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Gendlin, E.T. (2000). The 'mind'/'body' problem and first person process: Three types of concepts. In R.D. Ellis & N. Newton (Eds.), Advances in consciousness research: Vol. 16.The caldron of consciousness: Motivation, affect and self-organization - An anthology. , pp. 109-118. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. From

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The 'Mind'/'Body' Problem and First-Person Process:
Three Types of Concepts

Eugene T. Gendlin, University of Chicago

1. Distinguishing the person from 'being in control'

There is now an ongoing discussion toward a 'science of consciousness,' including several journals, consisting of neurophysiologists and philosophers, a group which is encountering major difficulties around the old mind/body problem. This discussion needs a wider philosophical approach that can be related to the more recent psychological findings. Up to now, there has been a strong tendency to fall into the pitfalls of the most traditional formulation of the mind/body problem in which 'the mind' is the consciousness, and 'the body' is taken as represented in neurophysiology.

For example, much is made of the finding that when a person decides to move, the neurophysiological measures pick this up before the conscious person has deliberately decided to move (Libet et al. 1983). So it seems as if the person is unnecessary—free will reduces to bodily, i.e. neurophysiological factors.

What is missing here is that 'the person' is much larger than our deliberate conscious capacities. The person includes the body-as-internally-sensed, and it also includes a much greater variety of reflectively aware experiencing than merely the deliberately controlled. What we control is a relatively small part of our sentient experiencing and experienced internal and external actions. Of course it is an error to split mind from body, but this is controversial. It is a more immediate error to define control as marking 'the mind' as against the body. This is a pitfall in which the person drops out and one defines 'the conscious mind' as control, reducing the whole person to 'the body' considered only as the mutually independent components such as neurons transmitting linear and ultimately inorganic forces.

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The puzzle about the body knowing our decisions before we consciously know them might make us miss the fact that there is an inwardly experienced body, and that the reflective and bodily-sentient person is much wider than conscious control.

Freud, Jung, and many others (Gendlin 1962/1997, 1981, 1992a, 1992b, 1999) have shown that the person far exceeds the deliberate consciousness, both in terms of its control over behavior, feelings, and interpretations of situations, and in terms of 'sub-parts' of the personality. Around many kinds of processes and practices an inner geography has long been well-known to specialists. In some cases this has been formalized, for example in meditation, and in the teaching of musical performance. In others it is left up to the individual. For example, philosophers and scientists can describe a great deal of intricate detail concerning how we manage to obtain and maintain the peaceful and yet excited state we need in order to think and write. There are great differences among individuals as to how much they have explored their 'inner territory.' But everyone is familiar with such a realm, where more happens than one can control.

Both everyday experience and inner exploration reveal a gamut of responses, feelings, physical acts that 'can come,' which one does not simply control. One becomes familiar with this aspect of 'oneself' and the need to do something more intricate than either control or passivity—rather disposing oneself toward the coming, training habits, awaiting the coming, or developing friendly attitudes that maximize the chances of the given condition's coming (Gendlin 1981).

For example, we seek a certain sense of confidence when about to give a talk to a group. We hope the right words will 'come' as we need them. Or, for example, we cannot write down in advance all the sentences for what we will say because reading them off isn't appropriate in many situations—for instance if we are preparing for a tense meeting with the boss, or speaking to a small group. We know that under some conditions what to say will come even better on the spot, than beforehand in preparation.

This coming may seem mysterious, but we can notice that even in ordinary conversation we must let our words come. When they come smoothly we needn't notice, but everyone notices this keenly when it is even a little bit difficult to express something precisely, or to communicate a condition for which there are no ready-made phrases.

When we think, including this case now about this philosophical question, we like to own the products, our own ideas, nobody else's, but actually 'our' ideas 'come' only if they like, so to speak, as the phrase 'the muse' is meant to suggest.

Countless other everyday circumstances can let us recall how much more 'we' are, which we live from, aim for, sometimes access, but do not consciously simply control.

