March 9th, 2021

📝 George Herbert Mead on Selves and Unity

How did this American pragmatist view the unity of the self?

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.

Today I'm not writing a effortpost, I'm just going to show some quotes and then reflect very briefly.

First some basics on his view of selves from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

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. *
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. *

Then some more in-depth stuff from an article called 📰 George Herbert Mead and the Unity of the Self with my emphases in bold:

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? *
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. *
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. *
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. *
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. *
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. *

A very brief reflection.

The social selves that Mead describes are what I call Weird Fishes growing out of role-specific participation in social groups and various types of games or institutions, especially as we come to see our own position from the perspective of others and in the context of the whole "game."

Those selves would also be the "bearers" of the virtues that MacIntyre calls "internal to practices." The unification or composition of these localized selves into more overarching self-structures is not a given. It's not just a direct consequence of the "unity of consciousness" that analytic philosophers are always proving or disproving. Instead it "reflects the unity and structure of the social process as a whole." I think MacIntyre would basically agree with that.

It implies that an overall social structure can encourage or hinder the unification of selves. MacIntyre, I think, provides an argument that modernity hinders it and that modern philosophy tends to reflects that. I want to go into that in the future, but for now just this quote will do:

Sartre—I speak now only of the Sartre of the thirties and forties—has depicted the self as entirely distinct from any particular social role which it may happen to assume; Erving Goffman by contrast has liquidated the self into its role-playing, arguing that the self is no more than ‘a peg’ on which the clothes of the role are hung. *

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