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
    Commented Jul 16, 2021 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". Commented Jul 17, 2021 at 18:27

3 Answers 3


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.


Memory in our brain is formed when a similar proces on the neùron network is repeated. If we look at an object every morning and evening, the brain process that "resonates" with the object is "engraved" in the neuron network by enhancing the connections between the neurons involved in, say, the visual perception of the object. After repeating the encounter with the object sufficiently we have become familiar with the object. If we see the object in the field we will recocgnize it. The perception of the object "clicks" into the paths engraved in the learning process. The memory is not litterally stored as in a computer but every time we remember things an active reconstruction of what is learned falls into place. We can associate a word with the object which is engraved in the language part of the brain the same way the visual perception is stored (by adjusting connection strengths which happens by enlarging neurotransmitter channel widths at the synapses, whch means a single neuron can be involved in multiple memory patterns). Like this the brain can store virtually infinite memories, contrary to static computer memories.

If we can't recall the associated words the linkage between the perceived memory or idea and the language area is simply disrupting or the associated word is badly engraved.


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?

It would be a different process because it happens at a different time in a different context with differences in mental states. Don't let the term 'symbolic process' fool you into intuiting that process as neurology is conceived is the same as process as mechanical formal languages are conceived. The human brain doesn't process symbols in the same way as a computer. The human brain, unlike symbolic processes that occur inside a piece of software, is relatively non-deterministic. Whereas a computer has a series of states that when inhabited by the same values lead to the same process, human mental states are understood to be defuse, stochastic, and at times chaotic. That is, human rationality is not mechanical, but is organic. An example is in order.

On a given day, one might go through a routine, and yet, subliminal cognition can be very influential so that on a some particular day, say, on the anniversary of the death of a child, the routine might be impacted such that it impacts the associations that our brain makes on that particular day; even given a highly ordered, well-structured routine (doesn't really sound like too many people other than Kant and people with OCD anyway), there simply isn't enough constraint on how we associate to get the same episodic memory. This of course isn't news to psychologists. Freud's free association taps into these subliminal associations to get a better picture of what is going on in the mind as a whole.

In modern language, the moral of the story is that there are limits to a classical computational model of cognition (SEP), one where computation is taken to be rule-based symbols, and not read more widely using connectionist models.

  • I see your point, but it doesn't fully answer my secondary (and perhaps more important) question - if it's a different process, what has changed that allows the correct reference? I'm referring to the very real feeling of every day life where you forget a word but after a few minutes you remember it. Is it not the same historic route? If so, what is different? If not, how do we have the relevant reference? Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 9:10
  • "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?" The human brain is a constant state of flux, and reactions are measured in milliseconds. The bad presumption is that our experience hasn't changed. Even sitting still for a few seconds, brain states (and there are many subsystems) change. See priming.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 13:11
  • What you're saying now sounds like the comment Conifold made in the OP. So to ask as I've asked him, what properly defines this transition to a different process/event? Those milliseconds? But it doesn't sound like Whitehead refers to any accurate time limit to a process (if I recall correctly, I don't have the text in my mind now as it's been 2 years) Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 16:57
  • @YechiamWeiss Brain neurology isn't a series of digital states like in a CPU. Neuronal encoding and signaling is both analog and digital. Imposing discrete boundaries on mental states is like imposing the states systole and diastole on the heart, or boundaries on a temporal event. That's a convenient act for language because it allows categorization, but just one model of reality. There are some like van Gelder, an embodied cognitionist, who believe the brain is best modeled as a dynamic system. As for Whitehead, he died right after WWII, so an appeal to his work for scientific accuracy...
    – J D
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 15:12
  • is ill-advisable. Whitehead says "Philosophy will not regain its proper status until the gradual elaboration of categoreal schemes, definitely stated at each stage of progress, is recognized as its proper objective... Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities." I take this to mean that what you are noticing, as simple, clean categories breakdown, is to be expected and lauded as he goes on to say...
    – J D
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 15:23

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