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Keeping the Conversation Going: An Interview with Jerome Bruner

Author(s): Bradd Shore

Source: Ethos, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 7-62
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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Keeping the Conversation Going:
An Interview with Jerome Bruner

oFor three days in June of 1996, I sat with Jerome Bruner in his
study in his Greenwich Village loft, recording an interview at
the request of the new editors of Ethos, Tom Csordas and Janis
Jenkins. The occasion was the inauguration of a new forum in
Ethos: interviews with figures who are influential in contem-
porary psychological anthropology. I had spent the preceding two months
swimming in the vast and deep waters of Bruner's work, putting together
a series of anthropologist's questions. Our discussions ranged over a whole
continent of issues-biographical, methodological, historical, and, of
course, conceptual. To talk with a man who has spent six decades thinking,
studying, and writing about mind-often in the company of some of the
most distinguished thinkers of the 20th century-is not likely to turn into
your garden variety chat. It wasn't. Jerry Bruner is a virtuoso conversa-
tionalist. Watching him field a tough question is like watching Yo Yo Ma
negotiate a difficult passage of a Bach Cello Suite. Bruner is a scientist/hu-
manist whose work has always developed through an unbroken chain of
conversation, generations long, which includes talks with students,
friends, opponents, family, and colleagues from all over the world. He
himself attributes his long and productive career to his knack for "keeping
the conversation going."
In his thirty years at Harvard, his decade as Watts Professor at
Oxford, and his New York years at The New School for Social Research
and more recently at the Law School at NYU, Jerry Bruner has tacked
back and forth among most of the major subfields of his discipline. His
contributions have paved the way for significant advances in the fields of
physiological psychology, perception, thinking, child development, lan-
guage and symbolic processes, play, education, psychology and law,
cultural models, and narrative models of self. The selected bibliography
at the end of this interview attests convincingly to the fact that there is

BRADD SHOREis Professor

Emory University.
25(1):7-62. ? 1997,American
Copyright Association.

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hardly a corner of psychology, or anthropology, for that matter, that has

not benefited from his having camped out there for a good spell.
Though Bruner was quick to remind me that he is a psychologist by
training and by profession, he possesses a powerful and unmistakable
anthropological sensibility. He has sought his answers from whatever and
whoever had something of interest to say to him. His conversation is
liberally laced with the names and works of a cadre of anthropologists
with whom he developed important relationships: Geertz, Schneider,
Evans-Prichard, Fortes, Mead, Benedict, Kluckhohn, and Levi-Strauss.
Many of his students, like Patricia Greenfield and Barbara Rogoff, did
cross-cultural fieldwork. Given the centrality of culture to his under-
standing of mind, Bruner frequently refers to himself as a cultural psy-
chologist. From his earliest work in perception, he argued for a psychology
that made room for both intentionality and for the effects of cultural
context in even the most fundamental aspects of perception and thought.
As he is fond of repeating, "No hearing without listening; no seeing without
looking." Though he is a lifelong "constructivist," in a field where it was
not always easy to hoist that flag, Bruner is no simple cultural determinist
either. A powerfully dialectical thinker, Bruner has always been quick to
acknowledge, and indeed to study, those biologically based constraints on
the human psyche, as well as the social, cultural, and historical contexts
from which an actual mind derives its particular forms of life.
What follows is a selection from a much longer set of conversations
that will be eventually published as a book. In editing these conversations
for publication in Ethos, I have sought to preserve Bruner's distinctive
voice and his conversational style. Though I have divided the interview
into topical chunks, these sections are merely rough approximations of
topical breaks. Conversational flow, particularly from someone for whom
chatting is a way of thinking aloud, does not always respect such neat
boundary markers. The result, I think, does capture something of the
man, his special way of framing high-minded ideas with personal and
sometimes irreverent anecdotes, with slightly wicked humor, and always
and forever in conversation with his vast "gang,"his generations of friends
and colleagues, students and family, collaborators and intellectual adver-
saries-chatting over lunches, disputing at dinner, debating in commit-
tees, navigating in a sea of ideas aboard boats, in pubs, and around
seminar tables, listening, talking, making meaning.

BS: In your autobiography, In Search of Mind, you write, "I'm better
at thinking up new things than following old ones through to implemen-
tation." I find that an interesting insight into how you think about your

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Keeping the Conversation Going ? 9

Figure1. JeromeS. Bruner

own career. Your first publication was way back in 1939, and for almost
sixty years Jerome Bruner has continued to think up all sorts of new
things. Since you naturally tend to think about lives developmentally, how
do you conceive of the flow and shape of your own extraordinary career?
Does it divide into stages, or chunks? Or do you think of it as continuous,
all of a piece?
JB: Well, it doesn't seem particularly extraordinary. I was always
following the same set of voices, and I guess the voices had to do with the
question of how you organize experience. How do you know? Now, why
I became interested in that, God only knows. It may have had to do with
the fact that I was born blind and had to construct a "visual" world, and
then, when my sight was restored at two, I had to reconcile that "visual"
world with the one you build out of real visual input. Who knows?
BS: You don't have any conscious memory of having been blind?
JB: I have none whatever, certainly no eureka! in which, postopera-
tively, I suddenly remember being in the light when the anesthetic wore
off. I do remember some years later coming out of the anesthetic after a
tonsil operation when the world seemed as if it were somehow flowing
with light. It may have been a memory recovery of coming out of
anesthetic at the time of my cataract operation, but I don't know.
Interesting, though, that for me "space in the light" and "space in the
dark" don't seem to differ that much. Friends sometimes tease me about
being so good at finding my way around in the dark. Maybe I have a

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10 * ETHOS

particularly "amodal" representation of space as a result of that early

experience. A silly story: someone once asked me whether I find celestial
and dead-reckoning navigation harder at night than in the daylight. An
astonishing idea. Either way, you're constructing some sort of "abstract
ocean" on which you're moving about (rather abstractly at that, as though
in a Cartesian coordinate system). That kind of "navigational space" has
virtually no sensory content for me. Whether that's because of being born
blind or not, I've no idea. Let's not commit the genetic fallacy about the
"importance of the early."
BS: I remember asking Marshall Sahlins how he conceived of his
career. The popular wisdom within anthropology was that Sahlins had
virtually dominated what was thought of as materialist approaches to the
study of culture when he was at University of Michigan and then went to
France and discovered structuralism and did a complete turnaround,
reinventing himself as a structuralist. When I characterized his career in
this way to him, he looked at me in shock and said vehemently that he
doesn't conceive of his career as being disjointed or turning around in any
way whatsoever. For him, it was all of a piece, all continuous, however it
might appear to others. Is that how you think about your own career?
JB: I've been kidded a lot about this. I go from studying undergradu-
ates in a laboratory with a tachistoscope to taking a look at kids just after
they're delivered and so on. But it's still pretty much the same quarry. I
remember when I was at a Society for Research in Child Development
meeting and a graduate student came up to me and said, "Oh, we're so
sorry that you've left the field of infancy and are now working with older
children." And I said to her, "I'm stunned! You study infancy and then
you want to find out what happens a little bit later in order to go back and
take another look at infancy." I've never felt as if I've jumped into another
field. It just doesn't sound right.
BS: So you don't feel as if you leave behind the earlier things you've
JB: No way. Never.
BS: It's interesting that your view of how your own career developed
parallels your rejection of the idea of discrete stages of human develop-
ment and your belief that all the earlier stages are incorporated into the
later ones.
JB: Well, they are. The thing that's bothered me about studies in
cognitive growth when I look back is that we talk about the so-called
"stages" of "enactive representation," "iconic representation," and "sym-
bolic representation." The fact of the matter is that there are forms of all
three kinds of representation early on. They're different of course. The
small kid handles referentiality or intentionality perfectly adequately,
which is a kind of symbolic form. And he'd never be able to get into the

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Keeping the ConversationGoing * 11

symbolic system unless that were there. You can see perfectly well where
I got the original idea. It's a very Peircean idea.1 You go from index to icon
to symbol as if somehow there was nothing there before. That was Peirce's
trying to abstract the problem a little too much. For in fact they're all
there, and they gradually differentiate and get arrested. Johnny von
Neuman once said to me that human intelligence is an extraordinarily
interesting kind of thing, used mostly for correcting errors. That is to say,
we have a primitive way of making a first order of approximations of how
to understand something, and when we get into pickles with them, we use
our intelligence to get out. We start out with primitive intuitions and,
thank God, we are superb at correcting our mistakes. We need alternate
ways of looking at things so that we can shift from one to the other to
correct. And he said, "I suppose that's what you get for having so much
BS: Over the last sixty years, have you ever taken any strong position
that you've eventually repudiated? A position where you've thought you
had been dead wrong?
JB: Repudiation isn't exactly the word I want. But certainly I've had
the sense that a concept or approach wasn't doing for me what I wanted.
For example, the idea of "stages" wasn't doing what I wanted. It wasn't
dealing with the complexity of the issues that I wanted to deal with. So I
give it up provisionally and put something in its place. There's no point
in repudiating a concept as if somehow it had betrayed you about the
world. Just try another way of doing it.
BS: You have, without interruption, remained extraordinarily pro-
ductive, to the point that as I was trying to catch up with some of your
older work, you would be sending me new papers before I could make a
dent in the old ones. How do you account for your virtually continuous
and prolific output over all these years? I don't think it's normal for people
to be continuously productive in this way over such a long period of time.
JB: How would I account for that?
BS: Maybe it's like asking how you breathe?
JB: How I breathe, or why I wear a ten-and-a-half shoe. But I suppose
there are some curious things that come to mind as I turn your question
over in my head. One of them may be that there isn't all that much
difference between my work and my play. It's all a form of playing. It's a
family joke, my blurring of work and play. My daughter's great joke is that
I love sailing because it poses familiar problems of interpreting position,
current, wind, and such. But it's play too. I taught myself celestial
navigation, which is anachronistic because people don't use celestial
navigation. They use satellites. But never mind. Besides, play and work
are not so different. My gang with whom I used to race in the Bermuda
Race had decided that one of the things we should do if we all got rich was

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12 * ETHOS

to give a special prize for the boat in the Race that had the best conver-
sation on board on the way from Newport to Bermuda. Now I'm going to
say something utterly banal but serious. If you take ideas seriously, you
assume that they relate to your being and your life as well as to others.
Ideas and theories aren't isolated in your own head. Nor isolated from
other activity, like play. Those kinds of formalized play that are separated
from life always risk sharpening the distinction between work and play
whereas it isn't really a distinction. I work a lot, but it's really play-work
or work-play.
BS: A lot of people can recognize the fun in talking, but they think of
it as just conversation. You seem to have the ability to translate that same
conversational energy into writing, which for many people is a chore. It
sounds as if writing has the same playful character as conversation.
JB: It's a continuation; but it's more than a continuation. Because the
fact of the matter is that the flow of ideas in life, particularly in conver-
sation, is so fast, that you want somehow to get alone so that you can
really work the thing out. Frequently you take positions. You say, "How
the hell did I come up with that? Why did I say that?" I'm one of those
people who goes through many, many drafts. I really do believe David
Olson's point in that new book of his, The World On Paper.2 David says
that the difference between writing and speaking is that in writing what
you do is to "go meta" on the speaking, on the conversational thing, to
try to find a way of saying it to which you can adhere and of which you
have a correctable record. And that's the way it is for me. I love the process
of finding out what I really think. In some funny kind of way, how do I
know what I think until I read what I've said?
BS: So conversation lets you bounce your ideas off other people's
ideas. And writing is a kind of conversation with yourself?
JB: Yes, it's with myself. But I also love giving drafts to [my wife] Carol
[Feldman] who says things like, "That's great!" or "How can you say that
there and then come to the particular here? You've left out three steps
and it sounds perfectly obscure to me." And I do the same for her. So it
gets to be that there is kind of an intermediate step-you and your close
friends. And I've always had close friends that are there when I'm writing,
too. For years I had an almost mythological older brother-the great
Robert Oppenheimer-who was a fantastically complicated human being.
We spent a lot of time talking not only at the Institute [for Advanced
Study] but before that. I knew him in the days when he used to come in
from Los Alamos. I used to stay with Ruth and Richard Tolman in their
house in Washington, and he would stay there too. We got to be good
friends and stayed good friends over the years. And whenever I tried out
something having to do with the nature of knowing, which was a subject
that absolutely fascinated him, I'd ask myself "what would Robert say

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Keeping the ConversationGoing * 13

about this or that?" I've done the same with a few other people. David
Olson is another case in point of somebody who's close by my desk. And
of course Carol. George Miller is another one. George is particularly
valuable because we know that I know that he knows that I know that we
disagree very deeply. But if I can make my point to him and he can say,
"I understand what you are saying but I disagree," then that's okay. The
main thing is, does he know what I'm trying to say even if he disagrees.
So these kinds of friends have made writing much easier.
BS: You seem to have a deep attraction to what you like to think of
as the "subjunctive mode" of mind, which makes it easier to let go of your
ideas and get them into print. I suppose that makes writing a lot easier. I
know people who have this book that they're unable to publish because
it's not perfect. They've been writing it for years and if you have a view
that you're either right and or you're wrong, you get afraid that you might
not quite have it yet. You're afraid to let go of what you're doing. But where
you view the mind as open as you do, then you're really not afraid to let
go of what you're doing because it's really all part of the process of learning
and meaning-making, even your mistakes.
JB: I know, it's part of the process, and somebody's going to respond
to what you write and tell you you're a damn fool. And you're going to tell
him why he's a damn fool. You know I never really thought about it so
much, but I think that this kind of view makes writing considerably less
threatening. That's one of the reasons why I love the essay. Because the
essay is a try. There was a great exchange between George Miller and Phil
Johnson-Laird when they were finishing their book on perception and
language. They had gone through revision after revision after revision and
finally George said to Phil, "Well, enough. We've got to decide now
whether we're going for perfection or Thursday." So they decided it was
Thursday, to the great relief of the Harvard University Press. Go back for
a second to that question of why one goes on being productive. Why do
we go on having conversations? Why do we go on wanting to talk to
ourselves? And why do we go on wanting to chase down volumes in the
library to find out what other people actually have said in the past? Did
they really say that? What do they really mean? Or why do they spend
all those hours observing kids or analyzing text or doing quirky little
experiments? To us, it's what life's all about. Somebody will say, "Oh.
You're those goddamned intellectuals." But I don't think that all this is
really different from being any other kind of person. Everybody does that
in some measure. Life consists, after all, in construing and reconstruing
things from the horizontal, syntagmatic point of view, then from the
vertical, paradigmatic perspective. So what's new about intellectuals?
BS: Have you ever had a point in your career when you've been
blocked in your writing?

