The following was cached on Feb. 18, 2004, from
page was written for a graduate course at Michigan State University:
Writings for CEP 911: Intellectual History of Educational Psychology (Fall 2002)
Personal Interest Reading #2
I actually started my assigned journey of personal enlightenment in class last Tuesday, when David showed us the web page Storytelling: Passport to the 21st Century, which contained an extended quote from Jerome Bruner’s Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. In this quote, Bruner presented a dichotomy between paradigmatic and narrative thought, “two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality.” In gross terms, this is similar to a distinction between rational (paradigmatic) and irrational (narrative) thought, although the analogy is imperfect because it implies that narrative lacks any rational, logical structure, a characterization that Bruner would most probably disagree with.
Anyway, this caught my attention because I had been intrigued by the short chapter on intuitive thought in Bruner’s The Process of Education, and wanted to read a fuller account of his ideas on intuition. I was also interested in reading about what theories Bruner might have about narrative, especially ways in which a narrative hermeneutic might play an essential role in his constructivist vision. At the core of my research interests is a concern with how children adopt scripts of gender identity, and I wanted to see what Bruner's thoughts on this might be.
Hoping to find a more recent, book-length account of Bruner's ideas on narrative thought, I headed to the Barnes & Noble at Lansing Mall to pick up Acts of Meaning (1990). The binding on the only copy available at the store was in pretty bad shape, so rather than pay full price for a poor quality book, I set myself up at a table in the store's café and read Acts of Meaning cover to cover (it's only 138 pages).
Bruner starts off by blasting information-processing theory's ascension as the dominant trend in the field of cognitive science. He argues that the computer is a sterile metaphor for the constructivist human mind, and that the computational theory of mind errs both by focusing solely on the processing of information and by treating all information as equal. Finally, information-processing is a theory long on individual cognition, but sorely lacking when it comes to accounting for culture and human social behavior. Culture is, according to Bruner, "the world to which we have to adapt and the toolkit for doing so." (17) Situated in the larger culture are shared, public norms that are created through the social behavior of the people who constitute a given culture's body politic. Bruner calls these norms a "folk psychology … a system governing by which people organize their experience in, knowledge about, and transactions with the social world," (35) in other words, a collective epistemology. Bruner contends that the chief business of the individual mind in such a system is to make meaning out of the complex scramble of information and sensory stimuli that continually assaults the consciousness. The central organizing principle that the mind uses to accomplish this task is narrative.
While Bruner rejects Jung's theory of a collective unconsciousness filled with archetypes, he nonetheless suggests that the human brain is hard-wired with a tendency to see the world in narrative form (similar to the Kantian notion of causality as an inescapable lens through which we cannot help but ascribe meaningful connections to coincident events). Bruner theorizes that the need to construct narrative meaning out of personal experience is the force that fuels developments in speech, that a "push to construct narrative … determines the order of priority in which grammatical forms are mastered by the young child." (77) Narratives can serve as early "interpretants" of logical propositions and operations before children have the cognitive capacity to perform more refined "mental calculi." We come to understand the parameters of normality (and which transgressions are excusable) through the "subjunctivizing transformations" of narrative that allow us to play out possible courses of action and analyze their consequences (this reminded me a lot of Bandura's ideas of symbolic modeling of behavior through fiction and the media).
When we discussed Bruner's ideas of how to teach complex ideas to children in an "intellectually honest manner," we spent time considering metaphors and narrative analogies to introduce such ideas. For example, I had suggested using "The Three Little Pigs" as an introduction to evolution. It may not be the most precise metaphor to encompass the nuances of Darwin's theories, but for young children, it may be the closest we can come to putting such ideas into a meaningful schema.
And it works with adults, too. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is filled with interesting metaphors and analogies that bring many of the complexities of theoretical physics within the cognitive grasp of the layperson. Hawking writes that the Judeo-Christian account of the Creation remains a particularly compelling explanation of the origins of the universe because it has an active, intentional agent (God) performing temporally sequential actions that have observable effects on direct objects. These are the same essential elements of narrative that Bruner describes as forming the foundation of all known human grammars (subject-verb-object), their progressive development in early speech providing proof of an inherent narrative sensibility.
Bruner closes Acts of Meaning with a discussion of the self as a narrative construct. The self, he claims, is distributed knowledge about a person, not the sole possession of one's private consciousness, but a "product of the situations in which it operates." (109) Our sense of self is the sum of the narratives we construct about our past experiences and future intentions. In this regard, the self is a master storyteller and the clinical psychologist its editor.
