Philosophy in a New Key by Susanne Langer [Cosmos Café 2021-11-04]

Susanne Langer, the American-born philosopher with a German accent, is a unique figure in the sphere of consciousness studies and aesthetic theory. Poet; author (ranging from children’s fairy tales to a textbook on symbolic logic to a systematic philosophy of aesthetics); trained cellist; nature lover; lecturer – Langer was a true renaissance woman in the age of men.

Langer’s doctoral advisor was Alfred North Whitehead and she dedicated Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art to her "great teacher and friend."In this groundbreaking book, Langer begins to develop her deep systematic philosophy, a lifelong journey through theories of art, symbolism and human consciousness.

From wikipedia:

Langer believed that symbolism is the central concern of philosophy because it underlies all human knowing and understanding. As with Ernst Cassirer, Langer believed that what distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity for using symbols. While all animal life is dominated by feeling, human feeling is mediated by conceptions, symbols, and language. Animals respond to signs, but stimulus from a sign is significantly more complex for humans.

She describes Philosophy in a New Key as the beginning of an unfinished story in the study of symbolism. She fleshed out her thesis in much more depth in the subsequent works Feeling and Form and her Mind trilogy. Join us here at the virtual Cafe as we perform with Susanne Langer, waxing philosophical about consciousness and aesthetics, placing her wisdom into our current cultural framing. The only registration required is to bring thoughtful notes to the table and speak with your own unique register and key
:musical_score: :saxophone: :violin: :man_singer: :woman_singer:

Reading / Watching / Listening

Proposed Reading Schedule

  • Nov 04: Chs, I, II, III
  • Nov 18: Chs IV, V, VI
  • Dec 02: Chs VII, VIII
  • Dec 16: Chs IX, X

Seed Questions

  • What is implied in the reading of Philosophy in a New Key? What are Langer’s philosophical implications?
  • Langer has Whitehead as mentor and Cassirer and Peirce as models. Other “recent readings” that inspired various facets of her project are mentioned in her first chapter “The New Key”. Does Langer’s own voice come through in these first three chapters? What is unique? Or a reflection of her intellectual sources? What is poetic? Revelatory? What has passed its age? Its aim and scope? What arises as timeless wisdom?

  • Is there a rising wave of interest in Langer? What is appealing to you about her implications and philosophical connections? How might a deep study of Langer apply to our current cultural ebb-flow?

  • Questions inspired by Iris van der Tuin: How do you experience relations of influence on your thinking and your work? Are these relations necessarily traceable? Are they always human? How would you visualize relations of influence on your thinking and work?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics

  • An introductory, bare-bones overview of the reading for this session (as presented in the online session itself): 20211104_CCafe-PNK1_Intro.pdf (94.9 KB)

There may be. There is conference dedicated to her work scheduled for 2022, organized by the new Susan K. Langer Circle based in Utrecht University.

We are not alone. Below is a supplementary video I found for our reading, which I am enjoying. I particularly like seeing examples of Langer’s note-cards, which she kept for many years as a kind of elaborate index system of her thought and observations.

Her logical rigor and analytical style, combined with her aesthetic sensitivity and sensibility, are really appealing and make a strong combination, I believe. As a language-artist, I feel emboldened by her aesthetic theory on a feeling-level…which I take as a good sign of healthy reading.

(Note the series title of the presentation above, btw, “Crystal Texts in Quantum Literacy.”)


for me the truth of what one lover of the arts, J. M. Thorburn, has said - that “all the genuine, deep delight of life is in showing people the mud-pies you have made; and life is at its best when we confidingly recommend our mud-pies to each other’s sympathetic consideration.”…from preface of
A Philosophy in New Key…



Inevitably, the philosophical ideas of every thinker stem from all he has read as well as all he has heard and seen, and if consequently little of his material is really original, that only lends his doctrines the continuity of an old intellectual heritage. Respectable ancestors, after all, are never to be despised ~ Susanne Langer, PNK, Preface to First Edition

Thought of John and @Lisa when I found this note-card from Langer online:

New Wine in Old Bottles

Every philosopher has a tradition, which is old; every great philosopher has a message which is new, made out of the new elements of his intellectual age, and formulated as much as possible in the terms of his tradition.

