from the Greek dialogos: Logos means "the word", or in our case we
would think of "the meaning of the word", and dia means "through"
(not two-a dialogue can be among any number of people; even one person
can have a sense of dialogue within him- or herself if the spirit
of the dialogue is present).
The image this
derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among us and
through us and between us-a flow of meaning in the whole group, out
of which will emerge some new understanding, something creative. When
everybody is sensitive to all the nuances going around, and not merely
to what is happening in one's own mind, there forms a meaning which
is shared. And in that way we can talk together coherently and think
together. It is this shared meaning that is the "glue" or "cement"
that holds people and societies together.
with the word "discussion", which has the same root as "percussion"
and "concussion". Discussion really means to break things up. It emphasizes
the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view. A great
deal of what we call "discussion" is not deeply serious, in the sense
that there are all sorts of things held to be non-negotiable, untouchable,
things that people don't even want to talk about. Discussion is like
a ping-pong game, with people batting the ideas back and forth in
order to win the game.
In a dialogue
there is no attempt to gain points, or to make your particular view
prevail. It is more a common participation, in which people are not
playing a game against each other but with each other. In a dialogue,
of the Group
The power of the
group could be compared to a laser. Ordinary light is called "incoherent",
which means that it is going in all sorts of directions; the light
waves are not in phase with each other so they don't build up. But
a laser produces a very intense beam which is coherent. The light
waves build up strength because they are all going in the same direction,
and the beam can do all sorts of things that ordinary light cannot.
Now, you could
say that our ordinary thought in society is incoherent - it is going
in all sorts of directions, with thoughts conflicting and canceling
each other out. But if people were to think together in a coherent
way, as in a dialogue situation, it would have tremendous power. Then
we might have such a coherent movement of communication, coherent
not only at the level we recognize, but at the tacit level for which
we have only a vague feeling. That would be even more important.
that which is unspoken, which cannot be described like the tacit knowledge
required to ride a bicycle. It is the actual knowledge, and it may
be coherent or not. I am proposing that thought -thinking is actually
a subtle tacit process. 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. 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. But now we have to
get started again, because it has become urgent that we communicate,
to share our consciousness. We must be able to think together, in
order to do intelligently whatever is necessary.
The point is that
this notion of dialogue and common consciousness suggests that there
is some way out of our collective difficulties. If we can all suspend
carrying out our impulses, suspend our assumptions and look at them,
then we are all in the same state of consciousness. In dialogue the
whole structure of defensiveness and opinions and division can collapse;
and suddenly the feeling can change to one of fellowship and friendship,
participation and sharing. We are then partaking of the common consciousness.
Science is predicated
on the concept that science is arriving at truth, - at a unique truth.
The idea of dialogue is thereby in some way foreign to the current
structure of science, as it is with religion. In a way, science has
become the religion of the modern age. It plays the role which religion
used to play of giving us truth; hence different scientists cannot
come together any more than different religions can, once they have
different notions of truth. As one scientist, Max Planck, said, "New
ideas don't win really. What happens is that the old scientists die
and new ones come along with new ideas." But clearly that's not the
right way to do it.
This is not to
say that science couldn't work another way. If scientists could engage
in a dialogue, that would be a radical revolution in science, - in
the very nature of science. Actually, scientists are in principle
committed to the concepts involved in dialogue. They say, "We must
listen. We shouldn't exclude anything."
find that they can't do that. This is not only because scientists
share what everybody else shares, - assumptions and opinions - but
also because the very notion which has been defining science today
is that we are going to get truth. Few scientists question the assumption
that thought is capable of coming to know "everything". But that may
not be a valid assumption, because thought is abstraction, which inherently
implies limitation. The whole is too much. There is no way by which
thought can get hold of the whole, because thought only abstracts;
it limits and defines. And the past from which thought draws contains
only a certain limited amount. The present is not contained in thought;
thus, an analysis cannot actually cover the moment of analysis.
People will, however,
come to a group with different interests and assumptions. They are
basic assumptions, not merely superficial assumptions-such as assumptions
about the meaning of life; about your own self-interest, your country's
interest, or your religious interest; about what you really think
We could also
call assumptions "opinions". The word "opinion" is used in several
senses. When a doctor has an opinion, that's the best assumption s/he
can make based on the evidence. The doctor may then say, "Okay, I'm
not quite sure, so let's get a second opinion." A good doctor does
not react to defend the assumption-if the second opinion turns out
to be different, s/he doesn't jump up and say, "How can you say such
things?" That doctor's opinion would be an example of a rational sort
of opinion, one not defended with a strong reaction.
