George Herbert Mead


Mead is one of those writers who, unintentionally, almost makes one believe there is a God. It is not difficult to imagine, when reading his work, his being sat in his study, worrying away at a problem, getting stuck, and phoning God up, so as to get 'the answer', thus resolving his stuckness so as he could carry on. Mead was an American philosopher in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the odd things about his major writings, all of which were published after his death, is that he didn't write them. A lot of his writing comes from his students' notes that they took at his lectures in the University of Chicago. Thus, he 'spoke' his books, and they were put together subsequent to his death, reflecting particular courses he had given. They were not intended as books, and can thus be a little repetetive.

He is mostly known for his book Mind, self and society: from the standpoint of a social behaviorist (1934). I am going to introduce some of his themes in that book, and also others from another of his posthumous books The Philosophy of the Act (1938). Why am I doing this? Mead has a lot to say about logic and implication, and you will recall that was one of the themes I was presenting to you about the evolutionary process. In addition, he also has a number of insights about values and perspectives with respect to perception and experience. Both of these strands in his thinking are thus useful in consolidating your understanding of this evolutionary way of thinking. Further, his concern with meaning has two sides to it: first with respect to how animals and people interact with each other - so he has a social account of meaning; and secondly, with respect to the meanings the world has for individual animals as well. But to get a grasp of these strands requires that we first get an understanding of his account of meaning. I will present his ideas in his own words, and then try and unpack them as I go along.

Meaning, for Mead, is not something subjective, but something that has an objective character that can come to be grasped subjectively: ' Awareness or consciousness is not necessary to the presence of meaning in the process of social experience ' [1934: 77]. This is the first point to try and unpack.

Mead locates his notion of meaning in the work of Darwin and Wundt. Darwin was interested in 'gestures' in the sense that they expressed emotions (1874). And this, effectively, was as far as Darwin went. Wundt took up this notion of gesture but revised its status. Gestures were, first, not expressions of emotions as much as an integral part of an emotion or experience, in the sense that shivering, for example, is not something which expresses having a fever: it is a component of having a fever.

So, to begin with, 'gestures' are not things which are designed to communicate anything at all: they are just a part of different bodily states that animals might experience. How do gestures become 'expressive' or 'communicative, then? Mead's point is that gestures 'express' states only in so far as they can be observed by another and responded to. Imagine a mouse 'meeting' a cat. The cat gets excited, crouches down, twitches, and gathers itself ready to leap. The cat is not trying to communicate to the mouse that it is about to kill it: it is just excited and acting as it is so as to catch the mouse. But you will realise that there is 'information' in the cat's posture that, if the mouse could it figure out, it could take evasive action: it could respond appropriately to what the cat's posture was signalling as to what was going to happen next. It is in this sense that Mead took the view that meaning was objectively present in interactions, whether or not the animals in the interaction were aware of it or not. Thus, he advances his development of the notion of meaning when noting that the performance of an activity by one animal is responded to appropriately by another animal, when it becomes something that signals what the observing animal should do next.

It was easy for Wundt to show that [Darwin's] was not a legitimate point of attack on the problem of these gestures. They did not at bottom serve the function of expression of the emotions: that was not the reason why they were stimuli, but rather because they were parts of complex acts in which different forms were involved. They became the tools through which the other forms responded. When they did give rise to a certain response, they were themselves changed in response to the change which took place in the other form. They are part of the organization of the social act, and highly important elements in that organization [1934: 44].

Mead similarly locates the performance of one animal in interaction with another as establishing a 'behavioural meaning' for gestures - those movements of one animal that the other is adjusting its own actions to. Mead uses a dog-fight as his paradigm example.

The primitive situation is that of the social act which involves the interaction of different forms, which involves, therefore, the adjustment of the conduct of these different forms to each other, in carrying out the social process. ... [There is] a conversation of gestures in the dog-fight. There the stimulus which one dog gets from the other is to a response which is different from the response of the stimulating form. One dog is attacking the other, and is ready to spring at the other dog's throat; the reply on the part of the second dog is to change its position, perhaps to spring at the throat of the first dog. There is a conversation of gestures, a reciprocal shifting of the dogs' positions and attitudes. [1934: 45, 63].
This complementarity is the key aspect of Mead's treatment of gestures below the human level, a distinction he characterizes as between 'non-significant' and 'significant' gestures, and which we may recast as between 'complementary' and 'shared' meanings. Briefly, the distinction is that a shared or 'significant' gesture is one, which in mead's words, 'calls out' the same response in the animal making the gesture as in the animal seeing it. A complementary or non-significant gesture is one where the gesture has different meanings for the sender and receiver. So, if you answer a question you are asked with 'yes', it is a significant, shared gesture, because it means the same thing to you as it does to the person you are answering. But if a dog growls, it doesn't adopt a submissive posture on hearing itself growl, the other dog does: their actions are complementary, not shared.

