📰 George Herbert Mead
Full Title: George Herbert Mead
George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), American philosopher and social
theorist, is often classed with William James, Charles Sanders Peirce,
and John Dewey as one of the most significant figures in classical
Mead's principal influence in philosophical circles occurred as a
result of his friendship with John Dewey. There is little question
that Mead and Dewey had an enduring influence on each other, with Mead
contributing an original theory of the development of the self through
communication. This theory has in recent years played a central role
in the work of Jürgen Habermas.
In terms of his transformation into a naturalist,
no doubt Darwin played a significant role. As a matter of fact,
one can understand much of Mead's work as an attempt to
synthesize Darwin, Hegel, Dewey's functionalist turn in
psychology, and insights gleaned from James.
Dewey and Mead were not only very close friends, they shared similar
intellectual trajectories. Both went through a period in
which Hegel was the most significant philosophical figure for them, and
both democratized and de-essentialized Hegelian ideas about the self
and community. Nevertheless, neo-hegelian organic metaphors and
notions of negation and conflict, reinterpreted as the problematic
situation, remain central to their positions. The teleological
also remains important in their thought, but it is reduced in scale
from the world historical and localized in terms of anticipatory
experiences and goal oriented activities.
For Mead, the development of the self is intimately tied to the
development of language.
A vocal gesture can be thought of as a word or phrase. When a
vocal gesture is used the individual making the gesture responds
(implicitly) in the same manner as the individual hearing it. If
you are about to walk across a busy street during rush hour, I might
shout out, “Don't walk!” As I shout, I hear my
gesture the way in which you hear it, that is, I hear the same words,
and I might feel myself pulling back, stopping in my tracks because I
hear these words.
to Mead, “Gestures become significant symbols when they
implicitly arouse in the individual making them the same responses
which the explicitly arouse, or are supposed to arouse, in other
He also tells us that, “the
critical importance of language in the development of human experience
lies in this fact that the stimulus is one that can react upon the
speaking individual as it reacts upon the other”
As noted, Mead was indebted to Hegel's work, and the
notion of reflexivity plays a fundamental role in Mead's theory
Vocal gestures—which depend on sufficiently
sophisticated nervous systems to process them—allow individuals to
hear their own gestures in the way that others hear them.
Or, to put this in other terms, vocal gestures
allow one to speak to oneself when others are not present. I
make certain vocal gestures and anticipate how they would be responded
to by others, even when they are not present. The responses
of others have been internalized and have become part of an accessible
According to Mead, through the use of vocal gestures
one can turn “experience” back on itself through the loop
of speaking and hearing at relatively the same instant. And when
one is part of a complex network of language users, Mead argues that
this reflexivity, the “turning back” of experience on
itself, allows mind to develop.
Mentality on our approach simply comes in when the organism is able
to point out meanings to others and to himself. This is the
point at which mind appears, or if you like, emerges…. It is
absurd to look at the mind simply from the standpoint of the
individual human organism; for, although it has its focus there, it is
essentially a social phenomenon; even its biological functions are
It is by means of reflexiveness—the turning back of the experience
of the individual upon himself—that the whole social process is
thus brought into the experience of the individuals involved in it; it
is by such means, which enable the individual to take the attitude
of the other toward himself, that the individual is able consciously to
adjust himself to that process, and to modify the resultant of that
process in any given social act in terms of his adjustment to it.
Reflexiveness, then, is the essential condition, within the social
process, for the development of mind.
Here it is
worth noting that although we often employ our capacity for
reflexivity to engage in reflection or deliberation, both Dewey and
Mead argue that habitual, non-deliberative, experience constitutes the
most common way that we engage the world.
The habitual involves a
host of background beliefs and assumptions that are not raised to the
level of (self) conscious reflection unless problems occur that
warrant addressing. For Dewey, this background is described as “funded
experience.” For Mead, it is the world that this there and
the “biologic individual.”
One of the most noteworthy features of Mead's account of the
significant symbol is that it assumes that anticipatory experiences are
fundamental to the development of language. We have the ability place
ourselves in the positions of others—that is, to anticipate their
responses—with regard to our linguistic gestures. This ability
is also crucial for the development of the self and
For Mead, as for Hegel, the self is fundamentally social and cognitive. It should be distinguished from the individual, who also has non-cognitive attributes.
The self, then, is not identical to the individual and is linked to self-consciousness. It begins to develop when individuals interact with others and play roles.
For example, the child plays at being a doctor by having another child play
at being a patient. To play at being a doctor, however, requires being able to anticipate what a patient might say, and vice versa. Role playing involves taking the attitudes or perspectives of others.
