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Gendlin, E.T. (1989). Psychotherapy research: Toward a bodily human nature. Discours Social/Social Discourse, 2(1-2). From

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Psychotherapy Research: Toward A Bodily Human Nature

Eugene T. Gendlin, University of Chicago

The philosophical project:

This paper sketches a way to change certain assumptions. Current thought assumes that the human subject and the body exist only as imprinted by externally imposed forms. All natural order is assumed to be a system of imposed forms. Experience is only derivative. An impossible, therefore tragic, so-called "individual" remains, but only as primitive, and autistic. Thinkers search for the human subject in the infantile, the grotesque, the unreal, at best in art which is supposed to be unreal.

But, let me remind you that in the now rejected concept, the human subject was not at all the subject we each are. What we each are was lost earlier, when Descartes replaced it by the pure, reflexive self-consciousness of the mathematical thinker. The now rejected subject was Descartes' and Kant's—the source of innate ideas and mathematical grids.

Kant recognized the situation with his Copernican Revolution. Why do science and mathematics necessarily fit experience? Because, he said, all order that experience could possibly have derives from them. Actual human experience is entirely derivative. The forms were said to come from "the subject"—but it was a purely formal subject, a formal unity. On the other hand, the empirical subjects—you and me—are determined by, and derivative from these logic-forms which "we" impose on us.

There has been no change in this assumption that experience is derived from imposed forms. But the loss of the human subject did become more apparent, when it was replaced in its formal role as a source of imposed order. Later philosophies saw that source in society, history, or politics. But humans remained derivatives from an imposed order.

Currently, both rational and social forms have lost their prestige. Concepts and distinctions are seen to contradict themselves. [1] Social forms are seen as shifting political controls. [2] Self-contradictory and discontinuous, imposed forms are still assumed to be the only order of human beings and bodies—always already imposed before we experience.

So, for example, Freud [3] held that the infant's body provides only chaotic drives without discharge channels. Only imposed patterns allow these energies to interact. To organize discharge [Page 202] is to impose order, which means to repress. The ego is that part of the id which acquires social patterns. The assumption that order and interaction must be imposed on chaos is starkly built into all of Freud's theoretical concepts.

But, wasn't it Freud who decoded the language of the unconscious, the overdetermined intricacy of dreams? Isn't he the one who discovered beneath the social simplifications that great complexity he called "the pathology of everyday 1ife?" Yet, in his basic theory, that is all treated as unorganized. This is customary in the Western tradition. What is not logic is treated as no order at all, or as primitive. So also did Nietzsche defend and laud the "wisdom of the body," and then also call it a primordial chaos on which order had to be forced, from outside. His self-creation has nothing of feedback. For him there is no way the body can talk back to that self which is an imposed work of art, an imposition of form. This tradition goes back to Vico, who lovingly treats metaphor, and also depreciates it as not being rational. If we see this tradition clearly, we will not assume that what is not imposed can only be primitive, or no order at all.

Two great lacks can be seen here, and they will organize what I have to say:

Body and subject are assumed incapable of meaningful feedback.

They are assumed to be autistic, lacking in interaction.

The body is assumed to lack all organization and order. Therefore it cannot offer feedback. It cannot meaningfully modify what society requires. Certainly it cannot come up with something better than what is imposed on it. It cannot modify what society requires. It is not even possible that something imposed might not fit it, since it has no order at all. It has nothing with which to limit its oppression.

If the body has no order, then interaction can only be imposition. So, it is said that if there were a subject, it must be autistic. Interaction is taken to be the opposite of subjects. Therefore, since humans are inherently interactional, there seems to be no subject.

We see this also in psychoanalysis, where theory makes it seem that only the therapist can determine what the patient should become. The patient is only a result of bad imprinting. Improvement can only be a more effective socialization, and only by a one-way imposition of order and control. But, of course, in practice the patient's more complex feedback is vivid, essential, and not imposed, but quite new, in each case.

I reject the theoretical assumption of imposed order, both in therapy and in philosophy, in favour of a more complex relation and source of novelty I call "carrying forward."

A difficulty immediately arises: We can not speak outside our language, our history, society, economic class, and our conceptual forms. These are always already implicit in all our situations. But, if this is admitted, then isn't what we think and do derivative, always already?

