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The Transactional Self: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Social Mutuality, the Paradox of Privacy, and How Storytelling Shapes Our Sense of Personhood

“The components of the behavior … are not emotions, cognitions, and actions, each in isolation, but aspects of a larger whole that achieves its integration only within a cultural system.”

The Transactional Self: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Social Mutuality, the Paradox of Privacy, and How Storytelling Shapes Our Sense of Personhood

Few people have revolutionized our understanding of the human mind, its learning mechanisms, and its creative potentialities more profoundly than the great Harvard psychologist and cognitive learning theorist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016) — a man of warm intellect and largehearted curiosity, whose brilliant mind was matched by a radiant spirit, and who has done for cognitive psychology what Oliver Sacks did for neurology.

Beginning in the 1960s, Bruner pioneered the modern study of creativity and examined how we construct our identity toward “creative wholeness.” By the mid-1980s, he turned to the cognitive machinery of the imagination and the human impulse for storytelling.

Jerome Bruner

In his magnificent 1986 book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (public library) — which gave us Bruner’s abiding insight into the psychology of what makes a great story and led me to philosopher Amelie Rorty’s tremendous taxonomy of the seven layers of what makes a person — he sets out to integrate the trifecta of emotion, cognition, and action that shapes our experience of life.

Long before Martha Nussbaum’s case for the intelligence of the emotions, he writes:

The components of the behavior … are not emotions, cognitions, and actions, each in isolation, but aspects of a larger whole that achieves its integration only within a cultural system. Emotion is not usefully isolated from the knowledge of the situation that arouses it. Cognition is not a form of pure knowing to which emotion is added (whether to perturb its clarity or not). And action is a final common path based on what one knows and feels. Indeed, our actions are frequently dedicated to keeping a state of knowledge from being upset (as in “autistic hostility”) or to the avoidance of situations that are anticipated to be emotion-arousing.

It seems far more useful to recognize at the start that all three terms represent abstractions, abstractions that have a high theoretical cost. The price we pay for such abstractions in the end is to lose sight of their structural interdependence. At whatever level we look, however detailed the analysis, the three are constituents of a unified whole. To isolate each is like studying the planes of a crystal separately, losing sight of the crystal that gives them being.

But if this tripod of being props up our individual personhood, the social and cultural ground upon which it stands is also of tremendous importance. In a fascinating chapter titled “The Transactional Self,” Bruner goes a step further and explores how our mutuality and interdependence with others shapes our sense of self. He writes:

If you engage for long in the study of how human beings relate to one another, especially through the use of language, you are bound to be struck by the importance of “transactions.” This is not an easy word to define. I want to signify those dealings which are premised on a mutual sharing of assumptions and beliefs about how the world is, how mind works, what we are up to, and how communication should proceed.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block
Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

We seem to be equipped with a kind of inner radar for these social transactions. Bruner cites the results of one experiment in interpersonal perception, which tested how transparent people within small groups or cliques were to one another by asking each participant which other person in the group they would most like to spend time with, and who in the group they thought would most like to spend time with them. Bruner summarizes the partly intuitive, partly puzzling findings:

On average people are more accurate and more transparent than would be expected by chance — a not very startling finding. They know better than chance who likes them, or to put it inversely, people’s preferences are transparent.

But there is something very curious about how people operate in such situations that is not so obvious after all. For one thing, a person who chooses another will (in excess of chance) believe that the other person chooses him back. Or, since the direction of cause is never clear in human affairs, if we feel chosen by somebody, we will choose that person in return whether our feeling is correct or not. There is simply a human bias: feeling liked by somebody begets liking him back. To this add the fact that we know better than chance who likes us. Now, is this a matter of “accuracy” or of “vanity”? Are we “victims” of vanity or beneficiaries of our sensitivity?

Whichever the answer, this tendency of ours is more instinct than choice — in fact, Bruner argues, this “sense of mutuality in action” is so primal that it operates even before we’ve acquired language. Young children, he points out, have no trouble mastering dialectic shifters — a class of pronouns whose meaning one can grasp only by understanding the interpersonal context of who is speaking the pronoun and to whom it refers. In other words, when you say “I,” you mean yourself; when I say “I,” I mean myself, and although we are distinctly different people who use the same pronoun, even small children intuitively understand this shifting usage of “I.”

