Editor's Choice

Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, by Jerome Bruner. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 201pp. $15. With his new book, Jerome Bruner presents his most recent thinking about a variety of subjects, most remarkably, perhaps, the challenging field of literary theory. The exuberance and warmth of his style suggest that Bruner likes challenges.

When he moved from Harvard University (where his career began in 1938) to Oxford, England, in 1971, Bruner crossed the Atlantic in his own sailboat.

The inner dynamics of the life of this scientist would better fit the conventional view of an artist. Both in the continuity and development of his ideas and in the quality of expression, the personal element has been decisive, and it comes as no surprise when we learn that Bruner was born blind, gaining his eyesight by surgery when he was two years old. His emphasis on the creative, participatory role of the mind in shaping one's experience may go back to his own early life.

Bruner's postgraduate studies at Harvard bore fruit in an experiment that showed that children from poorer homes overestimated the size of coins. From this point on, it was impossible for Bruner, and many of his contemporaries, to ignore the influence of experience and values on perception. Bruner's original approach, dubbed ``cognitive psychology,'' generated an an important movement in psychology.

In general, his career has shown that it is possible to combine a concern for internal mental states such as values and hypotheses with scrupulous experimental methods.

In ``Actual Minds, Possible Worlds,'' which presents, in rewritten form, Bruner's occasional writings dating between 1980 and 1984, he begins with a story that gives the background of his thinking about literary art.

Twenty years ago, he says, he suffered ``one of those mild crises so endemic to students of mind.'' And: ``The Apollonian and the Dionysian, the logical and the intuitive, were at war.'' By day he did scientific research, by night he read novels and went to films. ``From time to time, almost as if to keep some balance between night and day, I wrote essays....'' These were published in ``On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand.''

Today, the problem of literature, as conceived by radical critics, holds no surprises for Bruner. In fact, contemporary literary theory has much in common with Bruner's thought. From Stanley Fish to Roland Barthes, modern literary theorists have built on the subjective aspect of reading, the participation of the reader, and the fact that a given text seems to invite diverse, if not contradictory, interpretations; and a classic text may suggest something new to each generation.

These notions seem in line with Bruner's concept of ``constructivism,'' which holds that human beings invent their own worlds.

Bruner, however, stresses that ``life is not a relativistic picnic.'' Before there can be diverse tellings of a story, there must be a story to tell. Bruner argues that, in every story, there is ``the fabula of story -- its timeless underlying theme''; and the psychologist, he feels, should be interested in how the fabula plays in each telling of the story.

Though we cannot experience the ``fabula'' by itself without a particular telling, the thinker must not ignore the existence of the universal story line. Put another way, the teller of stories is himself an interpreter; and we who interpret his story must interpret it with this in mind.

It's almost as if Bruner conceives of the world in its various aspects as already interpreted, so that the scientist needs to see its universal meaning and not just note its existence. The role Bruner gives values, categories, fabulae, and so on points to this, the so-called ``hermeneutic'' principle.

For Bruner, the hermeneutic principle -- which in practice means the necessity of interpretation -- is not merely subjective. Rather, it's goal oriented. It does not give us license to interpret, but rather constrains us to find universal meaning.

Take the topic ``language,'' for example.

In his chapter ``Two Modes of Thought,'' Bruner notes how ``...at the level above sound, for morphemes, lexemes, sentences, speech acts, and discourse,'' our understanding of the more complex entity determines our understanding of the simpler. ``Each level has its form of order, but that order is controlled and modified by the level above it.''

The theme of ``higher level control'' is again sounded in the essay on ``The Language of Education.'' In remarks on the Russian thinker L.S. Vygotsky (1896-1934), Bruner writes, ``His basic view ... was that conceptual learning was a collaborative enterprise involving an adult who enters into dialogue with the child in a fashion that provides the child with hints and props that allow him to begin a new climb, guiding the child in next steps before the child is capable of appreciating their significance on his own. It is the `loan of consciousness' that gets the child through the zone of proximal development. The model is Socrates guiding the slave boy through the geometry in the `Meno.' It is a procedure, by the way, that works as well in Elkton, Virginia, as in classical Athens....''

The ``loan of consciousness'' appears to be an essential aspect of life for Bruner. Indeed, his fruitful career seems to bear witness to that something drawing us on, ``loaning'' us ways of looking at our experience, ways which, although we can not fully understand them, we are nevertheless beholden to.

Using a phrase -- ``critical humanism'' -- that reminds one of his debt to Karl Popper, Bruner writes in his ``Afterword'' that ``the danger to critical humanism comes not from the hybrid'' of Marxist rhetoric and empty relativism fairly common in academia today, but from ``the kind of alienation that is comforted by the doctrine that everything is equally unknowable, equally meaningless, equally absurd.''

Characteristically, Bruner has singled out something more universal than academic fashion -- to wit, the medieval sin of acedia, or spiritual indifference, to which all of us, regardless of vocation, can fall prey. This nasty kind of boredom, Hamlet's blues, lifts before the warmth, grace, rigor, and courage of Bruner's writing. Bruner's long and fruitful career offers a distinguished example of the responsibilities of the thinker in our time.

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