Mind, Self, and Society

by George Herbert Mead

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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).

The Theory of Social Behaviorism

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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 too narrow a conception of what makes up an action. Words such as “mind” and “self” must be kept in the psychological vocabulary, but they should never be thought of as referring to entities or processes that stand outside the subject matter of behavioral analysis. Watson’s views result...

(This entire section contains 498 words.)

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from a heavy reliance on mechanical models as well as from too restricted a notion of the nature of reflex activity. By reducing experiences of a mental kind to explicitly physiological correlates, Watson produced a psychological behaviorism that Mead saw as leading inevitably to obvious absurdities.

Social Aspects of Action

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Mead’s claim is that psychologists need not “explain away” those features of conscious life that often prove embarrassing to strictly physiological analysts of conduct—minds and selves definitely exist. The narrow Watsonian model, however, fails to take their existence into account. The reason is that the model depicts conduct as created by an organism (containing a brain and a central nervous system) responding to numerous stimuli (response-provoking objects that are external to that organism). Here lies the source of Watson’s incorrect view of what action involves, according to Mead. This view lacks an adequate awareness of the social aspect of action, especially human action. To produce an adequate behavioral theory of action, one needs a model demonstrating that the social aspects of human action belong partly to the organism itself rather than resulting from the relations between atomic organisms and external stimuli. What this means is that, in the case of human action, no absolute separation exists between the social and the organic.

The major problem for Mead is to explain how minds and selves appear in the social process. Minds and selves are exclusively features of human conduct. Mead admits that animals possess intelligence but denies that they have minds, even though animals also function in social contexts. The necessary conclusion is, then, that only social beings can be said to possess self-consciousness, and only human organisms are socially based emergents having this specific kind of mental life. Mead offers an explanation of this in terms of the emergence in the social process of what he calls significant symbols. Such symbols are ultimately linguistic in form, but they evolve from the roles played in all organic conduct by gestures and responses to gestures. Certain gestures become significant symbols when they implicitly arouse in an individual making them the same responses that they explicitly arouse, or are supposed to arouse, in the individuals to whom they are addressed. Human organisms differ from other animal organisms in their ability to make use of significant symbols. For example, a dog that growls at another dog is making a gesture, but the dog cannot make use of a significant gesture because it can never take the role of the “other” in a process of communication in the way that humans can and do. Communication involves this taking of the role of the other, self-consciously, in a social context. It is this ability possessed by human organisms that makes language and communication possible.

Mead does not argue that meaning exists only in linguistic form, but he does argue that language constitutes the most meaningful type of communication. For Mead, meaning is objectively there as a feature of social processes. He states that awareness of consciousness is not necessary for the presence of meaning in the process of social experience. Communication involves making available to others meanings that actually exist to be discovered and talked about. Significant symbols function to make the user of them aware of the responses they call out in those to whom they are directed. The significant symbol not only calls out in the user the awareness of others’ responses to it; the symbol also functions to make those responses serve as stimuli to the user. This gives an anticipatory character to communication. The result is that users of such symbols can respond to them in novel ways, actually introducing changes into the social situation by such responses. In this view, ideas are anticipations of future expected actions made possible by the capacity to use significant symbols.

Emergence of the Self

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This capacity of the human organism to use significant symbols is a precondition of the appearance of the self in the social process. The self is not like the body, which can never view itself as a whole. The self emerges from a process of social communication that enables viewing of oneself, as a whole, from the perspective of others. Mead treats this problem in terms of the phases of the self, the “me” and the “I.” His effort is to understand this human capacity to adopt the attitudes of others toward oneself. Each response to a significant symbol presupposes that one can associate oneself with the set of attitudes making up the social group (“the generalized other”) to which one belongs. In this manner, the “me” emerges as a phase of the self, for the “me” is that set of attitudes appropriated by the individual. The “I” as a phase of the self is that which makes possible the organism’s response. The “I” can respond to the “me” in novel ways, meaning that, for Mead, social action is never simply imitative or literally repetitive.

Mead makes use of the notions of the game and play to illustrate his thesis. Games and play require participants to adopt the roles of the others involved. Just as in a game one can never get beyond the set of attitudes associated with the various roles of the different players, so in the case of the human mind and self there is no getting beyond the social process they presuppose. Without society involving a number of different roles, there would be nothing in terms of which a self could arise. Without the viewpoints of others that form the “me,” there would exist nothing to which the “I” could respond.

Mead’s treatment of the nature of the self permits him to take seriously features of “depth” psychology that Watsonian behaviorism overlooks. To understand a self means to understand something about the roles and attitudes of others as productive of that self. Here Mead finds a difference between the social lives of animals and men. Animal and human social communities involve organization, but in human social systems the organization reflects the self-conscious adoption of a number of roles, a thing impossible in animal communities. The strict organizational patterns found in bee and ant societies do not lead to significant communication or to the creation of a language. Although social life is necessary as a condition of the appearance of minds and selves, minds and selves do not always exist where there is social life. What emerges in the form of minds and selves from a social process is a genuine and irreducible reality.

