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Mind is often thought of as located in the brain as the site of human reason, intelligence, and the experience of consciousness. George Herbert Mead put forth a version of mind as rooted beyond the individual in social experience, formed through interaction with the environment through attempts to manipulate it, and resulting in a conception of mind as essentially self-reflective. Both social adaptation and self-consciousness are achieved through the human capacity for language.
For Mead the origins of thinking are social and related to the organism’s interaction with the environment. Mead is not a sensationalist; the human capacity to select an object or particular characteristics of an object to attend to is rooted in the goals of potential human conduct toward that object, what Mead refers to as the act. The mind is not a blank slate that impartially takes in all objects; nor are individuals’ concerns in the environment given by a priori interests and structures. The individual develops a history of interactions with the environment of inanimate objects and others that develops connections in the central nervous system between images and language (significant symbols), creating memories that are invoked when similar situations arise. The individual, unlike the animal, has a history of significant memories that are invoked in the brain as responses to certain stimuli in the environment. Humans differ from animals in the capacity to provide internal stimuli to the self.
Beginning with a conversation of gestures, humans develop language or shared significant symbols that relate to significant objects in the human environment and these eventually lead to the development of abstractions. Language allows an individual to communicate with oneself as well as with others. Unlike animals, human consciousness has the capacity for delay between stimulus and response; this delay coupled with the ability to use symbols to communicate with oneself, creates the human capacity for thought, as well as freedom from determination by external stimuli. Humans can both invoke their own stimuli, using imagery or significant symbols, and resist external stimuli.
Influenced by Watson’s behaviorism which focused on observable behavior but rejected consciousness as an object of study, Mead’s social behaviorism posits the objective character of consciousness in the capacity for shared meaning. The capacity for thought develops in social interaction by means of the acquisition of shared significant symbols which arouse the same responses in self as others. Meaning resides in this shared significance; through their capacity of being shareable, significant symbols are universal and objective. The contents of the mind are neither subjective nor private, but, rather, objective.
The capacity for conscious thought arises when an obstacle prevents an habitual response to a stimulus and where several alternative courses of action present themselves for potential conduct. When this involves others, the goal for the individual is one of adjustment, fitting one’s actions to the environment in ways that allow one to predict or control the responses of others. This capacity for role-taking or taking the role of the other is premised on the idea that one can anticipate others’ reactions to possible courses of action by means of the shared, objective meanings one has developed. One incorporates into the process of role-taking the perspectives of particular others and eventually, the more abstract perspectives of generalized others which reflect the shared meanings of the various communities to which one belongs.
Yet the individual is not captive to the meanings of the community. Mead’s notion of the I and the me reflects the mind’s interior dialogue, both its capacity for self-reflection and ability to make an object of itself and its capacity for spontaneity and creativity. Acts and cooperative social behavior must be constructed anew; the ability to think through significant symbols not only allows one to create new social constructs but allows individuals to develop new social structures.
- Joas, H. (1997) G.H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of His Thought. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.