Re-read 4.0: Susanne Langer on Music

If you have followed this blog the past few months, you know that I have been reading and thinking about the neuroscience of music. If you have followed this blog for a bit longer, you know that one of the best benefits of my retirement is to re-read some books I read long ago. And many also know that I revere Susanne Langer in this regard.

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As a child her family called her “Waldhexe” or ‘witch of the woods’ for the time she spent wandering there.

So last week with a snow storm in progress I re-read 3 chapters on music in Susanne Langer’s 1953 book, Feeling and Form, in which she developed a theory of art, basing it really upon the aesthetics of music, from her 1942 book, Philosophy in a New Key. The key here is symbolism. She would later in the 1960s and 70s carry her philosophical ideas towards biological realms. In Feeling and Form she developed the concept of virtual images into a highly potent philosophical concept, this before the age of computers and at the dawn of modern neuroscience. As it turns out, she was helped by a 1920s essay by Basil de Selincourt, “Music and Duration” in which he “distinguished, clearly and explicitly, between the actual and the virtual,” i.e., we listen to music both physically and mentally. Seems an obvious beginning for a path to understanding.

What a flood of memories rushed upon me when I read the following passage as she discussed the organizing principle of rhythm in life and music: “The most characteristic principle of vital activity is rhythm. All life is rhythmic; under difficult circumstances, its rhythms may become very complex, but when they are really lost life cannot long endure. This rhythmic character of life permeates music, because music is a symbolic representation of the highest organic response, the emotional life of human beings.”

This struck me in 1970, as it strikes me now, as profoundly true and obviously so. Ah, I was younger then and naïve; I am older now and less naïve and so can hope that we can raise our appraisal of art to match that of what might be considered our colder activities, and indeed, current neuropsychology increasingly demonstrates that even these ‘colder’ intellections are based upon feelings, upon intuitive impulses arising from our mind’s depths. This is my motivation for repeatedly discussing here Langer’s distinction between discursive, e.g.,language, and presentational, e.g., art, symbols and to pursue further understanding of how empathy and symbolization contribute to our humanity, e.g., the neuroscience of music. In 1970 Chomskyian linguistics was replacing the sterile paradigm of behaviorism and cognitive psychology was participating in the incipience of information sciences, its algorithms, modules, etc. Art then, as it had often been and is still viewed by many, was considered ‘messy’ and less of an intellectual product (and to reflect the chauvinism then and now, a feminine thing), but Dr. Langer’s writings, her intellectual life’s work actually, demonstrated the opposite, that art is one of humanity’s highest intellectual achievements and one with deep biological roots. Thanks again, Dr. Langer. Some will travel on from here now, but I will rest and enjoy the glow (and watch the snowpack melt).

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