This is all heady stuff. To synthesize my understanding of Bruner's ideas in this book, I talked through some of these issues about narrative as a primary organizing force in the human psyche with my father, a seminarian. He noted that such ideas have been popular in theological circles for years, at least among those who do not take a fundamentalist line toward the Bible as literal truth. We talked about the power of stories that are not necessarily written with didactic intent to nonetheless carry powerful messages of what constitutes acceptable behavior, and how some of the most intensely faith-affirming stories, novels and films get their theological credibility through metaphor and analogy, not through well-reasoned argumentation. This is why literature can be so subversive.
While mulling over the implications of Bruner's theories on the mind's mimetic function, I recalled the research I had done into bibliotherapy while working on my Master's degree. Bibliotherapy is a clinical strategy that helps patients confront personal issues by analyzing the behaviors of fictional characters who face similar crises as the patient. Roughly, the bibliotherapeutic process has three stages: recognition of the parallels between real-life and fiction, catharsis, and reorganization of the patient's understanding of the world based upon the new insights gained from studying the fictional models. This is a clinical practice in which psychoanalysis meets social learning and cognitive theory; old, painful (and even subconscious) narratives/schemas/scripts are dredged up, compared to symbolic models, then reframed.
One of the best resources for case studies of bibliotherapy is Robert Coles' The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. This book had been suggested to me by Jean Baker when I first met with her to talk about my interest in bibliotherapy, and this seemed as good a time as any to read it. Coles is a professor of psychiatry who incorporates the study of literature into both his psychiatric and teaching practices. While the book is chiefly a love letter to a number of favorite authors (among them, William Carlos Williams, John Cheever, Tillie Olsen and Leo Tolstoy), presenting lots of anecdotes about the ways in which various literary works have changed his and his students' perspectives about life, the universe and everything, there are some larger philosophical points that reveal affinities with Jerome Bruner's brand of constructivism.
Coles writes that memories are not merely objective records of our lives, but rather events "endowed with the subjectivity of our imaginative life," (183) a description that dovetails nicely with Bruner's definition of recall as a "reconstruction designed to justify [an affect or attitude]" (58). Both authors see the active construction and later recall of memories as behaviors designed to align our self-understandings with our sense of our culture's scripts for acceptable behavior. Discrepancies between the two are resolved by looking for mitigating factors that allow for a reinterpretation of our behavior to bring it within the zone of acceptable deviation from the cultural norm (this sounds a lot like the kinds of dissociative behaviors described by Bandura). Coles writes eloquently throughout his book about how fiction can provide us with rich scripts to help us chart courses of action and even define our identities.
As a last gasp for this assignment, I wanted to dig into the latest and greatest that Bruner had written about narrative. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (2002) is a slim volume that distills and updates the essence of Bruner's theories. Bruner incorporate an in-depth appreciation of how our justice system is built on a system of narration in which plaintiffs and defendants compete to tell a story that best reconciles the "dialectic between what was expected and what came to pass." (15) He writes that culture is organized around a "dialectic of expectation-supporting norms and possibility-evoking transgressions," and that narrative is the means by which individual experience is converted into "collective coin" (16) in a culture's outward distribution of knowledge (how situative!).
But why narrative? Bruner answers this with reference to anthropological theories arguing that the plan is the "elementary neuro-psychic unit of human consciousness," (28) in other words, our ability to make plans is what separates us from the animals. In order to make plans, we have to have some reasonable expectations about how nature works and how other people typically respond to various occurrences. Narrative is what provides us with these expectations, by bridging the gap between the declarative (what we know to be real) and the subjunctive (what we know to be possible). "Through narrative, we construct, reconstruct, in some way reinvent yesterday and tomorrow. Memory and imagination fuse in the process." (93) Bruner returns again to an exploration of the self as a narrative construction, calling selfhood a "kind of meta-event that gives coherence and continuity to the scramble of experience." (73) In other words, what we call our "self" is the story-puzzle we construct of our lives, given the pieces of experience to be found strewn about our memory. No more forceful a statement of narrative constructivism could be offered.
Finally, Bruner comes back to a reconsideration of the dichotomy between paradigmatic and narrative modes of thinking that first sparked my interest in this exploration. He writes that perhaps in his original formulation, he put too rigid a separation between the two modes, that they really should be seen in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Like the yin and the yang, paradigmatic and narrative thought operate most healthily in conjunction. He points to a recent development called narrative medicine as an example of the two modes working together. Narrative medicine puts a premium on listening to a patient's story before examining the "objective" measures of a person's health, such as blood pressure, heart rate, etc. A quick diagnosis based on "the charts" is likely to be a misdiagnosis, and the consequences of not taking seriously the subjective, lived experience of the patient as expressed in personal narrative can be grave, indeed. As my best friend (a soon-to-be-married doctor in Indianapolis) is fond of saying, the most important thing for a physician to remember at the start of an appointment is to listen.
Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. (2002). Making stories: Law, literature, life. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Coles, R. (1989). The call of stories: Teaching and the moral imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.