Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect

Chapter I

Alfred North Whitehead

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1. Kinds of Symbolism.

The slightest survey of different epochs of civilization discloses great differences in their attitude towards symbolism. For example, during the medieval period in Europe symbolism seemed to dominate men's imaginations. Architecture was symbolical, ceremonial was symbolical, heraldry was symbolical. With the Reformation a reaction set in. Men tried to dispense with symbols as 'fond things, vainly invented,' and concentrated on their direct apprehension of the ultimate facts.

But such symbolism is on the fringe of life. It has an unessential element in its constitution. The very fact that it can be acquired in one epoch and discarded in another epoch testifies to its superficial nature.

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There are deeper types of symbolism, in a sense artificial, and yet such that we could not get on without them. Language, written or spoken, is such a symbolism. The mere sound of a word, or its shape on paper, is indifferent. The word, is a symbol, and its meaning is constituted by the ideas, images, and emotions, which it raises in the mind of the hearer.

There is also another sort of language, purely a written language, which is constituted by the mathematical symbols of the science of algebra. In some ways, these symbols are different to those of ordinary language, because the manipulation of the algebraical symbols does your reasoning for you, provided that you keep to the algebraic rules. This is not the case with ordinary language. You can never forget the meaning of language, and trust to mere syntax to help you out. In any case, language and algebra seem to exemplify more fundamental types of symbolism than do the Cathedrals of Medieval Europe.

2. Symbolism and Perception.

There is still another symbolism more fundamental than any of the foregoing types. We look up and see a coloured shape in front of us, and

( 3) we say,—there is a chair. But what we have seen is the mere coloured shape. Perhaps an artist might not have jumped to the notion of a chair. He might have stopped at the mere contemplation of a beautiful colour and a beautiful shape. But those of us who are not artists are very prone, especially if we are tired, to pass straight from the perception of the coloured shape to the enjoyment of the chair, in some way of use, or of emotion, or of thought. We can easily explain this passage by reference to a train of difficult logical inference, whereby, having regard to our previous experiences of various shapes and various colours, we draw the probable conclusion that we are in the presence of a chair. I am very sceptical as to the high-grade character of the mentality required to get from the coloured shape to the chair. One reason for this scepticism is that my friend the artist, who kept himself to the contemplation of colour, shape and position, was a very highly trained man, and had acquired this facility of ignoring the chair at the cost of great labour. We do not require elaborate training merely in order to refrain from embarking upon intricate trains of inference. Such abstinence is only too easy. Another reason for scepticism is

( 4) that if we had been accompanied by a puppy dog, in addition to the artist, the dog would have acted immediately on the hypothesis of a chair and would have jumped onto it by way of using it as such. Again, if the dog had refrained from such action, it would have been because it was a well-trained dog. Therefore the transition from a coloured shape to the notion of an object which can be used for all sorts of purposes which have nothing to do with colour, seems to be a very natural one; and we—men and puppy dogs—require careful training if we are to refrain from acting upon it.

Thus coloured shapes seem to be symbols for some other elements in our experience, and when we see the coloured shapes we adjust our actions towards those other elements. This symbolism from our senses to the bodies symbolized is often mistaken. A cunning adjustment of lights and mirrors may completely deceive us; and even when we are not deceived, we only save ourselves by an effort. Symbolism from sense-presentation to physical bodies is the most natural and widespread of all symbolic modes. It is not a mere tropism, or automatic turning towards, because both men and puppies often disregard chairs when they see

( 5) them. Also a tulip which turns to the light has probably the very minimum of sense-presentation. I shall argue on the assumption that sense-perception is mainly a characteristic of more advanced organisms ; whereas all organisms have experience of causal efficacy whereby their functioning is conditioned by their environment.

3. On Methodology.

In fact symbolism is very largely concerned with the use of pure sense-perceptions in the character of symbols for more primitive elements in our experience. Accordingly since sense-perceptions, of any importance, are characteristic of high-grade organisms, I shall chiefly confine this study of symbolism to the influence of symbolism on human life. It is a general principle that low-grade characteristics are better studied first in connection with correspondingly low-grade organisms, in which those characteristics are not obscured by more developed types of functioning. Conversely, high-grade characters should be studied first in connection with those organisms in which they first come to full perfection.

