The Philosophy of the Present
Prefactory Remarks by John Dewy
The difficult task of drawing for the reader a map in which the main features of George Mead's thought are set before us (as is the business of a good map), in their proper relations to one another has been performed by Dr. Murphy in his Introduction. It would be of little or no assistance to the reader were I to go over the ground which he has traversed. There is, however, a trait of Mr. Mead's mind which when it is recognized will help protect the reader from some of the pitfalls into which one is likely to fall in dealing with an original thinker. While Mr. Mead was an original thinker, he had no sense of being original. Or if he had such a feeling he kept it under. Instead of bringing to the front as novelties the problems which were occupying his own mind (which they were even as problems), he chose to link them to ideas and movements already current. An excellent instance of this trait is found in the pragmatic theory of knowledge to which Professor Murphy refers. Mr. Mead does not seem to have had any consciousness of the way and the degree in which his own conception was a novel contribution; he preferred to treat it as if it were a natural outgrowth with at most some change of emphasis in statement.
When I first came to know Mr. Mead, well over forty years ago, the dominant problem in his mind concerned the nature of consciousness as personal and private. In the 'eighties and 'nineties, idealism prevailed in Anglo-American thought. It had a solution of the problem of consciousness ready to offer. Mind as consciousness was at once the very stuff of the universe and the structural forms of this stuff; human consciousness in its intimate and seemingly exclusively personal aspect was at most but a variant, faithful
(xxxvii) or errant, of the universal mind. I almost never heard Mr. Mead argue directly against this view. I suppose that it never seemed real to him in spite of the fact that it was the official doctrine of most of his own teachers and was, in some form or other, the philosophic conception most generally put forward in the philosophical writings of the period. When, however, it was urged upon him, instead of combating it, he took the ground that it did not touch the problem in which he was interested. Even if it were true and were accepted as such, it did not explain how states of mind peculiar to an individual, like the first hypotheses of a discoverer which throw into doubt beliefs previously entertained and which deny objectivity to things that have been universally accepted as real objects, can function as the sources of objects which instead of being private and personal, instead of being merely "subjective," belong to the common and objective universe.
As I look back I can see that a great deal of the seeming obscurity of Mr. Mead's expression was due to the fact that he saw something as a problem which had not presented itself at all to the other minds. There was no common language because there was no common object of reference. His problem did not fall into the categories and classifications of either idealism or realism. He was talking about something which the rest of us did not see. It lay outside of what used to be called "apperceptive masses." I fancy that if one had a sufficiently consecutive knowledge of Mr. Mead's intellectual biography during the intervening years, one could discover how practically all his inquiries and problems developed out of his original haunting question. His sense of the rôle of subjective consciousness in the reconstruction of objects as experienced and in the production of new customs and institutions was surely the thing which lead him to his extraordinarily broad and accurate knowl-
(xxxviii) -edge of the historical development of the sciences -- a knowledge which did not stop with details of discoveries but which included changes of underlying attitudes toward nature. His interest in the problem of self led in one direction to the study of the organism as the biological unit corresponding to the self. In the other direction it necessitated that study of the self in its social relations which carried him into social psychology-the field in which, I suppose, he had the greatest immediate influence through the effect of his teaching upon his students. The nature of his problem was such, as one can readily see, to make him acutely sensitive to the doctrines of Whitehead, especially the effort to include matters usually relegated to an exclusively subjective realm within the constitution of nature itself. Since his problem was (and that long before the words "emergent evolution" were heard), essentially that of the emergence of the new and its ultimate incorporation in a recognized and now old world, one can appreciate how much more fundamentally he took the doctrine of emergence than have most of those who have played with the idea. Against this background, his generalization of the idea of "sociality" and his interpretation of emergence in evolution take on a meaning which they do not otherwise have.
There is a passage to be found in the recently published first volume of Peirce's work which explains to me the kind of originality which marked Mr. Mead. "It is," Peirce said, "extremely difficult to bring our attention to elements of experience which are continually present. For we have nothing in experience with which to contrast them; and without contrast, they cannot excite our attention.... The result is that round-about devices have to be resorted to in order to enable us to perceive what stares us in the face with a glare that, once noticed, becomes almost oppressive with its insistency." The power of observing common elements, which are
(xxxix) ignored just because they are common, characterized the mind of George Mead. It accounts for the difficulty which he had in conveying what he observed to others. Most philosophical thinking is done by means of following out the logical implications of concepts which seem central to a particular thinker, the deductions being reinforced by suitable concrete data. Mr. Mead's philosophical thinking often, perhaps usually, reverses the process. It 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 new with the old. So too he experienced within himself the struggle of ideas, 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 in two different orders seems to me to have something in common with the combination of great originality and unusual deference to others which marked his own personality.
In contrast with the kind of originality which marked his thinking I realize that much which passes for original thinking is a reworking, in the light of some new perspective, of intellectual attitudes already pretty well conventionalized; the working of a vein of ore previously uncovered but not adequately exploited by others. I realize also that in much of what seems like clearness of literary expression, the clearness is but another name for familiarity rather than something intrinsic to the thought. The loss which American
(xl) philosophy has suffered by Mr. Mead's untimely death is increased by the fact that there is every reason to think that he was beginning to get a command of his ideas which made communication to others easier and more effective. The manuscript of his Carus lectures--for whose careful editing we owe so much to Dr. Murphy--gives hardly more than hurriedly prepared notes of extreme condensation. He was planning to expand them to three or four times their present length, an expansion which would have clarified the thought and not merely swelled the number of words. But in spite of all limitations, I believe that a widening public will increasingly find in his writings what personal students have found for many, many years: a seminal mind of the very first order.