The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead

The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead


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The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead by Hans Joas

George Herbert Mead is widely considered one of the most influential American philosophers of the twentieth century, and his work remains vibrant and relevant to many areas of scholarly inquiry today. The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead brings together a range of scholars who provide detailed analyses of Mead’s importance to innovative fields of scholarship, including cognitive science, environmental studies, democratic epistemology, and social ethics, non-teleological historiography, and the history of the natural and social sciences.

Edited by well-respected Mead scholars Hans Joas and Daniel R. Huebner, the volume as a whole makes a coherent statement that places Mead in dialogue with current research, pushing these domains of scholarship forward while also revitalizing the growing literature on an author who has an ongoing and major influence on sociology, psychology, and philosophy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226376943
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/24/2016
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Hans Joas is the Ernst Troeltsch Professor for the Sociology of Religion at the Humboldt University of Berlin and professor of sociology and social thought at the University of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Daniel R. Huebner is assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge. Together, Joas and Huebner prepared Mind, Self, and Society: The Definitive Edition, published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead

By Hans Joas, Daniel R. Huebner

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-37713-1


Changing "Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century": Historical Text and Historical Context

Charles Camic

That mind — human thought — is a social product is among the core tenets of George Herbert Mead's work. It has been a central theme in the interpretive literature on Mead going back to the first entries in that literature. To say "social" is, from Mead's point of view, also and necessarily to say "historical," as students of Mead's work would unanimously agree. Nonetheless, this aspect of his work — the historicity of mind — has received relatively little attention, in part because of the neglect by Mead scholars of the text most relevant in this regard, Mead's Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Further, Mead's claims about the historicity of all human thought have rarely been applied reflexively — that is to say, to the development of his own ideas.

Even so, Mead's position was clear. In his course on Greek philosophy, for example, Mead states: "a legitimate method for the history of thought then must first of all determine the movement which any period represents and then find the place of thinkers whose systems it studies in the movement — not treat their systems as independent reactions upon the forces represented in this movement but as moments within that movement." Continuing, he ridiculed the historians of philosophy who viewed the past from the narrow point of view of the present and interpreted the ancients as if they were contemporaries: that is, in terms of "conditions under which we [now] live. As examples we may offer the anachronisms of [Benjamin] Jowett's English gentleman in the Platonic Academy or [Eduard] Zeller's German philosopher in the Schools of Miletus or Abdera."

This chapter is an effort to heed Mead's call to understand human thought historically, situating it in its social-historical context. The chapter pursues this aim by offering a modest historical "case study" of Mead's own thinking — or, more accurately, of one aspect of Mead's thinking, an important aspect that Mead scholars have generally overlooked. Specifically, the chapter examines the text and the context of Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, a text assembled after Mead's death from notes taken in a course of lectures that he gave at the University of Chicago in 1928. My analysis has two main parts. The first part attempts to historicize this lecture course itself, while the second part focuses on the immediate historical context of the course. In the first section I describe the transformation of the course from John Dewey's 1891 version to Mead's own 1915 version to Mead's final 1928 version. In the second section I briefly consider this transformation in relation to the specific historical setting — that is, the local discursive context — in which Mead developed and taught the course. I precede these two sections with a short prologue about previous Mead scholarship on these topics.

Prologue: A Lacuna

While books and articles on the thought of George Herbert Mead currently number into the thousands, one searches this literature, almost in vain, for writings that deal with Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (hereafter, Movements). For this particular text, the relevant items can be counted on two hands.

Among these, there is actually no article or chapter devoted to an explication of Mead's text or to an analysis of the historical context in which he developed the views he expresses there. The fullest treatments of Movements have used it for more specific purposes: Joas ([1980] 1985) to illuminate Mead's "early philosophical writings" (see also Joas 1991) and Shalin (1984) to describe the "romantic antecedents" of Mead's social psychology. Cook (1993), Silva (2008), Decker (2008), Fairfield (2010), Pearce (2014), and Shalin (1988) offer remarks that are briefer still. What is more, insofar as there is a common thread in these contributions, it has been the evaluation of the adequacy of Mead's account of his subjects, with Mead earning high marks for his treatment of Fichte and Bergson (Joas 1991, 68; see also Koopman 2010, 211) but criticism for his characterizations of Hegel, Schelling, and Marx (Decker 2008, 470–71; Joas 1991, 69–73). Aside from these brief commentaries, one must look back to the original reviews of Mead's volume for discussion of the text as a whole (Barnes 1937; Bugg 1937; Castell 1937; Pape 1936; Randall 1937).

In part, scholars' reluctance to tackle Movements appears connected with the fact that it is not a text that Mead himself composed as a book but rather a posthumous compilation of notes based on lectures that he gave in a course with the same title, which the philosopher Merritt H. Moore subsequently edited into book form. Since Mind, Self, and Society ([1934] 1962) is likewise the result of edited course notes, however, this particular circumstance would hardly seem enough to relegate Movements to the interpretive sidelines. In the case of Movements, moreover, the existing lecture notes are "stenographic notes" which, according to Moore, provide a nearly "verbatim recording of Mr. Mead's lectures" (Mead 1936, vii–viii). Still further, to the extent that the materials can be compared, Mead's statements in this text are consistent with statements he makes in his other work.

