The Focusing Institute Presents The Gendlin Online Gendlin Online Library Banner

Gendlin, E.T. (1973). Experiential phenomenology. In M. Natanson (Ed.), Phenomenology and the social sciences. Vol. I, pp. 281-319. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. From

[Page 281]

Experiential Phenomenology

Eugene T. Gendlin

In this chapter I will first outline a little of the basic approach of the philosophy of experiencing, and then show how its application has led to some research advances in psychology.

I will begin by formulating what I consider the basic unsolved problem of current philosophy. I will first discuss phenomenology and linguistic analysis from the vantage point of the philosophy of experiencing, but I hope to be both fair and clarifying. If I attribute to them certain explicit understandings which perhaps they often lack, it is because clarification is like that: what one clarifies is in a sense already there—in another sense, not.

I will then outline some systematic relationships between experience and verbalization, some characteristics of experience in the process of being explicated, and some few points of method. With these I will hope to have made a new phenomenological approach, one which solves the basic problem by approaching it quite differently.

I will then show the application of this new approach in psychology.

The Problem

In the Western tradition of philosophy, experience (and nature) has usually been interpreted as basically a formal or logic-like system. This was done through a philosophical analysis of the basic assumptions of knowledge or science. These assumptions were then attributed to experience. Experience [Page 282] "must be" such-and-so, the philosophers said; otherwise science or knowledge would be impossible

Philosophers have not agreed on their analysis of science or knowledge, and therefore also not on what they attributed to experience. For instance, those who held that knowledge is basically mathematical and consists of unit steps, each repeatable, considered nature and experience to be a system of that same sort. Thus the forms required by knowledge were read into nature and experience.

Some philosophers made this reading-in quite explicit, in which case experience was held to depend frankly on the nature of thought (Idealism, so-called); others preferred to present this reading-in backwards, so that experience was said to be the origin from which knowledge received its forms. Either way, experience (or nature) was inferred to have the kind of forms, relations, and connections which knowledge requires. Either way, therefore, the needs of knowledge (as analyzed) governed what was said of experience or nature.

Since Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Austin, this approach has gone out of style. Instead, it is now widely held that experience need not, and in fact does not, have the same character as logic, science, or knowledge. Experience is not organized like a verbal scheme. What we say in philosophy should be based on experience, not read into it.

The crucial problem has two parts: (1) If experience is not like a verbal scheme and we do not wish to say that it is, then how can we say anything at all about it without imposing a verbal scheme? and (2) If we wish, in some way, to appeal beyond logical schemes to a sense of "experience" not yet organized verbally, in what way do we have such "experience" present and available for an appeal, and in what way does experience give "yes" or "no" answers, so that some statements will be "based" on it and some statements not?

Although my major concern is with phenomenology, let me say a little about linguistic analysis in these regards, because both these philosophies stand or fall with this problem.

Linguistic analysis, following Wittgenstein and Austin, examines how words are used in the context of ordinary situations: these philosophers find the use of a word quite unlike the logic [Page 283] scheme the word embodies, and quite unlike its logical relations to other words. For example, although "voluntarily" and "involuntarily" are logical opposites, they are used in entirely different kinds of situations. One does not use them to mark the same thing in either its presence or absence, as opposites would do. Ryle says, rather, that "voluntarily" is a word of affirmation or denial ("not voluntarily") that we use when something "morally fishy" has been done and we want to assign or withhold blame. [1] "He did not do it voluntarily" means the morally fishy act was not his responsibility. "Involuntarily," on the other hand, belongs to muscle jerks, reflexes, or automatic behavior. A man might shoot someone not voluntarily but in self-defense; yet we would not use the word "involuntarily" unless the trigger was released by accident.

This kind of approach moves beyond logical and philosophical schemes and instead analyzes situations of ordinary living. Our living in situations is said to be a great deal more complex than any scheme. Situations, and how we differentiate and act in them, involve a great many distinctions which we "know," and which are marked in language use. But this "knowing" is not like knowledge or science; it is rather like "knowing how" to do something—perhaps how one does it cannot be explained, at least not easily. Yet one "knows" when to use a given word, and when it would be inappropriate. The complexity and distinctions of our situations have developed with language; hence linguistic analysts use language as the lead from which to discover these differentiations and to make explicit what situational characteristics are being differentiated.

Linguistic analysts, therefore, appeal to something beyond the logical relations of words, beyond the "models" implicit in them, and beyond any philosophical scheme of the kind formerly considered to be basic to experience. For example, the discussion just alluded to is in some way a philosophic discussion of will, choice, and responsibility, yet no scheme of "free will" or "determinism" is used. Neither are the purely logical relations of the words to be trusted. Linguistic analysts appeal beyond schemes and logic, they appeal to our knowing how to act, speak, and live [Page 284] in situations. But what sort of appeal, what sort of basis for an appeal, is involved here? [2]

Austin says our actions and uses of words in situations are organized very differently from the way a flat system of words is organized. He denies that a word has a "handy denotation" to which it refers. [3] For one word there is not necessarily one thing. Philosophy appeals beyond words to something that is not organized in a one-to-one relation to words, and does not have units and relations that are the same as words and their logical relations. Linguistic analysis only looks like an analysis of language. What is actually analyzed is something very different: namely, our "knowing how to use" words in situations.

This knowing how to use a word involves knowing all the complexities of the situations governing its use. It is possible to try to explicate what these are, and linguistic analysts attempt this. But in so doing, they inevitably give this "knowing how" a verbal scheme which the "knowing how" is not. They verbally organize the maze of situational detail in just certain ways, even while asserting that action-in-situations cannot be so organized. We can see this clearly in the way in which linguistic analysts differ among themselves as to when such an explication has been achieved. Austin did not agree with Ryle that our knowing how to use "voluntarily" was rightly explicated by saying that we use it in "morally fishy" situations to assign or withhold blame. Austin says that we do not use the word to determine whether the act is blameworthy or not: a child may give a gift "voluntarily," or because his mother made him give it; in neither case would his action be morally fishy. With this example to argue from, Austin changes much of Ryle's explication of how we use "voluntarily."

How is it that the same knowing how which grounded Ryle's earlier explication now grounds Austin's differing one? Clearly, the verbal organization of neither the one of these explications nor the other can claim to set out "the" complex organization of situational aspects implicit in our "knowing how."

This brings us to the second part of our problem. Even if we accept the fact that, although these philosophers set themselves the task of getting at experience rather than imposing a scheme [Page 285] on it, they end by imposing a scheme after all, we can still ask: Did they involve the not-yet-verbalized experience in some way? Did they merely impose a scheme, or did they use their sense of "knowing how"? How did they use it? In what way do they have this "knowing how"? Surely, not only in the form of the scheme and not only after they state it. Surely, they will tell us how they have this "knowing how" and use it to make their explication.

Even here we will get no satisfactory answer. The philosophers exhibit their "knowing how" to use a word by using it in action. When analysts try to explicate this "how," they talk about various situations. They propose examples, which force us to admit that some are possible and some are not. It is not possible to say, "He did the shooting under orders; therefore he did it involuntarily." The word seems to mean the right thing, yet in that example it doesn't. It sounds wrong. This means it feels wrong; it gives one a sour, discordant feeling. If someone now says, "'Involuntarily' belongs with muscle jerks or accidents, not with being compelled," this feels right. (Still, quite possibly it isn't right.)

Now, what is this "feels right" or "feels wrong," which seems to be the ultimate court of appeal? One intends to appeal to the situations directly, for the decision as to what words can and cannot be used in them, but actually one appeals to "what feels right" in them, or "feels wrong." Linguistic analysts do not actually go out and observe situations directly. They would not accept an empirical statistical study of the use of the word, because more people use words in a sloppy way than use them rightly. Can "rightly" mean only that it feels right?

Can "feeling" be used in this way? Isn't it a "private datum"? Isn't feeling a poor criterion for philosophy? Why and how does it work? Why and how does feeling seem to allow some organizations or schemes to be imposed upon it, and not others? (And some of these may be found "wrong" later.) What the philosopher organizes and defines (some of the situational details) was somehow, puzzlingly, "implicit" in the feeling. Does it really all come down to feeling?

Phenomenologists similarly hold that language and living developed together (and continue to do so), that experience and situations are together (just as our sense of "knowing how" to use a word and the situations in which we use it are together). "Being-in-the-world" is Heidegger's way of defining humans as [Page 286] beings-in, as experiencing-in situations. [4] According to Heidegger, situations are differentiated with language, and linguistic distinctions are thus in the very texture of the situations with which we live.

