Mead, George Herbert (1863–1931)

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George Herbert Mead, the American pragmatist philosopher, was born in South Hadley, Massachusetts. He received his BA from Oberlin College in 1883 and did graduate work at Harvard in 18871888, where he studied under Josiah Royce and William James. From 1888 to 1891 he studied psychology and philosophy in Europe. He was married in 1891 and in the same year was appointed instructor at the University of Michigan. In 1892 he joined the staff of the University of Chicago and later became chairman of its philosophy department.

A major figure in American pragmatism, Mead has also had a large influence on psychologists and social scientists. Many thinkers, including Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey, regarded Mead as a creative mind of the first magnitude. He published relatively few papers, however, and died before he was able to develop his many original ideas into an integrated philosophy. Large segments of his books were collated from his unfinished manuscripts and from his students' notes and hence are repetitious, unsystematic, and difficult.

Mead's main philosophic themes may be classified as follows: (1) the emergence of mind and self from the communication process between organisms (often termed his "social behaviorism"), discussed in Mind, Self and Society ; (2) the psychological genesis of scientific categories in purposeful acts, discussed in The Philosophy of the Act ; and (3) the social conception of nature and the location of reality in the present, discussed in The Philosophy of the Present.

Social Behaviorism

Mead's thought stemmed from the impact of Darwinism on nineteenth-century ideas. Man was regarded as an organism functioning in accordance with natural laws. This approach opposed traditional philosophy and theology and sought to understand human nature by the methods of experimental science. The theory of evolution also gave impetus to the conception of the universe as a process rather than as a set of fixed, unalterable essences that remain invariant over time. In psychology the process concept was expressed in functionalism, which sought to comprehend all mental phenomena not as structures, traits, or attributes of the mind but as relations between the organism and its environment. These ideas were taken up by behavioristic psychology, which dismissed introspection as unscientific and confined itself to experimental data, particularly the responses of organisms to stimuli under varying conditions.

Mead challenged many of the crudities of behaviorism. In rejecting introspection, this school tended to regard it as a nonexistent phenomenon, since it could not be studied experimentally. Mead's social behaviorism sought to widen behaviorism to include the introspectively observed phenomena of consciousness. For Mead stimulus and response are meaningful only when viewed as aspects of communication; they cannot be studied in abstraction from the social process in which actions occur. Furthermore, organisms do not merely respond mechanically and passively to stimuli. Rather, the individual purposefully selects its stimuli. Mead here opposed associationism; the organism is a dynamic, forceful agent, not a mute receptacle for ideas that are later associated. For Mead organism and environment mutually determine each other. Mind emerges from this reciprocal determination.

Mead's naturalistic conception of introspection was based on the viewpoint that an idea is the early, inner stage in an ongoing act directed toward an environmental goal. The mistake of the behaviorists was to study merely one part of the complete act, the last, overt stage, thereby ignoring the initial phase of the act, which occurs privately, within the organism.

According to Mead actions occur within a communicative process. The initial phase of the overt stage of an act constitutes a gesture. A gesture is a preparatory movement that enables other individuals to become aware of the intentions of the given organism. The rudimentary situation is a conversation of gestures, in which a gesture on the part of the first individual evokes a preparatory movement on the part of the second, and the gesture of the second organism in turn calls out a response in the first person. On this level no communication occurs. Neither organism is aware of the effect of its own gestures upon the other; the gestures are nonsignificant. For communication to take place, each organism must have knowledge of how the other individual will respond to his own ongoing act. Here the gestures are significant symbols.

Communication is also based on the fact that actions are organized temporally. The consequences of behavior (final phases of the act) are present in imagery during the early phases of the action and control the nature of the developing movement. There are usually several alternative ways of completing a movement that has been started. Since the final phases of the act control the ongoing movement, the organism can select one of these alternative ways of conjoining means with the end. In this manner rational conduct is possible. Where organisms use significant symbols, the role of the other individual controls the ongoing act. In advance of our completion of a social action, we anticipate the response of the other individual. Since our behavior is temporally organized, the imported role of the other may cause us to select a course of action that is different from what we originally intended.

Mind is the ability of an organism to take the role of the other toward its own developing behavior. Reflexivity, the ability of a person to reflect upon himself, is the necessary condition for the emergence of mind within the social process. With reflexivity the social act is imported within the individual and serves to alter the person's ongoing acts. A complete social act can be carried out internally without external movements necessarily occurring. Mead denotes the internalized role of the other as the "me." Each organism has an "I," which is a capacity for spontaneity. The "I" is expressed when the individual alters his ongoing response or creates a new response to the "me." Individuality and originality arise from the inner conversation between the "I" and the imported role of the other. An inner forum comes to exist, consisting of a dialogue between the "I" and the "me." This inner rehearsal of projected actions constitutes introspection, or thinking.

In the organized group situation, such as is exemplified in games, the individual learns to take into himself the entire social organization which now exerts internal control over his ongoing acts. The "generalized other" is the group's attitudes imported into the individual. It is here that social institutions enter into an individual's thinking as a determinative factor and cause him to develop a complete self. Now the inner forum becomes an inner dialogue between the person and the group.

The religious experience occurs in situations where each person becomes closely identified with the other members of the group. In common efforts, such as in teamwork, where a sense of closeness develops among everyone involved, a feeling of exaltation arises. Here Mead refers to a "fusion" of the "I" and the "me."

