Friday, November 26, 2010

George Herbert Mead

Jurgen Habermas took great pains to refute the philosophy of the subject as metaphysical thinking. To do so he made ample use of Mead, devoting an entire chapter to him in his book Postmetaphysical Thinking (MIT Press, 1993). Following are excerpts from that chapter, “Individuation through socialization: On Mead's Theory of subjectivity.” Commentary will follow in the comments:

"Humbolt expends great effort in analyzing the use of the personal pronouns; he surmises that the specific conditions for the unforced synthesis of linguistically reached understanding, which simultaneously socializes and individuates the participants, are to be found in the I-you and the you-me relation, which is distinguished from the I-s/he and I-it relations" (163). [Note: this is key to you kennilinguists, who don't have an adequate place for the 2nd person.]

"Mead will be the first to make use of the performative attitude of the first person toward the second person and above all the symmetrical you-me relationship as the key to his critique of the mirror-model of the self-objectifying subject and it relationship to itself" (163).

"A totally different meaning is invested in the claim to individuality that is put forth by a first person in dialogue with a second person" (167).

"Self-consciousness is articulated not as the self-relation of a knowing subject but as the ethical self-reassurance of an accountable person" (168).

"The ego, which seems to be given in my self-consciousness as purely my own, cannot be maintained by me solely solely through my own power, as it were for me alone; it does not 'belong' to me. Rather this ego always retains an intersubjective core because the process of individuation from which it emerges runs through the network of linguistically mediated interactions. Mead was the first to have thought through this intersubjective model of the socially produced ego (170).

Here's more on Mead from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. There is much here toward how we define “postmetaphysical”:

"In Mind, Self and Society (1934), Mead describes how the individual mind and self arises out of the social process. Instead of approaching human experience in terms of individual psychology, Mead analyzes experience from the “standpoint of communication as essential to the social order.” Individual psychology, for Mead, is intelligible only in terms of social processes. The “development of the individual's self, and of his self- consciousness within the field of his experience” is preeminently social. For Mead, the social process is prior to the structures and processes of individual experience.

"The essence of Mead's so-called 'social behaviorism' is his view that mind is an emergent out of the interaction of organic individuals in a social matrix. Mind is not a substance located in some transcendent realm, nor is it merely a series of events that takes place within the human physiological structure. Mead therefore rejects the traditional [dualistic, metaphysical] view of the mind as a substance separate from the body as well as the behavioristic attempt to account for mind solely in terms of physiology or neurology. Mead agrees with the behaviorists that we can explain mind behaviorally if we deny its existence as a substantial entity and view it instead as a natural function of human organisms. But it is neither possible nor desirable to deny the existence of mind altogether. The physiological organism is a necessary but not sufficient condition of mental behavior. Without the peculiar character of the human central nervous system, internalization by the individual of the process of significant communication would not be possible; but without the social process of conversational behavior, there would be no significant symbols for the individual to internalize.

"The emergence of mind is contingent upon interaction between the human organism and its social environment; it is through participation in the social act of communication that the individual realizes her (physiological and neurological) potential for significantly symbolic behavior (i.e., thought). Mind, in Mead's terms, is the individualized focus of the communicational process; it is linguistic behavior on the part of the individual. There is, then, no 'mind or thought without language;' and language (the content of mind) 'is only a development and product of social interaction.' Thus, mind is not reducible to the neurophysiology of the organic individual, but is an emergent in 'the dynamic, ongoing social process' that constitutes human experience.

"The self, like the mind, is a social emergent. This social conception of the self, Mead argues, entails that individual selves are the products of social interaction and not the (logical or biological) preconditions of that interaction. Mead contrasts his social theory of the self with individualistic theories of the self (i.e., theories that presuppose the priority of selves to social process). 'The self is something which has a development; it is not initially there, at birth, but arises in the process of social experience and activity, that is, develops in the given individual as a result of his relations to that process as a whole and to other individuals within that process.' Mead's model of society is an organic model in which individuals are related to the social process as bodily parts are related to bodies.

"The self is a reflective process, i.e., 'it is an object to itself.' For Mead, it is the reflexivity of the self that 'distinguishes it from other objects and from the body.' For the body and other objects are not objects to themselves as the self is.

