Art and the Expression of Meaning

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 71-87, Vol. 13, Number 1, Spring, 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author demonstrates a way of thinking which exhibits expression and truth as joint concerns of the artist.

The opening bars of the Finale of Mahler’s Tragic Symphony plunge us immediately into a conflict between romantic reverie and tragic fate. The soaring violins release us to take an idyllic flight, which is joyful, liberating, and serene. But Mahler breaks this mood dramatically by having the brass and tympani intrude, announcing the tragic theme. Fate enters to shatter our dreams. Mahler brings us into direct confrontation with the world by establishing the counterpoint between joy and tragic despair. His work has expressive power, and we are moved by it. At the same time, it discloses truth. In similar fashion Picasso’s painting, The Tragedy, opens a portion of the world to our contemplation. As we see the lonely figures of a man, a woman and a child, bent low before the sea, we suffer a feeling of ominous foreboding. The ghostly blue color which pervades the background contributes to this feeling, as it lends its tone to the sky, the sea, the beach, and the clothing which cloaks the figures. But most of all, it colors their skin with its suggestion of impending death. Even as we are gripped by the condition of their existence, we become aware of our own vulnerability. Like the blows of fate struck by the percussion in Mahler’s symphony, Picasso’s figures send a chill through us as we encounter truths about our relationship to the world.

These works, and other great works of art, have a depth which makes them vehicles of expression and vehicles of truth. How are we to conceive of this union of expression and truth? Works of art require us to question traditional philosophies of mind, which set emotional and cognitive concerns in opposition. Whitehead provides us with a modified understanding of the cognitive and the emotive, which helps us to overcome the traditional separation. In particular his theory of symbolic reference undermines our tendency to think of creative expression as a simple’, direct display of feeling. For him there is no opposition between the artist’s commitment to creative expression and his contribution to ‘symbolic truth’ (AI 248). Whitehead speaks of "the indirect interpretive power of Art to express the truth about the nature of things" (AI 249). The tension between the indirectness of symbolic truth and the directness of expression is only apparent. In what follows we will examine how Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference alters our understanding of the arts, and we will supplement his account with ideas derived from Merleau-Ponty’s theory of expression. Our goal will be to demonstrate a way of thinking which exhibits expression and truth as joint concerns of the artist.


Modern art has usually been conceived as an art of creative expression. The most obvious way to think of art, so conceived, is as a reflection of the artist’s intentions. This idea governs Kandinsky’s call for painting to move away from the representation of objects toward works that arise from the artist’s "inner need" (CSA 29ff.). Thus, we see the emergence of the modem as the triumph of subjectivity. Kandinsky took music as the model for how painting might free itself from objective limits and become more expressive.1 This is how he describes his desire for a "music of painting":

With few exceptions music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound.

A painter who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results the modem desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting color in motion. (CSA 19)

Kandinsky’s emphasis upon "mathematical, abstract construction" has become a beacon for the development of modem art. In renouncing the "reproduction of natural phenomena," modern art has emphasized the importance of the artist’s creative intentions and the freedom from external restrictions.

Expressionist theories of the arts emphasize the directness of the work. A great musical work, like Mahler’s symphony, creates a spontaneous emotional response in the hearer, and Kandinsky aspired to develop painting toward an equally rich expressive spontaneity. The philosophy of mind which governs the expressionist approach is encapsulated in this statement by Suzanne Langer:

Every product of the imagination -- be it the intelligently organized work of an artist, or the spontaneous fabrication of a dreamer -- comes to the percipient as an experience -- a qualitative direct datum. And any emotional import conveyed by it is perceived just as directly. (F&F 241)

Modern art has emphasized the "qualitative direct datum" and shifted the subject matter of painting inward. Yet this tactic arises from a particular way of viewing human experience and a particular way of interpreting the artist’s concern for authenticity. Kandinsky’s claim that the only authentic art is an art which reflects the artist’s "inner need" depends upon a philosophy of mind which splits apart the subjective and the objective.

Unfortunately this philosophy of mind is inadequate, since it artificially separates human feeling from its environment. Whitehead has warned us that the "word ‘experience’ is one of the most deceitful in philosophy. Its adequate discussion would be the topic for a treatise" (SYM 16-17). Although Whitehead never wrote that treatise, he does offer us the outline of a theory of experience in Symbolism and in Process and Reality. His analysis centers around the insufficiency of the concept of direct qualitative content, taken by itself. He charges empiricists with having committed the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness by giving us an interpretation which isolates the immediate sensory contents from their total role within experience. What is this larger role which Whitehead sees? He insists that it is crucial for our understanding of experience that the immediately presented image functions as a sign; it serves as a symbol which refers to some region of the environment. At least this is the case with normal perception, where we both have a sensory image and project it onto some region of the environment.2 Whitehead charges both the empiricists and Descartes with having isolated the experiencing subject from the world by leaving the body out of their interpretations. Whitehead argues, quite to the contrary, that "the animal body is the great central ground underlying symbolic reference" (PR 258). Although there is a natural, biologically based, form of symbolic reference, we can learn to introduce modification in it for special purposes. Whitehead believes, in fact, that the artist is one who has learned how to control processes of symbolic reference in order to highlight features of the immediately presented image within the sensory field (SYM 3).

