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Gendlin, E.T. (1965/66). Experiential explication and truth. Journal of Existentialism, 6, 131-146. From

[Page 131]


Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D.

In a previous paper I tried to show that phenomenological description cannot be assumption-free. [1] I cited the pre-conceptual, pre-objective, pre-reflective, pre-ontological character of phenomena: that phenomena are not made of the units and patterns which description uses. Therefore, any description of phenomena cannot help but import assumption systems, structures, and forms that are not characteristic of pre-conceptual phenomena as such.

But then, I asked, is there anything left to phenomena and phenomenology? Are they nothing except what we formulate? If our appeal to "phenomena" cannot help us justify or ground the formulations and assumptions always involved in saying anything, isn't "phenomenological grounding" merely an invalid claim to special privileges for one's unexamined schematic assumptions?

There is a relationship between formulations and the experiencing (phenomena) on which we try to "base" them. I gave this relationship of "basing on" the name "explication." What an "explication" statement says cannot be equated with experience; yet it is not just arbitrarily imposed on experience. We are working with a relationship between formulation and direct experience which is neither one of correspondence (which would assume that our schematic patterns are already in, read in, posited into experience), nor are our formulations just arbitrary. In explication there is a connection, but the connection isn't an equation between experience and something said of it. Rather, speaking, understanding, and attention are themselves experiential processes, and they carry forward [2] the very experiencing they explicate. Therefore, phenomena don't ground description by being copied or "read off." How, then, do they ground description?


This relationship of "based on" can be characterized by two conditions which show that what one says of a phenomenological datum is not merely a creature of one's assumption systems. A concrete experiential "this" datum has two independent powers (independent of the assumption systems one uses):

First, there is independent access to the datum, even without the formulation.

We often see, sense, and feel such a datum first, quite without formulation. For example, we listen to a discussion, then we have something to say. We "know" what we are about to say even without reciting words to ourselves. If we are distracted, we may lose hold of what we were going to say. (And, after groping directly into the concrete felt sense we still have, we can sometimes [Page 132] "get it back": "Oh!", we say, "I've got it back! Just a moment. . . ." We have again what we were about to say, still without words.) We have independent access to an experiential datum that never had formulation.

More often a formulation (description) must first lead us to a phenomenon. The formulation must first "lift out" the phenomenon and make us sense it concretely and specifically. Since we needed the formulation to lead us to it, the then noticed phenomenon seems to be the creature of the formulation. But no: even then, the phenomenon permits independent access. We can reject the formulation—perhaps it has inconsistencies, bothers us, is wrong for some purposes, or now seems an insufficient description of the very phenomenon to which it led us. We can say: "I know what you are getting at, but I don't agree with your formulation." We can try a different formulation, or even go a while without any that we accept. Still, we do not unnotice the directly noticed phenomenal aspect we were led to. Thus, although a formulation may first have to lead us to a phenomenon, we can then directly notice or feel it; it is then independent of the formulation. We have access to the directly noticed aspect, even if we then drop or shelve the formulation that led us to the phenomenon.

Secondly, the directly noticed phenomenon has a power which I called response. What we directly sense or feel "responds" differentially to different sentences (and to different nonverbal symbols, as well).

In our earlier example, not just any sentences will say what we just recalled we were about to say. Only just certain words will do that. Most other words would not let us feel that we are saying it. How can we tell, considering we never had what we were about to say in words? We can tell because certain words have the directly felt effect I term response. These words carry forward our experiencing. They release, relieve our felt sense of being about to say something. They do not leave this felt datum unchanged. We cannot—in words—copy, represent, or picture what we concretely had as felt meaning. (What would be a picture or representation of that feeling of being about to say something?) Rather, to explicate is always a further process of experiencing. It carries forward what we directly felt.

Now, of course, "carrying forward" is not just any and all sorts of change. It is a very peculiar and specific type of change, and on this fact rests the possibility of a problem of truth. (If any kind of change were a "carrying forward," anything could be said equally well of any experience.)

Independent access and response enable us to know when sentences do carry forward—that is, engender an explication process—and when they do not. But if explication changes the datum it explicates, have we not lost the possibility of truth? Or does carrying forward have a definable truth of its own?

Explication is a process of steps. As we describe some directly felt experiential aspect, our felt experiencing is thereby released, carried forward (if we are lucky enough to find a sentence which brings about this response). This felt response is a shift in feeling, in experiencing, in how we are in the world. A moment later, new aspects of this new experiencing can be explicated. The statement which was previously so true may now be contradicted. The next step of explicating may again bring a felt response as experiencing is further carried forward; yet the new statement may seem to contradict the previous statement.

Thus, propositions as such are no longer true or false in themselves. Instead, there is a characteristic role they may have in the explication process.

Not any and all statements—just a very few—will be true in this sense of felt response and independent access to few facets of experiencing as it is car- [Page 133]ried forward. There is no problem here about recognizing which statements genuinely function in this way, as compared to the thousands of possible statements that would bring about no response in the directly felt datum, lift out nothing new, and leave everything unchanged.

Thus, we have a distinctly recognizable role which statements perform when they function (as "true" in this new sense) to bring about the steps of an explication process.

