Three years ago, at the last UNESCO world conference on adult
education, CONFINTEA V, we adopted a major shift of focus. "Adult
learning", i.e. "the entire body of learning processes
taking place, formal or otherwise" has become the new frame
of reference for adult education.
"Culture" and "integration into society"
encompass all processes of human learning from birth to death
- an even wider field - to which a large number of scientific
disciplines devote their work. Over the last decades these disciplines
have produced important findings undermining many widely accepted
notions relating to thinking, language, and culture. It seems
that time is ripe for a new synthesis of thinking about human
thinking, learning, language and culture.
The process of elaborating such a new synthesis has started.
Findings from a variety of fields will have to be incorporated.
The needed cooperation of specialists is forthcoming. The next
major step in that process will be a conference in Vienna in
the fall of 2001, where scientists from anthropology to biology
and the neurosciences, from linguistics to social psychology
will tell us what they consider to be those among their many
findings that ought to be integrated into that new synthesis.
Clearly, our thinking about culture and integration into society
cannot remain unaffected by that paradigm shift in the making.
Most of what enters into a new paradigm is not new. Paradigm
shifts are based on available knowledge. Existing bits and pieces
of knowledge are rearticulated around a few new concepts and
shifts of emphasis lead to some reconceptualizations. What are
considered to be the core phenomena often changes. At
the end of the process we see a new synthesis appearing.
This paper introduces the notion of "polylogues",
which may turn out to become one of the key notions in the process
of establishing the new synthesis, and some of the rearticulations
among the findings of a number of disciplines in a sketch of
what "learning in polylogues" implies and results in,
and how this relates to social integration into societies and
The part on polylogues starts off with considerations on human
nature and human learning, next the notion polylogues and the
mechanisms at play are sketched and, finally, some of the consequences
of its introduction are discussed.
Human beings and their experiences are unique
When talking about cultures and integration into society we
are talking of human beings, of human behaviour and human learning.
Thus, we have to start with a few facts about human beings in
general, about the ways our brains and human experiencing work.
Human beings are living creatures. Living beings are not static,
but develop, undergo change. Living implies intakes from and
outputs to the rest of the world. Living beings are no isolates.
Window-less monads could not live.
"In populations ... there are no two individuals, which
are the same; neither are there two identical populations of
a species, nor two species, two higher taxa, societies, and so
on ad infinitum [...] Wherever we look in nature we discover
uniqueness, and uniqueness is tantamount to diversity."
The human brain does not work like a computer. Hardware and
software cannot be distinguished. The wiring of the neurons (the
architecture of the brain) is at the same time the programme
according to which information processing functions. Anything
the nervous system knows about the world must be embodied in
its wiring (Singer 2000). Brain and body are indissociably integrated
by mutually targeted biochemical and neural circuits (Damasio
A child is born with a complex architecture of neuron assemblies
which is an embodied result of processes of selection and adaptation
during evolution of the species. According to present knowledge
there are two main types of changes after birth which influence
the working of a brain, both of which are caused by the specific
experiences of an individual: changes in the wiring and changes
affecting the functioning of existing connections. Structural
changes in the wiring are results of experiences made during
the early years of life. Experiences after the age of puberty
lead to changes in the relative efficiency of existing connections
and to structural changes at the molecular level. (Singer 2000)
Each and every stimulus configuration contributing to experiences
of individual human beings is also unique - given the physical
impossibility of receiving the same set of sensory informations.
As a consequence of genetic uniqueness, the uniqueness of
sensory informations received, and of the unique experience-dependent
changes in brain and body, each human experience is unique. It
also follows that every human being has its own unique history
The major challenge in developing the new synthesis
The reason for elaborating the trivial point about human uniqueness
is that any new synthesis - in order to be scientifically acceptable
- must be compatible with the uniqueness of every human being,
of every human experience, and of every human act. The task is
to show how - what is received - combines into flow configurations,
how these unique sequences can lead to what we call learning,
and to explain how human beings can communicate among themselves
despite the fact that what goes on in each participant in a communicative
process are unique sequences. It, thus, appears that the major
challenge in developing a new synthesis of thinking about thinking,
learning, language and cultures is to bridge uniqueness and sameness/similarity
in one and the same explanatory scheme.
