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The Philosophy of the Act Reconsidered
Erkki Kilpinen
Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki
DRAFT - please do not quote verbatim!
Cognition is a process of finding out
something that is problematical, not of
entering into a relation with a world that is
George Herbert Mead
1. Mead’s posthumous reputation as a problem
The first obstacle to meet a scholar who approaches George Herbert Mead is his scattered
reputation. Paradoxically, Mead has been almost too well received in a problem field that was
not originally his own, in social sciences, whereas he is scarcely known in the field that was
his own, in systematic philosophy. Both of these assertions require some specification.
Regarding philosophy, of course one cannot claim that Mead is completely forgotten there.
Comprehensive collective volumes on American philosophy and its history, like the ones
edited by Shook and Margolis (2006) or Misak (2008), do contain articles by leading Mead
scholars who discuss him informatively. In spite of this, however, knowledge about what
kind of problems Mead actually was dealing with in his lifetime has not spread widely
enough outside the circle of specialists, while it in my opinion would not only deserve more
attention but would be beneficial for contemporary scholars to be familiar with. As far as
social sciences are concerned, I think that the pioneering Mead scholar Hans Joas (1997: 266)
has defined the situation well:
Despite his considerable interest in the social sciences, Mead never dreamed of
becoming a sociologist. As he was elevated since his death into a classical
figure in the discipline of sociology, he paid for this unrequested honour by the
fragmentary sociological – and philosophical – reception of his work.
However, the problem in Mead’s reception is not merely its fragmentary
character as such. There also seems to be some systematic bias in it, so that scholars tend to
approach him with unfounded presuppositions. These presuppositions have originated during
the time when he – or rather his name – was better remembered among sociologists than
philosophers. Praise and blame for this state of affairs both belong to Mead’s former student,
the sociologist Herbert Blumer (1900-1987). Praise, because he insistently kept up some of
Mead’s ideas and saved them from oblivion during the time between 1950s to 1970s when
positivism dominated philosophy and sociology, and the danger of Mead’s oblivion was real.
Blame, because the approach to sociology and social psychology that Blumer (1937) initiated
and to which he gave a name, ‘symbolic interactionism,’ deviated from Mead’s original
assumptions at certain points but was influential enough to create an image about him. 1 The
deviation is, briefly put, in that Blumer did not sufficiently bring out Mead’s basically
naturalist position. This shortcoming is the source of those biased preconceptions that I
mentioned and it has influenced not only social scientists, but also some philosophers.
In what sense exactly is there a point in noting about this? If Mead is an
important thinker, as I am claiming in this paper, does it matter if he is better remembered by
In a posthumously published volume Blumer (2003) provides his own summary of Mead’s message.
social scientists than philosophers, and does his image need to be so exactly accurate? There
are competing interpretations around about, say, John Dewey, as we know. My answer is that
Mead’s general reputation has prevented many philosophers from seeing that his philosophy
of mind can be taken as a parallel but also as an alternative conception to that of
Wittgenstein’s, for example. Mead’s is more explicitly social, to begin with, and has at least
as solid empirical foundation. However, I do not mean that philosophy is a profounder study
than, say, sociology. The opposite may just as well be true – if any truth is conceivable on
this kind of question. But it is a fact that Mead’s reputation has suffered due from his onesided original reception. My point also continues in that the loss is not so much Mead’s, who
is dead anyway, but more so of contemporary philosophy’s. Ultimately, contemporary social
scientists will also be losing, if they do not update their image of Mead. By approaching
Mead from a viewpoint that is closer to his own, they might gain invaluable insight into the
foundations of their disciplines. To explain the situation in social sciences in closer detail, I
draw distinction between sociology and social psychology and treat them separately.
In textbooks and anthologies on sociological theory and its history, one
frequently runs into Mead’s name, often with a summary of what the author takes his main
message to be. These summaries are curious, in that they often do sum up a theory but it is
not Mead’s. What they manage to depict, unwittingly, is usually the views of Mead’s
contemporary American thinker, the sociologist Charles Cooley (1864-1929). The two knew
and appreciated each other, but their theoretical views are not completely of one cloth. The
situation does not change very much if one moves to discus more advanced literature in
sociological theory. “Mead,” Jürgen Habermas says (1984: 399), “belongs together with
Ëmile Durkheim and Max Weber to the generation of the founding fathers of modern
sociology.” Yes, of course he belongs to that generation biographically, but whether he is to
be treated as one of the founders of sociology, is quite another question. Habermas thinks that
he is so to be treated and develops the first outlines of his theory of communicative action, his
main interest in that mammoth work, by referring extensively on Mead. One central term that
he uses throughout the book is intersubjectivity. Indeed, Mead has contributed to the
understanding of intersubjectivity, but not in a sociological sense, and not in the sense of
communicative action that Habermas ascribes to him.2 In Mead’s conception human
intersubjectivity – though he never uses this more recent term, as far as I know – emerges in
concomitance with instrumental action, and is something that a notion of communication
needs to presuppose, not its outcome. However, one can also meet such an author, who thinks
that Mead’s conception is excessively intersubjective (though she does not use this word), and
leads to an ‘over-socialized conception of man.’ This is the thesis of Margaret Archer (2003),
who interestingly – but to my mind erroneously – tries to alleviate the excessive sociality in
Mead by drawing on Charles Peirce. It is a good thing that the names of classical pragmatists
become more familiar even among sociologists, but Archer’s attempt to build a theory of self
on Peirce’s conceptions is a “non-starter,” to quote her own pejorative expression (2003: 79).
