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Gendlin, E.T. (1987). Thinking after distinctions. Paper presented at the Heidegger Conference, George Mason University, Dept. of Philosophy. From

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Thinking After Distinctions

Eugene T. Gendlin

University of Chicago

My previous paper on dwelling [1] stayed close to Heidegger. My own remarks were carefully distinguished from him. Today I will speak after that distinction. I have long been concerned with what is not formed although always in some form. The transitions of thought and languaging show the function of what is not already formed. [2] I will show that again today. Since my paper moves from Heidegger, there is not room to do justice to Derrida. Nevertheless, his writings now unavoidably appear, and help, at crucial junctures of thought. Even my earlier writing has suddenly become understandable to more people, both through him and its difference from him—although the print has not changed. I differ much from Heidegger and Derrida, but I wish to speak precisely in and after what they said.

I am concerned with thinking on from that special mode of thinking Heidegger called "dwelling." Dwelling-thinking does not ignore, round off, or merge precise distinctions and forms. Rather we get beyond the forms by thinking precisely in them. Heidegger said we dwell in forms as we dwell inside a house, not outside, yet how we dwell in it is not a house. This thinking is inseparable from distinctions, but it is not the distinctions.

Derrida says that anything is and is not in distinctions. But other than that there is only the making of distinctions, a process that always disappears, exhausted and absorbed in what it makes.

That sharpens an issue: Heidegger insists that the thinking he calls for is not exhausted, absorbed, or defined as just the making of what it makes. He insists on independence for a term that is not just the distinguishing of the distinguished, or the showing of the shown. And he calls on us to think that.

For Derrida, not in distinctions is indeterminate. What he calls the "hierarchical space" of history keeps all earlier distinctions and also how later ones shift and displace them, as you can endlessly examine what Hegel does to Kant, or America to Anglo-Saxon culture. All this remains exact, [Page 2] and yet the shifts are indeterminate. Derrida manages with just two terms together: distinct and indeterminate.

Heidegger, on the other hand, insisted on another type of term: I might say that dwelling is more precise and determinate than distinctions and forms, not indeterminate. But Heidegger left that in puzzling condition. What calls for new and finer thought is a demanding determinacy, not just the result of previously formed forms, nor less precise. But, doesn't "precise" and "determinate" just say "distinct"? So, "more precise than distinctions" seems a contradiction, or else just an indeterminate saying. If there is something more precise, it must generate a more precise way of saying itself. That is the task of this paper.

Language moves in ways other than by forms and distinctions, but can the actual working of language say itself? Contemporary authors seem to appreciate only a negative self-reflexivity of language. The word "saying" is assumed to say enclosing form, so that, since enclosing is impossible, saying seems impossible.

Derrida goes on from that impasse in a dual way: On one side closing is avoided by devising a saying that retracts its own distinctions. Saying and retracting is one side. The other side is not taken back. On its other side, a saying displaces countless previous distinctions. That effect is vast. Of course it remains; that side cannot be taken back by retracting only a saying's own distinctions. This dual way of saying works very well. But I emphasize what, in a way, he says: the effective side of saying is not the self-retracting.

Let us take all this precision with us, as we pursue Heidegger's term of what is not absorbed in making distinctions displacing earlier ones.

1. Saying, after the variety of distinctions.

Language and life work in ways that are not assimilable to distinctions or forms. But if I say how language works, will it not be said as some distinctions? Or can the saying say its act of saying? For example, can "act of saying" say its saying, or can we at best say and then also deny this old notion of the act? Can saying say its saying?

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As a first step, I want to show that it can, when a variety of words all work, each coming after all the others.

For example, in Derrida's work, Heidegger's dwelling is displaced by the word "displacing." Doesn't it say the displacing it does? It says its own doing, whatever that is, rather than its form or distinction. Now note what happens when other words come: Displacing happens by making distinctions. Or, they make themselves; they come. They are sometimes said to play, or with Hegel: to march. Since all were said in every age, no historical order keeps them from canceling out. They don't cancel, although they have no form in common. As distinctions they would cancel out, leaving nothing. But, each says its languaging work. Coming after all the others, each also further says the languaging the others do. Each says how words work after each other: They make a spot, they play each other; they march further. Their differences still work, but do not cancel because, after all, each says its saying.

That is also how it is with the variety of logics. One logic depends on units, cuts, or classes, and is undone by not dividing. Another assumes form or pattern. A pattern is not just a cut between itself and something else; it constrains by patterning, not by dividing. There is also a logic of rules. Rules don't just divide; they allow variety and novelty in ways that cuts and forms do not. For novelty there are no rules. And dialectic logic pretends that new thought comes just from its contradictions. Each has often forced itself on the others, but there is no common logic. Since Greek times these logics have co-existed, so that each comes after all the others. Now, each can say what is not logic, not just its own negation. Each, in its way, can say what is not logic.

