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A Pragmatist World View: George Herbert Mead's Philosophy of the Act

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on George Herbert Mead's life and his philosophy of the act. Mead divides the act into four stages: impulse, perception, manipulation, and consummation. The impulse sets the organism in motion, whereas consummation marks the satisfaction of the desire that initiated the act. Hence, consummation brings the act to a close. This should not be taken as a linear chain of responses to neatly self-contained problematic situations. Organisms often multitask, and problematic situations are typically nested, as when an animal in its search for food is being attacked by a predator.

Keywords: George Herbert Mead, philosophy of the act, pragmatism, impulse, perception, manipulation

Excuse me, but what do I know about the mountain, the tree, the sea? The mountain is a mountain because I say: ‘That is a mountain.’ In other words: ‘I am the mountain.’ What are we? We are whatever, at any given moment, occupies our attention. I am the mountain, I am the tree, I am the sea. I am also the star, which knows not its own existence!

Luigi Pirandello

In the beginning there was neither the word nor the world; in the beginning there was the act. This sums up the basic premise of the pragmatist philosophy (p. 145) of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). In many ways Mead is the forgotten pragmatist. There is a reason for this. Though he was a brilliant lecturer, he never published a book, and his scattered essays are dense and obscure; they are almost desperate attempts to cram an entire system of thought within the confines of a few pages. Besides being a direct influence on his students—mostly in sociology and social psychology—Mead's main influence is through posthumously published lecture notes made by professional stenographers during the final years of his life.1 However, with their didactic repetitions and digressions, these lecture notes tend to hide the systematic aspect of Mead's work. Ill at ease with simple solutions, and always aware of the importance of details, Mead always considered his work unfinished, and until the very end he remained very much a searching philosopher. Mead's discomfort with philosophical abstraction and his constant focus on problems rather than theories kept him from writing out a systematic pragmatic position. This leaves the reader who seeks to extract Mead's pragmatist leanings from his work with much surveying to do. This is one such surveying attempt, and it is one that is inspired by the belief that Mead's pragmatism, as it is captured in his philosophy of the act, is the skeleton key to his philosophical system.

Life and Intellectual Context

George Herbert Mead was born on 27 February 1863 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. At the age of 7 he moved with his parents and older sister to Oberlin, Ohio, when his father, the Congregationalist minister and pastor Hiram Mead (1827–81), was appointed homiletics professor at Oberlin College. Mead's mother, Elizabeth Storrs Billings (1832–1917), later became president of Mount Holyoke College (1890–1900). In 1883, Mead took his bachelor's degree at Oberlin College, after which he taught briefly in a grade school, before working as a surveyor for Wisconsin Central Railroad (p. 146) Company. In 1887, Mead enrolled at Harvard, where he studied with Josiah Royce. Interestingly, he did not study with William James, though he spent a summer at his vacation home in Chocorua, serving as a tutor for the James children (Mead 1992). Upon receiving his master's degree, Mead went to Germany in the fall of 1888 to work on his Ph.D. He first went to Leipzig, where he studied with Wilhelm Wundt, and then to Berlin, where he studied with Wilhelm Dilthey. Wundt's theory of gestures made a lasting impression on Mead and forms the core of his semiotics. From Dilthey, Mead learned that we can only understand individuals when we study them in their social, cultural, and historic contexts. In addition, Mead was deeply influenced by C. Lloyd Morgan (especially his concept of emergence), Henri Bergson, and the later Alfred North Whitehead.

In the end, Mead did not complete his Ph.D. because in 1891 he was offered a position at the University of Michigan to teach philosophy and psychology. At Michigan, Mead became a close friend of John Dewey. In 1894, Mead followed Dewey to the newly established University of Chicago, where he became one of the central figures in the Chicago school of pragmatism. He was also involved with Jane Addams's Hull House. Among the students Mead influenced at Chicago were the sociologists Herbert Blumer and Ellsworth Faris, the psychologist John B. Watson, and the philosopher‐semiotician Charles W. Morris. Though Dewey left in 1904, Mead remained at Chicago until his death on 26 April 1931.

A Philosophy of the Act

As noted, Mead's starting point is neither mind nor matter, but the act. Acts are constrained by the world in which we live, and through interaction with that world—assuming favorable conditions—acting gives rise to awareness, self‐awareness, mind, and society. In this process objects, reaching all the way down to subatomic particles, solidify, so to speak, as things that can be acted upon, even if only in principle, or they are derivatives thereof. Mead's approach is behaviorist, in that he explains all mental processes in terms of behavior. His approach differs, however, from that of traditional behaviorists. In contrast to his student, the behaviorist psychologist John B. Watson, and later figures such as B. F. Skinner, Mead insists that behavior cannot (p. 147) be studied in isolation.2 Advocating a social behaviorism, Mead rejected the laboratory‐style approach where subjects are taken from their natural surroundings and studied in tightly controlled situations aimed at isolating very narrowly defined stimulus–response reactions. Following Dewey, Mead rejected the one‐dimensional stimulus–response scheme favored by most behaviorists, in which it was presumed that stimulus and response could be neatly separated, as if they were isolable events standing in a one‐to‐one causal relationship. Instead, Mead maintained, as did Dewey, that stimulus and response belong to a continuous nervous path, a reflex arc. The attitude of the organism—what it thinks is important given its current state and its psycho‐physical history—determines what it will react to, what it will ignore, etc. A wildebeest stimulates a lion differently when the lion is hungry than when the lion has just finished a meal. In Mead's view, there is also no sharp separation between the organism and the environment; they are the joint product of a process that shaped them both. This is not to deny that there is a certain asymmetry: the environment is not at the mercy of the organism to the degree that the organism is at the mercy of the environment. Traditional stimulus–response behaviorism makes too sharp a distinction between the individual and its environment, which invites the misconception that you can study people's behavior in a laboratory setting.

