Semantic Philosophy of Art

Yevgeny Basin


Chapter V. The Neo-Realistic Philosophy of Symbolism and Art: A. N. Whitehead

As we have already pointed out in the Introduction, neorealism acts as the transitional stage between the three main tendencies (neo-positivist, irrationalist, and religious–dogmatic) in modern bourgeois philosophy. One of its leading proponents is the English neo-realist philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), whose philosophical system, in his own words, can be seen as the transference of certain primary ideas of absolute idealism onto a realistic foundation (27, 112, 303; 28, 25).

His epistemology is characterized by a realism which consists in the recognition of nature existing separately from cognition. Nature itself is revealed as something derived from eternal objects, akin to the Platonic ideas. Thus, in his ontology (or “metaphysics”) Whitehead is an objective idealist, as is noted both by Marxist scholars (Alexei Bogomolov, H. Frankel, Harry K. Wells) and by most bourgeois commentators. The idea of God plays an important role in the philosophy of the English neo-realist, which, as the Soviet philosopher Bogomolov has correctly pointed out, is “irrefutable testimonium paupertatis" of his philosophical system, which strives to provide a scientific resolution of the problem.

In Whitehead’s philosophy an important role is played by problems of language and symbolism. In the opinion of Victor Lowe, Wilbur M. Urban, Arthur H. Johnson and other commentators his theory of symbolism constitutes the kernel of his philosophy. The problems of symbolism are examined mainly in his special study Symbolism. Its Meaning and Effect (1927), as well as in his magnum opus Process and Reality (1929). Like Peirce Whitehead did not concentrate on aesthetics and the theory of art. Nevertheless, in his writings he touches on these problems, mainly in connection with the theory of symbolism and problems of axiology.

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 Whitehead does not analyse symbolism as a specifically linguistic problem, he approaches it from philosophical, epistemological and sociological positions. He gives the following formal definition of symbolism: “The human 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’" (3, 7-8). As examples of symbolism we can take heraldry, church rites, and ecclesiastical architecture. A deeper form of symbolism, which people cannot dispense with, is language, spoken or written, conversational or scientific. In describing the characteristics of the symbolism of language Whitehead points out that between the natures of symbol and meaning there should be “some community”, but, despite this, the connection between a symbol and a meaning does not have a determined character. The relation between them is reversible, they can change places. “There are no components of experience which are only symbols or only meanings" (3, 10). Symbols point to meanings, but taken in isolation, symbols and meanings do not require a symbolic relationship, this is introduced by the percipient. Connected with the concept of symbolism is the possibility of error, the incorrect transition from the symbol to the meaning. The latter thesis, which is given energetic formulation by Whitehead, is most characteristic of the semantic direction as a whole.

In Whitehead’s writings there are statements from which it is possible to ascertain how he interprets art from the point 99 of view of his conception of symbolism. Thus, for example, he remarks, when explaining the principle of the reversibility of the symbol and the meaning, that there is a dual symbolic reference in language: from things to words on the side of the speaker, and from words back to things on the side of the listener. As an illustration he takes the use of symbols in poetic art. A forest, a certain combination of trees, suggests words to the poet. For the poet sights, sounds and emotional experiences are symbols which refer to words, functioning here as meanings. These same words refer the reader in his turn symbolically to the sights, sounds and emotions which the poet wishes to evoke in him. For some purposes, in particular to evoke aesthetic emotion, it is easier to reproduce aesthetic experience not through words but through some other symbols such as the symbolism of painting (2, 20–23; 8, 278).

In the symbolic interpretation of art Whitehead accords particular importance to the question of the symbolic transfer of emotion, a question which, in his opinion, “lies at the base of any theory of the aesthetics of art" (3, 85). In this he distinguishes between feelings and emotions, evoked by the contemplation of the meaning of symbols and words and those directly exited by symbols, and regards emotions of the second type as intensifying feelings of the first. This property is peculiar to language, while a comparable process operates in religious symbolism, and constitutes “the whole basis of the art and literature" (3, 83–84). Music, in Whitehead’s opinion, is particularly well-adapted to the transfer of emotions by the method described above. On its own it generates strong emotions which at once suppress any meaning, such as, for example, information about the positioning of the orchestra, etc. Thus, in these contexts by the “symbolic transfer of emotion" we understand the indisputable fact that in art the very symbols (and not only their meanings) directly arouse emotions, which have an aesthetic character. Whitehead discusses this in clear terms, pointing out that “certain aesthetic features" are inherent in the effect of symbolism described above (3, 83). As we shall see below, the “ symbolic transfer of emotion" in other contexts is taken to mean 100 something completely different. From the ensuing discussion it will also become manifest that his emphasis on the symbolic transfer of emotion as “the basis" of art is evidence not only of the recognition of the importance of this aspect of art, but also of the underestimation of content emotions, caused by the “meanings” of symbols, and of the subjectivist tendency of Whitehead’s aesthetics (23).

