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Introduction to Thinking at the Edge

By Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D.
University of Chicago

From The Folio, Vol. 19 No. 1, 2004   

“THINKING AT THE EDGE” (in German: “WO NOCH WORTE FEHLEN”) is a systematic way to articulate in new terms something which needs to be said but is at first only an inchoate “bodily sense.” We now teach this in a bi-yearly four day course and are ready to distribute the steps in print and in a video production.   

TAE stems from my course called “Theory Construction” which I taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Students came to it from many fields. The course consisted half of philosophy and logic, half of the difficult task of getting students to attend to what they implicitly knew but could not say and never considered trying to say. It took weeks to explain that the usual criteria were reversed in my course. Whereas everywhere else in the University only what was clear counted at all, here we cared only about what was as yet unclear. If it was clear I said “We don’t need you for this; we have it in the library already.” Our students were not used to the process we call “FOCUSING,” spending time with an observation or impression which is directly and physically sensed, but unclear. All educated people “know” such things in their field of study. Sometimes such a thing can feel deeply important, but typically people assume that it “makes no sense” and cannot be said or thought into. 

“Oh,” one student exclaimed when he grasped what I was looking for, “you mean something about which we have to do hemming and hawing.” Yes, that was just what I meant. Another asked: “Do you mean that crawly thing?” 

How it is possible that something new and valuable can be implicit in a felt sense?

Of course I know that it is a very questionable project to think from what is unclear and only a bodily sense. A rational person, and especially a philosopher, will immediately wonder: Why should such a sense be more than mere confusion? And if there were something valuable in it (say an organismic experiencing of something important in one’s field) how would speech come from it? And if it sometimes can, how would one know whether what is said comes from it, rather than from reading something into it? Should one just believe whatever one said from such an unclarity, or would some statements be preferable to others? 

These questions do not have single answers. They require entering a whole field of considerations. They require certain philosophical strategies about which I have written at length. 

Since summaries of this kind of philosophical work are not possible, I can only refer to the works that lie behind what I will say here. 

An internally intricate sense leads to a series of statements with certain recognizable characteristics. Statements that speak-from the felt sense can be recognized by the fact that they have an effect on the felt sense. It moves, opens, and develops. The relation between sensing and statements is not identity, representation, or description. An implicitly intricate bodily sense is never the same thing as a statement. There are many possible relationships between the body and statements and we have developed some precise ways to employ these relationships.   

Every topic and situation is more intricate than the existing concepts. Every living organism is a bodily interaction with an intricate situation and with the universe. When a human being who is experienced in some field senses something, there is always something. It could turn out to be quite different than it seemed at first, but it cannot be nothing. 

Here I would like to give an example: Suppose you are about to fly to another city in a small plane, and your experienced pilot says “I can’t explain it. The weather people say all clear, but the look of it gives me some odd sense of doubt...” In such a case you would not tell the pilot to ignore this sense just because it is not clear. I have stacked this example. Of course an experienced pilot’s unclarity has already taken account of all the clear knowledge that the profession uses, so that what is unclear is something more. We need not be certain that this “sense” is in fact due to the weather; it is enough that it may be. You decide to stay safely at home. But if the weather does become dangerous, then it is important to all of us to find out what it was that the pilot sensed, which escaped the weather people. The federal aviation people and the whole society would want that pilot to articulate just what was in the look of the weather which the unclear sense picked up. Adding this to the knowledge of the Weather Service would make us all safer when we are in the air. And so it is also with any person who is experienced in any field. But such a sense will seem to be beyond words. 

We are all imbued with the classical Western unit model. We can hardly think in any other way. What we call “thinking” seems to require unitized things which are assumed to be either cleanly identical or cleanly separate, which can be next to each other but cannot interpenetrate, let alone have some more complex pattern. If, for example, there are two things which also seem to be one in some intricate way, rather than try to lay out this intricate pattern in detail, thinking tends to stop right there. We consider the sense of such a thing as if it were a private trouble. It seems that something must be wrong with us because “it doesn’t make sense.” And yet we keep on having this stubborn sense which does not fit in with what is already articulated in our field. It probably stems from a genuine observation which does not fit the unit model.

