George Herbert Mead

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George Herbert Mead (February 27, 1863 - April 26, 1931) was an American philosopher, sociologist and psychologist, primarily affiliated with the University of Chicago, where he was one of several distinguished pragmatists. He is regarded as one of the founders of social psychology, developing what was later called the "Symbolic Interactionist" approach. Mead studied the aspects of human beings that make us unique, recognizing that our use of symbolism allows us to reflect on our experience and communicate those reflections to others, that we develop our sense of self through interaction with others, and that our uniquely human free will makes it impossible to fully predict human behavior.

Mead is considered a major American philosopher by virtue of being, along with Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, one of the founders of pragmatism. He also made significant contributions to the philosophies of nature, science, and history, and to process philosophy.



George Herbert Mead was born in 1863 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. His father, Hiram Mead, was a Congregational minister. In 1870, the Meads moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where Reverend Hiram Mead became professor of homiletics at Oberlin Theological Seminary. As a child, George was described as a “cautious, mild-mannered, kind-hearted, rather quiet boy” (Miller in Schellenberg 1978, 38).

George entered Oberlin College in 1879 at the age of 16. There, he and his friend, Henry Northrup Castle, became enthusiastic students of literature, poetry, and history, and staunch opponents of supernaturalism. He experienced a sense of liberation from his early theological training. However, this was a relatively mild rebellion, and it created no stormy scenes with his parents.

His father died in 1881, and his mother then took up teaching, initially at Oberlin College and later becoming president at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. “There were no strained relations between the proud and dignified mother and her quiet son, though they avoided sensitive philosophical issues. George once said that he spent his second twenty years unlearning what he had been taught in his first twenty.” (Schellenberg 1978, 38-39)

After failing as a grade school teacher (at which he lasted four months) and working on a railroad surveying crew, Mead went to Harvard, where he met William James, one of the founders of American pragmatism, and took classes from Josiah Royce. The latter exposed him to Hegelian idealism, which deeply influenced Mead.

After a year at Harvard, Mead went to Germany, initially to the University of Leipzig, where he became strongly interested in Darwinism and studied with Wilhelm Wundt, founder of Experimental psychology, and G. Stanley Hall. On Hall's recommendation, Mead transferred to the University of Berlin in the spring of 1889, where he concentrated on the study of physiological psychology.

During this time, Mead's friend, Henry Northrup Castle, was living in Leipzig with his sister, Helen. She and George were married in 1891. Shortly thereafter, Mead accepted an offer to teach in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

Mead underwent two important influences at Michigan: John Dewey, the Chairman of the Department, and Charles Horton Cooley, a young Ph.D. candidate. Dewey was one of the founders of pragmatism, and Cooley would become, along with Mead, one of the co-founders of the social psychological perspective, later called symbolic interactionism.

Three years later, in 1894, Dewey was appointed chair of the philosophy department at the newly created University of Chicago, and he brought Mead with him to that department. Mead was 31 years old at the time, and he stayed at the University of Chicago until his death in 1931.

While Mead never joined the sociology department at the University of Chicago, his legacy is perhaps more prominent in that field than it is in philosophy. The “Meadian” tradition in sociology represents the interpretive, qualitative, and anti-positivist approach, which some sociologists favor, as opposed to the quantitative and statistical survey research, which emulates the physical sciences and has dominated the field. It is probably not a coincidence that much of the qualitative and ethnographic tradition in Sociology can be traced to the so-called "Chicago School."

Mead published relatively little in his lifetime. When he died at the age of 68, he had not published a single book. His greatest impact was upon his students in his lectures. His major and best-known work is the four-volume Mind, Self and Society, published posthumously by his students and edited by Charles W. Morris (1934). This work contains a majority of Mead’s unpublished manuscripts and stenographic lecture notes.

Theories and Ideas

Mead resolved to base his “philosophy upon scientific foundations that would not take basic entities—such as soul or mind—for granted” (Schellenberg 1978, 41). His central concern was to demonstrate the fundamentally social nature of human beings, and he sought to explain the emergence of the human self from the social process, a process which is largely symbolic, i.e. linguistic. Thus, whereas conventional thinking posits the logical primacy of the individual over society, and assumes that the individual is the building block of society, Mead reversed this, arguing that society precedes the individual.

