Symbolism: The Organic Functioning of Reason

1. Philosophy and Symbolism

In his famous lecture on “Vagueness,” Bertrand Russell claims that many more questions in philosophy than is generally acknowledged are connected with the problem of symbolism. Maintaining that the system of symbolic logic which he and Whitehead developed together in their monumental Principia Mathematica is capable of eliminating those troublesome characteristics of natural language, vagueness and ambiguity, Russell upholds the Leibnizian dream of a formal language of symbols with atomic meanings connected by precise rules and legitimated by “exact” science. It appears that Whitehead was never tempted by this idea, although he does not doubt the importance of logical or mathematical symbolisms for acquiring knowledge of nature. Contrary to Russell and his followers, he sees philosophy as a never-ending investigation of matters that are important for human well-being, an investigation that is, however, fated to end as it has begun—”in the rough.”[1] Some progress in understanding can nonetheless be hoped for, as witnessed by the development of highly abstruse mathematical symbolisms that have helped advance the inquiries of physicists. But lacking a clear point of entry and a definite method of attack, it is preferable to refer not to a problem but rather to an open problematic of symbolism. At its heart stands the question of the relationship not between what means and what is meant (to use Russell’s phrase), but rather how to illuminate the efficacy of various modes of symbolizing which attest to obscure connections between minds and world.

2. “Letting the Dialectic Go”

Briefly, then, the problematic of symbolism is generally concerned with the powers of symbolisms tout court. But to tackle this large question requires a fairly clear idea of what philosophy is and how it might best be done. For this is one of the principal challenges that Whitehead presents to modern philosophers who sense the importance of his contributions to both systematic and philosophic thinking. But in following Whitehead, as Victor Lowe notes, “almost no one is really willing to let the dialectic go” (Lowe 1961, 254).

Thus, before trying to present Whitehead’s theory of symbolism, it is worth trying to clarify what “letting go” might mean. For Whitehead, this evidently involves an unequivocal renunciation of the modern faith in system: the faith that everything worth explaining can be accounted for by “exact” methods based on universal and immutable “laws of nature.” On the contrary, he holds that “Nature is patient of interpretation in terms of Laws that happen to interest us” (AI 136), thereby implying that it is a fatal error to begin by divorcing nature from culture. In other words, a whole-hearted “letting go” calls for a “nonmodern” approach to this inescapably complex world which consists of a plurality of what Bruno Latour refers to as nature-cultures. An overriding condition of a nonmodern philosophy, in other words, is that its rational explanations must not presume that sharp boundaries can be drawn between nature, culture, and discourse.[2]

So in so far as Whitehead’s general aim is to frame a comprehensive naturalism, his own approach to philosophy bespeaks a “letting go” of modern presuppositions that involves both a rejection of the centrality of science in natural philosophy and a recognition of the need for a highly unorthodox “artful” dialectic informed by an artful reason. Indeed, he defines the proper function of reason as the promotion of the “the art of life” (FR 4). Philosophy is herewith accorded a central role in the evolution of both life and thought, for “[a]s we think we live” (MT 63); it is also invested with therapeutic responsibilities.

The early moderns, Whitehead suggests, poisoned Western thought by promoting the narrow and constrictive doctrine of scientific materialism which devitalizes life (and thought) even as it denatures nature. This doctrine not only reflects an endemic “sickness of the understanding” (to adopt Wittgenstein’s phrase), it poses a threat to the long-term health of this civilization, since “the degeneracy of mankind is distinguished from its uprise by the dominance of chill abstractions, divorced from aesthetic content” (MT 123). Thus one of Whitehead’s chief concerns, which is to rescue the more intangible aspects of experiencing from narrow and constrictive doctrines, explains in part his return to Heraclitus—which is bound up with his denunciation of the tendency to dichotomize such fundamental contrasts as subject-object, body-mind, and so on. Holding that “[t]hroughout the universe there reigns the union of opposites which is the ground of dualism” (AI 190), he indicates that only an artful dialectic can resolve the tensions between fundamental conceptual contrasts.