"It is, moreover, this reflexivity of the self that distinguishes human from animal consciousness. Mead points out two uses of the term 'consciousness': (1) consciousness may denote 'a certain feeling consciousness' which is the outcome of an organism's sensitivity to its environment (in this sense, animals, in so far as they act with reference to events in their environments, are conscious); and (2) consciousness may refer to a form of awareness 'which always has, implicitly at least, the reference to an I in it' (i.e., self-consciousness). It is the second use of the term consciousness that is appropriate to the discussion of human consciousness. While there is a form of pre-reflective consciousness that refers to the 'bare thereness of the world,' it is reflective (or self-) consciousness that characterizes human awareness. The pre-reflective world is a world in which the self is absent.

"Mead's concept of sociality, as we have seen, implies a vision of reality as situational, or perspectival. A perspective is 'the world in its relationship to the individual and the individual in his relationship to the world.' A perspective, then, is a situation in which a percipient event (or individual) exists with reference to a consentient set (or environment) and in which a consentient set exists with reference to a percipient event. There are, obviously, many such situations (or perspectives). These are not, in Mead's view, imperfect representations of 'an absolute reality' that transcends all particular situations. On the contrary, 'these situations are the reality' which is the world."


  1. Recall Habbie said:

    “Rather this ego always retains an intersubjective core because the process of individuation from which it emerges runs through the network of linguistically mediated interactions.”

    Language is the outside, interobjective “artifact” without which we cannot communicate. Mead asserts that “self” consciousness cannot even arise without language; “the self is a product of socio-symbolic interaction.” Such symbols are not limited to language but also manifest as a “societal matrix” which includes papers and pencils and all other such artifacts necessary to think at all. And all of this one-many, inner-outer co-arises as one “holon,” so to speak:

    “The relation between organism and environment is, in a word, interactive. The perceptual object arises within this interactive matrix and is ‘determined by its reference to some percipient event, or individual, in a consentient set.'”

    Hence Mead refutes not only pure subjectivism and objectivism but pure individualism and socialism as well. To reiterate the above, “in a word, interactive.”

    Mark Edwards does a good job of explaining this is his 3-part essay “The depth of the exteriors” at Integral World. He goes into Mead and mediating social structures in part 3. For example:

    “Mead was a theorist of the inside and outside of the exteriors (zones 3 and 4) who was well aware of the existence of the insides and outsides of the interiors (zones 1 and 2).”

  2. In the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Mead it distinguishes between 2 forms of consciousness: animal and human. The former is not self-aware (pre-reflective) while the latter is. But note that the former refers to the “bare thereness of the world.” This seems to suggest a given underlying the latter process of “self” development. Later in the entry it distinguishes between two main types of perspectives: perceptual and reflective. The former is “the world of immediate perceptual experience” which is grounded again in “the world that is there.” “Reflective analysis thus arises within and presupposes an unreflective world of immediate experience.”

  3. Rosenthal and Bourgeous say in Mead and Merleau-Ponty (SUNY Press: 1991):

    "The world that is there is both independent and constituted. Though it is indeed 'there' as the context of meanings within which reflective acts take place, it is what it is partially through its relatedness to an organism….Mead concisely captures these two dimensions in his assertion that 'in a sense there exists an absolute universe of events but….There is no absolute world of things'” (41).

  4. This avoids the myth of the given (metaphysics) while still allowing for perceptual immediacy. I suggest that this perceptual immediacy is what is usually referred to as a “spiritual” state; hence a “postmetaphysical” spirituality. However this “state” in itself is “pre”reflective, not post. Consequently what makes it “post” metaphysical is the actual reflection upon, and differentation from, the “raw” experience that emerges in the process of “self” development. Hence it is only when we “go back” and integrate perceptual immediacy from the vantage of self-reflection that we go “post”metaphysical.

  5. From Peter Hamilton in George Herbert Mead: Critical Assessments (Taylor & Francis, 1992):

    "Though it is difficult to express Mead's position regarding the features of immediate experience, we might say that the organism on the level of perceptual immediacy does not think of act, experience, its body, and the perceived or manipulated object as conceptually distinct entities…. Elsewhere Mead equates immediate experience with bodily activity, that is, where the organism is engaged with things rather than with signs of things, as occurs on the reflective level.

    "Let us now look more closely at Mead's account of the act-object relation in immediate, pre-reflective experience. It is central to Mead's position that the relation between organism and environment in immediate experience is not between a mind or consciousness and external objects but rather a relation between organic activity and the behavioral environment. Consequently, on this level…objects are not identified as 'that which exists independently of experience.' On the contrary, an object is characterized as…whatever resists bodily movement and as what can be manipulated; in other words, a physical object…is defined within the context of behavioral activity.

