Susanne Langer Quotes

Susanne Katherina Langer, 1895 – 1985

Born: 20 December 1895, Manhattan, New York
Died: 17 July 1985, Old Lyme, Connecticut

Born Susanne Katherina Knauth, she was raised in a family where only German was spoken. Her father was a corporate lawyer and amateur musician, Susanne took piano and music and played the cello throughout her life. Her mother was literary, Susanne read Kant in the German original and Louisa May Alcott in English at age twelve, wrote poetry as a child, and fairy tales as a young woman. She attended the Veltin School for Girls on the Upper West Side, and added French as a language. She didn’t enter Radcliffe until 1916, when she was twenty, studying philosophy and logic and graduating in 1920. The next year she married William L. Langer, they studied at Vienna for the following year. Susanne started her graduate work at Radcliffe the next year, earning her M.A. in 1924 and her Ph.D. in 1926, by which time she had two sons. Her dissertation advisor was Alfred North Whitehead. She was an early leader in the field of formal logic in the US, was a founder of the Association for Symbolic Logic, and was an editor and reviewer for their magazines, by this time adding Italian to the languages in which she was fluent. Langer’s major work was extending logic from the realm of inference to the study of structures and patterns, becoming one of the first philosophers to deal with the arts. She left Radcliffe in 1942 and spent twelve years in a number of short-term and visiting positions, in 1954 she took a permanent position at Connecticut College, grants she received for her research allowed her to stop teaching two years later. She finished the last volume of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling in early 1985 and died at home, aged 89.

Susanne Langer quotes:

A mind that is very selective to forms … is apt to use its images metaphorically, to exploit their possible significance for the conception of remote or intangible ideas.

Susanne Langer
A philosophy is characterized more by the formulation of its problems than by its solution of them.

Susanne Langer
A signal is comprehended if it serves to make us notice the object or situation it bespeaks. A symbol is understood when we conceive the idea it presents.

Susanne Langer

Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953)
Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.

Susanne Langer

Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953)
Art is the objectification of feeling and the subjectification of nature.

Susanne Langer

Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967/82)
Artistic form is congruent with the dynamic forms of our direct sensuous, mental, and emotional life; works of art are projections of “felt life”, as Henry James called it, into spatial, temporal, and poetic structures.

Susanne Langer

Problems of Art (1961)
Common sense is a very tricky instrument; it is as deceptive as it is indispensable.

Susanne Langer
Every artistic form reflects the dynamism that is constantly building up the life of feeling.

Susanne Langer
Fire is a natural symbol of life and passion, though it is the one element in which nothing can actually live.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
If a work of art is a projection of feeling, its kinship with organic nature will emerge, no matter through how many transformations, logically and inevitably.

Susanne Langer
If we would have new knowledge, we must get a whole world of new questions.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key (1941)
In human life, art may arise from almost any activity, and once it does so, it is launched on a long road of exploration, invention, freedom to the limits of extravagance, interference to the point of frustration, finally discipline, controlling constant change and growth.

Susanne Langer
It is the historical mind, rather than the scientific (in the physicist’s sense), that destroyed the mythical orientation of European culture; the historian, not the mathematician, introduced the “higher criticism,” the standard of actual fact. It is he who is the real apostle of the realistic age.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
It is the historical mind, rather than the scientific (in the physicist’s sense), that destroyed the mythical orientation of European culture; the historian, not the mathematician, introduced the “higher criticism,” the standard of actual fact. It is he who is the real apostle of the realistic age. Science builds its structure of hypothetical “elements” and laws of their behavior, touching on reality at crucial points…. But the historian does not locate known facts in a hypothetical, general pattern of processes; his aim is to link fact to fact, one unique knowable event to another individual one that begot it.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
Language is, without a doubt, the most momentous and at the same time the most mysterious product of the human mind.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)

Most new discoveries are suddenly-seen things that were always there.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
Music is the tonal analogue of emotive life.

Susanne Langer

Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953)
Nature, as man has always known it, he knows no more. Since he has learned to esteem signs above symbols, to suppress his emotional reactions in favor of practical ones and make use of nature instead of holding so much of it sacred, he has altered the face, if not the heart, of reality.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
Only a creature that can think symbolically about life can conceive of its own death. Our knowledge of death is part of our knowledge of life.

Susanne Langer

Philosophical Sketches (1962)
Philosophical questions are not by their nature insoluble. They are, indeed, radically different from scientific questions, because they concern the implications and other interrelations of ideas, not the order of physical events; their answers are interpretations instead of factual reports, and their function is to increase not our knowledge of nature, but our understanding of what we know.

