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

Conference Theme

As Whitehead begins the Barbour-Page lecture series he delivered at the University of Virginia in 1927, and which was later published as Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, Whitehead notes that in different epochs there had been different attitudes towards symbolism. Regardless of the epoch, however, there has always been an important human relationship to symbolism to be found, and this is no less true, Whitehead argues, during Whitehead’s own time with the dominance of modern science and symbolic logic, the latter of which Whitehead would be, along with Russell, a key contributor. With this awareness at the forefront of his concerns, Whitehead sets the focus of his lectures firmly upon a reconsideration of the status of symbols during his epoch, focusing in particular on the relationship between symbolism and human thought, language, and culture.

In the decades since Whitehead delivered his lectures, work on and interest in symbols has continued unabated. In Whitehead’s own time, Ernst Cassirer produced the highly influential Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-29), and this work has of late been the subject of increasing interest among scholars. More recently, the work of Jacques Lacan has left an indelible imprint on continental thought and it has shaped much of contemporary continental discourse regarding symbols. From the context of cultural anthropology, Mary Douglas, in her Natural Symbols, showed how Émile Durkheim’s thought could be used to understand the role of symbols in group-formation, which in the years since its publication has played a large role in the development of cultural theory. Terrence Deacon, finally, has drawn from contemporary findings of science (brain scans, etc.) to make the case that the ability to use and grasp symbols as symbols is precisely what differentiates humans from non-humans. The problems that were the focus of Whitehead’s Barbour-Page lectures are thus very much an ongoing concern.

Symbolism
Its Meaning and Effect

The theme of this conference will be a reconsideration of Whitehead’s Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. Given the scientific, cultural, and technological changes that have taken place since 1927 it seems quite appropriate to examine, in the spirit of Whitehead, the current attitude towards symbolism that we find in our current, early twenty-first century epoch. It is in this spirit that we will convene a number of the leading figures who work on Whitehead and who also acknowledge importance of symbols more generally. By drawing from a number of disciplines we shall set the stage for a fruitful series of discussions on the contemporary meaning and effects of symbolism.

Whitehead's Symbolism is often neglected. It is thought to be of no relevance given the similar and integrated considerations of Process and Reality. Yet, Symbolism is unique in several perspectives: it relates the question of symbolization to a complex interference of modes of perception; it integrates language—whether written or spoken—into its field of manifestations, and it harbors the only example of a direct application of Whitehead's theory of prehension to issues of the construction of human society and, indirectly, ecology. Its mentioning of three social revolutions—American, French, and English—as well as the refutation of a social-contract theory, its psychological allusions in between physiology and society, as well as the persistent silence on God, demonstrates the uniqueness of this lecture series.