The Emergence of the New: Mead’s Theory and Its Contemporary Potential

Hans Joas. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

In his contribution to a volume representing and celebrating ‘the revival of pragmatism’ in American social thought, law and culture, Alan Wolfe—one of the leading contemporary American sociologists—has pointed out that this revival has so far only slightly influenced the practice of the social sciences. Although he is quite willing to welcome a potential revival ‘for its insistence on the importance of human beings, its emphasis on indeterminacy, language, and skepticism,’ he is also worried that it could prove counter-productive; for him, pragmatism has never been realistic in the sense of getting reality right, and thus its revival could become yet another version of that type of social science that is tempted ‘to substitute longings for a better world for the need to understand this one first.’ Alan Wolfe plays with the double meaning of the term ‘pragmatic’ when he concludes: ‘Our most pragmatic response ought to be to welcome the revival of pragmatism, and then go back to our business, appreciating its qualities, but refusing to turn it into a panacea for the dilemmas that are at the heart of social science enquiry.’

Every contemporary re-examination of major pragmatist thinkers probably has to deal with this suspicion. Does going back to the pragmatists mean to be attracted by an idealistic vision of a better world—which might be a positive trait of a person, but not a necessary precondition for good social science? Or does the old equivocation of meanings in the term ‘pragmatic’ foster misunderstandings of the philosophy of pragmatism and thus cover up the true importance of this approach? The following interpretation of George Herbert Mead’s work is, of course, highly selective with respect to these questions. Mead is only one of the pragmatists, but at least for historical reasons one can call his work the bridge between pragmatism and sociology. So a re-examination of his life and work and an evaluation of his influence in social theory may lead us to an at least partial answer concerning the question of what sociologists and social theorists today can learn from pragmatist thinking.

Life and Context

George Herbert Mead was born into a Congregationalist pastor’s home in South Hadley, Massachusetts, on 27 February 1863. His childhood and youth were spent in the surroundings of Oberlin College, Ohio, where his father went in 1869 to take up a professorship in homiletics and which the son himself later entered as a student. Mead’s development occurred at a time when the sciences were gaining more space on American college syllabuses, and thus coming into conflict with dogmatically religious claims to explain the world. Typically, the key experience of Mead’s generation was the encounter with Darwin’s theory of evolution and its compelling proof of the mythological character of the Christian doctrine of creation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, the young Mead did not draw social-Darwinist or determinist consequences from this. The question he asked himself was how the moral values of socially committed American Protestantism could be preserved without outdated theological dogma and beyond the narrowness of Puritan life. After he finished college in 1883, Mead spent four years moving between jobs and then, in 1887, braved all the economic risks to study philosophy at Harvard. His most important influence there was the Christian neo-Hegelian Josiah Royce, one of the best authorities in the United States on classical German idealism. Royce passed on to him the outlines of a philosophy of history which interpreted the Kingdom of Heaven as the historical realization of a community of all human beings in which there is universal communication among them. But although Mead never lost his admiration for this teacher from his university days, he soon came to regard as inadequate a philosophy that kept aloof from the sciences and the social problems of the age. It seemed to him a graft from European culture, rather than an authentic interpretation of American life or a guide to action in contemporary American conditions.

In 1888 Mead switched to the study of (physiological) psychology, because it promised an empirical clarification of philosophical problems and offered greater intellectual independence. From 1888 to 1891 he studied in Germany, first for a semester in Leipzig (with Wilhelm Wundt et al.), then in Berlin (under Friedrich Paulsen, Wilhelm Dilthey et al.). One of his special interests was the psychology of the child’s early moral development and—as part of a dissertation project—research into the perception and constitution of space that went beyond the theories of Kant. Outside academia, he was impressed by Social Democracy and by the efficiency of local administration in Germany.

In 1891 Mead took up an offer to teach psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and departed from Germany full of plans concerning philosophy and psychology on one hand and social reform on the other. In 1894 he moved at John Dewey’s request to the newly founded University of Chicago, where he remained until his death in 1931.

The new university had two ambitious goals: to combine research and teaching more closely (as in the German model), but also to ensure that both were strongly geared to practical tasks, preferably in the local community. At that time Chicago was one of the fastest-growing industrial cities, its population largely made up of unskilled or semi-skilled first-generation immigrants. Mead became part of an interdisciplinary network of major Chicago academics who, especially in the ‘Progressive Era’ before the First World War, involved themselves in numerous social reform projects (for example, at Hull House, run as part of the social settlement movement by Jane Addams, the future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize). Mead responded to the world war with political and journalistic activity, in favour of President Wilson and American entry into the conflict. In the period before the war, his academic work had as its core the development of an anthropological theory of communication and a related social psychology, which together assure Mead of a place among the major thinkers in the history of sociology and social psychology.

