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George Harber Mead: Mind Self and Society

According to George H. Mead in his book `Mind Self and Society` We have presented the self from the side of experience; it arises through cooperative activity; it is made possible through the identical reactions of the self and others. In so far as the individual can call out in his own nature these organized responses and so take the attitude of the other toward himself, he can develop self-consciousness, a reaction of the organism to itself. On the other hand, we have seen that an essential moment in this process is the response of the individual to this reaction which does contain the organized group, that which is common to all, that which is called the "me". If individuals are so distinguished from each other that they cannot identify themselves with each other, if there is not a common basis, then there cannot be a whole self present on either side (George H. Mead, 1934).
Such a distinction, for example, does lie between the infant and the human society in which he enters. He cannot have the whole self-consciousness of the adult; and the adult finds it difficult, to say the least, to put himself into the attitude of the child. That is not, however, an impossible thing, and our development of modern education rests on this possibility of the adult finding a common basis between himself and the child. Go back into the literature in which children are introduced in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and even eighteenth centuries, and you find children treated as little adults; the whole attitude toward them from the point of view of morals, as well as training, was that they were adults who were somewhat deficient and needed to be disciplined in order to get them into the proper attitude. That which they were to learn was to be brought to them in the form in which an adult makes use of the knowledge. It was not until the last century that there was a definite undertaking on the part of those interested in the education of children to enter into the experience of the child and to regard it with any respect (George H. Mead, 1934).

Even in the society erected on the basis of castes there are some common attitudes; but they are very restricted in number, and as they are restricted they cut down the possibility of the full development of the self. What is necessary under those circumstances to get such a self is a withdrawal from that caste order. The medieval period in which there was a definite caste organization of society, with serfs, overlords, and ecclesiastical distinctions, presents a situation in which the attainment of membership in the spiritual community required the withdrawal of the individual from the society as ordered in the caste fashion. Such is at least a partial explanation of the cloistered life, and of asceticism. The same thing is revealed in the development of saints in other communities who withdraw from the social order, and get back to some sort of a society in which these castes as such are mediated or absent. The development of the democratic community implies the removal of castes as essential to the personality of the individual; the individual is not to be what he is in his specific caste or group set over against other groups, but his distinctions are to be distinctions of functional difference which put him in relationship with others instead of separating him (George H. Mead, 1934).

In so far as specialization is normal and helpful, it increases concrete social relations. Differences in occupation do not themselves build up castes. The caste has arisen through the importation of the outsider into the group, just as the animal is brought in, when through the conception of property he can be made useful. The clement of hostility toward the person outside the group is essential to the development of the caste. Caste in India arose out of conquest. It always involves the group enemy, when that has been imported into the group; so that I should not myself agree with Cooley that hereditary transmission of differentiated occupation produces castes. The caste system breaks down as the human relations become more concrete..... Slaves pass over into serfs, peasants, artisans, citizens. In all these stages you have an increase of relations. In the ideal condition separation from the point of view of caste will become social function from the point of view of the group..... Democratic consciousness is generated by differences of functions (1912).

