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Gendlin, E.T. (1993). Improvisation provides. Paper presented at a panel on "Improvisation," organized by Robert Crease at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in New Orleans, October 24, 1993. From

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E.T. Gendlin, University of Chicago

"To improvise" means to do without pre-vision; no form or preview is provided in advance. For example, one asks: "How shall we proceed?" The answer might be "We don't know; we will have to improvise." Improvisation seems to be a second choice. The word makes it seem better to know, to have a plan. The word is formed as a negation, no already envisioned form. "Improvise" is one of many words that are defined negatively on the assumption that reality is or should be fixed in form. What's not fixed form is said to be ambiguous, undifferentiated, indistinct, contradictory, nothing.

The usual theory explains everything in terms of already existing forms. Supposedly we are able to understand something new only insofar as it is the same as what we have already experienced and know. It is a silly theory that would make novelty impossible. We could communicate to others only what they already know, which would make communication boring. If we really couldn't understand what is not the same as our past understandings, how could the past ones come to be in the first place? No, it's quite obvious: New experience must come first, only then can later experience be explained by being the same as it. Since it had to come first in the past, it can still come first, now too.

Improvisation is obviously first. For example, in art, the composer surely improvises, and only then writes down what should be kept as a score. As writers we let a half-formed "sense" of what we want to say pour out immediately into words on the page. Then, in revising and sharpening that, something further and better appears, which we – only now – realize is more exactly what we wanted to say all along. And as we revise and sharpen that, something more appears behind it and is really what we want to say. No one sits down, puts a piece of paper into the typewriter, and just types out the book Being and Time. No, it is improvisation that provides all fixed forms in the first place.

Elsewhere I have dealt with the whole topic that opens here, about reversing the usual order (see ECM97 and Crossing and Dipping) that puts fixed form first. For [Page 2] example, a metaphor comes before proper classifications and similarities. It creates those; it is not based on pre-existing similarities.

Rather than arguing further against the priority of fixed form in general, I want to move in the other direction here, into the detail of the actual process of improvising. From the practice of improvisation we can learn more about it, and also more about the general question. If not from pre-existing forms, how then do new forms come? What is this coming of improvisation?


We cannot understand the coming of new forms just by negating fixed form. Contradiction, rupture, or nothingness cannot explain it. Improvisation is not achieved just by not-having a script or score. For example, although I do not have a score in front of me, I find that I cannot improvise music. Terms that mean no more than "not-fixed-form" don't shed much light on how improvisation comes. To study that, we enter a largely unexplored territory. How shall we enter it? There is no map. We will have to improvise.

The advantage of making terms freshly is that we are less likely to fall into old assumptions. Old forms are implicit in all situations, but they do not control what comes. For example, although the old forms assume the priority of form, the new terms I will be led to make here will not instance the priority of form. If our terms come from improvisation they will instance a world in which the coming of improvisation is always first.

If improvisation is immediate and prior to formed forms, let us set that up as a new principle: "Improvisation comes first." Let's begin with that and move out from it: Let us re-look at the world in terms of improvisation-first. What shall we look at in this way? Certainly fresh thinking. What else? Writing too, as I already said.

Only fresh thinking and writing? Let us try out applying it more broadly still. Let us try saying that all language-use comes as improvisation comes. First we just try out saying so, to see if it makes sense to say that. Yes, it does! When we speak, do not have words prepared in advance. We open our mouths, and the words come to us. If the wrong ones come, we can only pause, apologize, and wait [Page 3] for the right ones to come. An exception is when we only re-read or recite words we have prepared, words that came to us at an earlier time.

Language does not consist just of fixed forms. New phrases and sentences can come, ones that have never existed before. Usually we use common phrases, but language is endlessly open for fresh formation, new phrasing and new sentences. Unlike chess, language is open so that no computer can provide all that can ever be said.

But a major difference between language and art emerges here: We speak by arranging always the same words. We do not fashion those sounds freshly. We use pre-existing words. Each word has its meaning already, but in using them we re-mean them, so that they mean not only the old meaning they bring, but also what that meaning does and means here in this situation. New phrases come, in which the old words can have new meaning. But the word-sounds are not freshly created.

In contrast, art does not use or re-mean fixed units. Some motifs might be used, but art is not the re-use of old motifs. Art involves a fresh formation of new sounds, images, rhythms, movements, and actions, exciting new sensations – we are surprised – we say "ah....."

