on March 16, 2012
Philosophy in a New Key was a seminal work in my thinking when I first read it more than fifty years ago. Suzanne Langer's dictum that the way we propose a question in large measure determines the answers we arrive at was an early formulation of the modern advice to "think outside the box." I recently finished reading Earl Doherty's book, The Jesus Puzzle. He posed the question, "Was Jesus of Nazareth a historical character?" He provides a very cogent argument that the Jesus of the Bible was in fact a literary allegory that combined ideas of a Christ figure current in some circles in the first century C.E. with the legend of Jesus circulating among Christian sects and that Jesus Christ was a historicized version of these ideas. When fully developed over time, the Jesus story became the source of orthodox Christian theology. By adhering closely to his hypothesis, Doherty thoroughly debunks the gospels as History, but in doing so he entirely avoids the question of the meaning of the Bible as allegory. This, Langer would argue, is symptomatic of modern scientific inquiry that seeks only verifiable "facts." "Science," she writes, "is an intellectual scheme for handling facts, a vast and relatively stable context in which whole classes of facts may be understood. But is is not the most decisive expression of realistic thinking; that is the new 'historical sense.' Not our better knowledge of what are the facts of history- there is no judging that- but the passion for running down evidence, all the evidence, the unbiased, objective evidence for specifically dated and located events, without distortion, hypothesis, or interpretation- the faith in the attainability and value of pure fat is that surest symptom; the ideal of truth which made the whole past generation of historians believe that in archives as such there was salvation....it does sum up the attitude of that mighty and rather terrible person, the Modern Man, toward the world; the complete submission to what he conceives as 'hard, cold fact.' To exchange fictions, faiths, and 'constructed systems' for facts is his supreme value; hence his periodic outbursts of 'debunking' traditions religious or legendary; his satisfaction with stark realism in literature, his suspicion and impatience of poetry; and perhaps on the naive uncritical level of the average mentality, the passion for news- news of any sort, if only it purports to be so; which, paradoxically enough, makes us peculiarly easy victims to propaganda. Where a former age would have judged persuasive oratory largely on its origins in God or Devil, i.e. in the right or wrong camp, we profess to judge it on the merit of alleged facts, and fall to the party that can muster the most spectacular 'cases.'" Upon further reflection, Langer believes that "pure Science" is not the real culprit for ignoring metaphorical meaning behind its findings. Rather, it is the historian of ideas. "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 facts." She points out that philosophical meanings are often rejected by the scientific mind as outside the realm of "hard" science, which deals in provable fact. If Doherty had posed is question differently, if he had asked, "What is the meaning of the New Testament stories," instead of "what are the historical facts, he would have written an entirely different book. Of course, historical investigation, not philosophical interpretation of facts, was his avowed objective. The point Langer would make is that scientific investigation in general is intrinsically a fact-finding endeavor, to the detriment of finding "deeper meaning" in the facts exposed. Too often science looks at phenomena but does not see below their surface.
To fathom the source of meaning in our life experience, Langer has posed a new question to science that suggests an answer that is still "new" sixty years after it was presented; "is it not possible that the deepest truths, the meaning of life, are not to be found in scientific fact, but in subjective experience?" Her answer- we transmute sense input into symbols of reality that transcend surface meaning. Langer discusses the difference of "discursive logic," based on ideas which can be described in verbal form, from "presentational logic," which is subjective and not fully amenable to verbal formulation. That is, presentational logic is thinking in metaphorical terms- thinking that is in part subconscious. "Symbolization," she writes, "is the essential act of mind; and mind takes in more than what is commonly called thought. Only certain products of the symbol-making brain can be used according to the cannons of discursive reasoning. In every mind there is an enormous store of other symbolic material which is put to different uses or perhaps even to no use at all- a mere result of spontaneous brain activity, a reserve fund of conception,a surplus of mental wealth." In short, symbolic transformation of sense images in the mind, which are often given form through religion, art, poetic use of language, and music, provides access to meanings which purely denotive language cannot set forth, though logic and language are later employed in an attempt to express these subjective feelings. In a chapter discussing music as symbol, Langer writes, "Because the forms of human feeling are much more congruent with musical forms than with the forms of language, music can reveal the nature of feeling with a detail and truth that language cannot approach." She admits that even in 1942, when the book was first published, the various types of logical meaning- signification, denotation, and connotation- were not new concepts. "I have discussed them at such great lengths," she continues, "simply because most logicians have given them such cavalier treatment that even so obvious a distinction as that between sign-function and symbol-functions passed unnoticed, so that careless philosophers have been guilty of letting ambitious genetic psychologists argue them from the conditioned reflex to the wisdom of G. Bernard Shaw, all in one skyrocketing generalizaton." Unfortunately, this oversight is evident in scientists' discussion of the nature of consciousness and "free will" (or the lack thereof) to this day. Some leading neuroscientists are so bound up with the mechanical workings of the brain that they confuse chemical-electrical synaptic connections in the brain with abstract thought. "They have eyes, but cannot see."
