- Susanne Langer in Focus: The Symbolic Mind by Robert E. Innis
Robert Innis has performed an immensely valuable service for scholars in the fields of American philosophy, aesthetics, and semiotics. Not only does his comprehensive view of Susanne K. Langer’s opus show us its development, but this is the only book in English devoted solely to Langer. I hope it may help retrieve her considerable philosophical achievement from the penumbral, fading status it has today. Not only does Innis give us a close discussion of Langer’s philosophy, but he also presents a running argument that she should be embraced as an “American philosopher” and semiotician who shares themes with Dewey and Peirce. This is significant insofar as Langer held herself aloof from the work of both Dewey and Peirce—indeed, she speaks of them dismissively, Dewey for “psychologism” and trying to reduce aesthetics to “animal psychology,” and Peirce for the “terrifying” complexity [End Page 108] of his theory of signs.1 And yet, as Innis reveals, her ideas actually stand in close relation to Dewey’s holistic, creative naturalism, with its sensitivity to the pervasive rhythms of life in experience, and to Peirce’s broad semiotic view of philosophy, which for Langer is the study of symbolic forms. The centrality of metaphor and imagination in Langer’s view of language is also repeatedly compared to the recent work of Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. Thus Innis tries to draw Langer down from her isolated mountain into the community of American philosophy.
Langer herself paid tribute above all to the influence of Ernst Cassirer and, somewhat more ambiguously, of her “great Teacher and Friend,”2 Alfred North Whitehead. Cassirer (another sadly neglected figure) had articulated a theory of the human mind as defined by symbolic forms, going far beyond seeing everything as a function of cognition, and located the birth of human mentality in the world of feeling, language, and myth. In 1946, Langer published a translation of Cassirer’s “little study,” Language and Myth. She notes in her preface that while philosophy has dismissed myth as failed science, a product of ignorance, Cassirer saw that “the theory of mind might well begin not with the analysis of knowledge, but with the search for the reason and spiritual function of this peculiar sort of ‘ignorance.’”3 Philosophy should be concerned with myth on its own account perhaps even more than epistemology. For Langer, as for Cassirer, to understand human nature (which includes the human understanding of nature) is to grasp first and foremost that we are “symbol-making animals,” that symbolization is how we experience the world even on a pre-conscious level. The “problem of knowledge” comes much later and does not embrace the full dimension of our existence. This is one reason why art is so important for our self-understanding and self-expression—and why, therefore, it is crucial for philosophy to be concerned with art and myth and the metaphoric, imaginative roots of language. Logic does not give us the essence of language, only of one aspect of it, the discursive. While American philosophy was being overwhelmed by positivism and the succession of parochial fads in analytic philosophy, Langer courageously chose the increasingly solitary path marked out by Cassirer. For both of them, the human mind stood as a unique phenomenon worthy of study on its own terms and by means of its cultural creations—including science. Though Innis does not make this point, Langer and Cassirer stand in (perhaps at the end of) the humanist tradition beginning in the Renaissance. Though the twentieth century, unfortunately, was, in the words of Ortega y Gasset, one of “dehumanization,” I think it is important to note, in this heyday of the “pragmatist revival,” the importance of humanism in the Western tradition. [End Page 109] Thus, while it is laudable to find the possible similarities between Langer’s thought and the classic American tradition, it may be that she (and Cassirer) offer something to it that it may have neglected.
Aside from offering a panoramic view of Langer’s...