In other words, “letting go” implies a search for an artful reason that includes a deployment of the powers of imagination; a type of reason that is clearly exemplified in Whitehead’s choice of “method” for doing speculative metaphysics—which he terms “imaginative generalization.” This anti-Cartesian “method” involves an attempt to utilize the tropic resources of language, for there is a certain wisdom, he believes, embedded in ordinary word-symbols. The implication for a Whiteheadian theory of symbolism is that an adequate account of the powers of symbolisms requires not only a radical rethinking of standard conceptions of reason, knowledge, truth, and meaning but also a serious engagement with the problem of the relationship between good philosophizing and a perspicacious use of figurative language. Indeed, Whitehead concludes his philosophical investigations with the claim that “philosophy is akin to poetry, and both of them seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization” (MT vii). Thus in view of the elusiveness of good sense and the extreme vagueness of the notion of civilization, it is not surprising that he also concludes that a philosopher can only aspire “to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated” (MT 174).[3]

But by thus turning the standard conception of a rational explanation on its head, he thrusts his followers into an awkward position which puts them at odds with those who think, for instance, that the backbone of philosophy is logic. By the same token, it is not clear what a truly Whiteheadian approach to the problems of philosophy might look like. Should the would-be Whiteheadian naturalist adhere faithfully to the categoreal scheme as laid out in Process and Reality? Or would it be better to concentrate on the intuitions and insights that inspired the theory in the first place? Recommending the second of these alternatives, A. H. Johnson regards the categoreal scheme as an attempt to formalize certain premise-like observations that in Science and the Modern World are couched in a homelier and hence more accessible language.[4]

Hence in view of the centrality of imagination in his “method” of doing philosophy, as well as his metaphysical decision to make creativity the category of the ultimate, it may be asked whether Whitehead’s own “letting go” is as thoroughgoing as one might wish. In other words, should one of the initial goals of the “nonmodern” Whiteheadian naturalist be to locate imagination in the class of natural entities, to show perhaps that it deserves to be regarded as the pivot of an adequate account of a self-creative Nature (or nature-culture)—as Johnson seems to imply when he observes that “unless imagination can produce a picture of what might be […] creation is impossible” (1983, 17)?

There can be no doubt that Whitehead endorses the cognitive significance of those obscure mental entities called intuitions and insights: he states, for instance, that it is an “axiom of empiricism” that “all knowledge is derived from, and verified by, direct intuitive observation” (AI 177). Maintaining that the natural philosopher ought “to search whether nature does not in its very being show itself as self-explanatory […for] the sheer statement of what things are, may contain elements explanatory of why things are” (SMW 92, my italics), he herewith opens wide the problematic of symbolism to intuitions. And inasmuch as whatever shows itself to minds presupposes a prior enlistment of some sort of symbolic expression, a close scrutiny of particularly efficacious symbolisms may reveal which insights or intuitions might represent “perspicacious intuitions.” Or perhaps better, “intuitive imaginings.”

But it is a moot question what sort of language might be suitable for speaking about the relations between minds and nature “in its very being.” Whitehead’s elaborate exposition in Process and Reality of his theory of organism generally bears witness to an artful reason guided by an anthropomorphic metaphysical imaginary. That is to say, he adopts a picture of nature grounded essentially in a metaphor of organism that exploits the wisdom in such ordinary words as “appetite,” “satisfaction,” “aim,” and so on.[5] Since the adequacy of any metaphor depends on the quality of the intuitions and insights that underwrite it, and inasmuch as these derive from a contemplation of the salient aspects of human concrete experiences, one is obliged to assess Whitehead’s would-be comprehensive investigation of experience on the basis of very general observations.

For Whitehead, the full range of experiencing extends from the material through the mental to the spiritual. The moderns can therefore be accused not only of poisoning thought but also of betraying philosophy since this activity, in Whitehead’s view, is “the most effective of all the intellectual pursuits” just because it is “the architect of the buildings of the spirit” (SMW viii). Claiming moreover that “the spiritual precedes the material,” Whitehead indicates that some of the most valuable insights into the relation between minds and nature stem from the work of artists. He praises in particular the so-called Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Shelley who, along with Berkeley, “are representative of the intuitive refusal seriously to accept the abstract materialism of science” (SMW 86). He thereby implies that one of the more egregious errors perpetuated by scientific materialists is a nihilistic denial that the world is intrinsically meaningful.

