The Proper Study of Man(kind)

J. Bruner (1990): Acts of Meaning, Ch.1: The Proper Study of Man

The Cognitive Revolution birthed the field of cognitive science. However, the technical strides that were made came at the price of “dehumanizing the very concept of mind it had sought to reestablish in psychology and thereby estranged much of psychology from the other human sciences and the humanities.”

Here, Bruner describes a “renewed cognitive revolution” — one that concerns a “more interpretive approach to cognition concerned with ‘meaning-making.'” It’s a perspective present in many other fields: anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, literary theory, psychology.

Original aim of CR: “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.” There was a focus on symbolic activities and an exhortation to collaborate and mingle with the humanities and social science fields (leading to cultural psychology, cognitive & interpretive anthropology, cognitive linguistics, general preoccupation with philosophy of mind and of language). They sought to replace behaviorism.

However, then came a shift in emphasis from “meaning” to “information” — “from the construction of meaning to the processing of information.” In other words, computation became the ruling metaphor and computability became a “necessary criterion of a good theoretical model.” However, “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.”… “Such a system cannot cope with vagueness, with polysemy, with metaphoric or connotative connections.

It gave the behaviorists a way back in. “In place of stimuli and responses, there was input and output, with reinforcement laundered of its afffective taint by being converted into a control element that fed information about the outcome of an operation back into the system.” There emerged two schools of thought around the “architecture” of cognition: 1) East Coast computationalists who “dealt with such mindlike terms as rules, grammars, and the like; and 2) West Coasters, who did not subscribe to such “simulated mentalism.”

This brought up a familiar and intractable issue. Where does “the mind” fit in such a system–“‘mind’ in the sense of intentional states like believing, desiring, intending, grasping a meaning?” It caused these new “antimentalists” to simply “ban such intentional states from the new science.” They also rejected the concept of “agency,” because it “implies the conduct of action under the sway of intentional states.”

Up to know, Bruner has been providing the reader with some much appreciated context and history. However the main point he would like to discuss is around this question of “How to construct a mental science around the concept of meaning and the processes by which meanings are created and negotiated within a community.”

He begins this discussion by describing a blind spot. Psychologists at the time mainly concentrated on how individuals ‘acquired’ these meaning-making symbolic systems, “how they made them their own, much as we would ask how organisms in general acquired skilled adaptations to the natural environment…[but] we did not pursue the impact of language use on the nature of man as a species. We were slow to grasp fully what the emergence of culture meant for human adaptation and for human functioning.”

Human culture, i.e. “the shared symbolic systems, of traditionalized ways of living and working together” must be central to the study of psychology. “The divide in human evolution was crossed when culture became the major factor in giving form to the minds of those living under its sway,” proclaims Bruner. He also points to Clifford Geertz’s assignation of a “constituting role” for culture.

There are three reasons why this concept is important:

  1. “It is man’s participation in culture and the realization of his mental powers through culture that make it impossible to construct a human psychology on the basis of the individual alone.”
  2. “Given that psychology is so immersed in culture, it must be organized around those meaning-making and meaning-using processes that connect man to culture.”
  3. The power of folk psychology, which is a “culture’s account of what makes human beings tick….It deals with the nature, causes, and consequences of those intentional states — beliefs, desires, intentions, and commitments.” (Bruner also calls this ethnopsychology.)

“A culturally sensitive psychology (especially one that gives a central role to folks psychology as a mediating factor) is and must be based not only upon what people actually do, but what they say they do and what they say caused them to do what they did. It is also concerned with what people say others did and why. And above all, it is concerned with what people say their worlds are like.”

“A cultural psychology, almost by definition, will not be preoccupied with “behavior” but with “action,” its intentionally based counterpart, and more specifically, with situated action — action situated in a cultural setting, and in the mutually interacting intentional states of the participants.”

“Culture and the quest for meaning within culture are the proper causes of human action.”

“Recall that [George] Miller’s main point in that landmark paper was that by conversion of input through such coding systems we, as enculturated human beings, are enabled to cope with seven chunks of information rather than with seven bits….Our knowledge, then, becomes enculturated knowledge, indefinable save in a culturally based system of notation.”… Thus, we ought to focus “not upon our biological limitations, but upon our cultural inventiveness.”

Bruner also addresses the issue of relativism. “Is what we know ‘absolute,’ or is it always relative to some perspective, some point of view?” For constructivists, knowledge is “right” or “wrong” in light of the perspective we have chosen to assume. We need to be “aware of our own perspective and those of others when we make our claims of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness.’” It is a “turning away from ‘authoritative meaning.'”

“Values inhere in commitment to ‘ways of life,’ and ways of life in their complex interaction constitute a culture…[Our values] are communal and consequential in terms of our relations to a cultural community.”

“…The constructivism of cultural psychology…demands that we be conscious of how we come to our knowledge and as conscious as we can be about the values that lead us to our perspectives. It asks that we be accountable for how and what we know. But it does not insist that there is only one way of constructing meaning, or one right way. It is based upon values that, I believe, fit it best to deal with the changes and disruptions that have become so much a feature of modern life.”


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