David Bohm and Owen Barfield: a conversation

This is a summary of an exchange between the physicist David Bohm and the philologist Owen Barfield, and others, that took place on 1st and 2nd May 1982 at the Kettering Foundation.

The occasionally broken transcript was given to me by Rob Lehman of the Fetzer Institute who facilitated the meeting.

The exchange ranges over issues from insight and imagination, to evolution and education, to time and language, to souls and spiritual beings.

Knowledge and insights

Bohm leads the first part of the conversation. He outlines the idea that “knowledge tends to get caught in grooves and compartments which become rather rigid” and so hinders further perceptions. “Insight is what dissolves these grooves and compartments and opens the way for reason and imagination to engage in fresh perception.”

An example is that of Archimedes. The standard methods for measuring the volume of gold in the crown with calipers and rulers couldn’t work and, worse, they stopped him from imagining any other, until he had his famous bath. What’s notable, now, about that moment is his excitement. “Eureka!” he shouted, running with no clothes on. “The point is that a very intense energy was needed to break through this compartment.”

Bohm then moves onto his “predilection for the derivation of words which I think gives insight into their deeper meanings”. Take, “truth” coming from “straight” as in “true line”.

He point outs that knowledge “grooves and compartments are a form of distortion. They hold you rigidly fixed and lead to self-deception in the long run.” School, work, habits all unintentionally condition us with such distortions. Insight is needed to be free of this, though “insight has to be not only into blocks and barriers but into the source of what we call the non-straightness of thought. That is, its crooked, twisted nature.”

What transformation needs, therefore, is “attention to the thought process itself. That is to consciousness as a whole.” This requires getting back to the meaning of words “which I agree with Owen Barfield so much.”

He touches on some of the words associated with thought including “proposition”. It’s a key one because “people say propositions are either true or false. I think that’s one of the fundamental mistakes.” He prefers beginning with a proposal for further discussion and exploration.

Categories and polarities

He also discusses another word associated with thought, “categories” from the Greek to gather, which too can become fixed. “We are run by these categories if we don’t give them our attention.”

Intelligence is different, though. “Intelligence involves paying attention to what is between the categories, not in them… We have to be able to negate a set of categories to see their limitations.”

So categories have the positive aspect that gathers their set members but which also, therefore, prompts a negative aspect that undermines the category. Categories, therefore, exist as polarities – general and particular, independent and dependent, connected and disconnected, cause and effect, inner and outer, subject and object, one and many, real and unreal, immediate and mediated, concrete and abstract, necessary and contingent, absolute and relative.

If you focus only on what positively gathers members of categories, you therefore see only part of reality. It’s why positive thinking is superficial. “You know, all these admonitions to think positively all the time. They may make you cheerful but they lead you into very fixed categories.”

He’s emphasizing the importance of being aware of what’s in between categories by considering their polar opposite, because the consequences of the categories we use “are enormous. Our whole world has resulted from them, our whole world of society and technology and all that we do.”

“Our whole fate has been determined by these categories and by the fact that we generally don’t pay attention to what they do. Therefore they have been running us by and large.”

Play and reality

He now turns to another etymology, “ludary” meaning to play, which is a root for all sorts of words, including words to do with thought, such as illusion, delusion, collusion. “I say that thought is always play whether it’s playing false or playing true or straight.” Thought is about play because it always needs room for intelligence to keep it participating in reality, not leaving it stuck in grooves.

He moves onto the idea of thought participating in reality by saying that “thought which is adequate, correct to its content or its object may be said to be the very essence of that object… In other words, the object is not complete as it were without that thought which is its essence.” But also, “we can transform the object in accordance with the thought so we can make it very different.” An example is two people from different nations who, with a different thought, can be seen not to be different but to have much in common.

This means that the totality of that which is lies beyond categories because categories always abstract from reality. The category is formed by overlooking certain similarities or differences. This means that the totality of that which is, or wholeness, lies beyond thought.

“Wholeness is not finally, ultimately capable of being grasped as an absolute totality… Wholeness is unbroken, seamless, free flow of action and thought.”

But there can be an awareness of this wholeness that is beyond categories, though categories always creep in, hopefully without too much rigidity.

It’s why “perception” may be a more useful word than “logic” when it comes to knowledge because whilst logic has its part, perception in its root means “to take hold of thoroughly”, whereas logic is merely the perception of how categories are organised.

