“For all that, we know that if we are to appreciate and understand an imaginative story (or an imaginative hypothesis, for that matter) we must ‘suspend disbelief,’ accept what we hear for the time being as putatively real, as stipulative” (Bruner, 1986, p. 51).
In his book, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986), psychologist Jerome Bruner addresses the longstanding divide between the sciences and the arts. In his exploration of the different assumptions distinguishing these human endeavours, he comes to the conclusion that both center around the creation of hypotheses.
An imaginative hypothesis, he points out, is in essence an imaginative story. It is an idea that proposes the possibility of something—something that we have to be open enough to explore.
At least, initially.
Hypotheses, after all, are designed to be tested.
The question is, how?
The answer, Bruner observes, is telling in its distinction between scientific and artistic inquiry.
“With science,” he explains, “we ask finally for some verification (or some proof against falsification)” (Bruner, 1986, p. 51).
With narrative, on the other hand, “we ask instead that, upon reflection, the account correspond to some perspective we can imagine or ‘feel’ as right” (Bruner, 1986, p. 52).
These insights leave us to consider whether feeling is enough verification for the hypotheses we explore in life.
From a conventional scientific perspective, the answer would appear to be no. Affect is viewed as disruptive to the powers of reason and the logic it employs. Feelings must be removed from science in order to make accurate, “truthful” observations.
This is not the case, however, for the arts and the humanities.
As Bruner writes, “they too are constrained in the kinds of hypotheses they generate, but not by constraints of testability in the scientists’ sense, and not by the search for hypotheses that will be true across a wide range of human perspectives. Rather, the aim (as already noted in the preceding chapters) is that the hypotheses fit different human perspectives and that they be recognizable as ‘true to conceivable experience’: that they have verisimilitude” (Bruner, 1986, p. 52).
From an artistic or humanities oriented perspective, then, the question is not whether we can prove the existence of the proposed reality, but whether we can imagine its possibility.
That is, does it feel right?
Or, perhaps more importantly, does it feel wrong?
What happens, in other words, when the imaginative hypotheses we generate and the perspectives they offer, do not align with our own?
Does that mean that they are “not true to conceivable experience”?
Or, does it just mean that they are not true or conceivable to our experience?
I think that if we are not careful to acknowledge the role affect plays in our ability to embrace imaginative hypotheses, we might be tempted to project a universal reality onto the world, one that is equally as constraining as scientific perspectives in its efforts to generalize what is true and ignore the role subjectivity plays in shaping our understanding of what is real.
Because, the fact of the matter is, we cannot turn off our emotions. Feelings play as much of a role in scientific thinking as they do in artistic thinking. Bruner (1986) notes that:
“To the degree that modern science (or science in any era, regardless of Newton’s famous hypothesis non fingo) also is involved in hypothesis generating, as well as in hypothesis testing, it is akin to the activities of the humanist and the artist. That much we know from examining the metaphoric crutches with which the good intuitive scientist proceeds up his abstract mountain. But his object is always to convert those dense metaphors into the transparent, frangible hypotheses of science—or into untestable axioms that will generate hypotheses that, with luck, may be tested” (p. 52).
In order to be truly transparent, however, we have to be honest about the way our understanding of the world is influenced by our emotions.
That is the nice thing about imaginative stories or hypotheses that do not feel right.
They help keep us honest.
They force us to reflect on the different worlds we inhabit. They force us to question the assumptions, values, and beliefs we have come to take for granted.
In short, they test us.
The object of such testing is not to arrive at a perfect place of absolute correctness, but rather, to protect us from the arrogance of ever assuming such a position.
The hypotheses we allow ourselves to explore determine the extent of our growth as human beings.
They narrate the stories of our lives.
The question is: How imaginative are we willing to make them?
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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