First draft of chapter for David Bakhurst and Stuart Shanker (Eds.) Culture, Language, Self:
the Philosophical Psychology of Jerome Bruner, Sage Publications, London.
'It is then that the reader asks that crucial question, 'What's it all about?' But what 'it' is, is not the actual text... but the text the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own' (Bruner, 1986, p.37).
'...an event as we imagine it hasn't much to do with the same event as it is when it happens' (Kundera, 1993, p.139).
'Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning' (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.173).
One of our tasks in understanding an Other, is to do justice to the uniqueness of their
otherness. But this is not easy, for, as we shall see, it is in how they express themselves in
dialogically structured events that occur between us only in unique, fleeting moments, that
we can grasp who and what they are. What is involved in us doing this, is one of the
topics I want to explore in this celebration of Professor Jerome S. Bruner's work in
psychology. What I think is crucial to such a process, is a recent realization or discovery
which, in the words of Milan Kundera, is 'a discovery that might be termed ontological:
the discovery of the present moment...' (1993, p.131), the realization of the undeniable
'thereness' of certain meanings that we live out bodily in the practical, everyday, relational
activities occurring between us, and between us and our surroundings. This is a stance
toward the nature of meaning not unknown to Bruner. Indeed, in his essay on Two modes
of thought, he suggests that what he calls 'the narrative mode of thought' strives 'to put its
timeless miracles into the particularities of experience,' and adds that 'Joyce thought of the
particularities of the story as epiphanies of the ordinary' (Bruner, 1986, p.13). And in his
review of George Steiner's essay ('A new meaning of meaning,' in TLS, 8th Nov, 1985), he
comments that such a stance in art, is 'a belief that meaning (or meanings) lies in the work
of art, embodied, incarnate, a real presence... It is a faith in meaning incarnate in the work
of art that captures the 'immensity of the commonplace', that changes our very construction
of reality: 'poplars are on fire after Van Gogh'... The literary artist, it would follow from
this argument, becomes an agent in the evolution of mind - but not without the co-option of
the reader as his fellow author' (Bruner, 1986, p.153). The strange and surprisingly
comprehensive consequences of these claims of Kundera, Steiner, and Bruner - concerning
'real presences' and the 'immensity of the commonplace' - and their relation to our worry
about us dialogically grasping the uniqueness of the Other in our encounters with them,
will become more clear as we proceed. But let me straightaway link them to an aspect of
Professor Bruner's own more recent work, and to locate him in the current dialogue on the
In Acts of Meaning, among the other topics he explores there, Bruner (1990) discusses the
problem of a 'cultural psychology,' as he calls it, would 'go about posing the problem of the
Self?' (p.116). And he suggests that it would impose two closely related requirements on
our studies: One would be that we must focus 'upon the meanings in terms of which Self is
defined both by the individual and by the culture in which he or she participates' (p.116).
But this in itself, he suggests, is insufficient. For, if we are to grasp how we each can
negotiate a 'Self' for ourselves with the others around us, then we must understand the
continuously changing 'opportunities' and 'constraints' presented to us by each moment as
the living exchanges between us unfold. Thus, says Bruner, there is a second requirement
in the instantiation of a cultural psychology: 'to attend to the practices in which 'the
meanings of Self' are achieved and put to use' (Bruner, 1990, p.116) - where a focus on
these practices, he adds, leads us to a much more ''distributed' view of Self,' i.e., a view of
ourselves in which our dialogical relations to the others around us become more central. To
these comments on the distributed, dialogical nature of our practices of Self, I want also to
add his emphasis on what he calls the 'subjunctivizing' strategies (talk of possibility) we
often use in our literary texts (Bruner, 1986, p.26), and to suggest that they are also of
great importance in our practices of Self. For, as he points out (following Iser, 1978), in
rendering what we say 'indeterminate,' the use of such strategies ''allows a spectrum of
actualizations'. And so, 'literary texts initiate 'performances' of meaning rather than
actually formulating meanings themselves'' (Bruner, 1986, p.25, quoting Iser, 1978). It is in
such performances of meaning, in our responsive, bodily living out of our reactions and
rejoinders to an Other's textual and other expressions of possibility, that we create and feel
jointly with them, not only the more determinate meanings we co-perform between us, but
also co-create or co-author with them new specific Selves for ourselves: 'The 'otherness'
which enters into us makes us other' (Steiner, 1989, p.188).
Epiphanies of the ordinary
These claims of Bruner's then - to do with our practices of Self and with the performances of meaning we do within them - are crucial to everything that follows below. For, in focusing our attention on our practices of Self, Bruner draws our attention to important issues which, I think, we all, in these increasingly multicultural times, must pay attention. Almost all of us are now members of more than a single active culture (Rosaldo, 1989; Gergen, 1991; Taylor, 1989). Thus the experience of having to 'cross' cultural boundaries, of having continually to 'shift one's stance', of having to view one's surroundings, fleeting aspect by fleeting aspect rather than perspectively (Wittgenstein, 1953), to make sense of what is happening around us while being ourselves in 'motion', so to speak, has now become a 'normal' activity. But what, as academics and intellectuals, must we do in the new dialogical, aspectival circumstances in which we now live, to pay attention to 'the practices of Self'? Can we just apply our old and well tried methods to this new topic of study? Or must we, if we are to grasp the nature of such practices, invent some new methods, act in some new and different ways? For our current intellectual methods require
us set ourselves apart from those we study, to view them as if from afar, to observe what is
already 'out there' in the reality around us, and this requires us to view their activities as if
looking back on them as already completed achievements. Can we pretend any longer to be
able to do this? Don't we now need a new way in which to relate ourselves to the
phenomena of our studies, one that allows us to be more aware than previously of our own
relations to and involvements in what we are studying? One that recognizes the unfinished,
incomplete, ongoing nature of all of our engagements?