These criteria of response and independent access resolve only one third of the problem of truth. They pose two more thirds of the problem of truth: how to deal with the arbitrary or unexamined schematic assumptions which all formulations import (even those formulations that do carry forward and give us a response from a datum that is independently accessible), and how to distinguish and retain the more stable kind of truth from other criteria (prediction, hearsay, deduction, etc.), so that we do not lose science and all of mankind's fund of information. How does explication relate to science?


Before I turn to these second and third thirds of the problems of truth, let me show that we can clear up many rampant misunderstandings by using this first third. If we take into account that explication is a process of steps in which a datum can be directly accessible and can respond differentially in being carried forward, we will not fall into the following common misunderstandings of phenomenology:

1. Description is not neutral. As I have already said, we can clear up the erroneous claim of "neutral" description (as though one insisted that one's assumption schemes are the very objects of the pre-objective, the very themes of pre-thematic experience). Our criteria make the independent power of phenomena recognizable. We can tell whether or not they are functioning as bases of explication. Therefore, we need not lose phenomena by naively equating them with our formulations, the relativity and variety of which then seems to evaporate phenomena altogether.

2. The Unconscious. Phenomenology has seemed unable to handle the common undeniable observations of the so-called unconscious. We cannot solve the problem by simply throwing everyone's observations away. (For example, the observation common to everyone, that we now feel something which we insist we really felt earlier without then knowing it; that now we are saying in words what we earlier were about to say, although then we did not know in words what it was; or the insistent conviction that what we specifically lift out to notice now really was part of what we sensed then, only not separately as such.) Neither can we accept the theory of the unconscious. That theory is really again the same false assertion that the formulated results of explicating were already "there," before the process of explication occurred; it is much like the error of asserting that the explicit description was in the phenomena before we described.

What is later explicated was not all "there" earlier, but neither is the present moment totally new and unrelated to the earlier. What I now feel and assert was not all there then; but we are not always mistaken when we insist that what we now assert is somehow "based on" what we felt then. Each moment is not without any past determinants of personality, culture, and situation. Explication moves through experiential steps, by means of the effect of explicating upon the directly felt. To miss the process of steps in explicating is to lose all continuity, all grounding in experiencing. It leads to that helpless phenomenology which is rooted only in momentary awareness as it is momentarily construed. It is that erroneous [Page 134] phenomenology so widely taken as "limited to awareness." We rightly reject the hidden inner entities. But if the steps of explication are also left out, one has only momentary awareness; as someone construes something now, that is all that it is. From one moment to the next everything becomes arbitrary. There is no truth, no ethics, no value, no better or worse, no error, no chain of thought or feeling superior to each man's momentary seeming.

If a patient in a mental hospital says he wishes to remain there, do we accept that as his value, his perception? It counts for nothing (or does it?) if we know that with caring and understanding responses from us his feeling of not wanting to leave will soon become explicated further, for example, as discouragement and hopelessness at the prospect of picking up life again; which, in turn, will be still further explicated as hurt at the things that happened to him; which, in turn, will be explicated, after some more steps, as a feeling that, "If I try to live again, don't I have to accept (and say 'all right' to) everything that was done to me? That I refuse to do!" And the very assertiveness of this new step's explication makes possible further explications of aspects of this more assertive living.

But it is an error to place all these results of an explication process into a mythical unconscious, as though they had all been waiting there in the form in which they now become explicated. In fact, they were not there at all; they are aspects of this now ongoing process of explicating and speaking to a caring and understanding person. If this ongoing process of being-with and being-in this kind of interaction did not actually, occur, neither would these feelings.

Thus, as Heidegger said, phenomena are mostly buried, and it is just for that reason that we need phenomenology. Far from staying rooted at what someone momentarily construes or feels, phenomenology is a process (a hermeneutic), [3] steps of interplay between a "responding" felt concreteness and our explicative words or action.

3. Authenticity. The misunderstood version of existentialism seems to say that anything is good as long as it is authentic, without telling us what authentic means or how we may know when a choice is authentic. Thereby, it implies that—as Ivan said in The Brothers Karamazov—absolutely anything is possible and could be authentic. But without a way of recognizing what is authentic and what is not, these seem merely sophisticated words for total arbitrariness.

Authenticity means a certain kind of living and thinking, recognizably different from other kinds. Not anything and everything we can imagine could be lived authentically, at least not by me. Authenticity involves a certain characteristic participation of my felt process. Whatever is authentic for me is "based on" my concrete felt being. As we have seen, I cannot hope to define this so that I might first know what I am, and then deduce from it what would manifest the real me. But neither do I imply an arbitrary and senseless adoption of just anything at all as authentic, by the strength of some effort of throwing myself into my caprice. When something is "based on" my concrete felt being, that means—as we saw—a recognizable manner of process involving steps of saying and doing which carry my felt experiencing forward.

Action in situations, as well as words, can carry forward and explicate. Thereby, actions and words can reveal new aspects which can shift our concrete felt experiencing still further. Only that process of steps, not this or that arbitrary one-shot conclusion, is the recognizably authentic manner of action.