Mead's general approach closely resembles that of Charles Peirce in his well‐known article “The Fixation of Belief”, albeit that Mead, like Dewey, formulated the issue more directly in biological terms. Where Peirce speaks of belief, Mead speaks of homeostatic equilibrium, and where Peirce speaks of doubt, Mead talks about the organism's inhibition to act caused by conflicting tendencies about what to do next. The occurrence of conflicting tendencies to act, Mead terms a problematic situation (Dewey prefers to speak of an indeterminate situation).3 Within the problematic situation, the organism is “out of tune” with its environment. Mead sees the problematic situation as the source of consciousness. A direct or habitual satisfaction of desires goes by unawares; it is only when we are confronted with a problem that inhibits our action that we become aware of the world in which we live. For Mead, (p. 148) consciousness is relational; it is not some ethereal substance. When someone turns off the lights in a room, Mead argues, he is no longer conscious of the objects in the room. Consequently, “the losing of consciousness does not mean the loss of a certain entity, but merely the cutting‐off of one's relations with experiences” (Mead 1936: 393).

Mead divides the act into four stages: impulse, perception, manipulation, and consummation. The impulse sets the organism in motion, whereas consummation marks the satisfaction of the desire that initiated the act. Hence, consummation brings the act to a close. This should not be taken as a linear chain of responses to neatly self‐contained problematic situations. Organisms often multitask, and problematic situations are typically nested, as when an animal in its search for food is being attacked by a predator.

For the most part, however, impulses are routinely connected with their consummation. What happens in a problematic situation is that the habitual connection between impulse and consummation is thwarted. This gives us the first intermediary phase: perception. In perception the environment opens itself up to the individual. Instead of the traditional distinction between the five senses, Mead distinguishes between contact and distance experience. Contact experience is the environment as it appears in immediate unmediated physical opposition, as in a wholly unexpected strike against the back of the head. There is no anticipation, and the experience itself gives no indication as to what happened beyond the direct effect upon the recipient. With distance experience, relatively insignificant contact experiences—such as airwaves hitting the eardrum—become signs for possible future contact experiences, allowing the individual to anticipate them. Thus, when I see a ball coming at me, I can modify my behavior so as to seek or avoid the contact experiences associated with the ball.

The third phase is that of manipulation, which is characterized by the interplay of contact and distance experience. In manipulation things are at once seen and felt, which brings together both the promise of contact and its fulfillment. For humans, this is primarily a matter of eye–hand coordination, but for other organisms this may play out differently. For dogs, for instance, “manipulation” is mostly a matter of coordinating nose and mouth. In Mead's view, our conception of physical objects is a product of this manipulation phase. It is hard to ignore the enormous extent to which the hand regulates how we see the world. Distance experiences are invariably understood as past or anticipated manipulatory experiences. When we see a hammer, we see it as something we can grasp. When we see a tree, we see it as something we can (p. 149) climb. Even the moon looks like something we could touch if only our arms were long enough to reach it. Because physical objects represent bundles of manipulatory acts, Mead calls them collapsed acts.

On this view, it would be impossible for entirely disembodied spirits to develop the concept of physical object as we know it. For that one needs hands. Our knowledge is an embodied knowledge. In fact, for Mead, the hand, with its juxtaposition of the thumb, is in many respects more characteristic of human intelligence than the brain.

Though Mead makes surprisingly little reference to pragmatism when discussing his philosophy of the act, it is easy to see pragmatism at work in his discussions of the four phases of the act. For instance, the meaning of all distance experiences is determined by the contact experiences we anticipate, given certain courses of action, and (physical) objects are understood in terms of what we can do with them, or by our habitual reactions to them. It is not just that meaning and truth are related to practical consequences, but that action is positioned at the very center of how the world is being comprehended. It is through action that we shape our world. This fits very well with Peirce's pragmatic maxim, which also draws a close connection between thought and action. The pragmatic maxim runs as follows: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (Peirce 1992: 132). Instead of connecting our conceptions with some type of Platonic world of ideas, Peirce and the pragmatists connect them with the world within which we act. And this is precisely what Mead is doing as well.

The Objective Reality of Perspectives

From his philosophy of the act, and under the influence of the theories of relativity of Einstein and Whitehead, Mead develops a perspectivist theory of reality on which perspectives are not merely subjective mental states of observers, but are objectively there in nature; they are what things are made of. Using Whitehead's terminology, Mead identifies a perspective as a consentient set that is constituted by its relation to a percipient event.4 A perspective, (p. 150) then, is an enduring pattern that exhibits a sort of unity. More directly in biological terms, a perspective endures insofar as nature is patient with the organism. The problematic situation discussed above thus occasions a change of the perspective mediated through the two intermediate phases of the act. When analyzing the natural world and our relationship with it, Mead's central notion is not the traditional notion of substance, but that of opposition. For Mead, life is always situated within an environment that at once sustains it and opposes it; or, to put it more exactly, the environment sustains the organism precisely by opposing it. Birds can fly because the air resists the push of their wings; the housepainter can climb his ladder because the steps resist his feet; the baseball player can make a strike because the ball resists the swing of her bat. In the end, the individual's relation with its environment runs through contact experiences. Within contact experiences the environment is at once opposed to the individual and united with it. Contact experience shows the two to be of the same kind, at least in some respects, because there are points of contact.