Let me remind you that you say the word "distinction" itself as coming after all the others, not as a distinction in the narrow sense. When you say "the failure of distinctions," the phrase does not say not-cuts. It includes the failure of the other logics. Today "distinction" in the narrow sense requires adding "in the narrow sense." You say "distinction" not just as separation, but also as form and rule. Yet you would be annoyed if someone asked you first to show how division deals with forms or rules. These have no common form; coming after all the others, "the failure of distinctions" says what is not just not distinctions in the narrow sense.

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After distinctions, words still seem to belong to one system or another, but they work in new ways; they are not just the old forms cancelled out. For example, this word "after"—does it only say-and-deny a linear series, so that it cannot say what it says here? No, the phrase "each after all the others" is not the linear order crossed out. It is customary to call such a construction "deconstruction" since it seems to say and deny an old distinction. But it works in a new way to say the more determinative order of new working. It says what it does not deny.

In practical situations we always think that. We mistrust ideologues and prefer guidance from someone who has thought with many schemes and still thinks after that. Life and situation do not dissolve when the schemes dissolve each other. We think further after we apply each theory we have. The words bring our theories. But, in discussing the situation after that, the words say ...... They don't just unsay their schemes.

Heidegger is often read as if a saying must also unsay itself to avoid a closing. Heideggerians say that saying is at best the overcoming of what we don't want to say. In this taking back something remains, of course, but one assumes that that cannot be said and that "that" is taken back.

The saying which must un-say itself comes from Heidegger's middle period. In Identity and Difference Heidegger still thought that, at best, there might be a saying that is also its own not-saying. That was to cope with metaphysics. He "left the question open, . . . whether western languages are essentially metaphysical . . . or whether they might permit other possibilities of saying . . ." Then, in his last works he developed a saying that is not also its not-saying.

This "edge of thought" is in any specific topic. Anything, every word, act, or thing, however specific, is reopened. So this edge is all over, and in anything. Someone may say that I took back my word "edge," since it is all over and in anything. "In" and "thing" would also need taking back.

How could the late Heidegger say anything? The usual answer is from his middle period. Heideggerians say he spoke only in the overcoming of metaphysical concepts, distinctions, units, forms, rules ..... Then it seems as if we, too, can think and speak only by finding some stuff to overcome, and then, take back our own last words as well. We are also not [Page 5] supposed to be able to say how this overcoming works. If we try, all this repeats. We can overcome foolish stories about overcoming, especially the one about something finally overcome.

But, at the end, Heidegger seems, after all, to say distinctions, (forms, models, metaphors, .....) without also unsaying them. How did Heidegger say and not take back that "dwelling" is as in houses? Heidegger says that "happening" gives like the "it" in "es giebt" or in "it rains." He says happening "gives" and withdraws, and he likens it to the source of a brook in the country. These are pretty simple metaphors, yet he did not also retract them, as earlier he would have. He lets these words say. But this saying has not been well understood, or, perhaps I will say more of it than was fully there. These sayings overcome metaphysics, yes, but they do not overcome or un-say their own saying.

In my own way I have already shown a thinking that is not the formed forms with their denial. Let me now take up the late Heidegger's sayings. Let me show how they say without unsaying themselves.

2. Heidegger's two terms in each other.

Heidegger's giving and withdrawing are not two things, not two phases, nor one. Each is in the other. The withdrawing is in the giving. The withdrawing gives itself in the withdrawing. Also, time and being are each already intricately in the other. Ereignis is being's temporalizing, so that there is not everything at once, but rather a next to-be-thought. But now Heidegger says this, no longer by crossing out these seemingly separate words. Instead, at the end he lets them stand, these good old words, "time" and "being." He lets them say the intricate way they are not two, and not one. They say that.

Heidegger does not, in addition, take back these words, to prevent them from falling back into their old separation. These words themselves prevent their separation more effectively by how they are in each other. Note, also, that he did not take back this new pattern: in-each-other. The in-each-other is not a distinction in the narrow sense, and so it would not be taken back by adding yes-and-no. But isn't it also distinctions? Yes, [Page 6] but what the word now says cannot be taken back in that way in which a distinction in the narrow sense is taken back—by adding "and also not-distinct." Rather, "time" and "being" intricately say how they are not different, and we can go on from that intricacy. The words say that.

