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Gendlin, Eugene T. (1997). Conference: After Postmodernism [Internet page]. New York: The Focusing Institute. From

Conference: After Postmodernism[*]

University of Chicago

The Conference posed a specific question: If we absorb postmodernism, if we recognize the variety and ungroundedness of grounds, but if we do not want to stop in arbitrariness, relativism, or aporia, what comes after postmodernism?

What postmodernism teaches is not new. Heraclitus said, "You cannot step into the same river twice," and his student added, "not even once, since there is no same river." The ancient Eristics showed the unreliability of logic alone.

The variety of viewpoints was well represented in the wild range of personages that Plato brought together in the gathering of philosophers in the Protagoras. Richard McKeon taught the variety in the fifties: Anything you assert instances always only one approach. However you proceed, McKeon can supply three other ways to do it, with different outcomes of course. The current relativism is historicist, which may be its worst version because while it sees only an arbitrary succession of different sets of assumptions throughout history, it also claims that we cannot move among them as with McKeon; supposedly we are locked into one set that is dominant in our historical period.

Postmodernism brought much that we wish to retain. It brought play and humor, no small contribution. It made visible the economic, political, gender, and colonizing hegemony inherent in western "objectivity" and "universality." Postmodernism puts the recognition of the ungrounded variety of assumptions first. Although always recognized, the problem appeared only at the periphery. Or it might be tucked in, half-hidden, for the benefit of those who already recognize it.

For example, after a long series of quite wild distinctions:

The Stranger: We must always make our distinctions so that they cut between the bones.

The Youngster: But Stranger, how can we tell whether they cut between the bones, or not?

The Stranger: That is a question we will take up some other time.

(Plato, Statesman, 262)

It is a postmodern contribution to begin from this awareness and to make it obvious to everyone, rather than keeping it as a subtle knowing-better reserved for the few.

Many people sense that there is somewhere further to go. Yes, every assertion is made from some vantage point, and depends at least partly on culture, politics, and language, which we can only pretend to control. All assertions seem to pretend to control. All words bring an unavoidable "metaphysics." But, since it is unavoidable, can we do no more than constantly remind each other of it? Is the furthest thinking only decentering, undecidability, rupture, limbo, aporia, flux? For the most part it results in arbitrariness, stoppage, an inability to think further. Overcoming this effect was the topic of our conference. We wanted to think further, to begin a discourse that would move on, after postmodernism.

Several lines of an "After Postmodernism" discourse, issues on which we need not agree, but have developed various specific points or steps—paths of thinking after postmodernism:

  • Is there a distinct role for logic, and for a kind of scientific objectivity that would not be naive? How can conceptual systems function in relation to more-than-conceptual intricacy?
  • In what sense do we move beyond the utterly different meanings that each culture gives even to the most universal words such as "body" and "person"?
  • Is there a path from Wittgenstein? He could let a word acquire many new meanings. Although one cannot represent language, no concept or metaphysics controls new uses of words in situations.
  • Can we speak-from practice-and-theory and implicitly intricate bodily experiencing?
  • Can we speak-from ourselves without subjectivity/objectivity? (Example: "If someone has a pain in the hand . . . one does not comfort the hand, but the sufferer." (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 286)
  • Can a new phenomenology speak-from intricacy, rather than attempting "description"?
  • Can we articulate the implicit political and ethical stand of using the critique of assumptions to free people, rather than to silence them?

Science, logic, mathematics, well formulated theories, empirical research

We think that postmodernism does not relate pertinently to these topics. The postmodern critique of science provides no re-understanding of anything specific in science; it has no import for how we understand scientific procedures and findings, or how we might reconceptualize a scientific object. It has little to say to science beyond globally denigrating all of it as obviously not "objective," not free of all sorts of assumptions. This insight must lead to more than arbitrariness.

For example, recently a competent anthropologist's report on his field work engendered lively questions. Then he said: "From postmodernism we know that there are no facts, so I can really say anything I want." It stopped the discussion.

Recently a Nobel Laureate physicist was asked to comment on an interpretation of specific findings. He approved, point by point. When asked to say more, he added: "In physics today you can say anything you want."

A retort from the side of logic and empirical science is surely possible, after first accepting the fact of ungroundable assumptions and the impossibility of naive objectivity. In what way does science involve a more sophisticated kind of objectivity than that which is currently derided as naive? Or, in what way does logic involve more than the pretense of clean-cutting patterns that fail to cut cleanly? These are sample questions.

