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Living First

Michael R Finch

I started this 'Recent Writings - Synthesis' section of the website in August 2005, and this is the twelfth paper nearly six years later. But as time has gone by and I have added them here chronologically, they read less as a 'synthesis' than as a work in progress, which is what they are. My next task is to create from them a true synthesis of a way of thinking and a way of living that I call 'Living First'. This paper is an introduction to what I mean.

[Return to list of Synthesis articles]   [first article]


My interest is a style of philosophy that I call 'living-first', and which I contrast with what I will call 'object-first' philosophies.

By 'object' I mean anything that can be considered on its own, that has its own identity, and that can be separated or conceived of as distinct from other objects. More formally, an object X is self-identical (X = X), non-contradictory (X is not non-X), and obeys the law of the excluded middle, in other words it is distinguishable (for any object Y, X is either Y or not Y). These conditions are sometimes called Boolean.

By 'object-first' I mean a philosophy that begins with objects in some sense. Most systems of thought or belief - including most sciences, religions, and philosophies - are object-first.

For example, the standard account of science begins with physics, where there are 'fundamental particles' (quarks, electrons, etc) which interact to form atoms, that constitute all of matter. Chemistry begins with these atoms as its objects, and has them interact to form molecules. Molecular biology starts with its objects (organic molecules), biology with its objects (cells) and so on. Each science then builds up its subject matter from its own basic objects.

Human and social sciences often try to follow the physical sciences in this regard, usually considering each human as a basic object, or composed of basic objects (mental faculties), and then having these objects interact under various conditions to form a human mind, or societies and other human groupings.

The belief that everything can be explained this way has been called 'consilience' by E O Wilson, and is an unashamedly object-first philosophy. Each science explains its subject-matter in terms of its basic objects, and then passes a composite on to the next science, which treats that as its basic object, and so on. In this way, it is hoped, everything can be explained from fundamental matter to all human activity, including religion.

For most religions are also object-first, where the prime task is either to explain creation as the activity of an object-like being (God), or object-like beings (gods, devas, spirits); or where the human is considered a primary object, that somehow needs to interact with God, or the gods and spirits.


Religions are also concerned very much with beliefs, which are objects too - the Boolean conditions (self-identity, non-contradiction, distinguishability) apply to beliefs and propositions, making them objects. (I discuss this further in an appendix to this paper.)

There are many different relationships and interactions between objects, depending upon the type of object. But all objects have a fundamental relationship qua objects, and that is the logic of the Boolean conditions that make an object an object. If the objects are beliefs and propositions, then the Boolean conditions define propositional logic.

Success and Failure of Object-First

Assuming objects first, and then thinking about or observing the interaction of these objects, is a hugely successful endeavor. The physical comfort and long life we enjoy in the 21st century, and much else, is a direct result of this method of understanding and dealing with the world.

My issue with object-first thinking is not the division into objects and considering their subsequent interaction; it is that objects are primary. In other words, it is not 'object philosophy' I oppose, it is object-first philosophy.

For all the success of object-first thinking, there are also failures. The most obvious failure is that there is no room for me in a world created by object-first thinking! The human can be explained physically to some extent, but who I am, what looks out through my eyes, or for you through your eyes, is unexplained. It is either an epiphenomenon; or a result of neural activity that object-first neuroscience will explain in future but cannot yet; or it is a mystery - spirit, soul, mind - some non-physical object (but an object nevertheless) from a dualistic philosophy or a religious belief-system.

This failure to explain the living as living (only as systems of interacting prior objects) is part of the range of problems centered around what is called the 'mind-body' problem, or the 'hard problem' of consciousness. These include the subjective/objective split, and the problem for object-first philosophies that an object out there (say a tree) must then get mapped onto or represented by an object in here (mental image, thought, intuition).

There is a close relation between what I mean by 'object-first' and 'objective'. To make room for the living as living, many thinkers on that account turn to subjective thinking and give priority to the 'first-person viewpoint'. But the subject/object split in itself is a necessary product of object-first thinking, and there is a need for a way of thinking which I am calling 'living-first' that can move beyond that division, and its need to think of the person 'in here' as a homunculus with a 'viewpoint' peeping out at the objective world through holes in the skull.


Living-first philosophy does not deny objects, or their interaction, so it accepts all the benefits and successes of objective thinking. The difference is that living, and not objects, is first.

What does this mean? In fact, what can this mean? What can be prior to objects? Processes can be prior to objects, or as Gendlin says 'interaction first'.

I find for myself that this is a high hurdle to overcome, since I automatically think of a process as prior objects interacting. The phrase 'interaction first' also implies that there are first objects between which ('inter') there is action. However, just because I find it natural to think primarily in nouns (objects) does not mean it is impossible to do so in verbs (processes). I have found with practice that I can do so, and the benefits of so doing are very substantial.