How it is possible for the same old words in the dictionary to say something new?

The unit model is regularly the reason why some new insights cannot be said. But to reject the unit model in general is not possible, because it inheres in our language, our machines and in all our detailed concepts. We fall back into it the moment we want to speak further. The new insight cannot be said in terms of the old concepts and phrases. In class I used Heidegger, McKeon and my own philosophy, three critiques of the unit model, but as it turns out, the capacity for breaking out of the unit model cannot be imparted in this way. Critique does not prevent us from falling into the old model. Some say that it will take 300 years for the assumptions that inhere in our language to change. To a philosopher it seems unlikely that people can think beyond the pervasive assumptions. Therefore TAE can seem improbable. 

On the other hand, Wittgenstein showed that the capacity of language far exceeds the conceptual patterns that inhere in it. He demonstrated convincingly that what words can say is quite beyond the control of any concept, pre-existing rule, or theory of language. He could give some twenty or more examples of new meanings that one word could acquire through different uses.[1] Building on this, we have developed in TAE a new use of language that can be shown to most anyone who senses something that cannot yet be said. This new way of speaking is the key to this seemingly impossible venture. 

In my philosophy I have developed a new use of bodily-sourced language with which we can speak directly from the body about many things — especially about the body and language.   

Language is deeply rooted in the human body in a way that is not commonly understood. Language does not consist just of the words. The situations in which we find ourselves, the body, and the language form a single system together. Language is implicit in the human process of living. The words we need to say arrive directly from the body. I have a bodily sense of what I am about to say. If I lose hold of that, I can’t say it. If I have the sense of what I want to say, then all I do is open my mouth and rely on the words that will come. Language is deeply rooted in the way we physically exist in our interactive situations. 

The common situations in a culture each have their appropriate phrases, a cluster of possible sayings that one might need. The words mean the effect they have when they are used in a situation. Our language and the common situations constitute a single system together. However, this bodily link between words and situations applies no less when the situation is uncommon and what needs to be said has no established words and phrases.

All living bodies create and imply their own next steps. That is what living is, the creating of next steps. The body knows to exhale after inhaling, and to search for food when hungry. And, in a new situation new next steps come from the body. Even an ant on a fuzzy rug crawls in an odd way in which it has never crawled before. When we sense something that doesn’t fit the common repertory and nevertheless wants to be said, the body is implying new actions and new phrases.

TAE empowers people to think and speak. 

We find that when people forgo the usual big vague words and common phrases, then — from their bodily sense — quite fresh colorful new phrases come. These phrases form in such a way that they say what is new from the bodily sense. There is no way to say “all” of it, no sentence that will be simply equal, no sentence which will simply “represent” what is sensed. But what can happen is better than a perfect copy. One strand emerges from the bodily sense, and then another and another. What needs to be said expands! What we say doesn’t represent the bodily sense. Rather it carries the body forward. 

First it must be recognized that no established word or phrase will ever be able to say what needs to be said. The person can be freed from trying to “translate” the felt sense into regular sayings. Yet what a person wanted a word to mean can be expressed but only in one or more whole sentences that use words in a fresh and creative way. In certain kinds of sentences a word can go beyond its usual meaning, so that it speaks from the felt sense. When one has tried several words and found that each of them fails to say what needs to be said, fresh sentences can say what one wished the word to mean. Now it turns out that each of the rejected words gives rise to very different fresh sentences. Each pulls out something different from the felt sense. In this way, with some further developments, what was one single fuzzy sense can engender six or seven terms. These terms bring their own interrelations, usually a quite new patterning. This constitutes a whole new territory where previously there was only a single implicit meaning. One can move in the field created by these terms. Now one can enter further into the experiential sense of each strand and generate even more precise terms. People find that never again are they just unable to speak from this felt sense. 

