Legendary Physicist David Bohm on the Paradox of Communication, the Crucial Difference Between Discussion and Dialogue, and What Is Keeping Us from Listening to One Another
“If we are to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds to or otherwise defends his own ideas.”
By Maria Popova
“Words,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her abiding meditation on the magic of real human communication, “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens in a cultural ecosystem where the hearer has gone extinct and the speaker gone rampant? Where do transformation and understanding go?
What made, for instance, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s superb 1970 dialogue about race and identity so powerful and so enduringly insightful is precisely the fact that it was a dialogue — not the ping-pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for dialogue today, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response. That commitment is the reason why they were able to address questions we continue to confront with tenfold more depth and nuance than we are capable of today. And the dearth of this commitment in our present culture is the reason why we continue to find ourselves sundered by confrontation and paralyzed by the divisiveness of “us vs. them” narratives. “To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Alexander in contemplating power and possibility. Krista Tippett calls such engagement generous listening. And yet so much of our communication today is defined by a rather ungenerous unwillingness to listen coupled with a compulsion to speak.
The most perennially insightful and helpful remedy for this warping of communication I’ve ever encountered comes from the legendary physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) in On Dialogue (public library) — a slim, potent collection of Bohm’s essays and lectures from the 1970s and 1980s, exploring the alchemy of human communication, what is keeping us from listening to one another, and how we can transcend those barriers to mutual understanding.
Decades before the social web as we know it and long before Rebecca Solnit came to lament how our modern noncommunication is changing our experience of solitude and communion, Bohm cautions:
In spite of this worldwide system of linkages, there is, at this very moment, a general feeling that communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale… What appears [in the media] is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.
He terms this “the problem of communication” and writes:
Different groups … are not actually able to listen to each other. As a result, the very attempt to improve communication leads frequently to yet more confusion, and the consequent sense of frustration inclines people ever further toward aggression and violence, rather than toward mutual understanding and trust.
Suggesting that the difficulty might arise from our “crude and insensitive manner of thinking about communication and talking about it,” Bohm sets out to restore the necessary subtlety by reclaiming the true meaning of communication and its supreme mastery, dialogue:
“Communication” … is based on the Latin commun and the suffix “ie” which is similar to “fie,” in that it means “to make or to do.” So one meaning of “to communicate” is “to make something common,” i.e., to convey information or knowledge from one person to another in as accurate a way as possible.
Nevertheless, this meaning does not cover all that is signified by communication. For example, consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood. On considering this difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both to his own views and to those of the other person. And so it can go back and forth, with the continual emergence of a new content that is common to both participants. 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.
Such communication in the service of creating something new, Bohm argues, takes place not only between people but within people. He illustrates this with an example that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s beautiful reflection on the creative sympathies of art and science, and writes:
Consider, for example, the work of an artist. Can it properly be said that the artist is expressing himself, i.e., literally “pushing outward” something that is already formed inside of him? Such a description is not in fact generally accurate or adequate. Rather, what usually happens is that the first thing the artist does is only similar in certain ways to what he may have in mind. As in a conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this perception something further emerges in his next action. Thus, something new is continually created that is common to the artist and the material on which he is working.
The scientist is engaged in a similar “dialogue” with nature (as well as with his fellow human beings). Thus, when a scientist has an idea, this is tested by observation. When it is found (as generally happens) that what is observed is only similar to what he had in mind and not identical, then from a consideration of the similarities and the differences he gets a new idea which is in turn tested. And so it goes, with the continual emergence of something new that is common to the thought of scientists and what is observed in nature.
In a sentiment that affirms the importance of the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind, Bohm adds:
It is clear that if we are to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds to or otherwise defends his own ideas.
He observes that these ideas are rooted in assumptions we hold about various aspects of life — from politics to economics to religion — and those assumptions are what we call our “opinions.” Four centuries after Galileo admonished against the folly of believing one’s preconceptions, Bohm argues that this tendency to cling to our existing opinions is a kind of self-protective “block” we use as a hedge against our fear of uncertainty. But in blocking uncertainty, we also block our ability to listen. Fertile dialogue, he points out, requires that we first become aware of our own “blocks,” then be willing to surmount them. He writes:
When we come together to talk, or otherwise to act in common, can each one of us be aware of the subtle fear and pleasure sensations that “block” his ability to listen freely? Without this awareness, the injunction to listen to the whole of what is said will have little meaning. But if each one of us can give full attention to what is actually “blocking” communication while he is also attending properly to the content of what is communicated, then we may be able to create something new between us, something of very great significance for bringing to an end the at present insoluble problems of the individual and of society.
In a passage of swelling timeliness today, Bohm considers the crucial difference between dialogue and discussion:
“Dialogue” comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means “the word,” or in our case we would think of the “meaning of the word.” And dia means “through” — it doesn’t mean “two.” A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of the dialogue is present. 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. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the “glue” or “cement” that holds people and societies together.
