📰 George Herbert Mead and the Unity of the Self
Full Title: George Herbert Mead and the Unity of the Self
Mead’s dependence on a notion of narrative can help explain why he so often assumes that there is a unity to the self without making the grounds for this unity explicit.
Two questions guide this examination of Mead’s ideas: what kinds of unity or continuity are characteristic of selves? And is there a form of unity – a “meta-self” – that can encompass the types of selves that we find in Mead? In response to the second question, I demonstrate that Mead had a Narrative account of the self, one that has the potential to incorporate different kinds of selves, although Mead left his account underdeveloped.
Let us assume that we have an obligation to keep our promises. Let us also assume that the notions of self-assertion, self-respect, and self-realization can have meaning even if one does not believe in an essential self, a substantive self, or a soul. We will accept these claims for the present because George Herbert Mead supports them.
It is interesting to go back into one’s inner consciousness and pick out what it is that we are apt to depend upon in maintaining our self-respect. There are, of course, profound and solid foundations. One does keep his word, meet his obligations; and that provides a basis for self-respect. But those are characters which obtain in most of the members of the community with whom we have to do. We all fall down at certain points, but on the whole we always are people of our words. We do belong to the community and our self-respect depends on our recognition of ourselves as such self-respecting individuals. But that is not enough for us, since we want to recognize ourselves in our differences from other persons. […] [T]here is a demand, a constant demand, to realize one’s self in some sort of superiority over those about us.
Who or what self seeks to realize him or herself in this fashion? It is not at all obvious how Mead would address this question, and this is no small matter. In this passage we find references to self-realization, self-respect, self-assertion, and the keeping of promises. But what self is realizing itself, what self is an object or subject of self-respect, what self tries to outshine others, what self knows that failing to keep a promise is wrong? Is it the same self at any given time?
For Mead, individuals can have multiple social selves, which are linked to groups and communities. Is there a unity or continuity to the self, a type of meta-self, that transcends these social selves, and if so, how are we to understand it?
Mead’s use of the term self has given rise to something of a cottage industry that seeks to explain what the self truly is for Mead. After seventy-five years of Mead scholarship maybe it is time to cease trying to determine what Mead really meant by the term self, let alone whether there is a type of meta-self.
It would be difficult to appreciate his commitment to self-realization and self-assertion, for example, if we were to restrict their relevance to selves that exist only in relationship to specific communities.
In my view, Mead was not fully successful in articulating the nature of a meta or comprehensive self, although his insights are fertile, which is one reason why his thought is still vital.
Through Mead’s sensitivity to the ways in which sociality informs self development his work can complement well-known Narrative accounts of the self in thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor.
One way in which Mead undermines a rigid dichotomy between the me and not-me, which James insists on in his Principles of Psychology, and between the private and public, involves articulating how the unique or novel, which is generated by the individual, becomes integrated into a wider community.
Mead thought that societies depend on the novel responses of individuals to the accepted, to the given, in order to change, in a manner somewhat analogous to how eco-systems change if new, yet compatible, organisms or mutations are introduced.
In part because of Mead’s commitment to novelty, one solution that was not available to him in addressing the unity of the self is the notion that we have one basic fixed role or self that defines us.
This principle of agreement with oneself is very old; it was actually discovered by Socrates, whose central tenet, as formulated by Plato, is contained in the sentence: “Since I am one, it is better for me to disagree with the whole world than to be in disagreement with myself.” From this sentence both Occidental ethics, with its stress upon being in agreement with one’s own Conscience, and Occidental logic, with its emphasis upon the axiom of contradiction, took their starting point.
Note: Hannah Arendt, citing Plato's Gorgias 482.
The most recurrent solution that Mead gives to the question of the unity of the self involves viewing it as a function of a social group, so that the self is directly linked to the generalized other.
Mead was of two minds about the notion of multiple personalities or selves. On the one hand, he thought multiple personalities quite normal, in the sense in which we have different “selves,” identities, based on the organized groups or communities of which we are members. On the other hand, it should be seen as pathological when there is no connection between these personalities or selves.