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14 * ETHOS

JB: It's a terrible thing to confess. No.

BS: That's extraordinary. In sixty years as a scholar you never
remember feeling blocked?
JB: Oh, except for one kind of thing that has to do with getting your
ideas straight. For about seven or eight years now, for example, I have
been unsure whether I am writing a book on the self. I do new pieces
which may or may not be a part of such a book. I don't think I'm blocked
up so much. I keep turning out stuff. But six months later I look at it again
and say "This is plain awful. You didn't understand or you put it in the
wrong context." So I'm blocked, but not really blocked. I just don't quite
get there, and it drives me nutty. It drives me sufficiently nutty so that
when I come to the end of a day, still up against one of those stone walls,
it really spoils my sleep and triggers my wife's protectiveness.
BS: You seem almost preoccupied with the fear of boredom. In fact,
you end your book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds with the provocative
claim that "boredom has always played more of a role in human history
than we are prepared to admit." I'm curious about what role you think
boredom has played in human history. And I'm also curious about what
role the fear of boredom has played in your own life. You certainly don't
appear to suffer from boredom.
JB: No, I'm not at all preoccupied with it. You learn how to avoid it
or cope with it after a while. But I wish I really understood it well. I don't
really have a systematic view of the nature of boredom. I do have a kind
of proto-theory about it. It goes like this. There are two pure ways of
pursuing thought. One of them is essentially working in the realm of ideal
objects under stipulated boundary conditions, which is like mathematics.
It's beautiful and full of excitement. I can still remember my high school
days first learning about simultaneous equations, solving for a whole set
of unknowns by putting a set of equations together. Pure thrill. It was the
same with plane and solid geometry. You start off with the notion of a
point. Move the point through space and you have a line. Move the line
and you have a plane. Move the plane, and you have a solid. What a
proceeding! That's one form of excitement. It dispels boredom, a kind of
an anti-boredom device that satisfies the desire for elegant surprise. Then,
there is poetry at the other extreme. Much later on in adult life, I started
reading the Russian formalists, like Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jakob-
son particularly.3 They talked about the notion of literaturnost, the
"literariness" of fiction. The task of the poet is to rescue the banal and
ordinary from its gray background and make it strange again. Make it
strange again and even fantastic. Good scholarship does this: takes things
out of the presuppositional mass, make them strange again so that we can
get thinking about them. I've always thought of poetry and mathematics
as two protections against cognitive boredom.

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Keeping the ConversationGoing * 15

BS: I would bet that your fearlessness in taking on something that

had become banal to make it strange again is predicated on your certainty
that you are going to be able to bring that strangeness back to meaning
again-to come home again.
JB: Probably. That search for meaning is always driving us.
BS: There are at least two different kinds of boredom, I think. There's
the boredom which has to do with the ever-increasing demand for raw
stimulation-the kind of boredom that I see a lot with young kids these
days. The media helps create it and then caters to it. Movies have
gradually given up entertaining by way of interesting plot or character
development, replacing them with sheer action, violence, sound and light
streams and special effects. Or take the modern shopping mall. It's
become a kind of stimulus machine both satisfying the hunger for basic
stimuli, and perpetuating the appetite. This kind of constant resetting of
the nervous system's demand for raw stimuli generates a primitive sort of
boredom, satisfied in a primitive way. But this is different from the way
you are talking about dealing with boredom. In your view, the antidote to
boredom isn't really more intense stimuli, but making meaning.
JB: Right, making meaning which always carries the promise of both
surprise and security.
BS: It's taking a piece of something, and recognizing that this piece
of something has a context to be discovered. Like seeing a piece of a puzzle
and beginning to get the outline of the bigger picture. When students feel
bored in a classroom, it is often because they're being fed pieces of
something without being given the sense that there is a bigger picture.
Kind of like being given a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without a picture
template to help make sense of the pieces.
JB: That's right. Then it's just one goddamn thing after another.
BS: The minute they begin to see the outline of the picture that these
pieces make up, suddenly what was boredom turns into a challenge to
make meaning.
JB: "Hey!" they say.
BS: Isn't one of the functions of education to replace the quantitative
demand for increased raw stimulus with the other kind of strategy for
evading boredom-the one that seeks after meaning in the world?
JB: Well, yes. But look beyond that for a second. I think the word I
want is what the Russian formalists called ostranyeniye, which means
alienating you from the obvious and making you see it strange again.
When you ask about doing science, there is always the notion that the
process of science is one big game of somebody having hypotheses and
then spending the rest of the century verifying them, a kind of verifica-
tionist notion. But science is not just that. It also involves a very interest-
ing process of finding new and metaphoric ways to think about things.

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16 * ETHOS

Even the experiments you do become tropes or metaphors. I'm reminded

of an example, a funny little experiment that Cecile Goodman and I did
years ago. She was a tutee of mine and wanted the experience of conduct-
ing an experiment. At that time I was thinking about how perception itself
represented some kind of a compromise between different expectancies
and the way in which things impinge on the sensorium-what Egon
Brunswick referred to as Zwischengegenstand, an intermediate objective
representative, a compromise of expectancy and input. So we had rich
kids and poor kids judge the sizes of coins-a perfectly absurd kind of
experiment. We found that the more valuable the coin, the greater the
overestimation of its size, with the exception of the dime which everybody
judged as much smaller than it actually was. The really interesting finding
was that this effect was more evident in poor kids than in rich ones. Even
simple size judgments were moved around by how we value things, or our
experience with things. Now, tell me, how many people were worried in
any practical engineering sense about the sizes of coins, or how kids judge
their size? What in the hell difference does that make practically? But
the experiment created a poetic image, a metaphor that was useful in the
same way, for example, as the neutron in physics operated as a fantastic,
generative metaphoric idea. Here was a particle that wasn't charged
positively or negatively-a mass without charge. And everybody was
shocked awake by it. It's that kind of entering metaphor that gets a process
of reflection and meta-cognition going in the scientific community. Now,
I'm mad for the notion of "going meta" that gets you beyond the informa-
tion given. It gets you a little beyond what you started with, even though
it may be a source of a lot of error. But on the other hand, it is just that
kind of search for meta-cognition that has pushed my own career, and I
think that its cultivation should be a central task of education.

BS: Much of your impact on psychology has been through your many
illustrious students. How do you view your role and your impact as a
JB: Let me start with an odd kind of anecdote about this business of
passing on knowledge. I had a nightmare when I was a kid that I had sort
of forgotten but that came up in the course of analysis. It's full of hostility,
my analyst said. Maybe it was, maybe not. But it went like this. I woke
one morning and discovered that everybody in the whole world had
disappeared. I was the only one left. And there was a new humanity put
on earth and I had to pass onto them everything we knew. Of course, my
analyst immediately said, "What did you do? You killed off the world."
But to me the terror of the thing was not that I had killed off the world or

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Keeping the ConversationGoing * 17

that they had died, but how in God's name would I pass everything on.
And I want to tell you, you know how neurotic one can be! I thought that
what I needed was contained in those beat up volumes over there on the
shelf of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. You know where
those sat? They sat in the bookcase next to my father's desk at home, in
his study. I thought that was the best place to find what I'd have to pass
on and I still have them here, close by. I mean I've tried other versions of
the Encyclopedia, but they're just not as good. Maybe because of all of
those brilliant jokers who wrote in that 11th edition. Remember C. K.
Ogden was the editor of that edition. Maybe all of them had that same
kind of nightmare I'd had when I was a kid!
BS: To say nothing of its inherent virtue that it was your father's
encyclopedia that he had given to you.
JB: Yeah. I realize full well that it's neurotic as hell. In fact, I inherited
BS: Now there's one hell of a transitional object for you.
JB: It's amazing having the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britan-
nica as my transitional object. [Laughter]
BS: I think it's a stunning achievement. [Laughter]
JB: It's so crazy.
BS: One of your Oxford graduate students, Alison Gopnick, who
wrote that very nice piece about your Oxford years, made a fascinating
comment about your teaching style. She said that despite your great
influence on three generations of students, there are no disciples. There
are no "Brunerians."
JB: You bet. Not if I could help it.
BS: Her quote was: "You managed to turn your students into some-
thing better than Brunerians, into themselves." An amazing tribute and
a very interesting statement about teaching.
JB: That's very sweet. It probably relates to my own life. I remember
the first time I walked into the Harvard Yard. I looked about and thought
about my heroes, like the living Walter Bradford Cannon and the departed
William James. And I remember thinking, "Oh my God! Here is this place
that represents this great tradition, carrying out the learned life. I've really
got to do my version of it." And then there was another occasion of the
same kind when I went into the Mary Hitchcock Library in Dartmouth
where I had a study over the summer for reading. I recall going into the
stacks and finding Aristotle's De Sensu and thinking to myself, "Jesus
Christ! Here I am, in the middle of the summer in Hanover, New Hamp-
shire reading Aristotle's De Sensu." Aristotle asks, "How do I know that
it's Cleon's son walking down the steps of the Parthenon?" And I started
asking the question of myself. I felt somehow part of a tradition, a tradition
that was more important than any of us. No, I don't need disciples. What

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18 * ETHOS

we need are people who will carry out that tradition of inquiry. To a major
extent, it is a kind of conversational tradition although it gets transferred
into the writing mode when you're being more serious about your conver-
sation. So if somebody takes a position that's contrary to my position, I
want them to work it out as well as they can. If Alison makes that sweet
remark about me that makes me sound deeply unselfish, you need to
realize that I'm not unselfish at all. I don't honor my students for echoing
me back. I want to find out where they're going to take the idea next. And
in some respects I was inspired by Edward Tolman. He didn't want
Tolmanians. He had a few, but he didn't really want disciples. He wanted
them to get on with the enterprise of a cognitive learning theory. I felt a
lot of reward for their picking up something on their own and developing
it. The line of work that Mike Scaife and I began on very young infants
following an adult's line of regard to discover what they were attending to
is a good example. We were interested in how they "knew" that others
were attending to things "out there," knew it well enough to follow their
gaze direction in search for what they might be looking at. Well, this
requires some sort of "theory of mind," some very grasp of what philoso-
phers like to call the Other Mind problem. And now research on children's
"theories of mind" is booming-what is the basis of intersubjectivity-and
lots of my former students and post-docs are leading the way, like Colwyn
Trevarthen, Alison Gopnik, and Alan Leslie who has even shown that
autism is partly attributable to a failure to grasp how Other Minds work.
Just look at Janet Astington's splendid book, The Child's Discovery of the
Mind.4 My feeling about that is that once they get into the act, my job was
to get into the business of giving it a lift, quoting their work, giving it a
boost and talking about their theories. I'm a pretty arrogant character in
terms of self assurance. I mean, I think I'm on the right tack and I don't
need a lot of assurances from others. But I'm like everybody else. I mean,
I look in the back of every book I get to see whether I'm in the index. And
if I'm not, I say, "How the hell did they miss me." I'm just as vain as the
next character. But somehow, I don't have to produce disciples-Bruneri-
ans, as you call them. And it's paid off in some way. For example, all that
work on scaffolding like Mike Tomasello is doing at Emory and that David
Wood is doing in England, and Barbara Rogoff at Santa Cruz, makes me
feel I started something that got picked up and carried out on its own. Let
them carry it on. That gives me a chance to get onto the next problem.
BS: If you think about the people that have those adjectival versions
of their names ...
JB: ... some of them are not very kind people.
BS: There's something to that. Is it also possible that if you're not a
reductionist at heart that it's harder for people to associate you with a

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kind of bottom-line, categorical vision of human behavior, one which

makes for a convenient bandwagon?
JB: That's an interesting question. But you know the same thing holds
for George Miller. There are no Millerians.
BS: I suspect that it has to do with the sociology of knowledge within
the academy.
JB: I'm fascinated by this.
BS: People-including many scholars, often think categorically. So if
you want to found a "school" of thought, you have to have a "schtick."
And the "schtick" has to be easily remembered. And you can't move on
to too many different things, because that doesn't give people the kind of
hook they need. You're harder to classify.
JB: This is the issue of what some now call intertextuality. That's
really fascinating. What I mean by intertextuality in this context is the
effort to find correspondence between the theories of different scholars
by pointing to homologies that exist between parts of their theories. Like
taking the notion of "drive" in theories of animal behavior and "showing"
that they correspond to notions of "drive" say, in psychoanalysis. The
people who found "schools" love to incorporate other views by this
technique of homologization. The "shticks" that you refer to, the ones so
easily remembered, are usually of this order. But a notion like "drive," for
example, has to be understood in the context of the particular theories
where it figures. It's a tricky issue. Probably our worst modern offender
in making such intertextual claims for his theory-a kind of "raider" into
other theories-was Clark Hull at Yale who chose immodestly to call his
theory "behavior theory."5 Interesting that he had a host of disciples
during his lifetime, but I doubt there are more than two or three Hullians
BS: There are plenty of things one could say about Bruner: piles of
insights, positions, and conclusions that are forever associated with
Jerome Bruner. But it's a summary of a process. Not a summary of a single
fixed theory and its elaborations.
JB: I spent seven or eight very intensive years working with very
young infants and luck has held with me. I had brilliant people working
with me. People like Colwyin Trevarthan and Martin Richards. Colwyn
went on working on the development of intersubjectivity between mother
and infant. And I became interested in the question of how the next step
is taken by the use of language. And so we started working on formats of
language acquisition used for learning discourse in natural settings.
Picking up linguistic rules, doing some very close studies of one mother-
infant pair showing how the mother indicates that she knows that the
child knows and then that she knows that the child knows that she knows.

