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A Critique of Susanne Langerís Esthetics

In the summer of 2000 I had the good fortune to attend a summer symposium hosted by the Society for the Advancement for American Philosophy. There, over the period of two days, I attended a presentation by Vincent Colapietro in which we investigated the life and philosophy of Susanne Langer. Near the end of the session, Prof. Colapietro voiced a concern he had with Langerís philosophy of art: he suggested that her notion of form left the artwork something of a medium for transmitting the idea of the artist, and that this picture of the artwork was impoverished in comparison with a richer depiction like the one offered by John Dewey in Art as Experience. In his essay "Susanne Langer on Sy! mbols and Analogy: A Case of Misplaced Concreteness" [1] Prof. Randall Auxier levels, successfully I believe, a sweeping criticism of the bulk of Langerís philosophy and, in the process, lays the groundwork for a criticism of her esthetics which takes into account the insight offered by Colapietro during the summer institute. Auxierís criticism of Langerís project focuses on her deliberate push to answer criticisms of her system of thought without resort to metaphysics. Once we have applied the general criticism offered by Auxier to the specific case of Langerís notion of esthetic form, I will show that only with the introduction of a rich description of experience itself, always lacking in Langer according to Auxier, will Langerís esthetics be salvageable.

I. Auxierís Criticism


††††††††††† In his essay, Auxier accuses Langer of misplaced concreteness in her notion of form, and he finds that this, at root, infects and calls into question her core philosophical positions. It is important to realize from the beginning that Langer was a student of Whitehead and was influenced, especially in her early work, by his thought. [2] Auxier relates that in her first work The Practice of Philosophy Langer begins her long work on the notion of symbol by essentially borrowing ideas from her mentor. In particular, she holds that symbol and that which is symbolized are interchangeable. This would seem to replicate the essential move taken by Whitehead in Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect where he makes a similar move to make the isomorphism the ground of the symbolic relation. As Auxier points out, though, upon borrowing this notion, Langer quickly departs from the intentions of Whitehead. Whereas he took the relation of symbol to symbolized as being one of abstraction and contained within experience itself, she took the relation, which she calls here Ďanalogyí, to be an insight into the concrete! nature of things. Auxier sums up the root of the problem:

For Langer, however, the symbolic relation is the key to getting the things in nature. . . and the perceiving mind/brain/body/consciousness togetheróin short, she uses her symbol theory as an epistemic bridge which, while being far more sophisticated that the "red here now" of the positivists, still betrays a set of philosophical concerns foreign to Whiteheadís theory and akin to attempts. . . to find a principle of verification. [3]

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As Auxier notes, this tendency borrows more from Wittgenstein and Russell than it does from Whitehead.

††††††††††† It is important to recognize that even in these early descriptions of the relation of sign to signified, we have the essence of the problem which will later become more apparent. In Philosophy in a New Key, perhaps her most well known work, Langer redefines the symbol as a "logical analogy." [4] ! Thus, the symbol must, by its very nature be something of an abstraction in that the relation between it and the signified is that of similarity. Auxier suggests that, with slight variation, this notion of symbolism is carried forward in her next works including Feeling and Form and Problems of Art. The problem that Langer faces, though, is that this notion of symbol seems incongruous with her assumptions about the nature of the symbol to link the world and the mind. That is, it seems that Langer wants the symbol to be a concrete, mind independent portion of the world while also being the result of the process of abstraction. She describes the symbol as a created thing, while seeming to need it as a Ďfoundí portion of the world.

     These divergent descriptions of the symbol might well be caught up together in a coherent package by some sort of metaphysical underpinning, but, as Langerís work progressed, she seemed less and less likely to offer such a reconciliation. In fact, she is noted for her later turn to biology and anthropology despite the fact that it seems that such a turn could only exacerbate the problem. Auxier cites a few lines from the opening chapter of what is arguably her most mature work Mind: An Essay in Human Feeling:

The main task entailed by the undertaking of a new attack on the problem of mind in the context of natura! l history, without resort to metaphysical assumptions of non-zoological factors for the explanation of manís peculiar estate, is to keep the biological concept adequate to the greatness of the reality it is supposed to make comprehensible. [5]

It should be clear, then, that by the end of her career, Langer had given herself over almost completely to positivism. She has decided to bite the bullet and answer all the metaphysical questions about her earlier claims about analogy by resorting to biological descriptions ! of the organism, all the while eschewing any overt presence of metaphysics in her work.