This intuition for intersubjectivity is how we’re able to experience the world as a shared reality. It is also essential to successful storytelling, from fiction to science communication. Bruner explains:

To create hypothetical entities and fictions, whether in science or in narrative, requires yet another power of language that … is early within reach of the language user. This is the capacity of language to create and stipulate realities of its own, its constitutiveness. We create realities by warning, by encouraging, by dubbing with titles, by naming, and by the manner in which words invite us to create “realities” in the world to correspond with them. Constitutiveness gives an externality and an apparent ontological status to the concepts words embody: for example, the law, gross national product, antimatter, the Renaissance… At our most unguarded, we are all Naive Realists who believe not only that we know what is “out there,” but also that it is out there for others as well… The private is rendered public. And thereby, once again, we locate ourselves in a world of shared reality.

Out of this shared context and the texture of our engagement with it, Bruner notes, arises our sense of self:

How we decide to enter into transaction with others linguistically and by what exchanges, how much we wish to do so (in contrast to remaining “detached” or “silent” or otherwise “private”), will shape our sense of what constitutes culturally acceptable transactions and our definition of our own scope and possibility in doing so — our “selfhood.”

And since our identity has an inherent narrative dimension — we are who we tell ourselves we are over time — this sense of selfhood is shaped by the storylines of our culture:

Stories define the range of canonical characters, the settings in which they operate, the actions that are permissible and comprehensible. And thereby they provide, so to speak, a map of possible roles and of possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible (or desirable). As we enter more actively into the life of a culture around us … we come increasingly to play parts defined by the “dramas” of that culture.


It can never be the case that there is a “self” independent of one’s cultural-historical existence.

But although the world might write some of the storylines for us, it behooves us to heed James Baldwin, who memorably remarked: “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Ultimately, Bruner asserts, language and culture conspire in framing the stories which we come to inhabit:

Our “smooth” and easy transactions and the regulatory self that executes them, starting as a biological readiness based on a primitive appreciation of other minds, is then reinforced and enriched by the calibrational powers that language bestows, is given a larger-scale map on which to operate by the culture in which transactions take place, and ends by being a reflection of the history of that culture as that history is contained in the culture’s images, narratives, and tool kit.

Whether cognizant of Bruner’s work or just intuitively attuned, Toni Morrison would come to write nearly two decades later that “being your own story means you can always choose the tone.” But empowering as this truth may be, Bruner points out that it is incomplete and rooted in the limiting Western notion of the self as an artificial monument to individualism amid the inescapably social fabric of culture. That artificiality, Bruner argues, culminates in our fixation on “privacy.” He writes:

The notion of the “private” Self free of cultural definition is part of the stance inherent in our Western conception of Self. The nature of the “untold” and the “untellable” and our attitudes toward them are deeply cultural in character. Private impulses are defined as such by the culture. Obviously, the divide between “private” and “public” meanings prescribed by a given culture makes a great difference in the way people in that culture view such meanings… How a culture defines privacy plays an enormous part in what people feel private about and when and how. [But] we do not construct a reality solely on the basis of private encounters with exemplars of natural states. Most of our approaches to the world are mediated through negotiation with others.

This transactional self, Bruner reminds us, is held together by a narrative thread:

Insofar as we account for our own actions and for the human events that occur around us principally in terms of narrative, story, drama, it is conceivable that our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us. The common coin may be provided by the forms of narrative that the culture offers us. Again, life could be said to imitate art.

Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a fascinating and intellectually invigorating read in its entirety. Complement it with Martha Nussbaum on how storytelling rewires us and Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Bruner on creative wholeness, art as a mode of knowing, and the six essential conditions for creativity.


Pioneering Psychologist Jerome Bruner on the Act of Discovery and the Key to True Learning

“Discovery, like surprise, favors the well-prepared mind.”

I’ve always held the art of discovery in higher regard than the art of invention. Rather than creating something that didn’t previously exist, to discover is to uncover what has always been there but had remained hidden from view — to shine a light on a corner of the world until now shrouded in the darkness of not-knowing. Given our severe sensorial and cognitive blinders, which ensure that the vast majority of reality remains hidden from our view, any act of discovery is therefore a remarkable feat.