4. Freedom. An oversimplified existentialism would have it that you can choose yourself to be any way you wish. [Page 135] You simply leap out of your situation and your past. This would be a flat denial of all our sufferings and failing attempts to be a certain way just by wishing we were. That is not what existentialism means at all. But, then, what is choice and freedom? Sartre, discussing the example of a cafe waiter, points out that "cafe waiter" is, of course, only a role. The living man fills the role, rather than being defined by it. But, says Sartre, that does not mean that he can just simply choose to be a diplomat instead. There is "facticity," the situation and conditions about us which we cannot arbitrarily wave away. We must "surpass" situations in our interpreting them and acting in them; we cannot just choose them to be different. There is no such magic freedom as simply choosing ourselves to be other than what we are. Without difficult, sensitive steps, we do not become free of the constraints we are under.

The same may be said about a man's past, his upbringing, his learnings. The past is surpassed in the present, but this is no arbitrary anything-you-please. The same relationship between a given (facticity) and a movement (freedom, surpassing) holds here, as in the other instances of this same relationship which I have cited. In all these instances, the given does not have in it what we later make of it; and yet, what we make of it is related to what was given, must follow from it in just certain ways, and just some ways fit. How I can surpass my past is not logically or analytically deducible from it. Surpassing is living action; but not just any arbitrary action brings the felt response of authentic surpassing. It is hard to devise such a mode of action, and we often fail to do so.

5. The posed alternatives in individual and historical choice. Another error committed when explication is left out is to view choice as between already given alternatives. This is not existentialism but a bad misunderstanding of it. It is not the case that we must choose between alternatives. Both Heidegger and Sartre insist that the possibilities we may devise are not already given. (Note the use of possibilities rather than potentialities. Potentialities are already posed alternatives; we choose one from some cosmic list of potentialities, and we actualize that potentiality. Possibility, on the other hand, is used quite differently. It is intended to mean not yet formed or thought-of alternatives.)

Sartre (page 337) [4] equates possibility with body feeling, as I also do. Possibility is of the body—it is what our body is, our being in the context of the world (the "projection" of it "on the plain of the en soi"). Feeling is how we are alive in the environment, and therefore we feel, in a bodily way, the whole context of our living. Sartre writes that this bodily affectivity "provides the implicit matter of all the phenomena of the psyche." He called this affectivity "nausea" but makes it clear that "nausea" is a "metaphor derived from our physiological disgust." Concrete feeling is not this or that emotional tone. "On the foundation of" concrete feeling we have specific emotional qualities. (Heidegger says the same thing of Befindlichkeit—it is the concrete sentence of being-affected-in-the-world, the situation).

Thus our possibilities are felt in a bodily way, and specific alternatives of action are not flatly given. They must be fashioned; they are not in a list of posed "potential" alternatives.

When a man must make an ethical choice, all the posed alternatives are usually bad, wrong, and not to be adopted. If they all were not bad, the situation would not be featured as an ethical issue. Freedom depends upon devising new possibilities, alternatives one had not previously thought of. It depends on our power to reinterpret [Page 136] and more specifically differentiate the situation. It depends upon the fact that situations are not just physical laws, but rather interpreted conditions which have their force only in terms of my possibilities. That is to say, the facticity of the situation is that I cannot get to New York without transportation. In general, I cannot do "this" unless I willing for that "that" also to happen, or unless I devise new ways to get "this" without incurring "that." Situations are all in terms of what we may do, not do, suffer, avoid, succeed in, or miss. A situation is never pure facticity. Take Sartre's example: Not until I look for Pierre in the cafe does it become a fact that Pierre is not there. No such fact existed before I looked for him (except in the trivial way in which Napoleon and millions of other people also were not in the cafe.) That is to say, a situation is what it is always in terms of both facticity and my surpassing it. You cannot cleanly separate out the unchangeable facts of a situation and call them physically-imposed limits, leaving a cleanly divided part for freedom and surpassing. The facticity of the posed alternatives is not to be accepted as though the binding facts I now see were ultimate; but neither can we simply wave away the facts. We don't always succeed in explicating new alternatives so well that we combine all we desire in one, while avoiding all that we wish to avoid. But free choice is not the choice between the two, bad, given alternatives. Free choice necessitates the creation of new alternatives which make stepping stones of what were obstacles.

If, for example, I have been told in confidence by one person what I now realize that another person needs to know to avoid a bad mistake, what shall I do? Violate the confidence? Or watch while someone harms his life when I could help? Obviously, neither. I must explicate further. My feeling of responsibility is right, and so is my loyalty to the confidence. I must find other ways to symbolize in action these facets I feel. Feelings, and the situations and environmental context they implicitly contain, are always further differentiable. As an example, I can bring the two people together and help one tell the other. Or I can talk the matter over further with each, to see what might alter. Or I can strongly urge one to tell the other at least a certain amount of what is involved, just enough to let him know what he needs in order to avoid misguiding himself. Or I can tell the person I wish to tell, not the part that would most pain the other, but only enough to enable him to think in a certain direction. I can—still another alternative—tell him something true out of my own life and see whether my problem is solved because he arrives at the insight without having the actual information. Or I can get the first person's permission to tell the second person that I am keeping something from him. In short, we see that a vast number of possible differentiations can lead to always further alternative possibilities, and that trying out even one in action may reveal still further new alternatives in detail.

Heidegger and Sartre really say all this. The distinction between "potentiality" and "possibility" is theirs. They view facticity as always surpassed: nevertheless, in their analysis of historical developments, they both tend to lose sight of this creativity of surpassing to new alternatives. They tend to consider themselves confronted by the alternatives the epoch now poses. It is in this way that one should interpret Heidegger's brief allegiance to Nazism and Sartre's current partial endorsement of Marxism.