After the war, Mead turned more to various questions in the philosophy of science and of nature, and his work for political and social reform largely receded into the background in the 1920s. He died on 26 April 1931, embittered by a dispute over university policy that had even led him to decide to abandon the university and the city where he had been so active.

George Herbert Mead occupies a special position among those who are today recognized beyond dispute as the classical sociological theorists. By the time of his death he had not published a single book, and was scarcely known outside the circle of his students and immediate colleagues. Moreover, he had never actually taught in the sociology faculty: his life’s work was in the fields of philosophy and psychology, and his sociological influence was at first almost entirely limited to the course on social psychology that he gave for decades in Chicago. This course, which presented his specific approach to the subject, became part of sociological instruction at what was for a long time the most influential American department in the field. The posthumous publication of Mead’s writings, together with the compilation of students’ lecture notes in book form, has subsequently established his reputation to an extent that is still growing today.

The Work

In his foundations of social psychology, Mead starts not from the behaviour of the individual organism but from a cooperating group of distinctively human organisms; not from an isolated, Crusoe-like actor who must first enter into social relationships and constitute collectively binding values, but from the complex activities of a group, from what he called the ‘social act.’

Groups of human organisms are subject to conditions that differ fundamentally from those of prehuman stages. In contrast to insect colonies, for example, a strict division of labour is no longer assured through physiological differentiation. Even the regulation of group life by instinct-bound forms of behaviour which are only modified in processes of status acquisition within a unilinear hierarchy of dominance—a principle which applies to societies of vertebrates—is ruled out by the organic preconditions of the human species. For human societies, the problem is how individual behaviour not fixed by nature can be differentiated yet also, via mutual expectations, be integrated into group activity. Mead’s anthropological theory of the origins of specifically human communication seeks to uncover the mechanism that makes such differentiation and réintégration possible. Communication thus moves to the centre of the analysis, but it would be a mistake to accuse Mead of limiting his concept of society to processes of communication. ‘The mechanism of human society,’ he states quite clearly, ‘is that of bodily selves who assist or hinder each other in their cooperative acts by the manipulation of physical things.’

Darwin’s analysis of expressive animal behaviour and Wundt’s concept of gestures were crucial stimuli for Mead’s own thinking on this matter. He shares with them the idea that a ‘gesture’ is a ‘syncopated act,’ the incipient phase of an action that may be employed for the regulation of social relationships. Such regulation is possible when an animal reacts to another animal’s action during this incipient phase as it would react to the action as a whole—for example, when the baring of a dog’s teeth in preparation for attack is ‘answered’ by another dog’s flight or by the baring of its own teeth. If such a connection is working properly, the early phase of the action can become the ‘sign’ for the whole action and serve to replace it. Mead does not agree with Darwin’s assumption, however, that expressive goals lie behind such gestures: the animal is not trying to express anything; its action is simply an uncontrollable discharge of instinctual energy. Nor does he share Wundt’s assumption that the emotion expressed in one animal’s gestures is triggered in the other animal through imitation of those gestures. The weakness of Wundt’s hypothesis is that it sees imitation as a simple instinctive mechanism which can be unproblematically employed for the purposes of explanation. For Mead, the opposite is true: imitation itself is an achievement that requires explanation. How does it happen, then, that gestures have the same semantic content for both sides involved in communication?

For a gesture to have this same meaning, its originator must be able to trigger in himself the reaction that he will excite in the partner to communication, so that the other’s reaction is already represented inside himself. In other words, it must be possible for the gesture to be perceived by its actual originator. Among human beings, this is the case particularly with a type of gesture that can also be most widely varied according to the precise situation: namely, vocal gestures. Contrary to a widespread view, Mead did not attach excessive weight to vocal gestures; for him, they were not the most frequent gestures, but the ones most suited for such a self-perception. They are a necessary condition for the emergence of self-consciousness in the history of the species, but not a sufficient condition (otherwise the path of self-consciousness would, for example, have been open to birds as well).

