Study Guide

Acts of Meaning

by Jerome Bruner

Acts of Meaning Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Psychologist Jerome Bruner believes that the discipline of psychology has been poisoned as a distinctive human science by its fragmentation into subspecialties which look to biology or computer science for their models. In Acts of Meaning (a revised series of Jerusalem-Harvard lectures given in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University in December, 1989) Bruner proposes as an antidote what he calls “cultural psychology.” Interdisciplinary in nature, cultural psychology would draw on the insights of anthropology, literary theory, philosophy, and sociology to probe human self-understanding as it develops within a given culture, as it is acted out by the human agent, and as it is described implicitly in the stories a person tells to explain his or her actions. Such a study does not claim to discover an objective explanation of human action, one not requiring a subjective understanding of “internal” motivation. That, says Bruner, even if it were possible, is beyond the reach of the human sciences. As a constructivist in psychology, he insists that meaning is not “out there” but is constructed in the human sphere of culture.

This position, he claims, does not imply sheer relativism—that all varying perceptions of “how things are” ought to be accorded equal status. Instead, a society must turn pragmatic and ask how it wishes to use a given concept or perspective. That leads to an examination of presuppositions and an exploration of social and individual commitments (such as to the concept of the equality of races) and how the concept might be “acted out.” Still there is the nagging question of personal values: Are they merely irrational, “gut feelings” and the like, or are they carefully chosen, based on some rational principle? Neither is the case, says Bruner; values are not irrationally chosen moment by moment, but they are also not the product of ethical theories, which in his view cannot account for the origin of values. For Bruner, both the rationalist and irrationalist miss the point: “[V]alues inhere in commitment to ‘ways of life,’ and ways of life in their complex interaction constitute a culture.” These ways of life are not easily overturned. Yet Bruner admits that in a pluralistic society value clashes are inevitable; in his view they ought to be resolved by negotiation, not by reference to some supposed metaphysical truth to which everyone must adhere. Cultural psychology, he says, expresses democratic culture; it

demands that we be conscious of how we come to our knowledge and as conscious as we can be about the values that lead us to our perspectives. It asks that we be accountable for how and what we know. But it does not insist that there is only one way of constructing meaning, or one right way.

Bruner’s alliance of the discipline with some of the principles of democratic liberalism may leave him vulnerable to the criticism that cultural psychology, like liberalism, is a product of a particular set of Western values which themselves are not subject to negotiation. Denied any metaphysical support, it is an open question why such values ought to be preferred over other possible sets of coherent political assumptions. That critique aside, Bruner’s elucidation of the ways human beings go about making meaning is clear and engaging. The four chapters of Acts of Meaningdevelop Bruner’s notion of the kind of psychology necessary to study such a decidedly human activity.

Chapter 1, “The Proper Study of Man,” provides historical insight into how the so-called cognitive revolution in the late 1950’s contributed to the shifting of emphasis in psychology toward the computer as the model of choice for the mind. Cognitive science deals with the process of human knowing; by common consent, it was born in 1956, a year which saw a symposium on information theory held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a meeting at Dartmouth College to discuss what came to be called “Artificial Intelligence,” and the publication of A Study in Thinking by Jacqueline Goodnow, George Austin, and Jerome Bruner. The book examined the various problem-solving strategies of its human subjects, moving away from an older psychology which viewed human beings merely as stimulus-response mechanisms whose so-called “mental” phenomena were irrelevant. The book’s impact on the cognitive science community lay in part in the possibility that somehow the human thinking strategies it analyzed might eventually be duplicated by machine. In Acts of Meaning, however, Bruner argues that the computational metaphor of the mind in fact sidetracked the original vision of the revolution of which Bruner himself played a formative role.

What has been lost, he argues in chapter 2, “Folk Psychology as an Instrument of Culture,” is the cognitive revolution’s original focus on meaning and how it is...

(The entire section is 1997 words.)