This, I think, is where Kundera's comments - to do with us only very recently coming to a
realization of the strangeness of the ordinary, the strangeness of the present moment in all
its concreteness - are of crucial importance to us. For presently, as he points out: 'When we
analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in memory. We know reality
only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it's
happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not
the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting' (p.125). Similarly, Bruner
(1986, p.13) remarks that what he calls the paradigmatic or logico- scientific mode of
thought, 'seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction,
and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is
What Kundera and Bruner are reminding us of here, is not only that our current
intellectual methods are monological and individualistic, and that as moderns we only
really fully alive when set over against our surroundings all alone, but that we also import
into our accounts of what happens around us, mythic abstractions of our own making.
Positioning ourselves as if observers from afar of someone playing a back and forth, turn
taking game - tennis say - we fail to realize that we are the other players in the game, that
others act in response to how we act. Lacking any intellectual grasp of the relation of their
activity to ours and to the circumstances we share with them, we try to explain what we
observe of their activities as if originating solely from within them as self-contained
individuals (Sampson, 1993). Ignoring the 'calls' of their surrounding circumstances to
which they 'answer', we invent mythic entities located inside them somewhere that,
theoretically, we suppose causes them to act as they do (Wittgenstein, 1953), and set out to
prove our theories true.
It is the hegemony of this method over us - that of trying to explain the causes of events in
terms of our own abstractions from them - that I shall seek in what follows below to undo.
However, instead of arguing like Harre' (this volume), that it is a second, discursive
revolution we now need to elaborate, I shall suggest that this will still prove inadequate
unless we also abandon these individualistic and monological, theory-driven methods, and
the one-way relations to those we study that they imply. As I see it, only if we institute a
third, dialogical revolution of a kind that calls all our previous methods into question, and
suggests wholly new intellectual practices and institutions to us, can we begin to fashion
forms of inquiry that will do justice to the uniqueness of the being of Others. But first,
before continuing further with this project (and with some inevitable forgetting in Kundera's
sense), let me recount some history - for such institutional changes have their own
problems, as Bruner's own history illustrates.
I first met Jerry in 1972 when I was in the Psychology Department in Nottingham, soon
after he came to England to take up the newly established Watts Professorship in
Psychology at Oxford. Our paths had already become intertwined, as I had arranged for my
then research student, David Wood - who had won a Nato Fellowship after his Ph.D. in
1969 - to go on to spend time with Jerry in Harvard (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976).
Nottingham already had a lively child development research unit established by John and
Elizabeth Newson (Newson and Newson, 1975). And from 1969 or so, spurred on by a
feeling that when it came to real-life language use the studies of language acquisition
stimulated by Chomsky's (1957, 1965) brilliant analyses of linguistic structure were
somehow beside the point, we had begun to turn our attention to the close videotape
analysis of mother-child interaction, of mothers simply showing their children of ten to
twenty months how to put shapes into form boards. This work was pioneered by Susan
Treble, later to be Susan Gregory (Shotter and Gregory, 1976). Influenced both by
Vygotsky's (1962) notions of instruction, mediation, and the internalization of what was
initially social, and by Merleau- Ponty's (1962) account of intersubjectivity, we had begun
to talk a lot about the amazing social, joint, relational, or 'distributed' phenomena (as
Bruner, 1996, p.154, now calls them) that we were beginning to notice - events that were
created between caretaker and child for which neither could be seen as individually
But we were all still somewhat at sea: aware that we were not doing 'experiments' or
'testing hypotheses' as such, that we were not able to present 'measurements' or 'objective
data', aware only that there was something here of great importance not captured in
previous, more hard-nosed approaches, we badly lacked a leader and a protector. Jerry's
arrival in England gave us the focus we needed. The Developmental Psychology Section of
the British Psychology Society was formed. Nottingham, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and
Oxford combined to run a kind of travelling workshop/seminar. Suddenly, the field of
social-developmental psychology was up and running, and - at least to those of us within it
during the short-lived period from 1972 to 1976 or so - it was the most intellectually
exciting arena there was in the whole of psychology. As Jerry remarks in his autobiography
(Bruner, 1983), the meetings of our workshop/seminar 'shine in memory!' (p.166).
But something went wrong with the whole movement, and for twenty years (in my
estimation) it lost the shine it is only just now beginning to regain. It succumbed to
tendencies which, as I have already mentioned, are at work, not just in our academic,
disciplinary practices in psychology, but also in the institutions of our modernist, western
societies at large: the repression of the dialogical by the monological, of the practical by
the theoretical, of the particular by the universal, of the unique moment by what is
repeatable. And a part of my project in what follows below, is to trace some aspects of
what seems to be involved these institutional processes. This aspect of my celebration of
Professor Bruner's work is thus a somewhat tricky one, for I want to use his own
distinguished work and career to exemplify the workings of some of these tendencies. I
must therefore beg his indulgence. For only someone who has both occupied his position of
institutional prominence, but who has also been so active - and courageous - in trying to
extend and to cross so many disciplinary boundaries, constitutes a fitting subject for such
an examination. There are, then, tendencies at work in our current academic practices and
institutions, that I want to try to bring into the open in this essay - that are inimical to just
the kind of 'surprising' or 'left-handed' impulses (see Bruner 1962/1979) to do with us
getting in touch with the mysterious othernesses in our surroundings, that Bruner often
wants to follow, and has followed, from time to time - but which even he feels the almost
immediate need to try to tame or master, rather than to discourse with further.
Although acutely aware of these tendencies, and of their conflict with those of the
mainstream, he has nonetheless given expression to them. However, he has never allowed
for both possibilities to be equally present in his professional thinking at once! He has in
the end always, instead of, so to speak, keeping the conversation with otherness going, he
has always switched to seeking 'solutions-to-problems', to quell play in favor of order, to
seek the mastery of meaning by form, to let the paradigmatic dominate over the narrative
mode, while not quite grasping the consequences of always so doing. Thus, although
Bruner has continually identified important, new departures for our investigations in
academic psychology, new topics to which we have all, sooner or later, come to pay
attention. He has also (I want to claim here), too quickly sought to corral his own unruly,
left- handed encounters with the particularities of strange othernesses. Thus, to use his own
words in describing the paradigmatic mode of thought, in privileging explanation over
description, he has sought 'to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for
abstraction,' (Bruner, 1986, p.13). As a result, although he has hinted at, he has also drawn
back from giving us the kind of dialogical, relational psychology which I think we need - a
psychology in which both the left and the right hand can work in concerted joint action
with each other.
