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He thought that spoken language played a central role in this development. Through language the child can take the role of other persons and guide his behaviour in terms of the effect his contemplated behaviour will have upon others.

The Philosophy of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931)

In philosophy, Mead was one of the major thinkers among the American Pragmatists. In common with a number of his contemporaries, he was much-influenced by the theory of relativity and the doctrine of emergence. His philosophy might be called objective Relativism. Just as some objects are edible, but only in relation to a digestive system, so Mead thought of experience, life, consciousness , personality, and value as objective properties of nature which emerge only under and hence are relative to specific sets of conditions.

Mead never published his work. After his death his students edited four volumes from stenographic recordings and notes on his lectures and from unpublished papers: The Philosophy of the Present ; Mind, Self, and Society ; Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century ; and The Philosophy of the Act George Herbert Mead. Info Print Cite. Submit Feedback. Thank you for your feedback. See Article History.

Read More on This Topic. He had studied physiological psychology in Germany, had earlier worked under James and Josiah…. George Herbert Mead — , 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 American pragmatism. Yet by the middle of the twentieth-century, Mead's prestige was greatest outside of professional philosophical circles.

He is considered by many to be the father of the school of Symbolic Interactionism in sociology and social psychology, although he did not use this nomenclature. Perhaps 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.

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While Mead is best known for his work on the nature of the self and intersubjectivity, he also developed a theory of action, and a metaphysics or philosophy of nature that emphasizes emergence and temporality, in which the past and future are viewed through the lens of the present. Although the extent of Mead's reach is considerable, he never published a monograph. His most famous work, Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist , was published after his death and is a compilation of student notes and selections from unpublished manuscripts.

Mead would attend Oberlin College from —, and matriculate at Harvard from — At Harvard he studied with Josiah Royce, a philosopher deeply indebted to G.

Hegel, who also left a lasting impression on Mead. Mead met William James at Harvard, although he did not study with him. Almost immediately after graduation, Mead resided in William James's summer home tutoring his son Harry. Mead's mother, Elizabeth Storrs Billings, was a devoutly religious woman, who taught at Oberlin for two years after the death of her husband in , and served as president of Mount Holyoke College from — After his college years, Mead became a committed naturalist and non-believer, but he had struggled for years with the religious convictions that he had inherited from his family and community.

For a period of time after college he even considered Christian Social Work as a career, but he explained in a letter to his friend Henry Castle why this career path would be problematic. Mead did indeed move away from his earlier religious roots, but the activist spirit remained with him. Mead marched in support of women's suffrage, served as a treasurer for the Settlement House movement, immersed himself in civic matters in Chicago, and generally supported progressive causes.

Jane Addams was a close friend. 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.

Mead taught with Dewey at the University of Michigan from —, and when Dewey was made chair at the University of Chicago in , he requested that Mead receive an appointment. Mead spent the rest of his career at Chicago. But before he began teaching at Michigan, Mead was directly exposed to major currents of European thought when he studied in Germany from —, taking a course from Wilhelm Dilthey and immersing himself in Wilhelm Wundt's research. 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.

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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. To demonstrate this connection, Mead begins by articulating what he learned about the gesture from Wundt.

Gestures are to be understood in terms of the behavioral responses of animals to stimuli from other organisms. For example, a dog barks, and a second dog either barks back or runs away. How does this capacity arise? It does so through the vocal gesture.


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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. But, of course, I don't hear them exactly as you do, because I am aware of directing them to you. As noted, Mead was indebted to Hegel's work, and the notion of reflexivity plays a fundamental role in Mead's theory of mind.

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 repertoire. Mead would agree with Ludwig Wittgenstein that there are no private languages. Language is social all the way down. 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….

George Herbert Mead (1863—1931)

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 primarily social. MSS, — 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. MSS, Mind is developed not only through the use of vocal gestures, but through the taking of roles, which will be addressed below. 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. 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 self-consciousness. 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. What are roles? They are constellations of behaviors that are responses to sets of behaviors of other human beings. The notions of role-taking and role playing are familiar from sociological and social-psychological literature. For example, the child plays at being a doctor by having another child play at being a patient.


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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.

As we will discover shortly, perspective-taking is associated not only with roles, but with far more complex behaviors. 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.