Mind Self and Society

Section 7 Wundt and the Concept of the Gesture

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The particular field of social science with which we are concerned is one which was opened up through the work of Darwin and the more elaborate presentation of Wundt.

If we take Wundt's parallelistic statement we get a point of view from which we can approach the problem of social experience. Wundt undertook to show the parallelism between what goes on in the body as represented by processes of the central nervous system, and what goes on in those experiences which the individual recognizes as his own. He had to find that which was common to these two fields-what in the psychical experience could be referred to in physical terms.[1]

Wundt isolated a very valuable conception of the gesture as that which becomes later a symbol, but which is to be found in its earlier stages as a part of a social act.[2] It is that part of the social act which serves as a stimulus to other forms involved in the same social act. I have given the illustration of the dog-fight as a method of presenting the gesture. The act of each dog becomes the stimulus to the other dog for his response. There is

(43) then a relationship between these two; and as the act is responded to by the other dog, it, in turn, undergoes change. The very fact that the dog is ready to attack another becomes a stimulus to the other dog to change his own position or his own attitude. He has no sooner done this than the change of attitude in the second dog in turn causes the first dog to change his attitude. We have here a conversation of gestures. They are not, however, gestures in the sense that they are significant. We do not assume that the dog says to himself, "If the animal comes from this direction he is going to spring at my throat and I will turn in such a way." What does take place is an actual change in his own position due to the direction of the approach of the other dog.

We find a similar situation in boxing and in fencing, as in the feint and the parry that is initiated on the part of the other. And then the first one of the two in turn changes his attack; there may be considerable play back and forth before actually a stroke results. This is the same situation as in the dog-fight. If the individual is successful a great deal of his attack and defense must be not considered, it must take place immediately. He must adjust himself "instinctively" to the attitude of the other individual. He may, of course, think it out. He may deliberately feint in order to open up a place of attack. But a great deal has to be without deliberation.

In this case we have a situation in which certain parts of the act become a stimulus to the other form to adjust itself to those responses; and that adjustment in turn becomes a stimulus to the first form to change his own act and start on a different one. There are a series of attitudes, movements, on the part of these forms which belong to the beginnings of acts that are the stimuli for the responses that take place. The beginning of a response becomes the stimulus to the first form to change his attitude, to adopt a different act. The term "gesture" may be identified with these beginnings of social acts which are stimuli for the response of other forms. Darwin was interested in such gestures because they expressed emotions, and he dealt with them very

(44) largely as if this were their sole function. He looked at them as serving the function with reference to the other forms which they served with reference to his own observation. The gestures expressed emotions of the animal to Darwin; he saw in the attitude of the dog the joy with which he accompanied his master in taking a walk. And he left his treatment of the gestures largely in these terms.

It was easy for Wundt to show that this was not a legitimate point of attack on the problem of these gestures. They did not at bottom serve the function of expression of the emotions: that was not the reason why they were stimuli, but rather because they were parts of complex acts in which different forms were involved. They became the tools through which the other forms responded. When they did give rise to a certain response, they were themselves changed in response to the change which took place in the other form. They are part of the organization of the social act, and highly important elements in that organization. To the human observer they are expressions of emotion, and that function of expressing emotion can legitimately become the field of the work of the artist and of the actor. The actor is in the same position as the poet: he is expressing emotions through his own attitude, his tones of voice, through his gestures, just as the poet through his poetry is expressing his emotions and arousing that emotion in others. We get in this way a function which is not found in the social act of these animals, or in a great deal of our own conduct, such as that of the boxer and the fencer. We have this interplay going on with the gestures serving their functions, calling out the responses of the others, these responses becoming themselves stimuli for readjustment, until the final social act itself can be carried out. Another illustration of this is in the relation of parent-form to the infant-the stimulating cry, the answering tone on the part of the parent-form, and the consequent change in the cry of the infant-form. Here we have a set of adjustments of the two forms carrying out a common social act involved in the care of the child. Thus we have, in all these instances, a social process in

(45) which one can isolate the gesture which has its function in the social process, and which can become an expression of emotions, or later can become the expression of a meaning, an idea.

The primitive situation is that of the social act which involves the interaction of different forms, which involves, therefore, the adjustment of the conduct of these different forms to each other, in carrying out the social process. Within that process one can find what we term the gestures, those phases of the act which bring about the adjustment of the response of the other form. These phases of the act carry with them the attitude as the observer recognizes it, and also what we call the inner attitude. The animal may be angry or afraid. There are such emotional attitudes which lie back of these acts, but these are only part of the whole process that is going on. Anger expresses itself in attack; fear expresses itself in flight. We can see, then that the gestures mean these attitudes on the part of the form, that is, they have that meaning for us. We see that an animal is angry and that he is going to attack. We know that that is in the action of the animal, and is revealed by the attitude of the animal. We cannot say the animal means it in the sense that he has a reflective determination to attack. A man may strike another before he means it; a man may jump and run away from a loud sound behind his back before he know what he is doing. If he has the idea in his mind, then the gesture not only means this to the observer but it also means the idea which the individual has. In one case the observer sees that the attitude of the dog means attack, but he does not say that it means a conscious determination to attack on the part of the dog. However, if somebody shakes his fist in your face you assume that he has not only a hostile attitude but that he has some idea behind it. You assume that it means not only a possible attack, but that the individual has an idea in his experience.

