Jerome Bruner, fully Jerome Seymour Bruner

Bruner, fully Jerome Seymour Bruner

American Psychologist known for Cognitive and Educational Psychology

Author Quotes

Bruner considers the singular landscape of narrative:

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily ?true?) historical accounts. It deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place. In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.

Jerome Bruner writes:

Make no mistake about it: it is not simply as technicians that we are being called, but as adjutants to the moralist. My antic sense rises in self-defense. My advice, in the midst of the seriousness, is to keep an eye for the tinker shuffle, the flying of kites, and kindred sources of surprised amusement.

Passion and decorum. By passion I understand a willingness and ability to let one?s impulses express themselves in one?s life through one?s work? Passion, like discriminating taste, grows on its use. You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action? But again a paradox: it is not all urgent vitality. There is decorum in creative activity: a love of form, an etiquette toward the object of our efforts, a respect for materials? So both are necessary and there must surely be a subtle matter of timing involved ? when the impulse, when the taming.

The artist, the writer, and to a new degree the scientist seek an answer in the nature of their acts. They create or they seek to create, and this in itself endows the process with dignity. there is ?creative? writing and ?pure? science, each justifying the work of its producer in its own right.

The dilemma of abilities. What shall we say of energy, of combinatorial zest, of intelligence, of alertness, of perseverance? I shall say nothing about them. They are obviously important but, from a deeper point of view, they are also trivial. For at any level of energy or intelligence there can be more or less of creating in our sense. Stupid people create for each other as well as benefiting from what comes from afar. So too do slothful and torpid people. I have been speaking of creativity, not of genius.

The internal drama. There is within each person his own cast of characters* ? an ascetic, and perhaps a glutton, a prig, a frightened child, a little man, even an onlooker, sometimes a Renaissance man. The great works of the theater are decompositions of such a cast, the rendering into external drama of the internal one, the conversion of the internal cast into dramatis personae.

The road to banality is paved with creative intentions. Surprise is not easily defined. It is the unexpected that strikes one with wonder or astonishment. What is curious about effective surprise is that it need not be rare or infrequent or bizarre and is often none of these things. Effective surprises ? seem rather to have the quality of obviousness about them when they occur, producing a shock of recognition following which there is no longer astonishment.

The servant can pattern himself on the master ? and so he did when God was master and Man His servant creating works in His glory ? but the machine is the servant of man, and to pattern one?s function on the machine provides no measure of dignity. The machine is useful, the system in terms of which the machines gain their use is efficient, but what is man?

All of the forms of effective surprise grow out of a combinatorial activity ? a placing of things in new perspectives.

The triumph of effective surprise is that it takes one beyond the common ways of experiencing the world? Creative products have this power of reordering experience and thought in their image. In science, the reordering is much the same from one beholder of a formula to another. In art, the imitation is in part self-imitation. It is the case too that the effective surprise of the creative [person] provides a new instrument for manipulating the world ? physically as with the creation of the wheel or symbolically as with the creation of E = mc2.

An act that produces effective surprise [is] the hallmark of the creative enterprise.

There are certain deep sharings of plight among human beings that make it possible the communication of the artist to the beholder? The artist ? whatever his medium ? must be close enough to these conditions in himself so that they may guide his choice among combinations, provide him with the genuine and protect him from the paste.

As in the drama, so too a life can be described as a script, constantly rewritten, guiding the unfolding internal drama. It surely does not do to limit the drama to the stiff characters of the Freudian morality play ? the undaunted ego, the brutish id, the censorious and punitive superego. Is the internal cast a reflection of the identifications to which we have been committed? I do not think it is as simple as that. It is a way of grouping our internal demands and there are idealized models over and beyond those with whom we have special identification ? figures in myth, in life, in the comics, in history, creations of fantasy.

There is something antic about creating, although the enterprise be serious. And there is a matching antic spirit that goes with writing about it, for if ever there was a silent process, it is the creative one. Antic and serious and silent. Yet there is good reason to inquire about creativity, a reason beyond practicality, for practicality is not a reason but a justification after the fact. The reason is the ancient search of the humanist for the excellence of man: the next creative act may bring man to a new dignity.