He then links this to Barfield and Coleridge’s discussion of fancy and imagination. “Fancy occurs through categories” – either a fantasy that associates different members of a category or leaps to another category. The movement is generally automatic and not under consciousness direction. It may or may not be useful.

But is there a creative imagination that is different and that is opened up by insight because genuine creativity is not the same thing as the free flow of fancy – the latter being determined by categories?

Mathematics and metaphors

An example would be a metaphor, which works when it brings two elements together, from two different categories, in order to point to a third thing beyond those two elements.

Mathematics is, in fact, the same because an equation equates two things that are different in order to find out something else. “In a way, an equation is a metaphor. And you can see that when you can get a new insight and a new perception into some other dimension.” [An example might be Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. Energy was thought to be one thing, mass another, but it turns out they are connected by the square of the constant that is the speed of light.]

Bohm then begins to turn to the notion of imagination, though throughout the conversation he remains wary of the term because he feels it is too closely linked to images, and he feels that limits it. “I’m going to say that the role of imagination, the main role, is to display”, which literally means “to unfold”.

He also says something about the intentionality of creativity – deep intentionality that “is a kind of energy which is potentially capable of form and structure but it begins of course entirely implicit… and it unfolds through our thought and feeling and so on”.

Energy and learning

It also involve this energy, as was pointed out by Piaget too, who sees learning as “an outflow of energy”. Learning involves energy because it’s an interaction between an object coming in, an accommodation of that object, and then an assimilation of it. Think of a child reaching for a bright object and then learning that the lightbulb is hot.

Learning is this dynamic; constantly developing. In the case of the child, the light bulb goes into the category of bright objects that burn. At first, it may conclude that all bright objects fall into this category. But when it learns to pay attention as it builds categories and may discover that there are bright objects that don’t burn.

“You see when you gather within categories you’re not giving much attention”, though it saves energy. “But that will limit the attention and we cannot discover anything new that way.”

So deep intention is attention without use of categories. And this is what can be called creative imagination leading to the insights that transcend grooves.

Awareness and intelligence

However it must also include a further kind of attention, into the state of mind. “I would like to include within insight not merely the content which you’re thinking about or happen to be interested in but also include insight into the state of mind which is searching, which is looking. Insight into the barriers of perception. This is insight as a whole… It’s the whole situation that counts and not just that particular category that you call interesting.”

“Insight therefore is a quality which cannot be located anywhere in space, time or with a certain person.

To put it another way, awareness of the state of mind is needed if this kind of insight is not to make you dizzy. Because of the disorientating nature of being beyond categories, the thought itself has to be aware of itself. “It has to be aware of its own movement.” In particular, thought has to be aware of when it creates categories, so that it doesn’t become confused as if they were a separate reality.

An example of such confusing would be using the category of “computer” to think about reality and then treating the category of “computer” as if it corresponded to reality.

When this happens it becomes impossible to explore further. All that happens is the confusion between display and reality becomes more rigid.

To combat this risk any category or image must be played with. And if you mistakenly give importance to something that’s not important, you’re not being serious. “Idol worship would be a case in point where the image gradually becomes taken as an expression of independent reality.”

“Intelligence requires that images and categories… shall flow freely and dissolve… Intelligence is a perception, an attention, which is between and allows new categories to form or the old ones to go.”

Also, it is important to be careful not to make a fixed category of “undirected attention” itself. The point is to be between undirected and directed attention.

“Modern society with its technology has produced an extremely great direction of attention and to rather narrow regions with very little space for this free movement. I think that therefore this technology is having a harmful effect on us psychologically.” What’s lost is a kind of natural, free-flowing alertness.

He also thinks people make the same mistake when learning to meditate. They take it that this or that technique or method will awaken us. But to be awakened is to discover what’s stopping us, which might be the method or technique.

Consciousness and process

After a break, Owen Barfield takes the lead in the conversation.

He begins by remarking that there’s much that Bohm has said that he’s in agreement with and that the “redemption of education from its present state” is very much part of that. He decides to continue by highlighting a few points.

First, knowledge. “What is needed is a radical change in the conception of what knowledge is.” But this, then, raises other issues like what is meant by self and also by laws of nature. “The key point of all non-discussed thought systems is that they wind up dispensing with thought altogether and that becomes a problem that we seem to be up against.”

