The hidden organisation of lived reality
The web of fact and feeling
In our broad reading of the human situation - as I outlined it in the section "lived reality - felt reality" - we find ourselves in the midst of a landscape in which both facts and feelings have an essential part to play. The feelings stand for my relationship with what is going on. The facts are the "something" which my feelings are about - they are the discriminable things(1) that I am focusing on at the conscious level: the jam donut we have to share between us, the shake of the fist which that man in the street just gave us, the mathematical equation I am struggling to understand, or that dirty look you just gave me.
The trouble with facts
Facts can seem to be the simplest and most obvious things on our horizon. Yet with the smallest shift of our angle of view, we may find ourselves beset with troubling questions: Why do I - or why should I - believe this? Why do facts matter to us? What makes something count as a fact?
The Oxford English Dictionary demonstrates how even the best of us can be confused by such questions, when it defines the word "fact" as follows:-
It may not be obvious at first reading, but in this section the dictionary is skating dazed and confused between three distinct concepts:-
Each of these notions is coherent in its own way, but we might well wonder why we set ourselves up for so much confusion, by using the same word for all three.
Slippery words, slippery facts, slippery reality
The slippery usage of the word follows, however, from a similar overlap in our actual experience. Suppose you and I are both looking at an elephant. From my side, in the immediacy of actually seeing it, I have no reason to make any distinction between the elephant that I see, and my experience of seeing the elephant. It seems to be one and the same fact. But from your point of view these are entirely different things: the first has to do with the elephant and the second has to do with me.
A similar shift of viewpoint also happens if I start to question or reflect upon the way I have responded to some situation. Something that first appeared as a concrete reality gets redescribed as a process of experience. At one moment I thought I was referring to "a fact in the world"; the next moment it seems to be about a "fact in my head".
For instance, I see that you have left the door open as you walked out of the living-room on this icy cold day. You (for the sake of argument) are the sort of person who never admits to mistakes, even trivial ones, and you deny that it was you who left the door open. You angrily blame me for "picking on you". It is only now, that I stop and realize:- I did not actually see you going out of the door. In this moment of reflection, I discover that my belief you had left the door open was merely an inference - though a few moments before I took it as an actual observation. It may still be a simple fact for you (even though it is one you do not care to admit), but for me it is not a fact that I can give "authentic testimony" to. I did not actually see it happen.
Or consider the "fake punch", a convincing left hook which the actor throws, but unbeknownst to us actually stops short of connecting with the partner's zygomatic bone. He simultaneously sounds a "thwack!" by thumping his own chest with his other hand - and we are convinced we saw a real punch. Our normal process of perception is to infer the punch - out of a combination of sight, sound and consequence (the other actor jumps back from the pretended impact of the punch and slumps to the floor). But it does not feel like inference at the time; it feels like "actual observation" - unless something causes us to stop and reflect closely upon that process of observation.
This undermines the distinction the Oxford Dictionary makes, between "actual observation" and "inference or conjecture". As a matter of fact, there have many influential thinkers(2) asserting that there is no such thing as "a simple observation". They will argue that every observation entails some element of figuring out.
Let us be clear about this: it does not abolish the "fact-hood" of the facts. It merely argues that there is some fallible reasoning process built into every received fact. Nor should we underestimate our ability to get "the facts" right. Even when we are deceived by the elaborate pantomime, and believe a man was punched to the ground, the actors themselves know exactly what they did in order to mislead us.
In this study we shall be developing a way to see things - and to talk about them - in a series of layers. In our everyday experience we expect the object of our experience - the elephant, the act of leaving the door open, the punch in the face - to "stack up with" the stubborn fact of an animal living its life, or an act of negligence that was actually performed (whether you choose to pretend otherwise or not), and the bruise spreading over a man's face. It is convenient that we can use the same word "fact" without having to be 100% sure which layer in the stack we are talking about. And we can be ready to cope with the discrepancies - the lies, the errors of judgment and even the hallucinations - which can arise between the different layers.
