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Gendlin, E.T. (1993). Human nature and concepts. In J. Braun (Ed.), Psychological concepts of modernity, (pp. 3-16). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood. From

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by Eugene T. Gendlin, University of Chicago


Today it is against fashion to affirm a universal human nature or a bodily, animal nature in humans or a reality that is not just an interpretation. Of course, I won't affirm these in that innocent way that is being rightly rejected — but I will affirm all three, after all.

Human Nature

Is there a universal human nature? Yes, certainly, but it is not something that just is. It is still developing and is the sort of thing that can always develop further. The fact that the human infant can learn and can variously complete its body's behavior patterns is a greater degree of organization. But, in Western science, when something is incomplete, it looks less organized, indeterminate. We have no good concepts, as yet, for an order that is inherently incomplete not because it lacks organization but because it can further organize itself — and do so variously.

So we must move past two simplistic notions. What is universal in human nature cannot be found just by itself, separated out. Human nature always occurs in its particularized versions, this way or that way. We will not see the complex order of human nature by looking for what is common. That would miss the order that enables various ways of carrying forward.

Second, it is equally simplistic to conclude that there is nothing universal, as if cultural variety were imposed on just nothing, as if the human body had [Page 4]  no organization of its own with which to create, learn, and perform culture. In that view, the various cultures float, dropped down by divine decree, so that there is an utter gap between culture and body.

The present patterns do play some role in how it can be carried further, but not by simply determining that there is always also a human nature that could have been carried forward otherwise and — what is more important — can now be carried forward differently than would be possible in accord with the pattern alone.

Animal Nature in Human Bodies

It is often said that humans lack instinct. It seems that human bodies are less organized than any other animal's: we don't do even our most bodily activities in the same way. Unlike every other animal species, we don't eat the same things or perform the same mating dance preparations for intercourse; we don't build the same nests; and we're not even afraid of the same things. For centuries in the West, and especially today, it is said that the human body has lost its animal instincts.

Certainly it is wrong to think that human beings are complete animals with a cultural second floor merely added on top. The "completion" or carrying forward of further development reorganizes and elaborates what was there before. But these cultural completions — or rather, ways of carrying forward — cannot be understood just as themselves, just as patterns, imposed on nothing. To be lived, they involve the body. They are always a carrying forward of body-life, and they need to be understood as processes of body-life in situation.

We are bodies and animals, but in this regard, the difficulty for our Western science is that we think of bodies as mere machines, organized by abstract, mathematical, science-imposed patterns. Along with this view of the body, animals were/are considered mere machines. This is not because scientists never talk to their dogs when they get home. Rather, it is because we have had no concepts for animal life.

What people assert about the body comes from the type of concept in use; it is always a flat, complete pattern, imposed by science or by culture. With this type of concept, animals have not been understood at all, and this gross lack dramatizes, and plays a large role in, our lack of scientific understanding of ourselves.

The great complexity and near person-character of animals have not functioned as a concept in our theoretical thinking of ourselves. The findings of ethology have not been thought or used in theories of human nature. I say "the findings" — there is no good theory of ethology. Let the findings function as concepts.

A mother duck will roll an egg back into the nest, if one has rolled out. It's not easy, with her narrow bill. She has to adjust to the unevenness of the ground, moving the egg in a zigzag. This behavior is inherited, and if no egg [Page 5] ever rolls out, she performs it eventually, anyway. Only, without an egg she moves her bill easily, in a perfectly straight line. Shall we say that her body simply lacks complexities that only the uneven ground gives her? Or is it more organization than any one pattern, that she can incorporate any pattern of the ground?

The straight line might seem like an empty page, less organized than a page of print. But the computer's empty screen, ready to have anything written on it, is more organized than a page of print.

The human body can further develop in a variety of ways, and it has already done that. Some of the variety it has developed is called "cultures." The human infant arrives less fully formed than any other species. The duckling can walk from the start; at birth it actually walks out of its egg. The human infant arrives with an organization that is more complexly open for further development.