Second, Barfield also couldn’t agree more with Bohm’s stress on the importance of questioning everything to develop insight. However, he thinks that encouraging children or immature minds to do so might not produce insight but “slick young smart alecks”.

A third point has to do with language. It was reading Bohm’s Casuality and Chance in Modern Physics, which was “a kind of bombshell”, that made Barfield realise they share a deep interest in language, not only in relation to the history of language but the development of consciousness that the history of language evidences. They are both interested in language and the evolution of consciousness because language can become trapped by the categories of a particular era, which is why Bohm proposed the idea of the rheomode or flow of language.

Bohm replied on the issue of language. “I think categories should be thought of as a flux of process rather than as a thing. Consciousness has been categorized as thought, feeling, desire, will and possibly impulse to act, a few other categories, and we could say these are some of the principle factors of consciousness.” But the very fact that we describe it that way tends to fragment consciousness.

There is also the distinction between the inside and the outside, “the distinction between I who am thinking and the table I’m thinking about.” Although when we think about things that are inward – my anger, fear, pleasure – that distinction is harder to make. So any fixed categories of a psychological and material nature can prevent free attention because we may not see what they exclude that lies between them.

But there is also a process, a flow when the content of one category passes into another. This flow may then develop new content, new categories, such as the relationship between thinking and feeling, thinking and will. Things may start to look very different. [The innovation of metaphors and equations comes to mind again.]

Hence, people may justify their anger, fear, pleasure for specious reasons in order to separate themselves from their anger, fear, pleasure. “So therefore you see that thought is not independent of the state of feeling nor is the will, right?” Instead, what’s going on in states of mind as a whole could be watched in awareness.

The good and the necessary

There is then discussion in the wider group of how everyone wants the good, and everyone has deep intentions of the good, but that people can easily become confused about the good and what it means.

Bohm continues by remarking that the notion of the good can be thought of as highly implicit, which is why it’s hard to define and find agreement upon. That implicit content then has to unfold into something explicit. “It’s like the vacuum which I think is full of implicit content – immense content – but in itself is no thing.”

He then makes some remarks on his notion of the implicate order. “It might eventually be proved to be exhausted into some larger scheme. I don’t want to say it’s an absolute final truth but rather it’s a flow of thought into a larger area than we have had, right?”

“Each thing can be seen as necessary in one context and contingent in another. In totality, it is both necessary and contingent. So in the totality, if there were one, necessity would ultimately become identical with contingency. But at the same time obviously we intend a difference between them.”

“[Hence] we say that as you move toward the absolute then we must get beyond categories. The absolute itself isn’t a category but it’s a direction, a pointing.”

Knowing the implicate order

Barfield takes up the conversation by remarking that what most people mean by thinking is within categories, as Bohm was discussing. So one way of putting the question is “is it possible to know the implicate order except as explicate?”

“I think it is but whether that should be called thinking, I don’t think I’m capable of doing it or to a very small extent anyhow. I think it is and I think almost everything in the future may depend on more and more people become able to do it.” It may be better to call the implicate order as the source from which thinking comes.

Bohm agrees that, in general, we become conscious of the implicate by making it explicate. And becoming conscious of it requires attention to the content and to the process of thought.

He draws an analogy with television. The image you see is mediated, and the immediate is the electron beam making spots of light. That’s the immediate actuality, converted into the image by categories of thought.

There’s a question about values from others present, and whether Bohm is smuggling in values as absolute when he argues that categories should be watched. Bohm realises that this is part of the problem of the dialectical approach. It can seem inconsistent and question begging: “That in the very attempt to make a question about our troubles we include the assumptions that we should be questioning.”

This is where he turns back to the idea of establishing a proposal for discussion, rather than a proposition that’s to be considered right or wrong. And also of awareness as to how deeply ingrained the categories being used are, both in individuals and in societies.

Art and freedom

There is then a question about how this links to religious categories, such as that of sin: the limitations in thought, desire, will that we come up against by virtue of being human. Bohm agrees that is a way of talking about it. He also says it’s a problem of language that has a long evolution and so is very complex in its associations.

A further question comes up about whether there is the possibility of a new language, as Bohm has proposed, and how that links to the theological questioning about the adequacy of language in relation to the word of God. There is also discussion of the role of poetry, dance and music in relation to moving beyond categories and finding new languages. So shouldn’t artistic perception be part of the discussion about education?

