George Herbert Mead Essay - Critical Essays

Mead, George Herbert


Mead, George Herbert 1863-1931

American philosopher and social scientist.

Mead is acclaimed as one of the most influential social psychologists of the early twentieth century. Although his theories were never published during his lifetime, they were preserved and posthumously published from his lecture notes and the transcriptions of his students. Mead is best known for his interpretation of the self and the role of language and social interaction in its development. Over several years he developed a system of thought that demonstrates how social behaviorism is related to the disciplines of cosmology and metaphysics.

Biographical Information

Mead was born in 1863 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. In 1883 he graduated from Oberlin College and a few years later, attended Harvard University. After leaving Harvard in 1888, he studied psychology and philosophy in Leipzig and Berlin, where he was influenced by the work of physiological psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. He returned to the United States in 1891 and taught philosophy at the University of Michigan. In 1894 he began teaching at the University of Chicago, where he would remain until his death three decades later. During this time he would become a prominent member of the pragmatist movement in philosophy, along with another University of Chicago philosopher, John Dewey. A school of thought founded by Charles S. Peirce and William James, pragmatism holds that meaning should be sought in practical ways; the function of thought is to guide action; and the scientific method is superior to all other methods of gaining knowledge. Mead died in Chicago on April 26, 1931.

Major Works

Mead's first collection of lectures, The Philosophy of the Act, explores the concepts of sociality and perspective. In Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist Mead develops the notions of self and society, contending that human beings can understand the idea of self only when the individual can perceive his or her own behavior from the perspective of another. It is when the individual gains this perspective that they have achieved a sense of self. Central to this theory is the doctrine that mind and self are not inborn, but evolve through social interaction. Regarded as a useful historical study, Mead's Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century traces important scientific and revolutionary trends since the Renaissance. In his final work, The Philosophy of the Present, Mead analyzes how organisms adjust to their social environment and determines how these adaptations affect the process of evolution. Moreover, he examines the different phases of adjustment—emergence, novelty, creativity, thinking, communication, and continuous adjustment—and explains how these concepts are interrelated.

Critical Reception

Mead has been consistently praised for his contribution to social psychology and philosophy. His theories of mind, self, and society have supported a wide variety of interests, from linguistics through experimental psychology to metaphysics and educational theory and practice. Yet some critics have deemed aspects of Mead's philosophy as dense, muddled, and sometimes ambiguous. His work has therefore inspired many critical studies that interpret and explore these areas of his doctrine. Many commentators have discussed the influence of Mead's ideas on a number of prominent psychologists and sociologists, such as Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. The central doctrine of his work, the concept of self, has been contrasted with Jean-Paul Sartre's theory of man and critics have found similarities between Mead's scientific method and that of B. F. Skinner. Yet many scholars continue to note that despite the scope and influence of his work, he is still relatively unknown compared to other important early twentieth-century pragmatists—such as John Dewey and Charles S. Peirce—and urge further critical reassessment and analysis of Mead's philosophy.

Principal Works

The Philosophy of the Present [edited by Arthur E. Murphy] (lectures) 1932

Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist [edited by Charles W. Morris] (lectures) 1934

Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century [edited by Merritt H. Moore] (lectures) 1936

The Philosophy of the Act [edited by Charles W. Morris] (lectures) 1938

The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead [edited by Anselm Strauss] (essays and lectures) 1956

Selected Writings [edited by Andrew J. Reck] (essays and lectures) 1964

The Individual and the Social Self: Unpublished Work of George Herbert Mead [edited by David L. Miller] (essays and lectures) 1982


John Dewey (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "George Herbert Mead," in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XXVIII, No. 12, June 4, 1931, pp. 309-14.

[In the following essay, Dewey discusses Mead's influence on social psychology and reflects on their personal relationship.]

