SOCRATES GENDLIN AND THE QUESTION OF ABSURDITY

The following reflections are of an entirely personal nature, and should not be regarded as “philosophy”. Philosophers (and not least Gene Gendlin) seem to like to put up a notice which says, more or less: “Visitors are courteously reminded that only Fellows of this College are permitted to walk on the grass.” Well, the grass is no doubt precious.

So I take this opportunity to say that I am simply writing a letter here, “perfectly modest and perfectly immodest”, as the great Nadia Boulanger used to say to her students. No doubt it is naïve and full of laughable (even embarrassing) philosophical blunders.

But do I care? A little, perhaps, yes – but not enough to fall silent, when somebody out there might like to read a few tentative but heartfelt thoughts. I felt I had something to say, when I wrote this. I still judge that it raises some questions, which seem to me to be good ones.

I and some others have been studying and experiencing together the earlier parts of Gene Gendlin's book "A Process Model ".

We spent a wonderful, searching, collaborative week this past September on the beautiful Isle of Cumbrae, beginning to come to terms with Gene Gendlin's vision of the world. We were trying to see how it hangs together as a coherent structure of thought. How does this particular philosophy set out to bridge the gap between the world as you or I experience it from the inside, and the world as it looks when seen "objectively" – the world as it appears under the cold light of distance and eternity?

People keep asking me WHY we are doing this:-

– These are just some of the most recent of the shrewd and sceptical questions which people have been asking me for the last four years.

Here are a few thoughts in response.

When Socrates was wandering around Athens annoying people (a cross between a midwife and a gadfly, or so they say), the problem with his way of being with people was that it tended to lead to scepticism. Socrates listened to whatever a person said, and then undercut it. He claimed that he built no structures of his own, but simply questioned the assumptions of others. Socratic method leads inexorably to doubt.

For generations afterwards, the Atheneum in Athens (Plato's school) regarded itself as a sceptical institution.

When we are sitting with a person, Listening, and the person is Focusing, the problem which arises is not that of scepticism, but rather its reverse. We easily fall into unquestioned relativism, into unquestioned hedonism (we may regard both as forms of unquestioned individualism).

Focusing and relativism

Whatever a person says, we receive it with tender acceptance, trusting that it has its own internal coherence and meaning in relation to what the person is feeling. (The word "feeling" presents difficulties, but let it stand for the moment.) We accept the person's point of view, and we encourage the person to live from her own wishes, her own felt wanting.

When we do this, we are privileging the subjective over the objective. We are letting each person's internal sense of meaning be a source of truth and value.

This is surely good, in a culture in which the subjective is under constant attack. The dominant view today regards the objective as "the truth". What is true is what can be shown: demonstrated over and over under controlled conditions, and fitted into logically coherent schemes of thought.

What is true is said to meet two conditions. It is

  1. whatever is in principle falsifiable, which
  2. has not yet been falsified.

What space does that leave for the person? – for your subjective sense of yourself in the world, and for mine? Are your feelings falsifiable?

In this context, the word "absurd" is used: to refer to the acute discordance between the world as felt from inside, and the world as described scientifically: between "meaning" and "fact". It is sometimes said that all deep philosophical conundrums turn out to be forms of this conflict. It is “absurd”, that I should be so entirely caught up in my life, if it is “really” just a peripheral flutter at the margin of an indifferent universe.

Pascal says, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me." The vision of human life as a meaningless Sisyphean rolling-out of inexorable patterns of cause and effect, the vision which the process of scientific enquiry progressively elaborates, is surely both inhuman and terrifying.

Conversely, it is surely dishonest simply to deny that vision (even if we could). We cannot simply accept anything anybody happens to believe, on the basis that "It's true for you". The descriptive and technological power of scientific enquiry is undeniable. We should surely not wish to discard objectivity.

But: does Experiential Focusing and Listening not seem to bring us dangerously close to that threshhold? We "trust the chain of steps". We accept that "at every step, the problem characteristically changes its form". We accept that each person is uniquely situated in the world, and "has her own reality". Focusing happens within subjectivity (and intersubjectivity).

So it seems to me that, as Focusers, we do need to understand the threat of relativism – of an insidious slide into sentimental mush. What is an appropriate allegiance to the subjective? What, conversely, is a sacrifice of integrity?

Focusing and hedonism

Again: in Focusing, we trust "the life forward direction". We applaud the emergence of each person's unique wanting. We encourage the forming of distinct small action steps, by which the person puts her wishes and desires into action.

And so we need to understand what hedonism is. Let’s go and see. Is Focusing simply a sophisticated form of ART? ("American Retail Therapy”). Is Focusing simply advocating a life of unmitigated pleasure-seeking? – Always go for what you want. Always do what you yourself want to do.

If it is, perhaps that is good?

How many people I have known, for whom getting in touch with the source of their own desires has been a liberation, even a rebirth!

Yet I have known numbers of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, psychoanalysts, Kantians, Utilitarians and others, some of them leading lives of striking happiness, peace, clarity and fulfilment. All of them believe that the very worst thing you can possibly do is "to follow your selfish desires" ("to be lost in samsara", "to mistake craving for happiness", "to be enslaved by the unregenerate self", "the nafs", "the promptings of the Shaitan").

So it appears that half of my close people believe that you should ALWAYS "follow your heart". The other half are certain that you should NEVER do so.

Some people manage to hold both beliefs at once! How agile! Take a Christian Focuser, for example. Qua Focuser, the person believes you must follow your inward track. Qua Christian, she believes you must be purified of self. The two are diametrically opposed. If they are, then the conflict is surely painful.

But are these beliefs opposed? If so, in what ways, and to what extent? Is this merely a seeming antagonism? Surely. But let us understand it.

Focusing and the power of philosophy

It becomes clear that this beautiful process of Focusing and Listening raises a number of important issues. We love and value Focusing, as we experience it from the inside. When we look at it from the outside, we are forced to ask questions. What kind of process is this? How fundamental is it? What kind of vision of the world underlies it?

Gene Gendlin has always been concerned with inner experience, with the human heart, its joys and fears. But he has never been simply a psychotherapy person. He has always also already been a thinker, trying to describe certain phenomena clearly, objectively and exactly.

Above all, as somebody said of Aristotle, Gene is "a scribe of nature who dipped his pen in thought". That is to say, he sits at the frontier, where absurdity is sharpest: where the conflict of reason and subjectivity is most acute.

Gene Gendlin has meditated constantly on profound and disturbing issues such as those at which I have hinted. He has approaches to them, and insights concerning them.

If we simply do Focusing, and do not enter into the Philosophy of the Implicit, then whilst we have a valuable tool for human living we will miss much of what Gene has to offer by way of understanding the human condition as a whole.

So whilst we have been reading together, we have been coming face to face with this crucial issue: the acute conflict between the way the world seems to each of us from inside our own lives; and the way that the world is described by objective science.

At times, I wonder why I ever set a Focusing and philosophy project in motion. But that is just the movement of tides. Later I find my self flowing forward, and realise once again that this need, to reconcile the inner world of meaning with the apparent meaninglessness of our external situation, takes place each moment, and alters all. This is something which (in the ancient phrase) “will not leave me, but prevents me everywhere”. Truly, it goes before me in all my doings.

It is not enough, simply to carry forward the personal life of emotion and significance. We must also face larger questions.

Otherwise we easily get caught in that hedonism which is a veil for despair.

Otherwise, it may be too tempting to sacrifice both truth and compassion to the insistent demands of hunger and the pressing moment.

28th October 2003

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