Before proceeding further, then, it is worth noting that frequent complaints about the obscurity of Whitehead’s philosophy are misguided, especially if they overlook the fact that “its complexities emerge from a scruple for justice,” as W. E. Hocking observes in his invaluable summary (recollected from numerous conversations) of Whitehead’s key intuitions which carry “the main load of his argument” (1963, 386). Drawing particular attention to Whitehead’s “sense of scandal to intellectual conscience at some of our commonly accepted maladjustments between thought and fact,” Hocking also stresses the violence done to experience not only in the Newtonian epoch but also by “the excess-revisions of Minkowski and Einstein” (1963, 384). Hocking also suggests that this violence is directly related to the “poison of bifurcation” (1963, 387), thus confirming the essentially nonmodern character of Whitehead’s thinking—which is especially evident in his rejection of the tendency to divide nature into an “internally” grasped half which is apprehended in sense awareness and an “external” half that provides the reasons for this awareness. Indeed, this principled rejection of the “bifurcation of nature” is arguably the key to understanding what motivates Whitehead’s “return to the root,” as Hocking puts it, in search of a more just and balanced view of rational thought.

Such a “return” requires finding a way to reconcile a good many of the arbitrary divisions instituted by modern philosophers who assume, for instance that a gulf separates mind and matter and the latter is essentially inert or lifeless—that there is a distinct border separating the organic and the inorganic. Yet this assumption has been undermined, ironically enough, by advances in quantum physics which indicate that the “mattering of matter” refers at bottom to only more or less “localized” and interconnected structures of activity that bespeak sentient awareness. This development lends support to Whitehead’s guiding intuition that the world is an ever-changing “realization of events disposed in an interlocked community” as—where an event is understood as a “unit of things real” (SMW 152).

Thus central to the issue of what an essentially Whiteheadian naturalism might look like is the question of how to interpret this posited “interlocking” of “events.” A Whiteheadian event is nothing like the point-particle abstraction promoted by classical physicists; it is rather like a “drop of experience” as we know it, which suggests that the actual entities of the formal theory may be best understood in an informal, everyday context. This primary consideration indicates that the formal theory requires some adjusting, for Whitehead’s view of the real world as inherently complex, as Hocking notes, does not sit easily with his assumption that the realm of actual entities consists of one kind of unit being.[6] This reservation resonates with the philosophical-historical studies of Ivor Leclerc who argues that a resurrection of the Aristotelian notion of a living body is needed to model an actual entity (Leclerc 1972 and 1986).

The need for an informal approach to actuality is thus indicated, one that is consonant with the spirit of Whitehead’s central insight that the nature of an actual thing is dependent on how it relates to other things. This insight can be said to infuse his theory of symbolism, wherein he declares that “every actual thing is something by reason of its activity” (S 26). At the same time he observes that a living organism, such as a man, is “one occasion of his experience. Such an occasion, or act […] is the most concrete actual entity, and the life of man from birth to death is a historic route of such occasions” (S 27). Herewith opening up the question whether every integral sentient event can be viewed as an actual entity, Whitehead brings a very tricky puzzle to the forefront of the search for a comprehensive naturalism.

3. On the Imaginal and the Conceptual

Assuming that symbolisms always mediate between minds and nature, as Whitehead suggests in Symbolism: its meaning and effect, I am suggesting that a good place for a Whiteheadian naturalism to begin is with a rough idea of how mind relates to nature. Such a beginning is in fact implicit in one of his informal observations (which has the ring of a fundamental insight):

Mind is inside its images, not its images inside the mind: I am ‘immersed in a topic’ in mathematics, not the reverse. We are actors in scenes, not the scenes inside us (quoted from memory by Hocking 1951, 385).

That this is a key to understanding both the import and centrality of Whitehead’s theory of symbolism is partly evident in his express denial of “the tacit presupposition of the ‘mind’ as a passively receptive substance” (S 32). More specifically, the term “mind” generally bespeaks an activity which is more accurately referred to as “minding.” Hence if minding is indeed “inside its imaging,” appearances (or phenomena) can be viewed as the products of ongoing precipitations of the “stuff” of thought. The problem of a proper choice of language, or imagery, thus emerges as crucial, for the provenance of this “stuff” lies beneath the surface of conscious awareness where relationships between images, ideas, signs, and symbols are formed, intuited, and/or discovered.

