G.H. Mead's Social Concept of the Self

Christopher J. Bittner
McKendree College, Lebanon, Illinois

THE DEATH of Dr. George Herbert Mead of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Chicago is a great loss to modern philosophy and contemporary social thought. In him the academic world has lost one of its most profound thinkers. Though his writings are not numerous, he has exercised, nevertheless, a profound and lasting influence upon American social thought. During the long years of his professorial career Dr. Mead has been instrumental in shaping and moulding the philosophical point of view of a large number of the present leaders of American social thought. If it is said of Machiavelli that he had marched into the hall of fame with only a small volume under his arm, it might equally well be said of Dr. Mead that he has attained wide recognition with only a few short essays in social psychology. It is quality, and not quantity, that counts. The unique character of Dr. Mead's mind enabled him to embody in a few short essays a larger amount of information than could be found in several volumes written by less gifted men and dealing with the same subject-matter. Each one of Dr. Mead's essays is a masterpiece in logic and exposition. The merit of his work is widely recognized. Of all modern social philosophers he is, perhaps, most quoted and least criticized. Few books in social psychology of real merit have appeared in which Dr. Mead is not quoted. This is particularly true of those books which are dealing with the problem of the `self'. Narrow and trivial as this topic may appear to some,

( 7) it constitutes, nevertheless, the most abstruse, the most subtle, and the most difficult problem in philosophy and social psychology.

The eternal problem of the self has been studied by the philosophers of all ages and no satisfactory solution has been found. To this problem Dr. Mead had devoted his life work, and he has, apparently, succeeded in formulating a theory of the nature and function of. the self which has received wide acceptance.

Possessing a rare capacity for generalization, Professor Mead has developed what one might call a "functional" theory of the self, which represents the culmination of modern philosophical thought on this particular topic.

Recognizing the great influence which the writings of Professor Mead have had upon social theory in the United States, the present writer will attempt to make a brief examination of the most salient features of Professor Mead's theory of the self. The chief aim of this cursory survey is to show the nature of the main conceptual hypotheses upon which his theory of the self rests, and to indicate the points of contact that these concepts make with the philosophical thought in general.


Professor Mead's theory of the self cannot be understood very well without getting first a clear and definite knowledge of his concept of the `psychical', and of the fundamental philosophical principles, in terms of which the nature and function of the self is defined.

Professor Mead's concept of the mind is similar to that of William James, F. Woodbridge, and John Dewey. Consciousness is teleological or purposive; it serves as a tool in the adjustment of the individual to his environment. It is also selective; previous experience serves to determine

( 8) the nature of the stimuli attended to. Professor Mead rejected the concept of the mind as a "spiritual stuff" and returned the contents of the mind to things experienced.

"The natures of the objects are in the objects, they are of the very essence of the objects. . . . . Sensuous qualities exist also in the objects, but only in their relations to the sensitive organism whose environments they form."[1] The objective content of consciousness, such as memory images, are dependent upon the conditions of the organism, especially those of the central nervous system, "but they are not mental or spiritual stuff."

Professor Mead defines sensation in terms of act and not in terms of content, and thus aligns himself with functional psychology. Objects exist in nature as patterns of action. Environment arises for the organism through the selective power of attention that is determined by its impulses seeking expression. The stream of ongoing activities of the organism defines its world for the organism. The physical object is a mental construct, and a percept is a "collapsed act.”[2] Concepts, according to Professor Mead, have the character of actions which are directed toward the attainment of an end. The same point of view is voiced by Professor J. Royce, according to whom "Ideas are like tools, they are there for an end."' Professor Stout also thinks that "Ideas are plans of action."' Professor Mead appears to be accepting the pragmatic point of view that ideas are not true in themselves, but represent labor-saving devices or abbreviating schemes for dealing with the vast and chaotic manifold of sensations.

