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David Bohm on Thought

Recently I wrote an introductory entry about the American physicist David Bohm, a friend of both Einstein and J. Krishnamurti, and an accomplished scientist and philosopher in his own right. Here I want to further discuss his ideas on thought, fragmentation, and wholeness, as detailed in his book "Wholeness and the Implicate Order."

Two of my favorite voices on such matters are J. Krishnamurti and Toni Packer, but neither of them present an overarching framework or theory for their ideas (which makes it harder for Krishnamurti's work to be accepted within an academic setting). As a working physicist and professor, at universities such as Princeton and the University of London, Bohm had the academic focus and bent to present an overall framework for his ideas. For a few entries, I'd like to explore some of this framework.

A key focus in Bohm's work was to understand thought more clearly. In his view, thought, when misapplied, lies at the root of the division and conflict that fragments humanity within and without. Bohm has a more expansive or systemic view of thought than we commonly consider (see also, his book "Thought as a System"), so let's look at how he defines it:

What is the process of thought? Thought is, in essence, the active response of memory in every phase of life. We include in thought the intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses of memory. These are all aspects of one indissoluble process. To treat them separately makes for fragmentation and confusion. All these are one process of response of memory to each actual situation, which response in turn leads to a further contribution to memory, thus conditioning the next thought. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 64.]

The main point here is that thought, as Bohm terms it, is more than simple ideation. It includes the whole movement of memory in its pervasive workings throughout the body and brain. He continues:

One of the earliest and most primitive forms of thought is, for example, just the memory of pleasure or pain, in conjunction with a visual, auditory, or olfactory image that may be evoked by an object or a situation. It is common in our culture to regard memories involving image content as separate from those involving feeling. It is clear, however, that the whole meaning of such a memory is just the conjunction of the image with its feeling, which (along with the intellectual content and the physical reaction) constitutes the totality of the judgment as to whether what is remembered is good or bad, desirable or not, etc. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 64.]

Bohm follows with another essential point, which is that thought is a material process (albeit a subtle one) that operates in a conditioned, mechanical manner; the assumption that thought is ethereal or insubstantial is an incorrect one:

It is clear that thought considered in this way as the response of memory, is basically mechanical in its order of operation. Either it is a repetition of some previously existent structure drawn from memory, or else it is some combination arrangement and organization of these memories into further structures of ideas, concepts, categories, etc. These combinations may possess a certain kind of novelty resulting from the fortuitous interplay of elements of memory, but it is clear that such novelty is still essentially mechanical (like the new combinations appearing in a kaleidoscope).... Now, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that thought is basically a material process. For example, it has been observed in a wide variety of contexts that thought is inseparable from electrical and chemical activity in the brain and nervous system, and from concomitant tensions and movements of muscles. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, pp. 64-66.]

So, this is our starting point, examining not just the content of thought, but the structure and process of thinking itself. We'll elaborate further on Bohm's theories in a subsequent entry.

April 29, 2005 | Science | Permalink


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