It is a good thing if we can accept and enjoy the slippage between the layers; this is the flexibility that allows us to enjoy fiction - and to benefit from the imaginary journeys it takes us on. We can usefully think of our fictions - and the uses we make of them - as simply another layer of our experience. We might also recognize fiction as another kind of fact - and not feel any need to keep an overnight bag packed ready for the next short stay on the psychiatric ward.
There is a complex relationship between fiction and the everyday sort of objectivity. Here is another quotation - this time it is the opening lines of The Mill on the Floss. The author offers something that resembles a factual description:
This account seeks to portray something more than a bare arrangement of facts, for an essential element in the reality offered up to us here, is its emotional impact upon a sensitive human soul. And for me, the vividness and the quality of detail create the feeling that I have been here, seen this, smelt it, that I already know this landscape somewhere in my heart.
I feel sure that if this were presented to us as a traveller's account of an actual place, we would have little hesitation in accepting it as factual. The context in which it appears, however, is that of the novel - and so we take it as a landscape created out of George Eliot's imagination.
So this is a crucial discovery for us: we are seeing that the same linguistic forms - which can produce in us such a powerful evocation of actuality - are able to convey equally rich and detailed landscapes of the mind. It is similar to those astonishingly detailed dreams, overflowing with sensuous information of a quality no different, no less detailed, than what we find in waking life.
Dream and fiction differ from the workaday factual landscape in having a strong emotional charge; our willingness to engage with a fictional world depends to a great extent on its capacity to arouse our interest, sympathy, fear or pity. In the absence of these we are more than likely to leave the book to languish on the shelf - or to switch over the TV channel to something that excites us more.
Perhaps it is not so obvious, that our emotional connection with the facts of everyday life is just as crucial. If we did not feel the facts in our neighbourhood were somehow relevant or important to us we would not be giving them our attention in the first place. More generally, we can say that facts arrive in our world in strict relation to the emotional stance we have taken up, in respect of the segment of reality we are engaged with.
We saw earlier, that there are facts in the world - which may be right outside the orbit of our awareness - but which may impact on our lives in powerful ways, in the present or in the future. There are other facts which show up at the focus of our attention, like the jam donut and the other items which I listed in the opening paragraph to this chapter. I think of our awareness as a kind of conceptual fishing-net which is spread across the entire scene by the active interests and commitments of our lives. Let us call those things that get caught in the net by a special term: factual elements. This covers a wide range of items: facts, things, imaginings and ideas - all of these are things that can be illuminated and held in focus, by our interest in the situation which includes them.
An interesting consequence of this conceptual net, is that once something has lodged in it, that thing becomes available to be exchanged amongst our acquaintances through the medium of language - woven into our future conversations in the form of news, stories or riddles, for us to explore further, to corroborate or to challenge. So there is an essential and intimate relationship between what is available for consciousness, and what is available for communication.
And we are seeing clearly that there is always some emotional component, to any factual element that comes into our sights. it is the energy of life within us, that is causing us to place our nets where we will. This extends even to such a seemingly "dry" subject as logic. There still needs to be an emotional commitment, and a felt sense of what we are doing, for logical reasoning to take place at all. These emotional elements are at work as we put our argument together, and as we make appraisal of any reasoning that comes back to us. We feel whether or not one point follows logically from the other.
Then we may go on to question the feelings - to find reasons why we think the feeling of rightness should be trusted, or perhaps should not be trusted. This can lead to us seeking ways to test the reliability from one link to the next, which is when we start to focus down upon the logical connections. Still, the felt sense of the connection being "right" is an essential ingredient of the process. I do not believe we could understand the formal properties of logic, if we could not feel the difference between an argument which "follows" and one which does not.
What happens when the fishing-net breaks down?