We need such concepts of animal life; otherwise it can seem that everything human is first given by culture and given to a behaviorless, merely mechanical body. It is right enough to say that all human meanings are elaborated and reorganized by culture, but it is nonsense to say that only language and culture create meaning, social interaction, or complex living. It omits the obvious fact of the complex life of animals.

Interaction is Prior to Perception and Perspectives

I disagree with the Nietzschean saying "There are only interpretations, there is nothing to interpret." That saying attacks but still also depends for its punch on the old perspectival notion that reality is something that is just there. Then we perceive and interpret it only from different angles or with different interpretive schemes. The Nietzschean saying points out that we can never get at anything like that; that would just sit in the middle and be interpreted. So there are only the interpretations.

But be more radical, and don't assume that reality is something that is only looked at or interpreted. We don't just stare at things and discuss them. We live also, which means we interact in, and with, reality. It is not so much the variety of interpretations or perceptions that make reality various; rather it is our various ways of living in, and with, it. No, we never get reality as such; we always get our being in it and with it, we digest it or fail to digest it, swim or drown in it, walk on it or sink into it. Science consists of the results of operations, not just a catalog of the green and the dry.

Concepts and interpretations have to be thought of as special cases of living in, and interacting with, reality. To understand concepts as operations is quite familiar to us, but with our Western habits we begin with conceptual and interpretive operations and skip all the interactions that come before.

Interaction is first—that's a quick way of making this point. It is better to let reality itself be interaction process. Even the prefix inter still assumes that [Page 6] the two things precede. But if we are not innocent about assumptions of reality, why keep the simplistic assumption that reality must be like a thing in space that first exists separately and only then interacts? Perhaps reality includes processes from which — only later — the things separate out, which we then say "interacted." Perhaps life-interaction is real. Since we're here, this wouldn't be the wildest assumption.

So I propose that human nature, living bodies, and reality be thought of neither as a separately given order nor as simply lacking in any order but an order that is carried forward by the variety of livings we observe, as well as in many other ways that have never as yet happened.


One of my favorite authors writes priceless, dense descriptions of many, many incidents. People read his books for that reason. We easily forgive him the fact that he isn't a good theoretical thinker. But he so well knows just which details to tell. His tales are always significant. How is it that he can't let these significances help him in theorizing? I pursued this question and noticed that when he begins to do what he thinks of as theory, he leaves his rich know-how behind. He turns to the established body of conceptual interrelations and begins afresh, without the incidents and stories in which he is so able.

My story is intended to instance a common way of using concepts: in our public discourse there are rather enclosed clusters of interrelated concepts, which make up the theories in a field. Many people think that thinking consists only in entering these and trying to move them around in interesting ways, with old and new inferences.

Our concepts about concepts are quite confused, so I would rather let this story say what I mean, thereby also instancing that there is another way to use concepts; one can make a concept from an incident, or, at least, one can let a concept be related to an incident.

Concepts do relate to other concepts, but they also relate to situations. These two relations cannot be split. However, we can think at the interface of these two relations. (Of course, to take them as two that make an interface is itself a diagrammatic concept that must be thought of in this interface way.) In whatever way we picture or schematize this, we can move from any point of thought by the inferences of systematic theory, and yet we also need not deny that each concept brings a mesh of situations in which it would be used (from which it comes, in which it is implicit, which are implicit in it, to which it applies, and so on). This mesh can also move us to a next step of thought.

Understanding does not consist only of concepts. There is also an implicit self-understanding as we live and act. We feel we know what we're doing, most of the time. Our actions make sense; this means they carry forward our [Page 7] bodily sensed complexity of a situation. Articulated concepts also carry forward our bodily-situational living. Either way, understanding consists of an implicitly complex bodily sense of "Oh, yes, . . . . . , sure." The bodily lived complexity of the situation is carried forward and thereby self-understood, in the action or in the concept.

Each culture further patterns the bodily lived complexity of the situations, so that quite different actions and concepts carry us forward and thereby make sense.