For Whitehead the field of symbolism is not confined merely to the sphere of material expression. The main example of the principles which govern all symbolism in the sphere of perception, .should, in Whitehead’s opinion, be sought in symbolic reference between the two perceptive modes (8, 274): the mode of causal efficacy and of presentational immediacy. The first mode is characteristic of an experience felt by ’the body and emerging from a past experience, an unconscious, indeterminate, vague, complex and forced experience. The second mode is formed or inferred on the basis of the sense^datum of the first and is a property only of highly organized beings. This datum is clearly segmented sense-datum precisely localized, lacking any relation to past or future, and is simpler and emotionally more neutral. Consciousness is possible at this stage of experience. Perception is the symbolic relationship of the two modes indicated, each of which can be both symbol and meaning.

Giving examples to illustrate the symbolic reference in perception the philosopher once again turns to art. When we enter a room at first we see a coloured shape (causal efficacy), which symbolically refers us to perception in the other mode (presentational immediacy) and we see a chair. The artist, however, is a person who is able to train himself to perceive ranges of colour only and can limit himself to the perception of colour, but this requires effort and special training. When we listen to music, Whitehead goes on, it seems as though our emotions are entirely due to the musical sounds perceived in the mode of presentational immediacy. But this is only how it seems. For example, the sound waves at first produce in the body, in the mode of causal efficacy, a state of pleasurable aesthetic emotion, which is then symbolically transferred to the sense-perception of the sounds in the mode of presentational immediacy. In exactly the same manner sounds just below or just above the limit of audibility seems to add an emotional tinge to a volume of audible sound (3, 85).   [101•1]

Some western aestheticians have tried to “develop” Whitehead’s theory of the symbolic reference of the two modes of perception with application to aesthetics, and, in particular, music. The author of one such attempt, the American semantic aesthetieian Eva Schaper, expresses the traditional admiration of Whitehead’s philosophy, but in actual fact reaches extremely modest conclusions about the value of this theory for aesthetics. Whitehead’s distinction between the two perceptual modes, she states, does not provide a ready explanation of aesthetic experience. Moreover, an interpretation of aesthetic experience on the basis of this theory would be “detrimental to aesthetic thought" (28, 274). Such a negative opinion, even on the part of an author who admires Whitehead’s philosophy, should not surprise us. In his theory of the two modes of perception and the symbolic reference between them the English philosopher tried to explain the fact that in the sphere of our knowledge, and in particular in the sphere of perception, certain components express ( represent) others. However, this explanation is quite unsatisfactory. For a start, from the point of view of psychological science the characteristics of perception and its structural layers are set out unclearly and in a completely lax way even for his time. But its main shortcoming consists in the fact that Whitehead, without any justification, transferred the characteristics of linguistic symbolism and primarily the conventional and indeterminate nature of the connection between signs and meanings to the sphere of the relations of expression and the expressed, the latter being peculiar to perceptive knowledge. In consequence the description of perception as a symbolic reference acquired an explicitly 102 expressed subjective idealistic epistemological interpretation. The connection between the modes of perception was made by such an interpretation to seem conventional and indeterminate, conditioned by the activity of the cognizing subject. Hence it is quite understandable why he should so insistently repeat his idea that the main source of “fallibility” is the “symbolic reference”, and in particular the complex symbolic analysis of causal efficacy. Whitehead’s critique of symbolism in cognition as the source of error is accompanied by the conclusion, highly characteristic of his philosophy with its tendency towards irrationalism and mysticism, that only “direct cognition" is unerring, free as it is from the “ symbolic reference”, forming an act of intuition based not on inference but on self-evidence (1; 4; 5).   [101•2]

If symbolism is the main source of error and delusion, how is the problem of cognitive possibilities, of truth in art, to be resolved in Whitehead’s philosophy? An answer to this question is largely provided by the work Adventures ot Ideas (1933). The category of truth, according to Whitehead, is applicable only to Appearance, which is primarily sensory perception. Truth is the correspondence of Appearance and Reality. Amongst the different types of “truth-relation” we have ”symbolic truth”. This is the relation we have between Appearance and Reality (not connected by a causal relation) when the prehension of the Appearance leads to the prehension of the Reality and sheds light on the Reality. The subjective form of these perceptions is how the subject perceives what is objectively given. We can find examples of symbolic truth in language and in art. Thus literature and music, as well as conveying an objective meaning, also include a conveyance of subjective form. In this process we may observe both symbolic truth and symbolic falsehood. In the latter case a minimum of objective meaning is conveyed, and the conveyance of subjective form is at its height. In music, for example, there is a vague truth-relation, owing to the fact that music and the Appearance which emerges in its perception have common subjective form. In their turn Appearance and Reality (the Reality of National Life, etc.) are connected by a truth-relation. This complex fusion of truthrelations with falsehoods constitutes the indirect interpretative power of Art to express the truth about the nature of things. Beauty is an integral feature of art. Art, argues Whitehead, has a dual goal: truth and beauty, while perfect art has only one goal: “true beauty”. Thus the problem of truth in art is seen to be closely connected with the problem of beauty. In Whitehead’s opinion truth is of enormous general significance for the achievement of beauty. But truth is only an auxiliary means towards the production of beauty. Furtheremore, for beauty the type of truth is connected with revelation, and not with repetition, and in distinction to the truth of words it is “truth of feeling”. Art is that area of Appearance intentionally adapted to Reality. The beauty of Apperance is not necessarily connected with truth, since beauty can be regarded independently of the correspondence between Appearance and Reality, and this correspondence constitutes, in Whitehead’s view, its own area of truth–relations. Art can even make use of false statements for its own purposes. Thus Whitehead appears to provide a positive resolution of the question of the possibilities of art expressing the truth about the nature of things. At the same time, in accordance with his semantic orientation to the critique of symbolism, he opposes to the symbolic truth of language and art a higher, more direct truth, which is grasped by direct intuition, namely, a “correspondence of clear and distinct Appearance to Reality" (4, 318–22).

