John Dewey 2:Beyond Sharing (or Screaming) our Opinions.

Candid portrait of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey standing in a wooded area, 1935. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

This week, I had a series of blogs on my mind, ranging from my practical analysis of our policies in the Middle East to a meditation on discipleship to continuing to dialogue with John Dewey regarding political philosophy. In the end, I decided that I was going to devote this week’s blog to John Dewey and the subject of logic and public policy formation. As with my last blog, I’m somewhat dependent upon the work done by Donald Gelpi in his masterful work, The Gracing of Human Experience and a friend for suggesting that I read him. [1]

Last week, I devoted myself to his notion of conversion that goes far beyond spiritual conversion to the conversion of the mind, the heart, the morals, and the politics of Christians. His philosophical analysis of conversion can be applied to secular and religious conversions. He proceeds with his analysis by looking at some of my favorite philosophers, including C. S. Peirce, Josiah Royce, Herbert Mead, and John Dewey.

Readers of the blog will remember that I am attached to the notion that our political culture suffers from a lack of authentic dialogue. It is to say that so much of our politics assumes that the political process is all about debate, argument, voting, and winning or losing. As one of my professors in college put it, “Politics is about power.” At the time, I agreed. However, as the years have gone by, I find myself disagreeing at a fundamental level. Politics is about power. However, democratic politics cannot be conducted without community, dialogue, and the search for mutual understanding. At its deepest level, politics is about community.

The subject of logic plays a vital role in dialogue. In a democracy, often people think of dialogue as various people and groups just saying what they believe. They don’t have to have a reason for what they think; what they’re considering doesn’t have to be logical; it’s enough that they have an opinion. At some level, this is a harmless illusion. However, for progress to be made, dialogue has to proceed on the assumption that we are searching for practical solutions to social problems, which will be revealed to us as a result of a process of inquiry.

Three Modes of Logical Inquiry

Most people are familiar with two methods of logical inquiry: “induction” and “deduction.” Peirce introduced a third, intermediate logic called “Abduction.” All human thinking, if it is to be valid, must consist of manipulating signs in one or more of these three logical ways. [2] Briefly, the three methods can be defined as follows:

  1. Induction. Inductive reasoning begins with specific observations and proceeds to a generalized conclusion that is likely but not certain in light of accumulated evidence.
  2. Deduction. Deductive reasoning begins with general rule and proceeds to a guaranteed specific conclusion in a limited case. If the original assertion is true, the conclusion must be valid in deductive reasoning.
  3. Abduction. Abductive reasoning begins with limited and necessarily incomplete observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for what experiencehas revealed.

Abductive logic yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information that can be acquired, which often is incomplete and draws a conclusion based on the best available evidence. It then tests its findings.

Abduction and Reasonable Inquiry

Importantly, abductive reasoning is at the center of a scientific approach to understanding and at the center of other forms of intellectual progress as well. Neither induction nor deduction can provide intellectual explanations of phenomena. All scientific inquiry begins with a problem and one or more hypotheses or ideas about the best answer or solution to the problem. This has important implications because it “dethrones” the positivist notion of knowledge as based upon “the facts alone.” Instead, all facts are identified and interpreted within some interpretive framework. Science, for example, is interested in developing and analyzing facts. Still, those facts are developed and analyzed within a theoretical matrix of reasonableness based on the scientific method.

Science is not the only area of life in which one has to reason from a hypothesis to a conclusion that can be tested against the facts. This is, for example, what detectives do when solving a crime. (“I think the Butler did it; now I have to find evidence that supports that conclusion.”) It is essential in business. (“I think this new product will sell; however, before investing a lot of money, I need to do market research to be sure I’m correct.” It is true in law. (“I think the right way to structure this transaction is as follows. But I need to test out whether or not my theory is correct.”) It’s true in Government. (“I think the best policy in this situation would be to raise taxes, but I still have to think and discover what facts are in support of my opinion.”)

Fallibilism and Humility

In addition to testing, I have to remain open to the possibility that my hypothesis is false and thus accept the existence of contrary facts. This involves two crucial principles that underlie abductive inquiry:

  1. Fallibilism. All wise thinking includes the possibility that I might be wrong. Fallibilism holds that no empirical belief (theory, view, thesis, etc. ) can be conclusively proven in a way that eliminates the possibility of error or limitations. There always remains doubt as to the truth of any empirical matter.
  2. Humility. Understanding that human understanding is limited, partial, and often wrong, I humbly open my mind to evidence contrary to my ideas.

Unfortunately, American public debate sadly lacks both a sense of the limits of human knowledge and humility about human availability and openness to contra views. This is why, even in families, it is difficult to have rational discussions about specific political figures at this time.

Abduction and Dialogue

Deep within the logical views of both Peirce and Royce is the notion that all thinking is tripartite. First, outside of myself, there is a reality being investigated (the object). Second, there exist my ideas (or my group’s ideas) about that object. Finally, there is the interpretation of my ideas (or my group’s ideas) of that reality by a third party, who is the interpreter.

In many ways, this is the most complicated area of all in public discourse. In a nation of 300 million people, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are thousands of interpretations of the same reality. There are many different interpretations of any one group’s ideas about any political reality. Public officials, if they are to act logically and wisely, have to somehow analyze, usually in groups, that reality and all the various ways in which it is interpreted and, from that, develop a course of action (the policy choice).

