Mind Self and Society

Section 16 Mind and the Symbol

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

I have attempted to point out that the meanings of things, our ideas of them, answer to the structure of the organism in its conduct with reference to things. The structure which makes this possible was found primarily in the central nervous system. One of the peculiarities of this system is that it has, in a sense, a temporal dimension : the things we are going to do can be arranged in a temporal order so that the later processes can in their inception be present determining the earlier processes; what we are going to do can determine our immediate approach to the object.

The mechanism of the central nervous system enables us to have now present, in terms of attitudes or implicit responses, the alternative possible overt completions of any given act in which we are involved; and this fact must be realized and recognized, in virtue of the obvious control which later phases of any given act exert over its earlier phases. More specifically, the central nervous system provides a mechanism of implicit response which enables the individual to test out implicitly the various possible completions of an already initiated act in advance of the actual completion of the act-and thus to choose for himself, on the basis of this testing, the one which it is most desirable to perform explicitly or carry into overt effect. The central nervous system, in short, enables the individual to exercise conscious control over his behavior. It is the possibility of delayed response which principally differentiates reflective conduct from non-reflective conduct in which the response is always immediate. The higher centers of the central nervous system are involved in the former type of behavior by making possible the interposition, between stimulus and response in the simple stimulus-response arc, of a process of selecting one or

(118) another of a whole set of possible responses and combinations of responses to the given stimulus.

Mental processes take place in this field of attitudes as expressed by the central nervous system; and this field is hence the field of ideas: the field of the control of present behavior in terms of its future consequences, or in terms of future behavior; the field of that type of intelligent conduct which is peculiarly characteristic of the higher forms of life, and especially of human beings. The various attitudes expressible through the central nervous system can be organized into different types of subsequent acts; and the delayed reactions or responses thus made possible by the central nervous system are the distinctive feature of mentally controlled or intelligent behavior.[1]

What is the mind as such, if we are to think in behavioristic terms? Mind, of course, is a very ambiguous term, and I want to avoid ambiguities. What I suggested as characteristic of the mind is the reflective intelligence of the human animal which can be distinguished from the intelligence of lower forms. If we should try to regard reason as a specific faculty which deals with that which is universal we should find responses in lower forms which are universal. We can also point out that their conduct is purposive, and that types of conduct which do not lead up to certain ends are eliminated. This would seem to answer to what we term "mind" when we talk about the animal mind, but what we refer to as reflective intelligence we generally recognize as belonging only to the human organism. The nonhuman animal acts with reference to a future in the sense that it has impulses which are seeking expression that can only be sat-

(119) -isfied in later experience, and however this is to be explained, this later experience does determine what the present experience shall be. If one accepts a Darwinian explanation he says that only those forms survive whose conduct has a certain relationship to a specific future, such as belongs to the environment of the specific form. The forms whose conduct does insure the future will naturally survive. In such a statement, indirectly at least, one is making the future determine the conduct of the form through the structure of things as they now exist as a result of past happenings.

When, on the other hand, we speak of reflective conduct we very definitely refer to the presence of the future in terms of ideas. The intelligent man as distinguished from the intelligent animal presents to himself what is going to happen. The animal may act in such a way as to insure its food tomorrow. A squirrel hides nuts, but we do not hold that the squirrel has a picture of what is going to happen. The young squirrel is born in the summer time, and has no directions from other forms, but it will start off hiding nuts as well as the older ones. Such action shows that experience could not direct the activity of the specific form. The provident man, however, does definitely pursue a certain course, pictures a certain situation, and directs his own conduct with reference to it. The squirrel follows certain blind impulses, and the carrying-out of its impulses leads to the same result that the storing of grain does for the provident man. It is this picture, however, of what the future is to be as determining our present conduct that is the characteristic of human intelligence -the future as present in terms of ideas.

When we present such a picture it is in terms of our reactions, in terms of what we are going to do. There is some sort of a problem before us, and our statement of the problem is in terms of a future situation which will enable us to meet it by our present reactions. That sort of thinking characterizes the human form and we have endeavored to isolate its mechanism. What is essential to this mechanism is a way of indicating characters of things which control responses, and which have various val-

(120) -ues to the form itself, so that such characters will engage the attention of the organism and bring about a desired result. The odor of the victim engages the attention of the beast of prey, and by attention to that odor he does satisfy his hunger and insure his future. What is the difference between such a situation and the conduct of the man who acts, as we say, rationally? The fundamental difference is that the latter individual in some way indicates this character, whatever it may be, to another person and to himself; and the symbolization of it by means of this indicative gesture is what constitutes the mechanism that gives the implements, at least, for intelligent conduct. Thus, one points to a certain footprint, and says that it means bear. Now to identify that sort of a trace by means of some symbol so that it can be utilized by the different members of the group, but particularly by the individual himself later, is the characteristic thing about human intelligence. To be able to identify "this as leading to that," and to get some sort of a gesture, vocal or otherwise, which can be used to indicate the implication to others and to himself so as to make possible the control of conduct with reference to it, is the distinctive thing in human intelligence which is not found in animal intelligence.

