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Gendlin, E.T. (1997). Chapter III. How felt meaning functions [Excerpt, pp. 90-100]. In Experiencing and the creation of meaning: A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. From

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Chapter III. How Felt Meaning Functions

Brief Statement

Chapter III formulates seven radically different modes in which felt meaning functions together with symbols. In each mode many different symbolizations are possible. The modes are not simply different symbolizations, but entirely different ways in which symbols and felt meaning may function together. They are seven different definitions of the role of "symbols" as well as seven roles of felt meaning.

Since "symbols" in this treatise includes anything that may have the role of a symbol (including things, persons, behaviors, and whatever), the reader is asked to keep in mind that the seven kinds of relationships between symbols and experiencing are really seven fundamental conceptual models in terms of which human phenomena can be considered by theory.

These different modes of relationship between experiencing and any events are not the result of already logical relationships. Rather, they are the modes by which meaning and logical order are first created. Thus, they are fundamental to all meaning, logic, and order in human phenomena.

These different modes do not reduce to each other and cannot be "reconciled" with each other. (That is to say, one can reconcile them by applying one to the other, but one may just as well apply the second [Page 91] to the first. That shows that they remain and are fundamental.)

[A] Parallel Functional Relationships of Felt Meaning in Cognition


a. Illustrations. Section A of this chapter considers those functional relationships between felt meaning and symbols which are called "parallel." These occur in cases where felt meaning and symbols are in a parallel, one-to-one relationship. Later, we shall deal with another group of functional relationships that are "nonparallel."

Of the "parallel" functional relationships, the first to be considered is "direct reference." Let us cite some illustrations of direct reference in order to communicate directly what is meant by the term.

Consider the sentence: "Democracy is government by the people." Now, note your experiencing in reading the words. Probably you have taken the words in, felt that you know some of their meaning. Probably, you did not pause to make the meaning of democracy explicit to yourself in words. Rather, the merely felt, implicit meaningfulness you experienced was sufficient for you to understand what was said about democracy.

If you now try to define the term, you can observe what you do. In attempting to define it, you concentrate on your felt sense of its meaningfulness. Words to define it will arise, as it were, from this act of concentration on the felt meaningfulness.

In some of these instances, you, the reader, referred di-[Page 92]rectly to the felt meaningfulness that the term "democracy" had for you.

Consider this act of directly referring to the felt meaning. Let us call such an act "direct reference."

Other examples may aid you in performing the act of direct reference, so that you may then take our term "direct reference" to refer to that act. Here are some:

Consider the previously cited case when you have forgotten something—perhaps something you intended to do today. You know that much about it, that it was something to do (or a name, or fact, or theory, or whatever you happened to forget). Now, how do you go about trying to remember it? Whatever your own way of doing so is, you will find that it centers around your "feel" of the forgotten thing. You concentrate on that feeling. You relax, hoping that the feeling will open up into the awareness of what it is. You ask yourself, "Was it this?" "Was it that?" and the feeling lets you know that it was not what you proposed to yourself, or perhaps, with a great flood of relief, that indeed it was that. In all these cases, the feeling, although inexplicit, functions centrally in your attempt to remember. And—what for us here is the point to be illustrated—you allow this feeling to perform the described function by your "direct reference" to it as a feeling in your present experience.

The same "direct reference" can be illustrated in very many other cases. Consider one more. You are looking at a painting. It gives you a particular, unique feeling. When you are asked to comment on the painting, you probably will attempt to state in explicit form what this unique feeling is. You may or may not succeed in formulating it. However, even in trying to do, you will give the feeling itself your attention. You will "directly refer" to it as such.

These illustrations show that direct reference to implicit felt meaning is possible.

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The term "direct reference" refers to this just illustrated act of referring to a felt meaning. In defining the term we also employed direct reference. Our defining consisted in showing how it illustrates itself. This is often the nature of starting points or principles, and it is precisely as a starting point that "direct reference" is important: Because felt meaning can be referred to directly, it can be a starting point. Because direct reference to felt meaning is a starting point, we may inquire into the relationships between the formal and the felt aspects of cognition, without forcing the presuppositions of either on the other.

b. Feeling as a referent. A referent is an object of reference. By "reference" we mean something very modest and do not wish to involve ourselves in the philosophic discussions implied in this term. We mean only that attention is given to the feeling as such.

