Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning

In an earlier publication [1] I have supported the position that gestures in their original forms are the first overt phases in social acts, a social act being one in which one individual serves in his action as a stimulus to a response from another individual. The adaptation of these individuals to each other implies that their conduct calls out appropriate and valuable responses from each other. Such adjustment on the part of each form to the action of the other naturally leads to the direction of the action of the one form by the earliest phases of the conduct of the other. The more perfect the adaptation of the conduct of a social form the more readily it would be able to determine its actions by the first indications of an act in another form. From such a situation there follows a peculiar importance attaching to these earlier stages of social acts, serving as they do to mediate the appropriate responses of other forms in the same group. The earlier stages in social acts involve all the beginnings of hostility, wooing and parental care, all the control of the sense-organs which precede the overt conduct directed by the sense-organ, the attitudes of the body expressing readiness to act and the direction which the act will take, and finally the vasomotor preparations for action, such as the flushing of the blood-vessels, the change in the rhythm of breathing and the explosive sounds which accompany the change in the breathing rhythm and circulation.

All of these early stages in animal reaction are of supreme importance as stimuli to social forms -- i.e., forms whose lives are conditioned by the conduct of other forms -- and must become in the

(398) process of evolution peculiarly effective as stimuli, or, put the other way around, social forms must become peculiarly sensitive to these earliest overt phases in social acts. The import which these early stages in social acts have is a sufficient explanation for their preservation even though some of them may have lost their original function in the social act. The gesture as the beginning of a social activity has become provocative of a certain response on the part of another form. It serves in wooing and quarreling to produce a summation of stimuli for reproductive and hostile reactions. This interplay of preliminary and preparatory processes even in the conduct of animal forms lower than man places the animals en rapport with each other, and leads in wooing, quarreling, and animal-play to relatively independent activities that answer to human intercourse.

There exists thus a field of conduct even among animals below man, which in its nature may be classed as gesture. It consists of the beginnings of those actions which call out instinctive responses from other forms. And these beginnings of acts call out responses which lead to readjustments of acts which have been commenced, and these readjustments lead to still other beginnings of response which again call out still other readjustments. Thus there is a conversation of gesture, a field of palaver within the social conduct of animals. Again the movements which constitute this field of conduct are themselves not the complete acts which they start out to become. They are the glance of the eye that is the beginning of the spring or the flight, the attitude of body with which the spring or flight commences, the growl, or cry, or snarl with which the respiration adjusts itself to oncoming struggle, and they all change with the answering attitudes, glances of the eye, growls and snarls which are the beginnings of the actions which they themselves arouse.

Back of these manifestations lie the emotions which the checking of the acts inevitably arouse. Fear, anger, lust of hunger and sex, all the gamut of emotions arise back of the activities of fighting, and feeding, and reproduction, because these activities are for the moment stopped in the process of readjustment. While these gestures thus reveal emotion to the observer their function is not that of revealing or expressing emotion. While the very checking of activity and readiness, straining to adjust oneself to indications of action on the part of the other individual, imply excess of energy seeking outlet, the setting free of surplus energy is not the function of the gesture. Nor yet is it an adequate explanation to find in the gesture the psychophysical counterpart of the emotional consciousness. The first func-

(399)-tion of the gesture is the mutual adjustment of changing social response to changing social stimulation, when stimulation and response are to be found in the first overt phases of the social acts.

I desire in this paper to emphasize and elaborate the position taken earlier that only in the relation of this mutual adjustment of social stimulation and response to the activities which they ultimately mediate, can the consciousness of meaning arise.

It is the assumption of the author that the consciousness of meaning consists mainly in a consciousness of attitude, on the part of the individual, over against the object to which he is about to react. The feeling of attitude represents the coordination between the process of stimulation and that of response when this is properly mediated. The feelings of readiness to take up or read a book, to spring over a ditch, to hurl a stone, are the stuff out of which arises a sense of the meaning of the book, the ditch, the stone. Professor Royce has perhaps given the most simple and convincing statement of the doctrine, in his Psychology.