Of course, as a second approximation to elicit the full sweep of particular characters, we want

( 6) to know the embryonic stage of the high-grade character, and the ways in which low-grade characters can be made subservient to higher types of functioning.

The nineteenth century exaggerated the power of the historical method, and assumed as a matter of course that every character should be studied only in its embryonic stage. Thus, for example, 'Love' has been studied among the savages and latterly among the morons.

4. Fallibility of Symbolism.

There is one great difference between symbolism and direct knowledge. Direct experience is infallible. What you have experienced, you have experienced. But symbolism is very fallible, in the sense that it may induce actions, feelings, emotions, and beliefs about things which are mere notions without that exemplification in the world which the symbolism leads us to presuppose. I shall develop the thesis that symbolism is an essential factor in the way we function as the result of our direct knowledge. Successful high-grade organisms are only possible, on the condition that their symbolic functionings are usually justified so far as important issues are concerned. But the

( 7) errors of mankind equally spring from symbolism. It is the task of reason to understand and purge the symbols on which humanity depends.

An adequate account of human mentality requires an explanation of (i) how we can know truly, (ii) how we can err, and (iii) how we can critically distinguish truth from error. Such an explanation requires that we distinguish that type of mental functioning which by its nature yields immediate acquaintance with fact, from that type of functioning which is only trustworthy by reason of its satisfaction of certain criteria provided by the first type of functioning.

I shall maintain that the first type of functioning is properly to be called 'Direct Recognition,' and the second type 'Symbolic Reference.' I shall also endeavour to illustrate the doctrine that all human symbolism, however superficial it may seem, is ultimately to be reduced to trains of this fundamental symbolic reference, trains which finally connect percepts in alternative modes of direct recognition.

5. Definition of Symbolism.

After this prefatory explanation, we must start from a formal definition of symbolism : The hu-

( 8) -man mind is functioning symbolically when some components of its experience elicit consciousness, beliefs, emotions, and usages, respecting other components of its experience. The former set of components are the 'symbols,' and the latter set constitute the 'meaning' of the symbols. The organic functioning whereby there is transition from the symbol to the meaning will be called 'symbolic reference.'

This symbolic reference is the active synthetic element contributed by the nature of the percipient. It requires a ground founded on some community between the natures of symbol and meaning. But such a common element in the two natures does not of itself necessitate symbolic reference, nor does it decide which shall be symbol and which shall be meaning, nor does it secure that the symbolic reference shall be immune from producing errors and disasters for the percipient. We must conceive perception in the light of a primary phase in the self-production of an occasion of actual existence.

In defence of this notion of self-production arising out of some primary given phase, I would remind you that, apart from it, there can be no moral responsibility. The potter, and not the pot,

( 9) is responsible for the shape of the pot. An actual occasion arises as the bringing together into one real context diverse perceptions, diverse feelings, diverse purposes, and other diverse activities arising out of those primary perceptions. Here activity is another name for self-production.

6.Experience as Activity.

In this way we assign to the percipient an activity in the production of its own experience, although that moment of experience, in its character of being that one occasion, is nothing else than the percipient itself. Thus, for the percipient at least, the perception is an internal relationship between itself and the things perceived.

In analysis the total activity involved in perception of the symbolic reference must be referred to the percipient. Such symbolic reference requires something in common between symbol and meaning which can be expressed without reference to the perfected percipient; but it also requires some activity of the percipient which can be considered without recourse either to the particular symbol or its particular meaning. Considered by themselves the symbol and its meaning do not require either that there shall be a symbolic ref-

( 10) -erence between the two, or that the symbolic reference between the members of the couple should be one way on rather than the other way on. The nature of their relationship does not in itself determine which is symbol and which is meaning. There are no components of experience which are only symbols or only meanings. The more usual symbolic reference is from the less primitive component as symbol to the more primitive as meaning.

This statement is the foundation of a thorough-going realism. It does away with any mysterious element in our experience which is merely meant, and thereby behind the veil of direct perception. It proclaims the principle that symbolic reference holds between two components in a complex experience, each intrinsically capable of direct recognition. Any lack of such conscious analytical recognition is the fault of the defect in mentality on the part of a comparatively low-grade percipient.


