Reflection 169: Innocence and Competence

January 1, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Speaking of writers who have influenced my life, as I did in my last post (Reflection 168: Edelman on Consciousness), I woke up this morning thinking of my debt to Jerome Bruner who, twenty-eight years ago, had a lasting influence on my writing and conscious mind. I offer the following sample of something I wrote then in which Bruner’s ideas helped me weave strands developing in my personal consciousness into a coherent pattern. I see now that the very words I wrote are a symbolic example of what Bruner was trying to convey.

Since I’m quoting myself, I’ll skip the block quotes I generally use to signify words spoken or written by others. The following is taken from the last chapter of Metaphor to Mythology by S. Perrin, 1982, printed by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1983. Yes, the language comes from that other planet I lived on at the time.


As Jerome Bruner states, “the mythologically instructed community provides its members with a library of scripts upon which the individual may judge the internal drama of his multiple identities” (see note (1) below), while, at the same time, certain heroic individuals themselves can contribute their respective scripts to the communal library. In this way the rich variety of personal heritages present within a community can achieve a symbolic (gestural, dramatic) kind of unity that lends support to belief in a common [mythology]. If different members of a community enact similar gestures on similar occasions, is it not safe to conclude that their intentions are also the same? It is the function of our mythologies to turn that question into an affirmation so that, in spite of our individual episodes of disillusionment and ineffective communication, we can find a general agreement between our own gestures as meant and the gestures we encounter in our community as performances underwritten by a supposedly similar set of meanings. Thus do we assent to a common mythology as a set of possibilities for self-realization in which we are able to recognize not only our own heritage of attained identities, but (on the basis of gestures we have never performed) the promise of other identities we have yet to fulfill. We are completed by our mythologies, for in them we find the complement to our own participation, finding innocence where we contribute gestures informed by competence, and competence where we volunteer our innocence. The outcome is that we do not picture ourselves as trapped within the limitations established by our heritage, nor restricted to those possibilities for being which we are capable of realizing right now, but as open to a future level of attainment that surpasses either so that we have a possibility of becoming more than we have been, more than we are.

In other words, by completing our being and our heritage of meaning, a mythology beckons to us as a revelation of possibilities for becoming, a promise of enrichment or of growth, because it holds out to us a limitless series of gestures which we ourselves have never performed, but which we believe ourselves capable of performing with appropriate (but as yet unknown) intentions. That hope, and that challenge, is the essential gift of community, the gift of becoming more than our heritage suggests, more than we presently are, allowing us to believe that we are not imprisoned within the confines of the past, nor trapped by the few dimensions of being we are able to appreciate right now, but are capable of fulfilling a greater destiny than we can even understand. Community does not gives us ourselves, but it holds out the promise of our own self-transcendence by completing our competence and our innocence with the suggestion of other competences and other degrees of innocence than we at present realize. Even in a face-to-face encounter with another, we each become aware of other possibilities for being and meaning as intimated by our exchange of gestures, and we serve to complete one another’s limited range of experience so that together we form a community of expanded possibility, even though we contribute to—and draw from—those possibilities in different ways.

If . . . we look at social reality as being fundamentally symbolic, there is no guarantee that any two individuals will regard an exchange of symbolic gestures from a single perspective, according to the same authority, or with identical degrees of conviction. In fact, given all evidence for our differences, it can never be assumed that agreement upon certain gestures as “symbolic” carries any certainty of agreement among the meanings to which they might refer within our separate streams of experience. For though we may come together in community, we come as particular individuals, not as some statistically-leveled “common man” who embodies the stereotyped ideals of the abstract whole. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:

In his life-form the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man. He is limited either as male or as female; at any given period of his life he is again limited as child, youth, mature adult, or ancient; furthermore, in his life role he is necessarily specialized as craftsman, trades-man, servant, or thief, priest, leader, wife, nun, or harlot; he cannot be all. Hence the totality—the fullness of man—is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole; the individual can be only an organ (2).

The synchronized exchange of gestures, then, allows us to insert ourselves into the mythic text of our community by assuming the role of specialized parts or organs at one [pole of an interactive exchange] that loops between our concrete acts and the communal tradition into which they are received as meaningfully intended symbols in apparent conformity with the accepted grammar of our shared linguistic expectations.