That all is implicit; yes. But, what we think and live is not just derived. If it were, these factors would function like logical forms, so that only what is consistent, could follow. But, how culture, politics, and language function is quite unlike logical necessity. How they function implicitly has not [Page 203] been thought through at all. They have simply been allowed to retain their Kantian function of constructing experience. No, these forms are indeed implicit—in a greater order, other than forms.

A second difficulty: lf body and subject have another order, can it be separated out? No, it cannot. There is no way to separate the forms away. How, then, can we hope to find that greater order?

I will show that the order of subject and body becomes noticeable, because their feedback to imposed forms is novel, more intricate, and more realistic, than the imposed forms.


According to Freudian metapsychology, poetry consists of primitive pre-ego material, on which artistic form is imposed. But poetry is not just imposed form. What the poet says is not always primitive and unreal. It can be more realistic, more true of the world, than the common sayings.

Consider the silence of a poet with an unfinished poem:

The already written lines want something more, but what? The poet may be only stuck and confused, trying this line and that; many lines come. Some seem good. The poet listens carefully into each, rejects it, and reads the written lines again—and again.

Soon, or all along, the poet hears (senses, knows, reads .....) what these already written lines need, want, demand, imply ...... Now the poet's hand rotates in the air. The gesture says that. The lines that offer themselves try to say, but do not say—that. This blank seems to lack words, but no. The blank is very verbal: It knows the language well enough to understand—and reject—all the lines that come. The blank is not a bit pre-verbal; it knows what must be said, and it knows that the lines which came don't say that.

The blank is vague, but it is also more precise than what was ever said before—in the history of the world.

But in another way, of course the blank is said—by the lines leading up to it. The poet can have (get, hear, feel, keep .....) this blank only by re-reading and listening into the written lines—over and over. Their saying has a role in bringing what is not yet said.

What is this .....? Surely the language. But also the poet's felt body-sense. And also the situation, writing poetry, and interacting in the world. So also, with us here: You follow my odd language about that blank. You know that body-sense. It is also our interaction just now, our situation here. The old distinctions do not hold, between language, body, self, and situations with others. But after distinctions there is not just limbo, not disorder. Rather, what comes can demand and give rise to something quite new, more realistic, and more intricately ordered than the existing forms.

Let us think—more intricately—just how a ..... is body, and feeling, an situation, and language:

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The ..... is not a poet's special capacity. Most any situation can demand sayings and actions that I cannot form. The ..... can make me reject what comes to me to say and do. This blank, this "sense" is not just subjective—it is my interaction with others, my situation which demands an action new to me. The ..... is not pre-verbal; it knows why what I would say won't do. I am not apart from my situations, but neither are they separable from me. My situation is how I came to it, what it does to me. If I could now do what others could, I would have done it already; this situation would not have come about except for me. So let us not say that there are no subjects, just because they are always in situations.

The ..... is never just the formed words or actions. It can always demand and give rise to more than has ever formed before. It is a pre-separated multiplicity that is endlessly further specifiable—but always just so, in a demandingly exact way. Notice how the body-feeling is also the language and the situation:

What is happening now, as you sit there—using your time in this way, having decided not to do those other things, having decided to let me in? Here is also the past history of this decision, your intellectual-practical situation, what might come of it, the writing you might do, how you might use this, whom you will talk with about it, the patience, expectancy, disdain or excitement you have for it, so far—a cluster called your "attitude" as if that were one thing—and also your readiness for your next situation after this, which is coming up, and building in you all this while, and also the spot in which you are sitting, the living you have done here before, and who else is here, or not here, and so on .....

As I say each of these things, they may seem separable, but only some of them were separate before. Each seems to be one item, but each is again such a pre-separated multiplicity, able to be further specified (made, found, differentiated, synthesized, lifted out, constellated .....).

That pre-separated multiplicity functions in the coming of your thoughts and actions. You act and think with it. It functions in a highly orderly way. In most situations you would be lost without it. The forms that come are never the only order.

