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Gendlin, E.T. (1986). Process ethics and the political question. In A-T. Tymieniecka (Ed.), Analecta Husserliana. Vol. XX. The moral sense in the communal significance of life, pp. 265-275. Boston: Reidel. From

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Eugene T. Gendlin

Two questions will be discussed in this paper: (1) can ethics be founded on a certain manner of process, the kind of decision making, rather than the content or conclusions?; and (2) does our personal decision-making process merely reflect social and political control? Or can more arise from the individual than what society has built into the body?


Ethics is often said to be lost by an emphasis on authenticity. Heidegger and Sartre were more successful on the negative side, in showing the breakdown of any code, content, or formulated ethics. What they put in its place seems less: the call of conscience, responsibility, an authentic way of deciding moral issues. This is often taken as mere caprice, as if authenticity requires only that I decide, rather than following conventions. Such an interpretation of authenticity would result in Ivan Karamazov's dictum: "Anything is possible." It might be authentic for someone. I want to show, on the contrary, that "authenticity" can name a distinguishable kind of process.

Ethics is best cared for as distinctions between kinds of processes. After all, it is the process which determines the contents. Thoughts, feelings, desires, and other experiences are not just given things. They are generated by processes. A certain kind of process creates the ancient virtues. It is not the case that just anything at all can be the content of just any process. Far from it.

Suppose your good friend has decided to marry someone, and you like the person. Marrying that intended spouse seems (in general) a good thing. Is that enough for you to call the decision right? Would you not need to know more about how your friend decided? What if the decision was made on a drunken afternoon to get married that very day? Suppose your friend badly wants money and the intended spouse has some? Suppose the wedding was announced and your friend wants to back out but is scared of disappointing the relatives? What if your friend talks mostly of not wanting to live alone?

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We commonly call these "wrong reason." Why? They indicate something about the process of arriving at the decision. The trouble is not exactly these reasons themselves. After all, one rarely marries for the "reasons" one gives oneself. Many people spend the rest of their lives trying to discover why they married as they did. In my examples, these clearly wrong reasons indicate something more: the lack of the kind of decision-making process we respect.

It is difficult to delineate "the right kind of process" even though it is well known. Therefore, people describe it indirectly. For example, they describe the process in terms of time. You might ask how long your friend has thought about it. Or, it can be described in terms of a spatial analogy called "depth": how far down inside has your friend examined his decision? Or, we describe the process in factual terms: how much is known about the person, the family, where will you live, and so on.

The questions of length, depth, and knowledge show that we know of a "right" process, but time, space and facts are accidental parameters. We do not mean mere length of time. We hope the time was not wasted going round in circles. We mean the process which is opposite to going round in circles. We mean a process of steps which can correct what one thought, felt, or was before. I will say more about such "steps." Similarly, depth does not help, if nothing changes while digging deep. Sheer depth does not make something right. If the friend comes upon a deep wrong motive, we trust that the decision will change, somehow. Nor are the most relevant facts those that now exist as facts. Rather, the process should raise new questions, newly needed facts.

We depend on this kind of process, but we need to speak from it more precisely.

So far, I said that the "right" kind of process has (1) steps; (2) in which what is found can also change; (3) and in which new facts can appear. My three involve more coming out of the process than went in. I spoke of change. Into what? More than the person plain is. I do not ask what fits how the person is. Instead, I assert that human nature is a different sort of "is," an is-for developing into what (we later say) the person really "was." That development cannot be decided or directed by what a person now is, thinks, or wants, nor by anyone else. Purposes and motives develop. If one's present purposes were to determine the development process, one would be permanently stuck. Persons and situations are a single interlocking system. In our kind of process both person and facts turn out to "have been" more than they seemed.

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Let me say that if this kind of process were an assumption, I would reject it myself. But we observe it, we do it, we must face it—but as the rejection of another assumption: this kind of process forces us to reject the assumption that events occur only as previously existing forms and units. More order, forms, and units arise from this kind of process than existed at the start.

We must reject the usual science model which "explains" every event by constructing it out of the forms and pieces of earlier events. But in practice even science does not work that way. Like our process, science first studies the events, then redefines what the earlier one "was" so it can explain the later. New forms and units can come with each discovery. The results are put in linear order retroactively, from the discovery process. In ordinary life we do not assume fixed forms and units in advance. For example, an odd "situation" requires to be "met" by some action that has never as yet existed. After our actions change the situation, hindsight can say what it "really was." But even now, when it demands to be met, we may sense that familiar actions do not meet it. We stay stuck, rather than acting in a way we know.

