Thursday, December 09, 2010

Simon Susen - Meadian Reflections on the Existential Ambivalence of Human Selfhood*

I have not read anything by George Herbert Mead that I am aware of, but his name has come up two or three times in just the last couple of days. In this article, it seems that some of Mead's work was similar to William James in that he sought to distinguish between and define the "I" and the "me."

Here is the abstract - the article is open access, so the download link opens a PDF of the article. Below the article abstract, I'll include a little about, since I am now curious and want to know more.

Simon Susen
University of London - Birkbeck College - School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy

Studies in Social and Political Thought, Vol. 17, pp. 62-81, 2010

This paper examines the existential ambivalence of human selfhood by drawing upon George Herbert Mead’s distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’. In order to make a case for the centrality of this conceptual distinction, the paper offers a comprehensive account of a variety of different meanings which the notions of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ are given in Mead’s analysis of the self. The distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ has been extensively discussed in the literature, but neither supporters nor detractors of Mead’s symbolic interactionism have provided a detailed study of its multifaceted significance for the constitution of selfhood. The paper seeks to demonstrate that Mead’s analytical separation between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ allows us to shed light on the multilayered ambivalence of the human self, that is, on the existential significance of various opposing forces which pervade every ordinary subject’s relation to the world.

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Full citation:
Susen, S. (2010, October 30). Meadian Reflections on the Existential Ambivalence of Human Selfhood. Studies in Social and Political Thought, Vol. 17, pp. 62-81, 2010. Available at SSRN:

When I want to know something about philosophy, my first choice online is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a top-of-the-line resource created by experts in their respective fields.

The entry on Mead is quite extensive, so I am just including the introduction and the section on the "I" and the "me."

George Herbert Mead

First published Sun Apr 13, 2008

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), American philosopher and social theorist, is often classed with William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey as one of the most significant figures in classical American pragmatism. Dewey referred to Mead as “a seminal mind of the very first order” (Dewey, 1932, xl). Yet by the middle of the twentieth-century, Mead's prestige was greatest outside of professional philosophical circles. He is considered by many to be the father of the school of Symbolic Interactionism in sociology and social psychology, although he did not use this nomenclature. Perhaps Mead's principal influence in philosophical circles occurred as a result of his friendship with John Dewey. There is little question that Mead and Dewey had an enduring influence on each other, with Mead contributing an original theory of the development of the self through communication. This theory has in recent years played a central role in the work of Jürgen Habermas. While Mead is best known for his work on the nature of the self and intersubjectivity, he also developed a theory of action, and a metaphysics that emphasizes emergence and temporality, in which the past and future are viewed through the lens of the present. Although the extent of Mead's reach is considerable, he never published a monograph. His most famous work, Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, was published after his death and is a compilation of student notes and selections from unpublished manuscripts.

* * * * *

The “I” and the “Me”

One of Mead's most significant contributions to social psychology is his distinction between the “I” and the “Me.” It's worth emphasizing that while this distinction is utilized in sociological circles, it is grounded philosophically for Mead. His target, in part, is no less than the idea of the transcendental ego, especially in its Kantian incarnation. It is also important to note that the “I” and “Me” are functional distinctions for Mead, not metaphysical ones.

The self that arises in relationship to a specific generalized other is referred to as the “Me.” The “Me” is a cognitive object, which is only known retrospectively, that is, on reflection. When we act in habitual ways we are not typically self-conscious. We are engaged in actions at a non-reflective level. However, when we take the perspective of the generalized other, we are both “watching” and forming a self in relationship to the system of behaviors that constitute this generalized other. So, for example, if I am playing second base, I may reflect on my position as a second baseman, but to do so I have to be able to think of “myself” in relationship to the whole game, namely, the other actors and the “rules” of the game. We might refer to this cognitive object as my (second baseman) baseball self or “Me.” Perhaps a better example might be to think of the self in relationship to one's family of origin. In this situation, one views oneself from the perspective of the various sets of behaviors that constitute the family system.

