Whitehead
and the Problems of
Thought, Language, and Culture
rethinking

Participants & Papers

  • Jeffrey Bell, Southeastern Louisiana University bio
    “Thought, Symbols, and Concepts” abstract
  • Roland Faber, Claremont School of Theology bio
    “Uniting Earth to the Blue of Heaven Above: Strange Attractors in Whitehead's Symbolism" abstract
  • Michael Halewood, University of Essex bio
    “The Inhumanity of Symbolism” abstract
  • Luke Higgins, South University bio
    “Symbols that Invoke Symbol-Making: Whitehead and Bergson on Ecological Culture and Creative Emotion” abstract
  • Catherine Keller, Drew University bio
    “The Apocalypse of Climate: Symbols, Facts and Presenting Immediacies”
  • Sheri Kling, Claremont School of Theology bio
    “Avoiding a Fatal Error - Extending Whitehead's Symbolism Beyond Language” abstract
  • Hyo-Dong Lee, Drew University bio 
    Ren and Causal Efficacy: Confucians and Whitehead on the Social Role of Symbolism” abstract
  • Beatrice Marovich, University of North Dakota bio
    “Fleeting Saviors: Creatures & Whitehead’s Symbolization of Value” abstract
  • Steven Meyer, Washington University in St. Louis bio
    “Guide Signs: Whitehead on Multimodal Perception and Empson on Types of Ambiguity” abstract
  • Adam Nocek, University of Washington bio
    “On Symbols and Propositions”
  • Keith Robinson, University of Arkansas at Little Rock bio
    “Originary Symbolism: Whitehead, Deleuze and the Process View on Perception” abstract
  • Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University bio
    “Whitehead on Causality and Perception” abstract

Jeffrey Bell is Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University. He is the author of The Problem of Difference: Phenomenology and Poststructuralism, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos: Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of Difference, and Deleuze's Hume: Philosophy, Culture, and the Scottish Enlightenment, and a coeditor of Deleuze and History. He is currently at work on a manuscript on metaphysics and continental thought.

"Thought, Symbols, and Concepts"

Recent work in the philosophy of language has emphasized the importance of "stimulus-independent" representational abilities in understanding both the nature of concepts and the extent to which concepts play a role in the thoughts of non-humans (see especially Elisabeth Camp 2009). This recent work dovetails in significant and interesting ways with Terrence Deacon's work on symbols and with more recent work in continental philosophy on symbolism, language, and actor-network theory (namely, Lacan, Deleuze, and Latour) and analytic work in the philosophy of skill (see especially Jason Stanley's work). It is in light of this work that I will revisit Whitehead's book Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. In particular, I will argue that claim of many commentators, both early and late, that Whitehead is a panpsychist is a mistake and relies upon an understanding of experience and subjectivity that Whitehead seeks to account for rather than presuppose. In his account of experience and subjectivity, it is rather a non-subjective, pre-individual process of individuation that allows for the possibility of an identifiable subjective experience, and hence for the claims of panpsychism. Moreover, and with this we will bring in the work of Elisabeth Camp, Terrence Deacon, and others, we will find in his discussion of symbolism that for Whitehead experience is not a homogenous phenomena shared by all things but is rather an effect of various processes of individuation. Whitehead's understanding and account of these processes, on the reading I will offer, is able to account for an indeterminate variety of types and degrees of experience and in a way that avoids both a reductive materialism and a reductive panpsychism.

Terrence Deacon received his PhD at Harvard university, has been professor at Harvard, Harvard Medical school, Boston University, and is currently Professor of Anthropology at U C Berkeley. His research extends from laboratory-based cellular-molecular neurobiology to the study of semiotic processes underlying the evolution of animal and human cognition, especially language. His theoretical interests include the study of evolution-like processes at many levels, including their role in embryonic development, neural signal processing, language change, and social processes, and how these different processes interact and depend on each other. Currently, his work has focused on the problem of explaining emergent phenomena, such as characterize such apparently unprecedented transitions as the origin of life, the evolution of language, the nature of information, and the generation of conscious experience by brains. This is fueled by a career-long interest in the ideas of the late 19th-century American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce and his theory of semiosis. He is author of "The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain" (W. W. Norton, 1997) and "Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter" (W. W. Norton, 2012).