Mead also regarded as crucial the typically human uncertainty of response, and the hesitancy facilitated by the structure of the nervous system. These entail that the originator’s virtual reaction to his own gesture does not just take place simultaneously with the reaction of his partner, but actually precedes that reaction. His own virtual reaction is also registered in its incipient phase and can be checked by other reactions, even before it finds expression in behaviour. Thus, anticipatory representation of the other’s behaviour is possible. Perception of one’s own gestures leads not to the emergence of signs as substitute stimuli, but to the bursting of the whole stimulus-response schema of behaviour and to the constitution of ‘significant symbols.’ It thus becomes possible to gear one’s own behaviour to the potential reactions of others, and intentionally to associate different actions with one another. Action is here oriented to expectations of behaviour. And since, in principle, one’s communicative partners have the same capacity, a binding pattern of reciprocal behavioural expectations becomes the premise of collective action.

This anthropological analysis, which Mead extends into a comparison between human and animal sociality, provides the key concepts of his social psychology. The concept of ‘role’ designates precisely a pattern of behavioural expectation; ‘taking the role of the other’ means to anticipate the other’s behaviour, and not to assume the other’s place in an organized social context. This inner representation of the other’s behaviour entails that different instances take shape within the individual. The individual makes his own behaviour (like his partner’s behaviour) the object of his perception; he sees himself from the other’s point of view. Alongside the dimension of instinctive impulses, there appears an evaluative authority made up of expectations about how the other will react to an expression of those impulses.

Mead speaks of an T and a ‘me.’ The T refers in the traditional philosophical sense to the principle of creativity and spontaneity, but in Mead it also refers biologically to man’s instinctual makeup. This duality in Mead’s usage of the term is often experienced as contradictory, since ‘instinct,’ ‘impulse,’ or ‘drive’ are associated with a dull natural compulsion. Mead, however, considers that human beings are endowed with a ‘constitutional surplus of impulses’ (Arnold Gehlen), which—beyond any question of satisfaction—creates space for itself in fantasy and can be only channelled by normativization. The ‘me’ refers to my idea of how the other sees me or, at a more primal level, to my internalization of what the other expects me to do or be. The ‘me,’ qua precipitation within myself of a reference person, is an evaluative authority for my structuring of spontaneous impulses and a basic element of my developing self-image. If I encounter several persons who are significant references for me, I thus acquire several different ‘me’s,’ which must be synthesized into a unitary self-image for consistent behaviour to be possible. If this synthesization is successful, the ‘self comes into being: that is, a unitary self-evaluation and action-orientation which allows interaction with more and more communicative partners; and at the same time, a stable personality structure develops which is certain of its needs. Mead’s model, unlike Freud’s, is oriented to dialogue between instinctual impulses and social expectations. Culturally necessary repression and anarchic satisfaction of needs do not form an alternative from which there is no escape. Rather, Mead sees a possibility of open-ended argument, in which social norms are susceptible of communicative modification and the instinctual impulses can be reoriented in a voluntary (because satisfying) direction.

Mead’s theory of personality passes into a developmental logic of the formation of the self that is applicable to both species and individual. Central here are the two forms of children’s conduct designated by the terms ‘play’ and ‘game.’ ‘Play’ is ludic interaction with an imagined partner in which the child uses behavioural anticipation to act out both sides; the other’s conduct is directly represented and complemented by the child’s own conduct. The child reaches this stage when it becomes capable of interacting with different individual reference-persons and adopting the other’s perspective—that is, when the reference-person at whom the child’s instinctual impulses are mainly directed is no longer the only one who counts. The child then also develops a capacity for group ‘game,’ where anticipation of an individual partner’s behaviour is no longer enough and action must be guided by the conduct of all other participants. These others are by no means disjointed parts, but occupy functions within groups organized in accordance with a purposive division of labour. The individual actor must orient himself by a goal that is valid for all the other actors—a goal which Mead, with its psychical foundations in mind—calls the ‘generalized other.’ The behavioural expectations of this generalized other are, for instance, the rules of the game, or, more generally, the norms and values of a group. Orientation to a particular ‘generalized other’ reproduces at a new stage the orientation to a particular concrete other. The problem of orienting to ever-broader generalized others thus becomes the guiding thought in Mead’s ethicaltheory.

If Mead’s introductory lectures on social psychology published as Mind, Self, and Society (1934), and the great series of essays that developed his basic ideas for the first time between 1908 and 1912, are taken as his answer to how cooperation and individuation are possible, then the much less well-known collection of Mead’s remaining papers—The Philosophy of the Act (1938)—represents an even more fundamental starting point. The problem that Mead addresses here is how instrumental action itself is possible. In particular, he considers the essential prerequisite for any purposive handling of things: that is, the constitution of permanent objects. His analysis of the ability for role-taking as an important precondition for the constitution of the ‘physical thing’ is a major attempt to combine the development of communicative and instrumental capabilities within a theory of socialization.