Bohm takes up the thread. “I think reason itself should be regarded as an art you see, like anything else.” He points to the etymology of art, as in “made to fit”, as in the words article, artisan, artifact, articulate. Hence, too, technology comes from techne, or craft, which is what the artisan possesses.

This also points to what can happen when technological effectiveness increases. It might be said to stop thinking because what fits is assumed to be right. This leads to a psychological cost when the true thinking or artistic play is lost. It’s not just about blind unthinking repetition but is the active engagement of perception, attention, sensitivity, embodiedness and so on.

A questioner says that art also draws our attention to how we see and so fosters the ability to see more freely, critically and better. Bohm responds by remarking that it is a mistake to think of the artist as a special kind of person. That said, “a great deal of what is called art is actually not creative but it is fancy” in the way Coleridge defined it, and as was discussed earlier.

The principle of uniformity

After a break, Barfield picks up the conversation. He talks about the principle of uniformity – that laws of nature are the same across time – which is assumed as fact in science in many different ways. In particular, on it rests Darwinian evolutionary theory, though he thinks that might be being questioned.

Barfield also stresses the risks, in thinking about the implicate and explicit, of concluding too quickly that everything is a whole. As Plato argued (in the Philebus?), there is a danger of unthinkingly adopting that as the ultimate truth as there is a danger of unthinkingly adopting the many as the ultimate truth. The latter leads to alienation, the former to “apocalypticism” – a “rapture” in search of the whole.

There is another question of whether it is possible to think in language beyond the notions of cause and effect. But much like the relationship between the many and the whole, Barfield doesn’t think that the answer is to turn to non-discursive perceptions alone, as if it can move beyond categories and thought, but rather to combine the principles underlying science and art.

Knowledge beyond the phenomenal

He believes this is possible because it is also possible to gain knowledge of the non-phenomenal world, even if it’s beyond language. It is possible to bring back knowledge and experience from across the threshold, so to speak, and clothe it in thoughts and language. To put it another way, the individual who has left the Platonic cave can come back into the cave and communicate an idea of what the world outside the cave is like, and what this means for life in the cave.

Barfield believes that this is what Rudolf Steiner was able to do, for example. His perception beyond the threshold leads to an ability to expound things that have utility and that can be informative. Barfield says he is “not qualified to speak about it at great length” but that this is the “sort of knowledge I feel must be acquired it we are to get ourselves out of the mess we are in.”

In the conversation, this is related back to Bohm’s discussion of how ordinary knowledge gains new insights. It would be via imagination, inspiration and intuition that comes from beyond the phenomenal and beyond accepted categories that shape phenomena. This can be cultivated via the kind of exercises Steiner described, which are in part about intensifying the attention to thinking as you are thinking.

Barfield continues. It’s also about coming to knowledge of all that we are beyond the material aspects of reality. Coming to knowledge of oneself as a soul is to come to knowledge of the reality of souls. “A person who has not attended to a direct knowledge of the independent existence of his own soul as an immaterial subject, such a person has no capacity to know the existence of an immaterial world.”

“You always know a spiritual person because a spiritual person is a person who knows that the reason his body feels the way his body feels is because he in his soul chooses that his body feels this way.” It’s why spiritual people can say they neither feel nor see evil if they choose not to. Augustine was one to say something like this.

Knowledge of yourself as a soul independent from your body is “the first step… Every 14 year old, I think, is capable of it.”

Abundance of spiritual being

There is also the question of the relation between spiritual beings. “It’s quite clear as Plato says, and as the whole tradition says, they indwell one another, and one of the amazing things is that once the principle of indwelling is discovered then we can say souls lives within souls live within souls in an almost endless abundance of riches and chain of being.”

People can learn what this experience is like, much as they can learn what the experience of throwing a rubber ball is like.

Barfield is more optimistic about language too. He proposes, via the theologian Jonathan Edwards, that “God created the physical world as basically a language that would be adequate for our describing our spiritual experiences.” The physical world is not just “accidentally the case that we can use it in a rough way, but it’s attuned to its very purpose, so the physical world is intrinsically symbolic, it is aiming to be, if we may say this, understood and taken up in language.” As is sometimes said, that which is revealed remains hidden in what’s apparent.