In studying human social life at the empirical level Mead is of more relevance than Peirce,
though not in an empirically sociological sense. (I have compared Mead and Peirce in
Kilpinen 2002; for a more detailed criticism of Archer in the above sense, see Gronow 2008).
The literary corpus for which Mead is best known consists of lectures on social
psychology that he gave at the University of Chicago during a period of thirty years, and of
which two sets of notes (one of them stenographic) have later been edited into books (MSS,
Habermas has much corrected his interpretation of Mead at a later try, in “Individualization through
socialization” (1987/1992), where he compares Mead with other classic philosophers. However, he still asserts
(1992: 161) Mead to have shifted philosophical concepts from the basis of consciousness onto the foundation
of language. This is erroneous; Mead situates philosophical concepts upon action, so that even speech and
language are to be understood as forms of action (cf. e.g. Mead MSS: 74, 124, 335).
1934; ISS, 1982). 3 However, as he called his subject matter social psychology, this did not
refer to any then-new social discipline; it rather referred to the universality of the subject
matter. For him, human sociality “is not a field for application for psychology, but is rather
presupposed by psychology as much as biology or physiology is generally supposed to be,”
as Joas (1985: 98) states the matter. His point is that of empirical disciplines dealing with
humans and their behaviour, it is psychology rather than sociology that comes closest to
Mead’s theoretical intent.
The British Mead scholar Robert Farr agrees with this idea and has carried the
thesis further. As points out in dramatic terms (1996: 70), “Mead solved a problem that [other]
psychologists did not even recognize to exist.” Which problem might be so enigmatic? It was
and still is the idea that the human mind is intersubjectively constituted, and the realization
that the way to understanding this does not begin from individual subjectivity. The way rather
begins from human individuals doing things together and thus being in inherent, not
contingent, interaction with each other and with their material world at the same time. The
idea of interaction with the material world might arouse behaviouristic associations to a
reader’s mind, but they are not called for. Farr makes even another important point by noting
(1996: 71) that from Mead’s perspective, “behaviourism is merely the other side of Cartesian
dualism.” I agree and in this paper attempt to develop these insights further, and to show that
Mead has been much ahead of his time in dealing with problems of cognition, subjectivity,
intersubjectivity, and their correct order. Namely, his original hypotheses have in many
senses received ample corroboration, not to say verification, by recent empirical research.
In this paper, I use abbreviations about book titles under Mead’s author name, as follows: PP = The
Philosophy of the Present (1932); MSS = Mind, Self and Society, from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist
(1934); MT = Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936); PA = The Philosophy of the Act (1938);
SW = George Herbert Mead: Selected Writings (1964); ISS = The Individual and the Social Self (1982). While
referring to SW, I also give the original publication year of the cited article.
The reason why I find this important, both philosophically and for social
sciences is the following. Mead’s contributions make him an indispensably important
member in the quartet of classic American pragmatists, besides his predecessors Peirce,
William James and John Dewey. Without his presence its general argument may seem a bit
unfinished, regardless of how much one appreciates Peirce’s logic and semiotics, or Dewey’s
comprehensive purview of all things human (I personally appreciate them very highly).
Mead’s philosophy not only goes well together with that of his pragmatist brethren, but in
some cases adds the needed capstone to the corpus. For example, although Peirce’s famous
thesis that “all thought is in signs” ultimately points to the conclusion that the human mind is
intersubjectively constituted, it is Mead who spells this out at the empirical level, as we shall
see below. Assertions about internal inconsistencies among classic pragmatists that one
occasionally hears also lose much of their thrust if Mead is included. His philosophy namely
serves as mediator between the others. It overlaps with them, yet is independent and
irreducible to any of them. In the currently prolific literature on pragmatism, even friends of
the approach often harm their own case, by neglecting Mead’s contributions. As a
consequence, they sometimes assume an unnecessarily defensive attitude when pragmatism is
compared with positivist-analytic philosophy and/or phenomenology. Mead’s contribution
rounds out the pragmatist argument; in a sense even manages to keep some promises that his
fellow-pragmatists gave but did not keep themselves. Before I move to discuss those
promises I have yet to give a brief word about their context.
