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Gendlin, E.T. (1966). The discovery of felt meaning. In J.B. McDonald & R.R. Leeper (Eds.), Language and meaning. Papers from the ASCD Conference, The Curriculum Research Institute (Nov. 21-24, 1964 & March 20-23, 1965), pp. 45-62. Washington, DC: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. From

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The Discovery of Felt Meaning


LET me begin with the question: What is thinking? What is "a thought" or "a chain of thought"? In this question I am not asking for a definition or an answer in logic. Instead I want to invite you to pay attention directly to your own thinking. What do you have there? What goes on that you call "thinking"?

For example, just now, you are thinking this question, "what is thinking?" Let us see what this is. First of all there are the words: What is thinking? But is that all there is to thinking? Just the resounding of the sounds, the reverberation of the verbal symbols? In addition to sounds you have a feeling of questioning, of expectancy, a sense that you know what these sounds mean—and are asking for and about. You do not have a chance at the moment to elaborate this felt sense of the question. But if you were going to think through more exactly what these words mean, then you would attend to this sense of them, which you have. If you heard some words in a language which you do not know, you would still have the sounds, perhaps you could repeat them to yourself, but you would lack the other part of thinking, the felt sense.

Thus, thinking is not only sounds but also felt sense. Really we should call it a flow of felt sensing, not individual bits. Such sensing may seem as if it were only one unit, the meaning of a given set of words, the sense of this question, but when explicated in words, it turns out to be many, many things. For example, if you were now to stop reading and instead continue with words of your own, you might now say quite a lot about this question I asked. But if you do not actually work it out in words, you have only this one felt sense of "oh yes"—you know what the question means. Such felt sensing always contains implicitly, in one feeling, a great many different facets we could explicitly verbalize.

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Anything we say or think always involves many facets; for instance, the larger point someone is getting at, the whole context of the situation, perhaps also a puzzlement, a sense of something unclear, perhaps conflicting or unresolved, a sense of direction as well as always many other aspects.

A feeling is never just an affective tone, an emotional quality. It is never just "in us." It is always at, or about, or for, or in a context of perceptions and events. For example, one never feels anger, as a thing-within, an affective state, inside like undigested food is inside the stomach. Rather, one always feels anger-at something or someone. If we explicate any feeling, it always turns out to be a long chain of the following sort: I am angry at Mr. A's doing so and so, which I need to do because if I cannot, I will have to do certain things instead, but I know I will fail when I try them because I am so and so in such situations, which I know I ought to change but cannot, . . . and on and on.

A Living Texture

The first words we use to spell out a felt sense may not seem very promising, e.g., "this feels vague" or "I do not know what you are getting at." Yet, if we explicate the felt sense further, we never find that it is "just" vagueness or confusion. It is always of the sort: what you said seems vague because I know you do not mean it to imply "X" (since before you said "Y") but if you do not mean "X" and still it is supposed to apply to that other stuff, then what do you mean?" If we really pursue such a felt sense of thinking we produce these long chains of perceptions of the situation, of the conversation, the subject matter. This is also why thinking works, why our felt sense leads to words about the situation we are in. The human being, in fact, any animal, is a highly complex organism. An organism is an ongoing moving system interacting with the environment in which it lives, breathes, digests food and gives off wastes, and against the ground on which it steps and puts pressure. In this environment the animal feels very finely many slight shifts and happenings, as these are significant in the body's life processes of locomotion, digestion, reproduction, respiration, etc. Thus anything "has meaning" in the sense that it affects a living system . . . and affects it therefore always in complexly organized respects. Because the body is a completely organized interaction, therefore, anything that impinges on it has a complex meaning.

In itself, what happens may only be a falling pebble, but when it hits the skin of an animal it may create an impact in the animal which [Page 47] is not only a powerful feeling, but highly organized meanings . . . that is to say, the pebble may stir the animal to complex reactions, of intense listening, of utterly still run-ready tensed muscles, of complex felt knowledge of the possible nearness of some foe, of hiding places, of its young to be protected, of pathways to run, of scents to seek, of the direction of wind and oncoming weather, and much more. All this is what I call "implicit" in that first felt impact which the falling pebble stirred.