"Really" to understand another culture's (or person's) concepts and lifeways, we must grasp how these carry forward those people's body-life in situations.

Therefore I think we need to use both the networks of conceptual relations and also how concepts make sense by carrying forward situational living.


McKim Marriott

The anthropologist McKim Marriott (1989) has proposed that a culture be studied in terms of its own concepts. He points out that a great deal of good sense about a culture can be made if one first learns to sense and appreciate the concepts used within that culture. It is a radical way to think more deeply about a culture, compared with the thin, externally applied concepts of modern social science. Much of what happens in a culture is simply lost when we describe it. Or, at least its own significances are lost when it is rendered on our conceptual maps.

His proposal means that one must first deeply learn the concepts of the culture. Only then could one begin to describe and think.

It is a wonderful and radical move beyond the limits of our present social science and the debates between its various relativisms and reductionisms. Let us use not just the indigenous concepts but a social science developed from these concepts, so as to study a culture with and through its own concepts.

Richard Shweder

Richard Shweder, too, wants to grasp how people in other cultures think about things, but he also wants to reveal the intentional world of the other and what has been dogmatically hidden away (Stigler, Shweder, and Herdt, 1990). He argues that the alien concepts we bring can often let us understand something better. It seems to me that this is also true, but we have to ask what "better" means.

If I had to mediate that difference, I would argue that Marriott is totally right — first. I agree with him that nothing much will work, as long as we cannot grasp how a culture articulates and understands itself. As long as we [Page 8] map the culture on our own understandings, we won't get it on our map at all. Only when at least some of its self-understandings have been grasped might it be possible to judge that our further understanding with different concepts is better.

Of course, we can't dictate this time-order, since we come with our alien concepts and lifeways first, and these may instantly let us understand something better. We can't postpone such better understandings, but we can postpone the judgment of "better" until we have understood and developed the inherent concepts. Then, I would grant, we have at least a chance of judging which alien understandings are better.

Understanding Across Cultures

If it is possible to do what Marriott does, it shows that we consist of something more than the fixed patterns of our own culture. Although we are already formed, we are still also open for further development and carrying forward in the other culture's way. This may have severe limits, but the greater order of the body and living, which I am trying to think about, is shown by whatever extent we can actually grasp another culture's ways of living and understanding itself.

This human nature, open for carrying further, is also featured by Shweder near the end of his introduction to Cultural Psychology. Four modes of understanding are defined. Taken together, they constitute what I call a universal human nature. It is that which can be a "situated . . . observer . . . trying to make sense of context-specific experiences [so that the outcome is] a process of portraying one's self itself as part of the process of representing the other" (Stigler, Shweder, and Herdt, 1990, 34).

Our nature, even as adults, is sufficiently incomplete so that our selves develop further in such a process. That means to me not that we are less ordered than animals but that we are more ordered in a complex way that lets us be carried further.

In understanding the other culture through its own terms, we understand it situationally through understanding ourselves. But we are already patterned by our culture, so this understanding is necessarily a crossing of both. In understanding that culture's concepts, we apply them to ourselves and thereby to our own culture, which is implicit in us. Those concepts carry forward and make further sense of our own living, which is already patterned by our culture. To grasp oneself in an Indian situation is to understand our culture better than it understands itself — to carry our acculturated bodies forward in a further way that makes further sense of it. Some possibilities are revealed that ours "dogmatically hides away" or happens not to develop.

To the extent to which we can understand our own selves in the situated terms of another place, human nature is not just patterns. Patterns as patterns cannot be further patterned by other, contradictory patterns. Since we cannot [Page 9] strip off how we are already patterned, it must be that our selves and our lives and bodies are not only by the patterns but something that can be carried further by other patterns, even though as patterns they cannot fit together.

Since the first set can't be stripped off, making sense of oneself in another culture is also a further understanding of one's own culture. I admit, of course, that if one grasps oneself in an Indian situation, that doesn't yet constitute an Indian social science of the West. But I am serious about that possibility.