How does his theory of symbolic reference affect our understanding of the artist’s creative work? If we were to endorse the subjectivist interpretation, the expressive power of Mahler or Picasso would reside in their ability to manage auditory and visual imagery to produce emotional effects on us. Thus, in expressing a feeling, however complex, they must attend to the question of how best to communicate the feeling to us. Their problem as creative artists centers around finding the right equivalent in the medium for a feeling they wish to convey. On the other hand, if we follow Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference, then we must begin to entertain the idea that human experience is symbolic through and through. Thus, there is a distinction to be drawn between natural, unthinking modes of symbolic reference, which rely only on normal bodily function, and more sophisticated kinds of symbolic reference, which are under complex conceptual control. An example of controlled symbolic reference would be the restraint of a scientist who suppresses his natural tendency to refer an image to some region of the environment because he knows of special circumstances that produce sensory distortion. Thus when these distorting circumstances recur, he knows that natural, animal references need to be supplemented. In similar fashion Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference implies that Picasso, as a master of visual experience, knows how to control the symbolic medium of the canvas to create desired visual effects on the viewers of his work. However, this is not merely a matter of choosing the right external clothing for the feeling, since the concrete description of our experiences requires that we include the symbolic elements as constitutive for the experience. We can no longer treat Picasso merely as a master of visual communication.

The shift which Whitehead is asking us to make requires us to recognize that even ordinary sensory experience is the product of complex processes of transmutation, which normally go unnoticed. He believes that the consciously presented image is highly simplified, in comparison with the complex environment from which it arises. Thus visual experience is a complex integration of data from the environment. The simplified image present to consciousness can serve as a sign of our surroundings, but not as a literal replication. The normal result of this transmutation is innocent, since we normally need to react only to gross features of our environment. Yet there are occasions when this leads us into error, if we do not employ our conceptual understanding to correct our surface impression. Thus Whitehead’s theory implies that every sensory experience is, to some extent, indirect. All alike reflect symbolic interpretation.

We might now view Picasso as a master of visual transmutations. For example, he understands how formal features of our visual field can be modified for specific effect. He knows that the introduction of a certain shade of blue into the background of his painting can transform the visual field for us from its ordinary tonality. Since Whitehead thinks of every visual experience as a form of selective emphasis, Picasso simply enters to modify the emphasis toward features of the world we might otherwise overlook, or fail to note with proper emphasis. For our purposes it is crucial to see that when Picasso introduces forms of visual transmutation onto the canvas he literally changes what we experience. This suggests that transmutation processes give us a freedom of emphasis in experience that creative artists develop to a higher level of perfection. Thus different methods of projection, such as Renaissance perspective, can be introduced to direct our interpretation of two-dimensional images. While Renaissance perspective is capable of giving us an illusion of three-dimensional depth, other systems of depth-giving are also possible.3

If this line of reasoning is sound, then Kandinsky should have called for a more sophisticiated visual symbolism when he called for a "music of painting." No essential movement toward subjectivity is necessary, if we interpret the artist’s work as a sophisticated form of symbolic reference. Whether the references are physical or psychological, they are all indirect.4 All alike reflect processes of transmutation. Thus instead of an art which reflects "inner need," we require painting to reflect a richer understanding of man’s powers of visualization, and how he relates himself to the world through them. Even if we were to agree with Kandinsky that music has greater expressive power than painting,5 we would understand this difference more clearly if we directed our attention to differences in the symbol systems and how they operate on us.

Thus Whitehead’s theory of symbolism challenges the philosophy of mind which governs expressionist approaches to the arts. He helps us to overcome the subject-object dichotomy, which has dominated Western thought since Descartes. Whitehead insists that we are not caught within a veil of ideas, unable to escape to the outside world except by means of inference or psychological principles of association. Instead, he portrays human experience as a process of selective abstraction from an environment within which it is included, and to which it makes natural bodily reference. Our more sophisticated conceptual references are modeled on this base. Instead of the contents of consciousness being treated as the subjective counterparts of objects in external space, Whitehead treats them as the residue resulting from natural transmutation processes that occur within that space. Whitehead’s critique of the traditional philosophy of mind goes deep, and he believes that the result of the traditional picture is that:

. . . the mass of our moral, emotional, and purposive experience is rendered trivial and accidental. The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted. The details are a reaction to the totality. They add definition. They introduce powers of judgment. . . . They are interpretive and not originative. What is original is the vague totality. (MT 148-49)

The subjectivist interpretation of artistic expression errs in its assumption that our feelings are "clearly envisaged details." If our emotional life begins with "vague totality," then the artist faces the challenge of developing emotional clarity out of a background experience which does not favor any easy clarity. There is no simple givenness of feeling, either for himself or for the public that will receive his work.