††††††††††† As Auxier points out, we are able, in her final work, to discern the presence of the same problem which plagued her earlier thought. By this point Langer has dropped the use of the word Ďanalogyí to denote the relation which she has studied and instead uses Ďprojectioní:

"Projection" is really a word-of-all-work; sometime it is used to denote a principle, as I just used it above in saying that a projection is a principle of presentation. Sometime it is applied to the act of making the presentation, i.e. setting up the symbol; and finally, perhaps most often, we call the symbol it! self a projection of what it symbolizes. In this sense art may be said to be a projection of the artistís idea into some perceptible form. [6]

By projection Langer clearly intends to indicate the relationship formerly identified by what she called Ďanalogy.í As such, we can still find the tension between abstraction, which is something of a product of the mind and the fact that Langer searches for the symbol as a found portion of the world. This tension is, in fact, even more pronounced in her use of th! e word Ďprojectioní which seems chosen to indicate the active role the mind plays in its formation. What remains a mystery is how Langer can resolve this depiction of the symbol as internal to the function of the mind while advocating material explanations of the origin of the symbol.

††††††††††† It is here that Auxierís claim that Langer is guilty of misplaced concreteness is perhaps most clear. Langer acknowledges and seems intuitively drawn throughout her work to the notion, imparted by her mentor Whitehead, that the symbol is both analogous to the symbolized and that the process of drawing the analogy is one of abstraction which is necessarily mind-dependent. At the same time, though, Langer wants to, erroneously, assign this abstracted form a material, concrete, mind-independent character. When it! becomes obvious in Langerís work that she ought to provide a metaphysical underpinning for her notion of the genesis of the symbol, she instead turns to materialistic descriptions of the symbol in an attempt to fill the role which otherwise would have been done by metaphysics. In fact, though, the notions of both Ďanalogyí and Ďprojectioní presuppose a metaphysics in such a way as to leave Langerís thought seriously flawed in the absence of one.

II. Langerís Esthetics

††††††††††† Near the beginning of Problems of Art Langer clearly lays out her definition of art as being "an expressive form created for our perception through sense or imagination, and what it expresses is human feeling." [7] Leaving aside the notion of the expression of human feeling, the majority of the work in the sentence is being done by the notion of "expressive form." Later in the same chapter, Langer defines expressive form as being "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 re! present some other whole whose elements have analogous relations." [8] If we leave aside the complexities Langer will later introduce into this model, we find that her notion of the artwork is clear at this point. Just as she suggests that the globe represents the world to a child who will see it as "the world" and not simply something which "means the world" so too the artwork is not simply something which means or points to the idea or sentiment of its creator, but is instead an actual evocation of the idea or sentiment. The expressive form, of which the artwork is a type, functions on the relation of metaphor which is "the principle of saying one thing and meaning another, and expecting to be understood to mean the other." [1]

††††††††††† This definition of the work of art itself should make clear the tendency in Langerís thought toward an understanding that the artwork is a symbol assembled by the mind of the artistic creator. It is in a later chapter dealing with the nature of artistic perception that we find the strain of materialism which Auxier finds infecting her general thought. She defines the apprehension of the work of art as being "an act of understanding, mediated by a single symbol, which is the created. . . aesthetic impressionóthe apparition that results from the artists work." [1] Note that while artistic impression is a process of the drawing of metaphor between symbol and symbolized, the process of artistic appreciation is no such thing, but is instead a process of epistemic apprehension of the work. On the one hand we have the artist assigned the role of crafting the artwork to act as a metaphor for the impression she wishes to convey, while on the other hand the observer is given the task of forming from the impression of the symbol an understanding of the impression the artist sought to convey. In a very real way, the artist and the observer represent the conflicting depictions Langer assigns the symbol. The artist is the creator of the symbol which remains for her a metaphor for her impression, while the observer is responsible for being able to generate an epistemic relation w! ith the artwork in which the impression of the artist can be drawn out.

††††††††††† An overview of Langerís notion of esthetic involvement, then, begins with the artist as actively creating the artwork for the specific purpose of functioning as a metaphor to convey a chosen impression to the observer. The observer is the receptor of the form of the artwork, and it is the observerís task to try to generate from the physicality of the artwork an understanding of the impression the artist sought to convey. This depiction of the artistic process rests, as I hope to have shown, on both a systematic confusion of the abstract and concrete as well as the damaging lack of an underlying metaphysical system. These underlying flaws further prevent Langerís esthetics from being able to account for what I see as seve! ral key portions of the esthetic experience.