2. What is ’philosophy of the act’ and what is empirical responsibility?
Mead scholars know that though there exists a book with the title The Philosophy of the Act
(1938) under Mead’s author name, the title or the contents of the volume are not his own
choice. That volume is a collage that Charles W. Morris and his assistants put together from
different materials left extant after Mead’s sudden death in 1931. Although Morris (19011979) studied philosophy under Mead and presented himself as the latter’s faithful follower
(cf. Morris 1971: 445), his credibility as Mead’s editor has often been put to question.
Leading Mead scholars Hans Joas (1985) and Gary A. Cook (1993) both remark that Morris’s
editorial decisions are not always to be trusted. Indeed, the point was made already earlier, as
John Dewey and Arthur Bentley noted in their mutual correspondence (1964: 70-71 [1939])
about the “dumbness” of Mead’s editors, referring in particular to the then recent Philosophy
of the Act. Its editorial decisions are indeed arbitrary in that it contains both student notes
from Mead’s classes (though only a few in this collage) and his own original texts side by
side, sometimes without sufficient clarification. But I think that the title itself is not so illchosen, although Mead apparently has never sat down to write a book under that heading.
However, would one give a name to Mead’s philosophy as a whole, then ‘philosophy of the
act’ would not be the worst choice. In this paper I use the term in this sense. As I claim to be
reconsidering the philosophy of the act, I mean Mead’s philosophy in general, not that
particular book, although I shall refer to it too.
As Morris and others remark in their introduction to the book (p. vii), there is an
occasion when Mead has taken a look at philosophical disciplines as a whole, with ‘the act’
as his organizing principle. This happened in his early article “Suggestions toward a Theory
of the Philosophical Disciplines” (1900), where he considered various philosophical fields of
study from the viewpoint of how they bear on human action. This, however, brings us to the
fact that Mead’s conception of human action is not quite what is ordinary in philosophy or
sociology. He is one of those rare thinkers who do not take what might be sarcastically called
‘mind-first explanation’ of action as the only possible starting point. In view of the fact this
supposition has been paradigmatic elsewhere in philosophy and social sciences (details of
course vary), the unique character of Mead’s position begins to dawn on us. He is one of
those few who have been able to see beyond the mind-first model, and to problematize
mind’s relation to action.
Accordingly, what does the term ‘act’ actually refer to, and how might one
build a philosophy upon it? The term proliferates in Mead’s and Dewey’s writings, from the
early 1890s on, and it refers to the study of behaviour. In The Philosophy of the Act (65),
Mead says that “the unit of existence is the act, not the moment.” He reiterates this in his
social psychology lectures (Mind, Self and Society), where one of his earliest points is that
“the act and not the tract is the fundamental datum in both individual and social psychology”
(MSS: 8; see also 114). I interpret Mead to be saying that one must in the study of behaviour
begin from concrete doings, not from structural details of the body (tract) or temporalities.
However, there is also a pitfall lurking here, and it must be dealt with right away. Namely,
Mead’s choice of terms is treacherously similar to the one that his compatriot, the eminent
sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) deployed. Treacherously, because the order of things
in the terms’ usage is radically different, though terms themselves are similar. In The
Structure of Social Action (1937/1949: 44f. et passim), Parsons defines ‘unit act’ as the
(temporally) smallest conceivable unit in the study of human behaviour; such where one still
can perceive the means and ends of the action, and how the acting subject chooses between
them. Above we heard Mead calling ‘the act’ the ‘unit of existence.’ The crucial difference is
that Parson’s concept of ‘act’ is based on (the acting subject’s) mind, whereas in Mead this
order of things is reversed: he is out to show how one can theoretically derive mind (and, at a
later stage, the self) from the already pre-existing behaviour. Briefly, Parsons relies on mindfirst explanation; Mead does not, and the two thinkers argue in quite different frames of
reference. Mead’s main line of argument is mostly phylogenetic, concerns the development
of the human race as a whole. He maintains that already before the stage when we can talk
about human beings, their consciousness, and choices of ends and means, there have been
creatures doing things, in other words, performing ‘acts.’ On another occasion of his social
psychology lectures, Mead is reported to have said laconically that “wherever we find living
forms, we find acts” (ISS: 108).
