I was beginning to wonder how to cajole this tightly compressed little work – like a stubborn bud or a maddeningly well sealed package – to open up for me. Symbolism, no matter how long I have inhabited however much of Whitehead's thought, was not springing open, not suggesting much that I was not pressing upon it. I was again wondering if it did not, more than the major works of Whitehead, need to be abandoned to those more scholastically and specifically lured to it. And so I let myself admit my anachronistic wish for this serene booklet from 1927: that it yield a clue as to how symbols might better stir attention to climate catastrophe, to this ‘hyperobject’ that is global warming. Whitehead had the wreckage of war and revolution in mind, not of the habitable earth. Still, I was hoping for some wisp of prophecy camouflaged by his Victorian charm.
What I do not need just now is to catch myself committing a warmly Whiteheadian version of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, whereby his abstract commitment to the concrete gives me yet another pretext for deferring what he calls ‘the sense of common purpose’ (Symbolism), for displacing ‘the instinct for action’ (Science and the Modern World). How tempting it is for process thinkers to think we are doing something, doing the ‘concrete’, that we are good pragmatists deploying an ‘activist philosophy’. After all, we diagnose this fallacy in other systems – systems philosophical, theological, political,sexual, economic. But if the fallacy of misplaced concreteness counts as original sin for process thought, no wonder it is a constant temptation for process thinkers. The creepiness of sin in Augustine is, after all, its derivation from the good. Just to get you creeping in this labyrinth with me right now may just dig us deeper into an evasion.
While circling in this pre-writing solipsism, I bumped into a recent study of people's perceptions of changing weather. And suddenly the relevance of Symbolism flared into immediacy. But what came to light is neither theoretically straightforward nor practically reassuring. Yet the study's conclusion seemed to cry out for a Whiteheadian interpretation. And now I could focus my question for our conversation: does Whitehead help us rethink strategies for public education about global warming?