The Logic of Dewey

This gets me to the role of logic in the thought of John Dewey. John Dewey considers his view of logic as “instrumentalism.” [3] That is to say, logic exists as an instrument by which human beings make decisions. Because Dewey was a materialist, he considered that our notions of logic have two sources:

  1. First, the universe’s evolution created species that survive a way of looking at reality that was pragmatically useful for survival. That pragmatic way of looking at reality in the quest for survival is a natural source of logic.
  2. Second, all human beings exist in a human society that has evolved over time. Certain ways of thinking and looking at reality were conducive to that society’s success and its challenges. Thus, culture is also a source of logic. [4]

In other words, deduction, induction, and abduction did not emerge from some ideal realm, as Plato might have thought. Still, instead, these forms of reasoning evolved as a part of human beings facing reality and trying to adapt successfully to that reality and the challenges it presents. If we go this far with Dewey, we can see a natural connection between logic and political theory. Demanding that our public debate be rational and logical is just part of demanding that it successfully lead to policies that serve the common good.

On a purely instrumental level, we can see the importance of Dewey’s insight. However, I don’t think either Pierce or Royce would have entirely agreed with Dewey’s conclusions, nor do I think that they are consistent with the deepest understandings of modern science. For them, the universe itself displays a kind of rationality, from its inception, rationality, that we see logically developed in the mathematics of, for example, quantum physics. This rationality that is embedded in the universe is in some way prior to any human evolutionary rationality, and any human culture.

From a Christian perspective, the universe demonstrates an underlying rationality because it was created by a logical and rational creator, who, in love, created the universe that we are privileged to discover on a number of levels: scientific, religious, cultural, economic, political, and otherwise. This does not mean that aspects of this rationality that we observe in the universe is not a matter of evolutionary success. On the assumption that evolution and the gradual development of human culture were built into the potential of the universe from its very first days, then one believes it over millions of years, the rationality that we observe in the universe and in human culture gradually ever so gradually emerged over time.

The great British physicist turned religious scholar, John Polkinghorne, put it this way:

Certainly, our powers of thought must be in such conformity with the everyday structure of the world that we are able to survive by making sense of our environment.  But that does not begin to explain why highly abstract concepts of pure mathematics should fit perfectly with the patterns of the subatomic world of quantum theory or the cosmic world of relativity, both of which are regimes whose understanding is of no practical consequence whatsoever from humankind’s ability to have held its own in the evolutionary struggle. Nor does the fact that we are made of the same stuff (quarks, gluons and electrons) as the universe serve to explain how microscopic man is able to understand the microcosm of the world.  Some fairly desperate attempts have been made along these lines nevertheless showing how pressing is the need to find an explanation for the significant fact of intelligibility. [5]

This observation sits at the ground of my view that Christians ought to be able to engage in public life and public discourse and state their views on Christian grounds, so long as those views are stated logically and with reference to the reality of other positions. We cannot necessarily expect that strictly Christian views will be accepted in every matter of public debate, and in fact, we should be consciously aware of the fact that our views might be wrong, but nevertheless, Christians should be entitled to state their views on public matters.

Instrumentalism and Public Policy

It should be obvious that the notion that reason has an instrumental function and that logic is in itself instrumental has important consequences for the development of public policy and the conduct of public debate. Public policy is about adopting strategies and tactics that will lead society to a better state. As such, it is an essentially logical process. Dewey, while not directly talking about politics and political theory, put it this way:

It is reasonable to search for and select the means that will, with the maximum probability, yield the consequences which are intended. It is highly unreasonable to employ as means, materials, and processes that would be found, if they were examined, to be such that they produce consequences that are different from the intended end, so different that they preclude its attainment. [6]

Applied to the realm of public discourse, this principle can be stated as follows: Public policy is unreasonable if it adopts policies and processes that, under examination, are likely to produce consequences contrary to the public good and the intended result. In public life, politicians should be willing to subject their views to criticism and modify their policies where the best evidence indicates that the public good intended cannot be acquired by the means chosen.

Wise public policymaking involves using all the forms of logic suggested above. We must guess what the wisest public policy is (our hypothesis). We must gather facts that either support or do not support our hypothetical public policy. Finally, in reaching our conclusions, we must be sure that they’re not deductively incoherent. This is a part and parcel of proving or disproving the hypothesis.


I will spend a couple of more blogs on the fascinating question of the role of logic in public policy. It’s a subject that I think deserves our attention. We live in a society where the media and other specific instruments often promote a kind of decision-making based on what “I want” (or what my group wants). This kind of decision-making does not lead to sound public policy. It needs to be replaced. Furthermore, all ideologically driven policy formulations will likely be unsuccessful because they arrive at a reasoning process based on what I think an ideal society should look like. Both Marxist and hyper-capitalist policy thought are subject to weakness.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Donald L. Gelpi, The Gracing of Human Experience: Rethinking the Relationship between Nature and Grace (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001).

[2]. This section of the blog relies on my analysis of Peirce in G. Christopher Scruggs, A “Sophio-Agapic” Approach to Political Philosophy: Essays on a Constructive Post-Ideological Politics (Unpublished Manuscript, 2024).




[3] John Dewey used this term to describe his version of pragmatism. In this sense, logic is an instrument for evaluating ideas and policy alternatives. This is to be distinguished from instrumentalism, which refers solely to the means and use of power.

[4] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), 23-60.

[5] John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), 30.

[6] Logic, at 10.

How Grace Transforms Everything

Some weeks ago, a new friend suggested I read Donald L. Gelpi’s The Gracing of Human Experience: Rethinking the Relationship between Nature and Grace. [1] In this blog, I will not go into the details of his thoughts but instead focus on his analysis of the holistic power of grace to transform human persons. Why is this important for laypersons? It is important because all Christians, to be the kind of disciples we want and intend to be, need to be transformed, not just spiritually, but in our minds, ways of thinking, cultural attitudes, political attitudes, and other ways. The gospel does not transform only a part of me. It transforms all of me.