As I look back over the years of George Mead's life, and try to sum up the impression which his personality left upon me, I seem to find running through everything a sense of energy, of vigor, of a vigor unified, outgoing and outgiving. Yet as I say this I am aware that perhaps only those who knew him best have a similar impression. For there was nothing about him of the bustle and ado, the impatient hurry, we often associate with vigor. On the contrary he was rather remarkably free from the usual external signs of busy activity. He was not one to rush about breathless with the conviction that he must somehow convince others of his activity. It was rather that he threw himself completely into whatever he had to do in all the circumstances and relations which life brought to him. He gave himself with a single heart to whatever the day and the moment brought. When anything needed to be done, there was no distinction in his life between the important and the unimportant; not that he was careless and undiscriminating, but that whatever really needed to be done, whatever made a demand upon him, was important enough to call out his full vigor. If he did not give the impression of bustling energy, it was precisely because in all that he did his energy was so completely engaged and so unified from within. He faced everything as it came along; incidents were opportunities for reflection to terminate in decision. One can fancy him perplexed temporarily in thought by the complexities of some issue; one can not imagine him hesitant to meet the issue or shillyshallying in meeting it. His consciousness never sicklied over the scene of decision and action; it completely and inwardly identified itself with it. It might be household duties, it might be the needs of a friend, or of the physical and mental needs of the many young persons that he and Mrs. Mead gathered about them! It might be his reading, his study, his reflection, his recreations, tramps, and travels. In each occasion as it arose there was found the natural opportunity for the free and vital release of his powers.

For his vigor was unified from within, by and from the fullness of his own being. More, I think, than any man I have ever known, his original nature and what he acquired and learned, were one and the same thing. It is the tendency of philosophic study to create a separation between what is native, spontaneous, and unconscious and the results of reading and reflection. That split never existed in George Mead. His study, his ideas, his never ceasing reflection and theory were the manifestation of his large and varied natural being. He was extraordinarily free from not only inner suppressions and the divisions they produce, but from all the artificialities of culture. Doubtless like the rest of us he had his inner doubts, perplexities, and depressions. But the unconscious and spontaneous vigor of his personality consumed and assimilated these things in the buoyant and nevertheless tranquil outgivings of thought and action.

He experienced great difficulty in finding adequate verbal expression for his philosophical ideas. His philosophy often found utterance in technical form. In the early years especially it was often not easy to follow his thought; he gained clarity of verbal expression of his philosophy gradually and through constant effort. Yet this fact is evidence of the unity of his philosophy and his own native being. For him philosophy was less acquired from without, a more genuine development from within, than in the case of any thinker I have known. If he had borrowed his ideas from without, he could have borrowed his language from the same source, and in uttering ideas that were already current, saying with some different emphasis what was already in other persons' minds, he would easily have been understood. But his mind was deeply original—in my contacts and my judgment the most original mind in philosophy in the America of the last generation. From some cause of which we have no knowledge concerning genuinely original minds, he had early in life an intuition, an insight in advance of his day. Of necessity, there was not ready and waiting for him any language in which to express it. Only as the thoughts of others gradually caught up with what he felt and saw could he articulate himself. Yet his native vigor was such that he never thought of ceasing the effort. He was of such a sociable nature that he must have been disappointed by the failure of others to understand him, but he never allowed it to discourage his efforts to make his ideas intelligible to others. And while in recent years his efforts were crowned with success, there was no time in which his mind was not so creative that anyone in contact with it failed to get stimulation; there was a new outlook upon life and the world that continued to stir and bring forth fruit in one's own thought. His mind was germinative and seminal. One would have to go far to find a teacher of our own day who started in others so many fruitful lines of thought; I dislike to think what my own thinking might have been were it not for the seminal ideas which I derived from him. For his ideas were always genuinely original; they started one thinking in directions where it had never occurred to one that it was worth while even to look.

There was a certain diffidence which restrained George Mead from much publication. But even more than that there was the constant activity of his mind as it moved out into new fields; there were always new phases of his own ideas germinating within him. More than any one I have known he maintained a continuity of ideas with constant development. In my earliest days of contact with him, as he returned from his studies in Berlin forty years ago, his...

