Fay Berger Karpf's
George H. Mead

Citation: Fay Berger Karpf. "George H. Mead" Section II of Chapter VII in "The Emergence of a Differentiated Social Psychology" in American Social Psychology: Its Origins, Development and European Background. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company (1932): 318-327.

II. GEORGE H. MEAD (1863-1931)

Ross' work outlines a conception of social psychology which was very prominent if not predominant during the earlier part of the modern social-psychological movement. In the work of Baldwin and Cooley, however, we get the emergence of another conception which has been growing in importance in this country ever since its first formulation. This latter conception, which, as we have seen, centered about the analysis of the social self and the social nature of personality, was developed further in important directions by George H. Mead.[1] While Mead approached the subject of social psychology in a frankly philosophical manner, for reasons which will appear presently, he has been an outstanding figure in American social-psychological thought alongside of the other writers so far considered here. At any rate, it is necessary to view his social-psychological theory here as supplementing some of the other formulations, despite some altogether unusual difficulties.

For Mead's influence upon American social-psychological thought has been exerted chiefly by way of the classroom and only secondarily by way of his published writings. The latter are fragmentary in the first place and both involved and obscure, and hence limited in their appeal, in the second place. A survey of Mead's published discussions of social psychological material would, therefore, be peculiarly inadequate as an index of the importance of his social-psychological theory. It is necessary to link these discussions of scattered aspects of his theory with his point of view as a whole, and this is to date not available in published form. The following summary is accordingly based on an unpublished outline of Mead's social-psychological theory [2] and on his class presentation of the material, as well as on some of his published articles. The reader who would follow out this brief summary is neces-

(319) -sarily limited to the latter source.[3] It must at least be borne in mind, however, that Mead's social-psychological theory is really a part of a larger situation which includes Dewey's psychology on the one hand and some of the social-psychological formulations of Thomas, Faris, and others of the group associated with them on the other. For it is only as his theory is viewed in the light of this larger setting that its real importance as a factor in American social-psychological thought begins to appear.[4]

Mead addressed himself in particular to the careful analysis of the process by which the social unfolding of human personality takes place. Both Baldwin and Cooley had made their distinctive contributions here, but with the developing experimental study of the role of imitation in mental life a serious gap was left, at any rate in Baldwin's side of the analysis, which it seemed, from Mead's standpoint, most important to bridge.[5] In fact, current social-psychological thought as a whole was so conspicuously associated with the imitation theory of social life—that the weakening of this specific theory seemed for the time being to be a weakening also of the social-psychological point of view in general. In directing his attention to a careful re-analysis of the process of social interaction, Mead was thereby attacking a problem which at the time was of fundamental social-psychological importance. Just when the imitation basis of modern social-psychological thought was beginning to give way, he shifted the center of social-psychological interest, so that imitation became a mere incident in the analysis of the basic process by which personality develops and social interaction is carried on.[6] Mead also went the step beyond current social-psychological thought in this country of extending the social-psychological point of view more directly into the field of what had been looked upon as general psychology proper and of restating from his own standpoint such of its characteristic concepts as, for instance, consciousness, imagination, meaning, mind, thought, impulse, emotion, attention, etc. His theory accordingly appears to be especially challenging on the side of traditional psychological thought, as we shall see. In fact, his theory is among the most revolutionary in this respect of any of the formulations which we have so far had occasion to consider.[7]


Though broadly inclusive of related thought, especially of that of James, Baldwin, and Cooley, Mead's approach is chiefly from the activistic and functional view of mental life which Dewey more particularly brought into focus in this country and the genetic and behavioristic movements in modern psychology as represented prominently by Darwin's work on The Expression of the Emotions and Wundt's treatment of language in his Völkerpsychologie. [8] He starts out with the "social act" as the primitive unit in social psychology, this unit being regarded by him as "social" in no mere secondary or delimiting sense but in the fundamental sense that human psychology in its most distinctive aspects is, according to him, basically social in both origin and function. Conceiving of social psychology "as the counterpart" of physiological psychology in the fundamental sense which recalls the classic defense of this position by Comte and Tarde, [9] Mead proceeded to build up the essential structure of his social-psychological theory about his behavioristic account of the process of interaction in the social act, very aptly and very suggestively designated by him as a "conversation" of attitudes and gestures.[10]