To exemplify the inversion of symbol and meaning, consider language and the things meant by language. A word is a symbol. But a word can be either written or spoken. Now on occasions

( 11) a written word may suggest the corresponding spoken word, and that sound may suggest a meaning.

In such an instance, the written word is a symbol and its meaning is the spoken word, and the spoken word is a symbol and its meaning is the dictionary meaning of the word, spoken or written.

But often the written word effects its purpose without the intervention of the spoken word. Accordingly, then, the written word directly symbolizes the dictionary meaning. But so fluctuating and complex is human experience that in general neither of these cases is exemplified in the clear-cut way which is set out here. Often the written word suggests both the spoken word and also the meaning, and the symbolic reference is made clearer and more definite by the additional reference of the spoken word to the same meaning. Analogously we can start from the spoken word which may elicit a visual perception of the written word.

Further, why do we say that the word 'tree'—spoken or written—is a symbol to us for trees? Both the word itself and trees themselves enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would

( 12) be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the word 'tree' as for the word to symbolize the trees.

This is certainly true, and human nature sometimes works that way. For example, if you are a poet and wish to write a lyric on trees, you will walk into the forest in order that the trees may suggest the appropriate words, Thus for the poet in his ecstasy—or perhaps, agony—of composition the trees are the symbols and the words are the meaning. He concentrates on the trees in order to get at the words.

But most of us are not poets, though we read their lyrics with proper respect. For us, the words are the symbols which enable us to capture the rapture of the poet in the forest. The poet is a person for whom visual sights and sounds and emotional experiences refer symbolically to words. The poet's readers are people for whom his words refer symbolically to the visual sights and sounds and emotions he wants to evoke. Thus in the use of language there is a double symbolic reference: —from things to words on the part of the speaker, and from words back to things on the part of the listener.

When in an act of human experience there is a

( 13) symbolic reference, there are in the first place two sets of components with some objective relationship between them, and this relationship will vary greatly in different instances. In the second place the total constitution of the percipient has to effect the symbolic reference from one set of components, the symbols, to the other set of components, the meaning. In the third place, the question, as to which set of components form the symbols and which set the meaning, also depends on the peculiar constitution of that act of experience.

8. Presentational Immediacy.

The most fundamental exemplification of symbolism has already been alluded to in the discussion of the poet and the circumstances which elicit his poetry. We have here a particular instance of the reference of words to things. But this general relation of words to things is only a particular instance of a yet more general fact. Our perception of the external world is divided into two types of content: one type is the familiar immediate presentation of the contemporary world, by means of our projection of our immediate sensations, determining for us characteristics of con-

( 14) temporary physical entities. This type is the experience of the immediate world around us, a world decorated by sense-data dependent on the immediate states of relevant parts of our own bodies. Physiology establishes this latter fact conclusively; but the physiological details are irrelevant to the present philosophical discussion, and only confuse the issue. 'Sense-datum' is a modern term: Hume uses the word 'impression.'

For human beings, this type of experience is vivid, and is especially distinct in its exhibition of the spatial regions and relationships within the contemporary world.

The familiar language which I have used in speaking of the 'projection of our sensations' is very misleading. There are no bare sensations which are first experienced and then 'projected' into our feet as their feelings, or onto the opposite wall as its colour. The projection is an integral part of the situation, quite as original as the sense-data. It would be just as accurate, and equally misleading, to speak of a projection on the wall which is then characterized as such-and-such a colour. The use of the term 'wall' is equally misleading by its suggestion of information derived symbolically from another mode of perception.

( 15) This so-called 'wall,' disclosed in the pure mode of presentational immediacy, contributes itself to our experience only under the guise of spatial extension, combined with spatial perspective, and combined with sense-data which in this example reduce to colour alone.

