Learning in a New Key

I am probably fairly typical. I remember my freshman year in college—and indeed the first weeks of my freshman year—more vividly than comparable later (or earlier) periods of my education. I remember each of my classes, the teachers, the classmates, the setting, and even some of the lessons and readings. Psychologists call this “the primacy effect.” It would be good if we could somehow package this experience of “heightened memory” and extend it throughout our learning lives.

By far the most exotic of these early college experiences was a class in expository writing. Because I survived a screening test, I had been excused from the requirement to take a basic writing course and was instead put in a so-called “honors” section. Along with my twenty or so classmates, I was pleased by this “honor.” But I was not prepared for the nature of the class. It was taught by a bohemian intellectual—probably the descriptor I would have used at the time—named Frederic A. Pennington. He sported a dark cloak and was surrounded by what we would now call “groupies.” He did not meet us on the Harvard College campus in Cambridge but rather in a comfortable apartment on Boston’s Beacon Hill—all novel experiences for me, an 18 year old from Scranton, Pennsylvania. (My honors classmates varied enormously in their understanding of and their sympathy for Pennington’s life style.)

Though we did not have a personal relation, and Mr. Pennington soon disappeared from the Harvard campus (though he lingered for awhile in its gossip columns), I will always be grateful to this instructor. He exposed me to a wide range of serious and powerful readings—encompassing Platonic dialogues, the diaries of Soren Kierkegaard, and novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Andre Gide. Most especially, and most importantly, he introduced me to a book that was intellectually transformative—Philosophy in a New Key by Susanne K. Langer. (I’ve written about this book elsewhere, such as Chapter 5 of my 1982 collection of essays Art, Mind, and Brain—no need to rehearse that essay here.)

In many ways, I was an ideal reader of Langer’s book—originally published in 1942. I had some curiosity about philosophy, though almost no background in the field. Accordingly, I wanted to know both about the “traditional key(s)” of philosophy and about the “new key” that Langer was introducing. I have long been partial to works of synthesis—works that tie together findings and claims from different disciplines. Langer’s book is clearly a synthesis—drawing not only on philosophy but also on linguistics, biology, anthropology, and especially psychology, the field of study to which I would eventually gravitate but of which I had little knowledge as a college freshman (in the first year of the presidency of John F. Kennedy).

Perhaps most importantly, before attending college, I had been quite a serious musician—studying piano for years and also teaching piano. I was intrigued and curious about the meaning and power of classical music, its significance in my life and probably in the lives of many others as well.

Langer’s book more than satisfied these various needs and desires. Deeply immersed in traditional philosophy as well as trends in the first decades of the 20th century, she put her finger on current disciplinary concerns and made a distinctive contribution. She noted that philosophy had become preoccupied with language—how it works, what meanings it carries, indeed to what extent our world is created and constructed out of languages, and, if so, of what sort and in what ways. Like Monsieur Jordain in Moliere’s play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, I had been producing and understanding language all my conscious life, without reflecting in a significant way on its status and powers; and now Langer was helping me step back from language and to examine it as an object, a subject, a phenomenon worth probing and understanding.

The “new key” put forth by Langer went beyond language—at least ordinary language as we typically apprehend it. The new key construed language as one of a number of symbol systems—what we might have subsequently termed semiotic systems—by which we make, create, and infer meanings. Those symbol systems à la Langer include myths, rituals, codes, diagrams, and, most important for my own purpose, the means through which works of art are conveyed and their meaning(s) communicated. Human beings emerge as a species enveloped by various kinds of vehicles that, individually and together, make and then transform our cognitive worlds—and we can ultimately contribute to those re-makings of our world—in dreams, for sure, but also when we are wide awake and actively engaged in making meanings.

In a memorable formulation, Langer differentiated between “discursive” and “presentational” symbols. Most of our time and most of our analyses focus on individual specific symbols—each of which has discrete meanings and which, taken together, can convey a string of meanings. As an example, “The cat and the dog are circling one another warily” consists of a set of single words which, taken together, yield a larger meaning. Similarly 2 + 3 = 5 and 2 x 3 = 6 are also examples of discursive symbolization.

But there is also a different and extremely powerful form of symbolization. This form is composed of symbols which operate ineluctably as a whole, and which—accordingly—cannot be differentiated into simpler, meaningful parts. Prototypical examples are works of pictorial art. These can be powerful symbols, conveying a rich set of meanings, but they cannot be broken down into individual parts, each conveying its own distinct meaning. The Mona Lisa works as a presentational whole (as do other paintings, drawings, and statues); there is neither sense nor reward in trying to figure out its component parts and how each, individually, conveys meaning. And the same can be said for dances, rituals, or films—they also operate as presentational wholes, and they do not lend themselves to decomposition in terms of meaningful parts. In fact, even if one can “force-feed” a division into individual parts—eyes, nose, smile, water, hill—we cannot reassemble them and expect to confront the same presentational symbol. The law of “Humpty-Dumpty” holds!