As we have already noted, the irrationalist element in the philosophy of the English neo-realist is connected with this latter thesis. Evidence of this, as the Marxist scholars H. K. Wells and H. Frankel correctly point out, is the accent on “feeling”, “emotion”, “satisfaction”, etc. (29, 151), which we can see in Whitehead’s aesthetics too. The theory of “ feelings”, incidentally, like everything written by him, is set out 104 very unclearly and interpreted in different ways by different commentators.  [104•1]

Aesthetic emotion, according to Whitehead, is apparently “co-extensive” (having the same duration in space and in time) with the subjective form of the “shaping” of objective data by the subject and is one of the components of the subject (5, 288). We have already stated that art conveys both objective meaning and subjective form, i.e. including aesthetic emotion. Moreover, according to Whitehead, aesthetic emotion only emerges directly in the mode of causal efficacy. At the level of presentational immediacy, however, it is transferred through the mediation of the first level of perception, i.e., symbolically. In this approach Whitehead completely fails to take account of such an important factor, which determines aesthetic emotion in the perception of art, as the intellectual aspect of a work of art. Since the consciousness, according to Whitehead, may only appear in the second mode ( presentational immediacy),  [104•2] aesthetic emotion, which is also connected with the intellectual factor, cannot in any way be mediated by the first mode, in which the consciousness is absent, and in this sense it is conveyed directly and not symbolically. In Whitehead’s aesthetics aesthetic emotion at the level of presentational immediacy, i.e. at the level where the conscious, content factors of art become operative, acquires a secondary, voluntary character.   [104•3] By linking aesthetic emotion 105 to the first mode of perception Whitehead is showing a marked proclivity to accentuate the subconscious bases of art. “That art,” he writes, “which arises within clear consciousness is only a specialization of the more widely distributed art within dim consciousness or within the unconscious activities of experience. These dim elements provide for art that final background of tone apart from which its effects fade" (4, 347–48). By critically analysing these statements of Whitehead’s we do not in any way mean to call into question the important role of subconscious elements in art. What we are getting at is that in the general context of Whitehead’s idealist philosophy these views are evidence of the irrationalist tendencies of his aesthetics, which in the given aspect is not unlike the theories of art of Bergson and Freud (20).

Essential for an interpretation of Whitehead’s conception of art is the analysis of “proposition”, one of the categories of his philosophical system. Proposition is the objective data in an act of cognition, but not the actual things: it is an ideal principle, pure form, or structure (12). As an example of proposition we can take the structure of a judgment. Proposition should be distinguished from the psychological equivalent or subjective form of prepositional cognition. As the subjective form of this act we can take judgments, true or false. It is precisely this restricted aspect of the role of proposition in experience which expresses the logical knowledge of propositions, and thereby obscuring the fact that in actuality propositions serve other purposes too. In the real world what matters is not whether propositions are true or false, but whether they are of interest. Thus literature and art can use false propositions as a means of persuasion or as “norms” to which reality may be compared. In this case subjective form no longer functions as judgments, but as the emotions of horror, repulsion, or pleasure. It is true, admits Whitehead, that true propositions are more able (for particular purposes) to arouse interest than false ones. It should also be noted that the form of the words from which the proposition is 106 constructed also generates judgments. In figurative literature this sort of generation is checked by the general context or even the verbal structures (for example, “once upon a time”).

In Whitehead’s philosophical system the theory of propositions rests and is developed on the basis of objective idealism. Propositions are a synthesis of actual phenomena, taken in abstraction, and “eternal objects”. By eternal objects Whitehead understands what are usually called “typal concepts" and which he treats in the idealistic spirit of Platonic ideas. Anti^scientific in its essence, the concept of “eternal objects" leads to, as H. Frankel shows circumstantially and convincingly, a proliferation of incongruities in all Whitehead’s speculations connected with “eternal objects" (17).