Ethical ideas, within any given human society, arise in the consciousness of the individual members of that society from the fact of the common social dependence of all these individuals upon one another (or from the fact of the common social dependence of each one of them upon that society as a whole or upon all the rest of them), and from their awareness or sensing or conscious realization of this fact. But ethical problems arise for individual members of any given human society whenever they are individually confronted with a social situation to which they cannot readily adjust and adapt themselves, or in which they cannot easily realize themselves, or with which they cannot immediately integrate their own behavior; and the feeling in them which is concomitant with their facing and solution of such problems (which are essentially problems of social adjustment and adaptation to the interests and conduct of other individuals) is that of self-superiority and temporary opposition to other individuals. In the case of ethical problems, our social relationships with other individual members of the given human society to which we belong depend upon our apposition to them, rather than, as in the case of the development or formulation of ethical ideals, upon our unity, cooperation, and identification with them. Every human individual must, to behave ethically, integrate himself with the pattern of organized social behavior which, as reflected or apprehended in the structure of his self, makes him a self-conscious personality. Wrong, evil, or sinful conduct on the part of the individual runs counter to this pattern of organized social behavior which makes him, as a self, what he is, just as right, good, or virtuous behavior accords with this pattern; and this fact is the basis of the profound ethical feeling of conscience-of "ought" and "ought not" which we all have, in varying degrees, respecting our conduct in given social situations. The sense which the individual self has of his dependence upon the organized society or social community to which he belongs is the basis and origin, in short, of his sense of duty (and in general of his ethical consciousness); and ethical and unethical behavior can be defined essentially in social terms: the former as behavior which is socially beneficial or conducive to the well-being of society, the latter as be havior which is socially harmful or conducive to the disruption of society. From another point of view, ethical ideals and ethical problems may be considered in terms of the conflict between the social and the asocial (the impersonal and the personal) sides or aspects of the individual self. The social or impersonal aspect of the self integrates it with the social group to which it belongs and to which it owes its existence; and this side of the self is characterized by the individual's feeling of cooperation and equality with the other members of that social group. The asocial or personal aspect of the self (which, nevertheless, is also and equally social, fundamentally in the sense of being socially derived or originated and of existentially involving social relations with other individuals, as much as the impersonal aspect of the self is and does), on the other hand, differentiates it from, or sets it in distinctive and unique opposition to, the other members of the social group to which it belongs; and this side of the self is characterized by the individual's feeling of superiority toward the other members of that group. The "social" aspect of human society-which is simply the social aspect of the selves of all individual members taken collectively-with its concomitant feelings on the parts of all these individuals of cooperation and social interdependence, is the basis for the development and existence of ethical ideals in that society; whereas the "asocial" aspect of human society -which is simply the asocial aspect of the selves of all individual members taken collectively-with its concomitant feelings on the parts of all these individuals of individuality, self-superiority to other individual selves, and social independence, is responsible for the rise of ethical problems in that society. These two basic aspects of each single individual self are, of course, responsible in the same way or at the same time for the development of ethical ideals and the rise of ethical problems in the individual's own experience as opposed to the experience of human society as a whole, which is obviously nothing but the sum-total of the social experiences of all its individual members (George H. Mead, 1934).

Those social situations in which the individual finds it easiest to integrate his own behavior with the behavior of the other individual selves are those in which all the individual participants are members of some one of the numerous socially functional groups of individuals (groups organized, respectively, for various special social ends and purposes) within the given human society as a whole; and in which he and they are acting in their respective capacities as members of this particular group. (Every individual member of any given human society, of course, belongs to a large number of such different functional groups.) On the other hand, those social situations in which the individual finds it most difficult to integrate his own behavior with the behavior of others are those in which he and they are acting as members, respectively, of two or more different socially functional groups: groups whose respective social purposes or interests are antagonistic or conflicting or widely separated. In social situations of the former general type each individual's attitude toward the other individuals is essentially social; and the combination of all these social attitudes toward one another of the individuals represents, or tends to realize more or less completely, the ideal of any social situation respecting organization, unification, co-operation, and integration of the behavior of the several individuals involved. In any social situation of this general type the individual realizes himself as such in his relation to all the other members of the given socially functional group and realizes his own particular social function in its relations to the respective functions of all other individuals. He takes or assumes the social attitudes of all these other individuals toward himself and toward one another, and integrates himself with that situation or group by controlling his own behavior or conduct accordingly; so that there is nothing in the least competitive or hostile in his relations with these other individuals. In social situations of the latter general type on the other hand, each individual's attitude toward the other individuals is essentially a social or hostile (though these attitudes are of course social in the fundamental non-ethical sense, and are socially derived); such situations are so complex that the various individuals involved in any one of them either cannot be brought into common social relations with one another at all or else can be brought into such relations only with great difficulty, after long and tortuous processes of mutual social adjustment; for any such situation lacks a common group or social interest shared by all the individuals-it has no one common social end or purpose characterizing it and serving to unite and coordinate and harmoniously interrelate the actions of all those individuals; instead, those individuals are motivated, in that situation, by several different and more or less conflicting social interests or purposes. Examples of social situations of this general type are those involving interactions or relations between capital and labor, i.e., those in which some of the individuals are acting in their socially functional capacity as members of the capitalistic class, which is one economic aspect of modern human social organization; whereas the other individuals are acting in their socially functional capacity as members of the laboring class, which is another (and in social interests directly opposed) economic aspect of that social organization. Other examples of social situations of this general type are those in which the individuals involved stand in the economic relations to each other of producers and consumers, or buyers and sellers, and are acting in their respective socially functional capacities as such. But even the social situations of this general type (involving complex social antagonisms and diversities of social interests among the individuals implicated in any one of them, and respectively lacking the coordinating, integrating, unifying influence of common social ends and motives shared by those individuals), even these social situations, as occurring within the general human social process of experience and behavior, are definite aspects of or ingredients in the general relational pattern of that process as a whole (George H. Mead, 1934).