Husserl and Merleau-Ponty discuss the experiential sense which guides our use of language, an "emotional sense" [5] which "fills" [6] verbal sound patterns (which are empty in a language foreign to us). Experience, language, and situations are thus inherently connected.

Phenomenologists also hold that while language is part of the situations in which we live, experience and the life-world are not like a system of words or concepts. Phenomena cannot be equated with schemes, and it is an error to impose schemes on them. Thus, Heidegger argues that every statement, or truth, "stands in some kind of approach," and depends on it. That is to say, the world cannot be rendered as such, but only through some (historically developed) scheme.

To get beyond this, Heidegger seeks "an approach that would not be again merely an approach." Rightly, he envisions that, having gained perspective on the variety of possible schemes and approaches, and their historical development, we would not now simply settle for another scheme. But what else is possible? There Heidegger stops. This next step will be the work of a whole culture, he says, not of one man. It is a conundrum which affects every philosophy which refuses to equate experience or world with a scheme. On the one hand, it appeals to that experience in a way that should be corrective of schemes; on the other, the result has to be again a scheme, and attributes to experience the nature of a scheme.

Husserl may be said to be the first to base philosophy, quite explicitly and deliberately, on an examination of experiencing as we actually live, have, and are, rather than regarding "expe-[Page 287]rience" as already imposed upon by the requirements of one view of science, as had been done traditionally. Husserl found, for example, that the notion that experience comes in colors, sounds, smells, etc., is a notion already derivative from a philosophical scheme which analyzes experience into certain handy units. Ordinary experience is of trees, doors slamming, kids crying—not of colors and sounds. (Austin makes the same point many decades later.) Thus Husserl finds the whole "life-world" implicit in experience, even when he first brackets all questions as to what exists and seeks to examine only experience as such.

Although Husserl resisted schemes that have been read into experience, how could he himself organize his own analysis of experience? What about such schemes as cognition versus emotion versus conation (which he used)? What about noesis versus noema, or, simply put, process and object, as organizing notions in his work? What about the individual as the starting point (as compared, for example, to Heidegger's different starting point) and the ensuing difficulties about other egos? These are only examples of a larger fact: the phenomenologist has set himself a seemingly impossible task, that of examining and describing lived experience without imposing schemes upon it. But to "examine" and to "describe" are activities which inherently involve schemes.

Husserl was aware of this problem. Each period of his work is followed by a period in which he again undercut his own assumptions and schemes; as he said, whereas others built edifices, he only dug further into the ground, and he meant by this something both good and bad. Good because it was his self-set task to undercut schemes and assumption systems; bad because he knew that in some sense he was failing at this task.

He had to fail in this regard, since, on the one hand, he wanted to study the structure of experience without importing a scheme, and yet, on the other hand, any studying, describing, laying out in words and distinctions must, after all, employ some scheme and some organizing parameters. Could he claim that his distinctions and organizing parameters were themselves "the" structure of experience?

That we cannot grant Husserl such a claim is shown by the fact that other phenomenological philosophers set out "the" structure of experience quite differently. And again, is not each phenomenologist involved in a contradiction, claiming both that [Page 288] experience is preschematic and that the scheme arrived at is true of it.

The second part of our problem is also a problem for phenomenology. The second part is: Even if we grant that a scheme is being imposed, what, if anything, is a "phenomenological basis"? How do we have it and how do we use it? Are phenomenologists simply claiming unwarrantedly, in the most puerile fashion, that they have some kind of mysterious direct line into not-yet-verbalized experience, without being able to show us even a trace of it? Or is there something clearly explainable that can be called a "phenomenological basis"? Granted that experiencing is never to be equated with a verbal scheme, and granted that it does not contain some verbal "the" scheme, and granted that each phenomenologist does use, and thereby in some sense imposes, a scheme in his verbal descriptions, is there any difference left between phenomenologically grounded assertions and those which are not so grounded?

For example, if you say to me, "You are tired," then if you intend your statement phenomenologically, you will consider it false if I do not feel tired. On the other hand, if you are not proceeding on a phenomenological basis, you might still retort, "I can tell from looking at you that you are tired," or, "I know you have been working for eighteen hours now, and I know that anyone who has worked that long is tired." Roughly, these two assertions are based respectively on empirical observation and on logical deduction.

These three types of bases for statements—phenomenological, empirical, and logical—are not unrelated. For example, it is possible to say, "Because of what I saw you do, and because of what I can figure out, I think you will feel tired if you stop working and lie down for a while." Here a phenomenological basis is used (if I don't feel tired then, you will admit that you were wrong), but it is asserted in the future and predicted because of the inherent connectedness of situations, logic, and experience.

Our example is much too simple. Also, it raises some well-known problems about just whose experience shall be a phenomenological basis, whether such direct experiences are "private," how these can be grounds for assertions, and other questions. But the example illustrates how a statement may be phenomenological if one seeks to make some direct experience the court of appeal for its correctness or falseness.

[Page 289]

In order to assert truth and falsity these philosophers seek to appeal to direct experience, beyond schemes and assumptions. Can we say more than that? Can we say that in some way this appeal works?

We know the appeal does not work univocally, since these philosophers frequently disagree with each other. How then, does it work? Husserl discusses,

Expression and what is expressed [are] two layers that are congruent, one covers the other. . . . One must not expect too much from this image of layers, expression is not something laid on . . . rather it affects the intentional underlayer . . . [7]

Clearly, here Husserl gets at something beyond the image of layers that he uses in saying it. How can you tell that this is so? How can you tell if it is right? How can you tell that the image of layers is wrong?

Husserl says expression "is congruent" or "covers" what is expressed (and for this the layers image does nicely); but is also affects what is expressed (and for this the layers image fails, he says). Thus Husserl himself says right here that the verbal schematizing he uses is wrong. Something more than the verbal schematizing is operating, or else we would have nothing more than a statement which is at the same time being called wrong.

Notice that we have more than just the sentence, so that we do not lose everything when we discard the sentence. How do we have this experience of what Husserl is getting at by "an expression covers"? How do we have this experience of what Husserl means by "expression . . . affects the intentional underlayer," in a not-yet verbally schematized way, so that we can first agree to the scheme of layers and then also agree that the scheme of layers is wrong? How are both of these agreements possible, despite the fact that "covers" really contradicts "affects": if the expression changes what it purports to be congruent with, how then is it congruent with it? Clearly the verbal scheme or metaphor fails, and yet we have something more.

Without a further, much better, treatment of these questions [Page 290] we can only say that we feel how an expression fits when it succeeds in expressing; we can say only that we also often feel a change in what we are expressing in the process of expressing it. But would one want to make "feeling" the final judge of philosophic discourse? After so much careful thought, will we say that whatever we feel to be right, is right? Since so much of what the other fellow feels is obviously wrong, we can only view this kind of basis with doubt.

This passage just quoted from Husserl is not only an example of appealing beyond the verbal metaphor one uses; the passage is itself about the fact that verbalizing "affects" an experience.

The basic unanswered question of current philosophy, then, seems to be: How can lived experiencing be a basis for assertions? Both major current philosophies claim such a basis, claim that this basis lies beyond the verbal and logical schemes of assertions, claim to correct schemes by means of it, and yet have shown neither how we have and use this lived experience as a basis for assertions, nor how the result is more than simply another imposed scheme.

It is scandalous that current philosophy appeals to something beyond verbal schemes, and yet claims that its assertions are "merely" read off, or that they "merely" state this something. It is as if, having said that direct experience or knowing how is not a scheme, contemporary philosophers pretend that it shows its schematic organization on the very face of it.

But as we have seen, when looked at more closely, these philosophers do go by something other than schemes made or found, just as they claim to do. But because these philosophers fail to examine just what their basis is and how they use it, therefore they have left it in this unexamined state of mere feeling.

But can there be a solution to this problem? If saying involves schematizing and organizing, how can it not impose scheme and organization? If experience is used as a basis and is not a set statable structure, must it not be merely vague and felt?

A new beginning

To arrive at a solution and a successful phenomenological method, we must make a fundamental turn, and a new beginning. We must look at the situation sideways, make a ninety-degree turn, so to speak. Instead of standing only on statements, [Page 291] deploring that we can speak about experience only through them, let us stand to one side and look at both statements and experience as they affect each other.

Let us free ourselves from that perspective in which experience is to be rendered without the statement having an effect upon it. Obviously, we cannot state experience, as it is unstated. Let us take the bull by the horns and study the ways stating can affect experience. In this way we make a field of study out of what was an embarrassment.

We cannot study experience as it is when it is not studied; we cannot state it as it is when it is not stated. What we can do is to study it in the process of being stated. From this new approach we take our standpoint neither in statement, nor in an experience that we can say nothing about. Rather, we study both experience and statement as they occur in the process of affecting each other. What many different effects may they have on each other?

