Context

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 155

How George Herbert Mead’s book came to be published tells something about the author’s unusual stature as a professor. The book’s contents primarily represent the careful editing of several sets of notes taken by appreciative students attending Mead’s lectures on social psychology at the University of Chicago, especially those given in 1927 and 1930; other manuscript materials also appear in the book. For more than thirty years, Mead taught at the University of Chicago, exerting a powerful scholarly influence on students, colleagues, and professional acquaintances. His written contributions during his lifetime were confined to articles and reviews for learned journals. Nevertheless, as a result of the devotion of some of those he influenced, Mead has left to the learned world four published books, all of which appeared after his death. The other three books are The Philosophy of the Present (1932), Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936), and The Philosophy of the Act (1938).

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The Theory of Social Behaviorism

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

Mind, Self, and Society remains crucial for the manner in which its central concerns dominated all of Mead’s philosophizing during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Mead thought that all aspects of human conduct, including those so often covered by terms such as mind and self, can best be understood as emergents from a more basic process. The four separate but related parts of the book present Mead’s defense of a social behaviorism: “The Point of View of Social Behaviorism,” “Mind,” “The Self,” and “Society.”

Mead’s attempt to state the nature of social behaviorism is related to the specific situation he found in the intellectual landscape. As a naturalist strongly influenced by the theory of biological evolution, Mead shows a typical suspicion of older dualistic accounts of the mind-body problem. He sets out to explain physical and mental events through one embracing theory. Thus, he rejects the view that a physico-psychological dualism exists that requires a theory to account for supposed differences between mental and nonmental forms of conduct or between human and nonhuman.

Mead’s philosophical views are those of the pragmatists, for whom the function of intelligence is the control of actions rather than a supposedly disinterested description of metaphysical realities thought to be independent of experience. There is difficulty, however, for psychologists in avoiding a dualist theory if they retain in their vocabulary words such as “mind,” “consciousness,” “self-consciousness,” and “self.” This was Mead’s initial problem. One answer of the day had come from John B. Watson, sometimes called the father of psychological behaviorism. Watson had argued that the scientific study of human conduct must confine itself strictly to those aspects of behavior that are externally observable. Accordingly, Watson insisted that psychologists give up using terms such as “mind” and “self,” because what can be observed are brains and nervous systems in response to external stimuli.

Like Watson, Mead claims that any effort to understand human behavior by reliance on introspection of internal mental states produces a theoretical difficulty in that psychological explanations can never be subjected to experimental tests. Mead also insists that earlier philosophers made hasty and often illegitimate metaphysical capital out of the distinction between external and internal aspects of behavior. Thus, he shares Watson’s general scientific aim: the statement of a thoroughly behavioral account of human action. Mead, however, criticizes Watson’s physiological version of behaviorism as resting on...

(The entire section contains 3154 words.)

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