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Modified version of a paper presented at the University of East Anglia Philosophy Society, October 1998.


Psychotherapy, philosophical privacy and knowing what we feel




ABSTRACT     This paper addresses a tension between two otherwise appealing

lines of thought. The first line of thought is that in most schools of psychotherapy

it is crucially important that the client attend to their own felt experiencing, with a

view to articulating it accurately. It is natural to picture this ‘looking inside’ at

one’s own experiencing as an essentially private activity concerning which the

client has privileged access. The client as it were inspects what is taking place on

their ‘inner screen’.  The second line of thought, deriving from Wittgenstein, is that

what the psychotherapy client is doing cannot be essentially private, since there

could then be no criteria for deciding whether the feelings thus articulated were

correctly articulated. It is argued that the resolution of this tension is to be found

in thinking about the psychotherapeutic process in a way that does not become

ensnared by the picture of the ‘inner screen’, while retaining the crucial reference

to immediate experiencing. [1]


In many schools of psychotherapy there is a strong emphasis on the importance

of giving attention to what we feel, of attending to our immediate felt experience.

In the client-centred tradition of psychotherapy [2] - the tradition with which I am

most familiar - it is put like this: much psychological disturbance arises from a

lack of congruence between the way we feel and the way we think we feel. What

we feel, our actual experience, may for various reasons be unacceptable to us,

and so we develop a view of ourself, a ‘self-concept’ that is more acceptable, but

does not correspond accurately with what our experience really is. The process

of psychotherapy is then seen as a process in which the self-concept changes so

as to reflect more accurately the person’s experience. It is, in a sense, a process

of acquiring self-knowledge, a process in which one is freed from illusory

perceptions of oneself.  In the psycho-analytic approach something similar is

expressed in different terms. Freud said that his aim was ‘to make the

unconscious conscious’, but insisted that a merely intellectual formulation of

previously unconscious contents was of little value. One has to ‘work through’

and fully experience those contents before their conceptualisation in

psychodynamic terms will be therapeutic. It is the raw experiencing that has to be

related to its conceptual articulation.


If these ideas are roughly correct then the idea of one’s concept of oneself being

out of step with one’s actual experience is fundamentally important to

psychotherapy [3]. It-seems to follow that in order to be clear about what is going

on in psychotherapy we need to be clear about the relationship between our

experience and our conceptual formulation of our experience, between, for

instance, this vague feeling of anxiety I have now and its accurate articulation. In

therapy, or in everyday life, we may pause to look at a feeling like this, this sense

of being a bit anxious, or sort-of-guilty, or kind-of-excited, and wonder what is

going on. Or we may say to ourself, “This situation gives me a strange feeling. I

don’t quite know what I’m feeling about this”.  And then we may keep our

attention on the feeling, stay with it for a while, and see what comes to mind.

Perhaps we try various possibilities: “It feels like it has something to do with how

people see me, its almost as if I’m feeling ashamed of myself. Yes, that’s more

like it. Feeling a bit ashamed.”


What I am concerned with in this paper is how we are to think about this matter of

our looking at our feelings and trying to identify or articulate them. In practice it is

something that people quite commonly do, but like many common things it can

become very puzzling once we reflect on it more deeply. The central puzzle I

want to work with is how to reconcile the existence of introspective knowledge of

our feelings, with certain philosophical arguments that seem to show that

knowledge is never of something essentially private. Before coming to the

difficulties with the idea that we can know what our feelings are by turning

inwards and looking’ at them, let us first get a fuller sense of how plausible the

idea initially is.


In his Treatise (1, 6), Hume remarks while discussing his inner search for the self:

“When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some

particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain

or pleasure”. This passage is usually quoted in connection with discussions of

the self and personal identity, and the problem of identifying a ‘self’; but the

‘stumbling on feelings’ of heat or pain or hatred is usually passed over as

uncontroversial. It may be dubious whether we can discover a self when we look

within, but it is not at all dubious that we discover the other things which Hume

terms ‘impressions’. For Hume, as for Descartes, our ‘impressions’ are clearly

there, even if nothing else is.