Problems of interpretation are not yet over and done with, however. Mead
namely uses his multifarious act-term also in a different sense. This different sense occurs in
his lectures on the history of ideas. There he explicitly deals with human beings, philosophers
and other thinkers, and one may wonder whether ‘the act’ is a suitable term here, as it
elsewhere refers to all ‘living forms.’ Mead paraphrases (MT: 26) Kant’s ‘categorical
imperative’ to mean “that every act which a rational being carries out should take on this
universal form [of general moral obligation],” but this would have insulted good old Kant,
had he known that Mead uses the same term about animal doings. Accordingly, Mead can be
found inconsistent. Usually he seems to refer by ‘the act’ to the borderland between human
an animal doings. The reason why I think it to be his main object of interest, is his emphatic
insistence (MSS: 133) to the effect that
It is absurd to look at the mind simply from the standpoint of the individual
human organism; for although it has its focus there, it is primarily a social
phenomenon; even its biological functions are primarily social. The subjective
experience of the individual must be brought into relation with the natural,
socio-biological activities of the brain in order to render an acceptable account
of mind possible at all; and this can be done only if the social nature of mind is
Mind thus is for Mead a natural and social phenomenon at the same time.
Psychological study has not sufficiently highlighted these two aspects, nor realized that
consciousness is to be taken as a problem to be investigated, not just assumed. The promising
way to study it is to assume action (Mead’s ‘act’) to appear before consciousness and to serve
as its foundation. To quote again Mind, Self and Society, Mead’s best-known text his position
there (MSS: 18) is that
We are forced to conclude that consciousness is an emergent from behaviour;
that so far from being a precondition of the social act, the social act is the
precondition of it. The mechanism of the social act can be traced out without
introducing into it the conception of consciousness as a separate element within
that act; hence the social act, in its more elementary stages or forms, is possible
without, or apart from, some form of consciousness.
Two comments are in order here. First, social act is for Mead the original and
paradigmatic form, particularly of human action. There are also individual acts, but
theoretically they are derivatives from the former mode. As regards the evolutionary
framework of Mead’s point, it appears to receive support from the empirical study that today
is being conducted on consciousness and its relation to behaviour. The neurologist Antonio
Damasio treats consciousness, like Mead does, as a phenomenon to be explained, and
remarks (2006: 89-90) that
Not all behaving organisms have minds, that is, not all have mental phenomena
(which is the same as saying that not all have cognition or cognitive processes).
Some organisms have both behaviour and cognition. Some have intelligent
actions but no mind. No organism seems to have mind but no action.
The point in both renditions, Mead’s and Damasio’s is that only an acting
creature has any need for mind and consciousness in the first place, so that they are to be
taken as an emergence from pre-existing activity. This is the first occasion when we find
Mead’s philosophical hypotheses receiving empirical support, and I will provide some more
examples in what follows. Mead’s reason to begin from action and to develop his
interpretation of mind, consciousness and self on its basis, I take to be his wish to avoid
Cartesian dualisms. Those famous (or infamous) dualisms, the one between mind and body as
the most basic, lead to the opposite order of things between mind and behaviour.
Yet a word of explanation of what I mean by ‘empirically responsible
philosophy.’ The saying I borrow from Lakoff’s and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999:
xi), and they use it to pay a compliment to John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Those
classic philosophers, the authors tell, went to pains to argue in alignment with the state of the
art in empirical science, or at least not to contradict it. This is a different aspiration from that
of (extreme) positivists, who wanted to make philosophy a summary of science. Lakoff and
Johnson tell further that Dewey’s and Merleau-Ponty’s sense of empirical responsibility
showed particularly in their emphasis on human bodily experience “as the primal basis for
everything we can mean, think, know and communicate” (p. 3). Very well, but Mead scholars
know that these compliments would fit him just as well, perhaps even more deservedly. Here
is a case of the philosophical negligence of Mead of which I noted above. He would be the
closest forerunner of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s program, but these scholars seem to be aware of
him. He is also otherwise a good example of an empirically responsible philosopher because
this comes out in the personal data that he has given for the reference work American Men of
Science. There Mead (1910: 315) mentions “relation of philosophy to the natural sciences” as
his first object of interest. Accordingly, Farr (1996: 80) seems to be right in saying that
“Many who [have been] influenced by Mead may have failed to appreciate the extent to
which his theorizing was constrained by the available scientific evidence.” I agree, but think
also that scientific evidence did not just constrain Mead’s theorizing. With today’s more
ample evidence we can say that Mead has been an empirically responsible philosopher in two
senses. He has not only respected science but been able to adumbrate some of its later
3. The irreducibility of intersubjectivity and its corporeal foundation
Hans Joas (1985: 2) summed up his path-breaking study on Mead’s theoretical development,
by calling him “the most important theorist of intersubjectivity between Feuerbach and
Habermas.” No one will be done injustice if we say that this is an understatement. Even with
historical relativity taken into account, one is hard put to find a thinker to match, let alone
surpass, Mead as a theorist of intersubjectivity. But what is intersubjectivity? We run into
difficulties again, because some eminent thinkers have had various meanings for the term.
Mead, as far as I know, has not used the term at all, but his underlying idea seems
nonetheless best capture what should be understood by the term.