I say that the wall contributes itself under this guise, in preference to saying that it contributes these universal characters in combination. For the characters are combined by their exposition of one thing in a common world including ourselves, that one thing which I call the 'wall.' Our perception is not confined to universal characters; we do not perceive disembodied colour or disembodied extensiveness: we perceive the wall's colour and extensiveness. The experienced fact is 'colour away on the wall for us.' Thus the colour and the spatial perspective are abstract elements, characterizing the concrete way in which the wall enters into our experience. They are therefore relational elements between the 'percipient at that moment,' and that other equally actual entity, or set of entities, which we call the 'wall at that moment.' But the mere colour and the mere spatial perspective are very abstract entities, because they are only arrived at by discarding the concrete relation-

( 16) -ship between the wall-at-that-moment and the percipient-at-that-moment. This concrete relationship is a physical fact which may be very unessential to the wall and very essential to the percipient. The spatial relationship is equally essential both to wall and percipient: but the colour side of the relationship is at that moment indifferent to the wall, though it is part of the make-up of the percipient. In this sense, and subject to their spatial relation-ship, contemporary events happen independently. I call this type of experience 'presentational immediacy.' It expresses how contemporary events are relevant to each other, and yet preserve a mutual independence. This relevance amid independence is the peculiar character of contemporaneousness. This presentational immediacy is only of importance in high-grade organisms, and is a physical fact which may, or may not, enter into consciousness. Such entry will depend on attention and on the activity of conceptual functioning, whereby physical experience and conceptual imagination are fused into knowledge.

9. Perceptive Experience.

The word 'experience' is one of the most deceitful in philosophy. Its adequate discussion

( 17) would be the topic for a treatise. I can only indicate those elements in my analysis of it which are relevant to the present train of thought.

Our experience, so far as it is primarily concerned with our direct recognition of a solid world of other things which are actual in the same sense that we are actual, has three main independent modes each contributing its share of components to our individual rise into one concrete moment of human experience. Two of these modes of experience I will call perceptive, and the third I will call the mode of conceptual analysis. In respect to pure perception, I call one of the two types concerned the mode of 'presentational immediacy,' and the other the mode of 'causal efficacy.' Both 'presentational immediacy' and 'causal efficacy' introduce into human experience components which are again analysable into actual things of the actual world and into abstract attributes, qualities, and relations, which express how those other actual things contribute themselves as components to our individual experience. These abstractions express how other actualities are component objects for us. I will therefore say that they 'objectify' for us the actual things in our 'environment.' Our

( 18) most immediate environment is constituted by the various organs of our own bodies, our more remote environment is the physical world in the neighbourhood. But the word 'environment' means those other actual things, which are 'objectified' in some important way so as to form component elements in our individual experience.

10. Symbolic Reference in Perceptive Experience.

Of the two distinct perceptive modes, one mode 'objectifies' actual things under the guise of presentational immediacy, and the other mode, which I have not yet discussed, 'objectifies' them under the guise of causal efficacy. The synthetic activity whereby these two modes are fused into one perception is what I have called 'symbolic reference.' By symbolic reference the various actualities disclosed respectively by the two modes are either identified, or are at least correlated together as interrelated elements in our environment. Thus the result of symbolic reference is what the actual world is for us, as that datum in our experience productive of feelings, emotions, satisfactions, actions, and finally as the topic for conscious recognition when our mentality intervenes with its con-

( 19) -ceptual analysis. 'Direct recognition' is conscious recognition of a percept in a pure mode, devoid of symbolic reference.

Symbolic reference may be, in many respects, erroneous. By this I mean that some 'direct recognition' disagrees, in its report of the actual world, with the conscious recognition of the fused product resulting from symbolic reference. Thus error is primarily the product of symbolic reference, and not of conceptual analysis. Also symbolic reference itself is not primarily the outcome of conceptual analysis, though it is greatly promoted by it. For symbolic reference is still dominant in experience when such mental analysis is at a low ebb. We all know Aesop's fable of the dog who dropped a piece of meat to grasp at its reflection in the water. We must not, however, judge too severely of error. In the initial stages of mental progress, error in symbolic reference is the discipline which promotes imaginative freedom. Aesop's dog lost his meat, but he gained a step on the road towards a free imagination.

Thus symbolic reference must be explained antecedently to conceptual analysis, although there is a strong interplay between the two whereby they promote each other.

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11. Mental and Physical.

