Feminist Concerns and Whitehead’s Theory of Perception

by Marilyn Thie

Marilyn Thie (Ph.D., Georgetown University, 1974) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 186-191, Vol. 8, Number 3, Fall, 1978. 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.


This article examines Whitehead’s theory of perception to indicate how this theory provides a philosophical reinterpretation for two issues of concern to feminists: criticism of cultural symbols, including language, and the importance of intuition and emotion, usually associated with women, in experience.

Feminists and nonfeminists alike have recognized that feminist theory is without a philosophical home. This is true in two senses. First, feminism has not yet generated either a metaphysical System or, more broadly, an independent philosophical framework. Second, many feminists are critical of using established philosophical systems to articulate the experience of women on the grounds that any philosophical framework imposes its implied metaphysics on the experience of women. To overcome the absence of a philosophical base, some feminists are suggesting that Whitehead’s process philosophy is able to provide an adequate framework for feminist philosophizing.1 Many of the basic categories of Whitehead’s metaphysics and his theory of God seem compatible with women’s experience of reality and transcendence. However, the most striking parallel between Whitehead’s philosophy and feminist theory that makes this suggestion attractive to many feminists is the emphasis in both on experience as a process of becoming in which entities are engaged in self-creation. This article examines Whitehead’s theory of perception to indicate how this theory provides a philosophical reinterpretation for two issues of concern to feminists: criticism of cultural symbols, including language, and the importance of intuition and emotion, usually associated with women, in experience.

A consistent claim of feminists is that the language, concepts and images operative in society, even if not obviously sexist, reflect patriarchal structures and thought patterns. Feminists point out that while language and concepts may accurately reflect male insights about experience, they often exclude women’s experience. As a result, women do not experience their own reality; they have always experienced through the concepts and images that have filtered and molded their experience to accord with the male-generated images and concepts they have absorbed through socialization.2 Moreover, because women have been politically and intellectually subjected, they have been excluded from generating the dominant images, words, and concepts which organize and structure reality; in Mary Daly’s words, "the power of naming [has been] stolen from [women]" (BGF 8). Because of this exclusion, feminists are calling for the criticism of dominant cultural symbols in light of women’s experience of the world. By struggling to peel from traditional symbols the layers of patriarchal meaning which have accrued, feminists are attempting to discover and name dimensions of women’s experience which have been excluded or distorted by male-dominated and often misogynist concepts. In addition to criticizing cultural symbols, feminists are hoping for the emergence of new images and concepts from women’s struggle to experience beyond or beneath or without the preconceptions embedded in present language and concepts.

Whether or not feminists recognize it explicitly, a theory of perception and a theory of language are operative in these claims. Several aspects of Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference -- how language functions in societal and personal life; that symbolic reference is an interpretative judgment and so open to error; and that symbolism requires constant criticism and reform in light of what is directly experienced -- converge to provide a philosophical analysis that supports and encourages feminist criticism of the operative cultural symbols.

According to Whitehead, language reflects what a culture or society considers important, whether or not the living members of that society have consciously acknowledged or accepted the evaluative assessment which is embedded in its language.3 The conceptual patterns we bring to experience and the language used to express experience select out those aspects of experience which conform to those concepts and words. In this way, language evidences the interpretative judgment, though unconscious, which characterizes symbolic reference. The concepts and words are responsible for identifying in experience what that society assumes to be important (MT 9). In sum, the assumptions of a society are carried within the way people think and talk.

Moreover, Whitehead understands symbolism as an interpretative judgment which not only reflects the biases and assumptions of its society but also is subject to error because of tendencies to oversimplify experience (MT 21). As a result, what we commonly identify as a fact of experience is really the result of a judgment, albeit unconscious and habitual, which interprets what is directly experienced (MT lOf). One conclusion Whitehead draws from this is that criticism of current language requires testing the adequacy of those judgments against direct experience (S 60f). It is the task of symbols, Whitehead tells us, to discover -- not create -- meaning (S 57).