This approach implies, in conformity with the spirit of Mead's social-psychological thought as a whole, that the basic data of human psychology in its social aspects are not "sensations" or "ideas" or "instincts" or any other such abstracted element but rather "acts" or "behavior" as it is directly observable in concrete human conduct. It is in this broad sense, it should be noted, and not in the narrowly technical sense that Mead's approach is behavioristic and linked with the behavioristic movement in modern thought, especially as represented by Darwin and Wundt. This approach remained impossible, according to him, as long as psychology continued to deal with entities which were referable to the soul, the mind, or the body, as in the case of the atomistic standpoints suggested above. It came into view only with the organic standpoint which the theory of evolution introduced into modern psychology. In its social-psychological implications, Mead associated this standpoint especially with the above-mentioned works of Darwin and

(321) Wundt, so that he naturally sought to lead out from them as points of departure.[11]

The social act, according to Mead, is an act, "in which one individual serves in his action as a stimulus to a response from another individual."[12] Its important character, he maintained, is not imitation but the process of interstimulation in which the participating forms in a social act engage and which links them functionally together in a common social situation. "The important character of the social organization of conduct," says Mead, "is not that one form in a social group does what the others do, but that the conduct of one form is a stimulus to another to a certain act, and that this act again becomes a stimulus to the first to a certain reaction, and so on in ceaseless interaction," as suggested by the distinctive phrase "conversation of attitudes."[13]

In developing this conception of the social act, Mead is led into an attempt to distinguish between what he regards as the world of social objects and relations generally and the physical world. This distinction cannot, according to him, be set up once and for all in physical terms. It is a matter of functional relationship. Thus, a social object, according to him, is one that calls forth a social response and results in social conduct, while a physical object is one that does not elicit such conduct but is acted toward in a characteristically impersonal and mechanical manner.[14]

The child's world is at first entirely a social world, according to Mead, the world of physical objects and relationships being, from his standpoint, an acquisition which the child arrives at as a construct of its experience and by a process of abstraction. The child gradually learns, he suggests, following out the strain of thought which had been previously outlined by Baldwin, that some objects do not respond to it in the manner that people do. It gradually notices, also, that these same objects are treated

(322) with comparative indifference by those about it. In our society, too, this experience begins to get itself early organized in terms of the knowledge of physics to which the child of our day falls heir. This knowledge, Mead however calls to mind, is one of our comparatively recent acquisitions, dating back in its modern form only to the beginning of philosophical thought in Greece and in considerable part only to the beginning of the modern scientific movement in Western Europe. In primitive communities, at any rate, the child's heritage is supposedly quite different in this respect, and its resulting physical world is also supposedly quite different. Usually it is very much narrowed by the predominant magical attitude toward the world of nature, which the primitive child takes over from its social milieu, just as the child in our society takes over our scientifically impersonal attitudes.[15]

Whatever its socially defined boundaries, however, the physical world eventually does become distinguished from the basic world of social objects and relations by its poorer emotional content. There is in the case of the latter a constant play of responsive adjustment and readjustment, involving inhibition, emotion, and gesture, as there is not in the physical world.[16] Thus it is, according to Mead, that emotional expression and gesture, as first described in behavioristic terms by Darwin in his Expression of the Emotions, are peculiarly the phenomena of the world of social conduct. They have a special importance, according to him, in the early stages of the social act, for they serve as indications to other forms to adjust appropriately to the stimulus presented, and as a result they set going the play of social stimulation and response characteristic of social conduct.[17]

