The Environment Regarded as Symbolic Space:
Department of Philosophy
University of Hawai`i at Mānoa
Although symbolism is most commonly considered in terms of cultural and conventional symbols that are characteristic of human experience, such familiar instances, including those involving language, are regarded by Whitehead as mere examples of symbolism governed by more general principles. In Whitehead’s view, a perceptual object as simple as a colored shape can function as a symbol for both humans and animals in so far as they are referred to something not directly perceived in the salient foreground perception. The shape per se is not a symbol, but if a datum is felt in the perceptive modes of causal efficacy and presentational immediacy, and these two modes are unified, there is, Whitehead argues, symbolic reference.
Living organisms transact with their environment through multiple communication channels, many of which are predominantly physical. Symbolic reference may enter the experience of higher organisms as the two aforementioned modes of perception are unified, but due to the absence of definite percepts in the mode of presentational immediacy, Whitehead sometimes hints that symbolism receives little or no significance in lower forms of life. However, Whitehead also suggests that the fundamental or more general requisite for symbolism is simply the integration of two distinct modes of perception with some common ground, such that symbolic reference may not require one of its perceptive modes to be specifically the mode of presentational immediacy.
The present paper expands upon this latter general framework of symbolic reference and aims at generalizing symbolism to lower organisms, whereby a solid continuity between lower and higher organisms is established. In simplest terms, a symbol can be seen as a perceptum that affords information of what is prehended in more aboriginal modes of perception, or vice versa. On this interpretation, the functional territory of symbolism is not only broad but spans the entire biosphere, including the world of plants. I will argue in particular that the perception of enduring objects in surrounding space is sufficient to evoke primitive symbolism, which makes the environment a natural symbolic space for most creatures.
2. Blind Symbolic Reference
Ordinary human perception offers a paradigmatic example of symbolic reference where the two perceptive modes, causal efficacy and presentational immediacy, are brought into synthesis. The causal thrust of the dimly felt background of experience, or what Whitehead calls “the efficacy of the environment” (S 52), induces feelings that further structure themselves and become unified under a projected region that is more immediately felt. This makes symbolic reference a mode of derivative perception that supplements the concrescence of the percipient occasion. As a result, a coloured object, a grey stone for example, appears in concrete embodied space:
The two modes are unified by a blind symbolic reference by which supplemental feelings derived from the intensive, but vague, mode of efficacy are precipitated upon the distinct regions illustrated in the mode of immediacy. The integration of the two modes in supplemental feeling makes what would have been vague to be distinct, and what would have been shallow to be intense. This is the perception of the grey stone, in the mixed mode of symbolic reference. (PR 180)
Given the fact that symbolic reference unifies causal efficacy and presentational immediacy, it is natural to locate its function in the supplemental phase of concrescence. Of the two modes, causal efficacy generally precedes presentational immediacy, since the latter is “an outgrowth from the complex datum implanted by causal efficacy” (PR 172). However, it is to be bore in mind that presentational immediacy itself is “a physical feeling” (PR 311), a “physical fact which may, or may not, enter into consciousness”(S 16). The two modes of perception have nothing essential to do with consciousness, for which reason symbolic reference becomes a largely pre-cognitive function that is “blind” (PR 180). Regarding its physical nature and pertinence to life phenomena, Kraus suggestively remarks:
Blind transference—symbolically conditioned action—characterizes all vertebrates, certainly the more complex invertebrates, and perhaps all life forms as well. The tendency to take the present as a symbol of a past agency which can lead to the future weal or woe of the organism appears to be one of the indicators of the presence of life. (ME 86).
How far can we push this analogy, or in what sense would all life forms incorporate a degree of symbolism? In contrast to human beings, whose “elaborate system of symbolic transference” has made it possible to “achieve miracles of sensitiveness to a distant environment, and to a problematic future” (S 87), invertebrates and other simple organisms seem to perceive their environment in highly specialized ways and only for the proximate future. But it is also true that most creatures exhibit varying measures of sensitiveness to their environment and future, or otherwise they will fail to survive.
Plants do not form a different category. The Venus flytrap snaps its prey in a fraction of a moment when distinct hairs on the inner side of the leaf are contacted twice within twenty seconds. There are plants that release Herbivore-Induced Synomone as an active signal to attract carnivorous mites so as to defend themselves from herbivorous mites. In general, selective information, which is more than what dim causal efficacy discloses, is transmitted throughout the natural environment, such that some form of symbolism may be postulated in nature. This is in fact one of the interesting directions in which Whitehead develops his theory of symbolic reference.