Sometimes we are confronted with emotional or factual elements which seem to lack the connection I speak of. When we have feelings that seem to have no connection with any factual element, we think that there is no reason(3) for the feeling in question. This is a fatal shift. It is one thing to not know the reasons for the feeling - to have temporarily lost track of the factual elements with which it is interwoven. It is something else again, to start to deny altogether that feeling's capacity to signify, or to interweave with, the other essential elements of lived reality. The feeling has now been turned into a kind of pathology, and gets labeled "depression", "anorexia" or "panic attack". Our next step will be to visit a doctor or a psychiatrist in the hope of getting rid of the offending symptom.
The view of lived reality which we are developing here, will encourage us on to other paths than the fatal one of converting a felt sense into a supposedly objective "thing" - then to deny its capacity to signify. The doctor's diagnosis may bring some sense of relief, insofar as my problematic life now has a convenient label on it, and I feel I now have permission to hand over my problem-symptom to the expert. If we want to take our conceptual fishing-net seriously however, we must recognize this "diagnosis" as a false solution to our problem. My unwillingness to dwell with the felt sense, to trust that this sense can teach me what is my next step, has now become masked by a pathology. The wise doctor will take care not to join in(4) on the side of this pathology; he or she will prefer to encourage me to return to a more truthful relationship with myself.
In a similar way we may confront facts which seem to have no emotional meaning for us at all. From the point of view of this study, grounded in the landscape of fact, feeling and action, this is an anomaly. It is a deviation from the order of things we would naturally expect - until we find a broader view of our lived reality that can recognize that our lack of emotional connection is a trick of perspective. It is, in other words, a fault in the pattern of lived reality. There are many possible causes for such a fault. For instance, it may be that we have "switched off" emotionally. If we suspect that this is what has happened, our developing understanding of the conceptual fishing-net will lead us to look for the emotional reasons for this switching-off. There are simple questions that will help us track down the missing reasons, and the emotions that we have temporarily misplaced. We can ask: What does this situation really mean to me? What do I really want here? Is it that I would rather be somewhere else?
Another possibility is that there may be hidden hopes and fears which are manipulating my sense of what this situation is? These are the kind of consideration that can invite us to shift to a different level of awareness - to consider my living engagement with the situation in question. The point is: this engagement always includes a felt sense, even if the uppermost, conscious aspect is of a kind of numbness. The individual facts and feelings that we are able to recognize when we start to reflect on the situation, are an elaboration of this more primitive awareness. The underlying felt sense is the matrix for the conscious perspective, however impoverished our immediate awareness may seem to be.
These various interwoven compenents - the subtle emotional engagement and the individual facts and feelings - are nicely exhibited and brought to focus in the best drama and fiction. This is how it is, in Eliot's wonderful account which I quoted above. Her prose is suffused with feeling, partly through its metaphoric overtones ("loving tide", "impetuous embrace" "glance" of the sun) and partly through a direct assertion of feeling. Eliot's figures of speech would not be used in a policeman's factual report, nor in a scientific account. Yet they create a far more vivid, more actual feel, in the reality she succeeds in evoking. Later in the same passage, the narrator expresses more openly, what is implicit in the quality of her account in any case: her deep love for the river and the landscape. And there is a vital question arising out of this: whether the emotional engagement with this landscape - as we are invited into it through Eliot's use of language - gets in the way of objectivity.
In the search procedure of both the scientist and the criminal investigator, there is a proper place for the gathering and the statement of strictly observed facts. We should realize, however, that in most situations this is rarely enough for us to arrive at any real understanding of what is going on. We also need to make inspired guesses about what is going on below the surface, which means drawing on our powers of imaginative insight. These, in turn, are being guided by our emotional and intuitive responses. Once our inspired guesses are on the table, we can go on to check them against the "bare facts of the case". These will now appear in a very different light; we will have a new set of questions, and these will guide us to seek out new and different facts.(5)
The lines I quoted are the beginning of a novel. They are Eliot's opening move to engage us in a multi-dimensioned drama of human lives. The action unfolds in a narrated time which resembles the present time in which all of us are living; the lived relationships, however are also depicted in such a way as to express many centuries of deep, intimate involvement between the humans and the physical landscape. The rich interconnections which Eliot depicts are always emotional as well as factual. And for me, the emotional commitment which infuses her account is part and parcel of an objectivity which achieves truth through its very comprehensiveness(6).
