Mind Self and Society

Section 23 Social Attitudes and the Physical World

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The self is not so much a substance as a process in which the conversation of gestures has been internalized within an organic form. This process does not exist for itself, but is simply a phase of the whole social organization of which the individual is a part. The organization of the social act has been imported into the organism and becomes then the mind of the individual. It still includes the attitudes of others, but now highly organized,

(179) so that they become what we call social attitudes rather than rôles of separate individuals. This process of relating one's own organism to the others in the interactions that are going on, in so far as it is imported into the conduct of the individual with the conversation of the "I" and the "me," constitutes the self.[1] The value of this importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual lies in the superior co-ordination gained for society as a whole, and in the increased efficiency of the individual as a member of the group. It is the difference between the process which can take place in a group of rats or ants or bees, and that which can take place in a human community. The social process with its various implications is actually taken up into the experience of the individual so that that which is going on takes place more effectively, because in a certain sense it has been rehearsed in the individual. He not only plays his part better under those conditions but he also reacts back on the organization of which he is a part.

The very nature of this conversation of gestures requires that the attitude of the other is changed through the attitude of the individual to the other's stimulus. In the conversation of gestures of the lower forms the play back and forth is noticeable, since the individual not only adjusts himself to the attitude of others, but also changes the attitudes of the others. The reaction of the individual in this conversation of gestures is one that in some degree is continually modifying the social process itself. It is this modification of the process which is of greatest interest in the experience of the individual. He takes the attitude of the other toward his own stimulus, and in taking that he finds it modified in that his response becomes a different one, and leads in turn to further change.

Fundamental attitudes arc presumably those that are only changed gradually, and no one individual can reorganize the

(180) whole society; but one is continually affecting society by his own attitude because he does bring up the attitude of the group toward himself, responds to it, and through that response changes the attitude of the group. This is, of course, what we are constantly doing in our imagination, in our thought; we are utilizing our own attitude to bring about a different situation in the community of which we are a part; we are exerting ourselves, bringing forward our own opinion, criticizing the attitudes of others, and approving or disapproving. But we can do that only in so far as we can call out in ourselves the response of the community; we only have ideas in so far as we are able to take the attitude of the community and then respond to it.

In the case of lower animals the response of the individual to the social situation, its gesture as over against the social situation, is what answers to the idea in the human animal. It is not, however, an idea. We use the vocal gesture to call out the response which answers to that of the community. We have, then, in our own stimulus, a reply to that response, and it is that reply which is an idea. You say that "it is my idea that such and such a thing should be done." Your idea is the reply which you make to the social demand made upon you. The social demand, we will say, is that you should pay taxes of a certain sort. You consider those taxes illegitimate. Now, your reply to the demand of the community, specifically to the tax assessor, as it takes place in your own experience, is an idea. To the extent that you have in your own conduct symbols which are the expression of your reply to the demand, you have an idea of what your assessment ought to be. It is an ideal situation in so far as you are taking the rôle of the tax assessor over against yourself, and replying to it. It is not like the situation in the dog-fight where the dog is actually preparing to spring and another dog takes another attitude which defeats that spring. The difference is that the conversation of gestures is a part of the actual realized fight, whereas in the other case you are taking the attitude of the tax authorities in advance and working or calling

(181) out your own response to it. When that takes place in your experience you have ideas.

A person threatens you, and you knock him down on the spot. There has been no ideal element in the situation. If you count ten and consider what the threat means, you are having an idea, are bringing the situation into an ideal setting. It is that, we have seen, which constitutes what we term mind. We are taking the attitude of the community and we are responding to it in this conversation of gestures. The gestures in this case are vocal gestures. They are significant symbols, and by symbol we do not mean something that lies outside of the field of conduct. A symbol is nothing but the stimulus whose response is given in advance. That is all we mean by a symbol. There is a word, and a blow. The blow is the historical antecedent of the word, but if the word means an insult, the response is one now involved in the word, something given in the very stimulus itself. That is all that is meant by a symbol. Now, if that response can be given in terms of an attitude utilized for the further control of action, then the relation of that stimulus and attitude is what we mean by a significant symbol.

