AFTER READING Feeling and Form, Susanne Langer’s extraordinary work on aesthetics, one inevitably goes back to her earlier book Philosophy in a New Key, of which according to the author the former is the companion volume — not just to get one’s bearings in the general semiotic on which the aesthetic is based, but in all curiosity to trace out the origins of what is surely an ambiguity in the thought of the recent study. Feeling and Form is written with all the power and contagious excitement of first-class mind exercising a valuable new insight. In brief, it is an application to art of her general thesis that the peculiarly human response is that of symbolic transformation. The communication of meaning, positivists to the contrary, is not limited to the discursive symbol, word, and proposition; the art symbol conveys its own appropriate meaning, a meaning inaccessible to the discursive form. In each medium, the virtual space of the painting, the virtual life of the poem, the virtual time of music, the form which is created represents, symbolizes –– not just the thousand and one subject matters of the various arts but rather the feelings, the felt life of the artist and so of the observer. Music symbolizes passage, “the form of growth and attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution,” the pattern in time of sentience. (Here it is worth pointing out that the “feelings” that Mrs. Langer talks about are not at all feelings in the modem sense of the word, that is, “emotions,” amorphous affect, but rather the form of sentience, a notion which it would be interesting to compare with the Thomist concept of the tendential forms of orexis.)
Not the least remarkable thing in a remarkable book is how very close at times she comes to a Scholastic view of art, and that in a theorist with an otherwise encyclopedic grasp of her subject, there is not a single reference to Maritain or any other Scholastic source (not that this is surprising from the author of Philosophy in a New Key). This resemblance may be noted without in the least suggesting that her theory should be judged by a Scholastic standard of aesthetics, if indeed there is any such thing, or that she is approaching analogously “what the Schoolmen knew all along” — for the fact is that her contribution is in the highest degree original and potent in its unifying effect, and if any one thing is certain it is that she owes not the slightest debt to a Scholastic source. As we shall see, she has the most compelling of all reasons — one’s own philosophical presuppositions — for steering as far clear of Scholasticism as ever she can, and so it is all the more remarkable that from such a heroically disinterested source there should come forth
The making of the symbol is the musician’s entire problem, as it is, indeed, every artist’s.
That, whereas language is the discursive symbol, the word symbolizing the concept,
Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feelings.
That is why [because it gives the forms of imagination] it has the force of a revelation and inspires a feeling of deep intellectual satisfaction, though it elicits no consciousness of intellectual work (reasoning).
And in protest against Croce’s equating “intellectual” and “discursive”:
But by contemplating intuition as direct experience, not mediated, not correlated to anything public, we cannot record or systematize them, let alone construct a “science” of intuitive knowledge which will be the true analogue of logic.
Compare with Maritain
The sphere of Making is the sphere of Art.
Art is above all intellectual.
Beauty is essentially the object of intelligence, for what knows in the full meaning of the word is the mind.
. . . it is mind and sense combined, the intellectualized sense which gives rise to aesthetic joy in the heart.
. . . the splendor or radiance of form glittering in the beautiful thing is not presented to the mind by a concept or an idea but precisely by a sensible object, intuitively apprehended.
The capital error in Benedetto Croce’s neo-Hegelian aesthetics . . . is the failure to perceive that artistic contemplation, however intuitive it may be, is none the less above all intellectual. Aesthetics ought to be intellectual and intuitivist at the same time.
Maritain is more explicit about the dual role of the art symbol in his latest work than in Art and Scholasticism.
Be it painting or poem, this work is made object-in it alone does poetic intuition come to objectivization. And it must always preserve its own consistence and value as object. But at the same time it is a sign both a direct sign of secrets perceived in things, of some irrecusable truth of nature of adventure caught in the great universe, and a reversed sign of the subjective universe of the poet, of his substantial Self obscurely revealed.
A text from Thomas Aquinas is interesting in this connection:
Therefore beauty consists in proper proportion because the sense derives pleasure from things properly proportioned as being similar to itself for sense also is a kind of reason (logos tis) like every cognitive virtue and as knowledge comes about through assimilation and similtude is concerned with form, the beautiful strictly pertains to the concept of a formal cause.
It is apparently Saint Thomas and not Mrs. Langer or Cassirer who had the first inkling of the mysterious analogy between the form of beauty and the pattern of the inner life.
It is not intended here to make out a case but only to draw attention to a rather remarkable example of two thinkers converging on the same truths from opposed positions and-unlike experimental science — each arriving and remaining unaware of the other. For although the idioms are different-to read one after the other, it is necessary to make a conscious shift of media, like changing languages — they are both saying the same things: (1) that art is a making and appreciation is a knowing, intellectual but peculiarly distinct from discursive knowing, and that delight is secondary and logically subsequent to the knowing; (2) that the art symbol represents both thing and self. It is a formidable construction indeed that is arrived at from exactly opposite directions, from a logical empiricism in one and a theistic realism in the other-though perhaps it must be allowed that in order of achievement, in her breaking away from the restrictive a prioris of pragmatism and psychologism, the experiential aesthetics of Dewey, and the “minute stimuli” aesthetics of Richards, and in respect of the powerful and explicit delineation of a uniquely human faculty, it is Mrs. Langer who has come the longer way.
Since, however, her naturalism is apparently as stoutly avowed as ever, and since at the same time her debt to Cassirer and idealism is freely acknowledged, we turn or return to Philosophy in a New Key to discover how she has come to this pass, from logical positivism (she wrote a textbook on the subject) to a near-realistic aesthetic by way of idealism — and kept her old allegiance, or whether, in truth, she has. What we must evaluate are the consequences of her insight, what she calls her “heresy,” for an empirical science of man. Has she exposed a fatal weakness in an exclusively empirical semiotic and anthropology, deliberately in the former and perhaps inadvertently in the latter? Is her heresy, in short, an apostasy?