By way of being as intelligible as possible we might tacitly assign symbolic reference to mental activity, and thereby avoid some detailed explanation. It is a matter of pure convention as to which of our experiential activities we term mental and which physical. Personally I prefer to restrict mentality to those experiential activities which include concepts in addition to percepts. But much of our perception is due to the enhanced subtlety arising from a concurrent conceptual analysis. Thus in fact there is no proper line to be drawn between the physical and the mental constitution of experience. But there is no conscious knowledge apart from the intervention of mentality in the form of conceptual analysis.

It will be necessary later on to make some slight reference to conceptual analysis; but at present I must assume consciousness and its partial analysis of experience, and return to the two modes of pure perception. The point that I want to make here is, that the reason why low-grade purely physical organisms cannot make mistakes is not primarily their absence of thought, but their absence of presentational immediacy. Aesop's dog, who was a

( 21) poor thinker, made a mistake by reason of an erroneous symbolic reference from presentational immediacy to causal efficacy. In short, truth and error dwell in the world by reason of synthesis: every actual thing is synthetic: and symbolic reference is one primitive form of synthetic activity whereby what is actual arises from its given phases.

12. Rōles of Sense-data and Space in Presentational Immediacy.

By 'presentational immediacy' I mean what is usually termed 'sense-perception.' But I am using the former term under limitations and extensions which are foreign to the common use of the latter term.

Presentational immediacy is our immediate perception of the contemporary external world, appearing as an element constitutive of our own experience. In this appearance the world discloses itself to be a community of actual things, which arc actual in the same sense as we are.

This appearance is effected by the mediation of qualities, such as colours, sounds, tastes, etc., which can with equal truth be described as our sensations or as the qualities of the actual things

( 22) which we perceive. These qualities are thus relational between the perceiving subject and the perceived things. They can be thus isolated only by abstracting them from their implication in the scheme of spatial relatedness of the perceived things to each other and to the perceiving subject. This relatedness of spatial extension is a complete. scheme, impartial between the observer and the perceived things. It is the scheme of the morphology of the complex organisms forming the community of the contemporary world. The way in which each actual physical organism enters into the make-up of its contemporaries has to conform to this scheme. Thus the sense-data, such as colours, etc., or bodily feelings, introduce the extended physical entities into our experience under perspectives provided by this spatial scheme. The spatial relations by themselves are generic abstractions, and the sense-data are generic abstractions. But the perspectives of the sense-data provided by the spatial relations are the specific relations whereby the external contemporary things are to this extent part of our experience. These contemporary organisms, thus introduced as 'objects' into experience, include the various organs of our body, and the sense-data are then called bodily

( 23) feelings. The bodily organs, and those other external things which make important contributions to this mode of our perception, together form the contemporary environment of the percipient organism. The main facts about presentational immediacy are: (i) that the sense-data involved depend on the percipient organism and its spatial relations to the perceived organisms ; (ii)that the contemporary world is exhibited as extended and as a plenum of organisms; (iii) that presentational immediacy is an important factor in the experience of only a few high-grade organisms, and that for the others it is embryonic or entirely negligible.

Thus the disclosure of a contemporary world by presentational immediacy is bound up with the disclosure of the solidarity of actual things by reason of their participation in an impartial system of spatial extension. Beyond this, the knowledge provided by pure presentational immediacy is vivid, precise, and barren. It is also to a large extent controllable at will. I mean that one moment of experience can predetermine to a considerable extent, by inhibitions, or by intensifications, or by other modifications, the characteristics of the presentational immediacy in succeeding mo-

( 24) -ments of experience. This mode of perception/ taken purely by itself, is barren, because we may not directly connect the qualitative presentations of other things with any intrinsic characters of those things. We see the image of a coloured chair, presenting to us the space behind a mirror; yet we thereby gain no knowledge concerning any intrinsic characters of spaces behind the mirror. But the image thus seen in a good mirror is just as much an immediate presentation of colour qualifying the world at a distance behind the mirror, as is our direct vision of the chair when we turn round and look at it. Pure presentational immediacy refuses to be divided into delusions and not-delusions. It is either all of it, or none of it, an immediate presentation of an external contemporary world as in its own right spatial. The sense-data involved in presentational immediacy have a wider relationship in the world than these contemporary things can express. In abstraction from this wider relationship, there is no means of determining the importance of the apparent qualification of contemporary objects by sense-data. For this reason the phrase 'mere appearance' carries the suggestion of barrenness. This wider relationship of the sense-data can only be understood by examining

( 25) the alternative mode of perception, the mode of causal efficacy. But in so far as contemporary things are bound together by mere presentational immediacy, they happen in complete independence except for their spatial relations at the moment. Also for most events, we presume that their intrinsic experience of presentational immediacy is so embryonic as to be negligible. This perceptive mode is important only for a small minority of elaborate organisms.