We can find his unruly, 'left-handed' tendencies most clearly at work right at the beginning
of his 1990 book, Acts of Meaning. Bruner starts it with some strong and critical
statements. As one of the progenitors of what is now hailed as 'The Cognitive Revolution' -
the most long-lived and successful of all of psychology's revolutions (Baars, 1986; Gardner,
1987) - he first points out that its original intention was 'to bring 'mind' back into the
human sciences after a long cold winter of objectivism' (Bruner, 1990, p.1). But he then
goes on to remark that, at least in his view, it 'has now been diverted into issues that are
marginal to the impulse that brought it into being' (Bruner, 1990, p.1). For, as he and his
friends began to think in the late 1950's, and what he and George Miller sought to realize
in setting up the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies in 1960, was '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' (Bruner, 1990, p.2).
Thus, in attempting to bring 'mind' back into psychology, he didn't want just to add 'a little
mentalism' to behaviorism, but to do something much more profound: he wanted to
discover and describe 'what meaning-making processes were implicated' (Bruner, 1990, p.2)
in people's encounters with the world; its aim was 'to prompt psychology to joining forces
with its sister interpretative disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences' (Bruner,
Indeed, although he admits that 'we were slow to fully grasp what the emergence of
culture meant for human adaptation and for human functioning' (Bruner, 1990, p.11) - to
contrast with what he calls computationalism - he goes on to outline in this and in his
latest book, The Culture of Education (Bruner, 1996), a 'second approach to the nature of
mind - call it culturalism. It takes its inspiration from the evolutionary fact that mind could
not exist save for culture' (p.3). As he remarks in Acts of Meaning: 'What was obvious
from the start was perhaps too obvious to be fully appreciated, at least by us psychologists
who by habit and by tradition think in rather individualist terms. The symbolic systems that
individual used in constructing meaning were systems that were already in place, already
'there', deeply entrenched in culture and language. They constituted a very special kind of
communal tool kit whose tools, once used, made the user a reflection of the community...
As Clifford Geertz puts it, without the constituting role of culture we are 'unworkable
monstrosities... incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through
culture'' (Bruner, 1990, pp.11-12, quoting Geertz, 1973, p.49).
But even in the early stages of the cognitive revolution, he notes, 'emphasis began shifting
from 'meaning' to 'information', from the construction of meaning to the processing of
information. These are profoundly different matters' (Bruner, 1990, p.4). And in Acts of
Meaning, as well as in The Culture of Education (1996), he begins to outline how he
thinks that original impulse can be recaptured and revitalized. For, as he sees it, the
revolution in psychology 'has been technicalized in a manner that even undermines that
original impulse' (Bruner, 1990, p.1). But how can it be recaptured? By, I suggest,
attending to many points that Bruner himself has made, but without succumbing to his
temptation to turn too early to the requirements of our current institutionalized academic
practices, to try to explain what makes our performances of meaning possible.
Performing meaning: unique, variational meanings in practice
To refer to issues he has brought to our attention, let me now return to Bruner's (1986)
account of narrative modes of thought in his 'Two modes...' essay, for it is central my
whole approach here. The way in which it is central, is exemplified in a story he quotes
there: In the story, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of a stone bridge, describing it stone by
stone. But Kublai Khan gets impatient and seeks what some of us would now call 'the
bottom line', and asks what supports the stones? 'The bridge is not supported by one stone
or another,' Marco answers, 'but by the line of the arch that they form.' Then 'Why do you
speak to me of the stones?,' Kublai Khan demands. 'Without stones there is no arch,' Polo
replies - for the arch is 'in' the relations between the stones. And as Bruner goes on to point
out, in their reading of the story, the reader 'goes from stones to arches to the significance
of arches to some broader reality - goes back and forth between them in attempting finally
to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning' (p.36). Sometimes in reading stories,
we can attend from the relations among their particularities to something much more
general. But, what kind of textual structures allow or invite such a move? How is the sense
of a more general significance achieved? And 'in' what does that more general significance
It is only in our reading of texts of a narrative kind, Bruner maintains, that we can
encounter others or othernesses that are strange and novel to us. In reading such texts,
individuals begin to construct what Bruner (1986) a 'virtual text' of their own - where it is
as if readers 'were embarking on a journey without maps... [Where] in time, the new
journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the
past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with
the reader's sense of the ordinary... [This] is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity
that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own' (Bruner, 1986,
pp.36-37). To repeat: It is the way in which such texts 'subjunctivize reality' - or traffic 'in
human possibilities rather than settled certainties,' as he puts it (Bruner, 1986, p.26) - that
makes the co-creation of such virtual worlds between authors and their readers possible.
But by what means can such a trafficking in possibilities be occasioned? By making use of
the maxims, conventions, and regularities that are constitutive of our cultural being, he
suggests - but not in any kind of mechanically repetitive way! But in another, much more
As he points out, the existence of conventions and maxims that are constitutive of a
normative background to our activities, 'provides us with the means of violating them for
purposes of meaning more than we say or for meaning other than what we say (as in
irony, for example) or for meaning less than we say' (Bruner, 1986, p.26). This
background, and the possibility of us deviating from it, is crucial to his whole approach.