What such symbols do is to pick out particular characteristics of the situation so that the response to them can be present in the experience of the individual. We may say they are present in ideal form, as in a tendency to run away, in a sinking of the stomach when we come on the fresh footprints of a bear. The indication that this is a bear calls out the response of avoiding the bear, or if one is on a bear hunt, it indicates the further progress of the hunt. One gets the response into experience before that response is overtly carried out through indicating and emphasizing the stimulus that instigates it. When this symbol is utilized for the thing itself one is, in Watson's terms, conditioning a reflex. The sight of the bear would lead one to run away, the footprint conditioned that reflex, and the word "bear" spoken by one's self or a friend can also condition the reflex, so

(121) that the sign comes to stand for the thing so far as action is concerned.

What I have been trying to bring out is the difference between the foregoing type of conduct and the type which I have illustrated by the experiment on the baby with the white rat and the noise behind its head. In the latter situation there is a conditioning of the reflex in which there is no holding apart of the different elements. But when there is a conditioning of the reflex which involves the word "bear," or the sight of the footprint, there is in the experience of the individual the separation of the stimulus and the response. Here the symbol means bear, and that in turn means getting out of the way, or furthering the hunt. Under those circumstances the person who stumbles on the footprints of the bear is not afraid of the footprints-he is afraid of the bear. The footprint means a bear. The child is afraid of the rat, so that the response of fear is to the sight of the white rat; the man is not afraid of the footprint, but of the bear. The footprint and the symbol which refers to the bear in some sense may be said to condition or set off the response, but the bear and not the sign is the object of the fear. The isolation of the symbol, as such, enables one to hold on to these given characters and to isolate them in their relationship to the object, and consequently in their relation to the response. It is that, I think, which characterizes our human intelligence to a peculiar degree. We have a set of symbols by means of which we indicate certain characters, and in indicating those characters hold them apart from their immediate environment, and keep simply one relationship clear. We isolate the footprint of the bear and keep only that relationship to the animal that made it. We are reacting to that, nothing else. One holds on to it as an indication of the bear and of the value that object has in experience as something to be avoided or to be hunted. The ability to isolate these important characters in their relationship to the object and to the response which belongs to the object is, I think, what we generally mean when we speak of a human being thinking a thing out, or having a mind. Such ability makes the

(122) world-wide difference between the conditioning of reflexes in the case of the white rat and the human process of thinking by means of symbols.[2]

What is there in conduct that makes this level of experience possible, this selection of certain characters with their relationship to other characters and to the responses which these call out? My own answer, it is clear, is in terms of such a set of symbols as arise in our social conduct, in the conversation of gestures-in a word, in terms of language. When we get into conduct these symbols which indicate certain characters and their relationship to things and to responses, they enable us to pick out these characters and hold them in so far as they determine our conduct.

A man walking across country comes upon a chasm which he cannot jump. He wants to go ahead but the chasm prevents this tendency from being carried out. In that kind of a situation there arises a sensitivity to all sorts of characters which he has not noticed before. When he stops, mind, we say, is freed. He does not simply look for the indication of the path going ahead. The dog and the man would both try to find a point where they could cross. But what the man could do that the dog could not would be to note that the sides of the chasm seem

(123) to be approaching each other in one direction. He picks out the best places to try, and that approach which he indicates to himself determines the way in which he is going to go. If the dog saw at a distance a narrow place he would run to it, but probably he would not be affected by the gradual approach which the human individual symbolically could indicate to himself.

The human individual would see other objects about him, and have other images appear in his experience. He sees a tree which might serve as a bridge across the space ahead of him. He might try various sorts of possible actions which would be suggested to him in such a situation, and present them to himself by means of the symbols he uses. He has not simply conditioned certain responses by certain stimuli. If he had, he would be bound to those. What he does do by means of these symbols is to, indicate certain characters which are present, so that he can have these responses there all ready to go off. He looks down the chasm and thinks he sees the edges drawing together, and he may run toward that point. Or he may stop and ask if there is not some other way in which he can hasten his crossing. What stops him is a variety of other things he may do. He notes all the possibilities of getting across. He can hold on to them by means of symbols, and relate them to each other so that he can get a final action. The beginning of the act is there in his experience. He already has a tendency to go in a certain direction and what he would do is already there determining him. And not only is that determination there in his attitude but he has that which is picked out by means of the term "that is narrow, I can jump it." He is ready to jump, and that reflex is ready to determine what he is doing. These symbols, instead of being a mere conditioning of reflexes, are ways of picking out the stimuli so that the various responses can organize themselves into a form of action.[3]