The Dynamic Process of Conversion

The dynamic process of conversion takes more than one form, each of which reinforces the other. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s look at the following kinds of conversion:

  • Religious conversion impacts our view of the nature of the world and ultimate reality.
  • Intellectual conversion impacts how we think and visualize the world and ultimate reality.
  • Affective conversion impacts our emotional life and our affections
  • Moral conversion affects how we view questions of value and ultimate moral claims.
  • Socio-political conversion impacts how we see human society and human culture.

These various forms of conversion are not separate but rather exist in a dynamic relationship with one another. As our religious beliefs change, our way of thinking changes. As our thinking changes, our emotions change. As our emotions change, our morals change. As our morals change, the way in which we see humans, society, and culture changes. This interconnectedness is a testament to the comprehensive nature of grace’s transformative power.

I decided this week to insert a little graphic that illustrates the dynamic form of conversion. It would go something like this:


The point of the graphic is to illustrate the absolute interconnectedness of a conversion experience.

In the past, I’ve had an opportunity to talk about the interconnectedness of reality. At the deepest levels of reality, things seem to exist in a state that physicists call “entanglement.” If this is the case, it should not surprise us that human beings exist in a complex, interconnected dialogue between the various universes they inhabit: religious, intellectual, emotional, moral, and social-political. These universes can be separated for purposes of analysis, but they cannot be separated for purposes of everyday life. Therefore, a change or conversion in any of these universes automatically results in a change in all of the universes.

Or at least it should.

The World Turned Upside Down

In Acts 17, we read the following concerning Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica:

The next day, they journeyed through Amphipolis and Apollonia and arrived at Thessalonica. Here, Paul entered a synagogue of the Jews, following his usual custom. On three Sabbath days, he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and quoting passages to prove the necessity for the death of Christ and his rising again from the dead. “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you,” he concluded, “is God’s Christ!” Some of them were convinced and threw in their lot with Paul and Silas, and they were joined by a great many believing Greeks and a considerable number of influential women. But the Jews, in a fury of jealousy, got hold of some of the unprincipled loungers of the marketplace, gathered a crowd together, and set the city in an uproar. Then they attacked Jason’s house in an attempt to bring Paul and Silas out before the people. When they could not find them, they hustled Jason and some of the brothers before the civic authorities, shouting, “These are the men who have turned the world upside down and have now come here, and Jason has taken them into his house. What is more, all these men act against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king called Jesus!” (Acts 17:1-9, J. B. Phillips).

The complaint against the first apostles was not simply that they proclaimed Jesus the Messiah of Israel. That would not necessarily have turned the Roman world upside down. after all, Pilate put up a sign reading, “King of the Jews” on Jesus’ Cross. He did not seem a bit threatened by the claim.

The message that Jesus of Nazareth was a universal Messiah whose salvation was for everyone, in every place, and among every ethnicity was what turned the world upside down. This Messiah was to be the name above all other names, and all secular authorities must bow under his authority, even the Emperor (Philippians 2:10-11).  This is the claim that provoked opposition, then and now.

Many commentators have noticed that this proclamation had political and religious significance. Up to that time, political leaders were apt to believe their authority was absolute. that time, political leaders were apt to think of themselves as gods. They often thought of their authority as ultimate. In Jesus Messiah, that claim disappeared. Caesar’s claim to be a god was a false claim. The God of Israel was the one true God. Caesar’s claim to be the ultimate authority on this earth was false. Jesus Christ was the ultimate authority on this earth. If the apostles’ claims were true, then the foundation of the Roman Empire and many empires before that time was undermined.

Our World Turned Upside Down

The same is true today. If Jesus is the true Messiah, and if God’s nature was fully disclosed on the cross, if God really is love, then many of our presuppositions must change. Power is not absolute. Governmental power is not simply a matter of a winner-take-all contest. Our conversion to Jesus Christ changes everything. We can’t believe in the golden rule, “he has the gold rules.” We can’t believe that “Might means right.” We can’t think anything we do is justified because “The end justifies the means.”

Our conversion to Jesus Christ changes everything—or it was intended to. We can resist this change, and many of us do—all of us do at some point in our lives. We refuse to change the way we think, do business, relate to our spouses and family, and relate to others in our churches. We can also refuse to change how we view our culture, its institutions, and others in our society. When we do this, we deny the power of the gospel and the gospel itself. We refuse to change the way we treat people in our churches. Refusals indicate that we are not being converted as we should be. When we do this, we are refusing to allow God by the Holy Spirit to change us in our entire being. We deny both the power of the gospel and the gospel itself.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Donald L. Gelpi, The Gracing of Human Experience: Rethinking the Relationship between Nature and Grace (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001). Gelpi, a distinguished Jesuit scholar at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley from 1973 until his death, was a well-known Catholic author. In particular, he was an expert on the thoughts of C.S. Peirce, Josiah Royce, William James, John Dewey, and other pragmatists. My friend thought that I would profit from reading this book. Gilpi is a difficult author to read because he works in the twilight zone between philosophy and theology constantly moving between both disciplines.

Mead 3: The Ideal “Universal” Society

This blog’s regular readers understand that the author opposes any “this-worldly” form of millenarianism, secular or religious. Many of the worst episodes of human violence are rooted in the human desire to achieve a perfect world within the boundaries of human history. This has been true throughout human history—and sometimes true of Christians.