We need not blame Heidegger today for not seeing then what a great many others also did not see. The philosophic problem does not lie in a man's misperception. Rather, it lies in his decision (written toward the end of Being and Time, in 1926) to accept the historic alternatives as posed, rather than surpass them to new alternatives. The new [Page 137] alternatives would, of course, recognize the needs, hungers, feelings, realities of what is now and what now forces choice and action; but it would surpass them to new alternatives with which one might move in truth from the truly now to a truly possible.

How to move beyond history's presently given alternatives is a problem Sartre also considers, although in a very different way. Sartre speaks out against the wrongs of all the given alternatives, and he tries to go beyond them. But, at the same time, he also denies that there is any effective way of moving beyond; hence, he chooses one of the currently posed alternatives. Sartre says he supports Marxism, but really he seeks to reform it by placing existentialism "inside the movement of Marxism." Why "inside," rather than beyond? Sartre writes: "We cannot go beyond it [Marxism] because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it." [5] But Sartre doesn't mean to accept Marxism as currently posed; he criticizes it: "Marxism stopped"; its concepts have become "closed"; it has developed "sclerosis." And he condemned the Soviet intervention in Hungary and the Stalinist concentration camps. Yet he says of these criticisms: "One must know what side one is on without losing sight of the fact that critical judgment is an intellectual duty." [6]

To protest the war in Vietnam, Sartre cancelled his planned lectures in the United States. Of American intellectuals who also oppose the war he says in the same article: "These people are totally ineffective . . . at least for the present." Sartre also says that his own earlier protests against the Algerian war were ineffective. Asked whether a transformation of American policy could come from within the United States, Sartre said he thought not. How, then, could a change ever come? Only from "a military defeat or the threat of world war." Sartre bases this view on the old dictum: Present policy is "governed by the deepest structures of American society" and therefore "cannot be changed short of a complete turnover of American society." Yet a moment later he also said: "The United States will evolve, of course, slowly, very slowly." And he sees "every reason to hope" [7] for a change away from militarism. Thus he sometimes contradicts and sometimes accepts economic determinism. One currently posed "side" must first win. Only then can we really move 'beyond" economic determinism.

This joining of Marxism and existentialism is not yet fully resolved. Let us see if we can follow what Sartre intends. How shall we retain the truth of Marxism and determinism in a freedom to explicate further?

Must economics determine all other human dimensions? Marx foresaw the time when productive capacities (and their power to multiply) would be sufficient to eliminate scarcity—and scarcity is the basis for economic determinism. When scarcity is eliminated, economics will have a lesser importance, and freedom will be possible. Except for the hang-over problems of distribution, that time has come. We must now call for this needed distribution.

But to view historical choice only in terms of already given alternatives (given definitions, systems, sides, camps, parties, organized units) is to reason only from history insofar as it is already defined and made. For example, Vietnam's population is already organized by Communism, and so the choice is either Communist "sclerosis," or war against an organized population. But, to move to a still fluid case, the history of organizing emergent populations is not yet finished in Africa (though arms for hundreds of thousands have recently [Page 138] gotten to the bush and jungle from Russia and China) and in Latin America, where most countries have still rather recent Vietcong-like movements. Must most of the world population become "sclerotically" organized to overcome imperialists, or can a nonsclerotic way succeed? It is true that nonsclerotic movements, under present economic conditions, have little chance to progress against either Communism or militarist repression.

The intellectuals who now condemn the Vietnam war could turn to a deeper point, to issues not yet decided: Let us call also for distribution instead of repression. To undercut the assumptions of the posed historical situation is the essence of leadership and the duty of intellectuals.

The prosperity of the surplus-ridden United States does not depend on what it draws out of the underdeveloped countries (an amount less than four per cent of its yearly production), nor on the few cents extra per pound of coffee, chocolate, and tin, which the ever-falling world prices of such commodities now squeeze from these countries.

But must all this be just as it is, one determined "whole system?" Or are many complex, detailed patterns possible? Some small samples: For some of its imports the United States sets a price higher than the world market price. A very much larger correction factor could, in principle, be applied to many other products (perhaps not in more outflowing dollars, but in amounts for goods and services to be obtained here, added to whatever is now paid in dollars). Instead of the current form of foreign aid, it is perfectly possible to enable underdeveloped countries to buy through regular channels not only the materials but also the economists and technicians they need for genuine development. Western surpluses require this widened distribution. The "whole system" needs—and does not prevent—such a change. Another example: Eastern European countries are now introducing new patterns in which demand and profit will help control production and price. Intellectuals there led in the recognition that the planned system lacked feedback from the realities of the consumer. This change was fought by many who (analogously to Sartre's argument) held that the newly proposed forms would be possible only by pulling down the entire Communist system and that the new patterns were a reintroduction of capitalism. Such "whole system" views must always be surpassed in differentiated detail.

To arrive at a world of freedom beyond economic determinism, one cannot postpone free processes until what is left of economic determinacy first works itself out. By then, the world beyond economics would have the shape which an exclusive surrender to economic determinism will have given it! It will have the sclerotic shape of today's organized reaction against imperialism.