I have already alluded to an essential reciprocity between minding and mattering, a consideration that is borne out by the transmission theories of physics which indicate that existence tout court involves communicative interactions which are mediated by signs and signals. When this line of thought is viewed from the more inclusive perspective of metaphysics, Whitehead’s anthropomorphic imaginary invites complementation by a metaphorics of signs, such as that which infuses the semiotic musings of C. S. Peirce (Code 1999). Briefly, in a conjoined Whiteheadian-Peircean imaginary, every organism is engaged in a selective interpretation of signs. Hence this conjoined imaginary promises to do justice to the fact that every “higher” organism is immersed in a flood of cultural (or communal) symbols as well as natural signs. That is to say, every nature-culture can be generally depicted as exemplifying a continual, evolving or devolving, precipitation of meanings by means of interconnected, indeterminate acts of interpretation—since signs carry only potential meanings. Hence one arrives at an organo-semiotic picture of the world which can be roughly likened to an intricate cosmic dance of occasions of sensibility wherein the immense variety of performances illustrate a spectrum of kinds of interpretative activity.[7]

This image of a cosmic dance accords with Whitehead’s Heraclitean depiction of the world as a flux of body-mind-souls, a flux that is neither utterly chaotic nor completely orderly. Participants in the dance partially compete and partially cooperate with other subjects while restlessly building new worlds on the remains of the old in new acts of becoming. Thus as ordinary visual perception indicates, imagination may hold the key to understanding both the kind of connections that emerge in acts of becoming as well as the more or less “sensible” connections that come to be formed between occasions of sensibility.

This complex image of the world is not only compatible with the “messiness” of reality-as-we-find-it, it is consonant with Whitehead’s principal aim to rescue thought (and life) from the nihilistic modern tendency to divest the world of meaning and value. More specifically, this image indicates that percepts are more fundamental than concepts, for a generalized conception of perception in Whitehead’s view ultimately provides the “glue” that holds the world together. The connectivities established in perception are never rigid, however, since novel connections can always emerge from established modes of communication.[8]

While no doubt gesturing toward a highly convoluted situation, the image of a cosmic dance points toward the centrality of imagination in world-making tout court, a view that is consonant with Whitehead’s estimation of Kant as “the great philosopher who first, fully and explicitly, introduced into philosophy the conception of an act of experience as a constructive functioning, transforming subjectivity into objectivity, or objectivity into subjectivity; the order is immaterial in comparison with the general idea” (PR 156). But the order becomes highly significant when contemplating the relation between percepts and concepts, if the Kant of the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason is also right that the faculty of imagination is “a blind but indispensable function of the soul, without which we should have no knowledge whatsoever.” Herewith indicating that the imaginary ought to be given precedence over the conceptual, Kant also prompts the question whether the kind and quality of the synthesizing performed by the faculty of imagination is bound up with the degree of spirit present in the synthesizing agency.

That is to say, Kant can be read as lending credence to a Whiteheadian picture of the world as a Heraclitean flux of ensouled, living (and dying) bodies linked by communicative acts whose nature depends on the character of the relevant exchanges of signs and symbols.[9] Or to put this elusive notion another way, does Whitehead’s theory of actuality lead to the view that more or less imaginative mind-body-souls are at work wherever there is the possibility of novelty emerging in the interpretative-communicative links that hold the world together—that is, everywhere?

4. On Perception and Symbolism

To accept the centrality of perception in world-making is tantamount to saying that would-be Whiteheadian naturalists will never do proper justice to the salient aspects of experience (which is “one of the most deceitful [words] in philosophy” (S 16)) unless they can also take into account the quality of intuitions, instincts and, above all, the kind and quality of relevant powers of imagination. Perhaps the most valuable exercises of the latter attest to perspicacious functionings of sensitive souls. However, the fallibility of everyday imagination testifies to an inherent fallibility in all communicative-interpretative activity which “gathers together” “inner” and “outer” influences to yield “drops” or units of experience.

At this point, then, one might try to unravel this mysterious business by contemplating the problematic precipitation of symbols in acts of minding-mattering, for the etymological meaning of a symbol is a “something” that is “thrown together.” It is thus worth noting that advances in modern science, and especially in quantum physics, lend weight to the urgings of the quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli that it would be better to speak of a “reality of symbols” than an “objective” or “external” reality.[10] Pauli also draws attention to the pervasive error in divorcing subjects from their “objects,” and confirms the wisdom of adopting a Whiteheadian perspective on the world in which perception, and hence cognition, is invested with an “irrational” (for want of a better word, says Pauli) spiritual component.

