The Social Philosophy of George Herbert Mead

Thomas Vernor Smith
University of Chicago


The major problem of social philosophy is the harmony of individual interest and social welfare. Mead thought to facilitate the solution of this problem by showing that as psychological the individual is social. The technique of his psychology is that of role-assumption: by acting as others, one finally becomes others to himself. From oscillating others, "a generalized other" arises to constitute from the flowing selves a more or less abiding self. But this self is a "socius": reflecting, like a true microcosm, the dissonance as well as the harmony of the societal macrocosm. Mead thought to show as his social philosophy that amelioration flows differentially from his account of the self. In this he was not wholly successful. The self resulting from Mead's analysis is descriptively social but no more ethically so than is the community that begets it; and of the moral quality of actually existing communities Mead had no high opinion. His interest in amelioration flowed from the man he was rather than from his doctrine of the self. His social philosophy is generous; his social psychology probably true; but the two were connected by his personality rather than by his logic.

The world in which humanity lives today, especially in the western world, is as different from that of the eighteenth century as were two geologic epochs. We can determine what plant life and what animal life shall surround us; and to a large extent we do. We can determine what shall be the immediate incidence of cold and heat upon our bodies. We can determine what sort of a human race shall be bred, and how many of them. All the conditions which we believe, in large measure, determined the origin of species are within our power. We can do all this, but we have not accepted the responsibility for it.–GEORGE HERBERT MEAD.[1]

The discrepancy between Mead the man and Mead the writer cannot but be remarked regretfully by anyone who must appraise him primarily upon the basis of his visible work. His habitual modesty or diffidence about committing himself to print and his death at the very threshold of a more adequate public articulation (I refer to the final preparation for the press of his Carus Lectures) conspire, even in the face of forthcoming posthumous publications, to prevent the communication to future readers of more than a mere semblance of the impression of substantiality received by his friends from the impact of his expansive and seminal mind. There is, however, more to the discrepancy than this patent meagerness of pub

( 369) -lication. Significant as what he has written is, it does not reflect him transparently. Conversation was his best medium [2] ; writing was a poor second best. When he wrote, "something,"-as he says in one place of another matter-"something was going on-the rising anger of a titan or the adjustment of the earth's internal pressures." But true of him as of his illustration, what the reader gets is certainly "not the original experience."[3] And yet what an experience is there! unmistakable symptoms of profundity and magnanimity.


Mead's social speculation, as befitted a mind built on classic mold, seems more often than not to arise out of wonder-primarily wonder, as exemplified in the initial quotation, at man's not living up to the opportunity which he himself has created; at his not entering morally upon his scientific find. Such wonder is far from rare in contemporary writing; but all too rare is the potency of this initial wonder to beget more than skepticism of human capacity or fear for the future of industrial society. There is an unmistakable equanimity about Mead's social analyses that indicates wonder rather than animus as their matrix; but, in his persistent faith that "it ought to be possible to find out," he converts wonder from an aesthetic stare into an instrument of understanding and amelioration.

Amelioration through understanding-that is the most dominant motif in Mead's social philosophy. It is easy to find men who are in earnest about the intellectual enterprise; and it is easier still to find men who wish for a better world than now is and who are willing to work for it. But to find a man who deeply, elementally, believes in both these, believes in one because of the other, and in the other through the one, is to find--George Herbert Mead. It is the ameliorative motif that reflects most transparently his profound pragmatic bias. In the forthcoming Carus Lectures he goes so far as to say that "we determine what the world has been by the anxious search for the means of making it better." It is indeed this approach, as we

( 370) shall later suggest, that leads him to a bold assimilation of both past and future to the living present. His unconditional reliance upon scientific methodology for the conduct of life betokens, on the other hand, his generalized confidence in the crucial role played by the understanding. To him it had long been "evident" that "we must be as much beholden to social science to present and analyze the social group with its objects, its interrelations, its selves, as a precondition of our reflection and self-consciousness, as we are beholden to physiological science to present and analyze the physical complex which is the precondition of our physical consciousness."[4] Before dilating further, however, upon this basic motif, let me turn aside to indicate, as adequately as may be, the larger orientation of his thought.