Later writers have talked of what Hume calls ‘impressions’ in terms of ‘sense

data’, or the ‘phenomenal field’, or ‘the given in experience’, or just ‘our

experiencing’, ‘our subjective awareness’. Eugene Gendlin, a psychotherapist

who is also a philosopher, writes: “Experiencing refers to the directly given

stream of feelings. An individual may refer to it in his own phenomenal field” [41].

But this talk of ‘the phenomenal field’ or ‘the directly given stream of feelings’ is a

rather ineffective gesturing at something that somehow cannot be adequately

expressed. The trouble is that what we are gesturing at is not something that can

be gestured at: it is not in the public world at ail; it is our experience of the world,

We can perhaps indicate what we mean only by examples, and I will give just one

more of these before trying to elucidate the problem with which we are beginning

to tangle. I have abbreviated the example from Gendlin’s book Focusing [15]. It

involves, in part, a tape recording of an actual therapy session with a client who is

referred to as ‘Evelyn’.


‘Looking within’


Evelyn believes that going to college would be a good thing to do, but, she

remarks in a therapy session, she “just doesn’t want to”.  She pauses and

then says “The thing is, I’d have to give up everything else, and get a full-

time job to pay for it, and - like, I’d never have time just to live. Everything

would be tense and - “ She interrupts herself. She knows she is just

talking around the problem, repeating familiar reasons that have long been

in her head.  It is time to be silent to focus, and wait quietly to see what


She sighs, and there is a long silence. Finally she says, “Well, all

that about making a living and not having time, that isn’t what it’s about,

not really. “ She starts to cry. “It’s that it takes such a lot of faith, or

something, to believe I could take that part of me seriously - I mean the

thinking part, you know? The brain part, the creative...  I want to take this

thinking part of me seriously.... “ There is another pause... “Well it isn’tt

exactly that. I mean about taking this part seriously. I could do it, but the

thing is, school is just what’s in the way of doing it. School would prevent

me from doing it.... I need thinking people to tell me ‘Yes, you’re okay, you

can think’. But teachers never do that. Nobody ever wanted this part of

me at all. ...It was like I shouldn’t come out. That’s what going to school

feels like. It’s that feeling of - you know - not letting myself out’.  She

pauses and cries. Then something shifts again: “It’s not really what the

teachers think. It’s - well, this unsureness is in me, this keeping myself

from coming out. That’s me.  I  mean, I’ll go to college expecting a lot, and

it will be the same as school always was,  and I’ll be disappointed and hurt

all over again.... Yeah, that’s what the feeling is now.  It’s this feeling of ....

that’s not going to change”. She sighs. She is silent for a time. Then

another shift occurs. “Ah, yeah, it’s - ‘it’s not just that. This thing about

not coming out - it isn’t school, it’s all the time. I’ve felt that way about me

in almost everything.  It’s been there so long... “

Another pause. She is listening inside again. Finally she says “Yeah, it’s

like I keep myself inside because - because there is something I have to

not see. If I come out, I’ll see it. Yes, that’s right”. She cries for a long

time. “I don’t know what it is, but there is something I mustn’t see, and if I

come out I’ll see it. No….people will see it and I will see it. So I have to

not see anything or hear anything... I have to stay confused and not

see....something. And I have not to come out so people won’t see it...”

Gendlin comments at this point: “There is a long silence as she focuses on the

felt sense of that something.  For a long time there is only silence on the tape.

Some unknown something that she mustn’t show people has made her keep

herself locked inside.....She cries again “Something is wrong with me! That’s it -

and people will see it if I come out..... That’s what it’s all about... it’s an old feeling

way down there, that something’s terribly wrong with me.”