Pauli’s efforts to interpret the bizarre results of quantum theory recall the efforts of the poet-philosopher S. T. Coleridge to overcome the tyranny of “abstractive intelligences” in which he was led to call for a “true naturalism” informed by a “true and original realism”—which “believes and requires nothing more nor less than that the object it beholds or presents to itself is the real and very object” (Coleridge 1956, 149). Since Whitehead’s quest for a comprehensive naturalism can be viewed as an extension of Coleridge’s quest for a “true naturalism,” the latter’s positing of a reality-producing imagination (called “primary” or “esemplastic” imagination, which is required to bring together subjects and objects into unities of experiencing), the question arises whether his theory of symbolism is an exemplary antidote for the modern disease that generally splits the ontological from the epistemological sides of cognition. Especially noteworthy, therefore, is Coleridge’s claim that “objects” always appear in the guise of symbols.[11]

It can be argued, in brief, that Coleridge is the most relevant of the Romantic poet-philosophers for a would-be Whiteheadian naturalist who acknowledges the need for an organo-semiotic imaginary in which perception involves an ultimately mysterious interpretative interplay of real signs and symbols. Coleridge’s concern to do justice to what he calls “the organs of spirit” as well as the “organs of sense” indicates moreover that the sort of naturalism that Whitehead is aiming for, when he addresses the problem of the meaning and effect of symbolism, must revolve about a theory of symbolism capable of doing justice at once to the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral/ethical capacities of embodied souls. The implication is that especially well-cultivated souls are able to “see” more deeply into the “reality of symbols,” or better, an actuality of symbolisms (since reality has the connotation of monolithic Being).

Whitehead appears to hold that “real” or genuine meanings are at times embedded in what on the face of it is a merely conventional production of symbols:

We enjoy the symbol, but we also penetrate to the meaning. The symbols do not create their meaning: the meaning, in the form of actual effective beings reacting upon us, exists for us in its own right. But the symbols discover this meaning for us (S 57).

However, it is not clear how to interpret the word “discovery.” Although Whitehead claims that knowledge depends on “direct perceptions,” if imagination is the key to understanding perception, one must face head-on an even more fundamental question: how do these obscure “mental entities” come together to engender effective symbolisms?

In analyzing an act of perception, Whitehead posits two distinct modes of perception—causal efficacy and presentational immediacy—which are symbolically linked, at least in the case of human perceptions: “human symbolism has its origins in the symbolic interplay between two distinct modes of perception of the external world” (S 30). As for the nature of this “symbolic interplay,” Whitehead variously refers to it as “symbolic referencing,” or “organic functioning” (whereby “there is transition from the symbol to the meaning” (S 8)). What to make of the idea of “transition” is thus a question that needs elucidation.

In his formal treatment of perception, Whitehead speaks of the relations that link events in nature in terms of the notion of prehension.[12] It is thus important to note that this term is in part designed to forestall the misleading connotation of conscious apprehension. It is also designed “to signify the essential unity of an event” (SMW 72). Thus indicating that the character of sentient behaviour is what is chiefly at issue, consciousness is hereby stripped of some of its mystery. That is to say, consciousness is a rare, and late, aspect of the emergence of human sensibility in an evolutionary world, but this is no more strange than sentience itself, which Whitehead explicitly links to the mystery of existence. For the latter is quite different from the mystery which the moderns make of “meaning” on account of a “failure to lay due emphasis on symbolic reference” (PR 168).

“Hang it all. Here we are!” says Whitehead, “We don’t go behind that; we begin with it” (Hocking 1963, 717). Hence philosophy begins already immersed in the problem of symbolism. As for the pronoun “we,” this implies that “symbolic referencing” refers to a fundamental aspect of communicative connectivity which implies that there must be “some community between the natures of symbol and meaning” (S 8). However, the dynamic character of every community in a Heraclitean world precludes simple descriptions of symbolizing in terms of, say, definite or immutable essences (e.g., eternal objects). Neither does it help to try to determine what exactly is symbol and what meaning: “there are no components of experience which are only symbols or only meanings” (S 10). In other words, what “symbolic referencing” ultimately, but loosely, refers to is “the active synthetic element contributed by the nature of the percipient” (S 8).

I have suggested that the self-creative aspect of the synthesizing activity in the construction of experience that Kant initially linked to the faculty of imagination—which is “a blind but indispensable function of the soul”—in a Whiteheadian naturalism leads to questions about the state of development of relevant souls. In other words, the activity of “symbolic referencing” can be viewed as directly related to another of Whitehead’s primary concerns, which is to reinvest experience with a moral dimension. This is a good reason, he suggests, for insisting on the factor of self-creativity: without it moral responsibility would have no meaning (since “the potter, and not the pot, is responsible for the shape of the pot” (S 8-9)). Yet there is nothing to prevent the view that a moral or ethical faculty, like the faculty of imagination, is but one of many capacities of the soul which are, as every infant bears witness, only given in potentia.