Cassirer’s tradition is German idealism. But his message is not made out of the thought of his predecessors; it comes from outside the philosophical literature, from anthropology and philology and the mathematical tendencies of physical science.

It is a healthy sign that philosophers tend to draw on other realms of ideation that their own stock-in-trade. In a time of great change, new ideas for phil. Arise out of the intellectual life; and these are caught by the great philosophers (if there be any) in whatever network of traditional concepts they have. So we find the same deep insights, for instance, expressed by Cassirer in terms of idealism, by Whitehead in terms of British empiricism.

Thought of @achronon when I read this one:

Ignorant Solecisms

Some things should not be allowed to come into the language on the ground that “that’s how language is made.: Ex: “a data.” “A statistic.” “Comprised of.”

Such terms belong to the language of half-educated people. Webster’s latest editions cater to solecisms and inaccuracies instead of upholding a standard.

A series of thoughts that led to the posting of On the Margin is linked up with a series of (my) thought around Langer. Iris Van der Tuin, the insightful scholar presenting in the above video link, has another series of thought around Langer, presented elsewhere as "Epistemology in a Speculative Key."She is researching the citation practices of Langer and two other obscured female philosophers and is advocating for research methods that invite speculation about relations of influence and power that reveal a “record of my becoming who I am” (quoting Popova). Iris notes that in academia (from where she is situated) we are not allowed to read and write in this way. This reminds me of the discussion with had around @Geoffreyjen_Edwards“Subversive Pedagogy”.

She uses Langer’s index card system as an example of a precursor to Popova’s hyperlinking methodology. These index cards, of which she had begun practicing in her undergraduate years, numbered in the thousands and the system was full of “hyperlinking”, one card often referencing and linking to multiple other cards. In our conversation Thursday, I suspect (that is, expect) we will do our own linking. (Index is a funny word in light of Peirce’s categories for sign: Icon-Index-Symbol . . . Perhaps Langer’s indexing can be seen as the (il)logical framework out of which meaningful connections and her symbolic languaging was born)

I like this quote (one of hundreds that I could choose from) from her textbook Introduction to Symbolic Logic:

Symbolic logic is an instrument of exact thought, both analytic and constructive; its mission, accordingly, is not only to validate scientific methods, but also to clarify the semantic confusions that beset the popular mind as well as the professional philosopher at the present time. “Semantics" (blessed word!) is in dire need of responsible analysis and skilful handling, and symbolic logic is the most effective preparation I can think of for a frontal attack on the pathetic muddles of modern philosophical thought. It blasts natural misconceptions with every move, not by a process of “ debunking," but by purposeful and lucid construction of ideas

Langer was often critical of other philosophers’ systems of thought (Bergson is one I have noticed) yet she does not dismiss their work outright. It is more of an implicit suggestion to work towards this responsible analysis and skillful handling. I wonder — can we be more responsible in our conversations? Our Cafes? Being responsible can mean holding ourselves accountable, to see and look with thoughtful eyes, to speak with deep intent. Langer’s “blessed word” “semantics" takes root in dheie —“to see, look” – and the Sanskrit dhyati translates as “he meditates”. Semantics is etymologically linked with Zen.

I am interested in hearing more about this, Marco.

I am hopeful this muddy, muddled mix of messy writing will find some sympathetic consideration. Appreciation to those that waded in these muddied waters of unfinished thought form and feeling


Thanks, Doug, for muddying the waters in a good way. Way to stir up the sediment of sentiment through unfurling form.

I am going to let the silt settle for the time being, except to suggest/request that we have someone designated ahead of time to lead off the conversation on Thursday. I think it would be a good idea to hear someone’s overview of the text and first come to some shared understanding of what we’ve read, before we proceed to riff, interrelate, and cross-index Langer’s ideas with other things we may be reading or thinking.

