From George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1934.
George Herbert Mead
Mind, Self, and Society
Social Attitudes and the Physical World
The self is not so much a substance as a process in which theconversation of gestures has been internalized within an organicform. This process does not exist for itself, but is simply a phaseof the whole social organization of which the individual is a part.The organization of the social act has been imported into theorganism and becomes then the mind of the individual. It stillincludes the attitudes of others, but now highly organized, so thatthey become what we call social attitudes rather than roles ofseparate individuals. This process of relating one’s own organism tothe others in the interactions that are going on, in so far as it isimported into the conduct of the individual with the conversation ofthe “I” and the “me,” constitutes the self.  The value of thisimportation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of theindividual lies in the superior co-ordination gained for society as awhole, and in the increased efficiency of the individual as a memberof the group. It is the difference between the process which can takeplace in a group of rats or ants or bees, and that which can takeplace in a human community. The social process with its variousimplications is actually taken up into the experience of theindividual so that that which is going on takes place moreeffectively, because in a certain sense it has been rehearsed in theindividual. He not only plays his part better under those conditionsbut he also reacts back on the organization of which he is a part.
The very nature of this conversation of gestures requires that theattitude of the other is changed through the attitude of theindividual to the other’s stimulus. In the conversation of gesturesof the lower forms the play back and forth is noticeable, since theindividual not only adjusts himself to the attitude of others, butalso changes the attitudes of the others. The reaction of theindividual in this conversation of gestures is one that in somedegree is continually modifying the social process itself. It is thismodification of the process which is of greatest interest in theexperience of the individual. He takes the attitude of the othertoward his own stimulus, and in taking that he finds it modified inthat his response becomes a different one, and leads in turn tofurther changes
Fundamental attitudes are presumably those that are only changedgradually, and no one individual can reorganize the whole society;but one is continually affecting society by his own attitude becausehe does bring up the attitude of the group toward himself, respondsto it, and through that response changes the attitude of the group.This is, of course, what we are constantly doing in our imagination,in our thought; we are utilizing our own attitude to bring about adifferent situation in the community of which we are a part; we areexerting ourselves, bringing forward our own opinion, criticizing theattitudes of others, and approving or disapproving. But we can dothat only in so far as we can call out in ourselves the response ofthe community; we only have ideas in so far as we are able to takethe attitude of the community and then respond to it.
Mind as the Individual Importation of the SocialProcess
I have been presenting the self and the mind in terms of a socialprocess, as the importation of the conversation of gestures into theconduct of the individual organism, so that the individual organismtakes these organized attitudes of the others called out by its ownattitude, in the form of its gestures, and in reacting to thatresponse calls out other organized attitudes in the others in thecommunity to which the individual belongs. This process can becharacterized in a certain sense in terms of the “I” and the “me,”the “me” being that group of organized attitudes to which theindividual responds as an “I.”
What I want particularly to emphasize is the temporal and logicalpre-existence of the social process to the self-conscious individualthat arises in it.  The conversation of gestures is a part of thesocial process which is going on. It is not something that theindividual alone makes possible. What the development of language,especially the significant symbol, has rendered possible is just thetaking over of this external social situation into the conduct of theindividual himself. There follows from this the enormous developmentwhich belongs to human society, the possibility of the prevision ofwhat is going to take place in the response of other individuals, anda preliminary adjustment to this by the individual. These, in turn,produce a different social situation which is again reflected in whatI have termed the “me,” so that the individual himself takes adifferent attitude.
Consider a politician or a statesman putting through some projectin which he has the attitude of the community in himself. He knowshow the community reacts to this proposal. He reacts to thisexpression of the community in his own experience–he feels with it.He has a set of organized attitudes which are those of the community.His own contribution, the “I” in this case, is a project ofreorganization, a project which he brings forward to the community asit is reflected in himself. He himself changes, of course, in so faras he brings this project forward and makes it a political issue.There has now arisen a new social situation as a result of theproject which he is presenting. The whole procedure takes place inhis own experience as well as in the general experience of thecommunity. He is successful to the degree that the final “me”reflects the attitude of all in the community. What I am pointing outis that what occurs takes place not simply in his own mind, butrather that his mind is the expression in his own conduct of thissocial situation, this great co-operative community process which isgoing on.