We also need to incorporate our felt sense of the situation into our reading of whatever factual material we engage with. (Eliot is perhaps not so skilled in the vivid rendering this aspect, as the twentieth century writers Henry James, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf.) I depicted this felt sense, in the previous chapter, as a bodily knowing which - though often vague and shadowy from the standpoint of conscious awareness - is rich with unconscious reverberations from the material and animal world within and around us.
This bodily sense is also heavy with the accumulated presence of the past within our own physiology. It incorporates within itself, a powerful feeling of the interconnection between things - as if each item of fact is intimately related to innumerable other items. I have a working hypothesis - which we shall develop and explore in the middle section of this work - that a similarly rich network of interconnections pervades the pattern of events and the state of things, in the world at large. Thus we shall be exploring in some detail the question of a structural coupling of our own physiology with the intricacy of events in the world. This would carry a reverberation into the heart of our felt sense, of a myriad of subtle but essential clues about the web of connections in the larger spread of nature.
This pattern of interconnections dwells at every point in Eliot's description which I quoted above. This means it is open for us, the new readers, to settle upon any point, and open out the web of implications that resides with every item she refers to. Consider her "black ship laden with the fresh-scented fir planks". This comes to us first as a single object which is placed by the writer in the foreground of our attention for a brief moment. But we also notice it as a composite object: Eliot refers merely to the vessel, its colour and the contained cargo, but we would discover many more components to a ship if we chose to explore and analyse it further; there is the mode of its construction, and the organisation of how it will sail. As chemical analysts we may even discern the microscopic structure of the materials out of which it is built.
There is also a complexity in another direction; the ship is one element in a larger pattern: there is, for instance, the shipping route which links the source of the goods with their destination and also the whole system of trade which is the context for this ship's repeated sailings.
Lived reality as a labyrinth: the entanglement of details.
There is no need to pursue this in any more detail. I have simply wanted to point out this entanglement of details - as the background out of which our attention helpfully picks out one item at a time for our consideration. Let us also notice how the recognition of any individual concrete fact ("Here is an elephant standing in front of me") pre-supposes a complex system of pattern recognition - a whole world of generalisations and classification which permits me to distinguish an elephant from all other animals, or indeed any other object I have to find my way around.
There is a highly complex matrix of sub-conscious understanding which - we shall see more clearly in subsequent chapters - resembles the working of the Hypertext buttons on the World-Wide Web - where one click of the mouse button will transport us to somewhere completely different. Our lived reality is like a many-dimensioned labyrinth through which the actual movement of consciousness traces a thread-like path. Hidden pathways lurk everywhere, connecting in all sorts of unexpected ways, to make up the dense, rich experience which is the human way of knowing the world. A simple shift of my attention is all it takes, to transform the entire pattern of what I see.
This matrix of facts and would-be facts is intimately connected with the web of feeling which we were exploring in the previous section. There is an unceasing pull and push of desire, curiosity, fear, antipathy or ambition which help to steer me from one place to another. This is helping us along at every step of our exploration of the landscape - a whole range of subtle promptings: little pulses of excitement, assent, aversion, deflation, irritation and so on, which are our spontaneous evaluation of the facts and feelings streaming constantly through our awareness. We feel interest in a line of search, we feel troubled by an inconsistency, or by a gap in our understanding, we feel the relevance of one fact to another.