When, no, that gesture means this idea behind it and it arouses that idea in the other individual, then we have a significant symbol. In the case of the dog-fight we have a gesture which calls out appropriate response; in the present case we

(46) have a symbol which answers to a meaning in the experience of the first individual and which also calls out that meaning in the second individual. Where the gesture reaches that situation it has become what we call "language." It is now a significant symbol and it signifies a certain meaning.[3]

The gesture is that phase of the individual act to which adjustment takes place on the part of other individuals in the social process of behavior. The vocal gesture becomes a significant symbol (unimportant, as such, on the merely affective side of experience) when it has the same effect on the individual making it that it has on the individual to whom it is addressed or who explicitly responds to it, and thus involves a reference to the self of the individual making it. The gesture in general, and the vocal gesture in particular, indicates some object or other within the field of social behavior, an object of common interest to all the individuals involved in the given social act thus directed toward or upon that object. The function of the gesture is to make adjustment possible among the individuals implicated in any given social act with reference to the object or objects with which that act is concerned; and the significant gesture or significant symbol affords far greater facilities for such adjustment and readjustment than does the non-significant gesture, because it calls out in the individual making it the same attitude toward it (or toward its meaning) that it calls out in the other individuals participating with him in the given social act, and thus makes him conscious of their attitude toward it (as a component of his behavior) and enables him to adjust his subsequent behavior to theirs in the light of that attitude. In short, the conscious or significant conversation of gestures is a much more adequate and effective mechanism of mutual adjustment within the social act-involving, as it does, the taking, by etch of the individuals carrying it on, of the attitudes of the others toward himself-than is the unconscious or non-significant conversation of gestures.


When, in any given social act or situation, one individual indicates by a gesture to another individual what this other individual is to do, the first individual is conscious of the meaning of his own gesture-or the meaning of his gesture appears in his own experience-in so far as he takes the attitude of the second individual toward that gesture, and tends to respond to it implicitly in the same way that the second individual responds to it explicitly. Gestures become significant symbols when they implicitly arouse in an individual making them the same responses which they explicitly arouse, or are supposed to arouse, in other individuals, the individuals to whom they are addressed; and in all conversations of gestures within the social process, whether external (between different individuals) or internal (between a given individual and himself), the individual's consciousness of the content and flow of meaning involved depends on his thus taking the attitude of the other toward his own gestures. In this way every gesture comes within a given social group or community to stand for a particular act or response, namely, the act or response which it calls forth explicitly in the individual to whom it is addressed, and implicitly in the individual who makes it; and this particular act or response for which it stands is its meaning as a significant symbol. Only in terms of gestures as significant symbols is the existence of mind or intelligence possible; for only in terms of gestures which are significant symbols can thinking-which is simply an internalized or implicit conversation of the individual with himself by means of such gestures-take place. The internalization in our experience of the external conversations of gestures which we carry on with other individuals in the social process is the essence of thinking; and the gestures thus internalized are significant symbols because they have the same meanings for all individual members of the given society or social group, i.e., they respectively arouse the same attitudes in the individuals making them that they arouse in the individuals responding to them: Otherwise the individual could not internalize them or be conscious of them and their meanings. As we shall see, the same

(48) procedure which is responsible for the genesis and existence of mind or consciousness--namely, the taking of the attitude of the other toward one's self, or toward one's own behavior--also necessarily involves the genesis and existence at the same time of significant symbols, or significant gestures.

In Wundt's doctrine, the parallelism between the gesture and the emotion or the intellectual attitude of the individual, makes it possible to set up a like parallelism in the other individual. The gesture calls out a gesture in the other form which will arouse or call out the same emotional attitude and the same idea. Where this has taken place the individuals have begun to talk to each other. What I referred to before was a conversation of gestures which did not involve significant symbols or gestures. The dogs are not talking to each other; there are no ideas in the minds of the dogs; nor do we assume that the dog is trying to convey an idea to the other dog. But if the gesture, in the case of the human individual, has parallel with it a certain psychical state which is the idea of what the person is going to do, and if this gesture calls out a like gesture in the other individual and calls out a similar idea, then it becomes a significant gesture. It stands for the ideas in the minds of both of them.