Thus, for instance, if A expresses anger, B responds in an appropriate manner. The adjustment on the part of B becomes in turn a stimulus to A to readjust, and A's new attitude the occasion for a new readjustment on the part of B. This play of social stimulation and response continues back and forth in the manner suggested by the phrase "conversation of attitudes," until the social act in view is finally brought to a close. Almost any aspect of social interaction can serve as an illustration of the process. The development of a dog fight, the progress of a fencing match. and the course of conversation on a specific topic all bring it clearly into view. An illustration from genetic psychology which is more directly to the point here is the play of stimulation and response that goes on

(323) continually between mother and child. The child's cry of discomfort serves as a stimulus to call forth a response from the mother which, if it be successful in its effort at relief, probably results in some sort of expression of satisfaction on the part of the child. The latter then tends to become a stimulus to the mother to another response, and so on back and forth until, perhaps, the social act here under consideration resolves itself in the intimate caressing which so frequently climaxes such situations.[18]

This give-and-take of social conduct, this "conversation" of social stimulation and response, may be carried on on an immediate stimulus-response level; and in the case of the lower animals it is carried on largely also on the instinctive level. In the case of the human being, however, according to Mead, "meaning" in terms of anticipated response soon enters in as a mediating factor and, along with it, the whole complex of higher mental processes associated with meaning, thought, and the organized self. The child gradually begins to be in a position, as regards its mental equipment, to "image" the effect of social stimulus and response, and thereby it gradually begins to be in a position, also, to build up the material of its higher mental life as a guide to social conduct.[19]

The child acquires the social imagery on the basis of which it can build up the more complex processes of its mental life as a guide to its social conduct by "taking the role of the other" and by "stimulating itself as it stimulates others," as it constantly does in play and whenever it rehearses its social role in imagination.[20 Vocal gesture in particular plays an important part in this aspect of development, according to Mead, though in a lesser degree those of one's gestures that one can see or feel may make for the same result. "The vocal gesture," he says, "is of peculiar importance because it reacts upon the individual who makes

(324) it in the same fashion that it reacts upon another."[21] "While one feels but imperfectly the value of his own facial expression or bodily attitude for another, his ears reveal to him his own vocal gesture in the same form that it assumes to his neighbor."[22] The child talks to itself, therefore, and its ear reveals to it its own vocal gesture in substantially the form in which it strikes its associates. It is thus in a position to affect itself as it affects others and thereby to respond to its own stimulation as others would respond to it. This mechanism enables the child to reflect its social world upon itself and to mirror its conduct with respect to it and as a part of it in a manner which is of basic importance, according to Mead, at once for its social efficiency and for its highest mental growth .[23]

In any event, Mead finds in this "double stimulation" aspect of social conduct the basis for all those distinctively human qualities of mind and action—self-consciousness, rationality, foresight, planfulness, social consciousness, morality etc. — which have been the objects of special psychological and philosophical consideration down the ages and also for most of the observed uniformities of social conduct which are generally attributed to imitation. He thus draws the whole scope of these human phenomena, as also their underlying conditions of development in imagination, meaning, thought, and consciousness, into the realm of social conduct and social psychology, so that he gives to some of the supposedly most individual aspects of the human mind a thoroughgoing social setting and interpretation.

This part of his theory, as Mead points out, is intimately linked with Wundt's formulation of the relation of language to gesture.[24] The manner in which he leads out from Wundt's treatment of language and beyond that, as has already been noted above, from Darwin's background study of emotion is suggestively outlined in the following passage. Proceeding from a discussion of the instinct standpoint in modern social psychology to a description of his own approach as it leads into this part of his theory, Mead says:

The . . . position to which I wish to call attention, and whose implications I wish to discuss, is that the consciousness of meaning is social in its origin. The dominant theory at present, that which is most elaborately stated by Wundt in

