On Dialogue by David Bohm

Summary

  1. Bohm believed that the alternative way toward understanding a whole arises through participation rather than abstraction. “A different kind of consciousness is possible among us, a participatory consciousness.” In a genuine dialogue, “each person is participating, is partaking of the whole meaning of the group and also taking part in it.” This is not necessarily pleasant, as Bohm warns.

Key Takeaways

  1. This odd phrase, “take part in truth,” points to, what seems to me, Bohm’s second foundational idea: what it means to understand wholes.     
  2. In the dialogue, a very considerable degree of attention is required to keep track of the subtle implications of one’s own assumptive/reactive tendencies, while also sensing similar patterns in the group as a whole. Bohm emphasized that such attention, or awareness, is not a matter of accumulated knowledge or technique, nor does it have the goal of “correcting” what may emerge in the dialogue. Rather, it is more of the nature of relaxed, nonjudgmental curiosity, its primary activity being to see things as freshly and clearly as possible. The nurturing of such attention, often bypassed in more utilitarian versions of dialogue, is a central element in Bohm’s approach to the process.
  3. two further aspects of dialogue – the notion of shared meaning within a group, and the absence of a preestablished purpose or agenda.
  4. This definition provides a foundation, a reference point if you will, for the key components of dialogue: shared meaning; the nature of collective thought; the pervasiveness of fragmentation; the function of awareness; the microcultural context; undirected inquiry; impersonal fellowship; and the paradox of the observer and the observed.
  5. What is suggested is not that we attempt to alter the process of representation (which may be impossible), but that we carefully attend to the fact that any given representation – instinctively perceived as “reality” – may be somewhat less than real, or true. From such a perspective we may be able to engage a quality of reflective intelligence – a kind of discernment that enables us to perceive and dispense with fundamentally false representations, and become more exacting in the formation of new ones.
  6. Bohm suggests that while literal thought has been predominant since the inception of civilization, a more archaic form of perception, formed over the whole of human evolution, remains latent – and at times active – in the structure of our consciousness. This he refers to as “participatory thought,” a mode of thought in which discrete boundaries are sensed as permeable, objects have an underlying relationship with one another, and the movement of the perceptible world is sensed as participating in some vital essence.
  7. Thus, in a dialogue, each person does not attempt to make common certain ideas or items of information that are already known to him. Rather, it may be said that the two people are making something in common, i.e., creating something new together. But of course such communication can lead to the creation of something new only if people are able freely to listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other. Each has to be interested primarily in truth and coherence, so that he is ready to drop his old ideas and intentions, and be ready to go on to something different, when this is called for.
  8. Evidently then, what is crucial is to be aware of the nature of one’s own “blocks.” If one is alert and attentive, he can see for example that whenever certain questions arise, there are fleeting sensations of fear, which push him away from consideration of these questions, and of pleasure, which attract his thoughts and cause them to be occupied with other questions.
  9. The way we start a dialogue group is usually by talking about dialogue – talking it over, discussing why we’re doing it, what it means, and so forth.
  10. The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding.
  11. In a dialogue, everybody wins.
  12. A basic notion for a dialogue would be for people to sit in a circle. Such a geometric arrangement doesn’t favor anybody; it allows for direct communication. In principle, the dialogue should work without any leader and without any agenda.
  13. Our purpose is really to communicate coherently in truth, if you want to call that a purpose.
  14. In fact, the problems we have been discussing are basically all due to this lack of proprioception. The point of suspension is to help make proprioception possible, to create a mirror so that you can see the results of your thought.
  15. Sometimes people feel a sense of dialogue within their families. But a family is generally a hierarchy, organized on the principle of authority which is contrary to dialogue.
  16. Dialogue is the collective way of opening up judgments and assumptions.
  17. Practically all of what has been called nature has been arranged by thought. Yet thought also goes wrong somehow, and produces destruction. This arises from a certain way of thinking, i.e., fragmentation. This is to break things up into bits, as if they were independent. It’s not merely making divisions, but it is breaking things up which are not really separate. It’s like taking a watch and smashing it into fragments, rather than taking it apart and finding its parts. The parts are parts of a whole, but the fragments are just arbitrarily broken off from each other. Things which really fit, and belong together, are treated as if they do not. That’s one of the features of thought that’s going wrong.
  18. But the assumptions affect the way we see things, the way we experience them, and, consequently, the things that we want to do. In a way, we are looking through our assumptions; the assumptions could be said to be an observer in a sense.
  19. Thought lacks proprioception, and we have got to learn, somehow, to observe thought. In the case of observing the body, you can tell that observation is somehow taking place – even when there is no sense of a distinct observer. Is it possible for thought similarly to observe itself, to see what it is doing, perhaps by awakening some other sense of what thought is, possibly through attention? In that way, thought may become proprioceptive. It will know what it is doing and it will not create a mess. If I didn’t know what I was doing when I made an outward physical action, everything would go wrong. And clearly, when thought doesn’t know what it is doing, then such a mess arises. So let us look further – first at suspension, then at proprioception.
  20. What is called for is not suppressing the awareness of anger, nor suppressing nor carrying out its manifestations, but rather, suspending them in the middle at sort of an unstable point – as on a knife-edge – so that you can look at the whole process. That is what is called for.
  21. The word leisure has a root meaning “emptiness” – an empty space of some sort – an empty space of time or place, where there is nothing occupying you. You might begin by looking at nature, where there are minimal distractions.

What I got out of it

  1. Two key elements of dialogue – shared meaning within a group, and the absence of a preestablished purpose or agenda. True co-creation without prejudice, a process to try to see our true assumptions and work our way towards truth