3. Enduring Objects, Strains, and Symbols
When a dragonfly avoids an obstacle in rapid flight, or a bat navigates its areal path in a dark cave, there is not much need for clear and distinct qualitative perception as the sense of direction and the awareness of the spatial structure of the given environment. A moment ago, it was noted that presentational immediacy is a physical fact that does not presuppose consciousness. To be more precise, however, it even arises within the historical routes of enduring objects that are normally considered inorganic. In Whitehead’s own words:
The two modes [causal efficacy and presentational immediacy] express the same datum under different proportions of relevance. [. . .] There is first the complex genetic process in which presentational immediacy originates. This process extends downwards even to occasions which belong to the historic routes of certain types of inorganic enduring objects, namely, to those enduring objects whose aggregates form the subject-matter of the science of Newtonian dynamics. (PR 173)
Besides observing how the philosophy of organism gestures toward a form of gradualism with the phrase “different proportions of relevance,” it is important to stress that the process generating presentational immediacy is to be traced back to occasions constituting inorganic enduring objects. Sizable instances of such enduring objects include rigid bodies in Newtonian mechanics, but all types of objects are concerned ranging widely in dimension and structure.
A dragonfly, to use our example, will identify its geographical position relative to large-scale objects such as trees, rock edges, or the flat surface of open water. The effect of strain feelings integrated with the primitive causal feelings allows the insect to locate itself in the concrete space, and not much beyond strain feelings and automated responses to them seems necessary for effective aviation. The occasions contributing to the perception of strain may be seen as symbolizing certain features of the environment that are significant for the purpose of flight.
Now strain feelings, which determine the “complex distribution of geometrical significance” (PR 309) of the environment, are apparently more developed than primary physical feelings; they are concerned with the relatively stable or invariant features of the physical environment; and they presuppose neither consciousness nor life. Although strain feelings are often associated with sensory motors of higher organisms, most enduring physical objects exemplify such feelings, that is, in a way comparative to presentational immediacy originating in the deep historic routes of enduring objects. A rigid body not only subsists but maintains its physical structure by internalizing strains into its concrescence. Whitehead advances this point as follows noting that the actual entities involved are already high-grade:
It is obvious that important feelings of strain involve complex processes of concrescence. They are accordingly only to be found in comparatively high-grade actual entities. They do not in any respect necessarily involve consciousness, or even that approach to consciousness which we associate with life. But we shall find that the behaviour of enduring physical objects is only explicable by reference to the peculiarities of their strains. (PR 311)
The contrast between blind causal efficacy and strain feelings is obvious. The former enjoys very little valuation and articulation, whereas the latter, strains, shall reflect particular geometrical relations realized in the nexus constituting the actual world of the emerging actual entity. As long as the primary physical feelings are unified with strain feelings, as should be the case with the dragonfly, my point is that the latter feelings may symbolize the former by informing the aviator of the relatively stable features of the space it travels through.
Since the lowest kind of organism identifies and responds to enduring features of its immediate surroundings, including obstacles, enemies, food, mate, and a lot more, it seems not wrong to attribute some measure of symbolic coordination to their behavior. One such coordination may be found in the bodily efficacy of the dragonfly and its strain feelings, where numerous geometrical features of space can be seen as symbols of its concrete environment, but most organisms likewise depend on enduring features of the world that count as invariants, or what can be termed ‘symbols.’ This agrees with Whitehead’s view that “in the long course of adaptation of living organisms to their environment, nature taught their [symbols’] use”(S 7).
4. Whitehead’s General Formulation of Symbolism
As is well-known, Whitehead on the other hand remarks that a creature like a jellyfish “exhibits some perception of causal relationship with the world beyond itself” (PR 176), such that “dim, slow feelings of causal nexus” (PR 177) can be attributed to it. However, he also adds, “we have no reason for any ascription of the definite percepts in the mode of presentational immediacy” (ibid.). For two main reasons, this should not be taken too hastily to mean that there cannot be any symbolic reference in the life processes of the jellyfish.
First, presentational immediacy is a matter of degree, and simple invertebrates may have indefinite percepts in the mode of presentational immediacy if not definite percepts. It is worth noting that presentational immediacy, the perception of the actual contemporary world, and definite percepts are logically independent notions. Nor does symbolism rest upon the definiteness of percepts. Words are, for instance, usually more definite for humans than other sensory objects, but Whitehead suggests that in certain situations aesthetic experience, such as the smelling of incense, may “make better symbols than do words, written or spoken” (PR 183).