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C. J. Bittner (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "G. H. Mead's Social Concept of the Self," in Sociology and Social Research, Vol. XVI, September October, 1931, pp. 6-22.

[In the following essay, Bittner explores the most notable features of Mead's theory of self]

The death of Dr. George Herbert Mead of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Chicago is a great loss to modern philosophy and contemporary social thought. In him the academic world has lost one of its most profound thinkers. Though his writings are not numerous, he has exercised, nevertheless, a profound and lasting influence upon American social thought. During the long years of his professorial career Dr. Mead has been instrumental in...

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T. V. Smith (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "George Herbert Mead and the Philosophy of Philanthropy," in The Social Service Review, Vol. VI, No. 1, March, 1932, pp. 37-54.

[In the following essay, Smith elucidates Mead's theory of philanthropy in light of his ideas on the individual, community, and socialization.]

Next to the highly satisfying romanticism of an idealism that identifies what is with what ought to be, would come the pragmatic claim that what is implies what ought to be. Success or failure in vindicating such a claim would reverberate far in the social sciences. Almost a quarter of a century ago George Herbert Mead was already so sensitive to the crucial significance, for the social...

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T. V. Smith (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "The Religious Bearings of a Secular Mind: George Herbert Mead," in The Journal of Religion, Vol. XII, No. 2, April, 1932, pp. 200-13.

[In the following essay, Smith relates Mead's religious background to his philosophical ideas.]

George Herbert Mead built upon secular foundations a mind and personality and philosophy so wholesomely virile as constantly to seem to exemplify and celebrate in daily living the finest human emotions. To religious men who are at the same time statesmen of the modern spirit he has therefore more to offer than a substantial reminder of what as thinkers and teachers they are up against. He has a formula of life prepotent to engender...

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Ellsworth Faris (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: A review of Mind, Self, and Society, in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XLI, No. 6, May, 1936, pp. 809-13.

[In the following essay, Faris praises Mead's significant contribution to social psychology as evinced in Mind, Self, and Society.]

Few men of his day lived life more fully than George Mead and fewer still were better qualified to write about it. He was an active participant in civic organizations, took his duties as a citizen seriously, and had traveled far and often so that nothing human was alien. He had read and remembered the books—all the important books in every department of philosophy, the social sciences, and mathematics, not...

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Charles Hartshorne (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "Mead and Alexander on Time," in Beyond Humanism: Essays in the Philosophy of Nature, University of Nebraska Press, 1968, pp. 242-52.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1937, Hartshorne contrasts Mead's philosophy of time with that of S. Alexander, concluding that Alexander's theory is "the only carefully elaborated, honest attempt . . . to work out a non-psychic metaphysics which the twentieth century has so far witnessed. "]

George Herbert Mead was a great philosopher and certainly a humanist. Until his Philosophy of the Act has been published it will be too soon to pass judgment on his philosophy. But there are some...

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Charles W. Morris (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: "Peirce, Mead, and Pragmatism," in The Philosophical Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 278, March, 1938, pp. 109-27.

[In the following essay, Morris traces the progression of pragmatism by comparing the early metaphysical idealism of Charles Pierce to Mead's later empirical naturalist approach.]


In recent years we have had spread before us the results of the intellectual labors of Charles S. Peirce and George H. Mead. In the same period John Dewey has rounded out the implications of his views for esthetics, religion, and political theory, and has given us a glimpse of the reformulation and systematization of his logical doctrine. William James'...

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Arthur E. Murphy (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Concerning Mead's The Philosophy of the Act," in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, February 16, 1939, pp. 85-103.

[In the following essay, Murphy attempts to explicate ambiguous areas in Mead's The Philosophy of the Act.]

With the appearance of this important volume [The Philosophy of the Act] one major phase in the task of making Mead's philosophic doctrines accessible to a wider public than that of his own colleagues and pupils is completed. The editors tell us that "except for a large body of student notes, which contain much of interest on Mr. Mead's interpretation of the history of ideas, the present material exhausts all the...

