Jerome Bruner: Possible Worlds

By Shlomo Maital


Jerome Bruner just passed away. He was 100 years old.

Bruner changed forever the way we see the world and the way we understand human thinking. As a pioneer cognitive psychologist, he helped us rethink the mind as what he calls a “hypothesis generator” – the human can envision “possible worlds” (the title of one of his most famous books.  

   As a child he recalls being influenced by one of his teachers, Ms McNamara, who taught him that “the world is an open question”. And that is how Bruner viewed psychology.   If you deal only with what exists, he noted, then psychology has nothing to do with life.   In giving advice to young psychologists, he urged them, “get out of your office and get into the real world.”  

   His older sister Alice influenced him strongly. She was smarter than me, he recalls, and asked him, “why are you always guessing?”   But Bruner saw the mind as a “hypothesis generator” – as something that asks questions, rather than spews out answers.

     He had a lifelong love of sailing. Sailing for him was a metaphor of life. You sail in an unpredictable environment, when the wind can change at any moment, and you have the illusion of control,   adjusting the sails, etc., but it’s only an illusion.

     I personally embrace Bruner’s landmark article The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), because I’ve come to believe, as Bruner showed, that we understand reality by telling ourselves stories – about ourselves, about others, about how things work. And some of those stories are fiction, made-up, “possible worlds”, this is called creativity and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs make up a possible world and then make it happen.

   My colleague Arie Ruttenberg defines creativity as “widening the range of choices”. That is,   imaging new possibilities, possible worlds. Bruner supports this.

       From childhood, Bruner had limited vision. But it never hampered him.   He brought common sense and a spirit of rebellion to his discipline, and embraced all other disciplines that he felt were related.   We will miss him.