Up to this point TAE enables fresh language to emerge. The last five steps concern logic, a very different power. But there is also an inherent connection between a felt sense and how we make logic. (See A Process Model, VIIA, VIIBa and VIII.) 

The new terms and their patterning can be given logical relations, in a series of theoretical propositions. Now it becomes possible to substitute logically linked terms for each other. Thereby   many new sentences (some surprising and powerful) can be derived. Expanding this can constitute a theory, a logically interlocked cluster of terms. 

At every point in the process we can see that explicating a felt sense is not at all arbitrary. Although it involves creating new terms rather than merely copying or representing what is already given, its implicit meanings are very precise. The various relations between sensing and speaking have not been well studied until now, because only representation was looked for. By using these very relations between sensing and speaking in order to study them, I have initiated this field of study and developed it in some depth. Here I only want to say that once one experiences this “speaking-from,” the way it carries the body forward becomes utterly recognizable. Then, although one might be able to say many things and make many new distinctions, one prefers being stuck and silent until phrases come that do carry the felt sense forward. 

TAE was envisioned and created by Mary Hendricks. The idea of making it into an available practice seemed impossible to me. 

TAE requires a familiarity with Focusing. The participants in our first TAE were experienced Focusing people. This took care of the most difficult part of my university course. Nevertheless I expected it to fail, and I certainly experienced that it did fail. Some people did not even get as far as using logic, and most created no theory. Yet there was great satisfaction and even excitement. A great thing seemed to have happened, so I was grateful that I was saved any embarrassment. For some reason they did not feel cheated. 

Later I understood. During the ensuring year many people wrote to us. They reported that they found themselves able to speak from what they could not say before, and that they were now talking about it all the time. And some of them also explained another excitement. Some individuals had discovered that they could think! What “thinking” had previously meant to many of them involved putting oneself aside and rearranging remembered concepts. For some the fact that they could create and derive ideas was the fulfillment of a need which they had despaired of long ago. 

Now after five American and four German TAE meetings I am very aware of the deep political significance of all this. People, especially intellectuals, believe that they cannot think! They are trained to say what fits into a pre-existing public discourse. They remain numb about what could arise from themselves in response to the literature and the world. People live through a great deal which cannot be said. They are forced to remain inarticulate about it because it cannot be said in the common phrases. People are silenced! TAE can empower them to speak from what they are living through. 

People can be empowered to think and speak. We have come to recognize that, along with Focusing, TAE is a practice for people generally. They do not all need to build a theory with formal logically linked terms. Thinking and articulating is a socially vital practice. In ancient times philosophy always included practices, and now philosophy does so again. One need not necessarily grasp all of the philosophy from which the practices have come. I have accepted the fact that without the philosophical work no description of TAE (as in this Folio) can be adequate. 

I need to make clear that with TAE we are not saying that thinking or any other serious human activity can be reduced to standard steps of a fixed method. When people said they discovered that they could think, they certainly did not mean these little steps which I myself couldn’t remember exactly, at first. The steps help break what I might call the “public language barrier” so that the source of one’s own thinking is found and spoken from. After that nobody needs steps. Precise steps are always for precise teaching so a new way can be shown and found. Then it soon becomes utterly various.   