Feeling is always a living texture of environmental interaction. Therefore the flow of felt sense which—along with verbal sound-images—is our thinking, this flow of felt sense implicitly contains the complex world we live in, the environment, our perceptions, the context of all that has been done and said till now, what is being gotten at, the purpose, the definitions, and a very great deal more. And therefore, thinking can be about something, we can arrive at possible truths with it, even though it seems to be only sound echoes and felt sense.

Therefore feeling is capable of being explicated into such complex chains of meanings.

Of course, there is not only felt sense but also logic. In its precise definition, any word, concept or sentence has precise logical implications. Any concept is a particular pattern and just certain things will follow. Other implications will not follow, will not be logically consistent with it, will contradict or disorganize the concept if forced onto it. Our logical precision comes from the logical structure, the pattern, the construct character of a concept. We need construct precision, otherwise we could not make sense with language. However, as I have shown, when a human being thinks a concept, we have more going on than just the given construct and the implications consistent with it.

The Nature of Concepts

What really is a concept? A concept is both logical and felt. It is a logical construct but since it is also a thought, it has a "soft underbelly," it is made of felt sensing. We "know what it means" or "what we mean by using it" . . . we know what we mean with it in a felt sensing way. We mean with the concept to make a certain point, to take exception to an aspect of what has been said, to point out certain things which are important because . . . and so on (again the chain of many many implicit facets, as with any felt sense, so with felt sense of a concept-in-use).

When we think (for example about a problem), we use some precise verbalized constructs. We may say these over and over to our-[Page 48]selves: Thereby we review the "givens" of the problem. As we do so, we get the sense of the problem. These givens do not go together. Given this purpose and that fact and that other condition, it will not work out. It is a problem. To solve it, something will have to "give." We will not get the new facet that solves the problem out of the given concepts directly. If we could, it would not be a problem, just an oversight.

To think, we cannot repeat over and over the sentences that say what is given. As long as we keep saying these sentences over and over to ourselves we are not thinking. We have to "know" them well enough to have them in a felt sense, so we can skip the reviewing in words, and just say: "Let us see now, there is this, and this, and that, and we want . . . yes, that . . . so . . ." and then we "mull," that is to say, we depend for new ideas on the felt sense directly. We may say "Oh . . . just a second, I've got something . . ." There is a felt sense of "give" [1] (referent movement [1]) but as yet no words. As we explicate in words the new aspect of felt sensing, we may find that we have a step toward a possible solution. Or, as we explicate in words we may find it disappointing or erroneous. Thinking and problem solving always occur as felt sensing and not with only the given verbal conceptual constructs.

We break out of the conceptual boxes to think. After we take a "mulling" felt sensing step, then we explicate by modifying the constructs, we make the new step fit in with what really counts about the constructs we had, we make it logically consistent, but we do this by modifying our constructs, by making distinctions, by noting now that we did not really have to mean this or that seeming implication of what we had before. We reformulate the construct so it does not mean that, or we add something. We arrive at something logically consistent and we can fill in the steps we took in a logically consistent way . . . but only afterwards can we do this. Before we have had the movement of felt sense we only know that something has to be altered, but we cannot know what. The conceptual boxes we had (in the way in which we had them) constituted the problem. The problem can be worked on only by the process of felt sense. How might we make a method of felt sensing? Today we are in a very advanced position to do just that: to use and teach the use of felt meanings systematically.

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Using the Process of Felt Sensing in Teaching

What we have been saying will remind the reader of the current widespread work on "creativity." Creativity is usually defined as a capacity to get free of given conceptual boxes, given ways of looking at something, given constructs. Not much has yet been said about what else there is, other than these constructs which one should hold 'loosely" to be creative. Creativity has thus been defined rather negatively: "Don't hold too tightly to your constructs and ways of seeing something." Yet, of course, that is not a helpful instruction, it is not a method you can use, it does not say how and where to look for something new and different, other than the conceptual constructs or perceptions you do have.

Holding tightly or holding ever so loosely—we must say more than that; we must say just where to look and what to do in addition to the constructs we hold loosely. Where to look: at our directly felt sense (which we always have along with words). What to do: pay direct attention to that felt sense and carry it forward, explicate it, put words to it and freshly phrase it, allowing thereby a move in thought along lines that are not just those implied by the logical structure of the constructs we have. Let us make this more specific:

At any point in any discussion we can say to the person speaking: "I don't get what you're driving at. Tell me some other way." The person who has been speaking can always put what he has said another way. Why? Because what he has said was not just the words (he will now use different words). He also had a directly felt sense of what he was getting at, trying to say. When we do not grasp this from his words, what does he do? He goes back to his felt sense of what he is trying to say. He pays attention to this directly. He says "Aaaa . . . let me see now, what I really meant was, . . ." and thereby he phrases it freshly. He gets the fresh phrasing not from the constructs and words of what he said, but directly from his felt sense of what it was.