Instead, our very method of thinking and acting should be an instance of a process of freedom beyond the given alternatives. Beyond today's still hanging-over economic choices, we can envision men becoming free, not by this or that concept or social system, but by a new method of thinking and organizing which uses the creativity of experiential explication, rather than only some given conceptual patterns and their seeming necessity.

I don't think Sartre will really disagree with all this. But how is it that existentialism, this philosophy of freedom, so often falls into accepting the constraints of the posed historical alternatives? Didn't we just criticize the same philosophy for the opposite error: an overly simple freedom in which the individual is portrayed without factual constraints? In both cases the intention is to unite factual constraints and creative surpassing; yet they fall apart. There is a failure to grasp that surpassing requires a process, an often painful, often failing series of experiential steps. Only in the nature of these steps can [Page 139] we distinguish real surpassing from either a mere denial of factual constraints, or a mere acceptance of them as posed.

We must go to Merleau-Ponty [8] for the proper existential insight that concrete constraints are always operative but determine us only to the extent we fail to create further. But what is this "further" process?

New alternatives cannot be just anything at all, not just fantasy and escape. They must deal with the real given. They must be explications of the given that really lead to something we wish. They must be "true."

But notice this kind of truth. (Admittedly, there are other kinds, for example, scientific prediction, or logical consistency. I am not denying these other kinds of truth; later I relate them to this new kind we are specifying here.) It is a kind of truth when we say that new alternatives must successfully deal with the concrete given; they must produce an altered situation that will exclude the wrongs or hurts we wish to avoid. No one wants his creativity to fail—that is, to sound good but turn out impossible when acted upon. We all deal with the recalcitrance of the given—but neither in terms of predefined unalterables, nor of predefined changeable aspects. Many steps of explication (words and action) define, differentiate, and carry felt concreteness forward, thereby enabling further redefining and new alternatives. This process of explication includes all we know and see, since feeling is all that. We must now examine "feeling" to see how it includes the situational given.

6. Phenomena are not internal. There is no fundamental difference between feeling-in-the-world and action-in-the world. Feeling is our "possibilities" for action in the world (the situations we are in). It is an error to locate feelings "inside" and situation "outside" (out there, separate from us, as though definable apart from us). Then it becomes mysterious why feeling is our being in the situations, why we "interrogate" [4] our feelings to see what we might do. Feelings are how we are in situations. A feeling might, at first, seem to be a dull ache-like thing within. But when we explicate it, a feeling always turns out to be all about our living in situations. It is always at, toward, about, or with. A feeling is always like: "I am tense because I might get angry at him because he did such-and-such to me in front of so-and-so, which means to me that I am not as I wanted to seem, and that matters because if I'm not, then I'll have to attempt such-and-such instead, which I know I can't do because I would incur such-and-such, which would be bad because . . ." etc. Does it seem mysterious how such a complex explicated texture about living in situations emerges out of what seemed to be just one dull ache-like thing "inside" me? That is what feeling is—our bodily sentient living in the environment. Only very few aspects of our environment are ever separated out and explicated in words. Most of it is felt. Words and behavior carry it forward. Neither words nor acts paint pictures of what is "in" feelings, because feeling is a concrete living process, a living-in-situations, not a container of picturable contents.

Because feeling is already our complex living-in-situations, only certain words and actions can carry feeling forward (and lead to further ongoing feeling). Thereby new aspects can be explicated because there is now a further living-in-situations in which new aspects are felt, newly differentiable, accessible.

The new alternatives must be "true"; they must succeed in leading us (in the concrete situation) to what we wish (our felt wishing already involves the situation) in the recalcitrant facts we are up against. Feeling is already them—insofar as they mean anything to me. To explicate feeling is to explicate the [Page 140] situations I am up against. And since one does not just sit still and think words, but one also acts, therefore steps of explication include what is newly incurred at each step of thought and action.

Feeling seems "subjective" or "within" only so long as we don't explicate it. Then we might just take a drug or a drink to dull the inward ache. If we explicate it, we find that it is not at all "within"; we find it is at once in, about, and at, situational aspects and other people. When we look away from feeling, when we limit ourselves only to the few aspects of the situation we have already defined and can think clearly about—then we are being "subjective," stuck in our own few concepts and leaving out of account the whole sentient mesh of our concrete and complex situations.

Thus, our "criteria" of truth directly include the recalcitrant facts. We are organized living bodies made more complex by culture and learning. Therefore, we are and feel the facts around us. Therefore, not any and all sentences can carry a feeling forward. Only just these precise words will do it (more often than not we fail to find such words). Only just this action will carry forward (more often than not we try and fail to devise such an action). Words or action that do carry forward sometimes require genius, because feeling already includes so very many givens, and so many facets of what we wish, must avoid, etc.

We are now a long way from that oversimplified misunderstanding of phenomenology which is only a person's arbitrary way of construing, from moment to moment, lacking past or present determinants, neither true nor false, neither good nor bad, authentic only by caprice and in oblivion of facts.

All this arbitrariness entered because existentialism rightly asserts that reality (phenomena) is not already fashioned according to some scheme, some ultimate code of values, set of truths or presuppositions, representations or laws. As Sartre says, there can be consciousness of laws, but not laws of consciousness—that is, the concrete, living, sentient, felt ongoing process is always more basic than any conceptual pattern. Living humans fashion laws, laws do not determine living humans. For existentialism, laws, forces, entities, principles, values, etc., are only some man's assumption system. But if everything is not to become arbitrary, phenomenology must be a systematic interplay between concretely felt, lived given experience (without read-in assumptions) on the one hand, and philosophy, formulation, words, concepts, forms, and action, on the other. This systematic interplay is explication: we use concepts and experience felt directly in a step-by-step carrying forward.