I will try to show in the following section that this turn, this new approach, has borne fruit.

Situations, language, and feelings

We have seen that external situations, language, and feelings are intimately related, yet each may independently establish truth criteria. Thus a sentence might be called true or false either because it stated or failed to state a definite empirical observation, or because it followed or failed to follow logically from other statements, or because it explicated or failed to explicate a directly felt experience. It is often useful to make quite clear the basis on which a sentence is intended to rest. However, these three types of truth criteria are not independent of each other, really, since situations, words, and feelings are inevitably interrelated.

Thus, while phenomenologists intend their sentences to rest on their success or failure to explicate direct experience, they should make it clear (and I have tried to show that they often do make it clear) that feelings, situations, and language are inherently involved in each other. Thus, although Husserl began not with these interrelations but rather with direct experience, he soon found these interrelations in that experience.

Wittgenstein's argument against "private data" was that the use of words is governed by situations and our actions in them, not by what it feels right to say. The way in which the word is [Page 292] objectively used is the criterion for its use. "Look on the language game as the primary thing, and look on the feelings, etc., as you look on a way of regarding the language game . . ." [8] This means not that I do not have feelings, or that they are not complex and organized, but rather that Wittgenstein asks us to make the behavior in situations the criterion for feelings, rather than the reverse. Linguistic analysts first honor, then disobey this dictum, since they first assume that what feels right to say is governed by objective situations, and then proceed to state the marks of these situations, by using what feels right to say in them as the criterion.

Experience is always already organized by, or in, situations. Language is used to distinguish situations and to differentiate aspects of them. When we want to study experience and statement in relation to each other, it must be clear that they are always already related, and that both are related in turn to situations. Thus we will not be studying "pure" experience as if it were some kind of putty; rather, experience is always organized by the evolutionary history of the body, and also by culture and situations organized partly by language. Although language is always involved in the complex organization of experience, it is never all that is involved in it. The role of language does not get at all of an experience. But neither are you relating statement to experience for the first time when you explicate. Language is already involved in experience.

For example, the different rooms in a house and the activities that go on in them are developed and differentiated along with the words and phrases used in these activities. Even the house cat experiences each room and its activities differently. Although the cat does not use the words that go with these differences, nevertheless these words are, in a way, implied in the different experiences the cat has with the different rooms. Observable situations are related both to the cat's experiences and to the words that for us structure some of the aspects of these experiences.

Thus when direct experience serves as a basis for statements, it does not do so apart from situations: situational structure is implicit in it. But we can also further structure situations with feelings and words, and in explication we do so.

[Page 293]

The argument against private data has been mistaken by some to imply that one's statements about one's own feelings are incorrigible, that they cannot be found to be in error (or true, therefore). But this is a misunderstanding. We will show that one can both be mistaken and can later correct what one said and believed about one's feelings. But when one states (or corrects) a feeling, one states aspects of the situations in which one has the feelings.

But just as feelings do not have some simple verbal-schematic structure, neither do situations. The complex and arguable nature of the marks for when we use a simple word have already shown that. It may be quite an objective matter, but it is not one that can simply be observed. To delineate situations involves simplifying and further organizing, imposing further patterning upon what is already very complexly patterned. The situations we live in do not come in "handy denotation" packages, nor in any single set of already cut-out units.

We must therefore assert both that experience is already organized in part linguistically and situationally, and that in using experience (or situations) to ground statements upon, we further organize it. We must assert both that this further organizing is not the pattern of the experience, and that it does have something to do with the way the experience is already organized. To state this in the reverse order, the organization of experience is not the kind which we set out in a verbal pattern, although what we do set out in such a pattern has something to do with the experience's own kind of organization. (And, since these are related, with the situation's own kind of organization.)

We must examine and explicate situations, feelings, and language in their relations to each other, realizing that explicating gives them a still further relation.

Functional relations and characteristics of experiencing

In Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning [9] I have set out seven "functional relationships" between experiencing and words. I will cite four of these briefly, to show that we can study these relations in action, and to clarify our later discussion.

1. Direct reference is a use of words to set off, separate out, [[Page 294]]set up some "aspect" of experience which can thereby be called "this" or "that" experience, or "an" experience. The words used may very well be demonstrative pronouns—or they may be somewhat descriptive. Yet what they say is so obviously vague and untenable literally that it is clear that they only "point," if they do anything.

For example, when I spoke of "that feeling" which an inappropriate explication gives one, I was directly referring to your having such a feeling. If you did not have it and had never had it, I might arrange to give it to you, but the phrase "that sour feeling" would not in itself give it to you.

Thus direct reference is a use of words such that an experience is thereby set out. But the words alone do not convey or call out the experience: one must know already with what approach and in what situation to look, and the directly referring phrase must have a result which is definitely not simply that phrase. The result must be a distinguishable aspect of experience which now stands out, so that one can say, "Yes, I know what that is." (You might now say, "But I wouldn't call it 'sour' . . . ," and you might propose another word that I might agree is a better word. Still, my phrase would have succeeded in directly referring.)

It is perfectly possible for the direct reference to either fail or be misunderstood. Though words do structure experience further (into "this" or "an" aspect), nevertheless the experience is not totally the result of schematizing, entirely up to how schematizing proceeds. It is not the mere result of schematizing, since the direct experience may appear, or it may not. If not, then you have only the words. If it does appear it talks back—which may lead you to discard the very words that let it emerge.

We see now, that, far from there being a "pure" preorganized experience which might first be verbalized, even the existence of "an" experience such as "this" one is already a further organizing we have made. To be sure, it need not be words, exactly, which do this, although it can be words. It could be a certain pointing and differentiating attention; we feel "this" and "this" and "that." Hadamard [10] says he often uses dots rather than words, putting a dot down for each separable aspect as he separates them.

2. Recognition is my term for the way in which words seem [Page 295] to have "their own" experience, which they call out in anyone. (Or, we might say that if one is in the kind of situation that gives one that feeling, one then finds that the word comes.) The word seems to call out the feeling, and if we fail to get it we fail to "recognize" the word. The feeling seems to call for that word. If one has the feeling, then the word comes. (One has the feeling in a situation, so the word seems to explicate the situation as well.)

The relationship between words and experience appears here to be a one-to-one relation—the word says the experience, the experience calls for that word. Actually, the experience is much more complex and much different, and if you directly refer to a "recognition feeling" which seems paired with a word, you will find that you could use a great many other words to say what it is. Similarly, there are quite complex situational aspects which give us this feeling and make this word come. But to try to state the recognition feeling differently is quite another relationship between experience and words. For the moment we want to set out this very ordinary, seemingly one-to-one relationship, of words and "their" recognition-feelings, so that each gives you the other.

To make this quite vivid, suppose you are in some situation and feel a certain way for which you know there is a word. You might find yourself unable to think of the word. You then have only "that feeling," to which you can directly refer, but for which you are unable to think of the word. (You can describe this aspect of experience in a roundabout way, seeking to give another person the same sense of the situation so that he might come up with the word. This is again another relation of words and experience, one in which you seek to create the experience in others, not by calling it out with the word, but by putting them, actually or vicariously, through many events until they have it.)

3. Metaphor involves novelty. Here words are used in such a way as to create a new experience. The metaphor or simile is literally about some other situation or experience but is now used about this situation or experience. A metaphor requires direct reference; you must be able to point directly to the experience the metaphor is now about, and permit the metaphor to apply to it. Understanding the metaphor requires a recognition of the usual use of the words. Then, if the metaphor succeeds, some new aspect of the present experience should emerge.

Some people would like to say that such a new experience (and new aspect of a situation, for as usual these are together) [Page 296] is not really new, that the similarity already existed between the present situation and the one that the metaphor derives from. But this is to assume that the world consists of already cut-up, handy "similarities" that only await noticing. Rather, the metaphor involves a further creative organizing, as in direct reference. An aspect of experience emerges, and in the case of metaphor, a new one. Many such new aspects could metaphorically be made to emerge, if one brought many other areas of experience to bear on the present one.

4. Comprehension occurs when an experience or feeling has no regular words, when these must first be made. Usually such words cannot be made up anew, but must consist of new arrangements of extant words, used in a fitting way. As we have seen, if a metaphor is presented to you, it creates a new experiential aspect. But now, let us say you already have the experience and you seek to make words for it. To fashion a new verbalization of an experience or a feeling, you must perform the metaphoric task (so that the old words make a new experiential aspect), but this new aspect must be very close to the one that you already have. Comprehension thus involves direct reference (to this experience you want to verbalize), as well as recognition (the experience or feeling the words usually arouse), and also metaphor (the use of these words to create a new experiential aspect). All three functional relationships are used in such a way that the thereby-made aspect shall be the one you already have, which was to be verbalized.

