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The Ladybird Guide to Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning                                     


[This introduction was written for the second year of the course ‘Focusing and the Power of Philosophy’ that I taught with Rob Foxcroft and Barbara McGavin in 2002 on the Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland).  The ‘Ladybird’ title derives from a series of small books (ostensibly for children) that were popular in Britain in the 1970’s, and which gave brief ad clear summaries of various fields of knowledge. ]


At the heart of Gene Gendlin’s philosophy is the notion of ‘interaction first’.  Earlier he used the term ‘encounter’: the idea is that encounter is more basic than what does the encountering, that the interaction is more fundamental than the things which interact.  Another way of putting it would be to say that things cannot exist as entirely separate things, and people exist only in relation to a world which includes other people.   A poem by Rilke catches something of this (even in translation):


            Alone I can never be.

            Others before me going

            and away from me flowing

            were weaving, weaving

            at the I that is me.


Human experiencing is through and through relational.  We are born into, initiated into a network of human relationships.  Yet we have our own identity. Indeed this identity is fixed by our place in the network - only you were born at just that time, in that place, from those parents.   In principle someone else could have all your characteristics, but they wouldn’t be you.  You have a unique place in the world.  


The individual human being has their own special experience - the experience from just there, where they are.  But their experience connects with, and wouldn’t exist without, the human network into which they were born.  How does that unique experiencing connect with the network of human society, with the ways of thinking which characterise society, with the rules, conventions and forms of society, with language?  It sometimes seems that language and the rules of society can entrap our experiencing, but this doesn’t have to be so. Language can express our experiencing, rather than imprison it.  (Rilke’s poem expresses an experience).  On the other hand it can sometimes seem that the uniqueness of our experiencing isolates us - ‘no one can really know what anyone else feels’.  But again, it need not be so, and again it is through language (including music, dance and other symbolic forms) that we are not alone.   The relation between experiencing and language in this broad sense is central to the human form of being; it is also the central theme of ECM.


These general and rather abstract themes lie in the background of ECM; they are what, for me at least, give book its philosophical interest.  But ECM doesn’t just discuss the theme of  the relationship between symbols and experiencing in a general way; it shows in some detail how the relating of experiencing and symbols works in practice.  In Chapter 3 we can see this happening.  The first two chapters are more concerned to demonstrate that there is such a thing as ‘experiencing’, something which people interested in Focusing are unlikely to doubt!  So one approach to ECM would be to start with Chapter 3.


Gendlin gives not one, but seven different ways in which symbols relate to experiencing:


(1)  Direct reference. There is the sort of case where we refer to an experience which we have, without describing it.  For example,  ‘that feeling I had when I met Cedric - I can’t put it into words’ But you have already put it into words!  You have just said ‘that feeling....’  You haven’t used words to describe the feeling, but you have used them to refer to it.  Notice how in a way ‘that feeling’ wasn’t exactly there until you got hold of it with the words -  that specific feeling comes with the words.  It is an odd half-way case between creating something and simply noticing what was there all along.  Language is like that; it is odd, it is creative.  This theme runs through ECM.


(2)  Recognition.  Next there is the kind of case where there already is a symbol available to us, for example a word such as ‘ashamed’.  When we encounter the word it calls forth in us a particular kind of experience.  The relation here between experience and symbol is that the symbol pulls out the experience.  Rilke’s poem pulls out a particular experience.  But also, when we encounter familiar situations the situation pulls out a particular kind of experience and that is what makes it a familiar situation, a situation which we recognise.  We look at the chess board, and say ‘That’s checkmate’.  The familiar situation which we are in elicits the same experience which the word ‘checkmate’ elicits.  Situations can in this way function like symbols.  There is a relation between the symbol (or situation) and our experience through which we experience a sense of recognition when we encounter the symbol (or situation).