An analogy would be the word “chair”, which is not any actual chair, but is something immaterial, a thought, related to any actual chair. “If words can do it, I see no particular reason why the world which words express for us shouldn’t themselves do it.”

Another way of making the point is to challenge the assumption that what’s in the mind isn’t real, and that only what’s outside the mind is real, which language symbolises. What makes more sense is, as Anselm of Canterbury put it, that things are real in at least two senses: outside the mind, inside the mind and in the mind of God.

Hence: “a word is the reality of a thing inside the mind. The word ‘tree’ is a reality of the tree in the mind.”

The reality of the spiritual

If this is so the adequacy of language to spiritual experience and spiritual reality doesn’t arise because “the spiritual world, the language that is appropriate to it, is already one kind of reality. The question is, what is the relation of this kind of reality to the realities that are outside the mind?”

Barfield relates to the time when his son, John, said that he’d seen “2”. The reality of twoness had entered into his mind. This is the kind of primordial experience that is the foundation of all our experience.

The conversation moved to how qualities need to be treated as realities as much as quantities. Then the world can be perceived as spiritual. But that means challenging modern assumptions about primary and secondary qualities which profoundly shape our categories.

Evolution and uniformitarianism

Barfield is then asked about the status of Darwinian evolution, and whether it is just a fantasy, a truth or is misinterpreted?

“Oh, I have no doubt that the principle of natural selection has played a part in the development of the species and of the animal and vegetable world as we know it, but the – where the Darwinian went wrong, and to a large extent, I think it’s part of the development of neo-Darwinianism – is to assume it’s the only instrument that brought it about. And I think that this is not part of the Darwinian system, but it’s that without which you couldn’t have the Darwinian image of evolution – this notion that the laws of nature, as we have propounded them with our post-Cartesian intellect, are admittable and eternal and therefore can be applied with confidence to the past and present. That I think is a fantasy.”

The challenge, Barfield continues, is to the uniformitarian hypothesis: that laws of nature are unchanging in eternity. [Bohm will return to this issue later in the conversation.]

The conversation then turns to the three ways of knowing that Plato treated – empirical, discursive and mystic. Plato became so interested in education because he realised that utilising all three ways of knowing required utilising the total self.

All still exist now only, because of the education people nowadays receive, they don’t talk to each other much. Philosophy has tried to become a science, for example, and so has lost touch with the mystical. Alternatively, the mystic tries to prove itself against the empirical and discursive. Plus, there is the mechanistic insistence that no explanations must come from outside, as in purpose or final causes.

Maybe, therefore, uniformitarianism can be understood as a “narrowing and an atrophying of certain faculties within the human being”. We stop being able to see how changes inside correlate to changes outside, and hence that there is also change in the quality of experience, whether they be external or internal; material or psychological. This is what needs to be recovered if we are to recover the eye of the soul or the intuitive sense of the heart and challenge uniformitarianism.

Discontinuity in life

I think Bohm then remarks: “I really was glad when Owen put these things on the board, because I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole problem, that most of human experience is in fact discontinuous – I mean, even the act of waking up in the morning, for God’s sake. You know, it doesn’t have to be exotic.” But there are also psychic experiences that are discontinuous with the world as presumed by physics and uniformitarianism. “The question of discontinuity also operates in the realm of what Owen was talking about, of how you acquire knowledge of that other world.”

Someone uses the analogy of a skyscraper that represents the intersection of thousands of individuals labouring together. “Well, why isn’t in a sense our world a bit like a skyscraper, that – here is Owen’s point about the plural number of immaterial realities building this world – many, many spiritual beings building this world.”

Bohm (I think) then continues, pointing out that feeling you are the work of many people may be part of the “sickness of the modern period” because the inner and the outer have become alienated. “I mean, to me, there’s only this world, this life, and that’s all I believe, and all this other stuff, that I have being fragmented and so on, is essentially the reflection in my own life of modernity that has become unavoidable.”

However, he also continues: “Maybe Owen’s right. We’re not ready for rapture and wholeness in any kind of instantaneous sense. Certainly I couldn’t take it. I have to muddle with fragmentation for a whole but nevertheless, you asked me why and I guess, I can’t prove it, but it’s a conviction that I have that the universe is whole.”