Mead's conception of interaction in terms of perspectives can be broadened to include “any unitary structure, whose nature demands a period within which to be itself”; such structure is both spatial and temporal, and hence should properly be called a process. Because of his focus on opposition rather than substance, Mead moves away from a traditional substance‐attribute metaphysics toward a process metaphysics, a move that is accompanied by a shift from a subject–predicate logic to a logic of relations. By taking this approach, Mead also reverses the traditional classification of the sciences wherein physics is thought to be more fundamental than biology, as he extends the model for organic environments to include physics. Inanimate objects have their perspectives too; they are shaped and sustained by their interactions with other perspectives.

In Mead's view, perspectives are objective: they are the objective product of the life history and physical constitution of the organism. The train passenger who looks out of the window sees the landscape differently from someone who is standing close to the tracks: for the passenger, the telephone poles next to the tracks will be seen as flashing by rapidly; for someone not on the train (p. 151) they appear as a static string reaching from horizon to horizon. Nonetheless, the passenger's perspective is not unique to him; it is one he shares with everyone else on the train who looks out of the window—it is an objective perspective. We could say that, for Mead, there is one reality, which is the open‐ended cluster of perspectives, while there are countless actual worlds, as actual worlds are always relative to a perspective.

Mead empathically denies that such perspectives are distortions, subjective or otherwise, of a world that is independent of any particular vantage point. Because of differences in our particular life histories, grass will have a slightly different meaning for you than it has for me. Grass in Holland is much softer (and greener) than the grass in Indiana, which in turn is significantly softer than the grass in South Florida, three places where I have lived. Moreover, due to differences in physical constitution, grass is something quite different for me than for a cow or a beetle. Mead denies that beyond these different perspectives there is such a thing as “the real grass”, the grass as it is in and of itself, independently of any perspective. Instead, when I say that the cow, the beetle, and I all see the same grass, this is only a confused way of saying that the cow, the beetle, and I, all see my grass. For Mead, all we can say is that what we call grass can enter into other perspectives.

Perspectives intersect when elements from one perspective enter into another. For instance, the bee that travels from flower to flower in search of pollen enters the consentient sets of the plants it visits. Mead speaks in this context of the principle of sociality; it speaks to the capacity of being multiple things at once. For Mead, the principle of sociality is also the principle of novelty (or emergence as he calls it, following C. Lloyd Morgan's terminology), when elements that enter into other perspectives are set into new contexts. As Mead puts it, “there arises something that was not there before … we are in a new world” (1938: 641). Hence, for Mead, there is not, first, a fully formed object that subsequently enters different consentient sets where it is distorted, but objects are always themselves constituted by the multiple perspectives through which they are sustained. This happens to the bee, which in its search for food becomes a vehicle for the fertilization and thus the propagation of plants. The act of feeding becomes simultaneously the act of pollination, and the act of pollination endures only as long as the bee continues its search for food. In its search for food, the bee physically enters into other perspectives. As will be shown later, it is characteristic of the human organism that it can position itself not only physically in other perspectives, which is what the bee does, but also mentally, allowing it to incorporate the standpoints of (p. 152) those perspectives into its own. The human capacity to position itself mentally in other perspectives creates the illusion of the possibility an all‐knowing spectator, and of reality as what is perceived by such an all‐knowing spectator.

For Mead, a perspective is thus not a subjective distortion of a noumenal reality that lies beyond and is independent of how anyone would see it, and of which each perspective is some sort of distortion; it is an objective and dynamic result of interaction. Recall that, in Mead's philosophy of the act, awareness is a product of problems, of encounters with things that at once obstruct and make possible. This makes the very notion of reality as what would open up to an all‐knowing, disinterested spectator a conceptual impossibility, because for such a spectator there would be no problems requiring resolution. Consequently, for Mead, there is no ultimate reality, no independent benchmark to determine the veridicality of any perspective. The universe is, as William James put it, a multiverse (1912: 325). Perspectives are real, they encroach upon one another, they collide, appropriate, etc.; by generating opposition, they both limit one another and allow for the emergence of new things. Like James, Mead believes that we live in an open universe that is still pregnant with real possibility. Though Mead's perspectivist approach applies to all nature, including the inorganic as well as the organic world, I will focus in what follows on human interaction and the perspectives to which this gives rise.

Human Interaction and the Emergence of Self

The consequences of one's acts are seldom limited to one's own perspective. The doe that stirs up and flees from the hunter not only betrays her presence, but also leaves behind the tracks that guide the hunter in his pursuit. For Mead, acts are by nature social. Organisms routinely enter into situations that involve other organisms. The mechanism discussed above equally applies here. Taking the indeterminate situation again as his point of departure, and extrapolating upon Wilhelm Wundt's theory of gestures, Mead distinguishes between two types of interaction: interaction between organisms without selves and interaction between organisms with selves (Mead 1934: 42).5 The (p. 153) first he calls the sign situation; the second he calls the symbol situation. Interestingly, Mead seems to have been unaware of Peirce's work in this area.6 In a way this is not surprising, because Peirce's work in semiotics remained largely unpublished until the Collected Papers appeared in the early 1930s, shortly after Mead's death.7

In the sign situation the overt aspects of the acts of one individual enter into the intermediate phases of the acts of other individuals. For instance, in a dogfight the first overt signs of the behavior of one dog, such as a display of teeth, form the stimulus for the other dog to respond to. Consequently, the acts initiated by the dogs are seldom brought to completion. Because the dogs do not get beyond the first overt phases of their acts, the dogfight reduces to what Mead calls “a conversation of gestures”.

