Preface edit

Books are like mountaintops jutting out of the sea. Self-contained islands though they may seem, they are upthrusts of an underlying geography that is at once local and, for all that, a part of a universal pattern. And so, while they inevitably reflect a time and a place, they are part of a more general intellectual geography. This book is no exception. [p 1]

I have written it at a time when psychology, the science of mind as William James once called it, has become fragmented as never before in its history. It has lost its center and risks losing the cohesion needed to assure the internal exchange that might justify a division of labor between its parts. And the parts, each with its own organizational identity, its own theoretical apparatus, and often its own journals, have become specialties whose products become less and less exportable. Too often they seal themselves within their own rhetoric and within their own parish of authorities. This self-sealing risks making each part (and the aggregate that increasingly constitutes psychology's patchquilt whole) ever more remote from other inquiries dedicated to the understanding of mind and the human condition -- inquiries in the humanities or in the other social sciences. [p 2]

There may be good reasons for what has happened, and perhaps it even reflects a needed "paradigm shift" in the human sciences. The "biological" side of psychology has abandoned its old base to join forces with the neurosciences. And the newly minted "cognitive sciences" have absorbed many of those who used to work in the vineyards of perception, memory, thinking, all of these now conceived as varieties of "information processing." These new alignments may be for the good: they could bring new and unexpected theoretical vigor to the task of understanding man. [p 3]

But in spite of the splitting and fragmentation that seem to be occurring, I do not think either that psychology is coming to an end or that it is permanently condemned to live in segregated parishes. For psychology as an enterprise long predates its "official" conversion into a set of self-contained divisions. Its great questions are still alive. The founding of Wundt's "experimental" laboratory at Leipzig in 1879 did not cancel those questions; it only clothed them in new dress -- the "new" positivist style so dear to the hearts of our late-nineteenth-century forbears. Even Wundt in his later years recognized how constricting the new "laboratory" style could be, and in formulating a "cultural psychology" urged that we embrace a more historical, interpretive approach to understanding man's cultural products.

[p 4]

We are still drawing rich sustenance from our more distant, pre-positivist past:Chomsky acknowledges his debt to Descartes, Piaget is inconceivable without Kant, Vygotsky without Hegel and Marx, and the once towering bastion of "learning theory" was constructed on foundations laid by John Locke. And had Freud's followers fought free of the model of "bioenergetics" that was the shallowest aspect of his theory, psychoanalysis might have continued to grow in theoretical stature. The more recent cognitive revolution as inconceivable without the supporting philosophical climate of its time. And, indeed, if one looks beyond the boundaries of "official" psychology to our sister disciplines in the human sciences, one is struck by the lively renewal of interest in the classical questions raised in the century since Leipzig by Nietzsche and Peirce, by Austin and Wittgenstein, by Jakobson and de Saussure, by Husserl and Cassirer, by Foucault and Searle.

[p 5]

It is not surprising, then, that a reaction has set in against the narrowing and "sealing in" that are afflicting psychology. The wider intellectual community comes increasingly to ignore our journals, which seem to outsiders principally to contain intellectually unsituated little studies, each a response to a handful of like little studies. Inside psychology there is a worried restlessness about the state of our discipline, and the beginning of a new search for means of reformulating it. In spite of the prevailing ethos of "neat little studies," and of what Gordon Allport once called methodolatry, the great psychological questions are being raised once again -- questions about the nature of mind and its processes, questions about how we construct our meanings and our realities, question about the shaping of mind by history and culture.