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That carried the notion of intersubjectivity a step forward-a cultural step

at that.
BS: This is a kind of tertiary intersubjectivity. Primary intersubjec-
tivity involves a kind of direct contact between caretaker and child, eye
contact and all that. Secondary intersubjectivity involves toys and other
"transitional objects." Anthropologists have studied this for years as
exchange theory, usually without considering its link to the psychological
literature. Tertiary intersubjectivity would then be this more abstracted
synchronization of minds you're referring to.
JB: That's exactly right. So that allowed me to get into the next
step-going from infant perception to child language. And then after child
language proper, I wanted to get into more discourse-related kinds of
things. Of course I try to keep in touch with where I started which puts a
big load on me. But as you say, I like conversation. So I've got Patricia
Greenfield and David Olson as conduits from one particular period, and
Alison Gopnik from another, and so on. Now these scholars aren't
"Brunerians," but they work on Bruner-type problems. Which suits me
just fine, because it also saves me from having to work on every last detail
of a problem. I leave it to them.
BS: What would you call a Bruner-type problem? Is there is some-
thing characteristic of all the things that interest you-a kind of family
JB: Yes. It's very much like Wittgenstein's notion of a family resem-
blance, or to be more precise it's more like the Wittgensteinian image of
the thread which is twisted together, fiber by fiber, but in which there is
not in any sense a single continuous strand.6 I see it as a kind of pragmatics
of knowledge acquisition. Basically I think that's what the core of it is.
That is you organize and construct knowledge on the basis of encounters
with the world, for some use. When I say pragmatic, I really mean
pragmatic in the deeply American tradition. Perhaps, more in the Peir-
cean sense of pragmatic. Not William James's "pragmatic," but Peirce's
BS: And that entails an intentional view of knowing.
JB: It's an intentionalist view, yes. It always considers input in light
of what Peirce called an "interpretant" that is operative.

BS: One of the things that's most characteristic of your writing seems
to be your resistance to what you call large and coherent systems of
thinking. How would you characterize your own theoretical predisposi-
tions in this light?

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JB: Large and coherent systems don't bother me. It's the route we
often take in psychology-a kind of metaphoric route. I don't think you're
nearly as plagued with this in anthropology. But in psychology, you can
start off a la Clark Hull by having a series of axioms from which are then
derived a set of hypotheses that you test by cannily designed experiments.
You make out as if somehow you had full control of a situation which is
assumed to be context-free. I mean, you cobble together some kind of a
t-maze situation for rats to demonstrate a particular principle of delayed
reinforcement, but your results depend on using just that particular
situation. That kind of thing I find just isn't right, because it makes it seem
as if there were kind of a linear causational type of thing at work and I
don't think human affairs operate that way-maybe not even rat affairs!
It fails to take account of the interpretations of those who are involved in
the events that are supposed to be covered by these causational "covering
laws," if I can use Hempel's old term.7 The interpretations of participants
actually change the nature of the situation as such. So that is where
contingencies enter in. I mean that contingencies matter terri-
bly-whether or not you think there's a salt supply within an area
affecting whether you are going to migrate, or whether you think there
are jobs available. But it's not just contingencies. It's the factor of-what
am I going to call it?-"dialectical contrariety," that there are things that
are pitted against each other, in interpretive tension. I think the thing
that characterizes any viable social system is that it pits contrary things
against each other. For example, you have to build an economic system
that pits opportunity against stability. And when I say "against," I mean,
if you're a genius what you do is form some kind of balance and the balance
is never for all and for always. You're never going to get a set of economic
regulatory laws that remain effective forever. Several of my friends are
involved in formulating what is in effect a new branch of law which is
called the law of intellectual property. God, if you ever saw a field which
wildly generates the higher mishigas, that is it. I mean, what constitutes
intellectual property? It is an issue that generates endless dialectical
BS: So one of the attractions of studying the law for you is that law
confronts the necessity to formulate large and coherent systems out of
the messiness of life, which is forever throwing up resistance to its
intellectual tidiness. Isn't it this perpetual confrontation of the give-and-
take of real life with this kind of legal systematicity that you really enjoy?
JB: That is exactly right. But mind you the thing that's so interesting
about the law is that you form a system of jurisprudence because you have
to, and you count on precedent and interpretation to fit it to new

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BS: You need law in the world for much the same reason that you
need theories in social science. You say you dislike coherent systems of
thought, but it seems to me that such coherent systems bear similar
relations-both descriptively and prescriptively-to human behavior as
law does to life.
JB: I do argue just that. That is very much my position. I had a very
interesting exchange with David Olson and Janet Astington in the Journal
of Human Development. David wants an explanatory psychology. And I
say, "Bravo for you." The fact of the matter is you can have an explanatory
psychology except for the fact that when you deal with the particulars,
context gets to be so crucially important. There's no way of avoiding it.
And not only context, but a socially constructed context for the partici-
BS: What is the alternative you have in mind to an explanatory
JB: Not an alternative, but a parallel one. It's an interpretive psychol-
ogy-not quite like Cliff Geertz's view of anthropology. I think psycho-
logical intrepretivism may be more constrained by "natural" or biological
constraints on functioning than is interpretation in anthropology. That
probably comes from the freeing power inherent in the human cultural
adaptation. A lot of psychological functioning is still pretty strictly con-
strained in a primitive, precultural way-like the limits on human atten-
tion and memory, like the powerful temporal and spatial constraints that
limit human cognitive processing general. To be sure, it often happens
that cultural inventions come along that make it possible to transcend
those "hard wired" explanatory limits. But we'll talk about that later. Let
me get back to interpretation now. The difference between an explanation
and an interpretation is that when you have one interpretation, somebody
who comes along with another interpretation does not necessarily pre-
clude the first. There's no "gotchas" about interpretations, whereas an
explanation is "it"-a unique and final account. Now, there are some
people who don't agree fully with what I'm saying. Josh Lederberg says
that I'm being simplistic in saying that, because the fact of the matter is
that explanations have never worked out that way in science. You start
out with one explanation, come up with another one which may include
the first. But you can also come along with an explanation that doesn't
include it, which is a completely different way of seeing things, like a
quantum as compared to a classical mechanical way of looking at nature.
BS: Well, even if it's right, it turns out that every explanation has a
context within which it's right. A kind of limited "gotcha."
JB: Explanations all have their range of convenience.

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BS: Which makes it hard to distinguish between explanation and

interpretation. Once you introduce this notion of "range of convenience,"
I have trouble seeing the distinction
JB: Well, a lot of people are having difficulty on this one, including
me. Nelson Goodman sent me a little note when I sent him a copy of
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, and he wrote: "I'm reading it. I'm having
a marvelous time with it. Thank you very much. But why don't you call
it Possible Minds, Possible Worlds?" [laughter]
BS: Or Possible Worlds, Impossible Minds, if you mean the study of
academic life. [laughter]
JB: And now, when I finally pull together this goddamned collection
of essays and chapters-whatever this thing is I've been working on about
the self, I'm going to call the thing Possible Selves, partly in honor of
Nelson Goodman, because I love him dearly. And also because the fact of
the matter is that we know perfectly well that self is in part a product of
discourse-a function of the discourses in which you chose to enter.
Which is a very disturbing thought to a lot of my psychological colleagues.
Remember, I have to live with psychologists to some extent, although
nowadays I don't live with them as much I used to. They're likely to say
things like, "A self is a self is a self," to which the only response is, "Oh
well, except when you say, 'My wife is not herself today.' "
BS: You seem to resist not so much explanations as reductive ac-
counts, closed and overly explanatory models.
JB: Reductive and linear accounts. That's one way of saying it.
BS: At the risk of being a bit simplistic, I think we can make a general
distinction between analytic thinkers-splitters, categorizers-and dia-
lectical thinkers, who focus on what you call the irreducible contrarieties
of life, pointing out false dichotomies and attempt to discover the hereto-
fore silent partners of conventional discourses. It strikes me that your
natural mode of argument tends towards the dialectical. And it's a kind
of ornery dialectic in some ways. For instance, when psychology was
overly concerned with the inside of the psyche in the sense of innatist
approaches, you proposed that insufficient attention was being paid to
the psyche's outside, the social matrix of behavior. Yet when psychology
was overly concerned with the external causes of behavior-in the sense
of behaviorism, the stimulus-response stuff-you responded by focusing
on the inside, insisting on the importance of intentionality. So it seems
you enjoy a kind of friendly antagonism to current psychological theory,
not so much in the spirit of being oppositional, but in rendering articulate
some left-out piece of a dialectical puzzle. In contrast to the reductive
spirit of more positivistic psychologists, the dialectical spirit seems to be
everywhere in your writing.

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JB: Oh, it's everywhere, but never enough. You can even find it in my
work on thinking. If you look at A Study of Thinking, you'll find a good
enough formalist point of view for it to serve as the basis for a lot of Alan
Kay's work with Apple computer. And at the same time, without my
realizing it, I provided the basis for making narrative also be at the heart
of concepts-thematic concepts, so-called. Actually I didn't fully know
what the hell I was doing. When I read those chapters on thematic
concepts I think to myself, "What a blithering coward you are, Bruner.
Why the hell didn't you follow it through?" I guess I didn't follow it through
because it didn't have to do with the discourse I was then involved in. I
wanted to get rid of those funny ways of talking about stimuli as if they
simply impinged without a categorization step along the way, a step that
brings in the mental. I also recognized the fact that categorizing was an
innate trait of human beings. Not any particular categorization, but the
fact of categorization. We simply cannot operate without categorizing. It's
our nature. But there are categories that fit formal criteria, practical-use
criteria, and thematic narrative criteria, and I wish I had pursued that
point back then. In any case, I want to go back to your major point. It is
true, I think that my thinking is dialectal. And if insisting on the presence
of these dialectical forces in the operation of the mind is ornery, then I
can plead guilty to orneriness.
BS: Your style of debate seems to be to enter into a joust with the
hope of raising the level of discourse by expanding a current perspective
to include left-out matters. Hence your love of what you call "going meta."
It's a dialectical orneriness with the hope of a synthesis and reconciliation
at the end. So when you challenge people or oppose something, it's less
with the hope of winning and doing away with them than with the hope
of codiscovering a way out of a dilemma by "going meta" on the problem
and eventually transcending the dilemma itself.
JB: I think that's so. And you're the second person this week to accuse
me of that, by the way. The other one is a very gifted Italian philosopher
who teaches at University College, Dublin, by the name of Liberato
Santoro. He's just written a fantastic piece on the concept of desire in the
history of philosophy. One desires but one also wants a stable situation
in which desire doesn't disrupt things. A kind of dialectics of desire. He's
accused me of loving the play of dialectics.
BS: In your essay, "The Conditions of Creativity," in that wonderful
collection you did, Essaysfor the Left Hand, you suggest the relationship
of creativity to what you term productive paradox. You see paradox as
essential to creativity, just as for Bateson it is essential to play. One of the
deepest sources of creativity, you say, is the working out of conflict and
coalition. So opposition and conflict of some sort is inherent in the way
a creative mind works and is part of the creativity. So totally overcoming

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conflict, contradiction, or opposition might well suggest for you the end
of thinking, at least of creative thought. This suggests a fear that reductive
and final explanations would lead to the kind of boredom we discussed
JB: Not only to boredom. I think it would also lead to violence. I think
the one sure way to produce violent opposition within a society is to say,
"This is the way it goes forever more."
BS: When I listen to this, it makes me realize the degree to which the
ways in which we work intellectually have a lot to do with a kind of a social
orientation that we have.
JB: Oh, I'm sure that's true.
BS: I am also drawn to dialectical thinking and like to bring people
together while not avoiding dispute. Isn't bringing contrary ideas together
in that way a form of social engagement? It may have something to do
with my attraction to the study of ritual. Ritual thrives on ambivalence
and the bringing together of contraries. And it especially involves an
attempt to both acknowledge and overcome violence.
JB: That's a very interesting point. What you're doing, essentially, is
working out the discourse pattern in your life into some theory that would
explain that very discourse pattern.
BS: There are people, the oppositional thinkers, who when faced with
complexity or opposition to their ideas become increasingly entrenched.
When they see a powerful and credible mode of thought that's opposed to
their own, they become more and more entrenched and dig their heels in
rather than try to find a way out of the conundrum by engaging the
opposition constructively. I suppose they enjoy the violent confrontation.
JB: If you ask about my kind of axiomatic, almost religious beliefs,
one of them is that growth is what human goodness and virtue, or
whatever you want to call it, are about. And those who prevent the
working out of growth, which is a dialectical process in my deep-structure
way of thinking, and who become committed to trying to kill the opposi-
tion, those are the people whom I think of as evil. And I see it in such
interesting ways. I don't want to go into detail on this, but I have known
some evil people who, in some way, prevent growth in others from
occurring in order to improve their own position entirely, without a view
to the broader context of the world in which they live. And they block
community, civility, or whatever you please.

