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Gendlin, E.T. (1970). The significance of felt meaning. In R. Cormier, E. Chinn & R.H. Lineback (Eds.), Encounter: An introduction to philosophy, pp. 561-566. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Co. From http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2084.html

[Page 561]

The Significance of Felt Meaning

Eugene T. Gendlin

Besides the logical dimension and the operational dimension of knowledge, there is also a directly felt, experiential dimension. Meaning is not only about things and it is not only a certain logical structure, but it also involves felt experiencing. Any concept, thing, or behavior is meaningful only as some noise, thing, or event interacts with felt experiencing. Meanings are formed and had through an interaction between experiencing and symbols or things.

In the past, meaning has been analyzed very largely in terms of things (objective reference, sense perception) and in terms of logical structure. Of course, meanings were viewed as concerning experience, but "experience" was usually construed as a logical scheme that organizes sense perceptions or as a logical construct that intervenes to relate and predict observations of behavior.

Today, however, we can no longer construe "experience" so narrowly. Besides logical schemes and sense perception we have come to recognize that there is also a powerful felt dimension of experience that is prelogical, and that functions importantly in what we think, what we perceive, and how we behave.

The task at hand is to examine the relationships between this felt dimension of experience and the logical and objective orders. How can logical symbolizations and operational definitions be related to felt experiencing? Or, to reverse the question: What are the functions of felt experiencing in our conceptual operations and in our observable behavior?

One group of modern thinkers (Bergson, Sartre) have especially pointed out this concrete affective side of experience and its central importance in human life. They have also pointed out how difficult is the application of logic and concepts to experience as actually lived and felt. They have said that only "intuition" or actual living can grasp it adequately, while concepts and definitions can distort and deaden it. The attempt to define, they say, can turn living experience into abstractions or into dead objects of study. Thus, despite its crucial importance, felt experience has been conceptualized only vaguely, and only as it occurs at a few crucial junctures of life (for [Page 562] example, "encounter," "commitment"), rather than as the ever-present and ever-powerful factor it is.

These views in modern thought lead to the problem of effectively studying directly felt experience, of employing its meanings in science and life, of making thought concerning it possible for more than a few initiates—in short, the problem of relating concepts to felt experience without distorting or deadening it.

The other side of modern thought (pragmatism, logical positivism) has emphasized the logical and empirical requirements of science and meaning. Precise logical definitions and empirical testing are necessary to advance science, and only on the basis of these can we continue to work for the unbiased type of truth that makes men free and permits any man, if his findings can be objectively defined and tested, to question or disprove accepted tenets.

However, to remain only within current concepts and methods of science and logic imposes severe limitations. This side of modern thought leads to the problem of extending science to human behavior—without distorting or diluting logical precision and objective empirical criteria.

These two sides of modern thought really define the basic task as it is posed today. For we cannot really be content to lose either side or to leave both as they are. Current scientific methods need to be not only analyzed as they are now, but extended. Nor can we indefinitely leave the ever present concrete sense of "experience" in a vague no-man's land. It functions importantly in human behavior. The study of human behavior can be guided and aided if we can learn what kind of concept can relate to felt experience and how concepts of this kind can, in turn, relate to objective concepts and measurements.

In order to embark upon this task, we shall have to be clear that we require more than a logical scheme of "experience." We must be concerned not only with what is already logical, but with experience before it is logically ordered. We must be concerned with experience as it functions in the formation of meaning and logical orders. We must investigate prelogical, "preconceptual" experience as it functions together with logical symbols, but not substitute one for the other. Our remaining entirely on the logical level cannot reveal how experience functions together with logic. Thus we cannot consider experience to be a logically schematic construct, no matter how complex. At best we can have a scheme of how experience and logic can relate. Even then, experience must be referred to directly—it must be thought of as that partly unformed stream of feeling that we have every moment. I shall call it "experiencing," using that term for the flow of feeling, concretely, to which you can every moment attend inwardly, if you wish.

Experiencing plays basic roles in behavior and in the formation of meaning. If logical schemes are not considered in relation to these roles of experiencing, then logical schemes are empty.

. . .

Heretofore, either it was assumed that meaning lies in felt experiencing—and logic distorts it, or it was assumed that meaning lies in logic and feeling is a chaotic morass to be avoided. It is not so. Meaning is formed in the interaction of experiencing and something that functions as a symbol. This fact has been viewed as a troublesome chaos instead of as the basic source of order in human behavior. For, when symbolized meanings occur in interaction with experiencing, they change. And when one employs symbols to attend to a felt meaning, it changes. The effort is vain [Page 563] merely to "observe" feeling and then say what it means. We need to understand and systematically employ what happens in an interaction between symbols (selective attention is already a "symbolic" process) and experiencing. So long as we only exclaim: "But everything changes!" we view as merely troublesome the human functioning in which meaning and order are formed.