Human nature, the subject, culture, ethnography

The members of an animal species all feed on similar food, build similar shelters, and have similar mating procedures. In this regard humans are not even one animal species. Only some tissue processes are the same. To think of human beings as one species seems like the merest "biologism" (as Heidegger called it).

Is there a way to think about inter-human parameters (perhaps of a new kind), taking account of the utterly different meanings that the cultures give to even the most universal words such as "body," "religion," "person," "marriage," and so on?

In what language could one examine the question?

This is a problem not only because of cultural and conceptual relativism, but because what one can say in language about language will instance, and cannot encompass, the ongoing working of language.

One cannot pretend to step outside of language and pretend to be making observations and inferences from there—of course in words—whether about language or about something before or without language.

Practice, experience, the body, giving birth, psychotherapy

Since individuals exist only in historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts, how can something that might be called "experience' play some role in our thinking? We know that assertions cannot be grounded in a supposedly neutral experience. And since all description imports its assumptions and categories, we know that no observational reports are just neutral.

Insights and examples from specialized practices such as law or psychotherapy, or from movements such as Feminism, might shed light on the following question:

Is there a mode of thinking with or from what is variously appealed to when one invokes practice, experience, the body, psychotherapy, the experience of giving birth, or anything else which would not be utterly derivative from linguistic historical and cultural assumptions? On the one hand it seems self-evident that there is; on the other hand, except uncritically, how may it play a role in thinking?

American Pragmatism

Until Oxford Linguistic Analysis crowded it out, the work of Peirce, James and Dewey was dominant in American universities. Its main ethos was a kind of answer to earlier versions of our question. Pragmatism deliberately employed the variety of approaches, finding a way to do so in the very nature of practice. Something about doing eluded the pretended determinism of the different interpretations. Instead, assumptions and values could be seen as generated from practice, and modified by it. Current attempts to rediscover this have not been widely hailed as successful. We must first save Pragmatism from the simplistic corruption which gave it its bad name: Its criterion seems to be "what works," but without a way to examine the purposes which are of course assumed, when something is said to work, or not to work. Can we articulate how Pragmatism can answer this charge?


Unlike most philosophy, theory, and science, Wittgenstein spoke from just that place from which we ordinarily speak: in midst of situational involvement where words mean what they do, what changes they make in the situation in which we say them. This would seem to be the very place that poses the problem that all assertions are from a "situated" center. Is an advance possible from Wittgenstein if he is read, not as basing himself on external observation, but as speaking in and from situatedness?


One cannot offer a neutral description of phenomena, but can something more than speculation play some role in a kind of thinking that could claim to be phenomenological?

Ourselves: The self ("subject," "I")

Is it really true, as currently maintained, that we cannot say anything from or about ourselves if we reject the old subject/object dichotomy and other rejected assumptions?

Articulation of assumed values

The lack of grounds for any approach, centering, or categories has provided a valuable opening for critiques of the dominant approaches by feminism, anti-colonialism, and other liberating movements. But implicitly these movements go beyond critique, and beyond postmodernism which holds that liberation is impossible because some categories, distinctions and social controls will always again re-surround any liberating attempt, and also that liberation is not a ground for deciding anything. Going beyond these two tenets of postmodernism, can we articulate the assumption that we will and should use the demise of all categories to free people, rather than to justify Dostoyevsky's Ivan, or one's own "superior" culture, class, or "free" market economics?

The University of Chicago ethos

Like post-modernism, but a generation earlier, the University of Chicago shifted the recognition of ungrounded variety from the outer limits of thought to the center and the beginning. No student can be here for more than a few weeks without encountering our ethos that there are many intellectual approaches to any issue, and no possible resolution of this fact.

One professor tells an audience of first-year students: "The University of Chicago holds that every approach is canceled out by some other approach, so there is no point in studying any of them." The students laugh. This indicates both that they have already encountered the problem, and that it is a puzzle, since they find the thinking here so extremely exciting and rewarding. Obviously the different viewpoints do not just cancel out, but how and why not has never been articulated.

We constantly speak of it here, but the unavoidable variety is just as familiar elsewhere, and its positive role is recognized. It must therefore be possible to articulate in detail exactly how it has long affected one's thinking, and how one deals with it. This is something familiar, but usually private. Articulating it would open a new discourse.

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[*] This is a slightly edited version of an invitation to the Conference on After Postmodernism, held at the University of Chicago, Nov. 14-16, 1997. The original invitation was sent by Eugene T. Gendlin and Richard A. Shweder, Committee on Human Development, University of Chicago.

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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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