In Mead’s model, action is made up of four stages: impulse, perception, manipulation and (need-satisfying) consummation. The most distinctively human of these is the third, the stage of manipulation, whose interposition and independence express the reduced importance of the instincts in man and provide the link for the emergence of thought. In animals, contact experience with objects is totally integrated into activities aimed at the satisfaction of needs. Even in apes, the locomotive function of the hand is stronger than its role in feeling things; only in man does it develop into an organ of manipulation no longer directly tied to needs. Hand and speech are for Mead the two roots of the development from ape to man. Along with the differentiation and accumulation of contact experiences made possible by the autonomy of the hand, man disposes of several distance receptors (such as eyes and ears) and the brain as their internal apparatus. If impressions of distance initially trigger a response only in movements of the body, the retardation of response due to distance and the autonomy of the sphere of contact experience then make possible a reciprocal relationship between eye and hand: the two cooperate and control each other. Intelligent perception and the constitution of objects take place, in Mead’s view, when distance experience is consciously related to contact experience. But this becomes possible, he further argues, only when the role-taking capability develops to the point where it can be transferred to non-social objects. How are we to understand this?

A thing is perceived as a thing only when we attribute to it an ‘inside’ that exerts pressure on us as soon as we touch it. This ‘inside’ capable of exerting pressure can never be conveyed to us through dissection (which only ever leads to new surfaces); it must always be attributed. I attribute it in accordance with the schema of pressure and counter-pressure, which I learn through self-perception of the pressure that I exert upon myself—for example, in playing with both hands. I can then transfer this experience to things, by representing as coming from the object a pressure that is as great as my own pressure but is moving in the opposite direction. Mead calls this ‘taking the role of the thing.’ If I also succeed in doing this by anticipation, I will be able to deal with things in a controlled manner and accumulate experiences of manipulative action. Combined with the cooperation of eye and hand, this means that the body’s distance senses can and actually do trigger the experience of resistance proper to manipulation. The distant object is then perceived as an anticipated ‘contact value’; the thing looks heavy, hard or hot.

For Mead, of course, what is primary is not conscious self-perception of the pressure I exert upon myself, but a self-perception analogous to the perception of sound produced by myself. In order that this can be transferred to objects and a counter-pressure be anticipated, the basic role-taking capability, so Mead argues, must have already been acquired. Only interactive experience allows what stands before me to appear as active (as ‘pressing’). If this is correct, social experience is the premise upon which the diversity of sense perception can be synthesized into ‘things.’ Mead thereby also explains why at first—that is, in the consciousness of the infant or of primitive cultures—all things are perceived as living partners in a schema of interaction, and why it is only later that social objects are differentiated from physical objects. The constitution of permanent objects is, in turn, the precondition for the separation of the organism from other objects and its self-reflective development as a unitary body. Self-identity is thus formed in the same process whereby ‘things’ take shape for actors.

Mead is trying to grasp the social constitution of things without falling prey to a linguistically restricted concept of meaning. His attempt to join together the development of communicative and instrumental capabilities outlines a solution to the problem that remains unsolved in other major conceptions of instrumental action (those of Arnold Gehlen or Jean Piaget, for example).

To some extent, Mead develops a slightly different formulation of the same ideas in those of his works that connect up with philosophical discussions of relativity theory and which make central use of the concept of ‘perspective.’ For him, the theory of relativity finally lays to rest the idea that perspectives are merely subjective, for it is precisely as subjective that they are objectively present. ‘The conception of the perspective as there in nature is in a sense an unexpected donation by the most abstruse physical science to philosophy. They are not distorted perspectives of some perfect patterns, nor do they lie in consciousness as selections among things whose reality is to be found in a noumenal world.’ Mead then asks how it is possible that man does not remain a prisoner to the perspective centred on his own body, but is able to have two or more perspectives simultaneously. The main problem—and here Mead avoids drawing relativist consequences from pragmatism—is how man is capable of universality in grasping the object. Mead bases the capacity for perspectival change upon role-taking, upon the capacity to place oneself in the perspective of others. In role-taking, two perspectives are simultaneously present within me, and I must integrate them into a many-sided picture of the object, much as I have to synthesize a number of different ‘me’s. By transposition to others and eventually to a generalized other, I arrive at a comprehensive picture of the object, and finally at a reconstruction of the structural context that contains both myself and my perspective. Not only the constitution of things but also the growing adequacy of their perception are thus bound up with the development of personal identity. Damage to that identity also puts at risk my free contact with things.

