On Philosophy in a New Key (1942), ch. 1-5, plus as background most of us looked at Langer’s main influence Ernst Cassirer via his An Essay on Man (1944), ch. 1-5. Featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.
What is human nature, and why does natural science have such trouble studying it? Cassirer’s massive, three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-1929) provides the blueprint and starting point for these more popular works that we’ll be reading over our next three episodes. In this episode we lay out the arguments for man as “homo symbolicus,” the symbol-making creature. This is an epistemological view about how we know the world (Cassirer was a neo-Kantian), and also a theory contra Darwinists that argued that all action must have originated for instrumental reasons: to help us survive. We focus on Langer’s views about speech and non-verbal symbolism like pictures.
In ep. 291, we’ll go on to discuss Cassirer and Langer’s views of ritual and myth-making, and in ep. 292 we’ll deal with Langer’s philosophy of art, which was really our reason for choosing this topic: to add another perspective to our recent treatments of aesthetics. But the way Langer’s book built up its case gradually made us unwilling to simply jump to the later chapters on art, and given the debt that Langer acknowledges to Cassirer, and the fact that Cassirer wrote his own popularization at around the same time (as one of his final works; he died in 1945), made us want to look to Cassirer’s parallel account. The two books read very similarly, with lots of references to then-contemporary science surrounding language acquisition, studies of symbolic abilities in animals and impaired people, etc. They each begin with a polemic chapter explaining how the scientific world-view that has been so successful in producing results in the physical sciences has hit a dead-end with regard to humanistic problems. Cassirer stresses the philosophical problem of man’s knowledge of himself, while Langer talks similarly to Lakatos or Kuhn in positing that the generative ideas behind historical philosophy (i.e. the mind-body distinction and consequent use of “fact” as the goal of physical science) have run dry, and that a “new key” is needed to open a new phase in philosophy: the symbol.
Langer explicitly considers Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and how that work laid out the principle of logical positivism: If you can’t put something in language, which is reducible to statements about states of affairs of the world, then you should just be silent. For Langer, explicitly denotative language where every word has a precise, defined meaning is just one kind of symbolism, and so many of our meanings can’t be conveyed in language: Thus the need for art, and ritual, and spontaneous, expressive utterances, which are in fact what are required for us to have systemic language.
Langer (and Cassirer; there’s a comparable point in his text for most of the points made here about Langer) distinguishes between signs and symbols. Signs are indicators, and can even be symptoms, as in smoke is a sign of fire. But signs proper are intentional communications for a purpose, like an animal making a noise to announce the presence of predators. Importantly, signs always indicate that the hearer is supposed to look for and expect something (or actually do that thing), whereas symbols can refer to things not present, and can be used in situations where the only point is to bring the symbol’s referent to mind, not such that anything in particular should be done with regard to that referent.
Langer points to a human baby’s use of nonsense talk as key to understanding how we can use symbols but animals (who don’t babble in this way) cannot. For animals, sounds (and gestures, etc.) are always for a purpose, and so there’s no semantic indeterminacy, no room for ambiguity or artistic expression. Whereas people just like making sounds, and really like when they hit on naming, and so want to then name everything. Langer discusses the education of Hellen Keller and another blind and deaf person: how when their teachers tried to get them to use word-signs when they wanted something, it didn’t work, but in both cases the breakthrough was when they were just identifying things: with Keller, it was famously water.
So Langer’s argument is against linguistic pragmatists that argue that language comes out of the need to communicate, whereas Langer sees symbolism as an absolutely basic human activity. We do not perceive the world directly, but instead use symbols to break it up into thinkable objects and situations. Langer claims this happens even pre-linguistically and at the level of processing by the individual senses: That the eye does not store a literal light-copy of the world but processes it according to symbols. Every time we see some new situation and think that it’s “the same” as a previous situation (of course it can’t be exactly the same), we’re grouping the situations together metaphorically, and this is how language developed in the first place. For example (and Langer admits this is speculation), if primitive people engaged in some group ritual, like after a hunt, then the cries they’d use during that ritual could get fixed by tradition over time. Then someone could use that utterance to refer to the ritual even when it isn’t happening right then. Even then, the reference would be pretty vague, because it’s picking out a whole recurrent situation. So then inflections might be used to help distinguish whether the speaker is referring to the ritual that was last week, or the one coming up, or picking out some aspect, like maybe it could be used metaphorically to refer to some other joyous group occasion, because there was no separate word for that yet, and eventually we’d have the general concept “celebration.”
An example in the language we’re familiar with is the expression that “a river runs.” This was probably originally metaphorical, in that it moves as a human runs. But now it’s just how we describe moving water, and also we say “a fence runs along the side of a house” or “the property line runs…” which are even further removed from what was presumably the original sense of running (people), so now the term just means “spans.” The point is that it’s not as Wittgenstein implied, that we have literal, descriptive language as the primary and proper use of language, and then poets come along and use it in crazy ways, but that poetic, metaphorical thought is at the heart of language’s development over time.
Cassirer mentions Henri Bergson several times in his account, and the story is similar: Bergson was claiming that our initial ways of cognizing the world (like our perception of time) are not atomistic and quantifiable a la natural science, but that those atomistic ways of thinking are later, rigid developments of a more natural attitude.
Buy Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key, or try this online version. Buy Cassirer’s An Essay on Man or try this online version. For some general background on Cassirer as neo-Kantian, listen to this episode of the New Books in Philosophy podcast featuring Samantha Matherne.
The “theory of mind” episode that Wes is referring to is #172 with Dr. Drew.
Image by Genevieve Arnold. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop; check out his new Pixel Box Media podcast.