Langer, Philosophical Sketches

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

"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