It is important to thus identify the sense of meaning with the consciousness of response or readiness to respond, because such an identification throws some light on the conditions under which the sense of meaning can arise. The power of distinguishing clearly the different elements in contents of consciousness belongs peculiarly to the field of stimulation and its imagery. Such sharp distinction of contents is not characteristic of the consciousness of response.

Vision with its assimilated imagery of contact sensation readily distinguishes the form, shadings, and colors of a rock, and can mark the different areas of color and brightness, the changing curve of line and plane, but the tendencies to react to each of these different stimulations lie back in a field into which we can only indirectly introduce clear distinctions of content. We may detect a tendency of the eye to follow the curving line and to arrest its movement with its breaks in the contour. We may catch the finger in a readiness to follow a like path, or we may be unable to analyze out these contents, and these are but a minimal fraction of the responses which are indicated in our sense of familiarity with the boulder.

The motor imagery which lies in the background of the sensuous discriminations is notably difficult to detect, and even when consciously aroused, to differentiate into clearly distinguishable parts. This difficulty in presenting the contents of response -- either in terms of the attitude of body, the position of the limbs, feel of contracting muscles, or in terms of the memory of past responses -- indicates that

(400) these contents, at least in their analyzed elements, are of negligible importance in the economy of immediate conduct. On the contrary, conduct is controlled by recognized differences in the field of stimulation. It is the difference in the visual or auditory or tactual experience which results in changed response. It is the failure to secure a difference in these fields that leads to renewed effort. We are conscious of muscular strain to some degree, but attention follows the changing objects about us that register the success or failure of the activity. It is further true that the more perfect the adjustment between the stimulation and response within the act the less conscious are we of the response itself. Of incomplete adjustment we are aware as awkwardness of movement and uncontrolled reactions. Perfection of adjustment leaves us with only the recognition of the sensuous characteristics of the objects about, and we have only the attitude of familiarity to record the readiness to make a thousand responses to distinctions of vision, sound and feel that lie in our field of stimulation. Yet the meaning of these distinctions in sense experience must lie in the relation of the stimulation to the response.

The recurrence in memory of the past experience is the content that is commonly supposed to mediate this consciousness of meaning. The burnt child avoids the fire. Something to be shunned has become to him the most important element of the fascinating flame, and it is the consequence of the response that is supposed to give the child the all-important content. The recurrence of the imagery of the past disaster insures the avoidance of the flame. Does it give the child a consciousness that this is the meaning of the fire? There is wide difference between merging the memory of the past experience with the present sensuous stimulation leading to the withdrawal of the child's hand, and a consciousness that hot fire means withdrawal. In the first case an immediate content of sensation assimilates a content of imagery that insures a certain response. This assimilation in no sense guarantees a consciousness of a distinguishable meaning. As indicated above the more complete the assimilation the less conscious are we of the actual content of response. That with which we are most familiar is least likely to be distinguished in direct conduct in terms of meaning. That this familiarity is still a guarantee that upon demand we can give a meaning illustrates the point I desire to make, that the bringing into consciousness of a meaning content is an act which must in every instance be distinguished from the mere consciousness of stimulation resulting in response. To see one's hat may at once lead to picking it up and putting it on. This sureness and