Our thinking that goes on, as we say, inside of us, is a play of symbols in the above sense. Through gestures responses are called out in our own attitudes, and as soon as they are called out they evoke, in turn, other attitudes. What was the meaning now becomes a symbol which has another meaning. The meaning has itself become a stimulus to another response. In the dogfight the attitude of the one has the meaning of changing the attitude of the other dog, but the change of attitude now becomes a symbol (though not a language or significant symbol) to the first dog and he, too, changes his attitude. What was a meaning now becomes a stimulus. Conversation is continually going on, and what was response becomes in the field of gesture a stimulus, and the response to that is the meaning. Responses are meanings in so far as they lie inside of such a conversation of gestures. Our thinking is just such a continual change of a situation by our capacity to take it over into our own action; to

(182) change it so that it calls for a different attitude on our own part, and to carry it on to the point where the social act may be completed.

The "me" and the "I" lie in the process of thinking and they indicate the give-and-take which characterizes it. There would not be an "I" in the sense in which we use that term if there were not a "me"; there would not be a "me" without a response in the form of the "I." These two, as they appear in our experience, constitute the personality. We are individuals born into a certain nationality, located at a certain spot geographically, with such and such family relations, and such and such political relations. All of these represent a certain situation which constitutes the "me"; but this necessarily involves a continued action of the organism toward the "me" in the process within which that lies. The self is not something that exists first and then enters into relationship with others, but it is, so to speak, an eddy in the social current and so still a part of the current. It is a process in which the individual is continually adjusting himself in advance to the situation to which he belongs, and reacting back on it. So that the "I" and the "me," this thinking, this conscious adjustment, becomes then a part of the whole social process and makes a much more highly organized society possible.

The "I" and the "me" belong to the conversation of gestures. If there were simply "a word and a blow," if one answered to a social situation immediately without reflection, there would be no personality in the foregoing sense any more than there is personality in the nature of the dog or the horse. We, of course, tend to endow our domestic animals with personality, but as we get insight into their conditions we see there is no place for this sort of importation of the social process into the conduct of the individual. They do not have the mechanism for it-language. So we say that they have no personality; they are not responsible for the social situation in which they find themselves. The human individual, on the other hand, identifies himself with that social situation. He responds to it, and although his re-

(183) -sponse to it may be in the nature of criticism as well as support, it involves an acceptance of the responsibility presented by the situation. Such an acceptance does not exist in the case of the lower animals. We put personalities into the animals, but they do not belong to them; and ultimately we realize that those animals have no rights. We are at liberty to cut off their lives; there is no wrong committed when an animal's life is taken away. He has not lost anything because the future does not exist for the animal; he has not the "me" in his experience which by the response of the "I" is in some sense under his control, so that the future can exist for him. He has no conscious past since there is no self of the sort we have been describing that can be extended into the past by memories. There are presumably images in the experience of lower animals, but no ideas or memories in the required sense.[2] They have not the personality that looks before or after. They have not that future and past which gives them, so to speak, any rights as such. And yet the common attitude is that of giving them just such personalities as our own. We talk to them and in our talking to them we act as if they had the sort of inner world that we have.

A similar attribution is present in the immediate attitude which we take toward inanimate physical objects about us. We take the attitude of social beings toward them. This is most elaborately true, of course, in those whom we term nature poets. The poet is in a social relation with the things about him, a fact perhaps most vividly presented in Wordsworth. The "Lines on Tintern Abbey" gives us, I believe, the social relationships of Wordsworth when he was a child and their continuation through his life. His statement of the relationship of man to nature is essentially the relationship of love, a social relation. This social attitude of the individual toward the physical thing is just the attitude which one has toward other objects; it is a social attitude. The man kicks the chair he stumbles over, and he has an affection for an object connected with him in his work or

(184) play. The immediate reaction of children to things about them is social. There is an evident basis for the particular response which we make to little things, since there is something that calls out a parental response in any small thing; such a thing calls out a parental response which is universal. This holds for physical things, as well as for animals.