Indeed, he emphasizes it again in Acts of Meaning, where he comments on his efforts to
describe a people's 'folk psychology' as follows: '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 condition' (Bruner, 1990, p.67). It is the very creation of
indeterminacy and uncertainty by the devices people use in their narrative forms of thought
and talk, that make it possible for them to co-create unique meanings between them as their
dialogical activities unfold. 'To mean in this way,' suggests Bruner (1986), 'by the use of
such intended violations... is to create 'gaps' and to recruit presuppositions to fill them'
(p.26). Indeed, our own unique responses to our own unique circumstances are 'carried' in
the subtle variations in how we put these constitutive forms of response to use, as we
bodily react, and thus relate ourselves, to what goes on around us. This is what it is for us
to perform meaning. And we 'show' our understanding of such 'performed meanings' in our
ways of 'going on' with the others around us in practice - to put the matter in Wittgenstein's
(1953) terms. I shall call the kind of meaning involved here, that are only intelligible to us
against an already existing background of the activities constitutive of our current forms of
life, joint, first-time - or only 'once occurrent' (Bakhtin, 1993, p.2) [See footnote 1] - variational
meanings, that are expressive of the 'world' of an unique 'it' or 'I'.
This emphasis of Bruner's, on living, responsive, 'played out' forms of understanding,
besides being central to Wittgenstein's whole approach, are also central to Bakhtin's (1986)
and Volosinov's (1986) dialogical approach to speech communication. I will not pursue
these links further here (but see Shotter and Billig, in press). What I do want to pursue
further, however, is the non-referential, non-representational, non-conceptual, 'moving',
'poetic' nature of these more practical forms of meaning and understanding.
In exploring the problem of how it is possible to perform meaning in practice, of how, say,
the process of intending might work, Wittgenstein (1981) suggests that we might feel
tempted to say that such a process 'can do what it is supposed to only by containing an
extremely faithful picture of what it intends.' But having said this much, he goes on to point
out: 'That that too does not go far enough, because a picture, whatever it may be, can be
variously interpreted; hence this picture too in its turn stands isolated. When one has the
picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead, and it is as if something had been taken away
from it, which had given it life before... it remains isolated, it does not point outside itself
to a reality beyond. Now one says: 'Of course, it is not the picture itself that intends, but
we who use it to intend something'. But if this intending, this meaning, is in turn something
that is done with the picture, then I cannot see why it has to involve a human being. The
process of digestion can also be studied as a chemical process, independently of whether it
takes place in a living being. We want to say 'Meaning is surely essentially a mental
process, a process of conscious life, not of dead matter'... And now it seems to us as if
intending could not be any process at all, of any kind whatever. - For what we are
dissatisfied with here is the grammar of process, not with the specific kind of process. - It
could be said: we should call any process 'dead' in this sense' (no. 236). 'It might almost
be said,' he adds: 'Meaning moves, whereas a process stands still' (no.237).
In other words, instead of meaning being a cognitive process of statically 'picturing'
something, Wittgenstein sees it here in a quite different light: as part of an ongoing,
dynamic, interactive process in which people as embodied agents are continuously reacting
in a living, practical way, both to each other and to their circumstances. Thus, even as a
person is speaking, the bodily and facial responses of the others around them to what they
say, are acting back upon them to influence them moment by moment in their 'shaping' of
their talk as it unfolds. In such circumstances as these, we are inevitably doing much more
than merely talking 'about' something; we are continuously living out changing 'ways of
relating' ourselves to our circumstances, of our own creation; or as Wittgenstein (1953)
would say, we are creating certain, particular 'forms of life [ See footnote 2]'
Thus, in practice, as we tack back and forth between the particular words of a strange,
newly encountered, meaning- indeterminate story or text, and the whole of the already
ongoing, unsayable, dynamic cultural history in which we all are, in different ways, to
some extent, immersed, we perform meaning. In so doing, in 'bridging the gaps' with the
responsive movements we make as we read, we creatively 'move' over what Bruner (1986)
calls the 'landscapes' of a 'virtual text.' And what is general in our reading, what we can
'carry over' from what we do as we read into the doing of other activities, are these
responsive 'ways of moving' of our own spontaneous creation - ways of 'orchestrating' our
moment by moment changing relations to our past, our future, the others around us, our
immediate physical surroundings, authorities, our cultural history, our dreams for the future,
and so on, relating ourselves in these different directions perceptually, cognitively, in
action, in memory, and so on (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). We can 'carry over' into new spheres
of activity what is 'carried in' our initial ways of bodily responding to a text in the first
Viewed in this way, as calling out from us possibly quite new, first-time responsive
movements, rather than as being about something in the world, such meaning indeterminate
texts can be seen as a special part of the world, an aspect of our surroundings to which we
cannot not - if we are to grasp their meaning for us - relate ourselves in a living way. So,
although such texts may seem to be not too different from those presented as being 'about'
something - that is, from texts with a representational-referential meaning that 'pictures' a
state of affairs in the world - their meaning cannot be found in such a picturing. We must
relate ourselves to them in a quite different way. For their meaning is of a much more
practical, pre-theoretical, pre-conceptual kind: to do with providing us with way or style of
knowing, rather than with a knowledge or 'picture' of something in particular. To put it
another way: in its reading, such texts are exemplary for not of a certain way of going on.
It is exemplary for a new way of relating ourselves to our circumstances not before
followed; it provides us with new poetic images through which, possibly, to make sense of
things, not images or representations of things already in existence.
Concerning the creative effects of certain styles or genres of writing on us, or works of art
in general, Susan Sontag (1962) has written: 'To become involved with a work of art
entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art
itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in
some way more open and enriched... Raymond Bayer has written: 'What each and every
aesthetic object imposes on us, in appropriate rhythms, is a unique and singular formula
for the flow of our energy... Every work of art embodies a principle of proceeding, of
stopping, of scanning; an image of energy or relaxation, the imprint of a caressing or
destroying hand which is [the artist's] alone'. We can call this the physiognomy of the
work, or its rhythm, or, as I would rather do, its style' (p.28). Where the function of such a
'moving' form of communication is, not only to make a unique other or otherness we have
not previously witnessed, present to us for the very first time, but to provide us with the
opportunity to embody the new 'way of going on' that only it can call out from us. But to
do this, to come to embody its 'way', we must encounter and witness its distinct nature in
all its complex detail. If we turn too quickly merely to its explanation, not only do we miss
what new it can teach us, but the turn is pointless: for, literally, we do not yet know what
we are talking about.
