Acceptance Speech – Bern, 13.11.1987


Jerome Seymour Bruner

1987 Balzan Prize for Human Psychology

For his research embracing all of the most important problems of human psychology, in each of which he has made substantial and original contributions of theoretical as well as practical value for the development of the psychological faculties of man.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Distinguished Colleagues:

I am deeply honored to be a recipient of the Balzan Prize this year. It is a source of pride to join such a distinguished company of scholars from so diverse a range of disciplines . Several past recipients – like Jean Piaget and Si Ernst Gombrich – have been close friends and associates , and it is a particular delight to find myself once again in their sparkling company.
But I also wish to take special note of the award as having honored work in human psychology. Human psychology is an ancient mode of inquiry, for it is impossible to imagine any inquiry into human affairs that does not include within it questions, implicit or explicit, about the ” true” or ” real” nature of man. But the discipline of human psychology as an autonomous research enterprise is still a very young one . It seeks to establish a model of man – of human intelligence and sensibility, of human passions and intentionality – that has generality enough to serve as a basis for understanding the uses of mind in many different forms of human activity, indeed , even in different cultures. To achieve such a general understanding of mind, to construct a model of man that sheds light on the myriad uses to which mind is put , is a daunting task. It is not yet clear, moreover , whether our new discipline of psychology has even learned how to ask the right deep questions. For our subject matter is not only diverse but it is elusive. Physical objects and states, social and historical events, even cultural products seem more readily amenable to observation and, perhaps, to formal description than are those mental states that comprise the activity of the human mind. Our subject includes such subtle matters as human thought, human beliefs and intentions, and human desires. We investigate how these develop , and how eventually they achieve their full stature by employing and exploiting the instruments of human culture – language , science , art.
Man is not a naked ape, no kind of an ape at all. His mental life , his inner capacities, and his measure of dignity depend upon his participating in human culture . Yet, he is a product of an evolution that is principally biological, an evolution that eventually allows him to transcend his biological limits through the use of culture and its symbol systems. We inherit as much from the culture as from our genes , and neither would be effective without the other.
The study of human psychology is moving ahead , though at times it follows a winding path. In moments of discouragement , we psychologists sometimes fall back on simplistic models that have proved their worth elsewhere: on computational metaphors or behaviorist reflexes that reduce mind to non- mind, the human to the non-human. And these forays are sometimes instructive although always humbling. But psychology, at its most vigorous, continues to struggle with its deep duality, a duality that sees man both as a product of biological evolution and as an adept maker and user of human culture. My first teacher, William McDougall FRS , once characterised psychology as like a Janus, looking two ways at once. To do otherwise would be not only to betray human complexity but to fail to understand the human enterprise altogether.
I shall treat the occasion of this Prize , then, as one in which you honor us and encourage us to get on with our task. It may be a difficult one , but I hear you expressing the view that , after all, it has been worth the try.
And for that , I thank you very much both as an independent worker in the vineyard and as a member of the profession of psychology.

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