It is important to realize, though, what is not happening here. Within the sign situation the gestures that control the interaction have no shared meaning. The dogs have no idea how the overt aspects of their behavior are received by other dogs. The gnarling dog associates its display of teeth not with the fear it arouses in another dog, but with its own mental states that it has come to associate with the act of gnarling in the presence of other dogs. Especially, when gnarling routinely chases away rival dogs, this sensation is unlikely ever to become that of fear, which is the sensation experienced by the fleeing dogs. Because in the sign situation the individual is unaware of how others experience his gestures, the individual is unable to respond to his own gestures from the standpoint of others. The sign situation functions because within the interaction the various perspectives fit together more or less like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The individuals involved are aware only of their own perspective; they have no concept of the social act (such as the dogfight) in which they are playing their part. Nonetheless, the meaning of such gestures is decidedly pragmatic in nature, as their meaning is couched in terms of their practical consequences, or, in a more Peircean (p. 154) vein, the habits they elicit.8 Mead's discussion of animal interaction clearly reveals his semiotic bent, and, like Peirce, he combines pragmatism with semiotics.

Although humans also interact at the level of the sign situation, they are capable of a different type of interaction as well, which Mead calls the symbol situation. When I throw a ball to someone else, I adjust my act depending on how I expect the other will react to the approaching ball. This I do by mentally projecting myself into the other person's place. According to Mead, this type of interaction requires that I possess a self. For Mead, the self is formed within the process of interaction. Initially, the individual does not consider itself part of the world it perceives, but sees the latter rather as through a peephole. Mead speaks in this context of a Cyclopean eye. This radical separation between the inner and the outer world developed into a classic paradigm of philosophy in the form of a rigid mind–body dichotomy and a rigid inner–outer dichotomy. For Mead, however, this separation marks only the early phase of our epistemic predicament, one that is soon replaced by another of a very different kind. According to Mead, continued interaction with this so‐called outer world causes one object in particular to stand out. This object is different from all the others, in that in my interactions with it I am at once the initiator of the act and the recipient of the act. The crucial difference between me pinching my arm and me pinching, say, a pear, is that when I pinch my arm, I am at once aware of the act of pinching and the sensation it causes in the object, which is not the case when I pinch a pear. It is through a prolonged interaction of the individual with this particular object, as well as the objects that surround it, that the individual begins to realize that it is itself this object, and consequently that it is itself an object among objects. For Mead, the moment an organism begins to recognize itself as an object among objects marks the origin of the self. Consequently, the self and physical objects emerge together as each other's correlate; and, like physical objects, the self is in effect a collapsed act, albeit one of a very peculiar kind.

Now Mead very strictly limits the capacity for the development of a self—that is, the capacity to recognize oneself as an object among objects—to human beings; this notwithstanding the fact that there are other organisms that can experience directly the consequences of their acts, as with a dog licking its wounds or hearing itself bark. However, for Mead, the crux to (p. 155) the development of the self is the hand with the juxtaposition of the thumb, because what is required is a conception of objects that gives them (and this includes our own body as one of them) sufficient spatial‐temporal solidity for the individual to be able to engage in the mental projection. According to Mead, eye–hand coordination allows this, assuming that the organism has a sufficiently well developed central nervous system, while nose–mouth coordination, or eye–ear coordination falls short of it.9 The hand can grasp something, completely enclose small objects, delineate the contours of larger things, etc., and allows for an intricate interplay with the eye, thus establishing through manipulation a strong connection between contact and distance experiences.

Assuming we side with Mead in that only hand–eye coordination, or something sufficiently similar to it, can generate a self, two remarks can still be made. First, though Mead himself denies this, there may be other organisms besides humans that can develop selves along these lines. Evidence obtained from primate research suggests that there are (see Gallup 1970, 1975). Second, a strong dichotomy between self‐endowed and non‐self‐endowed organisms seems untenable. There is rather a wide variety of cases, and Mead's approach can prove a viable research paradigm for assessing the behavior, intelligence, awareness, and even world view of a variety of animals by combining his social behaviorism with his notion of the problematic situation and his philosophy of the act.10

So what does the world look like for a self‐endowed individual? Our own body resists our touch like other objects. The experience of resistance—say, when we push our hand against a heavy door—resembles the experience of pushing that same hand against our forehead. At the same time there is a notable difference. When I push my hand against my forehead, I experience not only the resistance of my head against my hand (as with the heavy door), but I also experience the pressure of my hand against my head. The latter is absent when pushing the door; that is to say, I do not feel how the door is affected by my pushing hand. Mead argues, more generally, that the opposition that the individual experiences from the objects in its environment mirrors (p. 156) the force the individual exerts upon those objects. Put briefly, I push against a closed door, and the door, so to speak, pushes back. I push harder, and the door pushes harder too, until either of us gives way. More generally, the individual projects his or her own perspective, which is the only frame of reference it has, into the objects with which it interacts. In sum, the individual first recognizes other objects as things that resemble itself. That is to say, it ascribes its own inner nature to the objects that surround it, one of which is its own body. The pain experienced when bumping against a table is not just experienced, but also projected into the table: if I am in pain, the table must be in pain too. Like the attribution of (future) contact experiences to distance experiences, this projection is always hypothetical, and is being corrected, or fine‐tuned, through prolonged interaction. In the course of interaction the individual learns to differentiate between different kinds of objects based on their response patterns. What sets stones apart from trees, trees from squirrels, squirrels from people, and other people from ourselves, is that they systematically, and persistently, react differently to our advances; hence, they elicit different response patterns.

Mead's Theory of Play and Games

For Mead, the individual's understanding of itself, and of others, is deepened through a process of role‐playing, play being the most rudimentary form of conscious activity outside of the problematic situation. It is free, in that the individual is not subjected to the need to solve some pressing problem, like finding food or shelter. Limiting ourselves to self‐endowed organisms, play involves the individual projecting itself into other objects, most significantly fellow humans, and playing their roles. In this early stage the child plays consecutively the roles of mother, doctor, babysitter, etc., without integrating them into a social whole in which they all have their part. The individual is wholly immersed in the role it is playing at the moment. It is a child, a mother, a doctor, etc. There is not some unified “something” that plays the role of child, mother, doctor, etc., and that can be distinguished from the roles that are being played.