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But now, what is the reason (sometimes distinguished from 'the cause') why our words might not come when we wish? It might be anxiety causing tension which reduces our inner access, as everyone knows. On an exam we cannot always have what we know come to us as it would at home. There are also complex psychological reasons why we might not easily overcome old experiences of rejection. Or, we become constricted for unique personal reasons, the complexity of which cannot possibly be represented physiologically although there might be simple indices of some of it.

For example, if under dangerous conditions an experienced pilot says not to fly, we do not require a complete explication of the reasons, nor do we insist that the reasons even be explicable.

So the first point I want to make is that as inwardly experienced persons we are far larger and include much more than we are (or can be) aware of, which we come to know and toward which we dispose ourselves in complex ways that exceed simple direct control.

Concerning the Libet experiment we must not miss the fact that it is still the person's motions, both if the moment of moving is first consciously decided and if this is first picked up physiologically. What it is that moves the person to pick a particular moment need not be in the person's control.

2. Distinguishing the person from indices

Various specialists know very well that there are physiological indices of what persons are going through in their lives. For example, a gynecologist has told me that when his patients are in psychotherapy he can always recognize from the condition of the vagina whether the therapy is going well or not. He regularly checks this out with the therapist. A doctor or body-worker who has many years of experience with people's feet can tell from the sole of the foot whether the person is just then living tensely, anxiously, on the edge of things, or is doing comfortably well.

In the case of feet this has given rise to a small 'science' in which the principle is enunciated, that one can diagnose people from their feet. However, they have not yet made the error of assuming that the personality is unnecessary, that people can be reduced to their feet. Yet this is the error made by many reductive philosophers of mind in regard to the neurophysiological body, when it is assumed that the 'real story' of what causes the higher-order processes that include consciousness is all to be found at the level of individual neuron activity and additive combinations of those, as if self-organizing and multiply realizable patterns of activity had no ontological status except as epiphenomena of the linear neuronal activity. That rendition of the body is even narrower and more [Page 112] limited than the specialist's broad impressionistic observation of feet.

We would not be at all surprised if an expert could recognize when a person's foot tightens as the person gets ready to decide to move. The danger both to us as humans and as philosophers now is that our best knowledge—what social policy-makers have to go on, will be considered to be only what registers on the sole of the foot, or in the narrow range of what registers in physiology. And this will seem convincing because, of course, something does register there.

My second point is that the scope and intricacy of the person cannot be represented by, or reduced to indices, although there are undoubtedly many kinds of those. This is because the person is a self-organizing process, with both conscious and unconscious aspects, that appropriates, rearranges, and replaces its own needed components. The process as such does not reduce to those components alone, but rather uses them to maintain a certain pattern of organization.

3. Process concepts versus constituent-unit concepts

The traditional 'mind/body' problem concerns neither the person nor the body. This is not only because the far larger part of both is left out, including what cannot be split. There is another quite different reason why the traditional problem concerns neither mind nor body even were we to accept the narrow definitions of both.

The traditional problem concerns the incompatibility of two vocabularies, two kinds of concepts, that of physiology vs. psychology (whichever of the variety of kinds of concepts one chooses to place here). There seem to be only very few relationships between our knowledge of the psyche and our knowledge of the body, but this is not because psyche and body are unrelated. In the human being they are intimately related. It is not at all the physiology which has difficulty relating to the psyche. The human physiology is through and through the physiology of a psychological person. Nor is the lack of relation generated by the psyche which is inherently physical. It is rather the fact that we happen to have developed studies of the body in terms of mechanistic, third-person space-time-grid precise assumptions which create a kind of concept that is or seems utterly irreconcilable with the imprecise, holistic, first-person-involving kind of concept we have been using to formulate most of what we know in psychology.