Deferral and immediacy. There is an immediacy to creating anything, a sense of direction, an objective, a general idea, a feeling. Yet the immediacy is anything but a quick orgasm of completion. Completion is deferred?

Detachment and commitment. A willingness to divorce oneself from the obvious is surely a prerequisite for the fresh combinatorial act that produces effective surprise. there must be as a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition a detachment from the forms as they exist? But it is a detachment of commitment. For there is about it a caring, a deep need to understand something, to master a technique, to render a meaning. So while the poet, the mathematician, the scientist must each achieve detachment, they do it in the interest of commitment. And at one stroke they, the creative ones, are disengaged from that which exists conventionally and are engaged deeply in what they construct to replace it.

Freedom to be dominated by the object. You begin to write a poem. Before long it, the poem, begins to develop metrical, stanzaic, symbolical requirements. You, as the writer of the poem, are serving it ? it seems. or you may be pursuing the task of building a formal model to represent the known properties of single nerve fibers and their synapses: soon the model takes over? There is something odd about the phenomenon. We externalize an object, a product of our thoughts, treat it as ?out there.? Freud remarked, commenting on projection, that human beings seem better able to deal with stimuli from the outside than from within. So it is with the externalizing of a creative work, permitting it to develop its own being, its own autonomy coming to serve it. It is as if it were easier to cope with there, as if this arrangement permitted the emergence of more unconscious impulse, more material not readily accessible? To be dominated by an object of one?s own creation ? perhaps its extreme is Pygmalion dominated by Galatea ? is to be free of the defenses that keep us hidden from ourselves. As the object takes over and demands to be completed ?in its own terms,? there is a new opportunity to express a style and an individuality. Likely as not, it is so partly because we are rid of the internal juggling of possibilities, because we have represented them ?out there? where we can look at them, consider them.

Having read a good many journals and diaries by writers I have come to the tentative conclusion that the principal guard against precocious completion, in writing at least, is boredom. I have little doubt that the same protection avails the scientist. It is the boredom of conflict, knowing deep down what one wishes to say and knowing that one has not said it. one acts on the impulse to exploit an idea, to begin. One also acts on the impulse of boredom, to defer. Thus Virginia Woolf, trying to finish Orlando in February 1928: ?Always, always, the last chapter slips out of my hands. One gets bored. One whips oneself up. I still hope for a fresh wind and don?t very much bother, except that I miss the fun that was so tremendously lively all October, November, and December.

I end with the same perplexity in attempting to find some way of thinking reasonably about the creative process. At the outset I proposed that we define the creative act as effective surprise ? the production of novelty. It is reasonable to suppose that we will someday devise a proper scientific theory capable of understanding and predicting such acts. Perhaps we will understand the energies that produce the creative act much as we have come to understand how the dynamo produces its energy. It may be, however, that there is another mode of approach to knowing how the process generates itself, and this will be the way in which we understand how symbols and ideas ? capture [our] thoughts. Often it is the poet who grasps these matters most firmly and communicates them most concisely. Perhaps it is our conceit that there is only one way of understanding a phenomenon. I have argued that just as there is predictive effectiveness, so is there metaphoric effectiveness. For the while, at least, we can do worse than to live with a metaphoric understanding of creativity.

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought.

We would do well with as loose fitting a constraint as we can manage concerning what a story must ?be? to be a story. And the one that strikes me as most serviceable is the one with which we began: narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.

It will always be a moot question whether and how well a reader?s interpretation ?maps? on an actual story, does justice to the writer?s intention in telling the story, or conforms to the repertory of a culture. But in any case, the author?s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader?s repertory. So ?great? storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are ?accessible? to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader?s imagination. One cannot hope to ?explain? the processes involved in such rewriting in any but an interpretive way, surely no more precisely, say, than an anthropologist ?explains? what the Balinese cockfight means to those who bet on it? All that one can hope for is to interpret a reader?s interpretation in as detailed and rich a way as psychologically possible.

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American Psychologist known for Cognitive and Educational Psychology