Opinions can tend
to be experienced as "truths", assumptions that we are identified
with, and which we defend. But as long as we have a defensive attitude-blocking
and holding assumptions, sticking to them and saying, "I've got to
be right-"then intelligence is very limited, because intelligence
requires that you don't defend an assumption. The proper structure
of an assumption or of an opinion is that it is open to evidence that
it may not be right.
are very powerful and you are not usually aware of them, just as you
are not normally aware of an accent in the way you talk. Other people
can tell you that you've got one, or if you listen carefully you might
find it. But the accent is part of your culture. A great deal of your
assumptions are part of your culture, too, and this comes out in relationship.
that "to be" is to be related. But relationship can be very painful.
He said that you have to think/feel out all your mental processes
and work them through, and then that will open the way to something
else. And I think that is what can happen in the dialogue group. Certain
painful things can happen for some people; you have to work it all
This is part of
what I consider dialogue-for people to realize what is on each other's
minds without coming to any conclusions or judgments. In a dialogue
we have to sort of weigh the question a little, ponder it a little,
feel it out. You become more familiar with how thought works.
It isn't necessary
that everybody be convinced to have the same view. This sharing of
mind, of consciousness, is more important than the content of the
opinions. You may find that the answer is not in the opinions at all,
but somewhere else. Truth does not emerge from opinions; it must emerge
from something else-perhaps from a more free movement of this tacit
Dialogue may not
be concerned directly with truth-it may arrive at truth, but it is
concerned with meaning. If the meaning is incoherent you will never
arrive at truth. You may think, "My meaning is coherent and somebody
else's isn't," but then we'll never have meaning shared. And if some
of us come to the "truth", while a lot of people are left out, it's
not going to solve the problem. You will have the "truth" for yourself
and for your own group, whatever consolation that is. But we will
continue to have conflict. Therefore it is necessary to share meaning.
Our society is incoherent, and hasn't done that very well for a long
time, if it ever has.
There is no "road"
to truth. In dialogue we share all the roads and we finally see that
none of them matters. We see the meaning of all the roads, and therefore
we come to the "no road". Underneath, all the roads are the same because
of the very fact that they are "roads" - they are rigid.
There may be no
pat political "answer" to the world's problems. However, the important
point is not the answer, - just as in a dialogue, the important point
is not the particular opinions - but rather the softening up, the
opening up, of the mind, and looking at all the opinions.
dimension of the human being, where we have a considerable number
of people, has a qualitatively new feature: It has great power-potentially,
or even actually. And in dialogue we discuss how to bring that to
some sort of coherence and order. The question is really: Do you see
the necessity of this process? That's the key question. If you see
that it is absolutely necessary, then you have to do something.
We should keep
in mind, nonetheless, that the dialogue is not only directed at solving
the ills of society, although we do have to solve those ills. But
that's only the beginning. When we have a very high energy of coherence,
we might get 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 cosmos. 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. This, then, is what I mean by "dialogue". I suggest that through
dialogue there is the possibility for a transformation of the nature
of consciousness, both individually and collectively. That's what
We usually start
a dialogue group by talking about dialogue-talking it over, discussing
why we are doing it, what it means.
I propose that in a dialogue we are not going to have any agenda.
As soon as we try to accomplish a useful purpose or goal, we will
have an assumption behind it as to what is useful, and that assumption
is going to limit us. We are not going to decide what to do about
anything. This is crucial: Otherwise we are not free. We must have
an empty space where we are not obliged to do anything, nor to come
to any conclusions, nor to say anything or not say anything. It's
open and free. As Krishnamurti used to say, "The cup has to be empty
to hold something."
Nor are we going to have a leader. That's a harder problem as the
whole society has been organized to believe that we can't function
without leaders. (It may be useful to have a facilitator, whose
function is to work him- or herself out of a job.)
A group that is too small doesn't work very well. If five or six
people get together, they can usually "adjust" to each other so
they don't say the things that upset each other. When you raise
the number to about twenty, or up to forty, something different
begins to happen,- you begin to get what may be called a "microculture".
You have enough people coming in from different subcultures so that
they are a sort of microcosm of the whole culture.
The point is not to establish a fixed dialogue group forever, but
rather one that lasts long enough to make a change. It may be valuable
to keep the dialogue going for a year or two, and it is important
to sustain it regularly. If you sustain it, it cannot avoid bringing
out the participants' deep assumptions which the group is not going
to judge or condemn. It is simply going to look at all the opinions
and assumptions as they surface.
When you sustain
a dialogue you find that there will be a change in the people who
take part. They themselves behave differently, even outside the dialogue.
Eventually the change spreads. It's like the Biblical analogy of the
seed-some are dropped in stony ground and some of them fall in the
right place and they produce tremendous fruit.
article was excerpted from David Bohm On Dialogue (transcribed and
edited by Phildea Fleming and James Brodsky from a meeting with David
Bohm. To order, write: David Bohm Seminars, Box 1452, Ojai, CA 93023).
© 1990 by David Bohm.