There is no doubt that this difference in kind of concepts is due to some difference in what is being studied. Certainly one can say that 'mind' and 'body' are indirectly responsible for the problem of finding few relationships. Certainly the two realms of subject-matter cause us to employ two different kinds of concepts, and we can look into this further. I will return to this question. But [Page 113] what is discussed as the traditional mind/body problem is the intractable relationship, not between mind and body, but rather between the different kinds of concepts which are currently in use.

If this is not recognized, an unresolvable mystification results. The problem then becomes ideological and political. People will line up on either side, as they do when complex political questions are divided into two sides, so that the complexity of the philosophical issue is lost.

The philosophical issue has to be sorted out into two related but very different questions: The first concerns relations between kinds of concepts. Only the second question concerns what it is that has led to the development of two or more bodies of knowledge couched in the different types of concepts.

I will present my own views about different kinds of concepts separately below, because those are controversial. What seems to me most important and also beyond question, once it is noticed, is that the traditional and currently discussed 'mind/body problem' concerns the difficulty of relating different kinds of concepts—holistic concepts versus constituent-unit concepts. In the realm of the physical sciences, much success has been obtained up to now by using constituent-unit concepts; we explain an overall process by dividing it up into constituent units and then explaining how those units can combine to make that process. By contrast, first-person psychological descriptions can be best understood neither in terms of wholes nor constituent units. I shall present a third way of understanding them, in terms of what I shall call 'process' concepts.

4. Why psychology has failed to emulate the physical sciences

For more than a hundred years now there have been constant efforts to employ in psychology the same kind of concept which has been so successful in physiology. This attempt regularly fails. For example, many efforts to define emotions by physiological measures have found no differences among them. All one gets is a difference between 'arousal' and 'non-arousal,' alike for love and hate, and for anger or happy excitement. Only a few poor variables have come from attempts to define psychological variables by beginning with machine-defined physiological correlates.

The effort has therefore regularly turned to defining psychological variables freshly as such, but still dividing psychological aspects into precise entities, factors, traits, units that one could count and treat as the natural sciences treat their variables. Many theories but very little successful operational research has come of this. Some successes have been achieved, but only where the topic is highly specific, such as specific phobias, specific events of trauma, or changing a specific behavior. Factor-analysis and psychometric measures do produce [Page 114] personality profiles that have some uses, but they have not become superior to clinical impressions. (Asked to explain his definition of a patient's psychometric tests as indicating 'psychosis,' the psychometrist first argued for his measures, but then said "After all, the man is in the hospital.")

There are many measures that produce quantitative results with excellent and many-times replicated reliability, but what the numbers mean is not very precise. The names of the measures are not univocal. Measures of 'anxiety' by skin resistance (sweating) do not correlate well with measures by Rorschach and TAT, nor those with measures by paper and pencil questionnaire, or with evaluation by clinicians. The various measures of 'anxiety' get at different first-person experiences. First-person process is much more differentiated. When students choose a measure, they need to administer it first to themselves. Only so can they tell what it measures, and whether their prediction should really apply to it. The attempt to use in psychology the kind of concept that was developed for use in the physical sciences, and thus could simply conform to physiology, has largely failed.

It is now time to reverse the implication and to examine the assumption that a psychology ought to be successful with the kinds of concept used in physiology. Why should it be the case that we can best understand people by plotting them within the model of the space-time-locations, the model with which we chop everything into precise units out of which we can then reconstruct whatever we study? This is the most successful model in history so far. But does it follow that it must be the best model for studying those beings who devised this model? There are other models, for example, ecology employs the holistic model. Below I will sketch out a third alternative. Right now I want first to argue that its success in so many fields does not necessarily imply that the unit-model should be successful in this one.

Once we have freed ourselves from this metaphysical assumption, we can also see many reasons why this kind of concept is unlikely to succeed here. I will first discuss what is limiting in the unit-making kind of concept, and then I will show why another kind of concept is more likely of success.