Mead's social psychology is similar to the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Harry Stack Sullivan in that it conceives personality as arising from the internalization of the roles of other persons and relates inner conflict to the tension between the spontaneous forces of the person and the introjected demands of society. The temporal organization of the act, stressed by Mead, is also a key concept in automatic control machinery and digital computers, where the later stages of a process feed back upon the earlier phases, modifying the ongoing process.

Philosophy of Science

Mead sought to find the psychological origin of science in the efforts of individuals to attain power over their environment. The notion of a physical object arises out of manipulatory experience. Perception is coordinated with the ongoing act: When we approach a thing we wish to manipulate, the imagery of handling that thing is present in the distance perception. Here again there is a temporal organization of the act, in that the later phase of the action, the contact experience, is present in the earlier stage when we are merely perceiving the distant object. Perception involves the readiness of the organism to manipulate the thing when the intervening distance has been traversed. The reality of a thing is in the consummatory phase of the act, the contact experience, and this reality is present in the experience of perceiving that thing at a distance.

There is a social relation to inanimate objects, for the organism takes the role of things that it manipulates directly or that it manipulates indirectly in perception. For example, in taking (introjecting or imitating) the resistant role of a solid object, an individual obtains cognition of what is "inside" nonliving things. Historically, the concept of the physical object arose from an animistic conception of the universe.

Contact experience includes experiences of position, balance, and support, and these are used by the organism when it creates its conceptions of the physical world. Our scientific concepts of space, time, and mass are abstracted from manipulatory experience. Such concepts as that of the electron are also derived from manipulation. In developing a science we construct hypothetical objects in order to assist ourselves in controlling nature. The conception of the present as a distinct unit of experience, rather than as a process of becoming and disappearing, is a scientific fiction devised to facilitate exact measurement. In the scientific worldview immediate experience is replaced by theoretical constructs. The ultimate in experience, however, is the manipulation and contact at the completion of an act.


The Philosophy of the Present develops the conception that reality always exists in a present. However, as it is experienced, the present involves both the past and the future. A process in nature is not a succession of instantaneous presents or a sequence of spatial points. Instead there is both spatial and temporal duration, or continuity.

The developing action is the basis of existence. It is true that as we look back the present is determined by the past. But each new present, as it passes into the next present, is a unique emergent. A new future also arises as the result of the emerging present. Hence, we are always reconstructing our pasts and restructuring our future. Novelty stretches out in both directions from the present perspective.

Every object in the universe is seen from the perspective of a particular individual. What is seen from one person's perspective may be different from that which is seen by another individual. Mead was not solipsistic, however, for although a person sees nature only from his own perspective, he is able to import within himself the perspectives of others. Reality is the integration of different perspectives. Mead made use of the theory of relativity to project his theory of sociality and mind into nature. Sociality is the ability to be in more than one system at a time, to take more than one perspective simultaneously. This phenomenon occurs in emergence, for here an object in the process of becoming something new passes from one system to another, and in the passage is in two systems at the same time. During this transition, or transmutation, the emergent entity exists on two levels of nature concomitantly.

Mead's philosophy has been compared with that of Martin Buber. Although their approaches stem from different traditions, both thinkers have a social conception of nature and conceive of the self as arising from a social matrix. Certain affinities between Mead and Edmund Husserl have been suggested, in that the mind's reflexive examination of itself is an effort to describe the constitution and foundation of experience.

See also Behaviorism; Buber, Martin; Darwinism; Dewey, John; Evolutionary Theory; Experience; Freud, Sigmund; Husserl, Edmund; James, William; Natural Law; Pragmatism; Royce, Josiah; Whitehead, Alfred North.


works by mead

The Philosophy of the Present, edited by Arthur E. Murphy. Chicago: Open Court, 1932. Mead's Carus Lectures. Prefatory remarks by John Dewey.

Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, edited by Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934. Based on Mead's lectures in social psychology. Introduction by Morris. Contains a listing of Mead's writings.

Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Merritt H. Moore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936. Notes from course lectures.

The Philosophy of the Act, edited by Charles W. Morris, in collaboration with John M. Brewster, Albert M. Dunham, and David L. Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938. Unpublished papers and lecture notes. Introduction by Morris.

The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead, edited by Anselm Strauss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956. Introduction by Strauss.

The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead, Part Six: Self, edited by Anselm Strauss. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Merrit H. Moore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

George Herbert Mead: Essays on His Social Philosophy, edited by John w. Petras. New York: Teachers College Press, 1968.

On Social Psychology: Selected Papers. Rev. ed, edited by Anselm Strauss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Miller, David L. George Herbert Mead: Self, Language, and the World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973.

Selected Writings, edited by Andrew J. Reck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

The Individual and the Social Self: Unpublished Work of George Herbert Mead, edited by David L. Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

George's Page: A Document Repository for the Work of George Herbert Mead with Resources to Support Research on His Contribution to Social Psychology, edited by Lloyd Ward and Robert Throop. St. Catherines, ON: The Mead Project, Dept. of Sociology, Brock University, 1998.

Essays in Social Psychology, edited by Mary Jo Deegan. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2001.

works on mead

Cook, Gary A. George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Joas, Hans. G. H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of His Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.

Lee, Grace Chin. George Herbert Mead: Philosopher of the Social Individual. New York: King's Crown Press, 1945. Includes bibliography of secondary literature.

Natanson, Maurice. The Social Dynamics of George Herbert Mead. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1956. Discusses affinities with Husserl's phenomenology. Includes bibliography. Introduction by Horace M. Kallen.

Pfuetze, Paul E. The Social Self. New York: Bookman Associates, 1954. Comparisons between Mead, Buber, and psychoanalysis.

William H. Desmonde (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)