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Reviews Acts ofMeaning, by Jerome Bruner; xvii & 179 pp. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1990, $19.95. The purpose of this book is "to illustrate what a psychology looks like when it concerns itself centrally with meaning, how it inevitably becomes a cultural psychology, and how it must venture beyond the conventional aims of positivist science with its ideals of reductionism, causal exportation, and prediction" (p. xiii). It is written in an attractively personal, informal style, and is addressed to students of related disciplines as well as to psychologists. Bruner takes as his starting point the "cognitive revolution" through which he and his colleagues at Harvard in the late 1950s sought to shift the focus of psychological research from behavior to the processes whereby human beings construct meanings. He sees this reorientation of psychology as having lost much of its revolutionary force when the construction of meaning came to be construed as theprocessing ofinformation. As cybernetic models gained influence, they tended to make the notion of mind seem irrelevant, and the behaviorist's suspicion of mentalism and the relativism thought inevitably to accompany it returned in another guise. But Bruner argues that the future of psychology lies in a renewed examination of "acts of meaning." He defends the proposition that human behavior is ultimately unintelligible without reference to such mentalistic concepts as intentions and goals, and suggests that the fear of a debilitating relativism results from ignoring the social context within which acts of meaning take place. Among his allies Bruner counts speech act theorists and neo-pragmatists in philosophy, ethnomethodologists in sociology, Geertzian anthropologists, and literary theorists who have elaborated a view of textual meaning as generated by dialogic processes. Much of what Bruner has to say will accordingly be relatively familiar to those who have followed recent developments in philosophy and literary theory. His book nevertheless provides an interesting complement to these developments, particularly in relation to the cultural role of narrative explanation and agency. Rehabilitating the folk psychology scorned by positivists, Bruner argues that every culture includes a theory of mind, intention, and agency that governs the transactions of everyday life and defines canonical beliefs about how the world is organized. Exceptions to its norms call forth narratives whose function is "to find an intentional state that mitigates or at least makes comprehensible a deviation from a canonical cultural pattern" (pp. 49—50). Such narratives play a crucial role in individuals' efforts to explain their actions and in the mediation of disputes. Bruner cites studies suggesting that "children come to recognize very early on . . . that what they have done or plan to do will be interpreted not only by the act itself but by how they tell about it. Logos and praxis are culturally inseparable. The cultural setting of one's own actions forces one to 332Philosophy and Literature be a narrator" (p. 81). In his concluding chapter, Bruner shows how the oral, "spontaneous autobiographical narratives" of ordinary people construct selves that are "not isolated nuclei of consciousness locked in the head, but are 'distributed ' interpersonally" (p. 138). Bruner's stress on agency reflects the current resistance, visible in philosophy and literary theory as well, to biological and cultural determinisms that reduce human conduct to the result of forces over which we have no control and for which we have no responsibility. The cultural psychology he proposes would seek to understand acts of meaning as transactions between self and other within a socially defined context. As Bruner acknowledges, such a psychology would be fundamentally interpretive, and thus rejoin the hermeneutic enterprise of the human sciences in general. University of OregonSteven Kendall Epistemology ofthe Chset, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick; 258 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, $24.95. Gay men have long presented a problem for feminism, a certain strain of which has followed Luce Irigaray in denouncing that "hom(m)o-sexual monopoly ," "reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, . . . played out through the bodies of women." Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in Between Men (1985), provided a theoretical grounding for the intuitive feeling that the male desire for men found in a gay male couple in Manhattan was significandy different from the masculinist trade in women displayed by Ronald Reagan...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 331-332
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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