George Herbert Mead on consciousness: antidote to Cartesian absurdities?

Abstract: In spite of the fact that the book was mainly compiled from edited stenographic text originating in the lecture room, Mind, Self and Society is generally regarded as George Herbert Mead’s main d’oeuvre. Due partly to its intellectual maze qualities, partly to historical circumstances, the book still contains many hidden treasures not least in the field of general psychology. The article endeavours to present Mead’s views on consciousness. As a scholar Mead saw clarification of the concept of consciousness as a prerequisite for establishing a theoretically sound platform for (social) psychology. Yet his views on consciousness – which in many respects prophetically anticipate later discoveries and insights – have so far received scant attention.


Submitted as traditional paper.


1. On background:

How consciousness became a professional issue for the author


The author’s professional engagement in the consciousness issue developed along two distinctly different, yet related lines of interest:


(1) One line of interest has academic and theoretical origins. As a university based social psychologist – with philosophical leanings – I was struck by the many theoretical absurdities springing from the Cartesian legacy as this legacy has permeated scientific or academic psychology since its founding. No theoretical sub-field within general psychology has been more vulnerable to these absurdities than the study of consciousness. In my theoretical endeavours to dis-entangle the said theoretical absurdities, George Herbert Mead became one crucially important source of inspiration.


(2) Another line of interest stems from the author’s professional work as university based psychological practitioner – and action researcher – within the fields of counselling, psychotherapy and organization consultancy. As part of my reflective endeavours to grasp the nature of professional helping relationships I was struck by the way such relationships serve as practical refutations of the ontological stance known as epiphenomenalism – a stance which, today, is not only upheld by materialist hardliners, but also serves as meta-theoretical platform for formulating what for the last decade has been known and acknowledged as the Hard Problem of consciousness research.[1] The refutation goes like this.


As long as your focus of inquiry is restricted to the human individual, you may logically uphold the (otherwise absurd!) notion that consciousness (the ‘what is it like’-quality) is simply a superfluous ‘something’ that nature has added on to the material, flesh-and-blood organism – that organism being the site of the serious work of staying alive and well. Once your focus is enlarged to cover cooperative units like, e.g., dyads of professional helping relationships you will find that consciousness is indeed a prerequisite for any serious work that such dyads may accomplish. My activities as psychological helper depend, in an absolute fashion, on my client’s capacity to somehow make read-outs of (aspects of) his bodily states, thereby transforming these into mental states (states of mind) – the nature of which he may subsequently, through verbal means, transmit to me, his therapist. Researching professional helping relationships thus made me realize (1) how well worn philosophical riddles concerning consciousness are contingent on viewing (as Descartes did) the consciousness bearer as an individual cut off from social relationships; and (2) that such riddles may dissolve once you view the individual as an interaction participant in a matrix of social relationships (as does Mead): “Social psychology, on this view, presupposes an approach to experience from the standpoint of the individual, but attempts to determine in particular that which belongs to this experience because the individual himself belongs to a social structure, a social order.” (Mind, Self and Society, p. 1)



2. On origins:

Mind, Self and Society – its background, subject matter and theoretical significance


George Herbert Mead lectured on social psychology at the University of  Chicago during last century’s first three decades. His lectures received much acclaim from the local social scientific community. When it came to putting his big thoughts on paper, he suffered from a lifelong writer’s block. Admirers and pupils had it arranged that a stenographer was smuggled into the lecture room, most extensively during the year 1927. Seven years later, and three years after Mead’s death, this resulted in the book Mind, Self and Society. More than anything else, the book was a search for the proper understanding of consciousness. Theoretically speaking, Mead wanted to bring about a truly Hegelian synthesis (aufhebung) between academic psychology’s two dominant, but also antithetically opposed research paradigms of his day, i.e. on the one hand introspection based, quasi-dualistic, consciousness centred psychology, on the other hand watsonian hard core behaviorism.


