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Beyond postmodernism:
From concepts through experiencing

Eugene Gendlin

Excerpted from Roger Frie (Ed.), Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, pp.100-115, Routledge, 2003.
For the complete chapter, please go to http://www.routledge.com or Amazon.com to purchase the book.

The relationship between experience and concepts is central to the theory and practice of psychotherapy. Philosophy can help us to understand this relationship. Sadly, however, few people think of combining psycho­therapy and philosophy even though each has what the other most vitally needs. Psychotherapists can be immensely subtle practitioners but typic­ally have not developed their conceptual thinking. This is because they find little use in their work for the concepts they have learned or find ready to hand. In contrast, philosophy provides a critique of the kinds of concepts psychology uses. Drawing on philosophy, we can sharpen our conceptual thinking. Without some background in philosophy, talk about kinds of concepts can seem complicated. One needs an acquaintance with talking about concepts, something that philosophers have done since Greek times. If one can see past the assumptions inherent in the usual kind of concepts we use, a new kind can be fashioned. In this chapter I will argue that psychotherapy can develop theoretical concepts directly from experiencing.

Philosophers on their side badly need to discover how direct access to something that could be called "experiencing" is even possible. In a long tradition most philosophers have construed "experience" as something that is always already organized by concepts. This is true, but experienc­ing also always goes beyond the concepts that are implicit in it. One hun­dred years after Freud, philosophers who are concerned with psychology still mostly go to Freud's concepts, instead of the experiential work of the whole of the twentieth century. The philosophical tendency to construe "experience" only in terms of concepts is largely reinforced by what can be found in Freud. Philosophy needs to discover that there can be a direct relation between thinking and experiencing. To discover direct experi­encing opens a vast and complex philosophical field.

It is impossible to grasp the relationship between experience and concepts by concepts alone. Experiencing cannot be copied, captured, or represented. Concepts can only point toward our experience. Thus, we need to form concepts of a special kind that incorporate experiencing itself, the act to which the concept refers. We have to carry the experience along with us. Experiencing never becomes a concept. Since experienc­ing cannot be represented, the concepts can only indicate various kinds of relations between experiencing and conceptual patterns. I will present a few such concepts here.

An enormous gap called postmodernism has recently been created be­tween experiencing and concepts. I want not only to examine the nature of this gap, but also to attempt to move beyond it. Of course there are many strands of postmodernism. It is best known for denying that there is any truth, or that one can claim to ground any statement in experience. Postmodernism is right in that one can not claim to represent or copy experiencing. But this does not mean that what we say has no relationship to what we experience - that there is no truth, that everything we say is arbitrary. In contrast to postmodernism, I show that we can have direct access to experiencing through our bodies (Gendlin 1992). I maintain that bodily experience can not he reduced to language and culture. Our bodily sense of situations is a concretely sensed interaction process that always exceeds culture, history, and language.

Not only perception

What and where is this experiencing to which we have direct access? Merleau-Ponty (1945) started in this direction with his discussion of the body, but we need to go even further. The body is not just a philosophical precondition of perception. Merleau-Ponty rescued the body from being considered one more sensed thing like all the other sensed things (as it still is in physiology). For him the body is a sensing, an internal-external orienting center of perception, not just perceived, but perceiving. But perception is not a possible starting point from which to understand our­selves and our bodies.

By beginning with perception, philosophy makes it seem that living things are in contact with reality only through perception. But plants are in contact with reality. They are interactions, quite without perception. Our own living bodies also are interactions with their environments, and that is not lost just because ours also have perception. Animal bodies - including ours - sense themselves, and thereby we sense the interactional living we are. In sensing ourselves, our bodies sense our physical environment and our inter-human situations.

It seems obvious that a situation does not consist of the perception of colors, smells, and sounds. Even the simplest situation cannot be grasped just in terms of the five senses. Every situation involves other people and their complex involvements with each other. This cannot be understood in terms of colors and smells.