It is worth noting in this context that while Mead
studied physiological psychology, his work on role-taking can be viewed
as combining features of the work of the Scottish sympathy theorists
(which James appealed to in The Principles of
Psychology), with Hegel's dialectic of self and other.
For Mead, if we were simply to take the roles of others, we would never develop selves or self-consciousness. We would have a nascent form of self-consciousness that parallels the sort of reflexive awareness that is required for the use of significant symbols. A role-taking (self) consciousness of this sort makes possible what might be called a proto-self, but not a self, because it doesn't have the complexity necessary to give rise to a self.
How then does a self arise? Here Mead introduces his well-known neologism, the generalized other. When children or adults take roles, they can be said to be playing these roles in dyads. However, this sort of exchange is quite different from the more complex sets of behaviors that are required to participate in games. In the latter, we are required to learn not only the responses of specific others, but behaviors associated with every position on the field. These can be internalized, and when we succeed in doing so we come to “view” our own behaviors from the perspective of the game as a whole, which is a system of organized actions.
The organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called “the generalized other.” The attitude of the generalized other is the attitude of the whole community. Thus, for example, in the case of such a social group as a ball team, the team is the generalized other in so far as it enters—as an organized process or social activity—into the experience of any one of the individual members of it.
In his Principles of Psychology, a book Mead knew well,
William James discusses various types of empirical selves, namely, the
material, the social, and the spiritual. In addressing the social
self, James notes how it is possible to have multiple selves.
Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are
individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their
mind. To wound any one of these his images is to wound him.
But as the individuals who carry the images fall naturally into
classes, we may practically say that he has as many different social
selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose
opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself
to each of these different groups. (James 1890, 294)
For Mead, James's audiences should be thought of
in terms of systemically organized groups, such as we find in certain
games, which give rise to generalized others.
In addition, reflexivity
helps make possible the capacity to “see” ourselves from
ever wider or more “universal” communities. Mead relates
the latter capacity to cosmopolitan political and cultural
One of Mead's most significant contributions to social psychology is
his distinction between the “I” and the “Me.”
target, in part, is no less than the idea of the transcendental ego,
especially in its Kantian incarnation.
The self that arises in relationship to a specific generalized other
is referred to as the “Me.” The “Me” is a
cognitive object, which is only known retrospectively, that is, on
When we act in habitual ways we are not typically
self-conscious. We are engaged in actions at a non-reflective
level. However, when we take the perspective of the generalized
other, we are both “watching” and forming a self in
relationship to the system of behaviors that constitute this
When a ball is grounded to a second baseman, how he or she
reacts is not predetermined. He reacts, and how he reacts is always to
some degree different from how he has reacted in the past. These
reactions or actions of the individual, whether in response to others
or self-initiated, fall within the “sphere” of the
Mead declares that, “The ‘I’
gives the sense of freedom, of initiative. The situation is there for
us to act in a self-conscious fashion. We are aware of ourselves, and
of what the situation is, but exactly how we will act never gets into
experience until after the action takes place”
The “I” is a “source” of both spontaneity and creativity. For Mead, however, the “I” is not a noumenal ego. Nor is it a substance. It is a way of designating a locus of activity.
The responses of the “I” are non-reflective.
How the “I” reacts is known only on reflection, that is,
after we retrospect.
If you ask, then, where directly in your own experience the
“I” comes in, the answer is that it comes in as a
historical figure. It is what you were a second ago that is the
“I” of the “me.” It is another
“me” that has to take that rôle. You cannot get the
immediate response of the “I” in the process.
In other words, once the actions of the “I” have become
objectified and known, by definition they have become a
The status of the “I” is interesting in
Mead. In trying to differentiate it from the empirical, knowable,
“Me,” he states, “The ‘I’ is the
transcendental self of Kant, the soul that James conceived behind the
scene holding on to the skirts of an idea to give it an added
increment of emphasis”
“The self-conscious, actual self in social
intercourse is the objective ‘me’ or ‘me's’
with the process of response continually going on and implying a
fictitious ‘I’ always out of sight of himself”
Why, then, do we seem to experience what Mead refers to as a
“running current of awareness,” that is, an ego that
appears to be aware of itself as it acts and thinks, if the
“I” is not immediately aware of itself (SS in SW, 144)?
Mead developed a unique explanation based
on the relationship of the “I” to the
“Me.” As we have seen, the “I” reacts and
initiates action, but the actions taken are comprehended, objectified,
as a “Me.” However, the “Me” is not simply
confined to the objectifications of the immediate actions of the
“I.” The “Me” carries with it
internalized responses that serve as a commentary on the
The running current of
awareness, then, is not due to the “I” being immediately
aware of itself. It is due to the running commentary of the
“Me” on the actions of the “I.” The
“Me” follows the “I” so closely in time that it
appears as if the “I” is the source of the “running
current of awareness.”