††††††††††† It is not clear, for instance, what Langer could make of a situation in which the artistic observer were presented with an artwork produced in a radically different cultural setting than her own. While we, as educated patrons of the art museum, might be equipped to form an understanding of a Monet or even a Pollock, a figurine from an aboriginal tribe in Australia would seem much more problematic. Our education would allow us to see in the European artistís work, traces of concerns which we may be well familiar with, while the radical different cultural setting in which the figurine is conceived may be so foreign that we are prevented from constructing the analytic understanding of its meaning that Langer seems to call for. In fact, ! Langerís system seems to leave open the possibility that we can be simply mistaken about our esthetic impressions. Our understanding of the artwork, or what we think is the artwork, may simply be erroneous. For example, suppose we were to find what we believe to be ancient cave paintings and we thought we formed the esthetic perception of them by understanding how they portrayed the hunt, etc. Upon later discovering that the paintings were the result of non-human process or were doodles of the local neighborhood children, it seems that, given Langerís system, we would have to say that our esthetic perception was simply mistaken: we thought we were experiencing the esthetic while, in fact, we were not.

††††††††††† Similarly, though she discusses the possibility of appreciating t! he form of a piece of pottery, it is not clear that Langer would include various forms of craft as potential esthetic objects. It seems that the piece of pottery designed by an artist who sought to produce "a work of art" might be open to esthetic appreciation in her appraisal, but the meal produced by the careful, esthetically involved (in my estimation) chef would be difficult to understand under the description of the artwork Langer offers. While this is problematic in a number of ways, perhaps the most clear criticism here is that Langerís esthetics seems to make no place for our common usage of the word Ďartí to denote excellence in the performance of a certain task. [9] Under Langerís system, this use of the word Ďartí is, at least apparently, illegitimate. The artistic process is not defined by mastery, or artistic involvement, but by the active formation of the artwork with the intention to convey an impression.

††††††††††† These criticisms of Langerís esthetics are actually specific ways of making the more general criticism that Langerís esthetics does not link back into a more general description of human experience. [10] It is not at all clear when reading Langerís esthetics, just how she means either the process of artistic creation or perception to be understood in terms of more general experience. The esthetic for Langer is confined to the process of the transmission of an impression as she describes it. It cannot, for instance, account for what we might well think of as esthetic moments which are nonetheless not tied to any particular esthetic objectóor, as in the cases I provided, the object is not a traditional "art object." It makes sense, when offering this sort of criticism, to juxtapose Langerís thought with that of John Deweyís. [11] In stark contrast, Deweyís esthetics is arguably the most complete statement of his general philosophy of experience with the esthetic moment being only a special instance of general experience. Because of this, the Deweyan esthetic experience is not necessarily tied to an artwork, or even to an object at all; any experience is potentially an esthetic one. This is not to say that Langer would have been better to have adopted a Deweyan conception of experience, but only to suggest that Langer might well have avoided key criticisms of her esthetics if she would have provided a general theory of experience to ground her esthetic system. She may very well have been able to give a good account of why we are prevented from having esthetic perception of cultural artifacts or a well-made meal, but as it stands these are more or less excluded from consideration. This, in my estimation, seriously impoverishes her esthetic! s.

III. Conclusion

††††††††††† Is there a reason to attempt to provide the metaphysical underpinning to Langerís thought which she herself neglected? There are several places in Langerís thought which suggest the answer to this question be "yes," but perhaps t! he most compelling is the forth chapter of Problems of Art in which she discusses the notion of "living form." Though I think she neglects the insight elesewhere, here she notes that the artwork cannot be simply an isolated entity, but must exist in a context. I will close with an extended quote expressing Langerís notion of living form. It is this insight into the nature of the esthetic that I believe would be fruitful to pursue.

Living form, then, is in the first place dynamic form, that is, a form whose permanence is really a pattern of changes. Secondly, it is organically constr! ucted; its elements are not independent parts, but interrelated, interdependent centers of activityóthat is, organs. Thirdly, the whole system is held together by rhythmic processes; that is the characteristic unity of life. . .If art is, as I believe it is, the expression of human consciousness in a single metaphorical image, that image must somehow achieve the semblance of living form. [12]

[1] In Process Studies. Vol. 26. Nos. 1-2. Spring-Summer 1997. PP 86-106

[2] Auxierís essay appears in Process Though! t as one of several essays which explore the relation between Langerís and Whiteheadís thoughts. It is interesting to note that the essay which follows Auxierís is committed to saving Langer from just the sort of argument made by Auxier.

[3] Auxier, 89.

[4] Susanne Langer. Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge: Harvard Un! iversity Press, 1942. 139.

[5] Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. 1, xvii. Cited by Auxier, 99.

[6] Ibid., 75. Cited by Auxier 100.

Susanne Langer. Problems of Art. New York, Scribnerís Sons. 1957. 15.

[8] Ibid., 20

Ibid., 61

[10] In fact this usage of the word is probably genetically prior to it being used to denote a certain sort of product of creation.

[11] And this is, of course, a reapplication of Auxierís claim that Langer neglected to provide a metaphysics when it was clear that her ideas needed one.