What is essential to the order of society in its fullest expression on the basis of the theory of the self that we have been discussing is, then, an organization of common attitudes which shall be found in all individuals. It might be supposed that such an organization of attitudes would refer only to that abstract human being which could be found as identical in all members of society, and that that which is peculiar to the personality of the individual would disappear. The term "personality" implies that the individual has certain common rights and values obtained in him and through him; but over and above that sort of social endowment of the individual, there is that which distinguishes him from anybody else, makes him what he is. It is the most precious part of the individual. The question is whether that can be carried over into the social self or whether the social self shall simply embody those reactions which can be common to him in a great community. On the account we have given we are not forced to accept the latter alternative (George H. Mead, 1934).

When one realizes himself, in that he distinguishes himself, he asserts himself over others in some peculiar situation which justifies him in maintaining himself over against them. If he could not bring that peculiarity of himself into the common community, if it could not be recognized, if others could not take his attitude in some sense, he could not have appreciation in emotional terms, he could not be the very self he is trying to be. The author, the artist, must have his audience; it may be an audience that belongs to posterity, but there must be an audience. One has to find one's self in his own individual creation as appreciated by others; what the individual accomplishes must be something that is in itself social. So far as he is a self, he must be an organic part of the life of the community, and his contribution has to be something that is social. It may be an ideal which he has discovered, but it has its value in the fact that it belongs to society. One may be somewhat ahead of his time, but that which he brings forward must belong to the life of the community to which he belongs. There is, then, a functional difference, but it must be a functional difference which can be entered into in some real sense by the rest of the community. Of course, there are contributions which some make that others cannot make, and there may be contributions which people cannot enter into; but those that go to make up the self are only those which can be shared. To do justice to the recognition of the uniqueness of an individual in social terms, there must be not only the differentiation which we do have in a highly organized society but a differentiation in which the attitudes involved can be taken by other members of the group (George H. Mead, 1934).

One may say that the attainment of that functional differentiation and social participation in the full degree is a sort of ideal which lies before the human community. The present stage of it is presented in the ideal of democracy. It is often assumed that democracy is an order of society in which those personalities which are sharply differentiated will be eliminated, that everything will be ironed down to a situation where everyone will be, as far as possible, like everyone else. But of course that is not the implication of democracy: the implication of democracy is rather that the individual can be as highly developed as lies within the possibilities of his own inheritance, and still can enter into the attitudes of the others whom he affects. There can still be leaders, and the community can rejoice in their attitudes just in so far as these superior individuals can themselves enter into the attitudes of the community which they undertake to lead (George H. Mead, 1934).