I asked Marriott if he agrees that the social science he develops from Indian concepts can be used to shed light on our own or any other culture we truly live in — provided we grasp it first in its own terms. I think he said yes.

Of course, Marriott would know that this cross-application of Indian concepts to the West is going on implicitly in him and that it could, in principle, be extended, so that Indian concepts could be used here and the concepts of any culture could be used in grasping any other.

Shweder pursues this point and makes it central. For example, he says that the elaborate Indian concepts and rituals concerning a man's sisters-in-law reveal human possibilities that we keep quiet about and don't develop overtly in our culture. So the revealing goes both ways: some indigenously hidden human possibilities in both cultures are revealed by coming from the one into the other. He says that selfishness is elaborated and made overt here, and altruism in India, but both exist in both cultures. Therefore, what goes on in each culture can be illuminated by the elaborations it lacks, which can be found in the other.

Shweder invokes Ruth Benedict's "arc of human possibilities" — and he makes it all sound rather as if there were a given set of human possibilities, just as there will always be some relations, ritualized or not, between a wife's husband and her sisters. But I don't want to take this as if human possibilities were given in advance and only left to be articulated or not. It seems so, because the marriage pattern is somewhat similar in both cultures. But where the cultures are father apart, there is not a neatly similar category differing only in "articulation."

So I can fault Shweder for sounding as if human possibilities are given and only the articulations vary. On the other hand, Shweder also says, "Experience follows belief." Now I can fault him for sounding all the other way, as if there is nothing human across; there is only the variety of beliefs, which make the experiences.

But instead of criticizing both times, I would rather pull these two sides together into one concept: "carrying forward."


Why do we assume that what is real must be already fixed and given? No, we mean just possibilities. With our habits, each word we try sounds fixed. [Page 10]The arc of human possibilities—it seems, at best, that one might find an empty spot between two others on that arc.

It seems to me, rather, that the more we develop, the more further development is enabled. The degrees of freedom increase; we don't use them up. Carrying forward is neither determined nor indeterminate, but theoretically that sounds odd, unspeakable, and unthinkable. Yet, it is much less speculative and much more familiar than the notion of fixed reality.

The phrase carrying forward says something most familiar. Most human events are not just finished things. Rather, what an event or a situation is, has to do with what will happen further—unless we do something now to change what will happen. Just about every bit of living is for carrying forward, neither a determined set of choices, nor just anything we like.


I have been studying a basic aspect of my culture: the tendency to grasp everything as fixed things that are organized only by patterns. In my culture there are no terms for a highly organized openness to being further organized.

Marriott (1989) however, points out how different are the various cultures' notions of what we call the body. It isn't as if we all had this concrete thing in common and only thought about it differently.

What we call the "body" cannot be simply found and identified in terms of the Indian concepts and concerns, nor in those of some other cultures. Let us therefore leave fluid what is or is not the body. Let us let the word body work at that interface—of course, it brings our familiar welter of concepts and uses, but let it also work here, where we say that life and thought may not always identify something distinct as the body.

It seems to me that Marriott's Indian concepts also tell why they would be used in a certain manner, not as patterns but as a mesh of instances that they carry forward.

Marriott says that his Indian friends object to his chart of the concepts — arranged in triadic relations. In our Western style they are just conceptual relations.

Of course, Marriott is right to let Indian and Western conceptual manners carry each other forward. In our culture we have highly developed conceptual relations and logical theory. We neither can nor should lose these. It is part of the fact that if we understand anything foreign at all, we cannot help understanding it better.

My proposed manner of using concepts can be contrasted with the more familiar one of speaking only about logical, conceptual relations. In that familiar mode the bodily carrying forward of the situational mesh has been "dogmatically hidden away" so that it is underdeveloped, lacking an overt way to be thought.

I propose an approach for the empirical study of this mesh.

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A Western social scientist in whose own living no spirituality functions will find it hard to grasp Indian religion. That is not a cross-cultural problem. It is rather a problem of subgroups within each culture, religious and nonreligious subgroups in each.