"Representation as process: Semiosis and Whiteheadian symbolism"

Roland Faber is the founder of the Whitehead Research Project, Kilsby Family/John B. Cobb, Jr. Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, and Executive Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies. He earned his M.A., Ph.D., and Habilitation at the University of Vienna. His fields of research and publication are Process Philosophy and Process Theology; (De)Constructive Theology; Poststructuralism (Gilles Deleuze); Transreligious Discourse (epistemology of Religious Relativity and Unity) and interreligious applications (e.g., Christianity/Buddhism); Comparative Philosophy of Religion; Philosophy, Theology, Spirituality, and Cosmology of the Renaissance; and Mysticism (Meister Eckhart, Nicolas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno). His interests led him to formulate a Theopoetics, a third space approach to post-structuralist and process theology, which addresses the liberating necessity of multiplicity. He is the author or editor of God as Poet of the World: Exploring Process Theologies; Beyond Metaphysics?: Explorations in Alfred North Whitehead's Late Thought; Event and Decision: Ontology and Politics in Badiou, Deleuze, and Whitehead; and Secrets of Becoming: Negotiating Whitehead, Deleuze, and Butler.

"Uniting Earth to the Blue of Heaven Above: Strange Attractors in Whitehead's Symbolism"

Symbolism is maybe one of the most obscure books of Whitehead's oeuvre: in between grand projects, small in appearance, seemingly integrated in other works, less known, and, to a certain extent, considered superfluous. Yet, on second thought, it might be that in its fringe existence Symbolism holds some gems to be rediscovered and cherished. Relating in maybe the most immediate way to current questions of language, ecology, and political philosophy by, at the same time, elaborating a highly creative conceptual multiplicity of modes of perception, Symbolism exposes us to a series of strange attractors which, while not absent from other works, might be found to be more densely interwoven here than elsewhere. The following considerations will name and relate some of these strange attractors to the issues the book seems to be addressing while speaking to us today, about hundred years after its generation.

Michael Halewood is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex (UK).  His research covers the intersection between philosophy and social theory and he has written on topics such as the concept of the social and its relation to the natural, the body, sexual difference, contemporary theorizations of subjectivity and materiality, and the work of Marx, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler and John Dewey. His last book A. N. Whitehead and Social Theory: Tracing a Culture of Thought has recently been reprinted in paperback. His new book Rethinking the Social is due out in Autumn 2014.

"The Inhumanity of Symbolism"

Whitehead is clear that language and symbols are important for humans. But they are not generated solely from or by humans. If they were, Whitehead's philosophy would fall back into a sophisticated humanism and would lack metaphysical bite. In this paper I will trace the inhumanity of symbols in order to return to a more specific understanding of what Whitehead discussions of the intersections of humans, language and symbolism.

Luke Higgins interests lie at the intersection of constructive theology, Process thought, Continental philosophy, science studies and ecological philosophy. He received his doctorate from Drew University in Theological and Philosophical studies where he studied with constructive theologian Catherine Keller. His dissertation, entitled, The Time of Ecology: Theological Cosmology for a Postmodern Earth, uses the philosophy of Whitehead, Deleuze and Bergson to think towards an approach to theological cosmology capable of affirming spontaneous, creaturely self-creativity, on one hand, and divinely-inflected "trans-temporal" trajectories of meaning and value, on the other hand. His constructive synthesis moves towards a panentheistic, ecotheological Cosmic Christology deeply critical of "macro-teleological" concepts of cosmic design. His current research aims at articulating an ecological approach to religious experience grounded in a speculative, experimental method adapted from Deleuze and Whitehead, among others. He currently serves as an adjunct professor of philosophy at South University in Savannah, GA and online for SUNY Rockland Community College.

