Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Jerome Seymour Bruner: 1 October 1915 * 5 June 2016

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Jerome Seymour Bruner: 1 October 1915 * 5 June 2016

Article excerpt

As a student of narrative, Jerome (Jerry) Seymour Bruner knew well that one can tell many stories about an individual person, event, and life. Indeed, at the start of his autobiography, Jerry Bruner wrote, "I can find little in [my childhood] that would lead anybody to predict that I would become an intellectual or an academic, even less a psychologist."

And yet, it is appropriate-if not essential-to begin this memoir with the fact that Jerry Bruner was born blind. Only at age 2, after two successful cataract operations (Jerry spoke of "good luck and progress in ophthalmology") could Jerry see. For the rest of his lengthy and event-filled life, he wore memorably thick corrective lenses. And when he was not peering directly at you-be you an audience of one or of one thousand-he would grasp his glasses firmly in his palm and punctuate his fluent speech with dramatic gestures.

As a younger child of an affluent Jewish family living in the suburbs of New York City, Jerry was active, playful, and fun-loving-not particularly intellectual or scholarly. His sister Alice wondered why he was always asking questions; Jerry later quipped that he was "trying out hypotheses."

Freud said that the death of a father is the most important event in a man's life. Whether or not cognizant of this psychoanalytic pronouncement, Bruner seldom referred to his mother; he devoted much more space in his autobiography and much more time in conversation to commemorating his father: "Everything changed, collapsed, after my father died when I was twelve, or so it seemed to me." And indeed, as he passed through adolescence and into early adulthood, Bruner became a much more serious student, a budding scholar, a wide-ranging intellectual. He negotiated undergraduate life at Duke University rapidly, became a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University, and received his Ph.D. in 1941, just before the outbreak of World War II in the United States. I believe that the early death of his father, a decade after the miraculous eye surgery, may have conferred on Bruner ambition, drive, and even a sense of destiny that he otherwise might have lacked.

Over the succeeding seven decades, Bruner traversed an intellectual landscape as wide as that of anyone in our time. Indeed, while other estimable scholars were writing articles or books in one field or subfield, Bruner swept across departments, even divisions, of entire universities and, extending beyond scholarship, devoted considerable energy to areas of practice as well. Fortunately, in addition to his own lively and trenchant autobiography, several collections of Bruner's writings, as well as a number of biographies and festschrifts, document this characterization.

When Bruner entered the field of psychology in the late 1930s, it was dominated by the study of sensation (the gateway to perception) and behaviorism (an attempt to explain all actions of human beings and other animals on the basis of reward and punishment). While he paid his dues in these two traditions, Bruner was never comfortable with a reductionist stance toward human thought and behavior. Involved in the war effort, his early publications-in the areas of personality and social psychology-were focused on how opinions were formed and how they might be changed, through propaganda, persuasion, and argument. He burst into the headlines, both within psychology and in the popular press, with clever experimental studies carried out in the mid-1940s-studies that were soon dubbed "the new look in perception."

According to this new look, human beings did not simply perceive and then, in an objective manner, report what they were seeing. Rather, perception (whether by sight or another sensory organ) was more appropriately and accurately described as a process of hypothesis formation and subsequent confirmation or disconfirmation. Put aphoristically, we don't know what we see, we see what we know. Dramatically, Bruner and colleagues showed that coins look bigger to impoverished children than to children from affluent families; that it took longer to make sense of anomalous arrays (like a black heart in a deck of cards) than predictable ones; that our guesses about what we perceive are strongly influenced by what we saw before and how likely the alternatives are. …

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