Whitehead himself did not make any explicit attempts to apply the theory of the proposition to the analysis of art, although there are some suggestions of this, which led a number of bourgeois aestheticians to “develop” these into definite aesthetic conceptions. One of these conceptions is substantiated in a book A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. Some Implications of Whitehead’s Metaphysical Speculation, by D. W. Sherburne, professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. The arguments of Whitehead’s that we quoted above, to the effect that there are such things as propositions whose subjective form is not judgments but emotions of pleasure etc., served as the point of departure for those ideas which then expanded into the theory expounded in Sherburne’s book, as he himself acknowledges. The annotations to Sherburne’s book correctly state that the success of the author’s aesthetic theory will be proof of the truth of Whitehead’s metaphysical system. To this we should only add that the insubstantiality of this theory is equal proof of the unsuitability of Whitehead’s metaphysical system for the scientific resolution of aesthetic problems. Sherburne’s book demonstrates precisely this point. The author’s main thesis consists in the following: “art objects have the ontological status of Whiteheadian propositions" (25, 98). Inasmuch as propositions are potential and not actual a distinction should be made between the work of art and its execution, corresponding to the distinction between propositions and their objectivization. 107 There are strict rules covering this in some arts, for example, musical notes. We should not confuse the work of art ( proposition), execution (objectivization of the proposition) and the rules of objectivization. A work of art is not merely a proposition, but such a proposition which attracts attention in a unique fashion, thanks to the fact that its execution possesses the property of beauty.

Sherburne’s conception contains the true notion that in art there is a spiritual, ideal aspect, and points in particular to the ideal logical structure in a work of art, which in the form of thought or ideal image in the artist’s consciousness can precede the act of material embodiment of this structure in the work of art. However, this thought receives inadequate idealistic explanation in Sherburne’s book. “The aesthetic theory I am developing has strong affinities with that of Benedetto Croce,” he writes. “Like Croce I argue that the art object is not an actual entity, but a thing of the spirit. But ... I am running them through the categories of Whitehead’s system in such a way that they emerge with fresh value for aesthetic insight and firm metaphysical grounding...” (25, 110). The idealism and insubstantiality of this conception consist in its interpretation of the spirituality of art not as a “secondary” factor with respect to objective reality, of which it is a reflection, but as the primariness of eternal objects. As far as the material aspect of art (the means of execution) is concerned this is arbitrarily removed from within the bounds of the aesthetic object. The untenability of this Crocean viewpoint is generally accepted, and we can only marvel at Sherburne’s attempt to revive it, relying on Whitehead’s ideas.

By way of concluding our analysis of the epistemologioal conception of symbolism in Whitehead’s philosophy as applied to aesthetics and art it is essential to emphasize another important factor. In his epistemology Whitehead, as we have already pointed out, is a realist. Correspondingly his theory of the “meaning” of -symbols has a realistic character. “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 merely discover this meaning for us" (3, 57). Realistic statements of this sort 108 make it impossible to claim that Whitehead “in general tended towards materialism".  [108•1] V. I. Lenin, in criticizing the claims of idealists to “realism”, pointed out that in actual fact objective reality, nature, is not perceived as immediately given, it is reached as the result of a long transition, through abstractions of the “psychical”. Such an abstraction of the “psychical” can be seen in Whitehead’s system in the modes of immediate experience (advanced as “neutral elements”), from which both spiritual and physical nature are composed. Whitehead’s endeavour to depict the world as an unbroken chain of elements of perceptual experience characterizes his epistemology “as a modification of the BerkeleyHume ’philosophy of experience’ " (18, 125). It is hardly surprising that the symbolic philosophy both of Whitehead himself and of his followers bears, alongside features of objective idealism, the stamp of subjective idealism.

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[101•1] Cf. Tarmo A. Pasto’s hypothesis in his article “Notes on the Space-Frame Experience in Art": “Many awarenesses (art and other) are body functions before the individual, through rational thought processes, lifts them to consciousness" (The Journal ot Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, 1965).

[101•2] His critique of language and symbolism represents, in W. Urban’s view, a prolegomenon to Whitehead’s metaphysics, whose “basal assumption ... is the inability of natural language to express reality”. Criticizing, from other idealistic positions, Whitehead’s tendency to purify experience from language and symbolism, Urban calls this tendency “a pure myth" (27, 304, 309).

[104•1] For example Percy Hughes points to the inadequacy of Whitehead’s theory of feelings from the psychological point of view (27, 298; 13; 14).

[104•2] We should bear in mind that, while he admits the possibility of the appearance of elements of consciousness in the second mode of “symbolic reference”, Whitehead does not, however, identify them with “thought” or conceptual content (22, 335; 24, 76).

[104•3] The opinion of F. David Martin, professor of philosophy at Bucknell University, expressed in his article “The Power of Music and Whitehead’s Theory of Perception" is characteristic in this connection. The author makes a distinction between the “embodied” meaning in the work of art, primarily connected with causal efficacy, and the “designative” meaning, which presupposes consciousness. Martin highly rates the ability of art to give the feeling of “compulsion”, and points out that it is achieved only in pure music. In such other forms of art as cinema and literature designative meaning weakens this important feeling (23, 318).