It is also a supreme challenge to our quintessential compulsion for certainty. “Those who do not know the torment of the unknown cannot have the joy of discovery,” the great French physiologist Claude Bernard asserted. But this joy of discovery, far from an unmerited grace, is the product of a delicate intellectual art that requires learning to dance with the unknown in such a way as to reveal its knowables while embracing its perennial unknowables.

How to master that art is what the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016) — who shaped the evolution of cognitive psychology and learning theory — explores in a magnificent essay titled “The Act of Discovery.” Found in his 1962 collection On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — the source of Bruner’s timeless wisdom on the six essential conditions for creativity, how we limit our happiness, and the four psychological pillars of art — the essay examines the essential attitudes and cognitive skills that power the process of true learning and fruitful ideation.

Bruner, who at 100 remains actively engaged in intellectual life, writes:

Discovery, like surprise, favors the well-prepared mind.


Discovery … is in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence so reassembled to new insights. It may well be that an additional fact or shred of evidence makes this larger transformation possible. But it is often not even dependent on new information.


For the person to search out and find regularities and relationships in his environment, he must either come armed with an expectancy that there will be something to find or be aroused to such an expectancy so that he may devise ways of searching and finding. One of the chief enemies of search is the assumption that there is nothing one can find in the environment by way of regularity or relationship.

Illustration by Lizi Boyd from ‘Flashlight.’ Click image for more.

Three decades after trailblazing educator Abraham Flexner argued for the usefulness of useless information, Bruner echoes Buckminster Fuller’s admonition against the extreme specialization of knowledge and argues that the art of discovery is the art of traversing the abyss between the irrelevant and the potentially relevant on a tightrope of information-discernment:

Emphasis on discovery in learning has precisely the effect on the learner of leading him to be a constructionist, to organize what he is encountering in a matter not only designated to discover regularity an relatedness, but also to avoid the kind of information drift that fails to keep account of the uses to which information might have to be put.

Half a century before modern psychologists examined how to cultivate a healthy relationship with achievement and outlined the life-shaping dichotomy between the “growth” and the “fixed” mindsets, Bruner addresses the same concepts; he argues that mastering the art of discovery helps the learner shift from extrinsic motives — those fixed systems based on reward and punishment, like standardized tests — to intrinsic ones:

To the degree that one is able to approach learning as a task of discovering something rather than “learning about” it, to that degree there will be a tendency for the child to work with the autonomy of self-reward, or, more properly, be rewarded by discovery itself.


When learning leads only to pellets of this or that in the short run rather than to mastery in the long run, then behavior can be readily “shaped” by extrinsic rewards. But when behavior becomes more extended and competence-oriented, it comes under the control of more complex cognitive structures and operates more from the inside out.

Art by Shaun Tan for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Bruner considers what disposition is most fruitful to the art of discovery:

Several activities and attitudes … appear to go with inquiry and research. These have to do with the process of trying to find out something and, though their presence is no guarantee that the product will be a great discovery, their absence is likely to lead to awkwardness or aridity or confusion.

He illustrates those attitudes with what is perhaps the most insightful lens on problem-solving ever crafted — the English philosopher Thomas Dewar Weldon’s distinction between difficulties, puzzles, and problems. Bruner synthesizes:

We solve a problem or make a discovery when we impose a puzzle form on a difficulty to convert it into a problem that can be solved in such a way that it gets us where we want to be. That is to say, we recast the difficulty into a form that we know how to work with — then we work it. Much of what we speak of as discovery consists of knowing how to impose a workable kind of form on various kinds of difficulties. A small but crucial part of discovery of the highest order is to invent and develop effective models or “puzzle forms.” It is in this area that they truly powerful mind shines.

The real question, Bruner argues, is how to teach and train people for this model-invention of puzzle-forms. But what he considers in the context of children’s education is equally true in the broader context of learning the essential life-skills that help us make up our minds in order to navigate the most puzzling labyrinths of existence, from whether to explore the possibility of a new relationship to whether it’s time to quit a longtime job:

How, for instance, do we teach a child to cut his losses but at the same time to be persistent in trying out an idea; to risk forming an early hunch without at the same time formulating one so early and with so little evidence that he is stuck with it while he waits for appropriate evidence to materialize; to pose good testable guesses that are neither too brittle nor to sinuously incorrigible? … I have never seen anybody improve in the art and technique of inquiry by any means other than engaging in inquiry.