Whitehead’s account of symbolic reference shows us that the alleged directness of the expressive surface in art works hides operations of transmutation from our view. Directness turns out to be a function of familiar routes of simplification and reference. This is as true of our feelings as of our sensory experiences. Both emerge against the background of a vague totality awaiting definition. The artist is active in giving them definition. We now should be aware of how important questions of the philosophy of mind are for our understanding of creativity. If we accept Whitehead’s interpretation of human subjectivity, we must move beyond expressionist theories of the arts.

Although Whitehead never developed his interpretation of aesthetic experience very far,6 we can deepen our understanding of artistic expression by attention to the theories of Merleau-Ponty. His ideas are especially useful to us, since they closely resemble Whitehead’s approach at several points. For example, his interpretation of artistic expression features the central role of the body. He argues that:

The painter "takes his body with him," says Valery. Indeed, we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body -- not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement. (PP 162)

Like Whitehead, Merleau-Ponty wants to maintain a concrete vision of experience. He avoids the split between mind and body by rejecting the idea that the body is a mere instrument of expression for a prior subjective experience. Rather, the artist "changes the world into paintings," as a participant within the world. Also, in keeping with Whitehead’s vision of the intimate tie which exists between us and the surrounding world, Merleau-Ponty insists that we pay attention to the "working, actual body" and the way in which it is implicated in the world which it experiences. His own way of conceiving the body is that the human body is the exemplar sensible (V&I 135). The body exists within the world as one of its members, but is capable of exemplifying aspects of that world. Thus, experience is portrayed as the residue resulting from our interaction with the world, not the subjective counterpart of objective states of affairs. The conception of man as the exemplar sensible is perfectly general for Merleau-Ponty. One of its implications, for example, is that our relationship to the visible world is reflexive. A condition of our visual experience is that we ourselves become visible, even as the world presents itself to us as visible. Thus the circuit of visibility turns back on itself for man, the exemplar (V&I Chap. IV). Another implication is that there is an "intertwining of vision and movement." The visible world is also a world through which we can and do move, guided by what has emerged into visibility. This intertwining, too, is perfectly general for Merleau-Ponty, since vision intertwines with touch, and vision and touch with hearing, and these sensory capacities with our powers of judgment.

Let us pause to consider an example that will clarify Merleau-Ponty’s theory. Consider a sailor, beating into the wind in his small yacht, surrounded by rolling waves, gusts of wind, and an ominous dark sky. He has a vivid sense of his embodiment in the world. He exists as a "working, actual body," and there is no split between him and his sailing world. With his hand on the tiller, he shifts his eyes from sails to horizon, adjusting his hand to the changing conditions of wind, water, and sky. The tiller must become an extension of his hand and arm, so that the boat will respond immediately to perceived changes in the sea. If he is to keep his charted course, the mutual adjustment of hand, eye, and sea is essential. He joins his sensations and judgments together in one act, which is a sensitive response to the world in which he participates. As the boat meets the waves, he must feel its place and movement, guiding it by reactions that have become instincts. From previous experience at the helm, he is able to respond with gestures, which spontaneously reflect the situation as it unfolds. He is an exemplar of the world of the sea, and he knows it from the inside as one of its participants. "Indeed, we cannot imagine how a mind could [sail]."

We can now relate this example to the theory of symbolic reference we have been developing. The sailor operates within the world as an exemplar, utilizing known forms of visual symbolism to guide his movement through space. He moves toward a horizon. This factor of the horizon is important for Merleau-Ponty, because as we move toward the horizon, it recedes. Therefore, the visual guides, and the other sensory guides, emerge against the background of a vague totality. The free play which enters into our experience because of this foreground-background contrast is an important ingredient in Merleau-Ponty’s portrait of the artist. If we conceive of the artist as an exemplar sensible, what is the result? Consider an example from Rodin’s sculptural work, Torse D’Adele. Rodin presents us with the image of a female torso which also looks like a human hand. The torsos posture resembles the cavity of the hand when it is cupped with the first two fingers extended upward. The fingers connect where the neck and head would connect to the truncated torso. By this image Rodin gives a simultaneous image of the body and the hand that caresses it. This metaphorical play between two different symbolic meanings is among the possibilities packed into Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the intertwining. We begin to see that the theory of symbolic reference can be bent in Merleau-Ponty’s direction with a resulting portrait of the man-world relationship which is even more intimate than what Whitehead provides. In place of the abstractive transmutations that characterize Whitehead’s experiencing subject, we get a picture of a participant within the world who is fully implicated in the world he experiences. Here is Merleau-Ponty’s description of the body as exemplar:

. . . if it touches and sees, this is not because it would have the visibles before itself as objects: they are about it, they even enter Into its enclosure, they are within it, they line its looks and hands inside and outside. If it touches them and sees them, this is only because, being of their family, itself visible and tangible, it uses its own being as means to participate in theirs . . . because the body belongs to the order of things as the world is universal flesh. (V&I 137)

This gives a rich model for interpreting aesthetic experience, since we can see the artist, like the sailor, as a sensitive participant within the world, who brings to visibility what was, perhaps, invisible or not very visible before his own activity.

It is important for Merleau-Ponty that we understand how the artist’s expressive act emerges out of the world, rather than its emerging from the private chamber of the mind. He asks us to consider Cézanne, standing before Mt. St. Victoire, studying the mountain in painstaking fashion. Cézanne ponders the mountain in search of a motif, which will enable him to render the mountain visible to us That he depends on the surrounding world for his vision is evident from his attitude, reflected in these words :"The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness" (S&N 17). The relationship of the creative artist to the world is, at the same time, both active and receptive. Cézanne searches for the motif which will guide the creation of his vision of the mountain; and he goes back to the mountain repeatedly, because his vision depends upon the mountain, and its reality is inexhaustible. These considerations lead Merleau-Ponty to say:

The eye is an instrument which moves itself, a means which invents its own ends; it is that which has been moved by some impact of the world, which it then restores to the visible through the offices of an agile hand. (PP 165)

The proper conceptual picture of the artist, he thinks, is one which emphasizes eye and hand, rather than mind.

Cézanne is an active interrogator of the world which surrounds him. We must remember that the relationship between man and his world is not static. The sea does not sit still for the sailor to move from point of origin to point of destination in a straight line. Nor does the set of categories with which we approach the world remain static for us, or for the artist, as we encounter new situations. New visions of the mountain, or of any other reality, are possible; and so Merleau-Ponty comments that for "painters the world will always be yet to be painted, even if it lasts millions of years . . . it will end without having been conquered in painting" (PP 181). The same may be said of musical works, or works in any other artistic medium. Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of the artist stands in stark contrast with Kandinsky’s vision of an art that arises from inner need. If Mahler is successful in expressing the texture of our experience, it is because he has managed to develop his musical motifs in such fashion as to recreate for us our sense of participation within the world: our experience includes both times of joyful freedom and optimism, and times of tragedy and vulnerability. Perhaps we can see Mahler’s symphony as providing us with a condensed image7 of an aspect of human life, a symbolic form which translates truths about our experience into audible form.


The initial paradox of this paper concerned an apparent conflict between the directness of works of art in expressing feelings and their indirectness as vehicles of truth. We have rejected expressionist interpretations because they rest on a particular picture of the mind which is not viable. Whitehead helps us to see that even ordinary sensory experience reflects complex processes of transmutation; and so does our immediate internal consciousness of feelings. Both forms of experience are emergent simplifications from a vague background that is richer than surface consciousness. Thus we cannot treat artistic expression as the choice of an external symbolic form to reflect feelings which are simply given. Instead we must think of the artist’s states of consciousness as the residue left by the working process itself. We have seen that Cézanne, contemplating the mountain in search of a motif, engages in a working process which contributes to the transmutation of the contents of his experience.

Merleau-Ponty has helped us to see that we have an intimate relationship to the surrounding world; we exemplify certain features of the world. And yet none of my experience comes to me in unproblematical form. I must probe the world, and react to what I find. However, the adjustments that I make are never free from limitations that enter with my ways of figuring the ground. Thus both my feelings and their expression must be worked out in the process of my own activity. We get a hint of how to apply this to the arts when Nietzsche observes that Schiller "confessed that before the act of creation be did not have before him or within him any series of images in causal arrangement, but rather a musical mood" (BT 49). What Nietzsche means is that the creative process may begin with a relatively vague direction, but without the concrete whole having been worked out in advance. Thus what is expressed in the work of art obscures from our vision that complex working process by which the artist forms the feeling for himself.8 The feeling is not formed in advance, awaiting externalization.