[108•1] Amongst others H. Frankel adheres to this point of view. A. S. Bogomolov correctly points to the “imprecision” of such an interpretation of Whitehead’s “realism” (11, 266). At the same time we should bear in mind that for many philosophers in the west who tend towards materialism realistic tendencies often serve as their point of departure and consequently have a definite positive value.


What is of undoubted interest in Whitehead’s theory of symbolism is the aspect connected with one of the early attempts in bourgeois philosophy and sociology to analyse the particular features of social symbolism. The symbolic philosophy of art is given additional illumination in connection with this analysis.

Whitehead considers the problems of social symbolism in the context of his views on civilization and culture expressed in various works and given their fullest treatment in the book Whitehead’s American Essays in Social Philosophy. According to Whitehead the progress of civilization (which to him is synonymous with culture) is based on a successful modification of behaviour-systems. Behaviour or actions are instinctive, reflectory and conditioned by symbols. The acts of behaviour itself, and particularly of habitual behaviour, can 109 become the instrument of symbolic expression (4, 120). The growing complexity and clarity of symbols determining behaviour is an important indicator of progress. Symbolic elements in social life are “no mere idle fancy" or “idle masquerade”, but the inner principle of the very fabric of human life. It is most important that the function of social symbols be clearly defined, so that it is possible to control and reproduce these symbols. Thus Whitehead was one of the bourgeois philosophers of the modern age who, as A. H. Johnson has pointed out, emphasized the function of symbol in society (10, 12).

Symbolic elements in the life of ’Society, Whitehead points out, tend to “run wild”. Practical reason, the theoretical desire to receive facts and not symbols, is a constant source of criticism levelled against symbols, one of the characteristic elements of the cultural history of civilized people. Such criticism is valuable, argues Whitehead, because every society necessarily requires not only the successful adaptation of old symbols to the changing social structure (the interpretation of symbols changes more quickly than the rituals themselves), but also new forms of expression, repeated revolutions in symbolism. Thus, the feudal doctrine of subordination implied ceremony, and the doctrine of human equality acquires its own symbolism, the simplification or abolition of an official isymbolism being compensated for by a symbolism created by various associations and private clubs, etc.

Whitehead does not give an exact definition of “social symbolism”. He prefers to talk about the use of ’Symbols for the most varied social purposes (communication of information, military commands, etc.). One of the important social objectives reached with the help of symbols is social unity. In the emergence of social life the striving for unity, social conformism, is achieved thanks to an instinctive reaction. With the development of reason this instinctive mechanism falls into decline and is substituted by various complex forms of symbolic expression. Nations and lesser social groupings and institutions can be integrated with the help of social symbols. As examples of social symbols of this sort we can take flags, coats-of-arms, national heroes, and great technological 110 achievements. Social symbols have two types of meaning: the first is pragmatic and consists in directing the individual towards the performance of a given action. The second is theoretical, and implies an elementary, vague concept, which is however capable of the organization of a heterogeneous society. The main task of social symbols such as flags, coats-of-arms, etc., is “the enhancement of the importance of what is symbolized" (3, 63). Thus, according to Whitehead, a social symbol conveys a value judgment with regard to the significance of the institution or group which it represents (19). One of the ways in which symbols achieve this end is the emotional “concurrence” of the meaning of symbols. We can see that Whitehead displays a clear understanding of the importance of the emotional factor in the influence of symbolism . As noted above, Whitehead remarks on the great role of emotions directly evoked by the symbols themselves, as well as on that of emotions connected with the contemplation of meaning. Common emotions are concentrated around habits, prejudices and language, and assist the preservation of social order and national unity.

All that has been said above with regard to the social use of symbols also applies to art. Whitehead regards art as a vital factor in civilization. He links its very origins with the evolution of ritual behaviour, which supplements its own inner value for the life of a family or tribe by acquiring the role of an instrument of symbolic expression. Art, he argues, is highly effective in the expression of emotions and in the control of behaviour. Codes, rules of behaviour and canons of art are all attempts to impose the sort of “systematic” action which on the whole will promote favourable symbolic interconnections. Whitehead saw social symbols to have an advantage over the instinct particularly in their ability to retain both the common good and the individual point of view, whereas the instinct suppressed the individual. But it is precisely art, writes A. H. Johnson, describing Whitehead’s characterization of the role of art in civilization, and in particular great art, which emphasizes the importance of individual components as essential elements in the unification of the group to which the individual belongs. Whitehead  connects the educational function of art in society with precisely this one of its properties-to help the individual become more profound.

The analysis of art as a social institution, of its functions of social control and of the role which symbolic means play in the realization of this function is an important task of the sociological analysis of art. It follows from this that the analysis of art from the point of view of social symbolism, undertaken by Whitehead, deserves the most serious consideration. His writings contain a true description of those symbolic functions performed by art in the conditions of bourgeois society. But his symbolic conception of art, as well as the theories of many other western sociologists (Duncan, Parsons et al.), is insubstantial from the point of view of method, which is connected, in particular, with the idealistic interpretation of symbolism in general and of social symbolism in particular.