In play the individual plays the roles of others, and responds to them, thus generating “the material out of which he builds up consciousness of others and of self” (Mead 1982: 61); or, as Mead puts it elsewhere (in agreement with (p. 157) his views on the emergence of physical objects and the self), “the individual is an other before it is a self” (Mead 1982: 168; emphasis added).

Over time, the roles played by the child become integrated into what Mead terms “games”. In a game, like soccer, hide‐and‐seek, baseball, or black jack, different roles are brought together into a common activity that has a structure of its own. The shift from mere play to playing games marks a crucial step for Mead. In a game, roles are brought into unity through rules that determine what counts as a move in the game and what does not. The rules of the game, not the individual actors, determine how each role is to be played. Thus the individual learns to judge its own acts, and those of others, by relating them to the abstract perspective of the rules of the game and the roles that the game allows. Because of this, the unity of the game enables a self that goes beyond a mere aggregate of roles.

Games have their own purpose, which may be different from the aims of any of its players. As Mead puts it, the object of the game resides not in any of the individuals playing the game, but in the life process of the group. Mead terms such objects social objects. Individuals can grasp those objects by distancing themselves from their own role and taking the attitude of the group that is playing the game, which is something they can do because they can run mentally through the different roles that constitute the game to see how the different roles hang together. As shown below, this is how in Mead's view social institutions develop. When it comes down to it, all social institutions are in effect games.

According to Mead, one's self is a product of the roles one plays and the games in which one participates. Some of those roles one will be conscious of, while others are acquired unconsciously.11 The daughter of a dominant mother may play the role of a dominant mother long before she has any children of her own, and without ever realizing she is doing it. It is a role she acquired (and plays) unconsciously. The roles one is conscious of contribute to one's self‐image. For instance, someone may understand herself as a spouse, a lover, a mother, a former lawyer, a daughter, a sibling, a long distance runner, a decent cook, an African American, etc. Her self will be unified insofar as these roles (as well as those she plays unconsciously) form a consistent whole, and because all these roles connect to the same physical body.

(p. 158)

The extent to which the self can develop itself is, for Mead, determined in part by the individual's capacity for playing roles—that is, by its capacity to assume the attitudes of others. However, it depends also on the expectations of others. Roles are social objects rather than individual assets. What makes someone a pitcher is that everyone wants him to throw the ball. What makes someone a surgeon is that others allow her to cut into other humans on the assumption that doing so will cure them. Selves are social. Our selves cannot be clearly separated from the selves of others, Mead argues, “since our own selves exist and enter as such into our experience only in so far as the selves of others exist and enter as such into our experience” (Mead 1934: 164).

Some roles one is very conscious of; others one is not even aware of. Some roles are very specific, like being the highest‐ranking partner in a Washington DC law firm, whereas others, such as being a Christian, a taxpayer, or a citizen, are more general. One of the most general roles one can play is that of generalized other. The generalized other is not the other in this or that specialized role, but solely in the role of human being as such. Just as an individual can interpret himself or his acts from the perspective of his former self, his peers, his parents, the police, or a judge, so he can interpret them from the perspective of the generalized other—that is, from the perspective of the other with all specialized interests removed. When adopting this attitude, the individual takes, as it were, a seat in the audience and looks as a disinterested spectator at the roles it is playing and the games it is involved in. Role‐playing and participation in games bring multiple perspectives together, and for Mead it is ultimately the perspective of the generalized other that gives to the individual his unity of self. Incidentally, it was William James who provided Mead with a real‐life model of a unified self. In the early 1920s, Mead wrote, reminiscing about his encounters with James: “I have never known another man in whom I have realized that every part of his nature was organized in a consistent self. There seemed to be nothing suppressed. He felt and thought and acted as a whole, so that everything he said and did took on a unique value because he said and did it” (Mead 1992: 590).

For Mead, the perspective of the generalized other is also the perspective of reason. We are not born rational, as if rationality were an instinct or a predisposition instilled in us directly by God; instead, we acquire it when gaining the perspective of the human community. By casting rationality in terms of taking the perspective of generalized other, Mead developed a full‐bodied conception of human reason that embraces more than mere calculating intelligence or practical problem‐solving ability (what Heidegger (p. 159) calls das rechnende Denken). In fact, our intelligence is not what makes us human. It is an aspect of the manipulation phase of the act, and as such it does not require a self. By making human rationality something that is firmly rooted in the process of role‐playing, and by thus making empathy and solidarity core components of it, the rationality we associate with ourselves becomes allied more with wisdom than with mere intelligence.

The perspective of the generalized other also lies at the root of morality. Morality, Mead argues, consists in the individual taking the attitude of the generalized other toward his own acts as well as those of others. Morality is thus directly related to the process of role‐playing, as role‐playing enables the individual to look at himself, as it were, from the vantage point of others. By relating morality to taking the attitude of the generalized other, Mead closely aligned himself with the Golden Rule, which becomes the following: one should always act toward others as one would want others to act toward oneself. Moral judgments are universal, in that they are made from the perspective of the generalized other, meaning that everyone who would take that perspective and is able to sufficiently to appreciate the situation would come to the same judgment. Consequently, the individual's ability to gain a moral consciousness depends on its capacity for entering the perspective of the generalized other. For Mead there is no essential difference between self‐criticism and being criticized by others. In both instances certain behavior is viewed from the same perspective: namely, that of the generalized other. Self‐criticism is nothing but social criticism internalized, to which the psycho‐physical makeup and life history of the individual give a certain flavor. Hence, the social agreement on moral judgments is not a mere external affair in which independent and autonomous individuals surrender their personal beliefs to the opinions of society; rather, it constitutes an integral part of who they are.