BS: Let's move onto a whole range of issues that deals with the
relations between academic psychology, ethnopsychology, and "pop psy-

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chology." Paul Rozin recently said something at a conference that was

very interesting to me.
JB: Paul Rozin usually does say interesting stuff.
BS: He noted that the categories of traditional academic psychol-
ogy-perception, memory, motivation, and so forth-are not the catego-
ries that most nonacademics use in their folk theories of the person. It
occurred to me that the categories that most people use in their folk
psychology are things like "How to get along with people, sexuality,
feelings." Some of these categories have a family resemblance to academic
discourse, but it's mostly a different way of cutting up the pie.
JB: These folk categories are much less cut up to start with.
BS: They're less cut up. Or they're cut up in different ways. If you
walk into any large bookstore and you look under psychology, what you
find are those categories. Most of the books in pop psychology are really
reflections of a folk psychology, only tangentially influenced by the
categories of academic psychology, unless it's an academic or university
bookstore, where you might reasonably ask for something on perception
or cognition. What you see is something on how to parent, how to deal
with your mother-in-law, or on how to get along....
JB: ... how to get along with people you can't stand.
BS: And a whole host of folk categories for personality types or
dysfunctional syndromes like The Peter Pan Syndrome, or "people who
love too much."
JB: Well, folk psychology wants to situate behavior in concrete
situations in real cultural settings. The mother-in-law is a real cultural
setting. "People you can't stand" is another.
BS: The dominant model in academic psychology is a person or
agent-centered psychology, whereas social psychology has a sort of sec-
ondary status. Well this may be true in academic psychology, but ...
JB: ... the reverse is true in popular psychology. Pop psychology is
the way moderately literate people talk about the kind of stuff that
happens to them day by day. They don't think of books as a study in
perception or something like that, but about getting along with mother-
BS: This is what a Freudian might call a mom and pop psychology.
JB: Yes, a mom and pop psychology. Or more accurately mom, pop,
and the boss.
BS: In a lovely essay called "Possible Castles," from your bookActual
Minds, Possible Worlds, you wrote that "folk theories have as much claim
to reality as any theories we might make in structural psychology by the
use of our most stringent scientific methods." And in fact you seem to
embrace the position that folk theories should be treated as an especially
important source of data for scientific psychology. So what does it tell us

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about the status of psychology that the categories academic psychology

uses are so dramatically different from those categories of pop psychol-
JB: That's a marvelous question. I now see that it goes beyond what
I wrote. As initially intended, I was operating I think on the assumption,
developed much better in later writings of mine, that people don't see
stimuli. They don't see foot candles of input or something of the sort. What
they see basically is a world related to their enterprises and of course their
enterprises are predominantly cultural enterprises. And the data that they
give you, how they see the world, are data that you have to explain. When
I say "explain folk psychology," I mean that if you want to have a
psychology which is a nonfolk psychology, which makes an effort at being
an explanatory psychology, you're not going to replace folk psychology.
But what you're going to do is to explicate how folk psychology happens
to take the form that it does.
BS: So it's a kind of meta-folk psychology?
JB: It's more than meta-folk psychology. When a field like psychology
tries to go scientific, it builds into itself presumably self-corrective verifi-
cational procedures that protect it from being wrong in the setting where
it is done. But the great problem that you have is attempting to explain
folk psychologies. You come to assume you're going to give an explanation
in universal terms to deal with a particular thing. But soon you've
exhausted your general concepts, and it comes down to the importance
of surface structure. It's just very difficult to explain the whole thing in
such general terms. You can explain some of the mechanisms. If I tell you
that there is no way in which you are going to be able to carry out a
conversation that requires processing phrase units at a rate more than a
phrase every 1.4 seconds, that is a statement about the limits on what is
possible in folk psychology. You can't really explain it, but you can place
some extremely important limits on it. I can know that it is of that order
with respect to speech processing. And under these circumstances, I can
tell you that whatever your form of discourse is going to be, it can't use
deletion rules and that kind of thing, that require more capacity than that.
Now that's worth knowing.
BS: So what you're doing in general psychology is discovering the
general constraints within which the human psyche operates. This is your
notion of psychic unity that you write about. A set of general processing
JB: That's right. You're going to be stuck with this.
BS: But within those constraints there's an enormous room for
variation in the way in which psychology works itself into particular lives
and settings.

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JB: Ah, yes. That's the reason why I think I find myself in pretty much
the same position with the kind of free-for-all Ken Gergens who operates
on the assumption that anything is possible. But everything, alas, is not
possible, and all is not socially constructed out of totally malleable
BS: Just to clarify this issue, your response then to people like Dan
Sperber, who reviewed Actual Minds, Possible Worlds somewhat criti-
cally with the claim that you've gone too far in this constructivist thing,
is to say, "Look I'm interested at this point in the particularity of things.
That's where I am now, but there is a genuine role for what you might call
scientific psychology."
JB: That's right.
BS: And scientific psychology for you is the elucidation of those
processing constraints. But you don't know what those constraints are,
unless you're familiar with the way in which people really operate and
that really means you have to leave the laboratory to really know how
people operate in the world. Those constraints that you're talking about
can't be derived simply from your laboratory experiments.
JB: That's right. Exactly.
BS: Psychology is distinctive in the social sciences in having spawned
not only an academic discipline, but something called "pop psychology"
as well. It's telling that we have a pop psychology, but we really don't have
pop anthropology. There are some works that you can call that, but there's
no general concept that people have of a "pop anthropology."
JB: They translate pop anthropology into a kind of pop psychology.
Like Margaret Mead.
BS: That sort of pop anthropology really becomes a theory of "the
person," not a theory of culture. Theories of culture as such don't seem
to make it into popular discourse in this way.
JB: Well, people don't know culture, because that's exactly like the
fish being the last to discover water. They've got to go into another culture
or become alienated. Most people aren't even aware of the culture.
BS: Right. Culture seems to be a relatively invisible medium for the
most part, except when various ethnic groups come up against one
another, or try and make claims based on their ethnicity. On the other
hand, in our particular culture people seem to be extremely aware of
themselves as psychological beings. Now let me contrast that with my
experience in the South Pacific. In Samoa, you might say that people have
a pop anthropology, but no pop psychology. They have a self-conscious
conception of their culture-they love telling you about their culture. And
the differences between cultures. But if you ask them for a theory of the
person, which I tried to do when I looked into their ethnopsychology back
in the early seventies, well that was a lot harder to get at. I had to probe

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a lot-get them to "go meta," as we have been saying. Psychology, or

person categories were not at the surface of people's consciousness. In
fact, a Samoan who was bilingual once asked me what the English word
personality meant. She was living in San Francisco at the time and her
kids used the term a lot but she had no gloss for it in Samoan. Well I stood
there and I thought about it and I thought about it.
JB: The travails of an anthropologist!
BS: Well, I explained to her as best I could what the words self and
personality meant and she looked at me and said she now knew the
Samoan word for self or personality. Tino was her closest approximation,
which means "body." That was closest she could come to translating the
notions of individuated selfhood. And I said no, it's more like 'uiga, which
means a characteristic or "side" of a person. But it only means one side
or aspect of a multidimension being.
JB: That doesn't catch the meaning of the English concept at all.
BS: It doesn't catch our notion of a kind of homunculus hiding
beneath the social roles and performances that goes into the notions of
self or personality.
JB: Yes, we do all presuppose some sort of homunculus.
BS: So pop psychology emerges in our society because in our culture
people feel a kind of native expertise in theories of the self in addition to
there being specialists like you who deal with it scientifically. You might
say that we live in something like a "psychiety" while Samoans live in a
"society." By psychiety I mean a community in which psychological
relations are culturally foregrounded and social relations are considered
secondary, as a kind of acting or role playing-a secondary kind of
existence. Whereas in other kinds of communities social relations are the
culturally privileged way people conceptualize themselves.
JB: Like the Japanese.
BS: Yes. The same thing seems to be true for Polynesians and
Indonesians, all of whom share "sociocentric" societies. It's not that they
lack theories of the person.
JB: But they tend to stress person as participant.
BS: Right, the social self and the social dimensions of personhood are
given a culturally explicit place of honor in their ethnopsychologies. In
Bob Levy's helpful terms8 we could say that the social self is hypercog-
nized in such communities. The more private aspects of the self that are
disconnected from social relations are there but left relatively buried and
inarticulate. So pop psychology it seems to me comes to the fore only in
a certain kind of society. The society in which one of the most popular
undergraduate majors is inevitably going to be psychology.
JB: I want to say two things about all this. The usual way in which
one accounts for this is by saying that we are a very individualistic culture

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and therefore we develop this kind of thing-pop psychology. That of

course is eating your own tail, because the fact of the matter is we may
be an individualistic culture because we have that kind of orientation
individually.And it doesn't matter which way you run aroundthe circle
from culture to individual. It's still a circle. This is related to a long
tradition of dialectic between two ways of looking at man and culture.
One is Greekor Greco-Romanand views man as the measureof all things.
The Hebraictradition,on the other hand, argues:"Whatis man that thou
art mindfulof him?"The inscriptionaroundEmersonHallat Harvardwas
originally"Manis the measure of all things,"and AbbotLawrenceLowell,
a highly intelligent political philosopherand Harvardpresident, counter-
manded Josiah Royce's work order for the inscription and it finally went
up "Whatis man that thou art mindful of him." Consider this particular
tension, a tension between man as agentand man who has no control over
things. You find this tension commonly in the best of fiction. This
uncertainty in the West between these two ways of looking at human
destiny causes trouble in all particularsituations. Narrativetypically has
an actor, an act, a goal, a setting, an instrumentality-Kenneth Burke's
famouspentad. Somethinggoes out of balanceas in Ibsen'sTheDollhouse.
What is that gal doing married to that son-of-a-bitch?The trouble is the
engine of the story. The imbalance makes trouble. Our efforts to under-
stand are fueled by this deep uncertaintyas to whether we're the pawn of
forces beyond our control or whetherwe're the measure of all things. And
it makes Western man very conflicted indeed.
BS:And of course, that same tension led in psychology to the endless
debate between behavioristsor situationists on the one hand and agency-
centered personality theory on the other.
JB: Exactly what I was going to say. Let me take two extreme
charactersin psychologywho were both of them in their way brilliantand
both of them kind of far out. HenryMurrayproposed a theory of person-
ality where all needs and sensitivities rested within the individual who
was endowed with a tremendous amount of agentive control.9Now take
Fred(B. F.) Skinner.Students in psychologycourses got both these views
presented. They would keep flip-flopping.They would take FredSkinner's
courses, including a lot of literary people and humanistic people, and
come out saying, "Well,we heard the worst from him-we can cope with
that," then take Murray-and say they could cope with that too. There's
always a tension between these two renderings of the condition of
man-man all-powerful,in an image of God, and man a helpless pawn of
fate and chance and external forces-being controlled rather than in
control. To pick up ChristopherRicks'spoint,10God says, "I made man
in my image and gave him everythingexcept knowledgeabout Good and
Evil."What the hell kind of a God is that? What kind of architect is he

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anyway? So we don't know whether we are responsible or the forces of

nature and culture.
BS: It's interesting how this conundrum underlies much political
debate in this country, about placing responsibility for crime, poverty,
and the like. And like most such dilemmas, I suppose that this one is
ultimately irresolvable. Which is a very distinctive take on human nature.
I often say to my students, "Look, when all is said and done I think you're
going to learn that it is possible to characterize human nature in ways
that are meaningful and not trivial. But those characteristics are likely to
involve significant contradictions at the heart of what it means to be
human." And what you've identified in this kind of double image of
mankind is not simply a Western discourse. It's interesting to look at it
from an evolutionary perspective. If you take a look at primate evolution,
two things become evident. One is that you see increasing social interde-
pendence, touching, grooming, social roles, social learning. Delayed
maturation. There's a whole nexus of increased social dependence.
JB: And not only dependency. I always think about the long human
immaturity as an opportunity for training in independence.
BS: Exactly. This is the paradox. Increasing interdependency evolved
hand in hand with increasing independence for human primates and also
for the great apes. What you see simultaneously is an increase in social
dependency and the possibility of intellectual autonomy because of
cognitive evolution. You have the beginning of a kind of cognitive com-
plexity which includes the possibility of meta cognition. Wherever you
have that possibility of meta cognition, you have the possibility of a kind
of perception which disconnects itself from the social world. When you
teach kids language, you teach them the ability to say "no." Language
contains "not." "No. I won't do it."
JB: There are two kinds of "no," mind you. One kind of "no" is "Stop,
don't do that to me." The other kind of "no" is negating a proposition.
BS: That's the one.
JB: That's the one-propositional negation. That's the killer.
BS: So what we end up as human beings with extraordinary depend-
ency demands elaborated in psychology as theories of attachment or as
theories of social learning and social dependency. The whole elaboration
of behaviorism became in the hands of people like Walter Mischel or
Albert Bandura1l a sort of social learning theory and situationism which
is linked to symbolic interaction theory like Goffmanian notions, all of
which focus on the interdependence of our sense of self and our identity
in the social matrix. On the other hand, you have also this possibility of
a notion of a kind of autonomy, you know, an autonomous self. And here's
the question that comes out of this. Let's assume that there's a kind of
inherent existential paradox for human beings. What then is the role of

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folk psychologies in mediating that paradox? It seems to me that this

provides us for a way of thinking about the role of folk psychologies or
JB: But let me respond to that in an idiosyncratic way first and then
I'll come back to the generalities. I remember a young graduate student I
was very fond of, a sociologist at Harvard whose name was Harold
Garfinkel, now the great Harold Garfinkel. He's such an appealing and
interesting guy. He came to me and asked me for a reading and research
course. He said, "You're doing all this stuff on perception and I find that
kind of interesting." Before long I realized that Harold's game was to see
whether he could get to the way in which people organize their worlds
without the intervention of this bloody official psychology or sociology.
Like your asking questions about life in Samoa that nobody there would
dream of asking. Or like Clyde Kluckhohn asking the Navajo "How come
you keep dogs?" Garfinkle wanted to find out how they framed questions
for themselves, to keep things as their own phenomenological level. How
do people structure their worlds in terms of their own theory rather than
in terms of some scholar's theory about their genes or their schedules of
reinforcement or some goddamned thing like that. They, ordinary people,
keep agency alive. That's the agency side of the story. The moment you
say, "Oh don't give me that stuff, I mean, the fact of the matter is it's our
endocrine system that makes us feel the way we do," agency is gone, or
masked. But both views of the human condition may be true. The

Figure2. Bruner(right)andShore"goingmeta."