Seeing how it functions, there is either no distinctions between situation and subject, or a whole fan of them: It is also a situation for the other people in it, whereas I exist not just as something for them. It is partly an externality they see, whereas they cannot see my multiplicity. The situation has possibilities I will miss, but I can come up with new ways of acting that didn't seem to be in the situation. It will have consequences in a set of situations I can't foresee, but I differ from it because I also live in unrelated other situations. The situation lets me carry forward only part of my multiplicity, but also, I feel only part of the situation. It contains one cluster of implicit culture and history, whereas I act from another such cluster. And so on! Notice that none of these are arbitrary or lacking in truth. To say more about any of them, would require entering into that ..... with its demanding intricacy.

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We need not be stopped when the old distinctions break down. Rather, we think this demanding intricacy as a multiplicity capable of many precise fans, when we open the old self/other distinction.

Here I emphasize a certain kind of orderly functioning, different from how formed forms work. I do not say it is the body, or the subject, or language, or the situation, which has this sort of functioning. Rather, let us study this mode itself. We know a good deal about that mode of functioning, from another field:


Therapy, poetry, and action each bring quite different changes. Even a tiny step of therapy can change the whole way a situation exists. It can shift the whole mood. If a poet experienced a bit of therapy-change, that might dissolve what the poem has been coming from. The poem could not be finished. Steps of therapy differ from steps of poetry.

Here is a short segment, (written from memory after the hour.) Notice the role of the stuck and silent ....., the way it can reject what would be easy to say, and how it gives rise to novel steps:

I want to leave Chicago. The noise outside bothers me.

T is silent.

You don't think that's real. I can tell.

T: The noise is crowding in on you, coming into your far-in place.

It's like darts hitting my body. I can't stand it.

T: It really hurts!

(silence) ..... I keep feeling a sense of no meaning in my life.

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(silence) ..... I just want to leave everything. It's that same spot where I want to die. My wanting to live and to die are so close, these days. That's why I haven't been able to touch this place. It gets misty there, still. It's real foggy.

T: You can feel wanting to live and, also, wanting to die, both right there, in the same inside spot, and that spot gets foggy, too.

(silence) ..... I don't want to relate with anyone. I wish there were no people to see. They don't mean anything to me. There is no meaning. When will my life ever have meaning? It feels like it never will. And I need meaning, right now.

(silence) ..... I also feel hesitant about relating to you. I know you're there for me, but it's like I'm not allowed to want that.

T: Is that, what you said before, about your father?

(silence) ..... No, uh. But I am glad you said that about my father, because, uh, I can feel that this is not with him. This is different. It's not like with my father.

T: It is not about him.

(silence) ..... Uh, I can hardly touch it. It's—I can't want ..... my mother. I, I can hardly say it.

T: You can't want—her.

(silence) ..... That is where I feel the noises like darts.

(silence) ..... It's real early, real early.

T: It feels like a very, very early experience.

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(silence) ..... I can't want—anything.

(silence) ..... This needs to rest, and it can't. If it lets down and rests it will die. It needs to keep up its guard.

T: There is such a big need and longing, to rest, to let down, to ease, but somehow also, this part of you can't rest. It feels that it will die if it stops being on guard.

(silence) ..... What comes is: maybe it could—if I could trust something.

T: It could rest, if you could trust something.

No, no: Maybe it could rest, if I could trust something.

T: It's important to say "maybe." Maybe it could rest, if you could trust something.

(silence) ..... Now, suddenly, it feels like a house on stilts that go into the earth. All of me on top, where the noise is, that's a house and its on stilts. It got lifted off of this sore place. Now the sore place is like a layer, and it can breathe. Do you know those steel posts they put into the ground, to hold up a building? These stilts are like that. (T: Umhm) All the noise and coming and going is in the house, and the house is on stilts, lifted off, and the stilts go into the ground.

T: Those steel stilts go into the ground. You feel them lifting the whole house up, off of you. And underneath, that sore place can breathe.

(silence) ..... Yea, (breath), now it's breathing.

(silence) ..... It's bathing in warm water.

Later, she said: "When I was little I played a lot with stilts. I used to go between the power wires on them. It was dangerous, but it was play! I used to make taller and taller ones, and go on them there. Stilts! I haven't thought of those for years. Play, and danger. How does this process do that? It uses all these things to make something that wasn't there before."

