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On the New Epistemology

Excerpts from Gene Gendlin's awards talk at the American Psychological Association, August 6, 2000

Thank you very much. I appreciate the award, especially when it isn't just to me, but also to the Focusing Institute. It's nice to be in a friendly crowd. I can assume that you will immediately nod when I say the conception of a human being implicit in our science and institutions isn't really you and me. The whole humanistic movement has been an attempt to keep alive the sense that the human being is a whole lot more than what our theories can say.

How we can understand our own understanding? We need to understand knowledge differently. We need a different kind of science about human beings, which notices that the person in front of us is more complex, more intricate, wiser, something more than concepts. This new Science is positioned on the interface between concepts and whatever you want to call the other thing. I'm going to call the other thing us--the interface between the concepts and us.

The interface is roughly something like: do the concepts connect, do they open up, do you feel, see, be, do more, now that you've used this concept, or does it cut you off from yourself or the other person? Concepts are tools that enable you to do something you can't do without them. There is an epistemology in which you go back and forth between all the conceptual machinery and the other half, which is you and me.

It's silly to attack science. Without science the light wouldn't go on. The airplane wouldn't have brought you. This science that reduces everything to graph paper and mathematics is the most successful science that the human race has ever had. The usual science divides everything up into little pieces and studies each separately. Then out of pieces that you understand separately, you put them together to get the thing you study again. If you can construct the thing you study, then you really understand it. If you take a watch apart, understand each piece, understand how they go together, put them back together and it ticks and it keeps time, you understand the watch. That's not false.

However, there are somewhat important things which, when you take them apart and understand the pieces separately and put them back together, you don't get it again, because the pieces separately are dead. When you take inanimate pieces and put them together, you don't get a live thing. There's something about living things which that kind of science cannot deal with.

Ecology approaches science from the opposite direction. You have to understand the whole, or the parts won't help you. Scientists studied fishing off of Newfoundland. "We have made many tests, there's nothing wrong, the fish are healthy. There are just as many as 20 years ago." The ecologists say "within 3 years the fish will be gone." Three years later, the fish are gone. How did they know? They studied the whole system. They study where the fish mate and what they eat and what they need to breathe.

But, human beings disappear in both of these sciences. We study genes, sell a woman's eggs, take drugs that nobody knows exactly what they will do. In holistic science we appear briefly, but then we are evaporated into this vast system that we're a part of, and so again we're not there.

The third approach I call process, by which I mean some event, not everything. We can be precise about a process, but not about the parts, because they change, and not about the whole context it's in. A process has certain marks, and we can specify under what conditions you get it and its results.

I want to point to the interface between concepts and you in the chair. Any living thing, a plant, any tissue is already an interaction. It's not that it's here and its environment is around it. It is an interaction, not a thing. It breathes; it lives itself forward through the interaction with the environment. It's a process. Tissue process already has its own sense making, its own intricate way of creating its next moment, it's next step, it's next event. Even tissue is the kind of body that is the knowing of its environment.

Animals do much more. They move around. From the regular science point of view, they move like a brick from this point here at this time to that point here at that time. Animals don't do that. They move with feedback from the environment. Animal behavior is not just movement in empty space. An animal moves with its whole body getting feedback from the thing its moving toward or away from.

In the regular notion, human beings have lost their instincts and are just culture products. It's true when you look at human beings across cultures, we don't share anything like as much as any animal species. Any given species of animals sleep the same, have intercourse the same, eat the same things. We have been varied and complexified, elaborated, made more intricate and in different ways. We certainly have cultural routines. This whole talk is going on in a cultural routine; otherwise you wouldn't sit there and let me talk nonstop at you. But the body starts out already as tissue with a great deal of internal organization and then becomes an animal , in a evolutionary way of talking, in which tissue processes are organized so the animal can move around and go after something, and then it becomes culturally human.

It's totally false that we don't have bodies that tell us what to do. When you walked into this room you behaved appropriately, in terms of all the cultural routines, but that wasn't all you did. You saw somebody you knew, so you smiled at him or her, and then you saw somebody else you knew, but don't like, so you avoided them. Then you saw somebody else you knew, and you gave him or her a big hug. Then you waved to the person that you came with and then you maneuvered around, and you found a place to sit. All those things you did without having to say in words to yourself, "Now watch it. Don't smile too hard at this person. Don't forget you're mad at them. Why again, oh because they did this." You didn't have to do that, because your organism has all that information. It knows what the person did that made you mad. It knows why you're avoiding them. Before you even can think about it, you've already gone the other way, and it's the same with the smile you give somebody. It's just the right smile. It you try to do it artificially, you won't even do it right. It takes your whole organism to produce the exactly right smile.

We constantly exceed culture. Any little thing, any big thing is precultural, because it is tissues and it is animal life, and it's culture and it's also after culture, more complicated than culture. The body is this much more complex, much more intricate system from the start. In the third Science, we have to think about living bodies as self-sense making processes. The new epistemology needs to use concepts that specify these processes, which always move on past any concepts.


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