Mead lived sensitively through the period that witnessed the downfall for the Western world of the religious man.[5] He witnessed the ever renewed struggle to enthrone the economic man.[6] Man, however, survived the downfall of these usurpers, though carrying with him certain scars as the price of such strenuous survival. Mead saw and articulated the positive precipitates of those two processes. The theological motif immortalized what it possessed of truth in Hegelianism, the positive resultant of which for Mead was the discovery that man derives from a universe that builds its own laws of development. The economic motif emerged through the heroic midwifery of Marx as a process that was equally automotive. In the "gospel according to Marx," as Mead somewhere described it, man achieves his personality, if at all, through class struggle and eventual domination of the weak many over the strong few. Dynamic both

(371) these processes were, but also dominative both. Mead witnessed also the turmoil of spirit that marked the rise of Darwinianism into a cult. What Hegel did for reality and Marx for society, Darwin did for the whole realm of life: explained it as a process that was autonomous.[7] "The continuities of process," as he observes in the Dewey memorial essay, "are more universal than those of structure." Indeed, the very spirit of modernity was to him the "growing consciousness that society is responsible for the ordering of its own processes and structures so that what are common goods in their very nature should be accessible to common enjoyment."[8] What the "genteel tradition" in America lacked, even in so sensitive and able a representative as Josiah Royce, was, according to Mead, an adequate understanding of such an "intelligent process within ourselves as would enable us to take the helm into our own hands and direct the course of our own conduct, either in thought or action."[9] John Dewey appeared to Mead "in the profoundest sense .... the philosopher of America," precisely because Dewey has conclusively brought "the individual to state his ends and purposes in terms of the social means he is using."[10]

Emancipated thus completely from an older philosophy that had elevated structure above process, Mead found joy and complete at-homeness in the independence of man, ornamenting and directing an autonomous world: "He does not know what the solution will be, but he does know the method of the solution. We, none of us, know where we are going, but we do know that we are on the way."[11] But the World War, that was to have ended war, and the consequent peace, that was no peace, came as successive challenges to Mead to clarify his social philosophy on the largest possible scale, i.e., with

( 372) reference to internationalism. They called his attention emphatically to the possibility that to be on one's way without knowing where one is going may get one nowhere, and that rapidly. This process that runs itself may run itself into the ground. Indeed, the thought-systems that had together furnished Mead the nucleus of his own philosophy had jointly and severally indicated that the technique of the process is one of conflict, whether the dialectics of Hegel, or class war of Marx, or the strenuous natural selection of Darwin. What reason for thinking that the on-going process inherited from them jointly will not continue to go on in the same wasteful way? The reason for thinking otherwise is the presence of intelligence. Why may not men come to use their heads?

To prevent Mead's complete dependence upon and profound confidence in understanding from appearing excessive, I must here mention a fourth name which perhaps in terms of influence upon him deserves to stand with Hegel, Marx, and Darwin. Indeed, I should like to mention two more names, Adam Smith and Sigmund Freud But for the moment I content myself with a word upon Freud. Mead saw in Freud's doctrine of the "unconscious" (what also he found in the monistic postulate of behaviorism) a "structure in our experience which runs out beyond what we ordinarily term our consciousness. "[12] This discovery, whether actually borrowed from Freud or not,[13] was of the greatest importance to Mead, because the principle served as an available mediating link between his earlier idealism and his later pragmatism. It served indeed to establish the necessary continuum between the physical and the social sciences, a nexus which he has in mind in the foregoing quotation. And thus it makes possible the extension to the whole of life of a single methodology-that of science. "It is," as Mead says, "one of the valuable by-products of the Freudian psychology that it has brought many people to recognize that we do not only our thinking but also our perceiving with minds that have already an organized structure which determines in no small degree what the world of our immedi-

( 373) -ate and reflective experience shall be."[14] Influential as was this "byproduct," Freud's major postulate-emotional catharsis furnished by understanding-seems to have influenced Mead more.[15] It is, indeed, reliance upon this postulate of catharsis, I think, that transforms Mead's faith in intelligence--if it is capable of thorough transformation-from mysticism into logic, and that transforms intelligence itself from mere instrumentalism into a rich aestheticism.