"To us [moderns] whose intelligence is bound up with language, whose achievements are physical comforts, machines, medicines, great cities and the means of their destruction, theory of knowledge means theory of communication, generalization, proof, in short; critique of science. But the limits of language are not the last limits of experience, and things inacessible to language may have their own forms of conception, that is to say, their own symbolic devices. Such non-discursive forms, charged with logical possibilities of meaning, underlie the significance of music; and their recognition broadens our epistemology to the point to including not only the semantics of science, but a serious philosophy of art." These insights by Professor Langer are perhaps not new to most of us living in the twenty first century, but they are worth revisiting from time to time, and they are expressed in a straight-forward idiom that even neuroscientists may comprehend. What is needed today, at the end of an epoch which is accustomed to thinking almost exclusively in scientific terms, is a paradigm shift, to see old facts with new eyes. That, Langer would certainly agree, is the sign of a New Age.
on June 14, 2014
Most people do not realize that the iPhone is a symbol-importing and symbol-exporting machine. This book is about the meaning of symbols. And the essential thesis of the book is that what distinguishes humans from other living forms is the fact that humans are the only living things with brains that process symbols.
Langer addresses the limitations of purely and merely sense-data as a means of coming to terms with reality. She points out that not just seeing (or touching, hearing, tasting, or smelling) is reality. Such perceptions may provide elements of knowledge about the world, but humans create conceptions about reality not based on simply empiricism, but more importantly based on the RELATIONS that we create between such sensed elements. And so perceptions are transformed seamlessly, effortlessly, and often without a second thought, into concepts and ideas about the world.
Langer spells out the different kinds of meaning and makes note of the differences in function between signs and symbols. She defines two broad categories of symbolism - discursive and presentational - and in so doing concludes that all genuine thinking is symbolic and what cannot be expressed in language may be able to be expressed in a presentational form such as painting or music. She explores why this is the case, and concludes that everything that is not speakable thought is feeling.
This is a profoundly important book, and is extraordinarily relevant to human life today.
Science is the process of developing concepts that are expressed symbolically and, by analogy, mirror reality.
The iPhone and, more generally, the Internet, allow us to import and export symbols, but there is no way for the user of such symbols to establish whether the symbols so communicated represent anything real or not.
Langer's book concludes with a chapter on "The Fabric of Meaning." Here she talks about the nature of "facts" and "reality." And herein is the relevance to today: social organizations can take on various forms, but history is replete with examples of what forms of social organization are effective and which forms are not effective. Social organizations of human beings are based not simply on economic relations but relations built of symbolic content, and rules that are communicated from one human element to another using symbols.
Concepts such as individual liberty, freedom, free markets, centrally-planned societies, equality, charity, slavery, theft, private property, the political left, the political right, morality, religion are all fundamentally symbolic creations of humans which, as all symbols do, have a relationship to ideas (connotation) and the real world (denotation). For human beings to have a rational discourse on such matters, we must agree on the real or abstractable elements and their relations which pertain to these things. This book is essential reading if human kind is to live in harmony as our social world becomes increasingly interconnected across the planet Earth through the ability to send and receive symbols of all sorts rapidly from near and far.
The next phase of human evolution will be greatly enhanced if all human beings understand the fundamental philosophical concepts that Langer in this book articulates.