We are all familiar with this when we teach a class. A teacher prepares students in this process, and we can become quite systematic about it. A student says something, often in the form of a question. We answer it, perhaps we are glad that the question brought up something we meant to discuss and so we do. Then we glance at the student who asked the question and he looks . . . well, let us say, rather glum. We know thereby that his effort to get something clarified was unsuccessful. Yet we answered his question—and, let us assume we did a good clear job. Now we say: "I guess that wasn't what you were after!" [Page 50] He says, no, or perhaps he says, "Oh, that's OK." We say: "But, you were after something in asking that . . . tell us what it was." He says: "Oh, nothing." Yet we know it was something.

In asking that question (any given question) one might be intending many different things. People often think something but when they speak they ask a question instead. For example, right now the reader might be thinking: "What he is saying doesn't fit such and such which happens to me when I . . . etc." If you were now to speak, you might put it in the form of a question: "Have you ever run into a situation where you encounter such and such when you . . .?" I would then answer, telling about my experiences or viewpoints which are probably irrelevant to what happens to you, which puzzles you and which you could tell about.

We tend to begin speaking quite some miles away from what we really mean. If we might like to bring up something, we first test the water, we politely see if we can tease the conversation in the general direction of what we might like to bring up, we ask or comment in a way that is peripheral to what we are really interested in saying. In effect, we ask to be invited to say more, and if that does not succeed, we are perfectly—or almost perfectly—happy, never to say at all what we really meant. It is, therefore, almost always necessary to invite people to say more—especially to say why they asked or commented as they did, what they were getting at, or just to say more about whatever they briefly said or asked.

This applies even when the individual knows exactly what he would like to say. It applies very much more importantly when he does not know exactly, sharply and clearly what he might wish to say or why he thought it interesting to ask, or why specifically something puzzled or struck him. He may have a felt sense but not a worked out verbalized explicit knowledge.

In that case, if as teachers we wish to invite the person further to explicate what he senses or means, we may have to insist. We say, "What were you getting at?" He says: "Oh, nothing." We say: "No, I know you were after something, there when you said so and so, but I just didn't quite get it." He says, "Oh, no, it was nothing it all." Perhaps we give up then and say, "Oh, all right," but we know there was something. Perhaps he finally says, "Well, ah, I guess I'm confused but, ah, well, let me see, ah, well when I try to apply such and so which you mentioned, I get this and this and it doesn't fit in with what you said before." At this point the student makes sense.

Perhaps now we can easily show him what he omitted, or perhaps his question is so good that we can't answer it at all, or we can show at [Page 51] what point he diverged from our train of thought. Perhaps his train of thought is also valid, or perhaps it is erroneous. Even if it involves several errors, it makes sense, that is to say, we can now see how, given this error and that omission, one could see the matter as he does and could wonder about what he wonders about.

It is a basic principle not enough recognized, that feelings always make sense. This does not mean that they are logically or factually correct. On the contrary, to discover the error involved (if an error is involved) is precisely a recognition that—given the error—the erroneous result does make sense. But, this requires attention to, and explication of his felt sense.

In fact, very many people have not discovered felt meaning at all. They do not feel that it is worth while or possible to pay such attention to their—always at first vague—felt sensing. They read a book or think some propositions, but they override their fuzzy, slightly disturbing feelings. They never look to see what this "felt something" might be, nor would they expect it ever to become anything more than just a fuzzy feeling. And yet, precisely in that at first fuzzy feeling lies the individual's reaction to what he reads and says and hears. We call it his "reaction" only while it still is only a feeling. As he explicates it, it becomes a "good question" or an "original idea" or a "clever insight" or a specific "error." Perhaps the only difference between highly creative original people and those who consider themselves uncreative is whether or not they give this sort of gentle attention and explication to their felt sensing reactions, as they read and think.