In the 20th Century, the cataclysmic barbarity of Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and a host of others found its roots in the mistaken belief that we can create a perfect world. Since the Enlightenment, human beings have been increasingly entranced by an unfounded hope that human beings can create an ideal society. Left and right politicians promise, and perhaps even occasionally work for, such a world. The results are uniformly disastrous. Churches and religious leaders can and have fallen into this trap. We can create a better world with wisdom and love for one another, but humans cannot make a perfect one.

The Hope for a Secular Paradise

Last week, I primarily dealt with conflict and integration in human society. This week, we will examine Mead’s notion of a “Universal Society.” Near the end of his discussion of conflict and integration, Mead states the following:

The human social ideal—the ideal or ultimate goal of human social progress—is the attainment of a universal human society in which all human individuals would possess a perfected social intelligence, such that all social meanings would each be similarly reflected in their respective social consciousness—such that the meanings of any one’s social acts or gestures (as realized by him and expressed in the structure of his self, through his ability to take the social attitudes of other individuals toward himself and toward their common social ends or purposes would be the same for any other individual who responded to them. [1]

Several aspects of this statement must be unpacked before we examine Mead’s views on achieving his notion of a universal human society.

  1. Mead accepts the Enlightenment notion of the inevitability of human progress.
  2. The world is evolving in accordance with the laws of nature, and human society is evolving according to the unwritten law of progress. In this, Mead reflects Darwin’s influence without fully applying the difference between cultural and biological evolution. In the case of biological evolution, all that is promised is survival of the fittest. In cultural evolution, such a “tooth and nail” notion ignores the fact that humans can actually create a worse future for themselves and the human race.
  3. At the core of Mead’s philosophy is the belief in human perfectibility, or more specifically, our capacity for a degree of “perfected social intelligence.” This term encapsulates our ability to understand and interpret social meanings and to align our actions with these meanings for the betterment of society.
  4. A perfected human social intelligence involves a unity of the acts and gestures of one’s individual self (“I” and “Me”), the social self of all other individual selves, and the social self of society as a whole regarding commonly held social ends or purposes. [2]

In my view, none of this is realistic or attainable, and an attempt to do so can result in foolish behavior, a loss of freedom, and suffering—the exact opposite of what those who make such an attempt desire.

Human Empathy

Underlying Mead’s argument is the human capacity to identify with one another in what he would call an “organized social life process.” [3] Mead understands that modern democratic societies have not reached the point where individual citizens can put themselves into the attitudes of those with whom they have relationships and whom they affect. [4] His argument, however, is based upon the presumption that it is at least theoretically possible, although there are obstacles and no society today has been able to achieve the kind of social solidarity envisions.

At this point, I think it might be good to put another word to this phenomenon: empathy. Empathy is the human ability to sense how another person is feeling and what they may be thinking and intellectually appreciate the reasons for human behavior. Empathy is crucial because it allows human beings to enter the emotional and thought world of another human being in a limited way. It is fundamental to such diverse practices as leadership, counseling, and even writing a popular book.

It doesn’t take a lot of experience to know that human empathy is limited. Every parent understands that they have some capacity to feel the pain and suffering of their children, but it’s imperfect. Every spouse knows the same. As one gets further from familiar relations, the problem gets even more severe. Pastors understand that they cannot fully enter the pain and suffering of counselees, so they must be careful about what they say and do. Business leaders understand that it is impossible to completely empathize with the problems of employees. Government leaders have the same experience. Our human capacity for empathy is limited, not just by our individuality but also by our selfishness and self-centeredness.

Societies cannot be built upon the hope that humans can fully enter into one another’s experiences on a social basis. We cannot. We can hope for a degree of wisdom and love in how we treat other people despite the fact that our interests and understanding will never be fully aligned. The problem is not that modern democratic societies or any other societies have not developed the capacity for complete understanding of and identification with the other. The problem is that it’s impossible.

Christians have an additional reason why we do not think a viable society can be built on human empathy or the human ability to enter into another individual’s mental, physical, and other worlds in a self-giving way: human sin, finitude, and brokenness. The human problem isn’t that some people do not have sufficient empathy. The human problem is not that some people act in selfish ways. The human problem isn’t that some people suffer from excessive anxiety and grasp too much money and power. The problem is we all do.

Children and Castes

Mead continues his analysis by examining the relationship between children and adults, especially between educators and children. [5] To be effective, teachers must empathetically enter the life world of those they teach. Interestingly enough, I have observed that when an adult teacher fully identifies with the children they are teaching, they emotionally regress or fail to mature as they should as adults. They get stuck in immaturity. As a pastor, I have seen this repeatedly with youth workers. Once again, this does not mean that we do not respect children, including respecting their limitations, emotional, physical, and mental. Any good teacher does. However, no good teacher believes it is enough to empathize with the student.

The second category Mead discusses is perhaps even more problematic. He begins to speak of “castes.” Most people are familiar with the Indian caste system, an absolute, impenetrable, and humanly unfair system of social stratification. Mead takes this concept and extends it to other relationships, particularly economic relationships. Once again, motivated by the best possible intentions, he muddies the waters instead of clarifying the situation. There’s a significant difference between “castes” and “achievement-oriented positions.”

Most of the time, there is an elite in churches, businesses, governments, academia, and other institutions. Much of the time, that elite has earned its way to a position. Of course, anyone who’s worked in any organization understands that political, social, and other injustices occur. Such injustices need to be addressed. But it’s a mistake to think that achievement-based excellence is some kind of a cast that excludes other people unfairly. [6] Mead seems to understand the limits of his analysis. For example, he notes, “Insofar as specialization is normal and helpful, it increases concrete, social relationship relationships. Differences in occupation do not themselves build up castes.” [7] Yet, his analysis leaves the impression that much of modern Western society’s social and economic inequity stems from this problem.