I said previously that most sciences, religions, and philosophies, are object-first, and so they are. But not all, and I give an example from each grouping where process is primary.

Quantum Field Theory

The scientific concept of a 'field' was originally introduced to explain action at a distance, which Newton and subsequent scientists found problematic.

In most high-school and undergraduate physics 'fields' are still thought of in this way. For example, a magnetic field is caused by a magnet with its poles (prior objects) which then cause this field to exist around it, so that when iron filings (say) come near the magnet they interact with it by means of the field.

Quantum Field theory takes this classical concept of a 'field' and makes it prior. That is, all the basic objects of other branches of quantum physics (quarks, electrons, protons) are produced from a quantum field.

The concepts are extremely complex, and deeply mathematical. In spite of this, many popular books take some aspect of quantum field theory and claim that means or 'proves' something. Here I am not making any such claim. In fact, it is still highly controversial what quantum field theory 'means', if indeed it means anything.

What is beyond controversy is that quantum field theory is successful at predicting physical outcomes to a very high degree of accuracy. And it does so by taking a field - that is, a process or 'interaction-first' - as primary and all objects as being created from it.


My religion example of process-first thinking is Taoism (Taoists would not call it a 'religion' of course). The Chinese character 'Tao' is most often translated as 'way'. The character is composed of a head and a foot, and could mean as much 'walking' as 'that which is walked on'.

My research on the Taoism of the Tao Te Ching (upcoming paper) shows to me clearly that the Tao is a process, 'waying' rather than 'way', or perhaps 'wayfaring'. The philosophy of early Taoism is that objects (the 'ten thousand things') are born from Tao and return to it.

This is not just a stand-alone concept, but the corner-stone of an entire philosophy of life and living.

The world is born from it.
I do not know its name - I call it Tao.
Pressed further, I call it 'great'.
Being great, it flows.

[chapter 25, Tao Te Ching].

Gendlin's Living-First Philosophy

Living is a process, the starting point. I prefer to use 'living' rather than the noun 'life', to emphasize it being a process.

The object-first stance is to explain living as what organisms do when objects (molecules, cells, neurons, muscles, bones) are arranged and interact in a certain way. The scientific approach to organisms in this manner - as I have said previously - is successful and fruitful, and we do not want to lose that success and those fruits.

But what if you formed a philosophy and way of thinking based on the primacy of living, rather than on the objects that combine to form a living organism? Gendlin's Philosophy of the Implicit does precisely this.

In this short paper I am not going into all the details. But an account of living-first, as I mean it here, should include at least the following two points:

1) Objects form from the living process.

The objects that form are both the organism and its environment, created from the same process. Gendlin often gives the example of a plant growing, where environment and body are the same 'stuff', formed from the living process.

For humans, you can roughly divide the objects that form from the living process into three categories: the body and the environment (as for plants); our behaviors in the world and in society (as for animals); and cognitive such as concepts (human).

A living process prior to objects can be observed by its effects, the objects that come from it. A plant body is a physical manifestation (object) of its living process. Human behavior and thinking are manifestations (acts and concepts can also be objects) of the living process. In thinking, we often feel something murky and indistinct, but powerful, within us, and we speak and think from it. Gendlin gives many examples of this.

The 'murky and indistinct' something we feel, Gendlin calls a direct referent to the living process (which he calls the implicit), a felt-sense. Although the living process or implicit functioning does not contain objects as distinct (Gendlin calls it an 'unseparated multiplicity'), distinct objects form from it. But not any objects you like, very precise objects. In other words, it is 'murky and indistinct' as a feeling perhaps, but functionally it is very precise and specific.

It is easy to see this in speaking or writing. When you are preparing to say something, that 'something' is a feeling - a 'point' we call it - and then you express your point in words. If someone does not get your point, it can be quite a challenge to find another different set of words that express the same point (but you usually can). Most words will not express your point.

A concept is formed from the living process, but once separated from the human who created the concept, then the concept is 'out there' in the public arena as a cultural artifact or a meme. It is then an object, subject to Boolean logic. The words you have spoken (or written) no longer have your living process behind them, so they need to account for themselves with at least that elementary Boolean logic that is the hallmark of all objects.

2) Objects return to the living process.

But when someone else (or you yourself later) read or hear your words and concepts, then not only are they objects 'out there', but you can bring them 'in here' to your own living process, where they can have an effect both logical (as objects) and again as part of living. Poetry relies on the reader doing exactly this.

The point here is that while objects are formed from a living process, they can also feed a living process. In fact food is good example - something object-like is ingested and feeds that living process (you) which first identified the object as food.

So living not only forms objects, but those objects are needed in turn for further living - whether physical objects like food or tools, or mental and cultural objects like concepts. In fact, I might say of your concept that it is 'food for thought'.