Thus the given is lived and shaped as it is explicated. I am not saying that it has no organization—anything living and sentient is always highly organized, highly meaningful, and symbolized. The organism living in situations is the most complexly organized system we know of—but it is living and that means that it is an order which evolves as it exists. Truth, for explication, cannot be described simply as accuracy. By our "criteria" the accurate explication changes the experienced concreteness, carries it forward, enables us to lift out something new, something that could not have been described before. And the proposition describing what we now, newly, lift out may contradict that earlier statement, whose effect carried us to this new step.


But, now, what of "true propositions" as such? Are there none? Do they have only a possible role in an explication process which may, at one time, let a proposition function as true and then later contradict that same proposition, just because of the very effect which constituted its erstwhile truth?

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We must consider the truth of stable propositions from two aspects (and these will be the promised second and third thirds of the problem). First, propositions (verbal formulations) have structural aspects, by which I mean logical forms or patterns. Propositions and formulations are "models"; they involve schematic structure. Their structure enables propositions to have logical implications. Now, clearly, in an explication process the role of propositions is not the same as when we deduce the logical implications from it. Not every implication which follows logically from the proposition as a model is involved or intended when a proposition explicates. Phenomenology has always (and Oxford analytic philosophy has recently) [9] held that propositions are trustworthy only in their experiential discrimination, not in all their logical implications. Phenomenology rejects merely theoretical, schematic, logical structure and deductions that are not "based on" directly had phenomena (do not lift out directly noticeable phenomena). Precisely therein is the crux of phenomenology.

But, on the other hand, if we were to deny to propositions all logical form and schematic precision, we would not have language at all. All propositions would be alike, and would have no power to discriminate, to carry forward; there would be no differential response to propositions from the experiential datum. Some of the logical aspects of the proposition as model do function in an explication—if it were not so one could say anything one pleases with equal effect or lack of effect.

Thus phenomenologists (and Oxford analysts, too) must keep stable (and employ as stable) propositions, models, schematic formulations, no matter how much they may mistrust them as misleading, no matter how much they wish to base every assertion on direct looking at our living in situations. But this means that we must be able to say just which aspects of the proposition as model we are now using, as against those aspects which are "mere" theory, which are "misleading," which are not now intended, from which deductions will be erroneous, which do not now have a role in the explication process. That we can do.

When a proposition has functioned in explication, when a response did occur and some aspect of experiencing is now independently accessible, then we can shelve the formulations and still we have and notice the experiential aspect. Of course, we cannot say what that is, except with some verbal formulation (the original proposition, or another). But we can fashion an alternative way of formulating the independently accessible aspect. This alternative proposition does not really say the same thing, except insofar as it, too, formulates that now directly accessible datum. In many other logical respects, any alternative proposition must be different from the first one.

We can now specify for each of the two propositions just which logical characteristics and implications of it we are using (so that each can get at our one independently accessible aspect), and which implication of each we must not now use. In this way, we are freed from the different schematic assumptions and implications, insofar as we do not intend them. We need not accept all the implications we do not want. We may use independent access to refer directly to "it," put either formulation down and use the other. Then we can see which aspects of each we intend, and which we can declare irrelevant. We can also clearly know and say which choice we take from here: We may declare the two formulations equivalent (for the [Page 142] time being, insofar as the specified aspects of both refer to the same aspect). Or we may see how they can differently specify further new aspects. Doing that, they will not remain "equivalent." We must see which aspect of each formulation made each different further step possible.

We can free ourselves from the prisons of the grammarians. It is not true that we must always be bound by either these or those unwanted schematics, assumptions, and implications. Independent access to a directly experienced new aspect (even if the proposition first gave it to us) allows alternative formulations—with specifications of just what we are using and not using in each.

Alternative formulations can always lead to very numerous further aspects of any datum. But if we are pursuing some purpose, inquiring with some relevance, if we have a felt sense of a problem and of given requirements, then most of the further specifications will immediately be seen as trivial or irrelevant. Most of them will not explicate. We will not be troubled that there are too many relativistic avenues to go into. On the contrary, we will be lucky if we find one which carries forward further the felt sense of the problem and lifts out a further aspect that is relevant.

If we can always specify whether we are keeping propositions stable or whether we are employing them in further explication, then our method does not give us less than the old-fashioned stable logical type of truth of propositions. Our method gives us that, as well as the option (if we will only say which we are doing) of further explicating. With respect to further explication and further steps, what we held stable before may now alter. Two formulations that were equivalent in certain specified ways at one point (where they pointed equally well at a given accessible facet) will now no longer be equivalent, as different characteristics of them are being employed to explicate different further data. But we do not thereby lose (and must not lose) the stability and precision of logical structure, else we could not do anything with language at all.


We must now consider the truth of explication in a third regard. Propositions not only explicate and have logical schematic structure; they may also contain "true" information. Are there not many propositions, generalizations, scientific statements, ethical maxims, etc., which bring us information that is wholly or partly true, or predictions of consequences to come, or values to look out for? Isn't hearing propositions from reliable sources just another way we experience much of the world? I have never been to China. Can it never be relevant to my explication process that I have been told about it? Can I simply deny that China is there? Is there no "truth" for the many true propositions I read, hear, learn, especially (for example) if I am working on something to which—I feel—some of these propositions, if true, might be relevant?

