Expectations and Experientiality: Jerome Bruner's "Canonicity and Breach"
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Expectations and Experientiality
Jerome Bruner's "Canonicity and Breach"

The reception of Jerome Bruner's extensive theoretical work on narrative has been paradoxical. A substantial part of the commentary literature has confined itself to legitimatory uses of his texts, writers too often being contented with repeating a selection of Bruner's best-known theses. A critical reception in the meaning of testing, challenging, and further processing of Bruner's thought has remained rather sporadic. Perhaps Bruner looms too large to actually be seen. His theory of folk psychology and the elements of canonicity and breach (1991, 11) in his narrative theory constitute a major exception to this tendency, they being extensively discussed by David Herman (2002, 2009, 2013) and Daniel D. Hutto (2004, 2007, 2008). Bruner's theory of canonicity and breach arguably constitutes a major theoretical contribution to the understanding of the pragmatics of everyday storytelling. As an intervention into this dialogue, I take Bruner's [End Page 1] principal idea under closer scrutiny and claim that it potentially contains an unsolved contradiction.

I begin with a short summary of Bruner's idea of folk psychology, canonicity, and breach. For reasons of comparison, I extend my discussion into another major theoretical contribution of the 1990s, namely, Monika Fludernik's (1996) model of narrativity. Then I further elaborate Bruner's theory about expectations and canonicity with the help of a German historian of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte), Reinhart Koselleck (2004), and his theory of expectation and experience. Julian Barnes (2013) and Primo Levi (1996) provide the prime text examples for the reflection of the role of expectations. Finally, I discuss a number of narrative modes—hypothetical narrative, habitual narrative (Riessman 1990), and prospective narrative (Georgakopoulou 2007)—that obviously depart from the narrative pragmatics suggested by Bruner's model.

Bruner's Proposal

Right at the beginning of his Acts of Meaning (1990), Bruner voices his deep disappointment with the development of the cognitive revolution, which was "intended to bring 'mind' back to the human sciences after a long winter of objectivism" (1990: 1). Bruner's intention, I think, is less to articulate a full-blown confrontation with the cognitivist theory as such than to recover some of the original ideas of the cognitive revolution. Be that as it may, already in 1990, Bruner criticized the cognitivist approach that a decade later constituted one of the major trends in literary theory in the form of cognitive narratology (see, e.g., Fludernik 1996; Herman 2003; Jahn 2005; Palmer 2004; Zunshine 2006). From the very beginning, Bruner introduced his idea of folk psychology "as an instrument of culture," not as an individual-cum-cognitivist capacity for mind reading. For this reason, as Bruner says, "culture is also constitutive of mind. By virtue of this actualization of culture, meaning achieves a form that is public and communal rather than private and autistic" (1990: 33). Because of his cultural emphasis, Bruner does not privilege any narrowly psychological version of folk psychology; instead, for him, folk social science and common sense would have been equally acceptable terms. By folk psychology he denotes "a system by [End Page 2] which people organize their experience in, knowledge about, and transactions with the social world" (35). Indeed, the instrument is cultural in the sense that the organization of experience takes place more or less interactionally.

Folk psychology was defined as an instrument of culture, yet Bruner proceeds to consider "what kind of a cognitive system is a folk psychology" (1990: 35). Obviously, we are entitled to characterize it as a system of cultural cognition. Bruner's answer offers in a concise form most of his key concepts: "Since its [folk psychology's] organizing principle is narrative rather than conceptual, I shall have to consider the nature of narrative and how it is built around established or canonical expectations and the mental management of deviations from such expectations" (35, emphasis added). Here we already have narrative, canonical expectations and the deviations from expectations as basic elements of folk psychology. Even though Bruner uses the phrase "theory of mind" in passing and with small letters, his previous formulation effectively claims that folk psychology does not rest on theoretical, conceptual knowledge...