The book became a success. For a book not even written by its author, its long-time staying power on the intellectual marketplace is remarkable. Still, the book has had no great impact on the study of consciousness – for a variety of reasons.

·        Due to its peculiar history-of-production, the book is tough reading, difficult to decipher. So say even its ardent admirers.[2]

·        In 1934, when the book finally appeared, the controversy between introspectionism and hard core behaviourism was no longer a living, debatable issue in North American academic psychology. Behaviorism had come out victorious. Introspectionism – its bathwater as well as its babies – had gone down the drain. During the thirties, it became in (even obligatory) to leave consciousness out of the psychological laboratory.

·        For, roughly, the first half century after its publication, the book’s success rested mainly on Mead having become adopted as an important inspirational source by sociologists  (Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism), and not by psychologists. The peculiar bio-psychological underpinnings of his views on consciousness therefore received scant attention.


What, then, are the major interesting features of Mead’s views on consciousness, making them worthy of more attention than they have so far received:

·        Mead is anti-cartesian and pro-darwinistic in ways that in many respects antedate the systemic-constructionist thinking of Maturana & Varela.

·        In the context of the age-old tension between heraclitic and parmenidean thought forms, Mead as process thinker is heraclitic to an extent maybe only matched by Bateson when formulating the cybernetic systemic paradigm

·        Mead endeavours to install bodily action and bodily directedness as psychology’s core concept in ways that show affinity to a wide array of more recent theoretical traditions, e.g. Soviet-psychological activity theory, Merleau-Ponty, Lakoff & Johnson, J.J. Gibson …

·        In the context of the determinism issue, Mead’s views on consciousness place him in a position akin to Popper’s historicism

·        Mead draws speculative theoretical implications concerning brain function which, broadly speaking, are structurally isomorphic with Damasio’s empirically supported exposition of brain architecture

·        In Mind, Self and Society Mead develops a theoretical model on how the human imagination capacity serves a mediating function in perceptual activity. Till now, I never read any references to this peculiar theoretical component of the book. Yet, in 1999 one of the world’s leading brain scientists publishes experimental work intended to test ideas akin to Mead’s speculative insights formulated roughly 70 years earlier – without, of course, knowing that ‘Mead had been there before’.[3]


As the above catalogue shows, Mead’s conception of consciousness can be seen as meeting ground in germinal form of many sophisticated, consciousness-related intellectual traditions of the 20th century. According to this author, one of his most important theoretical assets is his capacity to make these traditions coexist and mutually enrich one another with a very low degree of technical sophistication. However many folk psychological linguistic habits he had to violate in his effort to transcend shallow cartesianism, he stayed true to philosophical pragmatism’s original concern with common man living his productive life in the world common to us all.



3. On contents:

George Herbert Mead’s three-tiered ‘definition’ of the concept of consciousness


The peculiar origin of Mind, Self & Society in part explains the intellectual maze-qualities, that are a distinguishing feature of the text. On the one hand, the concept of consciousness plays an exceedingly important strategic role for Mead in the development of his ideas. On the other hand, the manuscript does not offer one well-formed, all-embracing, easily quotable definition of the term consciousness. The best approximation to such a definition is found on page 111. Mead here identifies (at least) three qualitatively different sub-significations of the term consciousness. The numbering of these sub-significations, as presented below, has been done by the present author.


Consciousness1 (according to Mead):“…simply the environment…”

·        “Consciousness as stuff, as experience (…)  is simply the environment of the human individual or social group in so far as constituted by or dependent upon or existentially relative to that individual og social group.”


This sub-signification refers to consciousness as part of a general biological capacity, which provides the necessary informational guidance for monitoring organisms’ goal directed behavior in their immediate surroundings. The general biological capacity, of which Consciousness1 is a part, is enacted on the basis of selective informational links existing between an acting organism and discrete features of that same organism’s surroundings. Mead uses the term meaning (or meaning relationship) for describing these informational links. Using Bateson-inspired language, the meaning features of an organism’s surroundings can be described as noticeable environmental differences that make a difference insofar as the successful completion of some particular goal-directed action sequence is concerned.


