George Herbert Mead

AS I look back over the years of George Mead's life, and try to sum up the impression which his personality left upon me, I seem to find running through everything a sense of energy, of vigor, of a vigor unified, outgoing and outgiving. Yet as I say this I am aware that perhaps only those who knew him best have a similar impression. For there was nothing about him of the bustle and ado, the impatient hurry, we often associate with vigor. On the contrary he was rather remarkably free from the usual external signs of busy activity. He was not one to rush about breathless with the conviction that he must somehow convince others of his activity. It was rather that he threw himself completely into whatever he had to do in all the circumstances and relations which life brought to him. He gave himself with a single heart to whatever the day and the moment brought. When anything needed to be done, there was no distinction in his life between the important and the unimportant ; not that he was careless and undiscriminating, but that whatever really needed to be done, whatever made a demand upon him, was important enough to call out his full vigor. If he did not give the impression of bustling energy, it was precisely because in all that he did his energy was so completely engaged and so unified from within. He faced everything as it came along ; incidents were opportunities for reflection to terminate in decision. One can fancy him perplexed temporarily in thought by the complexities of some issue; one can not imagine him hesitant to meet the issue or shilly-shallying, in meeting it. His consciousness never sicklied over the scene of decision and action ; it completely and inwardly identified itself with it. It might be household duties, it might be the needs of a friend, or of the physical and mental needs of the many young persons that he and Mrs. Mead gathered about them ! It might be his reading, his study, his reflection, his recreations, tramps, and travels. In each occasion as it arose there was found the natural opportunity for the free and vital release of his powers.

For his vigor was unified from within, by and from the fullness

( 310) of his own being. More, I think, than any man I have ever known, his original nature and what he acquired and learned, were one and the same thing. It is the tendency of philosophic study to create a separation between what is native, spontaneous, and unconscious and the results of reading and reflection. That split never existed in George Mead. His study, his ideas, his never ceasing reflection and theory were the manifestation of his large and varied natural being. He was extraordinarily free from not only inner suppressions and the divisions they produce, but from all the artificialities of culture. Doubtless like the rest of us he had his inner doubts, perplexities, and depressions. But the unconscious and spontaneous vigor of his personality consumed and assimilated these things in the buoyant and nevertheless tranquil outgivings of thought and action.

He experienced great difficulty in finding adequate verbal expression for his philosophical ideas. His philosophy often found utterance in technical form. In the early years especially it was often not easy to follow his thought ; he gained clarity of verbal expression of his philosophy gradually and through constant effort. Yet this fact is evidence of the unity of his philosophy and his own native being. For him philosophy was less acquired from without, a more genuine development from within, than in the case of any thinker I have known. If he had borrowed his ideas from without, he could have borrowed his language from the same source, and in uttering ideas that were already current, saying with some different emphasis what was already in other persons' minds, he would easily have been understood. But his mind was deeply original — in my contacts and my judgment the most original mind in philosophy in the .America of the last generation. From some cause of which we have no knowledge concerning genuinely original minds, he had early in life an intuition, an insight in advance of his day. Of necessity, there was not ready and waiting for him any language in which to express it. Only as the thoughts of others gradually caught up with what he felt and saw could he articulate himself. Yet his native vigor was such that he never thought of ceasing the effort. He was of such a sociable nature that he must have been disappointed by the failure of others to understand him, but he never allowed it to discourage his efforts to make his ideas intelligible to others. And while in recent years his efforts were crowned with success, there was no time in which his mind was not so creative that anyone in contact with it failed to get stimulation; there was a new outlook upon life and the world that continued to stir and bring forth fruit in one's own thought. His mind was germinative and seminal. One would have to go far to find a teacher of our own day who started in others so many fruitful lines

( 311) of thought; I dislike to think what my own thinking might have been were it not for the seminal ideas which I derived from him. For his ideas were always genuinely original'; they started one thinking in directions where it had never occurred to one that it was worth while even to look.

There was a certain diffidence which restrained George Mead from much publication. But even more than that there was the constant activity of his mind as it moved out into new fields; there were always new phases of his own ideas germinating within him. More than any one I have known he maintained a continuity of ideas with constant development. In my earliest days of contact with him, as he returned from his studies in Berlin forty years ago, his mind was full of the problem which has always occupied him, the problem of individual mind and consciousness in relation to world and society. His psychological and philosophical thinking during the intervening years never got far from the central push of his mind. But his mind was so rich and so fruitful that he was always discovering new phases and relations. He combined in a remarkable way traits usually separated — a central idea and unceasing growth. In consequence he was always dissatisfied with what he had done; always outgrowing his former expressions, and in consequence so reluctant to fix his ideas in the printed word that for many years it was his students and his immediate colleagues who were aware of the tremendous reach and force of his philosophic mind. His abounding vigor manifested itself in transcending his past self and in immediate communication with those about him. His mind was a forum of discussion with itself and of sharing discussion with those with whom he had personal contact. I can not think of him without seeing him engaged in untired discussion with himself and others, turning over and over his ideas and uncovering their hitherto unsuspected aspects and relations. Unlike, however, most minds of intense vigor, he had no interest in imposing his mind on others — it was discussion and discovery that interested him, not the creation of his own mental image in others.

