Thought is an Abstraction
1988
00:00 Bohm

Perhaps I’ll proceed a little now, and go on with what I was going to say, because I think it all ties up—what we were saying about participation. If we come back to this question of thought. We’ve discussed various kinds of thought at a deeper level. And, you see, one important point about thought is that thought is always abstraction. See, literal thought might claim, eventually, not to be abstraction, but to be just a faithful copy of what is. But every thought is an abstraction, you see? That’s the first thing that we have to notice. Abstract means, literally, to take out. It takes out from the concrete context of the actual perception and experience. Something is abstracted.

00:55

Now, it’s clear that whatever you think about it cannot cover everything that would be in the thing, right? There’s always more. And it’s always somewhat different. There’s always surprises. You don’t have everything in thought. The thought clearly is an abstraction. The thought of this rose lacks many of the qualities—most of the qualities—of the rose. It has some of them, at least in some similarity, right?

01:29

So thought is an abstraction. Literal thought has this problem in it that, implicitly, it’s trying to say that it’s seeking the ideal of not being an abstraction, but just being another copy of what is. It is not leaving out anything. I think you can see that there’s always more, and we could say, therefore, by means of thought we could not capture the whole. That’s what I’m suggesting. We can always get more. There’s no limit to thought which you can set, because people could always discover more. Scientists could discover more and more and more. But still, it’s always limited. It’s limited because it doesn’t get all, right?

02:26

The word “limit” means the same as “boundary,” “finite.” See, the word “finite” is just Latin for “limit;” “finish” is the same root. “Definite” means the same thing: to define, to set the limits. Something which is infinite has no limits. Now, there’s several kinds of infinite. There’s several kinds of limits. There’s the quantitative limit; the size of it, or else, the number of degrees, or the number of whatever. There’s the qualitative limit: that everything is limited by its qualities. In order to be what it is, it can’t be something else. A rock cannot be a tree, and a goat cannot be a sheep, and so on, all the way around. So therefore we have qualitative limits. And besides that, everything has limited capacity to take its action. Everything can do something, but it can only do some limited thing, it can’t do everything.

03:31

So you have all those limits. Those limits are represented by categories. We say the sheep are in one category. You put everything together which belongs together and call it “sheep” or call it “rock,” or call it whatever. And then something else—the goats are put in another category. So therefore, thought works by categorizing: it gives a name to each category. And then categories are put together into more general categories, and so on. Into animals, and so on, all the way up. The most general category—a very general one might be matter as a whole. Which physics deals with. Or energy. There is this kind of energy, that kind of energy, that kind of energy, and then there’s energy.

04:23

Now, every category implies a limit. Every name implies a limit. And we’re saying that thought determines limits. It’s an abstraction. It’s something limited. But even that limit is an abstraction. For example, the limit between two fields is a line. But it’s an abstraction. The fields really are one. We may draw a dotted line on a map and say that’s the limit of the country, but there is none. Even when we say this chair is limited, it’s an abstraction. Because at the atomic level it sort of shades into the air and into the surroundings. So at the level at which we’re working that abstraction is okay. It’s adequate.

05:27

So we’ve got everything limited, and we have everything in categories. And thought works that way. Now, that means that whatever we thing anything is, it isn’t. It can’t be. Thought, however, may guide our action. It may constitute a guide or a map of some sort, right? If it’s correct. Now, all of these things are relevant when we’re talking the thoughts we’re talking about. Whether we can do all sorts of things. Is the thing biological? Is it psychological? The two are concepts. Biological is one, psychological is another. They’re both thoughts. You cannot find the biological by looking for it. It doesn’t exist—not as a concrete thing. Nor does the psychological. They’re both abstractions. The limits between them are abstractions. Yes, thought can do other than make abstractions. It’s simply because thought makes them. The process of thought works by making abstractions. Now, these abstractions are then organized to give rise to concepts.

