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

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...

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Social Aspects of Action

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...

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Emergence of the Self

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...

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Contrasts with Earlier Theories

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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


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