I have remarked upon the stimulus furnished Mead's speculative bent by the war and the abortive peace. In his profound analysis of the peace movement two years before his death, "National Mindedness and International-Mindedness," he declares that "a certain amount of national psychoanalysis would be very valuable if not very probable."[16] "One thing, however, is clear," he concludes, "that we cannot attain international-mindedness until we have attained a higher degree of national-mindedness than we possess at present."[17]Upon the suicidal folly of war he dwells in variegated notes: "We fashioned the marvellous world of the twentieth century, and then undertook within it to fight an eighteenth-century war." "The hands," he picturesquely remarks in the same connection, "were the hands of Esau, but the voice was the voice of Jacob,"[18] And elsewhere, reverting to the same anomaly, he declares that "there attaches to it the grotesquerie of a Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. "[19] Speaking in the article on national-mindedness of the "profoundly pathetic" aspect of the newly bred nationalisms, he strikes the keynote upon which we must now dwell: "The pathos lies in the inability to feel the new unity with the nation except in the union of arms."[20] He starts from the arresting discovery that the normal values of life are in their inner natures divi-

( 374) -sive. Two things are implied: first, they must be fought over in order to be appreciated as values; second, it is an emotional apprehension of them that explains this scandalous defect in their constitution. The peace movement has usually depended for its progress upon the stirring and the re-stirring of emotions. But an emotional apprehension of values requires an emotional situation to provoke it, and emotions thrive on conflict situations. But conflict endangers as well as reveals values. As means, therefore, to a secure appropriation of values, "we cannot depend upon our diaphragms and the visceral responses which a fight sets in operation "[21]--not even if the fight is a fight to found an institution to end fighting itself.

Mead sees that James in his famous essay, The Moral Equivalent of War, is more realistic than most peace reformers: he does propose a functional substitute for the military machine in peace time. But James's proposal, thinks Mead, is of a remedy which cannot be taken by the patient until he is already well. To James's proposal of an industrial army, Mead opposes the wise observation that "cults cannot be manufactured to order. " [22] And so the question recurs in spite of James-How bring about the condition that will make the remedy available? To this there is but one answer-an answer so simple as to appear, if not also actually to prove, baffling. And that is that the first thing to do to get rid of war is to think it out of existence. There is some deep reason, however, why we continue to think war and leave room for (defensive) war, when we do not really want war. Almost as a man who does not believe in immortality still thinks of himself as being alive after death if he thinks of himself then at all, so we think war because as yet we cannot get conscious of the values that make life worth living save in a conflict situation.

Values exist independent of understanding; but they are infected with this divisive virus which renders them unavailable for the largest social purposes. Nowhere does Mead distinguish himself more sharply from his apparent fellow-naturalists than here. From Rousseau down, a deep undercurrent in Western social speculation has held that men are naturally good and that if only the incidence of institutions could be removed from spontaneous emotions, man would, with Shelley, stand forth


Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed. . . . .
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless.

Mead does not affirm that men are bad by nature. Certainly they are naturally social. But the natural good, unless attended to, will frustrate a moral better; and the sociality that is indigenous to man, will, unless attended to, set a boundary for socialization far this side of what ethical aspiration craves. Mead's clear discernment of the moral limitation of natural love and spontaneous good will, and the institutions arising from the two, is all the more striking by virtue of coming from a man who could never be accused of minimizing the moral role of institutions. As for sexual passion, it "isolates those whom it consumes" ; [23] as for the resulting family life, it "segregates us";[24] as for the church, "the fight with the devil and all his angels united men whom a common hope of salvation left untouched"[25] as for business, "we protect ourselves even against our partners, associates, and employees with contracts and agreements defended with penalties";[26] as for even "good manners," they are "means of keeping possible bores at a distance"; [27] and as for nationalism, "the more unintelligible the issue is" (he is speaking of the influence of the Monroe Doctrine),[28] "the more it emphasizes the unanimity of the community."[29] To generalize all this in his own apt words, "there is nothing in the history of human society nor in present-day experience which encourages us to look to the primal impulse of neighborliness for such cohesive power." [30]As another social thinker has

( 376) only now concluded, "The very strength of the devotion to the one community-one social group or one nation-may make it impossible to extend sympathy to members of other groups."[31] We come thus upon the curious and discouraging discovery that there is a "cohesive power of hostile impulses" not possessed by benevolent impulses. Does this mean what it seems to say, that there is no given emotional basis for a generous extension of community? If there is not, then what price community? This is precisely Mead's problem.