Mead’s comments on multiple personality at minimum open the door to the possibility that there is a unity to the self that transcends individual generalized others and their social selves, a more comprehensive self that might split, that might become schizoid.
There is a tendency still further to bring all of these different selves within a single self. We get that in the “abstract man,” but there are others; “citizen” may include the other selves. This tendency to organize the different selves is essential for normal social conduct. There are relative degrees of dissociation in all of us. This self which takes in all the different selves is still the self that answers to the others. It is not the primary self but the composite. Out of such selves arise conceptions of the political man, the economic man, the object of charity, etc.
The unity and structure of the complete self reflects the unity and structure of the social process as a whole; and each of the elementary selves of which it is composed reflects the unity and structure of one of the various aspects of that process in which the individual is implicated.
The phenomenon of dissociation of personality is caused by a breaking up of the complete, unitary self into the component selves of which it is composed, and which respectively correspond to different aspects of the social process in which the Person is involved, and within which his complete or unitary self has arisen; these aspects being the different social groups to which he belongs within that process.
Yet this does not appear to account for all that Mead has to say on the subject. It appears that there is a unity that is potentially more encompassing than the composite self, and digging deeper into Mead’s views on multiple personality will assist in revealing it.
There is an account of a professor of education who disappeared, was lost to the community, and later turned up in a logging camp in the West. He freed himself of his occupation and turned to the woods where he felt, if you like, more at home. The pathological side of it was the forgetting, the leaving out of the rest of the self. This result involved getting rid of certain bodily memories which would identify the individual to himself. We often recognize the lines of cleavage that run through us. We would be glad to forget certain things, get rid of things the self is bound up with in past experiences. What we have here is a situation in which there can be different selves, and it is dependent upon the set of social reactions that is involved as to which self we are going to be. If we can forget everything involved in one set of activities, obviously we relinquish that part of the self.
In spite of Mead’s claims about composite unified selves, there seems to be at least one lacuna in this account of the unity of the self, even if selves involve past or imagined communities, and it relates to our professor of education. Mead assumes that there is a unity to the self or the individual because he takes for granted that we have biographies.
For Mead, (auto)biography is uniquely human. Animals cannot have biographies. They certainly have memories but they cannot have biographies as we experience them. And the reason is obvious. Other animals are incapable of reflection, which depends on a conscious use of symbols.
Our lives can have a unity or continuity because we have the ability to use language to reflect on and organize our memories. We have the capacity to be aware and act, which are functions of the “I,” and we can recall and reflect on the actions of the “I.” When they are organized in relationship to a generalized other, they become a “me.” When they are organized in relationship to memories that interest us, and perhaps anticipated and imagined futures, they become features of a biographical self, as do memories of affective experiences.
We do inevitably tend at a certain level of sophistication to organize all experience into that of a self.
Why would we unify our memories in this fashion? No doubt there is more than one reason, and the reasons may differ, as do narratives, from culture to culture. But from a Meadian vantage point, we can look to the continuous experiences of unity that we have owing to circumscribed and composite social selves. These selves would provide compelling exemplars for unifying other aspects of our experience. Perhaps narrative is in part born of a habit to unify experience that is grounded in the recurrent presence of organized social selves.
An inability to weave together memories, selves, and the transitions between them leads to a pathological splitting of the personality, to an incoherent biography, to ultimately no biography at all, which would certainly make being in agreement with oneself an evanescent phenomenon.
My suggestion is that Mead had an undeveloped narratological account of the self that allowed him to make claims that were in line with his rather robust sense of what is right and proper for a human being to achieve, at least in the modern Western world.
Viewing the self in terms of Narrative need not challenge Mead’s pluralistic usages of the term self. It complements them by providing an overarching framework that allows us to make sense of how memories and multiple selves are bound together, supplying a unity more comprehensive than the composite social self.