07:36

You can begin to see how thought would develop. Thought is a part of existence. It’s going on electrically and chemically. People used to think maybe it was totally spiritual. But we now know at least it must have a very important component that is material. Because thought is occupying a central part in our structure. You see, thought can produce something similar to perception; the experience similar to perception, but different. It would produce imagination, for example. We’ll go into that later. It can sort of stir up everything in the way it also is connected with felt and physical movements and so on. By thinking, you can decide to carry out a physical movement. So there must be a connection between thought and your physical movement, right? It must be possible for thought to—whatever nerves are required to get your muscles moving, thought must find a way of getting them to fire, right? It’s actually doing that physically. And a man called Eccles has shown that, when you have an intention to do something, you may be conscious of the intention at a certain stage. But before you were conscious of it, electrical activity is recorded for a fraction of a second before you were conscious of it. As you’re forming an intention, something is happening in the brain that you’re not yet conscious of. I might call that the implicate order or something. So your intention to act cannot be separated from the physical. And all of that is thought.

09:19

The thought not only forms abstractions—form higher and higher levels of abstractions, more general; it organizes them—but it forms a concept. Now, the word “concept”—and there’s another word, “percept;” you see, perception—they both have the same root. The same root is the word “capture.” To take hold of. Now, “perception:” to perceive is to capture it thoroughly, according to the Latin. To “conceive” is to take hold of it altogether. A concept tries to grasp some kind of hold. So thought gets organized into concepts, which also, however, are still limited. They’re still abstractions.

10:17

You can get some interesting—I could give two examples of how a concept is formed. There is the well-known case of Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf at a very early age, so that she didn’t learn to talk and she couldn’t communicate. Now, this teacher—Anne Sullivan—found a way which was to play a game with this child, constantly putting the child in contact with various things, and scratching the name on the palm of the hand. Now, for a long time the child didn’t see the point of that game, you see? But she was picking it up, nevertheless, what was going on. Suddenly, one day, she was exposed to water. Perhaps it was standing still in a pail; in the morning. A little bit later, she was exposed to running water. The same name was scratched. And then she suddenly had an insight, which was that everything has a name. Now, as soon as she had that insight, everything changed. She was able to learn language and make sentences in a short time, and to communicate. Whereas, before, she had been, as it was said, like a wild animal. There was a tremendous difference. And, you see, this insight that everything has a name—she had before she had the word “name.” It was a nonverbal insight about the word.

11:51

There was a further point. She could’ve seen this by saying, not only does it hold for water. The same name was scratched, the same feelings were on her hand. The water in the pump and water running. The experience is apparently very different if you don’t know anything about it. And she was wondering why should such different things have the same—if I was this woman, scratching—the same thing for two such different experiences? That was the puzzle. That’s the way insight arises: is to see something that’s very puzzling, something not making sense. And then, suddenly, it made sense because it was all one substance: water. She saw it was all water. That there were two forms of water, with room for any number of forms of water. She could keep on adding to that concept according to experience, and to talking and communicating. She could be told about it and so on. So you could begin to build up the concept of water.

12:55

But it was a much bigger revolution because she had the concept of the concept. That is, she had the source of it. That she saw that it was possible to do this for anything, which, clearly, was due to the fact that this game had been played for several weeks, or whatever it was. And she could see that it was all the same. That, therefore, not merely water, but everything could be done that way. So that was something very general. An insight. And you can see that insight is a nonverbal activity which transformed her life.

13:30

We now say maybe we’re too much in concepts, and we should get out of it. We may need another insight. See, if we didn’t get into concepts, we would never have been able to raise these questions at all. If we had stayed at the level she was, we probably couldn’t survive.

Audience

Are you saying that we can arrive at an insight through a concept? Is that how—

13:54 Bohm

I’m saying—no, she didn’t have—the insight was into the concept. She had a kind of concept. She probably had concepts, but none which had names, right?

Audience

The perception of water [???] nonverbal basis was still the same.

14:13 Bohm

Yes. Well, but she didn’t know about water. You see, it’s very important that she didn’t know that running water was the same as standing water. We can tell that with our eyes by watching how running water becomes standing water. But she could never do that.

Audience

But I mean… tactile.

14:29 Bohm

But it would be almost impossible. How do you see running water turning into standing water or vice versa? It’s because—now, it was entirely due to the name being scratched that she could see that they are different forms of the same thing.

