Jerome Bruner: In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography; Harper & Row; New York
The so-called cognitive revolution occurred during the career of Jerome Bruner, and his history is essentially its history. At the time Bruner entered the field of psychology it was almost totally dominated by various offshoots of Behaviorism. Behaviorism rests on the paradoxical notion that psychology can be studied best by identifying the stimulus that activates a living organism and then observing the action (behavior) of that organism in response to the impingement of the designated
stimulus. The paradoxical quality arises from the fact that the organism itself, from which, presumably, the activity arises, is ignored. When the organism to be studied in this peculiar fashion happens to be man, the antimentalistic character of Behaviorism becomes clear. Practitioners of this theoretical persuasion find themselves in the strange position of studying learning, memory, perception, and other attributes of the mind without actually acknowledging the mind’s existence. The common man, of course, has always known that in order to understand why a person reacts to a given situation (stimulus) in the way that he does, one needs to know either what his experience with similar situations has been, or what is motivating him at the moment, preferably both.
Jerome Bruner was too clever to be taken in by the absurd reductionism of the Behaviorists. He was acutely aware of the shortcomings of Academic Psychology and quotes Wittgenstein on the “confusion and bareness of psychology” and its marriage of “experimental methods and conceptual confusion” in which “problems and methods pass one another by.”
Bruner and his fellow graduate students at Harvard were opposed to the direct linkage of stimulus and response being taught there in the years just prior to World War II. They believed that there had to be some organizing and selecting principles operating within the organism and hence found themselves taking a mentalistic view; the mind regained its existence. Following the war Bruner and his colleagues were, in the spirit of the times, as interested in the ideas of sociologists and anthropologists as they were in those of psychologists, and began studying the functions of opinions. At the same time, Bruner investigated the sources of perceptual selectivity. If you take the larger view, it is inescapable that the organisms studied by psychologists are always in contact with a complex array of stimuli. And this certainly includes that maddeningly adaptable and cunning animal that reigned king in the Behaviorist laboratories — the rat. The alternative to the impossible task of reducing such subjects to one available stimulus was to pretend that it only attended to the stimulus selected by the experimenter, a maze, electric shock, food pellet, or whatever. When the subjects are human beings, they have opinions and attitudes about the experiment, the experimenter, and all sorts of things never identified by the psychologist as existing within the framework of the experiment. This is not to suggest that rats do not have opinions and attitudes about these things also; they must. It is, however, impossible to demonstrate and prove such matters as rats’ opinions.
With humans it can be shown that of the vast array of constantly available stimuli, most are not attended to at all in any given instant, and some only marginally. Further, those stimuli that are attended to are often perceived differently by various people. Differences in the accompanying instructions result in the people “seeing” different things in identical situations. The young cognitive psychologists understood that perceptual selection was taking place; some stimuli were being excluded and others interpreted. Previously held opinions also influenced perceptual selection and organization of stimuli. Formerly the problem of admission or exclusion of information had been conceptualized by the “Judas Eye” concept. This homunculus-like idea of an “inside person” scanning the data and refusing some of it in favor of the rest was derided by antimentalistic psychologists. Other important sources of ideas from outside psychology proper were information theory and computer science. These provided useful metaphors for Burner’s thinking about issues arising from the study of perception. The solution of the “Judas Eye” dilemma was aided by observing the filtering functions per formed by computers when they “decided” what should be displayed. Information theory provided ideas that led to the notions of “perceptual readiness” and “cognitive strategies,” further clarifying the perceptual process.
Undeterred by the tradition of dividing psychology into areas, such as learning, perception, and the like, Bruner followed his ideas across these artificial and counterproductive boundaries and studied “thinking.” While examining thought processes it became clear to him that meaning depended upon context and use rather than on some intrinsic quality of things, so Bruner found himself studying how and when mind developed in the young. A further step across traditional boundaries was necessitated by his developing conviction that the growti1 and form of the mind was greatly influenced by culture and language. An interest in education followed naturally from the insight that things children learn influence how they see the world, and Bruner began studying how children acquire knowledge in general and language in particular. His ensuing foray into curriculum development led him into political controversy; this storm was not about his methods, however, but was over the content of his curriculum.
Despite the success of the cognitive revolution, the deeper character of Academic Psychology asserted itself in the end, leaving Bruner feeling that psychology was “more splintered” and “beset by contradictions” than when he entered the field. Bruner would undoubtedly still see Wittgenstein as fully justified in describing psychology as barren and as failing to bring its problems and its methods into any useful juxtaposition. It is difficult to assess Bruner’s achievements in psychology. He does not do so directly in his autobiography. Indirectly, his indictment of psychology is perhaps an admission that he did not succeed in putting psychology on the right road, either in terms of breaking down its little artificial kingdoms or in getting the hard l but fruitful questions asked and the methodology adjusted to them.
During the course of his long career Jerome Bruner hobnobbed with many brilliant and creative individuals, all of whom were leaders in their fields. He was a faculty member at highly distinguished schools and published a large number of scientific articles and books. His advice was sought by political figures who had important roles in shaping policy for the U.S. government. It’s evident that he was a highly inspirational and charismatic figure to both graduate students and peers, and that his charisma was backed up by intellectual soundness. How, then, did a man of such breadth and substance turn out a shallow and tedious book? This is all the more curious since he lived so intimately in the world of ideas that the book is intended to portray.
Bruner is most interesting (and is perhaps most interested) when he deals with paradoxes or dilemmas of a strongly philosophical bent, as, for example, when he quotes Lionel Trilling about the “wound” suffered by the nonscientific intellectual in the face of his inability to fully comprehend the “deep and powerful” ideas of science. Such a wonderfully titillating theme is immediately dropped, however, and is followed by another story that is never finished. Bruner is perpetually beginning things and never finishing them or even developing them very far in this book. One suspects that this is the case because Bruner can never bring himself to discuss anything unpleasant except in the most general terms. This was true whether the subject is the political disagreements that tore apart Bruner’s intellectual world or the sources of his marital failures. Bruner’s failure to develop his intellectual themes beyond a superficial level and his unwillingness to provide the full dimensions of interpersonal relations between the luminaries whose names fill this book make for singularly disappointing and insubstantial fare. cc