was far-fetched. The obvious missing link is that there is no proof Langer was read. Lyons leaves no room for the fact that scholars can come to same realizations on their own. Could this move toward the communal side of language been a simultaneous happening? After all, many scholars in many different fields were investigating symbolism at this time.

Nonetheless, I really appreciated Lyons re-reading of Langer’s work. This article not only serves as a strong model for the final paper we will write in this course, but Lyon’s means of investigation or way of seeing, gaze if you will, has a lot to teach us about conducting research and feminist rhetoric. Between Goggin and Lyon’s work, along with my recent discovery of transnational feminism, which utilizes post-colonial and critical race theory, and recent reading of Available Means, I am beginning to see the enormous value in feminist rhetoric. In fact, for Eileen’s paper, I am going to research what is being done at the intersection of transnational feminism and rhetoric. I think for this classes paper, I would like to stick with Langer now. I have already read a lot of secondary readings about her and want to dive into Langer’s texts to read for myself.


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One response to “Notes on S. Langer

  1. Laurie –
    Your summary is so helpful to me in really connecting Langer with Burke. (And I agree that Lyons fails to see that contextual/situational moments can create convergences in scholarship that are outside of literal exchanges of ideas between individuals.)
    Some ideas about Burke/Langer connections –
    both see motivation as the rise of communication.. yet Burke sees, I think but of course could be really wrong here, symbolism as always “misused.” It isn’t until he thinks about identification – the process of audience “identifying” with the speaker – and consubstantiality – the communication through this identification – that Burke even suggests (not explicitly, obviously) that language might be non-discursive. In the moment of consubstantiality communication isn’t necessarily verbal – in fact Burke says that consubstantiality REPLACES persuasion in this moment. The interaction (the move from motion to action) is meaning making, in Berthoff’s terms, for Burke. Rhetoric, for Burke, is the bridge between identification and action, I think… The greatest commonality between Burke and Langer is their reliance upon relationships and causality to understand the human mind and world. Langer’s “feelings” = Burke’s “grammar of motives.” With that except that Burke, embracing logocentrism, seems to privilege the discursive nature of symbolism innately while Langer, working against the Freud/Lacan heritage of logocentrism, privileges the non-discursive nature of symbolism. Burke claims that “wherever there is persuasion there is rhetoric. And wherever there is meaning there is persuasion.” He talks about the self as the ultimate audience in which inter/intra-personal communication is ultimate rhetoric… which seems to be a logocentric way of arguing that the ultimate rhetoric goal, in Langer’s terms, is expression of “the inner workings of the human mind” in the presentation that is non-discursive language, art. Langer sheds logocentrism and in doing so asserts the feminist ideology that “the Word” didn’t come to order/enforce social structures (like patriarchy). The word, both Langer and Burke agree, is a “misuse” of symbolism… and must be overcome by new “exchanges” within community (think Mary Pratt here!)…
    More soon… internet guy is here…

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