On Susanne Langer's Philosophy in a New Key (1942), ch. 8-10 ("On Significance in Music," "The Genesis of Artistic Import," and "The Fabric of Meaning" respectively), plus ch. 7, "The Image of Time," from her Form and Feeling (1953). Is music a language? If it's "expressive," what exactly does it express?
Langer focuses on music to get at the sorts of symbolism associated specifically with art because it lacks linguistic or pictorial elements, which already involve representation apart from their artistic uses. Again following Ernst Cassirer (ch. 9 of his An Essay on Man includes a lengthy treatment of art), she focuses on art's use of "significant form," which distinguishes music from, for instance, a keening cry of sorrow or a whoop of joy. While ch. 9 engages in more anthropological musings about how music might have been presaged by non-musical elements like such shouting, as well as banging and chanting in rhythm, ch. 8 gives her semantic analysis of music.
Music cannot be a language, according to Langer, because it lacks a vocabulary: a set of word-like units associated (arbitrarily) with particular things that those "words" would refer to. Yes, we can all recognize a scale going upward, and maybe this tends to give us all a certain feeling of rising, but what emotional effect this is actually intended to have depends on the context. Langer describes an artwork as a single "idea" by an artist, elaborated. Even if elements though of in a different context are added, they all serve (if it's a good artwork) to add details to that idea.
But what are these ideas? Romantic philosophers had claimed that music was a direct expression of the emotions of the performer (or composer), which engendered a response by Kant and others (Eduard Hanslick is the name that she focuses on) insisting that music (and other "pure" arts) just present beautiful forms that have no external meaning. Langer sought a middle ground between these views. We all recognize a soulfully played, mournful musical phrase as sad. This is not to say that it "means" in the sense of denotes sadness in the way that "cow" denotes that particular kind of animal. But it has a connotation of sadness. Some musical connotations may be merely conventional, like it sounds like something you've heard, and so gains connotations from that prior experience. But a lot of it seems more natural and biological than that: Fast or slow, high or low, intense or soft music all have a corresponding set of human feelings. In Form and Feeling, Langer specifically says that what music represents is the human sense of time, which we can't put into words, but which everyone recognizes, and which is different (per Bergson and Heidegger among others) that the kind of time that science and practical life uses to record and plan activities. In human time, not all minutes are the same length, since something boring or especially vivid can seem much longer than the time taken while we're engaged in something breezy and fun.
So this is all another exploration of the different kinds of meaning, i.e. symbolism, we deal with. Like the non-verbal symbolisms discussed in ep. 291 involved in rituals and religious feelings and expressed via metaphors and myths, art provides us ways of communicating about things that can't be spoken of, because there are no words for them. Art provides us a way to both communicate via connotations, where a gesture (or word, in the case of a poem or story or whatnot) brings up something associated with that in our imagination, and more importantly allows for novel articulations of "ideas" about human experience that we may recognize in ourselves, or which may introduce us as if by acquaintance to some new facet of human experience. Art is a way for us to try to figure out the world and our place in it and potentially try to share that with others.
This relates to her primary critique of the modern age, summed up in ch. 10: By insisting that only "clear thinking" is legitimate (this is pretty much the motto of analytic philosophy), that all real thinking is articulated in language, that shrinks us as people and denies basic human needs. It's very natural for a philosophically inclined person in the modern age to despair of all the irrationality that people engage in and insist on clear, literal statements whose truth can be evaluated dispassionately, and there are of course real social problems (e.g. conspiracy theories, religious nonsense, social sentiments rooted in resentment) that this approach can help address.
But taking this too far results in scientism, in thinking that we can settle all human problems including problems about ethics and the meaning of life, with the same methods we might use to settle a dispute in physics or chemistry. Langer suggests that some of the most important things we need to understand and communicate employ non-literal symbolism. A piece of music, because "the statement" it makes does not involve reference to objects in the external world, can simultaneously connote opposite ideas, reflecting the ambivalence and conflict we actually feel about many things. A great work will be "true" to human experience, and a full picture of logic, i.e. the relations among symbols, needs to include an understanding of this kind of truth as well as propositional truth.
Form and Feeling: A Theory of Art goes into great detail about all the various arts, showing where Langer took theory introduced in Philosophy in a New Key, and is why she's remembered primarily as a philosopher of art who laid the foundation for the work of Nelson Goodman that we discussed in ep. 28 (who I'm told rather superseded her in terms of influence). Purchase Form and Feeling or try this online version.
What are we reading next time? Four essays by Donna Haraway about feminist philosophy of science: "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective" (1988), "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" (1991), "A Game of Cat’s Cradle: Science Studies, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies" (1994), and "Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin" (2015).
Learn about Wes' seminars at partiallyexaminedlife.com/seminars.