5. Both process and constituent-unit concepts apply to both nature and persons

A large branch of philosophy, although admittedly difficult to read, has now developed a number of deep-going critiques of the time-space-unit type of concept. This trend follows in the footsteps of Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, and Wittgenstein (See Gendlin 1962/1997). It seems obvious that since [Page 115] we humans created this model, we could be larger than what can be represented within it.

We can recognize that the unit-model drastically narrows anything that is studied within it. We can with certainty assert that nature is much more than what the 'natural sciences' could possibly render. We see this easily with other models. For example, ecology regularly predicts future events better than the sciences that use reductionistic-unit concepts. Because of this, ecology has now established itself next to the regular science, and it is taken into account when policy-makers must base their decisions on the best available evidence.

Do not say that 'nature' lends itself to the reductive model while humans somehow do not. Say rather that nature as a whole has only recently talked back, while as humans we can readily recognize that the reductionistic sciences leave most of us out. Where I said above that our psychometric measures have not yet equaled 'a clinician's evaluation'—there is nothing parallel I can say from nature, except what nature can say back via ecology.

To use the reductionistic kind of concept, we divide what we study into units. We then attempt to reconstruct what we study out of those units. So a picture can be reduced to dots and reconstructed elsewhere out of the dots. Is it 'the same' picture? With 'high resolution' it will be sharper than what you ordinarily see. No one misses what the dots leave out.

This procedure is successful with anything considered as something over there, something we merely perceive like a picture, something that exists alone without us, that is to say anything considered as a third-person thing. But this no longer holds as soon as we turn to first-person process, how we live as wide persons-and-bodies.

I told one film-maker my amazement that all the old films are back. For years a film would date a person. You had seen it only if you were old enough. Now they are all contemporary with each other. My daughter knows them all. "Yes," he said "but they were made for people sitting in the dark and looking straight ahead at a large screen. The effect is utterly different on the little TV at home. We now use a lot of ways to take into account that the films will appear on little TVs." So it is not always 'the same' picture. One can probably measure the difference in impact by physiological arousal, but this will not contain the aesthetic judgment of the film-maker.

I have been arguing that we can recognize by inspection that the time-space-unit type of concept places drastic limits on anything represented in them.

6. We need both types of concepts

That the film-makers have developed a body of knowledge is an example of my [Page 116] next point. What kind of knowledge is this? It is a very important type because we have it in many areas of human life.

With the passing of primitive cultures we have largely lost their knowledge of drugs in plants. Any large pharmaceutical company today would offer a billion to buy it, if this knowledge still existed, but it was only taught from teacher to student, and was not written. Bodies of knowledge of that kind exist today in many people from computer hackers to four-star chefs, from pilots to therapists, from gynecologists to artists. We have much process-knowledge. This comprises much that has been differentiated and written-down, but it always also includes the person for whom this is written, the person who reads the instructions and must locate them within a much richer and more intricate experiencing.

This kind of knowledge seems unscientific if we judge it by the precision of the distinctions between units in reductionistic physics, but if you examine it in terms of kinds of processes, then its distinctions appear well-precisioned. There are distinctions between processes and sub-processes, and between desired and undesirable variants. Pitfalls are often well-defined. The conditions for obtaining a process, and the definitions of outcomes are often precise.

What we need and do not yet have is a way for this kind of knowledge to take its place beside ecology as a kind of knowledge to be developed and consulted, rather than considering reductive science as capable of standing alone. I think this could be achieved if people begin talking about various kinds of concepts, various models, so that it becomes clear that there is different knowledge inherent in them, and that we need at least all the ones that we have.

But what is this third model beyond reductive science and the holistic ecology with which we are familiar? Let me move from the above examples to the kind of model that could accommodate their kind of knowledge. This is a first-person model which I call 'a model of process,' a model in which each next bit is a newly-made whole. It does not consist of predictable units in a Laplacian universe assumed to be a mathematical grid which we only observe. Rather, it always involves us as ongoing persons. The next bit of process arrives only for someone, and sometimes only if that someone looks for it to arrive. This may make those who are used to units despair, but this model does offer equally precise distinctions in other regards, as I said above.

