Home > Philosophy > 1997 After Postmodernism Conference > Gendlin (specific 1)

On Cultural Crossing

E. T. Gendlin
University of Chicago

from "HOW PHILOSOPHY CANNOT APPEAL TO EXPERIENCE, AND HOW IT CAN." In Levin, D.M., ed. Language Beyond Postmodernism: Thinking and Speaking in Gendlin's Philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern U. Press, 1997.

Today in American philosophy and social science a merely verbal cultural particularism is dominant. I have long argued that one should not use this formulation if one does not mean it. In the urban United States the cross-cultural human being is so obvious that its assumption is not even noticed. There has also been no way to state it. I argue that we should avow it, and I offer a use of words and concepts that can articulate it.

Hatab thinks we share "nothing" with another culture, only an abyss, but he means that it is nothing formed. He assumes that the abyss brings compassion, but it can bring quite the opposite, as in Bosnia or with Dostoyevsky's Ivan. And compassion shows rather (as James Watson says) that the abyss is a lie. You feel the other people -- isn't that what com-passion is? We need to articulate what this compassion knows.

If besides cultural forms there were nothing, then our next step of speech or action would always be consistent with the given cultural forms. There being nothing else, nothing could open them. We could individualize this only in details subsumable under the cultural forms. Hatab does not mean this. His "nothing" is anything but nothing.

With and after culture, humans are-for carrying forward. Humans are implicitly open for further steps that can alter all determinants. That explains how people can criticize their own culture from within it. It could be done only from another culture, if there were nothing in humans but what their culture gives them.

Kant and Hegel assumed that nature is only a machine. Hegel wrote before Darwin; nature seemed to consist only of repetitious patterns in Euclid's geometric space. For Hegel only humans change the essences and make real time -- historical time, history. Therefore humans have no nature. This view still underlies current thinking. Mechanistic logic depends on fixed units. It is graph-paper. Machines are concretized graph paper. Nature was misunderstood as a machine.

Nature is intricate. It opens into all sorts of novelty. Single cells are vastly complex. Animals live complicated lives. Human sense-making is nature-emergent. We can use the word "nature" to say that nature is such that it could develop into animals and human beings. That seems obvious - since we are here. Nature's order is such that our own new sense-making can happen in it. Nature is not a machine.

If we take away what the cultures variously carry forward, very little is left. The cultures elaborate eating, sleep, procreation, and human relations differently, so it seems that human "nature" is autistic and lacking all these. No creature could have stayed alive with only such a nature. I call this the fallacy of the "remnant body," ( ). Obviously human nature is not that, but what the cultures carry forward in various ways. So it cannot be a common form or content.

Hatab is right to oppose the old notion of a universal human form, pattern, or content, something a colonial administrator could try to impose on other cultures. What we all have in common exists only as variously carried forward, and always still open for further carrying forward. The variety does not make a bridgeless difference, because further carrying forward is not determined by the present form. The implicit intricacy can open all the forms.

That is the human nature which Hatab unconsciously assumes -- what makes people of other cultures such that he can care about them in spite of their otherness. That human nature can be articulated, but only in terms that come from letting words work in that very kind of nature -- in the implicit intricacy we share, which is-for carrying forward -- always in various ways. The way to fashion such terms is just what I offer. If we can speak of what is not fixed-formed but can be carried forward, we can say how great is that which is shared -- far greater than the differences. Then we can celebrate our differences.

Hatab wonders what my universal human nature "really is," knowing that the very question invites some content, something it is. But crossing opens this "is." He invites me to say more exactly what I mean. Let the word define itself in use:

Forms cannot cross; if you put them together they yield only a contradiction. What can cross are unseparated multiplicities, for example a word's use-family, the whole group of situations in which we use a certain word. This can cross with a new situational context to produce a new situational meaning.