I put 'out there' and 'in here' in quotes, since although we can conceptualize and use object-like thoughts and schemes, including the division of the 'out there' (objective) and the 'in here' (subjective), they are no longer primary. It can be fruitful to think of myself locked in my skull observing the outside world like a pilot from within a ship (Descartes' example), but it can also be destructive, particularly if I am constrained by that conceptual scheme and can think from it only.

Living-first proposes a prior 'field' to the subjective/objective split: living, which is first, and conceptual distinctions come from it, even though they can and do return to make for further living.


With a living-first philosophy, I am thus free to use all the objects - physical, actions, concepts, belief-systems - that are 'out there', whether created by myself or by someone else. So I can use and accept the results of science and object-first thinking if I wish, and I usually do so wish.

But I can also try to be aware of (feel, perceive, touch, sense) my living process, and both create objects and concepts from it, and return objects and concepts to it for verification, if you will.

I use the word 'verification', since the living process is for further living, and in general will not allow objects or concepts that do not further that living. For example, for the most part my body will not allow me to eat food that is bad or poisonous - I am disgusted viscerally by rotten-smelling food, for instance. In the same way, if I present my living process with a concept or belief, I can usually feel its assent or otherwise, and this leads often to further and better thinking and living.

An account needs to be given (and has been given in many places) of how in practice this can happen: Gendlin's Focusing is a prime example, with the zig-zag from the implicit to explicit and back again, each expanding the other; I also in my meditation attempt something similar.

Appendix - Beliefs and Believing

Our beliefs are hugely important to us - they drive much of our behavior, our thinking, our treatment of others, and our general wellbeing. In this short appendix, I outline a living-first approach to beliefs and believing. I sketch briefly three ways we can think about beliefs: what we believe, why we believe it, and how we believe.

1) What we believe.

If I ask someone why they are doing something, or why they think a certain way, a common response is for them to state what they believe: 'I am helping this person because I believe that there is karma, and that what I do to others will come back to me'.

This type of response, where we justify our actions or thoughts with a belief or belief-system, applies to the mundane as well as the 'big' questions of life. For example: 'Why are you going into the kitchen?' - 'Because I believe I left my keys on the kitchen table'; this presents few problems, the keys are either in fact on the kitchen table, in which case we say it was a true belief, or I left them in the bedroom, so my belief was false. In other words, a belief is an object in my generalized sense of the word, and is subject to Boolean logic.

But many of our beliefs are not so simply resolved, and deciding as objects whether they are true or false is more problematic. When our beliefs that drive us involve the existence, or non-existence, of metaphysical entities or moral imperatives then it is not so easy (impossible?) to say whether it is a true or false belief-system. People often try to escape this dilemma either by assuming the utility of a belief ('I am a soldier, if I did not believe they are bad people, I would not be able to kill them') or by calling their beliefs 'knowledge' ('I don't just believe I have a guardian angel directing my life, I know it for a fact').

2) Why we believe what we believe.

When I think I am explaining my actions or thoughts by stating my belief or belief-system, I am often asked 'Why do you believe that?' Usually the questioner is asking me to rationally justify my beliefs, but often a truer answer lies in my upbringing: 'I believe God hates homosexuals. Why do I believe that? Well, I was brought up in a strict religious sect and I can't escape my early conditioning'. Such an honest response, however, is unfortunately rare.

Since our beliefs are so important to us, and affect us so deeply, then trying to examine them, and to answer why we do actually believe what we believe, is clearly important too. Arguing for our beliefs and giving reasons why we hold them, including logical reasons or previous conditioning, seems to me a healthy and sane activity.

3) How we believe.

I have said that what we believe is important, and that why we believe what we believe is also important. However, this paper has given attention more to the third question of how we believe, which I also consider important.

By 'how we believe', I mean what the process of believing is, and how it originates in us. What I believe is an object, a conclusion, an endpoint, a product of the living process that I am here calling 'how I believe'. You can say that what I write is a belief about beliefs, and it is indeed an interesting question whether we can get outside of believing, as opposed to getting outside a particular belief or belief-system. I don't think we can. Believing is a part of living, and while in some respects we can look at it objectively, in other respects we cannot get outside of it to look at it, like at an apple I might hold in my hand.

This paper has been concerned with differentiating these two respects. As a human living process, I have no option but to produce mental objects such as beliefs and concepts. I can examine my beliefs as objects, with logic and reason, but I also have the option to touch the living or believing process itself directly in my body, and so possess another touchstone for accepting or discarding any particular belief-system.

Gendlin has called this thinking 'more than logical', which we can do at the same time as living 'logically' (treating our concepts and beliefs as objects in their own right). Indeed, not only are they not opposed, but living or thinking 'more than logically' and thinking logically are symbiotic, mutually reinforcing, if done right.

We can also of course think 'less than logically', where we neither try to touch our own living, nor do we try to think clearly and logically. Then we can believe all kinds of strange things, and usually behave badly and unkindly as a result.

[Return to list of Synthesis articles]    [first article] Last revised April 09 2011

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