The nature of time

After another break, the group was joined by Paul Harden, President of Drew University. He sets an agenda for the third session, asking Bohm to discuss time, Barfield to discuss language, and then the group to consider education and personal social change.

Bohm begins on time, noting that the assumed constancy of natural laws is based on the assumption that time is a fundamental reality, when it’s quite natural to think of it as a relative – a category of past, present and future.

He notes various paradoxes associated with time. For example, if the present is the point between the past that no longer exists and the future that doesn’t yet exist, it means that the present is a point between two realities that don’t exist. “And it would seem that in some sense an attempt to understand time collapses, if you consider time to be a concrete actuality.”

Time as an abstraction is easier. Perhaps it’s like a map, he proposes, that orders a territory but leaves out an enormous amount and may be wrong, too. Psychologically, he’s inclined to see time as thought, which in the modern period we have come to experience quite mechanically [hence the experience of clock time].

From the standpoint of the implicate order, it’s important to recall the notion of unfolding. “Consider a totality which is implicit, you know in the sense that we do not say anything about it explicitly, and we then say out of that unfolds a moment… Moment comes from the word ‘movement’ and you can think of a movement of a symphony as a moment if you like. Or moments would have varying lengths. You see a moment of history might be a century, it might be a day, it might be a second. In atomic physics, it might be much shorter. Moments structure inside each other and so on.”

“Now what we say is that in principle in this way of looking at it, each moment is a projection of the totality which could be called eternity, if you like, but eternity is now not just the total of time but rather beyond time.” There is, then, a succession of moments. The past in the present is an abstraction of the past. Similarly, with the future in the present as well.

Thought, too, takes time and so is in relationship with this succession of moments, as opposed to simply being in a static present. Also, time allows for “injections from the explicate order into the implicate again”. Hence, there’s “a continuity of the past along with some new.” This would be an explanation of time.

Time and uniformity

Time could also be organised on various scales. “You could say the Greeks had the notion of an eon as a really long time. Different eons had different qualities, I understand. But we say that each moment is in a larger moment, and so on. And the larger moment is implicit in it, is enfolded in it. Each moment has its eon enfolded in it. So therefore its quality might be different.”

Physics today might say that the material structure of the world has been the same for a very long time, but even physics does not say forever, if you go back towards the Big Bang or come close to black holes. Then the physics changes. “So physics already in a way recognizes the principle [that uniformitarianism might be wrong], but it might be far more extensive than is commonly recognized.”

Alternatively, if time is a question of ordering successive moments, there’s no reason any particular order should be final. Nicholas of Cusa might be said to have had a direct perception of this notion in some way, with his ideas of implicatio, explicatio and complicatio.

“So I think that this would all support what [Barfield said earlier] as a possibility, anyway, although it’s a question of a matter of fact whether, say, the laws of matter were appreciably different say 100 million years ago. That we cannot, you know there’s no direct evidence, no solid evidence you can say now it’s generally assumed that way.” Bohm also wonders whether life might have to be considered as part of a different order when it comes to time because the life of the mind is different from the ordering of inanimate matter.

Grounding the implicate order

There is some discussion about whether Bohm’s implicate order is grounded in what’s beyond it. Bohm says it might be, but thought is not going to capture that. “I’m trying to say that this is all implicit.” And when you make something explicit, you reveal and you conceal. Reality itself is totally implicit. “It is subtle”.

Bohm continues: “I’m trying to say another mode of consciousness would not be based on the time process, perhaps, but would be, if I could put it, some direct contact with the implicate order. Now I think that is possible. In fact, it’s not necessarily uncommon, but not noticed perhaps, that for example if we are listening to music then… a number of notes may be sort of present in consciousness at once and I think they’re in different phases of unfoldment in consciousness. So the co-presence of all that is felt to be the movement of all that is felt to be the movement or the content of the music.”

The same would true of language. There’s the explicit content of a word but also its implicit movement. Meaning arises from the implicit as well as the explicit because we are, at some level, aware of both elements. Further, it’s broadly an assumption that as thoughts come, lots of assumptions slip in too, as if from the implicate order. “No system can be complete.” Bohm likens this to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

Thoughts thinking through me

Barfield (I think) takes over at this point, saying he experiences thinking differently. “It’s like Heidegger would say, thinking is thought thinking through me…. that our job is not to produce thought but our job is to put our mind into thought so that thought can actualise itself, or thought can be present in our mind. I want a word like open illumination.”