Selves and Societies

At the route of the problem of human social organization, the unbridgeable distinction between Selves and Society. Although human beings depend upon one another and civilization depends on our ability to unite in common endeavors, human self-centeredness, and selfishness inevitably color and render partial human social integration.

In a wonderful passage, Mead analyzes this problem:

The “social” aspect of human society – which is simply the social aspect of the cells of all the individual members taken collectively—with its concomitant feelings on the parts of all those individuals of cooperation and social interdependence, is the basis for the development and existence of ethical ideals in that society; whereas the quotes, “a social” aspect of human society – which is simply the asocial aspect of the cells of all human members taken collectively – with its concomitant feelings on the part of all these individuals of individual individuality, self-superiority to other individual selves, and social independence is responsible for the rise of ethical problems in that society. [8]

It is important to understand what he is saying and its limitations to unpack this paragraph.

  1. Mead defines the social aspect of a society merely in terms of the collective interaction of individuals. This is a classic statement of the modern view that individuals exist in purely external relationships with other individuals. Any such view inevitably ends up defining the existence of individuals in terms of power.
  2. Ethics is based upon a social consensus, the collective views of individual decisions concerning morality.
  3. Any society’s ethical problems stem from “asocial” aspects of human life instead of the social aspects of human life.

I believe meat is an error in all three of these beliefs. First, he’s already indicated that he understands that human beings grow out of social institutions, beginning with the family. If this is to be taken seriously, human individuals have no priority over human societies. Societies and human individuals exist in a kind of dynamic relationship. Individuals are important, and society is essential.

Second, the modern world was built upon the belief that human reason would be able to identify instead of human ethics that were agreed upon by all reasonable people. The history of the last 300 years shows that delusional. Our modern debates over abortion or a case in reasonable people on both sides hold diametrically opposed positions that cannot possibly be unified. The view against abortion did not grow out of a social consensus. In fact, in Greco-Roman society, there was no boundary against it. Instead, it grew out of something else: the belief that the sanctity of life was derivative of God’s love for every human being. Christians opposed the social consensus of their day on precisely that basis. My view is that ethics is a portion of wisdom. This is why studying the past and the decisions of the past, including wisdom and literature, is so important. When the writers of proverbs speak about sexual immorality, they do so based on the entirety of human history and the general experience of every human society that unbridled sexual gratification is foolish.

Finally, it doesn’t seem to me that you can say that the problems of human society stem from the “asocial” aspects of society unless you want to use the word asocial as a synonym for human self-centeredness, sin, and anxiety infinitude. If you’re going to do that, you can’t think of these things as aspects of human nature that can be overcome and extinguished. You think of them as things that must be dealt with and controlled. The writers of the Constitution had such a view. The whole system of checks and balances of American democracy has to do with the view that no one is trustworthy. Therefore, everyone has to be subject to constraints and limitations.


I’m going to have to leave me for a time. I’m writing a novel and must concentrate on the story. Nevertheless, I cannot leave his book without discussing his views on human time embeddedness and its consequences for human thinking. Mead was a student of Einstein and. understood that human beings are inevitably embedded in time and space and are therefore limited in their reasoning by their position in the space-time continuum. In a rather brilliant section of the book, he notes that humans always perceive the present based on the past and always understand the past based on the present. In other words, there is no unfiltered, scientific” understanding of the past. Our past is a constantly changing mental construct, as we’ve reflected upon it, as is our anticipation of the future. Even our current perceptions are immediately colored by all of the relevant perceptions from our past. [9]

Just to give a simple example of this, this morning, I was walking to get some exercise. I passed by a unique fence of multicolored wood. I immediately saw that it was a fence. Then, I noticed it was not like most of the wooden fences I am familiar with. The angles of the wood were different. The colors of the wood were different. Every fence influenced my understanding of this particular fence I could remember having seen. As I walked on, I continued to ponder fences in our neighborhood. I noticed other fences. I compared them with my mental picture of the fences I had just seen. But no fence was in my immediate consciousness except the one I was gazing at at that moment.

This has powerful implications for wisdom in public life. We are all colored by the attitudes, education, prejudices, and other factors of our past in our political views. Our hopes also influence our current political views for some future political situations. But we live in the present and must act in the present.  The only way to overcome those prejudices is to adopt a pragmatic attitude toward politics. As we think about past situations, we have to scrutinize them to be sure that we have the best understanding of what occurred and how effective a former policy was that we could have. We have to overcome our colored knowledge of that past. On the other hand, as we gaze at our preferred future, we also must act wisely. Instead of making massive changes, we must experiment and ensure our hoped-for future can be obtained.

I was a pastor for years and served in liberal and conservative denominations; I have friends on both sides of the political arguments. I’ve gradually come to the view that I am not. I’ve also come to the view that my friends are not right concerning many matters. I’ve concluded that none of us know what to do next. As we move into the future, our best move is to closely examine an action’s likely consequences and carefully monitor our success or failure. If we can do that, left and right, there’s hope for a better future.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology rev. ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 270-271.

[2] At this point, Mead’s argument’s weakness becomes evident. After 300 years of Enlightenment thinking, no evidence exists that such a situation can be peacefully obtained. The fact is that people have widely divergent notions of what is involved in social progress and what any “ideal universal society” should look like. Many of these divergent notions are not only divergent; they are opposed to one another. Abortion, transgender issues, the degree of economic freedom individuals should possess, the degree of censorship the government should be able to employ, all these and more have vastly divergent proponents.

[3] On Social Psychology, 271.

