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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1997

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.

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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 produced and transferred by human beings who shape and in turn are shaped by their culture. Central to Bruner’s thesis is his understanding of “folk psychology,” a term he defines as

a set of more or less connected, more or less normative descriptions about how human beings “tick,” what our own and other minds are like, what one can expect situated action to be like, what are possible modes of life, how one Commits oneself to them, and so on.… Folk psychology is about human agents doing things on the basis of their beliefs and desires, striving for goals, meeting obstacles which they best or which best them, all of this extended over time.

“Folk psychology” was originally used by cognitive scientists as a term of disparagement, since the mind’s working, viewed through the eye of neuroscience or through the theories of Artificial Intelligence, could be “explained” in principle without reference to beliefs or desires. Beliefs and desires were (merely) unsophisticated terms describing the running of the brain’s own program within its cellular “hardware.”

By contrast, Acts of Meaning is an attempt to restore folk psychology to pride of place in the discipline. Bruner maintains that folk psychology cannot be reduced to a system of logical moves, a kind of human computer program. It is constituted not by logic but by narrative, which provides interpretive meaning in a given context. The culture forms a background against which its members contrast the actions, beliefs, and desires of themselves and others, and narrative is a bridge between the ordinary and accepted and the extraordinary and mysterious. As Bruner points out, in his culture a person going into a post office acts “post office.” Any deviation from accepted behavior is explained, more or less adequately, by resort to narrative: Perhaps the man shouting at the clerk believes postal officials have defrauded him.

Just how the child is ushered into the system of meanings making up a culture is the subject of chapter 3, “Entry into Meaning.” Bruner contends that the human animal is innately attuned to certain kinds of meaning, and that this attunement in fact drives the child’s acquisition of language. Whereas psycholinguist Noam Chomsky theorizes that human beings have an innate capacity for the acquisition of syntactical language rules, Bruner contends that it is the child’s desire to construct a narrative that actually fills language with its meaning. Syntax alone gives no meaning; it is the “push” toward the expression of meaning that determines the child’s language development. Bruner writes that young children understand what they are doing (hiding a ball from a playmate, for example) long before they can express such actions in words. Yet children soon begin to realize that it is not only their actions, but the narrative interpretation placed on those actions, that provides the fullest meaning of what they have done. Narrative puts the desired “spin” on what happened, connecting the action and its meaning with the background of the particular cultural givens.

Finally, in the fourth chapter, “Autobiography and Self,” Bruner provides an example of how cultural psychology might analyze the notion of the Self When introspective psychology failed to produce knowledge of a metaphysical Self the emphasis shifted to efforts to measure, for example, self-esteem and to determine how individuals actually formed their self-concepts. According to Bruner, such studies in turn gave way to insights from the cognitive revolution and from transactional analysis. The former broadened the study of personality from analysis of the feelings and motivations of individuals to a study of how persons come to understand their individuality and their place in society. The latter, borrowed from anthropology and sociology, spoke of a situated self on a continuum with the social world, and a distributed self the product of its interactions with that social world. With these new tools, cultural psychology would study the individual Self in its historical social location and in its social interactions; gone would be attempts to generalize about some absolute, ontological or metaphysical Self acting on its environment. This did not mean that the Self was merely an expression of the forces of society; for the human being, according to social psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen, retains the capacity to review the past in the light of the present, and so change the future. As well, the human being has the ability to envision alternative futures, to shape the world to meet the vision. These insights, says Gergen, do indeed apply across cultures; thus, while people are products of their own history and social context, they are still autonomous agents, acting to change that social context and even revise the meaning of their own history.

Such revisions, Bruner observes, come through narrative. People tell stories about themselves and others in an effort to provide coherence to the past, an explanation for the present, and goals for the future. The Self as a teller of stories was the contribution of literary theory developed in the late 1970’s. Story analysis focuses not only on what is said, but how. The interview, central to fieldwork in psychology, becomes more than a compilation of “logical” responses to questions put by the researcher; rather, what is important is how those answers are expressed—what the story is—and what that story says about the Self.

Cultural psychology, then, concentrates on the meanings a culture and an individual use to interpret the Self and the practices by which those meanings are expressed. If one ventures into the Maine woods to find a sense of Self if one participates in campus protests against a perceived injustice, these are ways in practice of giving meaning to the “autonomous Self.” Recalling the child’s acquisition of language, Bruner says cultural psychology must be a discipline that pays attention both to what a person does and to how that action is interpreted by the subject’s narrative.

It is in autobiography that these two elements of cultural psychology come together. In his analysis of interviews conducted with the members of the Goodhertz family, Bruner provides an example of how cultural psychology can be both rigorous and interpretive. He and other interviewers made computer counts of certain phrases or expressions used by various family members; that data assisted in the understanding of family narratives. A narrative, he says, is not simply a bare plot (what happened) but also a way of telling what happened. The Goodhertz Selves, he concludes, are tied to the inner world of the family, not the outer world of success; the feelings of legitimacy of these Selves come from their situatedness in the world of home and hearth and intimacy.

Bruner points out that economics and biology impose certain barriers to what Selves may make of themselves; but this is not to say that human beings are mere constructs of the physical world. “The program of a cultural psychology,” writes Bruner, “is not to deny biology or economics but to show how human minds and lives are reflections of culture and history as well as of biology and physical resources.” That is, no adequate account of the human condition can leave out the acts of meaning that populate the human symbolic world.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXV, October 15, 1990, p.97.

Washington Times. October 15, 1990, p. F3.

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