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.