Let us take it at its most extreme: Must phenomenology deny science? Do we have our philosophies printed by modern machinery, our lives extended by medicine? Do we drive about in our fast cars and fly to conventions on successful airplanes? And then when we meet, do we join to deny science? It would be a scandal! I do not intend it. A revolution in science, a critique of science, a new advance beyond present science, yes. A simple-minded convenient denial of science, not at all. But then, what can be the role of scientific (or other) propositions in the explication process? Suppose such a proposition has no effect on our directly experienced datum. Must we throw it out?

More exactly, our critique of science concerns the fact that scientific explana- [Page 143]tions employ a type of construct—the very nature of which fits only nonhuman phenomena. The very kind of construct in current science first abstracts the human observer away. It involves, therefore, the assumption that humans do not exist, when, somehow or other, we know they do. Thus, we may reject some of the schematic implications of propositions that abstract away the human type of being we are (since they must be somewhat false when applied to anything human). But, as we saw, we must do that with any proposition: No construct-form will be true to experience (since experiencing is preconceptual, pre-thematic). That applies to our own phenomenological formulations as well as to scientific propositions. In explication we can anchor propositions to a specific, independently accessible datum. But is everything that does not now explicate going to be denied?

Other examples of such propositions include ethical principles. An ethical rule will not fit all situations or individuals—in fact, it will fit no real situation (rules are always too general). When we say that a rule "fits," we really mean that it carries forward—that is, by using it, we affect the directly had sense of the situation and its possibilities so that something new and specific is revealed. But if that does not happen right away and easily, and the rule does not seem to fit, is it then false?

Ethical rules are short-cut formulas for what others have found to maximize life and value. We can accept no code of such rules as absolute and handed down. We must surpass each such rule, as we use it, toward specific, concretely-experienced facets of our own situation. But can we drop those which do not immediately serve us in this way? To so proceed would deprive us of one of the main civilizing forces of man: the handing down from one generation to the next of discoveries, so that they are not always lost, or so that their rediscovery is easier.

Furthermore, an individual's past also includes learning which—while not in the form of propositions—is similar to what is culturally inherited. Past learning functions in one's choices, interpretations of situations, etc. Culture and past learning will play some role in our thinking and feeling. No freedom we have dissolves them. We cannot pretend that we invent newly out of ourselves everything which we actually received by being in and with the world of other humans. But what we receive is not all "true." How, then, can past learning (propositions or otherwise) function in the process of explicating?

Explication can include every aspect we already feel, as it affects us. We can and do include the whole learned context, including many falsehoods. True or not, we must include any proposition we believe may be relevant. Let me show this more exactly.

Let us say I am working on a problem in geometry, in which certain propositions are given. I am to find a way which satisfies certain conditions, but does not violate what was given. I must mull it over. The solution comes only from the mulling process. It is not obvious from the givens alone, or I would see it quickly. I must add some line, bisect something. I accept the problem as one in which each of these givens and their possible implications must be satisfied. I mull over them all together, along with what I see and half expect. Similarly, in any other problem we include all the givens into the felt mulling process.

Another example: I am given an ethical maxim or scientific proposition. I respect the source enough to think that the maxim or proposition could well be valid. Let us say I don't feel any relevance, but cannot see clearly that it does not apply. I have doubt. I cannot help the doubt; even if I drop the maxim, deny the doubt, the doubt remains with me and colors what I think. I will be confused by my denial of the [Page 144] doubt—better the doubt be explicated, too.

There is here a whole realm of aspects of explication (and of thinking) which science teaches us to look away from, but which existentialism teaches us to look at: aspects of our concretely ongoing understanding process, inquiry process, doubt, sensed relevance, point of our question, what we are getting at, Vorhabe, project, subjective aim, sense of direction, concern, fears if we do or do not solve the problem, etc. Both Heidegger and Sartre begin philosophy proper (what comes before is called "Introduction") with a man asking a question. This is their most fundamental starting point (not the question alone, but the man asking the world he is in about something). The asking and inquiry process, inclusive of man, is the starting point. It means that we must include the directly felt facets of our ongoing process of unresolvedness—and, indeed, genuine inquiry is always guided by these. Only as we respect these enough to pay attention to them do we gain the ability to formulate ("explicate") what is still unresolved, what might be wrong with this alternative, where more to seek, and what else to ask. At first, the genius of new ways is only new problems, and these at first are only vague fuzzy feelings of dissatisfaction or puzzling relevance.

Thus we can, and indeed must, include in the process of explication any learnings that are part of us, any propositions that strike us for any reason whatever as possibly relevant, along with our doubts and unresolved sense of confusion about such propositions.

But to include a proposition does not mean to apply it. We do not stamp it onto explication. Similarly, our past learning does not function by making us its copy. Only insofar as it now (or eventually) does carry forward, lift out for concrete sensing, specify new alternatives— only to that extent, does it actually help determine the explication process. And to that extent, it is "true" in the explication sense of "true."