Similarly, Heidegger didn't cross out "giving and withdrawing." He didn't himself do the giving and withdrawing by saying and taking back the words. He let the words "withdrawing-in-the-giving" do it.

3. The metaphor: The source of a brook in the country:

In a different way he also let stand the metaphor that happening is like the source of a brook. He does not take back this "source" lest it close as an existing origin. The earlier notion "source" was something that exists and could therefore give rise to something else. Heidegger's metaphor undoes that old metaphor: In Heidegger's metaphor the source is not first itself something. The brook's source is—where there is no brook—just above the brook.

This "source" does not say and retract itself. It retracts the old pre-existing source, but precisely by this new saying which does not retract itself. This "source" is how this word does work here.

Derrida, in midst of a sentence, says in parens that a word he just used cannot be taken in its old way. But the paren could not legislate that. Rather, the paren is right only if the word has already worked in a new way. The paren is not needed. The word's working (not the paren) retrieves it from its old way. Crossing out its old way is not its new working. Crossing out is additional, after the fact. Derrida fashions many metaphors that destroy older metaphors and also take themselves back. For instance, a text is like a tree made totally from grafts—so there is no tree and also, since all are grafts, none can be grafts. That says-and-takes-back its own saying.

That is not quite how Heidegger does it. He does not take back that happening is a source. His "source" peters out in the leaves and grass above the brook, but, that is the brook's source. The word says its new working here. Heidegger no longer thinks that all saying must make a closed form, supposedly shared by happening and brooks.

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4. The Project.

Heidegger, at the end, wanted to open not only the distinctions and metaphors, but also what calls for thought and has not yet been thought. He had always had this project of speaking about "the project," the silence that is equally as basic as speech, the moody understanding "which carries further than cognition," an implicit which is not merely a hidden explicit, the question not yet posed. But at the end he wanted not to be caught in that, either. He wanted not merely the next one in the long series of givings-and-withdrawings. He wanted to open that, too. He wanted to turn the next one into the greater question of how such next ones come, the sourcing, the giving-and-withdrawing itself, rather than just the next given-and-withdrawn.

But this is usually read as an impossible edge. Any thought we have is just one more. It seems we should have no more thoughts, only what gives us to think. So this dwelling-thinking seems to close itself.

And his last sayings, also, since they speak of this, are read as if they close: How terms are in each other, can be read to point the end of all distinctions. Time and being, the very last twosome—merged. The brook-metaphor is read as saying that the source of metaphor is nothing—just no brook.

So a dwelling-thinking other than forms seems unreachably to loop itself clear out of content, as if it were—at most—a pregnant silence. But let us go after that silence, and speak after it.

5. Going on from the silence:

When it seems that we cannot say, the silence isn't wordless. Words have led up to it and made it; they have said it in a way. What they said was not closed forms but that. Don't let that be a knowing smile in silence. That demands further thinking and saying after that silence—the saying of what we seem unable to say.

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a. Consider the silence of a poet with an unfinished poem:

The already written lines want something more, but what? The poet may be only stuck and confused, no mysterious call for thought at all. Just trying this line and that; many lines come. Some seem good. The poet listens carefully into each, rejects it, and reads the written lines again—and again.

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

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

But in another way, of course the blank is said—by the lines leading up to it. The poet can have (get, feel, keep .....) this blank only by re-reading and listening to the written lines—over and over. They say what is further to be said.

In this story, so far I have not disturbed anyone, because it will be assumed that I want only your knowing assent to some seeming puzzles. Yes, you say easily, such a silence is both more vague and more precise than what we can say. Yes, dwelling in existing forms is more than the existing forms. Yes, understanding written lines is thinking beyond them. Sure.

Someone might now say that we only deconstructed the word "vague" so that it is and isn't logic's opposite, and that we only took back "precise" by pairing it with vague. Of course, the person would know that what was said was not just an undoing, but would assume that that cannot be said. What remains when one takes back seems only that silent smile.

But fortunately, the poet is not satisfied with that. When words at last do come, they work in some way in and from that erstwhile blank. So let us also go on to allow our words to work in and from that blank. My [Page 9] words "more vague and more precise," when said in that blank—how did they work? Did you not already follow what this vague says here? Need we go back and cross it out, as if it had said the vagueness that can not be more precise? No, this "vague" is more precise before we point that out. It works newly and then, if we wish, we can also say it did. First it had to work that way; we could not have legislated that it shall no longer work as it usually does. Its new working could not be helped by a crossing out. It works newly as it brings its old ways into this new slot, so we cannot cross its old ways out. It does not work by crossing itself out. But can we say how it does work, here?

b. Can we say this saying?