    Consequently, Mead defines a 'physical object' not by reference to an independently existing world of spatial, temporal and causal relations but rather in the context of behavioral activity…. By interpreting both 'internal perceptual experience' and 'external physical objects' as abstractions relative to the context of behavioral activity and the organism-environment transaction, Mead avoided the…so-called 'problem of knowledge' logically entailed by epistemological dualism (94-5).

  6. Note above how the “problem of knowledge” is an epistemological dualism. This by another name is the myth of the given or metaphysics, that there is a clear, distinct separation between a subject and object. (Or absolute and relative, etc.) Hence there is no distinct “in here” and “out there” (or me and you) apart from their relationship. So even so-called immediate perception is not a transcendental experience apart from organic activity but rather a selective process within that activity.

  7. Johnson, M. and Rohrer, T. “We Are Live Creatures: Embodiment, American Pragmatism, and the Cognitive Organism.” In Body, Language and Mind, vol. 1, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2007, pp. 17-54.


    The philosophical tradition mistakenly asks how the inside (i.e., thoughts, ideas, concepts) can represent the outside (i.e., the world). This trap is a consequence of the view that mind and body must be two ontologically different entities. On this view the problem of meaning is to explain how disembodied “internal” ideas can represent “external” physical objects and events. Several centuries have shown that given a radical mind-body dichotomy, there is no way to bridge the gap between the inner and the outer. When “mind” and “body” are regarded as two fundamentally different kinds, no third mediating thing can exist that possesses both the metaphysical character of inner, mental things and simultaneously possesses the character of the outer, physical things.

    Embodied Realism, in contrast to Representationalist theories, rejects the notion that mind and body are two ontologically distinct kinds, and it therefore rejects the attendant view that cognition and language are based on symbolic representations inside the mind of an organism that refer to some physical thing in an outside world. Instead, the terms “body” and “mind” are simply convenient shorthand ways of identifying aspects of ongoing organism-environment interactions - and so cognition and language must be understood as arising from organic processes. We trace the rejection of this mind-body dualism from the philosopher psychologists known as the early American Pragmatists (James and Dewey) forward through recent cognitive science (such as Varela, Maturana, Edelman, Hutchins, Lakoff, Johnson, Brooks). We argue that embodied realism requires a radical reevaluation of the classical dualistic metaphysics and epistemology - especially the classical Representationalist theory of mind - and we conclude by investigating the implications for future investigations for a new, pragmatically centered cognitive science.

    In the following sections we show how the Pragmatist view of cognition as action provides an appropriate philosophical framework for the cognitive science of the embodied mind. We begin by describing the non-dualistic, non-Representationalist view of mind developed by James and Dewey. Their understanding of situated cognition is reinforced by recent empirical research and developments within the cognitive sciences. We cite evidence from comparative neurobiology of organism-environment coupling ranging from the amoeba all the way up to humans, and we argue that in humans this coupling process becomes the basis of meaning and thought.

  8. For Mead perceptual immediacy and bodily activity are prereflective and before the emergence of the reflective self. The attitude of immediate experience is associated with the body as its interactivity with the environment, and it is nonconceptual. I suggest it is this nonconceptual interactivity that is then reflected upon by a witness-self, itself produced by language and conceptual thought, that then produces what Buddhists call clear, awake awareness. It is not a return to a pre-rational body as it is but an integration of bodily awareness through a more complex structure. A structure which requires the body as its basis and does not exist without it, yet “transcends and includes” it.

    The immature ego in its differentiation phase from the body does mistake itself as an enduring, separate self. But a mature ego realizes its contingent construction, its dependent origination, and in its synthetic function (as Epstein calls it) it takes itself as object and can re-enter nonconceptual bodily awareness from this new vantage point. That’s why we need an ego to meditate in the first place, to integrate what was previously only differentiated. And we need language and thought to get there, which is itself dependently arisen and empty of a permanent self. As is too our now integrated, return to clear awareness, also dependently arisen and empty of a permanent, metaphysical reality.

  9. You can see our prior IPS discussion of Mead in its entirety at this link:

  10. you are doing some great work/thinking here Edward. I'm gonna stay tuned...


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