Panel Discussion Proposal


for the 2007 Annual Meeting of the


Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy






The Moral and Political Dimensions of the Social Self in

The Philosophy of George Herbert Mead



3 Confirmed Participants for Panel



Panel Discussion Description


            This panel has two overarching goals. The first is to advance scholarship in the work of George Herbert Mead beyond his most well read text, Mind, Self, and Society.  Though ample work has been done on this text, scholarship in Mead’s work has suffered greatly to the extent that it has largely overlooked the philosophical work Mead published in his own life-time.   This problem is exacerbated by the difficulties scholars have recognized in separating out where Mead ends and his editor, Charles Morris, begins.  The second goal of this panel is to examine and employ Mead’s highly developed psychology and ontology of the self as it bears on the political and moral person.  Mead was years ahead of his time in recognizing the dynamic and social nature of the self.  It is this panel’s contention that moral and political philosophy is in large part still mired in a conception of the person which is fundamentally isolated and static.  Mead’s conception of the person offers an alternative which both provides a richer account of the person and which affords us powerful new tools for interrogating both classical philosophical concerns and contemporary social issues.

            The first paper employs Mead’s conception of the self to examine a contemporary social issue.  Using Mead’s account of the Social Self, it offers a defense of politically correct speech.  It argues that both right and left wing attacks on politically correct speech rely on outmoded notions of the self and its relation to the other.  It further argues that Mead’s account of the self as it relates to the use of language not only allows for politically correct speech, but that we ought to recognize it as a kind of speech which is fundamentally enriching and liberating for the self.

            The second paper examines the creation and maintenance of value and meaning from the standpoint of Mead’s conception of the person.  This paper will show how Mead situates the co-constitution of meaning in both the embodied individual and the social institution.  By placing creative power at the intersection of these two entities Mead offers an account of moral value which answers to both the existential concerns of the fully particular actor and the political concerns which must be at the heart of all social philosophy. 

            Finally, the third paper engages Mead’s account of the genesis of the self as socially emergent in an effort to provide a theoretical justification for democratic ethics and politics.  This justification is ultimately grounded in Mead’s account of the social self, which allows for the engagement of the perspective of others in ways that are not allowed for by either the contemporary analytic tradition, with its fundamentally liberal notion of the self, or by current trends in continental philosophy, which have focused increasingly on Heideggerian and Levinasian phenomenologies that radically cut the individual off from the perspective of the other.  This paper will show how a Meadian account of the self offers both theoretical ground for democratic institutions and provides a basis for hope in democratic societies.


Following are the paper abstracts for this proposed panel discussion.
Abstract:  Speech in Anticipation of the Other: A Defense of Politically Correct Speech from the Standpoint of G.H. Mead’s Self Psychology and Ontology of Personhood

            The goal of this paper is two-fold.  First, it offers an account of the manner in which politically correct language functions in terms George Herbert Mead’s account of the social self.  Second, it serves as a defense of the Political Correctness movement from detractors on the right and left.  These two goals are not distinct but rather related in so far as a thick account of politically correct language will demonstrate its value as activity which both decreases the amount of violence in the world and cultivates a fuller, more ethical, and fundamentally richer self.  For the purposes of this paper I will focus on Mead’s 1910 essay, “Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning” and his 1913 essay “The Social Self.”[1]

            Politically correct language has been attacked from both the right and left in scholarly and popular media.  The right has characterized it as liberal dogmatism aimed at coddling any and all populations that lack the initiative and gumption to take care of themselves.  They have lumped political correctness with affirmative action as activity which unfairly makes an exception where there ought to be a rule.  While the left embraced political correctness early on, it has come to a position no kinder then the right’s.  In recent years it has come to regard the requirements of politically correct language as the forefather Orwellian “Newspeak” and its enforcement as something akin to the enforcement of the same author’s fantastic “Thought-crime” regulations. 

            In this paper I hope to show that both camps base their concerns in a notion of the isolated liberal self which pragmatism rejects, and further that following Mead’s account of the social self and social act we see that politically correct speech is neither repressive nor dehumanizing.  Rather, it extends human freedom in so far as extends the degree to which we take the other to be constitutive of ourselves.  Further, it is not dehumanizing but rather is action which is performative of the recognition of the fully social and organically developing nature of the self.[2]

            G.H. Mead closed in 1913 essay, “The Social Self,” as follows, “The growth of the self arises out of a partial disintegration, -- the appearance of the different interests in the forum of reflection, the reconstruction of the social world, and the consequent appearance of the new self that answers to the new object.”[3] In this essay then we get a statement from Mead concerning the manner in which human growth is fundamentally the two fold process of the disintegration of previous attitudes and the incorporation, quite literally for Mead the taking in bodily, of novel and diverse interests. 

