THINKING AT THE EDGE (TAE) is a second practice developed from Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit. The first practice is Focusing, which is now widely used in diverse fields such as psychotherapy, medicine, business, architecture, ecology, education, by aid workers in Afghanistan, and in writing and creative processes. I will quote a short summary of the philosophy:
“My philosophy leads to new concepts in physics and biology to understand the human body differently. Your body is not a machine, rather a wonderfully intricate interaction with everything around you, which is why it “knows” so much just in being. The animals live intricately with each other without culture and language. The different cultures don’t create us. They only add elaboration. The living body is always going beyond what evolution, culture and language have already built. The body is always sketching and probing a few steps further. Your ongoing living makes new evolution and history happen — now.
You can sense your living body directly under your thoughts and memories and under your familiar feelings. Focusing happens at a deeper level than your feelings. Under them you can discover a physically sensed “murky zone” which you can enter and open. This is the source from which new steps emerge. Once found, it is a palpable presence underneath.” (Gendlin 2003)
In his early book, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Gendlin generated a field of distinctions about how experiencing functions in speaking and thinking. He did this by directly referring to experiencing as it actually functioned, and he developed concepts from those relations. Referring directly is itself one such relation. The seven relations he studies are only some of what could be studied.
For Gendlin these concepts don’t “represent” or give us a picture of experience. One cannot study experiencing as something by itself. Rather, experiencing can be studied in being carried forward by some kind of explication. Gendlin’s concepts apply to themselves. They explicate the very process by which they were explicated. We can think about explication, with concepts that themselves do the explicating which we are studying. These are systematically reflexive concepts. By looking at how experiencing functions in several kinds of explicating, Gendlin was able to formulate “characteristics of experiencing” as it functions in explication. For example, experiencing is “non-numerical,” “multi-schematic,” and can always lead to “newly emergent commonalities between any two events.” Later (Gendlin, 1991) this work lead to a theory of metaphor and a general theory of language-use.
In A Process Model he took these relations of explication and experiencing and let them elaborate into a model which is capable of reformulating basic terms in any field. A central aspect of that model is the implying-occurring relation in which “implying implies its own change.” In physics and biology as well as in human processes all events (occurrings) imply further events (occurring). Each further occurring changes the implying so as to imply a still further occurring. For Gendlin, his basic terms don’t assume static entities that have only external relations. If every occurring implies a next occurring which will change it, this assumes a continuity of internal relations. The new kind of conceptual pattern can greatly extend current scientific concepts without losing their usual powers.
Another central concept in A Process Model is the identity of body and environment in any moment of living. He has four kinds of environment. Here are the first two:
Body and environment are one, but of course only in certain respects. Let us carefully define them. The body is a non-representational concretion of (with) its environment.
En#1 is the spectator’s environment, what spectators define in their en which may affect an organism. For example, it is en#1 when scientists or hunters define the environment of an animal. They define the en factors. They do it in their own terms....
En#2 is the reflexively identical environment; it is identical with the organism’s living process. Body and en are one event, one process. For example, it is air-coming-into-lungs-andblood cells. We can view this event as air (coming in), or as (a coming into) lungs and body cells. Either way it is one event, viewed as en or as body. Here we are not calling it “environment” because it is all around, but because it participates within the life process. And, “body” is not just the lungs, but the lungs expanding. Air coming in and lungs expanding cannot be separate. The point is that we need not split between the lungs and air.
Thus body is both equal and not equal en! Rather than staying with such paradoxes we are building distinctions and concepts. We are specifying some exact respects in which it is and is not equal. (Gendlin, 1997)
Living bodies are environmental interactions. Therefore bodily experiencing is not subjective at all. Since the body is interaction, it always contains the intricacy of the environment, which for humans includes all our situations. Bodily living in any situation includes the implicit intricacy of that situation and the next steps it implies.
Starting with body-environment as one event, and with implying-occurring, Gendlin derives and restructures how we are able to think about bodily tissue process, behavior, perception, gestures, culture, and language. His concepts of human process are continuous with the concepts of animal behavior and bodily tissue process. He develops concepts for “consciousness” and for “values” not as something added on to bodily experiencing at a later stage, but as inherent in body life, inherent in how behavior is generated in animals, and inherent in how thinking arises in humans.
Chapter VII of A Process Model develops concepts for considering the origin of language in continuity with animal behavior and bodily tissue process. There are theoretical concepts for the experienced fact that language arises in us freshly and in whole phrases and sentences. Language is implicit in human bodies. Our situations and the uses of words have developed together and continue to develop. New experience can change the implicit word-relations which can emerge directly in metaphorical sentences.
In Chapter VIII of A Process Model Gendlin develops a way to account for how a bodily felt sense comes as a “feedback object.” A felt sense is a new kind of carrying forward from which steps can be found for problems which cannot be resolved within existing concepts and culture.