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Note that the new intricacy comes from the silence, the ..... which precedes each step. Such steps are not imposed by the therapist, nor do they already exist in the patient. They are not the common social forms.

Steps of this sort occur in psychotherapy of any type, if feedback from the patient's bodily sense is looked for, and received. Such steps have theoretical implications. I can only say a little of that, here. [4]

The steps can include much from the past. Here, the problem with mother, and the play with stilts in the danger zone are from the past. But the past doesn't merely repeat; it functions in new steps, in a new, more intricate way of physical, bodily being.

Such steps can not be designed deliberately. They are not imposed on someone, or on oneself. In retrospect we can say, yes, this is just what was needed: the body produced the mothering which was lacking. It came in the interaction with the therapist. But it had to be made physically, from inside, by the body. Nothing can be just imposed by the therapist. He did not even get his one interpretation right. Though wrong, it helped: A new step came as feedback to it. But, most steps came as her body's responses to her own statements. The therapist could not invent and impose this intricate arrangement of stilts that were physically felt as supporting her, lifting the pressure off, so that something underneath could breathe.

The steps are interactions of present with past, patient with therapist, and language with the patient's body. Carrying forward is interaction; the steps are not already there in either person. One must wait for them to come.

What is there, before steps come? This order exceeds the static "is". Rather, it is-for steps. The human subject and body do not consist of forms, or formed contents, neither original nor imposed. Always already formed, the order of subject and body is-for steps of carrying forward.

Such steps don't follow logically, but they are not at all arbitrary ruptures. You followed them. What kind of "following" is that? What arises in a next step is not predictable from the previous. On the contrary, if we go back to a previous step, to find how we could go from it to the next, we see that each step changed how we had understood the previous one, so that the next could follow. The next event retroactively reveals what the previous step really was. Evidently, what was does not alone determine what it was.

I call it "carrying forward." The previous step functions in producing the next, but not by deriving it, not by imposing its form on what follows. "Carrying forward" alters LaPlace's series. He thought there was only one possible series, so that everything could be predicted, if one moment was known. But, we find that a step can change the forward-implied series. More can happen, than follows from formed forms alone.

You can see this order also in science. Last year's assertions are discarded, as hosts of new specifics arise. New formulations are then read back, from which the new findings are supposed to derive. But this shows an order that is not the formulations, old or new. The order is how forms function in that which breaks the forms by responding with more.

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That forms change in functioning has been noticed before, by Plato and Hegel for instance. But what brings novelty is missed. The credit is always again given to the forms. The novelty is said to come from forms, from their contradictions. Today's Post-structuralists do that still: All order is still only forms, their self-negation, their ruptures. Since the subject has no original forms, there seems to be no subject. But, we are an order-for bodily carrying forward—a very demanding order that can get us stuck, can reject what fails to carry forward, and can bring new intricacy that could not follow from the forms.

Therapy research

What makes such steps observable is their sequence—how each follows from the previous. On tape recordings and transcripts, these sequences can be reliably distinguished from inferential sequences, event-reporting, emotional catharsis, and other common kinds of steps in therapy. In a number of research studies it has now been found that a high incidence of such steps is correlated with success in psychotherapy [5].

Politics: freeing vs. more control

This kind of process also has a freeing effect, compared with mere repetition, or imposition. Of course, we cannot say that any particular steps are freeing in all respects. Indeed, there is no such finite multiplicity as "all respects." While such a step frees us in some respects, perhaps it reinstances old oppression in some other respects. Whether something new is freeing, or more control is never a simple question. For example, when are women's rights freeing, and when do they create pressure on women to work and leave their children? One cannot decide it from the content alone, staying home or working outside. The difference between freeing and forcing depends also on the kind of process the individual goes through. Distinguishing between kinds of process offers new possibilities for thinking about what is freeing.

The patient I quoted, felt quite oppressed by her work day. It will be recalled that she expressed a deep wish not to have to deal with all those demands. She wished "that there were no people to see." Can the steps I described be freeing in relation to such external demands?

Let me illustrate this with a bit from her next session:

..(silence) ..... I feel good,. Real peaceful. I sense it healing, down there. I can barely touch it but it's there.

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T: You can sense it, down there, and it's still healing.