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ethnopsychological and ethnomethodological viewpoints which say es-

sentially "I'm going to take people at their word, and the world as people
think it is," that's the kind of world in which man is the measure of all
things. Whereas, the other kind of position, which many psychologists
prefer, attempts to eliminate agency as far as possible.
BS: And of course what happens is that in some societies we study
you find an ethnopsychology that doesn't privilege man as the center of
all things but sees human beings at the fate of extra-human agency.
JB: That's puzzling, isn't it. Really puzzling. I think you're not the
measure of all things. I wrote a piece for the M.I.T. centennial celebration.
It came out in the Essays for the Left Hand. It is called "Fate and the
Possible." I didn't realize-as we don't when we write these things-the
true implication of what I was talking about. But I think it's this conflict
that makes students love psychology. They love nothing better than Neil
Miller's study of rats in the shuttle box. A light goes on in the "start box."
A shock follows soon after, and the rat learns to get the hell out of there.
Unfortunately, by the time the light in the "start box" is no longer followed
by a shock, the rats have no way to find out and change their behavior,
because they have taken off for the other box and don't recognize that
there's no longer a shock in the box. This is the so-called Neil Miller effect.
And the students just love it and they go home and they tell their
roommates about it. Silly rats. But fact of the matter, it's not just rats that
do it and they know it. And I think that is the appeal, the tension between
our being a kind of a feather in the wind of fate on the one hand and this
solid rock of agency on the other. Paul Ricoeur in his book on narrative
comments on this.12 He says that it is because of the nature of human fate
that narratives of life require this conflict we feel. You care or have what
the Germans call Sorge, recognizing that others always have such a plight.
And that's surely one of the reasons why compassion characterizes
Western religion-"forgive them for they know not what they do"-and
also characterizes our psychology. And makes us psychocentric rather
than culturecentric.
BS: The use of poetry or theory or some other kind of discourse to
explain things or explain people has something to do with the role of
ethnopsychology or folk psychology in people's lives. They're all forms of
theory, though dressed up very differently. Now theory has the job of
presumably shedding a light on a corner of experience. And part of this
work of theory is to temporarily disambiguate what is really an inherently
ambiguous thing.
JB: For a particular purpose and for a particular interpretative audi-
BS: Right. It does its work for a particular purpose and a particular
audience. The odd thing is that in order to illuminate something a theory

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has to cover up something else. This is part of what Bohr meant I suppose
by his complementarity principle.13 A theory gives us a temporary holding
slot where we can say "this much I understand." And I think that
ethnopsychology or folk psychology or pop psychology all do the same
JB: That's interesting. Fascinating.
BS: Both folk psychology and academic psychology are inevitably
only a partial rendering of human experience. They allow for public
communication of certain states of being and make possible shared
explanations for behavior. And equally clear is that there are always
dimensions of people's experience that are left out of such theories, almost
by definition.

BS: It struck me last night that there is a correspondence between
your own character and life and the view you have of ordinary cognition.
JB: That's a very interesting point.
BS: In some way, you're a deep optimist. In other ways, you're a
realist. You also have a deep feeling for the possibilities in people and in
situations. And you're an unstoppable conversationalist. Literally, your
life seems to go on as a series of fascinating conversations. Those conver-
sations are your most habitual acts of meaning.
JB: They can also be acts of coercion you know.
BS: They're all sorts of things. But you're also thinking aloud as you
talk which is one of the exciting things about you.
JB: But the puzzling thing is that you create a world around you that's
a response to yourself, and you think it's the universe. This is the dilemma
of ordinary human beings, but especially of intellectuals. You get ordinary
mortals posing as that kind of deified entity called a social scientist or a
BS: Just how ordinary a mortal you are is a matter of some debate.
But I wonder about the extent to which your own research methods on
narrative are acts of discovery or acts of teaching. It seems to me that
most of the time most people aren't as articulate about their lives and
their selves as when you prod them into narrative as part of your research.
JB: It may very well be. It's characteristic of our discipline. I interview
the Fox family members. They have never gotten that kind of prodding
before and they "go meta," on themselves and their lives. They go meta
because I make them go meta. Just like you and I do to each other in the
course of these conversations. Just like you go to Samoa and all of a
sudden here's an interesting stranger who is interested in them. They
regard themselves as living in this dense surface structure of ordinary life.

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And all of a sudden what before was a given now becomes a topic for
discussion, for inquiry and for thought in which they're asked to make
comments. And the world begins to reflect it. And that's one of the reasons
that I liked that study that Cliff Geertz published of Ruth Benedict and
Evans-Prichard, Levi-Strauss, and Malinowski.14 It was absolutely marvel-
ous. On the other hand, the one thing I would want to say is that there
are corrective measures that one can take doing research. Besides, I have
lot of natural sympathy for the disempowered and the ordinary. I'm not
sure but maybe I have some kind of a feeling for the human plight, because
of my conversational proclivity. That's true of most people in the human
sciences who are any good at it. You know, they can laugh at the world
they're constructing, and are capable of empathizing and of seeing others'
BS: It's kind of an imagination for other lives. Given your strong
associations between thinking and education, to what extent is a theory
of mind for you inevitably a theory of education? And therefore your
research methods are as much a form of education as they are discovery
tools. To the extent that you provoke people into narrative, are you using
discovery techniques or educational techniques? Aren't you in fact pro-
voking people into modes of meta-discourse and meaning making that
they are capable of, but which in fact exaggerates the degree to which this
kind of meaning-constructing enterprise really goes on in everyday life?
I'm struck by the fact that most people lead probably much more mun-
dane lives than you do.
JB: Well, I don't know whether they feel themselves to be any more
mundane than I feel. We all live kind of at some tolerable level of
mundanity. We put up with a lot of routines.
BS: Well, I guess to the extent that meaning making requires a kind
of narrative which triggers meta-cognition, your research with these
people promotes a kind of self-realization of what you are looking for. So
the basic question is to what extent do you really believe that those
activities go on with these people when you're not around? They obvi-
ously go on to some extent, but I'm struck by the fact that when I did
research in Samoa, some of my more interesting informants and friends
were the ones who said that this was an unusual experience for them but
that they really learned to enjoy it.
JB: But wait. They probably said to you "I never said this to anybody
else in my life."
BS: That's right. They said, "This is fun. Can you come back?
Nobody's ever asked me this." And so what I was doing in addition to
collecting data was a kind of education in the guise of a discovery
procedure. It certainly was tapping into meaning making possibilities that

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people ordinarily have, but that are not always or even commonly used
in this way.
JB: Well, there's no question about that. It's a bit like psychoanalysis.
I mean, in psychoanalysis you're supposed to free-associate. But the fact
of the matter is as Don Spence and other people point out, the association
is guided by the fact that somebody is giving you a kind of implicit theory
in the hope that along the way by following the instruction to let one thing
come out after another the way they ordinarily do, you will learn some-
thing. And you will not only learn something that is therapeutic, but you
will also learn how to conduct yourself and behave on the couch.
BS: Well, it's the original form of guided participation.
JB: Absolutely. Do you think it's an inevitable feature of the work
we've chosen as our life work? I kind of suspect it is.
BS: As anthropologists we try to be aware of the degree to which we
don't want to intrude too much and that sort of thing. But most of us are
discourse-centered in our lives, relative virtuosi in these kinds of conver-
sations. It's what we do for a living. That's our tool kit-a kind of meta
discourse in which we're talking about things and thinking and pushing
them to a new level. And some of us I think get fairly impatient with people
who carry on a discourse that is not meta. So we push it meta insofar as
we can.
JB: It's funny. I keep coming back to Neils Bohr. He was talking about
Edgar Rubin, when he and Bohr were young scholars at the University of
Copenhagen together. It was about the figure-ground phenomenon-you
know, when you see the vase, you can't see the profiles that compose
them. He told it to me in terms of a story. His son Aage went down to the
village where the Bohrs stayed for the summer and there was some sort
of a notions store there and he stole some kind of a small thing. Aage was
so stricken by guilt about this that a week later he came to his father and
confessed and asked what he should do. Bohr told him to take it back and
he did. What struck the elder Bohr at that point was that he could see his
son Aage either in the light of love or in the light of justice. But if he saw
him in the light of justice, he missed something about him as a lovable
human being. If he saw him in the light of love, he missed something about
him in terms of how we regulate a society. So for Bohr it was the old
duck-rabbit problem of perception. And he said that was the thing that
really set him off on his search in physics for these kinds of phenomena
too. And it's a bit that way in even a deeper sense in the human sciences,
because of the fact that we take discourse into our own mode and away
from the discourse that people may normally engage in. Not entirely. I
mean, there's always the empathy factor that I was talking about. When
Clyde Kluckhohn studied Navajo witchcraft, the best thing he ever did
was to get them talking about the problem of looking after their sheep.

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Where they put them and what they keep the dog for and why is the dog
useful. It was all in their terms of reference. And then he would make the
leap and say, "Are there any other things that having a dog is good for?"
And they said, "Yes, you know, you can't tell about the things that are
around here. It's good to have somebody warning you." "Warning you?"
Kluckhohn asked. "You know, you never can tell what's going on out
here." By that time, they had known Clyde for a long time. But he was
talking on a tabooed subject, because people don't talk about witches and
certainly in daily life they don't talk about the fact that their dogs are good
barkers when there are witches around. So if you are to get a full account
of people's lives, you have to provoke kinds of conversations that may not
be typical everyday-that is, if you're going to get certain kinds of

BS: Let's explore what counts as knowledge in psychology and
anthropology. I want to deal with a set of issues around the uses of
phenomenological approaches to knowledge and experience and their
relevance to modern psychology and anthropology. It strikes me that both
psychology and anthropology started off in their earliest years with the
study of the senses. In anthropology, the earliest cross-cultural studies
done were actually in cross-cultural psychology during the famous Torres
Strait expedition in the 1880s.
JB: W. H. R. Rivers.15
BS: Yes, Rivers and HIaddon.
JB: My first teacher, McDougall, was one of them.
BS: And there was Boas's early trip to Baffin Island to study percep-
tion and the effect of environment-what started out as physical environ-
ment but later came to be known as "culture"-on the senses. That set
of interests went underground in anthropology for many years and was
taken up only by a few cross-cultural psychologists.
JB: It also gets picked up again with Berlin and Kay's work,16 of
BS: That's right. It reemerged with in a big way with Berlin and Kay's,
but it's also come back in contemporary cultural anthropology in a
completely different sense in the concern with "the embodiment of
knowledge." Actually, I think it's part of a poststructuralist reaction to an
overly abstracted and intellectualized view of human knowledge and in
an attempt to approximate some kind of authenticity of knowledge.
JB: That's right. It is a concern with authenticity, and with under-
standing what aspect of knowledge stays put. What's the steady input from
the senses that you can say, "That part is the world." Psychology's

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engagement with the senses begins with Weber and Fechner.17 Theirs was
the model that I was exposed to very early on by one of my teachers, E.G.
Boring. Basically it represented the nature of the human psyche as a
systematic transducer and I want to put the emphasis on both terms-sys-
tematic and transducer. What does it take, for example, to notice that
one sound is louder than another? A "just noticeable difference" between
them turns out to be a constant fraction of the sound from which you
make the comparison. So that, for example, if you have a sound that can
be characterized in its physical measurement as magnitude 10 and the
ruling fraction is one-tenth, an increment of one is what it takes to get a
just noticeable difference. Whereas if you if have a sound of magnitude
one hundred, it takes ten to give you the one-tenth. You always have to
increase the sound by a ratio of one-tenth to get a just noticeable
difference (JND), and the JND gets to be the systematic psychological
metric. Now, out of this developed the field called psycho-physics. The
"psycho" part was essentially how the physical world was experienced,
and "physics" was the role of systematicity or the constant fraction
making a JND. This was tremendously thrilling in the 1860s and 1870s.
It produced a special psycho-physical dualism. What they wanted was a
dualism, not interaction. And if there was to be any interaction, it was to
be the physical over the psychic. The physical caused the psychic. That
became the initial model. But there was a different pattern that came
along at the same time from a different tradition, which was a genuinely
phenomenological tradition rather than coming from Fechner and Weber.
I say it was mainly Weber, because Fechner himself was very conflicted
by this.
BS: Which Weber are you referring to here?
JB: This is E. H. Weber. Fechner's name was, Gustave Theodor
Fechner. Fechner himself finally rejected this view by saying that this was
the "day view" of the human mind-what he called the Tagesansicht. But
the "night view" (Nachtansicht) of the mind took into account that mind
also created things that went beyond sense perception yet had equal
psychic reality. But there is another tradition that grew very much out of
an analysis of the senses. Color has always fascinated man. The great
Goethe wrote a book that was called the Zur Farbenlehrer, about color.
In it, he made the claim that there were phenomenologically primary
colors based entirely on their phenomenological simplicity. And those
colors were, of course, yellow, blue, red, and green. And the basic
argument is not that there's anything physically important about them
but that those are the phenomenological primaries. He inadvertently
introduced the notion that in experience itself you could find the "natural
joints." It's a powerful argument that the world presents itself in an
experientially natural way. You see it in a way that is natural. Now, if it's