Philosophers sometimes talk about the ‘problem’ of intersubjectivity, also
known as ‘the problem of other minds.’ I have my mind and you have yours, and we can
never divine what goes in the head of the other, can we? Mead’ insight has been in
transcending this framework that prima facie seems natural.
For example, Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, was one to take
intersubjectivity as a problem. He founded his philosophical project on the study of
individual consciousness, discovered that this threatens to lead to solipsism and tried to do
something to alleviate that threat. Intersubjectivity posed a problem for him, as he did not
want to give up his starting point in subjective consciousness. Mead had a quite different
situation in mind. I introduce what I take to be his starting point with a bit of jocularity:
Intersubjectivity cannot be (a part of) the problem, because it is (a part of) the solution!
That what we can say intersubjectivity to ‘solve’ is the origin of subjectivity.
Mead’s line of reasoning goes into the opposite direction from that of other great
philosophers, say, Husserl. He does not start from a state of individual subjectivity and
ponder how this might be extended to include also (an) other mind(s). He begins by assuming
a condition of (elementary) intersubjectivity, and then shows how individual subjectivity can
be constituted on its basis. This is what I take him to have meant by asserting that “We must
be others if we are to be ourselves” (SW: 292; 1925), for example. Today, Radu Bogdan, a
philosopher of cognitive science, is almost as laconic to the same effect , as he notes in
agreement with Mead4 that “It is the other, not the self, whom one must deal with and figure
out first” (2000: 143). Mead’s ideas appear to be in reasonably good company, as I have
maintained in this paper. However, so far I have just given a brief characterization of
intersubjectivity, but the question is how it actually operates is still open. In taking a look at
this question, we find Mead’s theories to be even more alive and well.
In posterity, Mead is best remembered for his conception of the human self, for
the notion in which the ‘phases’ of the self, as he called them, ‘the I’ and ‘the me’ are in
dialogic interaction with each other. The reason why this pair of concepts is so well
The quoted author Bogdan (2000) is an exception among contemporary philosophers of cognitive science in
that he is aware that Mead has approached human subjectivity from a similar viewpoint. His real forerunner,
however, Bogdan sees in the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s eminence is not to be disputed,
but even Bogdan’s knowledge of Mead appears, regrettably, to be based mostly on hearsay, though he does
mention Mind, Self, and Society (1934). This testifies to the fact that Mead is still much too little known by
those scholars who today are most closely related to his original problems.
remembered might be that it is a philosophical and psychological “commonplace,” as Mead’s
own characterization once goes (SW: 140; 1912). Something like this has been assumed
almost invariantly throughout philosophy’s history, from Plato via Kant to the late twentieth
century dialogical philosophy of Charles Taylor and others. The specific terms ‘I’ and ‘me,’
appear in psychology for the first time in William James’s Principles of Psychology (1890) as
Mead acknowledges, but the basic idea is age-old.5 Mead does stand out among theorists of
the human self, but not on account of his I/me distinction. What he has added as a genuine
advancement is the third constituent of his self-concept, ‘the generalized other.’
The ‘generalized other’ is perhaps the closest implicit equivalent to the concept
of intersubjectivity in Mead’s theoretical vocabulary. The distinction I/me appears early in
his usge, though he continuously develops it, but the ‘generalized other’ is a later idea,
appearing for the first time to my knowledge in the 1922 article, ‘A Behavioristic Account of
the Significant Symbol’ (SW: 246). Where Mead stands out from others is that in his
conception the ‘generalized other’ is the necessary foundation of I/me self; they are
constituted upon it. What is perhaps of even more importance and my reason to suggest that
the term refers to intersubjectivity, is Mead’s following point. As he says (MSS: 156;
emphasis added), “only by taking the attitude of the generalized other toward himself ... can
[an individual] think at all; for only thus can thinking – or the internalized conversation of
gestures that constitutes thinking – occur.” Not anyone can think; the ability to think is an
accomplishment achieved during the ontogenetic development, and its outcome Mead call the
generalized other. The following addendum that he makes situates him in his pragmatist
background with its emphasis on action, and it points to empirical research that in some
respects has later vindicated him. As he says (MSS: 154-155),
It also appears to be alive and well, judging by what Damasio (2010: 8-10) writes. He refers with approval to
James (1890) as a predecessor, but unsurprisingly not to Mead.
If the given human individual is to develop a self in the fullest sense, it is not
sufficient for him merely to take the attitudes of other human individuals toward
himself and toward one another within the human social process, and to bring
that social process as a whole into his individual experience merely in these
terms: he must also, in the same way that he takes the attitudes of other
individuals toward himself and toward one another, take their attitudes toward
the various phases or aspects of the common social activity ... in which they are
all engaged. ... This getting of the broad activities of any given social whole or
organized society as such in the experiential field ... is the essential basis and
prerequisite of the fullest development of that individual’s self...