That a situation can demand a new action is familiar, but odd to say. The new action is neither determined nor not determined by the facts of the situation. If they determined it, we could derive the action from the facts. All situations would be easy. But if the action were indeterminate, any action would do. Again all situations would be easy.

Both "determined" and "indeterminate" assume the same kind of order: fixed form and logical derivation. But situations have more than that kind of order. A situation is not only its formed "is." Rather, it is-for action to meet it and change it. It is-for a change in itself. Therefore, the change cannot be derived from the existing forms. But the change is very finely required. The requiring is not unordered, or only half determined, with half leeway. Rather, it is more ordered than the given forms and facts. That is why we may fail to devise an action to meet it. That is very common, and no assumption at all. But to speak of it involves rejecting the theoretical assumption that fixed form is the only type of order there is.

An unfinished poem also shows the other kind of order. It implies and requires an ending that cannot be derived from what has been written so far. Poems would be easy to finish if their endings were determined by what is already written. But finishing them would also be easy if the ending were not determined, or only partly determined. Then [Page 268] most any nice ending might do. When the ending does come, it brings a change in the poem. Therefore, the unfinished part cannot determine the ending. And yet, what is written does very finely and demandingly imply and require—what has never been said in the history of the world. One prefers to leave a poem unfinished, rather than violating what the unfinished poem "needs."

I can now add a fourth and fifth to my three earlier characteristics of authentic decision-making process. (4) There is often a "sense" of something not known but needed, required, more finely ordered than the existing forms. For some moments or months, there is a direct sense of some. . . . When that moves, opens, releases (these words work newly here) steps of the process bring new actions and new ways of using words. (5) Now one reads these new ones back. Now we say we know what the needed action "was," or what the poem's needed ending "was." But the word "was" works in this way, here. There may be many steps, each further forming what the previous "really was." We say that the previous step "was in the right direction," using that word in an odd way—since the new step has just changed what "direction" usually means. Elsewhere I have delineated many more signposts of this type of process. [1]

We could argue that such a process cannot possibly be a mere reflection of social forms, since it has more intricacy and order than the existing forms. But one should neither dismiss nor agree with this too quickly. Let me develop the problem further. What we can be sure of is only that we can differentiate this kind of process from other kinds. It is also a social process. Anything human is also social. We have to examine more carefully in what ways this kind of process can change or exceed the social forms and in what respects perhaps it cannot. There are two questions here. In Freudian terms, can there be a morality other than the superego's? Again, can there be a social and political "reality" other than the ego's?

If you come to recognize the kind of steps I described, you will prefer them to the imposition of forms upon yourself. Society does impose existing forms—bodily felt collective forms of how people ought to be, how women, men, sons, teachers, students, should be. We feel role models of what is strong, independent, productive, creative, good, and right, and what is not.

Freud called it "the superego"—that inner agency which threatens and punishes us if we do not fit the forms we ought. And Freud was [Page 269] right that every person has that inner agency, usually a nasty, destructive, primitive, ill-willed voice inside which says: "Anything you try won't work"; "If it's your desire it's probably bad, selfish, immature, unrealistic"; "If it's your own perception it's probably wrong"; "You're wrong even if it isn't yet clear how. You must have done something wrong." Freud said: "The superego dips deeply into the id." In Freud's jargon this says that the superego is crazy, a primitive channel for destructiveness. And he was right. But is that the only kind of morality?

Freud identified the superego with the moral conscience, and there he was wrong. Conscience is traditionally "a still small voice." You must become very quiet to hear it. In contrast, the superego is by far the loudest voice inside. There is another difference: Superego guilt makes you self-concerned. If you have injured some person, the superego attacks you, depreciates you. You shall be cast into the outer darkness. During guilt attacks you lose sight of the injured person altogether. You become constricted, smaller than usual. Genuine morality comes rather in the sort of process I am defining here. There is a movement outward from within. You feel care and concern for the injured person. Those feelings extend and expand you.

We can tell the difference between these two kinds of process. But now the second question: Freud held that only the ego provides order. The "id" consists of chaotic drives. Ways of action (ways of "discharging" drive energy) are given only by society. The ego is the "reality principle" and reality is the social forms.