Steps 4 and 5 of TAE reveal a more-than-logical creativity inherent in the nature of language, which has remained largely unrecognized until now. Language is not the deadly trap it is often said to be. Language is often blamed when something exciting becomes limited and lifeless. Philosophers of many sorts hold that anything will fall into old categories by being said. This might be true when one uses only common phrases, but in the case of fresh phrasing it is quite false.  New phrasing is possible because language is always implicit in human experiencing and deeply inherent in what experiencing is. Far from reducing and limiting what one implicitly lives and wants to say, a fresh statement is physically a further development of what one senses and means to say. Then, to write down and read back what is said can engender still further living. What one physically senses in one’s situation is not some fixed, already determined entity, but a further implying that expands and develops in response to what is said. Rather than “falling into” the constraints of the said, we find that the effects of the said can open ways of living and saying still further.[2]

Many current philosophers deny that the individual can think anything that does not come from the culture, from the group, from interaction. This view is an over-reaction to a previous philosophy which treated the individual as the universal source. But both views are simplifications. Culture and individuality constitute an intricate cluster. Each exceeds the other in certain respects. 

We have a language brain and we live in interactional situations. But language is not an imposition upon a blank. Even plants are quite complex, and animals live complex lives with each other without language. When the living body becomes able to carry itself forward by symbolizing itself, it acts and speaks from a vast intricacy. Of course we get the language from culture and interaction. But we have seen that language is not just a store of fixed common meanings. Humans don’t happen without culture and language, but with and after language the body’s next steps are always freshly here again, and always implicitly more intricate than the common routines. You can instantly check this by becoming aware of your bodily aliveness, freshly there and implicitly much more intricate than the words you are reading. 

From the start I had the students in my class meet in listening partnerships during the week. They divided two hours, taking turns purely listening. “Just listen. Only say when you don’t follow” I instructed them. “If your partner is working on a paper, don’t tell about how  you would write the paper....” They always laughed because they knew the problem. Nobody is ever willing to keep us company where we are stuck with our unfinished paper, so that we can think our way through. But in a Focusing partnership we do just that. We attend entirely just to one person at a time. This mutually sustaining pattern was always a main reason why students praised the course. 

TAE has a  social purpose. We build our inter-human world further. It is not true that merely developing as individuals will somehow change the patterns in which we must live. We need to build new social patterns and new patterns of thought and science. This will be a mutual product no single person can create. On the other hand, if we work jointly too soon, we lose what can only come through the individual in a focusing type of process. Nobody else lives the world from your angle. No other organism can sense exactly “the more” that you sense. In TAE for the first three days, one is constantly warned to “protect” one’s as yet inchoate sense. We interrupt anyone who says “mine is like yours,” or “yours made me think of...” or any sentence that begins with “We...”  We may have uttered the very same sentence, but the intricacy that is implicit for you turns out to be utterly different from mine. These two intricacies are much more significant than what would come from this spot, if we articulate it together. There is an interplay which happens too soon and stops the articulation of what is so fuzzy and hard to enter. Because we are inherently interactional creatures, our implicit intricacy opens more deeply when we are speaking to another person who actually wants to hear us. But if that person adds anything in, our contact with the inward sense is almost always lost   or narrowed. In TAE we provide the needed interaction without any imposition, by taking turns in what we call a “Focusing partnership.” In half the time I respond only to you. I follow you silently with my bodily understanding, and I tell you when I cannot follow. I speak from this understanding now and then but only to check if I follow. In TAE I write down all your exact words as they emerge (because otherwise they might be gone a moment later) and I read anything back to you when you want it. Then in the other half of the time you do only this for me. 

Once the individual’s sense of something has become articulated and differentiated enough, then what happens is something we call “crossing.” Other people’s insights enrich ours by becoming implicit in our own terms. If one first develops and keeps one’s own terms, one can then cross them with others. Keeping one’s own terms means keeping their intricate precision. Crossing enriches their implicit intricacy and power. At that point collaborative interaction can create a new social product right here in the room. This is of course the intent of the current emphasis on “dialogue” and Shotter’s (2003) important work on “joint action” since we humans live fundamentally in an inter-human interactional space.[3] But we need the individual’s unique implicit store of world–interaction and this requires articulating the individual’s bodily felt sense first. 