(401) immediacy of action is not the same as the consciousness that it is his hat. In fact it is essential to the economy of our conduct that the connection between stimulation and response should become habitual and should sink below the threshold of consciousness. Furthermore if the relation between stimulation and response is to appear as the meaning of the object, -- if the characters of the stimulation are to be referred to the appropriate characters in response, we find ourselves before the difficulty presented above. There is in our response so little content which can be distinguished and related to the characters in the content of stimulation. There is the leaping flame which means to the child a plaything, there is heat which means a burn. In this case the results of the past responses are related to characters in the content of stimulation -- movement means plaything, heat means burn. Still the meaning of plaything is playing and the meaning of burn is drawing back the hand. The association of these contents with the dancing flame does not enable the child to present to himself the playing or hurried withdrawal. It simply gives other contents, other stimulation values to his immediate experience. The association of one content with another content is not the symbolism of meaning. In the consciousness of meaning the symbol and that which is symbolized -- the thing and what it means -- must be presented separately. Association of contents of stimulation tends to become a complete merging and loss of distinction. And these contents of imagery which are merged are not the attitudes, the feels of readiness to act which lie back of our consciousness of meaning. The general habit of reacting to objects of a certain class, such as a book, must be got before the mind's eye before a recognition of the meaning of a book can appear. No amount of enrichment of the sensuous content of the book through the eye, hand or memory image will bring this habitual generalized attitude into consciousness. Unquestionably these enrichments furnish us with more cues for setting off this habitual reaction. But this is their entire function, to act as cues to habitual reactions, not to appear as symbols of these reactions, as separate contents. The facility of habitual conduct forbids such separation between the stimulation-cue and the response. The more perfect the habit the less possibility would there be that the content which serves to stimulate could serve directly as the symbol of the response, could bring out separately and relate to itself the reaction for which it is responsible. If the fact be simple, consisting only in well organized stimulation and response, there cannot be found in its mechanism the occasion for the appearance of the consciousness of meaning. The perfection of adjustment between these

(402)two parts of the act leaves no opening for the distinction between characteristic and its meaning, and without such a distinction, involved in the process of relation, there can be no recognition of meaning. Furthermore the contents in consciousness which answer to the meaning of objects are our generalized habitual responses to them. These contents are the consciousness of attitudes, of muscular tensions and the feels of readiness to act in presence of certain stimulations. There is nothing in the economy of the act itself which tends to bring these contents above the threshold, nor distinguish them as separable elements in a process of relation, such as is implied in the consciousness of meaning.

The foregoing analysis has considered only the act made perfect in habit. This act is of course the basis of the consciousness of meaning. Meaning is a statement of the relation between the characteristics in the sensuous stimulation and the responses which they call out. While therefore there is nothing in the mechanism of the act which brings this relation itself to consciousness the consciousness of the relation rests upon the perfection of the act.

If the occasion for the consciousness of meaning is not found in the habitual act may it not be found in the conflict of acts? The same psychology that states meaning in terms of the attitudes which are the registrations in consciousness of habits of reaction is wont to find in conflicting activities occasion for reflective consciousness. Thinking for this psychology is always the solution of a problem. It would then be consonant with this point of view to find in conflicting activities just that conscious distinction between the characteristic in the stimulation and the attitude of response which is the prerequisite of the consciousness of meaning. For example, a man is in doubt whether the clouds and wind mean rain or fair weather. His inclination to walk abroad, and his inclination to seek shelter are in conflict. This conflict is precisely the situation which brings sharply into consciousness the characteristics of sky and atmosphere which are signs of fair and of foul weather. A certain direction of the wind and dampness in the air are so merged in experience with the imagery of rainy weather that one instinctively draws back from expeditions far from shelter, while a still unclouded sky arouses the inclinations to wander abroad. Does this conflict which must emphasize the opposing characteristics of the morning heavens also lead to that relation of the characteristics to response which is implied in the consciousness of meaning ? A legitimate guide in seeking an answer to this question will be found in the direction of attention; and attention under such

(403) conditions is directed toward the differences in the characteristics of weather, and not toward the feels of attitude which reveal our habit of response. The man so situated studies the heavens, sniffs the air, detects a thickening of the sky which would otherwise have passed unnoticed, but does not immediately become conscious that rain means his habit of withdrawing from its inclemency, nor is he impelled to define to himself fair weather in terms of far ranging expeditions. The connections are of course there, but the conflict of tendencies directs the attention not to these connections but toward the sharper definition of the objects which constitute the stimulation.

In the field of gesture, on the other hand, the interplay of social conduct turns upon changes of attitude, upon signs of response. In themselves these signs of response become simply other stimulations to which the individual replies by means of other responses and do not at first seem to present a situation essentially different from that of the man hesitating before the uncertainties of the morning sky. The difference is found, however, in the fact that we are conscious of interpreting the gestures of others by our own responses or tendencies to respond. We awaken to the hostility of our neighbors' attitudes by the arising tendency to attack or assume the attitude of defense. We become aware of the direction of another's line of march by our tendencies to step one side or the other.

