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from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist
George Herbert Mead
Table of Contents:
Part I: The Point of View of Social Behaviorism
1. Social Psychology and Behaviorism
2. The Behavioristic Significance of Attitudes
3. The Behavioristic Significance of Gestures
4. Rise of Parallelism in Psychology
5. Parallelism and the Ambiguity of "Consciousness"
6. The Program of Behaviorism
Part II: Mind
7. Wundt and the Concept of the Gesture
8. Imitation and the Origin of Language
9. The Vocal Gesture and the Significant Symbol
10. Thought, Communication and the Significant Symbol
11. Meaning
12. Universality
13. The Nature of Reflective Intelligence
14. Behaviorism, Watsonism, and Reflection
15. Behaviorism and Psychological Parallelism
16. Mind and the Symbol
17. The Relation of Mind to Response and Environment
Part III: The Self
18. The Self and the Organism
19. The Background of the Genesis of the Self
20. Play, the Game, and the Generalized Other
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21. The Self and the Subjective
22. The "I" and the "Me"
23. Social Attitudes and the Physical World
24. Mind as the Individual Importation of the Social Process
25. The "I" and the "Me" as Phases of the Self
26. The Realization of the Self in the Social Situation
27. The Contribution of the "Me" and the "I"
28. The Social Creativity of the Emergent Self
29. A Contrast of Individualistic and Social Theories of the Self
Part IV: Society
30. The Basis of Human Society: Man and the Insects
31. The Basis of Human Society: Man and the Vertebrates
32. Organism, Community, and Environment
33. The Social Foundations and Functions of Thought and Communication
34. The Community and the Institution
35. The Fusion of the "I" and the "Me" in Social Activities
36. Democracy and Universality in Society
37. Further Consideration of Religious and Economic Attitudes
38. The Nature of Sympathy
39. Conflict and Integration
40. The Functions of Personality and Reason in Social Organization
41. Obstacles and Promises in Social Organization
42. Summary and Conclusion
Supplementary Essays
1. The Function of Imagery in Conduct
2. The Biologic Individual
3. The Self and the Process of Reflection
4. Fragments on Ethics
SOCIAL psychology has, as a rule, dealt with various phases of social experience from the
psychological standpoint of individual experience. The point of approach which I wish to suggest is
that of dealing with experience from the standpoint of society, at least from the standpoint of
communication as essential to the social order. Social psychology, on this view, presupposes an
approach to experience from the standpoint of the individual, but undertakes to determine in
particular that which belongs to this experience because the individual himself belongs to a social
structure, a social order.
No very sharp line can be drawn between social psychology and individual psychology. Social
psychology is especially interested in the effect which the social group has in the determination of
the experience and conduct of the individual member. If we abandon the conception of a
substantive soul endowed with the self of the individual at birth, then we may regard the
development of the individual's self, and of his self-consciousness within the field of his experience,
as the social psychologist's special interest. There are, then, certain phases of psychology which
are interested in studying the relation of the individual organism to the social group to which it
belongs, and these phases constitute social psychology as a branch of general psychology. Thus, in
the study of the experience and behavior of the individual organism or self in its dependence upon
the social group to which it belongs, we find a definition of the field of social psychology.
While minds and selves are essentially social products, products or phenomena of the social side of
human experience, the physiological mechanism underlying experience is far from irrelevant --
indeed is indispensable-- to their genesis and existence; for individual experience and behavior is,
of course, physiologically basic to social experience and behavior: the processes and mechanisms
of the latter (including those which are essential to the origin and existence of minds and selves) are
dependent physiologically upon the processes and mechanisms of the former, and upon the social
functioning of these. Individual psychology, nevertheless, definitely abstracts certain factors from the
situation with which social psychology deals more nearly in its concrete totality. We shall approach
this latter field from a behavioristic point of view.
The common psychological standpoint which is represented by behaviorism is found in John B.
Watson. The behaviorism which we shall make use of is more adequate than that of which Watson
makes use. Behaviorism in this wider sense is simply an approach to the study of the experience of
the individual from the point of view of his conduct, particularly, but not exclusively, the conduct as it
is observable by others. Historically, behaviorism entered psychology through the door of animal
psychology. There it was found to be impossible to use what is termed introspection. One cannot
appeal to the animal's introspection, but must study the animal in terms of external conduct. Earlier
animal psychology added an inferential reference to consciousness, and even undertook to find the
point in conduct at which consciousness appears. This inference had perhaps, varying degrees of
probability, but it was one which could not be tested experimentally. It could be then simply dropped
as far as science was concerned. It was not necessary for the study of the conduct of the individual
animal. Having taken that behavioristic standpoint for the lower animals, it was possible to carry it
over to the human animal.
There remained, however, the field of introspection, of experiences which are private and belong to
the individual himself - experiences commonly called subjective. What was to be done with these?
