Review of Mind, Self and Society by George H. Mead
Few men of his day lived life more fully than George Mead and fewer still were better qualified to write about it. He was an active participant in civic organizations, took his duties as a citizen seriously, and had traveled far and often so that nothing human was alien. He had read and remembered the books---all the important books in every department of philosophy, the social sciences, and mathematics, not excluding fiction and poetry. And besides all this, his was "a seminal mind of the very first order" which enabled him to see relations and gain insights which gave to familiar facts an undiscovered significance. This above all---he lectured on social psychology for nearly forty years, even before the term became current, and hundreds of scholars now teaching and writing gratefully acknowledge him as their most stimulating teacher.
But Mead never wrote his book on social psychology. The present volume was assembled from the notebooks of students who heard him in the latter part of his career. The editor has, unfortunately, seen fit to give it another title and has taken the liberty to rearrange the material in a fashion that will be deprecated by many who knew Mead and thought they understood him. The task of the editor under such circumstances is one of unusual difficulty; and disappointment over the imperfections of the result yields to the feeling of gratitude to those men who did the best they could, according to their lights, and all who are interested in social psychology should be thankful for even this much.
The work in sociology at the University of Chicago has been greatly influenced by Mead's conceptions and conclusions, and for many years there has been a relationship of the closest sort. The course in social psychology is considered basic to the work of the Department of Sociology and has been offered for the past sixteen years, having been introduced at the request of Mead himself. It was at first planned as an introduction to Mead and served also to give to him an opportunity to discuss in his own course the growing body of controversial literature. That the course was thus in fact divided will explain the absence in the notes of the latter period of
( 810) certain topics to which the editor calls attention, such as the detailed treatment of integration.
Mind, self, and society is the reverse order to that which the structure of Mead's thought would seem to make appropriate. Not mind and then society; but society first and then minds arising within that society—such would probably have been the preference of him who spoke these words. For societies exist in which neither minds nor selves are found, and it is only in human societies that a subject is its own object—only in these is there consciousness of self. Man, he held, is not born human; the biological accident becomes a personality through social experience.
The position taken is that man's personality is derived from nature without residue, that is to say, with no forces or influences that do not appear in the emerging development of the form itself, and this view is extensively elaborated. The organism is assumed to be originally acting and for this action no cause need be sought. But the acts are always within a society, and the ongoing social process with its habits, customs, language, and institutions is a pre-existent organization into which every child is born. The immature member of a society acts, but his acts are social acts at first, social because helpless and prolonged infancy limits him to contacts with social beings. The social objects have this essential character that they respond and change, and therefore adjustment must be made to them. Thus gestures arise, for the initial movements are acts that are parts of a whole, acts that mean larger acts; and the meaning of these gestures arises in the experience of response. In redintegration the incomplete picture is filled out in the imagination with material that has once been the complement, and thus meaning is brought into experience. In this way the doctrine is developed that ideas, the meaning aspect of symbols, are derived from the consequences of gestures performed by a participant in a social act. Ideas are not private and mental but social and motor.
Intelligence cannot be denied to the lower animals and the presence of symbols among them seems demonstrable. But significant symbols and reflective intelligence belong only to man, and it is in the effort to account for this crucial difference that Mead has made his most original contribution. That it has not had wider influence in contemporary sociology and psychology is due to the fact that it has not been readily accessible to scholars, a lack which this book ought to do something to supply.
It is in the phenomenon of human speech that Mead finds his most important clue. Speech is sometimes "the expression of thought in words" but this is only a secondary function. Speech is vocal gesture, it is behav-
( 811) -ior with meaning, and the meaning is a result of the social effects of the speech. In detail it is shown that the acquisition of language cannot be explained as the result of imitation, but that the elements, all of them, appear in the developing activity of spontaneous vocalization. The importance of the vocal gesture is that the one who stimulates another stimulates himself at the same time, since he hears his own voice. The self-stimulation makes possible self-response and this response is influenced by the response of the other. The result is the ability to take the rôle of the other which becomes sometimes "sympathetic introspection" but, what is even more important, leads the self to take the attitude of the other to himself, thus becoming an object to himself, with all that this implies.
Why man alone can achieve significant symbols and why he always does so in communication is assumed to be due to some complication in the central nervous system, the nature of which is as yet unknown, for we know more about our minds than we do about our brains. The neurology of speech is only partly explored and the neurology of attention is still a dark continent. But this phenomenon is observable in all normally developing human beings and cannot be found occurring in any other animal.
Once this standpoint has been taken, there are numerous other problems that arise as corollaries. The self is a rôle but there are too many "others" for us to adopt the thousand rôles that would seem to be necessary. There arises the "generalized other," in which occurs a synthesis of group attitudes which men hold in common. And to the voice of this generalized other we hearken when the failure of habit forces reflection.
Human conduct does not become a matter of adaptation to environment, for the conscious act is not a response to a stimulus. Mead does not conceive of the human form as an infinitely complex slot machine; action is rather the resultant of an impulse seeking expression and the "stimulus" is not only selected, it is sought for. The stimulus is the occasion for the release of the impulse. When the situation is problematic, there is an inability for conduct to go on, an uncertainty about the object and a vagueness and inefficiency about the impulse. When the broken whole is redintegrated the response is into the stimulus and constitutes the stimulus. Thus the organism creates its environment.
The psychology of perception receives welcome illumination. Perception becomes neither the passive awareness of an object nor a bundle of sensations united by some synthesizing mental power, but rather one kind of action. The perception of a physical object he calls a collapsed or "telescoped" act in which there is immediate experience of what would
( 812) result did we go through a series of movements. Ice looks cold because it would produce certain effects were we to go toward it and touch it. The imagery of the past fuses with the excitation of the present and objects that have been organized are thus perceived.
Social objects require adjustment, for they are responding and changing, and thus they demand that attention be fastened on the beginning of the act thus giving rise to the gesture. Physical objects are non-responding, the attention being on the last of a series of movements rather than on the first, and, therefore, though the size, shape, and color may apparently change, these changes are neglected since the attention is on the end. If a physical object occasions surprise or any emotion, there is a tendency to regress to the social acts with which experience began. This occurs in such varied circumstances as the irritation at a chair into which we bump in the dark, the magical incantations of the rainmaker, and the sophisticated poetry of nature. Objects are not passively apprehended, they arise inside experience, and are constructed, organized, created.
The relation of the body and especially the central nervous system to mind and consciousness is a problem that still exercises us all. To locate it inside the brain as is often done with uncritical naïveté, or to put it inside the head with all the solipsistic consequences as Russell does, is to raise the insuperable difficulties of interactionism. Mead's view is that consciousness must be considered as functional, not substantive, objective and not subjective, and that what takes place in the brain are the processes which make it possible. The grounds for this position cannot be given in the scope of this review.
Whether the material in the book as here presented places an undue emphasis on the effort of Mead to redeem the word "behaviorism" from the connotation given to it by its inventor is a question on which his former students may differ. But all will agree that Mead considered the human self as a resultant of action and communication in society, and that the concepts of consciousness and imagination were necessary. The explanation of new organizations in experience as a result of the "conditioning" of reflexes or responses he found inadequate.
It is not only in the assumption of the priority of culture and of the primacy of impulses to action that the mechanical consequences of orthodox behaviorism are found wanting. In the passages where the "I" and the "me" are discussed, there is set forth another ground for assuming a spontaneity and creativeness which transcend the mechanical.
Many other aspects of the collective life receive attention but the material available does not always permit adequate development. Other posthumous volumes of Mead's work are promised and these will help to
( 813) bring to the attention of scholars the work of one of the most original men of our generation.
University of Chicago