I always argue that before you study Indian religion, why don't you study the Calvert Club or Hillel right here? What I mean is, please see it as a problem, if the religious dimension of your own culture does not carry you forward. If only you see this, then you won't mix it into the cross-cultural problematic.

Shweder's principle applies here too: various religious concepts develop and articulate various human possibilities. The myth taken literally may be stupid, but how it functions to carry experience forward may not depend on that kind of truth and may not be stupid. Literal content doesn't tell you how it functions.

I come now to different manners of functioning.


I will use what I said about religion as my example.

It was a cross-cultural problem when the old-fashioned British Protestants found it hard to open their Christian experience enough to let Indian patterns carry that experience further. Traditional people know, as a matter of information, that other religions are religions, but the alien symbols and rituals have no effect or make them slightly sick.

Between different patterns-as-such there is no way across.

On the other hand, there always were marginal people who had lived in both cultures and whose being, carried forward by one, could be further carried forward by the other.

This difference in manner of process is that one's own patterns can function in such a way that one senses not only the patterns but also, directly, the intricacy that they carry forward; then other patterns can also function and carry one further. Or, one's own patterns carry forward without that direct sensing; then these patterns seem to be the carrying forward, and other patterns cannot have any further effect.

Of course, there are many reasons why people might not allow other patterns to work for them. I recognize that. I am not so interested in whether people are open to religions other than their own. But this difference in manner of process can predict many other variables. It is only one example of a difference in manner of process. I will now cite others.

As I continue, I am not concerned with your subjective mode of using concepts or whether you spend years living in another culture or not. I am arguing, rather, that our concepts must refer to the manner of process of the people [Page 12] we study. In that regard I propose a strategy for asking what I think are crucial empirical questions.

We have to ask, in each case, just how the given concepts, ritual, or way of life functions to carry these people's bodies and lives forward. If we do that, we come upon vital differences in how whatever we study functions.


Different manners of process reveal very different events, which can superficially seem the same.

To communicate my challenge, let me overstate it: I claim that much of what is studied and reported in social science concerns superficial phenotypes that don't tell us what anything is or how it works. I argue that the manner of process needs to be taken into account, so that we might know what something is as an event and how it works. I will show that asking about the manner of process leads to testable questions. When we look closely in this way we often see that two superficially similar behaviors are different—not in detail, but rather are altogether different kinds of events.

Example: Psychotherapy

We scaled a difference in process-manner for tape-recorded psychotherapy interviews. Rather than studying what was said, we studied the manner, in this case the degree of direct reference to directly sensed experience We found improvement correlated with the extent to which people work not only with how their problems are patterned just then but also with their directly felt body-sense of what they are talking about. Change-steps arise from the bodily sense of a problem. In contrast, little change comes from how a person's problem seems to be patterned—from the patterns as such. Patterns often seem to show only how one is — and must remain.

There are many other variables of process-manner. Each thing we study has its own such variables.

Example: Women's Roles

At long last, in our society, women can leave the home and do things outside. It gives some women the world. Before this change, a woman who wanted to do things in the world was blamed and made to blame herself. "Why are my husband and children not enough for me?" she would argue with herself. But now, too, some are made to berate themselves. "There is nothing I want to do. Why don't I have my own thing?" many of them ask.

Also, some who have a well-developed profession decide to stay home with their kids. What pressure they now experience from others, and how they have [Page 13] to struggle to defend their choice! The choice is possible only for some. Others must work, because two paychecks bring only what one brought, 20 years ago.

I argue that without inquiring into the manner of process, one wouldn't know much about the old or new female roles in our society.

