Perhaps the most eminent living psychologist, Bruner has made an incomparable contribution to our understanding of cognitive development in a career spanning 60 years. His erudite writings, which draw on anthropology, philosophy, and literary theory among other fields, have inspired several generations of developmentalists.
Born in New York City, Bruner was educated at Duke (BA, 1937) and Harvard (MA, 1939; PhD,1941). After completing doctoral research on propaganda, he served in the United States Intelligence Corps before joining Harvard’s faculty in 1945, where he and George Miller established the Centre for Cognitive Studies in 1960. A leading voice in the cognitive revolution, Bruner’s early studies established that perception and thinking are organized by mental categories and representations. In the mid-1960s, he forged an influential distinction between enactive, iconic, and symbolic systems of representation.
Bruner’s cognitivism has a strikingly pragmatic orientation. He portrays human beings as actively deploying knowledge for practical ends—to organize experience, solve problems, and make sense of reality. In this, he argues, cultural resources that enhance perception and reasoning and enable the externalization and transmission of knowledge massively amplify our cognitive capacities. Bruner’s concern with activity and culture drew him to the ideas of Russian psychologists Vygotsky and Luria, whose work he helped introduce to the West. At the same time, his profoundly developmental approach led him to issues of education and its reform. He worked on the President’s Science Advisory Committee under Kennedy and Johnson and on the Head Start program.
From 1972 to 1980, Bruner held the Watts Chair in Oxford, where, influenced by Austin’s speech act theory, he studied how children learn to do things with words. Challenging the Chomskian orthodoxy, he argued that the maturation of an innate “language acquisition device” (LAD) was insufficient for language development unless complemented by the culture’s “language acquisition support system” (LASS). He beautifully illustrated this claim by attentive studies of mother-child interactions. This research established the field of developmental pragmatics.
In the 1980s, Bruner focused increasingly on the role of narrative in the construction of self and reality. In 1990, he produced a compelling critique of the legacy of the cognitive revolution. Contemporary psychology, he argued, has become so enraptured by information-processing and computer models of mind, it has lost sight of how meaning is made by human beings as they construct their understandings of themselves and their world. Bruner called for the development of a “cultural psychology” to remedy this failing.
Bruner’s most recent work is on narrative and legal reasoning. He presently holds a professorship at New York University Law School.
- Bakhurst, & Shanker, S. (Eds.). (2001). Jerome Bruner: Language, culture, self. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Bruner, (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Greenfield, P., et al. (1990). Jerome Bruner—Construction of a Human Development, 33, 325–355.