I want to avoid the implication that the individual is takingsomething that is objective and making it subjective. There is anactual process of living together on the part of all members of thecommunity which takes place by means of gestures. The gestures arecertain stages in the co-operative activities which mediate the wholeprocess. Now, all that has taken place in the appearance of the mindis that this process has been in some degree taken over into theconduct of the particular individual. There is a certain symbol, suchas the policeman uses when he directs traffic. That is something thatis out there. It does not become subjective when the engineer, who isengaged by the city to examine its traffic regulations, takes thesame attitude the policeman takes with reference to traffic, andtakes the attitude also of the drivers of machines. We do imply thathe has the driver’s organization; he knows that stopping meansslowing down, putting on the brakes. There is a definite set of partsof his organism so trained that under certain circumstances he bringsthe machine to a stop. The raising of the policeman’s hand is thegesture which calls out the various acts by means of which themachine is checked. Those various acts are in the expert’s ownorganization; he can take the attitude of both the policeman and thedriver. Only in this sense has the social process been made”subjective.” If the expert just did it as a child does, it would beplay; but if it is done for the actual regulation of traffic, thenthere is the operation of what we term mind. Mind is nothing but theimportation of this external process into the conduct of theindividual so as to meet the problems that arise.
This peculiar organization arises out of a social process that islogically its antecedent. A community within which the organism actsin such a co-operative fashion that the action of one is the stimulusto the other to respond, and so on, is the antecedent of the peculiartype of organization we term a mind, or a self. Take the simplefamily relation, where there is the male and the female and the childwhich has to be cared for. Here is a process which can only go onthrough interactions within this group. It cannot be said that theindividuals come first and the community later, for the individualsarise in the very process itself, just as much as the human body orany multi-cellular form is one in which differentiated cells arise.There has to be a life-process going on in order to have thedifferentiated cells; in the same way there has to be a socialprocess going on in order that there may be individuals. It is justas true in society as it is in the physiological situation that therecould not be the individual if there was not the process of which heis a part. Given such a social process, there is the possibility ofhuman intelligence when this social process, in terms of theconversation of gestures, is taken over into the conduct of theindividual–and then there arises, of course, a different type ofindividual in terms of the responses now possible. There mightconceivably be an individual who simply plays as the child does,without getting into a social game; but the human individual ispossible because there is a social process in which it can functionresponsibly. The attitudes are parts of the social reaction; thecries would not maintain themselves as vocal gestures unless they didcall out certain responses in the others; the attitude itself couldonly exist as such in this interplay of gestures.
The mind is simply the interplay of such gestures in the form ofsignificant symbols. We must remember that the gesture is there onlyin its relationship to the response, to the attitude. One would nothave words unless there were such responses. Language would neverhave arisen as a set of bare arbitrary terms which were attached tocertain stimuli. Words have arisen out of a social interrelationship.One of Gulliver’s tales was of a community in which a machine wascreated into which the letters of the alphabet could be mechanicallyfed in an endless number of combinations, and then the members of thecommunity gathered around to see how the letters arranged after eachrotation, on the theory that they might come in the form of an Iliador one of Shakespeare’s plays, or some other great work. Theassumption back of this would be that symbols are entirelyindependent of what we term their meaning. The assumption isbaseless: there cannot be symbols unless there are responses. Therewould not be a call for assistance if
there was not a tendency to respond to the cry of distress. It issuch significant symbols, in the sense of a sub-set of social stimuliinitiating a co-operative response, that do in a certain senseconstitute our mind, provided that not only the symbol but also theresponses are in our own nature. What the human being has succeededin doing is in organizing the response to a certain symbol which is apart of the social act, so that he takes the attitude of the otherperson who co-operates with him. It is that which gives him a mind.
The sentinel of a herd is that member of the herd which is moresensitive to odor or sound than the others. At the approach ofdanger, he starts to run earlier than the others, who then followalong, in virtue of a herding tendency to run together. There is asocial stimulus, a gesture, if you like, to which the other formsrespond. The first form gets the odor earlier and starts to run, andits starting to run is a stimulus to the others to run also. It isall external; there is no mental process involved. The sentinel doesnot regard itself as the individual who is to give a signal; it justruns at a certain moment and so starts the others to run. But with amind, the animal that gives the signal also takes the attitude of theothers who respond to it. He knows what his signal means. A man whocalls “fire” would be able to call out in himself the reaction hecalls out in the other. In so far as the man can take the attitude ofthe other–his attitude of response to fire, his sense ofterror–that response to his own cry is something that makes of hisconduct a mental affair, as over against the conduct of the others. But the only thing that has happened here is that what takesplace externally in the herd has been imported into the conduct ofthe man. There is the same signal and the same tendency to respond,but the man not only can give the signal but also can arouse inhimself the attitude of the terrified escape, and through callingthat out he can come back upon his own tendency to call out and cancheck it. He can react upon himself in taking the organized attitudeof the whole group in trying to escape from danger. There is nothingmore subjective about it than that the response to his own stimuluscan be found in his own conduct, and that he can utilize theconversation of gestures that takes place to determine his ownconduct. If he can so act, he can set up a rational control, and thusmake possible a far more highly organized society than otherwise. Theprocess is one which does not utilize a man endowed with aconsciousness where there was no consciousness before, but rather anindividual who takes over the whole social process into his ownconduct. That ability, of course, is dependent first of all on thesymbol being one to which he can respond; and so far as we know, thevocal gesture has been the condition for the development of that typeof symbol. Whether it can develop without the vocal gesture I cannottell.
