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Bohm and the Unfinished Recovery of Somatic Epistemology

Bohm and the Unfinished Recovery of Somatic Epistemology

by Michael C. Cifone

The overwhelming crisis of our age seems to be, as many have pointed out, the deepening loss of a rootedness in our bodies, which, at the same time, means a loss of authentic community with the natural and social worlds. The inner and outer dimensions of life are falling apart.

Bohm called this cataclysmic shift in human consciousness ‘fragmentation,’ and devoted his most important work, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, to an investigation and articulation of what he called a ‘non-fragmentary world view.’ ‘If [man] thinks of the totality as constituted of independent fragments,’ Bohm wrote,

then that is how his mind will tend to operate. But if he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without a border…then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole1.

Bohm was obviously worried about the important connection between thinking and being, and this realization has led many to claim that a worldview is also a way of life, that is, a being-in-the-world. This is something that psychologists like R.D. Laing and Rollo May also realized, and something that philosophers (and, we hope, scientists) are again realizing2. Thought and concept are not separate realties from the reality of our bodies and ways of being. Physics, then, does not constitute a separate domain of inquiry from psychology, or philosophy, for example. These now-separate disciplines are deeply related: they have a common root in the body. A problem or deficiency in our worldview (scientific or otherwise) is, therefore, a problem with our being-in-the-world.

So, this, as I understand it, is the problem of fragmentation Bohm wrestled with over the course of his life. To heal the soul-sick man, then, is to also reconfigure his science, to reorient man and his thinking back to his somatic roots. Most of Bohm’s work in physics, consequently, was devoted to clarifying the essential discoveries of modern physical science that point away from fragmentation and toward wholeness, and Bohm’s work outside of physics proper was devoted to achieving wholeness where it counts: in human beings themselves (in our bodies), as we dialogue, and, therefore, as we relate to one another in real life.

But what, in my opinion, remains obscure is the connection between Bohm’s physics of wholeness and his work on human dialogue and consciousness (what you could call the more ‘spiritual’ part of Bohm’s work). It remains obscure because the somatic basis of Bohm’s thinking remains in the realm of thoughts and ideas.

In the now quite large literature on Bohm’s philosophy and science, what we often find is much talk of an alternative model of reality where, according to the ‘Implicate Order,’ physical (material) processes and the thought process are unified, a worldview in which ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are not separate but form a continuum or ‘unified field.’ We also find much talk of the relationships between Bohm’s thinking and the thinking of philosophers such as Whitehead who also take a ‘process’ view of reality where the mind/matter distinction does not (or cannot) arise (as it does in the Cartesian-Newtonian world view). And we can even find ‘applications’ of Bohm’s philosophy of wholeness in the corporate/business world3. Put simply, we find much talk and much conceptualization and some implementation.

All of this is important work. All of it is necessary (to a certain extent, anyway). But all of it continues to miss the point, I think, which is not about ‘frameworks’ or ‘process philosophy’ or healthy business leadership at all. Nor is it about (mere) ‘models’ of reality, important as these intellectual tools are in themselves. In my view, all of this participates (perhaps unwittingly) in the very problem of fragmentation itself, and does not in itself constitute authentic alternatives to it (there are, after all, authentic as opposed to ‘counterfeit’ wholes, as Henri Bortoft likes to say).

As I understand Bohm, he was trying to develop a way of proceeding with natural science in which it is (at least) possible to relocate human experience—what I am calling ‘somatic’ or bodily epistemology—so as to truly, authentically, overcome the mental/bodily isolation implicit in modern scientific consciousness since the seventeenth century and which now grips man in this age of what Neil Postman called the ‘Technopoly.’

Bohm’s most important suggestion, then, was methodological, rather than primarily ‘metaphysical4.’  So when Bohm talks about the interdependence of mind-matter or the ‘undivided wholeness of the universe’ this can only have ‘meaning’ in a somatic sense and not exclusively or primarily in a discursive or ‘rational’ sense (which is what a fully-articulated ‘world view’ really amounts to—a framing of experience with a series of logically related propositions). The ‘Implicate Order’ is, then, a road map to something else—not a ‘metaphysics’ that is to replace the (false) metaphysics of the old, Cartesian-Newtonian sciences with their mechanical philosophies. Missing this somatic basis you miss everything important and meaningful in Bohm, and continue to pursue something more like scholasticism rather than the real thing. Missing this, then, you mistake map for territory.