For Freud, any experience that does not fit social forms must be a throwback to pre-ego infancy. It cannot bring apprehensions of reality. Training along these lines makes each person feel crazy, unrealistic, inappropriate, since we all have such experience. But, actually the sense which does not fit the forms may apprehend reality more accurately than the forms we try to impose on it.

Language is not a system of static forms. It has the body's moving type of order I call "is-for." Words evolve; they often work newly in ways that can not be derived from extant forms. All human situations are patterned with language, but language is not alone their order. On the contrary, language is never alone, it is implied by the body in situations. When new and odd situations leave us at a loss for words, we can feel that the usual words will not do. Old and new language (and other actions) are implied by the body. It senses new actions and phrasings which do not yet exist, but can come in the steps I described.

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The social patterns are not imposed on mere chaotic drive energy. They are imposed on a more intricate texture, a greater order—but this shows itself only in process. There is not a second, natural person under the socially formed person. But all order is not from society. Animals are already very complex. Society develops that further, but the body also develops these forms still further. It is not just a copy of society.

Very complex inherited behavior patterns have been discovered in every animal species. Today the tabula rasa hypothesis can no longer be held. Animals without language have complex nesting behavior, intricate mating dances, many sequences that are inherited via the body, not learned.

Every major therapeutic theory since Freud attributes its own order to the body. They rename Freud's "id," usually as the "organism." This is because in therapeutic steps one observes more order, more intricacy, and an inwardly arising "direction" which is very different from imposed form. But these theories do simplify the issue. I say that the organism does implicitly include the social forms. It is not just separable from them. We cannot say what is from the organism, and what is imposed. We can differentiate only the kinds of process, the kinds of further steps. Let us see to what extent that solves the problem.

Just because a situation is called "psychotherapy" does not insure the kind of process I described. But when it does, one notices a far more powerful ethics than the conceptual arguments. From its process-characteristics one can derive the ancient virtues. [2] The process is a deeper honesty than the usual kind. One soon prefers the sincerity of living from that process. One senses one's care and need for other people. But the process functions more intricately than the abstractions in which these virtues have been conceptualized. The human being lives with others, and body-life implies them. Isolation, withdrawal, missing the fullness of other humans feels bad, stifling, thin, dull, weak, and avoidant. Exploitative patterns can feel like that too; there is no company from the other person, only a stand-in for the patterns of one's autism. One may sense one's fear behind the macho poses. One also comes upon denials of oneself. Hiding feels false. One senses the cowering that avoids confronting the other. It is lonely. The other is cheated as well.

Distinctions in this process are often new and finer than the common ones. Here is an example of such steps. Note that the old training is certainly built into the body, but we can distinguish it from steps in which the body feeds back with new form. In this example the concep- [Page 271]tual ethics of equality is never questioned or changed. But, at first it functions to block a more intricate mesh of would-be experience which only develops in the steps themselves. The isolating "superior" feeling changes in these steps. What she then says it "was," was not there at the start.

Patient: And I'm mostly alone, and then when I get with people I feel strange. Either I criticise everything or I keep quiet. I feel superior, they were playing cards all night, and I just looked down on them, and I was mad at myself. . . . (Silence) I hate to say anything because it might come out then, that I feel superior, and I know I shouldn't. Nobody's superior to anybody. I don't want to feel that way, it's wrong.

Therapist: Your values are that humans are inherently equal and to feel superior is wrong, and can't be true. But let it come for a minute, so we can sense what it's like. Is it like "ech" (sweep-away hand-motion).

Patient: (Silence) No. Feels high and mighty. Kind of good.

Therapist: Sit forward a little . . . yeah, like that . . . Loosen your body so you can let it come in more.

Patient: (Giggles.) I'm the queen . . . but that's stupid and selfish and, um, it's wrong. But it feels good. It's uhm . . . it's sort of self-confirming. Actually it's not even superior so much as . . . um. . . . (Silence) It's like "Make room for me!"

It turns out to "have been" very different from feeling superior. She has not discarded her equality values to permit feeling superior. Rather, what was there changed in the steps, and turned out to be more ethical than it seemed. Her conceptual evaluation played a role, but not the only role.

Here is another example. (The therapist is omitted here.) Note the training built into the body—but also that the body has its own order. At first there is no way to say the steps that come.