According to Mead, consciousness1 refers to an aspect of consciousness shared by humans and higher animals alike. In half-poetic fashion, he often refers to this consciousness aspect as the world that is simply there. Consciousness1 is at a person’s disposal without necessarily being drawn into that person’s focused self-consciousness. On page 350 of Mind, Self & Society, Mead describes consciousness1 as “the unfractured relation between <organismic> impulses and the objects which give them expression”.


Mead’s core definition of consciousness1 has an inbuilt, punning reference to Cartesian dualism, in that he sets out hinting that consciousness might be understood as a special kind of ‘stuff’ – after which it is revealed that ‘the stuff’ in question is simply the organism’s environment ‘out there’. In an afterthought to the present text I return to the issue of consciousness-as-stuff.   


Consciousness2 (according to Mead): Meta-representational problem solving device

·        “Another signification of the term ’consciousness’ arises in connection with reflective intelligence.”


The sub-signification here referred to as consciousness2 is understood by Mead as an operational subsystem within the human mind-function. Contrary to consciousness1, consciousness2 is exclusively human, i.e. a phylogenetic feature seen in no other species.


For Mead, the human mind allows for a volitionally guided mental reorganization of the environment-as-informationally-given with the aim of overcoming existing activity blocks. The human mind function is enacted through the combined operation of two distinct sub-capacities:

(1)   A meta-representational capacity, i.e. an attentionally  focused consciousness of consciousness1. Enactment of this meta-representational capacity gives rise to human awareness (as opposed to experience; cf. above).

(2)   A capacity for restructuring the meaning relationship through which a person, at a given point in time, is existentially linked to his/her surroundings. This restructuring activity aims at creating imagined scenarios of the surroundings in which the problematic issues that activated the mind-function in the first place have been resolved at a virtual level. Through decisional activity on the part of the person, such scenarios may then be tested for their real-life validity, or actual truth value.


Consciousness2 equals self-consciousness, in that the acting subject in his/her activity-based, informationally linked relationship to the environment is potentially included (as one object among others) in that same subject’s conscious field.


Consciousness3 (according to Mead): Qualia

·        “Still another <signification of the term ’consciousness’ arises> in connection with the private or subjective aspects of experience as contrasted with the common or social aspects.”


Mead’s third sub-signification of the term consciousness is in principle equivalent to’cartesian consciousness’, or (in modern philosophical language) the qualia-aspect of consciousness.


Mind, Self & Society can be read as Mead’s calculated intellectual exercise aimed at avoiding any metaphysical commitments concerning qualia- or dualism-related philosophical issues. Mead’s first step in this exercise is to put equation marks between ‘consciousness’ and ‘existentially relevant environment’ (i.e. consciousness1, or experience). His second step is to explain human awareness (i.e. consciousness2) as arising when persons at one and the same time become acting subjects and experiential objects to themselves. The only ontological presupposition needed for making these two steps is that organisms are linked to their environments, not only through activity patterns, but also through informational patterns, the latter serving as monitoring support for the former.


The quotation below – which is also the very last paragraph of Mind Self, and Society’s main text – effectively proves my point (brackets added by the author): “Such are the two conceptions of consciousness <equalling consciousness1+2> that I wanted to bring out, since they seem to make possible a development of behaviourism beyond the limits to which it has been carried, and to make it a very suitable approach to the objects of social psychology. With those key concepts one does not have to come to certain conscious fields lodged inside the individual <equalling Consciousness3>; one is dealing throughout with the relation of the conduct of the individual to the environment.” (Mind, Self and Society, p. 336)



4. On implications:

Consciousness as a relational as opposed to a sensory quality


According to Mead, an ontological divide separates consciousness1+2 from consciousness3. The two former consciousness varieties belong to the realm of living nature, i.e. the realm whose basic laws of functioning are unravelled by the bio-sciences cast in a Darwinist mould. For Mead, human psychology’s subject matter belongs to this realm – and not the realm of ‘dead nature’ accounted for by physics.