Contrast this with the word “discussion,” which has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion.” It really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view, and where everybody is presenting a different one — analyzing and breaking up. That obviously has its value, but it is limited, and it will not get us very far beyond our various points of view. Discussion is almost like a ping-pong game, where people are batting the ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points for yourself…
In a dialogue, however, nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins. There is a different sort of spirit to it. In a dialogue, there is no attempt to gain points, or to make your particular view prevail. Rather, whenever any mistake is discovered on the part of anybody, everybody gains. It’s a situation called win-win, whereas the other game is win-lose — if I win, you lose. But a dialogue is something more of a common participation, in which we are not playing a game against each other, but with each other. In a dialogue, everybody wins.
True dialogue, Bohm argues, not only leads us to question the very assumptions upon which our opinions are built but invites a continual act of self-revision at the level of the thought process itself — the process of which our opinions are a product. This self-revision takes place both on the individual level and on the collective level. He considers the difficulty of rethinking thought itself:
You cannot defend something without first thinking the defense. There are those thoughts which might question the thing you want to defend, and you’ve got to push them aside. That may readily involve self-deception — you will simply push aside a lot of things you would rather not accept by saying they are wrong, by distorting the issue, and so on. Thought defends its basic assumptions against evidence that they may be wrong.
Noting that we engage in two kinds of thought, individual and collective, Bohm points out that most of our individual assumptions are the product of our cultural conditioning and our “collective background.” He writes:
Language is collective. Most of our basic assumptions come from our society, including all our assumptions about how society works, about what sort of person we are supposed to be, and about relationships, institutions, and so on. Therefore we need to pay attention to thought both individually and collectively.
Writing in the same era in which evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” Bohm adds:
Assumptions or opinions are like computer programs in people’s minds. Those programs take over against the best of intentions — they produce their own intentions.
Those intentions operate on what Bohm calls the “tacit level” — not the level of our conscious awareness but someplace deeper, more intuitive, and almost automatic, of which we only have a vague conscious sense. He explains:
“Tacit” means that which is unspoken, which cannot be described — like the knowledge required to ride a bicycle. It is the actual knowledge, and it may be coherent or not. I am proposing that thought is actually a subtle tacit process. The concrete process of thinking is very tacit. The meaning is basically tacit. And what we can say explicitly is only a very small part of it. I think we all realize that we do almost everything by this sort of tacit knowledge. Thought is emerging from the tacit ground, and any fundamental change in thought will come from the tacit ground. So if we are communicating at the tacit level, then maybe thought is changing.
The tacit process is common. It is shared. The sharing is not merely the explicit communication and the body language and all that, which are part of it, but there is also a deeper tacit process which is common. I think the whole human race knew this for a million years; and then in five thousand years of civilization we have lost it, because our societies got too big to carry it out. But now we have to get started again, because it has become urgent that we communicate. We have to share our consciousness and to be able to think together, in order to do intelligently whatever is necessary. If we begin to confront what’s going on in a dialogue group, we sort of have the nucleus of what’s going on in all society.
But Bohm’s most crucial point — which is also the point most disquieting to our present customs of communication — is that true dialogue must be aimed not at some immediate or practical solution but at the higher-order objective of meaning. A quarter century before physicist Sean Carroll made his beautiful case for “poetic naturalism” as our supreme source of meaning in a universe otherwise devoid of purpose, Bohm writes:
It is not an arbitrary imposition to state that we have no fixed purpose — no absolute purpose, anyway. We may set up relative purposes for investigation, but we are not wedded to a particular purpose, and are not saying that the whole group must conform to that purpose indefinitely. All of us might want the human race to survive, but even that is not our purpose. Our purpose is really to communicate coherently in truth, if you want to call that a purpose.
It is necessary to share meaning. A society is a link of relationships among people and institutions, so that we can live together. But it only works if we have a culture — which implies that we share meaning; i.e., significance, purpose, and value. Otherwise it falls apart. Our society is incoherent, and doesn’t do that very well; it hasn’t for a long time, if it ever did. The different assumptions that people have are tacitly affecting the whole meaning of what we are doing.
Echoing his magnificent conversation with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti about intelligence and love, Bohm adds:
Love will go away if we can’t communicate and share meaning… However, if we can really communicate, then we will have fellowship, participation, friendship, and love, growing and growing. That would be the way…
And perhaps in dialogue, when we have this very high energy of coherence, it might bring us beyond just being a group that could solve social problems. Possibly it could make a new change in the individual and a change in the relation to the cosmic. Such an energy has been called “communion.” It is a kind of participation. The early Christians had a Greek word, koinonia, the root of which means “to participate” — the idea of partaking of the whole and taking part in it; not merely the whole group, but the whole.
On Dialogue remains an illuminating and acutely timely read. Complement it with Einstein on widening our circles of compassion and Carl Sagan on moving beyond “us vs. them,” then revisit Bohm on how our beliefs shape our reality.