For Merleau-Ponty, expression is continuous with activity and is the natural outgrowth of our embodied condition. He holds that: "All perception, all action which presupposes it, and in short very human use of the body is already primordial expression" (SIGNS 67). This moves us away from an instrumentalist interpretation of expression. There is no priority of feeling over expression, since "expression is not one of the curiosities that the mind may propose to examine but is its existence in act" (SIGNS 79). Thus expression is an integral development out of my existence within the world. Instead of our seeing expression as an external sign of subjective states or intentions, it becomes the natural bodily form that my activities take. Subjective states are not antecedent conditions for expression.9 E. H. Gombrich has addressed this issue, and remarks:

I consider it a heresy to think that any painting as such records a sense impression or a feeling. All human communication is through symbols, through the medium of language, and the more articulate the language the greater the chance for the message to get through. (A&I 385)

Merleau-Ponty draws a similar parallel between artistic expression and language. What happens if we bend the symbolic theory in this direction?

To begin with, we must be careful not to jump to conclusions about what this means. We must first put aside the idea that language is merely a complex set of tools. This is just another version of the idea that symbolic systems are external media which we use to express subjective intentions. Merleau-Ponty, to the contrary, insists that we view language as a way of existing within the world, as an intimate aspect of the cultural activity which shapes the content of our experience. Language, pictures, and other cultural forms are the very stuff from which our understanding composes itself. He insists: "Language is much more like a sort of being than a means . . ." (SIGNS 43). This implies that when I speak I work out my speech acts from within the framework of English, or some other language. The guiding idea of his theory of language is that language is diacritical,10 by which he means that the signs which make up a language interact with each other to form themselves into meanings. He opposes philosophers of language like Russell, whose theory of meaning is denotational. He believes that the different signs of a language interact in such a way as to form a network of meanings. This network is what makes it possible for us to think and to speak to each other. Like the sensible world, the linguistic world is reflexive. Our speech acts go out from us and return back to us, and we can only establish our bearings within language contextually, like the sailor must establish the position of his boat at sea by a system of cross bearings. The result is that:

The meaning is not on the phrase like the butter on the bread, like a second layer of "psychic reality" spread over the sound: it is the totality of what is said, the integral of all the differentiations of the verbal chain; it is given with the words for those who have ears to hear. (V&I 155)

If we apply Gombrich’s concept of visual languages in this context, then pictures and verbal languages stand as complementary resources that help us to create meanings. Language simply advances our capacity for mutual expressiveness within human communities, whether we think here of pictorial or verbal languages. They are as natural to us as facial gestures.

Merleau-Ponty offers us an organic conception of language, and of the other expressive powers we possess; this approach helps us develop a substitute for the traditional conception of the mind. We have seen that Merleau-Ponty treats expression as the existence of the mind "in act." The precise meaning of this claim is revealed when Merleau-Ponty comments about language: "It is because the sign is diacritical from the outset, because it is composed and organized in terms of itself, that it has an interior and ends up laying claim to a meaning" (SIGNS 41). On this view language and other cultural forms have a self-generating character; this view of cultural systems gives us an alternative to thinking of the interiority of experience in mental terms. Systems of linguistic, pictorial, and musical symbols establish a cultural space, a space of meanings, which is intersubjective from the start. Thus our thinking occurs in association with language and other cultural forms, each of which is capable of enabling us to form an interior space for reflection.

The significance of this point for our inquiry into the arts can now be made plain. If we reconsider Mahler’s symphony, we find that it has a capacity to move us deeply if we give ourselves over to the working of the musical forms. Within the imaginative space of the music we are able to review or recreate different strands of our experience of the world. The musical medium transforms us from the context of daily experience, and enables us to interweave strands of idyllic, joyful experience with strands of tragic despair. This counterpoint of our emotional life may be conjured up in a powerful way by Mahler’s music, but its apparent directness may obscure its complex roots in diacritical relationships which the various musical forms bear to each other. If we were not already familiar with the vocabulary, syntax, and semantics of the musical language, the directness of the expression would be absent.

Kandinsky’s call for the development of a "music of painting" rests, then, on a misconception of music’s expressive power. What he should have called for is the enrichment of the visual language of painting, since he believed that representational symbolism suffered from serious limits. We can see, however, that the expressive power of painting can be increased without there being a taboo against references to the physical world. If we accept the idea that all art is abstract, then the only question that remains is how the artist can develop a system of visual transmutation that will endow his works with richness of meaning. The development of new styles of painting, or poetry, or music is, then, a matter of enriching existing cultural forms, with the result that the initiator of a new style "finds himself endowed with new organs" (SIGNS 52).