In order to refer directly to felt meaning, some terms or symbols are necessary. We use symbols to give a feeling our attention. "This feeling," we say, or "this act" or "what I was going to do today"—these are symbols. These symbols refer in these cases directly to the feeling. Let us look at the objects to which symbolic reference is possible. Objects of reference can be things, or sense qualia, or thoughts, or—as in this case—feelings. The other sorts of objects of reference mentioned can, of course, be referred to. We are introducing a sense of the term "reference" in which feelings, as such, can be referred to.

It is important to make a special point of "direct reference" to feelings, because this might be confused with reference to that which the feelings perhaps stand for, or are caused by. For example, we attempted to refer to the felt meaningfulness that the term "democracy" has for the reader, and, in an analogous manner, to the feeling that contained the meaningfulness of looking at a painting, or to the felt meaning-[Page 94]fulness of "what I was going to do today." We were not making the equally possible references to democracy as a social phenomenon or as a formal concept, or to the colors of the painting, or to the behavior "I would do today."

By "direct reference," then, we shall mean an individual's reference to a present felt meaning, not a reference to objects, concepts, or anything else [1] that may be related to the felt meaning itself.

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c. The role of symbols in "direct reference." We have shown what "direct reference" is and that feelings can be objects of reference. Let us now examine more exactly the role played by symbols in the particular kind of relationship with feeling that we have termed "direct reference."

We have seen that symbols are necessary for direct reference. The words "this feeling" or "this act" or "what I was going to do today"—these are symbols. What is the peculiar role symbols have in "direct reference" that makes it a particular, distinguishable kind of relationship between feeling and symbols?

In order to clarify the particular role of symbols in direct reference, let us distinguish the role of directly referring from another role symbols may play: conceptualization (we might call it "representation" or "articulation"). Let us, for the moment, consider all manner of conceptualization as one kind of role of symbols, and compare it to their role in "direct reference." In direct reference, symbols (such as "this feeling") refer without conceptualizing or representing the felt meaning to which they refer. Thus the role of symbols in direct reference is distinguishable from other roles symbols can have, because in direct reference there need be no conceptualization at all.

For example, if one says "this feeling," or "what I wanted to do today that I forgot," the meaning of these symbols (that appeared in quotation marks) depends on the felt meaning to which we refer directly. Without that felt meaning the symbols still have a little bit of general meaning, but they are powerless to mean what—in this moment—they are supposed to mean. They depend for their meaning on direct reference to the felt meaning.

(The case is quite analogous to demonstratives. These always depend on present sense perception. In that case their meaning depends on "direct reference" to present sense perception.)

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When symbols conceptualize or represent, they themselves "mean" what they represent. We might say that they mean independently. Symbols that only refer, on the other hand, depend for their meaning entirely on the felt meaning to which they refer.

Conversely, we may speak of the felt meaning in direct reference as being independently meaningful. This type of cognition is possible only because the felt meaning functions as an independently meaningful referent of direct reference. For example, "this feeling," or "I am trying to remember what I forgot to do today," or "let me see, what do I feel about the painting" would be impossible without our direct reference to felt meaning as a referent that is meaningful independently of any representative meaning of the symbols (although, of course, dependent on symbols as referring to it).

We have, then, made clear the sense in which the symbols "depend" on the felt meaning—that is the sense in which the felt meaning functions as an "independently" meaningful referent.

On the other hand, we also noted a sense in which the converse is true: the felt meaning can be referred to only with the aid of some symbols, such as the word "this" or some partially descriptive symbols such as "what I wanted to do today that I forgot."

We note that the only necessary [2] role played by symbols in direct reference is that of referring, that is, of specifying, pointing out, setting off the felt meaning. "This feeling" or [Page 97] "a feeling" can occur only if something functions to refer to it, or specify it, or set it off, or mark it off. [3] Later we shall show how a feeling becomes independently meaningful just as soon as it becomes "this feeling" or "a feeling." By being specified as "this" or "a," it becomes repeatable, can return tomorrow and be the "same" feeling and can thus mean itself in many senses.