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From the pragmatic point of view also things are real only in so far as they constitute the objects of our desires. Objects are defined in terms of conduct, hence the doctrine that social consciousness must antedate physical consciousness. Thus, according to Professor Mead, "Whatever our theory may be as to the history of things, social consciousness must antedate physical consciousness. A more correct statement would be that experience in its original form became reflective in the recognition of selves, and only gradually was there differentiated a reflective experience of things which are purely physical."[5] In this connection Professor Mead is in line with the teachings of Hegel and Royce.[6]

It is of interest here to note that Professor Cooley advocated a point of view which is diametrically opposed to that of Profesor Mead. According to Professor Cooley, our rational and conceptual knowledge develops in dealing with the material world, while for the purpose of understanding social facts and the "internal contacts" we are in possession of "a vast and obscure outfit of human susceptibilities, known as instincts, sentiments, emotions, drives, and the like" which furnish personal and social knowledge.[7] This, of course, is in line with Bergson's argument to the effect that intellect "feels itself at home among inanimate objects, more especially among solids, where our action finds its fulcrum and our industry its tools."[8]

For Professor Mead the `psychical' is not the content of consciousness, but the cognitive act of the mind.[9] Sensa-

( 10) -tions are not psychical. They are parts of the data which define the conditions under which the immediate problem is to be solved. The `psychical' is the synthetic activity of the mind. In his theory of reality Professor Mead seems to stand on the middle ground between Idealism and Materialism. His philosophy is that of `immediate experience'; reality is composed of a `neutral stuff', which is neither physical nor psychical. In conflicting situations "mutually contradicting attitudes toward an object cause the disintegration of the object; the subject and object, the ego and alter, disappear from the field of consciousness which becomes protoplasmic." In this protoplasmic state of consciousness content and process cannot be distinguished.

Disintegration is followed by reconstruction. Judgment is the process of reconstruction. Disintegration and reconstruction of the object necessitate a definition of the problem. The solution of the problem takes place within the field of subjectivity, which is a ‘neutral stuff', neither `me' nor other, neither mind nor body. The world provides the data and the self provides the hypothesis for the solution of the problem. But it is not the individual as `me'

that can perform this solution. Such an empirical self belongs to the world which it is the function of this phase of consciousness to reconstruct.[10] It is the Ego or the `I' that effects the reconstruction. The result of the reconstruction will be a new individual (a new empirical self), as well as a new social environment. In the process of reconstruction "the consciousness of the new object, its values and meaning, seem to come earlier to consciousness than the new self that answers to the new object.[11] The self is not a con-

( 11) -tent but an activity, and is defined in terms of the laws of analysis and construction.

Briefly stated, Professor Mead's theory of the `psychical' rests upon the following propositions: The self is central to all so-called mental experiences; the `I' or the Ego is identical with the analytic and synthetic processes of cognition, which in conflicting situations reconstruct out of the `protoplasmic' states of consciousness both the empirical self (the `me') and the world 'of objects; the objective world is a mental construct and is defined in terms of the needs of the `I' or the Ego.

Professor Mead retains the concept of the Ego or `I' in his psychological system. He deplores the fact that William James has so harshly dealt with it. "There is nothing," says Mead, "that has suffered more through loss of dignity of content in modern positivistic psychology than the 'I'. The `me' has been most honorably dealt with. It has waxed in diameter and interest, not to speak of number; with continued analysis, while the `I' has been forced from its metaphysical throne, and robbed of all its ontological garments; and the rags of `feeling of effort about the head and chest', of the 'focalization of sense-organs', the 'furrowings of the eye-brows' seems but a sorry return for the antique dogmas."[12]

Professor Mead accepts the distinction between the `I' and the `me' found in the philosophy of Kant and in post-Kantian Idealism. He agrees with Kant that "the self cannot appear in consciousness as an `I', and that it is always an object, i.e., a `me', and that the `me' is inconceivable without an 'I'." He also maintains the Kantian point of view "that such an `I' is a presupposition, but never a presentation of conscious experience."[13] The `I' is thus the

( 12) result of cognitive inference. "The `I' therefore can never exist as an object in consciousness, but the very conversational character of our inner experience, the very process of replying to one's own talk, implies an `I' behind the scenes who answers to the gestures, the symbols, that arise in consciousness. The `I' is the transcendental self of Kant, the soul that James conceived behind the scene holding on to the skirts of an idea to give it an added increment of emphasis."[14]

