Making Meaning Matter

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The wider intellectual community comes increasingly to ignore our [psychology] journals, which seem to outsiders principally to contain intellectually unsituated little studies, each a response to a handful of like little studies. Inside psychology, there is a worried restlessness about the state of our discipline, and the beginning of a new search for means of reformulating it. In spite of the prevailing ethos of “neat little studies,” and of what Gordon Allport once called methodolatry, the great psychological questions are being raised once again — questions about the nature of mind and its processes, questions about how we construct our meanings and our realities, questions about the shaping of mind by history and culture.” (Acts of Meaning, xi)
According to Bruner, there has been a shift within the field of psychology recently, away from the construction of meaning, to the processing of information, a move that seems to discount both realms of folk and narrative psychology. In other words, the individual has been removed from his culture, and the discussion of the importance of meaning has been hushed. I mention culture here to touch on the systems of constructing meaning, and along with meaning, the construction of identity within a social context. By turning psychology over to a strictly information-processing model, what use does culture and meaning then have? Bruner calls for a return to a “cultural psychology”, a move away from concerns of behavior to concerns about situated action – the what, how and why we do (what we do) set into a context of the world in which we do it in:

What I want to argue in this book is that it is culture and the search for meaning that is the shaping hand, biology that is the constraint, and that, as we have seen, culture even has it in its power to loosen that constraint. (p. 23)

By crafting a cultural psychology, Bruner believes that it will be possible to address “modern life” through a greater understanding of how we “come to know our knowledge” and to be conscious of “the values that lead to our perspectives” (p. 30). Essentially, I see Bruner as stating that even when we get scientific, technological, wrapped up in the “cognitive”, we’re still dealing with “people” and “selves”, and people are never truly separable from their own humanity, their culture, their narratives.

Carl Jung writes:

“Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through out the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.”

Bruno Bettleheim writes:

By dealing with universal human problems, particularly those which preoccupy a child’s mind, these stories speak to his budding ego and encourage its development, while at the same time relieving preconscious and unconscious pressures… They speak about these severe inner pressures (over growing up) in a way that the child unconsciously understands and, without belittling the most serious of inner struggles, offer examples of both temporary and permanent solutions.


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