            In his 1910 essay, “Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning,” Mead develops his notion of human meaning as emerging out of social interaction with others.  Specifically, for Mead meaning develops in a conversation of gestures as one adjusts and readjusts in anticipation and response to the responses and reactions of the other to our own gestures. On more primitive levels, as with animals and small children, this process takes place in overt response to purely external stimuli.  The meaning of a dog’s growl is the reaction of other dogs in the pack just as the meaning of a baby’s crying is his mother’s loving response.  In more developed organisms this process can be entirely internal.  The other need not be present in any way but imaginatively.  We can, for example, know the independence of the desire of the opposite sex in our fear of rejection or the inappropriateness of our thoughts in the shame we may feel at the idea of others knowing them.  Similarly, we may know the ethical force of our words in the moral outrage we anticipate in response to them. 

            With these two essays then we can see how Mead’s thought bears upon the question of politically correct speech.  For Mead, it must be activity which internalizes the anticipated response of those outside our immediate social milieu.  It therefore participates in the mature development of meaning in that it appropriates the responses of others into a more manifold concept of the moral force of our speech.  Further, politically correct speech is a platform for moral and personal growth in so far as it incorporates more and more others into the community of ourselves.  It enriches our internal discourse and expands the horizons of our personhood in exact correlation to the degree to which it admits the other into our field of experience as rich thick individuals in just those situations where the opposite would be a self limiting proposition.  That is to say, in those situations where we and our language conspire to limit our encounters with others.  Encounters which, for Mead, are just those situations where growth and the development of human meaning is possible.


Abstract:  The Genesis and Perpetuation of Moral Values in the Philosophy of G. H. Mead

This paper will approach Mead’s Social Self from the perspective of ethical values.  By concentrating specifically on the essays “The Philosophical Basis of Ethics(1908), “The Social Self” (1913),  “Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning” (1910), and “Philanthropy from the Point of View of Ethics” (1930) I will show that within Mead there is a full account of the creation, perpetuation, and revaluation of a society’s ethical values.  Standing as the ground, so to speak, of this valuation is the idea of the social institution.  Approaching the social self in this manner will demonstrate an approach to ethics that centers on the human body as an organism that learns and grows. 

            In understanding the development of the self for Mead there is never a clear starting point.  The development of the self cannot occur without the aid of others in society, and a community cannot develop without already realized selves.  Society is the ground from which we learn to communicate, thrive, and be.  But it is an unfixed ground, a ground that can be changed and manipulated by the acts of others. It is the malleability of this communal constant that makes an approach to ethics through Mead both interesting and informative.

 Value creation and education begins with the “conversation of gestures.”  “The first function of gesture,” as Mead describes it, “is the mutual adjustment of changing social response to changing social stimulation.”[4]  The individual learns how to anticipate and to communicate using the particular gestures built into the society.  The need to express one’s self through these specific gestures causes a pause in action.  We learn to think of the appropriate gesture to express the appropriate meaning or value and we learn how to anticipate the meaning of the gestures of others.  This pause leads us to develop a distinction between what Mead calls the “I” and the “me”, or the subjective and objective selves.  We learn to generalize the meaning that an object or gesture represents from the object or gesture itself.  This act of abstraction sets the stage for the beginning of ethical valuation.  This is a move out of the biological or psychological development of the self and into an ethical/social sphere.

            Ethical valuation occurs when the individual feels an ethical obligation to a particular impulse.  This obligation demands a social manifestation.  The meaning is encountered in a problem or conflict, abstracted from this problem, analyzed, evaluated, and returned to the situation so that action can continue.  In this manner analysis of an immediate problem leads to the development of universal value assertions: everyone ought to act in such a manner.  This is the sense of obligation.  As Mead describes it, “Obligation lies in the demand that all these values and impulses shall be recognized.  The binding nature of obligation is found in the necessity for action and in the claim made by the whole self for representation within the action.”[5]  This feeling of obligation to an impulse manifests itself in society as the social institution.  Whereas the conversation of gestures leads to the development of consciousness, meaning, and value, the social institution stands as the vehicle by which are impulses are given an ethical manifestation and are perpetuated over time and space.

            The final stage in this organic evolving ethical structure is that of revaluation.  It is not enough to simply use social institutions to give value and voice to our emotions and impulses; we will also find ourselves questioning the established order.  The ethical structure develops through the constant interplay between the self and society.  Mead is insistent on this point, “Both must be there: the voice of the community and our own; the ordered community that endows us with its rights and its obligations, and ourselves that approve or dissent.”[6]  Through our approval of or dissent against the structure and nature of the social institution we can make demands upon them to change towards a better and fuller expression of our ethical impulses.   In this interaction between society and individuals, both continue to ethically evolve.  The manifestation of this evolution is a culture’s social institutions.  Understanding the movement of ethics through Mead in this manner sets the theoretical groundwork for a pragmatic approach to the obligations of citizenship in a community.



