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Code: TP-18 A Critique of Susanne Langers 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 incent !olapietro in which we investigated the life and philosophy of Susanne "anger. #ear the end of the session, Prof. !olapietro voiced a concern he had with "anger$s philosophy of art% he suggested that her notion of form left the artwor& something of a medium for transmitting the idea of the artist, and that this picture of the artwor& was impoverished in comparison with a richer depiction li&e the one offered by 'ohn (ewey in Art as Experience. In his essay )Susanne "anger on Sy* mbols and Analogy% A !ase of +isplaced !oncreteness) ,-. Prof. /andall Au0ier levels, successfully I believe, a sweeping criticism of the bul& of "anger$s philosophy and, in the process, lays the groundwor& for a criticism of her esthetics which ta&es into account the insight offered by !olapietro during the summer institute. Au0ier$s criticism of "anger$s pro1ect focuses on her deliberate push to answer criticisms of her system of thought without resort to metaphysics. 2nce we have applied the general criticism offered by Au0ier to the specific case of "anger$s notion of esthetic form, I will show that only with the introduction of a rich description of e0perience itself, always lac&ing in "anger according to Au0ier, will "anger$s esthetics be salvageable.

I. Auxiers Criticis
In his essay, Au0ier accuses "anger of misplaced concreteness in her notion of form, and he finds that this, at root, infects and calls into 3uestion her core philosophical positions. It is important to reali4e from the beginning that "anger was a student of 5hitehead and was influenced, especially in her early wor&, by his thought. ,2. Au0ier relates that in her first wor& The Practice of Philosophy "anger begins her long wor& on the notion of symbol by essentially borrowing ideas from her mentor. In particular, she holds that symbol and that which is symboli4ed are interchangeable. This would seem to replicate the essential move ta&en by 5hitehead in Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect where he ma&es a similar move to ma&e the isomorphism the ground of the symbolic relation. As Au0ier points out, though, upon borrowing this notion, "anger 3uic&ly departs from the intentions of 5hitehead. 5hereas he too& the relation of symbol to symboli4ed as being one of abstraction and contained within e0perience itself, she too& the relation, which she calls here 6analogy$, to be an insight into the concrete* nature of things. Au0ier sums up the root of the problem% 7or "anger, however, the symbolic relation is the &ey to getting the things in nature. . . and the perceiving mind8brain8body8consciousness together9in short, she uses her symbol theory as an epistemic bridge which, while being far more sophisticated that the )red here now) of the positivists, still betrays a set of philosophical concerns foreign to 5hitehead$s theory and a&in to attempts. . . to find a principle of verification. ,:. ;*,if *supp* ort<mptyParas.= ;*,endif.= As Au0ier notes, this tendency borrows more from 5ittgenstein and /ussell than it does from 5hitehead.

