Mind, self and society

By Thane on Thu 10 November 2011

I suppose tons of work has been done in coming to an understanding of the development of language, individuality and society, but I would like to describe here the views of an American philosopher, sociologist and psychologist named George Herbert Mead. His most prominent work was a piece of the same title as this post: Mind, self and society (1934).

The main theory that he came up with is symbolic interactionism, parts of which I describe in this article. To me it seems to be a very pragmatic way of looking at the development of language, an individual sense of self, and society as a whole - both in terms of the historical evolution of those phenomena, as well as how we learn language, develop a sense of self and form society today.


Filipe Carreira da Silva gives a pretty decent, simple overview of Mead's works, and most of my insights come from da Silva's work. Let me give a run-down of how I see symbolic interactionism working in contemporary society.

A child is born with certain instincts (we won't go into too much detail there). So, for example, the child might experience a certain kind of discomfort, in response to which the child instinctively cries. If this cry (a "gesture", in Mead's terminology) is followed by food from her mother and thus satisfaction (the "response"), the meaning we eventually attribute to this interplay of gestures and responses is hunger.

The meanings of things, therefore, are constructed. Meaning is not something that is inherent in our daily lives - it is something that we create in our minds and in our interactions with one another. This has tremendous implications for language as a whole: for example, Derrida noted that the meaning of a word is altered with every single use of that word, over time. Each word stands on top of this massive "pile" of meaning then, constructed, morphed and tweaked over the ages.

A practical example of this would be the word "dog". I'm quite sure that the first thing that comes to your mind when you read that word is something not exactly the same as in my mind: you might envision a small, white dog, or a large, brown one, whereas I would envisage a black one. My experiences with dogs would be linked to my internal representation of "dog", and your experiences would most likely be linked to your internal representation of the word "dog". An understanding of how our brains are wired seems to give a little understanding as to why our associations would be subtly different: each and every human brain is uniquely wired.

Some people say that each neuron in our brains is wired to between 7,000 and 10,000 other neurons. We also apparently have 100 billion neurons in our brains. That's a lot of interconnectivity: interconnectivity that's nudged and tweaked continuously by tiny processes every second of every day, from when we're born to when we die.

Surely it's not possible then to share meaning precisely? If I read a piece of text, I might get a relatively similar understanding of it to you, but there doesn't seem to be any chance that we will interpret it in exactly the same way. I will hopefully cover the implications of this when I write about the systemic way of thinking.


In our super-individualistic society today, it seems as though the common picture of society is that it's a group of individuals - that is, we all develop rather independently, and come together to form society.

Mead thinks of it the other way round. He said that it is society which exists prior to the individual, and the individual is first formed by society, and then goes on to form and be formed by society. Let me explain with an example.

When a child is born, he soaks up stimuli like a little sponge. He learns simple behaviours and starts mimicking sounds made by his parents (who are part of society).

At a later stage, the child starts to play. The child, for example, pretends to be a cop, and a friend pretends to be a robber, and they chase each other round the garden pretending to shoot each other. Let's look at what happens here: the child pretending to be the cop, in Mead's words, "takes on the attitude" of the cop. In other words, the child has some kind of built-up picture of what a cop is and does (potentially from watching movies or reading stories or seeing them in everyday life), and acts out from that perspective - making decisions as if he were a cop, in his understanding of how a cop would make decisions. A similar dynamic occurs with the friend who pretends to be the robber.

At some point, the child also begins to engage in more complex social behaviour involving co-ordination amongst several other people. A classic example of this used by Mead (1925, p 269) is a baseball game:

The child must not only take the role of the other, as he does in play, but he must assume the various roles of all the participants in the game, and govern his action accordingly. If he plays first base, it is as the one to whom the ball will be thrown from the field or from the catcher. Their organised reactions to him he has imbedded in his own playing of the different positions, and this organised reaction becomes what I have called the "generalised other" that accompanies and controls his conduct. And it is this generalised other in his experience which provides him with a self.

According to Mead, every group has its own "generalised other", which I see as an "average" or "sum total" or "least common denominator" of sorts containing the attitudes of that group. Strong examples of this would be stereotypes: "blondes", "car mechanics", "cat lovers", "men", "women". Do you have the inherent ability to pin down a few attributes of each of these groups of people? If so, you've built up generalised others in interaction with them over time.

The child, in reflecting his actions off of other people and groups as he develops, constructs a sense of self such that he can say: "I am a [X] type of person". He can list his attributes in comparison to other individuals and groups, and is eventually capable of self-awareness. The conversations between him and society have built up a self.