Feminists who claim that women are denied access to their own reality are supported by Whitehead’s insistence that implicit notions of what is important are embedded in language, thereby imposing perspectives of importance on what is experienced (MT 15). Whitehead’s view is consistent with feminist claims that generations of patriarchy, in which women were considered inferior to men and were denied political, economic, educational, social, and religious equality, have implanted these attitudes in the language, concepts and thought patterns with which both women and men unconsciously organize experience. Whitehead’s position is also consistent with that of feminists who insist that language be revised by using the criterion of how adequately it expresses and elucidates women’s experience. Thus, identifying symbols which more effectively discover the meaning, value, and purpose in women’s experience is a feminist goal which receives philosophical impetus from Whitehead’s theory of symbolism. Moreover, from a Whiteheadian analysis, if feminist, nonsexist, or androgynous images are used to organize and name experience, there will be a change in what is identified as important in the experience. This accords with feminist views that changing the images, language, and concepts of experience will, in effect, alter what women experience.

Both Whitehead and many feminists argue that noncritical acceptance of inherent cultural assumptions runs the risk of ignoring aspects of experience that are overlooked or kept in the background by this symbolism. Because symbolic reference is often not recognized as an interpretative synthesis but mistakenly viewed as a pure perception, a society can fail to recognize the need for critical evaluation of the ways it understands experience.

Besides the ways Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference supports feminist attempts to purge cultural symbols from their sexist and patriarchal connotations, it seems clear from the following passage that Whitehead would applaud feminist hopes of producing symbols more faithful to women’s experience. According to Whitehead,

A continuous process of pruning, and of adaptation to a future ever requiring new forms of expression, is a necessary function in every society. The successful adaptation of old symbols to changes of social structure is the final mark of wisdom in sociological statesmanship. Also an occasional revolution in symbolism is required. (S 61)

To fail to heed feminist criticism of cultural symbols foretells a safe but stale future. While Whitehead admits that changes in the basic symbols result in radical transformation and even disruption of society, he is very clear about how a society’s failure to revise its symbols affects that society.

The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of a symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows. (S 88)

Although Whitehead did not see the implications of this passage for our patriarchal society with its sexist images and language, his warning seems to foreshadow what many women, and some men, are coming to recognize. His theory of symbolism then, is not only compatible with feminist goals of revising and renewing cultural symbols, but also provides a systematic analysis which gives philosophical support and impetus to these goals.

Whitehead’s theory of perception is also relevant in another way to feminist theory. There is a widespread opinion, labeled a stereotype by most feminists, which holds that women are more attuned to picking up emotional overtones and more intuitively aware of hidden, obscure meanings in situations than most men. Whitehead’s broadening of direct experience to include perceptions in the mode of causal efficacy provides an interesting twist to this opinion when it is examined in the philosophical context provided by his theory of perception.

Whitehead claims that in common sense and in traditional philosophies direct perceptions in the mode of causal efficacy are overlooked (PR 184).4 As a result, direct experience is identified with perceptions of presentational immediacy or perceptions in the mixed mode of symbolic reference. Moreover, excluding perceptions of causal efficacy is detrimental, for we thereby overlook certain aspects of experience. Since we are not accustomed to expect perceptions in this mode, we are not attuned to them and so deny their presence and underestimate their importance. As a result, we often conclude that values, meaning, and purpose must be contributed by the subject experiencing and fail to recognize the presence of emotions, values, and purposes within reality itself (S 39f). By ignoring direct perceptions in the mode of causal efficacy, we reduce the world experienced to aspects which are immediately presented to the senses and to what we judge to be the possessor of those characteristics. In effect, when perceptions of causal efficacy are omitted, the world we experience has no depth, intrinsic value, feeling tone, or inherent purpose.