We need to unpack what Mead's notion of 'complementarity' further than this, though, as it is important for our understanding of what an evolutionary process is doing, what it is constructing in animals' experiences [I will be arguing later that evolution is constructing three sequential forms of subjective experience: individual subjectivity; social subjectivity (empathy); and intersubjectivity]. Unpacking complementarity is predicated on unpacking the bases of any organism's ability to respond to any event. There are two interlinked concepts in Mead's work that clarify his treatment of the nature of complementarity: 'perspective', and 'value'. The basic notion is that an organism, by definition, has relationships of different values with different parts of the world it lives in (loosely, for now, its 'environment'].

Value and perspective

In The Philosophy of the Act (1938), Mead seeks to outline a 'Perspective theory of perception' (pp. 103-24): that as biological beings, organisms have a given perspective on the world, one that contributes a value perspective for them from which implications necessarily follow. This 'value perspective' is based in the foundational constitution of the biological realm: that an energy source is required so as to sustain organisation in the face of entropy: ' The objects that are there in independence of the organism imply the organism. That is, the organism is not independent of them.... The process by which the organism has arisen is, however, one in which the organism has determined its field by its susceptibilities and responses. There is a mutual interdependence of the two. This is expressed in the term "perspective" ' (Mead, 1938:163-4).

Mead then goes on:

The first question that suggests itself with reference to the perspective is how does it appear as such in experience? The perspective is the world in its relationship to the individual and the individual in his relationship to the world. The most unambiguous instance of the perspective is the biological form and its environment or habitat (ibid: 115).

The same point has subsequently been made by Gibson, that

The words animal and environment make an inseparable pair. Each term implies the other. No animal could exist without an environment surrounding it. Equally ... an environment implies an animal (or at least an organism) to be surrounded. This means that the surface of the earth, millions of years ago before life developed on it, was not an environment, properly speaking (Gibson, 1979: 8).
Not 'properly speaking' because environments exist only when organisms do, in the same way as Taoism recognizes the reciprocal nature of many of our concepts: that when we can recognise 'beauty' for example, we must, if only be default, or implicitly, be distinguishing 'beautiful' things from things which are 'not beautiful'.

Hence, in Mead's view: 'the organism ... is in a sense responsible for its environment' (1934: p. 130).

Take the case of food: If an animal that can digest grass, such as an ox, comes into the world, then grass becomes food. That object did not exist before, that is, grass as food (1934: 129);

and similarly:

When there is [a] relation between form and environment, then objects can appear which would not have been there otherwise; but the animal does not create ... food in the sense that he makes an object out of nothing. Rather, when the form is put into the environment, then there arises such a thing as food. Wheat becomes food: just as water arises in the relation of hydrogen and oxygen (ibid: 333).


the structure of the environment is a mapping out of organic responses to nature: any environment, whether social or individual, is a mapping out of the logical structure of the act to which it answers, an act seeking overt expression (ibid: 129, emphasis added).
From this treatment of 'values' and 'perspectives' Mead puts the view that 'Nature has meaning and implication but not indication by symbols. The symbol is distinguishable from the meaning it refers to. Meanings are in nature, but symbols are the heritage of man (1924)' [1934: 78 fn 13). At this point, we need to extend our appreciation of Mead's thinking by considering his concept of 'attitude'.


