Philosophy in a New Key, according to at least one source, was a "bestseller" in 1942. And yet it is unlikely that you've ever heard of the philosopher Susanne Langer (1885-1985). Dwarfed by philosophical giants like Ludwig Wittgenstein, her unique ideas about the symbolic nature of art have received little attention. However, in a recent lecture to the Buddhist Studies Seminar at Columbia University (March 6, 2007), David Gardiner (Professor of Religion, Colorado College) made use of Langer's ideas to shed new light on our understanding of the Japanese Buddhist thinker Kūkai (774-835 C.E.). (Audio podcast below.)
In his explication of Kūkai, Professor Gardiner highlighted his polemical use of the term ri 離 "separate, apart, transcendent" in his presentation of the Nikyōron. Abandoning the more popular theory that Kūkai was simply being "antagonistic" in his derision of Yogacara, Madhyamaka, T'ien-t'ai, and Hua-yen as "ontologically challenged by an unsophisticated dualism," Gardiner opted for more a nuanced hermeneutic. According to Gardiner, Kūkai's critique of these "Exoteric" schools may in fact be a strategic response to a growing tendency to reify non-dual ontology (shades of the Tibetan gzhan stong pa school). Kūkai's rhetoric, explained Gardiner, "seems intent upon highlighting a purported exoteric obsession with the transcendent character of ultimate reality... " Though Gardiner admits that his theory is perhaps impossible to prove, what is clear—at least to Gardiner—is that Kūkai's literary strategy is to bring the reader's attention to the "immanental" orientation of Shingon ("Esoteric") practice. For Kūkai, the path to Buddhahood relies on a realization of the immanent "mandalic" nature of one's material body, and a turning away from conceptual interpretations of the transcendent.
Enter Susanne Langer.
As with the earlier works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Langer sees the impossibility of language to convey subjective states. The reader will recall the following from Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour, “When we’re asked ‘What do 'red', 'blue', 'black', 'white' mean?' we can, of course, immediately point to things which have these colours,—but that’s all we can do: our ability to explain their meaning goes no further” (v.102). Or the oft quoted seventh proposition, "What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).
For Langer, an artist and lover of the arts, there is a "genuine semantic beyond the limits of discursive language." Langer believes art (i.e. music, painting, drama, etc...), is a symbolic form of human feeling that is semantic and rational. Kūkai, also a lover of the arts and an artist, might have seen eye to eye with Langer. Gardiner clearly thinks so, and juxtaposes the following passages from Langer's book and Kūkai's Shōraimokuroku to make the point.
From Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art:
Visual forms — lines, colors, proportions, etc. — are just as capable of articulation, i.e. of complex combination, as words. But the laws that govern this sort of articulation are altogether different from the laws of syntax that govern language. The most radical difference is that visual forms are not discursive. They do not present their constituents successively, but simultaneously, so the relations determining a visual structure are grasped in one act of vision. Their complexity, consequently, is not limited, as the complexity of discourse is limited, by what the mind can retain from the beginning of an apperceptive act to the end of it. Of course such a restriction on discourse sets bounds to the complexity of speakable ideas. An idea that contains too many minute yet closely related parts, too many relations within relations, cannot be “projected” into discursive form; it is too subtle for speech. A language-bound theory of mind, therefore, rules it out of the domain of understanding and the sphere of knowledge (93).
(Ironically, Langer's description of simultaneity calls to mind Bhartrihari's "sphota theory" of language.) Turning to Kūkai's Shōraimokuroku:
The Dharma is originally without words, and yet it cannot be expressed apart from words. Suchness is beyond form, and yet it is by attending to forms that it is realized… The esoteric teachings are very profound and it is difficult to convey them in writing. Thus they are provisionally revealed to the unenlightened via paintings. The myriad forms of sacred deportment and the myriad gestures have their origin in great compassion. With a single look [at them one may] realize Buddhahood. [The meanings of] the sutras and commentaries are secretly and intricately depicted in the images. The heart of the esoteric teachings is verily contained therein. What master or student could dispense with them? The root source of the Ocean-like assembly [of enlightened ones] corresponds to just this (1:31).
Gardiner concludes that, like Langer, Kūkai is "eminently anti-mystical." So while there may be subjectivities that are best realized through the body, that does not necessarily entail an absence of rational semantics. In short, "transcendence," albeit transcendental, should not be reified as some nebulous mystical state.