This greater precision is being said; my phrase "more vague and more precise" says with greater precision how it works, by coming into this blank, and into my sentence about this blank. Had I not first spoken of an unfinished poem's silence, the phrase "more vague and more precise" alone would cancel to nothing. By coming into this blank, "precise" and "vague" say this precision and this vagueness.

Do they say the same thing? No, although each now comes after the other, the precision is not the vagueness. The word "vague" says here how it is itself vague after this precision. The word takes its meaning from how it works; it says how it does its saying. But can other words say how a word works? Or can only this "vague" here say its vague way of saying, and only this "precise" say precisely how it works.

c. In the spot of these, by saying how these just worked, many other words retrieve themselves and can say more and more.

To say more in other words, let us first let a close word work where "precise" has worked. The next line is hard to get because it is more determined than the poet can say. How does "more determined" work here, by coming into the slot of "more precise"?

Now "determined" does not say what [Page 10] can be derived. If the poem's next line were determined in that sense, the poet could figure it out logically. Finishing a poem would be easy. But neither does the word say itself crossed out, just not determined, indeterminate. If the next line were indeterminate, most any line could fit in. That way, too, poems would be easy to finish. Nor is it some of both these kinds of easy. If we say that the line is indeterminate, now the word does not deny that it is more determined. Each word says something different about the line that has not come.

I said "determined" does not mean derived. But, note what happens if I ask "How does the poet derive the next line?" In that slot the word means how the poet does it. Soon there are no words left to take back.

But how are these changed meanings derived here? These were nearly synonyms that work in the same grammatical slot. More can be said in words that do not fit the grammar.

In still other words: What the blank demands is not in the culture's common store of phrases. And further: The store of phrases is implicitly changed by the poem's already written lines. What those lines lead up to cannot be said in common phrases. That is shown when, at last, the next line comes; it comes in already changed phrases, its words working in the new way demanded by the earlier lines. But the new line makes more change and demands still more. It changes more than the previous lines already changed. After it, again, a further line may not be easy.

You follow me because my further words come into the poet's blank in which "vague" and "precise" already worked. They come into it already changed; so they say more. Let me point back to some of them.

My phrase "implicitly changed" said how written lines change next-coming words before they come. I need not, but I can point out how "implicit" has changed in coming here: It does not say something hidden, but fully formed as if it could be said. The word "implicit" was changed implicitly by the blank which changes words before they come.

Here we can change the store of phrases. So "store of phrases" did not say that we can only select to speak, and re-cognize to understand. But I don't have to point that out. It has already changed from how it was in the store of common phrases.

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So, other words can come and say more and more about how words work. On and on, they can come to develop a whole theory of language in words that do not close. If they come, they come implicitly changed to say more of what was just said. They retrieve themselves from their old schemes by coming. What is this coming? How do the right words ..... come? Why does just "come" come to say that? Can we say that in other words? In other words, the coming word fits in the slot made by the other words, since each word is implicitly its connections with thousands of others. But "implicit" substitutes no scheme of the underlying order of words. No, that remains implicit. But "implicit" says how words connect, so that new phrasing makes other words say something new implicitly—in the silence—before they come. Then, their actual coming changes them further to say precisely that.

d. The saying and the said.

When other words say how a word worked, they can also say their own saying—how they themselves work. The next move can come from their working, as they came into a working. This can make a time-sequence; or, after many words, each comes after all the others.

After many words, the slot, blank, silence, ..... holds. That silence is, makes, acts ....., just as if it were a word. The sentence can make sense with ..... left in it. The ..... can speak in such a sentence, even without a word. It is implicitly the words and so it is a saying too. After that, any word further says that blank. It means how it works in it. But anything said is always after other words. The said is not formed forms we must cross out, to return to openness or indeterminacy. The said is that more precise saying which is indeterminate in form, and more determined more precisely than form-determinations.

But, it is said: "The saying falls into the said." The said is said to be dead-cut, formed form, supposedly absorbing all momentary acts of saying. But it is well-known that the said goes right on saying, for centuries. Did that slogan say only that the print doesn't change? Or did the slogan let the said fall into formed forms? Did it fall into a wrong notion of language—as if language consisted of formed forms and cut [Page 12] distinctions? We have said a little bit of how language works, not enough to show, just enough to hint that saying can be said. Of course the said will not change on the page, but the said is not just its words, but the slots, and the change the words make in all the other implicit words, situations, productions, things ..... When the language and the world change around the said, of course that changes the change it makes in that.