In sum, then, if symbolic reference is “the interpretative element in human experience” (PR 173), it can be viewed as the core of the “organic functioning of reason” which alludes to a capacity, or better, to a complex of capacities that range from the intellectual through the moral/ethical to the spiritual. So if the power of symbolic referencing is the semiotic key to unifying nature, culture, and discourse in a truly nonmodern naturalism, this power brings in its train a great many responsibilities. At the cultural or public level, the “interpretative element” refers chiefly to a collectivity of private imaginations which can on occasion introduce significant changes into extant systems of symbolization through novel interpretations. For those symbolisms that evidence a capacity to get something right suggest that minding, and more generally imaging, is not really a private affair. Indeed, it is an everyday fact that supposedly individual and isolated imaginations can agree in considerable detail on innumerable aesthetic, moral/ethical, and spiritual as well as material aspects of experiencing.[13]

5. On Symbolizing “Rightly”

The upshot is that it is not possible to assess the “rightness,” or otherwise, of a system of symbolism in a purely analytical or pragmatic manner, as though a final ground of meanings can, at least in principle, be uncovered. As Whitehead notes, there is usually a “chain of derivation of symbol from symbol whereby finally the local relations, between the final symbol and the ultimate meaning, are entirely lost” (S 83). Hence in keeping with the afore-mentioned organo-semiotic imaginary, one can think of meaning-making in the case of the so-called “higher organisms” as differing from that of the “lower” organisms in terms of the level of sophistication in species-specific capacities for interpreting signs and symbols. At the “highest” levels, a cohesive and vital community of organisms bespeaks an integrated collective imagination that testifies to the fact (inasmuch as “culture” refers to a certain complex of ways of world-making) that there are as many “realities” (nature-cultures) as there are modes of symbolic referencing, not all of which necessarily foster healthy relations between living and thinking.

All that one can generally assert about the relations established in perception is that they begin in the mode of causal efficacy with elements that are “antecedent to thought about [them]” (S 39). Any reference to the quality of perceiving in this mode must therefore be unavoidably vague. Clarity is characteristic of deliverances in the second mode of perception which the moderns (such as Hume and Kant) mistakenly regard as “the primary fact of perception” (PR 173). By wielding this “neolithic weapon of ‘critical’ philosophy,” they unjustly invert causal efficacy and presentational immediacy. Hence to redress this injustice it is necessary to insist that “[t]he how of our present experience must conform to the what of the past in us” (S 58). In other words, “the animal body is the great central ground underlying all symbolic reference” (PR 170); so to speak of an objective or external reality is merely to allude to the “stubborn fact that whatever is settled and actual must in due measure be conformed to by the self-creative activity” (S 36-37, my italics).

The intimate connection in a “symbolic interplay” between conformation (or habit) and self-creative activity once again reminds us of the need to find a just and appropriate way to speak of a “fusing” of the two distinct modes of perception into a “coming together” that yields “what the actual world is for us” (S 18). In Whitehead’s account, this fusion takes place somewhere “in-between” the two different “schemes of presentation of the same world” (S 30, my italics). In searching for a metaphor to clarify this obscure matter, Whitehead fastens upon the notion of catalysis. He observes, for instance, that “the qualities entertained as objects in conceptual activity are of the nature of catalytic agents, in the sense in which that phrase is used in chemistry” (MT 168). But if, for example, a visual experience depends on healthy eyes and sufficient light, how can a quality-laden visual image arise from a catalysis involving a flood of signs that are presented, say, in the form of colourless electromagnetic “wave-particles?” Eyes do not themselves generate spatio-temporally located colored shapes so much as they provide the first links in chains or networks of interpretations that involve many different kinds of cells in the body, interpretations that lead eventually (but who knows how?) to a projection of visual images. Indeed, the metaphor of projection, as Whitehead himself points out, is seriously misleading: “There are no bare sensations which are first experienced and then projected” (S 14). A quite different figurative language is needed which can take into account the fact that “the projection is an integral part of the situation, quite as original as the sense-data.”

Both projection and catalysis, in short, fail to do justice to the self-creative aspects of the integration of the two modes of perception, wherein appearances become linked by “colours, sounds, tastes, etc., which can with equal truth be described as our sensations or as the qualities of the actual things which we perceive” (S 21-22). But once qualities are regarded as “relational between the perceiving subject and the perceived things,” where the perceived things “are actual in the same sense as we are” (S 21), the problem of language is rendered still more acute when Whitehead states that

there cannot be symbolic reference between percepts derived from one mode and percepts from the other mode, unless in some way these percepts intersect. By this ‘intersection’ I mean that a pair of such percepts must have elements of structure in common, whereby they are marked out for the action of symbolic reference (S 49).