We learn by bits and pieces as they link-up with already available
traces. Learning takes place as a process of activation of neurons
whether as a follow-up to information received by the senses
or by stimuli from other parts of the body or brain. Learning
is an all life, everyday bodily activity - a twenty-four-hours-a-day
process - resulting in changes in our bodies. Processes in the
brain also suggest that learning is not only learning something
new. (Connections among neurons which are activated jointly in
the same on-going flow tend to get stronger; if not they tend
to get weaker.) Thus learning leads either to establishing new,
to strengthening or to weakening existing traces of earlier experiences
and, in that process, to creating or to rearranging available
But human beings are not only 'learning animals'. Human beings
are also 'social animals', living together with a multitude of
interactions taking place among them.
The term "polylogues" refers to the interactive
processes actually taking place among human beings - whatever
the setting, the forms of action and expression, the constellations
of actors and the sequences of action. The notion groups the
innumerable interactions taking place among the unspecified many
or a specified few. It is conceived as an ensemble of processes,
as ensembles of such ensembles, and as ensembles of component
processes, which are the specific interactions actually taking
place in their respective settings, among specified actors and
in the specific forms and sequences in which they are enacted.
Polylogues take place among ensembles of individuals,
the composition of which often changes - from instance to instance,
from event to event. Polylogues overlap. Individuals participate
in a variety of polylogues. Individuals commute between different
situations and, by the same token, they commute between the respective
Polylogues are pluri-actor situations - of a type that has
been called "figurations" by the sociologist Norbert
Elias - in which the individuals involved keep changing roles
from being actors to lookers-on and back, situations the outcomes
of which are not predetermined despite the fact that most of
the acts of individuals are planned to produce specific outcomes.
Learning in polylogues
Learning in polylogues is learning about others, is learning
about how others - physically present in the same situation as
oneself - behave, is learning how they react to what is going
on around them and around oneself, including one's own behaviour
and that of others. What we call 'learning something' from others
is not an additional but the same process.
If someone intends to communicate 'something' by gestures
or words all we are exposed to are the gestures and the words,
all we see are movements, and all we hear are sound sequences.
Meaning does not travel (Bresson 1963).
What we call a process of communication between two persons
consists of the behaviour of the two persons involved and of
the two complex processes going within them. What our senses
pick up when we learn 'something' from others are informations
about their behaviour which we interpret with the help of our
earlier experiences of interpreting movements and sound productions
of human beings in (one or the other of) their respective contexts.
Knowledge does not exist by and of itself, but by way of carriers,
living or dead. Knowledge - in its living form - exists as the
unique experiences of individual human beings, its 'social carriers'
(Edquist and Edquist 1979). By the very nature of its ontological
existence knowledge can never be intersubjective.
But knowledge can become plurisubjective. Communication processes
in polylogues are neither purely individual nor purely social
- they are also socio-individual in nature. Reducing them either
to only their individual aspects or to only their social aspects
creates fictions which have no counterpart in real life.
The separate processes in individuals become socio-individual
by the influences one exerts on others. This influencing involves
behaving, sensual processes and processes of calibrating on both
sides which may lead to dissonances, corrective actions and changed
interpretations which are time-lagged in a variety of ways. These
interactive processes lead to a stereotyping of both actions
and interpretations. They can never become identical but they
can become similar enough for many practical purposes.
With language humankind has developed a very effective means
of communicating with other human beings in which the content
of what is being learned no longer depends on physical presence
in the environment. But how does that work, given the new insights?
I suggests that what we call language has to be completely
reconceptualized: Language is an interrelated set of techniques
of hinting at the experiences of others (Haselbach 1998) - the
use and interpretation of which is learned in polylogues.
Development, re-creation, and change of languages and cultures
As people commute between polylogues some of their experiences
spread. Participants in polylogues are of different age. Polylogues
involving parents and their children are pluri-generational.
The ensemble of polylogues in which the same language dominates
or the overlapping of which is based on territorial proximity
is also pluri-generational. Re-creation of language and cultural
behaviour over generations is the result.
That people commute between polylogues also allows to understand
how one and the same person develops different sets of behaviour
and of interpretation for different situations (e.g. meeting
a friend / meeting a celebrity) and for different life-worlds
(e.g. work place, leisure, home) the commuting among which takes
place frequently or even daily.