So the said is not formed form nor even—something very different—the fixed words which don't change on the page. The said is how those words work in the slot they make and change. The phrasing of the sentence can change the world. Words and slots change each other and the language and our lives. That all comes in how words come and work and say.

We can't divide explicit words from their implicit saying. And, we don't need this impossible division between words and how they work, the point they make. But at first it seems to be a conundrum: The words can't change; the point can change, so they are different, yet we insist that a slot or a point is made by its exact phrasing.

For example, when students in their papers can only copy the text, and repeat it word for word, we know they do not get the point. But when they can paraphrase the point in their own words, we see they understand. Yet most of these paraphrases should not be published. What is understanding, then, if not the words of the text nor those of the paraphrase? How can the point be separate from the words? It is not separate, but still something—well, not something—but you get the point. Only the exact language makes the point, so paraphrase should be impossible. How can it show understanding? The contradiction does not say. Nor can we just make the distinction. But we can think on from that point and enter this more determined precision:

The poor paraphrase comes, of course, after the point, after the slot the text has made. If it were said anywhere else, the paraphrase would not say much. But when it goes on in and after the slot of the text, the words of even a poor paraphrase come changed, so in the slot they say that slot and more. When words work in the paraphrases as that slot has implicitly changed them, we know the person got the point, and is going on from that.

We agreed from the start, that dwelling, thinking, saying, how words work, can not be separate either from words or from logical forms. We [Page 13] cannot have the working alone. But we don't need that separately. The issue is whether we can have, think, say, that. We can.

We can have, say, think, and spend time with that. It is no disappearing act, as if absorbed by formed distinctions, before, and after it. Nor is the point absorbed by just these words. It can become a stretched-out time of thinking, the preference for remaining stuck, a preference we all know quite well, and must respect and talk of, more than we have, till now. We can talk of it, about it, from it, in it, now that words retrieve themselves precisely there. Words can say more and more of it, and how they work that. They can even say a theory of language without closing, as theory is said to do.

If what determines further speech and thought were derived just from existing sharpness, it would enclose our next steps so they could come within it. A new point or a difficulty could be said and solved in extant forms. But they do play a precious role. How can we think the role of logic? We don't pretend with the old logics that they can generate something new alone. To be sure mathematical logic brought us much novelty, but not just by rearranging units. Nor could dialectic ever derive something new from mere forms in logical contradiction. But, let us not first assume that language and understanding are forms, so that in addition they can only be forms undone.

Whether theory is closed or not depends on how you think with it. All theories can be thought openly, by moving from the slots they make. The logical operations go on in life and language. The slot is more determined than the forms and distinctions. So, if you reach some slot by many steps of seeming logical consistency, that very spot—like any other—can lead to further steps that don't seem logical and change the very forms that helped to make the spot. Even if it is reached by a would-be-closing theory, any slot enables more moves than those consistent with the theory that helped to lead you there.

Forms and distinctions are a late human product, precious indeed, but they are not language. All order is not analogous to distinctions. The order of language, thought, and action is a more precise order. We can think that—at any point. We need to let the more determining order say itself especially when we, ourselves, are the topic, which, in a way we [Page 14] always are. There seems to be no self, if the person must be the formed content. The body seems to determine nothing human, if its only order must be like biological laws. There seems to be no human nature across the distinctions of classes and cultures. But the order that moves across distinctions, the order of languaging, understanding, action ..... is not less precise than dialectical logic. It is more precise and we must let it say itself more and more precisely.

A poet listens to the lines that come. What a line says can surprise the poet. Sometimes a line says a new truth. With such a line the poet may forgo the erstwhile poem, and build a new one. Then, retroactively, the new truth seems always to have been there. The new line implicitly applies itself to—things, productions, situations, life, .....—it jells an understanding. The new line makes a point of them, and may demand still more. Looking back from such a line, we see again that insofar as language and life are not in distinctions, they are a more demanding order. That is why only rare lines jell new understanding. But that was always known, of course.

[1] "Dwelling.'' Proceedings of the Heidegger Conference. University of New Hampshire, 1983.

[2] Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. New York: MacMillan, 1970.

"Experiential Phenomenology." In Natanson, M., (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Social Sciences. Evanston, Northwestern Univ. Press, 1973.

"Befindlichkeit." Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. XVI, Nos. 1–3, 1978–79.

"Two Phenomenologists Do Not Disagree." In: Bruzina and Wilshire, (Eds.), Phenomenology, Dialogues and Bridges. Albany, N.Y., State Univ. of New York Press, 1982.

ŠEugene T. Gendlin

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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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