This crucial step of “marking out” renders otiose the systematic analogy of a catalysis, for the “precipitations” of a chemical catalytic reaction are predetermined by the “fixed” laws of chemistry and physics. It also puts paid to the Cartesian dream of a systematic, or scientific uncovering of the secrets of knowledge-making. In other words, a “marking out” seems best understood as referring to a partly habitual and partly creative activity which lyric poets (and innovative scientific investigators) often exemplify, at least those who demonstrate an uncanny ability to divine novel connections between apparently disparate entities.

Whitehead in fact points toward this conclusion when he adduces the example of a poet who enters a forest in order to contemplate trees in the hope of producing not just another description of the ordinary but rather a glimpse of the extraordinary—something that would normally go unnoticed in everyday life.[14] Thus an instinctive belief in the possibility of getting something right in the creation and use of symbolisms may account for the high value accorded to poetry and indeed all art in every vital culture. By the same token, if a degenerate culture is one that has surrendered itself to “chill abstractions, divorced from aesthetic content,” one may suspect a low degree of cultivation of the imagination of the souls that are guiding that culture.

The supposed independence of poetry and philosophy thus turns out to be an egregious modern error with a great potentiality for doing long-term damage to the entire civilization. In other words, the importance of imagination in the making of good sense through good symbolizing cannot perhaps be exaggerated. As for the implication of getting something right, it is thus worth noting the stress that Whitehead puts on the affective nature of perception in the mode of causal efficacy, thereby indicating that a fruitful interplay of symbols and images ultimately depends on a preponderance of well-educated imaginations allied to carefully nurtured emotions, for these can be viewed as volatile mixes of feelings and concepts. Indeed, Whitehead ties the advance of philosophy to “some purification of the emotions by understanding” (MT 168-69).[15]

Given the high status that feelings are accorded in Whitehead’s metaphysical imaginary, what else but an artistic sensibility guided by an expertise with feelings could explain a successful “marking out” in symbolic referencing?[16] This line of thought accords anyway with Whitehead’s claim that “the object of symbolism is the enhancement of the importance of what is symbolized” (S 63). It also helps explain why the task of philosophic reason is inescapably therapeutic: for it should aim “to understand and purge the symbols on which humanity depends” (S 7). The very ideas of knowledge and truth are thus not only released from the tyrannical grip of futile Cartesian yearnings for absolute, pure, or final meanings. Knowledge-making in general emerges from this line of thought as closely allied to human artistic creativity, which is manifestly experimental and prone to error. Indeed, if “error is primarily the product of symbolic reference, and not of conceptual analysis” (S 19), error is an inescapable fact of all life, even of the lowliest forms. “Error in symbolic reference,” Whitehead continues, “is the discipline which promotes imaginative freedom” (S 19). By the same token, it is the discipline that exacts a high price for a failure to deploy the freedom of imagination properly and responsibly, since this freedom can lead to catastrophic forms of world-making. Yet when everything goes well, symbolic referencing can be called a “localized,” organic functioning of reason which is capable of approximating to the Heraclitean Logos.


[1] See Code 1995, especially Chapter 6.

[2] See Latour 1993, 64, who depicts a “nonmodern” (or truly modern) philosophy as one capable of achieving a satisfactory unification of these “three great resources of the modern critique.” For it is a characteristic assumption of the moderns, he argues, that nature and culture can be totally separated, an assumption that is legitimated by a contradictory hidden Constitution which associates modernity with a quest for purity while at the same time allowing for the proliferation of impure “hybrids” of nature and culture.

[3] See Code 1998 for further discussion of the mystical dimension of a comprehensive naturalism.

[4] See Johnson 1983, ix and 151ff.

[5] In one of his Harvard lectures, Whitehead notes that “any metaphysics is a good metaphysics which takes you a good long way without its metaphors breaking down” (Ford, 1984, 197-298). Again, “philosophic truth is to be sought in the presuppositions of language rather than in its express statements” (MT vii).

[6] Hocking cites Whitehead’s explicit declaration in PR 110: “The presumption that there is only one genus of actual entity constitutes an ideal of cosmological theory to which the philosophy of organism endeavours to conform.” For a survey of different approaches to this issue, often termed the “problem of compound individuals,” see Moses 2003.