What is Evelyn doing in this session? It seems natural to say that she is looking

within’ or, as Gendlin puts it she is ‘listening inside’. As she does so her

experience changes. She becomes aware that what she is feeling is not quite

what she thought it was. Initially, she thinks that she is feeling concerned about

not having time to herself, but then realises that it’s not that. Later she thinks that

the feeling she has is a feeling about school, but then realises it is a much more

general feeling than that. Then she becomes aware that she is filing that there

is something that she, and others, must not see.  She doesn’t know what the

‘something’ is but she can feel that there is a something. And then the

‘something’ begins to acquire a form - it is the feeling that there is something

terribly wrong with her.  That is the feeling that is preventing her from going to

college: if she did, the ‘something terribly wrong’ would be revealed.

The changes going on Evelyn are in some sense ‘private’. We only know that

these events have taken place because she has spoken about them. That is

how we know about her feelings. But how does she know? It might be said that

that question makes no sense: she doesn’t know about her feelings, she has

them. And yet, it does seem to make sense to speak of knowledge here. Initially

Evelyn did not know what her feeling was about going to college. She thought

she knew (she thought ‘it was fear that college would leave no time for herself),

but she was wrong about this. That was how it seemed at the start, but now she

realises that her feelings are to do with not wanting to be seen as having

something wrong with her.  But if that is the right way to put it, we are

distinguishing between how her feelings seemed and what they really are, and

where that distinction can be made we can also distinguish between what she

now knows about her feelings and what, initially, she only thought she knew. So

talk of knowledge really is in place here.


These last remarks are really just an elaboration of what, since Freud at least,

has become a commonplace: that we can misidentify our own feelings. We can

be angry or jealous without knowing we are angry or jealous, and we can think

that we are feeling irritable when realty we are feeling resentful. It is because we

can be wrong that it makes sense to talk about being right in connection with our

feelings, and where we can talk in terms of getting things right or wrong there is a

place for talk of knowledge and illusion.


It also seems plausible to say that Evelyn comes to know more about her feelings

through ‘looking within’ or listening inside’, through what has often been called

‘introspection’.  This ‘looking within’, or ‘staying with one’s immediate experience’

is a very common aspect of psychotherapy, although it has for a long time been

disparaged as a method of investigation in experimental psychology.  I will come

to the difficulties with the notion shortly, but first would like to make it as plausible

as possible that there is such a thing as introspection. Consider as an example a

situation where I feel anxious. I feel this anxiety inside me, and if I give some

attention to it I may find that the feeling is localised, perhaps mainly in my chest or

stomach. ‘Where do you feel this?’ is a quite common question in some schools

of psychotherapy, and clients can often answer such questions without any great

trouble. When focusing on the anxiety I am focusing in my body, experiencing

this feeling in my chest or stomach. It is right there, and if I stay with it a bit I may

find that is has more structure than was at first apparent. It is not just anxiety, but

a sort of dread or foreboding. Here am giving my attention to the feeling, and

trying to find words or phrases that will articulate it better. Characteristically,

when people find a word or phrase which fits, they experience a certain sense of

relief.  ‘Yes, that’s what it is!’    Sometimes we have feelings that are very hard to

identify or articulate.  We may meet a new person and there is something about

them that feels a bit odd. What is this funny feeling I get when I see so-and-so?

It’s not fear, and it’s not exactly suspicion;  but it is a very definite uneasy sort<»f

feeling. I may want to have a closer look at this feeling. It is definitely there; I feel

it in myself, perhaps not very specifically localised, but still a definite sense of

almost physical unease. If I stay with it something may emerge - yes - I know

what it is - he makes me feel sort of clumsy, not very ‘together’. It is a ‘being

made to feel clumsy’ sort of feeling.


What I want to draw from these examples is that we can be aware of feelings

within ourselves, yet not, initially, be able to articulate or identify them. But

through staying with them, through giving them our sustained attention, we may

come to know what they are. To psychotherapists as well as to many other

people all this may seem entirely uncontroversial, but there are deep problems

lurking, to which I now turn.