But on this problem he seems to find light in the darkness that ensues from the foregoing analysis. The saving merit of the hostile attitude is that it does reveal community, and this is precisely why we prize it: not for its own sake but for the sake of what it reveals. "The case for war does not lie in the fighting itself, but in that for which war compels us to fight."[32] The only way, it appears historically, to achieve the sense of community is to destroy actual community. The dove of peace, like the owl of Minerva, does not take its flight until the shades of night are falling. But, fortunately, the community that is realized is not the one that is destroyed; and a community cannot be realized unless it is there. Bellicosity, then, does not create the community that it reveals; but it reveals one already existent but made now visible through it. This fact is fringed with both discouragement and hope: the one because the method of revealing community also reveals that community must be provincial; the other because if any community, however provincial, actually exists apart from the destructive means of revealing it, it is there to be prized and generalized if other means could be found than that which in revealing limits it. There are common, even if divisive, interests. How can they be made accessible and then expansible? "We cannot depend upon feeling ourselves at one with our compatriots, because the only effective feeling of unity springs from our common response against the common enemy."[33] But to understand the interests for which we fight would make fighting unnecessary, since it is only for the sake of that understanding that we fight.

( 377)

Nations fight, then, because they are not sure of themselves; and they are not sure of themselves because they fail to see the full measure of common interest that exists independent of the feeling produced by the hazards of struggle and because full justice is not done to every class inside themselves. "Civilization is not an affair of reasonableness; it is an affair of social organization. "[34] As the nation maintains its sense of solidarity and self-respect by bristling toward other nations, so groups lesser than nations maintain their self-respect in and by a hostile attitude toward other groups. There are, as Mead observes, "great gaps in our social organization. " [35] And so on down to the humblest individual. The lesson writ large in nationalism can be seen writ small in the individual. Light thrown by an analysis of the individual will shine as far as internationalism. "Know thyself" appeared to Mead, as fully as to the Greeks, the basic wisdom.[36] From the problems of common sense and citizenship, Mead was driven to psychology and from his psychology turns again to social problems. We are not dealing here, however, with the loose analogies common in philosophy between the individual and the group. We are, rather, face to face with an analysis of the individual so radical as to transform, if successful, all psychology-if not also cosmology and metaphysics-into social psychology. We must, then, preoccupy ourselves with his social psychology, though in an indicated division of labor, not further with it than is necessary for a clear comprehension of his social philosophy.


Radical naturalist that he was, Mead could not presuppose a self to explain the genesis of selves. Metaphysics aside, however, he could start with an active organism. Mind, self, must arise from action. Then, too, in any given case, there is the group. To make a long story very short, through the intersection of certain organic senses-notably the voice and the ear-we come to respond to ourselves as we respond to others. We do this because already from infancy we have been responding to others. When we can and do respond to ourselves as we have responded to others, we become an

( 378) other to ourselves. "We must be others if we are to be ourselves."[37] So to respond to ourselves is to be self-conscious; and to be self-conscious is to be or have a self. Were it not for the inherent capacity and the abiding opportunity in a social milieu to interact with others, we should never become an object to ourselves. When man, as Mead happily puts it, calls upon himself and finds himself at home, he has become a living soul; society has breathed into his nostrils the breath of self-consciousness. "The apparatus of self-consciousness," as Mead has it, is borrowed from the group. The woof,[38] then, of all of us is a shared fabric, the social commonalty out of which our separate selves are literally woven. The technique here involved is that of "role-assumption." As children our "whole vocation," first in play, then in games, is to take the roles of others until these roles become ours and then us. But the roles are many, and taken separately they would make "us's" of each of us. Another step is needed, then, to to get a self out of all this changing panorama of selves-a synthesis that Mead describes as "a generalized other." Our habitual self, or character, is, however, a natural precipitate of this role-assuming vocation.

This account is not wholly original with Mead. He borrowed from many others, but he did more to his borrowings than merely make them his own. His treatment of what he borrowed from Adam Smith will serve for adequate illustration. His "generalized other" is so reminiscent of Adam Smith's "impartial spectator" that I once jocosely taxed him with having "stolen his thunder from Smith." He replied genially that he had come under the influence of Adam Smith while studying at Harvard, and had there written a paper on Smith. (It would be a most interesting paper to see.) But whatever he may have borrowed from Adam Smith, his "generalized other" is much richer than what he borrowed. Smith's "man within the breast" is an altruistic guest housed in an egoistic household for purposes of respectability; Mead's "generalized other" is no guest.