Our bodies sense themselves in living in our situations. Our bodies do our living. Our bodies are interactions in the environment; they interact as bodies, not just through the five senses. We do not lurk behind a partition with five peepholes.

The living body consists of interactions with others in the world. "Perception" appears only before or to a body. But the body is an interaction also in that it breathes, not only in that it senses the cold of the air. It feeds; it does not only see and smell food. It grows and sweats. It walks; it does not only perceive the hard resistance of the ground. And it walks not just as a displacement between two points in empty space, rather to go somewhere. The body senses the whole situation, and it implies, it urges, it implicitly shapes our next action. It senses itself living the situation in its whole context.

We act in every situation, not just on the basis of colors and smells (not even all five senses crossed so each is in the others), nor just by motions in geometric space. Rather, we act from the bodily sense of each situation. Without the bodily sense of the situation we would not know where we are or what we are doing.

Not only language

It is not the body of perception that is structured by language. Nor is the body's interaction structured by culture and language alone. Rather, it is the body of interactional living in its environment. The body's interaction is always more intricate than language. It is after and with language, always again freshly ongoing and constellating this situation in the present. Language elaborates how the body implies its situation and its next behavior.

We sense our bodies not as elaborated perceptions but as the body sense of our situations, the interactional whole-body by which we orient and know what we are doing. In sensing itself the body functions as our sense of each situation. It is a gigantic omission to miss the role of the body's self-sentience, and to try to constitute the world out of percepts of the five senses.

The higher animals do much of what humans are and do. For example, Jane Goodall reports that a chimpanzee mother of an infant that has polio

carefully arranges his limp arms and legs. When an adult male chimpanzee was wounded, his small brother sat carefully pushing the lips of a gaping wound together.

The human symbolizing kind of experience is not necessary for differentiated communication. The animals groom each other and pick fleas even when there are no fleas, just to keep each other company. We know this also from our dogs, cats, and horses. When my cat is especially pleased about sitting next to me, he "brushes the fur" on my hand with his tongue, although he can sense that there is no fur there. This kind of communication happens among them and with us.

We have no difficulty answering those who think that we cannot talk of anything before language. Of course there are cultural differences once there is language. We are not concerned with a body without language. We can see the body's primacy and priority when we feel how the body now functions, always in a much wider way than language. The body functions in crucial ways, and in ways that are trans-historical. It is not the five senses but the sentient bodily interaction that takes on language and history - and then always still exceeds them. Let me show this.

The bodily felt sense of situations

Merleau-Ponty (1945) says that we sense the space behind our backs. Please notice for a moment that this is true; you can sense the space behind your back. Is that still to be called "perception?" It is not vision, hearing, or touch, nor is it just the togetherness of the five senses. It is rather a direct bodily sense that you have and use all the time.

You sense behind you not just the space, nor just space-filling visible things. You sense behind you the people to whom you could turn and speak. Those people are part of your situation just now, and you sense them as part of your sense of the situation you are in. You can sense how your present peaceful body-sense would change if you decided now to turn and say something loud to those people. That you won't do it is all included in the sense of the present situation that you now have - in a bodily way.

Suppose, for example, that you are walking home at night, and you sense a group of men following you. You don't merely perceive them. You don't merely hear them there, in the space behind you. Your body-sense instantly includes also your hope that perhaps they aren't following you. It includes your alarm and many past experiences - too many to separate out - and surely also the need to do something, be it walk faster, change your course, escape into a house, get ready to fight, run, shout (.....).

My (.....) expresses the fact that your body-sense includes more than we can list, more than you can think by thinking one thing at a time. And it includes not only what is there. It also implies a next move to cope with the situation. But this implying of your next move is still a (.....) since your actual move has not yet come.

Since it includes all this, the (.....) is not just a perception, although it certainly includes many perceptions. Is it then a feeling? It is certainly felt, but "feeling" usually means emotion. The (.....) includes emotions, but also so much else. Is it then something mysterious and unfamiliar'? No, we always have such a bodily sense of our situations. You have it now, or you would be disoriented as to where you are and what you are doing.