Whitehead’s sociological views, including his theory of social symbolism, are a component part of his “total” philosophical system.  [111•1] At the basis of these views lie the idealistically interpreted categories of his “metaphysics” ( individualization, creation, interaction, process, stabilization, value and God), as well as the idealist theory of the symbolic relation of the two modes of perception, whose principles, according to Whitehead, control any form of symbolism. It is quite understandable that all the weaknesses and vices both of his “metaphysics” and of his theory of the symbolic reference are also inherent in Whitehead’s theory of social symbolism.

It has already been noted that, according to Whitehead, the symbolic reference is introduced by the subject. However, it is doubtful whether it is fair to criticize the English philosopher because, having declared things to be simple signs, or symbols, he thereby declares them to be an arbitrary product of reason. Whitehead understands that social symbolism is a necessity and not a caprice, and he correctly connects changes in the system of social symbolism with those in social structures. However, along with the overwhelming majority of western sociologists he is far from a scientific, materialistic explanation of the nature of social structures and the causes for their alteration.   [112•1] The socio-economic (and above all class) nature of social relationships as the primary cause of the emergence and functioning of social symbolism in the specific sense of this word was not, indeed could not be, the object of Whitehead’s idealistic sociological speculations. These latter do not go any further than the eclectic bourgeois theory of factors. Pointing to such factors of social life as ideas, economic activity, great people, the inanimate world, Whitehead does not ascribe primary significance to a single one of them. The English idealist’s insufficiently profound, and, in the last analysis, non-scientific view of the system of social symbolism cannot, of course, serve as a theoretical basis for an analysis of art in the system of social symbolism.

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[111•1] In the opinion of Victor Lowe, Whitehead’s sociological views are one of the main sources of his entire philosophy (27, 113).

[112•1] A critical analysis of the conceptions of social symbolism in contemporary western sociology (as well as an attempted positive resolution of certain connected problems) is given by the present author (together with V. M. Krasnov) in an article “Social Symbolism" (Voprosy filosofii, 1971, No. 10).


It was noted above that Whitehead connects the problem of the symbolic transmission of emotions in art with aesthetic aspects, i.e. with beauty. The latter he analyses within the framework of his general theory of value, or the good.

Whitehead’s theory of value is inconsistent and self–contradictory, which in its turn leads to its receiving contradictory responses from different authors. Thus, some commentators (V. Lowe), argue that his axiology is a variant of the theory of “interest”, others (D. Sherburne) maintain that he regards this theory as inadequate. In his axiology, as throughout his philosophy, Whitehead tried to overcome the extremes of subjectivism and “naive realism”, the dualism of subject and object, of “the World of Fact" and “the World of Value" by taking the path of Platonic objective idealism (11, 276). On the one hand, values function in his philosophy 113 as value ideals. They are a timeless coordination of the infinitude of possibility for realization, in no way conditioned by “transitory” circumstances and in the last analysis have divine nature. On the other hand, value, according to his conception, loses its significance in isolation from its relation to the world of fact, requiring, for the completion of its concrete reality, embodiment in “actual essences”. It is as a result of the coming into being, “realization”, “unification” of an actual essence that a value is in fact formed as the immanent reality of a phenomenon (7, 694–96). The process of “realization”, the embodiment of value ideals in the world of facts is necessarily connected with activity, but this activity does not have to be human and acquires a “cosmic” character. Value is therefore transformed into “cosmic variables".

In order somehow to explain the process of transformation of “divine” values into the immanent principle of real things, Whitehead has no choice but to turn for help to God. The idealist (of neo-Kantian persuasion) W. Urban, criticizing another idealist-Whitehead-remarks acerbicly about one of the English philosopher’s statements: “I understand the words, but I get no sense.” This remark could also apply with full justification to Whitehead’s attempt to explain the transition from the world of values to that of facts. The objective idealistic theory of values of Whitehead the neorealist acquired a mystical, irrational shade of cosmic theologism, as did his philosophy as a whole.

Certain bourgeois authors (H. B. Dunkel, M. Bense et al.) credit Whitehead with having connected the theory of values with the concept of “pattern”, or “structure”, correctly stated the problem and given indications towards its resolution, with having “laid a firm foundation”, etc. As we will indicate below, this evaluation does not square with the facts.

In Whitehead’s opinion the penetration of pattern into phenomena and the constancy and modification of these patterns are necessary conditions for the realization of value ideals in actual essences (6). The analysis of values becomes the analysis of patterns in the English philosopher’s axiology, and as a criterion of value he uses good patterning (or 114 structuring), which makes possible the unification of harmony, intensiveness and liveliness. A good pattern: a) is not too simplified, has a sufficient number of elements which combine in a non-routine fashion and consequently arouse interest; b) does not consist of more components than can be united in a unit; c) has elements which agree with one another, which can contrast, but not conflict, meaning that the variety is not greater than the unity; d) contains harmony between its parts and its whole. Mathematics, or to be more precise mathematical (or symbolic) logic, is the most powerful technique for the analysis of patterns and their relations. It will, in the distant future, become the basis of aesthetics, and then of ethics and theology (9, 99).

