In Process and Reality one of the main concepts Whitehead talks about is the symbolic reference. A derivative element of the connection between symbolic type and meaning type of species (in Whitehead's terms) in the usage of language is the act of recollection:

"... The word is heard in the pure perceptive mode of immediacy... If the meaning of the word be an event... [then] that event is... a remembered perceptum in an earlier occasion of the percipient's life... [There] is a chain of symbolic references (inherited along the historic route of the percipient's life, and reinforced by the production of novel and symbolic references at varous occasions along that route) whereby in the datum for the percipient occasion there is a faintly relevant nexus between the word in that occasion of utterance and the event. The sound of the word, in presentational immediacy, by symbolic references elicits this nexus into important relevance, and thence precipitates feelings, and thoughts, upon the enhanced objectification of the event."

(Process and Reality 1978, p.182 "symbolic reference"; my own emphasis)

Later on Whitehead talks about the fact that sometimes the connection the symbolic reference makes, between the symbol and the meaning, is wrong:

"...Sometimes we are bothered because the immediate experience has not elicited the word we want. In such a case the word with the right sort of correlation with the experience has failed to become importantly relevant in the constitution of our experience."

(ibid.; again my own emphasis)

This is where I'm having a bit of a problem with the conclusion. From our experience we know that sometimes we have a hard time remembering the word that is relevant to our experience, but eventually we often do manage to remember it. According to the reasoning above, there should be some mechanism in the process of our experience that somehow makes repeated attempts to make that word relevant. But from the passage above it seems as though this process is a singular, one-time process. Following this reasoning, should we conclude that if we make another attempt to remember the correct word to utter our memories is actually another, entirely different process of experience?

It seems.. A bit far-fetched. We are still in the same process, our experience hasn't changed, the historic route that constituted it is still the same, why would it be a different process? And (perhaps more importantly), what has changed that now we can make the correct symbolic reference?

  • I do not know of a specific Whitehead's response, but in process philosophy there is a constant stream of processes that intermingle, merge, diverge, subsume and so on. They only "abort" by giving way to something else. When we make a new attempt to remember the process may not be entirely different, but the surrounding environment has certainly changed, additional associations have flowed into it, and so on. Why is it far fetched that they can alter the relevance of words? "No man ever steps in the same river twice".
    – Conifold
    Jul 16 at 21:49
  • @Conifold I thought about such a response while writing the question, but let's say a different association has flowed into consciousness (also - by what means? What change has been made?). Is this the same event? I feel like for all the hard work Whitehead goes through to deeply examine and explore his definitions, it's not sufficient to properly frame them (or their limits). In Concept of Nature Whitehead explores this nuance a bit further, but still not enough that I feel like I can say "this is where event X ends and event Y starts". Jul 17 at 18:27

You are correct that this is a problem.

An example of an associative memory that can "try" to remember something, improving its recollection over multiple attempts, is a Boltzmann machine. When prompted with a key, the Boltzmann machine attempts to find a value of low energy for that key. Initially the value will be fairly random, and high energy, being a poor match for the key. Over multiple iterations the value "settles" into a minimum which is (hopefully) a good match for the key.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.