This is the relation in which words are said to "feel right" or "sound right"; but note how much more complex it is, once the various relations of words and experience are set out. By no means do we need to let it remain at a "feeling right."

There are a number or aspects involved in "feels right," which have just been explicated here. Unless the other relationships are clearly set out, this one cannot be understood. Even without understanding, that is to say, even if you reject my description of each relationship, it is helpful at least to separate the direct reference power of a statement, if it has any, from the (usual or novel) recognition power the words may have. Thus a statement purporting to state some aspect of experience may have direct reference power. It may only half succeed, but by its context, and by what you already have, you may get the experiential aspect it sets out. And yet you may want to reject—not that there is such [Page 297] an aspect—but the way in which the sentence formulates it. This distinction enables us to keep the experiential aspect a statement refers to, at the same time rejecting what the statement says ("I know what you're getting at, but you can't put it that way").

Our earlier examples—"that sour feeling" of an inappropriately used word, and Husserl's "an expression covers"—were attempts at comprehension. In both instances we kept the experiential aspect referred to, but rejected these statements as comprehension.

This short presentation of four relationships in which verbalizing affects experiencing shows that there is a fruitful field of study here, and may invite you to look at the fuller treatment of these relationships.

Experience is never entirely caught in any one relationship to words. It is always possible to refer directly to the experience, to apply patterns from other areas of experience to it, and to permit new aspects of the experience to emerge. Thus there are usually a series of steps or successive versions in an explication.

Neither the first verbal patterning nor the second, and neither the first set of "aspects" of the experience nor the second set, is exactly the experience. Experience can never be equated with our assertions. Rather, we can say something about experience in relation to the fact that one can always schematize further and get, or fail to get, certain experiential results. What character does experience have which is revealed in this fact that we may always schematize further in these different relationships?

To be able to be further schematized is a very striking characteristic of experience. In Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning I examined this possibility of further schematization under nine headings. Here I will use only three: We will find that, in the process of being further schematized, experiencing has no definite units, is responsive to any scheme, and is capable of being schematized by any other experience.

Experiencing is "nonnumerical." We can see this from the fact that direct reference can be made in many ways, each of which sets out some further "this" or "an" aspect. Experiencing does not come as a unit, or set of units, already cut in it. If it does, still quite other units can be set out from it. Although the recognition a word calls forth (or the situation which calls for a certain word) seems superficially to be packaged as a unit by that [Page 298] word, a situation is always potentially multiple. It can always be further differentiated, cut up, unitized.

Experiencing is "multischematic." Something unique (and not just anything you like) will emerge when you apply any scheme. Even if you keep a directly referred aspect "constant," it will respond differently to different schemes. Even when a scheme already seems to do well to organize an experience, other schemes can be applied and will have different results.

Experiences are "interschematizable": I mean by this that any experience (you need direct reference before you have "an" experience) can schematize any other, or be schematized by any other. This is hard to believe and needs examples. You can use any experience as a way of patterning another. Thereby commonalities will, as it were, fall out. With these, you can talk about either experience.

For example, consider what you were doing just before reading this, and use that activity to schematize our discussion. Perhaps you were on a bicycle ride with a friend. Yes, some parts of our discussion were uphill struggles, just as were parts of the bicycle ride, and some were easy and smooth and downhill. (Note: once you apply this bicycling experience to our discussion, you get just certain parts of it which were uphill and just so many. You can't have it just any way; unfortunately you can't have it all downhill. Any scheme applied gives you just certain results.)

Isn't it near madness to claim that any experience can be a scheme for another? Does this mean everything is everything? And it seems mysterious that any experience already contains something that will fall out as common with any other experience. Isn't this a metaphysical assertion? But, no. All we are saying is that a common aspect can be created in the process of schematizing one experience by the other; we don't say such an aspect was there, before.

We are discussing experience in terms of what can be created. What, then, is experience? The word "is" applies to experience only as held static, symbolized in some way, and hence it applies only to both experiencing and its symbolization as a compound.

Here then, is "the" structure of experiencing, not indeed as it "is," but as it is in regard to the next, or any further symbolization!

[Page 299]

Nonnumerical, multischematic, and interschematizable together make up a type of order obviously different from the logical kind. But now, do not these three terms themselves constitute a scheme? Yes, of course. But their value lies in what they say we can do: we can directly refer and unitize; we can apply a scheme and see what we get; we can apply another experience and then schematize and see what we get.

It is quite true that "this" aspect of experience which I am setting forth here, and naming "the character of experiencing," could be formulated very differently than I did above. Not necessarily three but more or fewer characteristics could be set out. One could merge the "nonnumerical" and "multischematic," since they imply each other; one could merge the distinction between extant schemes and schematizing by another experience, thus merging the second and third characteristics. One could then apply some other scheme or experience to lay it out again, and differently. This is one fact we are finding as a characteristic of experience.

The problem now is whether we must think of this fact as a limitation on thinking, or whether there is not, here, the beginning of a more powerful method, closer to the nature of experience and living, which we may develop.

In Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning I presented eight points of method. Here I can only briefly touch on method.

For example, if I directly refer to, and then formulate, some aspect of experience, my formulation will have many logical implications. Must I be trapped by them all? Must I, on the contrary, lose all logical precision? Neither.

I can use any formulation and see what effect it has. If it makes me lose hold of what I wanted to formulate, I will retreat from it immediately. If, on the other hand, it makes new "aspects" of the experience stand out, and especially if these aspects seem important or troublesome, I will hold on to them. It may take a lot of fruitful work for me to find another way to formulate these new aspects, and to examine how my second formulation alters them and whether the difference is important to me, just now.

Two different formulations may be equivalent in regard to some directly referred-to aspect of experience—but only equivalent for the moment and in regard to the present point I want to make. One more step of thought, work, or action, and I might [Page 300] have to retract the asserted equivalence, for now the difference may be important.

I can even insist, in the case of two equivalent formulations, that since their words differ they must be capable of schematizing something different for me, and this can be pushed until it happens, and pushed further until it happens usefully.

Although most thinkers do not intend their schemes to be used in this way, any scheme can be employed as an open scheme—that is to say, it can enable us to refer directly to aspects of experience which may be formulated in a different, and possibly a better way, with many further aspects emerging.

One can be systematic and precise about which of these sort of steps one takes at any given juncture in one's thinking.

Signposts of the explication process

Let us return to our previous example, which, as we have said, was much too simple. You say that I am tired. If you consider your statement to be phenomenological, you will consider your statement wrong if I do not feel tired.

Your statement invites me to see if I am tired. How would I do that? Not by reviewing how long I have worked, and not by looking in the mirror. I can attend to my body directly and see if I find there what is called "tired." That is direct reference. Until you asked me, I paid no attention. Now, in reaction to your words, I seek to set up such "an" experience as we call "tired." If I cannot do so (and, note, this is not a matter of choice), your statement was wrong. Let us suppose that I agree I am "sort of tired."

Let me show how much further we can go than when we first considered this example.

Now suppose I say, "I am not exactly tired, but I am getting a little weary." It is clear that here you were definitely right in some way. Your words succeeded in "directly referring." They were also close in what they conveyed; they were pointing in the right direction. (I might have said, "No, I have a slight toothache.") We do not know as yet why I prefer "weary" to "tired"—they seem to be indistinguishable. "Weary" might perhaps include along with "tired" some sense of some long, drawn-out cause for being tired, and indeed we have been working all day [Page 301] and all evening. (It is this sort of experiential sense of how a word is used, which the linguistic analysts explicate.)

We must note that I probably did not feel tired until you said so. Your saying it made it true by leading me to create, specify, set out, distinguish (these words are equivalent here) "an" experience. Before I tried to refer to it, it wasn't there; now that I do, it is.

Yet, the feeling must be there; I do not just make it. Trying to refer to it, trying to see if I am tired, doesn't always make that feeling. Since now it did, for me, I would want to say that it was there before, only I didn't notice it. Of course, as a "this feeling" it certainly was not there before. (Yet the case is different than if you had suddenly made me tired, perhaps by telling me some heavy news. There is a continuity between how I remember being before, and my direct reference now to this tired feeling; thus the tired feeling is a newly set-out aspect of the over-all experience I was attending to.)

Suppose I now continue to explicate why "weary" seems to be true for me, and "tired" doesn't. I may say next, "Well it's sort of not tired, but tired-of. That's why I said 'weary.' I don't feel like going on to this next job we have to tackle now. It's too tough."