As this stance toward meaning as living, only once occurrent, joint, variational movement, is still very unfamiliar to us, let me explore its nature yet a little more: Remarking further about the living nature of meaning, Wittgenstein (1981) comments that he wants to say that ''When we mean something, it's like going up to someone, it's not having a dead picture (of any kind)'. We go up to the thing we mean' (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.455). For instance, as we view, say, a picture such as Van Gogh's Sunflowers, we can enter into an extended, unfolding, living relation with it, one that ebbs and flows, that vacillates and oscillates, as we respond to it in different ways. What we sense, we sense from inside our relations to it: 'It is as if at first we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame and the picture was a painted surface. In this way, when we intend, we are surrounded by our intention's pictures, and we are inside them' (1981, no.233). Indeed, he says elsewhere: 'It often strikes is as if in grasping meaning the mind made small rudimentary movements, like someone irresolute who does not know which way to go - i.e., it tentatively reviews the field of possible applications' (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.33).
The novelist John Berger (1979) has also written about the act of writing in a similar
'The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach. To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. 'Life', as the Russian proverb says, 'is not a walk across an open field'. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds back on itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance). The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraws, closes in and takes its distance. Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. as the movement of writing itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy' (John Berger, 1979, p.6, my emphases).
In other words, in approaching an experience to write about it, or in going up to someone
to meet them, or in our intense looking over a painting or other work of art while exploring
what its meanings might be for us, in all these acts, in practice, there is an oscillating,
shifting, fluid kind of inner complexity to them that until recently psychology has ignored.
The temptation to explain
Why is this? Because, I think, it is terribly difficult to focus on the details of doing of a
practice in the course of one's doing it. Crucial in the early work we did in Nottingham in
our mother-child studies of developmental interaction - and in the workshops that, as
Professor Bruner put it, shine in memory - was our use of video- tape recordings. We
became used to watching the same fleeting moments over and over again to capture each
time more and more detail; and once we had learned 'to see' such events on videotape, we
learnt to see them out in the everyday world as well. Ethnomethodoloy also, could not, I
feel, have got under way without audio tape recorders. For the crucial events in our
encounters with each other and our surroundings not only flit by so quickly, but are also
'distributed' between us to such an extent that we have no distinct sense either of their
effect on us or our effect on them. Thus it is no wonder that we find it difficult to focus on
us doing or performing meaning as a social practice, to focus on such 'events of meaning'
as they are. Thus, thinking that there must be something mysterious and hidden within
them that is impossible for us to observe, we talk instead of how we theorize them as
being! This, I think, is where Wittgenstein's (1953) work is of such importance: for he
draws our attention simply to the role in our ordinary, everyday social practices, of us
drawing each other's attention to aspects of our own ongoing practices, especially to its
crucial role in us learning our social practices in the first place. Hence his admonition 'don't
think but look!' (1953, no.66), when we feel tempted to say that our practices must have a
certain character to them.
Although such a way of looking for the fleeting, only once occurrent details of our
interactions is not easy to implement, it is of the crux. For, as he puts it, the problems we
face are not empirical problems to be solved by giving explanations: 'they are solved,
rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us
recognize those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are
solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have already known'
(no.109) - but which so far, has passed us by in our everyday dealings with each other
unnoticed. Thus, as Wittgenstein (1953) sees it, although not easily accomplished, the task
is not to imagine, and then to empirically investigate possible 'mechanisms' within us
responsible for us being able to mean things to each other, but to describe how we in fact
do do it in practice. Indeed, to repeat Kundera's (1993) remark above: 'an event as we
imagine it hasn't much to do with the same event as it is when it happens' (p.139) - for we
can only theorize events as distinct upon their completion, after they have made one or
another kind of sense, once they have an already achieved meaning. Something incomplete,
something that we are still in the middle of, something that we are still involved in or
'inside of', cannot properly be described in a theoretically distinct way. Thus, if we still
nonetheless attempt to do so, we will miss out - or better, we will tend to overlook - many
of its most significant details; and in so doing, we will find ourselves puzzled as to how we
do in fact manage the doing of meaning between us. There must - we will say to each
other - be something else that we have missed, something hidden in what we do when we
mean things to each other, that needs discovering and explaining. But, suggests
Wittgenstein (1953), in asking and answering his own question: 'How do sentences do it
[i.e., manage to represent something]? - Don't you know? For nothing is hidden' (no.435).
And if we do begin to look into the different ways in which we make use of words and
other signs in making sense to each other, we find that there is no single, fixed way in
which we must do it. But that: 'There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use
of what we call 'symbols', 'words', 'sentences'. And this multiplicity is not something fixed,
given once for all; but types of language, new language-games, as we say, come into
existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten' (no.23).
If this is the case - both that 'nothing is hidden', and that there are 'countless' ways of doing
meaning - how can we describe these ways? Only from within our different ways of doing
meaning themselves - and then, only in the much more indeterminate, 'poetic' forms of talk
we ordinarily use in our everyday activities, in which we use a great deal of first-person,
only once-occurrent, variational, dialogical talk (Shotter, 1996). Thus, when it comes to us
gaining a grasp of our own practices (as I have indicated above), we have to be content
with merely trying to point out crucial aspects of them from within our own ongoing
involvements in them - according to what, in this, that, or some other practical context we
are attempting to achieve with our pointings out. And once such pointing out has achieved
its practical purpose - although it is extremely difficult to accept this fact - there is nothing
more that can be said with any clarity or distinctness. Thus, the crucial aspects of a
practice that make it the practice it is cannot be explained, they can be only be described,
i.e, pointed our in the course of our talk of them: for intelligible explanations can only be
provided from within the confines of already established forms of life with their associated
language-games. Where 'you must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say
something unpredictable. I mean; it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or
unreasonable). It is there - like our life' (Wittgenstein, 1969, no.559). Once we go beyond
the confines of established language-games, we are once again in the realm of the
indeterminate, where are meanings are ambiguous and can only be made determinate by us
'playing them out', so to speak, within a practice. Our language-games cannot themselves
be explained, as they are the bases in terms of which all our explanations in fact work as
It is this temptation to explain that, I think, Bruner finds hard to resist, or he seeks, I also
think, primarily to be a scientist. Thus, to apply what he says about the paradigmatic or
logico- scientific mode of thought to his own tendencies: he ultimately 'seeks to transcend
the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in
principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned' (p.13). We can
see this, I think, at many points in his work. For me, with my interest in joint action
(Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993a and b, 1995), nowhere is this tendency more apparent in his
work than in this sphere.