The referring or specifying need not be performed by a verbal symbol. The term "symbol" may be given to anything that performs the function of referring or specifying. (This is a usage of the term "symbol" defined specifically in terms of this one functional relationship, direct reference.) There are visual and kinaesthetic "symbols" and in this sense even actions, objects, and situations can be "symbols." [4] For direct reference, a "symbol" is anything that performs the function of marking off or specifying "a" feeling, and thus making our attention (our reference) to it possible.

Let us apply the name "direct reference" to the whole relationship between felt meaning and symbols, including the roles of both.

d. Direct reference as a functional relationship, and the term "meaning" defined by it. [Page 98] We have noted that "direct reference" is a relationship between symbols and felt meaning, in which each has a role that depends on a role of the other. Hence, we can call these roles "functions" and the relationship a "functional relationship." We have seen the senses in which these functions depend on each other.

Without clear delineation of this functional relationship and interdependence, our analysis would have to duplicate everything. Everything would have to be said once for felt meaning and once for symbols. The symbols "refer" but so does our direct attention. The symbols "mean" the felt meaning, but the felt meaning is also a meaning and hence also "means." [5]

This duplication is avoided when the functions of each are specified and their interdependence is clarified. Without the symbols there cannot be "a" felt meaning, a specific reference, and hence there would be no specific felt meaning to refer to. On the other hand, without the felt meaning, symbols of the sort that only mark out and refer would have no symbolic function at all.

The term "meaning" must be defined for each functional relationship we discuss. For direct reference, what was meant by "meaning"? We note in the very form of the question that our definition will be a kind of examination of how we mean when we directly refer.

In "direct reference" we need a pointer in order to refer. We cannot assume that "a" feeling (some unity or reference in any sense) exists without something to mark it off and thus create it as "a" felt meaning. Hence, meaning appears to be generated by the two mutually dependent functions: the function of referring and marking off a referent (performed by symbols), and the function of being a meaningful referent [Page 99]with meaning independent of the representative meaning (if any) of the referring symbols. [6]

e. Direct reference as a "general" functional relationship. "Direct reference" is possible in all cases of meaning. It actually occurs only to the extent that the symbols depend for meaning entirely on felt meaning, and only point or refer to it. However, if we wish to, we may refer directly to our felt meaning even in cases where symbols do themselves mean the meaning. For example, take a sentence that symbolizes its meaning quite well: "Democracy is government by the people." Here, we are not normally called upon to refer directly to the felt meaning. Instead, we normally consider the symbols to contain the meaning. In order to become aware that in this case also, our felt meaning can be directly referred to, we must strain the normal experience. We must ask ourselves what we really meant by the word "democracy" or "government" or "people." Then we become aware of the felt meaning of these words for us, and in this becoming aware we "directly refer" to the felt meaning.

We may say with sureness, then, that direct reference is always possible, but it requires an extra willful act (reflection, it is often called) when the symbols appear to symbolize the meaning adequately.

It is apparent that whatever functional relationship normally exists between symbols and felt meaning in the case where symbols do adequately symbolize the meaning, it is a different functional relationship from that of "direct reference." We will have to examine it.

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f. "Direct reference" defined (a summary). Direct reference is a functional relationship between symbols and felt meaning. The functions of symbols and felt meaning depend on each other. Symbols function as markers, pointers, or referring tools that create "a," "this," or "one" feeling by referring to "it." Felt meaning functions as containing the meaning (independently of any representative meanings the referring symbols might have), and as referent.

The symbols depend on the felt meaning for meaning. Apart from direct reference to felt meaning, the symbols mean nothing. The felt meaning, thus, has a vital and independent function. It is independently meaningful. There is no meaning in cases of direct reference except its meaning.

The felt meaning depends on symbols to mark it off as a referent. Apart from such a marking off (specification or symbolization defined as a marking off) there is no given felt meaning. Hence, the function of the symbols is also vital.

