Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Langer, Philosophical Sketches

Langer, Susanne K. Philosophical Sketches. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962.

Quotations and crumbs:

"On a New Definition of 'Symbol'" , pp. 54-65
On the different kinds of symbol use:
"The definition [of symbol] establishes but also restricts it; and it may happen that the most adequate and economical definition we can make in a fairly precise context, such as the context of logical discourse in which 'symbol' has been defined, is incapable of yielding any derivative concepts that might serve other interests. It allows of no generalization, no wider sense. Therefore it cannot be extended to any very different frames of reference" (58). Langer prods at the epistemology that would have symbolic logic accord with a stabilizing mathesis (viz. strict reference) that prohibits connotation--"derivative concepts" and a "wider sense"...wider sense like the "momentary configurations" and open spaces constructed out of connections (i.e., conceptual neighbors) Rice discusses as a network phenomenon, although Langer comes before the technological apparatuses and digital logics we are immersed in today (she, like Berthoff, is wary of technology...they promote something more like a naturalist's abstraction because the positivistic epistemology of symbolic logic is on the side of science, is on the side, therefore, of technology, problematic though this is).

Symbol: "any device whereby we are enabled to make an abstraction" (63).

"This formulative function is common to all symbols, though in some it is very elementary. Any sign--for instance, the little noise that a word physically is--by being conventionally assigned to any object, event, quality, relation, or what not that it is to signify, bestows a conceptual identity on that designated item. Symbolization gives it form" (62). There is quite an expanse to cross in correlating this to stance on symbolization as forming to the production of distant readings in the form of abstract visual models. Here Langer is not talking about models but symbols and their relations, where links approximate meanings (and where there are limitless linkages in the realm of connotation). This redefinition of symbol, symbolic logic, and, as a consequence, symbol systems, echoes Richards on anchorage and relay; it repositions symbols in the sphere of rhetoric, performance, and imagination (as conceptual associations and relationships) as "discursive thought" and casts aside many of the wrongheaded presumptions about "scientific symbolization" (65). This is an extension and a reiteration of Philosophy in a New Key (1951) and Feeling and Form (1953).

"Emotion and Abstraction", pp. 66-82
Langer presents a reunion of the emotive and the abstractive, sorting out the intrinsic tie between thought, feeling, perception and explicit abstraction, where the "play of felt processes" and the "play of impressions" blend as "associational activity" (80).

On explosives, imagination, and the naturalness of abstraction: "We have various devices, accidentally discovered or deliberately designed for making very rarefied and strained abstractions, which empower us to construct our admirable mathematics and rather terrifying science" (69).

"In the case of abstract conception, the role of sensory specialization organs has long been recognized , since it resembles that of the selection or 'taking out' of features from the welter of experience, which abstraction is supposed to be" (71). What follows anticipates post-humanism--the computational organ that performs the "taking out." Next (73), Langer goes into the brain science research of the early 60's.

"The Growing Center of Knowledge", 143-182
This sketch begins with the growth and proliferation of knowledge--its accumulation and divergence. Ref. the central nervous system, which does not grow, but stretches as a body grows.

"Imagination is probably the greatest force acting on our feelings--greater and steadier than outside influences like fear-inspiring noises and sights (lightning and thunder, an oncoming truck, a raging tiger) or direct sense pleasure, even including the intense pleasures of sexual excitement. Only a small part of reality, for a human being, is what is actually going on; the greater part is what he imagines in connection with sights and sounds of the moment" (146). More on imagination, 146-147.

"What we do see, however, is that the most various things repeat a few fundamental forms, by virtue of which we can use familiar events as models to understand new ones and tangible objects as symbols of intangible realities. This helps a person in two ways to cope with his world: in the first place, by making great and remote parts or aspects of it conceivable, and secondly, by giving its homely, trivial contents a symbolic value. When ordinary acts like eating and sleeping, and common things like fire and trees and water, become symbols for the round of nature, human passion, and what not, they cease to be silly and separate items of experience, and take on significance as integral factors to the human scene" (155). Read this as the "homely, trivial contents" of disciplinarity become significant when modeled. More on 155.

"The power of seeing one thing in another, which begets our metaphors and conceptual models (the oldest of which are myths of nature and human life), leads also to a characteristically human thought process known as abstraction. By logical intuition we see not only what is 'the same' in two widely different things, as for instance a burning candle consumed by its flame and a living body consumed by its life, but also what makes them different" (157). The flame-body example seems hokey, but the function of models as abstractions supporting correlation or touching off correspondences and resemblances matches well with Pemberton's discussion of models as "partial isomorphs."

"This is the constructive work of philosophy. It is by far the greater part of that discipline; analysis shapes the problem and serves as a constant check, but logical construction is its real life. It requires imagination, skill in manipulating formal definitions, and above all a certain boldness and freedom of mind to depart from traditional ways of thinking and talking, dispense with the old and misleading models, and even dismiss the promptings of common sense with lordly unconcern in the interest of abstract conceivability" (164-165).

Phrases: key words (152), image (153), metaphorical meanings (153), models (155)

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