For Professor Mead the Ego is an act. "It is an act that makes use of all the data that reflection can present, but used them merely as the conditions of the new world that cannot possibly be foretold from them."[15] The `I' appears to be unconditioned and free; it is an activity and not a content. "It is the self of unconditioned choice, of undreamt hypotheses, of inventions that change the whole face of nature."[16] The `I' is the active agent in the solution of problems and in the reconstruction of experience. As the `I' is always "out of sight of himself" the empirical self or the `me' becomes the object of scientific investigation.[17]


The concepts of `form' and `content' are important categories in Professor Mead's theory of the genesis of the self. The concept of the `form of social object' is basic in his explanation of the nature of self-consciousness. The role of the `form of the social object' in Professor Mead's theory

( 13) of the genesis of self-consciousness can best be understood if we examine it in the light of idealistic philosophy. Idealism assumes substance as being the synthesis of the categories of `form' and `matter', the latter being ab initio formless and chaotic. According to Kant the `manifold of the senses' is formless, chaotic, to which the mind applies its categories of form, space, time, etc., in synthesizing objective reality. For Hegel the `form' is the active principle. His `concrete universals' are logical forms from which all reality is deduced in the same manner as a conclusion is deduced from its premises. His highest category, the Notion, is a free and infinite form.

Professor Mead regards sense-experience as protoplasmic, amorphous and unorganized. It will not become a self unless it assumes the `form of a social object' which is derived in the experience of other selves. In the process of the development of self-consciousness, "the mere presence of experience of pleasure and pain, together with organic sensations, will not form an object unless this material can fall into the scheme of an object."[18] The scheme or form into which the amorphous experience is poured, is furnished by other social beings. Even in the case of objective consciousness of one's own body, "The form of the object is given in the experience of things, which are not his physical self." . . . . "The appearance of his (the child's) body as a unitary thing, as an object, will be relatively late and must follow up the structure of the objects of his environment. This is as true of the object that appears in social conduct, the self." . . . . "The form of the social object must be found first of all in the experience of other selves."[19]

( 14)

Professor Mead's theory of self-consciousness consists thus of the assumption that the empirical self, or `me', is the synthesis of the amorphous subjective experience with the objective `form' furnished by the social object, or another self. His theory of self-consciousness is stated as follows: "It (the form) is rather an importation from the field of social objects into an amorphous unorganized field of what we call inner experience. Through the organization of this object, the self, this material is itself organized and brought under control of the individual in the form of so-called self-consciousness. "[20]


According to Professor Mead the transference of the `form of the social object' from the environment to one's inner experience takes place in the use of vocal gestures. By means of vocal gestures the individual stimulates himself in the same manner as he stimulates others. Self-stimulation and response create the form of the social object to which the amorphous subjective experience is referred. This gives rise to the self as an object. "What is there in human social conduct," asks Mead, "that gives rise to `me', as a self which is an object? Why does the human animal transfer the form of a social object from his environment to an inner experience?"

To these questions he replies in the following manner: "The fact that the human animal can stimulate himself as he stimulates others and can respond to his stimulations as he responds to the stimulations of others, places in his conduct the form of social object out of which may arise a `me' to which can be referred so-called subjective experi-

( 15) -ences."[21] In stimulating himself as others would do, the individual becomes an object to himself. "This takes place when the individual assumes the attitude or uses the gesture which other individuals would use, and responds to it himself, or tends to respond." . . . . "It arises in the life of the infant through what is unfortunately called imitation, and finds expression in the normal play life of young children."[22] The consciousness of the self arises when the individual in imitation takes the attitude of another toward himself. In acting out his role of another, the individual discovers that the activities belong to his own nature. "We must be others before we are ourselves."[23]

