In his book On Dialogue (Routledge, 1996), the late theoretical physicist David Bohm wrote: “On the whole, you could say that if you are defending your opinions you are not serious” (48). Bohm argues that real dialogue is marked by what he calls a flow of meaning that is shared by all the participants involved. When this flow is present there is shared inquiry into an issue. Rather than individuals holding to their assumptions and putting up lines of defense to maintain them, individuals take a serious look at their assumptions without judging. He writes:
“Therefore, you simply see what the assumptions and reactions mean – not only your own, but the other people’s as well. We are not trying to change anybody’s opinion. 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. Assumptions will come up. And if you hear somebody else who has an assumption that seems outrageous to you, the natural response might be to get angry, or get excited, or to react in some other way. But suppose you suspend that activity. You may not even have known that you had an assumption. It was only because he came up with an opposite one that you find out that you have one. You may uncover other assumptions, but we are all suspending them and looking at them all, seeing what they mean” (24).
This insight and sensitivity into our assumptions, rather than the criticism, deliberation, and judgment of them, can often liberate us from them and help us discover new relations of meaning for change:
“What blocks sensitivity is the defense of your assumptions and opinions. But if you are defending your opinions, you don’t judge yourself and say, “I shouldn’t be defending.” Rather, the fact is that you are defending, and you then need to be sensitive to that – to all the feelings in that, all the subtle nuances. We are not aiming for the type of group that condemns and judges, and so forth – we can all realize that that would get in the way. So this group is not going to judge or condemn. It is simply going to look at all the opinions and assumptions and let them surface. And I think that there could then be a change.” (47)
Now, there certainly seems to be place for the healthy contesting of ideas and the rigorous defense of them. Critical thinking about arguments can reveal weaknesses and strengths that help us understand and develop ideas in new directions. We see this helpful critical assessment in academic conferences, reviews of scholarly papers and books, dissertation defenses, and so on. That said, Bohm’s advice is well-taken given all the debates in which the participants defend their ideas but never change, seemingly endless religious and political conflict, and the overall defensiveness we show in our everyday disagreements with people. All too often we forget that a serious contest of ideas is ultimately not about us and our precious ideas but about the truth.
This, of course, reminds us of Socrates. I think Bohm is writing very much in the spirit of the Socratic method of shared inquiry through questions and a careful assessment of answers in a context where no one is an authority. In ancient Greece the sophists sought to maintain their image at all costs by defending their positions with frightfully clever, although often fallacious, arguments. Their concern was not the truth but power. Socrates, on the other hand, is not interested in his image but wisdom; and if we can get wisdom by looking foolish then so be it. He doesn’t allow his judging, egocentric interlocutors to turn him into someone isolated from the flow of meaning behind a wall of defenses.
Bohm claims his account of dialogue is also integral to how a community of scientists should proceed. In practice, of course, egos get in the way and people draw battle lines, defend their territories, and, as a result, may overlook opportunities to discover new truths. Indeed, Bohm claims this defensive stance in science is well-exemplified in how Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein related to each other: “Bohr’s judgments were based on his view of quantum theory, and Einstein’s on his view of relativity. They talked it over again and again in a very patient way, with all goodwill. It went on for years, and neither of them yielded. Each one just repeated what he had been saying before. So finally they found that they weren’t getting anywhere, and they gradually drifted apart. They didn’t see each other for a long time after that.” (42). This is unfortunate since a suspension of their assumptions might have helped them “move out beyond relativity and beyond quantum theory into something new” (43).
So people, in defending their views to the end, become dogmatic and can thus prevent the discovery of truth. Nonetheless, real dialogue remains a possibility insofar as we start the process wherever we are by allowing meaning to flow by avoiding the dogmatism of defensiveness. Of course, it is easy to be cynical – perhaps defensive – and claim there is very little hope that this dogmatism can be transcended on a large scale. But wouldn’t this view be yet another one of those assumptions that prevent real change?