George Herbert Mead Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

0111207238-Mead.jpg George Herbert Mead (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Trained in philosophy, Mead earned wide acclaim as a social scientist, playing a major role in establishing sociology and social psychology as disciplines. Drawing on pragmatism and behaviorism, he formulated social behaviorism, a pragmatic philosophy that offered a radical view of mind and self as developing out of society, via the acquisition and the use of language, rather than the other way around.

Early Life

George Herbert Mead grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, the son of Hiram Mead and Elizabeth Storrs Billings Mead, devout Congregationalists and prominent educators. His father was a professor (1869-1881) of sacred rhetoric and pastoral theology at the theological seminary at Oberlin College, the oldest coeducational liberal arts college in the nation. His mother served from 1870 to 1883 on the Women’s Board of Managers and taught English at the college from 1881 to 1883. She distinguished herself as associate principal and as the innovative president (1890-1900) of Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; the school, later renamed Mount Holyoke College, is the oldest continuing women’s liberals arts college in the United States.

George, a quiet, bookish boy, attended Oberlin College during the period 1879-1883, graduating with a bachelor’s degree. The curriculum was limited in scope, comprising the classics, rhetoric, literature, and moral philosophy, together with mathematics and a smattering of the natural sciences—chemistry and botany. The classics program made a deep impression on him, and throughout his adult life he enjoyed reading classical texts in Greek and Latin.

Like many young scholars of his generation, Mead tried to teach school as a way of putting his degree to good use. He took a teaching position in Berlin Heights, Ohio, but was fired because he could not cope with the discipline problems he faced in the classroom. At loose ends, he spent the next three years in the Northwest, supporting himself alternately by tutoring and surveying, according to the weather. In the latter capacity, he worked for the Wisconsin Central Railroad, laying the first line from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and from there to connect with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

Life’s Work

Mead discovered what was to be his life’s work at Harvard University, where during the year 1887-1888 he studied philosophy, graduating with a bachelor’s degree. He studied with the leading lights, primarily idealist philosopher Josiah Royce and psychologist and pluralist philosopher William James. Mead lived with the James family and tutored the children as a means of earning some needed money. He found himself at the center of a number of intellectual crosscurrents, especially those that were transforming philosophy in terms of its connections with psychology and religion, and those creating the social sciences. An important academic debate at this time concerned the status of psychology, which had not yet emerged from its home in the philosophy department. Before the 1870’s, psychology meant phrenology or Scottish mental philosophy; after the 1870’s, it meant the study of mind or consciousness via introspection. Different scholars defined mind or consciousness in different ways, variously employing biological, physiological, or behavioral concepts. Researchers soon realized that they needed laboratories if they were to test the theories that were being advanced.

Experimental psychology as it is now known began with Wilhelm Wundt, a physician and psychologist who taught at the University of Heidelberg. Wundt believed that before tackling metaphysical problems, psychology should try to understand the simplest experience via the methods of physiology. In 1867, he began teaching the first formal classes in psychology, which he called physiological psychology. In 1875, he established the first laboratory for experimental psychology at the University of Leipzig. This laboratory became the international center for training psychologists.

In the United States, the movement to establish the “new” experimental psychology as a discipline dates from the 1880’s. Early in his career at Harvard, James in 1875 established a psychological laboratory so that he could give demonstrations in his classes, but he did little experimenting of his own. In founding his laboratory, he signaled that the new (experimental) psychology had come to the United States. At the time of Mead’s studies with him, James was preparing his major work, The Principles of Psychology (1890). In it, James surveys contemporary psychological knowledge and shares his own discoveries and insights. As commentators point out, the concrete rendering of experience is a key element in the development of James’s philosophy. He coined the term stream of consciousness, thereby contrasting his view with that of Wundt, who thought that consciousness consisted of discrete elements. His work advances the new psychology by presenting materials in philosophical form.

In Royce, Mead found a scholar who helped students from religious backgrounds, like Mead, see that the intellectual problems of the day could be explored through philosophy rather than theology. This versatile thinker published many papers and books in a variety of disciplines, always looking back to antecedents but also looking forward, with a philosophy that was profoundly religious yet scientifically logical.

In due course, Mead formulated his own research project, namely, to explain the origin of mind and self in terms of a basic (social) process, that of communication. Like Royce before him, Mead then went on an intellectual tour of the Continent, studying at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin. At Leipzig, he studied with Wundt, who helped him understand the functions of gestures; at Berlin, he studied with Wilhelm Dilthey, who helped him understand the social theory of the self.

In October, 1891, Mead and Helen Castle were quietly married. They would be intellectual companions for the next forty years. In 1892, their son, Henry, was born. About this time, philosopher, educator, and social critic John Dewey offered Mead a job teaching in the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Mead accepted Dewey’s offer, and the Meads returned to the United States. There, without a graduate degree, he taught a variety of philosophy courses, including experimental psychology, from 1891 to 1894.

As the new chairman of the philosophy department, Dewey had started assembling a group of thinkers who could reconstruct philosophy, making it applicable to the problems people face in everyday life. He had published several books on theoretical and applied psychology, including Psychology (1887) and Applied Psychology (1889). In this stimulating milieu, Mead began to assemble the elements of his social philosophy. He spent much time talking to Charles Horton Cooley, a colleague who studied how people interacted. Cooley believed that individuals and society make up...

(The entire section is 2913 words.)