[4] Id, at 282.

[5] Id, at 272.

[6] [6] Id, at 272-273.

[7] Id,

[8] Id, at 275-276.

[9] Id, at 328-341.

Mead 2: On Society and Social Institutions

Last week, I ended by uniting George Herbert Mead’s views with those of C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce via the notion of dialogue. Human beings exist in constant dialogue internally and between themselves, others, and the culture in which they live. This “triadic dialogue,” first suggested by C. S. Peirce and expanded by Josiah Royce, is not unique to Mead. It is, however, foundational to the kind of abductive, scientific view of how society might function.

Such a view undermines any political philosophy based on power. Dialogue is essentially a rational process, not a process of the will. It is essentially anti-Nietzschean. Dialogue presumes human beings can make sensible changes as they interact within a social context. This aspect of the pragmaticists’ thought gives hope that our society can overcome its fascination with power and will to power and move towards a more harmonious and equitable future.

One of my readers kindly asked me to bring the discussion forward with a discussion of Mead’s approach to political life, which I will try to do. Before launching off into the attempt, I think a reminder is essential: This blog tries to be sympathetic to every writer whose views are examined but also to recognize their place in the history of ideas and not require writers’ (or political actors’) views or actions which their position in history renders impossible. Mead writes in the early 20th Century, in an America that no longer exists. He also wrote before the famous failures and crimes of communism and the failure of the post-World War II socialist economies of Europe, which were required to open themselves to more competition to overcome stagnation and a loss of competitiveness. He also writes before the fragmentation of American society so evident in recent years. His social location is academic America in the early 20thCentury.

Selves and Society

For Mead, society and social institutions emerge in a dynamic relational process by which humans (“I’s”) constantly dialogue with and adapt to their surrounding culture. The initial culture for most human beings is a family consisting of parents, grandparents, and others who first influence the emergence of the child. Every child develops a self-image as it learns to adapt to the culture and perceptions of those who raise it. There is a constant internal dialogue between the emerging self (“I”) and the socially endorsed view that an individual has of themselves (“Me”).

This dialogue between self and society continues throughout life as humans adapt to their ever-changing environment. In a complex society such as ours, individuals are faced with the challenging task of navigating the social expectations and customs of an ever-more-complex hierarchy of institutions, familial, economic, educational, political, and other, each of which influences and is influenced by the other. This intricate web of societal interactions and influences provides a rich, stimulating environment for intellectual exploration and understanding.

Emergent Universality

Mead notes that human social institutions are of various sizes. He notes that Americans, with their native love of size and success, have long given institutional priority to larger institutions. [1] This love of the large and our intuitive belief that size and universality are both critical and positive can fail to understand that the large and universal can undermine the smaller foundations upon which they rest.

Mead believes that Rousseau’s notion of “The Will of the People” implies the gradual emergence of a “Universal Will of the People” and institutions that reflect that universal will. In his day, the League of Nations represented an attempt to create an organization in which a universal will could be institutionalized. [2] The failure of the League of Nations and the development of the United Nations after World War II can be seen as another attempt to institutionalize this universal will. Perhaps more importantly, creating a host of international administrative agencies, courts, service organizations, NGOs, and the like reflects the same impulse. [3]

Since Darwin’s time, all philosophy has been influenced by and must account for evolution. Mead represents one attempt to do so in the area of social psychology. Lurking behind his notion of emergent universality is the idea that human social organization is “going somewhere” in an evolutionary process. Mead understands that the evolution of human societies is not the same or subject to the same forces as natural evolution. The evolution of human societies involves the activities of reflexive human beings and the choices they make.

Religious and Economic Universality

Mead believes that human history reveals two universalizing processes reflecting this tendency. First, there is the emergence of “Religious and Economic Universality,” a phrase that refers to the impulse to achieve a universal or all-encompassing order in religious and economic contexts. I think that this particular analysis is flawed. From the beginning of human civilization, there has been what I would call a tendency to seek political universality as kingdoms and empires sought to expand their boundaries. Examples are the movements from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas in the ancient world.

Similarly, there has been an impulse to expand economic influence and trade throughout history. Marco Polo’s story is one of hundreds of stories of ancient trade explorers. Throughout history, wherever a political subdivision has been created, a kind of economic universality emerges within that empire—and beyond as that empire seeks to expand its economic life.

Mead also examines the expansion of religious groups with a universalizing tendency as they claim or desire universal scope. Mead uses Islam as an example of a religion that uses all available social means, political, legal, cultural, and military, to achieve a universal Islamic society. [4] In reality, many religious groups, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic, and others have expanded their reach, often following the path of armies or economic expansion. How Islam finds its way to Indonesia is a story of a religion following ancient trade routes. Similarly, European and American missionaries followed European nations’ economic and political expansion. However, I believe this is a secondary phenomenon in most cases.

In any case, human history provides many examples of groups seeking to dominate other groups and universalize their particular social beliefs, forms, and organization. As communities come into conflict with one another, there is a constant impulse to seek domination. [5]

Self and Society

Underlying society’s constant turmoil and change is the continual interplay between the self and culture—and, in the case of most individuals in a complex society, between selves and the innumerable societies in which they participate. In the Western World of Mead’s day and the international community of our day, there is a constant interplay and adjustment of individuals and groups to one another. Often, this is expressed in terms of military activities. One thinks of the current struggles in Gaza and the Ukraine as examples.