Now, it stands to reason that the meaning of the term `self' cannot be learned by imitation of other individuals, because each individual attaches to it a different meaning; the contents of each individual self are uniquely organized in conformity with his own perspective upon the world. According to Professor Mead himself, "the ongoing activity of the individual form marks and defines its world for the form, which thus exists for it as it does not for any other form."[24] The importation of the `form of the social object' into one's inner consciousness involves comparison, and comparison is a relation which cannot take place unless both terms, the self and the other, are present in consciousness. We cannot consciously be others unless we know what we are ourselves. And to be a `generalized other' means to be an abstraction, a nonentity. Imitation as such cannot generate self-consciousness; it may only intensify

( 16) it if it exists at the outset. Psychologists usually distinguish two kinds of imitation, conscious or voluntary, and unconscious imitation. Now if the child imitates voluntarily by performing acts set before him by social examples, then the act of imitation represents an activity which presupposes self-consciousness at the outset as a motive to bring his own self into conformity with social patterns of behavior. But if the imitative act is unconscious or 'subcortical', then no consciousness of the self will ever arise in the imitative process. No parrot has ever become selfconscious, but many "self-conscious" individuals have become parrots.


In his theory of the genesis of self-consciousness Professor Mead has developed another concept, namely, the `generalized other', which is closely related to the `form of the social object'. According to Mead we sympathetically assume the roles of others and find in our own experiences the responses of others. The `generalized other' develops in the process of communication. "Communication," says Mead, "is the mechanism by means of which the individual enters the perspective of the community."[25] In games or in other organized group activities the individual is able then to become a `generalized other' in addressing himself in the attitude of the group, or the community. In this situation he has become a definite self over against the social whole to which he belongs .[26] In the process of communication, the self, which is revealed, is not the `I', but the empirical self, or the `me'. The `I' is an activity, and as such it cannot appear at the same time as subject and ob-

( 17) -ject. "We can be conscious of our acts only through the sensory process set up after the act has begun."

The notion of the `generalized other' rests upon the assumption that originally the self is only objectively conscious, and that the child is consciously affected by others before he is conscious of being affected by himself, and that we naturally interpret ourselves in terms of others. In the opinion of the present writer there is no such stage of pure objective consciousness; the interpretation of the self in terms of others implies reasoning by analogy; it involves the consciousness of both terms of the subject-object relationship. It is rather doubtful whether a young child can ever arrive at the notion of the `generalized other', which is a conceptual abstraction derived from mature experience.


For Professor Mead the content of consciousness is of social origin. "Inner consciousness is socially organized by the importation of the social organization of the outer world." The consciousness of others precedes self-consciousness. The `I' can never appear immediately in consciousness and can never be conscious of itself. The self appearing as `I' is the memory image of the self who acted toward himself and is the same self who acts toward other selves. The stuff that goes to make up the `me' is the experience which is induced by this action of the `I'. "The `me' consciousness is of the same character as that which arises from the action of the other upon him. That is, it is only as the individual finds himself acting with reference to himself as he acts towards others, that he becomes a subject to himself rather than object, and only as he is affected by his own social conduct in the same manner in which he is affected by that of others, that he becomes an object to his own social conduct."[27]


In his analysis of the social self, Professor Mead calls our attention to the fact that there is a "constant factor" of awareness of what we do, say, or think, in the field of our consciousness. It is a sort of inner response to our activities. This `inner observer' is not to be confused with the `I', or the implied object of our actions. "The observer," says Mead, "who accompanies all our self-conscious conduct is then not the actual `I' who is responsible for the conduct in propria persona--he is rather the response which one makes to his own conduct."[28] This response of'the individual to his own stimulations is due to the fact that one "cannot hear himself speak without assuming in a measure the attitude which he would have assumed if he had been addressed in the same words by another."[29] There is, then, another empirical self, another `me' which Professor Mead calls the `reflective self'.


According to Professor Mead, thought is an inner conversation in which the self becomes an object to himself; he hears himself talk and replies. Mead thinks that "the mechanism of introspection is therefore given in the social attitude which man necessarily assumes toward himself, and the mechanism of thought, in so far as thought uses symbols which are used in social intercourse, is but an inner conversation."[30] Thought, then, is an inner conversation, and develops in connection with the development of the self in experience. It is a sublimated conversation between the self and the imagined specific other or the `generalized other'.

