Arne Haselbach (2000)

Learning in Polylogues
On processes of social insertion into overlapping cultures

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 cultures.

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." (Mayr 1984)

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 1994).

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 of learning.

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.

Human learning

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 knowledge.


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.

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 societies.

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 own cultures.

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.



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 newcomers ?

It implies

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 efficient way.

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 world economy.

© Arne Haselbach 2000



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1 Slightly revised version of a paper delivered at the conference "Adult Education and Culture, Working Together" (Helsinki, 7-10 Sept. 2000) - published in: in: LLinE - Lifelong Learning in Europe 4/2000, Helsinki 2000, pp. 196-200.