Would process-manner predict differences on other variables? Surely. How could it not? Many measures, from global satisfaction to very specific stress-indexes, family interaction, and performance, should be predictably different

"Motherhood and the Virgin Mary in Western Ireland"

Maria Sullivan's paper, delivered to Person, Culture, Body Workshop, Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago, presented a lovely intricacy of relations between psyche and culture. For example, she reports that the image of the Virgin Mary calls on women to sacrifice themselves and also to keep silent about their oppression. In that culture women are blamed for what goes wrong with their husbands and sons. She mentions the psychoanalytic theory according to which the mother's castrating is responsible for weakness in her sons. The psychological explanation also remains silent about the oppression of women and blames women for what is wrong with the men. On the other hand, it sheds some light on what might go on within the family under these conditions. Sullivan is right to let psychological and sociological explanations coexist and undercut each other. I think this intricate mesh of culture-psyche relations is better than any one set of concepts.

Is the Mary cult a reflection of the castrating psychological and family patterns? Shall we interpret it as a justification of social oppression and a damper to repress complaints? Is it a cultural symbol and ritual that we must study with respect, without mentioning economic and social conditions? Or is that cultural symbol perhaps even a cause that creates experience and social conditions?

I would neither deny nor settle on one explanatory mode in general. For example, I wouldn't limit myself, in advance, to the traditional notion that cultural symbols have psychological origins or, vice versa, that cultural symbols create psychological experience. I don't deny that social and political arrangements may cause them both. I think one must always trace the detailed connections on all these lines.

Oppression on the social and economic level may explain something about the family structure, while the castration theory may explain the dynamics by which that structure produces certain results. The cultural symbol may be more than a mere reflection of the social oppression; it may also cause or maintain that oppression. Rather than an overall ideological choice of theory, I am for looking at how these connections work in relation to each other, in the given instance.

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But I would also ask another kind of question: how does the Virgin Mary cult function in carrying forward these people's bodies and lives?

I would ask, How would the image of the Virgin Mary's self-sacrifice function to carry forward people's bodies and lives?

I predict that very different manners of process will be found to coexist in a culture. The spiritual approach to suffering can restore health and give energy, but it can also be used to stifle oneself and make everything seem only superficially all right. It would surprise me a lot if this difference and finer shades of it were not to be found. It is unlikely that such a symbol would never realize a human possibility and equally unlikely that every person would find this possibility. But what are the percentages? That would matter a lot, and I cannot even guess. It is an empirical question!

It should not be hard to differentiate a process-manner that gives serious value, health, and energy to a mother from a manner of functioning that makes for repression, smoldering anger, and the castrating of those around her. The castration and resentment of sons can be measured with our psychometrics. Perhaps there are no differences in this result —that is an empirical question. The mothers' interview transcripts would have to be reliably differentiable as between repressive theological garbage and reports of physically felt, experiential sustenance. That should be possible, if the right questions are asked.

This would not resolve the inherent intricacy of various conceptual interpretations. For example, we would still be concerned about social oppression, and we would still affirm that it is mirrored in the prevalence of the Mary cult, even if it were found that for a sizable proportion of mothers the spiritual concepts open genuine human resources. That would not justify the oppression—anymore than I choose suffering just to advance my personal development. Nor would it deny that the social arrangements are the reason for the emphasis on the Mary image. But now we would not just invoke the general concept that symbols "mirror" social arrangements. Keeping this, we would know something about how such "mirroring" works.

I think poverty and the infant mortality rate have everything to do with whatever we study, and they must always be considered. For someone who has not experienced it, it is hard to understand a person whose little child dies, and then another, and perhaps another. Yet this was the human condition in all ages until now, and it is still the condition in many places. To grasp human nature and its possibilities, it is worthwhile to understand how people manage to go on, both repressively by an inward closing and in another way, if there is one. Such understanding would never justify these conditions, which are no longer unavoidable.

So the intricate mesh of various concepts and strategies would continue, but it would change and become always more informed.

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Home Visitors in the Black Community

The program consultant said:

First we worked with mothers but they talked of their problems and we never got to the kids. Then we worked with the kids and lost the mothers. Now we try to zero in on parent-child relations.

We came with permissive middle-class ideas, but we learned that, in those surroundings, it can express love to be hard on your kids, to beat them a lot, and restrict them all the time. A permissive attitude can be deadly there. The worst fear is to raise a "brat." Such a kid easily gets sucked into all the bad things that go on all around you. Also, you have to leave your kid with people all the time, and it's real bad for the kid, if he isn't welcome anyplace. So we learned that the same kind of parent-child relations we wanted would look very different here.