( 19)

Reflective consciousness presupposes a social situation, and language is the outgrowth of vocal gestures. Gestures are instrumental in the development of the consciousness of meaning. The meaning of a gesture arises when one imagines the social consequences of a gesture. "One's own gestures could not take on meaning directly. The gestures aroused by them in others would be that upon which attention is centered. And these gestures become identified with the content of one's own emotional attitude."[31]

There is much truth in this statement. But the present writer thinks that the meaning of gestures is not wholly determined from without, particularly in regard to one's emotional gestures. It was previously assumed by Professor Mead that human consciousness is teleological, or purposive, serving as a tool in the adjustment process. It was also assumed that consciousness is selective, determining the direction of attention, and the nature of the stimuli attended to. If this is true, the meaning of one's gestures is not wholly determined from without. An action cannot be conscious and purposive without having at the same time a meaning. My gesture consciously directed toward others has a meaning for me as calculated to arouse certain anticipated reactions and attitudes in others. The meaning of my own act or gesture is not always the same as the responding gesture or attitude of my neighbor. My gesture does not always arouse an identical gesture and emotion in the other fellow. The meaning of my vocal gesture is not, for instance, determined by the gestures provoked in an insane person, or in a child, or animal.

Language gestures are symbols of things, attributes, relations, and meanings. Though they are social products, their meaning is determined in one's subjective experience.

( 20) A vocal gesture has the same relation to an idea, or mental image, as a label on a package has to the contents of the package. Thought is not sublimated conversation, but that which makes the sublimated conversation possible. There is no natural and unalterable connection between a concept and its verbal symbol. Symbols do not determine the meaning of mental images, but mental images determine the meaning of symbols conditioned to the meaning. One can hardly agree with Professor Mead that all meanings are socially determined, and that social consciousness antedates physical consciousness. However, there are passages in Professor Mead's writings which indicate that meaning can be explained as a consciousness of an attitude oŁ an individual toward an object to which he is responding. The latter point of view has been widely accepted.


Professor Mead assumes that social relations are internal: they modify the attitudes of the interacting individuals. The consciousness of meaning presupposes the existence of self-consciousness. The subjective aspect of the self is identified with psychic activity. In his later writings Professor Mead developed the relational theory of the mind resembling that of Woodbridge and Montague.[32]

His theory of the self represents a logical deduction from certain fundamental propositions. Some of these propositions, such as the analytic and constructive activity of the self; the doctrine of the social form; the amorphous nature of sense-experience; the centered position of the self, indicate plainly the idealistic antecedents of his theory of the self.

( 21)

The concept of the `generalized other' is a word-hypothesis, rather than an empirical fact obtained by observation. The point of view that we must be others if we are to be ourselves, and that other selves in social environment logically antedate the consciousness of self, has not been consistently maintained throughout all his essays, and the hypothesis has been advanced that "the self arises in consciousness pari passu with the recognition and definition of other selves."[33] The latter view is more plausible than the former. Social situations no doubt promote the development of self-consciousness, but to maintain the idea that we are `generalized others' before we are ourselves, is a sheer metaphysical speculation. No less fantastic is the assumption that "we cannot use our responses to others as the materials for construction of the self,--this imagery goes to make up the other selves."[34]

In one connection Professor Mead speaks of the `me' as the real self, which is an importation into the inner consciousness of the social organization of the outer world. In another connection the `me' is only a presentation to the `I', an objective datum, like any other presentation, which disintegrates in conflicting situations, and has to be reconstructed by the real self, the `I' which is defined "in terms of the laws of analysis and construction."[35]

For Professor Mead, then, the real attitude of subjectivity (self-consciousness) resides in the `I', and the conflicting impulses of the `I' constitute the subject-matter of functional psychology.[36] The `I' is an activity, a process; the `me' is the content. But, according to Mead, "what

( 22) the content of the function is going to be is dependent upon the character of the process."[37] Thus, Professor Mead's point of view appears to be that the `me', or the empirical self, is constructed in conformity with the impulses and needs of the `I'. To contend then, as Professor Mead does, that the empirical self is exclusively a social product, is to use the term in a narrow sense following the tradition of idealistic philosophy. Social facts are not the only conditioning factors in the genesis of self-consciousness; one's contact with the physical world must have a share in arousing self-consciousness. An individual need not assume the role of a `generalized other' in order to realize that he is self-conscious.