. . .

The "meanings" of experiencing as such are "preconceptual." We can investigate the orderly changes occurring when the "preconceptual" interacts with symbols (words, objects, behaviors, persons), and we can employ that interaction.

. . .

What, then, is this "concrete" or "preconceptual" experiencing? We cannot talk about it without the use of symbols. Even to pay attention to it is a symbolic process. Yet there are many different ways in which symbols and concrete experiencing can function together. And we require experiencing to move from one to another of these ways of using symbols. Thought as we actually have it always requires experiencing; thought is really a functional relationship between symbols and experiencing.

In my first rough descriptions of experiencing, I will chiefly employ a use of symbols which I term "direct reference." I will ask you to let my symbols refer directly to your experiencing.

I use the word "experiencing" to denote concrete experience, because the phenomenon I refer to is the raw, present, ongoing functioning (in us) of what is usually called experience. Let me describe it.

It is something so simple, so easily available to every person, that at first its very simplicity makes it hard to point to. Another term for it is "felt meaning," or "feeling." However, "feeling" is a word usually used for specific contents—for this or that feeling, emotion, or tone, for feeling good, or bad, or blue, or pretty fair. But regardless of the many changes in what we feel—that is to say, really, how we feel—there always is the concretely present flow of feeling. At any moment we can individually and privately direct our attention inward, and when we do that, there it is. Of course, we have this or that specific idea, wish, emotion, perception, word, or thought, but we always have concrete feeling, an inward sensing whose nature is broader. It is a concrete mass in the sense that it is "there" for us. It is not at all vague in its being there. It may be vague only in that we may not know what it is. We can put only a few aspects of it into words. The mass itself is always something there, no matter what we say "it is." Our definitions, our knowing "what it is," are symbols that specify aspects of it, "parts" of it, as we say. Whether we name it, divide it, or not, there it is.

Let me give a few very simple examples, just to point your attention toward experiencing. In each example I will be using symbols that will specify some specific aspect of experiencing. Yet I would like you not so much to think of the specific aspect I refer to as to notice where you are inwardly looking.

First, feel your body. Your body can, of course, be looked at from the outside, but I am asking you to feel it from the inside. There you are. There, as simply put as possible, is your experiencing of this moment, now. But we need not remain with that global feel of your body. Let us "divide" it a bit, although no hard and fast division into parts is really possible. Let us create a few aspects of it. We do this with symbols. The symbols will be my sentences, below:

Perhaps you feel some tension, or perhaps you feel ease. These words ("tension," [Page 564] "ease") give certain qualities and specify certain aspects of your present experiencing. Let us fashion another, different sort of aspect: how does your chest feel when you inhale?

Nor need we remain with entirely present descriptions. You will have an equally present felt meaning (aspect of experiencing), in the sense that you will have the felt meaning now, if I ask you: how do you generally feel before a meal when you haven't eaten for a long time? (You feel hunger—using the word to refer to your inward sense of it.) Or recall the way you feel after you have filled your stomach, the heavy satiation. Boredom, that strained impatient deadness which hurts in quite an alive way, often is another aspect you can specify in experiencing.

But I am sure you are beginning to notice that I am each time asking you to attend inwardly to some aspect of feeling. All the thousands of different kinds of feeling and feeling tones, felt meanings, and so on are aspects of feeling, of "inner sense," a location, a referent of your inward attention. This inward referent (always this or that concrete aspect you attend to) is what I term "experiencing."

Notice, it is always there for you. It may not always be clearly definable. In fact, when you pay attention you can notice that it is really never just any given definable quality or tone or content. It can always be further differentiated and further aspects of it can be specified. A concrete aspect of experiencing accompanies every description, every meaningful thing you say. Above and beyond the symbols there is always also the feeling referent itself. Always it is concretely and definitely there, present for you, an inward sensing.

Let us move from these very simple examples to more complex ones. Consider a sentence: "What is the law of supply and demand?" In what way do you have your meaning of the sentence? Of course, the sentence is objective, spoken or written. But for you, how do you have its meaning—what it is to you? You have it in your experiencing. Let us say you have read the sentence. Does it have meaning for you or not? If it is in a language you know and makes sense, then you have an experiential sense of its meaning. Where do you find such an experiential sense of meaning? Again, it is in the same location, with the same inward reference of attention to the ever present feeling mass, that you find meaning. The sentence, of course, consists of the verbal noises (or auditory images of noises). But their meaning? It is felt by you. If you must now say what this sentence means (using your own words), you must refer your attention to this felt meaning—that is to say to your experiencing. You must refer to that aspect of your experiencing which constitutes the meaning of the sentence for you. We could say that it is a "part" of your inward body sense, for it is located within this bodily, felt, inward sense. However, it is obviously a quite specific aspect of your total body feeling that your attention specifies. We say you are "concentrating" on it. Concentrating on your meaning, your attention is focused inwardly on this aspect of your felt experiencing.