Accordingly, the generalized other is not a synthesis of the different social
identities surrounding the socializing individual. Too many of Mead’s readers have jumped to
this conclusion. Rather, the generalized other is a synthesis of the various social agencies,
individuals doing things together, that surround the socializing individual. If socialization is
to take place, individuals are to be understood as interacting not only with one another but
also with the material world. This insight, that agency precedes identity and individuality
(both in phylogenetic and ontogenetic sense), is also the line through which Mead’s ideas
have received most and best posthumous vindication.
Intersubjectivity vindicated
Think what total lack of intersubjectivity, intersubjectivity brought down to degree zero
might be like. We know what it is like. It is what is sometimes called ‘insensitivity to social
situations,’ perhaps more often ‘psychological mind-blindness,’ but usually known as autism.
Autism and intersubjectivity are opposite concepts, so that the diagnosis of autism in the
1940s vindicated Mead’s original assumption about the universality of intersubjectivity – for
which he did not use this particular term, as noted. The term autism – which I have not
noticed Mead using, either – was suggested in 1917 by the psychologist Bleuler, and its first
clinical diagnostician (in 1943) was the physician Leo Kanner (Hacking 1999: 114). Since
then, more detailed research has distinguished also sub-variants of autism, some of psychical,
others of physiological origin. The severest form of the latter kind is due to prenatal injury in
the part of the brain called the amygdala (Damasio (2006; 2000). Such unlucky creatures will
have a Hobbesian life: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, and live it in diapers. Most
cases are less severe and have, as Damasio describes (2003: 330, n33), “serious social
difficulties, tend to lack empathy, and often live a lonely and friendless existence.”
So far so bad, but what actually is it that we luckier individuals can do but
autistic people cannot? We luckier ones exercise ‘mind-reading’ (Baron-Cohen 1995; Frith
2003). This kind of idea appears already in Mead, he has had at least an inkling of it, as he
has said (MSS: 14) that “We are reading the meaning of the conduct of other people when,
perhaps, they are not aware of it.” So the case is, although more recent research has added
that besides those others we ourselves are usually unaware that we are engaged in such a
reading operation. This, however, does not invalidate Mead’s original point. What such mindreading yields as its result is often called a ‘theory of mind.’ This does not refer to ideas of
theorists but ideas held by you and I, as we engage in dealings with each other. Damasio
(2000: 83, 93) provides a description:
The solution of the method problem posed by the privacy of consciousness
relies on a natural human ability, that of theorizing constantly about the state of
mind of others from observation of behaviours, reports of mental states, and
counterchecking of their correspondencies (...) When we observe someone with
intact core consciousness, well before any words are spoken, we find ourselves
assuming the subject’s state of mind. Whether correct or not, some of the
presumptions are based on a continuity of emotional signals available in the
subject’s behaviour.
The capacity for mind-reading is good for a number of important things, adds
another of its leading researchers, Simon Baron-Cohen (1995: 30), naming “social
understanding, behavioural prediction, social interaction, and communication.” This refers to
human sociality in the social-psychological or sociological sense. That is important but it is
even more important to know that mind-reading provides also the means by which we have
access to our own mind. Thanks to it we can objectify our mind for scrutiny, exercise ‘selfreflection,’ as philosophical classics used to say, or ‘meta-mentation,’ as is Bogdan’s (2000)
more naturalistic expression for the phenomenon (for definitive treatments of this function of
mind-reading, see Carruthers 2009; Gray 2004: 294f.). And this makes the point that I have
claimed to be also Mead’s point: Intersubjectivity necessarily precedes individual subjectivity
and serves as its foundation in our minds. We are individual subjects thanks to our first
having been social subjects in the intersubjective sense, both phylogenetically and
ontogenetically. However, Mead’s far-sightedness as a theorist of intersubjectivity is not even
now spelled out. It concerns not only the results of intersubjectivity but even the mechanism
by which it takes place.
Mead of course has not had an idea of those neurological facts whose discovery
was impossible by the then stage of technology, but he has been looking in the right direction.
The clinical diagnosis of autism in the 1940s established via negationis the intersubjective
constitution of the human mind. What was still lacking was a description of how this kind of
mind operates. In particular, what are the underlying neural mechanisms of such mental
operations? Technological improvements in brain imaging have since then made their
detection possible, and the findings of this research have been reported as the discovery of
mirror neurons in the human brain.