Does that sound good? If so, I’m thinking that maybe somebody who’s read the whole book already should lead us off this first time. @achronon, perhaps? I have read past our required reading for this week, but not enough to feel confident that I can do it justice.

I’m happy to do the text injustice once someone else sets the stage, and I also think it would be good to take turns so that if Ed leads us off this week, someone else can do so the next time. What say ye?



While I’m certainly flattered that you thought of me while scanning notecards, I am not sure just how I should take understand the pointer … methinks this is the stuff of PNK, Chapter 3. :thinking: It is also a good example of the importance of “learning to read historically”, as John mentioned a couple of CCafés ago. Mrs. Langer is, like all of us, very much a product of her times: a prescriptive view of language pedantically refuses to accept these “solecisms”; a communicative view is much more pragmatic; but in the end, language changes daily, whether we like it or not in ways that some find offensive and others quite natural.

For example, I love strong verbs (those that change their vowels through the three primary forms (infinitive, past, participle), like grow–grew–grown (or in English, quite bizarrely: read–read–read), but even Mrs. Langer couldn’t resist resorting to one in her very first chapter, quoting Topsy: “I wasn’t made, I growed.” (p. 16) … and that in such a serious, scholarly, academic treatise. Tsk, tsk.

But what I really wanted to add has more to do with another thought you brought up, to wit:

In a time long ago in a land perhaps not so far away, there were only index cards. When I was a youngster and first went to the local public library (just shy of 3/4 century ago), books were catalogues and found using an index-card system: paper cards in wooden-box draws in lovely stained cabinets;the gateway to worlds unknown. When I, in my senior year in high school (now more than half-a-century past), was taught how to do a research paper in preparation for going to college, we learned how to make and take notes, of course on index cards, which needed to be organized and arranged in such a way that what was needed could be readily found. When I took my first programming class (Fortran II) nothing happened without punched cards (the punches making what everyone knows as confetti :confetti_ball:). And, when I moved to Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, and was first coming to terms with “databases”, my first techno-mentor informed me flat out that if you can’t do it with index cards, you’ll never do it digitally. It was less than a decade later that the world went web, and (derived from Tim Berner-Lee’s own “electronic index-card system” revealed to us what a hyperlink was. In other words, technological evolution, in contrast to its much slower biological counterpart, but upon which it is modeled, allows us to observe the process in motion. We’re still using the same “tools”, but they take on different forms over time.

But the “technology” is even older than me, and Mrs. Langer, by a long shot. When you have a moment, look up “commonplace book” on the web. Sometimes the giants upon whose shoulders we stand are simple gnomes. :slightly_smiling_face:


"I think it would be a good idea to hear someone’s overview of the text "

I have no objection to this if Ed want to do this. But I also like it if we just ask where each of us would like to start. If we can’t rally around a leader we can each lead our own process of reading the text and make it explicit as possible. We all have a different style. And Langer seems okay with that. i can enjoy order and disorder. But beginings are very important. By the way, the intro you gave to the Faggin event was really good. You started off with a bang rather than a whmper. Brigh, focused, energized.Very un-postmodern. You actually seemed to know what you wanted. It puts people in a mood.

“shared understanding of what we’ve read,”

I already find this to be an impossible dream. A shared understanding before we even start? If I had a shared understanding already I would not need to read it at all. There could be some things we understand that we share but I also want to make a plea for plurality of views. I seek differences that make differences. That is what style and art are about. i read a writer through other writers. I hear multiple voices. I try zoom in and zoom out and then zoom back in again. Others like to stay on topic. There could be more than one topic going on inevitably in every communique.

.And having said tht I am perfectly happy to share the wheel and let someone go on a path that looks unpromising. You may never know what surprises might occur. We could get stuck in a ditch, find a lovely view. Some might want to sit in the back of the bus and snooze. Wake me up when we get there.

True. And so was Plato and Aristotle. We can dip into them and still find interesting stuff to work on.