13. Objectification.

In this explanation of Presentational Immediacy, I am conforming to the distinction according to which actual things are objectively in our experience and formally existing in their own completeness. I maintain that presentational immediacy is that peculiar way in which contemporary things are 'objectively' in our experience, and that among the abstract entities which constitute factors in the mode of introduction are those abstractions usually called sense-data :—for example, colours, sounds, tastes, touches, and bodily feelings.

Thus 'objectification' itself is abstraction; since no actual thing is 'objectified' in its 'formal' com-

( 26) -pleteness. Abstraction expresses nature's mode of interaction and is not merely mental. When it abstracts, thought is merely conforming to nature —or rather, it is exhibiting itself as an element in nature. Synthesis and analysis require each other. Such a conception is paradoxical if you will persist in thinking of the actual world as a collection of passive actual substances with their private characters or qualities. In that case, it must be nonsense to ask, how one such substance can form a component in the make-up of another such substance. So long as this conception is retained, the difficulty is not relieved by calling each actual substance an event, or a pattern, or an occasion. The difficulty, which arises for such a conception, is to explain how the substances can be actually together in a sense derivative from that in which each individual substance is actual. But the conception of the world here adopted is that of functional activity. By this I mean that every actual thing is something by reason of its activity; whereby its nature consists in its relevance to other things, and its individuality consists in its synthesis of other things so far as they are relevant to it. In enquiring about any one individual we must ask how other individuals enter 'objectively' into

( 27) the unity of its own experience. This unity of its own experience is that individual existing formally. We must also enquire how it enters into the 'formal' existence of other things; and this entrance is that individual existing objectively, that is to say—existing abstractly, exemplifying only some elements in its formal content.

With this conception of the world, in speaking of any actual individual, such as a human being, we must mean that man in one occasion of his experience. Such an occasion, or act, is complex and therefore capable of analysis into phases and other components. It is the most concrete actual entity, and the life of man from birth to death is a historic route of such occasions. These concrete moments are bound together into one society by a partial identity of form, and by the peculiarly full summation of its predecessors which each moment of the life-history gathers into itself. The man-at-one-moment concentrates in himself the colour of his own past, and he is the issue of it. The 'man in his whole life history' is an abstraction compared to the 'man in one such moment.'There are therefore three different meanings for the notion of a particular man,—Julius Caesar, for example. The word 'Caesar' may mean 'Caesar in

( 28) some one occasion of his existence' : this is the most concrete of all the meanings. The word 'Cęsar' may mean 'the historic route of Cęsar-life from his Cęsarian birth to his Cęsarian assassination.' The word 'Cęsar' may mean 'the common form, or pattern, repeated in each occasion of Cęsar's life.' You may legitimately choose any one of these meanings; but when you have made your choice, you must in that context stick to it.

This doctrine of the nature of the life-history of an enduring organism holds for all types of organisms, which have attained to unity of experience, for electrons as well as for men. But mankind has gained a richness of experiential content denied to electrons. 'Whenever the 'all or none' principle holds, we are in some way dealing with one actual entity, and not with a society of such entities, nor with the analysis of components contributory to one such entity.

This lecture has maintained the doctrine of a direct experience of an external world. It is impossible fully to argue this thesis without getting too far away from my topic. I need only refer you to the first portion of Santayana's recent book, Scepticism and Animal Faith, for a conclusive

( 29) proof of the futile 'solipsism of the present moment'—or, in other words, utter scepticism—which results from a denial of this assumption. My second thesis, for which I cannot claim Santayana's authority, is that, if you consistently maintain such direct individual experience, you will be driven in your philosophical construction to a conception of the world as an interplay of functional activity whereby each concrete individual thing arises from its determinate relativity to the settled world of other concrete individuals, at least so far as the world is past and settled.


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