Mead’s ethics and moral psychology are as much grounded upon his theory of action and his social psychology as they set an axiological framework for these scientific parts of his work. Mead’s approach to ethics develops from a critique of both the utilitarian and Kantian positions: he does not regard as satisfactory an orientation simply to the results of action or simply to the intentions of the actor; he wants to overcome both the utilitarian lack of interest in motives and the Kantian failure to deal adequately with the goals and objective results of action. He criticizes the psychological basis common to both ethical theories. Mead argues that the separation between motive and object of the will is a consequence of the empiricist concept of experience, and that beneath the surface this also characterizes Kant’s concept of inclination.

We are now free from the restrictions of the Utilitarian and Kantian if we recognize that desire is directed toward the object instead of toward pleasure. Both Kant and the Utilitarian are fundamentally hedonists, assuming that our inclinations are toward our own subjective states—the pleasure that comes from satisfaction. If that is the end, then of course our motives are all subjective affairs. From Kant’s standpoint they are bad, and from the Utilitarian standpoint they are the same for all actions and so neutral. But on the present view, if the object itself is better, then the motive is better. (1934: 384-5)

Mead, then, imports his theory of the social constitution of objects into the realm of ethics; his aim is to move beyond Kant’s grounding of universality upon the form of the will.

Mead’s position is not easily accessible from within present-day ethical debate. First, through its original linkage of the concept of value with the concept of action, it frees itself from all the aporias concerning the deducibility of an ought from an is. For Mead, the value of an object is associated with the consummatory stage of the action, so that value is experienced as obligation or desire. What he wants to show is that the relation expressed in the concept of value cannot be limited either to subjective evaluation or to an objective quality of value; that it results from a relationship between subject and object which should not, however, be understood as a relationship of knowledge. The value relation is thus an objectively existing relation between subject and object, which differs structurally from the perception of primary or secondary qualities not through a higher degree of subjective arbitrariness, but simply by virtue of its reference to the phase of need satisfaction rather than the phase of manipulation or perception. The claim to objectivity on the part of scientific knowledge bound up with perception or manipulation is, therefore, a matter of course also as far as moral action is concerned. This does not mean that Mead reduces ethics to one more science among others. For science, in his analysis, investigates the relations of ends and means, whereas ethics investigates the relationship among ends themselves.

Mead’s starting point is the idea that there are neither secure biological roots for moral conduct nor a fixed value system by which action can always be oriented. Biologically determined behaviour (including quasi-moral caring) and norm-bound behaviour are each prior to the genuinely moral situation, which arises when different motives and values come into conflict with one another and have to be assessed in the light of their anticipated results. Analysis of the moral situation lies at the heart of Mead’s ethics.

Epigrammatically, one might say that for Mead the moral situation is a personality crisis. It confronts the personality with a conflict between various of its own values, or between its own values and those of direct partners or the generalized other, or between its own values and impulses. This conflict brings action to a standstill; the unexpected problem tends toward the disintegration of identity. This crisis can be overcome only by one’s own creative, and hence ever-risky, actions. Mead’s ethics, then, seek not to prescribe rules of conduct but to elucidate the situation in which ‘moral discoveries’ are necessary. Expectations and impulses must be restructured, so that it becomes possible to rebuild an integral identity and to outline a moral strategy appropriate to the situation. If this is done successfully, the self is raised to a higher stage, since regard for further interests has now been incorporated into conduct.

Mead attempts to describe stages of self-formation as stages of moral development and, at the same time, as stages in the development of society toward freedom from domination. Orientation to a concrete other is followed by orientation to organized others within a group. Beyond this stage and beyond conflicts between different generalized others, there is an orientation to ever-more comprehensive social units, and finally to a universalist perspective with an ideal of full development of the human species. We attain this universalist perspective by attempting to understand all values that appear before us—not relativistically in a non-judgemental juxtaposition, but by assessing them in the light of a universalist community based upon communication and cooperation. Comprehensive communication with partners in the moral situation, and rational conduct oriented to achievement of the ideal community, are thus two rules to be applied in solving the crisis. This perspective lifts us outside any concrete community or society and leads to ruthless questioning of the legitimacy of all prevailing standards. In each, moral decision is a reference to a better society.

