From Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s, 1902, pp. 179-185.
Charles Horton Cooley
The Looking-Glass Self
The social self is simply any idea, or system of ideas, drawn fromthe communicative life, that the mind cherishes as its own.Self-feeling has its chief scope within the general life, notoutside of it; the special endeavor or tendency of which it is theemotional aspect finds its principal field of exercise in a world ofpersonal forces, reflected in the mind by a world of personalimpressions.
As connected with the thought of other persons the self idea isalways a consciousness of the peculiar or differentiated aspect ofone’s life, because that is the aspect that has to be sustained bypurpose and endeavor, and its more aggressive forms tend to attachthemselves to whatever one finds to be at once congenial to one’s owntendencies and at variance with those of others with whom one is inmental contact. It is here that they are most needed to serve theirfunction of stimulating characteristic activity, of fostering thosepersonal variations which the general plan of life seems to require.Heaven, says Shakespeare, doth divide
“The state of man in divers functions,
betting endeavor in continual motion,”
and self-feeling is one of the means by which this diversity isachieved.
Agreeably to this view we find that the aggressive self manifestsitself most conspicuously in an appropriativeness of objects ofcommon desire, corresponding to the individuals need of power oversuch objects to secure his own peculiar development, and to thedanger of opposition from others who also need them. And this extendsfrom material objects to lay hold, in the same spirit, of theattentions and affections of other people, of all sorts of plans andambitions, including the noblest special purposes the mind canentertain, and indeed of any conceivable idea which may come to seema part of one’s life and in need of assertion against some one else.The attempt to limit the word self and its derivatives to the loweraims of personality is quite arbitrary; at variance with common senseas expressed by the emphatic use of “I” in connection with the senseof duty and other high motives, and unphilosophical as ignoring thefunction of the self as the organ of specialized endeavor of higheras well as lower kinds.
That the “I” of common speech has a meaning which includes somesort of reference to other persons is involved in the very fact thatthe word and the ideas it stands for are phenomena of language andthe communicative life. It is doubtful whether it is possible to uselanguage at all without thinking more or less distinctly of some oneelse, and certainly the things to which we give names and which havea large place in reflective thought are almost always those which areimpressed upon us by our contact with other people. Where there is nocommunication there can be no nomenclature and no developed thought.What we call “me,” “mine,” or “myself” is, then, not somethingseparate from the general life, but the most interesting part of it,a part whose interest arises from the very fact that it is bothgeneral and individual. That is, we care for it just because it isthat phase of the mind that is living and striving in the commonlife, trying to impress itself upon the minds of others. “I” is amilitant social tendency, working to hold and enlarge its place inthe general current of tendencies. So far as it can it waxes, as alllife does. To think of it as apart from society is a palpableabsurdity of which no one could be guilty who really saw it as a factof life.
“Der Mensch erkennt sich nur im Menschen, nur
Das Leben lehret jedem was er sei.” *
If a thing has no relation to others of which one is conscious heis unlikely to think of it at all, and if he does think of it hecannot, it seems to me, regard it as emphatically his. Theappropriative sense is always the shadow, as it were, of the commonlife, and when we have it we have a sense of the latter in connectionwith it. Thus, if we think of a secluded part of the woods as “ours,”it is because we think, also, that others do not go there. As regardsthe body I doubt if we have a vivid my-feeling about any part of itwhich is not thought of, however vaguely, as having some actual orpossible reference to some one else. Intense self-consciousnessregarding it arises along with instincts or experiences which connectit with the thought of others. Internal organs, like the liver, arenot thought of as peculiarly ours unless we are trying to communicatesomething regarding them, as, for instance, when they are giving ustrouble and we are trying to get sympathy.
“I,” then, is not all of the mind, but a peculiarly central,vigorous, and well-knit portion of it, not separate from the rest butgradually merging into it, and yet having a certain practicaldistinctness, so that a man generally shows clearly enough by hislanguage and behavior what his “I” is as distinguished from thoughtshe does not appropriate. It may be thought of, as already suggested,under the analogy of a central colored area on a lighted wall. Itmight also, and perhaps more justly, be compared to the nucleus of aliving cell, not altogether separate from the surrounding matter, outof which indeed it is formed, but more active and definitelyorganized.
The reference to other persons involved in the sense of self maybe distinct and particular, as when a boy is ashamed to have hismother catch him at something she has forbidden, or it may be vagueand general, as when one is ashamed to do something which only hisconscience, expressing his sense of social responsibility, detectsand disapproves; but it is always there. There is no sense of “I,” asin pride or shame, without its correlative sense of you, or he, orthey. Even the miser gloating over his hidden gold can feel the”mine” only as he is aware of the world of men over whom he hassecret power; and the case is very similar with all kinds of hidtreasure. Many painters, sculptors, and writers have loved towithhold their work from the world, fondling it in seclusion untilthey were quite done with it; but the delight in this, as in allsecrets, depends upon a sense of the value of what is concealed.
I remarked above that we think of the body as “I” when it comes tohave social function or significance, as when we say “I am lookingwell to-day,” or “I am taller than you are.” We bring it into thesocial world, for the time being, and for that reason put ourself-consciousness into it. Now it is curious, though natural, thatin precisely the same way we may call any inanimate object “I” withwhich we are identifying our will and purpose. This is notable ingames, like golf or croquet, where the ball is the embodiment of theplayer’s fortunes. You will hear a man say, “I am in the long grassdown by the third tee,” or “I am in position for the middle arch.” Soa boy flying a kite will say “I am higher than you,” or one shootingat a mark will declare that he is just below the bullseye.
In a very large and interesting class of cases the socialreference takes the form of a somewhat definite imagination of howone’s self–that is any idea he appropriates–appears in a particularmind, and the kind of self-feeling one has is determined by theattitude toward this attributed to that other mind. A social self ofthis sort might be called the reflected or looking glass self:
“Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.”
As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and areinterested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwisewith them according as they do or do not answer to what we shouldlike them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another’s mind somethought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends,and so on, and are variously affected by it.
A self-idea of this sort seems to have three principal element:the imagination of our appearance to the other person; theimagination of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort ofself-feeling, such as pride or mortification. The comparison with alooking-glass hardly suggests the second element, the imaginedjudgment, which is quite essential. The thing that moves us to prideor shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but animputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection uponanother’s mind. This is evident from the fact that the character andfreight of that other, in whose mind we see ourselves, makes all thedifference with our feeling. We are ashamed to seem evasive in thepresence of a straightforward man, cowardly in the presence of abrave one, gross in the eyes of a refined one, and so on. We alwaysimagine, and in imagining share, the judgments of the other mind. Aman will boast to one person of an action–say some sharp transactionin trade–which he would be ashamed to own to another.
It should be evident that the ideas that are associated withself-feeling and form the intellectual content of the self cannot becovered by any simple description, as by saying that the body hassuch a part in it, friends such a part, plans so much, etc., but willvary indefinitely with particular temperaments and environments. Thetendency of the self, like every aspect of personality, is expressiveof far-reaching hereditary and social factors, and is not to beunderstood or predicted except in connection with the general life.Although special, it is in no way separate–speciality andseparateness are not only different but contradictory, since theformer implies connection with a whole. The object of self-feeling isaffected by the general course of history, by the particulardevelopment of nations, classes, and professions, and otherconditions of this sort.
* “Only in man does man know himself; life alone teaches each onewhat he is.” Goethe, Tasso, act 2, sc. 3.