Abstract: Democracy, Obligation, and Pragmatism

            The primary goal of this paper is to derive a theoretical justification of democratic ethics and politics from George Herbert Mead’s socially emergent account of the self. The account that I give is a fundamentally pragmatist account that poses democratic activity as an ethical obligation for all persons. The bulk of my paper consists of an account of the emergence of meaning, mind, and self from the primordial social situation; and the ensuing account of society and social reconstruction as Mead presents it. For this purpose I draw primarily on the following sources: “The Philosophical Basis of Ethics” (1908), “A Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol” (1922), Mind, Self, and Society (1927 & 1930), and “Philanthropy from the Point of View of Ethics” (1930). The outcome of this account is that, taken as a whole, Mead’s project can be shown to lead to the conclusion that rational social reconstruction poses a moral obligation for human beings; and, furthermore, such reconstruction is inherently and necessarily democratic, in that it welcomes the input of various perspectives in order to reach a consensus of conclusions that are always subject to revision and further reconstruction.

            Of course, an obstacle immediately arises for such a project in the pragmatist charge that a theoretical justification of the kind that I offer is 1) “foundationalist” or “essentialist,” and hence impossible, and 2) unnecessary. Two closely linked secondary goals thus arise for my paper in the form of responding to, or at least accounting for, these objections. Indeed, I use a classical pragmatist account of democracy that rejects theoretical justification for just these reasons as the springboard for the entire project: Dewey’s account in Freedom and Culture.

            In Freedom and Culture, Dewey puts forth his own depiction of a democratic society, focusing on the concrete social conditions that prevent American society from being democratic and proposing a new approach to this problem. This account of course accompanies an endorsement of democracy. However, Dewey’s pragmatist anti-foundationalism comes forth in his unwillingness to offer a theoretical justification for democracy; he instead bases his support of democracy on a faith in the ideal itself. He supports this approach by citing the inadequacy of traditional political theories based on essentialist accounts of human nature, which fail to take into account the complex social, environmental, and cultural interactions that give rise to human nature.

            Thus, Dewey’s dissatisfaction with essentialist theories of human nature, and the political philosophies that come with them, causes him to swing all the way in the opposite direction, refusing to offer any theoretical justification for his politics at all and claiming that such a justification is impossible and unnecessary. Dewey thus presents the problem to which the rest of my paper responds. I turn to Mead to show that a theoretical justification of democracy is indeed possible, one in fact based on the same complex interactions that Dewey focuses on to criticize human nature theories. These interactions give rise, on Mead’s account, to meaning, mind, self, and society; and can also be shown to give rise to a moral obligation to democratic activity.

            Before I turn to my constructive project drawing on the work of Mead, however, I briefly gesture toward a response to Dewey’s claim that a theoretical justification of democracy is unnecessary. I offer a pragmatic reaction to this, claiming that a practical consequence of refusing to offer such a justification is thereby cutting off certain possibilities for social criticism, both locally and cross-culturally. However, a full defense of the claim that such a justification is in fact necessary is beyond the scope of this particular paper; I thus limit myself to showing that such a justification is possible. This is the task to which the rest of my paper is dedicated, and for which I mobilize the account of Mead’s work as described above.

            The theoretical justification for democracy that I ultimately derive form Mead lies in the moral responsibility to take account of a variety of perspectives; as I will show, the potentiality for such openness is presupposed in every act of communication. This allows us to develop a more robust conception of democracy that poses an ethical demand. While such theorization does not directly enable us to implement the institutions of democratic society in practice, establishing this moral obligation affords us firmer ground on which to stand in creating the kind of cultural conditions for promoting freedom and democracy that Dewey pursues in Freedom and Culture, and to which Mead was likewise committed; the two projects must go hand in hand to be successful. I thus offer this account as a theoretical contribution to the pursuit of a democratic society.







[1] Mead, George Herbert. Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning.                                                           In Selected Writings.   Ed. Reck, Andrew  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964)   p.123

   Mead, George Herbert,  The Social Self.  In Selected Writings. Ed. Reck, Andrew.                              (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964) p. 142                      

[2] In her recent work on the ontological basis for diversity Sandra Rosenthal argues along similar lines, albeit from a less psychological perspective.

[3] Mead, The Social Self.  P.149

[4] Mead, “Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning,” in Selected Writings: George Herbert Mead, ed. Andrew Reck (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), 125.

[5] Mead, Mind, Self, and Society, ed. Charles W. Morris. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934), 262.

[6] Mead, “Philanthropy from the Point of View of Ethics,” in Selected Writings: George Herbert Mead, 395.