(silence) ..... I have to talk to the boss this afternoon. She phoned. I can tell from her voice that it's heavy and she'll try to lay that on me. So that's disturbing the peace now.

T: Having to look forward to that gets in the way.

(silence) ..... That healing place needs protecting, but I only know how to put a wall up, and close off. I don't want to do that anymore.

T: Lets just stay here a while. You feel that you don't want the old way of protecting the inside, by walling yourself off. But a better way hasn't come yet.

(silence) ..... Being mad at her doesn't feel right. I don't know how to be. There is no way to protect myself.

(silence) ..... There isn't a new way.

T: Nothing new comes there.

(silence) ..... Oh, there are the stilts again, lifting up my house. I guess she can talk to my house.

(silence) ..... Oh, the stilts go higher! Then she can't lay her trip on me. For her I can

crank them up as high as I need! (laughs)

This certainly shows some freeing in relation to the external demands.

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I argue that a study of process-steps can let us decisively reject the Western philosophical assumption that all order is externally imposed. The body and the subject do have their own order, but it is an order greater than forms or formed content. It is an order-for carrying forward. Once thought of in this way, it becomes very noticeable in many settings.

The new concepts with which to think this do also instance this order. That may seem troubling: Will the observable marks with which we study such steps be carried into new specificity by each new study? They have indeed been getting more and more specific. Will the theoretical concepts keep changing too? But that is already how concepts function, even in science.

A new type of concept can begin to be, and be about, their functioning-in (with, from .....) [6]. Two such concepts are "carrying forward" and "pre-separated multiplicity." You think them in this for-carrying-forward way: Many kinds of carrying forward can be found, and kept as new distinctions and typologies. But, You think "carrying forward" as a variety that can keep surprising you. It is not a separable pattern, the same across poetry, therapy, and ordinary situations. It is not even the same in the coming of two poetic lines. Carrying forward is a pre-separated multiplicity.

Order is not just imposed patterns, as was assumed in early science. Experience is not merely derivative. Subjects and situations have an order greater than the existing commonalities, and can give rise to more realistic, more intricate, and freeing novelty.


[1] Derrida, J. Dissemination U. of Chicago Press, 1981.

[2] Foucault, M., "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History". In: Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, selected essays. Bouchard, D.F, ed., Cornell U. Press, Ithaca 1977.

Interview in: Dreyfus and Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 1984.

[3] Freud, S., Outline of Psychoanalysis, Norton, N.Y., 1949, pps. 108. 189. The Problem of Anxiety. Norton, N.Y, 1936, p. 24.

Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Liveright, N.Y., 1949, p.2.

[4] Gendlin, E.T. Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams. Theory Section. Chiron, Wilmette, IL 1986.

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"A Theory of Personality Change" in Hart, J., and Tomlinson, T., Eds., New Directions in Client-Centered Therapy. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1970.

"The Client's Client: The Edge of Awareness. In: Shlien, J.M, and Levant, R., Eds.Client-Centered Therapy and the Person- Centered Approach. N.Y.: Praeger, 1984.

"The Politics of Giving Therapy Away". In Larson, D., Ed., Brooks/Cole, Monterey: 1984.

[5] Klein, M.H., Mathieu-Coughlan, P., and Kiesler, D.J., "The Experiencing Scales." In: W.P. Pinsof & Greenberg, L.S. The Psychotherapeutic Process: A Research Handbook. Guilford, N.Y., 1985.

Bordin, E.S., "Of human Bonds that bind or free." Presidential Address, Society for Psychotherapy Research, Pacific Grove, Ca, 1980.

Gendlin, E.T. "What Comes After Traditional Psychotherapy REsearch?" American Psychologist, Vol. 41, No.2, February 1986, pps. 131-136.

[6] Gendlin, E.T., Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. Free Press - Macmillan, 1962, 1970.

"Experiential Phenomenology". In: Natanson, M., Ed., Phenomenology and the Social Sciences. Northwestern U. Press, Evanston 1973.

"Two Phenomenologists Do Not Disagree." In Bruzina, F. and Wilshire, B., Eds., Phenomenology,Dialogues and Bridges. State U. of N.Y. Albany 1982.

Process Ethics and the Political Question. Analecta Husserliana, Vol. XX, Reidel, Dordrecht, 1986.

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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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