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Jerome Bruner centenarian

On October 1st, renowned psychologist Jerome Bruner will celebrate his 100th birthday, and our Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics joins in the celebration. Bruner played a key role in the "cognitive revolution", made significant contributions to research in perception and thought, became a leader in the theory of education and significantly shaped the study of cognitive and language development. The centenarian also played a crucial role in the establishment of the Institute.
Jerome Bruner centenarian

Bruner's bust at MPI (by Paul de Swaaf)

Bruner’s history of involvement with the MPI for Psycholinguistics goes back to the earliest years. To our great delight he accepted to become chair of the Advisory Board, later turned into the Scientific Council, in 1977, during our try-out period as a Max Planck Project Group. The decisive issue on everyone's agenda was whether the Project Group, led by Pim Levelt, could be turned into a permanent Max Planck Institute and whether that institute could be established in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. It would be the first such move abroad by the Max Planck Society. 

The origins of the MPI for Psycholinguistics

Bruner spent a full three pages in his 1983 autobiography In Search of Mind on his dealings with these issues. Here are some of his own words:  "But some of the reasons for choosing were delicate too: The international scholarly community could, many thought, be more easily lured to Holland either for permanent posts, for a year's leave, or even for a month's conference. I have no doubt that this will change, but in the 1970s, more than a quarter century after the war, it was still true. Holland was good neutral ground."  

Bruner continues: "Driving to Schiphol after the final meeting in Nijmegen, at which a joint agreement was reached by our advisory boardand a special committee appointed by Munich,... I spent most of the two hours en route brooding about the astonishing role of language in joining and dividing people. The "realities" we had discussed at that final meeting (even the economic ones) were realities created by language and its dependent symbol systems". "In the end, all went well and the Institute was duly created in Nijmegen, with full status and due pomp. The "management" in Munich could not have been more open-minded and more internationally spirited. "  

“To study language is to study the world”

Tavola Cosmografica (Jerome Bruner's gift)

Indeed, Bruner's broad perspective on the scientific and social issues involved in this decision making had lifted up the discussions from details to essentials. Jerry Bruner remained on the Scientific Council of our institute till 1989, supporting  us in many ways and long enough to see his hopes and expectations fulfilled.  The following citation masterfully describes Jerome Bruner's views on language and society then. It has very much become the Institute's mantra till the present day.

“When the Institute at Nijmegen was "founded", I presented it with a gift of a seventeenth-century print, a map of the heavens, in the four corners of which are engravings of the observatories at Greenwich, Leiden, Copenhagen and Padua. It was to wish them good luck in mapping the world of language. That mapping task will be harder than mapping the heavens. The heavens stay put while you are looking at them. Language changes when you think about it. Certainly as you talk it.”

Language is for using, and the uses of language are so varied, so rich, and each use so preemptive a way of life, that to study it is to study the world and, indeed, all possible worlds.

“In the end, probably, full linguistic mapping will be impossible. For you cannot exhaust the subject by studying language "just" as a symbol system with its inherent structure - or "just" in any single way. Language is for using, and the uses of language are so varied, so rich, and each use so preemptive a way of life, that to study it is to study the world and, indeed, all possible worlds."

"I think the best that we can do is get on with it, but with a Wittgensteinian scepticism. Learning about each use or facet of language - whether poetics or parsing - will itself be revealing. We will delude ourselves if we think it will come out singular and comprehensive. And we make the pursuit less revealing and doubtless less enjoyable if we insist that any one approach to language is the one to which all others should be reduced."

Bruner centenarian

To congratulate Bruner for his 100th birthday, those present among the institute's directors gather around Bruner's bust. Left to right: Simon Fisher, Pim Levelt, Antje Meyer and Peter Hagoort.

  • Excerpts from: Bruner, Jerome S. 1983. In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Series. New York: Harper & Row. 
  • Read more about Jerome Bruner on his homepage or on Wikipedia.
About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


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