There is some difficulty in carrying out this analysis if we accept Wundt's parallelism. When a person shakes his fist in your face, that is a gesture in the sense in which we use the term, the beginning of an act that calls out a response on your part. Your response may vary: it may depend on the size of the man, it may mean shaking your fist, or it may mean flight. A whole series of different responses are possible. In order that Wundt's theory of the origin of language may be carried out, the gesture which the first individual makes use of must in some sense be reproduced in the experience of the individual in order that it may arouse the same idea in his mind. We must not confuse the beginning of language with its later stages. It is quite true that as soon as we see the attitude of the dog we say that it means an attack, or that when we see a person looking around for a chair

(49) that it means he would like to sit down. The gesture is one which means these processes, and that meaning is aroused by what we see. But we are supposed to be at the beginning of these developments of language. If we assume that there is a certain psychical state answering to a physical state how are we going to get to the point where the gesture will arouse the same gesture in the attitude of the other individual? In the very beginning the other person's gesture means what you are going to do about it. It does not mean what he is thinking about or even his emotion. Supposing his angry attack aroused fear in you, then you are not going to have anger in your mind, but fear. His gesture means fear as far as you are concerned. That is the primitive situation. Where the big dog attacks the little dog, the little dog puts his tail between his legs and runs away, but the gesture does not call out in the second individual what it did in the first. The response is generally of a different kind from the stimulus in the social act, a different action is aroused. If you assume that there is a certain idea answering to that act, then you want at a later stage to get the idea of the first form, but originally your idea will be your own idea which answers to a certain end. If we say that gesture "A" has idea "a" as answering to it, gesture "A" in the first form calls out gesture "B" and its related idea "b" in the second form. Here the idea that answers to gesture "A" is not idea "a" but idea "b." Such a process can never arouse in one mind just the idea which the other person has in his.

How, in terms of Wundt's psychological analysis of communication, does a responding organism get or experience the same idea or psychical correlate of any given gesture that the organism making this gesture has? The difficulty is that Wundt presupposes selves as antecedent to the social process in order to explain communication within that process, whereas, on the contrary, selves must be accounted for in terms of the social process, and in terms of communication; and individuals must be brought into essential relation within that process before communication, or the contact between the minds of different

(50) individuals, becomes possible. The body is not a self, as such; it becomes a self only when it has developed a mind within the context of social experience. It does not occur to Wundt to account for the existence and development of selves and minds within, or in terms of, the social process of experience; and his presupposition of them as making possible that process, and communication within it, invalidates his analysis of that process. For if, as Wundt does, you presuppose the existence of mind at the start, as explaining or making possible the social process of experience, then the origin of minds and the interaction among minds become mysteries. But if, on the other hand, you regard the social process of experience as prior (in a rudimentary form) to the existence of mind and explain the origin of minds in terms of the interaction among individuals within that process, then not only the origin of minds, but also the interaction among minds (which is thus seen to be internal to their very nature and presupposed by their existence or development at all) cease to seem mysterious or miraculous. Mind arises through communication by a conversation of gestures in a social process or context of experience-not communication through mind.

Wundt thus overlooks the important fact that communication is fundamental to the nature of what we term "mind"; and it is precisely in the recognition of this fact that the value and advantage of a behavioristic account of mind is chiefly to be found. Thus, Wundt's analysis of communication presupposes the existence of minds which are able to communicate, and this existence remains an inexplicable mystery on his psychological basis; whereas the behavioristic analysis of communication makes no such presupposition, but instead explains or accounts for the existence of minds in terms of communication and social experience; and by regarding minds as phenomena which have arisen and developed out of the process of communication and of social experience generally--phenomena which therefore presuppose that process, rather than being presupposed by it--this analysis is able to throw real light on their nature. Wundt pre-

(51) serves a dualism or separation between gesture (or symbol) and idea, between sensory process and psychic content, because his psychophysical parallelism commits him to this dualism; and although he recognizes the need for establishing a functional relationship between them in terms of the process of communication within the social act, yet the only relationship of this sort which can be established on his psychological basis is one which entirely fails to illuminate the bearing that the context of social experience has upon the existence and development of mind. Such illumination is provided only by the behavioristic analysis of communication, and by the statement of the nature of mind in terms of communication to which that analysis leads.


  1. [Cf. GrundzŁge der physiologischen Psychologie.]
    The fundamental defect of Wundt's psychophysical parallelism is the fundamental defect of all psychophysical parallelism: the required parallelism is not in fact complete on the psychical side, since only the sensory and not the motor phase of the physiological process of experience has a psychic correlate; hence the psychical aspect of the required parallelism can be completed only physiologically, thus breaking it down. And this fundamental defect of his psychophysical parallelism vitiates the analysis of social experiences- -and especially of communication--which he bases upon the assumption of that parallelism.
  2. [Volkerpychologie, Vol. 1. For Mead's treatment of Wundt compare "The Relations of Psychology and Philology," Psychological Bulletin, I (1904), 375 ff., with the more critical "The Imagination in Wundt's Treatment of Myth and Religion," ibid., III (1906), 393 ff.)
  3. [See "A Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Journal of Philosophy, XIX (I922), 157 ff]

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