Audience

Although she did have prior experience [???] forms of water.

14:50 Bohm

She had, but she didn’t know they were water, you see? She said these are two different things. She had no way of knowing they were the same thing. You see, now, the concept brings together all the things that belong together. And distinguished it from other things which belonged apart. Because the minute she knew she could make other concepts like a tree, or a house, or something, teacher, which are not water. So therefore, it became possible to bring a new order into her life, and organize it, and to communicate. You see, because she had the name, she could communicate it.

15:25

Now, the name has a tremendous and powerful effect, you see. Without the name it would never have worked. She may have conceptualized before on the basis of some experience, but she could never attach a name to it. Notice that that was done by abstraction. Because the difference of running and standing water is an abstraction. And the fact that you put them together—or keep certain things apart, or put things together—it’s entirely at the level of abstraction. And it was through the name that you can call it up again, and add to it, and change it, so on. Develop it, connect it to other concepts, and begin a process of thinking in an organized way, which was communicable. So you could then pick up other people’s thoughts, and you could begin to engage in the whole process. She became quite good at it, and went to the university, and did all sorts of things which people can do once they pick this up.

16:26

We can get a feeling for it. Can you put yourself in her place—use the imagination—and say, okay, you can’t see anything, you can’t hear anything. You’d never heard of names. You don’t know what they are. You may have some sort of concepts, but they may be just whatever formed by experience in some accidental way. Like, food might be a concept that you could recognize somehow. You would know this was food because of this similar experience all the time. So that when you’re hungry, and then you get food. But then that’s very limited.

17:00

Now then, suppose you were going through this experience of touching all sorts of things, getting different experiences, and having common experiences for certain of those touches. See, I’m trying to discuss what—every time we touch a certain object, it feels different as you touch it in different places. But the same scratches on there. Well, there was, but she didn’t see it. She didn’t see the point of it at all. The insight was first. I said it was an insight into concepts. There is such a thing as a concept with a name. In other words, given her lack of experience and her lack of communication—most children pick this up very quickly because there’s so many ways of communicating it. But given her particular background, she didn’t know this. And giving them the same name.

18:06

Now, if you have vision you could make such a concept without having a name because you see other similarities. For example, you can see the form looks similar. Or you can see this running water slows down and becomes standing water. With the aid of vision quite a few concepts could form, but you couldn’t communicate them. Except in a very limited way. So the point is that there you have an example of insight which changed her life. She might not have survived if she hadn’t had that insight, right? I can’t describe the insight, but you can try to put yourself in her place and see what it might’ve felt like. In acquiring any language you have to go through something like that. And suddenly you understand it. But this was a far more difficult thing. But thinking takes part in it. For example, the teacher was doing some very good thinking. Although it may have been intuitive. She didn’t say it in words. But she must have sensed that this was the key problem. In other words, why did she scratch the name? In other words, therefore, in order to communicate this point, some very clear, good thinking had to take place. If you find that something is happening that doesn’t fit the scheme of things, then that scheme stops operating. But the world is full of things that don’t fit the schema, you see? We’re always encountering it. That’s our trouble, yes.

19:55

If we were free to notice that they’re not fitting, then we would have the insight. Not even that—we’re rejecting the evidence that it is not fitting. It’s not the conceptualization that stopped. That may be just one of the tricks by which we avoid looking at the fact that it doesn’t fit. Suppose you say—you may get some evidence that your prejudices are not right. But you don’t want to take that seriously. So you can say, “Well, it’s true. Some people of that group are okay. But the rest are not.” You start to conceptualize to explain it away. You can explain the evidence away by conceptualizing it in a certain way. But it’s not because it’s a concept that it’s wrong, it’s because your deep intention is not to pay any attention to the evidence, right? Because you want to defend whatever is there.

Audience

[???]

20:53 Bohm

That’s a very subtle and complex question. Like children say: sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me. But in fact, people are hurt by names. So it isn’t clear. Something is going wrong. The thing that you have just called attention to is that the self is a concept. If the name is taken that seriously—that by merely stealing my name you hurt me—therefore, it must be the concept that is hurt.

