I have started reading Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin’s book, The Philosophy of Susanne Langer: Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling. Chaplin’s stated purpose is to help us understand the roots of Langer’s philosophical work, both historically and more importantly her mentors and sources(Henry Sheffer, Ernst Cassirer, Alfred N. Whitehead, & Ludwig Wittgenstein) and the intellectual springs from which she imbibed. I have worked my way up to Cassirer but I want to present some of the historical reasons, according Chaplin, Langer’s work has not been ‘foregrounded’, as the philosophers of today are wont to say, by those who seek to understand the human mind.
Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently bemoan the lack of recognition and follow-up for Langer’s ideas. Part of that I have attributed to the rise of information sciences and its inept metaphor of the mind as machine, and the rise of genetic sciences and its inept metaphor of life as machine, both of which seem inimical to Langer’s project. Chaplin gives a much more knowledgeable view of what happened. First and foremost, she was a woman. She went to Radcliffe in 1916 because Harvard did not admit women (and would not fully until the late 70s). Though her intellectual abilities were recognized by her mentors, Sheffer and Whitehead, and she went on to write 3 early books that received much acclaim, and she co-founded the Society for Symbolic Logic and edited its journal for awhile, and other prestigious journals published her work and asked her to review works in German, French and Italian, because so few other philosophers were multi-lingual , and she was instrumental in arranging several world conferences of various philosophic matters, she did not obtain a tenured professorship for several decades later in 1954 at age 59, and so she had little opportunity to mentor her own graduate students through their dissertations. Her first book, The Practice of Philosophy (that is, alas, out of print and hard to find), was recognized as substantial and praised especially by European philosophers. Her second book, An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, was regarded as an excellent text and the first one of logic in its modern form. Her third, Philosophy in a New Key, was enormously popular for its genre, selling the most copies of its kind for a long time, and eventually selling over 500,000 copies. Chaplin quotes a reviewer for New Key, who wrote the publisher, “I am prejudiced against book on philosophy by women; according to this prejudice no woman could write as good a book as she has written”. That the reviewer mentions his prejudice in his praise highlights the general low regard Langer met for being female.
Another reason, as if another were needed, is that she was continuing, and enlivening a great deal, a tradition emanating primarily from Europe, many proponents of which were Jewish, so that many of her basic ideas were called into question based upon the twin American prejudices against Europe and Jews. Langer read Cassirer and Wittgenstein very early and interpreted them somewhat differently and now it seems more accurately than other Americans. Wittgenstein came out of the Vienna Circle, many of whom escaped from fascist Germany to America, only later to be questioned as socialists. Some in the 1950s fell under McCartney’s evil eye. Earlier Harvard denied a visiting professorship to Bertrand Russell because he had opposed WWI (and maybe had socialist tendencies?). So Langer’s company was suspect by some.
Finally, Langer worked on subjects not generally regarded as mainstream academic philosophy. She was in some sense, I guess, a reformer. Logic for her, following her mentor Sheffer, was not a syllogistic proof of a truth, but a method for elucidating forms. Philosophy for her, following early her mentor Whitehead, Wittengenstein and others, was not a footnote on Aristotle and Plato, but a study of symbols and meaning, specifically what it is and how it is made. Thus she said we understand when we grasp the symbol’s form.
Susanne Knauth married William Langer who became a noted Harvard historian (and who left Langer for a younger woman some years later). In his autobiography he mentions Susanne as his wife but not that she was an intellectual in her own right. She was, as were most women, invisible as a mind (and that continues some today, as does the younger woman bit). Susanne Langer had two children while teaching and writing; she also wrote a book of fairytales for her children, published as The Cruise of Little Dipper and other Fairy Tales, now a rare book. By now you get the idea of how her ideas did not generate the excitement despite their brilliance.
Susanne Langer worked then quietly, more behind the scenes than on stage (though she was a popular lecturer), and followed her own path. Remarkably, her life’s work in philosophy developed along the same course over her career. Late in life she received an ongoing grant that enabled her to focus exclusively on research and writing. Reading her work in the past, and now reading books about her and her work, I have come to think of her even more as a scholar who followed her own path to greater understanding and that she enjoyed the journey. Reading her books (and this is reinforced by reports of her popularity as a lecturer) offers a grand view into her profound and rigorous mind and a delightful glimpse into the joy she experienced in bringing her ideas to fruition.
And that brings us to today’s word: eudaemonia—the joy of flourishing that brings wisdom. Surely Ms. Langer felt such as that. Travel on.