No reference to his abounding and outgoing energy would be anything like adequate that did not allude to the range and breadth of his intellectual interests. His grasp and learning were encyclopedic. When I first knew him he was reading and absorbing biological literature in its connection with mind and the self. If he had published more, his influence in giving a different turn to psychological theory would be universally recognized. I attribute to him the chief force in this country in turning psychology away from mere introspection and aligning it with biological and social

( 312) facts and conceptions. Others drew freely upon his new insights and reaped the reward in reputation which he was too interested in subject-matter for its own sake to claim for himself. From biology he went on to sociology, history, the religious literature of the world, and physical science. General literature was always his companion. His learning without exaggeration may be termed encyclopedic. But perhaps only a few are aware of his intense love of poetry. It is only within the last few days that I became aware from members of his immediate family of not only his appreciation of poetry, but his capacious retentive memory. He knew large parts of Milton by heart, and has been known to repeat it for two hours without flagging. Wordsworth and Keats and Shakespeare, especially the sonnets, were equally familiar to him. Those who have accompanied him on his walks through mountains, where big physical energy and courage never flagged, have told me how naturally and spontaneously any turn of the landscape evoked from him a memory of English poetry that associated itself with what he saw and deeply felt in nature. An accurate and almost photographic memory is rarely associated with a mind that assimilates, digests, and reconstructs; in his combination as in so many others, Mr. Mead was so rare that his personality does not lend itself to analysis and classification.

George Mead's generosity of mind was the embodiment of his generosity of character. Everything in the ordinary and extraordinary duties of life claimed him and he gave himself completely. I am sure it never occurred to him that he was sacrificing himself; the entire ethics of self-sacrifice was alien to his thought. He gave himself so spontaneously and so naturally that only those close to him could be aware that he was spending his energy so freely. So, too, while he was extraordinarily tolerant and charitable in his judgments of persons and events, I am confident it never occurred to him that he was so. His tolerance was not a cultivated and self-conscious matter ; it grew out of the abundant generosity of his nature. He had the liveliest interest in every social problem and issue of the day. If at times he tended to idealize, to find more meaning and better meaning in movements about him than less generous eyes could see, it was because of the same outgoing abundance of his nature. While his insight was keen and shrewd, one can not associate anything of the nature of cynicism with him. Henry Mead has told me that the phrase which he most associates with his father when any social problem was under discussion is, "It ought to be possible to do so and so," and having seen the vision of possibility his mind at once turned to considering how the possibility could he realized. His extraordinary faith in possibilities was the source of his idealism.


I shall not try to give any idea, even an inadequate one, of his philosophical conceptions ; this is not the time nor place. But there are three phases of it which are so intimately associated with his own natural being, his instinctive response to the world about him, that I can not forego mentioning them. Every one who knew him philosophically at all is aware of his interest in the immediate aspect of human experience—an interest not new in literature, but new in the form which it took in his philosophy. I am sure I am not wrong in connecting this interest, so central in his whole philosophy, with his own immediate sensibility to all the scenes of nature and humanity. He wrote little, I believe, on esthetics, but in many ways the key to his thought seems to me to be his own intense and immediate appreciation of life and nature and literature — and if we do not call this appreciation esthetic, it is because it includes so much more than is contained in the conventional meaning that word has taken on.

All who have intellectual association with Mr. Mead, directly or indirectly, also know how central was his conception of the ''complete act"—the source of whatever is sound in the behavioristic psychology and active philosophy of our day. In the integrated act there is found the union of doing, of thought, and of emotion which traditional psychologies and philosophies have sundered and set against one another. This renovating, this regenerating, idea also had its source in George Mead's own personality. There was no division in his philosophy between doing, reflection and feeling, because there was none in himself.

Again every one who knows anything about Mr. Mead knows of his vital interest in social psychology, and in a social interpretation of life and the world. It is perhaps here that his influence is already most widely felt; I know that his ideas on this subject worked a revolution in my own thinking, though I was slow in grasping anything like its full implications. The individual mind, the conscious self was to him the world of nature first taken up into social relations and then dissolved to form a new self which then went forth to recreate the world of nature. and social institutions. He would never have felt this idea so deeply and so centrally if it had not been such a complete embodiment of the depth and fullness of his own personality in all its human and social relations to others. The integrity and the continuing development of George Mead's philosophy is the natural and unforced expression of his own native being.

One feels not only a sense of tragic personal loss in the death of George Mead, but a philosophical calamity in that he was not able to extend and fill out his recently delivered Carus lectures.

( 314) But if the publication of his ideas is incomplete and cut short, one has no such sense in connection with George Mead's own life and personality. In all relationships, it stands forth as a complete because integral thing. Would that he might have lived longer with his family, his friends, his students, his books, and his studies. But no added length of years could have added to the completeness of his personal being ; it could not have added even to the fullness with which lie continues to live in the lives of those who knew him.



  1. This article is the greater part of what Professor Dewey said at the funeral of Professor Mead in Chicago, April 30, 1931.

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