Audience

[???]

21:21 Bohm

Well, you may have to. Look at it the other way: we’ve got some concepts implicitly. Implicit concepts which are in the way. So we’re trying to bring them out. That’s the first step. And we may contrast them with other concepts which are better, but the insight goes beyond the concept, right?

Audience

So then, we need to do this primary work first?

21:40 Bohm

Yeah. We’ve got to let these concepts be seen, because otherwise they are implicit. And they work. And no matter what our intentions are, they’re going to work the same. You may say, “I realize how silly it is to be hurt by name-calling.” You know? It’s the silliest thing in the world. But if somebody calls me a name, I’ll still be hurt, right? It won’t change it. So that doesn’t prove it’s right to respond that way, but it shows that we understand that there’s something going on there that we have to bring out.

Audience

In order to see this aspect, because [???] the nature of the problem.

22:10 Bohm

Yeah. Being hurt by a name is extremely silly, but wars have been fought over it. Duels have been fought over it. Everything. And people have really become enemies.

Audience

I get hurt.

22:24 Bohm

Yes, but why should I take it that seriously? You see, if it’s only a name and a concept, why should it bother me? You see, the concept is an abstraction.

Audience

If you kick me, you’ve hurt me.

22:37 Bohm

Yeah, that’s exactly what this children’s rhyme says.

Audience

But if you call me a name, I’m hurting myself.

22:43 Bohm

That’s true. Well, it’s the concept that’s hurting you. You see, you’re not doing it intentionally. But the concept is working. You see, it’s like a piece of machinery. And so just as your liver works, your concepts work. I’m not saying concepts are good or bad. We’re trying to just look at them. They’re necessary, they have all sorts of good points, and we couldn’t live without them, but they can cause us a lot of trouble, right?

Audience

Are you saying concepts are a group of thoughts?

23:14 Bohm

Well, they’re organized thoughts, you see? But they’re organized [???]. At least the kind we’re talking about. Or [???] or a figure. Anything that’s recognizable can stand for the name. Now, if we put the name as a word, we can communicate it by talking. Otherwise we might communicate it by writing, or by drawing figures, or by gestures, or in various other ways. See, a gesture could become the name, right? You see, the name is crucial because the name calls up the concept. And also, the concept calls up the name. And the name communicates the concept. It makes it possible for us to communicate. Because all that I am saying is words which communicate concepts to you. Now, these concepts—if we stopped there—they’re empty. But they have a meaning which is behind it [???]. These concepts are abstractions. [???] there’s a meaning behind them.

24:20

Now, literal thought would just stick with the concept. The concepts are all we’re communicating, and the thing in reality is just the same as the concept. That’s the literal thought. We have poetic thought which is much more ambiguous. It doesn’t have a sharply defined concept. And then we have this participatory thought in which concepts play a different role. That really, the actual participation [???] occasion for starting some participation. That’s all different kinds of thought, you see?

25:06

We have to be careful not to condemn concepts per se, because we couldn’t do anything without them. In the same way we can’t condemn memory. We would not be able to have one connected action without memory. But something is going wrong with concepts, as it is going wrong with memory, as it is going wrong with emotions, and so on. It’s all one process. That concepts are being used for self-deception. They’re being used to cover up things instead of being used properly.

Audience

Is it that the concepts are wrong, or they’re being used—

25:42 Bohm

They’re being used wrong. Some of them are wrong themselves, but the main point is: they’re being used wrong.

Audience

They’re being confused with what’s real.

25:52 Bohm

Yes. That’s literal thought.

Audience

If the concept is used for what’s real, it’s never going to work.

26:01 Bohm

Yes, because the concept is an abstraction. It’s limited.

Audience

With thought being all wrapped up—the literal thought—being wrapped up in itself like that, [???] we would have any relationship to what’s called real.

26:16 Bohm

Well, not fundamentally. You see, in a certain area we can make thought that’s fairly literal in the technical area. But it’s not absolutely so, because none of our machines are exactly what we think they are. They break down. They don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They have little faults in them. And they have an atomic structure which we don’t know about, and they have all sorts of things. So that’s an abstraction, you see?