A second conventional assumption which Mead reversed—revealing Darwin’s influence—is the notion that structure precedes function. To the contrary, according to Mead, birds do not fly because they have wings, but they develop wings as a consequence of attempting to fly. Thirdly, as a pragmatist, Mead reversed the classical causal analysis of (social) phenomena. Instead of emphasizing the importance of the prior causes of phenomena, Mead stressed the importance of consequences.

Thus, Mead’s social philosophy is processual rather than static, and it leads to the only branch of modern social science which is relatively non-deterministic, because it is not necessarily concerned with the discovery of independent variables—the branch that became known as symbolic interactionism. This may be the only school of thought in the social sciences which includes human free will in its analysis, and does not limit the domain of science to the study of Kant’s phenomenal world but also dares to address Kant’s noumena.

The Mind

To Mead, the mind is a process, not an entity. He grounded human perception in an "action-nexus" (Joas 1985, 148), ingraining the individual in a "manipulatory phase of the act" as the fundamental “means of living” (Mead 1982, 120). In this manipulatory sphere, “the individual abides with the physical objects” of everyday life (Mead 1938, 267).

Thus, the mind, for Mead, is the activity of thinking. “It is the process of talking over a problematic situation with one’s self, just as one might talk with another, that is exactly what we term ‘mental,’ and it goes on within the organism” (Charon 2004, 101). Above all, mind cannot develop outside of the symbolic, social process: "the individual mind can exist only in relation to other minds with shared meanings" (Mead 1982, 5).

The Self, the I and the Me

Mead, the social psychologist, argued the antipositivistic view that the individual is a product of society, the "self" arising out of social experience as an object of socially symbolic gestures and interactions. Rooted intellectually in Hegelian dialectics, theories of action, and an amended "anti-Watsonian" social behaviorism, Mead’s self was a self of practical and pragmatic intentions.

According to Mead, a self is "that which can be object to itself," (Mead 1964, 204), or that "which is reflexive, i.e. which can be both subject and object." (201). The self, then, represents reflexive experience, simultaneous organic and mental activity. Only humans are capable of this. Only humans have, and are, selves. Lower animals have feelings such as pleasure and pain, but these belong to the organism, not to the self, for the feelings have no symbolic meaning.

Following William James, Mead found it convenient to express the dual and reflexive nature of the self through the concepts of the "I" and the "me." "The self is essentially a social process going on with these two distinguishable phases." (Mead 1964, 233). In other words, the "I" is the subjective and active phase of the self, and the "me" is the objective and passive phase.

Mead also rooted the self’s "perception and meaning" deeply and sociologically in "a common praxis of subjects" (Joas 1985, 166) found specifically in social encounters. Understood as a combination of the "I" and the "me," Mead’s self proved to be noticeably entwined within a sociological existence: For Mead, existence in this community comes before individual consciousness. Thus, just as Mead's theory of knowledge and value is a philosophy of the act from the standpoint of the experiencing individual in interaction with the physical environment, his view of the self is of that self emerging through social acts involving interaction with other individuals.

Socialization and Symbolic Interaction

The social process that produces the self is called socialization. The sine qua non for socialization is symbolic thought, or language. Language consists of significant gestures or symbols, and it is an inherently social phenomenon, since a gesture is only significant if it evokes the same response in oneself as it is intended to elicit in another. Such meaningful communication occurs through role-taking. By taking the role of the other, Mead meant putting oneself in the place of another individual in such a manner that one arouses the same response in both. Only symbolic interaction is truly social in the sense that it requires role-taking. The “social” organization of ants and bees, while complex and sophisticated, is based on instinct, not role-taking.

Mead distinguished several phases of socialization, notably the "play phase" and the "game phase." The former stage occurs when the young child begins to take the role of individual significant others. For the game stage, which is a later developmental stage, Mead used baseball as a metaphor: In order to successfully participate in a game of baseball, the individual must take the role of the generalized other, i.e. the entire social structure and its rules. And so it is with participating in society.