Secondly, and more importantly, symbolic reference between causal efficacy and presentational immediacy merely “affords the main example of the principles which govern all symbolism” (PR 180). The more general requisites for symbolism are: “that there be two species of percepta; and that a perceptum of one species has some ‘ground’ in common with a perceptum of another species, so that a correlation between the pair of percepta is established” (PR 180). Whitehead further elucidates upon this general formulation as follows:
The species from which the symbolic reference starts is called the ‘species of symbols,’ and the species with which it ends is called the ‘species of meanings.’ In this way there can be symbolic reference between two species in the same perceptive mode: but the chief example of symbolism, upon which is based a great portion of the lives of all high-grade animals, is that between the two perceptive modes [i.e. causal efficacy and presentational immediacy]. (PR 180, my italics)
The statement brings forward the bold idea that within each of the two perceptive modes of causal efficacy and presentational immediacy, there is nothing that forbids the formation of percepta falling under distinct species. In other words, so far as the two perceptive modes furnish the percipient occasion with distinct species of percepta, such that symbolic reference occurs from one perceptum to another, a similar synthetic process may take place within a lower-level perceptive mode including causal efficacy. Given the complexity of the integration of initial physical feelings, and the fact that presentational immediacy already involves strain (PR xxix), it makes sense to consider symbolism as being nested within and across multiple phases and modes of primitive unification.
As a contextual matter, I think symbolism in human experience is often highlighted in Whitehead’s own discussion. For example, “Language almost exclusively refers to presentational immediacy as interpreted by symbolic reference” (PR 173). Angled this way, organisms without robust presentational immediacy may seem to have very limited symbolic capacity. But this is certainly different from saying that their life processes are devoid of all forms of symbolism, nor is such an interpretation consonant with the general account given by Whitehead above. Taking symbolism in the exclusively human sense and denying it of lower organisms altogether would invite the mistake of drawing too sharp a border between simple and complex organisms.
5. Concluding Remarks
By expanding upon the most general formulation of symbolic reference, therefore, there is a sense in which a solid continuity between lower and higher organisms is granted in Whitehead’s own words. Following this line of interpretation, a symbol is simply a perceptum that affords selective information about what is prehended in more aboriginal modes of perception, or vice versa. Being a “primitive form of synthetic activity” (S 21), the functional territory of symbolism is broad enough to span the entire biosphere. In particular, I have argued in this paper that enduring spatial features may suffice to render the environment a natural symbolic space for most creatures. The great subtlety and intricacy of “the twilight zone between pure physical feeling and the clear consciousness” (PR 263) seem to allow for such a flexible generalization of the theory.
The merit of such a general framework is multifold. “We are naive in our interpretation of language and of symbolism” (MT 92), Whitehead remarks, for whom verbal language is but one form of ‘language.’ Conscious cognition in human experience is not taken as the only model of knowledge acquisition and belief formation but one that serves as a main example in our epistemic discourse. Besides, symbolic reference constitutes developing grounds for higher intellectual feelings including propositional feelings. Seen in this light the great majority of symbolic structures are proto-propositional, such that under the theoretical scope of symbolism may fall the study of symbolic truth, not restricted to clear-cut bivalent truth, as exemplified in “Music, ceremonial clothing, ceremonial smells, and ceremonial rhythmic visual appearances” (AI 249). In the long run the “symbolic examination of pattern,” which is the subject of symbolic logic in whitehead’s view, may “become the foundation of aesthetics” (ESP 130-131).
Finally, I may proceed to yet another quote from Whitehead’s little book on symbolism: “Now the love of the sheer geographical aspects of one's country, of its hills, its mountains, and its plains, of its trees, its flowers, its birds, and its whole nature-life, is no small element in that binding force which makes a nation”(S 68). A terrifying natural disaster will not be an exception. There is often a painful, almost insurmountable conflict between immediate emotions of loss and mourning, on the one hand, and the sheer geographical landscapes facing us after nature strikes, on the other. Despite her indifferent powers and actions, however, I am inclined to conclude that all has come to form, and should come to form, “the very texture of human life” (S 61-62). The abiding significance of Whitehead’s theory of symbolism in my view consists in its high degree of generality and its unifying perspective that recasts the question concerning man and the organic environment.
References (bracketed letters indicating abbreviations)
Armstrong-Buck, Susan. “Nonhuman Experience: A Whiteheadian Analysis,” Process Studies, vol. 18.1, pp. 1-18, 1989.
Code, Murray. “Bodies, Minds, and Souls: On Putting Life Back into Nature,” Process Studies, vo1. 35.2, pp. 230-269, 2006.
Kraus, Elizabeth M. The Metaphysics of Experience: A Companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Second Edition. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998. [ME]
Whitehead, A. N. Adventure of Ideas. New York: Free Press, 1967. [AI]
---. Essays in Science and Philosophy. New York: Greenwood, 1968. [ESP]
---. Modes of Thought. New York: Free Press, 1968. [MT]
---. Process and Reality. Corrected Edition. New York: Free Press, 1978. [PR]
---. Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. New York: Fordham University Press, 1985. [S]