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on February 12, 1998
_Philosophy in a New Key_ treats with a wide range of deep philosophical issues, but Langer writes in a clear, accessible style, so that the book should be both intelligible and enjoyable for a wide audience.
The book starts with the proposition that the questions we ask are more important than the answers we give, since the questions determine the potential range of answers and the shape of the world we live in. It ends by proposing a critically defensible way to deal with the "loss of meaning" which Galilean natural science's "disenchantment of the world" has brought about.
Although written in 1948, _Philosophy in a New Key_ remains vital today. Indeed, in key ways it still remains (alas...) ahead of *our* time.
A truly great -- humane -- work.
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Written in the 40's, but still as valid today as ever. Not exactly PC in style or language usage, but none better for clear and concise description of the human philosophical/mental condition. As we start to scratch the surface of our gray matter in the upcoming years, this theory of the mind gives us a thorough understanding of where we are. We are symbol creating creatures and that defines us as we are constantly defining our surroundings.
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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.
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on April 5, 2010
Philosophy in a New Key introduces the reader to the world of symbols, signs and meaning with such crystalline clarity as to generate newfound interest and heuristic momentum. What might be obscure is delivered in easy ilumination and opens the door to deeper understanding of all serious texts and their intentions. This volume is a must for the budding philosopher of language and meaning every bit as much as Quine's Ontological Relativity.
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on September 30, 2012
I'll pretty much echo the other reviews I've seen here. This book is over seventy years old but still full of new ideas. Not a bit out of date, it may deepen your thinking about a lot of the theories you hear about language, the origins of myth and religion, logic, art, animal vs. human intelligence, and so on.

And if you read this and get anything from it, please don't forget that this is just one and not the biggest of Langer's works. She used this as the starting point for her later exploration of the arts in "Feeling and Form," in which she puts to use the ideas of Philosophy in a New Key. Her major opus is the three volume "Mind", which I haven't tackled yet.

Get the book, and stick with it for a relatively dry couple chapters while Langer lays some groundwork in symbolic logic. You'll be glad you did.
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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.
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Susanne Katherina Langer (1895-1985) was an American philosopher who was one of the first women to achieve an academic career in philosophy. She wrote a number of other books, such as Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures.

[NOTE: page numbers below refer to the 256-page paperback 2nd edition.]

She wrote in the Preface to the first (1941) edition of this book, "The `new key' in Philosophy is not one which I have struck. Other people have struck it, quite clearly and repeatedly. This book purports merely to demonstrate the unrecognized fact that it IS a new key, and to show how the main themes of our thought tend to be transposed into it. As every shift of tonality gives a new sense to previous passages, so the reorientation of philosophy which is taking place in our age bestows new aspects on the ideas and arguments of the past. Our thinking stems from that past, but does not continue it in the ways that were foreseen. Its cleavages... suddenly bring out new motifs that were not felt to be implicit in the premises of the schools at all; for it changes the questions of philosophy."

She wrote in the first chapter, "The end of a philosophical epoch comes with the exhaustion of its motive concepts. When all answerable questions that can be formulated in its terms have been exploited, we are left with only those problems that are sometimes called `metaphysical' in a slurring sense---insoluble problems whose very statement harbors a paradox." (Pg. 20)

She observes, "mathematicians... deal only with items whose sensory qualities are quite irrelevant: their `data' are arbitrary sounds or marks called SYMBOLS. Behind these symbols lie the boldest, purest, coolest abstractions mankind has ever made. No schoolman speculating on essences and attributes ever approached anything like the abstractions of algebra... What is the secret power of mathematics, to win hard-headed empiricists, against their most ardent beliefs, to its purely rational speculations and intangible `facts'?... The secret lies in the fact that a mathematician does not profess to say anything about the existence, reality, or efficacy of THINGS at all. His concern is the possibility of SYMBOLIZING THINGS, and of symbolizing the relations into which they might enter with each other. His `entities' are not `data,' but CONCEPTS." (Pg. 27-28)

She points out, "Quotations could be multiplied almost indefinitely, from an imposing list of sources... to substantiate the claim that symbolism is the recognized key to that mental life which is characteristically human and above the level of sheer animality. Symbol and meaning make man's world, far more than sensation." (Pg. 34)

She suggests, "Human life is shot through and through with ritual, as it is also with animalian practices. It is an intricate fabric of reason and rite, of knowledge and religion, prose and poetry, fact and dream... Ritual, like art, is essentially the active termination of a symbolic transformation of experience. It is born in the cortex, not in the `old brain'; but it is born of an elementary need of that organ, once the organ has grown to human state." (Pg. 49)