Identifying feelings


The notion which I want especially to examine is that of ‘identifying something’.

We are especially interested in the matter of identifying feelings, but it will be

helpful to look at what is involved in identifying things in general. I will take a very

ordinary sort of example, that of identifying birds, in order to get dearer about

what is involved in identifying things generally.


Identifying something, whether a bird or a feeling, involves being right about what

it is.   Or at least getting it right is required for identifying the thing correctly.

Sometimes we identify a bird incorrectly - we misidentify it; that is the case

where we get it wrong. It seems clear that there can be no place for talk of

identifying things in situations where there cannot be talk of getting it right or

wrong.  The concept of identification brings with it the notion of some kind of

standard of correctness in terms of which it can be decided whether a claimed

identification is correct or not.


It will be important for my argument to note that no claim to have identified

something by itself constitutes identification, if I say the bird is a kestrel that does

not guarantee it is a kestrel, even if I know a lot about birds and I see this one in

good conditions of visibility. In making identificatory claims we can always be

wrong, sometimes for reasons that we had never even contemplated.  For

example, you insist that it it looked just like a kestrel. Yes, but what you didn’t

know is that this morning a kwango bird escaped from a traveling aviary, and

kwangos, which you have never even heard of, look just like kestrels. You can

only tell the difference by fine measurements of wing and beak size (and of

course from the fact that they mate with other kwangos and not with kestrels).

The world can always come up with something quite unexpected that can

undermine our confident claim to have identified an object.


Now the same applies to feelings. I may feel perturbed, but deny that what I feel

is jealousy.  For all that, it may be jealousy, and I may later come to acknowledge

this fact.  We can be wrong about what our experiences are just as we can be

wrong about what kind of bird this is. In the case of some experiences it has of

course often been denied that we can be wrong. It has often been said that while

it makes sense to doubt whether this pillar box is red, it makes no sense to doubt

that it looks red to me now. People who argue this way insist that if I say it looks

red to me, then it does look red to me. But this goes against the thesis that no

identificatory claim by itself constitutes identification. This thesis was meant to

be a completely general one, and indeed I think that we can be wrong about what

colour a thing looks to us.


How so? Well, following a line of thought in Austin [6] there are two ways it can

happen, two ways of being wrong about how something looked to me. One is

the sort of case where I haven’t given enough attention to how it looked. In the

bird case I say the bird looked like a kestrel to me, but the bird expert says “Oh

come on, take another look, does it really look like a kestrel to you?” and after

another closer look I say sheepishly “No, not really - I wasn’t really looking at it

properly - no, it doesn’t look like a kestrel at all”.  The other kind of case, the

other kind of way of being wrong about how it looks to me, is that where I haven’t

an adequate grasp of what counts as a thing of this kind. In the bird case I might

confidently assert that this bird looks to me like a kestrel, but then it turns out that

I don’t have a clear idea of what kestrels are; perhaps I think that all birds that

hover like that are kestrels. When I find out more about birds I come to realise

that it didn’t look to me like a kestrel: nothing at that stage could have looked to

me like a kestrel, for at that stage I didn’t really know what kestrels are. I used

the word quite ignorantly.


For convenience, let me refer to these two ways of being wrong about it’s looking

like a kestrel as involving either (a) a defect of experiential view, or (b) a defect of

conceptual grasp. Under ‘defect of view’ I will include not only cases where I

didn’t give enough attention to what I was leaking at but also all those other sorts

of possible defects involving tricks of the light, hallucinations and so on. In all

these cases I go wrong because of some sort of trouble with my experiencing, not

with my understanding. By contrast, by ‘defect of conceptual grasp’ I will mean the

kind of case where I misidentify something because I don’t have sufficient grasp

of what it is for something to be a thing of that kind.