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natural, then presumably it's natural transculturally. It's in the nature of

human nature.
BS: So this was a kind of a precursor to what became ecological
JB: Very much so. But it's based on an appeal to what is natural and
universal. This phenomenology somehow "represents" nature.
BS: It suggests a sensorium that adapts itself to the natural configu-
ration of things.
JB: Somehow those primaries were in experience because they were
in the world or something like that. Note that this phenomenological
approach, proposing the natural joints of experience, precedes Darwin.
Goethe's Farbenlehrer had appeared well before then. I think it was about
1810. But science is more than phenomenology; it's analytic, like Men-
deleev's table. If there were natural primitives in experience and you
mixed them, you should get some kind of a systematicity in results. And
the field of color was perfect for this. What makes primary colors inter-
esting (like blue-yellow and green-red) is when you mix lights of these
colors, you get a chromatic white light. So people got into the arguments.
Are some colors "purer"than others-purer phenomenologically, but also
purer in the sense of simpler. Goethe hated Newton's antiphenomenologi-
cal way of looking at spectral color, and wrote Zur Farbenlehrer to get all
that straightened up. For him, the systematic nature of color inhered not
only in such miracles as the so-called "color circle" of the spectrum, but
in the "naturaljoints" of experience that the primaries revealed. Needless
to say, the phenomenological view got crushed by the physicalist one
which got lots of additional evidence and backing from the mighty
Helmholtz. Phenomenology doesn't fare well in a positivist environment.
BS: This physicalist approach to the senses tends to be based upon
a kind of a theory of primary categorization.
JB: They'd never use the word category. They didn't dare.
BS: They didn't dare, because it was too mentalistic.
JB: That's right.
BS: The framework that they were using for the senses was not a
continuum, but a set of biologically based categorical perceptual primi-
tives. I suppose that some of the senses, sight maybe, are more open to
the kind of that kind of description. But smell and taste seem to be unlikely
candidates for this natural joint approach to perception simply on the
grounds that they are not so easily categorized or summed up by a set of
discreet natural oppositions. There's something wrong with that.
JB: Well, there's certainly something wrong with that. And so the new
phenomenology comes along. Mind you, this is my way of interpreting the
thing. One of the things that changed our view was W. H. R. Rivers's The
Senses of the Todas. ' Rivers comes along and has something to say about

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the business of noticeability.'9 I can't remember whether it was Rivers or

if it was McDougall commenting on the fact that when they were coming
in their outrigger boats toward the shore, one of the local fellows in the
boat says, "there's the island ahead." The natives could see it coming up.
But the researchers look and they'd see nothing. The natives then say, a
moment later, "Oh, that palm looks so marvelous that's sticking up like
that." But the others don't see it for a long while. So the notion of seeing
involves noticing. But input is alike for different people. Now let's go back
to color naming.... When years later Berlin and Kay introduced the
notion that the first distinction in all color nomenclatures is black/white
and then red, and so on, this was a wake-up call. It gave a clear signal to
psychologists who wanted to read that kind of stuff. But believe me, not
many people in psycho-physics do. "Who's Kay?" they'd ask. They all
know that it's reducible to molecules, to rods and cones firing to produce
color. What does color naming and categories have to do with it? But if
cones, rods, and molecules produce color, how come these primitive
schnooks have only words for black, white, and red? What's captivating
about Berlin and Kay is the notion of attention or "cultural attention" that
could almost be called a cognitive process. Sensing could not just be a
receiving function. It had to be an outward-seeking kind of thing....
So now we go back to this interesting period where we're trying to
look at the relationship between attention and perception. I took the view
that there was no such thing as perception. There was no raw sensing.
That sensing always required the operation of nous. If I can translate it
into the Aristotelian and medieval terms that I learned much later, there
was always a sensus communis operating right at the entry port-a
rejection of the Lockean distinction of primary and secondary qualities.
There were no primary qualities. I argued that primary qualities were an
abstraction imposed upon experience by the psychologists in the same
way, for example, as atomic weights were imposed upon physical nature
in Mendeleev's table, and I caught hell for it. Boy did I catch hell for it! I
learned many years later that my antipositivism even came up in my
Harvard tenure review years later.
BS: These questions about the senses have reentered anthropology
as part of the long-standing reaction to structuralism which was under-
stood as a kind of reduction of experience to a set of very "deep structure"
models, often framed in terms borrowed from linguistics. Some remain
interested in the classical issues of the relations between perception and
cultural classification. But other anthropologists have become interested
in the senses in a different sort of way-more phenomenological than
deeply cognitive. What they're saying is, "Look, what we talked about as
'cultural knowledge' or 'cultural models' comes to us packaged in diverse
sensory modalities." And one of the things we want to understand is the

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old question, which we still haven't answered very well, of how people
internalize this cultural business. We now realize that we can't assume
that most people come to know their culture in the way that anthropolo-
gist's write about it-through words, abstract propositions, or dia-
grams-the way that structuralists liked to represent culture. Most people
come to know their cultural environments through a set of culturally
orchestrated practices, practices which often exploit and orchestrate
different senses in different ways. We know many things mainly visually,
others by smell, or touch, and still others primarily through sound, like
Steve Feld and Buck Schieffelin have argued for the Kaluli of Papua New
Guinea.20 Now Jim Clifford, Michael Fisher, George Marcus and others
have pointed to the fact that what anthropologist's do is the "write
culture" which means to me translating these experiences into words,
actually into propositions. So people who read these ethnographies en-
counter our informants and their lived experiences as written objects. Yet
the most thoughtful among us know perfectly well that this kind of
propositional language is almost always a reformulation-a transduction
if you will-of the kind of knowing we're attempting to describe. So the
question becomes how do we come up with a set of concepts, a vocabulary,
and a narrative mode for better rendering so-called "experience near"
ethnography, ethnography that doesn't bracket the sensory diversity of
our knowing.
JB: I learned about this a long time ago reading a monograph by one
Bogoras on the Chukchee.21 That really knocked my socks off. It was one
of those Museum of Natural History monographs, full of observations on
how a strange object brought from another village would smell disgusting
to local villagers. And there was that fascinating business of how a
Chuckchee learned to use the micro-structure of tundra space to navigate
his way across the "featureless" landscape.
BS: It's just that kind of thing. Somehow novelists manage to convey
these sorts of sensory polyphonies on knowing better than we anthropolo-
gists have managed to do. Years ago I realized that in all the years I was
in graduate school, I never once saw a film or a slide, or listened to a sound
recording about anything we were studying. It was as if we had literally
risen above such data, to give a somewhat negative cast to your idea of
"going meta." Culture was presented to us as a series of linguistically
grounded propositions, and if there were visuals, they had to be in the
form of tables or complex and highly abstract diagrams. I mean I remem-
ber when I started writing academic papers as a grad student, I used to
fret about how I was going to translate my imagistic memories of Samoa
into the kind of flow charts and complex diagrams that furnished the best
scholarly papers of the time.
JB: That's right.

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BS: One of the reasons that I need to keep going back to Samoa is
that when I arrive in that place, I am overwhelmed by a series of sensory
experiences, sensory gestalts, you can call them, that have to do with
sight, touch, body posture, and especially with smell, that remind me
deeply of Samoa in a way that I can't get to in my written work.
JB: Samoa was your mitzvah. Absolutely. You saw that these things
were looked at as kind of structural gestalten.
BS: Well, only in retrospect. And only when I go back do I realize,
"My God. I've missed all of this." "Missed it" in both senses of nostalgia
and of a kind of academic misrepresentation. And I could think of no way
to capture this in the ethnography. I remember asking Marshall Sahlins
whether he thought it was possible that the feel of my rather pained body
posture as I sit for hours in a Samoan house with my legs folded in and
that hard post against my back, the particular smell and touch of the air
acrid with smoke and heavy with flies, and coconut oil mixed with the
fragrance of certain flowers-all those sensory gestalts-were as central
to "culture" as the kinship structures, the terminologies, the value pat-
terns, and all the rest of it. I think it struck him as an interesting question,
but an odd question.
JB: He knew its truth.
BS: Sure he knew it was true. But back then it was such a different,
such an unfashionable way to think about culture. It seemed kind of low
level, intellectually lame compared with kind of stuff we were used to in
our writings. And there was no vocabulary within our field for talking
about this experience-near stuff. So we get it traveling back and forth to
our field sites for renewal and recall. And we tell anecdotes, and some-
times write them down in our "light"writings of the "letters from the field"
genre. The memoir genre where we're allowed to describe such intimate
JB: Well, it almost started the genre of uninterpretability.
BS: It certainly did. So this is all leading to a set of issues. How do we
"save the phenomenon," as I believe Aristotle once put it. How do we act
on the insight that knowledge is always mediated by the senses in which
it's packaged, so that what we know is really inextricably bound up with
how we know it. And here going meta becomes a problem, since it means
transducing these elementary experiences into a more intellectually
manipulable form.
JB: The first thing I would do is to raise a red flag when you say, "by
the senses," as if somehow the senses were operating as mirrors, which
of course, they're not.
BS: You're talking about the senses more as active constructors of
experience than as passive recording devices.

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JB: The senses provide an account to fit the context. That's what all
of this stuff on the constancies is about-what the brightness of a white
surface is in bright light and in shadow, or how tall a twenty-foot pole
looks at twenty yards and at a hundred yards. You know, a white sheet in
shadow looks brighter than a black sheet in bright light even though the
latter is casting more light into your eye and on to your retina. So when
Professor Boring discovered that I was a monocular, that I can look at the
world only through one eye at a time, he said, "Oh, your depth perception
should be very interesting." So he studied my depth perception and found
that there was absolutely no difference whatsoever between my depth
perception and anybody else's depth perception-until such a time as you
actually put me into a chamber where the only depth cue available was
the disparate images on the two retinae. But then he said, "I see. You're
a genius in the use of secondary cues?" And I said, "Well, if I'm a genius
in the use of secondary cues why does anybody need primary cues?" For
the fact of the matter is that cues to depth are massively redundant. There
are masses of cues that you can use and you use what you can. Who said
some of them are "primary?" Somebody whose theory required that they
be so.
BS: Now that you've raised the red flag of the senses as active agents
in perception and also as highly context-dependent, let's put the flag at
half mast for a moment.
JB: Okay, we'll put it at half mast and I'll tell you what leads me to
agree to put it at half mast. It's what your friend Bob Levy calls "hypo-
cognition." I became very interested in that stuff as I'd been interested in
Polanyi's work on "implicit knowledge," what was to come out in even
more challenging form in John Searle's notion of "background knowl-
BS: Within some circles in phenomenology, this is called "pre-objec-
tive knowledge."
JB: I'm not sure I follow why it's any more "pre-objective" than any
other kind of knowledge.
BS: I think it has to do with apprehension of something as objectively
existing-a matter of the degree of conscious awareness.
JB: I'm troubled that the idea of the preobjective might suggest an
illusory objectivity-that some percepts seem ontologically realer or
more objective than others. That drives me batty in all versions of
two-step theories of the senses-one part pure sense, the other part some
sort of overlay from the Herbartian apperceptive mass. I don't think we
ever operate perceptually without taking into account-implicitly or
explicitly-our background knowledge about the world. When you de-
velop a perceptual hypothesis about "What's that?" that hypothesis
comes out of an enormous amount of not very explicit knowledge of how

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things are in the world. Like when you're constructing speech acts, you
are guided by a lot of implicit knowledge, often difficult to verbalize, about
what kinds of felicity conditions govern or constrain what you must say,
how you have to say it, and under what circumstances. So when one of
our wonderful benefactors at Ethos, Tom Csordas, talks about the senses,
I'm going to say, "Sure, so long as you deal with the senses as some kind
of abstraction of what input might have been like from the real world when
it first hit the so-called sensorium." But of course the sensorium itself is
already a "mind-orium." It's not really just a sensorium as such. I mean
there is no such thing as the pure senses.
BS: That's a wonderful way of putting it-I love the notion of a
"mind-orium." But unlike our own community where our literate tradi-
tions privilege linguistic and especially written knowledge as the primary
means for enforcing meta-cognition, many traditional societies stress
kinds of knowledge grounded in sensory transmission, particularly kines-
thetic knowledge. So the question becomes whether there is a tight
relationship between the way in which knowledge is encoded sensorily
and the way in which that knowledge is experienced and known. And what
implications does that have for a theory of self?
JB: Oh wow.
BS: Well, it is a big question. And I'm making my way here to the
question of what happens when you have a theory of self, as you do, which
is grounded in narrative and so becomes intrinsically language-based. It
seems to me that this conception of self is based upon a theory of self as
meta-cognitive, rather than "preobjective."
JB: Well, it's interesting. But it can't be based on that alone. I mean,
I agree with your general point. But I'm not sure how to explain it. Let me
try. There is some kind of thing which has to do with the immediacy as
compared to the mediacy of experience. And it's a curious kind of thing.
It isn't necessarily there on the surface of experience. You put it very
nicely. There you are in this situation in Samoa sitting there with your
back on a post and your legs crossed and the air is acrid with smoke and
the rest of it. There's something about that which is phenomenologically
immediate. Nobody writing it down is going to quite capture this. What
poets try to do in their language is somehow to find their way around the
ordinariness, the banality of this experience, to give you a shock of
BS: In Susanne Langer's terms,22 what they try to do is use a
"discursive" language to convey what she terms "a presentational" form
of reality.
JB: Exactly.
BS: To say something which is somehow not directly conveyable
through language.

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JB: I've been taking this little trip back through Hume's Treatise on
Human Understanding. I was particularly interested in the way he
dismisses "self' and then brings it back as a constructed notion. It's
perfectly plain that while Hume also played around with the idea of
primary versus secondary sensations, he too was treating the primary
senses as an abstraction. Hume is the kind of brilliant mind that is aware
of a lot of things. Hume is not easy, but there you are. I know why he
awakened Kant from his "dogmatic slumbers." Hume was a crypto-con-
BS: While acknowledging that the sensorium is not simply a passive
recording device or receiver I still think that there is a significant
difference between knowledge which is highly linguistically mediated and
knowledge which is allowed to remain at a lower or different level of
sensory input.
JB: I know what you're saying.
BS: This issue is very important to anthropology. I am reminded of
Maya Deren-the wonderful filmmaker who wrote a marvelous little book
on Haitian Vodoun called The Divine Horseman.23
JB: Alas, I never read it.
BS: She was friends with Bateson and that whole crowd. In this book
she wrote a little chapter called, "Dance as a Meditation of the Body" or
something like that. Carol would really like this a lot.
JB: Carol would love it, as only an ex-dancer can.
BS: She says that religious knowledge which is incorporated in this
embodied way in dance movement is fundamentally different from the
kind of knowledge that becomes dogma, the knowledge that's translated
into linguistic form. Otherwise, given the evolution of language, one would
think that all human experiences would be immediately convertible into
this much more supple form of knowing called language.
JB: Supple but fixed. It's interesting. There is a marvelous book that
you may have read, but maybe not, a book by Michael Riffaterre called
Fictional Truth about how you recapture the immediacy of experience in
BS: That's it. A literal recollection of things past. And that has a
bearing not only on what we study and how we study it, but how we write
ethnography. What is it that we're conveying about people's lives when
we transmute their experiences into alien forms, or limited linguistic
JB: That's right. Now, I want to go back to your question about what
do I say about the phenomenological character of self. Some say that there
is some kind of ultimate truth that lies in that immediacy of experience.
How can one doubt it?

