Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist by George Herbert Mead, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist

Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist

by George Herbert Mead

Written from the standpoint of the social behaviorist, this treatise contains the heart of Mead's position on social psychology. The analysis of language is of major interest, as it supplied for the first time an adequate treatment of the language mechanism in relation to scientific and philosophical issues.

"If philosophical eminence be measured by the extent to


Written from the standpoint of the social behaviorist, this treatise contains the heart of Mead's position on social psychology. The analysis of language is of major interest, as it supplied for the first time an adequate treatment of the language mechanism in relation to scientific and philosophical issues.

"If philosophical eminence be measured by the extent to which a man's writings anticipate the focal problems of a later day and contain a point of view which suggests persuasive solutions to many of them, then George Herbert Mead has justly earned the high praise bestowed upon him by Dewey and Whitehead as a 'seminal mind of the very first order.'"—Sidney Hook, The Nation

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University of Chicago Press
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Mind, Self, and Society

From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist

By George H. Mead, Charles W. Morris

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1934 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-51660-8



Social psychology has, as a rule, dealt with various phases of social experience from the psychological standpoint of individual experience. The point of approach which I wish to suggest is that of dealing with experience from the standpoint of society, at least from the standpoint of communication as essential to the social order. Social psychology, on this view, presupposes an approach to experience from the standpoint of the individual, but undertakes to determine in particular that which belongs to this experience because the individual himself belongs to a social structure, a social order.

No very sharp line can be drawn between social psychology and individual psychology. Social psychology is especially interested in the effect which the social group has in the determination of the experience and conduct of the individual member. If we abandon the conception of a substantive soul endowed with the self of the individual at birth, then we may regard the development of the individual's self, and of his self-consciousness within the field of his experience, as the social psychologist's special interest. There are, then, certain phases of psychology which are interested in studying the relation of the individual organism to the social group to which it belongs, and these phases constitute social psychology as a branch of general psychology. Thus, in the study of the experience and behavior of the individual organism or self in its dependence upon the social group to which it belongs, we find a definition of the field of social psychology.

While minds and selves are essentially social products, products or phenomena of the social side of human experience, the physiological mechanism underlying experience is far from irrelevant—indeed is indispensable—to their genesis and existence; for individual experience and behavior is, of course, physiologically basic to social experience and behavior: the processes and mechanisms of the latter (including those which are essential to the origin and existence of minds and selves) are dependent physiologically upon the processes and mechanisms of the former, and upon the social functioning of these. Individual psychology, nevertheless, definitely abstracts certain factors from the situation with which social psychology deals more nearly in its concrete totality. We shall approach this latter field from a behavioristic point of view.

The common psychological standpoint which is represented by behaviorism is found in John B. Watson. The behaviorism which we shall make use of is more adequate than that of which Watson makes use. Behaviorism in this wider sense is simply an approach to the study of the experience of the individual from the point of view of his conduct, particularly, but not exclusively, the conduct as it is observable by others. Historically, behaviorism entered psychology through the door of animal psychology. There it was found to be impossible to use what is termed introspection. One cannot appeal to the animal's introspection, but must study the animal in terms of external conduct. Earlier animal psychology added an inferential reference to consciousness, and even undertook to find the point in conduct at which consciousness appears. This inference had, perhaps, varying degrees of probability, but it was one which could not be tested experimentally. It could be then simply dropped as far as science was concerned. It was not necessary for the study of the conduct of the individual animal. Having taken that behavioristic standpoint for the lower animals, it was possible to carry it over to the human animal.