More than half a century later, On Knowing remains one of the most illuminating books ever published. Sample it further with Bruner’s ideas on myth and identity and the art of “effective surprise,” then see John Dewey on mastering the art of reflection and how to harness our natural curiosity.


Pioneering Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Art as a Mode of Knowing and Its Four Psychological Aspects

“Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences.”

The question of what art is has been asked and answered at least since we dwelled in caves. Every era has produced a crop of memorable answers from its greatest minds. Oscar Wilde pointed to the “temperament of receptivity” as the secret of art, Leo Tolstoy championed its “emotional infectiousness,” Susan Sontag saw it as “a form of consciousness,” and Alain de Botton considers it therapy of the soul. But one of the most insightful and dimensional explorations of the function of art in human culture comes from legendary Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016), whose influential and enduring contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory remain unparalleled.

In an essay titled “Art as a Mode of Knowing,” found in his altogether fantastic 1962 essay collection On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — which also gave us Bruner on “effective surprise” and the six essential conditions for creativity and myth, identity, and “creative wholeness” — Bruner considers the unique language of art and how it complements that of science. He outlines the four psychological aspects of the art experience — connectedness, which deals with the reward of grasping the essential ideas a work of art communicates; effort, which we exert to draw meaning from the ambiguity of art; conversion of impulse, which makes an object of beauty move us; and generality, which deals with the universal aspects of what we find beautiful and moving.

Bruner begins with connectedness, which thrives on our sense of “unfilled possibilities for experience”:

Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences. Perhaps these gaps are the products of reflection or at least its fruits… Science, by reducing the need for empiricism with its statement of general laws, fills these gaps only partly… The general scientific law, for all its beauty, leaves the interstices as yearningly empty as before.

Our effort to bridge these gaps, Bruner argues, is driven by two psychological processes — the creation of effective, economical symbols and the construction of categories of possibility, which we fill with our specific experiences as they unfold. The latter, he points out, is common to both art and science. He illustrates these categories of possibility with an example from the history of particle physics:

The neutrino is created as a fruitful fiction. And in time the neutrino is found.

But the parallel in art, Bruner notes, is often driven by metaphor rather than strict logic, which circles back to the first psychological mechanism of connectedness, the use of symbolism:

Metaphor joins dissimilar experiences by finding the image or the symbol that unites them at some deeper emotional level of meaning. Its effect depends upon its capacity for getting past the literal mode of connecting, and the unsuccessful metaphor is one that either fails in finding the image or gets caught in the meshes of literalness.

Metaphorical thinking, as psychologists have found in the half-century since Bruner’s writing, is central to the development of human imagination. And yet, Bruner cautions, not all metaphorical thinking is created equal in terms of serving this function of connectedness in the experience of art:

There is more to the metaphor of art than mere emotional connectedness. There is also the canon of economy that must operate, a canon that distinguishes the artfully metaphoric from that which is only floridly arty or simply “offbeat.”

The economy of metaphor, Bruner argues, helps mitigate the often paralyzing mismatch between what there is to be known and what we can possibly know — something our minds automatically address by narrowing our attention into an “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” and flattening dimensional identity groups into imprisoning stereotypes. Bruner writes:

There is, perhaps, one universal truth about all forms of human cognition: the ability to deal with knowledge is hugely exceeded by the potential knowledge contained in man’s environment. To cope with this diversity, man’s perceptions, his memory, and his thought processes early become governed by strategies for protecting his limited capacities from the confusion of overloading. We tend to perceive things schematically, for example, rather than in detail, or we represent a class of diverse things by some sort of averaged “typical instance.” The corresponding principle of economy in art produces the compact image or symbol that, by its genesis, travels great distances to connect ostensible disparities.

Art by Sydney Pink from ‘Overcoming Creative Block.’ Click image for more.

This world of metaphor, Bruner argues, reveals the “primitive similarity” between the modes of connecting in art and science:

The prescientific effort to construct a fruitful hypothesis may indeed be the place where the art of science, like all other art forms, operates by the law of economical metaphor. May it not be that without the myth of Sisyphus, forever pushing his rock up the hill, the concept of the asymptote in mathematics would be less readily grasped? What is Heraclitus’ account but a giant metaphor on instability? He gropes for a picture of the universe. And so it is at the beginnings of insight.