The situation in which one seeks conditioning responses is, I think, as far as effective intelligence is concerned, always present in the form of a problem. When a man is just going ahead he seeks the indications of the path but he does it unconsciously. He just sees the path ahead of him; he is not aware of looking for it under those conditions. But when he reaches the chasm, this onward movement is stopped by the very process of drawing back from the chasm. That conflict, so to speak, sets him free to see a whole set of other things. Now, the sort of things he will see will be the characters which represent various possibilities of action under the circumstances. The man holds on to these different possibilities of response in terms of the different stimuli which present themselves, and it is his ability to hold them there that constitutes his mind.

We have no evidence of such a situation in the case of the lower animals, as is made fairly clear by the fact that we do not find in any animal behavior that we can work out in detail any symbol, any method of communication, anything that will answer to these different responses so that they can all be held there in the experience of the individual. It is that which differentiates the action of the reflectively intelligent being from the conduct of the lower forms; and the mechanism that makes that possible is language. We have to recognize that language is a part of conduct. Mind involves, however, a relationship to the characters of things. Those characters are in the things,

(125) and while the stimuli call out the response which is in one sense present in the organism, the responses are to things out there. The whole process is not a mental product and you cannot put it inside of the brain. Mentality is that relationship of the organism to the situation which is mediated by sets of symbols.


  1. In considering the role or function of the central nervous system-important though it is-in intelligent human behavior, we must nevertheless keep in mind the fact that such behavior is essentially and fundamentally social; that it involves and presupposes an evergoing social life-process; and that the unity of this ongoing social process -- or of any one of its component acts-is irreducible, and in particular cannot be adequately analyzed simply into a number of discrete nerve elements. This fact must be recognized by the social psychologist. These discrete nerve elements lie within the unity of this ongoing social process, or within the unity of any one of the social acts in which this process is expressed or embodied, and the analysis which isolates them-the analysis of which they are the results or end-products -- does not and cannot destroy that unity.
  2. The meanings of things or objects are actual inherent properties or qualities of them, the locus of any given meaning is in the thing which, as we say, "has it." We refer to the meaning of a thing when we make use of the symbol. Symbols stand for the meanings of those things or objects which have meanings; they are given portions of experience which point to, indicate, or represent other portions of experience not directly present or given at the time when, and in the situation in which, any one of them is thus present (or is immediately experienced). The symbol is thus more than a mere substitute stimulus -- more than a mere stimulus for a conditioned response or reflex. For the conditioned reflex-the response to a mere substitute stimulus -- does not or need not involve consciousness; whereas the response to a symbol does and must involve consciousness. Conditioned reflexes plus consciousness of the attitudes and meanings they involve are what constitute language, and hence lay the basis, or comprise the mechanism for, thought and intelligent conduct. language is the means whereby individuals can indicate to one another what their responses to objects will be, and hence what the meanings of objects are; it is not a mere system of conditioned reflexes. Rational conduct always involves a reflexive reference to self, that is, an indication to the individual of the significances which his actions or gestures have for other individuals. And the experiential or behavioristic basis for such conduct-the neuro-physiological mechanism of thinking-is to be found, as we have seen, in the central nervous system.
  3. The reflective act consists in a reconstruction of the perceptual field so that it becomes possible for impulses which were in conflict to inhibit action no longer. This may take place by such a temporal readjustment that one of the conflicting impulses finds a later expression. In this case there has entered into the perceptual field other impulses which postpone the expression of that which had inhibited action. Thus, the width of the ditch inhibits the impulse to jump. There enters into the perceptual field the image of a narrower stretch and the impulse to go ahead finds its place in a combination of impulses, including that of movement toward the narrower stretch.
    The reconstruction may take place through the appearance of other sensory characters in the field ignored before. A board long enough to bridge the ditch is recognized. Because the individual has already the complex of impulses which lead to lifting it and placing it across the ditch it becomes a part of the organized group of impulses that carry the man along toward his destination. In neither case would he be ready to respond to the stimulus (in the one case the image of the narrower stretch of the ditch, in the other the sight of the board) if he had not reactions in his nature answering to these objects, nor would these tendencies to response sensitize him to their stimuli if they were not freed from firmly organized habits. It is this freedom, then, that is the prerequisite of reflection, and it is our social self reflective conduct that gives this freedom to human individuals in their group life (MS).

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2