( 379) He is the householder himself. The "impartial spectator" arises from a leveling down of both the individual and the group; for in the coalescence of the "amiable" and the "respectable" virtues such dilution goes on as results in "mediocrity." "The generalized other," however, is a leveling up to full-bodied function of all the roles which society has made available for each of its prospective members.


But we cannot pursue this interesting analogy nor need we deal further with the heart of Mead's system, his social psychology. We have turned aside to consider his psychology at all only because the argument took us there. We shall follow the argument away from, as we have followed it to, the self. Mead himself found intelligence, once arisen, as a catharsis for conflicting inner emotions and as a revelation of intrinsic values in the patterns of organized life. But the intelligence which is so significant for what it reveals is equally significant for what it performs. The functional value of his account of the self Mead seldom wrote but to illustrate or imply. The most explicit treatment of the relation between the social self and social problems is found in his thought-provoking article, entitled "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control."[39] But in other articles he follows the socially beneficent influence of his account into three realms: that of peace programs,[40] of art, [41] and, just before his death, of philanthropy .[42] The use Mead made of his social psychology in dealing with the peace problem, already discussed, is sufficiently typical so that, passing over his rewarding discussions of art and philanthropy, we may summarize the several applications of his doctrine of the social self by saying that the self as "socius" arises from tension but seeks harmony of inner roles and of their outer counterparts; that as intelligence it reveals existent values as independent of and appreciable apart from conflict; and that as creator, its ideals, and ideas, are plans for the peaceable propagation of the values that it as intelligence calmly surveys.

( 380)


If this appreciation of my teacher and late esteemed colleague were to stop here, a reader who knew Mead might well call it an apology--a poor apology, a sort of Hamlet with the Prince left out. There was a confidence about him, an unbellicose acceptance of himself, a deep belief in the efficacy of human thought and action, a pervasive optimism that made a unique impression. His optimism was not as though he felt that we know all that we need to know, but that it is possible to know it; not that we have a perfect world, but that we have the instrument for its perfecting. Now, his social philosophy was so much the man that not to be able to do fuller justice than I have done to his personality leaves a taint of inconclusiveness about his philosophy. What one feels Mead ought to have been saying, though there was never a trace of his saying it, was this: "Here I am, be like me. I realize myself without belittling you. I find my interests not in conflict with yours. I can let live without ceasing to live. If I could explain myself, I could explain and cure all social ills. I know that I am social in structure, rational in function. If I can but exhibit intelligence to be as social in intent as I feel it to be, I can guarantee amelioration through understanding, instead of value apprehension through enervating conflict."

Feeling all this as I do, it is a genuine disappointment to me that as a critic I cannot seem to discover in Mead's philosophy an adequate ground for his optimism regarding amelioration. As a scientific mind he no doubt meant to get at the truth as to the nature of the human self. But it is also clear that as a sensitive man he set a high differential value upon his account for purpose of social reform. I am not able effectively to question the truth of his genesis of the self, though I must confess to an ever recurrent suspicion of white magic when I see him start with an animal organism assuming roles and presently end with a well-rounded "generalized other." Is not this technique of each borrowing his soul from the others slightly reminiscent of the oriental utopia in which they supported themselves on each other's laundry? Even the admittedly social woof is morally spotted, and the organic warp-about this warp Mead has embarrassingly little to say. But whatever this synthetic function be that produces a man from an animal, let us praise nature who

( 381) does actually sometimes perpetrate it (for example, in making a Mead) rather than blame it upon Mead who does not so much explain, for all his explaining, as acknowledge the miracle.

