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Gendlin, E.T. (1965). Expressive meanings. In J.M. Edie (Ed.), An invitation to phenomenology: Studies in the philosophy of experience, pp. 240-251. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. From

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Eugene. T. Gendlin


The word "expression" has an old connotation according to which what is expressed was fully formed and ready, awaiting expression even before it is expressed. Language (or any other expressive process) was viewed merely as the "medium," "representational vehicle," or "copy" of facts or experiences which already exist fully formed. In this paper "expression" connotes just the opposite: only in an expressive process do meanings first become fully formed.

This view of expression is basic both in phenomenology and in Oxford analytic philosophy. We do not check descriptions against atomic facts, against an already structured experience or an already thematized world. Instead, language and description depend upon the "pre-ontological," the "implicit." The world of facts does not disappear, but it is given as (what I call) "implicit." Philosophical activity involves and requires this "implicit." The implicit is all our learnings functioning in the expressive activity of speaking and thinking. The implicit is also called our "pre-ontological being-in-the-world."

No agreed-upon words with which to talk about the "implicit" have been as yet universally established. I would like to call it "experiencing"—others call it (with somewhat various additional meanings and varying ontological status) the activity of using language, the pre-objective, the preconceptual, the nonthematic.

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Explicit formulations do not stand alone—they occur only in the activity of a living human. There is always the activity of speaking, thinking, using, living, as well as the explicit formulation.

How is the explicit (our descriptions of use, our phenomenological descriptions) related to, grounded in, emergent from, the implicit? This relationship is not one of equation, since what characterizes the implicit is precisely its concrete, nonthematized character. Hence, implicit and explicit cannot be related to each other in a one-to-one equation of congruence between (thematized) contents. We do not want to assume that the implicit is nothing but already thematized objects or pattern. On the other hand, it is not true that there is no relation at all, that we have only a welter of explicit formulations.

For example, in explicating the use of an expression, we appeal to our implicit grasp of its use. (We use our implicit "knowledge" of use, if you wish to call the implicit, "knowledge.")

Similarly, we use the implicit, the prethematized, in phenomenology. Phenomenology is more than mere free-floating theoretical schemes. It claims a special grounding, a special relationship, to phenomenological data which are not already thematized. What then is this relationship, the relation between explicit formulations and this concretely employed implicit?

Phenomenologists often claim that they do not theorize, they offer "pure descriptions"—they only "read off," "lift off," the structure of the given. But they also insist that the given is pre-ontological, pre-objective, nonthematic. Yet all description is thematic. A neutral, disinterested, assumption-free thematic description merely reading off the nonthematic is impossible.

The claim to a pure reading-off description would assume that the given is, after all, given thematically (even while one asserts its nonthematic nature). If the given is said to be not yet thematized, how—without assuming and reading in—can one read off? Yet there is some relationship intended here between the implicit unthematic and the description.

Let me state four aspects of this implicit-explicit relationship. I will phrase them as four objections to the claim that a phe- [Page 242]nomenological given is merely described. First, in describing a given one supposes an appropriateness of some linguistic units or patterns. Second, one assumes that the given has some fully shaped pattern at all. Third, one assumes that a given awaits attention as one, this given, rather than the reverse—that units of givenness are first unitized by our attention. A this, a given may be given for me only after I have received a rather complex set of instructions for finding it. Four, description is itself a process of living—an expressive process. The implicit does not remain static—it isn't separate from the process or activity of expression. Description is not a mere "gaping at," as Heidegger points out. The implicit is in the ongoing living activity of describing.

Thus, for at least four reasons, the pure reading-off description is impossible: description imports linguistic schemes, assumes some scheme in the given, leads us to find a this, and is a process in which the implicit evolves as it is expressed.

Of these reasons, the one getting the most philosophic attention is the importation of a variety of schemes. I want to emphasize also the way in which description first unitizes givens, and the way they change in an expressive process.

Do the philosophers of phenomenology and existentialism not realize that their thematic descriptions arc really explications having these relations to the original prethematic given? Indeed, they constantly emphasize it! They do at times write as if they were simply reading off an inherent structure of the given. But they also stress, as basic to phenomenology, both the nonthematic character of the given, and that phenomenology is explication, hermeneutic, "clarification on" the phenomenon, and not a mere rendering of an already thematized given.

For example, for Husserl, every experience has a background which only explication and reflection can reveal—and this reflection itself is always given along with more implicit background, and so on.