Hatab "travels with Heidegger's saying that 'the disclosive function of language' is 'the house of being.'" I say that language involves how words and situations cross: The word brings its many meanings (its use-situations) which are implicit in our knowing how to use the word. The present situation has its intricacy. In this situation this old word might disclose a new and sophisticated meaning, changing this situation in a subtle way that has more new features than one could have listed in advance either for the situation or the word. We see that crossing opens the "is" and -- discloses -- features that were not there before.

When crossing opens the constraints. what comes is not an unfocused plethora, but a finely precisioned focal implying.

Words do this new crossing right here. In this example, "disclose" moves past its old meaning of something that was already there, only covered. Now the word says what also actually happens to the word, here. In this situation the word says how new features come - in a crossing of word and situation.

Two Cultures, Marginal Crossing

Now apply this to a person who has lived in two cultures, and is now "marginal" to both. The person cannot help but understand each culture better and more perceptively than people who have lived only in only place, because the situations of both cultures have crossed in the person's experiential mesh. Then each new situation crosses with all those. Many new, more precise meanings and perceptions arise, which did not exist in either culture.

Cultural particularism ignores what we know about such people. It would imply that they experience less meaning, are "decultured," since two cultures largely contradict each other and should cancel out. But contradictory meanings can implicitly cross. Marginality confers deeper perceptions, as we know from common observation. Europeans for whom cultural particularism is serious business think of us as lacking any real culture. I argue instead that the American (Hatab's) version of cultural particularism ("people of all cultures are valuable") is an unconscious universalism that needs to be articulated. It can be articulated if we have a concept like "crossing."

A crossing occurs also when we understand another person. The more different people we have known, the more easily we understand the next new person, although that one is again different. That is because understanding does not depend on a common content. Rather, the new thing crosses with our implicit experiential mesh. That is what makes us say, "Oh... I see...."

Finally, see how terms in one of my strings cross when they all work-in the ..... at the end of the string. On any topic (including human nature) we can have (think, say, feel, be .....) the ..... which comes after the variety. After the string each is implicit in our experiential mesh. Each is now implicit in our understanding of the others. In the ..... they all cross and open each other so that they do not confine, but help to shape our next-implied step of speech, thought, and action.

Hatab says "We all know what it means ... to lose our interest," so that we no longer care about anything. I agree that this is universal, but someone might say that singling out interest (Hatab alludes to Heidegger's "care structure") shows Western drivenness rather than detachment or self-sacrifice. We can see the universal in human nature not in any content, but rather in the way in which "anything human is in principle understandable," as Dilthey said. I would add: This is because to understand anything human, we need not already know or be it. Rather, it crosses (it informs and is informed by) what we already are and know.

Hatab asks "what crosses?" It might seem that an answer would have to define humans in terms of a what. I would rather answer: Crossing opens any kind of what; it shapes-and-is-shaped-by what crosses with it. The universal human nature is the can cross. Crossing is a finely precise process. It cannot be spoken of as "less exact," "without fixed references," or as "flexible," "fluidity," or "looseness." Those mean less precision. They are only helpless negations of logic.

Certainly there was a time, Nietzsche's time, when inhibitory moralism needed to be exploded so as to free people. This is still needed in some provinces. But many of us are now tired of negative ways of saying that there is more. Abyss, rupture, tragedy, loss, nothingness, negativity, void, limbo, flux, fluidity, looseness, these deny what we try to affirm: that when the culture-forms and conceptual distinctions break, we find more precise meaning and order, not less.

I am not impatient with Heidegger, only with us. He has made his great contribution; let us make ours. Further steps of thought are needed. I think I provide them.

from: "Reply to Hatab." In Levin, D.M., ed. Language Beyond Postmodernism: Thinking and Speaking in Gendlin's Philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern U. Press, 1997.


On "crossing" as a function of the body in language

If words were only discursive forms, then they could not say something new, nor something that does not follow from their established patterns. Then what words new say has to be considered only a contradiction and a rupture.