But what about performing a script or a score? That too is art, surely. Yet the sounds and visions are not new – or are they? Certainly they are!

We don't go to see Hamlet just to have the play we have already heard and seen repeated. Rather, we hope that the play will livingly emerge. That will be quite new. Crease (1993) calls a successful performance "a phenomenon that appears." In acting a written script or in playing a score, it is the fresh formation which counts. Will this production of Hamlet be a phenomenon? We know Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, but will this performance of it be a brooding infinity, or a sparkling sundance – or just a pointless repetition of the score? It is disappointing when a technically perfect performance just runs on without bringing a unique new life to the score.

We see that plays and scores are opportunities for – fresh improvisation. When a score is provided, it is still the new improvisation that counts.

That is so also in logic, theory, and philosophy. Now that we have these methods and these texts, what will you do with them? We are not against well developed theories, [Page 4] not at all. It is all the more exciting to follow a theory through 39 steps of pure logic, and then, – having gone so very far into the topic, – the excitement lies in then thinking freshly, from there.

Similarly, a great score many levels deep gives the performer an opportunity for new improvisation – there.

But now we must go a step further: Performing artists do certainly also prepare. They improvise at home or in rehearsals, and ponder long about their phrasing, where to put emphasis, and so on. By the time they perform, that isn't a fresh formation. It is not improvisation. It is how they decided to play it.

The soloist practices this decided way to play it. The new creation becomes a repeatable spontaneity. There is a well-known danger that this prepared novelty will come out cut-and dried, lifeless despite its novelty. Soloists know not to practice a piece many times on the day of a concert. The piece cannot freshly emerge, come from underneath upward, through the music, wholly alive, – and then do that again. Therefore just before the concert one "warms up" but one does not practice the piece.

So we see still another level of improvisation. The live coming from underneath is a separate variable, whether or not it creates a novel product just then. To be sure, new products and new ways of performing them do come from underneath. But then they can become repeatable and decided ways of performing. Then there is again the question: "Tonight, will it come from underneath?"

So there are three levels of improvisation, when the new score comes from underneath, when the unique new life of how it is performed comes, and when what is already formed and decided, nevertheless comes livingly from underneath.

We have arrived at a new concept: the coming from underneath.

Before I go on, I need to point out how I have been proceeding. I have been fashioning new terms directly from ordinary situations. You might ask: "What is this 'coming from underneath'?" We can say more about it, but so far: What did I mean by this phrase? I meant whatever that is, which is lacking when a performance though technically perfect seems pointless, or when even a new way of performing fails to come alive – this time. I have not defined "coming from underneath." Rather, it means whatever [Page 5] that is which we know well in ordinary practice. I am illustrating a way to make new concepts directly from practice.

Should it be called "coming from underneath?" Is this not an inadmissible spatial metaphor? We might seem to be caught in some scheme of layers imputed to the human person. But any other phrasing would seem to get caught in some scheme as well.

I say "seem to," because although "underneath" brings a scheme, we are not in fact caught in it. New words exceed the old schemes they bring. In my phrase "coming from underneath" the words are re-meant as they come into this situation, and so my words say what is lacking in a technically perfect but pointless performance. While "from underneath" is a concept, it is more than a concept; it is also what we know in practice in our situations.

If there were only determined meanings, forms, units, schemes – and otherwise only rupture, contradiction, disorder, we would be trapped in whatever is already formed. Or we would be in limbo. There would be nothing from which we could create new art, or new philosophical terms.

I argue that in practice we know and talk about a great deal for which there are no concepts, nor proper phrases. Even very ordinary human situations are far more intricate than our common phrases can say.

My phrase "coming from underneath" says something familiar to all who know about performances. Only my phrasing is new. But new phrases can also create something new.

So it is a double improvisation I have been discussing: the one we are talking about, and the one involved in the new phrases that set up my new terms.


So far I have set out the following terms:

"fresh formation of new forms."

"re-meaning" (as when we use the existing words)

"coming from underneath."

These lead to three questions:

1) How do new forms come?

2) When improvisation comes smoothly, is there a .....?

3) How does something (new or old) come from underneath?

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Before I deal with these questions, let me ask:

How do words come to us? We have a vague sense of what we need and want to say, and – out come the words to say that. If the wrong words come, we can only apologize, then wait a moment for the right ones to come. Or, perhaps we lack words for a while. None of the usual phrases will say that. (Even the word "that" is not right; what we want to say is not a thing in space to which one could point.) Sometimes what we want to say is in some sense already there, but never as yet been said. Then we feel the strain of language rearranging itself to form quite new phrases.