(3) Explication.  This case is the converse of (2).  When we read Rilke’s poem it elicits a particular kind of experience which we can recognise once we have experienced it.  But when Rilke wrote the poem, the relation between experience and symbol worked the other way round.  He started with the experience and then found words that would express, render, or in Gendlin’s term ‘explicate’ the experience, that is, render it explicit. 


(4) Metaphor and (5) Comprehension.  Often when we have an experience we can explicate it (make it explicit in words or other symbols).  If we are to do this the words must already be there for us to use.  For instance, we stay for a moment with that feeling we got when we met Cedric, and then realise that it was a feeling of being ashamed.  ‘Ashamed’ calls out just that experience which we got from meeting Cedric; there is a fit - that’s what I felt.  But sometimes there is no word available which quite fits the experience.  Then we have to bring into play words which have their own meanings (the experiences which they usually call up), but which can be used in a new way to call up this meaning.  That is what happens when we make use of a metaphor.   There are two aspects to the use of metaphor, which are related to each other in the way in which recognition and explication are related to each other.  First there is the kind of case where we read a poem which contains a metaphor, such as ‘weaving’ in Rilke’s poem.  ‘Weaving’ has its own meaning in connection with cloth manufacture, but there are aspects of this meaning which can be applied in quite new situations.   In particular there is the aspect of different strands of material being brought together to form a whole.  When Rilke thinks of himself in all his aspects the image of weaving draws out a particular way in which he can see himself - as having been woven by those who came before him, by all those who have contributed to him being as he is.   When we read the poem the relation between the words and the experience works the other way round:  we read the word ‘weaving’ and this draws out in us that felt sense of having been woven which Rilke started from.  Gendlin use the term ‘metaphor’ for the relationship in which we start from the word which then creates the experience.  The other relationship, in which we start with the experience and create the metaphor, Gendlin calls ‘comprehension’:  the metaphor pulls together or comprehends the whole intricate thing which we were feeling.


(6) Relevance. Understanding the meaning of a symbol always involves understanding other meanings; symbols come in connected webs of meaning.  For instance the understanding of ‘weaving’ in Rilke’s poem involves the understanding of cloth-making, which involves the understanding of people as needing clothes, and so on.  For any particular felt meaning, such as the meaning of ‘weaving’, there are other meanings which are relevant to the understanding of that meaning. These other meanings come into the having of that meaning. 

(7)  Circumlocution.  We saw that (5) (comprehension) relates to (4) (metaphor) in the same way as (3) (explication) relates to (2) (recognition).  The last category (7) (circumlocution) relates to (6) (relevance) in a similar sort of way again.  In relevance (6) we start with the felt meaning (of, say ‘weaving’) and enquire into what other meanings are relevant to understanding it.  In circumlocution (7) we create the possibility of someone else understanding the felt meaning by talking around it, by referring to this and that, to people wearing clothes and clothes needing to be made from strands of material put together in a criss-cross sort of way, until the person we are talking to gets a feel for what ‘weaving’ is.  Then if the person understands what weaving is, but doesn’t yet understand how a person can be woven by others, we need to talk about the different aspects or strands of a person and how these connect and sort of ... see...?    Here we are creating a new meaning for ‘weaving’ out of old meanings.


Gendlin is concerned throughout with this theme of the creation of meaning.  Meaning is not just invented, but it is not just there waiting to be discovered.  One aspect of this is that we can’t just choose (invent) what the meaning of our lives will be in the way some existentialist philosophers seem to think is possible.  But nor are we just as we are with no hand in being what we are. We create our lives, much in the way that a poet creates a poem.   This, I think, is one of the central themes of Gendlin’s work.


Chapter 4 elaborates on the creation of new meanings, and Chapters 5 and 6 go more deeply into the philosophical implications of it all.  The Introduction, and Chapter 7, explore the relevance of the discussion for psychology and psychotherapy – these are less philosophical chapters and can be read separately, which would be an alternative approach to the book.


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