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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] !h"s, the symbol m"st, by its very nat"re be something of an abstraction in that the relation between it and the signified is that of similarity. #"$ier s"ggests that, with slight variation, this notion of symbolism is carried forward in her ne$t works incl"ding eeling and orm and Problems of Art. !he problem that Langer faces, tho"gh, is that this notion of symbol seems incongr"o"s with her ass"mptions abo"t the nat"re of the symbol to link the world and the mind. !hat is, it seems that Langer wants the symbol to be a concrete, mind independent portion of the world while also being the res"lt of the process of abstraction. %he describes the symbol as a created thing, while seeming to need it as a &fo"nd' portion of the world. !hese divergent descriptions of the symbol might well be ca"ght "p together in a coherent package by some sort of metaphysical "nderpinning, b"t, as Langer's work progressed, she seemed less and less likely to offer s"ch a reconciliation. In fact, she is noted for her later t"rn to biology and anthropology despite the fact that it seems that s"ch a t"rn co"ld only e$acerbate the problem. #"$ier cites a few lines from the opening chapter of what is arg"ably her most mat"re work Mind: An Essay in !"man eeling( !he main task entailed by the "ndertaking of a new attack on the problem of mind in the conte$t of nat"ra l history, witho"t resort to metaphysical ass"mptions of non)zoological factors for the e$planation of man's pec"liar estate, is to keep the biological concept ade*"ate to the greatness of the reality it is s"pposed to make comprehensible. [+] It sho"ld be clear, then, that by the end of her career, Langer had given herself over almost completely to positivism. %he has decided to bite the b"llet and answer all the metaphysical *"estions abo"t her earlier claims abo"t analogy by resorting to biological descriptions of the organism, all the while eschewing any overt presence of metaphysics in her work. #s #"$ier points o"t, we are able, in her final work, to discern the presence of the same problem which plag"ed her earlier tho"ght. ,y this point Langer has dropped the "se of the word &analogy' to denote the relation which she has st"died and instead "ses &pro-ection'( ".ro-ection" is really a word)of)all)work/ sometime it is "sed to denote a principle, as I -"st "sed it above in saying that a pro-ection is a principle of presentation. %ometime it is applied to the act of making the presentation, i.e. setting "p the symbol/ and finally, perhaps most often, we call the symbol it self a pro-ection of what it symbolizes. In this sense art may be said to be a pro-ection of the artist's idea into some perceptible form. [0] ,y pro-ection Langer clearly intends to indicate the relationship formerly identified by what she called &analogy.' #s s"ch, we can still find the tension between abstraction, which is something of a prod"ct of the mind and the fact that Langer searches for the symbol as a fo"nd portion of the world. !his tension is, in fact, even more prono"nced in her "se of th e word &pro-ection' which seems chosen to indicate the active role the mind plays in its formation. 1hat remains a mystery is how Langer can resolve this depiction of the symbol as internal to the f"nction of the mind while advocating material e$planations of the origin of the symbol. It is here that #"$ier's claim that Langer is g"ilty of misplaced concreteness is perhaps most clear. Langer acknowledges and seems int"itively drawn thro"gho"t her work to the notion, imparted by her mentor 1hitehead, that the symbol is both analogo"s to the symbolized and that the process of drawing the analogy is one of abstraction which is necessarily mind)dependent. #t the same time, tho"gh, Langer wants to, erroneo"sly, assign this abstracted form a material, concrete, mind) independent character. 1hen it becomes obvio"s in Langer's work that she o"ght to provide a metaphysical "nderpinning for her notion of the genesis of the symbol, she instead t"rns to

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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 analogy and projection presuppose a metaphysics in such a way as to leave Langers thought seriously flawed in the absence of one. II. Langers Esthetics Near the beginning of Problems of Art Langer clearly lays out her definition of art as being "an e pressive form created for our perception through sense or imagination, and what it e presses is human feeling." !"# Leaving aside the notion of the e pression of human feeling, the majority of the wor$ in the sentence is being done by the notion of "e pressive form." Later in the same chapter, Langer defines e pressive form as being "any perceptible or imaginable whole that e hibits relationships of parts, or points, or even %ualities or aspects within the whole, so that it may be ta$en to re& present some other whole whose elements have analogous relations." !'# If we leave aside the comple ities Langer will later introduce into this model, we find that her notion of the artwor$ is clear at this point. (ust 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 artwor$ 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. )he e pressive form, of which the artwor$ is a type, functions on the relation of metaphor which is "the principle of saying one thing and meaning another, and e pecting to be understood to mean the other." !*# )his definition of the wor$ of art itself should ma$e clear the tendency in Langers thought toward an understanding that the artwor$ 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 +u ier finds infecting her general thought. ,he defines the apprehension of the wor$ of art as being "an act of understanding, mediated by a single symbol, which is the created. . . aesthetic impression-the apparition that results from the artists wor$." !*# Note that while artistic impression is a process of the drawing of metaphor between symbol and symboli.ed, the process of artistic appreciation is no such thing, but is instead a process of epistemic apprehension of the wor$. /n the one hand we have the artist assigned the role of crafting the artwor$ to act as a metaphor for the impression she wishes to convey, while on the other hand the observer is given the tas$ 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. )he 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 artwor$ in which the impression of the artist can be drawn out. +n overview of Langers notion of esthetic involvement, then, begins with the artist as actively creating the artwor$ for the specific purpose of functioning as a metaphor to convey a chosen impression to the observer. )he observer is the receptor of the form of the artwor$, and it is the observers tas$ to try to generate from the physicality of the artwor$ an understanding of the impression the artist sought to convey. )his 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 lac$ of an underlying metaphysical system. )hese underlying flaws further prevent Langers esthetics from being able to account for what I see as seve& ral $ey portions of the esthetic e perience. It is not clear, for instance, what Langer could ma$e of a situation in which the artistic observer were presented with an artwor$ produced in a radically different cultural setting than her own. 0hile we, as educated patrons of the art museum, might be e%uipped to form an understanding of a 1onet or even a 2olloc$, a figurine from an aboriginal tribe in +ustralia would seem much more problematic. /ur education would allow us to see in the 3uropean artists wor$, 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, & Langers system seems to leave open the