I've been looking forward to coming, much more than I did the other times. I've had a crummy week. My job is really bad . . . and everything seems flat like I'm just watching. . . . (Long silence) I have lots of energy there, but it's tied up. . . . (Silence) It's like a heavy wall in front of it. It's behind that. . . . (Silence) It's a whole part of me that I keep in. Like when I say it's OK when it's not. The way I hold everything in. . . . (Long silence) There's a part of me that's dead, a part that isn't. . . . One is dead, one survived. . . . (Silence) It wants to scream. . . . To live. . . . (Silence) And there's also something vague. I can't get what that is. . . . (Silence) It's like I want to run. Someone will be mad at me if I let that part live, and that's very uncomfortable. . . . (Silence) I want to run and never look back and just be free. . . . (Silence) Then that's sad. Yes. Running from the vague thing is sad. . . . (Silence) Some of me wants to find out what the sad thing is, some of me doesn't. . . . (Silence) I'm very angry. It's a big loss, something missing, That's what the vague thing was. . . . (Silence) And my energy is right there, too. Yes, I feel lighter!

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At each step the bodily sense is implicitly meaningful in a way that then turns out to be speakable. Note the effect on body-energy at the end. These steps are from the body's own order. All therapists since Freud have noticed that order.


Unlike the therapists, philosophical and political writers still side with Freud on this issue. Adorno and Foucault [3] find it simply impossible that a freeing process could arise within the organism and go counter to the socially imposed forms. Worse, to assert such a thing is to sustain the political status quo; one seems to promise individual freedom under present political conditions. In not even thinking about politics, one does reactionary politics.

Social change has its own supra-individual laws and developments, like the evolution from agriculture to industry. Individual bodies live and are programmed by these social developments. But the theories since Marx also assume that there can be no feedback from the organisms except perhaps disorder and resistance. These theories deny the body an order of its own and imply that social change can come only from engineering on the social level. It must be imposed on individuals, since it cannot come from them. But recent history shows that such social change is anything but freeing. Therefore, Adorno and Foucault see no freeing possible on the political level, either. Social patterns are imposed by people in some positions on people in other positions. Change can only be different imposed forms, or different people in power. Change in that fact seems impossible.

For example, Foucault rightly points out that all social functions involve control. Medical people and institutions have acquired a lot of control, which does not always help them cure. Psychiatry is an agency of social control and privilege. Education shapes people to want to obey and fit in, rather than think. Churches control attitudes more surely than they offer spiritual experience. But we cannot help deploring this fact. We see that the social functions are something other than control. It is not the control that cures, or develops thinking. At least in principle there is also health, help with personal problems, the discovery of thinking, and spiritual experience.

We know the difference, even when there is no therapeutic help, only socialization imposed by professionals who know little more than their [Page 273] certificates and roles. We know the difference, even when schools do not develop thinking and prepare only for obedience and repetition.

I do not argue that the genuine social functions can be found without being largely defeated by the inevitable control side. But the import of Foucault's work is not discouragement. We can certainly lessen the control aspect and devise social forms that provide more and more of the actual functions. We must always again see and struggle with the inevitable control aspect of each new form. But the control is not the functions.

But can education for thinking be distinguished from teaching what to think? Can genuine help be distinguished from socialization? We need my distinction between the two kinds of processes again here, on the social level. We know this difference here too.

The theories make a conflict between the individual and the social level of analysis, in order to assert that the social level is independent and determinative. But it is wrong to identify individual with genuine process, and society with control. Then it seems too bad that individuals are impossible without society.

But the genuine individual process is also social. Thinking is inherently social, too! But it is a different kind of process than obedience. The intricate texture of personal feelings is social too. It is from and about living with others in social patterns of love and work. But these can be newly elaborated and more complex than the imposed forms.

Foucault for one assumes that this is impossible. For example, he says: "In the California cult of the self one is supposed to discover one's true self . . . thanks to psychological and psychoanalytic science which is supposed to tell you what your true self is." [4] Foucault assumes it can only be some kind of science, socially imposed forms, that "tell you what your true self is."

Most political theories hold that the direction can only be one way: social control provides order for individual experience. There can be no orderly feedback, certainly not the more intricate feedback we actually find. Foucault thinks that creative feedback assumes a nonsocial individual, and rightly denies that possibility. But "subjectivity" is not the separated unsocial source he denies. Its own order is also "social," but we cannot let that word mean only imposed form. Imposed form is not the only kind of order. And we can distinguish the other kind.