Audience

We have confused [???]

26:48 Bohm

Yes, because of literal thought. The same thing.

Audience

He said [???] convince us to see a picture of forest, and take it as a forest, and almost smell the perfume of the pine trees.

Bohm

As what?

Audience

It may have the power—the literal thought—to convince us that a picture of a forest is a real forest.

27:16 Bohm

Yes. That picture contains everything significant that the forest contains.

Audience

Has the power to be seen.

27:25 Bohm

Yes, well, it has the power—no, the power to deceive is deeper. It will not go without the intention to deceive. This concept by itself doesn’t necessarily deceive. There’s a deeper intention to engage in self-deception in order to defends something, you see?

We now say that thought can be organized into concepts, and produce tremendous concepts like time and space, and physical concepts—relativity theory, quantum theory—all these concepts, right? These structures of concepts. They have great power when they’re used properly. And they produce the concept of the self, the concept of the country, and the concept of everything.

28:32

But we don’t see this happening. You see, this is what we’ll perhaps try to look at in the next hour. We don’t see how it comes about that we are fooled by these concepts. Why these names hurt us even more than sticks and stones. We don’t see why this happens. You see, it’s rather silly we all agree that names shouldn’t matter that much. But names are the names of concepts. Whatever they call you, in the name, there is a concept in it, isn’t there. It’s not just the word. And that concept hurts. Now, apparently, it has a solidity and a reality and a power which, in some way, must be false. Because it’s only an abstraction.

29:29

If we don’t get that straight then—see, that’s getting close to the core of the problem, right? That we can’t see what will be meant by reality or by anything. The process is not reliable, you see? We can get caught up in concepts and mistake them for reality very quickly.

Audience

Thinking has playing false rather than playing true.

29:56 Bohm

Yes, that’s right. Yes, it’s playing false, you see.

Audience

Isn’t that pretty much where we live?

30:02 Bohm

Well, that’s where the trouble—see, I tried to say that yesterday night: that we have this mess going on. That’s it. Nationalism is a concept, right? Since this last war, a lot of nations have been created. They never existed before. They were clearly created as concepts. Now, since then, they seem very solid and real. People fight over them, and die over them, and argue. The boundaries are very sharp, and so on.

Audience

[???] we must take the word for the thing. So we say my country, right or wrong—but my country. What are we saying is real?

30:48 Bohm

I don’t know. You see, that’s what we have to look at. Do I set myself [???] right or wrong is the same thing. People say “me first,” but what is meant by that? You see, number one comes first. The point is: what does it mean? What does “me” mean? That’s what we have to go into.

Audience

Does it have to do with values?

31:07 Bohm

It has to do with value because “me” has a supreme value—or my country, or whatever.

Audience

That changed this concept into something more than just the concept.

31:14 Bohm

Well, the effect—the concept always has a value in it. It affects us. But this has a tremendously high value, which has a very big effect.

Audience

So: you attack my words, you attack my values, and I’ll stab you.

31:30 Bohm

Yeah, but it doesn’t make sense, you see? We ought to get deeper and say we can’t accept this, really, as inevitable. But saying: question it. What is behind it, you see?

Audience

[???] to realize that it’s really wrong what you’re talking about, in essence. [???] to see that it’s wrong. It’s already changed its nature.

31:59 Bohm

We have begun to change its nature, but it will easily slip back if we don’t go deeper. Somebody can say, “I see how wrong it is to be affected by names.” But somebody will say an insulting name and he’ll still be affected, you see? It has to go deeper.

Audience

[???] lie often enough, you believe it yourself. People accept lies.

32:24 Bohm

Yes. That’s part of the whole thing: that the concept becomes reality. The lie is a certain concept.

Audience

Well, we pointed out earlier that it might have something to do with the identification of the self with the name and the—

32:42 Bohm

Yes. It’s all beginning to point to that. But it’s important to notice the power of the name. Even though we know it shouldn’t have that power, but still it’s got it.

Audience

As long as the category of the self contains certain qualities, whatever challenges that is obviously physically going to affect that category. It’s automatic.