John B. Watson's attitude was that of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland - "Off with their heads!"-
there were no such things. There was no imagery, and no consciousness. The field of so-called
introspection Watson explained by the use of language symbols.[1] These symbols were not
necessarily uttered loudly enough to be heard by others, and often only involved the muscles of the
throat without leading to audible speech. That was all there was to thought. One thinks, but one
thinks in terms of language. In this way Watson explained the whole field of inner experience in
terms of external behavior. Instead of calling such behavior subjective it was regarded as the field of
behavior that was accessible only to the individual himself. One could observe his own movements,
his own organs of articulation, where other persons could not normally observe them. Certain fields
were accessible to the individual alone, but the observation was not different in kind; the difference
lay only in the degree of accessibility of others to certain observations. One could be set up in a
room by himself and observe something that no one else could observe. What a man observed in
the room would be his own experience. Now, in this way something goes on in the throat or the
body of the individual which no one else can observe. There are, of course, scientific instruments
that can be attached to the throat or the body to reveal the tendency toward movement. There are
some movements that are easily observable and others which can be detected only by the individual
himself, but there is no qualitative difference in the two cases. It is simply recognized that the
apparatus of observation is one that has various degrees of success. That, in brief, is the point of
view of Watson's behavioristic psychology. It aims to observe conduct as it takes place, and to
utilize that conduct to explain the experience of the individual without bringing in the observation of
an inner experience, a consciousness as such.
There was another attack on consciousness, that of William James in his 1904 article entitled,
"Does 'Consciousness' Exist?"[2] James pointed out that if a person is in a room the objects of the
interior can be looked at from two standpoints. The furniture, for instance, may be considered from
the standpoint of the person who bought it and used it, from the point of view of its color values
which attach to it in the minds of the persons who observe them, its aesthetic value, its economic
value, its traditional value. All of these we can speak of in terms of psychology; they will be put into
relationship with the experience of the individual. One man puts one value upon it and another gives
it another value. But the same objects can be regarded as physical parts of a physical room. What
James insisted upon was that the two cases differ only in an arrangement of certain contents in
different series. The furniture, the walls, the house itself, belong to one historical series. We speak
of the house as having been built, of the furniture as having been made. We put the house and
furniture into another series when one comes in and assesses these objects from the point of view
of his own experience. He is talking about the same chair, but the chair is for him now a matter of
certain contours, certain colors, taken from his own experience. It involves the experience of the
individual. Now one can take a cross-section of both of these two orders so that at a certain point
there is a meeting of the two series. The statement in terms of consciousness simply means the
recognition that the room lies not only in the historical series but also in the experience of the
individual. There has been of late in philosophy a growing recognition of the importance of James's
insistence that a great deal has been placed in consciousness that must be returned to the so-called
objective world.[3]
Psychology itself cannot very well be made a study of the field of consciousness alone; it is
necessarily a study of a more extensive field. It is, however, that science which does make use of
introspection, in the sense that it looks within the experience of the individual for phenomena not
dealt with in any other sciences —phenomena to which only the individual himself has experiential
access. That which belongs (experientially) to the individual qua individual, and is accessible to him
alone, is certainly included within the field of psychology, whatever else is or is not thus included.
This is our best clue in attempting to isolate the field of psychology. The psychological datum is best
defined, therefore, in terms of accessibility. That which is accessible, in the experience of the
individual, only to the individual himself, is peculiarly psychological.
I want to point out, however, that even when we come to the discussion of such "inner" experience,
we can approach it from the point of view of the behaviorist, provided that we do not too narrowly
conceive this point of view. What one must insist upon is that objectively observable behavior finds
expression within the individual, not in the sense of being in another world, a subjective world, but in
the sense of being within his organism. Something of this behavior appears in what we may term
"attitudes," the beginnings of acts. Now, if we come back to such attitudes we find them giving rise
to all sorts of responses. The telescope in the hands of a novice is not a telescope in the sense that
it is to those on top of Mount Wilson. If we want to trace the responses of the astronomer, we have
to go back into his central nervous system, back to a whole series of neurons; and we find
something there that answers to the exact way in which the astronomer approaches the instrument
under certain conditions. That is the beginning of the act; it is a part of the act. The external act
which we do observe is a part of the process which has started within; the values[4] which we say
the instrument has are values through the relationship of the object to the person who has that sort
of attitude. If a person did not have that particular nervous system, the instrument would be of no
value. It would not be a telescope.