The sort of systems approach to values employed by Whitehead is nothing original. Whitehead postulates without proof the view that good should be patterned, and gives “too general a characteristics of ‘pattern’" (16). This shortcoming led to his failure to draw a sufficiently clear distinction between the various types of value, and to declare which he regards as the highest value-truth (logic), beauty (aesthetics), or good (morality).  [114•1]

Be this as it may, beauty is at any rate one of the three main values in the English philosopher’s axiology. With regard to beauty Whitehead definitely adopts a Platonic stance, asserting that objects are beautiful when they embody the ideal of Beauty, an ideal possibility, an eternal object (4, 324). Beauty has a “cosmic” character. It embraces everything and exists even when no organism perceives it. A flower in some isolated glade of a primeval forest, may possess a subtle beauty, although it will never be perceived by any living being, as no one even knows of its existence (5, 164). Thus, working from the basis of objective idealism Whitehead comes to axiological objectivism (“realism”) in his explanation of aesthetic value. Postulating a number of different forms of beauty in nature Whitehead also shares the viewpoint of aesthetic pluralism.

Beauty is defined by Whitehead as “the internal conformation of the various items of experience with each other, for the production of maximum effectiveness" (4, 341). The internal conformation of items of experience can be of two types: when mutual interference is lacking (“minor beauty”) and when, in addition to this, there is harmony of “patterned contrasts" (“major beauty”). It is obvious that in the context of such an understanding of beauty the term “beauty” is to all intents and purposes being used as a synonym of value in general. Whitehead talks of intellectual, sensory (or aesthetic) and moral beauty in accordance with this use of the word. When he talks about the realization of value in the process of “unification”, self-realization of actual essence Whitehead turns for his model to aesthetic experience. An act of aesthetic experience functions for him as the paradigm of his theory of actual essence. In this connection it is easy to understand his declaration that “the most fruitful ... starting point is that section of value-theory which we term aesthetics" (9, 129). It is clearly this aspect of Whitehead’s philosophy which served as the main argument in defence of the claim that beauty is the highest form of good.   [115•1]

Beauty, according to Whitehead, as an inalienable feature of art. Art, he argues, has a dual purpose: truth and beauty. “The perfection of art has only one end, which is Truthful Beauty" (4, 344). The canons of art express in specialized form the general requirements of aesthetic experience and in pride of place the requirement for pattern. Whitehead illustrates this thesis with a description of Ohartres Cathedral, with the dependence of beauty on the regularity of geometrical form in Greek sculpture etc. The harmony of “patterned 116 contrasts" (or “major beauty”) in art does not exclude a certain “discord” (“chaos”), “imperfection”, “vagueness”. Otherwise, argues Whitehead, art is threatened by “anaesthesia”, or “tameness” (4, 339). To support this he adduces facts from the history of the art of various cultures-of Greece, Byzantium, and China. Pattern is not enough, argues Whitehead, to explain in full the beauty of art. For example, not only geometrical form, but also colour is of importance to a picture. As can be seen from this statement, Whitehead had an extremely narrow understanding of “pattern” in art, inasmuch as he excludes the possibility of a “patterned” consideration of all the components in art, including colour.

As noted above, Whitehead states the purpose of art to be truthful beauty. He argues that truth is of immense significance for the attainment of beauty.

Truth and beauty embrace, according to Whitehead, the values of art. As far as good (or evil) are concerned, these values have to do with Reality and not Appearance, i.e. with qualities which do not enter the sphere of art. Proceeding from this Whitehead proposes the extremely doubtful view that “ Goodness must be denied a place among the aims of art”, that works of art are “analogous to an unseasonable joke, namely, good in its place, but out of place a positive evil" (4, 345).

Whitehead’s treatment of the question of the functions of art in society, and of its role in the formation of values proceeded to a considerable extent from his characteristics of the values of art. In doing so he does not deny that beauty in art also has a positive influence on the formation of moral values. In its capacity as the harmony of patterned contrasts “ major beauty" in art introduces order into human behaviour too, exercising a disciplinary influence. Whitehead was well aware that art’s performance of its functions in the formation of values is impossible in unfavourable social circumstances. Furthermore, he shows that “under our present industrial system . .. freedom is being lost. This loss means the fading from human life of values infinitely precious to it”. However, as the English Marxist philosopher H. Frankel correctly remarks, Whitehead rarely drew any conclusions from this. 117 According to his metaphysics, which see the root causes of qualitative change not in matter but in God, his conception of man was such that it precluded revolutionary change (See 17).