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Kenneth Burke (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: "George Herbert Mead," in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, Revised Edition, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 379-82.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in The New Republic in 1941, Burke offers a mixed review of Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century.]

The publishers of these posthumous documents [Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century] print Whitehead's endorsement as follows: "I regard the publication of the volumes containing the late Professor George Herbert Mead's researches as of the highest importance for philosophy. I entirely agree with Professor John Dewey's estimate,...

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Grace A. de Laguna (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Communication, The Act, and The Object with Reference to Mead," in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XLIII, No. 9, April 25, 1946, pp. 225-38.

[In the following essay, de Laguna provides a critical analysis of a few of the central ideas of Mead's philosophy that she deems confused and inadequate, such as human acts, cooperation, and communication.]

Whether John Dewey's estimate of George H. Mead as a seminal mind of the first order is acceptable or not, few will deny the importance of his thought or its continuing influence. It is because I have found his writings stimulating and provocative, and at the same time confusing if not confused, that I have been led...

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David L. Miller (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: "Comments and Criticism: De Laguna's Interpretation of G. H. Mead," in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XLIV, No. 6, March 13, 1947, pp. 158-62.

[In the following essay, Miller responds to de Laguna's criticism of Mead's philosophy, asserting de Laguna's analysis is irrelevant, trivial, and lacks perspective.]

It would be surprising indeed if Mead's immediate students would allow Professor de Laguna's interpretation of Mead to pass without further comment. She speaks of Mead's failures, inadequacies, and fundamental fallacies without, I think, having Mead's broader perspective and problems in mind. Mrs. de Laguna says she is "not concerned to discuss here the...

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Van Meter Ames (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Mead and Sartre on Man," in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. LIII, No. 6, March 15, 1956, pp. 205-19.

[In the following essay, Ames contrasts Mead's view of man with that of Jean-Paul Sartre.]

Mead and Sartre have much in common. Both think of life as process and transition, taking time and moving into a future that requires constant revision of the past, so that nothing is ever settled and anything can be thrown into question. But Mead relies on the life-sciences; Sartre would like to reject them in favor of a supposed higher outlook. The reason is that his nineteenth or seventeenth century notion of science, including psychology, is mechanistic and...

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Paul Tibbetts (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Mead's Theory of the Act and Perception: Some Empirical Confirmations," in The Personalist, Vol. LV, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 115-38.

[In the following essay, Tibbetts explores Mead's theory of the act and suggests how it can be used to interpret recent findings in experimental psychology. ]


To students of recent American philosophy George Herbert Mead presents a paradox, for whereas Dewey and Whitehead recognized Mead as perhaps this country's most profound and original thinker, his writings largely continue to be ignored by most philosophers today. Though substantial work has been done on Mead's place in the history of...

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William P. Nye (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "George Herbert Mead and the Paradox of Prediction," in Sociological Analysis, Vol. 38, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 91-105.

[In the following essay, Nye discusses the more obscure ideas of Mead's philosophy, and places them in context with Mead's better known work.]

It has been stated and reiterated that George Herbert Mead has become the captive of his interpreters (Natanson, 1956:2; Douglas, 1970:17). The purpose of this essay is to initiate a metaphorical liberation of Mead from his social psychological captivity. However, this is not another attempt to unearth what Mead "really meant" when he speaks of the social self, the "I," the "me," the "generalized...

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Clarence J. Karier (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "In Search of Self in a Moral Universe: Notes on George Herbert Mead's Functionalist Theory of Morality," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XLV, No. 1, January-March, 1984, pp. 153-61.

[In the following essay, Karier maintains that despite Mead's secular outlook, "he nonetheless depended heavily on certain key assumptions from his Christian past with which to fashion his new secular liberal reformist view of the world. "]

George Herbert Mead was born and reared in a heavily saturated Christian environment. His father was a clergyman who taught homiletics at the Theological Seminary at Oberlin College, and his mother was educated at the Seminary at...