Uncertainty about the reliability of the text of Movements is not the crux of the matter, however. The larger reason for the virtually nonexistent secondary literature lies in the book's seemingly small payoff for readers interested in the basic Meadian topics of the self, the inter-subjective foundations of the social self, the role of language in social interaction, and so on. Opening to the book's table of contents, one notices that more than half of this dense five-hundred-page text deals with subjects that seem remote from these canonical topics.

Chart 1.1. G. H. Mead, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936), Table of Contents

[Mead-2] Based on spring 1928 lectures


1. From Renaissance to Revolution

2. Kant — The Philosopher of the Revolution

3. The Revolution Breaks Down; Romanticism is Born

4. Kant and the Background of Philosophic Romanticism

5. The Romantic Philosophers — Fichte

6. The Romantic Philosophers — Schelling

7. The Romantic Philosophers — Hegel

8. Evolution Becomes a General Idea

9. The Industrial Revolution — The Quest for Markets

10. The Social Renaissance — Utilitarianism

11. The Social Renaissance — Karl Marx and Socialism

12. Industry a Boon to Science — Mechanism the Handmaid of Finality

13. Modern Science is Research Science

14. Science Raises Problems for Philosophy — Vitalism; Henri Bergson

15. Science Raises Problems for Philosophy — Realism and Pragmatism

16. The Problem of Society — How We Become Selves

17. Mind Approached through Behavior — Can its Study be Made Scientific?

18. Individuality in the Nineteenth Century

Further, when one turns to the few chapters (chapters 16 and 17) that, by their titles, seem to be more on topic, one realizes that the titles are not Mead's but those of his editor, who (perhaps to attract a larger readership) resorted to some deceptive packaging. Given all this, Gary Cook's judgment that Movements is "not ... particularly useful" (1993, xv–xvi) sums up how the volume is perceived by scholars concerned with the standard Meadian subjects but not concerned with considering these subjects in relation to Mead's claim that human thought is fundamentally historical. As a result, thirty years after Shalin's characterization of Movements as "a much neglected book" (1984, 44), virtually nothing has changed in the secondary literature on Mead.

"Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century" in Historical Motion

It is a familiar rule of research method that one useful way to understand a particular historical case is to locate that case with reference to the larger family of cases of which it is a part. Doing so enables the researcher to determine where the case under consideration resembles and where it diverges from other family members. I mention this practice because it is the procedure that I will use with regard to Mead's Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century. I am going to consider some of the historical ancestry of the 1928 course from which Mead's text derives with the objective of identifying what is historically specific about this course and what we can learn by homing in on its historical particularities.

Without going backward too far chronologically, the genealogy that I want to sketch traces back to the 1880s and a philosopher one generation older than Mead: George Sylvester Morris. (This Morris has no known family relation to Mead's future student, the philosopher Charles W. Morris, editor of Mind, Self, and Society.) At the point when he enters my narrative here, G. S. Morris was one of the major figures in American academic philosophy, a staunch Hegelian idealist whose career marked a shift away from old-time clergymen-philosophers to the new era of philosophers as professional scholars (Kuklick 2001; Wenley 1917).

At the center of this shift was, as John Dewey later wrote, Morris's emphasis on the history of philosophy. In Dewey's words: Morris "never surrendered the belief that ... philosophic conviction must be based upon a knowledge of philosophy in its historic development. [His teachings were based] upon the idea that the main thing [is to get the student] out of his restricted ways of thinking and in contact with the stream of reflective thought that had been flowing on well-nigh twenty-five hundred years" (quoted in Wenley 1917, 309–10). Consistent with this belief, Morris wrote books on Kant (1882) and British thought up to the time of John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer (1880), and he also produced a thousand-page translation from German of Friedrich Ueberweg's History of Philosophy from Thales to the Present Time (Ueberweg [1871] 1874).

Dewey was the most renowned of Morris's many distinguished students. His graduate work at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1880s was done under Morris's direction, and when Morris became the chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan in 1885, he insisted that Dewey receive a faculty position there. Molding the Michigan philosophy department to fit his commitment to the history of philosophy, Morris instituted a program heavy with courses on the history of ancient and modern philosophy; and when Morris died in 1889, Dewey, who had since moved to the University of Minnesota, returned to Michigan to succeed Morris as philosophy department chairman — using the occasion to assign some of the history of philosophy courses, which he had previous taught, to his new faculty assistants, one of whom was George Herbert Mead (Dykhuizen 1973). Even so, Dewey's own interest in the history of philosophy continued. As late as the first semester of the 1891/92 academic year, Dewey was still teaching in this area, offering a course with the title "Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century" — a course he apparently gave several more times.