One might think
of the “Me” as similar to the conscious super-ego in the
commentary that it provides, but one would have to be careful not to
carry this analogy too far. For Mead, the “Me” arises in
relationship to systems of behaviors, generalized others, and,
therefore, is by definition multiple, although the behaviors of
various “Me's” can overlap. Further, Freud's model
assumes a determinism that is not inherent in the relationship of the
“I” to the “Me.”
Not only does the
“I” initiate novel responses, its new behaviors can become
part of a “Me.” In other words, “Me's” are not
static. They are systems that often undergo transformation.
New selves are generated as Family systems are transformed.
For Mead, novelty
is not a phenomenon that can be accounted for in terms of human
ignorance, as it can for a determinist such as Spinoza. In the
Spinozistic framework, even though everything in nature is determined,
as finite modes we must remain ignorant of the totality of causes.
In principle, however, an infinite Mind could predict every
event. Mead, following in the footsteps of Darwin, argues that
novelty is in fact an aspect of the natural world, and that there are
events that are not only unpredictable due to ignorance, but are in
principle impossible to predict.
It seems to me that the extreme mathematization of recent science in
which the reality of motion is reduced to equations in which change
disappears in an identity, and in which space and time disappear in a
four dimensional continuum of indistinguishable events which is
neither space nor time is a reflection of the treatment of time as
passage without becoming.
Part of the impetus behind The Philosophy of the
Present was to argue against an interpretation of space-time, such
as Hermann Minkowski's, which eliminates the truly novel or the
Emergence involves not only biological organisms, but
matter and energy; for example, there is a sense in which water can be
spoken of as emerging from the combination of hydrogen and
Mead is a systemic thinker who speaks of taking the
perspectives of others and of generalized others. These perspectives
are not “subjective” for Mead. They are
“objective” in the sense that they provide frames of
reference and shared patterns of behavior for members of
Mead has been referred to as a tactile philosopher, as opposed
to a visual one, because of the importance of contact experience in his
thought. Perspectives involve contact and interaction between
organisms and their environments.
For example, a fish living in a certain pond can be thought of as inhabiting an ecosystem. The way in which it navigates the pond, finds food to eat, captures its food, etc., can be spoken of as the fish's perspective on the pond, and it is objective, that is, its interactions are not a matter of the subjective perceptions of the fish. Its interactions in its environment shape and give form to its perspective, which is different from the snail's perspective, although it lives in the same waters.
The pond, in fact, is not one system but many systems in the sense that its inhabitants engage in different, interlaced interactions, and therefore have different objective perspectives.
Human beings, given our capacity to discuss systems in language, can describe the ecology of a pond (or better, the ecologies of a pond depending on what organisms we are studying). We can describe, with varying degrees
of accuracy, what it is like to be a fish living in a particular pond, as opposed to a snail.
Mead argues that if a new form of life emerges from
another form, then there is a time when the new organism has not fully
developed, and therefore has not yet modified its environmental
niche. In this situation the older order, the old environment, has not
disappeared but neither has the new one been born. Mead refers to this
state of betwixt and between as
Sociality is a key idea for Mead and it has implications for his
sociology and social psychology. If we think of the “Me”
as a system, then there are times when the “I” initiates
new responses that may or may not be integrated into an existing
“Me.” But if they come to be integrated, then there is a
time betwixt and between the old and new “Me” system.
makes this all the more interesting is that human beings have a
capacity for reflection. We can become aware of changes that are
taking place as we “stand” betwixt and between, which
allows for the possibility of influencing the development of a future
self. We can even set up conditions to promote changes that we believe
may transform us in certain ways.
As a matter of fact, Mead links moral
development with our capacity for moving beyond old values, old
selves, in order to integrate new values into our personalities when
new situations call for them.
To leave the field to the values represented by the old self is
exactly what we term selfishness. The justification for the term is
found in the habitual character of conduct with reference to these
values.…Where, however, the problem is objectively considered,
although the conflict is a social one, it should not resolve itself
into a struggle between selves, but into such reconstruction of the
situation that different and enlarged and more adequate
personalities may emerge.
Returning to Mead's notion of sociality, we can see that he is
seeking to emphasize transitions and change between systems. This
emphasis on change has repercussions for his view of the present, which
is not to be understood as a knife-edge present. In human
experience, the present arises from a past and spreads into the
Yet because reality ultimately
exists in the present, Mead argues that the historical past, insofar as
it is capable of being experienced, is transformed by novel
events. History is not written on an unchanging scroll.
The past, which by
definition can only exist in the present, changes to accommodate
I didn't know anything about 📰 George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) until I read about him today while looking for philosophical sources on selves as contingent growths that may or may not become integrated into a more general self.