Susanne Langer

Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953)
Philosophizing is a process of making sense out of experience.

Susanne Langer

Philosophical Sketches (1962)
Probably the profoundest difference between human and animal needs is made by one piece of human awareness, one fact that is not present to animals, because it is never learned in any direct experience: that is our foreknowledge of death. The fact that we ourselves must die is not a simple and isolated fact. It is built on a wide survey of facts that discloses the structure of history as a succession of overlapping brief lives, the patterns of youth and age, growth and decline; and above all that, it is built on the logical insight that one’s own life is a case in point. Only a creature that can think symbolically about life can conceive of its own death. Our knowledge of death is part of our knowledge of life.

Susanne Langer

Philosophical Sketches (1962)
Real thinking is possible only in the light of genuine language, no matter how limited, how primitive.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
The continual pursuit of meanings — wider, clearer, more negotiable, more articulate meanings — is philosophy.

Susanne Langer
The fairytale is irresponsible; it is frankly imaginary, and its purpose is to gratify wishes, as a dream doth flatter. Its heroes and heroines, though of delightfully high station, wealth, beauty, etc., are simply individuals; “certain prince”, “a lovely princess”. The end of the story is always satisfying, though by no means always moral; the hero’s heroism may be slyness or luck quite as readily as integrity or valor. The theme is generally the triumph of an unfortunate one — an enchanted maiden, a youngest son, a poor Cinderella, an alleged fool — over his or her superiors…. In short, the fairytale is a form of “wishful thinking”, and the Freudian analysis of it fully explains why it is perennially attractive, yet never believed by adults even in the telling. Myth, on the other hand, whether literally believed or not, is taken with religious seriousness, either as a historic fact or as a “mystic” truth. Its typical theme is tragic, not utopian; and its personages tend to fuse into stable personalities of supernatural character.

Susanne Langer

“Life-Symbols: The Roots of Myth”, Philosophy in a New Key (1941)
The faith of scientists in the power and truth of mathematics is so implicit that their work has gradually become less and less observation, and more and more calculation…. But the facts which are accepted by virtue of these tests are not actually observed at all.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
The first impression of a work of art is its otherness from reality.

Susanne Langer
The historian does not locate known facts in a hypothetical, general pattern of processes; his aim is to link fact to fact, one unique knowable event to another individual one that begot it.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
The intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.

Susanne Langer
The limits of thought are not so much set from outside, by the fullness or poverty of experiences that meet the mind, as from within, by the power of conception, the wealth of formulative notions with which the mind meets experiences.

Susanne Langer

The power of understanding symbols, i.e. of regarding everything about a sense-datum as irrelevant except a certain form that it embodies, is the most characteristic mental trait of mankind. It issues in an unconscious, spontaneous process of abstraction, which goes on all the time in the human mind: a process of recognizing the concept in any configuration given to experience, and forming a conception accordingly. That is the real sense of Aristotle’s definition of Man as “the rational animal”.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
The reaction on the part of the apes, limited as it was to about one subject in every three or four, has just that character of being common, yet individual, that belongs to aesthetic experiences. Some are sensitive to the sight, and the rest are not; to some of them it seems to convey something — to others it is just a thing, a toadstool or what you will.

Susanne Langer
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
The wide discrepancy between reason and feeling may be unreal; it is not improbable that intellect is a high form of feeling – a specialized, intensive feeling about intuitions.

Susanne Langer
The world of physics is essentially the real world construed by mathematical abstractions, and the world of sense is the real world construed by the abstractions which the sense-organs immediately furnish. To suppose that the “material mode” is a primitive and groping attempt at physical conception is a fatal error in epistemology.

Susanne Langer

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)
To trace the development of mind from earliest times … requires … not a categorical concept, but a functional one…. The most promising operational principle for this purpose is the principle of individuation.

Susanne Langer

Mind, An Essay on Human Feeling (1967)
Tragedy dramatizes human life as potentiality and fulfillment. Its virtual future, or Destiny, is therefore quite different from that created in comedy. Comic Destiny is Fortune—what the world will bring, and the man will take or miss, encounter or escape; tragic Destiny is what the man brings, and the world will demand of him. That is his Fate.

Susanne Langer

Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (1953)
We have no physical model of this endless rhythm of individuation and involvement, we do have its image in the world of art, most purely in dance.

Susanne Langer

Mind, An Essay on Human Feeling (1967)
What is artistically good is whatever articulates and presents feeling to our understanding.

Susanne Langer

Problems of Art (1961)

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