How words come to us (above and Thinking Beyond Patterns) – this coming belongs in a family of comings to which all improvisation belongs.

What is this coming which is the hallmark of improvisation? What else comes in this way – that we must await it? We cannot deliberately construct or will to have: sleep, appetite, orgasm, tears, love, anger, dreams, imagery, laughter, funny remarks, as well as the words for what we want to say, and the coming of new phrases and new steps in creating a work of art.

The list shows that this coming which we cannot construct, which we cannot fully control and toward which we can only dispose ourselves and wait, this coming is characteristic of the body.

I argue that this kind of coming is always bodily despite the fact that only some of those on the list would usually be considered bodily. But to recognize them all as from the body changes what the word "body" has meant until now. The word brings – and still means this body, mine in the chair here, but now it also means how I sense this body from the inside, its sentient wanting, demanding, pre-figuring what I want to say and – after a moment – giving rise to the phrases to say it.

It is the body which lets the next step of speech, action or art-formation come.

An artist stands before an unfinished design, looking, sensing, mulling "what it needs." Then perhaps a line is added. Again the standing back, the mulling. "No, that won't do." The line is erased. Again the standing back. Again and again line after line is tried out – and rejected. The artist feels, mulls, lives "what it needs." It is quite precise and demanding. It needs ....., but that cannot be said in words, only in a line, and the line is [Page 7] not here. The artist feels a next line which does not yet exist. The ..... is so precise, it knows why it rejects all so-far suggested lines.

My phrase here is odd: feeling a line that does not yet exist. But what my phrase says is common enough. I could say that the artist feels (senses, lives, is .....) the line.

Once a sentence makes the slot of a word, many other words can make sense there. They all cross in the ..... Whichever word I now choose will say the ..... which comes after the string of them. I could say that the artist feels the need, the demand, the idea for, the smell of, the smoke of, the fire of, the scream of, the implying of, ..... the never yet drawn line.

Each of these words carries the ..... forward in a somewhat different way. I choose the formal Latin word, now re-meant by what it says here: The body implies the next step.

With this "concept" with us, we can discuss my three questions:

1 How do new forms come? With the ..... we can notice quite a lot directly about this implying. The artist can notice that something quite specific is wrong with the effect of each rejected line. All those effects are somehow knowingly rejected by the ..... It is as if the ..... had already seen all those, as if the right line had already considered all the wrong effects of them all and modified them all together into ..... the right one that isn't here.

Of course we know that isn't so. To explain the implying of the right line as having cross-considered all the wrong ones would explain the new formation in terms of pre-existing forms. But all explanatory schemes assume – indeed they are – pre-existing forms that supposedly explain what actually precedes them. Actually the familiar experience of a ..... explains the concept of crossing: The experience of a ..... lets us know that the crossing is implicit, that the many parameters that are crossed in it have never existed separately as such. Said in and of a ....., the scheme of crossing tells about how the ..... works by more than a scheme.

The ..... has not actually pre-viewed all the wrong lines. There is no such fixed set as all the wrong lines. The wrong lines don't yet exist either; they also come, one by one. Indeed, the line the artist takes as right might [Page 8] still have much wrong with it. Actually the ..... has not seen, balanced, inter-affected, and crossed any separate lines to imply the next line. We need a term that works like that and still also says that it does not happen like that. In fact, we need a whole vocabulary of new terms that use schemes in a way in which the schemes are exceeded by what functions implicitly and is not a scheme.

Bodily "implying" – the word usually says logical deduction where the conclusion is already contained in the premises. One need only cull it out by rearranging the existing units. But how a ..... implies, implies how it works – by more than what follows logically by rearranging a set of existing units.

We most clearly feel (sense, are .....) the bodily implying as such, when we are stuck, when the next step does not smoothly occur, for example when the right words don't come. But here is a further question:

2 Improvised steps may come smoothly without a break, both in ordinary speech and in other kinds of improvisation. Then the bodily implying is not separate. In that case, how do we know that there is a bodily implying of those steps? Surely there is not an unconscious stuck ..... underneath the smoothly coming words!

When steps come smoothly we cannot examine the implying in advance. But we see something like this crossing of a great many considerations also there. We see it after the coming, if we examine the new form.