I have been studying Peirce for decades. I am reading Langer through Peirce.


Sorry, that isn’t exactly what I meant. See? Case in point. I would clarify: a “shared understanding” not before we start, but as a way to start.

I am thinking semantics. What do we mean when we use certain key words, and what do we think others mean by those same words? Words like: sign, symbol, conception, denotative, connotative, etc. Langer spends a good amount of time in the text distinguishing these meanings. However, her usage of these terms is particular to her historicity in a larger discourse. She uses the word “symbol,” for example, in a way more broadly than the conventional usage, and I would not have previously used it the same way that she does.

But when I think of an audience (our unknown shadow-participants; our future and alternative selves) watching or listening to our talk, I am imagine it being helpful at the beginning to become conventionally oriented to what we are reading and discussing together. How do we get sufficiently ‘on the same page’—so that we can productively diverge? What is the minimum modicum of agreement or order required to enable creative emergence out of difference (a disciplined flow)?

Is it enough simply for one of us to begin talking, followed by somebody else, followed by somebody else? Perhaps it is! It’s just that, since we are dealing with a philosophical text, where the words and the meanings of the words matter in particular ways—especially in this text which thematizes the process of meaning-making itself—the semantic dimension is something I believe we should grapple with up front.

That said, I am happy to wing it and improvise… which I suppose is what we’ve been doing all along. However, last time, there was some confusion about how exactly we would begin, which is why I thought we might head off any fumbling at the pass by deciding beforehand at least who would go first.


Heh, heh, heh … I, personally, would hasten to add that I was first exposed to PNK perhaps even before you were born, Master Morelli, which may not seem so long ago for you, but from where I sit, it feels (sometimes) like ages. And what is more, my none-too-secret hermeneutical take on things has made patently clear that the book I’m reading these days is not the one I read back when. I would be quite disturbed if it were. So, it does make me wonder what “doing justice” might mean in this context.

Nevertheless, if the others feel that it could serve the cause, I would be willing to present what I think is a bare bones summary of the reading for this session, focusing primarily on what might be considered its primary themes, notions, and concepts in light of what Mrs Langer herself says she would like to do in her text.

Fair enough? Or is this off-target?


Re: “reading historically”

So, I’m confused now, John. I merely made an observation about her attitude toward language. Why wouldn’t there be interesting things to work on?


It Sounds Like a Novel I Read Many Years Ago …



It may be wise to reflect upon our use of written (typed) words and spoken words in a zoom situation. If you had said this to me in a zoom call with a gesture, nod, wink I might have caught your meaning the way a basket ball gets passed between players. But writing is wierder than speaking. Analogue is much richer than digital. Digital is difficult and that’s why I spend too much time editing my remarks in an effort to become clearer. A shrug of a shoulder is often much more eloquent but we can’t do that here.

I think we are in the twilight zone. And this is something new in the history of communicatiions. The oral age spoke to a group of people in a market place. That’s how Jesus aand Socrates communicated. Plato and St. John wrote down what they heard their mentors say. They were well aware of an audience. Indeed, Plato was in the midst of a culture war which he started by writing about the change of moving from oral to written word. he did not like the poets becuause they put the audience into a state of unobjective ecstasy.And the spoken word when it is written down becomes different than if it is only heard directly. We have covered this transition in Gebser, SLoterjdiik, and Merlin Donald. Mimicry, then Mythic, then Theoretic. In that order.

Our new age, which is safe to call digital, is very different from all others. We are reading, writing, speakiing, gesturing, drawing, recording it and wathcing it a week from now if we want to.

Who is your audience? You are your audience. Your attention could be split in many ways thingking about who is the audience in which past, which future? The guy who spaaks in the zoom call is not the same guy who may watch the zoom call a week from now even if it is the same person. So our memory is changing, what we remember and what we forget are very different from an oral age where people had to memorize everything, drawing upon story, rhetorical strategies, rhyme. We can still enjoy Plato, Homer, and James Joyce. We can assume that Susan Langer probably knows James Joyce. Plato and Homer did not. Susan did not know Barak Obama. This is all historical background and we can’t assume we all share the same kind of historical background I have huge gaps…

I hear you, Ed, and regret if I was the cause of your confusion. I hope we can sort out the differences on the live call as I have probably worn out everyone’s patience in this thread.