Heidegger emphasizes that ontology is explication, Auslegung. Ontology "fixes conceptually." It takes its rise from our preontological being-in-the-world. This possibility of phenomenol- [Page 243]ogy, that it may move from the implicit prethematic to thematic ontology, this very relationship is the basic principle. Dasein can only know what it already is. In Befindlichkeit (feeling), our openness to things in the world, and our being affected, are already given, but not thematically. The nonthematic is always the precondition of what will be explicated thematically.

Ontology is a hermeneutic. Dilthey said hermeneutic is to understand an author better than he understood himself. To paraphrase, ontology is our living-in-the-world understanding itself better than it did as prethematic.

Phenomena are not simply there, given, to be read off. In fact, Heidegger says, "Phenomena are first and mostly not given, and just therefore phenomenology is necessary." [1] Phenomena are often "buried," they must be "uncovered."

We see that it is a misreading of these philosophers to saddle them with the impossible and undeserved problem of showing that their descriptions are pure, unbiased, a mere reading-off in which language plays no partly determinative role. Language—speaking—logos—that is the activity of clarifying the phenomena, Heidegger says.

These philosophers emphasize that the given and language are inseparable but irreducible aspects of the process of explication. They distinguish between the thematized description and the nonthematic character of the given. However, this poses the problem of just how phenomenological statements can be justified or grounded on the basis of nonthematic phenomena.

If we must grant that every description will bring with it thematic aspects, that these can be various, that a datum (a "this" given) is put before us only creatively and discoveringly—then, isn't the phenomenological datum merely a creation of our theoretical schemes, of the choice of words and assumptions of our so-called description? If the given is nonthematic, can we say more about it than just that, can we even say that, without creating the given by our scheme? Does not the phenomenological given simply drop out as a mere flourish, a mere claim to divine birth of what really is merely another scheme? After [Page 244] all, every philosophy in one way or another talks about experience, only the philosophy reads into "experience" just what it needs to found its own particular scheme. Is such reading into experience different in any way from what phenomenology does?

You may say that while phenomena aren't given in a set way ready for neutral description, at least this very fact—the nonthematic pre-objective background-including implicit character—at least that is "given." Are we not directly describing at least that? But authors differ in how they describe even this aspect of the given. Shall we really hold that Sartre's descriptions, using Hegel's dialectic, are given phenomenologically? Without a study of Hegel, would he really find just these Faustian interactions of Being and Nothingness?

Thus, the very statements about the given as nonthematic and pre-objective seem to contradict what they state—since they state thematically, they describe selectively and creatively. The difficulty includes, of course, also everything I myself have said here.

I can formulate the problem this way: The relation between the implicit and the explicit is both absolutely required, and seemingly impossible.


To begin a resolution of this problem, let us not assume either of the convenient theories: not that descriptions fit the datum's own thema, and also not that there is no datum, only a variety of schematisms. Instead, let us set up a whole new area of study: the relationship (or rather, relationships) possible between the implicit nonthematic on the one hand, and thematizing expressions on the other.

The four ways in which thematic description affects and selects phenomenological givens are already four ways in which explicit and implicit are related. But let us state what would be required if the phenomenological datum is not to disappear [Page 245] amidst a welter of competing schemes, theories, and assumptions. What would keep the datum from dropping out?

  • (1) We would have to have separate access to it, independently of explicit formulations.
  • (2) The datum would have to have the capacity to give a verdict of some sort, to respond differentially to different formulations and descriptions.

"Separate access" to the unthematic implicit datum would not need to be possible before we use statements and descriptions. It is enough to fulfill the requirement if we can have separate access to the datum without the description only after we have used the description. So long as the datum is not nothing more than the description, so long as we can shelve the description, try a different one, and still have separate access to the datum, that will be sufficient for the required separate access.

By "differential response" of the datum, I do not mean that the implicit will tell us when the description is an accurate copy, for we have agreed that it cannot be that. We will study what sorts of differential responses the implicit can offer.

Here are some examples:

A man might say: "I feel tired and dispirited." Are tiredness and dispiritedness two givens, or are they one given with two words? But we have said that there are no already unitized givens. In some sense the man feels "that," though that is not necessarily two or one units. Now suppose, after a while, he says: "Oh, oh . . . !! I'm really bothered and annoyed and angry at what that guy did; I'm mad, that's what it is! Him butting in like that, it made me mad! Gee, I didn't know I was angry all along, but you know, I was, and that's what all that tiredness was just now."