The credit for this discovery belongs to a team of Italian scientists, Giacomo
Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia, who sum up their findings in a book, Mirrors in the Brain
(2006/2008). Another Italian-born scientist, Marco Iacoboni (2008) is also a notable pioneer
in the field. The first thing to be noted is that they have not found any new neurons in the
human brain, they rather have discovered a new, ‘mirroring’ function in already known visual
and motor neurons. These two kinds of neurons, whose existence is an old hat, as said, are
related to two closely geared functions: perception and action (see below). As the authors
state (2008: 50-51), referring also explicitly to Mead (1907; 1938) as a predecessor,
Our aim is to stress that the function of the motor system is not confined to the
execution and control of movements, and that even in the case of simple acts
such as grasping, the motor vocabulary contained in the [brain] circuit requires
continual interaction between perception and action. However ‘pragmatic’ it
may be, this interaction still plays a decisive role in constructing the sense of
objects; without it the majority of the so-called ‘higher order’ cognitive
functions could not take place.
Before moving on, a brief word of the above ‘grasping,’ as it elucidates the
basic idea. The mirroring phenomenon has been found in the brains of most primates. When,
say, a monkey sees another monkey to grasp an interesting object, the very same visual and
motor neurons activate in the first monkey’s brain, that would activate were the monkey itself
doing the grasping. Only the neurons activate, the monkey will not do an empty grasping
gesture. Accordingly, mirror neurons do not simply mirror our neighbours in any old manner.
They depict them as doers rather than beings – but this precisely was already Mead’s starting
point, as he derived the intersubjective mind from the primitively social action, and thence
derived individual human subjectivity.
The American sociologist and cognitive scientist David D. Franks (2010: 86)
has already made the point that “the current findings regarding mirror neurons add
embodiment and thus refinement to Mead’s ‘theory of the act’ as well as confirm the ‘priority
of action’ which is the key to Chicago pragmatism.” I agree with this and with Franks’s
admirable Neurosociology (2010) almost altogether, as his position too is that “We [humans]
came from a line of doers, not just thinkers, talkers and feelers” (p. 87; original emphasis).
However, I think that one can compare Mead’ ‘theory of the act’ with that of Rizzolatti and
Sinigaglia (2008) even more closely. When doing so, those newly-found neurons are less
important than the context of motor behaviour onto which the authors situate them. Consider
their following example. In handling, say, a coffee cup,
We will grasp it in different ways depending on whether we are picking it up to
drink from it, to rinse it, or simply to move it from one place to another.
Moreover, our grip on the cup varies according to the circumstances, whether
we are afraid of burning our fingers, or the cup is surrounded by other objects; it
will also be influenced by our customs, habits, and our inclinations to adhere to
certain social rules and so on. (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia 2008: 35-36).
But if so, what is this if not to vindicate on empirical grounds Mead’s original
point about how what he called the ‘consummation’ stage of the act controls the act’s
character right from the beginning? (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia [2008: 48] have a term, “virtual
pole of action” that answers Mead’s ‘consummation’ to a tee). “The later stages of the act are
present in the early stages – not simply in the sense that they are ready to go off, but in the
sense that they serve to control the process itself, “ was Mead’s own perhaps most concise
formulation (MSS: 11). He explained what he meant by more concrete examples: “If one
approaches a distant object he approaches it with reference to what he is going to do when he
arrives there. If one is approaching a hammer he is muscularly all ready to seize the handle of
the hammer” (ibid.). To many readers these formulations might have sounded metaphysical
and as mere unnecessary ballast in Mead’s theory of social psychology. The truth is the
opposite. These phrases make the point that action is for him the groundwork of all higher
cognitive functions, of which intersubjectivity and later appearing subjectivity are humanly
most important. And these ideas deserve to be taken very seriously, judging by what current
cutting-edge empirical science is telling about the matter.
The situation is similar concerning Mead’s theory of perception: it receives
corroboration concomitantly with the accumulation of empirical and conceptual research
findings. “Perceiving is a way of acting,” are the opening words in Action in Perception
(2004), by the philosopher of cognitive science Alva Noë. Or, to make the point in alternative
manner: Action and perception are the inseparable two sides of the human condition, of the
manner in which we exist in the world. To be sure, philosophy has dealt with both as long as
there has been philosophy and empirical human sciences have followed suit immediately
after having been established. However, there has been the problem – and some people find
this a grave problem – that those two phenomena have been treated separately, so that their
mutual relation has remained just contingent. Mead defended the idea that their relation is
instead inherent: there is continuous traffic between the human subject and the surrounding
world in both directions. Twenty-first century research on the phenomenon has taken the
same view, has treated perception as “enactive,” as Noë calls it, meaning by this its
inseparable relation to action. “Perception is not something that happens to us or in us. It is
something we do.” (2004:1). In closer detail the idea is expressed like this: “The basis of
perception, on our enactive, sensori-motor approach, is implicit practical knowledge of the
ways movement gives rise to stimulation” (2004: 8). This may sound a bit technical at first,
but Mead provides some needful elucidation. The underlying idea is simply and solely that
“what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell depends upon what we are doing and not the
reverse” (Mead SW: 37; 1903). The order has often appeared to be the reverse for those who
have separated action and perception, and they have made the bulk of philosophers and
human scientists thus far. Whether they have been right in choosing that order is another
question. Although the question remains open, empirically, and for instance Rizzolatti and
Sinigaglia cite also differing opinions, their own suggestion is to treat perceptions as “action
proposals,” as they call them (2008: 35; original emphasis).