However, experience which ignores content about the world from perceptions of causal efficacy is considered normal. Experience is usually associated with ways of dealing with the world patterned on the model of scientific observation. Those who approach experience objectively, dispassionately, analytically, and rationally, are praised for having an accurate grasp of reality. By contrast, those -- and they seem primarily to be women -- who approach experience intuitively, grasping feeling tone and insisting that value, emotion, and purpose are experienced within reality are usually patted on the head for contributing such insights and then dismissed as too emotional or intuitive to be trusted with contributing anything important about the "real" world. It would be erroneous to confine women’s experience to perceptions of this sort. However, insofar as this widespread opinion accurately reflects a difference in the way many men and women presently experience the world, it is interesting to see how this opinion is reconceived when examined in terms of Whitehead’s theory of perception. In effect, Whitehead’s insistence that direct experience includes perceptions in the mode of causal efficacy reverses the usual evaluation of the different ways women and men are supposed to experience the world.

Perceptions of causal efficacy put us in direct touch with the inner nature or character of things and persons as well as with the emotions, values, and purposes inherent in reality. Whitehead’s description thus provides a language and philosophical context with which to explain systematically dimensions of women’s experience which are usually dismissed as unimportant. This should mean that women will be more likely to identify and credit the intuitive and emotional dimensions of their experience and be better able to communicate what they experience. In addition, this should lead to enhancing both women’s experience, because it encourages them to be attuned to purposes and feeling tones in reality, and also women’s understanding of their own experience, because it provides a context which will literally make sense out of their experience. Furthermore, the fact that Whitehead’s theory of perception provides a philosophical context and categories which are consistent with these aspects of experience makes it more likely that women’s experience will be credited with contributing important and unique insights about experience which have heretofore been overlooked or regarded as insignificant.

There is a further way in which the usual negative evaluation of women’s experience is turned upside down when explained in relation to Whitehead’s theory of causal efficacy. His analysis of perception suggests that those who develop and include both pure modes and their judgments about the world are experiencing more fully than those who rely only on perceptions of presentational immediacy. This conclusion has ironic practical implications, particularly for philosophical theory. Whitehead’s stress on the importance of perceptions of causal efficacy implies that excluding insights generated from women’s experience from informing linguistic theory and philosophical theories of perception and knowledge only insures that these theories will be inadequate and oversimplified. On Whitehead’s analysis, traditional reliance on perceptions of presentational immediacy for knowledge about reality can only mean that the images, language, and concepts that result will be partial, for they will be limited to what is immediately apparent to the senses. Thus, traditional attempts to keep theories of reality uncontaminated by intuitive insights have resulted, if Whitehead is correct, in condemning those theories to incompleteness. When examined in light of Whitehead’s theory of perception, it becomes clear that emotional and intuitive experiences of women have been ignored even though these dimensions of experience are necessary for a more accurate and complete view of reality. In sum, a Whiteheadian analysis reveals that women’s experience has been dismissed when it should have been praised and relied upon as a more adequate reflection of the reality surrounding us.

Examining these two issues in light of Whitehead’s theory of perception suggests the rich possibilities of appropriating this theory for feminist theory. This analysis should lay to rest fears that appropriating aspects of Whitehead’s philosophical system would diminish or distort the significance of women’s experience. Hopefully, these examples indicate that at least Whitehead’s theory of perception is able to provide a fruitful philosophical home for feminist theory.



BGF -- Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.



1Some excellent examples of this are the papers delivered at the Conference on Feminism and Process Thought held at Harvard Divinity School Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 1977, and available from the Center for Process Studies, David Ray Griffin, Executive Director, School of Theology at Claremont, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, Calif. 91711 Valerie C. Salving, "Androgynous Life: A Feminist Appropriation of Process Thought"; Marjorie Suchocki, "Feminism in Process"; Penelope Washbourn, "The Dynamics of Female Experience: Process Models and Human Values"; and John Cobb, "Feminism and Process Thought: A Two-Way Relationship."

2 Mary Daly presents a strong argument which illustrates this point (BC F 1-12).

3 Chapters I, II, and III of MT are especially relevant, for here Whitehead develops his theory of language in relation to the notion of ‘Importance’.

4 Symbolic reverence and its relation to presentational immediacy and causal efficacy are discussed throughout. See especially the chapters on "Organisms and Environment’ (PR 168-97) and on "Symbolic Reference" (PR 255-79).