We often express our point of view in the form of a rational argument, in which each succeeding point is meant to flow logically from its predecessor. But appearances are somewhat deceptive here - and I suggested earlier in this chapter, that feeling is involved in every step of the argument. This is not to reduce the value of logic, but simply to recognize its close involvement with the life of feeling.
Imagination, feeling and logic, in the process of enquiry
These are actually felt connections which link the multiplicity of items within our experience in a whole variety of ways. They are an articulation of the underlying felt sense which I have referred to several times in this and the previous section. What we are now seeing, is that the felt sense makes an essential contribution to our judgment of what counts as a fact, or what counts as a rational argument. There is an interplay between the "would-be" facts - the imaginary facts, the intelligent guesses - and the ones we judge as "actually true". The play between them is mediated by the responses of our felt sense, for it is our felt sense that decides for us - in the ordinary run of things - which is which.
There is a very useful word, invented by students of logic, which stands for anything that can be asserted - whether real or unreal, true or false, trivial or important - the word is "proposition". We are interested in all kinds of proposition, and we entertain them in a variety of ways: things that might be true, things that would be true under certain conditions, or things that are interesting or exciting regardless of whether they are true or not. We can think of all of these, as being "candidates" for fact-hood. Certainly, they all have their part to play in our process of sorting out where we are and what we want to do. Indeed, it is often counter-productive to rush to separate out "the facts" from the other propositions. Living in the real world frequently entails coping with significant levels of ambiguity; we have to read a situation in several different ways and try to be ready for whatever reality decides to emerge in the fullness of time.
The tendency to insist on one single version of events as "the truth" is to a great extent a matter of personality. It is illustrated by the striking contrast to be found between the writings of Plato and Aristotle as he entered our European tradition(7). Both were penetrating and original thinkers, whose influence on two and a half milennia of philosophy is well deserved. But Plato is one of those people who can cope with a plurality of interpretations, and whose preferred style of writing was the dialogue, in which there is a continuous interplay of different points of view - often with no firm conclusion being reached.
Aristotle on the other hand tends to work towards a firm statement To The Best Of Our Knowledge, even though he explores a wide range of arguments along the way. He was also a pioneer of the form of logic which draws absolutely certain conclusions from clearly stated premises. In the Aristotelian texts he clearly acknowledges - as Plato did - that any premises accepted today have every likelihood of needing to be questioned, explored and perhaps radically revised at some later date. Through the mediaeval interpretations which so strongly influenced our European culture, however, the weight of emphasis was on final conclusions - far more than on the method of search.
More than two thousand years of logical theory stemming from Aristotle's work have focused - quite excessively - on the issue of the truth or falsehood of a proposition, to the serious neglect of other important considerations. It is as if the sole purpose of thought or reason is to establish what is true and to refute what is false. This assumption is quite foreign to Aristotle's forebears Plato and Socrates, and it has been strongly contested by thinkers in the twentieth century, notably Croce, Collingwood, Whitehead and the classic American tradition from Peirce to Buchler and beyond.
A narrow focus on "the facts" - as all the above writers have been at pains to elaborate - is a mistake because it excludes at least nine-tenths of our normal thinking process. Our real thinking is about question and answer, about what we like and don't like, about what is interesting or exciting, what speculations might possibly be true (even if we have no immediate hope of settling the fact) what is worthy or unworthy behaviour, and what fits together with what (regardless of whether the items in question are actually true or not). Within this subtle net of attitudes, gestures and conjectures, there are also to be found the possibilities which are inherent in the present situation - possibilities which may be about to unfold in the immediate or more distant future(8).
Over-emphasis of "the facts" also pushes us towards an adversarial style of argument, with the emphasis on one person's argument being able to defeat the other. We are supposed to end up with one winning position - much as in the style of Aristotle's texts. This can stifle the free flow of our thought processes - and of the conversations - that we need: to entertain possibilities, explore implications, and try out different ways of seeing, thinking and feeling about things. Clear thinking requires us to entertain facts as possibilities and to let them show themselves from different angles. It is a mistake to rush to asserting or insisting on one single interpretation of things.