To return to the baseball example, one may have a self, a “Me,” that corresponds to a particular position that one plays, which is nested within the game as an organized totality. This self, however, doesn't tell us how any particular play may be made. When a ball is grounded to a second baseman, how he or she reacts is not predetermined. He reacts, and how he reacts is always somewhat different from how he has reacted in the past. These reactions or actions of the individual, whether in response to others or self-initiated, fall within the “sphere” of the “I.” Every response that the “I” makes is somewhat novel. Its responses may differ only in small ways from previous responses, but they will never be absolutely the same. No catch in a ball game is ever identical to a previous catch. Mead declares that, “The ‘I’ gives the sense of freedom, of initiative. The situation is there for us to act in a self-conscious fashion. We are aware of ourselves, and of what the situation is, but exactly how we will act never gets into experience until after the action takes place” (MSS, 177-178). The “I” is both a “source” of spontaneity and creativity. For Mead, this is not a metaphysical assertion. The “I” is not a noumenal ego. It is a label for describing the actions of human beings. We do in fact react in different ways, and some of these ways are sufficiently original to be labeled creative.

The responses of the “I” are non-reflective. How the “I” reacts is known only on reflection, that is, after we retrospect.

If you ask, then, where directly in your own experience the "I" comes in, the answer is that it comes in as a historical figure. It is what you were a second ago that is the "I" of the "me." It is another "me" that has to take that rôle. You cannot get the immediate response of the "I" in the process (MSS, 174).

In other words, once the actions of the “I” have become objectified and known, by definition they have become a “Me.” The status of the “I” is interesting in Mead. In trying to differentiate it from the empirical, knowable, “Me,” he states, “The ‘I’ is the transcendental self of Kant, the soul that James conceived behind the scene holding on to the skirts of an idea to give it an added increment of emphasis" (MSC in SW, 141). However, this statement should not to be interpreted as endorsing the notion of a transcendental ego. Mead is seeking to emphasize that the “I” is not available to us in our acts, that is, it is only knowable in its objectified form as a “Me.” This point is clarified by a remark that directly follows the statement just cited. "The self-conscious, actual self in social intercourse is the objective "me" or "me's" with the process of response continually going on and implying a fictitious "I" always out of sight of himself" (MSC in SW, 141). A transcendental ego is not fictitious. But for Mead, since we are dealing with a functional distinction here, it is quite acceptable to refer to the “I” as fictitious in metaphysical sense.

Why, then, do we seem to experience what Mead refers to as a “running current of awareness,” that is, an ego that appears to be aware of itself as it acts and thinks, if the “I” is not immediately aware of itself (SS in SW, 144)? William James sought to explain this phenomenon in terms of proprioception and the relationship between “parts” of the stream of consciousness. (James 1890, 296-307; James 1904, 169-183; James 1905, 184-194). Mead developed a unique explanation based on the relationship of the “I” to the “Me.” As we have seen, the “I” reacts and initiates action, but the actions taken are comprehended, objectified, as a “Me.” However, the “Me” is not confined to the objectifications of the immediate actions of the “I.” The “Me” carries with it internalized responses that serve as a commentary on the “I's” actions. Mead states, “The action with reference to the others calls out responses in the individual himself—there is then another ‘me’ criticizing, approving, and suggesting, and consciously planning, i.e., the reflective self” (SS in SW, 145). The running current of awareness, then, is not due to the “I” being immediately aware of itself. It is due to the running commentary of the “Me” on the actions of the “I.” The “Me” follows the “I” so closely in time that it appears as if the “I” is the source of the “running current of awareness.”

Freud's super-ego could be conscious or unconscious. One might think of the “Me” as similar to the conscious super-ego in the commentary that it provides, but one would have to be careful not to carry this analogy too far. For Mead, the “Me” arises in relationship to systems of behaviors, generalized others, and, therefore, is by definition multiple, although the behaviors of various “Me's” can overlap. Further, Freud's model assumes a determinism that is not inherent in the relationship of the “I” to the “Me.” Not only does the “I” initiate novel responses, its new behaviors can become part of a “Me.” In other words, “Me's” are not static. They are systems that often undergo transformation. This will become more apparent in the next section when we discuss Mead's ideas regarding emergence. In this context it is enough to suggest the following: when a ball player makes a catch in a manner that has never been made before—that is, makes a play that is significantly different from prior catches—the new play may become part of the repertoire of the team's behaviors. In other words, the play may alter the existing generalized other by modifying existing behavioral patterns. In so doing, it gives rise to modified selves. If the game as a whole is sufficiently changed, then a new self may arise. Once again, this may be easier to see in terms of the transformations that occur in families when new reactions arise as children (and adults) go through various developmental phases.

Other resources online - some places to start:
* Image from an article by Mark Edwards.

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