Professor Jerome Bruner met with Stories Matter editor (RC) in March 2001 for a conversation about the role of narrative knowledge and practice in medicine and ethics. Professor Bruner introduced the concepts of narrative knowledge to us all in his seminal studies Actual Minds, Possible Worlds and Acts of Meaning.1 His formulations of the structure and function of narratives have revolutionized cognitive psychology and the teaching of law, among many other fields. His new book Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life discovers how our deepest notions of the self are organized and enacted narratively. 2 Here he speaks about the unity and the meaning of ordinary living achievable through narrative acts, and he suggests narrative means by which bioethicists can improve their practice.
RC: Medicine and bioethics have followed psychology and law and so many other fields in coming around to respecting the power of narrative and trying to understand how it works in our lives. We have begun to examine how narrative competence might help to make our work with sick and dying people more humanistic and more ethically discerning. Help us understand what narrative knowledge is and why we need to know about it.
JB: However specialized the culture, the fact remains that, whatever the specialized job you do, whether it’s riveting bolts or taking care of people on death row, there’s some kind of underlying thing that gives a kind of unity and sympathy and possibility for the human condition continuing. You’re constantly in the process of making narratives. You meet some guy, he said this and did that, and so on. We’re always trying to control them by making them sound as if they’re something other than narratives. I laugh when people say, “Those are just stories, just narrative, let’s get the facts!” We live by stories, and they’re what give sense to our lives. We’re such biosocial creatures anyway that they may be part of what gives us our biology. They give us a lot of the biology having to do with health. Of course, you have to figure out something about the dosage—you can’t give too much! The