“Now I experience that as psychologically much truer to the way that thinking takes place.” Also, Barfield continues, when you find contradictions, you are forced to struggle better to discern the structure that’s antecedently there.

Bohm replies that thought is generally experienced as mechanical, as one thing after another in the mind, but that it may not be. Perception and insight would be instances of non-mechanical thought.

Language in education

Barfield takes up the issue of language. He says that the way he would try to free people from the trammels of mechanistic, lifeless thought is by concentrating, first, on individual words rather than the structure of language. And he would do this from an historical perspective. It would highlight the relationship between inner and outer worlds because if you trace back the meaning of words, you always come to a material, a sense perceptible, a phenomenal element. This is true even if the word now is purely abstract, purely subjective.

The discovery links to Emerson’s idea that all language is fossilized metaphor. However, Barfield would then question the Cartesian inference that’s drawn from this fact, namely that the early meanings of words were phenomenal and then inner or spiritual meanings were drawn from them as metaphors. This can be shown to be wrong because words, in their earliest forms, had both inner and outer meanings all along. There never was a “metaphor stage”.

“To put it crudely, if you imagine a very primitive man talking about grasping he wouldn’t be able to distinguish grasping with his mind from grasping with his limbs.” You probably see something similar in babies now when they’re grasping. Apprehending something is both physical and mental.

There follows discussion of how using language, even in the everyday, draws on the spiritual wealth of language. This is what gives it meaning, and it’s what a computer doesn’t have, for example. That language “trails its clouds of glory” is present in Bohm’s idea that the explicit requires the implicit to give it movement and meaning; and in Barfield’s idea that words touch inner and outer realities from their origins, rather than outer meanings becoming metaphors for inner experiences.

Structuring education

Educationally, this could be highlighted by contemplating the inherent musicality of language, in song, poetry, rhyme, resonance, word-play. It would reveal the power of words and language by experiencing that power.

Barfield also talks about the value of discussing Coleridge’s idea of imagination, which is close to Bohm’s idea of insight, and then reading Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants. It becomes clear that the imagination is close to scientific inquiry. In other words, science could be taught as an imaginative exercise as well as one of cause and effect.

There, then, follows a point about the need for initiation to move beyond language, perhaps via some very difficult experiences or traumatic rites. Barfield replies that there may be a place for such things, though probably not in education. Also, he stresses that the resources that are available in language are not being utilized so that seems a good point to build from. At the very least, it’s worth showing that language is more than a computer-like or mechanical activity because it draws on an inner, implicate and spiritual vitality.

There’s also the point about timing in education. If you try to introduce the implicate or divine too early, when the explicit and phenomenal is uncritically engaged, then the subtler points are likely to be missed.

A further point is made about whether words are the way we experience language, which is itself unspoken. This is why it’s interesting to meditate on the moment before a word is spoken. A difference might reveal itself when the word spoken doesn’t match the intention of what was trying to be communicated. In fact, intentions always shape experiences and give them their meaning by framing and interpreting the experience. “The intention colours the whole thing,” Bohm remarks.

Medievals wrote about what happens before a word is spoken in relation to the heart, intellect, memory and so on. There is also the relationship between the Word of John’s gospel and spoken words, Barfield points out. The divine Word may be implicit in the spoken words; concealed in the revelation.

Thinking as participation

“Thinking is not an abstract activity about something… It’s more like uniting with the phenomenon, a participation with the experience, and that kind of thinking brings us into a language,” Barfield continues. “And the language of thought is really the language of participation in experience and the thought is not something that one generates in the brain but that one, as it were, receives…”

“One does generate and yet is receiving,” Barfield adds. “And that is the nature of thought. The mind is related to thought as the eye is to light. But the eye has got to look, and the mind has got to look at, the mind’s eye has got to look at it deliberately by an act of attention or will. When it does that, when, as you say, it’s really merging in the objective, individual nature of thought itself.” It’s what Coleridge referred to as “the mind’s self experience in the act of thinking.”

The conversation draws to a close. Barfield finishes his thoughts by commending the work of Steiner as a way of developing insights. Bohm finishes by stressing the flow between language and what is beyond language. The two aspects, the polarity, must always be born in mind.