Mind Self and Society

Section 27 The Contributions of the "me" and the "I"

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I have been undertaking to distinguish between the "I" and the "me" as different phases of the self, the "me" answering to the organized attitudes of the others which we definitely assume and which determine consequently our own conduct so far as it is of a self-conscious character. Now the "me" may be regarded as giving the form of the "I." The novelty comes in the action of the "I," but the structure, the form of the self is one which is conventional.

This conventional form may be reduced to a minimum. In the artist's attitude, where there is artistic creation, the emphasis upon the element of novelty is carried to the limit. This demand for the unconventional is especially noticeable in modern art. Here the artist is supposed to break away from convention; a part of his artistic expression is thought to be in the breakdown of convention. That attitude is, of course, not essential to the artistic function, and it probably never occurs in the extreme form in which it is often proclaimed. Take certain of the artists of the past. In the Greek world the artists were, in a certain sense, the supreme artisans. What they were to do was more or less set by the community, and accepted by themselves, as the expression of heroic figures, certain deities, the erection of temples. Definite rules were accepted as essential to the expression. And yet the artist introduced an originality into it which distinguishes one artist from another. In the case of the artist the emphasis upon that which is unconventional, that

(210) which is not in the structure of the "me," is carried as far, perhaps, as it can be carried.

This same emphasis also appears in certain types of conduct which are impulsive. Impulsive conduct is uncontrolled conduct. The structure of the "me" does not there determine the expression of the "I." If we use a Freudian expression, the " me " is in a certain sense a censor. It determines the sort of expression which can take place, sets the stage, and gives the cue. In the case of impulsive conduct this structure of the (,me" involved in the situation does not furnish to any such degree this control. Take the situation of self-assertion where the self simply asserts itself over against others, and suppose that the emotional stress is such that the forms of polite society in the performance of legitimate conduct are overthrown, so that the person expresses himself violently. There the "me" is determined by the situation. There are certain recognized fields within which an individual can assert himself, certain rights which he has within these limits. But let the stress become too great, these limits are not observed, and an individual asserts himself in perhaps a violent fashion. Then the "I" is the dominant element over against the "me." Under what we consider normal conditions the way in which an individual acts is determined by his taking the attitude of the others in the group, but if the individual is not given the opportunity to come up against people, as a child is not who is held out of intercourse with other people, then there results a situation in which the reaction is uncontrolled.

Social control[1] is the expression of the "me" over against the expression of the "I." It sets the limits, it gives the determination that enables the "I," so to speak, to use the "me" as the means of carrying out what is the undertaking that all are interested in. Where persons are held outside or beyond that sort of

(211) organized expression there arises a situation in which social control is absent. In the more or less fantastic psychology of the Freudian group, thinkers are dealing with the sexual life and with self-assertion in its violent form. The normal situation, however, is one which involves a reaction of the individual in a situation which is socially determined, but to which he brings his own responses as an "I." The response is, in the experience of the individual, an expression with which the self is identified. It is such a response which raises him above the institutionalized individual.

As I have said before, an institution is, after all, nothing but an organization of attitudes which we all carry in us, the organized attitudes of the others that control and determine conduct. Now, this institutionalized individual is, or should be, the means by which the individual expresses himself in his own way, for such individual expression is that which is identified with the self in those values which are essential to the self, and which arise from the self. To speak of them as arising from the self does not attach to them the character of the selfish egoist, for under the normal conditions to which we were referring the individual is making his contribution to a common undertaking. The baseball player who makes a brilliant play is making the play called for by the nine to which he belongs. He is playing for his side. A man may, of course, play the gallery, be more interested in making a brilliant play than in helping the nine to win, just as a surgeon may carry out a brilliant operation and sacrifice the patient. But under normal conditions the contribution of the individual gets its expression in the social processes that are involved in the act, so that the attachment of the values to the self does not involve egoism or selfishness. The other situation in which the self in its expression does in some sense exploit the group or society to which it belongs is one which sets up, so to speak, a narrow self which takes advantage of the whole group in satisfying itself. Even such a self is still a social affair. We distinguish very definitely between the selfish man and the impulsive man. The man who

(212) may lose his temper and knock another down may be a very unselfish man. He is not necessarily a person who would utilize a certain situation for the sake of his own interests. The latter case involves the narrow self that does not relate itself to the whole social group of which it is a part.

Values do definitely attach to this expression of the self which is peculiar to the self; and what is peculiar to the self is what it calls its own. And yet this value lies in the social situation, and would not be apart from that social situation. It is the contribution of the individual to the situation, even though it is only in the social situation that the value obtains.

We seek certainly for that sort of expression which is self-expression. When an individual feels himself hedged in he recognizes the necessity of getting a situation in which there shall be an opportunity for him to make his addition to the undertaking, and not simply to be the conventionalized "me." In a person who carries out the routine job, it leads to the reaction against the machine, and to the demand that that type of routine work shall fall into its place in the whole social process. There is, of course, a certain amount of real mental and physical health, a very essential part of one's life, that is involved in doing routine work. One can very well just carry out certain processes in which his contribution is very slight, in a more or less mechanical fashion, and find himself in a better position because of it. Such men as John Stuart Mill have been able to carry on routine occupations during a certain part of the day, and then give themselves to original work for the rest of the day. A person who cannot do a certain amount of stereotyped work is not a healthy individual. Both the health of the individual and the stability of society call for a very considerable amount of such work. The reaction to machine industry simply calls for the restriction of the amount of time given to it, but it does not involve its total abolition. Nevertheless, and granting this point, there must be some way in which the individual can express himself. It is the situations in which it is possible to get this sort of expression that seem to be particularly precious,

(213) namely, those situations in which the individual is able to do something on his own, where he can take over responsibility and carry out things in his own way, with an opportunity to think his own thoughts. Those social situations in which the structure of the "me" for the time being is one in which the individual gets an opportunity for that sort of expression of the self bring some of the most exciting and gratifying experiences.

These experiences may take place in a form which involves degradation, or in a form which involves the emergence of higher values. The mob furnishes a situation in which the "me" is one which simply supports and emphasizes the more violent sort of impulsive expression. This tendency is deeply imbedded in human nature. It is astonishing what part of the "I" of the sick is constituted by murder stories. Of course, in the story itself, it is the tracking-down of the murderer that is the focal point of interest; but that tracking-down of the murderer takes one back to the vengeance attitude of the primitive community. In the murder story one gets a real villain, runs him down, and brings him to justice. Such expressions may involve degradation of the self. In situations involving the defense of the country a mob attitude or a very high moral attitude may prevail, depending upon the individual. The situation in which one can let himself go, in which the very structure of the "me" opens the door for the "I," is favorable to self-expression. I have referred to the situation in which a person can sit down with a friend and say just what he is thinking about someone else. There is a satisfaction in letting one's self go in this way. The sort of thing that under other circumstances you would not say and would not even let yourself think is now naturally uttered. If you get in a group which thinks as you do then one can go to lengths which may surprise the person himself. The "me" in the above situations is definitely constituted by the social relations. Now if this situation is such that it opens the door to impulsive expression one gets a peculiar satisfaction, high or low, the source of which is the value that attaches to the expression of the "I" in the social process.


  1. [On the topic of social control see "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control," International Journal of Ethics, XXXV (1924-25), 251 ff.; "The Working Hypothesis in Social Reform," American Journal of Sociology, V (I 899-1900), 367 ff.; "The Psychology of Punitive justice," ibid., XXIII (1917-18), 577 ff.]

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