Bohr, Bohm and Language

By David Peat November 13, 2013

Have you noticed that language can so often get us into trouble? We try to say one thing but it can then  get interpreted in different ways. This is because language is so subtle. For example when Bohr and Heisenberg explored the nature of the quantum world they asked themselves “what is quantum reality”. Heisenberg’s answer was that it lay in the mathematics. But Bohr objected that every time physicists gather round the blackboard to discuss this mathematics they do so in ordinary language. And the language we speak, be in English, Danish or German, contains all sort of hidden assumptions about the nature of space, time and causality. In Bohr’s words “we are suspended in language so that we do not know what is up and what is down”. Do you agree with this? Is that the way you see the world.

Bohm certainly agreed but wanted to go further. He noted that our subject, verb, object languages mirror the world view of classical physics. “The cat chases the mouse”. This has two well defined objects in space and time connected through a verb. This mirrors the Newtonian world view of well defined objects in space and time interacting via forces or fields.

Does that mean we are trapped in the language we speak and with no escape?  Bohm  didn’t agree and felt it was necessary to develop a strongly verb based language. That is a language of process, flow and transformation. He called this the Rheomode or “flowing mode” and tried to experiment with it via staff and students at Krishnamurti’s Brockwood Park School. But he was not that successful and felt that  the mind set associated with our everyday language is too strong, as a result everyone started using the verbs as nouns.

In the late 80s I had been interacting with a Blackfoot elder, Leroy Little Bear, who wanted to meet David Bohm. And so in 1992 he and I organized a meeting at the Fetzer Institute which included other Native Elders.  At that meeting Bohm learned of the Blackfoot language, and that of other members of this language family which are very strongly verb based and that it do not divided the world into categories but into processes. Likewise the Blackfoot world view is one of constant process and transformation. In the last months of his life he had met the language he had dreamed about, and the world view he had pursued.