George Herbert Mead's Philosophy of the Present

James T. Farrell

THE STORY IS TOLD of the late George Herbert Mead that one day a colleague who edited a learned journal asked him to contribute an essay. About a year later, meeting this colleague on the street, he casually remarked that he had almost completed the paper. Mead wrote relatively little[1] and almost exclusively for technical journals of philosophy and the social sciences. Thus, while he was unquestionably as important a philosopher as Whitehead, Dewey, Morris Cohen, or Bertrand Russell, he is not known to so wide a public. In his writing, he was something of a perfectionist. Occasionally woolly, his style was often marked by accuracy and precision. Some of his papers are a pleasure to read not only because of their originality but also because they are models of compact organization. Thus his essay "On the Nature of an Aesthetic Experience," in the International Journal of Ethics ( July, 1926) , is not merely stimulating for its ideas; it is good, clear writing.

Mead was born in 1863—like many philosophers of his generation, the son of a clergyman. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1883, and then spent three years studying abroad. He next became an instructor at the University of Michigan,

(178) where he served until he was called to the newly established University of Chicago. He and Dewey became the most distinguished members of the so-called "Chicago School of Philosophy," which also included James H. Tufts, translator of Windelband, and Addison W. Moore. Mead was a man with extraordinarily broad interests and a scholarly knowledge of many fields. He was equally at home in mathematics, Greek or German philosophy, the history of scientific thought, and contemporary social psychology. There is a reference in one of his papers, written six or seven years ago, to the contemporary literary masterpiece, Ulysses. His students recount that specialists in various fields, mathematics, for example, would visit his lectures and find to their surprise that he was telling them things they didn't know about their own particular subjects. It is this reviewer's conviction that there are professors and almost whole departments of the social sciences at the University of Chicago who owe any ideas the; have to Mead and Dewey.

This volume[2] contains the notes Mead drafted for the Paul Carus Lectures (delivered at Berkeley, California, in 1930), with some supplementary essays of a related character. Most of these essays were manuscripts found among his papers; two have been printed before. At the time he delivered his Carus Lectures, he was Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Chicago, and distracting work connected with his official position prevented him froth devoting as much time as he would have liked to their preparation. In fact, parts of the lectures were written on the train as he journeyed to Berkeley. He was unable to expand the lectures afterward because of his official work and the illness that resulted in his death in April, 1931. Withal, the content of the book constitutes an outstanding and original piece of work—one that should not he neglected by anyone sincerely concerned with the philosophic thought of the present time.


A reviewer cannot begin to do justice to this book by summarizing its contents within a limited space. The author's point of view is complicated, and hence the best one can do is suggest the book's general scope and significance. This task, I might add, is considerably lightened by the editor, Arthur E. Murphy, who has contributed a brilliant expository introduction. Mr. Murphy suggests that there are three related tendencies in Mead's work. He was a pragmatist, and very close to Dewey's thought in his conceptions of the process of acquiring knowledge. However, it is best to qualify his pragmatism by quoting from the introduction:

Pragmatism as a philosophy has tended to encourage the activities of its protagonists in t s o directions. In many cases the polemical interest has been paramount, and here the sins and "pseudo-problems" of the epistemologist ha- e come in for too much attention. . . . But when pragmatists have followed their enthusiasm for experience to the fact itself, and have called attention to the detailed structure of some objects of knowledge their contributions have been outstanding. It was with this construckive pragmatism that Mr. Mead was primarily concerned.

The problems he dealt with were set by his pragmatic theory of knowledge, which rejects any transcendental or extra-experiential conceptions of truth, and is concerned with objects insofar as they can be used, or can provide knowledge to be used, in directing the streams of activity that are the conditioning factors of the future. The second characteristic of his work is his devotion to research science, and to the ideals of scientific method which he carried rigidly into his own thought. I might add that he contributes an accurate description of the process and significance of scientific method, not only in this volume, but also in an earlier paper, "Scientific Method and the Individual Thinker," printed in Creative Intelligence. Third is that tendency in philosophy represented by the works of such men as Whitehead and Alexander, and concerned with conceptions of time, space, and other fundamental categories. But Mead does not fall into the trap that caught Whitehead, who healed the

(180) old dichotomy between the mental and the physical by endowing the whole universe with feeling. Mead rejects Whitehead's "the ingression of eternal objects" into the passage of events.

