Susanne Langer:
"Philosophy in a New Key" (1942)

(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Susanne Langer points out that positivism has taken sense-data to be absolute truth, but science has subsequently dealt with "facts" that were not really sense-data: they are symbols. The most obvious examples are the data that Quantum Physics and Astrophysics examine: they are just signals on a piece of paper (or on a computer screen). We cannot see the particle and we cannot see the cosmic radiation. We employ instruments that "see" them for us and we communicate with such instruments via those signals on paper. The sense-data of science are "symbols". The "facts are symbols and the laws are their meanings".

Langer notes that two fields explicitly deal with symbols, although for wildly different reasons: Logic and Psychoanalysis.

She makes a difference between signal and symbol. The lowest form of mind is one that deals with signals. Humans, unlike other animals, "use signals not only to indicate things but also to represent them". The mind of an animal is a transmitted of stimuli from the world to the motor centers of the body. On the contrary, humans use signals as reminders. We can use signals to think of things that are not there. We can focus and discuss objects that are not present. The human mind deals with symbols, not just signals.

Langer argues that symbols allow a much greater degree of cooperation.

The downsides of symbols is that they are sometimes wrong. An animal who recognizes a signal rarely makes a mistake, because its determination is checked by the environment. A human who is using a symbol is more likely to make a mistake, because its determination is only checked by other human minds. The world of an animal is not complicated by the by-products of language.

Langer points out that ritual and magic are symbolic activities that, from an animal's point of view, are hopelessly senseless: an animal would never dance around a fire the way a man dances around a fire to make something happen (obviously it will not happen and, if it happens, it will be a mere coincidence). Animals have a direct relationship to events in their world. Humans construct huge symbolic universes that separate them from reality.

Humans have also developed a religion of art. The destruction of art is considered blasphemy under any circumstance. However, art is not a precise science of symbols.

Finally, Langer believes that dreams too are symbolic in nature, and they too are misleading.

Langer concludes that the reason humans do such strange things with symbols is that they need something that animals do not need. The needs are different. Therefore the use of signals is different. Humans are symbolic systems at a biological level. They cannot escape the fate of creating and using symbols. It is a process that goes on all time, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is built into the physical structure of the human brain. The brain continuously and endlessly builds symbols out of the sensory input. Since the sensory input never stops, the brain never stops building and interpreting symbols. Ideas pop up spontaneously. That is human nature. We just cannot help abstracting the world (i.e., thinking). Processing symbols serves a purpose but, at the same time, it constitutes an end in itself: we are programmed to process symbols.

Hence Langer thinks that ritual and magic are spontaneous activities, the by-products of the human mind's propensity for transforming everything into symbols. It is not a rational process, but an unconscious one. The propensity for symbolic processing can grow forever, even to the point that it becomes no longer useful and even harmful.

The difference between mere signals and full-fledged symbols is that signals only "announce" an object whereas symbols "conceive" it. The evolutionary advantage of "conceiving" a thing is that at the physical level no two people see the same thing (each brain is slightly different) but all people form the same symbol of the same thing. If we simply exchange a pixel map of what we saw, we would not find any two identical matches; but what we exchange is the concepts we formed of the respective pixel maps, and those are likely to be identical if the thing is the same.

Humans benefited from such exchanges of symbols. The reason that language became the primary form of communication is that, as Bertrand Russell originally noted, it is the most economical way of rapidly producing many symbols via bodily movement. We could in theory use hand signals or facial expressions or shoulder movements, but it would be a lot more demanding from a physical point of view. Speech only requires movements of the lips and the tongue. Speech makes it very easy to combine many symbols into groups and therefore refer to situations (as opposed to individual concepts).