In practice most of us know that we dwell in a world that is rich in possibilities. It is also very clear that our emotions are as much engaged with possible situations, as they are with actualities. For example, emotions like hope or fear, are not simple responses to the factual situation I am in. I hope for some better state of affairs than the one which obtains now - or I am frightened about a possible future situation. Similarly, when I feel anger or grief, this is not simply about the wrongness of things as they are; my displeasure expresses a contrast, in respect of my sense of how things could be, or ought to be - or else a contrast with some previous good which I had expected to continue, but I have lost.
We need this rich array of possibilities - and we need to engage with these possibilities, as we do when we let them unfold on the level of dream, story, hypothesis, prediction and fantasy. All these various elements and modalities require their own distinctive place on our map. What I am doing here, is simply to recognize "true" facts as being only one species of proposition or judgment(9).
This relates to another point which I raised earlier - that one of the essential traits of any fact is its intricate interconnection with an indefinite number of other items. In all these respects it makes no difference whether we are thinking of the stubborn facts (the processes of the world at large), or the judgments of fact (the intentional processes by which we know the world); both display similarly complex patterns of connectivity. No fact exists in isolation. Each is connected - equally in the world as in our minds - with the extended intricacy of what is.
NOTES TO THIS SECTION I am using the word "thing" in the most general possible connotation here; a "thing" might be the price of eggs, the sudden chill in the air, the mathematical relationship between the sides of a right-angled triangle, or the carrot I just pulled out of the ground. If I wanted to be more rigorous and less easy to read I would choose the term invented by Justus Buchler: "natural complex" - this would be the most satisfactory and least ambiguous way to say what I really mean here. See BUCHLER, J. (1990) 2. For the cognitive biologist's view see VARELA "Principles of Biological Autonomy" and "The Embodied Mind". For a contemporary philosopher's version see RORTY "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature". In my view the definitive philosophical statement is A.N.Whitehead's, in Process and Reality (in response to the demand to "confine yourself to the facts!"): "...unfortunately for this objection, there are no brute, self-contained matters of fact, capable of being understood apart from interpretation as an element in a system....(understanding leads beyond the immediate fact, and entails relationships with... contemporaries... past... future... universals... in terms of which its definiteness is exhibited. But such universals by their very character of universality, embody the potentiality of other facts with variant types of definiteness.... so eventually...) "the metaphysical interpretation as an item in a world with some systematic relation to it. When thought comes upon the scene, it finds the interpretations as matters of practice. Philosophy does not initiate interpretations. Its search for a rationalistic scheme is the search for more adequate criticism, and for more adequate justification, of the interpretations which we perforce employ." (Corrected Edition,p202) 3. The refusal to dwell with feelings which seem to have no reason, or no factual element, is actually the direct cause of the break-down in the "fishing net". Eugene Gendlin's discipline of "focusing" is an effective counter to this break-down, in that it is working to restore the sense of reality. It creates a space for this restoration, by providing a framework for dwelling with the "felt sense" and allowing meanings, reasons and factual elements to "arrive" - without pressure or demand. In this way, Gendlin's work provides an important underpinning for the theoretical and practical discipline that we are developing here. 4. The implications of this study for so-called "mental health" issues are extensive and powerful - but require a separate study altogether. At this point I need simply to stress that I am not denying the possible value of psychological or pharmacological treatments for a person in the emotional difficulties that are diagnosed as depression, anorexia or panic attacks. It is the labeling and reification of the condition, and the denial of the felt sense, that are the pernicious elements - and not the treatments offered. 5. This interweave of careful observation and inspired guess-work is close to the logic of inquiry developed by Charles Peirce in the 19th century and developed by John Dewey in the 20th (see Buchler, J. Charles Peirce's Pragmatism and
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004