Mead and Pragmatism

Mead was, along with his colleagues and fellow graduate students William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey, one of the founders of pragmatism. To the pragmatist, knowledge is judged by how useful it is. Action is judged by its consequences. Objects are defined according to the use they have for us. Situations are defined, and the meaning of objects is determined by how humans respond to them, in a social context. Human beings interpret their environment, and the stimuli that impinge upon them, before they respond, and those interpretations are part of the human environment. Because the human environment is an interpreted environment, it is therefore fundamentally different from that of all other organisms.

Mead and Social Behaviorism

Mead was also influenced by John B. Watson, the founder of American behaviorism. However, Mead’s Behaviorism differed a great deal from Watson’s. Whereas Watsonian behaviorism was strictly concerned with externally observable physical behavior, Mead’s social behaviorism also included the study of action that is internal to the individual and that cannot be seen directly, notably action which we might call thinking. Unlike Watson, Mead felt that social science must also study what things mean to people and how humans experience events.


Mead is considered a major American philosopher by virtue of being, along with Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, one of the founders of pragmatism. His theory of how the mind and self emerge from the social process of communication by signs laid the foundation for the Symbolic Interactionist school of sociology and social psychology. He also made significant contributions to the philosophies of nature, science, and history, and to process philosophy. He is a classic example of a social theorist whose work does not fit easily within conventional disciplinary boundaries.

Mead’s most tangible legacy is the Symbolic Interactionist School of sociological social psychology. The name for this school was coined by Herbert Blumer, a sociologist who studied at the University of Chicago, took over the Mead's lecturing responsibilities, and went on to chair the Department of Sociology at the University of California Berkeley. He may be said to be the heir to George Herbert Mead.

During the second half of the twentieth century, two distinct branches of symbolic interactionism arose: the Chicago school under Herbert Blumer and the Iowa school under Manford Kuhn. The Chicago school carried forward the interpretive, qualitative Meadian tradition, whereas the Iowa school opted for a more positivistic approach.

Other major contributors to symbolic interactionism during the last part of the twentieth century include Norman Denzin and Sheldon Stryker. Erving Goffman’s so-called “dramaturgical sociology” is also highly influenced by Mead. From the 1960s onwards, Goffman launched an approach that viewed all human social life as staged behavior.

Ultimately, the importance and uniqueness of Meadian social psychology is that it represents an interpretive, qualitative and non-deterministic alternative to positivist social science. It has an affinity with Max Weber’s verstehende sociology, which similarly stresses the importance of understanding the subjective meaning of experience, rather than objectifying the other.

The Meadian perspective can be termed humanistic, in that it focuses on human uniqueness, rather than on our similarities with other species. Our ability to symbolize frees us from our environment and from our past. While much of human behavior is habitual, there always remains an element of unpredictability and freedom, which Mead conceptualized as the “I" phase of the self. The lesson that Mead teaches is that, in the end, no social theorist will ever be able to fully predict human behavior.

In his lifetime, Mead published about 100 scholarly articles, reviews, and incidental pieces. At the moment of death, he was correcting the galleys to what would have been his first book, Essays in Social Psychology, finally published in 2001. His students and colleagues, especially Charles W. Morris, subsequently put together five books from his unpublished manuscripts and from stenographic records of his lectures.


  • Charon, Joel M. 2004. Symbolic Interactionism: An Introduction, an Interpretation, an Integration. Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0132276917
  • Cook, Gary A. 1993. G. H. Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252062728
  • Joas, Hans 1985. G. H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of His Thought. MIT Press. ISBN 0262100339
  • Mead, G. H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Ed. by C. W. Morris. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226516679
  • Mead, G. H. 1938. The Philosophy of the Act. Ed. by C. W. Morris et al. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226516660
  • Mead, G.H. 1964. On Social Psychology. Ed. by Anselm Strauss. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226516652
  • Mead, G. H. 1982. The Individual and the Social Self: Unpublished Essays by G. H. Mead. Ed. by David L. Miller. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226516741
  • Mead, G. H. 2001. Essays in Social Psychology. Ed. by M. J. Deegan. Transaction Books. ISBN 0765800829
  • Schellenberg, James A. 1978. Masters of Social Psychology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195022785

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