But when he seems to deduce from his "genesis" of the self a more effective "social control" than is otherwise obtainable, my suspicion is not so easily allayed. This is a suspicion that can be better documented than the other. What was it in Mead that led him to see in social intelligence so much greater an instrument for amelioration than other men see? What made him a pragmatist construing mind in terms of improved adjustment when other men remain idealists or realists construing mind in terms of appreciation of the given? His least debatable, and certainly a highly rewarding emphasis, is on this ground common to all philosophic schools, i.e., the enormous and self-justifying aesthetic function of mind. To understand what is, is to fill the world with value, however bad what is may be. Why construe understanding as essentially a thrust to reform? The pragmatic answer itself to that question contains the seeds of my distrust of Mead's social psychology as basis for his optimistic social philosophy. For the pragmatic explanation of this characteristic of Mead would make it depend upon his dissatisfaction with the social order which he found. But it was the social order that he found, with its dissatisfying clash of interests, its injustice, its stupidity, which had, according to his theory, formed his own mind. How can a mind formed by assuming conflicting roles have differential value for making harmonious the divisions that produce and constitute it? To put it more intimately, how can a mind so constituted ever become a unity anyway? If there does arise from such a medley of a matrix a "generalized other," will it not be so generalized that it can have no functional efficacy in competition with less generalized others? The simple truth seems to be that in his ameliorative impetus, Mead assumes a unified self because only from such a self could there issue differential hope of a unified society. But on a sober second thought, to get such a self would require a unified society in advance. Each here must rely upon a perfection in the other which the other cannot achieve because of the imperfection in it itself.

Let us indeed admit that the community forms the self. But what community? Plato found every city to be at least two, the city of

( 382) the rich and the city of the poor. When we try to answer that simple question, What community? we find ourselves faced in the sociological realm of discourse with the same dissonance that drove us to sociology for refuge. A change of venue from psychology to social psychology does not license and implement a miracle. The very word "social" seems in our time to carry a slight injection of narcotic; and so, if the self can be shown to be social, it is thought thereby to be proved more amenable to harmony, regardless of what social disharmonies may have gone into it at the making. For the paternity of the soul, then, it appears that we must choose either a community small enough to be homogeneous, in which event the resulting soul will through its harmony with that community be disharmonious with the other communities with which that community is not harmonious, or choose a larger community with its own inner disharmonies reproduced in the self as its lineal descendant.. In the one case we have a unified soul disrupted in confrontation with a world without unity; in the other, a divided self to match a divided world. Do we not, in the light of this, have, instead of Mead's "generalized other," at the best a sort of confederation of "generalized others" and at an easy worst a medley of conflicting impulses to constitute our selves? I would not be thought to imply that Mead was not sensible of this difficulty: "Any self," says he, "is a social self, but it is restricted to the group whose roles it assumes, and it will never abandon this self until it finds itself entering into the larger society and maintaining itself there."[43] But what I do miss is any adequate grounding, in the light of the foregoing admission, of the optimism felt regarding his psychology as a superior instrument for social reform. What I am remarking in Mead is an undercurrent if not an undertow (What philosopher wholly escapes it?) to count an acknowledged ethical ideal as an operative social force.

The visible conflicts of interest among men may, as Halévy suggests in his Growth of Philosophical Radicalism, [44] be confronted with three attitudes: the will to fuse them by sympathy, as illustrated by Hume; the will to adjust them artificially by rewards and punish-

(383) -ment, as in Bentham; and the will to ignore them or to postulate an ulterior natural harmony, as in Adam Smith's economic, though not to such an extent in his ethical, doctrine. Now, Mead's temperament clearly made Bentham's attitude unavailable to him; his sophisticated good sense made Adam Smith's view of the natural harmony of conflicting interests logically unavailable; his sensitive conscience and his pragmatic bias alike fitted him to follow Hume, that is, frankly to admit what he found in the way of human frustration and set resolutely to work by all the educational, legislative, and economic tools of sympathy eventually to remedy what he found initially to be wrong. His masterful essay in Creative Intelligence [45] as well as the tenor of that whole "Pragmatic Bible" was calculated to found this attitude on sound reasoning. Moreover, his own more central and distinctive contribution to the pragmatic movement, his social psychology, may be best understood, if our foregoing argument be sound, as his attempt to lay an impregnable foundation for ethical and social optimism. Both the motive and the estimated result of his social psychology are indicated in his fine statement that "the proudest assertion of independent selfhood is but the affirmation of a unique capacity to fill some social role."[46] But, as we have seen, the mere social nature of the self does not suffice to demonstrate this desired result when the self arises as much from social evils and conflicts as from social harmony. A microcosm mirrors, it does not reconstruct, the macrocosm. What I here suggest, then, as an hypothesis is that Mead sensed the inadequacy of his social psychology to guarantee amelioration (Might not we so construe the fact that each year under the same title and to the same end he gave a new course as social psychology?) and more or less unconsciously borrowed from Adam Smith and his tradition enough natural social harmony to swell into a sufficient showing for optimism the little harmony he was able to create.


