Are.na Influences is a series in which we discuss some of the ideas that continue to provide inspiration to us while building this platform together. In this post I’m going to introduce David Bohm’s philosophy of dialogue, a methodology for examining and refining thought in a group setting.
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. – David Bohm
David Bohm is considered one of the most important theoretical physicists of the 20th century. While he was a PhD candidate at Berkeley in 1943, studying under Robert Oppenheimer, the U.S. Government classified Bohm’s dissertation before he had a chance to defend it: It was deemed vital to the Manhattan project, but due to his involvement in Communist organizations, he couldn’t get a security clearance. In his early career, he developed the theory of the fourth state of matter (plasma), which led to theories of metals, then elementary particles and, most significantly, breakthrough theories in quantum mechanics. Einstein once called him his “intellectual successor”.
Roughly speaking, Bohm’s career started out highly academic and technical, and gradually moved towards softer, philosophical subjects. His interest in quantum mechanics led him to consider the role of consciousness in shaping reality, which led him to the philosophy of the mind, which in turn led him to the concept of a dialogue.
In examining Bohm’s life outside of his own work, we can recognize a few relationships as precursors to his focus on the concept of a dialogue. One was the friendship between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, which Bohm witnessed.
The way Bohm describes it, Bohr and Einstein started out as great friends but slowly drifted apart due to a philosophical disagreement on the nature of truth in the context of science. Bohr argued that the observer played a role in the definition of truth, while Einstein called this a “tranquilizer philosophy” and thought that the observer played no role in the evaluation of scientific truth. Bohm’s view was that both Einstein and Bohr were partially correct, but because each of them would individually dig in and hold their positions, there would never be a way to move past their differences. On this point, Bohm says, “They were not discussing the point which was the unconscious assumption, or even conscious. But they did not discuss their assumptions. They argued by saying, ‘This is my assumption. This is my result.’ They did not get together and say, ‘Here are our two assumptions. Let me look at your assumption as favorably as I can, and you look at mine.’”
The other relationship that significantly influenced his conception of dialogue was with J.Krishnamurti, whose work he came into contact with in the early 1960’s. Krishnamurti was groomed from the age of 14 to be the “World Teacher” in a Theosophy sect called The Order of the Star in the East founded in 1911, and had since become something of an anti-guru. Krishnamurti’s statement upon leaving the The Order:
I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. … This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.
Bohm and Krishnamurti developed a friendship, and over the course of 25 years had a series of conversations (many of which were documented), exploring the general nature of reality, time and thought. It is important to note that there was no leader and no pre-defined subject to these conversations, a practice that would inform Bohm’s philosophy around dialogue. The idea was to explore together and to build and refine each others thoughts. A short example from 1980:
DAVID BOHM: You have said that insight changes the brain cells, and I wonder if we could discuss that?
KRISHNAMURTI: As it is constituted, the brain functions in one direction: memory, experience, knowledge. It has functioned in that area as much as possible, and most people are satisfied with it.
DB: Well, they don’t know of anything else.
K: And also they have placed knowledge in supreme importance. If one is concerned with fundamental change, where does one begin? Suppose `X’ feels he will go along a certain direction set by mankind. He has been going there century after century, and he asks himself what is radical change; if it is in the environment, or in human relationships; if it is a sense of love, which is not in the area of knowledge. Where is it to begin? You understand my question? Unless there is some mutation taking place inside here, inside my mind, the brain, I may think I have changed, but it is a superficial change, and not a change in depth.
DB: Yes. What is implied there is that the present state of affairs involves not only the mind but also the nervous system and the body. Everything is set in a certain way.
K: Of course. That is what I meant, the whole movement is set in a certain way. And along that pattern I can modify, adjust, polish a little more, a little less and so on. But if a man is concerned with radical change, where is he to begin? As we said the other day, we have relied on the environment or society and various disciplines to change us, but I feel these are all in the same direction.
DB: In so far as they all emanate from this thing, the way the mind and body are set, they are not going to change anything. There is a total structure involved which is in the brain, in the body, in the whole of society.
K: Yes, yes. So what am I to do? What is `X’ to do? And in asking this question, what is there to change?
DB: What exactly do you mean by `what is there to change’? What is to be changed?
And so on…
The key quality that most of these conversations have is a level of accessibility. Though the conversations are often dense and abstract, there is no real prerequisite knowledge required to understanding them. Bohm enters the conversation with a background in theoretical physics, and Krishnamurti has a background in esoteric eastern philosophy, but neither of them use specialized language in their conversation.
In 1991, Bohm sought to codify the process of this kind of dialogue in an essay co-authored with Donald Factor and Peter Garrett. Their opening statement:
We are proposing a kind of collective inquiry not only into the content of what each of us say, think and feel but also into the underlying motivations, assumptions and beliefs that lead us to so do.
The key idea behind a dialogue is that 10 or 20 people get together and just begin talking, with the purpose of putting their preconceptions and thoughts outside of themselves to in order to investigate the collective patterns of thought. Bohm thought these sessions should be exploratory in nature, with no set topic or leader. He also recognized that this process could be uncomfortable at times, both in having to deal with the ambiguity of the process as well as having to deal with discordant positions from individuals in the group. In Bohm’s words:
As a microcosm of the large culture, Dialogue allows a wide spectrum of possible relationships to be revealed. It can disclose the impact of society on the individual and the individual’s impact on society. It can display how power is assumed or given away and how pervasive are the generally unnoticed rules of the system that constitutes our culture. But it is most deeply concerned with understanding the dynamics of how thought conceives such connections.
Bohm considered unexamined thought to be the crux of most issues that humans face. He says, “When we see a ‘problem,’ whether pollution, carbon dioxide, or whatever, we then say, ‘We have got to solve that problem.’ But we are constantly producing that sort of problem — by the way we go on with our thought.” His concept of dialogue is meant to shed a light on those patterns of thought in order to create a space where new ideas can emerge that are wholy collective, belonging to no single participant.
There are a lot of ways that Bohm’s concept of a dialogue influences how I think about building Are.na: the idea of building a shared meaning, of being able to build ideas with other people over time and the way one can refine their own thinking by bouncing ideas off of other people.
Perhaps the most admirable part of Bohm’s theory of dialogue—and one that influences how we think of Are.na as being used—is that he conceived of a very simple structure that allowed for emergent possibilities to develop. It’s so easy to treat technology as though it can prescribe a solution to a particular problem (now more than ever). Software developers build complex workflows, create new methods for faster communication and tune information delivery to an individual level, but what humans really need is much more simple: time and space to think and process.
We are often reluctant (or maybe just careful) about adding new features to Are.na because we don’t want to interfere too much into that space. Humans on the internet have so much information readily available at any given point, what’s most needed is the ability to hold that information at arms length for further investigation.