Susanne K. Langer: A Kaleidoscope of Ideas

An Introduction to the Exhibition

Charles E. Shain Library and the Connecticut College Arboretum

August 5–October 2, 2022


Special Events

September 10, 2022

3:00: Catja Christensen, Zion Martin-Hayes, and Susanna Procario-Foley (Dance department, Connecticut College): Dialectic of Vital Continuity (site-specific dance performance)

3:30: Carolyn Bergonzo, Tereza Hadravová, Linda Legassie: Exhibition Welcome Speech

3:45: Exhibition Reception

September 11, 2022

9:00 am: A Guided Walk in the Arboretum


What is it like to delve into the writings of Susanne K. Langer? To the avid reader of her extraordinary philosophical essays, several images suggest themselves: first, that of the fabric woven by intertwining threads of insights originating from different fields of knowledge; second, that of the ocean waves, whose ridges are both the peaks of a previous move and a prelude to the next one; third, that of a kaleidoscope, whose elements endlessly swirl.

It is the third image that we decided to use as a subtitle for the exhibition, whose aim is to present Langer’s way of practicing philosophy during that long and intensive period of her life at Connecticut College and in Old Lyme, CT, where she resided until her death in 1985. In our minds, Langer is a master of a philosophical kaleidoscope, collecting and sharpening ideas and re-positioning them into new patterns. Whereas other twentieth-century philosophers of similarly broad ambitions sought to stabilize structures of knowledge on firm grounds, Langer offers dynamic concepts that set new vistas in specialized disciplines within the sciences, arts, and humanities.  

Susanne K. Langer came to Connecticut College in 1954, invited by President Rosemary Park, to chair the Philosophy Department. Two years later, Langer reduced her departmental duties to the bare minimum, becoming a self-described “invisible faculty member.” For almost thirty years she devoted herself fully to research and writing. In this exhibition, we explore several circumstances and conditions that enabled her to write her magnum opus, the three-volume Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967; 1972; 1982): the good will and trust expressed by the College representatives, long-term financial support from the Edgar J. Kaufmann Foundation, and her own resoluteness and deep curiosity. The process of writing the trilogy and preparing the manuscripts for publication create the core of the exhibition.

The Library and the Arboretum are apt sites for an exhibition about this philosopher. Langer  was an omnivorous reader and her library card, exhibited here, was often used. To refine and systematize her thought she created a system of cross-referenced index cards covered with quotes and ideas. A few of them are displayed here, with thousands  now archived at Houghton Library at Harvard University. Their organization was similar to a library catalog in pre-computer times. Fascinated by life in all its forms, Langer was a constant observer of the natural world, taking daily walks in the woods near her home, setting out in her canoe, “the creek mouse,” for trips in streams and ponds, and retreating to her cabin in the Catskills. During her affiliation with Connecticut College, she kept a lively contact with the Botany and Biology departments, auditing classes on Zoology while on the faculty. Her experimental nature and erudition in the biological sciences made her a predecessor, if not a paragon, of contemporary experimental philosophy. Langer’s voice is now gaining strength in some other fields, too, such as process biology, biosemiotics, media ecology, neurophenomenology, and the creative humanities.

To feel the mind-shifting force of Langer’s philosophical kaleidoscope, you are invited to read the selected books and articles located in the small bookcases. Books by and about Susanne K. Langer are placed on the Library’s lending shelves. In addition, we invite visitors to take a self-guided walking tour of the Arboretum, where they encounter excerpts from Langer’s writings suited to selected sites. The index cards provided here are for your comments about the exhibition, or memories related to Langer’s tenure at Connecticut College, or your own Langer reading experience. 

Susanne K. Langer: A Kaleidoscope of Ideas is co-curated by Carolyn Bergonzo, poet; Tereza Hadravová, Fulbright-Masaryk scholar; Linda Legassie, research assistant to Susanne K. Langer. The exhibition is organized in collaboration with the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives and the Connecticut College Arboretum. It is made possible by the Frederick Henry Sykes Memorial Lectureship Fund. The exhibition takes place from August 5, through October 2, 2022 at the Charles E. Shain Library and the Connecticut College Arboretum.