33:16 Bohm

Yes. Well, if there’s the category of the self, or the concept of the self, and somebody says something that takes away another concept which takes away the value of it, then there’s going to be a powerful reaction. If somebody says—the concept of self may be: I’m very wise and capable and can do everything right. And somebody says that’s all wrong, you’re an idiot. That’s a different concept. There are two concepts which don’t agree. That concept will upset the whole system that you had there, which was producing a nice neurochemical state all over the body. And therefore, it disturbs the whole body.

Audience

[???] thing that relaxes [???] thing that responds isn’t out of context [???] concepts on top of concepts—

34:20 Bohm

Well, it keeps moving, you see? See, the concepts are not working properly.

Audience

So are you trying to create a new concept by what we’re talking about?

34:31 Bohm

No, we’re just looking at it. I’m trying to say we’re sort of digging into the thought process and trying to get a feeling for how it works.

Audience

The feeling I’m getting is that our individual perception of reality is all based on our individual conceptual nature. But—

34:47 Bohm

Yeah, but most of our individual conceptualizations are collective. You see, that’s the second point. And that’s what we’ll discuss in the next hour. We have the concept that they’re individual, but it’s a wrong concept of it.

Audience

If there’s a collision of concepts, and the mind certainly can handle them [???] battlefield, is that—

35:09 Bohm

Yes, because concepts with high value have power, right? And if they collide, then a tremendous amount of power is released in a conflict.

Audience

Maybe what has invented the high value [???]

35:34 Bohm

It has, you see. That’s part of the memory, too. It builds up collectively that such-and-such is important.

Audience

And there’s people [???] specifically. The people can’t convince themselves that they spiritual, so they [???] tremendous power that… you look at them and [???] power, the whole organism!

36:08 Bohm

Yes, it’s power. And the point is that—see, you have the whole culture, and then there are subculture. Now, the New Age is a subculture of the whole culture. There are other subcultures who don’t like the New Age at all, and vice versa. But they share a common base. The New Age subculture develops certain values with their concepts, right? They not only develop concepts about things, but they develop values. They share them and build them up. And every person there is now a representative of that subculture. And when those values are questioned or attacked, he feels, personally, his whole being is attacked. And the same holds with nationalism and with religion and so on, and a lot of other things. Also with the concept of the self and its excellence, and so on.

Audience

In this inquiring—if it goes along sort of like a knife cutting through things—and as long as it’s cutting through what seem to be simply mental constructions, we’re very fond of it. But then, when it begins to cut the flesh—which is to say, our concept experienced as reality—we tend to shy away from that.

37:27 Bohm

Yeah, that’s only natural, because if the body is attacked it will demand either fighting back or getting away. So that response is carried over into the thought process. The body feels very disturbed. The thought process may say we’ve got to stop this disturbance of the body, so we’ll run away, change the concept to another one which is less disturbing. Saying no, I’m not an idiot. It’s those people who are idiotic. They don’t really understand what I’m up to. The concept is manipulated to make the body feel more comfortable.

Audience

But is that inquiry—[???] the inquiry begins to—

38:17 Bohm

Well, it’s moving on one level, and then it’s got to move into another level. You see, there’s so much confusion at this simple level of words and concepts, we’ve got to clear that up to be able to communicate, see? Our ordinary words and concepts don’t communicate this at all unless we dig into them. If we just went to anybody on the street and started talking about this, they would say you’re crazy, right? Because the words needed to do this have not been built up with them.

Audience

It’s easy to say in this room and entertain this, but to wake up in the middle of the night and realize the implications of it, that’s the time that your attention [???] go through all the pain and feeling and letting go, or [???]

39:06 Bohm

Yes, well, it may not be the end, but it’s like you’ve fallen off for the time being. Yeah, you’ve got to get back on. We’ll come to that: why the concept has that power. It was sort of indicated already with terms of values, but it’s a much subtler question, I think, than that. Because that’s really at the core of the self: this notion of the self which is not making sense. And also the country, and the religion, and all those other things.

I think, maybe, if we’re going to have a break, we’d better have it now, and perhaps make it very short. Not more than ten minutes.



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