We are after a personally loving and close interaction, but we thought we would let it develop its own form in this very different socioeconomic class and culture. Then we found it there, not all that frequently, but it is there. They beat their kids a lot, but you can see the difference in those parents who are doing it right: They aren't angry; it's protective.

They can't childproof the place, clear the apartment of dangerous things; too many adults living there. So they have to spank the child to get it not to touch a lot of objects. But of course the kids' exploratory drive does get lost. What we do, is to give them the idea, now and then, that exploring might be something good. After a while, maybe they'll find some form in which they can save it. (Personal communication, Dr. Victor Bernstein, 1988)

This report well exemplifies principles we have discussed: It brings home how culture is at least partly a response to the real circumstances, not only an unaccountable origin of differences. It shows that, across economic classes and cultures, the human sameness does not consist in a common form or pattern of behavior. To get the same effect in very different surroundings — of course, what one does would be different. That makes it seem that the sameness is hard or impossible to think about. We have been developing concepts for this kind of "the same" across different patterns. Here it is the concept of the manner of the process. This program consultant has a simple touchstone here ("They aren't angry; it's protective"), but it marks a whole different complexity, a different manner of process that makes all the content very different.

Bach and Vermeer, Aesthetic Values in our Culture

Educated people know that Johann Sebastian Bach and Jan Vermeer are highly valued. It shows good taste to like them. But one should not return from a study of our culture to report only that. Nor should one examine only Bach's musical scores or Vermeer's surface to understand how they function in our culture.

One needs to differentiate the manner of process. In some people Bach [Page 16] opens a bodily experience of infinity. Certainly, the social value put on it disposes some people to open themselves to find the desirable experience. In one manner of process, trying to find it makes it more likely. But there's also a different kind of "trying," which immunizes.

Some people had to sit in silence on hard chairs as children taken to concerts. Their bodies will not open to this music. The influence of social values is not only straightforward; it can build blockages.

Nor are there only two manners of process here. Rather, some people lack only the experience. Others force themselves, put themselves down, or insist inside themselves on some substitute they find. In short, there are also serious ways of violating oneself.

Is it possible that a culture would talk about an experience that exists only in a repressive, substitutional mode, an experience that simply cannot be found? I think so, but I would like to know! Can it sometimes be found, but only in a negligible percentage of special people? Or does the experience exist, but only in others? I mean that a merely substitutional experience might be pushed on some people, for the sake of something held desirable by others, as binding women's feet made the women into upper-class luxuries — but for whom?

Don't we need to know which of such different manners of process obtain? Or shall we report only the pattern that is highly valued?

There are those whose Bach-listening process extends just to recognizing it. This is Bach, they love to say, and they've had it. Similarly, in the art museum these people run through, pointing: a Van Gogh, a Vermeer, and so on. It is different to spend a long while in front of a Vermeer and see the light reflected from each upholstery nail.

These differences can be differentiated empirically, although one must always know that people have heard the kind of talk that indicates the desirable experience, and to some extent they can reproduce it. One has to ask more deeply. For example, if we ask about the upholstery nails in the painting, we might get beyond the mere transmission of canned talk.


Cross-cultural understanding is one rather rare way in which our human nature bodies and lives can be carried forward. I argue that our nature, bodies, and experiences have an order that is much more intricate than the overt patterns, cultural or personal. That order is for further carrying forward by different patterns, and sometimes creative of different patterns.

Cultural patterns — or any patterns — must never be treated as if they were axioms, as if experience just derives from them. The higher animals already live much more complexly than could ever be derived from our cultural patterns alone. The cultural patterns only modify and elaborate our bodily living and carry it forward. I argue that we have to look how they do that — in various manners of process.

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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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  • See the reference for this document in the Gendlin primary bibliography.
  • More on Philosophy of the Implicit from the Focusing Institute website.
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