In verbal exchange every sentence is a complex series of gestures (involving relations of pitch, stress, juncture, and phonetic units) as the existential performance of a set of mutually embedded meanings spread across a range of abstract levels (from the ostensively present and concrete to the referentially conceptual and abstract), a series of gestures themselves embedded in a context of other (situational, verbal, and nonverbal) gestures subject to construal by each respective participant. The relation between possible gestures and possible situations is dictated by the traditional grammar of the community within which the dialogue is taking place, so that language is not only a medium of communal mythology, but is itself an aspect of that mythology. Language is something in which we believe and to which we must commit ourselves—at the same time we commit our meanings to it. It is possible only insofar as it represents a convergence of our trust and of our cunning, our credence and our reservation.

That is, we must be naive enough to place our faith in language as a factor of our mythology while, at the same time, we must be canny enough to employ language as a medium for that same mythology. And the solution to that most amazing of all paradoxes lies in the skill with which we attempt to balance the one against the other—our innocence against our cleverness, our gullibility against our guile—within a synchronous dialogue in which mythology and language trade off against each other, first one as concrete figure within the subsidiary context of the other, then vice versa, allowing us to believe in our mythology as we practice our language, and to believe in our language as we practice our mythology while, at the same time, we extend those same beliefs and practices to embrace our partner who herself must complete our language and our mythology. It is this double sense of completion—of ourselves and of each other—that makes communal experience possible as a performance in which each participant does for the other what she cannot do for herself, bringing about a unification of language and mythology through their shared disjunction. When you speak I surrender my mythology to you so that I do not hear your words but experience your meanings directly. I embrace you with my innocence in order to appreciate your competence, and when I respond you do the same for me. Together we complete each other, achieving our separate identities within a community of activity to which we each contribute belief and practice in like degree.

Innocent belief and clever practice are, in fact, the two poles that Bruner discovers in all mythology:

From . . . early myths there emerge two types of mythic plot: the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness—the former being a kind of Arcadian ideal, requiring the eschewal of complexity and awareness, the latter requiring the cultivation of competence almost to the point of guile (3).

Every individual myth represents a variation upon the possibilities for equilibrium offered by these two poles, and the mythic hero who exemplifies a particular possibility for their integration serves as a paragon for the instruction of those who would strive for excellence within a particular community of belief:

The manner in which superior knowledge shows itself changes: the ideal of the crafty warrior, the wise man, the interpreter of the word of God, the Renaissance omni-competent, the wily merchant, the financial wizard, the political genius. It is true that in some way each is suspect, it is also true that each is idealized in his own way. . . . New versions arise to reflect the ritual and practice of each era—the modifications of the happiness of innocence and the satisfaction of competence (4).

The dynamic quality of superior knowledge, its essentially evolutionary character, demonstrates that a mythology is not a fixed system within which individuals are restricted to certain traditional ways of practice and belief. Rather, a mythology is a vehicle of transcendence, a way by which individual and community alike can undertake the hazardous journey of becoming. Its function is not to hold a people back, but to encourage it to propel itself forward, competently yet innocently into the altered conditions of the future. A mythology, in fact, is a miraculous aspect of biology that enables an entire population to base its forward thrust upon its most striking examples of past success while, at the same time, making allowance for the inevitable expansion and improvement—and ultimate replacement—of those same examples.

To function effectively in this way, a mythology should be allowed to grow. Its emphasis should be upon current affirmation rather than on preservation of the past. . . . A mythology is a progressive system of belief that seeks out successive states of dis-illusion in which the old innocence continually gives way to an improved sense of competence which, in turn, makes possible the attainment of a renewed state of innocence. The alternative is exemplified by the French Academy’s attempt to preserve the purity of the French language by withholding its sanction from all neologisms and words of foreign extraction. The conceit implied by that endeavor seems to demand the suppression of all evidence that the French of the 1860s was not the language of God the father, but itself evolved—as did Rumanian and Catalan, from a foreign tongue!