The result of this excursion into Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is that it frees us from having to think of artistic expression as the externalization of the artist’s states of consciousness. Just as when I speak, I draw from the whole background of English, and my prior understanding of English forms, so the creative artist can draw upon the artistic organs with which the cultural history and his own training have endowed him. His expressive acts may emerge spontaneously, but they will reflect, nevertheless, visual or auditory sources that are only partly under his conscious control. The relationship of the artist to the surrounding world has both a natural and a cultural dimension: we cannot separate these two dimensions from each other. If Cézanne attempts to have the landscape think itself within his experience, it can do so only in terms of the cultural forms that are at hand, or that he will invent in response to the complex richness of the landscape. Human art has to do with networks of meaning which form themselves in response to nature and the problems of human life. Or better: there are no experiential contents that make any sense, apart from these symbolic forms. We who receive the artist’s creations, in similar fashion, utilize them to alter our own understanding. We cannot encounter a Mahler, or a Picasso, without having our system of cross bearings altered in important ways.

We need no concept of private subjectivity to make sense either of the act of creation or of the feelings we have when we encounter artistic works. The intersubjective networks of meaning, which consist of intricate relations of symbolic form, give a sufficient ground for us to understand these phenomena. We are now prepared to see the connection of this line of reasoning to the question of symbolic truth, with which we began the paper. Consider these words of Merleau Ponty:

Through the action of culture, I take up my dwelling in lives which are not mine. I confront them, I make one known to the other, I make them equally possible in an order of truth, I make myself responsible for all of them, and I create a universal life. Just as by the thick and living presence of my body, in one fell swoop I take up my dwelling in space. And like the functioning of the body, that of words and paintings remains obscure to me. The words, lines, and colors which express me come out of me as gestures. They are torn from me by what I say as my gestures are by what I want to do. In this sense, there is in all expression a spontaneity which will not tolerate any commands, not even those which I would like to give to myself. (SIGNS 75)

Merleau-Ponty suggests, in effect, that the question of truth concerns the network of shared meanings which we develop as an historical community. If Mahler and Picasso are able both to move us, and to expose truth to us,11 it is because of shared forms of understanding that establish between us "an order of truth." Our goal is to find ways to comprehend the world, but we can move toward that goal only by a process of the intertwining of meanings. If the search for truth requires that we move from vague totality toward clear definition, then we have no alternative but to fall back on forms of symbolic reference already at hand, or to create alternative forms that may increase our comprehension.


The paradox with which we began is now resolved: the expressive power of works of art and their ability to help us comprehend a portion of the world are both functions of the languages of art. There is no such thing as a simple, direct expression of feeling, if this means that the artist begins from a qualitative given and the viewer receives a qualitative given through the artistic medium. The artist can only move us and show us truths about our world because we already share forms of meaning. Neither the artist’s feelings, nor ours, exist independently of this shared network of meanings. The alleged directness of the feelings is a deception, arising from our ignoring complex transmutations that make the feelings possible in the first place.

If we experience conflicting feelings on hearing Mahler’s symphony, it is because the music itself contains the emotion. The sense of ominous foreboding that we get when we enter imaginatively into the surface of Picasso’s painting also resides in the work itself. The work of art exemplifies the emotional condition.12 Wittgenstein devoted subtle attention to just this point. Our tendency to assume that our feelings can only be understood in terms of the model of subjectivity needs to be challenged. In Zettel, for example, Wittgenstein asks us to consider the feeling of joy. If we ask where it is located, the question seems wrongheaded; that is, it seems wrongheaded if we try to associate joy with some particular part of the body (ZET 486). However, we are tempted by this consideration to move the joy inside, conceiving of it as something that presents itself before the mind. Yet Wittgenstein argues that we have made the wrong conceptual move at this point. Here is what he suggests about joy, or any other content of our experience:

The content of an emotion -- here one imagines something like a picture, or something of which a picture can be made. (The darkness of depression which descends on a man, the flames of anger.)

The human face too might be called such a picture, and its alterations might represent the course of a passion. (ZET 489-90)

Wittgenstein’s interpretation of emotion connects emotions with the expressive forms they take. If we look for tragic despair, where should we expect to find it expressed except on faces, or in Picasso’s image of the three figures? If we are tempted to protest that the feeling of despair exists inside us, we need to exercise great care. For the inside we refer to may either be the private chamber of our subjectivity, or it may be the interior space created by a network of meanings. If we can endorse the latter alternative, we have overcome the subject-object dichotomy once and for all.

