George Herbert Mead (1863—1931)

James T. Farrell said of George Herbert Mead, “his style was often marked by accuracy and precision. Some of his papers are a pleasure to read not only because of their originality but also because they are models of compact organization.” Mead studied with both Josiah Royce and William James at Harvard in the late 1880’s when James was finishing his Principles of Psychology.

George Herbert Mead (1863—1931) had many original and influential ideas that he presented in lectures, conversations and in the forty-six papers that he published during his life. But he died before he was able to integrate them into systematic book length presentation.

After his death several of his students dug through the extensive lecture notes, the stenographic records of his social psychology course at the University of Chicago, and from his numerous unpublished papers. They edited these notes and lectures into the four posthumously published volumes we typically associate with Mead.

Mind, Self & Society (1934) is the primary presentation of Mead’s concept of social behaviorism. For Mead the mind is neither a transcendent substance nor merely the result of chemical and physiological interactions. The mind emerges from a social act of communication between organisms. In Pragmatism human activity is the criteria for truth and meaning. Mutual activity, particularly communication, creates the mind and our sense of self. Each individual is a product of the society in which they live. The individual develops a sense of self when they become an object to themselves—looking at themselves through the perspective of others.

The Philosophy of the Act, (1938) shows how the ideas of social behaviorism can point out the psychological origin of scientific understanding and a lead to a pragmatically grounded philosophy of science. Individuals want to have control over their immediate environment. The notion of what a physical object is rises out of these particular needs. This creates a kind of “social interaction” with inanimate objects. Science therefore is a continual reconstruction of our idea of the world in response to different situations. It is not fixed but changes over time and with circumstances.

The Philosophy of the Present, (1932) and Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936) present Mead’s pragmatist view of the philosophy of history. As with science, historical thought arises in response to changing circumstances that are confronted by the social group. History continually reconstructs the past in an attempt to understand the present. The meaning of past events changes as our present circumstances and the problems we confront change. The truth of history is its ability to make the present sensible through reference to the past. Historical thought is the reinterpretation of the past in terms of the present. Like science, the truth of history is not static but changes with our needs and circumstances.

We only have two short selections from Mead in our anthology both dealing with social behaviorism and the self. If you would like to read more I would encourage you to take a look at his short book, The Philosophy of the Present. It is available free on the internet:

Also available is James Farrell’s review”George Herbert Mead’s Philosophy of the Present.” (1947):


~ by severalfourmany on April 30, 2017.

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