Professor Mead has given us what one might call a logical explanation of the nature of the self. The idealistic assumption, namely, that self-consciousness arises only in the presence of other selves, is the main theme of his essays. He has not availed himself of the data furnished by genetic and abnormal psychology bearing upon the problem of the self. However, the most promising sources of data as to the nature and function of the self lie undoubtedly in these fields.


  1. G. H. Mead, "A Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Journal of Philosophy, XIX:157 ff.
  2. G. H. Mead, "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," Journal of Philosophy, IX (1912), 401.
  3. J. Royce, The World and the Individual, 1:308.
  4. Stout, Analytic Psychology, 11:114, 124.
  5. G. H. Mead, "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Journal of Philosophy, VII: 180 f.
  6. J. Royce, 'External World and the Social Consciousness," Philos. Review, III: 513-45; see also Royce, "Self-consciousness, Social Consciousness and Nature," Philos. Review, IV:473.
  7. C. H. Cooley, “The Roots of Social Knowledge," American Journal of Sociology, XXXII:66 ff.
  8. L'Evolution creatrice, English translation, p. ix.
  9. G. H. Mead, "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Journal of Philosophy, VII: 180 ff.
  10. G. H. Mead, The Definition of the Psychical, p. 34.
  11. G. H. Mead, "The Social Self," Journal of Philosophy, X:378.
  12. G. H. Mead, The Definition of the Psychical (University of Chicago Press, 1903), p. 30.
  13. G.H. Mead, "The Social Self," Journal of Philosophy, X:374.
  14. G. H. Mead, "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," Journal of Philosophy, IX (1912), 406.
  15. G. H. Mead, The Definition of the Psychical, p. 35.
  16.   Ibid., pp. 35 f.
  17. G. H. Mead, "The Mechanism of the Social Consciousness," Journal of Philosophy, IX (1912), 406.
  18. G. H. Mead, "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," Journal of Philosophy, IX (1912), 404.
  19. Ibid., p. 404.
  20. Ibid., p. 405.
  21. Ibid., p. 405.
  22. G. H. Mead, "A Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Journal of Philosophy, XIX (1922), 160.
  23. G. H. Mead, "Genesis of Self and Social Control," International Journal of Ethics, XXXV: 276. The same doctrine is expressed by J. W. Scott as follows: "For as conscious I am others; I am many men in one," Proceedings Aristotle Society, XX (1919-1920), 130.
  24. Ibid., pp. 256-57; 259-60.
  25. G. H. Mead, "The Objective Reality of Perspectives," in the Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, 1926, p. 80.
  26. Ibid., p. 80.
  27. G. H. Mead, "The Social Self," Journal of Philosophy, X (1913), 374-75.
  28. Ibid., p. 376.
  29. Ibid., pp. 376-77.
  30. Ibid., pp. 377-78.
  31. G. H. Mead, "Social Psychology, as Counterpart of Physiological Psychology," Psychology Bulletin, VI (1909), 406-407.
  32. G. H. Mead, "A Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Journal of Philosophy, XIX:157-63.
  33. G. H. Mead, "Psychology of Social Consciousness Implied in Instruction," Science, XXXI:691-92. See also his article, "The Objective Reality of Perspectives," Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, 1926, p 81.
  34. G. H. Mead, The Mechanism of Social Consciousness " Journal of Philosophy, lX (1912), 406.
  35. G. H. Mead, The Definition of the Psychical, p. 34.
  36. Ibid., p. 35.
  37. Ibid., p. 36.

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