"Symbols that Invoke Symbol-Making: Whitehead and Bergson on Ecological Culture and Creative Emotion"

In this paper I will begin by examining the unique role of what Whitehead calls “symbolic reference” in an ecological and evolutionary context. The capacity for symbol-making is integral to what Whitehead later defines as the emergence of the “living nexus” – modes of relational becoming characterized less by rigidly “societal” conformity than the “canalization” of novel purposes, emotions and threads of consciousness. Symbols not only enable these creative evolutionary leaps but also take on the adaptive role of conserving particular innovations insofar as they allow species to selectively attune and reflexively react to those aspects of the environment most relevant to its survival. This double-role of symbols means that they can impede progress as easily as they can enable it. Shifting to the context of human societies, Whitehead reflects on the simultaneously binding and liberating functions of symbols, both aspects of which seem necessary to the maintenance and progress of civilization. Whitehead’s reflections on how symbols negotiate this interplay between social instinct and creative freedom both parallels and contrasts with Henri Bergson’s engagements with similar questions and issues, particularly in his late ethico-political reflections on open vs. closed social-religious systems. Constructively integrating the work these two thinkers, I explore the possibility that certain kinds of symbols can inspire or invoke our creative capacities as symbol-makers, rather than remaining caught in closed, habituated chains of reflexive action. Examining religious symbols in particular, I will show how their unique function may have less to do with conveying an established set of meanings and/or behaviors, than inspiring and empowering the subject to explore and experiment with new powers of meaning-making – in other words, symbol-making. This may open up a fresh space in which to reconsider the role of religious thought in the emergence of a truly ecological civilization.

Catherine Keller is Professor of Constructive Theology at the Theological School of Drew University. In her teaching, lecturing and writing, she develops the relational potential of a theology of becoming. Her books reconfigure ancient symbols of divinity for the sake of a planetary conviviality—a life together, across vast webs of difference. Thriving in the interplay of ecological and gender politics, of process cosmology, poststructuralist philosophy and religious pluralism, her work is both deconstructive and constructive in strategy. She is currently finishing Cloud of the Impossible: Theological Entanglements, which explores the relation of mystical unknowing, material indeterminacy and ontological interdependence.

"The Apocalypse of Climate: Symbols, Facts and Presenting Immediacies"

Sheri Kling s a doctoral student in process thought at Claremont School of Theology and holds a master of theological studies from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her research includes integrating process theology with the spiritual practice of Jungian dream work to facilitate transformation. She is a member of the American Academy of Religion and is also an accomplished songwriter and recording artist.

Avoiding a Fatal Error - Extending Whitehead's Symbolism Beyond Language

Typically, discussion of Whitehead’s modes of perception and symbolic reference are limited to the perception of sense-data and the use and interpretation of language as symbolic, but Whitehead’s thought can be connected to the imaginal realm of art, dream symbols, and archetypes when he argues that broadening our definition of perception beyond solely sense perception “can be of no importance unless we can detect occasions of experience exhibiting modes of functioning which fall within its wider scope. If we discover such instances of non-sensuous perception, then the tacit identification of perception with sense-perception must be a fatal error barring the advance of systematic metaphysics.” In order to avoid the “fatal error,” of limiting perception to strictly sense perception, this papers argues: 1) that since Whitehead included aesthetic expression in his understanding of symbolism, and was open to non-sensory perception, Whitehead’s symbolism can be connected to that of Carl Jung to broaden and enrich the scholarship on symbolism; and, 2) that such an integration can positively influence human society’s intensity of experience and overall aliveness, vitality, and zest for life, especially when a practice of dream work is incorporated in this integration.

Hyo-Dong Lee Professor Hyo-Dong Lee is Associate Professor of Comparative Theology at Drew University Theological School and its Graduate Department of Religion. A native of South Korea, he holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and is the author of Spirit, Qi, and the Multitude: A Comparative Theology for the Democracy of Creation (Fordham University Press, 2014)

Ren and Causal Efficacy: Confucians and Whitehead on the Social Role of Symbolism

The Confucians in East Asia have always dreamed of holding human communities together and constructing well-functioning polities in and through the binding and harmonizing power of rituals. Underlying their trust in the power of rituals is the notion that rituals constitute symbolic articulation and enhancement of our affective responses to the conditions of embodied relationality and historicity in which we always already find ourselves. This Confucian theory of rituals resonates with Whitehead’s theory of symbolism, insofar as the latter advances a fundamentally relational ontology of the subject by highlighting the hitherto neglected epistemological notion of perception in the mode of causal efficacy. In this essay I will attempt a comparative analysis of the two theories in order to gain a fresh cross-cultural perspective to appreciate Whitehead’s implied critique of the modern liberal social theories that are based on a view of human beings as atomized individuals who rationally consent to enter society. My thesis is that both the Confucians and Whitehead offer theories of symbolic action predicated on radically relational understandings of the self, with Whitehead underscoring the historicity of causal connections among the high-grade organisms and the Confucians emphasizing the primordiality of affective relations especially within the context of the human family.

