Book notes & thoughts: Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, by Jerome Bruner (1986)


Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a book that has been on my reading list for a long time, and this weekend, for whatever particular reason, I decided to pick it up. The relevance to my research was immediate, and in some ways I’m glad I waited so long to read it, because it actually make sense to me now.

Bruner is describing two schools of narrative analysis. First, there are the academic psychologists, who take a top-down approach. They come at understanding narrative “from a theory about story, about mind, about writers, about readers. The theory may be anchored wherever: in psychoanalysis, in structural linguistics, in a theory of memory, in the philosophy of history. Armed with an hypothesis, the top-down partisan swoops on this text and that, searching for instances (and less often counter-instances) of what he hopes will be a right ‘explanation’. In skilled and dispassionate hands, it is a powerful way to work. It is the way of the linguist, the social scientist, and of science generally, but it instills habits of work that always risk producing results that are insensitive to the contexts in which they were dug up. It partakes of one of the modes of thought to which I shall turn in the next chapter – the paradigmatic.” 

Second, there are the playwrights, post, novelists, critics, editors. These are the “bottom-up partisans [who] march to a very different tune. Their approach is focused on a particular piece of work: a story, a novel, a poem, even a line. They take it as their morsel of reality and explore it to reconstruct or deconstruct it. They are in search of the implicit theory… the effort is to read a text for its meanings, and by doing so to elucidate the art of its author… Their quest is not to prove or disprove a theory, but to explore the world of a particular literary work.”

Partisans of the top-down approach bewail the particularity of those who proceed bottom-up. The latter deplore the abstract nonwriterliness of the former. The two do not, alas, talk much to each other… Nor can I [argue] that when we know enough, the two approaches will fuse. I do not think so. The most that I can claim is that, as with the stereoscope, depth is better achieved by looking from two points as once.”


This first chapter, to me, speaks of the divide between research and practice in education. To the educator, there is infinite complexity in their practice and context. This is their morsel to explore it to reconstruct and deconstruct it. They are immersed in the particulars. In contrast, academic researchers are concerned with the theories that explain across. Though Bruner calls these bottom-up vs. top-down, I like playing with terms like particular vs. general, or local vs. lateral. 

The concept of the stereoscope – to see, hear, and feel both perspectives at the same time – provides a new way to think about their resolution. I have read (and blogged) about research-practice partnerships and new models for bridging the research-practice gap. This seems an approach not so much to resolve them as to attune to each independently. But I guess I’ll learn more about it in the next chapters…

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