It is safe to include in our considerations all manner of falsely held propositions, prejudicial sets, wrongheaded learnings, bad experiences, and half-truths. Do not many bad reasons often masquerade as feelings that something is relevant? Is it "relevant," is that really what I feel? Or do I merely want it to be relevant because I am loyal to a group or subculture which holds the proposition? Or perhaps I promise myself some kind of advantage from it? Upon explicating my feeling of relevance, I may well come upon such aspects of my inquiry process; and, indeed, explicating the feeling of relevance is the only way of coming upon such aspects. Otherwise, I am at their mercy. What is unresolved is unsafe only insofar as it is closed to explication. As included for explication, I will use of it only just what I can experience and carry forward. To include for possible explication is a protected procedure since the relevance, however felt, is effective only insofar as it can be explicated—perhaps fruitfully, perhaps only to reveal and release an erstwhile difficulty so that it can become irrelevant.

Does this make for relativism? Exactly the opposite. Relativism is too simple. It is a menu of equally good and equally bad conclusions, codes, or absolutes, each claiming to be alone, but each on the menu—and you pick. Relativism is a flat poster with such a list on it. Explication is a process of steps in depth. You can include any relevant-seeming proposition (not because they are all "relative" or equally true) only because you explicate just the sensed relevance you experience. What it experientially leads to does not follow logically from the proposition itself and could not be seen at first without the steps of explication. Thus, we reject the flat menu-relativism just as we rejected the choice between only the already posed flat [Page 145] alternatives in favor of steps in depth into experiencing.

Historical and cultural relativism view us as creatures of the assumption systems and values we were taught, or the period's alternatives and social problems as posed. But if we include them explicatively, we not only move beyond them, we also livingly have only those aspects of them which one can livingly have. No matter how false, inhuman, and impossible the value I loyally hang on to, if I explicate the living loyalty and sensed relevance I feel for it, I will be on the right road. It is like Heidegger saying: If you want to force your experience into some narrow imposed categories, ask yourself why you want to do that, what is your Vorhabe, your felt intent, your thrust in wanting to do that? This is the fruitful direction. What is experienced is never false, though its formulation may well be false.

If explication proceeded analytically and deductively, then, of course, any false proposition or learning we include would stamp all its false implications upon the result, limiting any result to just what might be consistent within its false conceptual meaning. But any new thinking moves beyond the merely logical implications of given propositions and given learnings. Any real problem can be solved only by moving beyond what can be analytically found from the given. Even geometric and mathematical problems are problems because they require transformations that are not simply given. When we include propositions and past learnings in the explication process, they function only to the extent they are experienced. In retrospect, we can then try to specify just which conceptual aspects turned out effective, and which conceptual aspects had to be broken in the process. But in advance, we can only say that anything included will function just to the extent it can be lived and can have a part in carrying experience forward. And that is well, because it means that, so far as explication goes, every included false proposition will help fashion the outcome only in some (perhaps unexpected and partly illogical) way in which it is not false.

We have discussed three facets of the truth of explication: (1) the directly experienced effect of those rare propositions that do explicate (bring "response" and "independent access" to a directly had datum); (2) alternative formulations without our being bound by the many logical implications we are not using to lead to or formulate a given accessible aspect of a datum; and (3) the inclusion of all possibly relevant credible positions so that, if there is a way for them to function in explication, they can.

Considerations of truth may now return to phenomenology, and we can reject that widely held erroneous oversimplification which made everything arbitrary, because it:

Spoke of pure description but really read unexamined assumptions into experience;

Denied the unconscious but left us with mere momentary awareness torn out of context and lacking all criteria;

Extolled authenticity for any resolute caprice without showing us how we may tell the authentic from the inauthentic;

Held that we can be anything we please as if we could not (and did not) fail continually to be as we would choose ourselves;

Spoke of choice in ethics and history as though the alternatives were given;

Seemed "subjective" in that phenomena and feelings were "inside" objects rather than the ongoing living in a recalcitrant world;

Appeared to deny that culture and past learning function in how we choose, interpret, and surpass, as though each man were alone the inventor of the race's so far achieved insights, sensitivities, and differentiations;

Seemed not to recognize science, or China, unless personally visited, nor [Page 146] ethics except as an arbitrary picking of one among a relativism of flat outlooks.

But all these erroneous consequences follow from considering as flat givens and flat descriptions what must be steps of explication in a systematic interplay between feeling and forms, rather than the two torn apart and each incapable of movement, differentiation, and truth.

University of Chicago


[*] Presented at Third Annual Meeting, Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Yale University, October 23, 1964.

[1] E. T. Gendlin, "Expressive Meanings." In James M. Edie (Ed.), Invitation to Phenomenology. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965. See also, E. T. Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. New York: Free Press, 1962.

[2] E. T. Gendlin, "A Theory of Personality Change." In Worchel and Byrne, eds., Personality Change (New York. John Wiley & Sons, 1964).

[3] W. Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, VII. Stuttgart: B. G. Tiebner, 1958.

[4] J. P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

[5] J. P. Sartre, Search for a Method. New York: Knopf, 1963.

[6] J. P. Sartre, The Nation, April 19, 1965.

[7] J. P. Sartre, telegram to Robert Cohen, Boston University, May 5, 1965.

[8] M. Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

[9] E.T. Gendlin, "What Are the Grounds of Explication?" The Monist, Vol. 49, No.1, 1965.

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