The physical object is an abstraction which we make from the social response to nature. We talk to nature; we address the clouds, the sea, the tree, and objects about us. We later abstract from that type of response because of what we come to know of such objects.[3] The immediate response is, however, social; where we carry over a thinking process into nature we are making nature rational. It acts as it is expected to act. We are taking the attitude of the physical things about us, and when we change the situation nature responds in a different way.

The hand is responsible for what I term physical things, distinguishing the physical thing from what I call the consummation of the act. If we took our food as dogs do by the very organs by which we masticate it, we should not have any ground for distinguishing the food as a physical thing from the actual consummation of the act, the consumption of the food. We should reach it and seize it with the teeth, and the very act of taking hold of it would be the act of eating it. But with the human animal the hand is interposed between the consummation and the getting of the object to the mouth. In that case we are manipulating a physical thing. Such a thing comes in between the beginning of the act and its final consummation. It is in that sense a universal. When we speak of a thing we have in mind a physical thing, something we can get hold of. There are, of course, "things" you cannot get hold of, such as property rights and the imaginations of a poet; but when we ordinarily

(185) speak of things about us we refer to physical things. The characters that go to make these up are primarily determined by the hand. Contact constitutes what we call the substance of such a thing. It has color and odor, of course, but we think of these as inherent in the something which we can manipulate, the physical thing. Such a thing is of very great importance in the development of human intelligence. It is universal in the sense that it is a physical thing, whether the consummation is that of eating, or of listening to a concert. There is a whole set of physical things that come in between the beginning of an act and its consummation, but they are universal in the sense that they belong to the experience of all of us. The consummation that we get out of a concert is very different for all of us, but the physical things we are dealing with are common, universal in that sense. The actual enjoyments may take on forms which represent an experience that is accessible only to separate individuals, but what the hand handles is something that is universal. We isolate a particular locality to which any person may come. We have a set of apparatus which any person may use. We have a certain set of weights and measures by means of which we can define these physical things. In this sense the physical thing comes in to make possible a common quality within which the selves can operate.[4]

An engineer who is constructing a bridge is talking to nature in the same sense that we talk to an engineer. There are stresses and strains there which he meets, and nature comes back with other responses that have to be met in another way. In his thinking he is taking the attitude of physical things. He is talking to nature and nature is replying to him. Nature is intelligent in the sense that there are certain responses of nature toward our action which we can present and which we can reply to, and which become different when we have replied. It is a change we then can answer to, and we finally reach a point at which we can cooperate with nature.


Such is the development of modern science out of what we term magic. Magic is just this same response, but with the further assumption that physical things do think and act as we do. It is preserved in the attitude which we have toward an offending object or the trustworthy object upon which we depend. We all carry about a certain amount of this sort of magic. We avoid something because we feel it is in some way dangerous; we all respect certain omens to which we pay some attention. We keep up some social response to nature about us, even though we do not allow this to affect us in important decisions. These are attitudes which perhaps we normally cover up, but which are revealed to us in numerous situations. In so far as we are rational, as we reason and think, we are taking a social attitude toward the world about us, critically in the case of science, uncritically in the case of magic.


  1. According to this view, conscious communication develops out of unconscious communication within the social process; conversation in terms of significant gestures out of conversation in terms of non-significant gestures; and the development in such fashion of conscious communication is coincident with the development of minds and selves within the social process.
  2. There is no evidence of animals being able to recognize that one thing is a sign of something else and so make use of that sign .... (1912).
  3. The physical object is found to be that object to which there is no social response which calls out again a social response in the individual. The objects with which we cannot carry on social intercourse are the physical objects of the world (MS).
    We have carried our attitude in physical science over into psychology, so that we have lost sight of the social nature of our early consciousness. The child forms social objects before he forms physical objects (1912).
  4. [On the social genesis and nature of the physical thing, see Section 35; also The Philosophy of the Present, 119-39.]

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