In Acts of Meaning, he draws the following crucial distinctions between three spheres of
activity: 'The division between an 'inner' world of experience and an 'outer' one that is
autonomous creates three domains, each of which requires a different form of
interpretation... In the first domain we are in some manner 'responsible' for the course of
events; in the third not,' he writes (Bruner, 1990, p.40). What he says here strikes me as
utterly correct and uncontroversial; so does the first half of his next sentence, that: 'There is
a second sphere of events that is problematic, comprising some indeterminate mix of the
first and third.' It is how he continues from that point onward that I want to contest. For he
writes about what I would call joint action as follows: that '... it requires a more elaborate
form of interpretation in order to allocate proper causal shares to individual agency and to
'nature'. If folk psychology embodies the interpretative principles of the first domain, and
folk physics- cum-biology the third, then the second is ordinarily seen to be governed either
by some form of magic or, in contemporary Western culture, by the scientism of physicalist
psychology or Artificial Intelligence' (p.41).
Why I would contest what he says here, is because, rather than treating joint action as a
source of new bodily reactions and responses to be noticed as the possible origins of new
language- games within which we might co-create or co-author new Selves for ourselves,
for instance, he treats it as a problem to be solved. In his view, it is to be solved by
extending our 'folk psychology' - which must be at the base of any cultural psychology'
(Bruner, 1990, p.39) - into what he suggests could be called a 'folk human science' (Bruner,
1990, p.67). This is to be done by accepting all the ordinary everyday mental-terms within
which we currently talk of psychological things in our culture, and by seeking empirically
to discover both how we live out our lives in these terms, and how we as children acquire
a knowledge of the use of these terms. Thus, he views us as structuring our psychological
lives in terms of 'beliefs', and 'desires', in the following sense: '[That] we believe that the
world is organized in certain ways, that we want certain things, that some things matter
more than others, and so on... [And moreover], we also believe that people's beliefs and
desires become sufficiently coherent and well organized to merit being called
'commitments' or 'ways of life... [While] personhood is itself a constituent concept of our
folk psychology...' (Bruner, 1990, p.39). And to account for how we develop our knowledge
of such a 'folk psychology,' how we make our 'entry into meaning,' he hypothesizes that,
like adults, even very young children possess to some extent a 'theory of mind:' 'Nobody
doubts,' he says (Bruner (1990, p.75), 'that four- or six-year-olds have more mature
theories of mind that can encompass what others who ar not engaged with them are
thinking or desiring. The point, rather, is that even before language takes over as the
instrument of interaction one cannot interact humanly with others without some
protolinguistic 'theory of mind'' (p.75).
Bruner is not the only originator of these proposals, as he is the first to admit.
Consequently, the fact that they are now at the heart of a major tradition of empirical
research in child psychology, cannot (for good or ill) be accredited wholly to his work.
Indeed, we can now see, I think, how the institutional structure of our current academic and
intellectual methods and practices 'require' such notions. The research is thought necessary,
because it is assumed (to quote from a leading source in the field), that: 'perceptions,
emotions, physiological states, and more - are a part of the web of psychological
constructs used [by adults and children] to understand and explain action and mind... [and
they] are centrally organized by consideration of the actor's thoughts and desires. These
two sorts of generic mental states are, of course, internal and unobservable. But
unobservable mental states can often be inferred...' (Bartsch and Wellman, 1995, p.6). And
it is also further taken for granted, that the everyday talk of adults 'about' mental states is
unproblematically definitive of our adult 'commonsense conception of mind' (p.5). Thus,
when as adults we distinguish between, say, desires as implying a subjective connection to
an external object without necessarily implying the possession of an internal cognitive
representation of it, while beliefs as such always involve an inner representation, we always
do so in terms of what 'can logically be said' on the basis of our own supposed
commonsense theory of mind. Given these assumptions, in this tradition of research,
records of children's everyday talk are studied inferentially for what they reveal 'about'
children's knowledge 'about' such theoretical states - both in themselves and in others.
Where a typical hypothesis under study, is the suggestion that 'children go from
understanding subjective connections to a later understanding of representational mental
states' (Bartsch and Wellman, 1995, p.14) - as if a 'proper' or 'natural' set of developmental
stages is 'already there' awaiting discovery.
However, if Wittgenstein (1953) is right, then this kind of research is utterly misguided.
Our beliefs and desires are not, as Bartsch and Wellman (1995) claim, 'of course, internal
and unobservable,' but are in fact shown in our acting. And the things we 'show' in our
actions cannot be explained: they are a part of the background making explanations
possible. It is just that we have not yet taught ourselves to see such fleeting 'showings'.
That, however, is perhaps more easily said than done. For, in practice, the temptation to try
to solve the puzzles we face by seeking explanations is not at all easy to avoid; it is
difficult to recognize the character of the puzzles we face. Thus, as a result, not only is
such a task not on the agenda in current psychological research, but, as Wittgenstein (1953)
puts it, this, that, or another theoretical picture of how we imagine inner mental processes
as working, 'stands in the way of us seeing the use of [a] word as it is' (no.305).