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BS: That is really true. It is the anxiety associated with the tension
between the attack on "essentialism" and the call for "experience-near"
and deeply embodied ethnography. It provides for an acceptable replace-
ment for essentialism in the form of experiential authenticity.
JB: That's right. There is something about immediacy that is an
implicit essentialism, when you described to me some guy in his sixties
who comes to someone's house for dinner, a kind of a macho character,
and, though he doesn't know his host's wife well, greets her by kissing her
right on the lips, well, there is something about the immediacy of that act
that gets a message across in a uniquely powerful way that adjectives don't
capture. It says more than any personality-theory type description of that
person you can come up with. Somehow it carries almost a sense of
necessity about what that person is. Perhaps an implicit narrative neces-
sity. It carries about it a sort of a narrative necessity. Like in the wonderful
production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice at the Met last year. Not
everybody liked it, particularly people in the gay community. You would
have loved it. It was full of the senses. There's a scene in which the chief
protagonist is at the barber. It's done with bright spot lights. The barber
brushes talcum powder, to clean off Gustave von Aschenbach's neck, after
he's trimmed his hair. It produces a pinkish cloud. There's something
wonderfully ambiguous and immediate about it: vanity, a closed-in feel-
ing, a dangerous cloud. It captures something crucial that can't be said,
that evades banal categorization. That's art!
BS: Like Baudelaire's symbolistic notion of sensory correspondences
in the world, somehow put to words.
JB: That's also the mystery of our field.
BS: And anthropologists have been concerned since the earliest years
of anthropology with problems of representation in a way that often had
the senses as a hidden agenda. For instance Mead and Bateson developed
something called visual anthropology which they carried out in that
wonderful book Balinese Character.25 Long before it was fashionable,
they believed that there was something to be conveyed by a series of
photographs that would tell you something not easily conveyed in other
JB: And they did convey something. I still remember the dance
instructor moving the novice's hand to a certain point.
BS: It's interesting how that image has stayed with you. I remember
the exact image too.
JB: Take the support away and the child's hand still stays there.
BS: And we don't have a language for coping with that. I guess
psychologists now call it scaffolding, in the Vygotskian sense.
JB: That's right. And somehow when we find the language for coping
with it, it's going to lose some of its beauty.

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BS: That's because there's a transduction and a translation. But funny

that this is the same transduction that gives you the excitement when you
"go meta." So we're faced with a potent kind of tradeoff.
JB: That's right.
BS: Well this is maybe the hidden romantic essentialism of the notion
of embodiment that I'm trying to get at.
JB: There's something else that intrigues me about it. Those issues
always have a kind of edge of terror around them. There is some way in
which the purely visual or auditory or haptic seems a little uncanny until
we can translate it into words-those marks on the Turin shroud are the
face of Jesus, that sound is the cat jumping from the shelf, that touch on
my shoulder is from a low-hanging branch.
BS: You mean terror for us scholars? I think that this business of
embodiment that Lakoff and Johnson have made so popular these days
or the concern with the senses in anthropology, what Paul Stoller has
called "the taste of ethnographic things," have to do with what I have
called "the romance of the primitive." It's a modern, more acceptable
version of "primitivism."
JB: What an interesting idea.
BS: Anthropology begins with a certain kind of disenchantment, often
with people who are really disengaged from their own societies. I suppose
you don't become a social scientist without a certain kind of disengage-
ment which allows you to begin noticing things. Often this distancing
activity is exciting, and sometimes it's terrifying. Those of us who grow
up in that kind of disenchanted world not only get a kind of a pleasure
from the meta-cognition that we get through talk and through analysis,
but a kind of terror that comes from losing our footing in a world we refuse
to take for granted.

BS: Your work has been for many of us a kind of beacon cast from
your field into ours. It is not only because of its intrinsic richness and
interest, but because you have been almost from the beginning one of the
very few psychologists to come out of the experimental tradition who has
raised up the banner of culture. So let me ask you some tough questions
about this business of culture.
JB: There are plenty of them.
BS: I'm not going to go on fishing for your assent here that culture
matters in accounting for human behavior, because we all know that. But
in what sense exactly can we say that "culture" really exists? And if it
does, then how do we conceptualize it? Because oddly enough, though

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the concept is ours by right, anthropologists are not sure anymore about
this thing called "culture."
JB: Yes, I've noticed.
BS: Without a good set of conceptual tools, the culture concept is in
danger of becoming completely inarticulate and invisible to the very
people whose job was for decades to sell the power of culture to the public.
JB: No question about it. In fact, it's the question, in a way. Well I've
got a funny way of putting it. It had to do with my reading last year this
madly gifted but neglected Ignace Myerson. My notion of "culture" is going
to sound-at least on the surface-too much like material culture, but it
goes like this. I think the main effort that goes into maintaining a culture
is not the internalizing of something that's out there, but the externali-
zation of human works-the externalization of works into a form that has
some perdurance in a broader, longer-lasting culture.
BS: This is what I call, the "first birth" of culture-a projection into
external forms of an inner compulsion, or idea, or picture or desire.26
JB: Exactly. This externalization has to do with the production of
works, or, as Myerson would say, an oeuvre.
BS: So you would say that one of the primary characteristics of the
cultural is it's inside-out character, an inner form made public.
JB: External and shared. But this sharing requires some medium that
will carry the sharing.
BS: As you know this very issue of just how shared and consensual
cultural "facts" are has come to be considered a serious problem for
modern anthropology.
JB: Well, let me give you some examples, and I'll pick a vivid one.
Take something like a gallows or a guillotine. Monsieur Guillotine, who
was the inventor of the guillotine, regarded himself as extremely humane
because his was a nice, quick way to execute someone which wasn't as
painful as hanging or beating people to death. Now I found myself sitting
in a restaurant with a group of French friends-intellectuals-and one of
them, Fran9oise, said to do
me, "Jerry you realize that you're sitting under
a painting of Monsieur Guillotine?"
BS: A tribute to the most Cartesian (and literal) approach to capital
punishment, detaching the head from the body.
JB: [Laughter] I mean, what could be worse or what could be better,
this great French solution to capital punishment-Descartes and dualism.
The French create an oeuvre that detaches the head from the
body-neatly. So you externalize dualism in terms of objects. Objects
themselves are important. They include such art objects as guillotines.
These objects themselves don't make sense unless they fit into some kind
of explicative code. In its context it becomes a humane way of committing
a grossly inhumane act, and also a way of recognizing the mind-body

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duality. So even a brutal object like the guillotine gets encompassed in a

code. Now, the code very frequently is exemplary of some deeper symbolic
principles. But one danger for anthropology is that it dwells too exclu-
sively in those deeper principles, finds them, and assumes that those
deeper principles were actually operating inside people's heads within a
culture rather than being embodied in the form of "words." It was the
guillotine and the penal code, rather than what was in people's heads, that
sustained the system of French capital punishment. But anthropologists
sometimes talk about what they study in a form more suitable for
conversation back at the Common Room at Cambridge.
BS: Is there any way out of that?
JB: Well, maybe one way is to tell narratives involving those exter-
nalized oeuvres, to give some sense of how they fit into people's lives and
thoughts. Like that wonderful anecdote about Evans-Prichard. He'd been
interviewing Nuer informants about their religious beliefs and, at the end,
wondered whether they'd like to ask him any questions about his. They
then asked him about his wrist-watch, the deity he seemed to consult
before he undertook many of his daily activities! That's a beautiful
example of the Nuer as anthropologists. They knew better than E-P what
time meant in Western culture.
BS: Narratives like this one have a way of intruding upon overly
systematic accounts by triggering memories and associations which spill
over the neat borders of those accounts.
JB: That's right.
BS: And so narrative breathes life into our accounts.
JB: Yes, it gives life, but it also gives lie.
BS: That's a fascinating view of narrative, that our anecdotes give the
lie to the neatness of our accounts and so bring them to life.
JB: That's right. That's one of the reasons that if you're going to be
something more than the fish-and-cut-bait kind of ethnographer writing
that dull stuff, which nobody ever reads anyway except anthropologists,
it's necessary for the anthropologist to be a writer. Because the overall
theory isn't quite good enough to encompass its particularities. Now I
want to go back to culture as externalizations. Take for instance the
majesty and presumed unchangingness of the law and how it is embodied
and externalized for all to see and grasp. Consider the courthouse. In Cork
City, the nearest city and county seat of where I spend my summers, there
is a courthouse. I wish I were walking down Washington Street now so I
could show it to you. It is built of the most solid granite. It is "granitic"
and will stand forever. It speaks to the doctrine of stare desisis, that the
law is always going to be the same, that it is not arbitrary, that it is solid
as a rock. That's the way you build law. Those are the external things.
Then, of course, there's the abstract code.

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BS: This is the essentialist moment of culture, deliberate reification

in the interest of creating enduring institutions. Human beings tend not
only to construct external "things" but also to find ways to fix their actions
into institutions through repetition. So what begins as a single act, or even
a slip can somehow become part of an artifactual landscape of "things,"
things which at one time were unique and made-up but now appear to be
preexisting realities. Berger and Luckmann called this process "objectifi-
JB: Yes, it's cultural facts as objects. They are objects. They are there,
really out there. That's the externalization of culture in oeuvres. But it
isn't the full story for me, because I take very seriously Kroeber's old idea
of the superorganic. And now I get into an area where you're going to
accuse me of being a bit of a mystic. I want to introduce the notion of
memory. You know the French writer named Halbwachs wrote a book
called Les Cadres Sociaux de la MNmoire.28A lot of memory isn't carried
in your head. This is going to sound a little bit like Merlin Donald.29 I
talked to him about this. A lot of memory is carried in external forms.
There is some way in which we make these things external and the glory
is I don't have to remember it. The gyroscope is a great case in point. A
gyroscope can tell me where I'm headed on the basis of what I've done in
the past and acts as a form of memory which says you are now headed
north northwest. What was so great about clock and longitude for example
is that they created a way of deciding where things are on the earth by
creating lines, including a reference line that runs through Greenwich.
Things on this side of it have a certain kind of a number, and those on the
other side have a different kind of number. Suddenly every place is related
to every other place by position on those lines.
BS: Somehow these things were once externalized by particular
people, but they became subject to common access and common agree-
ment. So we now have agreement about longitude and latitude and that
we will use Greenwich as our starting point for time and space. It's
interesting that you're using the language of consensus here which sounds
kind of old hat to anthropologists, many of whom have rejected this image
of culture for one stressing power and multiple voices. Many anthropolo-
gists take your notion of a consensus about Greenwich and longitude and
subject it to a kind of political critique which asks, "Who was it that's
decided that Greenwich, England was the standard starting point for time
reckoning, and what kinds of political and economic relations were at
stake?" So in this reading of the culture concept, culture becomes
saturated with power. Which is clearly the case.
JB: Yes, it's right. But seen as nothing but power, it's clearly ridicu-

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BS: Of course. But it is interesting how quickly a constructivist notion

of culture can lead to a notion of the illegitimacy of culture, since it's
always somebody's culture or somebody's version of culture.
JB: It's interesting, because in some way that charge of illegitimacy
will always keep culture alive and dynamic. You know that laws are made
by the powerful, but the powerful can't just fob off laws in their favor. So
you get into John Rawls's position that the central principle of justice is
that it be blindfolded. If I can pick up on Alexander Bickel's point, when
I hear people complaining they have been disenfranchised by the exis-
tence of a system of longitude based on clock time and so on, I say "Well,
you know, I'm interested to learn that you think that, but what I want to
tell you is that when I'm at sea I really put some time into checking to see
whether my chronometer is right. And you know, I want the damn thing
to be right. And I want to know what longitude it is." Law isn't like that.
But as Lon Fuller points out, it has to have some elements of that in it.
BS: You know, that's a really interesting example you use because
that example points up one of the fundamental reasons why such institu-
tionalization is inevitable and that's mutual coordination.
JB: Yeah. How could you not have such coordination and have any
kind of culture which depends upon the division of labor?
BS: Yes indeed. Let's say you have this world of externalized objects.
They're not objects, but they're treated as objects.
JB: I prefer the French word oeuvre.
BS: Or call them institutions or cultural texts or shared models or
whatever. Certainly a dimension of culture is a world viewed as kind of a
collection. It's like a museum full of objets. But in another way this view
of culture doesn't take into account what Boas and Benedict and others
emphasized, which is it's not the objects, but the "frame of mind" or the
enframing of those objects in a cognitive pattern or a gestalt that makes
them culturally meaningful.
JB: Which has to be shared in some way. And that's where language
comes into play, providing a system not only for referring to objects, but
forframing them in the sense you mean. You know, the sort of thing that
Saussure quite rightly made so much of.