There remained, however, the field of introspection, of experiences which are private and belong to the individual himself—experiences commonly called subjective. What was to be done with these? John B. Watson's attitude was that of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland—"Off with their heads!"—there were no such things. There was no imagery, and no consciousness. The field of so-called introspection Watson explained by the use of language symbols. These symbols were not necessarily uttered loudly enough to be heard by others, and often only involved the muscles of the throat without leading to audible speech. That was all there was to thought. One thinks, but one thinks in terms of language. In this way Watson explained the whole field of inner experience in terms of external behavior. Instead of calling such behavior subjective it was regarded as the field of behavior that was accessible only to the individual himself. One could observe his own movements, his own organs of articulation, where other persons could not normally observe them. Certain fields were accessible to the individual alone, but the observation was not different in kind; the difference lay only in the degree of accessibility of others to certain observations. One could be set up in a room by himself and observe something that no one else could observe. What a man observed in the room would be his own experience. Now, in this way something goes on in the throat or the body of the individual which no one else can observe. There are, of course, scientific instruments that can be attached to the throat or the body to reveal the tendency toward movement. There are some movements that are easily observable and others which can be detected only by the individual himself, but there is no qualitative difference in the two cases. It is simply recognized that the apparatus of observation is one that has various degrees of success. That, in brief, is the point of view of Watson's behavioristic psychology. It aims to observe conduct as it takes place, and to utilize that conduct to explain the experience of the individual without bringing in the observation of an inner experience, a consciousness as such.

There was another attack on consciousness, that of William James in his 1904 article entitled, "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" James pointed out that if a person is in a room the objects of the interior can be looked at from two standpoints. The furniture, for instance, may be considered from the standpoint of the person who bought it and used it, from the point of view of its color values which attach to it in the minds of the persons who observe them, its aesthetic value, its economic value, its traditional value. All of these we can speak of in terms of psychology; they will be put into relationship with the experience of the individual. One man puts one value upon it and another gives it another value. But the same objects can be regarded as physical parts of a physical room. What James insisted upon was that the two cases differ only in an arrangement of certain contents in different series. The furniture, the walls, the house itself, belong to one historical series. We speak of the house as having been built, of the furniture as having been made. We put the house and furniture into another series when one comes in and assesses these objects from the point of view of his own experience. He is talking about the same chair, but the chair is for him now a matter of certain contours, certain colors, taken from his own experience. It involves the experience of the individual. Now one can take a cross-section of both of these two orders so that at a certain point there is a meeting of the two series. The statement in terms of consciousness simply means the recognition that the room lies not only in the historical series but also in the experience of the individual. There has been of late in philosophy a growing recognition of the importance of James's insistence that a great deal has been placed in consciousness that must be returned to the so-called objective world.

Psychology itself cannot very well be made a study of the field of consciousness alone; it is necessarily a study of a more extensive field. It is, however, that science which does make use of introspection, in the sense that it looks within the experience of the individual for phenomena not dealt with in any other sciences—phenomena to which only the individual himself has experiential access. That which belongs (experientially) to the individual qua individual, and is accessible to him alone, is certainly included within the field of psychology, whatever else is or is not thus included. This is our best clue in attempting to isolate the field of psychology. The psychological datum is best defined, therefore, in terms of accessibility. That which is accessible, in the experience of the individual, only to the individual himself, is peculiarly psychological.

I want to point out, however, that even when we come to the discussion of such "inner" experience, we can approach it from the point of view of the behaviorist, provided that we do not too narrowly conceive this point of view. What one must insist upon is that objectively observable behavior finds expression within the individual, not in the sense of being in another world, a subjective world, but in the sense of being within his organism. Something of this behavior appears in what we may term "attitudes," the beginnings of acts. Now, if we come back to such attitudes we find them giving rise to all sorts of responses. The telescope in the hands of a novice is not a telescope in the sense that it is to those on top of Mount Wilson. If we want to trace the responses of the astronomer, we have to go back into his central nervous system, back to a whole series of neurons; and we find something there that answers to the exact way in which the astronomer approaches the instrument under certain conditions. That is the beginning of the act; it is a part of the act. The external act which we do observe is a part of the process which has started within; the values which we say the instrument has are values through the relationship of the object to the person who has that sort of attitude. If a person did not have that particular nervous system, the instrument would be of no value. It would not be a telescope.

In both versions of behaviorism certain characteristics which things have and certain experiences which individuals have can be stated as occurrences inside of an act. But part of the act lies within the organism and only comes to expression later; it is that side of behavior which I think Watson has passed over. There is a field within the act itself which is not external, but which belongs to the act, and there are characteristics of that inner organic conduct which do reveal themselves in our own attitudes, especially those connected with speech. Now, if our behavioristic point of view takes these attitudes into account we find that it can very well cover the field of psychology. In any case, this approach is one of particular importance because it is able to deal with the field of communication in a way which neither Watson nor the introspectionist can do. We want to approach language not from the standpoint of inner meanings to be expressed, but in its larger context of co-operation in the group taking place by means of signals and gestures. Meaning appears within that process. Our behaviorism is a social behaviorism.