Beatrice Marovich is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religion at the University of North Dakota. She writes about humans, animals, and other forms of creaturely life and is currently in the process of revising her dissertation, Dream of the Creature, into a book manuscript.

"Fleeting Saviors: Creatures & Whitehead's Symbolization of Value"

"The art of free society," A.N. Whitehead declares in his essay on symbolism, is fundamentally dual. It consists of both "maintenance of the symbolic code" and a "fearlessness of [its] revision". This tension, on the surface paradoxical, is what Whitehead believes will prevent social decay, anarchy, or "the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows." Bearing in mind Whitehead's own thoughts on the nature of symbolism, this paper will argue that the figure of the creature has been underappreciated in his work as a symbol. Hence, this paper will endeavor to examine and contextualize the symbolic potency of creatureliness in Whitehead's work, with particular attention directed toward the way the creature helps him to both maintain and revise an older symbolic code.

In Process and Reality "creature" serves as Whitehead's alternate name for the "individual fact" or the "actual entity"—including (perhaps scandalously, for his more orthodox readers) the figure of God. What was Whitehead's strategic motivation for deploying this superfluous title for an already-named category? In this paper I suggest that his motivation was primarily poetic and so, in this sense, always and already aware of its rich symbolic potency.

Steven Meyer teaches 20th-century literature and intellectual history at Washington University in St. Louis. Co-editor of the special issue of Configurations on "Whitehead Now," he is the author of Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (2001) and of many articles on Whitehead as well as the Jamesian/Whiteheadian tradition in literature. Currently, he is completing two projects, a monograph titled Robust Empiricisms: Jamesian Modernism among the Disciplines, 1878 to the Present and The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Science, of which he is editor.

"Guide Signs: Whitehead on Multimodal Perception and Empson on Types of Ambiguity"

"1927-1930" to suggest the key problematic of the talk, that Whitehead produces his analysis of bi- or tri-modal perception between 1927 and 1929, and William Empson composes Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) between 1928 and 1930. I would imagine Empson is unfamiliar to most of the conference participants. He is (in my opinion and I am not alone in this) the most important, certainly the most brilliant, 20th-century English-language literary critic. There is no direct connection with Whitehead, whom he appears never to have read, although there are several indirect ones: specifically, William James, by way of Empson's advisor at Cambridge, I.A. Richards, as well as Empson's own training as a mathematician. In any case I'll argue that Empson's remarkable analysis of the role of feelings in literary experience (in Seven Types and further elaborated in his 1951 masterpiece, The Structure of Complex Words) is consistent with Whitehead—and brings with it the more robust exposure to poetry that Whitehead calls for but is himself unable to supply. As a result Empson provides necessary empirical evidence for Whitehead's broader cosmology as well as an account of "verbal analysis" that supplements Whitehead's exactly contemporaneous account of symbolism.

Adam Nocek A.J. Nocek is a PhD candidate in the Comparative Literature Department and instructor in the Comparative History of Ideas Program at the University of Washington. His work focuses on the relation of living systems to various forms of visual (cinema, animation, architecture) and biotechnological mediation. Nocek has published essays on Whitehead, aesthetics, design, and biotechnology.  He is the co-editor of the forthcoming collection, The Lure of Whitehead (Minnesota 2014), and a special issue of the journal, Inflexions, titled Animating Biophilosophy (2014).