She states, "Symbols are not proxy for their objects, but are vehicles for the conception of objects. TO conceive a thing or a situation is not the same thing as to `react toward it' overtly, or to be aware of its presence. In talking ABOUT things we have conceptions of them, not the things themselves; and it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly `mean.' Behavior toward conceptions is what words normally evoke; this is the typical process of thinking... The fundamental difference between signs and symbols is this difference of association, and consequently of their USE by the third party to the meaning function, the subject; signs announce their objects to him, whereas symbols lead him to conceive their objects." (Pg. 61) She adds, "The sign is something to act upon, or a means to command action; the symbol is an instrument of thought." (Pg. 63)

She notes, "There are many refinements of logic that give rise to special symbol-situations, to ambiguities and odd mathematical devices, and to the legion of distinction which Charles Peirce was able to make. But the main lines of logical structure in all meaning-relations are those I have just discussed: the correlation of signs with their meanings by a selective mental process; the correlation of symbols with concepts and concepts with things, which gives rise to a `short-cut' relation between names and things, known as denotation; and the assignment of elaborately patterned symbols to certain analogues in experience, the basis of all interpretations and thought. These are, potentially, the relationships we use in weaving the intricate web of meaning which is the real fabric of human life." (Pg. 74-75)

She explains, "In their criticism of metaphysical propositions, namely that such propositions are pseudo-answers to pseudo-questions, these logicians have my full assent... This source of bafflement has been uncovered by the philosophers of our day, through their interest in the functions and nature of symbolism. The discovery marks a great intellectual advance. But it does not condemn philosophical inquiry as such; it merely requires every philosophical problem to be recast, to be conceived in a different form... The center of philosophical interest has shifted once more... That does not mean, however, that rational people should now renounce metaphysics. The recognition of the intimate relation between symbolism and experience, on which our whole criticism of traditional problems is based, it itself a metaphysical insight. For metaphysics is... a study of MEANINGS." (Pg. 80)

She wonders, "How, then, did [language] ever arise? And why do all men possess it? It could only have arisen in a race in which the lower forms of symbolic thinking---dream, ritual, superstitious fancy---were already highly developed, i.e., where the process of symbolization, though primitive, was very active. Communal life in such a group would be characterized by vigorous indulgence in purely expressive acts, in ritual gestures, dances, etc., and probably by a strong tendency to fantastic terrors and joys... It is not at all impossible that RITUAL, solemn and significant, antedates the evolution of language." (Pg. 114)

She argues, "The momentous discovery of nature-symbolism, of the pattern of life reflected in natural phenomena, produced the first universal insights...Language, in its literal capacity, is a stiff and conventional medium, unadapted to the expression of genuinely new ideas... But bare denotative language is a most excellent instrument of exact reason... Ideas first adumbrated in fantastic form become real intellectual property only when discursive language rises to their expression. That is shy myth is the indispensable forerunner of metaphysics; and metaphysics it the literal formulation of basic abstractions, on which our comprehension of sober facts is based." (Pg. 172-173)

This book needs to be "rediscovered" by a new generation; it will be of great interest to anyone studying contemporary aesthetic theory, metaphysics, or semiotics.
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on May 17, 2014
Langer's writing is engaging and her use of semiotic as a glass through which to view the development of human culture is thought-provoking. The impoverishment she describes in the final chapter has the most resonance for me, although certainly my own world-view invested it with more significance than Langer intended.
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on August 27, 2015
Langer is the essential read for anyone interested in aesthetic clarity.
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on May 7, 2002
Esta obra, habiendo sido publicada en el 1953, es completamente actual y vigente. Langer combina una potente mente sistemática, un finísimo y consistente análisis filosófico junto a una sensibilidad propia de una artista. La autora habla del proceso artístico desde dentro. En este libro pone los fundamentos de una filosofía del Arte, (haciendo mayor énfasis en la Música, (ya era hora!)) y esboza un camino muy consistente y sistemático para establecer de qué tipo de conocimiento estamos hablando cuando nos referimos al arte. Analiza el proceso creativo del artista con tal sensibilidad que cualquier artista se verá reconocido en gran medida en su propio quehacer sin ninguna violencia.
Altamente recomendable para cualquiera que busque una mayor consciencia de lo que supone el proceso artístico en todas sus dimensiones, así como los cimientos de una epistemología del Arte, seria y consistente... Una delicia de lectura!!
Después llegaría la continuación con su magnífica obra 'Feeling and Form'
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