A Process Model is not just a theory of the particular areas treated. It has implications for every field. Furthermore, the primary interest is not only the content but also the kind of concept-making that is going on. Throughout A Process Model, Gendlin reflexively turns our attention to what we have just done, pointing out how it was done and how each new concept emerged. This turning is itself an instance of the explicating he is presenting.
From these extensive philosophical works we have taken three points to create the practice of THINKING AT THE EDGE (TAE).
- A person who is experienced in a field can directly refer to implicit bodily felt knowledge that cannot now be said in the usual phrases.
- The use of fresh, linguistically unusual sentences frees us from being trapped in the usual assumptions and allows us to say something new.
- Within such freshly generated sentences one can find and separate new terms which are internally related in a new pattern. This can be the starting point for a kind of theory which is both logical and experiential.
These are three simple practical steps.
Speaking for myself, I consider TAE important in three ways: First, TAE lets people know that they can think for themselves. Second, new forms of language break out of the constraints of old assumptions; Third, new concepts and new kinds of concepts are made.
Firstly, TAE is a set of exact steps to help people discover how they can think for themselves. TAE allows anyone who has developed knowledge in an area to access implicit knowing from which new thinking is possible. People’s eyes sparkle when they try TAE: “I discovered the process that really is my own thinking!” “I grew up believing I was dumb, so I kept quiet. Now I know I can say what I know. I am not so dumb.”
Secondly, fresh sentences and phrases allow people to communicate what they knew but could not formulate. Completing just the first nine steps of TAE opens new ways of working in one’s field, noticing different aspects to study and ways to teach. New patterns from implicit intricacy cannot appear if we stay within the usual use of language. This is why TAE presupposes focusing — the ability to let words emerge directly from a bodily felt sense beyond the bounds of the usual assumptions.
Thirdly, TAE is a method for developing not just new and fresh articulations but also powerful new theory. It does this through finding inherent and logical relations between newly emergent words and phrases. Theory has a power that emergent description alone does not have. It can restructure the world by letting us study anything with a new kind of pattern and its inferences.
In all three ways TAE has political significance. Science, social structure and human relations tend to exclude the implicit intricacy of experience, events, situations. TAE lets us speak and think about our world and ourselves with language and concepts that have our experiential intricacy built in, rather than with concepts which make us into externally viewed objects. Concepts generated from a “felt sense” have certain characteristics. They retain their living organization, rather than violating it, as externally imposed concepts often do. In TAE new conceptual structures have the external relations of logic without losing their experienced internal connections. That is why they enable us to understand nature and human beings not just as externally observed objects. Since humans need to think about humans and our world, such reflexive concepts are essential. The nature of what we want to think about needs to be built into the tools with which to think about it. Something like TAE is urgently needed to create language, theory and practices that take account of human experience.
Gendlin’s University of Chicago course on Theory Construction, which he taught for many years, was a precursor of TAE. The formulation of the TAE steps was developed over the last five years through working with individuals on their examples and through teaching workshops. Gene Gendlin, Kye Nelson, Teresa Dawson, Nada Lou and I have worked on the project intensively. Gene Gendlin and Kye Nelson have taught five American TAE courses. He and Teresa Dawson have taught four German ones. Nada Lou analyzed and edited the tapes of all of the courses to produce the TAE videos which we offer in our on-line bookstore. In addition she teaches TAE. Kye Nelson helped expand our initial nine steps to fourteen and made other major contributions to the development of the steps. She is training new TAE teachers and is organizing introductory weekends and year long training for individuals and for collaborative projects. She has established an online discussion list and magazine which provide ongoing support for this kind of thinking.
The theories in the examples are all in beginning stages. The full development of a TAE theory can take months or even years. The reader will not find the whole creative process as it emerged with its many pages of notes and trials. We present, necessarily, a more finished product in order to illustrate the TAE steps. Nevertheless, each article is a developmental account and we have kept much of the adventure of discovery with its surprising turns, and indirections, and variations of the steps.
I am pleased to offer this first formal presentation. My original conception to develop a TAE practice came from my passionate wish to enable ordinary people and professionals in all fields to think generatively. Regardless of culture, social class, and educational level, anyone who can think from her own bodily felt meaning is in a position to assess existing practices and constructions and to create new ideas and actions, rather than having no alternative except to “go along.” It was a pleasure to work intensively with each contributor and I am glad the practice is now available.
Gendlin, Eugene T. (2003), Focusing: How to Gain Direct Access to Your Body’s Knowledge. London: Rider.
Gendlin, E.T. (1997). Experiencing and the creation of meaning. A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective http://www.focusing.org/ecmpreface.html. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois.
Gendlin, E.T. A Process Model (http://www.focusing.org/ click Philosophy, and printed from The Focusing Institute), 1997.
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.
* My thanks to professor Dale Cannon for his careful reading and many suggestions on several parts of this issue and to Chris Honde, Bonnie Wisthoff, Nada Lou, Lee Fields for helpful readings of my theory.