Kant asked "what can we know?" Carnap replied "We can know what we can ask" (and still obtain an answer). Therefore a scientist can know what can be verified experimentally. However, Langer points out that many "things" cannot be expressed in language but are still symbols. Language is not the only "language" we employ. It is just the most efficient. Langer sees ritual, myths and music as parallel non-linguistic languages: she calls it "presentational symbolism" instead of "discoursive symbolism". They all arise form the brain's inescapable propensity to group sensory inputs into "forms" (as she refers to the Gestalt psychologists of the time). We recognize two situations as alike not because they provide identical sensory input but because they are analogous.

Following Sapir, Langer thinks that language was not born to communicate. Communication is a by-product of symbolization. Our brains create symbols all the time, whether we want to communicate them or not, and it turns out that symbols constitute a very effective way to communicate. Therefore we started using language to communicate, but language pre-existed linguistic communication. Originally language was only for "naming" things, or, better, concepts. Because of its nature, though, it is inevitable that language evolves into a communication medium in every human civilization. Langer notes that babies tend to babble spontaneously, whereas other primates don't. From the very beginning the child wants to transform her experience into vocal sounds. Langer thinks that this proves how language's mission is to transform experience into symbols (concepts). In a sense, it is not true that a child has to learn to speak. A child has to learn to speak the language of the parents, but it is already speaking from the very first moment of life. A child uses sounds all the time to complement all her experiences. The set of those sounds is consistent and (as far as the horizon of that child goes) complete, and therefore constitutes a language, albeit a language that only that child can understand. Her parents teach the child a language that be shared with the community. They don't teach the child to speak: they teach the child to speak a specific language.

Langer argues that language could have evolved only in beings that were already capable of constructing and processing symbols, albeit in a very primitive form.

Following the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, Langer argues that singing and dancing came first. The languages of primitive cultures have a sing-song quality that has been lost in modern languages, but most likely all languages originally were "sung". The speech of children fluctuates violently in tone. As "civilized" adults, we still use fluctuations in our tone in order to deliver the real meaning of sentences, but the fluctuations are vastly downplayed. Somehow we decided that those fluctuations were not "polite". Singing and speaking became two different things; and today we teach children not to scream, not to cry, not to jubilate, and so forth, thus progressively eliminating the "singing" quality of language. Proper erudite talk strives to remove all fluctuations.
Langer does not speculate on the reason that induced us to fight fluctuations/emphases, a fact that is not obvious since those fluctuations in tone help deliver the meaning: why do we speak instead of singing?
One also wonders where rhythm comes from. Most likely from nature itself, from the countless biorhythms that regulate the body and that ultimately reflect the countless rhythms of nature.

While Langer does not want to ascribe any symbolic capability to other animals, this theory might also explain how bees communicate by dancing and birds communicate by singing.

Langer therefore turns to music, that has some unique properties. Speech is both connotational and denotational. Music is purely connotational. (Denotation is the literal meaning of a word. Connotation is whatever else that word evokes). In her opinion, music can present emotions that we never felt the way that language can describe events that have not happened. While it obeys similar rules, music operates in a different domain, the domain of emotions.

Langer argues that music was not born as an art but as a combination of symbolic activities: dance and singing. Following the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, she thinks that humans are "singing animals". We naturally sing, not for artistic purposes but simply because it's in our nature. Following the Swiss music theorist Ernst Kurth, she thinks that music has accumulated "ursymbols" (primordial symbols) that refer to familiar sounds in nature, industry or society. By the same token, we naturally dance. Singing and dancing predate music as an art form.

The reason that music took so much longer to evolve into an art form is that there are fewer natural models: paintings imitate objects and there are plenty, theater imitates human action and there is plenty, poetry imitates stories and there are plenty, but there are fewer sounds for music to imitate.

Langer views all forms of symbolization as originating from the same principle: the mind creates symbols all the time, and then some of its symbolic activity turns out to be important for some practical activity. We often confuse the importance and the origin of a phenomenon. We think that speech is for communicating because language is important for communicating, when in reality communication was just a by-product of speech. By the same token, music was born for non-artistic reasons, as yet another manifestation of the mind's endless activity of symbol processing, but then music became important as an "art" to express feelings that couldn't be expressed by speech alone.

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