Each combination of competence and innocence represents the achievement of a particular heroic individual who shows others the way to obtain the “right” balance between cunning and acceptance, meaning and existence. In fact every individual within her [interactive] involvement with her culture is at once a free and independent person who only abstractly can be taken as a representative of her community and, at the same time, an amorphous mass of possibilities whose realization is entirely dependent upon the concrete gifts she receives from the mythology granting her an identity. Each of us, that is, is simultaneously an existential child, and affirmation of pure and innocent participation in being, and at the same time is a mature and sagacious elder of the tribe, a bearer of tradition and of wisdom. When we speak, we strive for resonance between these two aspects of our [conscious] experience so our words may convey a sense of conviction that we have managed to equate our heroism with our vulnerability and thus we stand forth as an integrated whole in which every aspect of experience is represented according to a dynamic balance of our longing and our accomplishment, a synthesis that makes our words accessible to our partners in dialogue because they seek a similar resonance.

A mythology is perpetuated by acts of mutual accompaniment that allow us to form a community of synchronous affirmation. My innocence affirms the competence with which you express your thoughts through symbolic gestures, just as my own competence affirms your innocence as a confederate in a shared mythology. We complement one another so that through our joint participation in mythology we are able to achieve a being together in meaning. We employ every aspect of that mythology, every symbol, in two senses: as a concrete linguistic statement of our being, and an abstract mythological reference to our meaning. By looping these symbols in a chain that leads from my being to your meaning and back again via your being to my meaning, we align ourselves in a community of gesture and belief that affirms the possibilities of our individual experience even as we affirm its superior possibilities for our inter-subjective conjunction. This mutual affirmation of individual and communal possibilities is discussed by Bruner in the following terms:

I would like to submit that the manner in which man has striven for competence and longed for inno-cence has reflected the controlling myths of the community. The medieval scholar, the Florentine prince, the guild craftsman alike, as well as the withdrawn monastic of Thomas a Kempis and the mendicant of St. Francis—all of these are deeply involved with the myths of innocence and com-petence, and are formed by them. . . . It is not simply society that patterns itself on the idealizing myths, but unconsciously it is the individual man as well who is able to structure his internal clamor of identities in terms of prevailing myths. Life then produces myth and finally imitates it (5).

Mythology alerts us to the possibility of attaining heroic stature and identity while receiving our creative gestures as a per-formance of our own heroic strivings. The hero . . . is the founder within us, the innovator who furthers the spirit of becoming within a mythology by questing after the expansion of the old tradition and the novel fulfillment of each individual’s heritage. By warranting our creative natures, a mythology commits itself to its own renovation and development through our fulfillment of its prospects. It holds before us “a corpus of images and identities and models that provides the pattern to which growth may aspire—a range of metaphoric identities” (6), so that our innovative competence is encouraged and the attainment of new horizons made possible.


How strange to read over the shoulder of my younger self as a writer. Strange in that I was different then, but the same as I am today, pursuing the same quarry within the human mind, seat of all human experience. Mythology is alive and well in the recesses of consciousness, the same as it ever was, serving the same purpose of aligning the individual with her culture, calibrating her mind in socially-acceptable terms, transforming each unique person into “one of us,” providing her with a social identity, much as the State Department provides her with a passport so she can explain to the Customs officer who she truly is.

My current interest in innocence and competence is as broad categorizations of states of consciousness and the gestures (actions) by which they engage the world of objects and other conscious beings. Innocence is a kind of openness to—or even fearlessness of—events. It is the state of mind necessary for learning what the current situation has to offer. Competence is the state of mind adequate to performing appropriately in a variety of situations. Competence is suitable to every occasion; innocence is the gateway to experience in the here and now. In psychological terms, competence prepares for assimilation, innocence for accommodation, the two together equipping us to engage the world on either its terms or ours. Where competence categorizes the world as it sees fit, innocence is ready to try its hand at learning to categorize as a means of reaching out to the world. Experience is a balance between these two approaches, the willingness to learn and the willingness to show what you can do.

To me, personally, these are aspects of one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness—how we make sense of experience by categorizing it one way or another. Expect more on that topic in future posts. For now, thank you, Jerome Bruner, for the assist.



(1) Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” in Murray, Henry A., ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Braziller, 1960, 281).

(2) Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 382f., quoted in Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” 280.

(3) Same as (1).

(4) Same source, 282.

(5) Same source, 282f.

(6) Same as (2).



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