For example, Derrida criticizes Levinas for saying that the other person is "not just my other," not just the other of me, not just other than me. The other is "other" in a more independent sense, Derrida understands that Levinas is saying more than "other" says as a discursive form, but he argues that Levinas has not established a mode of language in which "other" would not have to mean the other-of. Levinas has not done that, but Derrida's own metaphorizing constantly and deliberately exceeds the discursive forms while overtly denying that this is possible.

To move past this we can cite Bordo's (287 ) call for "recognizing wherever one goes that the other's perspective is fully realized, not a bit of exotic 'difference' to be incorporated within one's own world... by sight-seeing." She is clear that resources are not all borrowed from the established language of the texts but "happen in the reading of the text." I agree. Whenever we enter the experiencing of anything that is being talked about, we immediately find an intricacy with vast and obvious resources that go beyond the existing public language.

If we enter the intricacy we can establish the mode of language in which Levinas and Bordo are speaking: I can say that in my human relations I am often frustrated (and worse) because other people do not fit my needs. They do not fit me. I berate them for it, but I recognize that they are other than me. I see the difference clearly enough. It is easy to see that the other person is not what would fit me. But only after a lot of living do I come to the deeper recognition that others do not live in terms of what does not fit me. They live in their own terms: Of course they are not what would fit me, but they are also not what does not fit me. Another person is not alive in terms of my issues, and does not consist of what is other-than me. Each person is another life altogether. Only thereby do I sense the other as "really" other, as Levinas said.

As a discursive form, "other" has only one meaning, but in language-use in the context of situations we find at least two. But the distinction between them did not exist when I was only puzzled by my troubles with other people. I did not just find the distinction already there, nor did I just make it up. It has a very compelling but more than logical continuity with what was there before. It neither represents nor imposes. It carries forward how things were.

To say all this I dipped into the intricacy. From it I could speak in new ways. That can be done again and again. It does not depend on the few poor discursive distinctions we have. In our intricate situations the word "other" has many, many uses -- right now -- not only after we compare and differentiate them.

Words can say something from the more-than-discursive intricacy, and thereby they can also say how they can. Both have been badly lacking.

There is no way to show abstractly (in discursive forms, in kept-same patterns .....) that "other" can mean anything other than "other than." But we can carry forward what Levinas said, if we enter the intricacy of life with people.


Let me tell another story to go further into how the body functions in situations:

You see someone you know coming down the other side of the street, but you don't remember who it is. This is totally different from seeing a stranger. The person gives you a very familiar feeling. You cannot place the person, but there is a gnawing feeling in your body. That gnawing feeling does know. Your body knows who it is. That knowing is a ....., a whole sense in your body.

Your body also knows how you feel about the person. Although you don't remember who it is, the ..... has a very distinct quality. If you had to describe it, you might say, for example: "It is sense of something messy. I feel a little as if I'd rather not have much to do with that person, but there is also mixed in with it some odd curiosity that doesn't feel too sound, and uh ....." You may not like this, but you are not free to make it something nicer! If you try, you will notice keenly that you are no longer thinking from the ......

A ..... is very exact and precise, more precise than the common phrases and distinctions. But it is not given in convenient cognitive units. It does not come as three aspects or five. To think from it, you have to separate and entitize this and that. You must also let new phrases come from it. Furthermore, all of the ..... is not present before you. You have to go into a murky sort of down or in, or allow some sort of coming from it. (These little words speak beyond their simple schemes as they say this.) Nor is all of it implicit at the start. As you carry some of it forward into words, the ..... comes to imply more and more. And even if you don't go far into it, you sense that you could find more and more, both about the person and about yourself. It includes a great many potentially separable strands, but it is one unseparated multiplicity, a single ...., that one. It is uniquely your sense of that person. Any other person gives you a different body-sense.

What you now say you always "felt" about the person cannot be equated to your feeling in the past. There was no ..... before, perhaps not in all the years you knew the person. You have also carried the ..... further by thinking from it just now. And, you cannot equate the murky ..... with the phrases that carry it forward.

By focusing your attention on the ....., you may suddenly remember who the person is. Now you might be surprised. You might say "I didn't know that I felt that way about the person!"

