Volume 41, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 2012
The Flow of Meaning
A.N. Whitehead and Roy Wagner on Symbolism
This paper explores the topic of meaning and its relation to symbolism through a contrastive reading of Whitehead’s 1927 Barbour-Page Lectures alongside the contemporary anthropologist Roy Wagner’s Symbols that Stand for Themselves. Despite their adoption of different registers of inquiry, a complementary relation may be posited between the two approaches. In particular, Whitehead’s emphasis on the foundational nature of symbolic reference within experience and its extendedness beyond merely human contexts may be grafted productively onto Wagner’s discussion of the “orders of trope’”and “figure-ground reversal” within the formation of meaning in language. The argument is exemplified through reference to two contexts within Western culture where the play of symbol and meaning is strikingly evident—the Christian Eucharist and the contemporary sociological pervasiveness of motifs of screens and screening.