With this model we can re-understand biology as a life-process that generates and organizes its own next steps. The crucial self-organizing character of life process also shows a capacity to produce quite novel life-forwarding steps (Monod 1971; Gendlin 1981; Kauffman 1993). Self-organizing cannot be represented in the unit-model in which all points and units are passive and only an external observer relates them.

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7. We need all three models

The political side of the issue must be looked at without flinching. The reductionists want to think that they have earned the right to treat people as mere physiological and neurophysiological bodies, i.e., as collections of separately-explainable components interacting, because of the general success of reductionistic science, and the habit of considering this reductionistic science as standing alone. Although the medical and biological sciences involve large uncertainties and are admittedly not at the stage of physics and chemistry, recent progress has been so intense that they have all but earned this 'right' to stand alone as 'the science' of human bodies. Our society seems to recognize them as such. Official grant money flows to them, and social policy is based on them.

This demand to be considered as a sufficient science alone, based on the general success of reductionistic science, leads the other 'side' to attack science as a whole. The other side includes many groups including holistic physicians and ecologists. The opponents of the reductionist basis for policy decisions attack science as a whole. Thus they play into each other's hands, and the issue is not faced directly.

What is at stake here can easily get lost. It is what we say to the public, to our society, and to those who serve on policy-making committees. How can they decide other than on the best available knowledge and evidence? The question is whether that is neurophysiology and other information sciences standing alone. It has seemed so up to now, and that must now be broadened to include more, but we cannot expect anyone simply to ignore the hard evidence of the reductionistic sciences. We must show how that evidence can be placed within a broader context.

In philosophy the assumption of reductionism retains a great attraction because it is so neat and simple. If one is concerned only with broadly general terms, then 'the unity of the sciences' seems like something that ought to be achieved. But this assumption is not held by philosophers who like to look at actual science.

The assumption that everything should reduce to physics has only a very limited application in chemistry. That life process should reduce to chemistry is not actually used to limit organic chemistry. And so on up. It is merely a metaphysical assumption, not what is employed in practice. The opposite is much more striking. Each specialty creates its own terms and as the years go by almost every specialty develops more and more terms. Only 'in principle,' not in any practice, do those reduce to physics or inorganic chemistry. So we must not turn physiological reductionism into some kind of ideology to be defended by general arguments that have no relation to scientific practice. From success in physiology it does not follow that psychology should be capable of being reduced to it, nor [Page 118] that it should employ the same kinds of concepts.

We would not expect a first-person process science to contradict the genuine findings of reductionistic science, any more than ecology does. But it places those findings within a broader perspective that can be more useful for certain purposes. One of those purposes is to understand first-person processes in such a way that 'the person' does not drop out. Our first-person experience offers a knowledge basis with useful practical applications, just as does ecology, even though neither can be translated into the concepts of the unit-component types of sciences.


Gendlin, Eugene. 1962/1997. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Gendlin, Eugene. 1981. Focusing. New York: Bantam.

Gendlin, Eugene. 1992a. "Thinking Beyond Patterns". In B. den Ouden and M. Moen (eds), The Presence of Feeling in Thought. New York: Peter Lang.

Gendlin, Eugene. 1992b. "The Primacy of the Body, Not the Primacy of Perception". Man and World 25: 341-353.

Gendlin, Eugene. 1999. "A New Model". Journal of Consciousness Studies 6: 232-237.

Kauffman, Stuart. 1993. The Origins of Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Libet, Benjamin, A.G. Curtis, E. W. Wright, and D. K. Pearl. 1983. "Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential). The Unconscious Initiation of a Freely Voluntary Act". Brain 106: 640.

Monod, Jacques. 1971. Chance and Necessity. New York: Random House.

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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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