Making use of this terminology, we can now say that we can be wrong about what

colour something looks to us in both these ways. I can be wrong about whether

the colour looked red to me because my view is inadequate. Possibilities such as

hallucination do not apply here of course, but lack of attention is a possibility, just

as in the kestrel case. For when I say it looked red to me, it is not inconceivable

that someone might respond with “Oh come on, it can’t have. Look again”. And

again I may concede that, no, it doesn’t really look red, its much more a sort of

brown. I did for a moment really think it looked red, but I wasn’t paying enough



But there is also the case where the reason for my misidentification is a defect

of grasp. I say confidently that it looks turquoise to me, but then it transpires that

I don’t have a good grasp of what counts as turquoise - in lots of cases it turns

Out that I identify things as turquoise which everyone else agrees are green. I

have somehow mislearned the concept.


So it seems that even in cases such as what colour a thing looks to us, we can

be wrong. These cases are not after all counterexamples to the general thesis

that in any case of identification we can turn out to be wrong. The general thesis

can stand, with its specific implication that we can be wrong about our own



The ‘inner screen’ picture


Now what is the problem with this? It is that we seem to have established two

incompatible points. One is that we can identify our feelings by introspection, and

the other is that no identificatory claim by itself constitutes an identification. Why

are these incompatible? Because in introspection it seems that there is no

distinction to be made between identificatory claim and identification. I look within

and focus my attention on a feeling, and it becomes clear to me that this feeling is

dread. I say it is dread, but because it is an introspectively observed feeling,

something within me, something on my ‘inner screen’ as it were, there seems no

way anyone could set me right were I to be wrong. Here it seems that what I say

goes. But if that is how it is, then talk of my being right or wrong doesn’t apply,

and if these notions don’t apply then what I am doing doesn’t count as identifying



It may be objected that the possibility of my being wrong, which we need for my

assertion to count as an identification, does not necessarily involve anyone else

being able to correct me. No one else can see what is on my ‘inner screen’, but

can’t I find out myself that I have made a mistake?  Certainly I can. So far as

mistakes involving ‘view’ are concerned I may realise that I haven’t been looking

very closely at the feeling. I thought it was jealousy, but now that I stay with it a

bit more I see that it is envy.  Regarding mistakes of ‘grasp’, I may discover in

talking with other people that although I thought I knew what irony was I now

realise that I have been mixing it up with sarcasm, so that when, the other day, I

thought I had identified an ironic attitude in myself, I now see that it was a

sarcastic attitude.  As with birds and colours, both errors of ‘grasp’ and errors of

seem quite possible in connection with our own feelings.


So I can go wrong, but how do I come to realise this? The cases where I go

wrong because of inadequate grasp clearly have to be corrected in the

interpersonal world. I can’t sort out all by myself whether I have an adequate

grasp of the notion of irony.  I have to get a feel for this concept through

discussions with others, or reading books, and comparing what I would say in

certain situations with what others would say. It is only by such means I can

reach a point where I can be reasonably sure that I have an adequate grasp of a

concept. However,  I then apply the concept to my own inner experience,

and pay sufficient attention to that experience, doesn’t that ensure that I have

made a correct identification?  If I know, for example, what shame is, and I look

carefully at the feeling I have, and I say its shame, then it is, isn’t it? I could have

been wrong, but in fact I’m not. Isn’t it enough then, for me to be able to identify

my own feelings, that I have an interpersonally-secured grasp of the relevant

feeling-concept? If I have that, and give the feeling my full attention, then surely

the feeling is what I say it is.