Because the self exists only when an individual can know the attitudes of others in a community, it is normal for multiple selves to be present in each person. These attitudes form the possibility of a “me” that can become an object and response-provoking stimulus to an “I.” The self can become an object to itself in a way in which a body cannot. The nature of the social community in which the self arises obviously influences the nature of that self. Mead states that normally, within the sort of community to which people belong, there is a unified self, but that it may be broken up. A person who is somewhat unstable nervously and in whom there is a line of cleavage may find certain activities impossible, and that set of activities may separate and evolve another self.

The pathological aspect of a multiple self concerns the possibility of “forgetting” forms of past experiences from which important elements of the self have emerged. In any existing social community, there must exist some fairly stable attitudes and roles if a self is to emerge at all, and it is the stable elements that permit language to possess a universal significance for communication. The symbols of a language permit a self to respond to the same meaning or object as would others in the group using that set of symbols. Linguistic confusions reflect social instability in that meanings are hardly fixed at all. Personality is unable to develop when rapidly altering social attitudes and roles fail to permit language to capture relatively stable meanings. The reason is that there can be no completely individual self. When a self does appear, Mead says, it always involves an experience of another, and there cannot be an experience of a self simply by itself.

In Mead’s analysis of the self, the “me” reflects those features that make up the stable habit patterns of an individual’s conduct. In a sense, the “me” is the individual’s character insofar as it can issue forth in predictable forms of behavior. The “I” can arise as a phase of the self that permits some novelty of response because the “I” appears only in the memory of what the individual has done. Mead claims that individuals usually know what they have done and said only after they have acted and spoken. There is a retrospective stance to the self-awareness of the “I” that permits novel uses of this memory in new situations. Individuals are not compelled to respond in the same way they formerly did once there is a self; they can react in original ways to the attitudes of other members in the social community. In such reactions, the “I” always acts in terms of an appeal to a widened social community if it reacts against the existing practices of the group. Mead claims that the moral importance of the reactions of the “I,” as a phase of the self, resides in the individual’s sense of importance as a person not totally determined by the attitudes of the others. The “I” demands freedom from conventions and laws, and such demands, when they occur, imply that another community exists, if only potentially or ideally, in which a broader and more embracing self is possible of realization. The complete development of a self therefore requires both phases, the “I” and the “me”—established habits in a social situation that yet leave room for novel responses to new situations.

Each individual in a social community will have some element of a unique standpoint from which to react to the attitudes making up that community. The reason is that each individual can reflect on his or her own experiences within the social structure supporting his or her existence. Mead thinks that a rational social community will encourage development of self-responsible action rather than automatic responses by coercive external conditioning. Such a community will provide opportunity for the stereotyped kind of work that each person needs (if he or she is a healthy individual) plus opportunity for self-expression through unique responses to situations (so that the person does not feel “hedged in” and completely a conventionalized “me”). A rational community differs from a mob or a crowd, for in a rational community the individual can become a determinant of aspects of the environment. Great men such as Socrates, Jesus, and Buddha were able to influence the communities of their own day and age by their appeals to an enlarged potential community.

Contrasts with Earlier Theories

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Mead’s social behaviorism places him in opposition both to the individualistic and to the partially social explanations of mind. The individualistic theory argues that mind is a necessary logical and biological presupposition of any existing social process. Its adherents attempt to account for the social aspect of human existence in terms of contract theories of the origin of political and social life. The partially social theory admits that mind can express its potentialities only in a social setting but insists that mind is in some sense prior to that setting. Mead argues that his social behaviorism is in direct contrast to these competing theories in that mind presupposes, and is a product of, the social process. For Mead, the forms of social groupings tend toward either cooperative or aggressively competitive ones. Mead favors the former. He believes that the democratic ideal of full human participation in a variety of social situations (involving different roles) can best call out the wide range of human responses that mind makes possible. In a democratic society, the twin quests after universality of experience, economic and religious, can best be harmonized. Such a society also makes available a wider range of roles from which an individual can develop a self. It is clear that, for Mead, democracy involves a society that permits a rich variety of primary groups to exist.

Mead’s attempt to state a consistent theory of social behaviorism may have failed. In fact, his position is a metaphysical rather than a scientific one; however, his views form a metaphysical defense of the democratic ideal in terms of the behavioral hopes of psychologists to bring human conduct under rational control. Mead is at least on the side of reason and rationality. He is stubborn in his refusal to give up terms such as mind and consciousness, and he is equally unwilling to discard the behaviorist model of the psychologists. He tries valiantly to widen the conception of the human act. The critical question remains, naturally, whether Mead or anyone can have the best of two possible worlds.


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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.