It involves a certain attitude of self-worth to give one's felt sensing this kind of patience and attention. At first it is only fuzzy. Then, at a second step (moments later) one gets a first formulation, still not usually an attractive one: For example: "This doesn't make sense to me because of that . . ." or "I'm upset when he says such and so because it makes me think of X which I don't like because . . ." But if one bears with this (at first poorly sounding) thought and further explicates one's felt sense of its import or point, one soon comes upon a fully sense-making formulation. One may then be startled by one's capacity for great original thoughts.

A class is quite exciting when the teacher often does this kind of inviting and insisting which leads to the students' discovery of their capacities for original thought.

Moreover—if you have not always done this, you will find it quite exciting: as you read something, you stop reading sometime, and pay attention to the—at first fuzzy feeling you have of the whole thing, to [Page 52] see then, moments later, the budding significance of your thought, as you freshly phrase and explicate the felt sense of what you read, or say, or the words you at first think. But do not look among the abstract sentences for original ideas to come, full blown. The source of further thinking is in that—at first fuzzy—felt sense. Original ideas have their source there where you also feel it when you are hungry or tense. They do not arise full blown and explicit; you must explicate that felt sense.

So far, I have been writing as a teacher. I have been trying to make systematic where to look for, and what to do with—the process which makes for creative thought (and which is, at any rate, an essential aspect of all thought). Where to look: there, where we feel hunger, discomfort or relief, for there also we feel directly the sense we make, the point we are after, the thought we have with our words, and the thing we are about to say. What to do with it: to pay direct attention to it as felt or sensed, and to allow words to come—words which at first admittedly will be rough and poor—but which freshly phrase and explicate further and further the sense we implicitly made. One can do this at any point of any discussion, with any concept or proposition, and one thereby makes transitions and evolves chains of thought which are not limited within one's original words or constructs.

Felt Sensing

Let me now speak as a psychotherapist. This process of focusing (Gendlin, 1964 [2]) on directly felt ongoing experiencing, felt meaning or felt sense is also what the patient does in any effective psychotherapy. No matter how the various schools of psychotherapy differ among themselves, whatever constructs they employ, they all agree that real change and resolution of personality trouble comes only through a feeling process, only through the individual's attention to, and carrying forward of, his feelings. One's concrete bodily sensed meanings implicitly contain one's whole life context and perceptions. Resolution of personality problems is possible only through concrete movements of felt sensing. Without this, concepts may be as accurate as you please, they may constitute a knowing how it is and how it should be, but they change nothing.

A patient who uses his concepts and words in a "dissociated" way, apart from explicating his felt meanings directly, is said to "intellectualize" or "rationalize." It is well known that intellectualizing does not help. Concepts, no matter how accurate and true, are only general constructs. They tap only a very little of the finely grained com- [Page 53]plex organic texture which we are and concretely feel in a bodily way. The patient in psychotherapy changes only if he works with and through that whole, concretely felt texture, itself. Then he moves from step to step through this whole texture. If, on the other hand, he employs concepts only, then he is limited. He remains within the implications of the constructs he employs. He can think only just what follows from just those ways of construing which he already has. And so he does not change. He misses, instead of using, that whole complex organic life process within which lie all the many potential meanings of his living and his trouble.

This way of using felt meanings is not a matter of emotional health. I know people who do not use their felt meanings. They see themselves as not very creative, or at least, as not very good thinkers, but many of them are as well adjusted as anybody. This process of focusing on felt meanings is a discovery anyone can make. It is a skill anyone can learn. Research shows that this skill is not the same thing as emotional health.

Therefore, Carl Rogers and I at one time thought that the successful client would begin psychotherapy with little use of felt meaning and then move toward more and more use of his feelings. Research proved us wrong: we found that successful clients are mostly those who use this process of explicating felt meanings throughout therapy. Clients who fail in therapy never refer to or employ felt meaning at all.

The findings say that focusing is an essential skill for getting out of emotional trouble if one is in trouble. This leads me to the conclusion that, if this is such an important skill, we ought to teach it in school—not just because it is creative thinking, but also because the same method (applied to personal feelings rather than intellectual reactions to subject matter) would enable people to resolve many of their personal conflicts—and to be more able to listen for felt meanings in those around them and aid them also. It seems quite a vital skill.