I want to argue that this won’t do. It still contravenes the principle that an

identificatory claim does not by itself constitute an identification. For what we are

now saying is that in certain circumstances, namely those of adequate ‘grasp’ and

‘view’, the claim does constitute an identification. And in a sense that is true, but

it is a tautology.    If ‘grasp’ and ‘view’ are adequate then the identificatory claim

will be correct, but that just explicates what ‘adequate’ means here.  It doesn’t

enable us to say that given what we know of the person’s conceptual grasp, and

given what we know of his experiential view, there is no longer any possibility that

he could be wrong. It works the other way round: if he turns out to be wrong

then we know there was some flaw in either his ‘grasp’ or his ‘view’ and we need

to look into what has gone wrong.


This may be clearer if we examine the same line of argument in the bird

identification case. If someone has an adequate grasp of what kestrels are, and

has an adequate view of a bird which is a kestrel, then, tautologically, the person

will identify the bird as a kestrel.   But it does not follow that someone who on all

the available evidence has an adequate grasp and view will necessarily turn out

to be right. Consider a person who has spent all their life bird-watching and seen

thousands of kestrels; suppose that the bird in question is seen in good light, and

close up. It still doesn’t follow that they will make a correct identification.

Something quite unexpected may go wrong either in connection with grasp or

view. Regarding grasp, there is the kwango-bird kind of possibility; regarding

view who knows what post-hypnotic suggestions or unusual neurophysiological

events might result in an unconsciously distorted view. All of which is to say

again that we can always be wrong; but the question now is how we deal with

such cases of being wrong.  The competent, well-placed bird watcher says its a

kestrel, but he’s wrong: we know it is a kwango, or we know what the hypnotist

suggested to him last night. To sort out what has gone wrong we have to get

together and look at the whole situation. It is possible that we will discover no

reason for his misidentification of the bird. How he got it wrong may remain a

mystery, but the fact is he did get it wrong. How do we know? Through the

publicly agreed standards for what is to count as a kestrel, and their application to

this particular case. For example we catch the bird and give it a full examination

and that settles the matter. The competent, well-placed bird watcher was wrong.

We understand his amazement, we are baffled by how he, in these

circumstances, could have got it wrong, but there it is. His certainty about it’s

being a kestrel has in the end to give way to what we agree is not a kestrel. The

important point here is that for the game of kestrel-identification to be played,

there has to be not only agreement about what kestrels are (in terms of their

characteristics as set out in the bird books and so on), but also agreement that

particular birds are or are not kestrels. In the problematic cases, there usually is

agreement about what kestrels are, but initially disagreement about whether this

particular bird is a kestrel. And, crucially for my main argument, the matter of

whether this bird is a kestrel can’t be settled by what any one person says, any

more than what kestrels are can be settled by what any one person says. It is

not a purely private, individual matter what a word means, but nor is it a purely

private individual matter whether a word applies in a particular case.  This, I

think, is what Wittgenstein meant when he said “If language is to be a means of

communication there must be agreement not only in definitions, but also (queer

as this may sound) in judgements” [7]


Returning now to the identification of one’s own feelings, the question is what the

analogy is for catching the bird and settling the matter of whether it is a kestrel.

Even in what seem the most favourable circumstances, what a person says does

not guarantee that they are right. Even in what seem the most favourable of

circumstances, then, I may judge that I feel ashamed, yet the feeling I have may

not, for all that, be shame.  Granted the logic of identificatory claims which we

have explored, I am not the final authority on whether this is shame. Whether it

is shame or not requires some kind of interpersonal confirmation.  But that

requirement clashes with the notion that a feeling such as shame is something

private which I, and only I, observe through introspection. It clashes with the

compelling picture we have that we know our own feelings by looking inside, or

listening within’.


Don’t think, but look!


Something has to give here, and since it seems to me that the Wittgensteinian

argument about the interpersonal requirements of identificatory claims is

unassailable, it must be that there is something wrong with our picture of

introspection as a kind of looking at a private inner screen’.  In the examples I

gave in the first part of this paper the ‘private inner screen’ metaphor seemed a

good one. We turn our attention inwards to this funny feeling we have. We

(metaphorically) look at it.  It is there; we are aware of it, and no one else can be

aware of it unless we tell them. Yet if we take this seriously we end up having to

admit that there can no place for talk of being right or wrong about what is on our

screen, and therefore no place for talk about identifying what is on the screen,

and therefore no possibility of identifying our feelings by introspection. Yet our

examples seemed to show that people often do identify their feelings through

introspection. It is a quite common thing to do, and until we think about it

philosophically there seems to be no great problem about it.


