Susanne Langer on Creative Philosophy in a New Key

Susanne Langer on Creative Philosophy in a New Key

“The secret of fusion is the fact that the artist's eye sees in nature... an inexhaustible wealth of tension, rhythms, continuities, and contrasts which can be rendered in line and color." Susanne Langer

Susanne Langer (1895-1985) in her 1942 book, Philosophy In a New Key, inspires a kaleidescopic play of creative philosophy. She is one of the first American female philosophers who recognizes the perpetual repetition and difference at work in the human mind. There is a kind of cyclical death and resurrection to philosophical inquiry and she suspects that that she is writing at the end of an epoch. 

Susanne Langer Philosophy in a New Key

So what propels us toward this death of the mind and what might inspire us to pursue creative philosophy? 

Every time we put down roots and forfeit wonder, we invite death. Langer recognizes how other fields, like science and technology, tend to expand when philosophical thought lays down certain roots. In other words, certainty invites death. 

Wittgenstein saw philosophy as an activity, and this is living, breathing, moving account for the renewal of the image of thought is the precise sentiment Langer advances.

Thought ceases because we name it and explain it and then allow our names and explanations to stand in for the thing in itself. This is precisely what Friedrich Nietzsche found so frustrating about our pursuit of truth

We forfeit what Leonardo Da Vinci calls, sapere vedere, knowing how to see. We stop seeing, listening, and feeling – practices that lead to a kind of perpetual wonder and curiosity. Instead we create systems and categorize them with words ending in ism.

Susanne Langer
Susanne Langer (1895-1985)
"The limits of thought are not so much set from the outside, by the fullness or poverty of experiences that meet the mind, as from within, by the power of conception, the wealth of formative notions with which the mind meets experiences." Susanne Langer
Susanne Langer - Creative Philosophy in a New Key

Langer’s posture toward the act of creative philosophy challenges thinkers everywhere to follow Virginia Woolf’s lead in The Waves: “Open in me a thousand eyes of curiosity.” This is the same spirit with which Clive Thompson characterizes coders, the contemporary architects of our time.

Roland Barthes sees how important the light is for seeing and knowing, which is what he communicates in Camera Lucida. Langer’s thinking in this regard is intimately Platonic. Light is associated with insight just like Plato’s prisoner who breaks free from his chains and climbs out of the cave to meet the sunlight. 

“Most new discoveries are suddenly-seen things that were always there. A new idea is a light that illuminates presences which simply had no form for us before the light fell on them. We turn the light here, there, and everywhere, and the limits of thought recede before it. A new science, a new art, or a young and vigorous system of philosophy is generated by such a basic innovation.”

Brief pockets of illumination open up new ways of seeing, and ultimately, new ways of knowing or apprehending knowledge.

“Such ideas as identity of matter and change and form, or as value, validity, virtue, or as outer world and inner consciousness, are not theories; they are the term in which theories are conceived; they give rise to specific questions, and are articulated only in the form of these questions. Therefore one may call them generative ideas in the history of thought.”

The generative nature, the process, the movement that Langer celebrates as the act of thinking or mentality is action-oriented. If we stop moving, at best, we grow mold, and at worst, we die an intellectual death. 

Henri Bergson counters stasis with creative evolution. 

Alfred North Whitehead calls it process philosophy. 

Gilles Deleuze articulates it as difference and repetition. 

Thinking is an act – an event – a continuing – a becoming –  a making. The intellectual process of becoming is a renewal of the image of thought – an act or process that Gilles Deleuze argues is at the heart of philosophy. Susanne Langer anticipates Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology when she recognizes that the image of thought does not necessarily begin with sight, but includes different kinds of sense perception:

“All thinking begins with seeing; not necessarily through the eye, but with some basic formulations of sense perception, in the peculiar idiom of sight, hearing, or touch, normally of all the senses together. For all thinking is conceptual, and conception begins with the comprehension of Gestalt.”

John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, says “seeing comes before words” to which Susanne Langer would heartily agree. In “The Fabric of Meaning,” the final chapter of Philosophy in a New Key, Langer combines her empirical roots that are grounded in sense perception with symbolic and conceptual systems. The result of this convergence – what she calls “the meeting point of thought” – is what we might call intuition.

Henri Bergson has a delicate way of differentiating intuition from cognition. Langer advances this relationship by showing how these intellectual processes are made manifest in art and emphasizes the relationship is inherently practical. She uses the terms “practical vision” or “practical intelligence”. Like, coders, the modern day architects of our society, a creative imagination fuels a creative philosophy. What is important for us to take away from her emphasis on what is practical is that the process of seeing (vision) and thinking (intelligence) is “anchored in reality.” 

“Sign and symbol are knotted together in the production of those fixed realities that we call “facts.” as I think this whole study of semantic has shown. But between the facts run the threads of unrecorded reality, momentarily recognized, wherever they come to the surface, in our tacit adaptation to signs, and the bright, twisted threads of symbolic envisagement, imagination, thought — memory and reconstructed memory, belief beyond experience, dream, make-believe, hypothesis, philosophy — the whole creative process of the ideation, metaphor, and abstraction that makes human life an adventure in understanding.”

Early in her work, she mentions how difficult it is to fully understand another person’s feelings. Language often fails to give those feelings form because we do not trust its ability to articulate the complexity of thought. Even though she writes that “without language there seems to be nothing like explicit thought whatever,” a statement that echoes Ferdinand de Saussure’s poignant comment that “without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula,”

Following this logic, Langer echoes the explosive power of seeing that Walter Benjamin assigns to the artist. She suspects articulation comes out more accurately in artistic representation and recognizes the necessity of language in the pursuit of creative philosophy. 

Like Ernst Cassirer before her, she celebrates the way language and symbol become co-conspirators of meaning. After all, “real thinking is possible only in light of genuine language, no matter how limited.”

“Every word has a history, and has probably passed through stages where its most important significance lay in associations it no longer has, uses now obsolete, doubles entendres we would not understand…. And through all the metamorphoses of its meaning, such a word carries a certain trace of every meaning it has ever had, like an overtone, and every association it has acquired, like an aura, so that in living language practically no word is a purely conventional counter, but always a symbol with a “metaphysical pathos.”

The concept of trace in the epigraph above carries Freud’s psychoanalytic framework forward and predates Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology by 25 years. This posture toward knowledge counters John Locke’s notion that the mind is a blank slate at birth. This posture necessitates the subject or perceiver realize that words not only carry with them entire histories, but each word is a convergence of several lines of thought at once.

“One does not need to begin with a tabula rasa and work in defiance of schools; the seeds of philosophical theory, and often substantial roots of it, are everywhere. In a way, this complicates the task, just because the combined literatures of all the arts as well as a good deal of philosophy and psychology make such a vast intellectual background, and the important contributions to knowledge are so deeply buried, that real scholarship in such a wide and fertile domain is humanly unattainable.”

Teasing out her concept of trace also acquaints us with her notion of virtuality – a perceptual posture that primes the perceiver to feel experience with a profound degree of reality – one that is solidified through linking one sensation to the next. 

“The assignment of meanings [in music] is a shifting, kaleidoscopic play, probably below the threshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking. The imagination that responds to music is personal and associative and logical, tinged with affect, tinged with bodily rhythm, tinged with dream, but concerned with a wealth of formulations for its wealth of wordless knowledge, its whole knowledge of emotional and organic experience, of vital impulse, balance, conflict, the ways of living and dying and feeling.”