* * *

Expressing his opinion of Whitehead’s philosophical work, A. S. Bogomolov calls him “one of the leading representatives of 20th-century objective idealism”, who “tried to answer the very important questions posed by the development of science in the 20th century" (11, 253, 291). It is precisely this which explains the increasing influence of and interest in his philosophy in the last few years. Monographs are published on Whitehead, his views are discussed in journals and at symposia, and two collections of articles were published in 1961 to mark the centenary of his birth. This extensive literature includes books and articles which comment on Whitehead’s aesthetic ideas. These ideas exert considerable influence on modern western aesthetics (21), and in particular on the semantic philosophy of art. This influence can be most clearly felt in S. Langer’s theory of art (26). She names Whitehead as her teacher and dedicates her well-known book Philosophy in a New Key to him. Whitehead was extremely influential in the formation of Max Sense’s “new aesthetics" (see Max Sense. Aesthetica. Einfiihrung in die neu Aesthetik. BadenBaden, 1965, S. 284–90). Bense particularly highly rates Whitehead’s theory of realization, believing -that no one else had so deep an understanding or gave so clear an expression to “realization” in its metaphysical and cosmological aspect. Inasmuch as “realization” is connected for Whitehead with choice (from the available possibilities) Bense sees a kinship between this concept and the concept of information (and correspondingly between the theory of “realization” and information theory), and also between the process of “ individualization" connected with realization and “aesthetic information”. Moreover, he regards the theory of information and communication as a universal theory of “realization”. As noted above, Bense was one of those bourgeois authors who 118 highly estimated Whitehead’s attempt to introduce the concept of pattern into the theory of values. In his opinion, for Whitehead this concept corresponds to the concept of “ structure" in Bense’s own informational aesthetics. Bense points to the connection between the concepts of “pattern” and “ value" in Whitehead’s philosophy to explain how the Whiteheadian cosmology comes to have an aesthetic as well as metaphysical aspect. In this connection he names Whitehead •as one of the influences (alongside Peirce and Morris) on the emergence of his own cosmological aesthetics.

Our critical analysis of Whitehead’s aesthetics suggests that his idealist philosophy can be used to substantiate the theory and practice of modernism. The connection between Whitehead’s philosophical and aesthetic ideas and the formalism and modernism of bourgeois art is not easy to establish because of the highly abstract and intricate nature of Whitehead’s own conception. But there is such a connection, if not direct, then at one remove. Whitehead made his contribution to the general philosophical and aesthetic atmosphere of idealism with its sustenance of various forms of modernistic aesthetics and practices. For example, his book Science and the Modern World had an enormous effect on the leading theoretician of modernism, Herbert Read, who called the book the most significant (of books at the crux of science and philosophy) since Descartes’ Discours de la methode. This book, in Read’s opinion, makes necessary a new interpretation -not only of science and philosophy, but also of religion, and of art.

Let us now see what in Whitehead’s philosophy could serve as the theoretical basis for modernism. M. Bense, who has himself made considerable efforts in this field, argues that nothing could fit so well as Whitehead’s theory of cognition and theory of perception on the one hand, and Kandinsky’s theory of painting and aesthetics on the other. He sees a connection between Whitehead’s category of “ realization" in the sphere of aesthetics and the analyses of Expressionism, Tachisme, and automatic writing. Many commentators, when noting the influence on the emergence of abstractionism exercised by the notions of modern physics, also mention Whitehead in this connection. Thus, the Polish aesthetician W. Tatarkiewicz writes in his article “Abstract Art and Philosophy" that, alongside the influence of modern physics on abstractionism we should also note the influence of Whitehead’s ideas, as it was he who made the step forward from physics and philosophy to aesthetics and attempted to connect the abstractions of physical science with the principles of aesthetic experience. The American professor of art history Irving L. Zupnick draws a parallel between Whitehead’s philosophy and Mondrian’s abstract painting in his article “Philosophical Parallels to Abstract Art".

Thus, the idealistic philosophy of Whitehead the neo–realist, which, as we have seen, is an unsuitable basis for a scientific theory of art, provides fertile soil for the justification of the theory and practice of modernism.

* * *


[114•1] The vagueness noted above led some authors (e.g. S. Harris) to believe that the highest value in Whitehead’s axiology was truth, while logic lay at the basis of aesthetics, others to give beauty and good an “equal” place, and truth one subordinate to them, and still othersforming the majority (S. L. Ely, H. B. Dunkel, E. P. Shahan et al.)-are inclined to the thought that Whitehead gives beauty the primary role in his system of values.

[115•1] Certain commentators describe Whitehead’s philosophy as a whole as aestheticism. Thus, for example, B. Morris maintains that Whitehead definitely approached philosophy from the aesthetic point of view (27, 463).

SOURCE: Basin, Yevgeny. Semantic Philosophy of Art, translated from the Russian by Christopher English. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979. Chapter V: The Neo-Realistic Philosophy of Symbolism and Art: A. N. Whitehead; pp. 97-119. Semantic Philosophy of Art can be found (chapter by chapter in HTML format) on the ghost web. Book can also be borrowed from

Whitehead & Marxism: Selected Bibliography

American Philosophy Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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