Furthermore, there is another hypothesis regarding the final orientation of his social philosophy about which I am even less certain

( 384) but feel it necessary to present in order to finish with a gesture of justice toward the hinterlands of Mead's vast speculative domain. It is that his growing cosmological and metaphysical views were colored by his not wholly satisfactory attempt to furnish a logical basis for social reconstruction. If I have, to any true degree, apprehended the motivation of his philosophical interest and have not hopelessly overplayed the difficulties his understanding met in its quest for social justice, we have before us the kind of situation from which, on Mead's general theory, a metaphysics might be expected to arise-arise as a balm for the frustrations if not of physics, then of psychology. Either reality refused this prince of men the boon of metaphysics which she bad lavished on less worthy thinkers, or a metaphysics was emerging from his speculation to help his sociology cope with the recalcitrant warp of his psychology. The pragmatic identification of reality with experience, with which Mead sympathized and helped to further, is a solace to any social thinker, especially if experience be interpreted as basically social. Dewey has carried the social interpretation of reality below man, below organisms, yea into the very citadel of physics itself.[47] And Mead's forthcoming Carus Lectures seem either to have followed this lead or to have developed independently some such view as to the social nature of reality. Moreover, Mead's address to the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard on the "Objective Reality of Perspectives"[48] and his essay in the Dewey memorial volume on "The Nature of the Past," [49] all seem to point in the direction of dissolving an aloof into a friendly nature. For this absorption of the past and the future into the present is well calculated to carry to contemporaries the message which, according to Mead's interpretation of it, [50] Bishop Berkeley brought to our ancestors, the message that, by proximity and ownership in philosophy, as elsewhere, problems may be resolved which with distance, in either past or future, become alien and insoluble. No thinker will spurn an honorable invitation to place his back against the wall of the universe. This universe

( 385) behind us can be all the more helpful to our social selves in their efforts to harmonize conflicting interests, if it be itself somehow social in its very texture. But even to suggest this as hypothesis may be to make too much of it.


Though there may be room for difference of opinion as to what should be meant by social philosophy, I have here assumed that it differs from social science in a frank preoccupation with ideals; and I have supposed that one legitimate form of this preoccupation would be the use of ideals to connect peripheral facts with a factual nucleus. In this sense Mead was a social philosopher. He wanted far-flung social realities to be better than they are; his social explanation of the genesis of the self served as the factual nucleus. My suggestion, that this central fact was not calculated differentially to inform the peripheral facts with improved meaning, does not, even if granted, invalidate the melioristic intent of his thought or depreciate the specific ideals he had for reconstructing situations. Nor does this analysis touch, save to further, his wise assimilation of ideals to ideas and his functional interpretation of both. Mead's ideals are the ideals of all generous minds of our time. Such things do not differ with different philosophies as much as pride of school could wish. The best part of any social philosophy is the philosopher, and here . Mead's philosophy was superb. But his robust personality now gone, these seem to me the most deeply significant things in his social speculation: 1) an almost, if not quite, completely empirical account of the genesis and nature of the self and through this a final secularization of the human spirit; (2) the cathartic and aesthetic function of intelligence in the social field; (3) the reconstructioe significance of ideals; and (4) a profound faith in the worthwhileness of thought, whether contemplative or operative. `That we shall be better," Mead would have said with Socrates, "and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know; that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power."[51]


