Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner

REVIEW
Bruner, Jerome. (1986) Actual minds, possible worlds. Harvard: Cambridge.
By Emily Ball Cicchini

Bruner begins and ends his book talking about actual text vs virtual text; that is, the words on the page, and then what a reader gets out of them, reflected by retelling. He recounts some of the same territory that others have, particularly the dichotomy between science and art; that logical scientific thought aims for truth, while art aims for “verisimilitude,” or likeness of the truth (p 11). He turns towards narrative theory by stating that philosophy is how to know the truth; storytelling is how to endow experience with meaning (p 12). He sets up the dichotomy in a new light: paradigmatic vs. narrative modes. The first is logical thought: Popper’s verifiable, falsifiable discourse; while stories are not (but they are, to certain degrees, aren’t they?).

As he continues his well-formed constructivist views come into play. He generally accepts the idea of a universal structure of language (and by extension, thought), although he spends a lot of time discussing whether it in completely innate or learned; the strongest point he makes is that it’s both, and that the cultural/social aspect of language has been too much overlooked, particularly by great thinkers. Still, he is by training and practice a scientist, a socio-linguistic psychologist, and that is the lens he uses to discuss fabula and sjuzet—timeless theme and sequenced plot; to define narrative as changes in intention; and to describe literal language as vertical, and metaphorical language as horizontal. From his proofs, we can see fiction as always indeterminate (maybe this is why it’s often unsatisfying, when the reader does not achieve a cathartic transcendence, something that Bruner does not seem to dwell much on). Bruner is more interested in the performances that texts initiate in the reader’s mind; and what is created therein becomes a “subjunctive” reality; a world of possibilities, not certainties.

He seems to be comfortable with that; a world of shared, multiple realities. He details the work of “Tovodorian” transformations, a way of looking at psychological intention through verb choice (without much taking a larger text into consideration, I might add, although he gives a nod towards Calvino as an example of good fiction). As he goes further into the inseparability of character, setting, and action he borrows heavily from Amelie Rorty (a welcome female voice in this very well pedigreed boys club – she apparently married one) to find a frame for different levels of characterization:

characters are fixed in identity                       
figures are fixed in role time/place
persons have choice within laws
selves are individuals, rights by virtue of own powers

Which indicates a sense of progress (and hierarchy), a sense of deepening of the sense of “self,” a word he does not like much, from which one weaves a personal narrative history. He stresses that it’s about the process, not the products, in arguments about science and art; that true is true in all languages. (p 46) However, this is not a universal truth; there is still no “aboriginal reality” in his scheme. It’s dangerously close to pure relativism, he admits. But oddly, though he argues for narrative, he also still values science more than art. For him, art’s main contribution is for “wild metaphors” and attacking blind faith (an interesting take on Paradise Lost comes into play here, though). And a fabulous story about Niels Bohr shows how imaginative metaphorical thinking helped him come up with the theory of complementarity in particle physics. (This is the second book in this course to use particle physics in relation to narrative theory, I note with continued interest in these parallels). Still, Bruner seems to think it is easy to create subjunctive reality; that “we can create hypotheses that will accommodate virtually anything we encounter.” (p 51) For him, this gives Popper’s falsification good reason for being; it helps determine which hypotheses really make sense. He makes his best transformative leap himself at this point, saying basically that Milton’s Satan performs the same function as Popper’s falsification: introducing doubt.

He continues to place art in the secondary mode; art is bout generating hypotheses, not about proving them. And even so, narrative modes need to be true to conceivable experience; again with the “verisimilitude.” In practice, this would lead leads towards only realistic modes of expression. While he has a good goal of understanding human events, and seeing narrative of value for introducing spontaneity, surprise, and alternativeness of human possibility, I still feel like he’s missing some of the power of probable impossibility vs. possible improbability.

possible:  able to be done.
probable:  likely to happen.

A story that tells of something known to be impossible, in such a way that it becomes truly probable for the listener/reader, is a transformative experience. It changes reality. And that, in my words, is what art is aiming for, not just generating general images and thoughts and metaphors to be followed up on by pragmatic, paradigmatic science.

So my main criticism of Bruner is his lack of appreciation for and understanding of empathy, sympathy feeling, and human compassion. On pg 52, he actually dismisses these critical aspects of story, reducing them to transactional mutuality. (If you like me, I’ll like you back). Here, he goes through a number of psychological theories of human development and their weaknesses, including Chomsky, Geertz, Vygotsky (whom he spends a lot of time with, as he agrees with him and is also trying to support his work—interesting fellow, sad he died so young) and even, sigh, Freud. He expounds on the psychological reality of linguistic structures with backing of his well-heeled buddies, with whom he founded Harvard’s Project Zero, which much progressive educational theory has come from (Howard Gardner, of “Multiple Intelligences” fame, is his colleague). I’m glad he dislikes deconstruction, that validates my dislike. But he reminds me of how excluded I feel by men and by scientists who seem to rule the world.

The end of the book comes on like a panic about end times that is actually rather surprising and disconcerting from a man in his position. For all his thinking, he still won’t consider that there might indeed be something, or someone, a thinker, “out there,” One Mind (which includes all of us and all we think and do and are) who values logic and reason just as much as art and narrative. It wasn’t so hard for Descartes to imagine. What happened to the great thinkers of the 20th century to categorically exclude that possibility? Perhaps the age of anxiety was blinded by its commitment to doubt.