(325) the first volume of his Völkerpsychologie, regards language as the outgrowth of gesture, the vocal gesture. As a gesture, it is primarily an expression of emotion. But the gesture itself is a syncopated act, one that has been cut short, a torso which conveys the emotional import of the act. Out of the emotional signification has grown the intellectual signification. It is evident that but for the original situation of social interaction the bodily and vocal gestures could never have attained their signification. It is their reference to other individuals that has turned expression, as a mere outflow of nervous excitement, into meaning, and this meaning was the value of the act for the other individual, and his response to the expression of the emotion, in terms of another syncopated act, with its social signification, gave the first basis for communication, for common understanding, for the recognition of the attitudes which men mutually held toward each other within a field of social interaction. Attitudes had meanings when they reflected possible acts. And the acts could have meanings when they called out definite reactions which call out still other appropriate responses; that is, when the common content of the act is reflected by the different parts played by individuals, through gestures—truncated acts. Here is the birth of the symbol, and the possibility of thought. Still, thought remains in its abstract form sublimated conversation. Thus reflective consciousness implies a social situation which has been its precondition. Antecedent to the reflective consciousness within which we exist, in the beginnings of the society of men and in the life of every child that arises to reflective consciousness, there must have been this condition of interrelation by acts springing from social instincts.[25]

And in another connection he says:

Human conduct is distinguished primarily from animal conduct by that increase in inhibition which is an essential phase of voluntary attention, and increased inhibition means an increase in gesture, in the signs of activities which are not carried out; in the assumptions of attitudes whose values in conduct fail to get complete expression. If we recognize language as a differentiation of gesture, the conduct of no other form can compare with that of man in the abundance of gesture.

The fundamental importance of gesture lies in the development of the consciousness of meaning—in reflective consciousness. As long as one individual responds simply to the gesture of another by the appropriate response, there is no necessary consciousness of meaning. The situation is still on a level of that of two growling dogs walking around each other, with tense limbs, bristly hair, and uncovered teeth. It is not until an image arises of the response, which the gesture of the one form will bring out in another, that a consciousness of meaning can attach to his own gesture. The meaning can appear only in imagining the consequence of the gesture. To cry out in fear is an immediate instinctive act, but to scream with an image of another individual turning an attentive ear, taking on a sympathetic expression and an attitude of coming to help, is at least a favorable condition for the development of consciousness of meaning.

Of course the mere influence of the image, stimulating to reaction, has no more meaning value than the effect of an external stimulus, but in this converse

(326) of gestures, there is also a consciousness of attitude, of readiness to act in the manner which the gesture implies. In the instance given the cry is part of the attitude of flight. The cry calls out the image of a friendly individual. The image is not merely a stimulus to run toward the friend, but is merged in the consciousness of inhibited flight. If meaning is consciousness of attitude, as Dewey, Royce, and Angell among others maintain, then, consciousness of meaning arose only when some gesture that was part of an inhibited act itself called up the image of the gesture of another individual. Then the image of the gesture means the inhibited act to which the first gesture belonged. In a word, the response to the cry has the meaning of inhibited flight. 

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 emotion and attitude. It is only through the response that consciousness of meaning appears, a response which involves the consciousness of another self as the presupposition of the meaning of one's own attitude. Other selves in a social environment logically antedate the consciousness of self which introspection analyzes. They must be admitted as there, as given, in the same sense in which psychology accepts the given reality of physical organisms as a condition of individual consciousness.[26]

Whatever may be said for the details of this theory and for the basis of child observation and introspective analysis upon which it supposedly rests, all in all its effect has been both profound and far-reaching. This has been due partly to the fact that for the reasons suggested above, Mead's social-psychological theory has itself been very illuminating and partly to the fact that it has been so closely associated with other important formulations of American social-psychological theory. Especially important in this connection is the consideration that Mead's social psychology is one of the notable products of the Dewey school of pragmatic thought, for this consideration suggests immediately channels of social-psychological relationship and influence which are widely significant here, as will readily appear from the following sections of this chapter. But in any event, that Mead's theory has been an important factor in American social-psychological thought is evident enough from the direct testimony of an increasing number of writers.[27] We close this brief

(327) outline of his theory with a single passage from one of these writers who has become the outstanding interpreter of Mead's social psychology.