In both versions of behaviorism certain characteristics which things have and certain experiences
which individuals have can be stated as occurrences inside of an act.[5] But part of the act lies
within the organism and only comes to expression later; it is that side of behavior which I think
Watson has passed over. There is a field within the act itself which is not external, but which
belongs to the act, and there are characteristics of that inner organic conduct which do reveal
themselves in our own attitudes, especially those connected with speech. Now, if our behavioristic
point of view takes these attitudes into account we find that it can very well cover the field of
psychology. In any case, this approach is one of particular importance because it is able to deal with
the field of communication in a way which neither Watson nor the introspectionist can do. We want
to approach language not from the standpoint of inner meanings to be expressed, but in its larger
context of cooperation in the group taking place by means of signals and gestures.[6] Meaning
appears within that process. Our behaviorism is a social behaviorism.
Social psychology studies the activity or behavior of the individual as it lies within the social process;
the behavior of an individual can be understood only in terms of the behavior of the whole social
group of which he is a member, since his individual acts are involved in larger, social acts which go
beyond himself and which implicate the other members of that group.
We are not, in social psychology, building up the behavior of the social group in terms of the
behavior of the separate individuals composing it; rather, we are starting out with a Oven social
whole of complex group activity, into which we analyze (as elements) the behavior of each of the
separate individuals composing it. We attempt, that is, to explain the conduct of the individual in
terms of the organized conduct of the social group, rather than to account for the organized conduct
of the social group in terms of the conduct of the separate individuals belonging to it. For social
psychology, the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the
part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts. The social act7 is
not explained by building it up out of stimulus plus response; it must be taken as a dynamic whole-
as something going on-no part of which can be considered or understood by itself-a complex
organic process implied by each individual stimulus and response involved in it.
In social psychology we get at the social process from the inside as well as from the outside. Social
psychology is behavioristic in the sense of starting off with an observable activity-the dynamic, on-
going social process, and the social acts which are its component elements-to be studied and
analyzed scientifically. But it is not behavioristic in the sense of ignoring the inner experience of the
individual-the inner phase of that process or activity. On the contrary, it is particularly concerned with
the rise of such experience within the process as a whole. It simply works from the outside to the
inside instead of from the inside to the outside, so to speak, in its endeavor to determine how such
experience does arise within the process. The act, then, and not the tract, is the fundamental datum
in both social and individual psychology when behavioristically conceived, and it has both an inner
and an outer phase, an internal and an external aspect.
These general remarks have had to do with our point of approach. It is behavioristic, but unlike
Watsonian behaviorism it recognizes the parts of the act which do not come to external observation,
and it emphasizes the act of the human individual in its natural social situation.
1. [Especially in Behavior, an Introduction to Comparative Psychology, chap. X; Psychology
from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, chap. ix; Behaviorism, chaps. x, xi.]
2. [Published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method. Reprinted in
Essays in Radical Empiricism.]
3. Modern philosophical realism has helped to free psychology from a concern with a
philosophy of mental states (1924).
4. Value: the future character of the object in so far as it determines your action to it (1924).
5. An act is an impulse that maintains the life-process by the selection of certain sorts of stimuli
it needs. Thus, the organism creates its environment. The stimulus is the occasion for the
expression of the impulse.
Stimuli are means, tendency is the real thing. Intelligence is the selection of stimuli that will
set free and maintain life and aid in rebuilding it (1927).
The purpose need not be "in view," but the statement of the act includes the goal to which
the act moves. This is a natural teleology, in harmony with a mechanical statement (1925).
6. The study of the process of language or speech-its origins and development-is a branch of
social psychology, because it can be understood only in terms of the social processes of
behavior within a group of interacting organisms; because it is one of the activities of such a
group. The philologist, however, has often taken the view of the prisoner in a cell. The
prisoner knows that others are in a like position and he wants to get in communication with
them. So he sets about some method of communication, some arbitrary affair, perhaps,
such as tapping on the wall. Now, each of us, on this view, is shut up in his own cell of
consciousness, and knowing that there are other people so shut up, develops ways to set up
communication with them.
7. "A social act may be defined as one in which the occasion or stimulus which sets free an
impulse is found in the character or conduct of a living form that belongs to the proper
environment of the living form whose impulse it is. I wish, however, to restrict the social act
to the claw of acts which involve the cooperation of more than one individual, and whose
object as defined by the act, in the sense of Bergson, is a social object. I mean by a social
object one that answers to all the parts of the complex act, though these parts are found in
the conduct of different individuals. The objective of the acts is then found in the life-process
of the group, not in those of the separate individuals alone." [From "The Genesis of the Self
and Social Control," International Journal of Ethics, XXXV (1925), 263-64.
The problem that presents itself as crucial for human psychology concerns the field that is opened
up by introspection; this field apparently could not be dealt with by a purely objective psychology
which only studied conduct as it takes place for the observer. In order that this field could be brought
within the range of objective psychology, the behaviorist, such as Watson, did what he could to cut
down the field itself, to deny certain phenomena supposed to lie only in that field, such as
"consciousness as distinct from conduct without consciousness. The animal psychologist studied
conduct without taking up the question as to whether it was conscious conduct or not.[1] But when
we reach the field of human conduct we are in fact able to distinguish reflexes which take place
without consciousness. There seems, then, to be a field which the behavioristic psychology cannot
reach. The Watsonian behaviorist simply did what he could to minimize this difference.