[7] Peirce remarks, for instance, that the universe “is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs” (Collected Papers 5.448n). In Peirce’s view, natural signs must be distinguished from symbols whose meanings are established by consensus.

[8] This implies that novel eternal objects can also emerge: see Code 2002.

[9] “While we exist, body and soul are inescapable elements in our being, each with a full reality of our own immediate self” (MT 161).

[10] Wolfgang Pauli, one of the leading figures in the development of quantum theory, argues that quantum physics, which shows the need for a non-classical conception of the relation between subjects and objects, also indicates that the idea of an “objective reality” should be replaced by a “reality of symbols”: see Laurikainen 1985.

[11] See Modena 1985, 72, who notes that for Coleridge symbol-making is “an innate function of the mind coinstantaneous with the act of thinking.”

[12] See e.g. SMW 69-72.

[13] For an exploration of the natural and cultural intersection of modes of symbolizing, see Lachmann 2000. He attempts to link Whitehead’s theory of perception, which is mainly focussed on the relation between minds and nature, to the extension by Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer of Kant’s theory of knowledge that focuses on the culturally oriented topics of language, myth, art which supply the spiritual foundations of understanding.

[14] The word “tree” and the image of a tree “enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the word ‘tree’ as for the word to symbolize the trees” (S 12).

[15] In the Whiteheadian-Peircean imaginary I have referred to above, feelings can be regarded as metaphysically First (in Peirce’s sense of being sui generis). Poets, or artists in general, may thus be exemplary philosophers, if Susanne Langer is right and artists are experts in feeling (see Langer 1957).

[16] Causal efficacy refers to “the most insistent perception of a circumambient efficacious world of beings” (S 55). That is, this mode of perception can be understood as referring to the vague feelings that Peirce links to Firstness whereby natural signs convey real possibilities.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Code, Murray. 1995. Myths of Reason: Vagueness, Rationality, and the Lure of Logic (Atlantic Highlands N.J., Humanities Press International).

Code, Murray. 1998. “Explanation and Natural Philosophy: Or, The Rationalization of Mysticism,” Process Studies, 27, 3-4, 308-27.

Code, Murray. 1999. “Interpreting ‘the Raw Universe’: Meaning and Metaphysical Imaginaries,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Fall, 1999, XXXV, 4, 698-722.

Code, Murray. 2002. “On Whitehead’s Almost Comprehensive Naturalism,” Process Studies, 31, 1, 3-31.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. 1956. Biographia Literaria, edited by George Watson (London, J. M. Dent).

Hocking, W. E. 1951. “Whitehead On Mind and Nature,” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead,” edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (New York, Tudor), 383-404.

Hocking, W. E. 1963. “Whitehead as I Knew Him,” in Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, edited by George L. Kline, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall), 7-17.

Johnson, A. H. 1983. Whitehead and His Philosophy (Lanham MD, University Press of America).

Lachmann, Rolf. 2000. “Alfred North Whiteheads naturphilosophie Konzeption der Symbolisierung,” Zeitschrift fur philosophische Forshung, 54, 2, 196-217.

Langer, Susanne K. 1957. Philosophy in a New Key: A study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, 3rd ed. (Cambridge MA, Harvard Universtity Press).

Latour, Bruno. 1991. We Have Never Been Modern, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1993).

Laurikainen, K. V. 1985. Beyond the Atom: The Philosophical Thought of Wolfgang Pauli (Berlin, Springer-Verlag).

Leclerc, Ivor. 1972. The Nature of Physical Existence (London, George Allen & Unwin).

Leclerc, Ivor.1986. The Philosophy of Nature (Washington DC, Catholic University of America Press).

Lowe, V. 1961. “What Philosophers may learn from Whitehead,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 15, 56-57, 251-66.

Modena, Raimonda. 1985. Coleridge and the Concept of Nature (London, MacMillan).

Moses, Gregory J. 2003. “Big Things From Little Things?: The problem of the compound individual,” Concrescence 2003, 5, 1-7 (published online by The Australasian Association of Process Thought).

Russell, Bertrand. 1983– . Collected Papers, 30+ Vols. (London, Routledge).

Author Information

Murray Code
Faculty of Graduate Studies
University of Guelph, ON N1G 2W1, Canada

How to Cite this Article

Code, Murray, “Symbolism: The Organic Functioning of Reason”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.