How can the Pragmatic Philosophy of John Dewey Make a Contribution to the Theory and Practice of Intercultural Communication?

  • Stephen Holmes
  • Contemporary Pragmatism, August 2016, Brill
  • DOI: 10.1163/18758185-01303002

John Dewey's ideas and Intercultural Communication

What is it about?

This article is about the question of how the ideas of John Dewey can contribute to the theories and practice of the discipline of Inercultural Communication. I suggest there are four Areas of Dewey's ideas that can be considered potential contribution: 1) Mainstream IC has focused mainly the the human ability to discern difference between your own and the other culture as the key to measuring intercultural sensitivity. I maintain that the ability to recognize similarities is just as important. Both can be experessions of monocultural projections in communication. 2) Mainstream IC overwhelmingly focuses on competence. There is a widespread dead silence in the literature about the here and now of performance. Dewey's ideas of potentiality and interaction can help fill out the missing half of intercultural competence. Both an awareness of competence (potentiality) and of performance (interaction) is absolutely necessary to improve intercultural communication skills. 3) Dewey's idea of habit can help us to understand the learning aspect of culture. This is further supported by the idea of pattern which can be deepened by its presence in American anthropology and by Bateson's emphasis on the "pattern which connects." I am hopeful that a dialogue between Dewey, Hall and Bateson can also lead to new applications in IC training. Inquiry into how the word "culture" is used is more important than the definition. Many of us in the fields of anthropology and IC are a bit tired of discussing the many definitions of culture that are offered in our textbooks. 4) Dewey, Ed Hall and Gregory Bateson have all suggested that the idea of rhythm deserves a closer look, as opposed to the widespread assumption in the West that the dualism of subject and object is the basis of knowledge, and therefore communication. I think this deep habit in the West leads to a mechanical, lifeless dead end in practice.

Why is it important?

The important point in this article is that Intercultural Communication as a discipline has numerous blind spots. I try to Show that many of the ideas of John Dewey together with some rereading of Ed Hall and G. Bateson could be of great help to move forward out of our own deeply rooted ethnocentrisms. Focusing on performance can also open ourselves up to learning from the arts (ex. dancing) which have a deep knowledge of it. This opening up could have an immense impact in how we plan and conduct our training.


Dr. Stephen L. Holmes
Pref. (Retired) Hochschule der Wirtschaft für Management, Mannheim, Germany

This article is a culmination of doubts and frustrations during my professional life as a trainer and teacher of Intercultural Communication. Since my retirement I have finally had the freedom to read more into the philosophical foundations of IC, which includes rereading the classics like Hall, Bateson, and William James. I have also been quite excited with the exploration across disciplinary lines, which I did not have enough time to do when I was a professor and trainer. I have finally found some passion.

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