BS: How would you like to be remembered in psychology?
JB: I would want to be remembered as a person who moved psychol-
ogy to a much more proactive stance with respect to the nature of human
functioning. Away from a purely reactive passive stance. That really is
absolutely everything. If I could only be remembered as the person who
helped make psychology more proactive! For example, I wish there were

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more attention to my description of strategies in thinking, as well as to

my formal descriptions of context in A Study of Thinking. Or, as with my
hypothesis theory of perception, that you can't see without looking, and
you can't hear without listening.
BS: That's where you started out.
JB: That's where I started. And I'm still at it with my constructivist
BS: So it's really transforming the objects of psychological study into
JB: It introduces the notion of agency. And I'm delighted to see agency
coming back into social science. That certainly is number one. Don't
make the organism a passive recipient of anything-not even his culture.
He's got to enter into interaction to learn a culture. You can't learn a
culture as a spectator.
BS: Just think of how kids learn computer programs and video games.
All those manuals sit on the shelf collecting dust.
JB: I mean, if you want to learn how to navigate go for a walk, or take
the helm of a boat. You need agency to start off with. And agency means
intention. So the second thing I want to be remembered for is giving a
push to the notion that a stimulus is not a stimulus is not a stimulus. That
a stimulus is something which in effect sets up processes of intentionality,
in a philosopher's sense. Essentially it has to be mediated.
BS: It seems to me that you won those battles.
JB: I think maybe those battles are won. I don't know whether I won
them or others did, but no matter. And I think I'm also winning the battle
that in addition to explanatory models in psychology, you also need
interpretive models. That the nature of interpretive thinking is a proper
subject for psychology.
BS: What's your idea of an interpretative model in psychology?
JB: Narrative is surely one example. There are others, I'm sure-like
normative judgments. To interpret is not "I gotcha" thinking, where
there's a unique solution, and that's it. In narrative, for example, there
are always various versions of a story. I want to give myself a little credit
for picking up on the narrative form of thinking from friends like Bill
Labov and Frank Kermode. I listen to them. Nobody understands some-
thing well until they can tell some sort of story about it. When you're
treating people as agents, then you need narrative. I'd like to think I
helped get us started. My third legacy is the recognition of culture as a
psychological reality. The notion of a "naked ape" is naked nonsense.
We're not naked apes with something laid on. People are people by virtue
of the fact that their main adaptation is cultural. We are culture-users and
culture-makers. So I'd like to be remembered as somebody who taught
that culture is not just some sort of thing that's out there. Culture is, as

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Keeping the ConversationGoing * 53

you say, "in the mind," and also in what you're doing. When people are
doing something like going to the store, or they're going home or they're
doing things that are culturally specified.
BS: Are you saying, like Rick Shweder says, that there is no psychol-
ogy that isn't cultural psychology?
JB: No, I'm not saying really that. I'm willing to grant perfectly well
that there is a dark-room psychology. Some dark-room psychology is
going to be useful and some of it is going to be worthless. But you know,
that remains to be seen. You have to be pretty damned brilliant to figure
a way of doing it well. Now, some psychologists say to me that the only
thing that matters is the conditioned stimulus/unconditioned stimulus
interval. I know some people believe that. I say, "Why do you think that's
so important? I mean, why are you going to devote your life to that?" And
they respond that it matters a lot in understanding pharmacological
problems of some kind. Some applied issues. I happen to know somebody
who is spending his life doing this kind of thing in psychology. He's not a
very bright guy, although he's got a full professorship at a major university
by virtue of his playing well and usefully within this little pool that we are
in. And he deserves it. I don't mean to preclude controlled experimenta-
tion. I've done enough experiments timing events in milliseconds to know
how useful these little "artifices" can be. I can give you an example of why
I feel a great tolerance for this other kind of stuff. It was a crazy study that
I did. The one with the playing cards with wrong-colored suits. I tried to
get an American playing card company to manufacture special cards for
us, but failed. I had even written on Harvard stationary so they wouldn't
tell me "I'mgoing to get the cops on you. What kind of scam are you trying
to pull off?" But it was worth the trouble.
BS: This resistance that they had to doing that was just as strong an
evidence of the importance of category classification as the experiment
JB: Exactly. But I only realized that years later. I mostly thought they
were being a pain in the ass. And they were. So I went into an art shop
on Beacon Street with T.S. Eliot's sister-in-law, with whom I had taken
some drawing lessons. We brought in some playing cards and tried out
different pigments until we found the right one to paint them with. Why
was that study important? We were measuring recognition time in milli-
seconds by tachistoscopic exposures of canonical and noncanonical ob-
jects. How long does it take to recognize that the playing card you see in
the tachistopic flash is, say, a red four of diamonds as compared to the
time it takes to recognize a red four of clubs? What astounding results we
BS: Isn't that the one where you had stained normally black cards
red and people claimed that they had seen a slightly pinkish card-dem-

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54 * ETHOS

onstrating interference from their hypothesis that cards of certain suits

were black?
JB: Yes, they sometimes claimed that there was pinkish illumination
in the apparatus. The findings were amazing, even for my learned col-
leagues. The main finding of course is that it takes many times as long to
recognize a counter-conventional playing card than a conventional one.
The one thing we had to circumlocute in that paper in the British Journal
of Psychology was the response that we got from our subjects that we came
to call the "Jesus Christ Reaction." "Jesus Christ that's red!" they would
say in amazement. It was as if something had to break through a resis-
tance-we called it "perceptional defense."
BS: Another thing you are well known for is refocusing psychology to
the study of meaning.
JB: Yes. Jonathan Schell said to me the other day that it was a
fantastic idea to call my bookActs ofMeaning, because it made meaning
into something active-a [Nelson] Goodman idea. But you can see how I
was pushed to that active conception of meaning making.
BS: What's your genealogy in terms of this focus on meaning making?
Where did it come from?
JB: I think from Nelson [Goodman]. But oddly enough, when he was
interviewed about influences on him recently, Nelson gave me as one of
the important factors that led him along this line. Another of your dialogic
BS: I'm just curious that your interest in meaning making flows from
a philosopher rather than from your own field in psychology. Is there
nobody else in the distinguished history of psychology who cared enough
about meaning?
JB: There were. Lots of them-Johann Friedrich Herbart was typical.
Like lots of others, he saw it as some sort of a synthesis of association.
You see, one thing that you people in anthropology have never been
plagued with was the heritage of Aristotle's laws of association-the idea
that when you associated something with something you were ipsofacto
on the way toward getting meaning. There are two issues here. Let me
spell them out a little bit, because it's kind of intriguing. One of them is
a sheer association between elements. Most forms of association are
specific. Aristotle introduced the notion of the sensus communis that
took specific associations and put them together transmodally in terms
of some "common sense." That act required what the Greeks called nous,
"the soul." In this Greek spirit, for something to have meaning it had to
be associated with something and then put into some suprasensory
conceptual form to yield "the world" or "reality." So along the way we
developed the tradition of saying, "Oh we have association and then what
we have is the synthesis beyond it," as with Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and

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Keeping the ConversationGoing * 55

then John Stuart Mill and his father, James Mill. Like the Berkeleyan
notion of "coach"-that you synthesize a coach out of having the smell
of leather, the sound of wheels, the shape of a coach, and so on. And from
this came this creative synthesis which was the meaning. But that didn't
strike me as adequate-saying that we've got the whole thing along the
way because we have primary properties that adhere together. And then
we have a secondary property that fit on top of it. That struck me as not
the way in which meaning was made at all. I say meaning lies in what this
situation is all about. So if this situation is all about that thing-a lamp-I
note it is a lamp used for illuminating a guy's desk. Oh yes, along the way
I could put it in categories and tell you that the lamp fits with the kind of
thing that miners wear on their head. And it fits with the kind of thing the
dentist wears with his mirror. All that kind of thing.
BS: You seem to be arguing for definition in terms of what George
Lakoff calls the "interactional properties" of things rather than through
intrinsic properties.30
JB: That's it.
BS: That they have to do with the kind of organism having a certain
body of a certain size, with particular perceptual equipment, using this
thing under certain conditions.
JB: But I wish George would get off this narrow business of therefore
all understanding has to do with body and space.
BS: Well a lot of it does. There's no question.
JB: Some of it does. But I wish he'd get off that and onto a broader
picture. He makes some very good points. I like his search for "natural"
primitives in semantics, more based on psychological functioning and on
interactional properties. That's much better than the more formal ap-
proaches to semantic primitives. I wish I'd had more contact with George
over the years; he's quite daring, don't you think?
BS: Speaking of interactive properties....
JB: I guess there is one other thing I would also want to be remem-
bered for. I'd hope part of my legacy would be to be remembered as the
person who somehow got psychology and education back together. That
was quite something. And it hasn't succeeded completely. Although it's
interesting to me that the psychology that I hear at the AERA [American
Educational Research Association] is a hell of a lot more interesting than
the most of the stuff that I hear at the APA [American Psychological
Association]. I don't go to the APA anymore. It's all little flirtations. The
kids are not learning with each other.
BS: One of the reasons why it might be more interesting is that
educational psychology is necessarily in touch with kids in real-world

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56 * ETHOS

JB: That's right, with kids. And it's in touch with power, and with
culture. My neighbor, David Hawthorn, is a very smart guy who's setting
up this program for NYU for retraining skills for people who were dis-
placed. Skills have become obsolete so fast. But the governors get together
down there in Charlottesville and they talk about math and science for
the kids because we need more of it. And at the same time, we're
downsizing engineering companies and firing engineers, and managers
trained in engineering and technology. And you say, "Hey wait a minute.
Whoa! One voice at a time. Or two voices together if we're going to make
music." So education really relates to the culture more broadly and also
to technology more broadly. I'll put the way a friend of mine, Ed Purcell
once put it. He said, "Jerry Bruner has had the great and interesting effect
of making education an intellectual subject. Which is true of nobody else."

1. See Peirce 1991.
2. See Olson 1994.
3. See Shklovsky1984 and Jakobson1962.
4. See Astington1993.
5. See Hull1984.
6. "Andwe extend our concept of numberas in spinninga threadwe twist fibreon fibre.
And the strengthof the threaddoes not reside in the fact that some one fibreruns through
its whole length,but in the overlappingof many fibres"(Wittgenstein1958:55).
7. See Hempel1965.
8. See Levy 1984.
9. See Murray1981.
10. See Ricks1996.
11. See Mischel1968 and Bandura1986.
12. See Ricour1984-1988.
13. See Bohr1958.
14. See Geertz1988.
15. See Rivers1926.
16. See Berlinand Kay1969.
17. See Fechner1966.
18. See Rivers1906.
19. See Rivers1923.
20. See Feld 1982 and Schieffelin1976.
21. See Bogoras1975.
22. See Langer1957.
23. See Deren1983.
24. See Riffaterre1990.
25. See Batesonand Mead1942.
26. See Shore 1996.
27. See Bergerand Luckmann1966.
28. See Halbwachs1952.
29. See Donald1991.
30. See Lakoff1987.

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Keeping the Conversation Going * 57

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62 * ETHOS

Bruner,J. S., andJ. Lucariello

1989 MonologueAs NarrativeRecreationof the World.In Narrativesfrom the Crib. K.
Nelsoned. Pp. 73-97, 324. Cambridge,MA:HarvardUniversityPress.
Bruner,J. S., and D. O'Dowd
1958 A Note on the Informativenessof Partsof Words.Languageand Speech 1:98-101.
Bruner,J. S, and D. Olson
1978 Symbolsand Texts As Tools of Intellect.Interchange8:1-15.
Bruner,J. S., R. R. Olver,P. M. Greenfield,et al.
1966 Studies in CognitiveGrowth:A Collaborationof the Centerfor CognitiveStudies.
NewYork:Wiley& Sons.
Bruner,J. S., and L. Postman
1947 EmotionalSelectivityin Perceptionand Reaction.Journalof Personality16:69-77.
1948a An Approachto Social Perception.In CurrentTrendsin Social Psychology.W.
Dennis,ed. Pp. 71-118. Pittsburgh,PA:Universityof PittsburghPress.
1948b SymbolicValueAs an OrganizingFactorin Perception.Journalof SocialPsychol-
ogy 27:203-208.
1949a Perception,Cognitionand Behavior.Journalof Personality18:14-31.
1949b On the Perceptionof Incongruity:A Paradigm.Journalof Personality18:206-223.
Bruner,J. S., and V. Sherwood
1976 EarlyRule Structure:The Case of "Peekaboo."In Life Sentences. Rom Harre,ed.
Pp.55-62. NewYork:Wiley& Sons.Alsoin Play:Its Rolein Developmentand Evolution.
London:Penguin,1976, and New York:Basic Books, 1976.
Bruner,J. S., and R. Tagiuri
1954 The Perceptionof People.In Handbookof Social Psychology.G. Lindzey,ed. Pp.
634-654. Reading,MA:Addison-Wesley.
Cole, M.,and J. S. Bruner
1971 CulturalDifferencesand Inferencesabout PsychologicalProcesses.AmericanPsy-
chologist26:867-876. Also in Cultureand Cognition:Readingsin Cross-CulturalPsy-
chology.J. W. Berryand P. R. Dason,eds. Pp. 14:230-246. London:Methuen,1974.
Greenfield,P. M.,and J. S. Bruner
1966 Cultureand CognitiveGrowth.InternationalJournalof Psychology1:8-107. Rev.
version. In Handbookof Socialization Theory and Research. D. A. Goslin, ed. Pp.
633-657. Chicago:RandMcNally,1969. Same version in condensed formas Learning
andLanguage:Workwith the Wolof.PsychologyToday,July 1971:40-43ff.Sameversion
in fullin The Relevanceof Education.New York:Norton,1971.
Olson, D. R., andJ. S. Bruner
1996 FolkPsychologyand FolkPedagogy.In Handbookof Educationand HumanDevel-
opment:NewModelsof Learning,Teachingand Schooling.D. R. OlsonandN. Torrance,
eds. Pp. 9-27. Oxford:Blackwell.
Postman,L., andJ. S. Bruner
1946 The Reliabilityof Constant Errors in PsychophysicalMeasurement.Journal of
1952 Hypothesesand the Principleof Closure:The Effectof Frequencyand Recency.
Journalof Psychology33:113-125.
Postman,L., J. S. Bruner,and R. D. Walk
1951 The Perceptionof Error.BritishJournalof Psychology42: 1-10.
Ratner,N., and J. S. Bruner
1978 Games, Social Exchange,and the Acquisitionof Language.Journalof Child Lan-
Smith,M.B., J. S. Bruner,and R. W. White
1956 OpinionsandPersonality.NewYork:Wileyand Sons.Reprintedin paperback.Wiley
Science Editions,1964.

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