Is it not odd that no word or phrase in our language as yet says this? "Kinesthetic" refers only to movement, "proprioceptive" refers to muscles. "Sense" has many uses. So there is no common word for this utterly familiar bodily sense of the intricacy of our situations, along with the rapid weighing of more alternatives than we can think separately. We now call it a "felt sense." This phrase can say the (.....), but only if it brings the (.....) along with it so that it is part of what we mean and so that we can think further from it. Then we can also think further from the specific (.....) at any juncture of any topic, if we let a felt sense come at that juncture.

Notice that a (.....) is implicitly intricate. It is more than what is already formed or distinguished. In my example it includes many alternative moves, but more: the (.....) implies a next move - the body is the imply­ing of - a next move, but after-and-with all that it includes, that move is as yet unformed.

The (.....) is interaction. It is the body's way of living its situation. Your situation and you are not two things, as if the external things were a situ­ation without you. Nor is your bodily sense only internal. It is certainly not just an emotional reaction to the danger. It is that, but it also includes more of the intricacy of your situation than you can see or think. Your bodily (.....) is your situation. It is not a perceived object before you or even behind you. The situation isn't the things that are there, nor some­thing internal inside you. Your intricate involvement with others is not inside you, and it is not outside you, so it is also not those two things together. The body-sense is the situation. It is inherently an interaction, not a mix of two things.

The living body is an ongoing interaction with its environment. Therefore, of course, it contains environmental information. The bodily (.....) also implies a further step which may not yet be capable of being done or said. We need to conceive of the living body in a new way, so as to be able to understand how it can contain (or be) information, and also be the implying of the next bit of living. It is not the usual use of the word "body." As we have seen, the body is not just an orienting center of per­ceiving, nor only a center of motions, but also of acting and speaking in situations.

The bodily felt sense of situation can also be related to Heidegger's (1927) concept of "being-in-the-world." The early Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty wrote powerfully about what is inherently implicit, prethematic. In Being and Time (1927), Heidegger presented a fascinating analysis of being-in-the-world that always included feeling, understand­ing, explication, and speech. He re-understood each and showed that they are "equally basic" to each other, and always in each other. Heidegger argued that in our felt understanding we know our reasons for an action "further than cognition can reach."

According to his hyphenated conception of the being-in-the-world, the human mode of being is really a "being in." It is a being in situations with others. Heidegger stopped here, however, and unfortunately did not understand this in a bodily way. We can go further. "Being-in" situations with others applies to the embodied and sentient person.

The person is interaction, and this includes our bodies. It can be seen in many ways. For example, the infant emerges, sucking the air, searching for the breast. The breast in turn has to be pumped if there is no infant. Thus, we are inherently interactional. This does not mean, as post­modernists say, that there is no person, just dialogue. The current rage for dialogue is an overreaction to the previous view that assumed that the person is an internal structure cut-off from interaction. Actually a person's self-responding happens within an interaction context, and is strongly affected by this context. But interpersonal relating happens within the context of a person's self-responding and is strongly affected thereby. Each can exceed the other. Therefore we try to provide maxi­mum personal closeness with minimal intrusion of content. We call this "Focusing-oriented psychotherapy" (Gendlin 1996).

You know that there is someone there in you. And when another person looks at you, you can see that they know you are there. Sartre (1943) understood this very well. In Being and Nothingness he referred to it as "the look." In our theoretical concepts about persons, a person's concrete presence - and your own - have to be sensed and referred to as such. Concepts, structure, content, experience - none of these things look at you. Sartre also quite rightly said that "existence precedes essence." This is a slogan which implies that what is sitting there in the chair looking at me is more fundamental and earlier than whatever we are going to say about it. But if we take this (.....) along as we think, we can say quite a lot about it.