Having said this, which is a more exact version of how I feel (as well as an explication of the use of the word I preferred), I might say, a moment or two later, "I feel like going out and having a good time. I am not at all tired—just so we don't have to get into this next job, it's too hard to do."

Now I am actually denying flatly what seemed above to be "in the right direction," though I really feel no different. I am still talking about "the same thing," and, despite the flat denial of what I said, I hold that what I say now is what my feeling really "was."

As I continue now to say just what it is about the next job that seems so tough, I may say, "Well, it isn't exactly hard to do, but what is hard is that I know they won't like how I'll do it." And then, "The job is really easy." And, again, further, "It isn't so much that I care what they think of it; it's just this one way I care, and that's a way that they're right, really. Gee, I don't care at all what they think! But this one criticism they'll make, I know they're right about that. It's really what I think that I care about." And, further, "I could help it, but I would have to take a [Page 302] day off to study up on how to do it right, and I don't want to do that."

And, again, "Really, I do want to. Every time I hit this sort of thing I wish so much that I could take the time off to learn how to do it, but I just can't give myself the time off. It would seem like a whole day with nothing done. I don't feel any trust in myself if I go and do something that isn't a part of the routine we call work, just doing something because I'd like to do it." And, later, "Hell, I'll do it tomorrow."

This aspect of experience—its vast capacity to be further schematized and unitized in relation to verbalization, and thereby revealing aspects which, we now say, it most truly "was," has not been recognized at all in philosophy until now. Therefore no systematic method has been devised for the various kinds of steps involved in explication.

It is clear from the example that one's own feelings can be stated falsely by oneself, and later corrected. There can be several steps in such correcting.

How may we get at the truth criteria involved in calling such steps a "correcting"? Both feeling and situation are internally complex and capable of having this complexity explicated verbally in various ways.

It is an error to think of situations as already cut up neatly and tritely, so that they need only to be observed and stated, just as it is an error to think of feelings as featureless masses unrelated to situations or words. We have feelings in and of situations. Conversely, situations are not physical facts but predicaments for people's living, desiring, and avoiding. Situation and experience cannot be separated, and both have the characteristic I attributed to experience: they can (and often must) be explicated further.

Thus, again considering our example, I can neither make anything I wish of my feeling and situation, nor can I regard them as given in a defined way. I must structure the situation further. This further structuring must go beyond the way in which the situation is cut and defined—at least in situations that are a problem for me. On the other hand, I must remain in accord with something about the situation—or else no realistic, feasible course of action will emerge. The sense in which I must remain in accord with the situation can be stated as its "non-[Page 303]numerical, multischematic, and interschematizable character."

Although in this brief chapter I deal chiefly with the relation of words and experience, I must say here that speaking and thinking are special cases of action. Experience and situation are always already organized, but are capable of being further schematized and organized not only by verbalization but also by actions. Again, such further structuring can occur in a variety of ways, but it is never arbitrary. For any given action you will get only just what you get, not merely anything at all. In phenomenological explication, as in ordinary action, you must not only interpret a situation, but you must also apply your organization if you are to live in the situation further. That is very different from merely imposing some logical or attractive way of organizing it, and then being able to leave and let it go at that. Thus explication differs from mere deduction. One deals with not only the words and statements but also the experience and situation, and what is or is not revealed in them.

The relationships between experience and verbalization show this character of explication: each relationship involves not only words but a certain effect in experience which they elicit or fail to elicit. One cannot simply wish for the words to have this effect. For example, although I might wish my phrasing to have the power to create an experiential aspect in you, it might fail to have that power. I may wish a word to produce a certain recognition feeling and "be the word for" that, yet it may not be. And, of course, I may from the start wish that my statement not be accepted but used only for its direct reference power; yet it may fail to have such power for you, even in the context and with all you know. Thus each of the relationships I have cited is, in a way, its own truth criterion—if it happens at all.

Therefore, if we can be sure that a given chain of thought or speech is a true phenomenological explication, then we can at least be sure that it will move a step forward in some way. Thus there are truth criteria not for a single statement alone but for a kind of process, a kind of step, each step in relation to an earlier one.

To restate what we have already said, the following signposts help us to recognize when phenomenological explication is going on and when it is not. When phenomenological explication occurs:

[Page 304]
  • (a) Precise defined meanings of words and the defined aspects of situations are used, but they can be further structured and redefined in ways that would not follow from the extant definitions.
  • (b) Something more than what is defined is employed. A not yet cognitively clear sense, feeling, or experience is used. This experience enables one to be dissatisfied with the words and definitions one has. Without it one would have only the statements and would have to either accept or reject them. In explication, on the other hand, a statement often serves to enable a step to be taken, and yet the statement cannot be accepted. Something directly referred to is involved in addition to statements.
  • (c) Aspects, and aspects within aspects, of this experience can be found.
  • (d) Demonstrative words such as "this" or "it" are used importantly, and yet such words alone convey little or nothing.
  • (e) Several different descriptive words may be used for the "same thing," despite the fact that literally they mean different things. Such different words can have quite different effects even in regard to the present experience, and one may ignore this, or pursue it.
  • (f) Previous assertions which enabled important steps forward may later be flatly denied.
  • (g) Whatever one now says is held to be what the experience "was" all along.
  • (h) Earlier false steps are believed to have been in the right direction, despite the fact that they are flatly contradicted now.
  • (i) What is at first simply physically "felt" becomes explicated in words that are about situations and world (not in feeling-tone words such as "dull" or "sharp" or "intense").
  • (j) Despite revealing new aspects and despite its changing, what is talked about is held to remain "the same" (not literally "the same"; it is obviously capable of various organizations and aspects).

If we accept the explication process of steps instead of a good or bad, single-step statement, we are in the position of caring less about "what" the statement says and more about "how" it relates and affects the experience: we are interested in the effects of the statement.

[Page 305]

We have already cited some characteristics of an explicative step. Although its ultimate truth value is not firm, but depends on what subsequent steps will reveal, its characteristics as explication (or not) are quite firm.

In regard to our initial problem, we have denied that explication statements simply describe, state, or read off experience without changing it. Instead, we propose a method in which a statement can be used as exactly relative to the change it makes in the experience, or—more fairly said—to the kind of relationship it has with experience in the process of being further schematized. There are several such relationships that need to be distinguished. Each enables us to determine a statement's use as relative to that relation. Thereby certain specific methodic moves also become specifiable.

We rejected "feels right" or "sounds right" as a criterion, and instead found the several specific relationships involved. Explication always involves direct reference—and may succeed relative to that relationship—yet it may fail to achieve verbalizations we can accept. Far from being right if it feels right, such a statement is likely to succeed in directly referring and yet fail quite obviously in what it formulates. Even if the failure is not obvious, there is always the possibility of further differentiation of new aspects, as well as further formulation.

This phenomenological method makes the process, relationships, and steps of explication (rather than any given statements) basic. As I will now try to show, this shift from what is said to how it is related to experience has basic applicability to many fields.

The method may seem as if it launches us on an endless progression, but even here there are methodic ways of knowing when a desirable stopping point is reached; again the stopping point is not a final statement of an experience, but rather a way of structuring words or situations adequately so that some living, some action, or some intellectual task may be carried out. With respect to the final nature of experience there is no stopping point to statement, because the nature of experiencing vis-à-vis further structuring is precisely that it can be further structured, and in several different ways. There are steps rather than statement.

I have tried to show that this avenue can lead to a systematic [Page 306] analysis of relationships between verbalizations and experience, a systematic characterization of experience in these relations, and systematic rules of method.

The strategy of looking at the "how" of a process, rather than at the "what" of single step statements, has many applications. Let me cite one.

In ethics, for example, it is said that a person has "reasons" for his actions, even if these are not always apparent to him. But what an oversimplification it is, then, to adduce these reasons—without taking into account the nature of experiencing characterized here!

In ethics, one must first recognize this character of experiencing. One must then see that any "reasons" stated may bear the several kinds of relationships to experience that we have outlined or alluded to. Further steps of explication are always possible. It will be better, for a philosophical ethics, to turn ninety degrees, and instead of calling some reasons good and others bad, to characterize the kind of decision-making process that arrives at "good" results. There is much adulation of spontaneity and feeling-expression today, but only some actions and speakings are related to feeling-experience in this good way. A different kind of relation obtains in impulsive behavior which is worse and less grounded than thinking alone. Still a third type of relation obtains for people who have explicit "reasons" that are not even explications of the experiencing leading to the action. Even a fourth relation is possible: one may truly have explicit "reasons" for an action (truly, that is to say, not as a rationalization or disconnected cover for experienced reasons) that are experiential and yet have nothing to do with what the reason is or says—as when a person tries to act in accord with some principle not for its own sake, but because he wishes to be loyal to a certain group holding that principle. Here we would need to explicate his experience—not of that reason and not the experience leading to the action, but of what led him to such loyalty to that group.