Evolution has organised organisms so that the values it has engendered in their perspective on their world are presented to them through their bodily reactions to their specific situations. These reactions are what Mead terms 'attitudes' (and there is a sense in which 'attitudes' and 'instincts' are similar]. We might, today, prefer to refer to these attitudes as 'emotional structures'. Organisms 'recognize' certain situations as, say, 'threatening'. That is, they organize themselves appropriately in some situations by readying a 'flight response'. We do not need to worry at the moment how this might be explained, but we do need to note that entire bodily systems are mobilized that are appropriate to the values that are activated in particular situations. The organism's state is changed, and produces a new set of values towards a situation, values that create the organism's 'attitude', a bodily state that is a signal 'tuning it' to the situation, which give particular elements of that situation their values as 'stimuli' and so prime appropriate 'responses'. In this sense, the 'flight response' engenders an attitude in an organism which might mobilize it to run or freeze: put its entire body into a certain state. Mead clearly wants to appeal to a subjective emotional response as felt within the organism as a part of this situation, but his behavioural standpoint gets in the way of his working through this notion thoroughly. However, he does recognize what he calls 'inner attitudes': ' the animal may be angry or afraid ' [1934: 45]. But, inner attitudes have outer consequences:
The animal may be angry or afraid. There are such emotional attitudes which lie back of these acts, but these are only part of the whole process that is going on. Anger expresses itself in attack; fear expresses itself in flight [1934: 45].
Alternatively, we might better say that the actions of one organism are potentially visible to (or otherwise available to the senses of] another organism. They may thus become constituted by evolution as events that a conspecific [or prey] might perceive as having a value. Thus, in illustration, we can return to the dog-fight:
The act of each dog becomes the stimulus to the other dog for his response. There is then a relationship between these two; and as the act is responded to by the other dog, it, in turn, undergoes change. The very fact that the dog is ready to attack another becomes a stimulus to the other dog to change his own position or his own attitude. He has no sooner done this than the change of attitude in the second dog in turn causes the first dog to change his attitude. We have here a conversation of gestures. They are not, however, gestures in the sense that they are significant. We do not assume that the dog says to himself, "If the animal comes from this direction he is going to spring at my throat and I will turn in such a way." What does take place is an actual change in his own position due to the direction of the approach of the other dog [1934: 42-3].
This is the basic social situation as Mead conceives it. An organism has available to it different bodily states - it's 'emotional attitudes' - that provide it with changing perspectives on the information its sensory processes make available to it. These 'emotional attitudes' vary in their temporal and causal impetus. They may be very transient and the result of perceived external events, such as in the dog fight; or they may be 'wired in' to the perceptual process such that the value perspective is always there with respect to what is then constituted as a 'sign stimulus', as when a chicken responds to the visual pattern of a hawk by crouching. Or they maybe seasonal, such that breeding behaviour is initiated by internal changes that are set in motion by changes in day length. Or they may be a combination of these, where a sign stimulus is itself only seasonally available, such as in the breeding plumage that is seasonal in many birds.

But note one important aspect of these emotional attitudes. They do not only affect the readiness states for particular behaviours on the part of the organism whose physiology is their substrate. Because these emotions as they affect those 'private' states have somatic effects, these changes have an externally available component too. They can, in theory at least, be detected by another organism, and thus contain potentially useful information for that other organism's purposes. It is evolution's problem-space to make use of this potential information, and it is only successful in gaining such access in some, but not all, species. For example, the near extinction of the buffalo resulted from the fact that individual buffalo were not able to access the 'point' contained in seeing another buffalo fall down dead as a result of a bullet: buffalo, like dodos, were unable to access the point that 'this is a dumb place to be'. Hence, they did not run, as they had no 'value perspective' on what their senses were providing them with. But the information is, in a sense, 'there', even though buffalos and dodos had no access to it:

The social process, as involving communication, is in a sense responsible for the appearance of new objects in the field of experience of the individual organisms implicated in that process. Organic processes or responses in a sense constitute the objects to which they are responses; that is to say, any given biological organism is in a way responsible for the existence (in the sense of the meanings they have for it) of the objects to which it physiologically and chemically responds. There would, for example, be no food - no edible objects - if there were no organisms which could digest it. And similarly, the social process in a sense constitutes the objects to which it responds, or to which it is an adjustment. That is to say, objects are constituted in terms of meanings within the social process of experience and behavior through the mutual adjustment to one another of the responses or actions of the various individual organisms involved in that process, an adjustment made possible by means of a communication which takes the form of a conversation of gestures in the earlier evolutionary stages of that process, and of language in its later stages [1934: 77, emphasis added].