Truth and values

My postmodernist colleagues in philosophy believe that there is no truth. The fact that there is not a single truth, however, does not mean there is no truth. It means that there are many truths, and truth has many different and very important meanings. We now have objective measures to study the degree to which people's verbalizations carry forward their implicit, not yet formulated, experience. There is a kind of truth which applies when what we say has a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of effect on what we experience. What we say and our practical choices are not just arbitrary and unrelated to what we are concretely experiencing.

Currently people consider choice arbitrary. There is disillusionment with the notion of "authenticity." It now seems to mean nothing more than some moment of decision, totally arbitrary. Value-decisions seem arbitrary when reality is thought of as value-free "facts" or "objects." But we now. know that aside from arbitrarily deciding what to do, our experi­encing is something else, more intricate and composed of many more im­plicit strands, yet sensed as one. From this come little steps such as for example: "Oh, I'm not yet together enough to decide this." The first such steps may not seem very helpful, but they create changes in how the whole situation is carried in the body. Further little steps follow in their characteristically odd and unexpected ways that go beyond the usual phrases of the common language. Instead of an arbitrariness in the process of reaching a decision, there can be a much subtler process in which you are going in a life-forward direction.

I am in favor of the kind of truth that is carried forward and elaborated. What I would not like is to consider any one kind of truth as the only kind. It is not a problem that there is more than one kind of truth. If there were, the world would be greatly impoverished. Yet postmodernists keep say­ing there isn't any truth. It is as though everybody just assumed that there is either just one kind of truth or no truth at all.

In fact we are always standing in a gigantic, open possibility. If you take almost anything in an experiential way and then go in a little further, it becomes much more intricate. It would really be rather boring if there were only one kind of truth. Why would anyone want that?

• • • • • • •


First, psychologists and their public have discovered experience, but do not sufficiently recognize the role of culture, history, and language that informs our experience. Sophisticated intellectuals know this but go to the other, postmodern extreme, and argue that everything comes from culture, history, and language. Philosophically I think there needs to be a further step. The step forward would be to recognize what is with and after language. The body is always in a fresh situational interaction that exceeds culture, history and language.

Second, currently some thinkers are searching for "emergent" con­cepts and knowledge. To find this requires finding the direct access to ongoing bodily experiencing. The direct access exceeds the common phrases. But language is inherent in all human experiencing. New facets of experiencing rearrange the implicit language and can generate new sentences. These do not copy; rather they carry experiencing forward. Naive observers believe they can "match" experience with something they say. Many postmodernists know that it is impossible to "represent," capture, or copy experience, but they take this to mean that everything is up to arbitrary interpretation. A philosophical advance is provided if we notice that we can speak-from direct access to experiencing. We can recognize the difference when we are speaking-from our direct access, and when we are not.

Third, to speak-from direct access to experience leads to a zig-zag process between speaking and access, in which experience changes, but not arbitrarily. This occurs in a sequence of small bodily sensed shifts.

Fourth, living bodies have a holistic life-forward direction that is usu­ally called "adaptive" as if they only fit themselves to external require­ments. But in fact the living systems create new and more intricate meanings and actions.

The experiencing process I have described has its own coherence. It took me a long time to affirm that the ongoing bodily experiencing has its own inherent life-forwarding implying. The little steps that arise at the edge are creative, imaginative, and always in some positive direction.

The life process is self-organizing, but much more intricately than we can conceptualize. A great undivided multiplicity is always at work. The higher animals live quite complex lives without culture. Culture does not create; it elaborates. Then we live creatively much further with and after culture. To think that we are the creation of culture is not a view one can maintain if one senses ongoing bodily experiencing directly. Culture is crude and inhuman in comparison with what we find directly. The intri­cacy you are now living vastly exceeds what cultural forms have con­tributed to you. With focusing we discover that we are much more organized from the inside out. Direct access to this intricacy enables us to think-from much more than the usual concepts and assumptions.

© Routledge 2003

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