[p 6]

And these questions, often pursued more vigorously outside than inside "official" psychology, are generative answers. We know far better now how to approach the Great Comparisons whose resolutions have always challenged psychology: the comparison of man and his evolutionary forebears, man as immature child and man at full maturity, man in full health and man afflicted by mental illness or alienation, "human nature" as expressed in different cultures, and indeed even the comparison between man in flesh and blood with the machines constructed to simulate him. Each and every one of these inquiries has prospered when we have been willing to ask questions about such taboo topics as mind, intentional states, meaning, reality construction, mental rules, cultural forms, and the like. Occam's razor, warning us not to multiply our conceptual entities more than "necessary," was surely not intended to ban mind from the mental sciences. Nor were John Stuart Mill's principles of induction meant to quell all forms of intellectual curiosity save those which could be slaked by the controlled experiment.

[p 7]

This book is written against the background of psychology today, with its confusions, its dislocations, its new simplifications. I have called it Acts of Meaning in order to emphasize its major theme: the nature and cultural shaping of meaning-making, and the central place it plays in human action. It is not just an autobiographical quirk that I should be writing such a book now, though the reader will soon find that it "projects" my own long history as a psychologist. But all single voices are abstracted from dialogues, as Bakhtin reaches us. I have had the great good fortune to be a long-term participant in the dialogues that form and reform psychology. And what I shall have to say in the chapters that follow reflects my view of where the dialogue stands today.

[p 8]

This is not intended to be a "comprehensive" study of all and every aspect of the meaning-making process. That would be impossible in any case. Rather, it is an effort to illustrate what a psychology looks like when it concerns itself centrally with meaning, how it inevitably becomes a cultural psychology and how it must venture beyond the conventional aims of positivist science with its ideals of reductionism, causal explanation and prediction. The three need not be treated like the Trinity. For when we deal with meaning and culture, we inevitably move to a material base, to say that they "depend," say, on the left hemisphere, is to trivialize both in the service of misplaced concreteness. To insist upon explanation in terms of "causes" simply bars us from trying to understand how human beings interpret their worlds and how we interpret their acts of interpretation. And if we take the object of psychology (as of any intellectual enterprise) to be the achievement of understanding, why is it necessary under all conditions for us to understand in advance of the phenomena to be observed -- which is all that prediction is? Are not plausible interpretations preferable to causal explanations, particularly when the achievement of a causal explanation forces us to artificialize what we are studying to a point almost beyond recognition a representative of human life?

[p 9]

The study of the human mind is so difficult, so caught in the dilemma of being both the object and the agent of its own study, that it cannot limit its inquiries to ways of thinking that grew out of yesterday's physics. Rather, the task is so compellingly important that it deserves all the rich variety of insight that we can bring to the understanding of what man makes of his world, of his fellow beings, and of himself. That is the spirit in which we should proceed.

[p 10]

(p. ix-xiii)

  1. This is a frame of yin and yang, that is, implication and explication that complement.
  2. No doubt, psychology is science and philosophy of mind, without William James. Meanwhile, fragmentation is everywhere recently. There's no surprise, as far as it is for profit-making. Where there is a will (to that), there is a way. Psychologists may not so much go meaning-making as profit-making.
  3. "George A. Miller has provided two theoretical ideas that are fundamental to cognitive psychology and the information processing framework. [...] Information processing theory has become a general theory of human cognition." See more See also: 1956/Miller, 1960/Miller, w: Information processing theory, w: cognitive revolution.
  4. X
  5. X
  6. X
  7. X
  8. Meaning-making is akin to sense-making of Brenda Dervin in information science (IS) and Karl Weick in organizational psychology, cf. Ohio State University. Genealogy is unclear, but likely akin to information scientist Manfred Kochen of U. Michigan. That is, meaning may have revived from IS, as information for human in sharp contrast to the dehumanized, fully automated, cognitivist notion thereof. Elsewhere Bruner complains that meaning was replaced by information, which since Claude Shannon's information theory had degenerated into something like a meaningless bit stream. Bruner is right to speak ill of the dehumanized information, but very wrong not to speak of the human aspect of information as human communication.
  9. X
  10. X

Notes edit

Bruner, Jerome (1990). Acts of Meaning (The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures). Harvard University Press. [^] [1]