The latter consciousness variety, i.e. consciousness-as-qualia, belongs to a realm whose ontological status – despite ages of philosophical debate – remains undecided. Given that the subject matter of psychology is unrelated to the ontological realm of consciousness3, psychologists need not wait for a possible elucidation of the true nature of this realm, but may go on with their business in theoretical ignorance of what exactly it is like, e.g., to be a bat – or another human being – and why. The aforementioned Hard Problem, looming so large in today’s professional communities dealing with consciousness, may be intellectually intriguing, but lies outside the range of problems that psychologists need to solve.


Leaving consciousness3 aside as theoretically insignificant (for a socially sensitive psychology), Mead describes consciousness1+2 as relational concepts, i.e. not features of any one particular object but, rather, of a linkage between objects, namely organisms and their ‘existentially relevant environments’ (cf. defining statement above on consciousness1). To such linkages Mead gives the name ‘meaning relationships’. He sees meaning relationships as the basic constituent parts making up the realm of living nature. The relational nature of meaning and its independence of consciousness-as-qualia are highlighted in the following quote from Mind, Self and Society, p. 129f:


”The distribution of meaning to the organism and the environment has its expression in the organism as well as in the thing, and that expression is not a matter of psychical or mental conditions. There is an expression of the organized response of the organism to the environment, and that reaction is not simply a determination of the organism by the environment, since the organism determines the environment as fully as the environ­ment determines the environment. // And since organism and environment determine each other and are mutually dependent for their existence, it follows that the life pro­cess, to be adequately understood, must be considered in terms of their interrelations”.



5. By way of conclusion


Mead enumerates three usages of the terms ‘consciousness’. Given that all three usages play parts in bona fide language games humans can engage in, he – as a ‘pre-Wittgenstein wittgensteinian’ – considers them all legitimate entities within the human life-world. One of these consciousness entities – in this poster-text named consciousness3 – he sees as having no theoretical significance for the build-up of a scientific psychology investigating the human life-world as a social life-world. In Mind, Self and Society (e.g. p.81; see quotation below) he endeavours to show that, for all practical research purposes any reference to shared meanings between human organisms – as indeed between any two or more living organisms – can be validated through observation of these organisms’ social conduct vis a vis one another. This notion gives rise to one of Mead’s core concept named triadic relation of meaning.


”Much subtlety has been wasted on the problem of the meaning of meaning. It is not necessary, in attempting to solve this problem, to have recourse to psychical states, for the nature of meaning, as we have seen, is found to be implicit in the structure of the social act, implicit in the relations of its three basic individual component: namely, in the triadic relation of a gesture of one individual, a response to that gesture by a second individual, and completion of the given social act by the gesture of the first individual.


As stated earlier, Mead’s efforts to bring about a true synthesis between introspection-based quasi-dualism and consciousness-phobic behaviourism made no significant impact on the study of consciousness (or the lack thereof) during the last century. Instead, cartesian notions retained their supremacy – together with the absurdities to which they gave rise.


One source of such absurdities relates to a split between consciousness-in-theory and consciousness-in-practice. Due to its essentially private character, Cartesian consciousness – akin to Mead’s consciousness3 – is generally regarded as a human capacity which separates man from man (in particular), and man from the world (in general). A footnote (p.6) in Mind, Self and Society draws the following picture of the (Descartes-inspired) philologist’s conception of ‘the conscious human being’.


“The philologist (…) has often taken the view of the prisoner in a cell. The prisoner knows that others are in a like position and he wants to get in communication with them. So he sets about some method of communication, some arbitrary affair, perhaps, such as tapping on the wall. Now, each of us, on this view, is shut up in his own cell of consciousness, and knowing that there are other people so shut up, develops ways to set up communication with them.”