He speaks to the power of intuition in science, something a number of notable scientists have championed as essential to creativity in scientific discovery. Bruner writes:

As Bertrand Russell comments, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” And until they are “discovered” in this more rigorous sense, one proceeds by intuition and metaphor, hoping to be led beyond to a new rigor. Until then, the economical combings of the scientist and the artist share far more than we are often prepared to admit.

Bruner moves on to the second pillar of the art experience, effort, which “consists in departing from the habitual and literal ways of looking, hearing, and understanding in order to resolve the ambiguity that is a feature of works of art.” He explains:

In a deeper sense, it is the effort to make a new connection between different perspectives.

Interestingly, the “the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things,” or what Einstein called “combinatory play” and Arthur Koestler termed “bisociation,” is a defining characteristic of creativity — but Bruner finds in it a symmetry between what it takes to create art and what it takes to enjoy it:

What one feels is the effort to connect. It is not only for the creation of a work of art that one should use the expression unitas multiplex [unity of diversity], but for the experience of knowing it as well.

We’re willing to undertake that effort in the first place, he argues, because it generates a certain momentum of self-refinement:

Perhaps the effort of beholding art is its own reward, or the reward is the achievement of unity of experience, which is to say that it develops on itself. Taste begets better taste. Listen to enough Dvorak and a taste for Beethoven or Wagner will develop.

The amount and nature of the effort, Bruner suggests, is where the distinction between art and entertainment — something David Foster Wallace memorably considered — lies. Playing off Graham Greene’s distinction between his “novels” and his “entertainments,” Bruner looks at the contrast between the beautiful and the merely decorative through the lens of this effort to connect:

Creating new unities is not all the work. There is also control and conversion of the impulses that are aroused in the experience of art, the exercises of restraint that permit the reader to maintain a distance from the hero of a novel and the play-goer to remain on his side of the proscenium arch. Here … the distinction between the decorative and the beautiful is useful. For the decorative achieves its restfulness by permitting us to remain uninvolved, untempted. Indeed, an essay remains to be written on the defense against beauty, about those who, in the face of the awesomeness of a Gothic cathedral, can remain unshaken and find what they behold merely pleasing.

Bruner turns to the third aspect of the art experience, conversion of impulse. Noting that any impulse can be turned into art, Bruner echoes both Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” and Wilde’s of psychological “receptivity” as he considers how the conversion of that impulse bridges artist and beholder:

It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in each case that the impulse be held in check and converted from its original form. It is equally true that the successful beholding of a work of art involves a comparable act of containing impulses that have been aroused. It is not necessary that there be a concordance in the impulse of the creator and the beholder, and, for our purposes, the matter of communicating an impulse from creator to receiver is not at issue.

Two types of cognitive activity propel the actual conversion of the impulse:

One is at the center of awareness as desire: it is directed toward achieving an end and is specialized to the task of finding means. The other is at the fringes of awareness, a flow of rich and surprising fantasy, a tangled reticle of associations that gives fleeting glimpses of past occasions, of disappointments and triumphs, of pleasures and unpleasures.

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes from his most revealing interview. Click image for more.

The latter, Bruner points out, is the stuff of James Joyce’s famous stream-of-consciousness writing and it was precisely Joyce’s ability to communicate this “scarcely expressible fringe” that makes us celebrate him as a true master of literary art. Such elegant merging of streams fueled by diverse impulses, Bruner argues, is the key to the power of art as a mode of knowing the world and ourselves:

At this level, thinking is more symphonic than logical, one theme suggesting the next by a rule of letting parts stand for wholes. Where art achieves its genius is in providing an image or a symbol whereby the fusion can be comprehended and bound.

In short, the conversion of impulse into the experience of art comes from the creation of a stream of metaphoric activity and the restraining of any direct striving for ends. In essence, the connecting of experience is given its first impetus by the simultaneous presence of several such streams of fringe-association. It is the formal artifice of the work of art itself, the genius of its economical imagery, that makes possible the final fusing of these inner experiences. The process … requires work from the beholder. Beholding an art object in a manner that may be called knowing is not a passive act. But when the beholder stops beholding, when there is too much involvement with the figures in a canvas, there is an end to the conversion of impulse, distance is lost, and in place of the experience of art there is either a daydream or merely action.