That human beings learn in polylogues helps to understand
how cultural habits are acquired, how children learn the languages
they hear and the ways of behaving they are faced with, how group
cultures develop their common jargon and habits, how international
scientific communities develop their disciplines despite the
distances separating them in space and despite the great differences
in cultural background. And it helps to understand how languages
and cultures are created, re-created, and change and pervade
Some consequences of thinking cultures in terms of polylogues
Thinking 'culture' in terms of 'polylogues' brings about a
change from a bird's eye view of culture and from a view
in which the concept 'culture' is constructed on the basis of
distant cultures, whose workings one does not really know - both
of which are views which lead to a reified concept of culture
- to a process view of culture according to which cultures
are being recreated day by day by human action, a view which
allows to see culture in the (re-)making in the workings of one's
At the same time it reinterprets culture as a plurality of
overlapping and intertwining polylogues and rids the notion 'culture'
of all aspects of homogeneity.
Summarizing the part on Polylogues
What I am suggesting is
- that an enormously large part of learning takes place via
exposure to and action in polylogues
- that polylogues are the processes in which languages and
cultures are created, re-created and change
- that cultures are the results of human beings specializing
in the behaviour of those other human beings they have been and/or
are in contact with - processes of specialization which, again,
take place in polylogues, and
- that culture is not a phenomenon related to ethnicity but
the result of human interaction in polylogues
"Polylogues", then, is the new word for cultures
and languages in the making.
It reintroduces the human actors - and, with them, history
- into the thinking about language and culture, allows to take
the uniqueness of each and every human being seriously, and stresses
that much of our interpretative experience is learned in processes
of social interaction.
POLYLOGUES AND INTEGRATION INTO SOCIETIES
Let me consider two groups only: children being born into
the society and newcomers who have been raised in cultures with
important different traits.
The processes of growing up into a culture exhibit the characteristics
of the processes of participating in polylogues described above.
But what does my overall argumentation imply for integrating
1) that society, like culture, is not a totality, but
consist of a multitude of actors, institutions, and sets of man-made
artefacts. It follows that societies are ensembles the coherence
of which is of the kind of the famous metaphor used by Ludwig
Wittgenstein in discussing the meaning of meaning, the metaphor
of a thread, the strength of which »does not reside in
the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but
in the overlapping of many fibres« (Wittgenstein 1953,
§ 67). Both the fibres and the thread develop by being exposed
to and interacting in polylogues.
2) that integration into a culture and into a society
with all its aspects - getting the information, adapting one's
physical and interpretative behaviour, and readjusting what one
accepts as valuations in specific contexts - takes place in polylogues;
3) that it is absolutely natural for everyone in a
society to participate in and to commute between a variety of
polylogues all of which have their cultural specificities;
4) that commuting between a number of polylogues with
their different cultures is the actual practice of almost everyone
in most societies;
5) that the commuting of newcomers between polylogues
which are part of the ensemble of polylogues dominated by the
language and culture of the receiving country, on the one hand,
and polylogues in which the language and cultural patterns of
their countries of origin dominate, on the other, is as natural
as the commuting of all the other people in that society.
It also implies
6) that integration of newcomers into the local society
is likely to be faster if situations and institutions exist and
events are created in which newcomers and locals participate
and can learn in common polylogues.
7) that it is as important to motivate carriers of
the local cultures as it is to motivate the newcomers to participate
in such polylogues
8) that interest in the other culture(s) and the readiness
and motivation to listen and learn from their carriers on both
(or all) sides is what makes such polylogues work in the most
The major obstacles to such participation and, by the same
token, to integration into the local society should, then, be
out of the way.
If the newcomers feel accepted, respected, and taken seriously
in their behaviour, if they experience that the local people
are as willing to learn from them as they are willing to learn
about the local culture, if they also experience that their participation
in their own varieties of polylogues is accepted, - in such situations
integration into society is likely to work.
Promoting such polylogues and making them work leads at the
same time to local people learning more about the peoples, cultures
and societies of the world - an additional value not to be neglected
at a time in which globalization is the dominant process in the
© Arne Haselbach 2000
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