Bohm, D. (1998). On Dialogue. Thinking, 14 (1).
Review by Robert Weimer (2002)
The term “dialogue” is often discussed in communication journals and books. As such, it has no doubt come to mean many different things, as each author may define it a specific way to meet their needs. In “On Dialogue” by David Bohm (1998), the term dialogue takes on a very unique meaning indeed; in fact, the entire article deals specifically with the act of defining and clarifying “dialogue” as Bohm has come to know it. In fact, his definition is almost ‘enlightening’. It also brings up many interesting points about communication and culture worth discussing. (Keep in mind that it took Bohm six pages of dense print to communicate the ideas attempting to be expressed here in less than two.)
To begin with, Bohm posits a question regarding the nature of dialogue. He starts off defining its root words. Dialogue is derived from ‘logos’ meaning ‘the word’ and ‘dia’ meaning ‘through’. It can exist among any number of people, even within an individual. He compares it with the term discussion, which means to break things up. It emphasizes winning (as seeking victory over another), whereas dialogue is a win-win situation.
Bohm states that we need dialogue, mainly because we have trouble communicating, even in small groups. This is because everyone has different assumptions. Assumptions encompass what we, as individuals, really value as important to ourselves. Another term for assumptions could be opinions. Opinions, furthermore, tend to be thought of/experienced as truths. These assumptions/opinions/truths are all derived from our distinct cultures. These cultures include different groups, such as religion or science. These tend to align themselves with notions of truth, yet people’s self-interest and assumptions end up taking over somewhere along the way.
Bohm continues, discussing roles people play. Some people feel they need to assert themselves in group situations; others feel that they should yield. These roles tie back into assumptions, all of which will interfere with true dialogue. Continuing this thought, Bohm states that confrontations may arise, again matters tied up in assumptions.
From culture, Bohm derives a number between twenty and forty (for that’s as many people as can be comfortably arranged in a circle) as a “microculture”. At this point, it can be assumed that a microcosm is present—a diverse small group representative of the larger culture. This is where collectively shared meaning is born. If people were to think in a coherent way (i.e. all minds are focused on the same thing), it would create tremendous power among them. This power of coherence—of sustained shared dialogue—would exist not only on a recognizable level, but on a tacit level as well.
According to Bohm, the tacit level is that which is unspoken; it is beyond words. It is, simply stated, the knowledge in and of itself. When we achieve this level of shared meaning, of shared consciousness, we are communicating collectively on a tacit level. This allows us to intelligently do whatever is necessary, together, unhindered; free. We collectively think, suspending our opinions and looking at them; at one another’s. Then through dialogue, this sharing of collective meanings, truth will emerge, as if of its own volition. Everyone is participating, everyone is partaking. We start to move beyond these opinions to something new and creative. This is Bohm’s definition of dialogue. It is a culture of people sharing meaning, coherently thinking.
Bohm’s definition of ‘dialogue’ brings up some very interesting points. First of all, it can’t go without saying that this is seemingly a Taoist belief, no doubt with its origins in Eastern Philosophy. It carries with it a sense similar to that of the block, a simple object which is no object at all, only it appears as a block through the soul’s perception—or as it relates to Bohm, through the mind’s assumptions. It emanates with collectivism and the sense of community as the divine or, perhaps, perfect unity—hence, the circle, in which there is no beginning, no end, no center. Bohm’s description of shared meaning is congruent—almost to the point of perfect harmony—with the ideal of enlightenment, for it is through/at enlightenment that the individual loses the notion of self, of oneness, and becomes the collective, the whole, the nothing. This tacit knowledge Bohm speaks of, this coherence which moves the group to new things/ideas, this is related to the notion of joining the whole (through enlightenment) and, thus, the nothing; the center of the circle, in which—as mentioned previously—nothing exists. One may look at everyone from there with uncritical eyes/minds—or as Bohm would put it, free from opinions. It’s a seemingly uncanny resemblance.
Following this comparison, it’s important to note the irony, however, created through Bohm’s ‘dialogue’. As he puts it, to seek this shared, collective meaning, this tacit understanding, is to learn to communicate freely, without assumption, without opinion. It is to communicate essentially without thought, or free, rather, from the conventions of opinion, thus allowing out tacit coherence to connect us. The irony exists in that it is through communication, through the physical act of communicating, that he expects us to reach this higher plane of shared meaning. In reviewing his work, there is no confusion that he intends, when speaking of this shared meaning, to use language—both verbal and body—to share this level of collective communicating. This coherence is on a verbal level. He certainly does not mean that we will be able to speak through our minds. Thus the very path which is to deliver us to this coherence is the thing which ensnares us, which holds us back, which limits us. The spoken language is limited in its scope, in its range. Thus what Bohm is proposing is to, essentially, use the very shackles that enslave us to set ourselves free. This is a paradoxical and impossible notion if we are to seek any level of shared thought which is experienced through such a limited medium.
Aside from the more philosophical argument, Bohm’s notion of dialogue is certainly appealing. It challenges us to rid ourselves of conventional speech. It pushes the notion of communicating with someone (or many people) without intent, without the desire to gain. This is a very interesting idea, and it’s posited throughout many communication theory books, though it is often harder said than done. If true communication is without purpose, the question arises of why do it? If the answer is to feel good or even simply to gain a tacit understanding of the other person, then it certainly holds purpose. If it is without purpose, then there is no difference whether it is done at all or not. If it makes no difference, but doing so takes more effort than not, than why expend energy to do something purposeless? This argument has a tendency to dig itself into the ground, much as Bohm’s notion of dialogue does.
The one element of the piece I found insightful was the notion of community. He creates a utopian existence with his shared meaning, one that I truly hope exists, or at least can exist. The problem here arises again ironically, for language, regardless of its structure, creates power. It privileges some at the expense of others. Most terms in any language are paralleled by words of the opposite meaning, and only through them can it exist. Black can’t exist without white. Up is nowhere without down. Nowhere is nothing without somewhere. And on and on this argument goes. The point is, unless there’s some language that exists—or that will be created—that has a single name for everything, with no synonyms or antonyms at all, power will always be constructed, even unintentionally, but it always comes at a cost to someone.
All in all, I enjoyed Bohm’s piece “On Dialogue”. I found it inspiring and enjoyable. As a Taoist myself, I couldn’t help but imagine this ‘dialogue’, it sounds fantastic. But being grounded with a background in realism, I found it eloquently far-fetched. I believe Bohm is on to something though, and if he can move others with the same passion he evoked in me, I’m all for supporting him. I believe a lot of minds are slaves to their craniums. All they need is a proverbial key to set them free, yet what the key consists of is subjective to the trap which has ensnared their free thought. Perhaps Bohm’s ‘dialogue’ is just the thing to set some of them free.