In this situation I suggest we take account of another remark of Wittgenstein’s:

“Don’t think, but look!” [8]  The trouble may be that we are thinking compulsively

in terms of the picture of the private inner screen. We need to remember that this

is a picture, a metaphor. Can we stop thinking in terms of the picture and took at

what actually happens when people introspect?


Consider again the example where I am feeling anxious. The picture of the ‘inner

screen’ immediately reframes the anxiety as a private inner state to which no-one

but myself has access. But that isn’t actually how it is. Anxiety is often quite

easily observable in another person, and a close observer may not only be aware

that I am anxious, but also, perhaps from the way I hold myself, that the anxiety is

localised mainly in my chest, if we let go of the inner screen picture for a minute

we can see that anxiety is better described as a pattern in someone’s life, an

aspect of the way they are right now, rather than a private inner state. But what

about this feeling I have in my chest? I can feel it. right there, and surely that

feeling is a private inner state?  But again, we need to look, rather than think

about what ‘must’ be so. In my anxious state I may or may not be aware of

tensions in my chest; when we are anxious we are not always conscious of what

is going on in our bodies. This tension in the chest is not to be identified with the

anxiety, although through noticing the chest tension I may become aware that I

am anxious. Being anxious is a matter of feeling that I am in some way under

threat, although I may have little or no idea of what the threat involves. What is

happening when I notice my own anxiety is that I am catching a glimpse of a

particular aspect of my life-situation, an aspect of being under threat in some way.

For reasons which no doubt lie partly in biology and the evolution of animal

behaviour feeling threatened is often linked with tensing of muscles, and other

physiological changes of which we (and others) may be more or less aware. But

there is nothing here that is essentially private.  It may often be easier for me to

know whether I am anxious than for you to know, but in some situations it can be

the other way round. There are situations where say I am not at all anxious, but

you can see very well that I am. Whether t or you are better placed to tell

whether I am anxious is a context-dependent empirical question, not a

philosophical one.


Much the same applies to examples such as that where Evelyn identifies her

feeling as a feeling of ‘I shouldn’t come out’. By giving attention to one’s body

one can certainly become aware of a body-sense that later may be articulated as,

for example, ‘I shouldn’t come out’ [9]. Such a body-sense is less clear and

distinct than the body-sense of anxiety. But the felt uneasiness of that body-

sense is not essentially more private than the bodily feelings of anxiety. Further,

the articulation of the body-sense which relates to ‘I shouldn’t come out’ is no

more essentially private than the articulation of the other body-sense which

relates to anxiety. The only significant difference between the two cases is that in

the case of anxiety the feeling is being identified as falling under a familiar

concept (that of ‘anxiety’) whereas in Evelyn’s case the feeling has no ready-

made label, and so has to be articulated in a more idiosyncratic way.




Another kind of example that may seem to present difficulties is this. Suppose

Mary is trying to get hold of an obscure feeling which she has. She turns her

attention inward and experiences a ‘flat and hurt’ sort of feeling in the centre of

her body. No words quite seem to fit, but then suddenly she says “The feeling is

I can’t put it into words, but an image comes to me of an empty box. That’s

how it feels”.  Now according to my account it should be intelligible to raise the

question of whether that is how it feels.  Mary is saying that her life is an empty

box, but according to my account, there should be the possibility that she is

mistaken about this. Yet there seems something absurd about this suggestion. If

she says her life is an empty box, who are we to question her way of putting it?