In conclusion, in Mead's view, the self reaches its highest grade when the individual comes to understand itself and others in terms of the generalized other. This is not a capability one has received at birth, but is something that is acquired through interaction with others.

Language and Mind

Mead introduced the term “significant symbol” to capture the communication specific to self‐endowed individuals. Significant symbols are gestures that elicit (p. 160) the same (in the sense of being functionally identical) response in the person making the gesture as in those to whom the gesture is directed. Mead paid particular attention to the vocal gesture, as it is a prime example of a gesture that is perceived alike by sign‐maker and sign receiver. When I shout to you “Look out!”, I am inadvertently also addressing myself, because I too hear what I shout. It evokes the same reaction in the two of us, my own reaction being a suppressed form of what I want you to do (that is to say, it manifests itself in me as a disposition, a tendency, or a readiness).

In solid pragmatic fashion, the tendency to respond to a sign—and this includes significant symbols—constitutes, for Mead, its meaning (recall Peirce's pragmatic maxim quoted above). It is not, however, my individual tendency to respond that gives the sign its meaning but how people in my linguistic community tend to respond to it. What we say has meaning only when it is a valid move in a game such as the English language. This is not to deny that such a game is flexible. Take, for instance, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, where the rules of the game are stretched almost to the limit.12 In Mead's view, linguistic signs have meaning because the speakers of the language position themselves in a general role—which is ultimately that of the generalized other—from which to interpret the sign. You understand my statement “It smells like gas in here”, by taking the role of the generalized other. Put briefly, within linguistic conversation, individuals communicate using significant symbols while taking the role of the generalized other. It is the perspective of the generalized other within a certain linguistic community that gives linguistic symbols their meaning.

By invoking the same tendency to act in sign‐maker and sign‐receiver, significant symbols enable a level of communication that extends far beyond the sign situation. It provides the individual with a high level of control over the responses of others; individuals can even map out whole strategies involving multiple others by mentally running though entire conversations of gestures. Language also brings the process of role‐playing described above onto a higher plane. Instead of actually playing the roles of her peers, her parents, the school principal, etc., the teenager who is asked by a friend to skip school will merely ask herself, “What will my parents think when they find out?”, “What will the principal do?”, “Will my friends reject me when I say no?”, etc.

(p. 161)

Having interpreted the self as a composite of roles, partially organized in a multiplicity of games and built on the individual's awareness that he is himself an object among objects, Mead developed his view of the mind as a product of the internalization of part of the individual's self‐directed interaction, mostly through vocal gestures. Thought, for Mead, is literally the individual talking to himself with the outward signs (such as sound and movement of the lips) suppressed, so that the mind develops as something private.13 Thinking is nothing but the interaction of the individual with itself through significant symbols, so that there is no difference in kind between thinking and talking to others. This identification of thought with speech is already present in Plato, who explicitly identified thought with silent speech in the Sophist. Since mind refers to a conversation of the individual with itself through significant symbols, it is by nature social. All thought comes in the form of a dialogue. In this process, Mead observes, “It is only through taking the role of the other that [the individual] is able to come back on himself and so direct his own process of communication” (Mead 1934: 254).

Mead also discussed this interaction of the individual with himself in terms of the I and the me. The I is the ungraspable dynamic force behind our acts; it is how the impulse presents itself to us. It is ungraspable because it can enter consciousness only after the act. For Mead, we always appear to ourselves as a historical figure—as a me. The me is how we understand ourselves, which is always a reconstruction, a narrative.

The interaction through significant symbols not only enables us consciously to condition others, but through our use of significant symbols we also (and often unconsciously) condition ourselves. In fact, what we generally call “our mind” is largely the internalization of the society within which we live by means of language. In an important sense, language, which is a social medium, dictates our thoughts. Since linguistic symbols, as shown already, ultimately derive their meaning from the perspective of the generalized other, thinking can be described, as does Mead, as “a conversation carried on by the individual between himself and the generalized other” (1934: 254). Put differently, thinking involves a conditioning of the self from the perspective of the generalized other through the medium of language. In short, for Mead, mind is internalized, self‐controlled, and self‐directed linguistic behavior. (p. 162) That thought, for Mead, is nothing but a mode of behavior, makes Mead an ontological behaviorist. Unlike hand gestures, thought is behavior that is almost entirely internalized, thereby making the mind inaccessible to others. However, this inaccessibility is not different in kind from the lack of access a blind person has to another's facial expressions; no special substratum is needed to explain this phenomenon. Another aspect that sets the mind apart from a (linguistic) conversation with others is that when the individual converses with himself, he not only has a high degree of control of the symbols he uses, but also of how he replies to them—even though in both cases the control is far from absolute.

Thus, far from the Cartesian idea of the mind as an autonomous inner realm that comes to the world with its own innate ideas, which it subsequently applies to all it encounters, the mind develops, for Mead, outside‐in as the internalization of outward, self‐directed behavior. Consequently, Mead did not situate the mind in a particular part of the body, such as the brain, the heart, the lungs, or the pineal gland. Instead, he situated the mind in the conversation the individual has with him or herself. The mind's main alliance is thus not with the individual, but with society. The mind is not so much an intrinsic part of the individual, but rather, the individual partakes in the spirit of the time. In Peirce's words, thought is not in us, but we are in thought (though Mead's inspiration is Dilthey). It is primarily because of our privileged access to mind, or thought, and the amount of control we seem to exercise over it, that we have come to refer to it as “our mind”. But both are relative. Sometimes others have a clearer sense of what we think or feel than we do, and our most private thoughts can be utterly beyond our own control, as is the case when we cannot stop mulling something over. In the end, the mind is an imprint of the individual's relations with its environment. It is a conditioning of the individual through the generalized other as it is manifested in the language. For Mead, one only becomes human through the interaction with others, and only insofar as one becomes a member of the human community. To phrase it a bit more paradoxically, one becomes an individual through social control.