The moral value of a given society is shown in the degree to which it involves rational procedures for the reaching of agreement and an openness of all institutions to communicative change. Mead uses the term ‘democracy’ for such a society; democracy is for him institutionalized revolution. Individuals do not acquire their identity within it through identification with the group or society as such in its struggle against internal or external enemies. In a number of analyses, Mead investigated the power-stabilizing and socially integrative functions of punitive justice, and looked at patriotism as an ethical and psychological problem. He recognized that both are functionally necessary in a society which, because not everyone can publicly express their needs, requires an artificial unity. Nor did he overlook the fact that national patriotism may have progressive effects in the overcoming of particularist group orientations. For Mead, the generation of a universalist perspective is by no means just a moral demand; he is aware of its material foundations and sees that it is achievable only when all human beings share a real context in which to act—something that can come about by means of the world market.

Mead’s philosophy of history is based not on a pious trust in the reasonable character of evolution, but on a belief in the definite mutability of all institutions, on creative individuality and open-ended historical progress. He rejects with verve not only all deterministic conceptions that eliminate the potential for human action, but also ideological assumptions of a fixed goal of history as a utopia to be made real. For him, the philosophies of history in both Hegel and Marx fall under that category.

In his philosophy of history, Mead returns again and again to the dynamic of scientific progress and contributes a number of major new insights into it. Scientific progress takes on this central role for him because it offers the possibility of proving the non-predictability of the future. Mead tries to show that a new scientific paradigm cannot, in principle, be predicted on the basis of an old one; its emergence is necessary in the sense of a solution to a problem, but not in that of a causal chain. For it to come about, individual thinkers have to perform their creative tasks. The starting point here is not solipsistic sense data but a conflict between the thinker’s own experience and the interpretation of the world current in his society and deposited in his own prejudices. If he does not wish to renounce his own experiential evidence, his explanation of it must advance a hypothesis with claims not just to individual but to universal validity. It too must become intersubjective; it must gain collective acceptance and prove its success in collective action.

Mead’s concern is to uncover the constitution of scientific experience within everyday experience, and thus to avoid either irrationalist disablement of science as such or scientistic burying of any aesthetic or axiological reference to reality and the distinctive character of social science. This problem acquires greater topicality for Mead because of certain philosophical attempts to deal with relativity theory as the most important development in the natural sciences. He remarks how, on one hand, relativity theory is itself interpreted relativistically, but he also notes how, on the other hand, in the multidimensional space-time framework of the ‘Minkowski world,’ relativity theory again produces the idea of a world-in-itself statically transparent for an infinite consciousness and thereby undermines his anti-determinist orientation to changes in the world and to collective constitution of our world picture. This seems to him all the more intolerable in that relativity theory precisely offers the chance for a scientifically produced confirmation of the pragmatic concept of science, and for a ‘dialectical’ conception of the non-eliminability of the subject from the research process. Alfred North Whitehead’s interpretations become for Mead the most important issue in the whole controversy; he grants the productive aspects of Whitehead’s approach, but wants to avoid its idealist consequences. It is not possible to give an adequate account of this dispute here, which was not over when Mead died. It should be noted, however, that Mead regarded Whitehead’s concept of perspective as the great opportunity to develop a new concept of objectivity that involved objectification of the observing subject; that Mead’s lifelong interest in Aristotle and other non-mechanistic theories of nature leads towards a rehabilitation of qualitative, non-quantifying experience of nature; and that his discussion of time begins in relation to the philosophy of science, but goes on to develop a reconstructive concept of history and biography. Mead’s later work resembles Edmund Husserl’s in many of its themes, without sharing his transcendental philosophical orientation; and it resembles Whitehead’s work, without taking over his cosmology or his theory of ideas.

Mead’s Influence in Social Theory

During Mead’s lifetime, his influence was almost entirely limited to his students and a few colleagues in Chicago, and to his friend, the leading pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who taught at Columbia University in New York after 1904. It is almost impossible to reconstruct the details, because the paths of influence joining pragmatist philosophy, functionalist psychology, institutionalist economics, empirical sociology and progressive social reformism cannot really be disentangled from one another. Since Chicago played the decisive role in the early professionalization of American sociology, the importance of Mead’s views for American sociologists all over the country became considerable. In the history of philosophy, Mead’s main service is to have developed a pragmatist analysis of social interaction and individual self-reflection. This same achievement enabled him, in the age of classical sociological theory, to clear a way for it to escape fruitless oppositions such as that between individualism and collectivism. Mead’s grasp of the unity of individuation and socialization defines his place in the history of sociology.

