Friday, December 9, 2011

Gendlin: "How Philosophy Cannot Appeal to Experience, and How It Can" (1997)

I've read Gendlin's opening essay in the anthology dedicated to his philosophy. I find it fascinating, but also quite wrong-headed in some ways.

Gendlin's point is that we have something like a bodily intuition about phenomena that is well articulated by some words and not so well articulated by others. His claim is that by attending closely to this intuition, we can become more acute observers of our life-world, or so I read him, at least.

Looking For Words
His favorite example of this phenomenon is the poet searching for a suitable line to continue a poem (p. 17). He also cites the practice of rephrasing your point when someone doesn't understand you as evidence that there is "a . . . ." that we can succeed or fail at making other people appreciate (p. 13).

In other words, the point seems to be a call to "return to the phenomena themselves," as the phenomenologists said. "Any text or theory," he explains, "becomes more valuable when it is taken experientially in this way" (p. 40).

He illustrates this kind of thinking with an example from Wittgenstein, not about poetry-writing, but about letter-writing:
I surrender to a mood and the expression comes. Or a picture occurs to me and I try to describe it. Or an English expressions occurs to me and I try to hit on the corresponding German one. Or I make a gesture, and I ask myself: What words correspond to this gesture? And so on. (PI 335; quoted by Gendlin on p. 37)
His conclusion is, with explicit reference to the "postmodernism" in general (pp. 3, 6, 9, 19, 34-35), and Derrida (pp. 8, 35-36) in particular:
People's lives include a great deal that they cannot say in the existing language, but can become able to say. As philosophers, let us stop telling people that they cannot possibly have anything to say that is not already in the public language. (p. 34)
Trying To Succeed
I am skeptical about Gendlin's flirtation with the concept of authentic language for the reasons that Richard Rorty has explained in his wonderful essay on Heidegger's mysticism. Even though there truly is some experience of looking for and finding the right words, it is not clear how serious we should take this experience.

A different way to conceptualize the situation would be in terms of skill. Just like looking for a word, the attempt to accomplish some bodily action can be associated with immense frustration and satisfaction. This is obviously not because the action was there all along in some non-realized form, and we should look at linguistic skill and success the same way.

This also clears up another confusion Gendlin's story, namely: Why would we even want to explicate our intuitions in the first place? Is it for the sake of "truth"? "Authenticity"? "Correspondence"? He touches on the answer with his example of rephrasing your explanations: This is an attempt to bring your hearer into a different state, not an attempt to create a good fit.

This communicative purpose could in principle be achieved with the most ridiculous or outlandish effect imaginable; a completely "wrong" word, a gesture, a cartoon. The success criterion is here change in the state of the hearer, not a relation between words and bodily knowledge.

Another way to say the same thing is that a seller who puts a price tag on a commodity chooses a certain "word" that may or may not have the right effect. This is not because it does not "fit" the commodity, but because it would create the wrong effect in the hearer, such as the belief that the commodity was of a cheap quality, or that it is too expensive.

Yet another similar example occurs when you speak a foreign language. In that situation, you have a gold standard for ease of communication---communication in your native language---and that association can produce a whole lot of frustration as you try to achieve as fine-grained distinctions and precise effects with your impoverished skills in the foreign language.

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