Literature/1990/Bruner

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Bruner, Jerome (1990). Acts of Meaning (The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures). Harvard University Press.

Excerpts[edit]

The Proper Study of Man
  • I want to begin with the Cognitive Revolution as my point of departure. That revolution was intended to bring "mind" back into the human sciences after a long cold winter of objectivism.
  • ... that revolution has now been diverted into issues that are marginal to the impulse that brought it into being. Indeed, it has been technicalized in a manner that even undermines that original impulse. This is not to say that it has failed: far from it, for cognitive science must surely be among the leading growth shares on the academic bourse.
  • Some critics ... argue that the new cognitive science, the child of the revolution, has gained its technical successes at the price of dehumanizing the very concept of mind it had sought to reestablish in psychology, and that it has thereby estranged much of psychology from the other human sciences and the humanities.
  • I ... want to turn ... to a preliminary exploration of a renewed cognitive revolution -- a more interpretive approach to cognition concerned with "meaning-making," one that has been proliferating these last several years in anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, literary theory, psychology, and ... wherever one looks these days.
  • Now let me tell you ... what I and my friends thought the revolution was about back there in the late 1950s. It was ... an all-out effort to establish meaning as the central concept of psychology -- not stimuli and responses, not overtly observable behavior, not biological drives and their transformation, but meaning. It was not a revolution against behaviorism with the aim of transforming behaviorism into a better way of pursuing psychology by adding a little mentalism to it. [...] It was an altogether more profound revolution than that. Its aim was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created out of their encounters with the world, and then to propose hypotheses about what meaning-making processes were implicated. It focused upon the symbolic activities that human beings employed in constructing and in making sense not only of the world, but of themselves. Its aim was to prompt psychology to join forces with its sister interpretive disciplines in the humanities and in the social sciences. Indeed, beneath the surface of the more computationally oriented cognitive science, this is precisely what has been happening -- first slowly and now with increasing momentum.
  •     I think it should be clear to you by now that we were not out to "reform" behaviorism, but to replace it. As my colleague George Miller put it some years later, "We nailed our new credo to the door, and waited to see what would happen. All went very well, so well, in fact, that in the end we may have been the victims of our success."6
        It would make an absorbing essay in the intellectual history of the last quarter-century to trace what happened to the originating impulse of the cognitive revolution, how it became fractionated and technicalized. The full story had best been left to the intellectual historians. All we need note now are a few signposts along the way, just enough of them to give a sense of the intellectual terrain on which we were all marching. Very early on ... emphasis began shifting from "meaning" to "information," from the construction of meaning to the processing of information. These are profoundly different matters. The key factor in the shift was the introduction of computation as the ruling metaphor and of computability as a necessary criterion of a good theoretical model. Information is indifferent with respect to meaning. In computational terms, information comprises an already precoded message in the system. Meaning is preassigned to messages. It is not an outcome of computation nor is it relevant to computation save in the arbitrary sense of assignment.
        Information processing inscribes messages at or fetches them from an address in memory on instructions from a central control unit, or it holds them temporarily in a buffer store, and then manipulates them in prescribed ways: it lists, orders, combines, compares precoded information. The system that does all of these things is blind with respect to whether what is stored is words from Shakespeare's sonnets or numbers from a random number table. According to classic information theory, a message is informative if it reduces alternative choices. (pp. 3-4, blue-colored by WV) [c 1]
Folk Psychology as an Instrument of Culture
  • It simply will not do to reject the theoretical centrality of meaning for psychology on the grounds that it is "vague." Its vagueness was in the eye of yesterday's formalistic logician. We are beyond that now. (p. 65)
Entry into Meaning
  • I was particularly concerned to describe what I called "folk psychology".... I wanted to show how human beings, in interacting with one another, form a sense of the canonical and ordinary as a background against which to interpret and give narrative meaning to breaches in and deviations from "normal" states of the human conditions. Such narrative explications have the effect of framing the idiosyncratic in a "lifelike" fashion that can promote negotiation and avoid confrontational disruption and strife. I presented the case ... for a view of cultural meaning-making as a system concerned not solely with sense and reference but with "felicity conditions" -- the conditions by which differences in meaning can be resolved by invoking mitigating circumstances that account for divergent interpretations of "reality."
        This method of negotiating and renegotiating meanings by mediation of narrative interpretation is, it seems to me, one of the crowning achievements of human development....
  • I propose to examine some of the ways in which the young human being achieves (or realizes) the power of narrative, the ability not only to mark what is culturally canonical but to account for deviations that can be incorporated in narrative. (p. 68)
  • I propose to discuss how quite young human beings "enter into meaning," how they learn to make sense, particularly narrative sense, of the world around them. (p.68)