Conveniently (for the purposes of this chapter), student notes from Dewey's course survive in the University of Michigan Archives, and they are revealing with regard to Dewey's approach to the subject in the early 1890s. To see this, we can look at Chart 1.2, which lists the topics of Dewey's lectures — as I myself have interpolated the lecture titles, since Dewey did not give titles to his own lectures.

Chart 1.2. John Dewey, "Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century"

[Dewey-1] Based on lectures of 1891–92


1. 18th-Century Background

2–4. The French Movement, Rousseau

5–9. The German Movement: Goethe, Schiller

10–11. The Enlightenment: Rousseau, Voltaire

12–14. Kant

15. Fichte

16. Fichte, Herder, Hegel

17–19. Hegel

20. Romanticism

21. Industrial Revolution and Socialism

22. Saint-Simon

23–24. Comte

25. Failure of "1848," Scientific Movement, and Evolution

26. Carlyle, Bentham, J. S. Mill

The short titles in the chart, however, capture the range of topics that Dewey covered, a range that extends from the greats in the philosophical pantheon, Kant and Hegel in particular, to broad movements such as romanticism and socialism, as well as to a wide array of social thinkers, among them Rousseau, Herder, Saint-Simon, Comte, Bentham, and J. S. Mill.

This list of topics is a revealing one, but even more striking is the historical narrative that Dewey constructs to link these thinkers together. Teaching this course at the stage in his career that scholars generally regard as his "Hegelian" phase, Dewey's lectures present a strongly teleological account: a narrative of an unfolding and directional historical process in which some one-sided intellectual development inexorably calls forth an opposing one-sided development, both of which thereafter either combine into a moving synthesis or, failing that, temporarily slide back into a previously superseded state. Dewey stresses this theme again and again. In lecture 20, for example, he tells his students: "The Romanticist movement was the other side of what we had in the early 19th-century artistic and philosophic movements. The latter started with the objective side of life ... but ended with the subjective life of feelings and emotions. The Romanticists began with subjective states, but ended with objective authority. ... Each had a half-truth, and when this half-truth failed to develop the organic character of ... life, each went back to a historic form in which such coordination had existed."

Shortly, I will make some further observations about Dewey's lectures. Their significance for understanding the published text of Mead's Movements will become clearer, however, if I first complete the back story of the text. For, not long after Dewey offered his "Movements" course at the University of Michigan, a course with the same title appeared in the program of the University of Chicago. This reappearance coincided with Dewey's departure from Michigan in 1894 to become chairman of Chicago's newly-founded philosophy department — a geographical move that involved the transplantation not only of Dewey's faculty assistants at Michigan, Mead included, but also of courses from Michigan's curriculum.

Among these transplanted courses was one on "Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century," and this course subsequently became a department staple; the University Register advertised it regularly as "a non-technical course, tracing the leading principles expressed in the literary, scientific, philosophic, and social movements" of the age. Under this description, the course was taught alternately in the mid- to late-1890s by James Tufts and Mead. Then, after the turn of the century, Mead essentially took the course over, teaching it at least twenty-six times in his thirty-seven years at Chicago — a fact that should caution us against regarding the course as a brief episode in Mead's intellectual career.


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Table of Contents

Hans Joas and Daniel R. Huebner

Part One: History, Historiography, Historical Sociology

1. Changing “Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century”: Historical Text and Historical Context
Charles Camic
2. On Mead’s Long Lost History of Science
Daniel R. Huebner
3. Pragmatism and Historicism: Mead’s Philosophy of Temporality and the Logic of Historiography
Hans Joas
4. George Herbert Mead and the Promise of Pragmatist Democracy
Robert Westbrook
5. The Theory of Intersubjectivity as a Theory of the Human Being: George Herbert Mead and the German Tradition of Philosophical Anthropology
Karl-Siegbert Rehberg

Part Two: Nature, Environment, Process

6. Naturalism and Despair: George Herbert Mead and Evolution in the 1880s
Trevor Pearce 
7. George Herbert Mead as a Socio-Environmental Thinker
Bradley H. Brewster and Antony J. Puddephatt          
8. Social Worlds: The Legacy of Mead’s Social Ecology in Chicago Sociology
Daniel Cefaï   
9. Mead, Whitehead, and the Sociality of Nature
Michael L. Thomas     

Part Three: Cognition, Conscience, Language

10. Mead, the Theory of Mind, and the Problem of Others
Ryan McVeigh
11. Imitation and Taking the Attitude of the Other
Kelvin Jay Booth
12. Mead Meets Tomasello: Pragmatism, the Cognitive Sciences, and the Origins of Human Communication and Sociality
Frithjof Nungesser
13. Conscience as Ecological Participation and the Maintenance of Moral Perplexity
Joshua Daniel 
14. Presentation and Re-Presentation: Language, Content, and the Reconstruction of Experience
Roman Madzia           
15. G. H. Mead’s Understanding of the Nature of Speech in the Light of Contemporary Research
Timothy Gallagher

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