If we take him at his word, then we must assume that the anger was really there all along, a fully thematic content: anger, only he did not feel it. I propose we reject that interpretation just as we did not want, earlier, to accept tiredness and dispiritedness as one, or as two, factually thematized contents. On the other hand, we cannot deny altogether this man's claim that [Page 246] the anger is not totally new, that there is some connection he strongly feels between it and his implicit "That's what that was."

My example illustrates some points I stressed earlier: the datum is an acting, a living-in-the-world, a Befindlichkeit, implicitly containing his ways of being affected. There is not just anger, as a pure thing-like datum, an object, a stuff, "anger" all the way through, like lead or butter is what is all the way through a piece of lead, or a piece of butter. Rather, it is anger at this and with respect to that, concerning these events involving those people and that situation. These facts are implicit. When we explicate, we explicate both the world and our implicit feeling, because the implicit is an aspect of the process of living and expressing.

The units and definitions change in the process of explication, and this is not a matter merely of shifting interpretive schemes and copies. The living process is ongoing and the implicit thus evolves also, it is in process, in the expressive process. So also does personality-change occur in psychotherapy.

Suppose the man now goes on still further. He may say: "Oh, I'm not really so angry about it, but I don't like it. I felt like an idiot in front of all those people, in fact, yes, that's what it is, it isn't really—I wasn't really—angry even before, there, when I blurted out about it. It made me feel like an idiot, I was embarrassed in front of you and all those people. That's what it is!" Let us suppose, as my example intends, that he is not just guessing about, thinking that that is what it must be. (People say, "It must be," when they have no response from their implicit feeling.) Let us say he really feels again the release of "Oh, that's what it is."

Our explications are not factual. A little later we may change what we say the explication is. In fact, it may be the very way in which the statement "I'm angry" occurred so deeply and rightly in the earlier expressive process, it may be that very seeming accuracy which so evolved and moved forward the expressive process that the statement becomes inadequate in further explication. We sense the continuity of the steps; yet as [Page 247] formulation, the earlier is now no longer one which draws a response from the implicit.

Does this show that explication is arbitrary? Not at all. Only just a very, very few—if one—statements can be found which have this kind of effect on the implicit. All other statements draw no response from "that" at all. Perhaps, judging from the facts, I must be angry underneath, but I only feel that vague tired feeling which has not budged with all my good explanations. The concretely felt implicit does not respond to every statement, only to very few, if indeed, one can be found to which it will respond at all.

Thus, we have our two requirements: independent access, and the datum's responding differentially. Both access and differential response are possible only as the implicit is used with statement, and partly as a result of what the statements are.

Another example: When you speak, you usually do not know ahead of time exactly what words you will use. (Only when the occasion is important and formal do we write or formulate the words in advance.) When you speak, you have a sense of what you are about to say, but this "sense" is not in words. It is a felt sense. You cannot go on talking if you lose hold of this felt sense of what you are about to say. If you do lose hold of it, you must stop and say, "Ah . . . ," or, "Excuse me, I forgot what I was going to say." Yet what you forgot was never in words at all. It was a felt sense of being about to speak, a felt sense of being about to say something, a felt sense of its relevance or purpose. What you are about to express is there for you only in this felt form, until you actually express it.

My second example applies to every instance of speaking, reading, and thinking. We employ only a few words, and perhaps a few gestures, but our sense of the context, of what we are reading, hearing, and what we are about to say, is a feeling, a felt sense. Every thought or action implicitly involves a thousand prethematized aspects: your knowledge of the situation, your training, your use of words, your sense of the relevance of what you say or think, the reasons for being about to say what [Page 248] you are about to say, the preceding conversation and its points which you implicitly retain, the discussion at this juncture, the characteristics of others in the room, and a thousand other things. If you have to express explicitly any of these very numerous implicit aspects of what you are about to say, obviously you won't get to say what you are about to say. But none of this is in words. Even this, which you are about to say, is itself not yet in words, not yet formed in the kinds of patterns it will have when you express it verbally. As yet, it is only a "this," something you feel you are about to say.

