Susanne Langer on questions and conceptions

Susanne Langer calls conceptions “generative ideas”:

The limits of thought are not so much set from outside, by the fullness or poverty of experiences that meet the mind, as from within, by the power of conception, the wealth of formulative notions with which the mind meets experiences. Most new discoveries are suddenly-seen things that were always there. A new idea is a light that illuminates presences which simply had no form for us before the light fell on them. We turn the light here, there, and everywhere, and the limits of thought recede before it. A new science, a new art, or a young and vigorous system of philosophy, is generated by such a basic innovation. Such ideas as identity of matter and change of form, or as value, validity, virtue, or as outer world and inner consciousness, are not theories; they are the terms in which theories are conceived; they give rise to specific questions, and are articulated only in the form of these questions. Therefore one may call them generative ideas in the history of thought.

We recognize conceptions (or concepts or generative ideas — Langer appears to use these terms interchangeably) less by the answers they give, than by the questions they know how to ask, and these are deeply and emotionally bound up with our sense of reality:

The “technique,” or treatment, of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given. If we are asked: “Who made the world?” we may answer: “God made it,” “Chance made it,” “Love and hate made it,” or what you will. We may be right or we may be wrong. But if we reply: “Nobody made it,” we will be accused of trying to be cryptic, smart, or “unsympathetic.” For in this last instance, we have only seemingly given an answer; in reality we have rejected the question. The questioner feels called upon to repeat his problem. “Then how did the world become as it is?” If now we answer: “It has not ‘become’ at all,” he will be really disturbed. This “answer” clearly repudiates the very framework of his thinking, the orientation of his mind, the basic assumptions he has always entertained as common-sense notions about things in general. Everything has become what it is; everything has a cause; every change must be to some end; the world is a thing, and must have been made by some agency, out of some original stuff, for some reason. These are natural ways of thinking. Such implicit “ways” are not avowed by the average man, but simply followed. He is not conscious of assuming any basic principles. They are what a German would call his “Weltanschauung,” his attitude of mind, rather than specific articles of faith. They constitute his outlook; they are deeper than facts he may note or propositions he may moot.

But, though they are not stated, they find expression in the forms of his questions. A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.

In philosophy this disposition of problems is the most important thing that a school, a movement, or an age contributes. This is the “genius” of a great philosophy; in its light, systems arise and rule and die. Therefore a philosophy is characterized more by the formulation of its problems than by its solution of them. Its answers establish an edifice of facts; but its questions make the frame in which its picture of facts is plotted. They make more than the frame; they give the angle of perspective, the palette, the style in which the picture is drawn — everything except the subject. In our questions lie our principles of analysis, and our answers may express whatever those principles are able to yield. 

There is a passage in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, setting forth this predetermination of thought, which is at once its scaffolding and its limit. “When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch,” Professor Whitehead says, “do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.”

Some years ago, Professor C. D. Burns published an excellent little article called “The Sense of the Horizon,” in which he made a somewhat wider application of the same principle; for here he pointed out that every civilization has its limits of knowledge — of perceptions, reactions, feelings, and ideas. To quote his own words, “The experience of any moment has its horizon. Today’s experience, which is not tomorrow’s, has in it some hints and implications which are tomorrow on the horizon of today. Each man’s experience may be added to by the experience of other men, who are living in his day or have lived before; and so a common world of experience, larger than that of his own observation, can be lived in by each man. But however wide it may be, that common world also has its horizon; and on that horizon new experience is always appearing….” . . .

The formulation of experience which is contained within the intellectual horizon of an age and a society is determined, I believe, not so much by events and desires, as by the basic concepts at people’s disposal for analyzing and describing their adventures to their own understanding. Of course, such concepts arise as they are needed, to deal with political or domestic experience; but the same experiences could be seen in many different lights, so the light in which they do appear depends on the genius of a people as well as on the demands of the external occasion. 

This material is highly relevant to my own project of designing conception-systems.

  1. Conceptions are generative ideas and should not be confused with the content they generate.
  2. Conceptions generate worldviews, and are fundamental to how we see the world and ourselves situated within the world.
  3. Refusal to participate in the conceptions of a worldview (“rejecting its questions”) is offensive to its members. Putting it in ethnomethodology language, it is a form of ethnomethodic breach, and creates the same kind of confusion, discomfort and alienation typical of such breaches.

Later in the book, Langer also discusses the phenomenon of perplexity — of lacking all conception to filter and organize chaos — and of the apprehension perplexity induces in a person.

[Man] can adapt himself somehow to anything his imagination can cope with; but he cannot deal with Chaos. Because his characteristic function and highest asset is conception, his greatest fright is to meet what he cannot construe — the “uncanny,” as it is popularly called. It need not be a new object; we do meet new things, and “understand” them promptly, if tentatively, by the nearest analogy, when our minds are functioning freely; but under mental stress even perfectly familiar things may become suddenly disorganized and give us the horrors. Therefore our most important assets are always the symbols of our general orientation in nature, on the earth, in society, and in what we are doing: the symbols of our Weltanschauung [world view] and Lebensanschauung [life view]. Consequently, in a primitive society, a daily ritual is incorporated in common activities, in eating, washing, fire-making, etc., as well as in pure ceremonial; because the need of reasserting the tribal morale and recognizing its cosmic conditions is constantly felt. In Christian Europe the Church brought men daily (in some orders even hourly) to their knees, to enact if not to contemplate their assent to the ultimate concepts.

This brings me to a theory I’ve been developing about conspiracy theories. By this, I don’t mean the theories about conspiracies normal people may form. I mean those theories that function as central symbols to a certain conspiracy-oriented worldview. Conspiracy theorists are notorious for their compulsive need to discuss their theories, cornering people with no knowledge or interest in the material, forcing them to endure lectures or engage in one-sided debates. Why the drive to foist unwanted conversations on others? I believe these “conversations” function as rituals, and barely as personal interactions.

Leave a Reply