I have always wanted to read that one. Someday I will get around to it.



My audience: my Divine Double—
Anyone, Everyone, and No One in particular.

The future me. The alternate me.
My reflection in the ontological mirror—

A fun-house mirror
in a language-haunted house.

Man hung on a cross—a symbol.
STOP—a sign.

The ensemble gathers to play a song.
Who knows what it means?

As it happens, this video clip of David Lynch speaking about his film Mulholland Drive with a Japanese interviewer captures some of the conundrum of our approach to Langer’s book. I get that Langer wrote about cinema and music in a way that relates to the director’s communication challenge here. There is a mismatch between the interviewer’s questions and Lynch’s conception of his film that I find illuminating of the symbolic dimension.

No things but in ideas—the song I hear.

“Virtuality,” wrote Langer, refers to: “the quality of all things
that are created to be perceived.”

That would work for me, Ed. What if you lead us off, and we take turns, each giving our reading of the reading (or response to your response), and then open it up for anyone to take the conversation where it wants to go? I am just hoping to establish some stage direction ahead of time, so then we could each weave in and do our thing on cue.


And the Beads of Our Ensemble will Bring Music?!
I Can’t Wait to Hear the Voices…


About tacit knowledge. it’s fine if someone wants to guide the group at the begining. I am allergic to too much mediated talk, with someone organizing questions and giving permission to others to unmute. This is a small group but can often go much deeper than the tight control I see on most channels with a talk from an expert and a pre scripted Q and A. and lots of chat. My priority is that eveyone has a chance to speak up front so that we all take turns talking and we listen well. i have learne how hard it is to actually repeat back to a person what they actually said. I try to do that as a favor to both of us. I appreciate that the one who goes first can shape the rest of the conversation. This is a public event and we have to act responsibly. If you are shy, confused and feel vulnerable that is okay-you still have to say something even if you prefer not to. I know this is more of an art than a science. I prefer to let our raw ideas/feelings happen at the begining rather than offer a traditional ‘check in’.,which can sometimes evade issues and sink the ship before it sets sail… I like to hold tensions while compliments can be co-discovered. The two hours can be filled with lots of content but I am most drawn to what is outside of the forum, the context of the context, rather than glancing into the rear view mirror. This is much more like jazz or a chamber ensemble than group therapy, I do believe sharng dirty linen in public can be useful.I sense, as I did not go to graduate school, those of us who opted out on that are using the tech to go further than the ivory tower would allow them if they had. I was often told to sit down and shut up. Not directly but indirectly. IWhat we are performing here is perhaps a a new kind of citizenship, beyond the control of the mandates of the nation-state or the ranking by IQ tests or corporate sponsors. This is a re-educational process in some ways as we who are about to die have lots of knowlede we may have never shared with anyone. We have, we must remember, read more books than Aristotle or Plato ever could have. We know how how their story ended. But how our story ends is to a large extent up to each of us. The clock is ticking.

One of my favorite scenes is from David Lynch very weird Elephant Man played by the grea John Hurt. Lynch is the champlion of the outsider.


Watch how Lynch uses his right hand. His left has a cigarette. His right hand is like a conductor’s hand shaping a musical phrase coming out of an orchestra, offering a para-message to the digital. The interviewer has no rapport skills. He is asking questions at the level of capability and product. , Lynch is working at another level, very close to a visionary process, going meta to the interviewer. .The mismtch is painful like a split brain experiment. What would happen if I could have asked a few clean questions?


Surprise! Surprise! There seems to Be Some Voices From the Margins
Near Our Small Monastic Cafe’?


This motivates me to read the book. Another project.