About the difficulty in avoiding the temptation to try to explain both supposed hidden
mental processes and how we come to mean things in our speakings, Wittgenstein (1981)
remarks: '...the difficulty - I might say - is not that of finding [a] solution but rather that of
recognizing as the solution something that looks as if it were only a preliminary to it...
This is connected, I believe, with our wrongly expecting an explanation, whereas the
solution of the difficulty is a description, if we give it the right place in our [dialogical]
considerations. If we dwell upon it, and do not try to get beyond it. The difficulty here is:
to stop' (1981, no.314, my alteration and addition). Instead of attempting to see either
behind or beyond an event or phenomenon, seeing it merely as an indicator of something
supposedly hidden, we must see it in another way. If we dwell on it and look ceaselessly
over it, and, as a result, continually respond to it, bodily and dialogically, we can
continuously create within ourselves, not new insights, but new responses and reactions -
new origins for new language-games, new forms of life, and, as a result, new movements
of thought. Indeed, instead of in a protolinguistic theory of mind, it is in such reactions and
their refinements that we can find the origins and beginnings of our children's entry into
meaning: 'It is so difficult to find the beginning,' says Wittgenstein (1969). 'Or better: it is
difficult to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go further back' (no.471).
If we express ourselves, not by simply reproducing the 'normal' background activities
constitutive of the kind of people we are, but use them to 'carry' our unique, joint,
first-time, deviations and variations from them, then our task is not that of trying to
develop 'a more elaborate form of interpretation in order to allocate proper causal shares
to individual agency and to 'nature'' (Bruner, 1990, p.41, my emphasis). Instead, we must
simply attend to the detailed character of such beginnings, and not be distracted from that
task by trying to explain them by in theoretical terms. This is the importance of
Wittgenstein's way of talking, the point of his remarks: their function is, he says, to change
our 'way of looking at things' (1953, no.144), to give 'prominence to distinctions which our
ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook' (1953, no.132). Indeed, as he says, he
is not concerned 'to hunt out new facts; it is, rather, of the essence of our investigation
that... we want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we
seem in some sense not to understand' (1953, no.89). And, through his 'poetic' remarks, he
wants to draw our attention to 'observations which no one has doubted, but which have
escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes' (1953, no.415).
And what Wittgenstein draws to our attention is that, strangely, that we can gain the
new kind of practical understanding required by the use of many of the self-same methods
as those we use in gaining this practical kind of understanding in our everyday lives in the
first place - the methods that those around us used in our childhood, in 'instructing' us in
how to be the kind of persons required in our community (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986; Shotter,
1974, 1984, 1993a and b). So although his methods are as many and various as those we
use in life itself, they do in fact all have something in common: they all work in just the
same way as our 'directive', 'instructive', 'organizational', and 'educative' forms of talk in
everyday life work. For example, we 'give commands' ('Do this,' 'Don't do that'); we 'point
things out' to people ('Look at this!'); 'remind' them ('Think what happened last time');
'change their perspective' ('Look at it like this'); 'organize' their behavior ('First, take a right,
then...'); and so on. All these instructive forms of talk 'move' us, in practice, to do
something we would not otherwise do: in 'gesturing' or 'pointing' toward something in our
circumstances, they 'move' us to relate ourselves to our circumstances in a new ways, to
'orchestrate' our ways of relating in novel and complex ways. Where it is the gestural
function of these instructive forms of talk that is their key feature: it is this that gives them
their life, their function within our lives in 'calling out' new, dialogically responsive
reactions from us of a kind shared by the others around us. These are the reactions from
which more complicated 'ways of going on' can be developed.
In this, it seems to me, Wittgenstein's remarks aim at a target very similar to Bruner's, but
in a very different way: for both feel that prior to any attempt to explain a person's actions,
we must first come to an overall grasp in some way of what Wittgenstein calls their
Weltbild - 'the substratum of all my enquiring and asserting,' as Wittgenstein says of
himself (1969, no.162). We must somehow characterize the overall style of the 'terrain' or
'landscape' shaping the movement of the flow of activity between us. For it is only within
this 'already shaped movement', that all our arguing, our testing of hypotheses, our claims
to truth and our assessment of the evidence in their support, and so on, have their life -
they exist as further differentiations and variations within it. It is the character of this
background 'bustle of life' (1980, II, no.625), 'the whole hurly-burly' (1980, II, no.629), that
is basic for us. Literally, we do not know how intelligibly how to doubt it, for all our
intelligible doubts must be formulated in its terms. Further, to the extent that it contains all
the original forms of expression against which the adequacy of our concepts may be
judged, this means that all our concepts - if they are not to be mere irrelevant inventions -
must be further differentiations, so to speak, within this basic flow of activity. In practice,
our concepts are 'carried in' certain of our embodied ways of responding to our
surroundings that we 'carry over' from other spheres of activity. This means, however, that
concepts as such cannot be of any help to us in grasping the nature of our own humanly
constructed institutions and practices, for they are an outgrowth, not the basis, of the
everyday, background flow of activities between us.
In the past in social theory, two spheres of activity have occupied our attention: people's
individual actions, and their behavior. But now, dialogical phenomena - and what Bruner
focuses on as narrative phenomena - seen as occurring in a sphere somewhere in between
these other two, are coming to constitute a distinct, third realm of activity requiring its own
distinct kind of attention. Such phenomena cannot be accounted for simply as actions (for
they are not done by individuals, thus they cannot be explained by giving a person's
reasons), nor can they be treated simply as 'just happening' events (to be explained by
discovering their causes). Indeed, as Bruner himself points out, such events occur in a
chaotic zone of indeterminacy or uncertainty in between these other two spheres, and as
such, although they contain aspects of them both, occurrences in this sphere do not seem
amenable to any clear characterizations at all. Yet, although Bruner (1990) is at pains to
point out that these joint, first-time, variational activities consist in 'some indeterminate mix
of the other two,' i.e., of actions or happenings, he does not in the end treat them as
consisting of a distinct third realm of events, as an otherness to be endlessly dwelt on, if
justice is to be done to its uniqueness. In his folk human science, he seeks a specific,
explanatory account of such a sphere of activity.