With this, Bruner arrives at the final psychological aspect of beholding art, generality, returning to those lonely gaps in our experience and revisiting the parallels and contrasts between art and science as sensemaking mechanisms:

Any idea, any construct or metaphor, has its range of convenience or its “fit” to experience, and this is one feature that art and science as modes of knowing share deeply… Our techniques for finding out about the range of convenience of ideas in science are rather straightforward, though it requires much ingenuity at times to devise operational techniques for verification. There is no direct analogue of verification in the experience of art. In its place, there is a “shock of recognition,” a recognition of the fittingness of an object or a poem to fill the gaps in our own experience. In this sense, and it is a limited sense, we may say that art is not a universal mode of communication, for each man who beholds a picture or reads a poem will bring to the experience a matrix of life that is uniquely his own.

Chauvet cave drawings from ‘100 Diagrams That Changed the World.’ Click image for more.

And yet there is a deeper, more immutable universality to the experience of art — a work of art, Bruner argues, is scarcely “a function entirely of time, place, and condition,” for if this were the case, such ancient masterworks as the cave paintings of Chauvet or Lascaux or Altamira would leave us cold, failing to produce the “shock of recognition” that they still do. Bruner speaks to this universality:

There are features of the human condition that change only within narrow limits whether one be a cave dweller, a don in medieval Oxford, or a Left Bank expatriate of the 1920s: love, birth, hate, death, passion, and decorum persist as problems without unique solution.

Can it ever be said, then, that life imitates art? If so, then art is the furthest reach of communication. There are perhaps two ways that are somewhat more than trivial. One is the effect of art in freeing us from the forms of instrumental knowing that comprise the center of our awareness; from the tendency to say that this figure here represents Christ, that over there is an apple; apples are good for eating, Christ for worshipping or admiring. When we see the possibility of connecting in internal experience, we strive to recreate it and to live it.

But life imitates art in another, arguably even more important sense:

The experience of art nourishes itself, so that having sensed connectedness one is impelled to seek more of it.

Bruner concludes by returning to the yin-yang of art and science:

The intent of the scientist is to create rational structures and general laws that, in the mathematical sense, predict the observations one would be forced to make if one were without the general laws… Governed by principles of strict logical implication… prediction becomes more and more complete, leading eventually to the derivation of possible observations that one might not have made but for the existence of the general theory. Surely, then, science increases the unity of our experience of nature. That is the hallmark of the way of knowing called science.

Art as a form of knowing does not and cannot strive for such a form of unification. In its most refined form, the myth of Sisyphus is not the concept of the mathematical asymptote. The elegant rationality of science and the metaphoric nonrationality of art operate with deeply different grammars: perhaps they even represent a profound complementarity. For, in the experience of art, we connect by a grammar of metaphor, one that defies the rational methods of the linguist and the psychologist. There has been progress in interpreting the metaphoric transformation of dreams, rendering the latent meaning from the manifest content, progress to which Freud contributed so greatly. Yet to interpret a dream as “a wish to be loved by one’s rejecting mother” or to interpret Marlow’s pursuit of Kurtz at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a man pursuing a bride, neither of these exercises, however revealing, catches fully the nature of metaphor. What is lost in such translations is the very fullness of the connection produced by the experience of art itself.

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is remarkably insightful and wide-ranging in its entirety, exploring such aspects of the human quest for knowledge as the act of discovery, the notion of fate, the role of identity in creativity, and more. Complement this particular excerpt with a contemporary look at the seven psychological functions of art.


Legendary Harvard Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Identity, “Creative Wholeness,” and How We Limit Our Happiness

How our cult of creativity, which replaced religion, is becoming a source of anguish rather than happiness.

Today, we hang so much of our identity on our capacity to create, often confusing what we do for who we are. And while creativity, by and large, is a positive force in the external world, its blind pursuit can be damaging to the inner. So admonishes the influential Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016), celebrated for his contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory in education, in his altogether fantastic 1962 anthology On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — the same wonderful collection of essays that gave us Bruner’s theory of “effective surprise” and the 6 essential conditions for creativity. One of the essays, titled “Myth and Identity,” explores precisely that relationship between our modern myths, which shape our beliefs about creativity and happiness, and our often conflicted sense of identity.

Bruner begins with some essential definitions:

Myth … is at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man.