I want to be sure that we see that the content put into the mindis only a development and product of social interaction. It is adevelopment which is of enormous importance, and which leads tocomplexities and complications of society which go almost beyond ourpower to trace, but originally it is nothing but the taking over ofthe attitude of the other. To the extent that the animal can take theattitude of the other and utilize that attitude for the control ofhis own conduct, we have what is termed mind; and that is the onlyapparatus involved in the appearance of the mind.
I know of no way in which intelligence or mind could arise orcould have arisen, other than through the internalization by theindividual of social processes of experience and behavior, that is,through this internalization of the conversation of significantgestures, as made possible by the individual’s taking the attitudesof other individuals toward himself and toward what is being thoughtabout. And if mind or thought has arisen in this way, then thereneither can be nor could have been any mind or thought withoutlanguage; and the early stages of the development of language musthave been prior to the development of mind or thought.
N O T E S
1. According to this view, conscious communication develops out ofunconscious communication within the social process, conversation interms of significant gestures out of conversation in terms ofnon-significant gestures; and the development in such fashion ofconscious communication is coincident with the development of mindsand selves within the social process.
2. The relation of mind and body is that lying between theorganization of the self in its behavior as a member of a rationalcommunity and the bodily organism as a physical thing.
The rational attitude which characterizes the human being is thenthe relationship of the whole process in which the individual isengaged to himself as reflected in his assumption of the organizedroles of the others in stimulating himself to his response. This selfas distinguished from the others lies within the field ofcommunication, and they lie also within this field. What may beindicated to others or one’s self and does not respond to suchgestures of indication is, in the field of perception, what we call aphysical thing. The human body is, especially in its analysis,regarded as a physical thing.
The line of demarcation between the self and the body is found,then, first of all in the social organization of the act within whichthe self arises, in its contrast with the activity of thephysiological organism (MS).
The legitimate basis of distinction between mind and body is between the social patterns and the patterns of the organism itself.Education must bring the two closely together. We have, as yet, nocomprehending category. This does not mean to say that there isanything logically against it; it is merely a lack of our apparatusor knowledge (1927) .
3. Language as made up of significant symbols is what we mean bymind. The content of our minds is (1) inner conversation, theimportation of conversation from the social group to the individual(2) . . . . imagery. Imagery should be regarded in relation to thebehavior in which it functions (1931).
Imagery plays just the part in the act that hunger does in thefood process (1912).
1. Mead’s major articles can be found in: Andrew J. Reck (ed.),Selected Writings: George Herbert Mead (Indianapolis:Bobbs-Merrill, 1964).
2. The volumes were: The Philosophy of the Present (1932);Mind, Self, and Society (1934); Movements of Thought in theNineteenth Century (1936); and The Philosophy of the Act(1938). An excellent brief introduction to Mead’s social psychologycan be found in an edited abridgement of his works: Anselm Strauss(ed.), The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1956). The major critical work dealingwith Mead’s position is: Maurice Natanson, The Social Dynamics ofGeorge H. Mead (Washington, D.C. Public Affairs Press, 1956) .
3. Several varieties of Symbolic Interactionism exist today; cf.,Manford Kuhn, “Major Trends in Symbolic Interaction Theory,”Sociological Quarterly, 5 (1964), 61-84; and Bernard Meltzerand John W. Petras, “The Chicago and Iowa Schools of SymbolicInteractionism,” in T. Shibutani (ed.), Human Nature andCollective Behavior: Papers in Honor of Herbert Blumer (EnglewoodCliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970). The best known variety ofsymbolic interactionism today is represented by the position ofMead’s student Herbert Blumer; cf., Herbert Blumer, “SociologicalImplications of the Thought of George Herbert Mead,” AmericanJournal of Sociology, 71 (1966), 534-544; and Herbert Blumer,Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method (EnglewoodCliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969). For a variety of studies done bymembers of this school, see: Arnold Rose (ed.), Human Behavior andSocial Processes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); J. G. Manisand B. N. Meltzer (eds.), Symbolic Interaction: A Reader in SocialPsychology (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1967); and Gregory P. Stone(ed.), Social Psychology through Symbolic Interaction(Waltham, Mass.: Ginn-Blaisdell, 1970). Numerous modern theoreticalapproaches also owe a great debt to the work of Mead, for example,Walter Coutu, Emergent Human Nature: A New Social Psychology(New York: Knopf, 1949) .