Mead strives to place value and consciousness in nature. He approaches the human organism from a functional point of view which is even somewhat similar to that adopted by the neurologist, C. Judson. Herrick, in The Brains of Rats and Men. The locus of both consciousness and value is the present, and it is in terms of the present that the past and the future are organized. The past is noted because of its primary characteristic of irrevocability; it was in the past that the conditions determining the present were set. The past is not, however, a series of past presents. It contained the determining conditions that permitted the "carrying on of relationships" into the present. But the present constitutes a break with the past, because the event emerging carries with it an aspect of novelty, a discontinuity. On the basis of this emergent event, we then reorder the past, so that it will contain the proper antecedents for this novel emergence. Thus, new pasts are always arising behind us, just as new futures are arising before us, because of the constant emergence of new events. Thus the emergent event is in two systems at the same time. It is in the system of the past out of which it has emerged, and it is in the new system into which it be placed, and which will in turn become a reconstructed past with the passage of time. This formulation might be described in Mr. Murphy's phrase, as a "combination of relative determinism and future reconstructionism."

The position of an emergent event in two systems at once is the basis for Mead's most original conception, which he terms "sociality." Sociality is "the situation in which the novel event is in both the old order and the new which its advent heralds. Sociality is the capacity for being several things at once." The highest form of sociality is human awareness, and its most distinctive mark is mind or consciousness. Mind is notable because it has the ability to select, and can therefore transfer its own responses into the objective field to which it reacts. The re-

(181) -lations in this process between the conscious organism and the objective field to which it is responding are meanings. Thus meanings are treated as the essences of objects, rather than as mere sense data: the) are stimuli to behavior. To quote again from Mr. Murphy, this point of view succeeds in importing into the world "the promise of the future and the lesson of the past"; and it also succeeds (if I may be permitted a repetition) in placing consciousness and value in nature where they seem to belong. The structure of the interaction between the organism and the external world is thereby set down for us, and we see in outline how the physical world controls the action of the organism while the organism in turn acts upon the physical world, selecting and organizing it. The way this interaction works is detailed in part in the last paper in this book, "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control."

There is no reason why Mead's writings should not have a public as large as Whitehead's. They are no more complicated and fully as important. And this volume is a good beginning.

In conclusion I quote from Dewey's preface:

Mr. Mead's philosophical thinking . . . springs from his own intimate experiences, from things deeply felt, rather than from things merely thought out by him, which then seek substantiation in accepted facts and current concepts. His interest in the concept of emergence is, for example, a reflex of that factor of his own intellectual experience by which new insights were constantly budding and having then to be joined to what he had thought previously, instead of merely displacing old ideas. He felt within himself both the emergence of the new and the inevitable continuity of the old. So, too, he experienced within himself the struggle of i leas, hypotheses, presentiments, at first wholly private, a matter of intimate personal selfhood, to find and take their place in an objective, shared, public world. His sense of "sociality" as simultaneous existence n two different orders seems to me to have something in common with the combination of great originality and unusual deference to otherss which marked his own personality.[3]




  1. Since this was written (in ,2), three large volumes of Mead's writings have been published. These books— Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century; Mind, Self, and Society, and The Philosophy of the Act—are based on notes, lectures, and other material from his posthumous papers.
  2. George Herbert Mead, The Philosophy of the Present, edited by Arthur E. Murphy, with prefatory remarks by John Dewey, ''The Paul Carus Foundation Lectures III" (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1932).

  3. This view is more fully developed in Mead's posthumous works Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago, 1934 ) and The Philosophy of the Act (Chicago, 1938).

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2