According to Mead, such a prison cell conception of consciousness puts the cart before the horse. Primordially, the depicted prisoner ‘has’ consciousness – in the form of sense-based ideas – telling him about the world surrounding him. His problem-in-life is to get this consciousness translated into some kind of activity that may connect him to the world of which he is already conscious. In real life, however, things work the other way round. Activity linking organism and environment in a meaningful manner is taking place from the moment a human baby leaves the womb – and, indeed, even before – helped by an inborn monitoring capacity drawing (in Gibson-inspired phraseology) partly on ‘the senses considered as perceptual systems’. Starting from there, the human organism’s life-world – i.e. the world in which it is capable of competent, goal-directed action – is gradually enlarged. Aided by language as well as by inborn genetic endowment, this enlargement eventually gives rise to (1) awareness of the personal life-world – but an awareness that, in its common aspects, can be shared with others – and (2) a capacity to partially reshape it in cases where it does not live up to the organism’s or person’s requirements. Such reshaping is brought about through ongoing dialogues between the human person’s two operational sub-agencies, the I (operating at consciousness1-level) and the Me (being a repository of consciousness2-related material).



6. An afterthought: Is consciousness an elephant?


In the text I have explicated how Mead operates with three distinctly dissimilar sub-significations of the term consciousness. On this background it might be tempting to ask whether a certain ‘something’ is somehow hiding behind the exposed dissimilarities. The question might be posed using the well-known fable about the seven blind men who searched various parts of an elephant – and on that basis reached widely different conclusions as to the character of the object under investigation. According to the meta-message of the said fable, it was methodological limitations that barred the seven investigators from getting epistemic contact with the TRUE elephant behind their seven constructed pseudo-elephants. Does some TRUE consciousness hide behind the three sub-significations brought forth in Mind, Self and Society? Is consciousness ‘an elephant’ – a particular something?


I believe the answer to that question should be “No”. This “No” I see as a logical consequence of Mead’s insistence on consciousness being a relational concept rather than something that is ‘had’ by certain organismic entities.


The world we live in contains large numbers of living creatures whose life-world is shaped by the fact that they are informationally linked to, and thus in some sense conscious of their environments. In the language of the fable, ‘living conscious creatures’ definitely constitute ‘an elephant’.


Likewise, the world we live in has neural systems, the activities of which somehow lie behind or are functionally responsible for the phenomena linked to consciousness. ‘Neural systems’, to me, also constitute ‘an elephant’.


As a psychological practitioner I am confronted with social systems: groups, organizations, cultures … – that can be seen to try, as best they can, to maintain themselves as systems through the use of what may be called conscious survival or even development strategies. I have no problems in granting ‘elephant’ status to social systems.


But what about consciousness itself, or consciousness in itself…? Is it a good idea, is it necessary, is it convenient, is it required for ontological or epistemological reasons that we (in the language of the fable) grant it ‘elephant’ status? I think not. Further, I believe this negative answer is the one required if we shall steer clear of Cartesian absurdities.



[1] Namely through Chalmers’ (1996) vastly influential book The Conscious Mind.

[2] In an article hailing Mead as spiritual father of Symbolic Interactionism you read that “Mead’s posthumously published Mind, Self and Society is a far more complete and satisfactory, although in some ways obscure, statement of the theory” (author’s italics added); quoted from Rose, Arnold A. (1962) A systematic summary of Symbolic Interaction theory. In: Rose, Arnold A. (ed.) Human Behaviour and Social Issues. An Interactional Approach. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[3] Ramachandran, V.S. & Hirstein, W. (1999) Three Laws of Qualia. What Neurology Tells us about the biological Functions of Consciousness, Qualia and the Self. In: Gallagher, S. & Shear, F. (eds.) Models of the Self. Thorverton (UK): Imprint Academic.