During the whole process of interaction with others we are analyzing their oncoming acts by our instinctive responses to their changes of posture and other indications of developing social acts. We have seen that the ground for this lies in the fact that social conduct must be continually readjusted after it has already commenced, because the individuals to whose conduct our own answers, are themselves constantly varying their conduct as our responses become evident. Thus our adjustments to their changing reactions take place, by a process of analysis of our own responses to their stimulations. In these social situations appear not only conflicting acts with the increased definition of elements in the stimulation, but also a consciousness of one's own attitude as an interpretation of the meaning of the social stimulus. We are conscious of our attitudes because they are responsible for the changes in the conduct of other individuals. A man's reaction toward weather conditions has no influence upon the weather itself. It is of importance for the success of his conduct that he should be conscious not of his own attitudes, of his own habits of response, but of the signs of rain or fair weather. Successful social conduct brings one into a field within which a consciousness of one's own attitudes helps toward the control of the conduct of others.


In the field of social conduct, attention is indeed directed toward the stimulation existing in the overt actions and preparations for action on the part of others, but the response to these indications of conduct leads to change in this conduct. The very attention given to stimulation may throw one's attention back upon the attitude he will assume toward the challenging attitude in another, since this attitude will change the stimulation. To make the two situations somewhat more specific we may compare the state of consciousness of a man running through a forest or over broken ground, with that of a man face to face with a number of enemies. The first is constantly faced by problems requiring rapid solution, problems of the pace he can keep up, and the direction he should take in the midst of the crowded obstacles to his progress. He responds instantaneously to indications of distance, of contour, and of resistance by rapid movements toward which as attitudes he has not the slightest temptation to turn his attention.

The second is subject to the same type of stimulation. He must act instantaneously and judge as quickly the characters of the stimulations to which he must respond. His situation however differs in this, that the attitude he assumes to meet an anticipated blow may lead his opponent to change the attack, and he must if he is to survive be aware of this value. His own gesture thus interprets his opponent's attitude and must be held in consciousness as changing the situation to which he must respond. In a word, within social conduct the feels of one's own responses become the natural objects of attention, since they interpret first of all attitudes of others which have called them out, in the second place, because they give the material in which one can state his own value as a stimulus to the conduct of others. Thus we find here the opportunity and the means for analyzing and bringing to consciousness our responses, our habits of conduct, as distinguished from the stimulations that call them out. The opportunity is found in the import of the response in determining the conduct of others. The means are our gestures as they appear in the feel of our own attitudes and movements, which are the beginnings of social reactions.

I may refer in closing to the accepted doctrine that language, in which our meanings almost exclusively arise in consciousness, is but a form -- a highly specialized form -- of gesture, and to the other important fact that in these presentations of others' attitudes and our own we have the material out of which selves are constructed, and to the fact that consciousness of meaning is so intimately bound up with self-consciousness.


Thus the consciousness of meaning at least at this stage is a consciousness of one's own attitudes of response as they answer to, control, and interpret the gestures of others. The elements in this consciousness are first of all a social situation, i.e., stimulation by another's act with tendencies to respond revealing themselves in our own reactions, these tendencies and the stimulations which call them out mutually influencing each other; secondly, the consciousness of this value of one's own gesture in terms of the change in the gesture of the other form, i.e., one is conscious of the relation between the stimulation and the response; thirdly the terms in which this relation appears in consciousness, i. e., the feel of one's own attitude arising spontaneously to meet the gesture of the other, then the imagery of the change in the gesture of the other which would answer this expression, which again would arouse the tendency to respond in still different fashion. It must remain for a later paper to analyze the process of language in these terms, and to indicate the fundamental character of this consciousness of meaning in the consciousness of self, and finally to present the process of thought itself as such a play of gesture between selves, even when those selves are a part of our inner self-consciousness.


  1. Psychological Bulletin, VI, 401.

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