After Mead’s death, the school of ‘symbolic interactionism’ played a decisive role in assuring his influence in sociology. Herbert Blumer, a former student of Mead, became the founder and key organizer in the USA of a rich sociological research tradition which turned against the dominance of behaviourist psychology, quantitative methods of empirical social research and social theories that abstracted from the action of members of society. This school, by contrast, emphasized the openness of social structures, the creativity of social actors and the need for interpretation of the data of social science. Mead thus came to be seen as the school’s progenitor and classical reference, although his work was consulted only fragmentarily. Certainly, some of the leading symbolic interactionists like Anselm Strauss and David Maines published important interpretations of Mead’s work and elaborated his ideas in creative ways; but in general it can be said that those parts of his work which do not fall into the field of social psychology remained almost completely ignored. In the dominant postwar theory of Talcott Parsons, Mead’s ideas remained rather marginal; they were mentioned, alongside the works of Durkheim, Freud and Cooley, as important for the understanding of the internalization of norms.

There are other currents of social thought and social science which paid attention to Mead’s work and tried to incorporate it into their own approaches. Mead’s self-characterization as a ‘behaviourist’ has continually led to claims from this school of psychology that the symbolic interactionist interpretation distorts Mead’s intentions, but it cannot be overlooked that Mead used the term ‘behaviourism’ in a way that is rather different from what has become its established meaning. Phenomenological (and pragmatist) philosophers have contributed to the discussion about similarities and dissimilarities between their theoretical orientation and Mead’s work or pragmatism in general; it is particularly the work of the French social phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty which allows fruitful comparison with Mead. Feminist scholars have started to reinterpret Mead’s life and work in the light of his interest for feminist questions and his social activism in this regard. Representatives of different and rival approaches in sociological theory—from Randall Collins’ ‘conflict sociology’ to Jeffrey Alexander’s ‘neofunctionalism’—attach fundamental importance to a discussion of his work now—a clear sign that Mead has become considered not just the originator of one sociological approach among many, that is, symbolic interactionism, but a classical theorist of the whole discipline. The renaissance of pragmatism, however, that is working itself out in philosophy and public life, has focused attention on John Dewey and has not reached Mead yet. The same is true for the debate about communitarianism in which some authors articulate views that are astonishingly close to Mead’s, but with few exceptions (like Philip Selznick) do not refer to Mead at all. The popularity of post-structuralism and the topic of postmodernism have sparked a controversy within symbolic interactionism about the relationship between the two ‘discourses’; though there are attempts to interpret Mead’s thinking as a kind of post-structuralism avant la lettre, the predominant contributions make a clear distinction and defend the superiority of the Meadian tradition of a social constructionism regarding the self.

Outside of the USA—particularly, but not only, in Eastern Europe—the way to Mead is often prepared by two figures, the important Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky or the outstanding Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. A particularly important receptive strand can be found in Germany, where Arnold Gehlen, one of the leading thinkers of so-called philosophical anthropology, was the first to attach major importance to Mead’s work. This has to be seen in the context of a specific interest in American pragmatism among German National Socialist thinkers; the focus here was not on Mead’s intersubjectivist approach. Jiirgen Habermas, who is deeply influenced by the school of philosophical anthropology, has, from an early phase of his development, referred to the semiotic superiority of Mead’s theory of communication and its importance for socialization research. In his magnum opus of 1981 (The Theory of Communicative Action) he dedicated a long chapter to Mead and identified him as the main inspirer of the paradigm shift ‘from purposive to communicative action’ which Habermas himself proposed. In later writings he kept returning to Mead, and offered another interpretation of his work in his book on Post-metaphysical Thinking (1992). German sociology and theology have produced a series of books on Mead, comparing his work to Martin Buber, Alfred Schiitz, Niklas Luhmann, Talcott Parsons, structuralists and others.

I myself have tried to sound the potential of Mead’s work and American pragmatism in general for a revision of sociological action theory, the theory of norms and values, and macro-sociological theory. The innovative potential of Mead’s theory is, in my view, evident—far beyond the field of qualitative micro-sociological research, for which large parts of symbolic interactionism has primarily laid claim.

But this innovative potential has to be located on the right logical level. It is not to be found, as Alan Wolfe seems to assume, either on the level of the discovery of new empirical facts nor on a purely normative level; it is to be found in Mead’s fundamental theoretical and metatheoretical approach. Since Habermas’ theory of communicative action, because of its undeniable affinity with some aspects of Mead’s work, might also overshadow the other approach, it makes sense briefly to spell out some differences between these two important contributions to social theory.

