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...