Ironically named, physicist David Bohm (1917-1992) worked on the Manhattan Project. during his later years, he conceived of dialogue groups as a way to deal with problems threatening mankind.
David Bohm’s On Dialogue is not merely about talking; it is about thinking. More to the point: it is thinking about thinking. Not only does Bohm contemplate the nature of how thought affects both human awareness and human behavior, but he also argues that individuals need to be aware of how they are thinking. He calls this process “propsioception.” This self-aware thinking is needed because many of society’s problems are rooted in its patterns of thought. During propsioception one is aware of his thoughts, but not necessarily judging or resisting those thoughts. Negative thoughts and emotions are witnessed, but there is no attempt to interfere with them. This kind of thinking makes genuine dialogue possible.
The dialogue process that Bohm suggests begins with a large group of people (at least 20) who meet together for an extended period of time and agree to one simple purpose: to talk with
each other. A true dialogue session according to Bohm’s method has no other purpose. Dialogue is not a debate – it has no winner or loser. Neither is it pragmatic in the normative sense. Its purpose is two-fold: to make one listen, really listen, to the ideas of others while also requiring one to be aware of one’s own presuppositions. Like Steven Covey, Bohm wants people to seek first to understand, then to be understood. The hope is that this process has a synergistic power that allows all who participate to become part of a group mind – aware of the ideas of the other party and not emphatically defending one’s own ideas. Dialogue is Bohm’s suggested response to increasing societal fragmentation. In addition, dialogue groups have the potential to birth genuinely new ideas.
Certainly there is a real benefit in being aware of one’s mental and emotional state. The person who practices propsioception when angry will discover that simply being aware of one’s anger has an ameliorating effect. What Bohm proposes has a therapeutic dimension, but that is not the main point of the exercise. In spite of its benefits, certain pragmatic questions about propsioception need
to be answered. For example, meta-thinking can become a sort of infinite regression. Does one need to be self-aware of the propsioception process? To Bohm’s credit, his concern with thinking is correct. Human thought patterns do seem to have a certain destructive bent. Consider the near unbroken chain of wars throughout human history, or even the trend toward individual greed for the sake of personal peace and prosperity at the exclusion of others.
In spite of its potential benefits, the book still lacks an important practical element. Bohm does not satisfactorily develop what to do after one is self-aware. He does encourage one to consider what root issues might be behind negative emotions, but he does not explain precisely how to do that. Indeed, though the original emphasis of the book is to create community by building dialogue groups, the propsioception process itself is highly individualistic.
Bohm’s dialogue groups will not nd a broad reception in a Western capitalist society. The policy makers and people managers of Western society do not have the patience to sit in a room for no other purpose than to talk with people of a different mindset. However, a modified version of the Bohm dialogue group would work. In this model people would meet to discuss an actual issue, or attempt to solve a very real problem. Time and space would be set aside for real listening, with the hope of creating genuine understanding.
Bohm’s concern for a society that has a sense of shared meaning is warranted. The growth of families choosing increasingly diverse educational programs for their children, the loss of a unifying metanarrative, and the growth of specialized media outlets continue to challenge the possibility of a democracy based on some common assumptions. This threatens more than social unity. How can an increasingly pluralistic (and even polarized) society be governed? The worst option: totalitarianism. Applications of Bohm’s concepts are necessary for democracy to thrive in America’s increasingly diverse culture with multiple forms of media. Too often those media sources serve merely to reinforce presuppositions rather than to actually inform minds with new ideas.
Teachers who lead seminar discussions could use Bohm’s principles to guide their student’s conversations, with the modification that their particular dialogue will have a specific goal. This approach would be similar to Mortimer Adler’s Paidea model. Anyone who desires to converse about ideas, and not simply argue their own point, can benefit from this brief text.