As Hans Joas (1985) and Gary A. Cook (1993) years ago conducted painstaking philological
studies on what Mead really had said and meant, they reached conclusions that were meant to
alter the prevailing picture of the classic. Instead of being a paradigmatic theorist of social
interaction (among socialized adult humans), as the received view had maintained, Mead
turned out to be a paradigmatic theorist of action. Not a theorist of action in that meaning of
the term that is favoured in analytic philosophy, neoclassical economics or functionalist
sociology. Mead does not assume that an explicit operation by the conscious mind is always
needed to send the subject on his way – he assumes the subject to be on his (or her) way
already. Those path-breaking philological studies have stood the test of time, but have,
regrettably, not left much imprint in other scholars’ treatments of Mead. All too often one
still encounters him as a theorist of interaction in the sociological sense and the rest is silence.
Joas gave to Mead’s theoretical position the caption term “practical
intersubjectivity.” This is the title of the original German edition of his book. By this he
meant mind’s intersubjective constitution and its dependence on ongoing corporeal activity,
basically: joint activities performed by humans. As I said, this summation has rather well
stood the test of time; it only needs to be taken further, in the light of present-day knowledge.
Joas presented it mostly in the framework of what German scholars in particular call
‘philosophical anthropology,’ where the term ‘anthropology’ refers to the universality of the
subject matter: it is intended to cover humankind in its entirety. However, in light of what we
have seen above, it is possible to go even further. The universally anthropological frame of
reference is not to be given up, but it can be given more of empirical founding. The fact that
Mead’s theory of perception and his theory of the act are being literally rediscovered (not
always with his name mentioned) gives even solid empirical relevance to those theories. They
are not of course empirical in the sense of actual research findings, but they can serve as such
a foundation for human studies that has also empirical solidity, not merely philosophical
consistency. Ideas like this seem to be ‘in the air.’ The excellent book by a younger German
scholar Matthias Jung, Der bewusste Ausdruck (2009) is not a contribution to Mead
scholarship in the philological sense, but one can quite well say it to be written in his spirit.
Or at least in the spirit of pragmatism, as Peirce, James and Dewey are also extensively and
competently covered in the volume. Most interestingly, the author draws via and through
these thinkers a historical line of development from German philosophical anthropology to
the contemporary philosophy of mind that draws on the results and findings of cognitive
science, as I have briefly tried to do above. I believe that applications like these are the best
way to make use of Mead’s original ideas, instead of rehearsing them philologically.
When brought in the context provided by the philosophy of mind that draws on
cognitive and neuroscience, Mead’s and other pragmatists’ ideas turn out more pertinent than
ever. In the first place, the real relevance and character of the pragmatist project in
philosophy, from Peirce to Mead, can now be seen in all its relevance. Perhaps Peirce erred
only by a century, as he in 1906 prophesied pragmatism (not ‘pragmaticism’, analytic
epigones notwithstanding!) to develop into the dominant philosophy of the twentieth century.
Pragmatism has enough unused potential to develop a dominant or at least major philosophy
for the twenty-first century. Not, however, in the guise of contemporary ‘neo-pragmatism,’
but as empirically responsible philosophy. Current neo-pragmatists are so far right that all of
their classic predecessors had a low opinion about epistemology as a foundational theory in
philosophy. Mead, for example, used the term almost in a pejorative sense. From this,
however, it does not follow that genuine pragmatism might be ‘anti-foundational.’ Instead of
founding their philosophical project upon knowledge, classic pragmatists founded it on action.
As far as social sciences are concerned, correct understanding of Mead’s
philosophical message would be of much importance for them. Above, at the beginning of
this paper, I spoke somewhat critically about Mead’s social-scientific reception, although I
am a social scientist myself. The reason is my frustration with most previous attempts to draw
on him. I’m forced to use an expression that is not quite politically correct today: I find that
particularly the customary sociological reading of Mead only emasculates him, turns him into
a run-of-the-mill theorist of human social interaction. Social interaction is a respectable field
of study, but Mead’s theories are not of particular help on that domain, because of their
generality and abstract character. However, the fact remains that without human
intersubjectivity there would not be any human social life such as we know it, and,
accordingly not any social sciences – or other sciences. By drawing on the theory of
intersubjectivity, such as we have it in Mead and corroborated by most recent empirical
findings, social scientists would be in a position to argue that all individualist modes of
analysis, such as are to be found in economics or the study of politics, can serve only as
abstractions. They do not capture sufficiently the mental life of flesh and blood humans, and,
consequently, not their rationality.
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