Acts of Meaning

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Harvard University Press, 1990 - Medical - 181 pages
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Jerome Bruner argues that the cognitive revolution, with its current fixation on mind as "information processor;" has led psychology away from the deeper objective of understanding mind as a creator of meanings. Only by breaking out of the limitations imposed by a computational model of mind can we grasp the special interaction through which mind both constitutes and is constituted by culture.

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Acts of meaning

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A psychologist and educator, and a pioneer in the field of cognition, Bruner provides an outline for a new synthesis of inquiry into mind and culture. The book consists of the 1989-90 Jerusalem ... Read full review

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ACTS OF MEANING Review by Aswathy In the preface of the book, Acts of meaning, Jerome Bruner poses the question, “If Psychology is about understanding; why do we need to model or predict behavior? Why not interpret than investigate causes? Critiquing the positivist-scientific outlook prevalent in psychology (characterized by the now obsolete behaviorism and the information processing model of cognitive science) that fails to address important philosophical questions like nature of the mind, intentionality and how people construct meaning ; He asks, ‘how do these approaches answer questions like how is the world organized in the mind of a Muslim fundamentalist?’ He proposes the need for a cultural psychology that concerns itself with meaning since meaning making is not only a personal but a cultural endeavor as well. Culture achieves this by imposing the patterns inherent in the culture’s symbolic systems - its language and discourse modes, ‘the forms of narrative and logical explications and patterns of mutually dependent communal life’. To illustrate these aspects, he discusses certain ideas from folk psychology, a ‘crucial feature’ of cultural psychology. One of the premises of folk psychology is that people have beliefs and that these beliefs should cohere and be well organized. The narrative is the organizing element of folk psychology. When there is a departure from coherent or ‘canonical’ beliefs; the narrative is constructed to make sense of the extraordinary. The narrative has certain characteristics like sequentiality, which involves a ‘unique sequence of mental states or events, involving human beings as character-actors’ and ‘indifference to extralinguistic reality’; i.e.; the truth value of the statements are immaterial. The narrative can be used as a tool for social negotiation as it can cause the listener/reader to empathize with the speaker/writer. Bruner explains that what does not get structured narratively in our brain suffers loss in memory. ‘What gets stored in our memory is systematically altered to fit into our canonical representation of the world. If it cannot be altered, it is forgotten or highlighted in its exceptionality’. The book then discusses about how the human child acquires the capability of narrative. Biology of meaning may deal with a precursor system that readies the prelinguistic organism to traffic in language. Noam Chomsky has talked about the language acquisition device in children which is syntax-specific and has nothing to do with meaning. Bruner however is skeptical about this and explains that research has proved that language acquisition of the child depends on who he is in contact with. He believes that though we have a ‘bioprogram’ that picks up syntactic rules; we are ‘innately tuned’ to construct the social world in a certain way. This ‘context sensitivity’ fires up the bioprogram and the infant acquires language. The push to construct narrative causes the child to acquire grammatical forms in a certain order. The narrative constitutes four critical grammatical constituents which the child too acquires in a particular order. The first is ‘agentivity’ or human action directed toward certain goals. The child’s interest center on human action and its outcomes; particularly human interaction. They learn expressions like ‘all gone’ for completion and ‘uh-oh’ for incompletion. The second is ‘linearizing’ or standardized maintenance of a sequence. The child learns the subject-verb-object order for indicative sentences and also picks up conjunctions to link sentences. The third is sensitivity to the extraordinary; the child develops capability to describe the offbeat and often do not notice the canonical or ordinary. The fourth is perspective; the linguistic attainment of this property happens very gradually but affective expressions are displayed principally by crying etc. The child picks up narratives fast as she is in environments where narratives are told and when she get 


The Proper Study of Man
Folk Psychology as an Instrument of Culture
Entry into Meaning
Autobiography and Self

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About the author (1990)

Jerome Seymour Bruner was born in Manhattan, New York on October 1, 1915. Born blind because of cataracts, he had an experimental operation to restore his vision at the age of 2. He received a degree in psychology from Duke University in 1937 and received a doctorate from Harvard University. His theories about perception, child development, and learning informed education policy and helped launch the cognitive revolution. He wrote or co-wrote several books including A Study of Thinking written with Jacqueline J. Goodnow and George A. Austin and The Process of Education. He helped design Head Start, the federal program introduced in 1965 to improve preschool development. He died on June 5, 2016 at the age of 100.

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