To Professor Mead, according to him, "American scholars are indebted for some invaluable and wholly unique contributions."

Nowhere can be found a comparable analysis of the psychology of meaning; the nature of symbolism, and the distinction between the significant symbol which makes human experience possible and the inferior development which accounts for the limitations of the lower animals. Mead's doctrine of the histrionic tendency which runs through all normal human imaginative experiences, very happily designated as the tendency to "take the role of the other," has, in the opinion of the writer, been one of the major contributions in this generation to our knowledge of how the personality develops and the consciousness of self arises. Mead has set forth the process by means of which the spontaneous and meaningless gesture is defined by the responses of the other so that while our ideas are our own and the symbol is private, yet the soul of the symbol is its meaning, and the meaning is the contribution of others.[28]

It will be helpful, in following out the remaining formulations of social psychological theory in this chapter, to bear this statement in view, and especially in conjunction with our later consideration of Faris' social psychological position. [29]


  1. The particular directions of analysis which he chiefly sought to follow out have been suggestively indicated by Mead himself in connection with his discussion of Cooley's social-psychological theory (see "Cooley's Contribution to American Social Thought," Amer. Jour. Sociol., vol. 35, pp. 693-706, 1930).
  2. Available at the University of Chicago library in manuscript form and to be published shortly.
  3. For a partial list of Mead's relevant articles and an attempt to give them place in relation to current social-psychological thought see Amer. Jour. Sociol., vol. 33, pp. 625, 629, 1927; also ALLPORT, Social Psychology, pp. 432-433.
  4. See infra, pp. 326-327, 381.
  5. For Mead's criticism of Baldwin's imitation theory see Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, pp. 404-406, 1909; see also BODENHAFER, Amer. Jour. Soc., vol. 26, p. 721, 1921.
  6. See "Social Psychology as a Counterpart to Physiological Psychology," Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, p. 406, 1909; "The Social Self," Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 10, p. 377, 1913; "The Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Jour. Phil., vol. 19, p. 160, 1922; "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control," Intern. Jour. Ethics, vol. 35, p. 269, 1925.
  7. See infra, p. 324.
  8. See in this connection "Social Psychology as the Counterpart to Physiological Psychology," Psych. Bull., vol. 6, pp. 401-402, 406, 1909; "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Jour. Phil. Psychol., Sci. Meth., vol. 7, pp. 174, 176-177, 179, 1910; "The Social Self," ibid, vol. 10, p. 375, 1913.
  9. Cf. supra, pp. 15-17, 96; also infra, p. 331.
  10. See, for instance, "Social Psychology as the Counterpart to Physiological Psychology;" Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, pp. 406-407, 1909; "Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning," ibid., pp. 397 ff.; "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 7, pp. 176-179, 1910; "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," ibid., vol. 9, pp. 401 ff., 1912; "The Social Self," ibid., vol. 10, pp. 375-377, 1913; "The Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Jour. Phil., vol. 19, pp. 160 ff., 1922; "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control," Intern. Jour. Ethics, vol. 35, pp. 251-252, 262-264, 286 ff, 1925.
  11. See ibid., p. 251; also references supra, note 1, p. 320.
  12. "Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning," Psychol. Bull., vol. 7, p. 397, 1910.
  13. "Social Psychology as the Counterpart to Physiological Psychology," Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, p. 406, 1909.
    Mead practically limits imitation to conscious copying. "Imitation becomes comprehensible," he says, "when there is a consciousness of other selves, and not before." "Social consciousness is the presupposition of imitation." For the rest, he would restate the situation fundamentally. He says: "The conception of imitation as it has functioned in social psychology, needs to be developed into a. theory of social stimulation and response, and of the social situations which these stimulations and responses create" (see ibid., pp. 405-406; also PARK and BURGESS, Introduction to the Science of Sociology, p. 424).