How can we understand this? Does your body have its own opinions of the people you know? And if it has, why does it keep its opinions to itself, instead of telling you right along?

In such funny sentences the words ("body," "know," and "your") all change, and "change" changes to say this change in the words. In these sentences person and body are not the same thing, nor two things, nor just the contradiction of same-and-different. What the words say exceeds conceptualized entities such as a body that contains a person who contains a self which has experiences. The changed way in which these words work here can lead to much better concepts, but even so we know in advance that we will put the ..... after anything we say. We have to take it along and always return to it. We can employ the ..... to let any theory speak from our being here. Without this return, every theory is destructive.


An unseparated multiplicity is not a merger, nor does it function like separated things. To say more from how it does function, let us enter into how it can shape one's next move. On the street, when you remember the person, you go over and say an appropriate hello, not too warm, not cold, not long but not too short, your slight smile implicitly governed by that whole multiplicity. But it won't come out that way if you say to yourself "Now smile, smile."

As formed determinants, one of these factors would make you smile broadly, another frown, and another hit the person. But when they function implicitly, they are always already crossed, so that all are implicit in how each functions (See PB, CD and PM IV). But our concept includes not only this pattern, but also the implicit formation of the right smile.

With this concept we can say how it is possible that many mutually exclusive concepts and distinctions can function implicitly together. Such schemes cannot be added together; they would cancel each other. But they do not do so when they are implicit. None of them works as it would do alone. Rather, they cross, so that each becomes implicit in what the others are. The result is not the addition or subtraction of each from the others, as would have to be the case if each worked as if it were alone. Implicit determinants do not work as if alone. Rather, each unseparated factor has the others implicit in what it is, and so it makes a unique contribution in a much more finely shaped result. (ECM)

The many unseparated factors would be contradictory if they worked like logical premises, they cross in one focal implying which shapes a next step that is more intricate than any existing shape.

We can use the concept of "crossing" to think about how words acquire new meaning in a new situation or slot in a sentence. The situation crosses with the words. I said that the situation reads the words. We could say it sings the words. It colors them. It cooks them. Any word that makes sense here will say this cooking which happens to it here, but each word carries the slot forward differently. Each makes a new taste (which we can then carry further by making new comparisons and distinctions).

Technical words are more likely to trap us in old schemes. For example, if we say that word and situation are superimposed, we might think of two unchanging patterns, as Black thought ( , ). But if we let "superimpose" say what it makes happen, we find that we do not imagine the situation as a pattern. Indeed, we cannot begin to try to do that! Once we find that we cannot, then "superimposing" words and situation can say what it (and any word) does in the slot.

So also, if we take "crossing" as a familiar technical term, say in animal breeding. We would assume that the horse and the donkey who must first exist separately, in order to make the mule. But when words and situations cross, only the immediate new meaning happens, not first what the words and situation would have been without each other.

I can apply the concept of "crossing" to correct an old error: It is not true that concepts are abstractions that drop out the specific intricacy (ECM__). The meaning of a concept is the crossed multiplicity of its applications. When we apply the concept, how it works now crosses with its other applications, so that the new one becomes implicit in them. Each further application lets a concept make more sense. It does not drop out its instances; it brings their crossed multiplicity to each new crossing.

Let us trace how this happens here with the several applications of this concept, "crossing." Let the instance of your smile cross with the instance of words and situation crossing to give a word its meaning in that situation. How the many factors shape your smile is also how the many uses of a word are an already crossed multiplicity. (See C&D and Gnds). The uses are not next to each other; they form one knowing -- the "native speaker's knowing how to use the word," as the Oxford philosophers called it. If we think of this already crossed knowing is a bodily knowing (like your sense of that person which forms your smile), then we can understand how the right words come in our bodies, like your smile comes.

Conversely, we can understand how one smile can be so exactly expressive, if we think of it as coming from the same situational crossing from which the fine shadings of our phrases come.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]

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