The Social Implications of Felt Meanings

Now I want to talk as a philosopher about meaning and science and the basic aims of education. If we grant the patient in psychotherapy the necessity of working with his felt meanings, of getting out of his construct-boxes, of moving not only with logical steps but also with steps through the complex felt concreteness, if we call anything less an ineffective way of being caught in conceptual boxes, in the happenstance of one's given assumptions and constructs—why then [Page 54] would we wish these severe limitations to remain in man's methods of thinking about man, about education, about society?

It is trite to say that our thinking about man and society has not kept pace with physics and natural science, that we must make comparable advances, really radical breakthroughs à la Galileo in our modes of thinking about the human world, otherwise our natural science advances may destroy us, and our calculating machines may exceed our human wisdom and may ruin us. We have given vast physical and mathematical powers into the keeping of a political and social system of power and education which has not advanced much in two thousand years of history.

Yet such a breakthrough in the human fields can only be of two sorts: either with or without our own personal humanness as individuals. If it will be without this, if there will eventually be a really successful and powerful science quite apart from your own and my own persons, your own and my own growth in regard to our human personal lives—if without this, then it cannot help but be a technology, a mechanized really nonhuman system working successfully enough apart from your and my life struggle not to need us, to run us without our living say-so. Such a science must make us less human (though perhaps more contented) and therefore it cannot be a science of humans as they really are. For to be human is to create meanings, values, problems, surprises even to ourselves. And so, it is a contradiction in terms (though realistically a possibility all the same) to hope for major scientific advance in the human fields without this involving the use of one's own personal living humanness.

Yet this means that, even though we may have given up in our own lives we must turn back from having turned back—we must hope to grasp the personal truths in our own struggles—we must use this superior method of thinking which employs our own felt meanings, even though in feelings are also our hurts, defeats, missed opportunities, and the sense of death soon to come. And, if I had somehow escaped these and been given everything I needed and all the luck and timely insight, then I should only have missed some of the complexity of felt life significance.

Why do I say all this? Because I am defending the new method of thinking against the charge that it is only as good as the individual person—this seems like its weakness. We are so used to a science that is independent of man, a science whose very basic constructs abstract the human element out, as though to assume as a basic principle of science that humans do not exist. We are so used to a science that does [Page 55] not need us—that consists only of conceptual structures perfectly represented on paper and capable of being fed into calculators without loss, whose implications are always only the necessary analytic mathematical ones so that no human felt sensing is needed.

But, even in physics this applies only to the finished product of science. In the making, science, discovery, new ideas, new hypotheses, new constructs, problem solving, all involve the kind of thinking I have described. Only the finished, precision product of physical science can stand alone without the felt sense of an individual.

There could not be a successful science in the human fields which would not use us as humans in its very method of thinking.

What is there in us which makes us so hesitant to confront our felt meanings and use them? What scares us so that we cling to our constructs only, that we find comfort in limiting ourselves to grinding out implications from given constructs only? I believe that it is our failures at living and the poor quality of the human being which we so often feel we really are, underneath. Yet this is no reason to turn away.

In class, in psychotherapy, in friendship, for example, what counts is not the quality of human being I am, or my wisdom. What counts is whether I will be a human being with people (if I will be a human being, I can only be the one I am, but fortunately this need not be so great or good or wise, it needs only to be a human being, and this we all are).

Similarly, in the new method of thinking one does not need one's feelings to be true or good or beautiful—the fuzzy feeling of some incipient thought I have need not be attractive-seeming nor after I explicate it does it need to turn out to be true. . . . I will soon change and modify and correct and test and rework it. My motives need not be pure. . . . I soon see the irrelevance of the irrelevant ones and how they block my further efforts to solve and resolve what still feels tense or fails to work in situations, and fails at its empirical tests. I soon create new constructs and work out their logic. I correct, elaborate, and fill in the breaks and the inconsistencies. But I can do it along new lines—lines that come from some felt aspects of my whole organically felt context instead of only the thin constructs I was given to begin with. All methods of logic and empirical testing in situations and research remain intact with this new method of thinking. Only, the original questions and constructs no longer need limit us. We can keep these and their implications but we can also create new ones, getting at new facets and formulating these in new constructs which lead to new implications and new variables and truths to test.

