George Herbert Mead Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.