Mead's conception of the mind is thoroughly pragmatistic. It is not just that action is the benchmark of our thought, but our thought itself is action. Moreover, since for Mead thought is an internalized conversation with vocal gestures, the pragmatic approach to intelligent behavior as the individual's reaction to problematic situations where habitual reactions fail applies to all thought. In fact, in thought the process of trial and error is internalized, so that (p. 163) the individual gains a much greater control over the problematic situation. Instead of trying out different strategies of action to find one that succeeds, facing in the process the consequences of each error, the individual is now able to sift the different strategies through its mind. In this mental process of trial and error certain habits emerge—so‐called habits of thought—just as habits develop for other kinds of behavior (Mead 1934: 90).


Society precedes the individual self, in that we are typically born into a society that is already there.14 However, from an evolutionary perspective, self and society emerge together; the general biological principle that organism and environment determine each other applies here too. Mead distinguishes three basic principles through which societies are formed: physiological differentiation (as with colonies of ants, bees, or termites; but it also applies to multicellular organisms as they are in effect societies of differentiated cells), a herding instinct (as with buffalo or wildebeest), and the interaction through significant symbols. Though the first two principles play some role within human society (humans too have some herding instinct, and there is some physical differentiation, most significantly between the sexes), human society is shaped by and large through the exchange of significant symbols.

The ability of each individual mentally to put him or herself in the positions of others allows for complex patterns of interaction that go far beyond what a herding instinct makes possible and that do not require a pre‐established physiological differentiation. Take three people who are carrying a tall sideboard up a narrow curved staircase. Putting themselves mentally into each other's positions enables them to coordinate their acts by anticipating what the others can or will do. In addition, they can communicate their views about what the others should do to make the entire enterprise successful. Furthermore, by relating the act to a future state they all agree upon (in this case moving a sideboard to the next floor), the desired outcome is not confined to the perspective of a single individual, as with the sign situation, but becomes a social goal. It is a goal of the group.

(p. 164)

Acts where the participating individuals are guided specifically by the perspective of the group Mead calls social acts. The dogfight discussed above is not a social act, as the dogs involved stay trapped in their own perspective: there is no awareness of the dogfight as a self‐contained unit that has a purpose and a logic of its own. The situation is different with the small group of people carrying the sideboard up the stairs. What guides their acts is the perspective of the group, and it is this perspective that gives the acts a purpose that goes beyond their individual perspectives. Here the participants comprehend the entire act by positioning themselves in many perspectives (actual ones as well as imagined ones). For Mead, the social act is thus an act the object of which is not confined to the individual perspectives of any of the individuals involved in it, but in what he called the life process of the group itself (Mead 1964: 280). Mead calls the object of a social act a social object.

Social acts can develop into the most complex social institutions, such as immigration law, open‐heart surgery, or daycare. Consistent with his behaviorism, Mead identifies such institutions as crystallized patterns of interaction; they are “the habits of individuals in their interrelation with each other” (Mead 1936: 366). Institutions are possible, Mead argues, where the community takes participating individuals into account only insofar as they play a particular role, whether it is the role of sales clerk, customer, police officer, surgeon, judge, or teacher. For instance, the institution of debt is possible only when we take certain people specifically in their roles of debtors and creditors—that is, independently of whether they are also diabetics, Latinos, television addicts, or good at telling jokes. This brings Mead's account of institutions fully in line with his philosophy of the act and his discussion of role‐playing. In Mead's terms, social institutions can be interpreted as games; that is to say, what they come down to is structured role‐playing. Like physical objects and like the self, institutions too are collapsed acts.

Classical liberalists tend to see institutions as external impediments that limit individual freedom and autonomy, leading them to the opinion that fewer institutions ipso facto means more freedom. This view is in part the outcome of the Cartesian notion that individuals have their identity already formed before they enter into society, so that the influence of the interaction with others has only a marginal or accidental effect. For Mead, in contrast, the individual self is decidedly a product of its interaction with others: we are the roles we play, and we are shaped by the games in which we participate. As a result, Mead has a very different notion of institutions than the one prevalent (p. 165) in classical liberalism. Institutions should not be looked at as external tools or impediments, but they are, in fact, the stuff that selves are made of. We are taxpayers, lawyers, homeowners, athletes, etc.; the institutions are within us. Rather than restricting our freedom, institutions enhance our potential, because it is through them that we develop our selves. One can never become a famous opera singer without a multitude of institutions that make that role possible. There is no such thing as a radical divide between individuals and society.


The primacy Mead gives to the act, his notion that awareness arises within the problematic situation, and his analysis of the human mind, all clearly situate Mead within the pragmatist camp. Mead did not just argue that thought emerges from action; he went much further by arguing that thought is nothing but action internalized, so that there is no principal difference between a philosophy of the act and a philosophy of mind. What in Mead's view characterizes pragmatism is the “radical position that in immediate experience the percept stands over against the individual, not in a relation of awareness, but simply in that of conduct” (Mead 1964: 271). We grasp what we see in terms of what we can do with it.