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Measuring Felt Meanings

We used to think that this mode of thinking is "not measurable," that it is totally private, that we only hear and observe the conclusions and actions of a person, and cannot tell whether he arrived at these conclusions and actions through this sort of genuine thinking process, or some other way. This is not so. Today we have objective measures of the degree to which an individual employs his feeling process as a continual basis for his verbalizations and behavior.

Although the kind of thinking I refer to here is the same, there are many different kinds of situations in which we might want to measure it. Classrooms are different sorts of situations from therapy sessions, they have different specific aims, different kinds of behaviors appropriate to them, and hence the measures will have to be created anew for classrooms, even though we already have them for tape recorded psychotherapy.

The basic principle of these measures (rating scales, questionnaires, etc.) is to measure the kind of process going on rather than the kinds of content . . . how things are said and done, rather than what is said and done. For example: the sort of interaction between teacher and student, which I described and of which I said that it teaches this new kind of thinking (explicating the felt sense of thinking) . . . this kind of interaction can be observed and measured. However, it cannot be measured in terms of the content, of what is being said . . . because the same method can apply in any field, with any content. Nor can you get at it by counting the number of times the teacher asks questions, or answers questions, or presents factual material, or tries to get up discussion. For in all these different aspects of teaching there may be, or there may not be, the teacher's effort to pay attention to, to invite, to explicate, to go several steps with . . . the student's felt, as yet unformulated sense.

Felt Meaning as a Research Variable

How do we observe when an individual explicates his felt sense? We observe a search for words, we observe metaphorically novel ways of phrasing, we observe phrases that refer directly to something sensed (like "this thing" or "what I'm getting at" or "what puzzles me is, ah . . ." or "it's something like . . .", phrases which have no meaning whatever unless we accept them as pointers at something concretely there, felt, directly referred to by the individual within himself.

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In research it is all-important, what variables you choose to define and measure. Good quantifying methods for tests, rating scales and questionnaires exist: many judges rating separately, one-way-vision glass, and tape recordings, many methods exist. In research we most often fail not for a dearth of methods but in the poor variables we first define.

From the things I have been saying two conclusions follow for the creation of research variables: First, let us define and measure the sorts of behaviors by teachers and students which I have been describing: the teacher's inviting and aiding students to explicate their felt—not yet explicit—thoughts and reactions, and the students' doing just that. Often this requires several steps of interchange and it is not at all difficult to notice (recall the rather characteristic descriptions I have given, which we all recognize).

Second, and more generally, you can take any interesting aspect of classroom behavior. As it is currently phrased, it is nearly always a content variable. You can convert it into a process variable (which, I think, will be much more likely to give you results). The procedure is as follows. Suppose you think you might take classroom interaction and divide the teacher's behaviors according to a classification system with variables like: asks question, presents information, approves student's speech, disapproves student's speech, gives instructions, etc. Now, my prediction is that one is most likely to find nothing with these variables. They concern what the teacher does. But, why then would one think of studying them? Because we may think that teachers who approve more, or who ask for discussion more, are more successful teachers.

We still think in terms of what is done. Let the next step be why. Why would one think that more approval makes better teaching? Because approval makes students more comfortable and hence more able to have and express their reactions and to think and learn. Then the third step is: that is a process variable: measure that directly. Always, your real and good reasons for being interested in the content variable will lead to an underlying process variable which can be measured directly.

For example, now that we want to measure students' freedom to have and express their reactions, we can set up various measures: a standard five-minute procedure in which a picture is shown by the teacher being tested, and the class is asked to describe it (or anything appropriate to the age and type of class, so long as it is a measure that will get at comfort-to-express. Hence it must be something to which anyone could have reactions he would like to express, not only bright children). Or, if you still want to classify teacher classroom behavior, you can now [Page 58] formulate a classification system that will really be relevant to what you want to measure: encouragement or discouragement of comfort-to-express.

You will be more concerned, now, with different manners in which material is presented, different manners in which questions are asked (rather than just whether material is presented or questions are asked). Is the material presented so that student-reactions to it can be appropriate? Is it presented whole—for comment, or cut up and only good for memorizing? Must student expressions be answers to questions only? Are questions sometimes directed at student reactions, or only to obtain student productions of correct answers?

From Content to Process

If we thought earlier that a large number of questions makes for discussion, we see now that our real interest lay in the kind of questions, in how questions were intended and posed. If, before, we thought large proportions of material-presenting behavior would be bad, we now realize we meant only a manner of presenting which precludes the student-expression we are interested in.