When many TAE theories cross, they need not constitute one consistent logical system. There is a different way in which they go together. They cross. Crossing makes the other theory implicit in the felt sense under one’s own logically connected terms. Then we find that we can say more from our own felt sense, using the other theory and its connected terms. Implicit intricacy connects all the TAE theories in advance. Each theory opens an intricate location in the public world and in philosophy and science. It enables the implicit intricacy to be entered at that location. A TAE theory relates to many other locations not only through its felt sense but also through logical connections to other things.

Logic and space-time science exist only within experiential explication.

Pure logical inference is retained in TAE, but we also find a certain “odd logic” in articulating a felt sense. We find, for example, that a small detail which would usually be subsumed  under wider categories, can instead overarch them and build its more intricate patterning into them. Another example of the odd logic: We find that when more requirements are imposed, degrees of freedom are not lessened; more requirements open more possibilities. There is an odd logic of experiential explication.[4] Next we must consider regular logic. 

In order to understand our reductive sciences within a wider experiential science we must first appreciate the power of the unit logic. I need to laud what I call “graph paper,” the units that logic requires. The little logical units are familiar to everyone from mathematics (1+1=2+170=172). The units of which numbers are composed are external to each other, next to or after each other. With Newton they became characteristic of space and time and therefore of anything that exists in space and time. If you imagine everything external gone, there still seems to be a space and time which is empty but still quantitative in this unit measured way. The reality which Science represents is constructed in this space and time. Science turns what it studies into nice clean logical units that can be used with mathematics. By calling this space and time “graph paper” I want to bring home that physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, microbiology — every scientific specialty is an elaborate construction of little units on this kind of screen, such as molecules, cells, genes, neurons. The unit model is not the only possible model for science. Of course nature doesn’t really come in little units, but we can project it onto such a screen of units. We also enlarge it very greatly so that the units capture what cannot normally be seen. Then we can institute very specific operations with these units. We can test the   results of these operations, and eventually create things that have never existed before. Among other things we also map  ourselves onto these screens of units when we study ourselves. No, of course we are not these screens. It is a bad mistake to think that we consist just of these little units on all the screens. We are the ones who live and look at screens that we make. When I was young we were all supposed to be chemical. Then biochemistry and microbiology expanded vastly. Then, later, we were supposed to be neurology. Obviously there are many sciences; what they say changes every few years, and new kinds of screens are constantly being added. We are not little units on a screen, not the sum of all the current and future screens. But let us not pretend that we could do without the wonderful things that have been constructed from such units, — for example, medicine, electric lights, and even this computer on which I am typing. Once we make a screen of units, logical reasoning and inference are very powerful and can lead us to places nothing else can find. 

On the other hand, logic is not what creates the units. Only we create the units, and we keep on creating them. The solution of long standing problems usually requires creating new units. Even Euclid proves a theorem about triangles only by extending one of the lines, or by dropping a new line from the apex to the base — in other words, only by creating some new unit. 

When one is using a well-defined concept, if one enters the felt sense at that juncture one can find exactly how that concept is working at that juncture, its precise effect in that context. This will be much a much more precise pattern than the definition one had for that concept. A felt sense is a source of much greater precision and can enable one to generate new units. 

The “Complexity” theorists who make analog computer models still assume that the starting set of units must last through to the end. So their results are disappointing. 

Logical analysis is being widely rejected even in Analytic Philosophy today, but giving up on logical analysis is a great mistake. It is true that logic depends on premises it cannot examine. Logic is helpless to determine its own starting position. But TAE shows that new logical inferences can be instituted at significant junctures with new units that are first arrived at by Focusing and TAE. The possibilities are greatly enhanced, when we can give logical analysis an articulated way to determine new starting locations and to generate new units there. 

From new experiences and new phrases that come, we can fashion new units for logical inferences. In this way we can build something in the world with articulated strands and terms. Then it is a new logic with new units. Then logical inference applies again, and leads again to new places, new insights and new questions at which one cannot arrive in any other way. 