The function of "symbol" in the sense of direct reference can be performed not only by verbal symbols, but also by kinaesthetic symbols, visual symbols, and by acts, objects, or situations, since these also can "mark off" or specify and thus create "a" given felt meaning.

[In the original text notes are at the foot of the pages they are cited on.]


[1] The reader probably experienced the most difficulty with direct reference to feeling rather than something else in the case of observed sense qualia. Let us then go into more detail here.

In the last chapter we showed that all observation is meaningful and that this meaningfulness occurs to us as felt meaning. The meaningfulness of an observation of red or blue, for example, would thus occur to us as felt meaning. "Direct reference" is reference to this felt meaning.

Whitehead pointed out the error that, according to him, philosophy made in considering sense qualia (of the five senses) as the only "given" for knowledge. Whitehead speaks of the many, many organismic feelings that, as much as those of the five senses, are given for knowledge. The reader thus might grant immediately that what can be directly referred to includes such feelings. However, we asserted that there are such felt meanings even in the case of perceiving a color or some other sensible of the five senses. How can that be?

Let the reader ask himself how he perceives blue differently from red. The difference to him, qua his having these two experiences, is one of feeling. It lies neither in the eye nor in the wavelength.

Kant pointed out that even in the perception of a color, the inherent synthetic functions of cognition are already operative, since, if when we see red it is really to be red, not just something quite undifferentiated, then it must already imply the comparison of colors and hence the principle of unity of all cognitions as our cognitions, united or synthesized by our having them.

Kant defines "our having" them as a purely formal synthetic unity, expressed by his term "unity of apperception." His formal principles point out the function in cognition that, when we look at our actually experienced having, we find played by the distinct feel of any perception that is meaningful to us.

Only the reader's own referring, in his own experience, to the feel of perceptions, thoughts, and so on can define, for him, the type of feeling referred to in "direct reference." We mentioned Kant simply for better formal understanding. Kant only cites the function of "our having" experiences, insofar as this function is defined by a critical analysis of cognition, formally considered. This function might, in fact, be performed by anything. He is careful to distinguish the formal function from whatever is experienced as performing that function. We note that felt meaning can be referred to directly as performing this function.

[2] The situation is slightly obscured by the fact that we often employ as a specifying marker just such symbols as come as close as possible to the felt meaning. For example, we say "what I wanted to do today, that I forgot." These symbols function in "direct reference" to help us to hang on to the felt meaning. Insofar as they do that, it is accidental that they also symbolize an explicit part of the felt meaning. If we happened to know nothing about the felt meaning, we would employ symbols such as "this feeling" and ask ourselves to concentrate on (that is, directly refer to) "this feeling" to discover what it is.

[3] Throughout this study we shall speak in terms of relationships between feelings and symbols. Feelings will be said to perform certain functions, and similarly, symbols will be said to perform certain functions. Sometimes this terminology may make it appear that symbols are separate agents. We will do our best to avoid this impression by stressing that we are discussing functional relationships in which neither symbols nor feelings are separate. Another terminology might make this clearer: instead of ascribing "symbolic function" to symbols, it can be ascribed to experiencing. One can say that experiencing obtains a symbolic function by means of symbols. This terminology is equivalent to the one being used above. We shall continue to speak of the function of symbols, but this can always be viewed as the symbolic function of experiencing by means of symbols.

[4] From now on we shall refer to this inclusive sense of "symbols" as "symbols in the widest sense." This will mean not only verbal and representative symbols, but also objects, acts, and anything that can specify an experience.

[5] Some of the previously mentioned philosophers struggle mightily with this type of functional relationship between symbolic and felt meaning. Recall Sartre's "debased knowledge" (see Appendix).

[6] This account of the generation of meaning by two mutually dependent functions is not, of course, a satisfactory definition of meaning. Put another way, meaning in direct reference is felt meaning and is defined as that which is set off or marked off as in some sense "one," "a," or "this" referent. Still, we do not understand from this account how feeling is meaningful by virtue of being marked off or referred to. We must consider this question later, when we have other functional relationships with which to examine the question (see Chapter V).

The excerpt above starts at the beginning of Chapter 3 and finishes at the end of section [A],1; pages 90-100.

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