The affinity between the two clearly consists in the common emphasis on human communication and interaction and particularly on the symbolically mediated character of this interaction. But (1) whereas Habermas almost exclusively focuses on linguistic communication, Mead is much more interested in the corporeal dimension. His analysis of language in terms of vocal gestures makes it clear that, for him, language is based in corporeal expressivity. This is probably a mere difference in emphasis (and not in principle), since both theorists would accept continuity and discontinuity in the relationship between corporeal expressivity and fully developed linguistic communication.

(2) A much deeper difference can be detected when we compare the place of communication within the whole of an action-theoretical approach. Whereas Habermas is exclusively interested in contrasting communicative action with other types of human action, particularly with merely strategic action toward other actors and with instrumental action toward material objects, Mead’s interest is in the character of human action as such and in what distinguishes it from animal behaviour. That is the reason why Mead’s theory of the ‘taking the role of the thing’ is of crucial theoretical importance; it shows not only how cognitive and communicative abilities and their developments are intertwined, but also that the notion of instrumental action must not become a mere residual category characterized mostly by its difference from communicative action. Mead’s theory of action, as the understanding of action in pragmatist thinking in general, is focused on the creativity of action. His understanding of the specificities of human communication is the elaboration of one aspect of this creativity.

(3) This emphasis on creativity leads to an interest in the dynamics of human experience in its openness and rich variety. One can contrast this quasi-phenomenological side of pragmatism with the concentration on problems of rationality in Habermas. Again it would be wrong to overstate the difference, particularly to assume that rationality plays no role in Mead’s pragmatist approach. But the relationship between a theory of action and a theory of rationality is much more indirect in Mead than in Habermas. Whereas Habermas develops his theory of action out of his interest in the elaboration of the concept of communicative rationality, Mead’s point of departure is an understanding of the creativity of action, and thus he comes to the problem of rationality, as his ethical theory demonstrates, in a second step, namely, at the point when creative solutions to action problems are made the subject matter of discourses about justification.

(4) Mead’s moral theory is an ‘ethics from the perspective of actors,’ not a theory about the objectivity of justifications; it is also not reduced to the dimension of norms and the possibilities of their universalization—as Habermas’ discourse ethics is—but it contains additionally the dimension of values and their universalization. The universalization of values is not identical with the universalization of norms since values are more closely tied to the contingencies of human experiences than norms.

(5) On the macro-sociological level, we have to draw on Mead’s political writings because there is no elaborate macro-sociological theory in his work. If we are allowed to extrapolate the fundamentals of such a theory from these writings we can say that there are no traces of a Habermasian dualism between ‘system’ and ‘life-world,’ between functionalism and hermeneutics, in Mead’s approach. He remains consistently action-theoretical in his orientation, but he is able to construct a tension between different dimensions of ongoing processes of universalization. For him there is the universalization of economic and social processes on the one hand epitomized in the world market, but also in international relationships and transnational institutions—and there is the universalization of norms and values on the other hand as expressed in universalist morality and universalist value systems in the world religions. Mead sees his epoch characterized by a tension between rapid progress in economic universalization and slow progress in the adaptation of universalist value systems to these changing conditions of social life. And

(6) social change is hence not analysed by Mead following the thread of ‘rationalization,’ be it ‘monologic’ rationalization in Weber’s style or ‘communicative’ rationalization in Habermas’ sense. The anti-teleological and anti-evolutionist thrust of Mead’s philosophy of history leads to an emphasis on the contingency of historical processes, both as an increase of individual options for action and as an increase in the awareness of historical contingency itself. Such an orientation does not ignore processes of rationalization, but it makes us see these processes as contingent. Mead’s historical perspective is not centred on a process of ongoing rationalization, but on the constant and unpredictable emergence of the new.

These brief remarks can neither exhaust the problems of a systematic comparison between Meadian pragmatism and Habermasian ‘theory of communicative action’ nor the substantive questions involved in each single area of debate. They can only point to broader attempts to elaborate Mead’s approach in all these directions (Joas, 1996, 2000).

But they may be able to answer the question about the contemporary relevance of pragmatism for sociology and social theory. I do indeed claim that Meadian pragmatist ideas about the creativity of human action and the contingency of human experience and social change can provide a serious and innovative competitor to other synthetic approaches in social theory today.