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  1. Miller's view "All went very well" runs head-on into Bruner's view "Very early on ... emphasis began shifting from meaning to information." Yet both appear fatally false. All went very wrong indeed, shifting from "theory-thirsty" psychology to the dehumanizing automation and information theory (maybe attributable to MIT and Bell), until the start of AI winter (maybe attributable to MIT and CMU) around 1975 when every emphasis began shifting all of a sudden from information as signification in the database to information as significance or meaning in the user's mind, say, and so on and on. All groundbreaking, undermining revolutions culminating in the emergence of w: cognitive science to replace perplexed psychology and psycholinguitics. Miller insists on the "Cognitive Revolution" (perhaps his baptism) around 1957, which is cognitivist in fact. The difference of 1957 and 1975 is between heaven and earth, between the cognitivist vs. cognitive revolution. Perhaps, Cherry (1957) was the earliest detective of that fatal difference at the very epoch-making moment of Skinner (1957), Chomsky (1957), Russell (1957), etc. This year happened to see Western academics shocked by Sputnik 1 and their own poverty of science. Each began to blame other as evidenced in 1959 by Chomsky (1959), Gellner (1959), Snow (1959), etc. DoD began to pour money into AI but mostly in vain, hence the AI winter afterwards. ARPANet was a resulting design for American advanced academics. It was globalized as the Internet since 1975 and made public as the World Wide Web since 1995 maybe in accordance with the cognitive (information) revolution stages marked by human-computer interaction upon nothing but cognitive or user-centered hypertext! Practically, that revolution revolves around information users who started rethinking the text as the main source of information in terms of context, subtext, intertext, and hypertext to the optimal and maximal effect of meaning. Never say to housewives in the market, "Information is indifferent...to meaning," based on the bad misnomer "information theory" most favored by the "East Pole" automatists and cognitivists. To say that is to say that communication is indifferent to meaning. The Cognitive Revolution there was the cognitivist revolution here in the "West Pole," hence the Divide! And, cognitive science may be a fork of the new human-centered design or rethinking of information science behind the veil. UCSD Center for Human Information Processing was one of the late 1970s revolutionaries along the West Pole and later became the mother of the first Department of Cognitive Science. U. Maryland of Ben Shneiderman was human-centered while most others along the East Pole remained dehumanizing hence reactionary. SMART Information Retrieval System of Harvard and Cornell, founded almost along the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies at issue, was a symbol of automation and dehumanization. Harvard's Putnam's (1975) famous, if not notorious, dictum "Meanings just ain't in the head" set up semantic externalism. This is anti-subjective, anti-cognitive, dehumanizing together with Harvard's Quine's (1960) text-confined semantic holism. Putnam (1975) was timely resisting "that revolution ... intended to bring 'mind' back into the human sciences after a long cold winter of objectivism," as adopted from Bruner but adapted to the AI winter cum cognitive revolution proper since 1974. Perhaps worse therefore were MIT and CMU of "strong AI" fever, just doomed to the AI winter. Truly, many revolutionaries were fascinated by the analogy of cognitive vs. cognitivist (human vs. mechanical) information retrieval or recall from each memory. Back then, however, there occurred indeed a devastating revolt against SMART-like automated IR helplessly and hopelessly based on the "word magic" mindless of the mind definitely reputed long ago by Ogden & Richards (1923). They were explicitly or tacitly revisited by the revolutionaries, as suggested by the above list. Look into Belkin (1976) in IS, which was definitely around the center of the earthquake, the eye of the unprecedented brain storm revolving cognitive. "It would make an absorbing essay in the intellectual history of the last quarter" of the last century indeed! The pragmatic over semantic hence cognitive revolution was revolving around making the implicit (sense or meaning in context) explicit, or revolving from yin to yang. Ironically, it submerged itself under the disguising, misguiding tip of the iceberg.

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