Given Mead's account of self and mind, the notion of a disinterested spectator, who, like an omniscient God or the all‐knowing narrator of a novel, can see everything “exactly as it is”, is untenable. Consequently, such a perspective cannot be taken as a benchmark to distinguish the true from the false. The theory of relativity enables Mead to develop a perspectivist view of reality that circumvents the standard pitfalls of relativism and skepticism, as it allows for perspectives to be objectively there as the basic constituents of the universe. This position allows Mead to maintain that there is something “out there” that confronts us within the problematic situation. However, we do not come to know this “something” by acquiring a sort of mental representation of it that then can be compared, at least ideally, with that of an omniscient, disinterested spectator; we come to know it by learning how to deal with it. For Mead, as for Dewey, we mold our world from what is presented to us through our dealings with what confronts us within the problematic situations we encounter. The furthest we can get in this process is systematically to devise (p. 166) problematic situations, very much like the experimental scientist, and thus extend the scope of our knowledge.

Like Dewey, Mead related truth not to the individual's wishes being satisfied, but to what resolves the problem that is objectively there, and sometimes the desires of the individual are the cause of the problem. Moreover, since we are beings with selves, and because many of our acts are social acts the consummation of which requires the cooperation of others, the majority of those problematic situations are not mere personal affairs of isolated individuals. They are social objects, the meaning of which is constituted not by the idiosyncrasies of the individual and its circumstances, but by the community within which those individuals live and have their being. Mead rejects the atomistic notion of the individual, and the sharp separation of stimulus and response that often accompanies it. His pragmatism, is decidedly a social pragmatism, in which both the object of the act and its completion are not the private business of discrete individuals but are ostensibly social affairs.

To conclude, Mead is clearly a pragmatist, and he is a pragmatist who is definitely worth studying to a much greater extent than is currently done. In his works one finds the groundwork of a comprehensive and systematic philosophy that is both naturalist and pragmatist. His views have deep repercussions for areas ranging from metaphysics and epistemology to ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, political philosophy, and social philosophy.


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                                                                                    (1) Mind, Self, and Society (1934) consists of lecture notes taken by professional stenographers during his 1927 course in social psychology. Four other posthumous books appeared, drawn from Mead's notes, stenographic accounts of his courses, and previously published material: The Philosophy of the Present (1932), which contains Mead's 1930 Carus Lectures, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936), The Philosophy of the Act (1938), and The Individual and the Social Self (1982). A collection of Mead's published essays can be found in Reck 1964. Mead's papers are held in the Department of Special Collections at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago.

                                                                                    (2) John B. Watson's classic paper is “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”, Psychological Review, 20 (1913): 158–77.

                                                                                    (3) In an indeterminate situation the organism doesn't know how to continue; it is a state of discordance. For Dewey, formulating what the problem is puts us already well on our way to the solution. I think this is correct, and that Mead's problematic situation is best understood as an indeterminate situation, not as a situation in which a certain problem has been identified.

                                                                                    (4) See Whitehead (1925). In the chapter on scientific relativity, Whitehead writes that “each rigid body defines its own space”, adding that “the complete set of bodies, actual or hypothetical, which agree in their space‐formation will be called a ‘consentient’ set” (p. 31). Later, having just defined perception as “an awareness of events, or happenings, forming a partially discerned complex within the background of a simultaneous whole of nature”, Whitehead characterizes a “percipient event” as the awareness of one event, or group of events, within this discerned complex (p. 68). To my knowledge, Mead never clearly defines the terms.

                                                                                    (5) See also Wundt (1900–20), i, or idem (1973). See also Darwin (1872).

                                                                                    (6) The semiotician Charles W. Morris wrote his 1925 dissertation, “Symbolism and Reality”, under Mead's direction. Though there is a cursory discussion of Ogden and Richards (1923), which contains a thirteen‐page discussion of Peirce's semiotics in Appendix D, it appears that Morris learned of the book only in a very late stage in his dissertation work (p. 48). Peirce is not mentioned in the dissertation, not even in the chapter on sign theory and formal logic. Instead, Morris writes that his theory of symbolism is heavily indebted to Dewey and his instrumentalism (p. 9). (The page references are to Charles Morris's annotated copy of the dissertation that is part of the Charles W. Morris Collection held at the Institute for American Thought at IUPUI.)

                                                                                    (7) The first volume of The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, appeared in the year of Mead's death; a notable exception is Appendix D of Ogden and Richards (1923).

                                                                                    (8) Though phrased more directly in biological terms, Mead's approach is very close to Peirce's in “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”. See, e.g., Peirce 1992.

                                                                                    (9) Whereas eye–mouth coordination, like eye–hand coordination, connects distance experiences with contact experiences, eye–ear coordination only connects one set of distance experiences with another set of distance experiences.

                                                                                    (10) Other experiments have shown that there is reason to suspect that other animals may have selves as well. See, e.g., Beninger et al. (1974). There is also a blossoming field of zoosemiotics. See, e.g., Sebeok (1972).

                                                                                    (11) This should not be taken as a stark dichotomy, but rather as a continuum of being more and less aware. The situation is further complicated by the circumstance that roles are related not only to selves, but also to games, each of which comes with its own structure, part of which may escape the player.

                                                                                    (12) Theo Lalleman, under the pseudonym of Leon E. Thalma, once began the heroic project of a Dutch translation of Finnegans Wake. Parts of this translation appeared in De Nieuwe Weelde, 1 (1986): 25; 2 (1986): 17; 3 (1987): 41.

                                                                                    (13) This view is also found in John B. Watson's 1913 paper, in Wyczoikowska (1913), and more than a decade before that, in Curtis (1900). It is also found in Charles Peirce's 1868 “Some Questions Concerning Faculties Claimed for Man” (in Peirce 1992: esp. 22 f.)

                                                                                    (14) There are occasional exceptions. For a discussion of a relatively recent case, see, e.g., Curtiss (1977).