Swift and smooth improvisation is often imperfect, but sometimes it is amazingly perfect. It can take hours and years to separate out many strands that seem to have gone into determining the spontaneous next move. A good analysis can make it seem that it must have taken months to devise anything that takes account of so many parameters. No, we report, we did not think or feel all of those considerations separately; it just came out like that.

In retrospect we can see the implicit crossing also in what comes smoothly. It is an implicit crossing of an odd kind of many, a many that have never existed separately.

This term involves the quantitative scheme of "many, " but with that scheme exceeded by the familiar implicit crossing which is more intricate and different than the scheme of many.

As soon as we have this more-than-concept about how next steps come crossed, we can cross it with how words [Page 9] come. The right words come just as if someone had gone through all words so as to select just the right ones, and all phrasing possibilities so as to phrase just what we want to say. But we let this conceptual scheme be about what exceeds it, namely the implicit crossing by which the right words actually come.

3 How can we think about the coming from underneath? Will it come wholly alive from underneath tonight at the concert?

In Homer's Iliad people often consult their thymos, which talks back to them from within their chests. Another take on this was to personify the source of improvisation as "the muse."

Jungians personify "the Unconscious" as continuous with our conscious ego on one side, but continuous with God or the universe on the other side. Clearly there are many takes on this coming, all fanciful if taken just as statements alone. None of them make sense unless we let the familiar coming function in our saying.

Considered as schemes, they can contradict each other. But if we keep the implicit intricacy with us, if we let the words and schemes say the implicit intricacy that is more than they, then many ways of saying it make sense. Then we can also further see how carries a different strand of meaning forward in what we already had implicitly.

We can also freshly improvise, and say more. What comes in this way, from beyond my control, feels more truly me than what I deliberately construct. That is why improvisation is so highly valued and intensely involving. Coming in this way it is not just the novel form: rather, it has the electricity of living. It feels more truly me to me (another odd phrase), and also more alive to others – the audience, for example.

We can let this facet be a concept, a very important one: The more truly me is omitted when we have only the score or only the decided way to play it. Anything that is just content, (just an object, just a percept, just an image .....) omits the truly me from underneath which comes alive when we improvise and first generate the content from underneath. The score or script does not just omit the improvisation that creates it; it omits us! Our proviso: "improvisation first" is now revealed to include and save the human subject.

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But to say: "It feels more truly me to me" seems to involve two of "me" – one who reports this, the one who refused to construct and waited for something to come, the other the "more truly me." Those are clearly not the same, nor two things. It is – they are – more intricate. We can allow the scheme of "one and two" to say what is more than that scheme: this much more intricate but implicitly familiar way in which what comes by this coming feels "more truly me" than what I fully control.

Instead of positing selves to explain the coming, we can turn this about, and say that "more truly me" is inherently a living forward from underneath, which gets to live when I improvise.

But since the body implies the next step, is the "more me" just the body? No. "Just the body" means the body as a thing, "my body" like "my car." But in improvising, the body is between me and more me, continuous with them in a bodily coming.

All this would be nonsensical if taken as concepts alone, but if it makes sense when said in that coming, then the implicit sense which is more than a scheme is said by the scheme of two and a body between. Then that is not nonsense. On the contrary, it begins to provide a way of talking about the human subject.

Our concept of the human subject is saved, retrieved from both the old schemes, and the current incapacity to speak of ourselves at all. Both are obviated by improvisation, by the fact that I can improvise a pattern about "more me" that is more me, and much more intricate than the old notions, a pattern that says how this coming is more than the pattern.

If I can do this in a few moments' improvisation, I know it is possible to do better – on these and many other topics that we currently seem unable to talk about, provided that no matter how excellent our concepts become, we always still also keep the implicitly familiar coming of improvisation with us, keeping it as part of our saying, so that the concepts say how the implicit sense is more than the concepts, so that we always also come freshly from underneath.

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Crease, Robert. (1993). The play of nature: Experimentation as performance.Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Gendlin, E.T. (1962). Experiencing and the creation of meaning. A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Gendlin, E.T. (1991). Crossing and dipping: Some terms for approaching the interface between natural understanding and logical formulation. In M. Galbraith & W.J. Rapaport (Eds.), Subjectivity and the debate over computational cognitive science, pp. 37-59. Buffalo: State University of New York.

Gendlin, E.T. (1991). Thinking beyond patterns: Body, language, and situations. In B. den Ouden & M. Moen (Eds.), The presence of feeling in thought.

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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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