Just as human beings seek to assert their egos in private life, in the life of nations, governments struggle for superiority and domination. With domination comes a degree of affluence and other kinds of social superiority. This, in turn, provokes additional conflict. Nevertheless, in the struggles of various societies for dominance and security, there is the potential for rational and non-violent accommodation and negation. [6]

Conflict and Integration

The process of social interaction and the drive for greater and greater social organization results in conflict in and among all human societies. Anyone who has been married understands that even the smallest family unit cannot avoid periodic conflict. In analyzing the role of conflict in human societies, Mead makes a distinction between two different social situations that impact the degree and dangers of conflict:

  1. Conflict within and among groups with some degree of commonality
  2. Conflict within groups where there is either. There is no degree of commonality or even outright hostility.

The first situation occurs where some degree of common life, social solidarity, and friendliness exists. In such situations, conflict arises within an underlying degree of shared values and cooperation. In the second situation, the factors that tend to moderate and make rational accommodation possible are either absent or weak. Instead, there is a degree of hostility, distrust, a lack of common life, social solidarity, and friendship. [7]

This distinction illuminates the difficulty the United States is having at the current time. Since the Second World War, and especially since the late 1960s, there has been a decline in common life, social solidarity, and friendliness among social groups. There are many reasons for this. Two that come to mind are the increasing lack of shared religious and moral values and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in society. The lack of shared spiritual and ethical standards and economic disparity make it difficult to feel that social and political life is fair or just. At the same time, a historically unique degree of conflict among classes, races, religions, and other groups has emerged in America. This situation points to a need to rebuild the common life of the nation in such a way as to increase the fragile bonds of common life, social solidarity, and friendliness.

Mead recognizes an inevitable degree of hostile behavior in any society, including the modern nation-state. A society’s legal system usually moderates this inevitable degree of latent and actual conflict. [8] The ability of any legal system to curb conflict is dependent upon (i) an underlying degree of lawful cooperative behavior in situations where there is or might be conflict, (ii) a degree and extent of conflict that existing institutions can handle, and (iii) a degree of trust in the fairness of existing institutions. I believe here, too, we see room for improvement and a warning concerning our current tendency to tolerate certain forms of unlawful behavior, an increasing level of social conflict, and the erosion of trust in the fundamental fairness of the legal system.


I am going to extend this series to one more blog next week. Mead is the least appreciated of the pre-World War II pragmatists. His views are important because he further develops Peirce’s communitarian foundation of pragmatism, which Royce extended. He deepens Royce’s analysis of the nature of human communities and provides deep insight into the interplay between individuals and social groups.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology rev. ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 255.

[2] Id, at 262-262.

[3] The failure of the League of Nations and the various corruptions of the United Nations and other international agencies reflect a continuing inability to find workable forms for institutionalizing this universalizing impulse, or perhaps it reflects the fact that no such “universal human institutions” of a governmental type are feasible at this time in history.

[4] On Social Psychology, at 256-257.

[5] Id, at 259.

[6] Id, at 259.

[7] Id, at 264-265.

[8] Id, at 265.

George Herbert Mead and the Social Self

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is the least known of the American pragmatists. He published numerous articles during his lifetime but not a more extensive work. His classic work On Social Psychology was published after his death as a compilation of his writings. [1] The second reason Meade is not well-known as a pragmatist is that he is better known as a founder of social psychology. Nevertheless, he taught philosophy at the University of Chicago and was a sought-after philosophy teacher there.

Mead is important because he represents a communitarian approach to pragmatism partially in the lineage of Alfred North Whitehead. His approach to social thought is evolutionary and informed by the notion that society is always in process. Thus, he participates in what is sometimes called “constructive postmodernism.”

Mead is finally well known because he was a disciple of perhaps the most influential pragmatist in political theory, John Dewey. Dewey and Mead were close friends, and Dewey considered him one of the brightest people he had ever met.

Mead’s Connection with Peirce

Mead’s understanding of the human self was deeply influenced by the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, particularly his semiotic approach to human thought. Mead developed the term “gesture” to show how language grows out of our human capacity to point and make gestures. Languages are merely “gestures” converted into signs.

Mead believed the human self develops primarily due to its capacity to use human language. He saw the process of language, the ability of human beings to think in signs, as essential to the unique capacity of human beings to have both an ‘I’ and a ‘Me,’ that is, to have a self and a social self. Nevertheless, he also saw human thinking as a social experience. Human beings achieve selfhood through interacting with the social circumstances in which they are born.

Process and Evolution

Like Peirce, Whitehead, Bergson, and others, Mead is influenced by evolutionary theory and its implications for human thought and society. He is also aware of and influenced by Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory and understands impact onns for human thought and social philosophy.

Like the emergence of human society, the emergence of that self is an evolutionary process. The modernist view is that society is simply an amalgamation of self-creating individuals. To Mead, believing the human individual is merely the product of material social forces is simplistic. There is an interaction between human selves and society, out of which, in a dynamic process, human beings and human societies are formed.

Order and Change

The order of society is a constant tension between what might be termed the forces of revolution and the forces of order. Mead put it like this:

That is the problem of society, is it not? How can you present order and structure in society and yet bring about the changes that need to take place, or are taking place? How can you bring about those changes in an orderly fashion yet preserve order? To bring about change is seemingly to destroy the given order, yet society must change. That is the problem of incorporating the method of change into the order of society itself. [2]

Here, we see the impact of evolutionary thinking and the French Revolution on Mead’s thought. Mead considers human society to be a constantly evolving organism, and he is, in this way, influenced by Darwin. He sees that the institutions of any given society must change. In this, Mead is a post-Enlightenment/post-French Revolution thinker.