Given this understanding of the development of the self, what is your mind then? This is certainly quite a complex thing to answer, because it's affected by so many things right down to the biology of your brain and body.

According to Mead, the phenomenon of mind is simply conversation with generalised others that have been internalised. In other words, we talk to the "blondes", "car mechanics", "cat lovers", and so on, or even generalisations of specific individuals, in our minds. We build up pictures of who we think other individuals or groups of people are, and then we often rehearse conversations with them in our minds prior to seeing them, trying to establish what we think their responses will be. Society as a whole, also, will have a generalised other in your mind - in case you ever have to communicate with the whole of humanity.

"I" and "me"

There's something rather mysterious in this whole conception of mind and self by Mead. Let me illustrate.

Think of the last time you had lunch. Imagine viewing yourself while you were eating. What were you thinking of? Who were you at that point?

Two questions are posed.

  1. Who is it that you're looking at in your mind's eye?
  2. What's doing the looking?

Mead conceptualises the self as having two phases: the "I" and the "me" phases. In answering the first question, Mead says that this is your "me" phase of self, or object self - the one constructed in interaction with society over time. As for the second question, Mead calls this the "I" phase of your self, or subject self.

Note how you can't ever really look at your "I" phase. Every time you think of yourself, you think in terms of the object version of your self, or your "me" phase - your "I" phase is always actively doing the looking, and any thinking about your self is done retrospectively. David Bohm (I wrote a bit about his work in this article) seems, to me at least, to speak of the "I" phase of self as being part of the immeasurable, and is thus rather mysterious.

Another interesting thing about the "I" and "me" phases of self is that different people seem to live more through the one than the other. The vast majority of people seem to live through the "me" phase of their selves: they're the people who are rather predictable, who can tell you exactly who they are and that they know themselves well.

Da Silva gives some examples of people throughout history whose "I" phase of self was very strong, such as Buddha, Jesus and Socrates. Such individuals are apparently more likely to be unpredictable and often act from an unknown (and possibly unknowable) source. Mead says that the "I" phase of self is a source of novelty and thus creativity. The stronger your "I" phase of self, the more powerfully you could potentially change a group of people (think of the impact that individuals such as Buddha, Jesus and Socrates have had on modern society).

Everyone else is somewhere in between being creative and predictable.

Social control

Social control then need not be something forced upon people - society and sub-groups within society already implicitly control those whose "me" phases are strong. They act according to who they think they are, but who they think they are is simply a product of the groups that have influenced them the most. We all suffer from this to a certain degree, and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

People who don't conform to the group often get ostracised, and as Malcolm Gladwell points out at the beginning of Outliers, it seems as though we need a certain amount of community to be healthy. Erich Fromm, in The Fear of Freedom, noted that life seems to be a trade-off between individuality and community.

How does this control look? It's actually quite simple. When you're thinking of doing something, if you start thinking it's a bad idea, often it's because the "generalised other" of the person or persons who will be affected by this action say it's a bad idea, so you don't do it. Or, something fits quite well with your conception of who you think you are (your "me" construction), and so you do it (you're the kind of person who likes to go for long walks on the beach, so you go for a long walk on the beach, but you wouldn't consider going for a quick run because you're not that kind of person). This kind of social control is thus a form of self-criticism.


"Society" then is defined by Mead (from da Silva, p 61) as

the organised set of responses individuals can use for the purposes of social control - which ... operates in terms of self-criticism.

Krishnamurti, who apparently influenced and was influenced by David Bohm, wrote about society in The First and Last Freedom (p 36):

The act of relationship between you and another, between you and me, is society.

So, "society" is a blanket term that we use to describe the complex network of relationships between all of us, each of us seeming to have an "I" and "me" phase to our selves, where the majority of us act according to the "me" phase (for a variety of reasons, of course). Thus, we allow dominant groups to influence our thinking.

If two groups are vying for your attention, what is it that will cause you to allow one of them to influence you and not the other? Surely it's the amount of power you perceive them to have over you? I'll hopefully write a bit about power and social influence soon.


I hope you've managed to stomach this rather philosophical article. I find it all very interesting, and I will hopefully tie this together with a few of my other articles (and some yet to be written) to show why this is all important in present-day society. In the meantime, I hope you see, as I do, the potential value of Mead's relatively practical framework in coming to understand present-day society and societal patterning.