For Mead, then, 'meaning' is not some psychic addition to an activity:
Meaning is thus not to be conceived, fundamentally, as a state of consciousness, or as a set of organized relations existing or subsisting mentally outside the field of experience into which they enter; on the contrary, it should be conceived objectively, as having its existence entirely within this field itself. The response of one organism to the gesture of another in any given social act is the meaning of that gesture, and also is in a sense responsible for the appearance or coming into being of the new object-or new content of an old object-to which that gesture refers through the outcome of the given social act in which it is an early phase. For, to repeat, objects are in a genuine sense constituted within the social process of experience, by the communication and mutual adjustment of behavior among the individual organisms which are involved in that process and which carry it on. Just as in fencing the parry is an interpretation of the thrust, so, in the social act, the adjustive response of one organism to the gesture of another is the interpretation of that gesture by that organism - it is the meaning of that gesture. ... But the interpretation of gestures is not, basically, a process going on in a mind as such, or one necessarily involving a mind; it is an external, overt, physical, or physiological process going on in the actual field of social experience. Meaning can be described, accounted for, or stated in terms of symbols or language at its highest and most complex stage of development (the stage it reaches in human experience), but language simply lifts out of the social process a situation which is logically or implicitly there already. The language symbol is simply a significant or conscious gesture.[1934: 78-9].
Mead's use of the word 'simply' here is perhaps unfortunate, and could be omitted, for the ontological processes whereby individual humans 'lift language out of the social process' is neither simple, nor straightforward (see Lecture 19). But here, let me, for emphasis, allow Mead to again, in his own words, summarize his view of meaning, before going back to his distinction between significant and non-significant gestures, and then consider what he draws from his analysis as to the implications it has for a concept of 'mind'. In summary, then:
Meaning arises and lies within the field of the relation between the gesture of a given ... organism and the subsequent behavior of this organism as indicated to another ... organism by that gesture. If that gesture does so indicate to another organism the subsequent (or resultant) behavior of the given organism, then it has meaning. In other words, the relationship between a given stimulus - as a gesture - and the later phases of the social act of which it is an early (if not the initial) phase constitutes the field within which meaning originates and exists. Meaning is thus a development of something objectively there as a relation between certain phases of the social act; it is not a psychical addition to that act and it is not an 'idea' as traditionally conceived. A gesture by one organism, the resultant of the social act in which the gesture is an early phase, and the response of another organism to the gesture, are the relata in a triple or threefold relationship of gesture to first organism, of gesture to second organism, and of gesture to subsequent phases of the given social act; and this threefold relationship constitutes the matrix within which meaning arises, or which develops into the field of meaning. The gesture stands for a certain resultant of the social act, a resultant to which there is a definite response on the part of the individuals involved therein; so that meaning is given or stated in terms of response. Meaning is implicit - if not always explicit - in the relationship among the various phases of the social act to which it refers, and out of which it develops (1934: 75-6, emphasis added].

'Significant' and 'Non-significant' Gestures

Analytically, there are three tasks facing evolution in respect to the achievement of 'meaning'. First , there is the construction of processes within an organism that provide it with a value perspective on the world. Mead, as we noted above, talks of this process in 'emotional' terms [his analysis is not fully developed on this point, and we will turn in the next lecture, Lecture 16, for more details by looking at the account of von Uexkull]. The basic point is that an organism is built so that, firstly, it can pick up information that is useful to it from the plethora of information actually out there. Thus, the sensory systems of particular organisms are 'tuned' to their interests. Secondly, the information an organism picks up is modulated via its nervous system to change its internal state in ways that are appropriate to the 'valued information' it is working with. This is true of simple organisms, in their possession of 'unconditioned responses' such as salivation to the sight of food, as Pavlov demonstrated, as well as complex organisms such as ourselves: to be 'white with fear' is a result of adaptive physiological changes that are closely tied to the perceived value of the incoming information. From an evolutionary point of view there are two remarkable aspects to this process of 'value perspective'. The first is that the different responsive states should have 'sensations' associated with them. That they do is open to dispute, certainly: but even then, the dispute is more about at what point in an evolutionary process such sensations come in, and not that they don't exist at all. Both that point, and the actual existence of sensation at all, are 'hard problems'. I will be taking the view that 'sensation' was the best route organic evolution could find for economically dealing with certain issues. But second, and at least as remarkable, is that evolution worked up ways of making these 'whole system' consequences of an organism's responding to its 'valued world' into detectable items of interest to the worlds of other organisms. And this is the second analytic phase of the evolutionary problem.