On the other hand, Mead also sees that change in any given society cannot occur in such a way that it destroys its fundamental order. The results of this way of thinking were evident in the French Revolution and are apparent in our own culture today. There is more to progress than revolutionary change. There is also the preservation of the best ideas of the past. In this sense, Mead is in league with thinkers like Edmund Burke, who see the danger of revolutionary ideologies.

As a pragmatist, Mead is interested in discerning how change can be managed in an orderly process in which human beings can continue to flourish and there can be harmony in an ever-changing social order. In the tradition of Peirce, Mead believes that a scientific way of managing change, that is, an orderly process of investigation, trial and error, hypothesis, experiment, and change, is the best method for societies to move forward. In this sense as well, Mead is anti-ideological. He would be utterly opposed to contemporary ideological politics, left and right.

Finally, Mead distinguishes evolution as it occurs in nature and the kind of evolution one sees in society. Natural evolution is, by its very nature, purposeless. On the other hand, human social evolution can be both orderly and purposeful because it is the product of decisions by rational human beings. Because human beings can reflect, they can adapt to change in an orderly manner that protects the interests of society ividual participants. [3]

Selves and Society

Human beings have a unique reflective capacity to have both an ‘I’ and a ‘Me,’ that is, to have a self (I) and a social self (Me). It is unique to human beings that we can mentally see ourselves as objects of our thought. This is a “reflexive capacity.” We can reflect upon ourselves, our beliefs, actions, successes, failures, character, and lack of character. This reflective capacity is essential to developing the social and individual selves. This reflexive capacity is lacking in lower animals, which means the characteristics of human selves and society are unique. [4]

Humans can see themselves directly and indirectly through human thought, which inevitably involves signs. As a result of their capacity for “self-dialogue,” human beings can see themselves from the viewpoint of others in society. It is that interaction between the “personal self” (I) and the social self (Me), and the reflexive capacity of humans that gives human beings the unique capacity to make moral judgments, to create order or disorder, and to grow.

This kind of thinking is preparatory to social action by any individual and social change. Our ability to have an “inner conversation” about circumstances and decisions inevitably allows us toakind of personal and social dialogue about the desirability of any particular social change.

For Mead, human selves emerge in a kind of dialogue with society. The organization of the human community proceeds the emergence of any particular self. Human beings are born into a social matrix that existed before they were born, before they became conscious, before they began to make decisions, and before they could influence that social matrix. In other words, needs thought is essentially communitarian. Human beings are born into a community, and the nature of that community has powerful influences over what kind of person and what kind of event “I” that person becomes.

Pragmatism and Process

At this point, the process aspect of Mead’s thought becomes important. He puts it like this:

In other words, the organized structure of every individual self within the social process of experience and behavior reflects and is constituted by the organized relational pattern of that process as a whole; but each individual self–structure reflects and is constituted by a different aspect or perspective of this relational pattern, because each reflects this relational pattern from its own unique standpoint so that the common social origin and constitution of individual selves and their structures does not preclude wide individual differences and variations among them, or contradict the peculiar and more less distinctive individuality, which agent of them, in fact possesses. [5]

This characteristic of Mead’s thought is essential to understanding individuals’ capacity to be founded in a specific social context and dynamically change it. While it is true that individual selves emerge from a social context, it is also true thavidual self is a distinctive part of the pattern of society as a whole.

Fiforemostmentally, each human being has a particular genetic Whichc makeup differs from every other human being. Therefore, on a physical levelvidual self has the inevitable result of changing society and the capacity to change that society intentionally.

Second, each self has a different perspective from everyone else in society. Everyone who participates in a large society, such as ours, may not make a tremendous difference, but each individual does make a difference. As human selves emerge through a process of dialogue with society, that is, as the “I” continues to be in dialogue with its social self (Me), that individual self has the inevitable result of changing society and the capacity to change that society intentionally. Participating in a large society like ours may not make a significant difference, but each individual does make a difference.

Selves and Society

As previously indicated, Mead believes that human beings do not make themselves. Instead, they become cells in the context of human society. Human civilization is made possible by the generalized social attitudes of that society, which individuals internalize. Nevertheless, human beings are not Ottomans determined by their society.

Human society, we have insisted, does not merely stamp the pattern of its organized social behavior upon any of its individual members so that this pattern becomes likewise the pattern of the individual self; it also, at the same time, gives him a mind, as the means or ability of consciously conversing with himself in terms of the social attitudes, which constitute the structure of his self and which embodied the pattern of human societies organized behavior, as reflected in that structure. And his mind enables him in turn to stamp the pattern of his further developing self (further developing through his mental capacity), upon the structure or organization or organization of human society, and thus in a degree to reconstruct and modify in terms of his self the general pattern of social or group behavior in terms of which his self was originally constituted. [6]

Thus, society both forms individuals and is formeds by them. Society both molds individuals and is molded by them.


Next week, we will continue to examine the thought of G. H. Mead as it impacts politics and social change. The formation process of human beings, society, and social change is profoundly semiotic. Human beings exist in a constant dialogue internally and between themselves, others, and the culture in which they live. This “triadic dialogue,” first suggested by C. S. Peirce and expanded by Josiah Royce, is not unique to Mead. It is, however, foundational to the kind of abductive, scientific logic view of how society might function.

Such a view undermines any political philosophy based on power. Dialogue is essentially a rational process, not a process of the will. It is essentially anti-Nietzschean. Dialogue presumes human beings can make rational changes as they interact within a social context. It is this aspect of the pragmaticist’s thought that gives hope that our society can overcome its own fascination with power and will to power.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology rev. Ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

[2] Id, at 21.

[3] Id, at 31.

[4] Id, at 201.

[5] Id, at 234-235.

[6] Id, at 251, footnote 2.