What comes from a bodily felt sense is often of an odd sort that doesn’t lend itself to the little boxes of graph paper. And, this “illogical” character is often the most important aspect of what we need to say. We can develop logically connected terms nevertheless. With TAE we have a way to let the “illogical crux” redefine all the terms, so that logical inference then lends them its power without losing an intricate new pattern or violating the life that the theory articulates. 

When terms articulate a felt sense and also acquire logical connections, this duality enables us to move in two ways from any statement: Once we have logically linked terms, logic generates powerful inferences far beyond what can be found directly from experiencing. On the other side, by pursuing the experiential implications we can arrive where logic would never lead. We need both. 

For example my  A Process Model (Gendlin, 1997) employs both. In Focusing, new and realistic steps arise from the body, but this seems illogical. Focusing is possible, since we do it. But to conceive of a world in which Focusing is possible leads to a cluster of logically interlocking terms in   which the living body is an interactive process with its environment and situation. This is the case for plants. Animals require understanding how “behavior” is a special case of such interaction, and human language again a special case of behavior. 

In this way I have developed a conceptual model for physics and biology, which can connect to the usual concepts and data (as we must be able to do), but with conceptual patterns which are modeled on and continuous with living and symbolizing. This kind of concept can connect with the usual units, but also embodies what cannot be reduced. This model can let one reconfigure any concept. With such concepts one can think about all physical bodies in such a way that some can be living, and about all living bodies in a way that some can be human bodies.[5]

I can only indicate the philosophy behind the above. This philosophy is original with me, but of course I could not have arrived at it if I didn’t know the history of philosophy and Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, McKeon, and many others. 

My new way was to put the ancient concepts, strategies, and issues into a direct relation with implicitly intricate experiencing. I found that each philosophical approach can open avenues in the implicit experiencing, instead of canceling the others out. 

Every major philosophy changes the meaning of the basic terms such as what “basic” means, what “is” or “exists” means, as well as “true,” “understand,” “explain,” and all other such words. Each philosophy gets its changed meanings by entering into that bigger realm at the edge of thinking which is more organized than any system of concepts. But then the philosophy tells a story, its own story in its own terms about how it got its terms. It gives us only a conceptualized report about its entry and return. It doesn’t enable us to do this. My philosophy lets us enter and return. It studies and uses what happens to language, and also (differently) what happens to logical terms when we enter and return. 

There are ancient sophisticated conceptual strategies to think about how human beings live in reality in such a way that we can know something. It is after knowing many of these strategies and their pitfalls, that I say: we don’t just have interactions; we are interaction with the environment, — other people, the world, the universe, and that we can sense ourselves as such. What we sense from there is never nothing.[6]

1 Gendlin, E.T. What happens when Wittgenstein asks “What happens when...?” The Philosophical Forum Volume XXVIII. No. 3, Winter-Spring 1997. See also Gendlin, E.T. Thinking beyond patterns : body, language and situations. In B. den Ouden & M. Moen (Eds.),  The presence of feeling in thought, Chapter A-1, section 6. New York : Peter Lang, 1991. 

2 See my reply to Nicholson in Gendlin, E.T. How philosophy cannot appeal to experience, and how it can. In D. M. Levin (Ed.),  Language Beyond Postmodernism: Thinking and Speaking in Gendlin’s Philosophy. Evanston : Northwestern University Press, 1997. 

3 Shotter, J. (in press) “Real presences:” meaning as living movement in a participatory world. Theory & Psychology, vol. 13. (no pages nos. yet), 2003. 

4 Gendlin, E.T.  Experiencing and the creation of meaning, IVB. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. paperback 1997 

5 Gendlin, E.T.  A Process Model   (The Focusing Institute), 1997. 

6 Gendlin, E.T. Crossing and dipping : some terms for approaching the interface between natural understanding and logical formation. In M. Galbraith & W.J. Rapaport (Eds.), Subjectivity and the debate over computational cognitive science, pp. 37-59. Buffalo : State University of New York, 1991.