A situation in which you are and behave appropriately usually does not require your telling yourself in words what it is all about. For example, you walk across the room and sit down. You may not need words, at least not the thousands and thousands of words that would be necessary to verbalize everything the situation means to you—everything it must mean to you if you are to walk across the room correctly and sit down in a chair. You do not need to have all these many, many meanings explicit and separated. The felt experiencing of the moment interacts with things and events, [Page 565] and enables you to respond properly. Your response most often springs from the inwardly felt experiencing without verbal symbolization.

Notice that, depending upon what you need, you can focus on a very general, broad aspect of experiencing, such as feeling joyful or tense, or you may focus on a very, very specific and finely determined aspect, such as, "What is the law of supply and demand?" Either way, you refer to an experiential felt sense, and either way you have something concrete and definitely present to you, though its meaning may be vague.

Perhaps now you know where I wish to point your attention when I say "experiencing." Perhaps you can appreciate the ubiquity, the constant presence to you, to me, and to anyone, of this concrete feeling datum: experiencing.

Now, if it is the case that we are really dealing with experiencing whenever we feel something, whenever we mean something, whenever we live in a situation, whenever we think, then experiencing is obviously so ubiquitous and so basic that we must take it to be a very fundamental phenomenon.

Experiencing is an aspect of human living that is constant, like body life, metabolism, sensory input. In this constancy it differs from the intermittent aspects of life, such as looking, moving the legs, thinking, speaking, and sleeping, for we do the latter only sometimes. Thus experiencing underlies every moment's special occurrences of living. In a theoretical way we could consider it as the inward receptivity of a living body, although we must take care not to forget that one can "specify" highly detailed aspects of it, each of which can be referred to very specifically by our attention, and each of which can be employed to give rise to very many specific meanings. Experiencing is a constant, ever present, underlying phenomenon of inwardly sentient living, and therefore there is an experiential side of anything, no matter how specifically detailed and finely specified, no matter whether it is a concept, an observed act, an inwardly felt behavior, or a sense of a situation.

We can be very modest, or very grandiose, about experiencing. In a modest way we can say: experiencing is simply feeling, as it concretely exists for us inwardly, and as it accompanies every lived aspect of what we are and mean and perceive. Or we can be grandiose about it and say that for the sake of (this or that aspect of) experiencing mankind do all they do in a lifespan. Within experiencing lie the mysteries of all that we are. For the sake of our experiential sense of what we observe, we react as we do. From out of it we create what we create. And, because of its puzzles, and for the desperation of some of its puzzles, we overthrow good sense, obviousness, and reality, if need be. The speaker who has temporarily lost his inward datum of what he is about to say, cannot continue to speak. He is lost, pauses, searches to "remember"—that is, he searches with his attention inward to find again that concrete and definite feeling of what he wants to say, so that his words may pour out again. If he cannot find it, he is lost. Similarly, if our direct touch with our own personally important experiencing becomes too clouded, narrowed, or lost, we go to any length to regain it; we go to a friend, to a therapist, or to the desert. For nothing is as debilitating as a confused or distant functioning of experiencing. And the chief malaise of our society is perhaps that it allows so little pause and gives so little specifying response and interpersonal communion to our experiencing, so that we must much of the time pretend that we are only what we seem externally, and that our meanings are only the objective references and the logical meanings of our words.

[Page 566]

I want to emphasize one vital characteristic of experiencing: any datum of experiencing—any aspect of it, no matter how finely specified—can be symbolized and interpreted further and further, so that it can guide us to many, many more symbolizations. We can endlessly "differentiate" it further. We can synthesize endless numbers of meanings in it.

Given a sentence or situation, an observation or behavior, a person or a moment's speech by a person, or anything, we can focus on our experiencing of it, and we can say what it means in a sentence, in a paragraph, or in a book. It does not have only one meaning but, depending upon the symbols we apply, the behaviors and events that occur, it can be differentiated and symbolized in the formation of very many meanings.

. . .

This "preconceptual" character of experiencing has not been appreciated; consequently the application of logical and scientific order to organize observations of man has lagged.

Science must use logically defined concepts that mean the same whenever they occur. These logically defined concepts have what I call "logical order." Without them we cannot have science. However, we require propositions that can be tested successfully by applying to the actual order of observed events. Only when the order of concepts and propositions bears some relation to the actual order of events (and when variables are isolated and defined in accordance with the order of events) can predictions be verified. Thus we must take account of the kinds of relations that logical order can have to the preconceptual.

. . .

From Eugene T. Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Introduction, pp. 1-16, 24. Reprinted by permission of The Macmillan Company. #169; by the Free Press of Glencoe, a Division of The Macmillan Company, 1962.

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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 (http://www.focusing.org) 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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