This is precisely the conclusion toward which our reasoning points. Expressionist theories fail because they offer an individualistic account of the artist’s intentions, failing to attend sufficiently to the intersubjective meanings which enter into the creative process. Merleau-Ponty helps us to see the links between feeling, meaning, and expression; by implication he alters our understanding of symbolic truth. Questions of truth, on his approach, all arise within the context of historical forms of interpretation and issue in historical outcomes. The question of truth concerns the coherency of our historical forms of understanding, rather than the correspondence of ideas with objective states of affairs. As problems emerge, requiring new or modified interpretations, we exercise our judgment relative to existing forms of understanding. This is part of what Merleau-Ponty has in mind when he observes: "Human perception is directed to the world; animal perception is directed to an environment . . ." (PP 40). Here "the world" refers to a coherent whole of meanings, which are never formed into a completed whole in human experience. There will always be the horizon.

Expression of feeling and concern for truth are, therefore, compatible goals. Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference and his view that the arts give us symbolic truth seem to recognize this fact. Although his approach points us toward a modified philosophy of mind, his own account is deficient in important respects. When he discusses the symbolic truth of works of art (AI, Chapter 16), he appears to give it a secondary status in comparison to propositional truth and the truths connected with sense perception. Although Whitehead is somewhat ambivalent on this point,13 on the whole he treats works of art, language, and other cultural forms as secondary to natural, biological functioning.14 If this seems puzzling, given Whitehead’s emphasis upon a moment of aesthetic feeling as the model for his theory of actual entities,15 we may understand it better if we note two factors: (1) his preoccupation with constructing an alternative to Hume’s philosophy of experience and (2) his commitment to scientific realism. Both factors are reflected in his emphasis upon the mode of causal efficacy in perception, which provides the essential link to the environment. If we recur to Merleau-Ponty’s distinction, the philosophy of organism emphasizes the environment, rather than the world.

The line of reasoning we have been pursuing, beginning from Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference, raises serious questions about Whitehead’s own understanding of the creative process. His whole account of experience treats immediately presented images as abstractions from something which is more basic, namely, experience in the mode of causal efficacy. The transmutation processes are grounded on preconscious prehensions, characterized by "complexity, vagueness, and compulsive intensity" (MT 98). But can we give any content to concepts like "primitive experience (PR 247), "basic prehensions" (AI 183), "the basic elements of all physical feelings" (PR 248) and similar ideas which appear repeatedly in Whitehead’s writings? These seem, on the surface, to be forms of foundationalism.16 Whitehead seems to be of two minds about these concepts, usually treating them as abstractions from fully concrete human experience, which includes transmuted contents synthesized from these elements. However, thinkers like Wittgenstein force us to ask whether we can conceive of these basic elements. The problem to which I am pointing is reflected in this passage from Whitehead:

It must be remembered … that emotion in human experience, or even in animal experience, is not bare emotion. It is emotion interpreted, integrated, and transferred into higher categories of feeling. But even so, the emotional appetitive elements in our conscious experience are those which most closely resemble the basic elements of all physical experience. (PR 248)

If human emotion always reflects interpretive elements, then the concept of "bare emotion" is empty, since we have no example of it. This being so, we need some justification for the alleged comparison between "the emotional appetitive elements in our conscious experience" and "the basic elements of all physical experience." If there are no foundational elements in human experience, then these preconscious, precultural "basic elements" lack any model.

But, you may ask, what is the alternative to beginning with basic elements of some kind? The answer is that we begin with the world, and we are already in contact with the world. Artists, in their practices, show us that we are already in contact with the world. No veil of ideas, or representations, intervenes between the mind and the world. All pictures, and all truth claims, arise in conjunction with our cultural practices and cultural forms of understanding, which collectively guide our actions. Neither do these cultural forms constitute a veil which blocks us from the world. As Richard Rorty has argued:

. . . "the world" will just be the stars, the people, the tables, and the grass -- just those things which nobody except the occasional "scientific realist" philosophers think might not exist. The fact that the vast majority of our beliefs must be true will, on this view, guarantee the existence of the vast majority of the things we now think we are talking about. (JP 662)

So seen, cultural interpretations and practices are life forms, which enable us to explore the world intelligently. The artist is a primary participant in this human activity, seeking to bring to the surface what is unclear at a given time in history. If the truth conveyed through works of art is symbolic truth, that is because all truth is symbolic. Such a conviction is reflected in Merleau-Ponty’s question:

What is irreplaceable in the work of art? . . . The fact that it contains, better than ideas, matrices of ideas -- the fact that it provides us with symbols whose meaning we never stop developing. Precisely because it dwells and makes us dwell in a world we do not have the key to, the work of art teaches us to see and ultimately gives us something to think about as no analytical work can. . . . (SIGNS 77)

The symbols whose "meaning we never stop developing" enter into the work of art in silent ways, just as they enter to shape our experience in silent ways. They represent the practices of the expressive community to which we all belong.


Non-Whiteheadian References

A&I -- E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

BT -- Friedrich Neitzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, tr. by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

CSA -- Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, tr. by M. T. H. Sadler. New York: Dover, 1977.