  1. “Bishop Berkeley and His Message," Journal of Philosophy, XXVI (1929), 430,
  2. Indeed, it was his theory, as we shall soon see, that "we do our thinking in the form of conversation, and depend upon the imagery of words for our meanings" (International Journal of Ethics, XXXVI [1926], 391).
  3. Essays in Honor of John Dewey, p. 239.
  4. Psychological Bulletin, VI (1909), 407.
  5. "We are substituting," as he puts it in the forthcoming Carus Lectures, "the goal of a society aware of its own values and minded intelligently to pursue them for the city not built with hands eternal in the heavens." "If humanity," as he elsewhere says, "has fled shivering from the starry spaces, it has become minutely at home in the interstices of the speck that it inhabits for an instant," (International Journal of Ethics, XXXIII 1923, 234).
  6. "The economic man of the dismal science was an attempt to state the self in terms of an objective and exact social science. But fortunately the economic man has proved spurious. He does not exist" (Journal of Philosophy, VII [1910], 176).
  7. I am drawing loosely here upon Mead's own discussions which, it is hoped, will later be published as his lectures upon the philosophy of the nineteenth century.
  8. "Philanthropy from the Point of View of Ethics," Faris et al., Intelligent Philanthropy, p. 148.
  9. "The Philosophies of Royce, James, and Dewey in Their American Setting," International Journal of Ethics, XL (1930), 217.
  10. Pragmatic Theory of Truth, "University of California Publications in Philosophy," II (1929), 88.
  11.  "Scientific Method and the Moral Sciences," International Journal of Ethics, XXXIII (1923), 247.
  12. Ibid., p. 229.
  13. It is significant that what Mead found most lacking in the social philosophy of his friend, Cooley-an adequate articulation of "man" and "society"-he connected with the fact that "the beginnings of behavioristic and Freudian psychology did not attract him or suggest new avenues of approach" ("Cooley's Contribution to American Social Thought," American Journal of Sociology, XXXV [1930], 703).
  14. "Scientific Method and the Moral Sciences," op. cit., p. 229.
  15. See below, the use Mead makes of this principle in interpreting the problem of nationalism. Equally significant is his use elsewhere of the same principle to explain the social significance of the cinema.
  16. International Journal of Ethics, XXXIX (1929), 406.
  17. Ibid.
  18. "Bishop Berkeley and His Message," Journal of Philosophy, XXVI (1920), 430.
  19. "Scientific Method and the Moral Sciences," op. cit., p. 235.
  20. International Journal of Ethics, XXXIX (1929), 403.
  21. Ibid., p. 402.
  22. Ibid., p. 404.
  23. "National-Mindedness and International-Mindedness," International Journal of Ethics, XXXIX (1929), 400.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., p. 393.
  26. Ibid., p. 397.
  27. Ibid.
  28. "The only issue involved in the Monroe Doctrine," says Mead in his finest ironic manner, "is this, are you a patriot, are you a red-blooded American, or are you a mollycoddle" (ibid., p. 398).
  29. Ibid., p. 398.
  30. Ibid., p. 399 (italics mine). Mead has in this connection a passage so similar to a famous one in Hobbes that it is easy to suspect that he had Hobbes in mind when he wrote: "Gather ten or fifteen of your acquaintances and make the subject of your conversation the admirable qualities and services of someone known to all. Then change the subject of converse to someone for whom all have a common dislike, and note how much warmer is the sense of at-oneness of those who are engaged in common disparagement than in encomium. The hostile attitude is peculiarly favorable to social cohesion" (ibid., p. 393).
  31. C, D. Burns, Modern Civilization on Trial, p. 38.
  32. "National-Mindedness and International-Mindedness," op. cit. p. 392.
  33. Ibid., p. 400.
  34. Ibid., p. 407.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid., p. 394
  37. "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control," International Journal of Ethics, XXXV (1925), 276.
  38. The warp still seems to be individualistic, on which fact and Mead's relative indifference to it comment is made below, pp. 380-81.
  39. International Journal of Ethics, XXXV (1925), 251-77
  40. "National-Mindedness and International-Mindedness," op. cit., pp. 385-407.
  41. "The Nature of Aesthetic Experience," ibid., XXXVI (1926), 382-93.
  42. Faris et al., op. cit., pp. 133-48.
  43. International Journal of Ethics, XXXV (1925), 276.
  44. Part I, chap. i.
  45. "Scientific Method and Individual Thinker," pp. 176-227.
  46. International Journal of Ethics, XXXIX (1929), 395.
  47. "Social as a Category," Monist, XXXVIII (1928), 161-77
  48. Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, pp. 75-85.
  49. Essays in Honor of John Dewey, pp. 235-42.
  50. "Bishop Berkeley and His Message," Journal of Philosophy, XXVI (1929), 421-30
  51. Meno 86.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2