I cannot discuss ethics here. The single paragraph above illustrates, however, that the strategy of a ninety-degree turn may be fruitful in a variety of fields. The strategy is one of characterizing the "how," and of allowing the "what" to change step-by-step—being very precise, however, about these steps.

I will now discuss the application of experiential philosophy to psychotherapy research and psychology generally.

[Page 307]

Psychotherapy Theory and Practice

In psychology too, the shift has been a basic and fruitful one: from the consideration of only structures and patterns to the consideration of the structure-experiencing relationship. This cross-cutting type of variable, the phenomenological consideration of the relationship of statements or thoughts to experiencing, has been found fruitful in psychological research. [11] I want to report in detail one chain of such research which has become important in that field.

In psychotherapy it is common for a patient to work on a direct referent, "an" experiencing he feels quite strongly and yet does not cognitively understand. The kind of sequence illustrated by our example of "tired" is quite common. Not one, but a whole sequence of explicative statements occurs, each step bringing a shift in this so-called "same" experiencing. The change wanted in psychotherapy is not some final true statement but the continuation-and-change in the bodily felt experiencing which occurs in such steps.

All psychotherapists and psychotherapy patients know the difference between statements that are merely true and—much rarer—statements which make an experiential difference. Every psychotherapist has found that interpretations are often ineffective even when they are quite correct. One can say something about oneself which one understands quite well, and which one feels ought to be different; yet there is no change. One's feelings and behavior remain as they were, even though one can now explain the problem, trace its origin, and show why and how the change is desired. Freud [12] discusses the fact that the intellectual acceptance of an interpretation does not necessarily make a difference in the way a patient feels and acts. The task of psychotherapy is not to devise correct interpretations, but as Freud said, to "work [them] through," to concretely live and experience the trouble and its change. Freud said that this was the most crucial [Page 308] part of any analysis, but he said very little about how to make it happen. We are told that it happens in transference, that is to say, in the relationship between patient and analyst, but the process is left as a rather obscure struggle. Most of Freud's writings concern what human beings typically find in these explorations, what interpretations may be about, but he says very little about how interpretations may be effective in this process of working-through, and why so often they are not.

Fenichel, who systematized most of Freud's work, is more specific: An interpretation, to be effective, he says, must be given

only at one immediate point, namely where the patient's immediate interest is momentarily centered, . . . interpretation means helping something unconscious become conscious by naming it at the moment it is striving to break through. In giving an interpretation, the analyst seeks to intervene in the dynamic interplay of forces, to change the balance in favor of the repressed in its striving for discharge. The degree to which this change actually occurs is the criterion for the validity of an interpretation. [13]

The phenomenological approach is, of course, much more familiar with the problems of dealing with direct experience. Phenomenologists reject the Freudian explanatory concepts (such as theoretical "forces"), and therefore would reject the above explanation of why some interpretations are effective. But in rejecting the Freudian concepts (of "forces" and of the "unconscious"), phenomenologists are not quite able to account for all the observations Freud was concerned about. Some interpretations are effective and elicit material seemingly not there before, which, however, in some way, is experienced also as always having been there. However, with the philosophic method I have outlined, a more powerful phenomenology can both reject Freud's explanatory scheme and still hold to the direct experience and observation he described. In every effective psychotherapy, the patient feels an experiential shift as a result of (some few) effective interpretations, whether made by analyst or patient. Many other statements have no such effect.

If we look phenomenologically, but with our new method, at what Freudians mean by the "unconscious," we note that—at least in the above instance—they mean the common occurrence [Page 309] in which a person will for a time have confused but quite conscious feelings, which then later "shift" and "open up into" statements which seem to state what the earlier confused feeling really was.

To so restate the "unconscious" is to restate it in terms of a relationship between experience and explicatory statements.

Let us further delineate psychotherapy by using terms that concern the relation between experiencing and statement. It is one task of philosophy to criticize the concepts used in science and to fashion new and better kinds of concepts. Let us see if we have done so.

As we have seen, it is very common in psychotherapy for a patient to have a difficult and confused feeling for which he cannot find the proper words—at least not for some time. Not only can he not find words, but the feeling itself is also confused and partly closed to him. He would not say, "I know what I feel but I can't find words." He would say, "I am not sure what I feel, but I sure feel it . . ." He might call it "that funny feeling I get when . . . ," or "this knot in my stomach," or he might use some other such phrase which in itself cannot convey any specific feeling. Yet it is clear that the patient uses the phrase in order to hold on to the specific feeling or sense he has. We recognize this as the relation between experiencing and statement that we earlier termed "direct reference."

Direct reference (along with statements or with a pointing attention such as Hadamard's [14]) is likely to affect the experience. If the patient will keep referring directly (and this may be somewhat difficult to do), specific aspects of this feeling will form, and although this, of course, is a major change, he will say that he now has his feeling more clearly. Perhaps he now can say it. The words he fashions are usually metaphoric, but designed to convey the specific aspect to which he directly refers (we called it Comprehension).

Quite often the process is not so swift. Both patient and therapist may make many true and trenchant statements valid in their own right, but without any felt effect. Psychotherapy can be defined as a search for the few statements—about five percent—that do have such a directly felt effect.

A statement which does have an immediately felt effect leads, [Page 310] as I have already said, to a further explicating of a somewhat changed texture of situational detail. Now the patient can say a more specific "this" and "that," usually in terms of situations—how he lives, feels, and acts in them. Such comprehension further shifts his experiencing. Unless the difficulty was resolved in one such step, which is rare, he soon feels again the incompleteness or difficulty he is working on—only the confusion he now feels differs from what it was before. He moves into his next step, where he may again stay for some time.

The steps in this process are like the steps in our example, which led from feeling "sort of tired" to not wanting to do the next task. Such a step, as we saw, often leads one to entirely different situational concerns from the ones thought to be relevant to the last step. Had we not gone on with the directly felt experience, we would have been stuck in long discussions about the considerations which seemed relevant at each step. We would have discussed how long the person was working, instead of what was hard about the next task. Or we would have discussed why that task is hard to perform, when at the next step the problem turned out to have nothing to do with its difficulty. We would have discussed how "they" will react and whether "they" are wise and fair or not, when again at the next step that would have turned out not to matter. Thus it is wise to return after each step to the directly felt experiencing of whatever difficulty is left, rather than engaging in statements not related to the direct experiencing of the moment.

A psychotherapy is phenomenological, according to my theoretical reformulation, if its words and vocabulary are used in relation to experiencing. Unfortunately many therapists of all persuasions prefer to argue with their patients, rather than constantly referring to their concretely-had experiencing, rather than foregoing each, however interesting, set of considerations for the revised interpretations of the next step.


For many years, the leading research problem in psychotherapy has been the measurement of whether or not effective psychotherapy is taking place. In the past twenty-five years many cases have been tape-recorded, but the many attempts to define the differing problems that patients verbalize, or methods thera-[Page 311]pists use, have failed to show any relationship to outcome. Methods emphasizing different, supposedly "basic" psychological factors, show about the same degree of success. Different orientations of therapists concentrate respectively on sexual problems, infantile experiences, life styles, self-concepts, interpersonal relationships, or other kinds of "basic" contents. These differences do not seem to matter. Some therapies are successful and some fail, with or without any of these content areas. The resolution of this problem along phenomenological lines lies instead in studying how patient and therapist talk, rather than what they talk about.

The usual method in research was to give the patient psychological tests before the therapy began and after it ended, and then to establish whether or not change resulted. Sometimes it did, and as often it did not. But there was no way to study psychotherapy directly, and hence no accounting for why each method and emphasis sometimes succeeded and sometimes not.

Nor was it possible to measure the outcome of psychotherapy, since psychotherapy could not even be defined. One could measure the before-and-after change in a great number of cases and in different methods, but all that these cases had in common was that therapist and patient intended something undefined, called psychotherapy, to happen. It was clear that the ongoing process itself needed defining, but how to do so? Whenever those factors that most writers held to be basic were tested, it was found that they did not necessarily provide for a successful outcome. Interpretation, transference, discussions of supposedly basic contents did occur, but sometimes the outcome would be successful and sometimes not. About the only finding relating outcome to what occurred during psychotherapy was that those patients who later showed the most change made more positive statements about themselves in the later interviews that in the earlier ones, a finding that is clearly about the result and not the source of therapeutic change.