F&F -- Suzanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner’s, 1953.

JP -- Richard Rorty, "The World Well Lost," The Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972), 649-66.

PP -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. by James M. Edie. Northwestern University, 1964. See especially "Eye and Mind," tr. by Carleton Dallery.

SIGNS -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence," Signs, tr. by Richard C. McCleary. Northwestern University, 1964.

S&N -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Cézanne’s Doubt," Sense and Nonsense, tr. by Hubert L. and Patricia Allen Dreyfus. Northwestern University, 1964.

V&I -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "The Intertwining -- The Chasm," The Visible and the Invisible, ed. by Claude Lefort and tr. by Alphonso Lingis. Northwestern University, 1968.

ZET -- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, tr. by C. E. M. Anscombe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference on Nature, Human Nature, and the Arts, Vancouver, BC., in January, 1980. I am grateful to John Cobb in particular for critical comments on the original version of the paper.

1 Kandinsky’s identification of music with the subjective reflects the kind of consideration raised by Nietzsche when he observed that: "whoever gives himself up entirely to the impression of a symphony, seems to see all the possible events of life and the world take place in himself; yet if he reflects, he can find no likeness between the music and the things which pass before his mind" (BT 102). The absence of objective likeness between music and anything in the world may lead us to think that the subject matter of music must, therefore, be subjective. However, this is a misunderstanding.

2 Whitehead analyzes perception into two modes: presentational immediacy and causal efficacy. Perception in the mode of causal efficacy enters as the guide to the projection of the immediately presented image.

3 For example, Hans Hofinaun speaks of a method of developing visual depth which does not operate by the principles of Renaissance perspective. He argues: "Depth, in a pictorial, plastic sense, is not created by the arrangement of objects one after another toward a vanishing point, in the sense of Renaissance perspective, but on the contrary... by the creation of forces in the sense of push and pull" (Hans Hofmann, Search for the Real. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948, p. 43). Hofmann brings this idea to a high stage of development in his late work.

4 Whitehead also sees all of our experiences as indirect because there is temporal development. Thus, the present moment of conscious experience arises out of a past environment of already-achieved actuality. Also, there is movement from an initial phase of experience to the later transmuted phase. Thus, what we are experiencing and projecting as part of the contemporary world is not really, in the strict sense, contemporary.

5 Kandinsky’s claim seems to be false if we look at the greatest paintings of the past. For example, Rembrandt’s portraits or Cézanne’s landscapes have unquestionable expressive power, even though they include references to external objects or people. They seem equal in expressive power to the works of a Beethoven or of a Stravinsky.

6 I agree largely with the direction in which Donald Sherburne has developed Whitehead’s theory in A Whiteheadian Aesthetic (Yale University, 1961). The symbolic truth that Whitehead attributes to art does concern a propositional orientation. This does not mean, however, that works of art make claims.

7 This idea is due to Langer (F&F 243). See also Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts. Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, 1955, p. 14.

8 This is only relatively true, since some modern artists have insisted on exhibiting their working process to us in the finished work.

9 There are striking parallels between Merleau-Ponty’s account of expression and Whitehead’s in MT. See especially MT32, where Whitehead discusses the relationship of feeling to expression, considering both of them in terms of the natural functioning of the bodily system.

10 See SIGNS, especially Chapter I, Part II for a discussion of this theory of language. Merleau-Ponty develops his interpretation of language from Saussure’s.

11 I cannot develop this idea further here, but Merleau-Ponty discusses it in suggestive ways. For example, he speaks of historical occurrences as establishing an "original order of advent," which gives rise to extended developments of meanings on the base of these occurrences. On this point see SIGNS, 68ff.

12 Nelson Goodman has developed the idea that works of art are exemplification5. See The L~nguages of Art. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1968. Chapter II.

13 For example, Whitehead says: "Art has a curative function in human experience when it reveals as in a flash intimate, absolute Truth regarding the Nature of Things. This service of Art is even hindered by trivial truths of detail. Such petty conformations place in the foreground the superficialities of sense experience" (AI 272). In this passage Whitehead seems to reverse the relative rank of symbolic truth and sense perception.

14 Indicative of this are the repeated references of Whitehead to language as "superficial" (MT 45), as "reproduction" (MT 46), or as giving only indirect truth (AI 248). But why should we think of language in these terms, if it is constitutive of our daily experience? Abstract and superficial in comparison to what?

15 Consider, for example, his doctrine that "… an actual fact is a fact of aesthetic experience. All aesthetic experience is feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity" (PR 427).

16 For a critique of foundationalism see Wilfrid Sellars, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind," Science, Perception and Reality. New York: Humanities, 1963. Also, Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University, 1979.