It is a simplification to consider linguistic symbols as discursive and pictorial symbols as presentational. Poems and plays, while composed of words, do not lend themselves to informative parcellation: neither the speeches nor the scenes and acts in Hamlet withstand such word-by-word decomposition. And by the same token, depictions can function discursively—one can certainly break down a map or diagram or chart into its component parts and reassemble or reconfigure them into one or another discursive whole.

But for me, the biggest and most revealing leap taken by Susanne Langer extended beyond the recognition of symbolic meaning in general, and the delineation of varieties of discursive and presentational symbol systems. In Chapter 8 of Philosophy in a New Key, Langer presents her ideas on “significance in music.” Many (perhaps most) philosophers (and not only philosophers!) have taken a plunge and sought to explain the astonishing allure of music for almost every human mind in a wide variety of settings and situations. Most of the commentators have posited some connection between music and emotions—either music expresses particular emotions or conveys the emotions experienced at a particular time by the composer or the performer (or the listener).

Langer dismisses these formulations as facile and misleading—Beethoven string quartets do not literally present “anger” or “delight,” nor do they convey the composer’s feelings at the time of conception or composition (which in Beethoven’s case, often took place over long period of time). And yet there are deep, non-trivial ties between music and emotions. Langer’s brilliant insight is that music does not convey emotions or feelings per se. Rather, in a more general and universal way, music conveys the form(s), the juxtapositions and the contrasts within our human, feeling life. Put differently , music captures what it is like to live in a world rife with feelings and emotions—some simultaneous, some complementary, some momentary, some lingering, some quite contrasting with one another—without however laying any claim to depicting specific emotions, as might be the case in a discursive psychological treatise about the nature and identity of various emotional states.

By its very nature, this point is difficult to make in words—if one could, then music would be as discursive as a work of history or science. Allow me to quote a few attempts by Langer:

  • The real power of music lies in that fact that it can be “true” to the life of feeling in a way that language cannot, for its significant forms have that ambivalence of content which words cannot have. Music is revealing where words are obscuring, because it can have not only a content but a transient play of contents. It can articulate feelings without being wedded to them… the imagination that responds to music is personal and associating and logical, tinged with affect, tinged with bodily rhythm, tinged with dream but concerned with a wealth of formulations for its wealth of wordless knowledge, its whole knowledge of emotional and organic experience (197, 206-207).
  • Music is not the cause or the cure of feelings, but their logical expression (176).
  • Music is not self expression but formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental resolutions—a “logical picture” of sentient, responsive life (180).
  • Music articulates forms which language cannot set forth (189).
  • What music can actually reflect is only the morphology of feeling (193).

I have thought about this issue for almost 60 years—and yet to my knowledge no one has come up with a more powerful and more convincing analysis of the power and effectiveness of music than Langer—she is as close as anyone to explaining the “key” to music.

I will always be grateful to Mr. Pennington for introducing me to Langer’s slim book, and even more to Susanne K. Langer for her powerful ideas. Not only did they open up a new world of thought for me; they ended up affecting my entire academic and scholarly life. Langer also influenced my personal life—Judith Gardner, my first wife, had been a student of Susanne Langer and helped me to make contact with this outstanding thinker.

What makes a transformational reading? Clearly, it’s more than a single factor. In my case, I can point to several factors:

  • Setting: the excitement of first year readings in college, with a charismatic teacher, and peers with whom you enjoy discussion and debate
  • Timing: a period of life where you are reading to encounter new ideas and have the time to ponder them
  • Stretch: a work that stretches one as a reader, enough that one wants to re-read it, not so much that it is clearly over one’s head and exhausting (as a work on aesthetics by Immanuel Kant might have been).

Most centrally, a book has the potential to be transformative if it speaks to a puzzle that one has been grappling with; presents ideas, ways of thinking, and disciplines that hold promise for illuminating that puzzle; and provides concepts, frameworks, images, and metaphors that are evocative and can stay with you and enrich you over the years.

Of course, at the time, one cannot know that a book will be transformative. In my case it was in part because of Langer’s book that I was attracted to the work of Nelson Goodman, another philosopher of symbols, who dissected what he called “the languages of art.” And partly on the basis of my knowledge of Susanne Langer’s writings, Goodman invited me to become a founding member of Harvard Project Zero, a research group that for fifty years has been studying various kinds of symbolization, with a particular focus on symbols in the art. And then, for decades, I was involved in empirical work on the development and breakdown of various human symbol using capacities. But those are all stories for another day—or for other blogs.

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