The field of investigation of the behaviorist has been quite largely that of the young infant, where the
methods employed are just the methods of animal psychology. He has endeavored to find out what
the processes of behavior are, and to see how the activities of the infant may be used to explain the
activities of the adult. It is here that the psychologist brings in the conditioned reflexes. He shows
that by a mere association of certain stimuli he can get results which would not follow from these
secondary stimuli alone. This conditioning of reflexes can be carried over into other fields, such as
those of terror on the part of an infant. He can be made to fear something by associating the object
with others producing terror. The same process can be used for explaining more elaborate conduct
in which we associate elements with certain events which are not directly connected with them, and
by elaborating this conditioning we can, it is believed, explain the more extended processes of
reasoning and inference. In this way a method which belongs to objective psychology is carried over
into the field which is dealt with ordinarily in terms of introspection. That is, instead of saying we
have certain ideas when we have certain experiences, and that these ideas imply something else,
we say that a certain experience has taken place at the same time that the first experience has
taken place, so that now this secondary experience arouses the response which belongs to the
primary experience.
There remain contents, such as those of imagery, which are more resistant to such analysis. What
shall we say of responses that do not answer to any given experience? We can say, of course, that
they are the results of past experiences. But take the contents themselves, the actual visual imagery
that one has: it has outline; it has color; it has values; and other characters which are isolated with
more difficulty. Such experience is one which plays a part, and a very large part, in our perception,
our conduct; and yet it is an experience which can be revealed only by introspection. The
behaviorist has to make a detour about this type of experience if he is going to stick to the
Watsonian type of behavioristic psychology.
Such a behaviorist desires to analyze the act, whether individual or social, without any specific
reference to consciousness whatever and without any attempt to locate it either within the field of
organic behavior or within the larger field of reality in general. He wishes, in short, to deny its
existence as such altogether. Watson insists that objectively observable behavior completely and
exclusively constitutes the field of scientific psychology, individual and social. He pushes aside as
erroneous the idea of "mind" or "consciousness," and attempts to reduce all "mental" phenomena to
conditioned reflexes and similar physiological mechanisms-in short, to purely behavioristic terms.
This attempt, of course, is misguided and unsuccessful, for the existence as such of mind or
consciousness, in some sense or other, must be admitted-the denial of it leads inevitably to obvious
absurdities. But though it is impossible to reduce mind or consciousness to purely behavioristic
terms-in the sense of thus explaining it away and denying its existence as such entirely-yet it is not
impossible to explain it in these terms, and to do so without explaining it away, or denying its
existence as such, in the least. Watson apparently assumes that to deny the existence of mind or
consciousness as a psychical stuff, substance, or entity is to deny its existence altogether, and that
a naturalistic or behavioristic account of it as such is out of the question. But, on the contrary, we
may deny its existence as a psychical entity without denying its existence in some other sense at all;
and if we then conceive it functionally, and as a natural rather than a transcendental phenomenon, it
becomes possible to deal with it in behavioristic terms. In short, it is not possible to deny the
existence of mind or consciousness or mental phenomena, nor is it desirable to do so; but it is
possible to account for them or deal with them in behavioristic terms which are precisely similar to
those which Watson employs in dealing with non-mental psychological phenomena (phenomena
which, according to his definition of the field of psychology, are all the psychological phenomena
there are). Mental behavior is not reducible to non-mental behavior. But mental behavior or
phenomena can be explained in terms of non-mental behavior or phenomena, as arising out of, and
as resulting from complications in, the latter.
If we are going to use behavioristic psychology to explain conscious behavior we have to be much
more thoroughgoing in our statement of the act than Watson was. We have to take into account not
merely the complete or social act, but what goes on in the central nervous system as the beginning
of the individual's act and as the organization of the act. Of course, that takes us beyond the field of
our direct observation. It takes us beyond that field because we cannot get at the process itself. It is
a field that is more or less shut off, seemingly because of the difficulty of the country itself that has
to be investigated. The central nervous system is only partly explored. Present results, however,
suggest the organization of the act in terms of attitudes. There is an organization of the various parts
of the nervous system that are going to be responsible for acts, an organization which represents
not only that which is immediately taking place, but also the later stages that are to take place. If one
approaches a distant object he approaches it with reference to what he is going to do when he
arrives there. If one is approaching a hammer he is muscularly all ready to seize the handle of the
hammer. The later stages of the act are present in the early stages-not simply in the sense that they
are all ready to go off, but in the sense that they serve to control the process itself. They determine
how we are going to approach the object, and the