I report publicly verifiable measures of authentic psychotherapy steps distinct from other manners of process. [5] I do not deny that much of what goes under the name of psychotherapy is mere social control. I do [Page 274] not rebut Foucault's critique of psychiatric power to control people. Coming from Carl Rogers' work, many of us have been saying something like that for many decades. We welcome Foucault's excellent critique of the medical and psychiatric profession. The question is only whether it must be so. Or is there a distinction between socially imposed form and another kind of social process?

But do not even now agree too quickly. We can distinguish this difference. But can we be sure that our process will undo every imposed form we would wish to overthrow if we could be aware of it? We cannot say that. Political analysis can show us what we might otherwise never question. Conceptual thinking alone does not usually change us, but it has an essential role in the process I described. But this role of concepts differs from the usual. In our excerpt, her step ("Make room for me!") might not have come without her conceptual ethics of equality which made a conflict with her superiority feeling.

Theories, concepts and values do not merely float on an independent conceptual level. They may also enable a step of process. But when they do, what comes is more intricate than the concepts were. We have seen that concepts and old forms do not "determine" such a step, they do not impose their form on it. The process can lead to rejection or modification of the very concept that helped the step to come.

The process I describe does not eliminate controvery and pluralism. The varying concepts remain. But, despite their conflict, they can point up something experienced. If we make the process central, conceptual pluralism does not destroy ethics. Let me give a self-illustrating example. Aristotle concludes that we are not ethically good until we enjoy doing good acts. Until then we are merely practicing at it, acting only from knowing what is right. Kant flatly contradicts this. He says that we are ethical only when we act out of duty. He says that even then we are "in danger" of doing it for the wrong reason, if we also enjoy it. Both views are right and needed. But we cannot simply merge them. That would only dull the clarity of thought. Each is systematically connected to other concepts that must not be lost.

If only conceptual form is considered, ethics disintegrates into competing dogmatisms. This is largely the current state of ethics. But the conflicting conceptual systems must be retained; there is no way to "resolve" them on their own level. Nor would we want only one system!

Of course we would rather be (and deal with) someone whose inclinations are good. But, we must also be able to challenge what is [Page 275] sensed as good at a given moment. People with good inclinations become accustomed to doing what "feels right," which is often superior to thinking. Then the day comes when they mistreat us. They can not see what is wrong; it "feels right" to them, as usual. We must be able to reason with them, appealing to something other than their good inclinations. But neither can we expect mere argument to determine ethics. Our appeal must get the process moving again.

That is why ethics must involve both inclination and concepts. Neither can simply impose itself on the other. A finer cognition feeds back from the body's implicit order in process steps. But a vital role is played by conceptual cognition (as the ethics of equality did in our excerpt). The body is not chaos with merely imposed form. Neither is it all-wise so that we would not need to think. Both are needed to see and change unconscious oppressive forms. That is one reason we cannot be sure that this process will overthrow every unconscious oppressive form, or arrangement of life.

All we can say—but it is a lot—is that this kind of process reveals a more intricate order which can exceed and reorder existing forms. Imposed form is not the only kind of order.

University of Chicago


[1]. See my Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (New York: Macmillan, 1962, 1970); "Experiential Phenomenoloy," in Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, ed. M Natanson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973); Focusing (New York: Bantam Books, 1981); "Two Phenomenologists Do Not Disagree," in Phenomenology, Dialogues and Bridges, ed. Bruzina and Wilshire (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982); "Dagenais' Direction Beyond Presupposition," Journal of Religious Studies 11, 1-2 (1984).

[2]. See my "Values and the Process of Experiencing," in The Goals of Psychotherapy, ed. A. Mahrer (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967); "Neurosis and Human Nature in the Experiential Method," Humanitas 3, 2 (Fall 1967).

[3]. M. Foucault, Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1980).

[4]. Foucault, interview with Rabinow, 1984.

[5]. M. H. Klein, P. Mathieu-Coughlan, and D. J. Kiesler, "The Experiencing Scales," in The Psychotherapeutic Process: A Research Handbook, ed. W. P. Pinsof and L. Greenberg (New York: Guilford Press, 1985).

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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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