George Herbert Mead

Mind, self and society
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1934.

Included here are some quotes from the work which I have found most challenging and useful for the development of my own thinking about self, co-action with other selves ("conversation of gestures"), and the structuring of the "field of experience" within which, or is it "with which," co-action proceeds. It is on this last matter that I find Mead weakest (Varenne, 1995) and, in an American context, rather dangerous.

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The problem of meaning

We are too prone to approach language as the philologist does, from the standpoint of the symbol that is used... We assume that there are sets of ideas in persons' minds and that these individuals make use of certain arbitrary symbols which answer to the intent which the individuals had. But if we are going to broaden the concept of language ... so that it takes in the underlying attitudes, we can see that the so-called intent, the idea we are talking about, is one that is involed in the gesture or attitudes which we are using. The offering of a chair to a person who comes into the room is in itself a courteous act... Such early stages of social acts precede the symbol proper, and deliberate communication. (p. 14-5).

compare and contrast to Saussure's contemporary theory of meaning that appears to fundamentally at odds with Mead's: are acts really pre-symbolic? and if they are not, then how are we to analyze the effect of any act within the conversation (or the conversation itself for that matter)?

The conversation of gestures

I have given the illustration of the dog-fight as a method of presenting the gesture. The act of each dog becomes the stimulus of the other dog for his response. There is then a relationship between these two; and as the act is responded to by the other dog, it, in turn, undergoes change. The very fact that the dog is ready to attack another becomes a stimulus to the other dog to change his own position of his own attitude. He has no sooner done this than the change of attitude in the second dog in turn causes the first dog to change his attitude. We have a conversation of gesture. (p. 42-43)

Given this general statement, as applied to human interaction, Mead moves in two direction with radical different theoretical implications.

First he talks about internalization (and thus moves us towards theories of the constructed self).

And then he moves towards fields of meaning (and toward theories of the radical "I" that transcends the constructed self).


The internalization of the meaning of gestures

Gestures become significant symbol when they arouse in an individual making them the same responses which they explicitly arouse, or are supposed to arouse, in other individuals, the individuals to whom they are addressed; and in all conversations of gestures within the social process, whether external (between different individuals) or internal (between a given individual and himself), the individuals consciousness of the content and flow of meaning involved depends on this thus taking the attitude of the other toward his own gestures.

The internalization in our experience of the external conversations of gestures which we carry on with other individuals in the social process is the essence of thinking; and the gestures thus internalized are significant symbols because they have the same meaning for all individual members of the given society or social group, i.e., they respectively arouse the same attitudes in the individuals making them that they arouse in the individuals responding to them: otherwise the individual could not internalize them or be conscious of them and their meaning. (my emphasis. p.47)


Field of experience and meaning

Meaning is thus not to be conceived, fundamentally, as a state of consciousness, or as a set of organized relations existing or subsisting mentally outside the field of experience into which they enter; on the contrary, it should be conceived objectively, as having its existence entirely within this field itself. The response of one organism to the gestures of another in any given social act is the meaning of that gesture. (my emphasis. p. 78)

It is not necessary, in attempting to solve the problem of meaning, to have recourse to psychical states, for the nature of meaning, as we have seen, is found to be implicit in the structure of the social act, implicit in the relations among its three basic individual components: namely in the triadic relation of

(my display of the triad, p. 81)

Note that Mead does not say that the completion of the act is necessarily performed by the individual who first gestured. This prefigures Arensberg's triadic model of culture.

For a theory of the radical 'I'

I talk to myself, and I remember what I said and perhaps the emotion content that went with it. The "I" of this moment is present in the "me" of the next moment. I cannot turn around quick enough to catch myself. (p. 174)

The "I" does not appear in the same sense in experience as does the "me." The "me" represents a definite organization of the community there in our own attitudes, and calling for a response. (p. 178)

On this matter see also his paper on "The social self." (1913).

For an illustration see my discussion of Maxine Hong Kingston difficulties in reading the English character 'I'.

February 28 2007 [2001]