This, of course, is only an example, to illustrate that from any content variable that seems interesting we can move (via asking ourselves why it seems interesting) to the process variable which we really intend, and then we can measure it directly. (Of course, this requires devising a new instrument, a new rating scale, test situation or questionnaire, but the stage of development in our sciences about humans is such that, indeed, we usually must define new and more specific variables, categories and tests.)

Such instruments (for example, a rating scale used by several independent judges listening to tape recordings of classroom interaction) give us mathematical scores which we can then correlate with other measures, for example the number of failing grades or the number of dropouts or the increase over a year's period on intelligence tests, or any other measure you wish.

Transcending the Controversy between Content and Progressive Education

You will notice that I am proposing as worthwhile research variables (and as worthwhile aspects of practical teaching method) somewhat different issues than those argued about a few years ago in [Page 59] education. I am saying neither that there should be an intellectual emphasis (e.g., we need more physicists to catch up with the Russians) nor a personal adjustment emphasis (as in some extremes of progressive education). I am not saying that teachers should place emphasis on subject matter (though better quality performance by students on all subject matter is desirable) nor am I saying that teachers should drop the material they teach and become psychotherapists (though one must often respond to the child and not only to what he says).

I am not advocating the lecture method or the discussion method. We can move beyond these older divisions of viewpoint, to more basic goals of education. These older divisions are based on content, on what should be talked about and taught: should teacher and student talk about personal aspects or subject matter, should they talk about something the teacher brought up or something the student brought up, should there be more or less material presented by the teacher compared with the proportion given to student discussion? I am not talking about such questions of what, I am concerned with how.

It is true, with this new method of thinking as the basic "how" one cannot lecture all the time. However, it does not follow that one must never lecture. One should not force one's class structure on students without making room for and giving time to their reactions and to an explication of what it means to them, but it does not follow that a teacher must not impose any structure.

The underlying educational aim of those views that championed students' setting their own course of study and giving themselves their grades, the view which forbade lectures and the presentation of ordered material, which viewed it as a violation of freedom to give assignments or exams—the underlying educational aim of all that, was the student's developing his own process of thinking and inquiry. But we can hold to that principle without limiting what we do as teachers. The basic issue is not the assignment, but how it is given and used; not the grades but how they affect the nature of the whole course and class, not the teacher's presentation of ordered material but whether he does or does not then make room for steps of thought and explication as these occur in the student.

Years ago, before coming into a university I taught in a city college. Our students took printed city-wide exams mathematically graded. If I was not to cheat the students then it was my responsibility to give them the materials they would be tested on. I found that there was no contradiction between this and my other aims. I could present the material in ten minutes of each hour (our standards on content are too low!) and [Page 60] give the other forty minutes to the students' reactions and thinking about it. (Before I found this, I used to present my material, then ask for questions. No questions. So I would present it again, ask for questions, discuss with one or two bright students till the end of the hour, review the material again next time, and at mid-term and before the final. What a waste of time!) The basic principle of giving time to discussion is not a law against lectures, not that we must not present material in our own orderly way. The basic principle is that we must not keep the material only in the order and conceptual boxes in which we present it, but we must also teach the students to think on it, i.e., to move through their own steps (in orders and steps different from those our presentation implies); in short, that we help them think . . . recognizing however that thinking is not only words and constructs but also felt sense and its explication.

Relevance to Experience

The controversy between content and progressive education can be resolved by being transcended. Progressive education (while my views probably come from some of its influence) is too often misunderstood as content: then it seems a de-emphasis of subject matter in favor of personal growth, play, unstructured classes, little real intellectual growth. It was not so intended. Rather, education must be viewed and studied as process—the kind of process going on in the student.

Aiding a student to explicate his felt sensing in thinking means aiding him to explicate his sense of the world and context he lives in, since that is what feeling and sensing is . . . our organic sentience of being bodily alive, interactively, in an environment. But this means that we must let the student live with, and interact with the actual subject matter so that it is part of the context in which he lives. This involves more and more direct, higher level subject matter, so that the student has a direct experiential sense of it. The teacher must not be the only one who really studies the subject matter directly—as it were, the teacher standing on a mountain from which he alone can see the real subject matter which he only reports indirectly in a secondhand and boiled down way to the students.