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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 Langer s 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. "imilarly, 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 ob$ects. %t 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. )hile this is problematic in a number of ways, perhaps the most clear criticism here is that Langer s esthetics seems to make no place for our common usage of the word *art to denote excellence in the performance of a certain task. +,- Under Langer s system, this use of the word *art is, at least apparently, illegitimate. .he 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. .hese criticisms of Langer s esthetics are actually specific ways of making the more general criticism that Langer s esthetics does not link back into a more general description of human experience. +/0- %t is not at all clear when reading Langer s esthetics, $ust how she means either the process of artistic creation or perception to be understood in terms of more general experience. .he esthetic for Langer is confined to the process of the transmission of an impression as she describes it. %t cannot, for instance, account for what we might well think of as esthetic moments which are nonetheless not tied to any particular esthetic ob$ect1or, as in the cases % provided, the ob$ect is not a traditional &art ob$ect.& %t makes sense, when offering this sort of criticism, to $uxtapose Langer s thought with that of 2ohn 3ewey s. +//- %n stark contrast, 3ewey s esthetics is arguably the most complete statement of his general philosophy of experience with the esthetic moment being only a special instance of general experience. 4ecause of this, the 3eweyan esthetic experience is not necessarily tied to an artwork, or even to an ob$ect at all5 any experience is potentially an esthetic one. .his is not to say that Langer would have been better to have adopted a 3eweyan 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. "he 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. .his, in my estimation, seriously impoverishes her esthetic# s. III. Conclusion %s there a reason to attempt to provide the metaphysical underpinning to Langer s thought which she herself neglected6 .here are several places in Langer s thought which suggest the answer to this 7uestion 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.& .hough % think she neglects the insight elesewhere, here she notes that the artwork cannot be simply an isolated entity, but must exist in a context. % will close with an extended 7uote expressing Langer s notion of living form. %t is this insight into the nature of the esthetic that % 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. "econdly, it is organically constr# ucted5 its elements are not independent parts, but interrelated, interdependent centers of activity1that is, organs. .hirdly, the whole system is held together by rhythmic processes5 that is the characteristic unity of life. . .%f art is, as % believe it is, the expression of human consciousness in a single metaphorical image, that image must somehow achieve the semblance of living form. +/8-

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A 0ri'i8ue o" Sus nne ) ngers 9s'%e'i&s

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[1] In Process St"dies. Vol. 26. Nos. 1-2. Spring-Summer 1997. PP 86-106 [2] Auxiers ess ! ppe rs in Process Tho"gh# t s one o" se#er l ess !s $%i&% explore '%e rel 'ion (e'$een ) ngers n* +%i'e%e *s '%oug%'s. I' is in'eres'ing 'o no'e '% ' '%e ess ! $%i&% "ollo$s Auxiers is &ommi''e* 'o s #ing ) nger "rom ,us' '%e sor' o" rgumen' m *e (! Auxier. [-] Auxier. 89. [/] Sus nne ) nger. Philosophy in a New Key$ 0 m(ri*ge1 2 r# r* 3n4 i#ersi'! Press. 19/2. 1-9. [5] ) nger. Mind: An Essay on !"man eeling. Vol. 1. x#ii. 0i'e* (! Auxier. 99. [6] I(i*.. 75. 0i'e* (! Auxier 100. Sus nne ) nger. Problems of Art. Ne$ 6or7. S&ri(ners Sons. 1957. 15. [8] I(i*.. 20 I(i*.. 61 [10] In " &' '%is us ge o" '%e $or* is pro( (l! gene'i& ll! prior 'o i' (eing use* 'o *eno'e &er' in sor' o" pro*u&' o" &re 'ion. [11] An* '%is is. o" &ourse. re ppli& 'ion o" Auxiers &l im '% ' ) nger negle&'e* 'o pro#i*e me' p%!si&s $%en i' $ s &le r '% ' %er i*e s nee*e* one.

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