"On Symbols and Propositions"

Keith Robinson Keith Robinson's teaching and research have been concerned primarily with three main areas, the first being the European traditions of thought that emerge from Kant and post-Kantian philosophy – especially 19th and 20th century Continental thinkers (Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze). Secondly, he has strong interests in modern process philosophy (James, Bergson, Whitehead). Finally, he is interested in the interconnections between these two areas. This last area of research has revolved around a critical exchange between process philosophy and perspectives drawn from poststructuralist and phenomenological thinkers. It has centered principally on temporal themes, especially the concepts of 'event' and 'process', across a range of contexts and problems. His most recent paper is "The Event and the Occasion: Deleuze, Whitehead and Creativity" in The Lure of Whitehead, eds. N. Gaskill & A. Nocek (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2014) and his most recent book is the edited collection Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

"Originary Symbolism: Whitehead, Deleuze and the Process View on Perception"

Whiteheads's accounts of perception are arguably amongst his most important philosophical legacies. Along with Bergson's 'duration' and James' 'stream of consciousness', Whitehead's notions of 'causal efficacy', 'presentational immediacy and 'symbolic reference' offer a direct challenge to the various schools of thought derived from Hume and Kant in which causation is seen as a pale derivation from the 'sensationalist' vivid impressions of immediate atomic sense-data presented to consciousness. By focusing only on sense data we end up in what Whitehead, following Santayana, called the "solipsism of the present moment". In causal efficacy, by contrast, "the presentations of sense fade away and we are left with vague feelings of influences from vague things around us" (PR: 176). These vague influences attest to the repetition of the obscure processes of the past in us out of which emerge the selective crisp immediacies of our present experience. Whitehead ties his account of perception not only to a certain conception of causality and time but also to a generalized or originary account of symbolism. The logic of Whitehead's originary or 'arche – symbolism' is grounded in the claim that no symbol can be absolutely present and immediate but is always divided by an internal time that preserves or 'conforms' to the past and opens onto an indeterminate future. There is no 'simple occurrence' and no 'simple location' only the bare or minimal sense in which a symbol 'references' something else. Originary symbolism is the power to affect or be affected, an exposure to what happens as the condition not just for language, experience, or even God in Whitehead's sense, but for all becoming and life.

This critique of 'natural perception' and the generalization of an 'originary' differential structure is also taken up and developed in great detail and complexity in the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. For Deleuze life is an immense flowing movement of vague and obscure images, singularities and intensities in the midst of things, the prehension of one by the other or the passage and communication from one to the other, such that consciousness is already a becoming immersed in things rather than a being independent of them. Contrasting Whitehead's account of originary symbolism with Deleuze will enable us to draw out some of the radical innovations and variations of the process view with regard to perception and life.

Steven Shaviro is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. He is the author of Connected, Or, What It Means To Live in the Network Society (2003), Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (2009), Post-Cinematic Affect (2010), and The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism (forthcoming, 2014). He blogs at The Pinocchio Theory.

"Whitehead on Causality and Perception"

Whitehead's notion of "causal efficacy," introduced in Symbolism and elaborated in Process and Reality, provides a bridge from epistemology to ontology, or to what Whitehead calls cosmology. Hume and Kant established the priority of epistemology in modern philosophy; it became impossible to talk about causality, for instance, without first accounting for how we know that causal relations between ostensibly independent entities can exist. Whitehead's concept of causal efficacy entirely inverts this hierarchy, however; for even to raise the question of how we know is already to have accepted the operations of causality within the mind, in the form of the "conformation of present fact to immediate past." More generally, the doctrine of causal efficacy implies that perception and judgment are themselves only particular instances of the far broader category of "conformation" or causal influence. To perceive something is to be affected or influenced by that something. But there are many ways of being affected or influenced, of which clear and distinct perception – or what Whitehead calls "presentational immediacy" – is only one. For the most part, the experience of causal efficacy is "vague, haunting, unmanageable… heavy with the contact of the things gone by, which lay their grip on our immediate selves." In short, perception is just one particular form of "conformation" or causal efficacy. Hume's doubt as to whether and how we can perceive causal processes at all is therefore misplaced; for this doubt rests upon the illicit presupposition of a mind separated from what it perceives, or of presentational immediacy detached from the matrix of causal efficacy within which it arises. In this paper, I will trace Whitehead's argument about causal efficacy, and show its relevance to contemporary philosophical debates (in both analytic and continental circles) about grounds, cognition, and causality. I will also suggest that Whitehead's insistence that perception is a species of causality also implies the priority of sentience over vitality. In other words, perception and feeling are among the necessary conditions of possibility for life, rather than (as is usually assumed in contemporary doctrines of emergence and of neo-vitalism) the reverse.