George Herbert Mead

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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...

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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 two sides of the same coin: The self of the individual is a reflected appraisal of the reactions of others.

In 1894, Dewey moved to the University of Chicago to become chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and education, and by arrangement Mead moved with him. At the University of Chicago, over the course of nearly four decades, Mead taught a variety of courses, including advanced psychology, history of science, modern philosophy, advanced social psychology, and systematic pragmatism. He became associate professor in 1902 and full professor in 1907. Together with Dewey’s other handpicked thinkers, Mead helped Dewey create the Chicago School of pragmatism, which was to dominate American philosophy during the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The move to a research-oriented university gave Dewey and Mead a great opportunity to develop their diverse interests. Increasingly, Dewey turned his attention to education. For example, in 1896 he established a laboratory school so that he could develop and test his psychological and pedagogic hypotheses. Along the way, he abandoned his Hegelian idealism and formulated his own version of pragmatism, which he called instrumentalism.

Guided by Mead’s ideas, Dewey attempted to “humanize” the sciences. His instrumentalism explores the conditions under which reasoning occurs, together with the forms (or controlling operations) of thought that can be used to establish future consequences. In explaining human development in pragmatic terms, Dewey took his cue from Charles Darwin and conceptualized intelligence as an instrument people use when they face a conflict or challenge; he argues that ideas too are subject to the survival of the fittest. Accordingly, intelligence serves a practical, instrumental purpose: determining courses of action and anticipating consequences. Furthermore, whereas Hegel used the term dialectic to describe the way two opposite ideas clash to produce a third, entirely different idea, Dewey spoke of the dialectic of action as opposed to the dialectic of ideas. In this way, he avoided the dualism that had plagued philosophy. He argued that ideas are worthless unless they pass into action: Experience, not argument, proves who is right.

Mead’s impact on Dewey can be detected in the latter’s article ”The Reflex Arc in Psychology” (1896), which served as the point of departure for later work in functional psychology and for Mead’s social behaviorism. In this article, Dewey challenges the prevailing tendency to use the stimulus-response unit as the building block of psychological theory. The stimulus in a reflex is inseparable from the response, in that the response serves to modify the way the stimulus is perceived the next time. He argues that the reflex should be conceptualized as a circular arrangement, whereby the organism adapts to the environment, coordinating and integrating sensory and motor responses. This view anticipates Mead’s conception of behavior as the constant adaptation to the environment.

As well as becoming involved in intellectual life at the University of Chicago, Mead immersed himself in the affairs of his community, especially in the fields of education (he was involved in Dewey’s experimental school), municipal affairs (such as the Chicago stockyard project), and social welfare. As Dewey later explained, Mead saw no distinction in his pragmatic philosophy between thought and action.

Mead also made his mark as a superb lecturer who helped students to conceptualize sociology and social psychology. Conversation was his first medium of communication, writing a poor second. During the period 1894-1931, Mead published twenty articles in philosophy, six in psychology, and four in sociology, together with eighteen book reviews and four abstracts (mostly in psychology journals), along with thirty popular magazine and newspaper articles on social and educational issues. Several obituaries were addressed to small groups of professional readers. The only book he intended to write was The Philosophy of the Present (1932), based on the Carus lectures he delivered in 1930. This book, along with three books based on transcriptions of his lecture notes and papers, were published after his death.

One of these books, Mind, Self, and Society, edited by Charles W. Morris, shows that Mead modified pragmatism, as formulated by James and Dewey, and radical behaviorism, as formulated by John B. Watson, to great effect. Pragmatism, a uniquely American philosophy, is the product of cooperative deliberation and mutual influences. Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of this school of thought, projected pragmatism as a method for explicating the meanings of philosophical and scientific concepts. He conveyed this idea by means of a memorable schema: The meaning of a proposition is its logical (or physical) consequences.

During the late 1890’s, James revived and reformulated Peirce’s pragmatism, projecting it as a metaphysics of truth and meaning. In a series of lectures, which he later published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), he argued that, by means of the pragmatic method (or maxim), pragmatists try to interpret each notion by tracing its consequences; if no practical differences can be traced between two alternatives, they mean practically the same thing, and dispute is pointless. The point he makes is that ideas matter only if they make things happen. Dewey projected his version, instrumentalism, as a way of thinking experimentally, so as to organize, plan, or control future experience. He applied it to all areas of life, especially education.