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Thomas Natsoulas (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "George Herbert Mead's Conception of Consciousness," in Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, Vol. 15, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 60-75.

[In the following essay, Natsoulas provides an analysis of Mead's two main concepts of consciousness and their relation to one another.]

Efforts have been underway for some time to integrate into social science George Herbert Mead's contributions to our understanding of mind, self, and society. Such efforts have not yet ended for excellent reasons pertaining to the depth, richness, and repeatedly renewed relevance of Mead's theories. However, a currently relevant approach to Mead's contributions has not been exploited due to...

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John D. Baldwin (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Mead's Solution to the Problem of Agency," in Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 58, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 139-62.

[In the following essay, Baldwin investigates Mead's idea of agency, and explores his analytical method.]

The thesis of this paper is that George Herbert Mead's pragmatism provides a valuable approach to the topic of agency, avoiding many of the problems that typically surround this issue. The question of agency—do human actors have autonomy and the ability to exercise free and creative choices—is at the center of several important controversies in sociology, such as the stand-off between the positivists and antipositivists, the disputes over...

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John D. Baldwin (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Mead and Skinner: Agency and Determinism," in Behaviorism: A Forum for Critical Discussion, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1988, pp. 109-62.

[In the following essay, Baldwin compares Mead's ideas on agency and determinism to B. F. Skinner's, and finds considerable similarities in their scientific reasoning.]

With some behaviorists heeding the "call to cognition" (Deitz & Arrington, 1984; Morris, 1985), behaviorists are raising increasing numbers of questions about the role of thought, deliberate action, agency and determinism in behavioral theories. Most methodological behaviorists and radical behaviorists equate agency with free will, which they reject (Zuriff,...

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Andrew Feffer (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Sociability and Social Conflict in George Herbert Mead's Interactionism, 1900-1919," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 51, No. 2, April-June, 1990, pp. 233-54.

[In the following essay, Feffer places Mead's philosophy in the political and cultural context of the Chicago reform culture at the turn of the twentieth century.]

During the 1970s and 80s philosophers, psychologists, and intellectual historians revived the Pragmatist tradition in American philosophy. They devoted the greater share of study to the work of Charles S. Peirce and John Dewey. A number of scholars, however, also participated in a minor but persistent revival of interest in the work of...

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Sandra B. Rosenthal (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Free Selves, Enriched Values, and Experimental Method: Mead's Pragmatic Synthesis," in International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, March, 1992, pp. 79-93.

[In the following essay, Rosenthal views the intertwining of Mead's notions of individuality, freedom, and creativity with biological activity and experimental method as imperative for a full understanding of his concept of self]

The philosophy of G. H. Mead is firmly rooted within the mainstream of classical American pragmatism. He maintained an ongoing philosophic exchange with John Dewey over a period of many years, and as part of the Chicago school of pragmatism was influenced from various...

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Gary A. Cook (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Development of Mead's Social Psychology," in George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist, University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 48-66.

[In the following essay, Cook traces the origins of Mead's social psychological work and urges a fuller appreciation of his innovative ideas in the field of human social conduct.]

The least neglected facet of Mead's much neglected contribution to American thought has been his social psychology. Even here, however, interest has generally been restricted to certain portions of the posthumously published Mind, Self and Society. This volume, which is based primarily upon stenographic student notes taken in...

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Further Reading


Aboulafia, Mitchell. The Mediating Self: Mead, Sartre, and Self-Determination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986, 139 p.

Contrasts Mead's concept of self with that of Jean-Paul Sartre.

, ed. Philosophy, Social Theory, and the Thought of George Herbert Mead, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, 319 p.

Collection of critical essays on Mead.

Baldwin, John D. George Herbert Mead: A Unifying Theory for Sociology. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1986, 168 p.

Provides an original analysis of Mead's philosophy, viewing it as a potentially unifying theory...

(The entire section is 574 words.)