Actual Minds, Possible Worlds

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

In the early 1960’s, Jerome Bruner, then a professor of psychology at Harvard University, published a collection of what he called “fugitive essays” entitled On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (1962), in which he argued that to understand the nature of human cognition one needed an approach which went beyond that provided by the conceptual tools of the psychologist, an approach whose primary medium of exchange was the “metaphor paid out by the left hand.” Such is the way of the poet, Bruner said then, for poets’ hunches and intuitions create a grammar of their own. Bruner has done a considerable amount of important work in the fields of knowledge acquisition, education, and cognitive psychology since that collection. Now he returns to the topic of the poetic way of knowing in this sequel of sorts to his “left hand” essays, for which a group of essays written for various occasions between 1980 and 1984 have been revised and reorganized.

The result is a unified argument, developed in three stages. Part 1 contrasts two modes of thought: the paradigmatic, or the logical and scientific mode, and the narrative mode. Part 2, which constitutes the central section of the book, deals with the basic worldview of constructivism, a view Bruner shares with such thinkers as Nelson Goodman and Lev Vygotsky, which claims that there is no given world “out there,” at least no meaningful world, but rather that reality is constructed by the human mind. Part 3 suggests some of the implications of these ideas for education and for culture in general.

Bruner’s return to his earlier interest in poetic modes of thought has been stimulated by his sympathetic reading of literary theory and criticism of the 1970’s and 1980’s, beginning with the revival of the Russian Formalists, continuing with the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roman Jakobson, and Roland Barthes, and culminating with the deconstructionist theories of Jacques Derrida and the reader-response and speech-act theories of Wolfgang Iser. It seems that much recent literary theory reaffirms Bruner’s earlier conviction that there is something about the nature of human knowledge to be learned from the poet’s way of creating meaning.

Bruner begins by tackling what he considers to be a basic problem: Can a psychology of literature be developed that will explain why some stories succeed and others fail to engage the reader? He is, however, also concerned with why and how stories can trigger multiple readings. Bruner’s central thesis, which does not stray far from his earlier thoughts of twenty-five years ago, is that there are two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of constructing reality: the logico-scientific mode, or the paradigmatic, and the “other” mode, what he calls the narrative mode. His primary concern is with the latter, the less understood of the two.

Bruner tries to synthesize the work of such thinkers as Tzvetan Todorov, Victor Turner, and Hayden White, who suggest that there are underlying “deep structures” of narrative. He then attempts to integrate their ideas with the phenomenological and speech-act theories of Wolfgang Iser and others; thus are introduced the notions of intention, presupposition, and what Bruner calls “subjunctive reality” (the story’s allowance for the reader to give play to his imagination to “rewrite” the story), all of which focus on the role of the reader rather than on the underlying nature of the text.

In applying Todorov’s structuralist theories of transformations, Bruner administered empirical testing, where his subjects were asked to read and “tell back” pieces of good narrative or exposition; these tests were designed not only to determine differences between the two modes but also to shed light on how the creation of “virtual” texts (variants of the given text) depends on the reader. Critics have been trying to gauge reader response at least since 1935, when I. A. Richards published his pioneering and controversial Practical Criticism, a Study of Literary Judgment. Such efforts have always produced unsatisfactory results in their simplicity and reductiveness. Indeed, when one goes to Bruner’s appendix and reads his subject’s retelling of James Joyce’s short story “Clay” alongside the original, one finds the sort of unexamined plot...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, March 15, 1986, p. 1045.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, February 1, 1986, p. 177.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, March 23, 1986, p. 43.

Publishers Weekly. CCIX, February 14, 1986, p. 64.