But while he acknowledges that the central function of myth is “to effect some manner of harmony between the literalities of experience and the night impulses of life,” Bruner cautions against assuming an opposition of the two — of “the grammar of experience and the grammar of myth” — as they are complementary rather than clashing, something best manifested in the relationship between myth and personality. Bruner writes:

Consider first myth as projection, to use the conventional psychoanalytic term. I would prefer the term “externalization” better to make clear that we are dealing here with … the human preference to cope with events that are outside rather than inside. Myth, insofar as it is fitting, provides a ready-made means of externalizing human plight by embodying and representing them in storied plot and characters.

Externalizing our inner life in such a way, Bruner argues, provides a “basis for communion” among us:

By the subjectifying of our worlds through externalization, we are able, paradoxically enough, to share communally in the nature of internal experience.

Jerome Bruner (Photograph: B.F. Herzog)

It also enables us to work through our inner turmoils in a unique way, something Adam Phillips echoed more than half a century later in reflecting on the parallels between psychoanalysis and storytelling. Bruner puts it elegantly as he considers the defining psychic malady of our time:

If one is to contain the panicking spread of anxiety, one must be able to identify and put a comprehensible label upon one’s feelings better to treat them again, better to learn from experience… Myth, perhaps, serves in place of or as a filter for experiences.


What is the art form of myth? Principally it is drama; yet for all its concern with preternatural forces and characters, it is realistic drama that … tells of “origins and destinies”… Knowing through art has the function of connecting through metaphor what before had no apparent kinship [and] the art form of the myth connects the daemonic world of impulse with the world of reason by a verisimilitude that conforms to each.

Considering the early myths — those of Ancient Greece and the Christian tradition — Bruner points to two key mythic plots that emerge in the struggle to give shape to our experiences: “the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness.” But modernity, he argues, has thrown into tumult both ideals, resulting in an “internal clamor of identities” that ends up threatening our happiness and our capacity for creative fulfillment.

Illustration from ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book’ by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In one particularly prescient passage, Bruner writes:

In our own time, in the American culture, there is a deep problem generated by the confusion that has befallen the myth of the happy [person]… We are no longer a “mythologically instructed community.” And so one finds a new generation struggling to find or to create a satisfactory and challenging mythic image.

Two such images seem to be emerging in the new generation. One is that of the hipsters and the squares; the other is the idealization of creative wholeness. The first is the myth of the uncommitted wandering hero, capable of the hour’s subjectivity — its “kicks” — participating in a new inwardness. It is the theme of reduction to the essential persona, the hero able to filter out the clamors of an outside world, an almost masturbatory ideal.

Bruner points to the original “hipsters” and notes the similarity between the mythmaking of real-life identity and that of character in fiction:

It is not easy to create a myth and to emulate it at the same time. James Dean and Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, the Teddy Boys and the hipsters: they do not make a mythological community. They represent mythmaking in process as surely as Hemingway’s characters or Scott Fitzgerald’s.

Bruner considers one especially toxic and limiting myth — that of “the full creative [person],” a notion all the more zealously pursued in our present age of endless creativity conferences, spiritual retreats for corporate executives, and workplaces that seek to disguise a cubicle farm as a hybrid of playground and university. Bruner describes the ancestry of our modern condition:

It is … the middle-aged executive sent back to the university by the company for a year, wanting humanities and not sales engineering; it is this man telling you that he would rather take life classes Saturday morning at the museum school than be president of the company; it is the adjectival extravaganza of the word “creative,” as in “creative advertising.” It is as if, given the demise of the myths of creation and their replacement by a scientific cosmogony that for all its formal beauty lacks metaphoric force, the theme of creating becomes internalized, creating anguish rather than, as in the externalized myths, providing a basis for psychic relief and sharing. Yet this self-contained image of creativity becomes, I think, the basis for a myth of happiness. But perhaps between the death of one myth and the birth of its replacement there must be a reinternalization, even to the point of [a cult of the ego]. That we cannot yet know. All that is certain is that we live in a period of mythic confusion that may provide the occasion for a new growth of myth, myth more suitable for our times.

One is left wondering whether our present time is one of reconciliation or of even greater “mythic confusion.”

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is a magnificent read in its entirety, further exploring questions of creativity, identity, metaphor, and the role of art in the human experience. Complement with Maya Angelou on the internalization of identity.


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