Social psychology studies the activity or behavior of the individual as it lies within the social process; the behavior of an individual can be understood only in terms of the behavior of the whole social group of which he is a member, since his individual acts are involved in larger, social acts which go beyond himself and which implicate the other members of that group.

We are not, in social psychology, building up the behavior of the social group in terms of the behavior of the separate individuals composing it; rather, we are starting out with a given social whole of complex group activity, into which we analyze (as elements) the behavior of each of the separate individuals composing it. We attempt, that is, to explain the conduct of the individual in terms of the organized conduct of the social group, rather than to account for the organized conduct of the social group in terms of the conduct of the separate individuals belonging to it. For social psychology, the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts. The social act is not explained by building it up out of stimulus plus response; it must be taken as a dynamic whole—as something going on—no part of which can be considered or understood by itself—a complex organic process implied by each individual stimulus and response involved in it.

In social psychology we get at the social process from the inside as well as from the outside. Social psychology is behavioristic in the sense of starting off with an observable activity—the dynamic, on-going social process, and the social acts which are its component elements—to be studied and analyzed scientifically. But it is not behavioristic in the sense of ignoring the inner experience of the individual—the inner phase of that process or activity. On the contrary, it is particularly concerned with the rise of such experience within the process as a whole. It simply works from the outside to the inside instead of from the inside to the outside, so to speak, in its endeavor to determine how such experience does arise within the process. The act, then, and not the tract, is the fundamental datum in both social and individual psychology when behavioristically conceived, and it has both an inner and an outer phase, an internal and an external aspect.

These general remarks have had to do with our point of approach. It is behavioristic, but unlike Watsonian behaviorism it recognizes the parts of the act which do not come to external observation, and it emphasizes the act of the human individual in its natural social situation.



The problem that presents itself as crucial for human psychology concerns the field that is opened up by introspection; this field apparently could not be dealt with by a purely objective psychology which only studied conduct as it takes place for the observer. In order that this field could be brought within the range of objective psychology, the behaviorist, such as Watson, did what he could to cut down the field itself, to deny certain phenomena supposed to lie only in that field, such as "consciousness" as distinct from conduct without consciousness. The animal psychologist studied conduct without taking up the question as to whether it was conscious conduct or not. But when we reach the field of human conduct we are in fact able to distinguish reflexes which take place without consciousness. There seems, then, to be a field which the behavioristic psychology cannot reach. The Watsonian behaviorist simply did what he could to minimize this difference.

The field of investigation of the behaviorist has been quite largely that of the young infant, where the methods employed are just the methods of animal psychology. He has endeavored to find out what the processes of behavior are, and to see how the activities of the infant may be used to explain the activities of the adult. It is here that the psychologist brings in the conditioned reflexes. He shows that by a mere association of certain stimuli he can get results which would not follow from these secondary stimuli alone. This conditioning of reflexes can be carried over into other fields, such as those of terror on the part of an infant. He can be made to fear something by associating the object with others producing terror. The same process can be used for explaining more elaborate conduct in which we associate elements with certain events which are not directly connected with them, and by elaborating this conditioning we can, it is believed, explain the more extended processes of reasoning and inference. In this way a method which belongs to objective psychology is carried over into the field which is dealt with ordinarily in terms of introspection. That is, instead of saying we have certain ideas when we have certain experiences, and that these ideas imply something else, we say that a certain experience has taken place at the same time that the first experience has taken place, so that now this secondary experience arouses the response which belongs to the primary experience.

There remain contents, such as those of imagery, which are more resistant to such analysis. What shall we say of responses that do not answer to any given experience? We can say, of course, that they are the results of past experiences. But take the contents themselves, the actual visual imagery that one has: it has outline; it has color; it has values; and other characters which are isolated with more difficulty. Such experience is one which plays a part, and a very large part, in our perception, our conduct; and yet it is an experience which can be revealed only by introspection. The behaviorist has to make a detour about this type of experience if he is going to stick to the Watsonian type of behavioristic psychology.


Excerpted from Mind, Self, and Society by George H. Mead, Charles W. Morris. Copyright © 1934 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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