While I cannot go into the details here (and they are just becoming clear to me as I study the matter more closely), I believe that there are larger (‘macroscopic’) patterns in play that inhibit  the recovery of the body within physics (and science more generally). By and large, the body (the source of all true creativity in science and the various human arts) is noticeably absent from most of what goes by the name of science or philosophy these days. And so we have, I suspect, a new kind of scholasticism taking hold of the majority of ‘work’ on the fundamental problems of science and scientific methodology, or, in Lee Smolin’s terms, we are finding more ‘craftspeople’ than ‘seers5.’

It is hard to maintain a balance between somatic and discursive knowledge. The sociologist and cultural critic Pitrim Sorokin argued that there have been rare historical periods where humanity managed to strike up something of this balance (the Greece of Aristotle and the Europe of Aquinas are two of Sorokin’s examples6), but given the overwhelming bias against the actual body in modern institutions of learning and teaching, it is easy to slip into the scholastic coma of mere verbal understanding, to confuse map with territory (the passivity of scholastic debates being an indicator here that you’ve already slipped into this deadening confusion).

This, then, is the challenge that Bohm’s work faces, and this inadequacy can only be overcome by serious somatic work (work with and in the body). I see the opening of dialogues with Asian, Native American and other traditions where somatic epistemology is prominent, as an important step here. The dialogues between students of Bohm’s work (or students of any Western natural philosophy) and Native Americans, Hindus and Buddhists is absolutely crucial.

It is this project of Bohm’s—providing a somatic basis for physics and other ways of human intellectual enquiry—that remains largely unfinished (and poorly understood) in my view. Conceptualizing the world as process and finding a mathematical structure that accords with this way of thinking (the physics of the Implicate Order) is not enough7. Indeed, as Morris Berman put it in his study of this very question, “[w]e are in very murky territory here … no physicist I know of has managed to construct a methodology that directly involves the experimenter in their own experiment8.

The only way out of scholastic ways of thinking and being is to first take seriously the lack of deep body knowledge in most of us who like to worry about ‘fragmentation,’ and to find a serious somatic practice. The first step is, obviously, dialogue: between those trained in cognitive/discursive-style science and philosophy and those who have an authentic somatic practice. The next step is for there to actually be a serious somatic practice in the lives of those seriously exploring the problem of fragmentation.

This inevitably means a long hiatus from the usual academic and institutional quarters where these sorts of things are explored from a cognitive or discursive point of view (for example, working for a long time with Native American shamans, or with Buddhist yogins). It may not lead to any ‘results,’ either, no ground-breaking treatises on ‘somatic science’ (that would probably be the kiss of death in any case). But what this would mean is at least the possibility of a rooted science, a more humane science, beginning with its practitioners.


1 Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. xiii.

2  Even someone like Hilary Putnam, one of the most important thinkers of the ‘analytic’ school of Western Anglo-American philosophy is now, after decades of logical analysis, leaning towards this ‘embodied’ point of view (see for example his recent Jewish Philosophy as a Way of Life). This, is of course, a running theme in the history of philosophy itself, as the historian of ideas Pierre Hadot shows (Philosophy As A Way of Life).

3  I am thinking of Joseph Jaworski’s work on business leadership. See, for example, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership(1998).

4  Though ‘metaphysics’ is going to have to be reinterpreted here from a somatic point of view, the most clear of which we can find in the work of Bohm’s student Henri Bortoft (The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science), and in the work of Morris Berman (for example, in the first installment of his ‘Consciousness’ trilogy, Reenchantment of the World), both of whom draw on a large body of work writers, philosophers, scientists, poets and intellectuals who have has made profound contributions to this question. You get the feeling, reading Bortoft and Berman, that there is an entire tradition hidden from orthodox science and philosophy, a ‘heretical’ tradition as Berman terms it. Bohm is certainly kin here.

5 The Trouble with Physics (2006), chapter 18.

6 See Sorokin’s discussion in The Crisis of Our Age.