Now, to our first requirement: note the fact that this felt sense of what you are about is something you can locate, directly refer to, attend to, focus on. I mean none of the formal models of these words "locate"—it is not in space; "directly refer" to—it is not a reference in any strict sense; "focus on"—it is not like light. The very words I use here depend, for my sensible use of them, on your doing the thing I am talking about. But you can, you probably are. I insist only on your own direct access to it, and this you have. If you followed my words, you probably have now this phenomenological datum I am discussing. Now, you can discuss it differently, although without my discussion you might not have shaped and lifted it out. You can now refer to such a felt sense of being about to say something, and you may otherwise disagree with how I am phrasing and conceptualizing the question.

Now, the second requirement: does the implicit respond differentially? Yes, you cannot say just anything at all and have it be (the explication of) what you were about to say. You can, of course, utter any number of different sentences, but most of them do not say what you were about to say.

Of course, your private felt sense of what you are about to say does not define the meanings of the words you utter. They are all public social words with public meanings publicly defined. (Even new metaphoric expressions you creatively fashion will be publicly understandable.) They involve your implicit living-in-the-human-world. But there is a relationship [Page 249] between what you say and this felt sense of what you were about to say.

But now one might argue: Are not all these potentially explicit aspects really already explicit? For example, your understanding and retaining the conversation up to the time you were about to say something—was not the conversation explicit? Was not at one time the entire experience and learning of language and of the world explicit? Is not what I am about to say a more or less explicit result of all that? When I am attempting to solve a problem, do I not tell myself this and this and that explicit aspect of the problem, and only then do I have that implicit feel of the problem with which I struggle for a lead? Of course, some of what now functions implicitly was, at one time, explicit. But no matter how fully and formally something was (or is even now) explicit, the act of expressing it now (without which we cannot have it now) involves an implicit, wider, felt, process of living, acting, expressing, explicating. I can always have separate access to this felt implicit, and with language I can shape and point very many different implicit aspects, "that" and "this." Such an "implicit" is always involved in any thing explicit.

I can always refer concretely to the feel of what I really wanted to say in some explicit formulation. I may then find other ways of putting it, for example, if you had difficulty understanding my point.

It follows that there is never a necessarily finished, ended explicating, because anything explicit also involves the implicit concretely felt which is just then concretely the expressive living and acting process.

There are always possibilities for further explicating the implicit which is involved and felt concretely in any explication. There are also different modes of dealing with the variety of different explications. Under some circumstances one must go further and work out differing logical implications leading to further and different explications, while under other to-be-specified circumstances one can stop explicating for the moment, and for the relevance of the discussion at hand, and with the [Page 250] possibilities for further explication saved, should (certain predefined) needs for it arise. [2]

It is beyond the scope of this paper to go further into the relationships between implicit and explicit as these affect our uses of logical systems. But it is clear that we must be concerned with how logical structures and their implications relate to the implicit, because of the differential explicatory capacities of different statements. At times we ignore the logical structures or call them "misleading," yet we also use them to explicate and to guide us. Only if we methodically work out these roles and uses of the implicit in the workings of logical systems can we know what we are doing and when to do it.

Above all, explication and description must be taken as intending that separately accessible phenomenological implicit datum which they point up.

For example, Husserl writes that the activity of reflection always again involves a background needing further reflection to notice. But "reflection" is a foolish model. The process is not really looking, or light, or mirrors. Just how does the transcendental ego's gaze jump backwards from within this stream to hold a mirror to what flowed past? Only if we are free to let these statements point to the phenomenological activity we all do, and implicitly know, are we thereupon free to drop Husserl's model and still retain this separately accessible datum he talks about. This is the method of independent access, response of the datum, and the resulting power to employ, but also to shelve, models.

Otherwise these philosophies lose the phenomenological datum and fall back into being mere schemes, arbitrarily preferred alternatives to other non-phenomenological philosophies.

Let us grant, then, that phenomenological givens first appear as given, as just this given, only after linguistic explication and its assumptions and schemes. What, then, about the view that the phenomenological datum depends wholly on the assumptions [Page 251] and schemes of descriptive language—that, in effect, it drops out? That view must be denied.

Today, in part of the world at least, no one scheme of concepts and values is imposed. This must not turn out to be a temporary openness, a mere transitional period of cultural confusion. Freedom is not a scheme, it is not existentialist concepts, it is a method in which we are independent of imposed schemes because we can knowingly and systematically use all schemes and models as these function in known relations with an implicit which we ourselves concretely experience and know how to use.

University of Chicago

[The notes below appear in the original text at the foot of the pages they are cited on.]


[1] Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, Tübingen, 1960

[2] Eugene T. Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, New York, 1962.

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