Where is the ecology-of-thought?


In the book ‘Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together William Isaacs takes the idea of the ecology of thought into a different direction. From his work with physicist David Bohm, ‘Dialogue’ is provided as the answer. The question that answer then prompts is seen to be the problem of: “Why have we not learned to think together?” In a courageous step, Isaacs actively inquires into the ‘architecture of the invisible’ being the visceral sense of the field of conversation. He writes:

“But in dialogue we look at the dynamic fields that arise in each moment, continually shifting, among groups of people and large organizations. Where a system is a set of interrelated and interdependent elements, a field of conversation derives from the ideas, thoughts, and quality of attention of the people involved here and now. It involves not only the interpersonal forces but the force of the ideas at work.” (p. 236)

What is being described as an ecology-of-thought is a ‘complex web that links us all together’ as the ‘living network of memory and awareness, one that is not limited to any single person but is in fact held collectively’ which informs us the world is a certain way and that problems can be solved in only a certain way (p. 35). This is the ‘internal ecology’ of human beings, where our own inner worlds are seen as part of a wider living system.

Here Isaacs takes the bold move of extending traditional conversation theory, such as the complexity patternings of Gordon Pask (1976), and distinguishes the ‘local ecology’ of connections in direct speech acts from the non-local effects thoughts and feelings have on our relations to the physical world. These relations are seen as having a role in setting up tensions in the ‘material of our awareness’, which are operating both in our metaphors and in memory. It is, according to Isaacs, in this patterning that the pathology of the incoherence of thought lies. The challenge is to transform from the experience of memory the habits of thought. It is Dialogue that provides this path.

This premise of changeability is what leads Isaacs to conclude that, for groups of people, the ‘sea in which they swam’ can be altered by awareness. This result confirms a belief that ‘while we ‘have’ an ecology of thought, it is not ‘what we are’.’ (p. 339). If we are more than the ecology of our thought enacted, how might we then influence its potential for future enactment?

What is identified as the key problem is the ‘pathology’ of thought which Isaacs gives four specific identities – ‘abstraction‘, ‘idolatry‘, ‘certainty‘, and ‘violence‘. These are said to reinforce the experience of fragmentation. Their counterparts are proposed as four principles for Dialogue – participation, unfolding, awareness and coherence (p. 69). When seen together, there is the gentle experience of an ‘apithological turning’ from dysfunction to health.

To elucidate this, abstraction is explained as the action of ‘extracting out’ meaning by divisions, that are then made real. By ‘participation‘, we re-connect ‘recalling the ways in which we are an intimate part of the world around us’ which is ‘in us’ (p. 56). In idolatry, there is the action of ‘confusing memory with thinking’, like when we evoke a collective representation or image from our pre-perceptions. Its antidote is to allow ‘unfolding’, like the tree that unfolds from environment, seed, soil, air and another prior tree. In certainty, our partial understanding is held as comfortingly complete, with the fixated grip on the fragment inflexibly held. By a turn to ‘awareness’, we can entertain multiple viewpoints at once, perceiving the motion and allowing change. Then in violence there is literally an undue use of force, an imposition in defense by a defenseless weakened volition. Its antidote is offered as ‘coherence’, which is already present (and need not be forced) and so is already receptive (not requiring insistence).

This is a wonderful example of the inquiry and care needed in proposing an ‘apithological turn’. By this insight, Isaacs explicitly draws from David Bohm’s concept of ‘Thought as a System’ (1992) and extends it, moving from a mere reflex action in which we are caught, to one that can become ‘reflexive’ and conducive. By active means we can perceive the structures as ‘predictive intuition’. Making these explicit as the theories-in-use operating, reflecting Chris Argyris’ work and influence, there is a remedy to defensive discourse enabling the ‘quality’ of thought to be formed by the thinker. This is the practice of ‘thinking together’, well.

This work is more than merely learning to listen, or talking together. There is a perception of an assumption that the quality of the interaction alters the potential for unfoldment. This involves us seeing causation differently. Isaacs quotes Bohm (1983) to explain:

“Typically, when you plant a seed, he said, you assume it will cause a tree to grow in its place. The seed causes the tree to grow, we say. But the total environment could be seen as unfolding into a tree-the air, the soil, the water-all emerging from a common, “enfolded,” or invisible, source and then appearing in the world. In this sense the seed is the aperture through which the tree unfolds. … To find and speak our own voice is to sense the potential that is present and waiting to unfold through us. In this sense we are the seed through which a new reality unfolds, emerging from the “implicate order”.  (p. 63)

What becomes interesting at this point, is to take the premise of changeability and reflexive capacity and to consider the exact extent to which the ecology of thought allows for transformation of its own structures. While the flows through an ecosystem help to define its functionality, it is the structures of complexity that defines its capacity, its resiliences and its productivity in the production of Life in the realization of the ‘living’.

This leads us to explore the question of what is the ‘life’ that is to be found in the limits, limitations and rich potentials of the ‘ecology of thought’, within which we all are presently unfolding as emerging and novice seedlings?

© willvarey (2013)


1. Isaacs, W. (1999) ‘Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together’, New York, NY: Doubleday.

2. Pask, G. (1976) ‘Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology’, Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier.

3. Bohm, D. (1994) ‘Thought as a System’, London, UK: Routledge.