Some have tried to make this point by saying: make the class relevant to the student's "experience." Yet this is too often misunderstood to mean that you must bring the subject matter down to what the student has already experienced . . . when it should mean, rather, that you must extend the student's experience so he experiences the subject [Page 61] matter! Thus higher intellectual quality, not boiling down, is implied in the new method.

As an illustration of the difference, consider the attempt to bring mathematics down to the student's "experience": mathematical problems are phrased in terms of "a boy goes to the store . . ." or "bags of brown candy and bags of red candy." To appeal to the student's experience of stores and candy does little for mathematics. What is really wanted is to extend the student's experiencing of mathematics (as the newer methods do, using rods of different length to teach quantitative relationships). The rods are tools: The point is not that rods can be experiences, but that with them there can be an experiencing of quantitative relationships. Thus, in mathematics we now extend the child's experience of the subject matter, so that the child does not have to learn by rote the steps of adding, then of subtracting, and so on, but can operate on his own with the directly experienced quantitative relationships of mathematics itself.

Similarly, in history, to bring it down to experience might be (when studying Lincoln) to remind students of who is on the penny, while to help them to extend their experience of history would involve marveling and puzzling (as historians do) over whether Lincoln could have avoided the war if he had been less stubborn . . . explicating the student's felt sensed reactions which then soon come to similar questions.

In conclusion, basic new trends of human thought are always fundamentally reflected in education—because education is the process of creating and fashioning human nature and society. In today's new trends of thought, the concrete experiential aspect is becoming more and more central. People used to think, centuries ago, that human nature was set and defined and they knew what it was (though they did not all agree, each group thought it knew). Human nature and reality seemed adequately dealt with in these, or those, constructs, definitions, concepts. Even in the nineteenth century, when so much cultural relativism and historicism showed the vast variety of what men can be and think—even then there were thought to be at least laws of history, of the historical evolution of cultures. But the 20th Century has seen us break all forms: in religion, in values, in how subject matter is presented, in social patterns of living, in non-Euclidean mathematics, in art.

Once forms have been broken through, once we see them as relative, we can no longer choose them as they were, absolutely and with seeming-organic solidity. They become mere forms and we must meet something else, something more. Experiential concreteness is not given in just one [Page 62] set of forms but it can always be carried forward, explicated and formed. A thinking which does that is a more powerful method of education, of psychotherapy, of human relations and of thinking generally, than any of the erstwhile absolute-seeming forms. Yet this method of proper interplay between felt concrete sensing and concepts is new.

We have only recently emerged from trends—in the first part of this century—in which this breakage of forms meant either a merely formal playing with these forms (a formal playing, logic-chopping, calculus-making, which was possible just because the forms had been pulled away from concreteness and shown to be so easily variable), or a glorification of the emotional, the merely felt and unexplicated, the ambiguous, ephemeral and unspeakable (again that sort of view was possible only because forms had been pulled off and had been found so variable). Thus there was Logical Positivism and Existentialism in philosophy, intellectual and personality emphases in education; and in society on the one hand an increasing technologizing abstracted from one's being human, and on the other hand an increasing emphasis on psychotherapy and the emotional needs of this individual human who now had to live in a more and more complex, rationalized, social system which was more and more swiftly changing and variable, no longer organically embodied in his living identity, as preindustrial social forms had been.

If you consider feeling and form as two static entities, then the split is devastating: it results in unexamined inexplicit blind emotionality (be it beautiful or Nazi-like) on the one hand, and mere formalism on the other side. Yet if we take these two, not as static, if in thinking and explication they are in motion, each carrying the other forward, then this modern relativity of all values and forms will have given birth to a new and much more powerful method of human thinking in the sciences about man, as well as in living socially and individually, in how we deal with ourselves and our feelings, and in our thinking about education as well as in our practical procedures and research variables.


Eugene T. Gendlin. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. New York: Free Press, 1962.

Eugene T. Gendlin. "A Theory of Personality Change." Chapter in: Personality Change. Philip Worchel and Donn Byrne, editors. Symposium on Personality Change, University of Texas. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1964.


[1] Eugene T. Gendlin. "A Theory of Personality Change." Chapter in: Personality Change. Philip Worchel and Donn Byrne, editors. Symposium on Personality Change, University of Texas. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1964.

[2] Gendlin, ibid.

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  • 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.
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