Using the relationships between experience and statement earlier cited, and the signposts of experiential explication they led to, it became possible to define and make operationally observable the kind of verbalizing that effective psychotherapy involves. The train of thought and steps of statement in effective psychotherapy clearly differ from narrative (and then this happened, and then that happened . . .) or logical deduction (and [Page 312] so it follows that such and such must be so). Instead, effective steps of verbalization are connected through relations to directly felt experiencing and, as we have seen, move in the kind of steps we defined. How such steps follow each other is understandable, but not by situational narrative, since the relevant situational considerations differ after each step of experiential explication. The steps are understandable, but not logically; in fact there is often a seeming flat contradiction and denial of what was affirmed earlier. One may see this, for example, in such transitions as the one from "I don't want to." to "I do want to, but..."

Working from signposts such as those already listed, and others, it was possible to devise and Experiencing Scale, [15] consisting of descriptions of specific aspects of verbalizations that can be observably noticed in tape-recorded psychotherapy. Using this scale independently, different individuals have arrived at measurably close scores.

A whole series of studies [16] has now shown that, indeed, those cases that score high on the Experiencing Scale during psychotherapy result in successful change. Successful outcome can be predicted from a surprisingly small number of short excerpts, in some studies merely from four, four-minute segments, so consistent, apparently, is the presence or absence of the experiential mode of doing psychotherapy in a given case.

As we have seen, the Experiencing Scale measures how the patient works in psychotherapy, not what he says, or what areas of concern he works on. He is successful to the extent that he refers directly to, and explicates, what he directly feels, and follows the steps through which experiential explication leads. He fails to the extent that he only explains or narrates (although everyone does some of these latter).

This measure is currently the only gauge which enables us to determine whether or not effective psychotherapy is currently taking place. The findings strongly imply that these experiential signposts are indicative of whatever makes therapy effective.

Possibilities for further research have also been greatly en-[Page 313]larged, because we now no longer need to wait until the termination of therapy in order to measure individual cases. Previously, if an investigator wanted to test whether a given procedure or factor was related to a positive outcome, the tape recordings of completed cases had to be collected. Now one can test the effect of the factor by using the tape recordings of just a few interviews before and after the introduction of the procedure (or with, or without, the given factor); one can test swiftly whether or not the factor makes for an effective therapeutic process.

To further show what this scale measures, let me cite an example.


CLIENT: I'm trying to rewrite some of these papers, before I send them out with my Vita to find a job. It's only December, and it ought to be ok to spend two weeks rewriting them—nobody is going to give me a job over Christmas anyway. But I sit there and I can't let myself start. It seems like it's so urgent I ought to send them out today, right away. I can't work on them so I'll have to go and send them in the shape they're in.

THERAPIST: Well, maybe you could give yourself one week? Do they really need rewriting, or is it perfectionism?

CLIENT: No, I can't even give it a day. But there are some plain, obvious bad spots in the papers that I know how to fix. I just have no confidence at all that I can get a job. (Long conversation lost in details of papers, time, and hiring policies.)


THERAPIST (picking something that he wished the client would have an experiential sense of and go into): Is the urgent feeling that you don't think you'll find a job?

CLIENT: Yeah. No. Well, something like that. (Keeps quiet awhile.) I'm so mad at myself.

THERAPIST (thinking he's angry at himself for not being able to work and fix the papers): It's urgent, and you're mad at yourself for being tied up.

CLIENT: No, I'm just mad. (Long silence.) It's like, I should send the papers out in bad shape, because that would serve me right. I didn't do them right and now it's too late. It's my father [Page 314]you didn't do it when you should have done it, so now go take your punishment. (Shakes his head.) Well, now I can work on them, but isn't that something?

THERAPIST: You've still got his kind of ethic in you—you didn't do it right, so suffer.

CLIENT: It has something to do with his dying last year, I would say it must have something to do with that.

THERAPIST (not wanting to get off on the dying part, which seems extraneous): It's a punishing, critical, go-suffer kind of angry.

CLIENT: Yes, it's him. (Long silence.) It's because he died.

THERAPIST (understanding the connection now): It's your way of hanging on to him.

CLIENT: No, he's hanging on to me. That's the only relationship he had to me.

THERAPIST: It's the bond between you.

CLIENT (emphatically): Yes, that's the way it feels. (Long silence, then with mixed hate and love and slight tearfulness.) You old sonofabitch, why you old sonofabitch.

This bit of psychotherapy illustrates the signposts that are a constant feature of psychotherapy: What is being worked on is an experiential "something," the nature and change of which takes surprising turns. Remaining on the initial level of attitudes and circumstances makes for no therapeutic change (though it can be valuable in other respects). The felt, directly-referred to, experiential sense of what is troubling the individual produces a series of steps whose verbal statements follow our signposts of explication. What seemed to be the subject matter changes, is even opposite to what had been thought—yet there is the continuity of a "same thing." The experiential process has steps which, in retrospect, have the peculiar "was" structure of explication (despite what I said then, what I say now is what it "was" all along).

The therapist, be it noted, is as often wrong as right, but the statements are used phenomenologically, to point to what is being experienced. Lengthy explanatory schemes could be introduced at every point, but these would only hold up psychotherapeutic movement and would not produce the next step.

It can be seen that the scale is interdenominational; it will fit any school of psychotherapy, whatever its vocabulary. Even "behavior therapy," which is usually contrasted to psychotherapy [Page 315] and uses behaviorist language in its theories and with patients, has been found similar on these indexes. [17]

There is one other area of psychological research to which the Experiencing Scale has been applied: old age. People in their seventies go through a process called "life review," wherein they attempt to cope with the meaning to them of all that has happened in their lives. Some ten years ago, in a major project at the University of Chicago, old-age-home residents were given five quite simple questions: "What is it like when you feel happy?" (sad, lonely, etc.). When their answers to this questionnaire were recently measured on the Experiencing Scale, it was found that those who were high on the scale had significantly more often survived into their eighties than those who were low on the scale. We interpret this to mean that "life review" is similar to psychotherapy, that both involve the same experiential process, that is to say, an organismic and bodily process whose manner affects life in a bodily concrete way.

Psychotherapy is not the only field in which the signposts of experientially related verbalization are important. We may want to measure the extent to which children in a classroom are engendered to think out their own experience of subject-matter they are encountering. We may want to know which kinds of children, fields, or methods of teaching maximize this process and which minimize it. Can the same indexes measure this? No, the actual measure has to be devised freshly for each new field and context, but the kind of indexes to be used are the same. Thus, in measuring the effectiveness of almost any activity, one may ask: Are there observable marks to indicate whether or not what is going on is experientially related and engenders experientially concrete steps? This form of question is likely to lead one to an effective research instrument through a shift from studying what, to studying how, a shift from an emphasis on the patterns of speech and action to an emphasis on what these patterns do or do not do in regard to concrete and ongoing experiencing.

For example, suppose we wanted to measure authenticity of choice and decision-making. It is unlikely that this can be done by studying what people choose, or what value-conclusions they [Page 316] arrive at. It is likely that authenticity will become definable in terms of how an individual arrives at a value-conclusion, rather that what it is. Has the person experientially explicated various feelings and unclear commitments, loyalties, fears, and wants, and thus arrived at a value-conclusion? Was it taken over knowingly from some respected source, but without as yet relating to the person's own experiencing? Or has the person succumbed to a confusing and not clearly known pressure or wish to appear in certain ways to others? These three possibilities, if measured, would predict very different behavior and results, even though the value-conclusion itself might be the same. [18]

Creativity, an area that has been widely studied in psychology, also involves indexes of this type. What characterizes it is "how" it occurs. The uncreative individual has been characterized negatively as "stimulus-bound", i.e., not able to let go of the usual or given form of something so that a novel one may arise. There is now some experiential research that offers positive definitions of what one does do when one does not hold to an extant form. A person's own description of how he proceeded would reveal whether or not he referred directly to experiential aspects, and whether the first bits of structured form he obtained were or were not related to his experiencing in the ways I have defined. To measure this, one would need to devise specific indexes in accord with the range of comments people make about their own thinking. It is, however, already somewhat clear that those who are creative are able to focus their attention directly on what is being experienced but is not yet cognitively clear, just as the successful patient does in psychotherapy, and the successful phenomenologist does when he explicates.

Again I want to emphasize that specific signposts need to be formulated for each different process. I do not wish to say that the same process occurs in all these different settings What is the same is the study of the relationships between what is structured, patterned, formulated, or explicit, and the ways in which experiencing is affected by these relationships. Such an approach, I find, is a more effective research approach than studying the patterns and contents as such. Either way, one studies formed and patterned observable data, but the marks or sign-[Page 317]posts one seeks, the "variables" one defines and counts, differ. Advances in research do not usually come from merely relating already existing variables; new observations must first be defined and set up as demarcated variables. In this respect observation is at first as "implicit" as feeling. It has been fruitful to define observable variables by means of the philosophy of experiencing, which raises this type of question: How does whatever we seek to study differ observably when it is in certain relations to concrete experiencing, as against when it lacks these relations? This is a shift from what to how.

