Susanne Katherina Knauth was born in New York, New York to Antonio Knauth, a well-to-do lawyer, and Else M. (Uhlich) Knauth. She received her B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1920, and her PhD in 1926. In 1921 she married William L. Langer, a professor of history at Harvard; they later divorced.
Langer taught philosophy at Radcliffe from 1927 to 1942. She also taught at University of Delaware, Columbia University, New York University, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, University of Washington, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 1954 she was appointed professor of philosophy at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.
With the rise of postmodern theory she is now largely neglected, but she was an important figure in mid-20th century American philosophy. A primary thrust of her main corpus (New Key, Feeling and Form, Mind) was to establish a sound and systematic basis for an understanding of art - one which would reveal causes behind its creation, its value for human consciousness, and sketches of a foundation upon which individual works might be judged and evaluated.
Her efforts to examine art focused in large part upon a rigorous examination of its symbolic structure, chiefly through comparisons of its symbolic workings to those with 'discursive forms' such as language and mathematics. Perhaps most notably, she sought to examine the symbolic forms of art in relationship to natural forms, including those embodied within biological processes.
Langer was also interested in drama, and in Feeling and Form she wrote that drama is a "special poetic mode," and that the dynamism of dramatic action is not so much a result of a play's visible action (mirroring actual experience, which Langer calls "ragged, unaccentuated"), but of its location at the intersection of "the two great realms of envisagement--past and future." Langer writes that a key element of drama is its creation of a "virtual history" that is transparent to an audience, and which can be obliquely, but wholly, apprehended in each moment of action ("we can view each smallest act in its context, as a symptom of character and condition"). Dramatic action contains "latent form" that is suggested or developed in a play, and which comes fully into view only at the end, when it is understood as the fulfillment of Destiny. In short, drama is process of "history coming" rather than "history in retrospect," of motivation rather than causation.
Although she is not frequently cited by professional philosophers, her influence is great to the extent that her doctrine, particularly with respect to presentational symbolic activity, might be said to have become an integral part of the "collective unconsciousness" of many persons concerned with art and music in the English speaking world.
A clear example of her legacy is found in the fifth chapter of neuroscientists' Howard Gardner's 1982 book Art, Mind, and Brain. A Cognitive Approach to Creativity, dedicated exclusively to her thought. Now that neuroscience has begun to sort out some of the distinguishing characteristics of the interplay between right and left hemisphere mental processes, and the way emotion is essential as a mediator, the work of Susan Langer comes to have even deeper significance, and some feel that she may have been ahead of her time.