  14. See "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 9, pp. 401-403, 1912; "The Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Jour. Phil., vol. 19, p. 159, 1922; "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control," Intern. Jour. Ethics, vol. 35, pp. 255-256, 1925.
  15. See "Social Psychology as the Counterpart to Physiological Psychology," Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, pp. 103-401, 1909; "Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning," ibid., vol. 7, pp. 397 f., 1910; also references in preceding note.
  16. "Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning," Psychol. Bull., Vol. 7, pp. 397, 403-404, 1910.
  17. Ibid., pp. 397 f.; "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 7, p. 177, 1910; "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," ibid., vol. 9, p. 402, 1912.
  18. "Social Psychology as the Counterpart to Physiological Psychology," Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, pp. 406-407, 1909; "Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning," ibid., pp. 397-398; "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 9, p. 402, 1912; "The Social Self," ibid., vol. 10, pp. 375-377, 1913; "The Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Jour. Phil., vol. 19, p. 160, 1922.
    The phrase "conversation of attitudes, " as Mead uses it, is doubly social in reference, attitudes and gestures themselves being, according to him, "truncated acts" which signify a social situation. Genetically as well as functionally, therefore, attitudes and gestures in the sense of his usage are social in reference (see Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, p. 406, 1909; also infra, p. 325).
  19. See references supra, p. 320, note 3.
  20. "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Jour. Phil. Psychol. and Sci. Meth., vol. 7, pp. 178-179, 1910; "Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning," Psychol. Bull., vol. 7, pp. 399 f., 1910; "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 9, pp. 404-405, 1912; "The Social Self," ibid., vol. 10, pp. 375-377; 1913; "The Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Jour. Phil., vol. 19, pp. 161-163, 1922.
  21. Ibid., p. 160.
  22. "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 9, p. 403, 1912.
  23. See ibid., pp. 403 f.; "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control," Intern. Jour. Ethics, vol. 35, pp. 262 ff., 1925; "The Social Self," Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 10, p. 377, 1913; "The Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," Jour. Phil., vol. 19, pp. 160-163, 1922; "Social Psychology as the Counterpart to Physiological Psychology," Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, pp. 401-402, 1909.
  24. "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth., vol. 7, p. 177, 1910; "Social Psychology as the Counterpart to Physiological Psychology," Psychol. Bull., vol. 6, p. 406, 1909.
  25. Ibid., pp. 406-407. Quotations from this journal are reprinted by permission of the Psychological Review Company, publishers.
  26. "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Jour. Phil. Psychol. Sci. Meth. vol. 7, pp. 178-179, 1910. Quotations from this journal are reprinted by permission of The Journal of Philosophy.
  27. See in this connection, for instance, THURSTONE, The Nature of Intelliqence, Preface, p, xvi; FARIS, "Current Trends in Social Psychology," Essays in Philosophy, ed. by Smith and Wright, pp. 122, 132; Amer. Jour. Sociol., vol. 32, pp. 625, 629, 1927; QUEEN, Social Work in the Light of History, pp. 68, 308 ff.; BODENHAFER, Amer. Jour. Social., vol. 26, p. 721, 1921; ALLPORT, Social Psychology, pp. 148-149, 416, 432-433; YOUNG, Source Book for Social Psychology, pp. 303, 341-348; BOGARDUS, A History of Social Thought, p. 409; PARK and BURGESS, Introduction. to the Science of Sociology, p. 424.
  28. FARIS, " Current Trends in Social Psychology" Essays in Philosophy, ed. by Smith and Wright, p. 132.
  29. See infra

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