Other theoretical issues

In our discussion of the psychoanalytic views of "unconscious" and "interpretation," with direct reference to experiencing, instead of as part of an explanatory machinery, we have employed a shift in theoretical formulation.

How to conceive of the "unconscious" has long been a problem. One view is that it consists of unobservable ideas lying somewhere outside a person's thought. But these cannot be measured so that they might then be compared with what is later said, so that we may know if what is later said is what was unconscious before.

Phenomenology and empirical research are similar in discarding merely imputed constructs which do not at any point lead to experience. Therefore, the concept of the unconscious has not been very useful in research, nor is it usually accepted by phenomenologists. But the method we have developed allows us to reformulate the unconscious theoretically. Instead of considering it in terms of a hidden place, or unthought ideas, we reformulate it according to relationships between statement and experience and steps of explication. In this way we define the specific observable differences which mark what a Freudian would call "something unconscious breaking through." For, while the unconscious may be unobservable, the signposts are observable: they distinguish from other statements those that now say what an earlier confused experience "was," and refer to or comprehend directly the experiential effect of such statements. I am sure that such statements can be mimicked even without experiential effect, but such mimicking is not usual and would require a good actor, poet, or seasoned patient. Theoreti-[Page 318]cally, the implication is neither simply that there is no unconscious, nor that the unconscious consists of complete thoughts and experiences that happen outside of consciousness. Rather, experience can be understood as a process in itself and thus as capable of further structuring which has not yet occurred. The capacity of experience to be further structured (in thought and action) is "the unconscious"—the not indeterminate, but also not finally formed character of experience. Thus the unconscious includes bodily, evolutionary, cultural, verbal, situational, and personal aspects which have much to do with what can or cannot be further said and done but are not sayings and deeds. [19]

We should not allow phenomenology to be so shallow as to simply deny the unconscious. Phenomenology need not be limited to one-step descriptions of some experience; [20] however elaborate and interesting such descriptions can be in themselves, they take off from experience but do not return to it. The important criteria for phenomenology lie not only in beginning with experience, but also in returning constantly to it and allowing it to have the corrective force which the occurrence of experiential effects gives it. When one explicates a difficult text, it is not enough to take off from some line and spin an interesting interpretation; one must return to the text and see if the interpretation sheds light on other lines in the text, whether it solves or shifts difficulties. If it has no such effects, then the interpretation of the given line was simply a digression, interesting for its own sake perhaps, but not attributable to this text. Thus a phenomenological psychology need not be baffled by the very real problems to which the theory of the "unconscious" is such a poor answer. It need only concern itself with steps of explication, rather than remaining fixed at one point. [21]

Steps of explication and their signposts give criteria for the truth of the next statement, only in relation to the previous. But then neither are there final statements in ordinary science. The next discovery may overturn previously well-established statements. Phenomenological explication steps have criteria which [Page 319] can be called criteria of continuity. The relationships I have outlined do not simply produce abrupt changes in what is experienced. On the contrary, despite change and despite contradictory statements, the individual will have the insistent sense that "this" is now "really" what that earlier experience "was." Thus there is continuity: there is neither flat identity nor an abrupt new thing. Experience has its own kind of order, different from logic and defined events. Experience can always be "carried further," but not in just any way, only in some ways. These ways may have to be found or invented, but until they occur, the explicative continuity does not exist.

Thus, it is possible to make some seemingly convenient statement, explication, or value-conclusion which might state what one feels or wishes or desires, but which lacks the signposts of experiential explication. In that case it is quite likely that much of what is felt (and thus much that is important in living in situations with others) has not been carried further. What one says is not continuous with the many considerations that are "unconscious." Actually one can feel many of these, with awareness if one wishes, but cognitively they are unclear and only later come to have specifiable aspects.

A phenomenological ethics, for example, cannot do without experiential explication and its signposts. It is both a methodological and a moral error to say that authentic choice is nothing more than individual choice. What matters is how one does it. One may base decision on "experience" in the sense in which it is already identified and defined (for instance, as a desire to do such and such). Or one might simply follow the strongest passion, speaking and acting in ways that have poorer grounding than if moral precepts were used, however insufficient these might be. It is better for speech and action to be based on "experience" than on thought alone—but only if they are "based" in such a way as to give us more than do formulated thoughts alone. This will be the case only if the thinking is explicating and continuing the experiencing. Without specific criteria to help us recognize when this is so, everything becomes arbitrary.

[1] S. Cavell, "Must We Mean What We Say?," in Ordinary Language, ed. Vere C. Chappell (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964).

[2] E.T. Gendlin, "What Are The Grounds of Explication?," in The Monist, XLIX, no. 1 (January, 1965).

[3] J. L. Austin, "The Meaning of a Word," in Philosophical Papers (Oxford, 1961), pp. 29-30.

[4] M. Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1927); English translation by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Being and Time (London: SCM, 1962).

[5] M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945); English translation by Colin Smith, Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Humanities Press, 1962).

[6] E. Husserl, Logische Untersuchungen, 3 vols., 3d ed. (Halle: Niemeyer, 1921-22), Vol. II, pt. II, Investigation VI; English translation by J. N. Findlay, Logical Investigations (New York: Humanities Press, 1970).

[7] Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie: Erstes Buch (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1950), par. 124; English translation by W. R. Boyce Gibson, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (New York: Humanities Press, 1931: paperback ed., New York: Collier Books, 1962) (present translation slightly modified).

[8] L. Wittgenstein, Philosophic Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1953), p. 656.

[9] E.T. Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (New York: Free Press, 1962), pp. 91-137.

[10] J. Hadamard, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (New York: Dover, 1945), pp. 76-77.

[11] E.T. Gendlin, "Galvanic Skin Response Correlates of Different Modes of Experiencing," Journal of Clinical Psychology, XVII, no. I (1961), pp. 73-77.

[12] S. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York: Bantam Books, 1959).

[13] O. Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1945), pp. 25-32.

[14] Hadamard, Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field.

[15] M. Klein, P. Mathieu-Coughlan, D. Kiesler, E.T. Gendlin, The Experiencing Scale Manual (Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Psychiatric Institute, 1969).

[16] E.T. Gendlin et. al., "Focusing Ability in Psychotherapy, Personality and Creativity," in Research in Psychotherapy, ed. J. Schlien, Vol. III (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1967)

[17] B. Weitzman, "Behavior Therapy and Psychotherapy," Psychological Review, 1967.

[18] E.T. Gendlin, "Values and the Process of Experiencing," in The Goals of Psychotherapy, ed. Alvin R. Mahrer (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1967).

[19] E.T. Gendlin, "A Theory of Personality Change," in Creative Developments, ed. Alvin R. Mahrer (Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1971).

[20] E.T. Gendlin, "Expressive Meanings," in Invitation to Phenomenology, ed. James M. Edie (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1965).

[21] E.T. Gendlin, "Experiential Explication and the Problem of Truth," Journal of Existentialism, VI, no. 22 (1966).

Note to Readers:
  • How Do I Refer To This Document? An example reference is at the top of this page. Please include the Internet address in the reference, even if you cite the document in a printed article, so that others can find the Gendlin Online Library.
  • Can I Link Directly To This Document? Yes. We encourage you to link directly to it from your own online documents. We have built "hooks" into this web page to make it very easy to connect to individual pages and headings in the text. For examples, see: How to Link to The Gendlin Online Library.
  • Biographic Note: Eugene T. Gendlin is a seminal American philosopher and psychologist. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and taught there from 1963 to 1995. His philosophical work is concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. Philosophy books include Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy edited by David Michael Levin, (fourteen commentaries and Gendlin’s replies), and A Process Model. There is a world wide network of applications and practices ( stemming from this philosophy. Gendlin has been honored three times by the American Psychological Association for his development of Experiential Psychotherapy. He was a founder and editor for many years of the Association’s Clinical Division Journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. His book Focusing has sold over half a million copies and has appeared in seventeen languages. His psychology-related books are Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy.
  • If you see any faults in this document please send us an email.
  • Add a comment to the Gendlin Online Blog for this article.
  • See the reference for this document in the Gendlin primary bibliography.
  • More on Science/Research from the Focusing Institute website.
  • More on Philosophy of the Implicit from the Focusing Institute website.
  • More on Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy from the Focusing Institute website.
Document #2101 version 070613 build 071008