My reply to this is that the problem we may feel here has nothing to do with

issues of private experience. It is, rather, a problem about metaphorical

language. Where we use metaphors the appropriate kind of assessment of what

has been said is in terms of whether the metaphor is apt or not, rather than

whether it is correct.  The aptness of a metaphor seems depend on whether the

use of a phrase or image (for example ‘empty box’) in a new kind of context (for

example, that of Evelyn’s life) draws out, or draws our attention to, a new aspect

of that context [10]. The image of the empty box throws certain aspects of Mary’s

life into a new light  We could look at this with Mary, and go on to explore with

her, what is in the metaphor, what this new way of seeing herself amounts to. For

example, certain characteristics of empty boxes (such as that they were once full

but no longer are so, that they are put aside, that they are far less important than

what they contained) may well articulate her feelings about certain aspects of her

life, such as her divorce, and her having lost touch with her children.


What is left of the notion of the ‘inner screen’ here? Perhaps only this: that when

Mary began to attend to the feeling with which she started, she actually did direct

her attention inwards towards an obscure body-sense, which is her body-sense of

her life, her situation. But the appropriate emphasis on ‘her’ in that sentence

should not lead us into talk of ‘essentially private goings-on’, any more than we

should be so led by a remark that Mary is now attending to her make-up, or her



There are many other kinds of example of people looking at their feelings, which

may initially tempt us to think in terms of a private inner screen, but I think that

wherever we look at the examples in detail we will see that the inner screen

picture is both unnecessary and misleading. What we are really doing when we

look at our feelings is attending to our bodily felt awareness of how certain

aspects of our life are going, and in reflecting in this way we need the help of

others to give alternative perspectives, to confirm our own impressions, to

articulate what we obscurely feel. We can’t do it entirely by ourselves.




I think that what I have said in this paper could be seen almost entirely as ‘footnotes to Wittgenstein’. But I think they are worthwhile footnotes, because if there is anywhere a case to be made for the private inner world of Cartesian philosophy, then psychotherapy is the place to look. Conversely, if even the inner world of psychotherapy provides no support for the notion of essentially private mental states, then it is hard to believe that there is anywhere that the notion can survive.




[1] An earlier version of this paper was read at the University of East Anglia

Philosophy Society on 29 October 1998.

[2] Client-centred psychotherapy originated in the work of Cart Rogers, e.g.

ROGERS, C. (1961,) Client-centred Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications

and Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; ROGERS, C. (1961);  On Becoming a

Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.   Contemporary variants, apart from the

widespread ‘person-centred approach’ (see e.g. MEARNS, D. & THORNE, B.

(1988) Person-Centred Counselling in Action. London: Sage: THORNE, B. &

LAMBERS, E. (1998) Person-Centred Therapy: A European Perspective.

London: Sage) include ‘experiential psychotherapy’ (e.g. MAHRER, A. (1997)

The Complete Guide to Experiential Psychotherapy. New York: Wiley, and the

‘focusing’ approach of Eugene Gendlin. e.g. GENDLIN, E. (1996) Focusing-

oriented Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.

[3]  I say ‘roughly correct’ because talking about ‘congruence’ between

experience and its conceptualisation suggests a picture of how language works

which can be very misleading. The issues here are not central to my main

discussion so, with some trepidation, I will leave them aside.

{4] GENDLIN, E. (1997) Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, p. 239

[5]  GENDLIN, E. (1981)  Focusing.  New York:  Bantam.

[6] AUSTIN, J.  (1970)  Other minds.  In Philosophical Papers.  Oxford:  Oxford

University Press, pp. 76-116.

[7] WITTGENSTEIN, L. (1953)  Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell,

section 242.

[8] Wittgenstein op. cit, section 66.

[9]  For a detailed explanation and justification of this assertion see Gendlin op.

cit. (1981,1996,1997).

[10] See the discussion on metaphor in Gendlin op. cit. (1997) pp. 113-117.


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