Yet, if we do dwell on its otherness for a while, we find that it is its very lack of
specificity, its lack of any pre-determined order, and thus its openness to being specified or
determined by those involved in it, that is its most interesting feature - for at least the
following two reasons: While we, as academics, may not be able to specify and make
determinate the forms of people's self- other relations ahead of time, we can empirically
study how they themselves manage to specify and determine them for themselves (for
instance see Jacoby and Ochs, 1995, and Katz and Shotter, 1996). And this is, perhaps,
where all the practical payoffs of this approach lie. But it is not where the most radical
The most crucial changes will lie, I think, in our changed attitudes to our talk of certain
things - and I mean talk 'of' not talk 'about' - things such as: our talk of language, of
persons (and their psychological 'make-up'), of society, culture, etc., and in all those things
that are an other or otherness to us. These are all things or activities that are ongoing and
unfinished, that we either seem to be 'inside of' or they seem to be 'inside of us', things of
which we cannot seem to form a single, fixed and distinct picture upon which to base a
practice, 'things' that are always inadequately represented in our theories 'about' them. And
this is where, I think, Wittgenstein's central achievement lies: for he has provided us with
'methods' for talking of our ongoing, unfinished practices from within our practices
themselves. In so doing, he has brought to our attention, how we have misled ourselves in
the past in our attempts to explain them. Indeed, he makes it clear to us that the
technologizing of psychology, and other such practices, is not simply a consequence of us
having selected 'technical', 'mechanical', or 'computational' theories in our attempts to
explain human phenomena - as if switching to other, possibly more humane kinds of
theoretical concepts, such as narrative or hermeneutical notions, would make all the
difference. It would be of no avail. For the fraction and technicalization of psychology
stems not from the style of our theories, but from a certain set of very general intellectual
moves embodied in our intellectual practices, all embodied in the urge to explain: the move
to focus on fixed forms and patterns, on what is stable and repeatable; the search for stable
unities, for a static overall order and coherence; the urge to construct undeniable,
incontestable, intelligible systems of thought, and to write them up in textbooks that can be
grasped by individuals sitting at their desks all alone. It is difficult to imagine, never mind
to implement, a 'moving' alternative, to see that we can only do just to the being of an
Other in endless, ongoing, moving, dialogical encounters with them. Yet this is what
Bruner in his twists and turns has attempted to do.
Thus, in celebrating aspects of Professor Bruner's own work and distinguished career, I
have sought to display what, it seems to me, are some of the inevitably contradictory and
irresolvable tendencies at work in these twists and turns of his. But as I see it, these
contradictory tendencies are not simply at work solely in his efforts, but are at work in all
our efforts, for they are present in our institutional practices in academic psychology (and
the rest of the social sciences) currently. But, I think, the full, contradictory nature of these
tendencies are only felt (and thus expressed and displayed in one's work) if, like Jerome
Bruner, one lives one's professional psychology in one's everyday life in a morally engaged
way. And clearly, Bruner does take psychology seriously in this way. He not only takes it
seriously as an academic discipline, but also, in seeing it as one of our hopes in passing
beyond 'the malaise of futurelessness... the unspoken despair in which we are now living'
(Bruner, 1986, pp.148-149), he not content with it in that guise alone. On the horizon of
his understandings, determining how he positions himself in relation to it, is his concern
with our human condition. Hence his worry over it becoming too technicalized: for it will
then call us once again to treat the cultural knowledge of ordinary people as 'just a set of
self-assuaging illusions, [rather than as] the culture's beliefs and working hypotheses about
what makes it possible and fulfilling for people to live together, even with great personal
sacrifice' (Bruner, 1990, p.32). This is why he sees the denigration or the ignoring of
cultural knowledge as disastrous.
In outlining its strange nature, he draws our attention most crucially, not only to the
importance of the realm of first-time, variational events - to our violations of the normal! -
but also to the fact that such 'violations' only have their significance against the constitutive
background of our normative activities. If we lose our grasp on this background, then
anything goes! We will lack a shared, living basis in terms of which to judge the adequacy
and relevance of people's claims to knowledge. But for us to get and to retain a grasp of its
nature, for us to get an insight into our practices of Self, along with many of our other
practices, is not easy. To repeat: Instead of a theoretical, explanatory account of their
workings, we need first to come to a practical understanding of the joint, dialogical nature
of our lives together. And if we are to do that, if we are to see, as Bruner (1986) puts it,
the ways in which we 'violate' the norms of our institutions, then, we also must violate the
norms of our institutions. And this is what Bruner has done over and over again... while at
the same time always wanting to make amends... while still, luckily, not being quite able to
prevent himself from yet further violations!
 Bakhtin (1993) writes: 'An act of our activity, of our actual experiencing, is like a two-faced Janus. It looks in two opposite directions: it looks at the objective domain of culture and at the never-repeatable uniqueness of actually lived and experienced life. But there is no unitary and unique plane where both faces would mutually determine each other in relation to a single unity. It is the once-occurrent event of Being in the process of actualization that can constitute this unique unity; all that which is theoretical and aesthetic must be determined as a constituent moment in the once-occurrent event of Being...' (p.2).
 Intertwined into our different forms of life are different 'language games' - where, as he says, 'the term 'language-game' is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life' (1953, no.23). The playful or game-like nature of our forms of talk, are much more apparent at those points in our lives when we are first learning or first developing new language-games. Especially important at this time, when meanings are vague and require more working out as one goes along, are gestures and other more bodily forms of expression. Crucial, is the way in which we cannot not be spontaneously responsive to the bodily activities of those around us, and are thus always in a living relation of some kind or other to our surroundings. Indeed, such relations constitute the source of all our later, more deliberate activities. We can thus agree with Wittgenstein (1980) when he says that: 'The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is a refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed'' (p.31).
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