James and Dewey tried to produce a philosophy that combined the interpretive, subjective study of human experience with the objective, scientific study of human conduct, one that conformed to the criteria borrowed from the natural sciences. Mead called his approach social behaviorism to set it apart from psychological behaviorism. Psychologist John B. Watson pioneered the idea of psychological or radical behaviorism, explaining human behavior in terms of physiological responses to the environment. Watson, who had done graduate work at the University of Chicago, argued that to become scientific, psychology must abandon all nonobservable concepts. This meant studying observable, measurable behavior and its environmental causes and consequences, and ignoring consciousness altogether.

Like Watson, Mead recognized the importance of observable behavior, but unlike Watson he believed that covert aspects of behavior could be studied in terms of their behavioral context. He takes as his point of departure the social act, which comprises overt as well as covert aspects of human action. Studying the social act means understanding the behavior of the individual in terms of the behavior of the group of which the individual is a member. The social act, or symbol-mediated communication, requires the cooperation of at least two individuals. For Mead, communication was not a matter of communicating private meanings but of exchanging commonly understood signals and gestures, the very starting point of consciousness. He discovered the importance of gestures in naturalist Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), which describes physical attitudes as well as physiological changes, such as blushing, as expressions of emotion. He also drew on Wundt in developing the idea of gestures as means for eliciting responses from other organisms—thus as parts of the social act. Thus, he argues that language derives from gestures, or the conversation of gestures. Mead wove these various ideas into his social behaviorism, the fundamental insight of which can be stated briefly: Mind and self emerge when gesture-mediated interaction becomes symbol-mediated interaction, when the participants in interaction transform themselves into social objects playing the communicative roles of speakers and hearers, thereby using language as a medium for reaching understanding, coordinating action, and socializing individuals via the mechanism of taking on the attitude of the other.


Mead played a vital role in the development of American pragmatism, and his philosophy of mind exerted a great influence on his colleagues, especially those in the nascent disciplines of psychology, sociology, and social psychology. Many thinkers regarded Mead’s as a creative mind of the highest order. In a paper prepared for Mead’s memorial service, Dewey observed that Mead’s mind was the most original in philosophy in the America of the previous generation. He stated that one would have to go far to find a teacher of the time who started so many fruitful lines of thought and speculated on the loss to his own thought had he not had the benefit of Mead’s seminal ideas.

Following the twists and the turns Mead took in formulating his theories can be difficult. In contrast to his colleagues, he published little, and he died before setting down his thoughts in book form. Dedicated students organized Mead’s fugitive writings, together with their lecture notes, into an orderly medium so as to preserve his philosophical message.

Among philosophers, interest in Mead’s work has remained lukewarm. Among social scientists, however, interest in his work grew through the twentieth century. Some sociologists speak of Mead as America’s greatest sociological theorist. Dramaturgical theorists, ethnographers, phenomenologists, symbolic interactionists, and ethnomethodologists argue that his theories have yet to be exploited to their full potential.

Additional Reading

Aboulafia, Mitchell, ed. Philosophy, Social Theory, and the Thought of George Herbert Mead. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Brings together some of the finest critical studies of Mead, written by American and European thinkers working in diverse traditions.

Cook, Gary A. George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Shows how Mead, from his youth until his last years, formulated his own unique solutions to the intellectual problems of his time, utilizing Mead’s own published and unpublished writings.

Hamilton, Peter, ed. George Herbert Mead: Critical Assessments. London: Routledge, 1993. Brings together many papers arguing why Mead is important for symbolic interactionism, tracing his influence in social behaviorism and theories of the mind.

Joas, Hans. G. H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of His Thought. Translated by Raymond Meyer. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. Combines two approaches to great effect. The contextualist approach sketches his political and intellectual biography, showing how Mead, as he engaged the dominant theoretical and methodological issues of the day, developed his theories. The thematic approach, explicating Mead’s later work in science, temporality, and sociality, offers an interpretation of the system of thought he was developing during the last decade of his life.

Miller, David L., ed. The Individual and the Social Self: The Unpublished Work of George Herbert Mead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Provides a superb edition of Mead’s unpublished 1914 and 1927 class lecture notes in social psychology, together with a fine introduction, which presents Mead in terms of a revolt against Cartesian dualism and chronicles his rejection of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.

Mutaawe Kasozi, Ferdinand. Self and Social Reality in a Philosophical Anthropology: Inquiring into George Herbert Mead’s Socio-philosophical Anthropology. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. An assessment of the role of philosophical anthropology in Mead’s work.

Perinbanayagam, R. S. Signifying Acts: Structure and Meaning in Everyday Life. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Locates, for sociology and social psychology, the tradition that has come to be known as “symbolic interactionism,” producing a full and faithful representation of the provenance, development, and contemporary cast of the tradition, based on the formulations of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and Mead.


Critical Essays