Mead's vocabulary makes it possible for us to see the issue quite clearly. It is not just a 'social process' that creates new objects that have implications for another organism's activities: the evolutionary process accomplishes the same thing. Reducing evolution to the slogan 'survival of the fittest' provides an illuminating handle on this. Organisms are in competition with each other, and thus are significant components of each others worlds. It would benefit any organism to be able to put a conspecific out of the game, or prevent a predator taking it out of the game. Now, given the way any organism's internal situation has concommitant external manifestations, information is implicitly available to others that indicates the current state of play with respect to their situation. This is not 'mind reading' but 'body reading'. 'Body reading' is done by constructing appropriate, complementary responsive actions: the activities of another can be elevated to be valued perspectives that initiate appropriate, complementary responses. And this only comes about because, once organisms evolve, they create new objects of interest to the value perspectives of other organisms beyond their immediate concerns with getting energy to sustain their organization from a difficult energy-providing world. Organisms create their own problems for each other. Thus, compensatory complementarity in the relations between organisms can be expected to be realised. New values are engendered that Mead terms 'meaning': but a lot of potential meaning is left implicit in the relations of 'body reading' organisms that act complementarily towards each other. The complementary cues that other organisms constitute for each other are what Mead eventually terms 'non-significant gestures'. 'Non-significant' doesn't mean that they are unimportant, but that they are complementary, essayed from viewpoints that have different interests.

This brings us to the third phase of the evolutionary problem: to move from body reading to 'mind reading', from the complementary to the shared. This is to make a 'meta' move to 'significant gestures'. Behaviourally, which is Mead's standpoint, this is to move from the position of producing a gesture that calls out a complementary response in another organism to also calling out that complementary response in oneself: to knowing, if you like, that your anger entails the other's fear, which it does. Now, there is a lot more to being able to do this than Mead actually teases out. That said, his basic point is also complicated by his needing the additional concepts of 'self consciousness' and 'symbol' so as to make it. And in doing this, his reasoning becomes quite complex and difficult even for him to articulate, because we actually have a set of inter-related notions that mutually define each other such that the argument tends to start looking a little circular. The complexity of the situation is well conveyed in Mead's attempt to explain it in one sentence:

Conscious communication - conscious conversation of gestures - arises when gestures become signs, that is, when they come to carry for the individuals making them and the individuals responding to them, definite rneanings or significations in terms of the subsequent behavior of the individuals making them; so that, by serving as prior indications, to the individuals responding to them, of the subsequent behavior of the individuals making them, they make possible the mutual adjustment of the various individual components of the social act to one another, and also, by calling forth in the individuals making them the same responses implicitly that they call forth explicitly in the individuals to whom they are made, they render possible the rise of self-consciousness in connection with this mutual adjustment [1934: 69, fn7].

Just a couple more points from Mead. 'Value', as I noted, arises in the relation between an organism and its environment. 'Values' are involved in, and underwrite, complementary social interactions between organisms. Each individual co-ordinates its activities to and with those of another in so far as they have a means of valuing each others actions, that is, constituting transitory events as stimuli that are then reacted to. Interaction, at this level, is a dance of complementary values. Now, when values are coalesced to be significant rather than reciprocal through getting a handle on 'the attitude of the other', we find values becoming 'meanings' and constituting that ability to control one's behaviour that is the process of 'minding'. And, consistently then, Mead sees such a mental process as a relational one:

It is evident that the mental processes are just those phases of conduct into which the self as an object has come to deepen and render significant our analysis and to make possible the rational solution of our problems. So far as the significant symbols which the individual uses are stimuli to his own responses, these processes lie in the individual. So far as things, characters, and imagery are indicated, the processes extend beyond the individual. The locus of mind is not in the individual. Mental processes are fragments of the complex conduct of the individual in and on his environment. The objects and contents of the objects are as much in the environment in the reflective processes as in those of immediate experience . What has taken place in the reflective phase of human experience is this. The actual dependence of the environment upon the individual, which is not present in immediate experience but which has always existed in the relations of living forms to their environments, has, through the appearance in experience of the self as an object, passed into the control which the individual exercises over the environment (1938: 372-3, my emphasis).


So there is a lot to get one's head around here. I will be coming back to these themes again, and they should become clearer then. At this point, go back to the random-dot picture in the last lecture, and try and get the object there to reveal itself again. Look at it, and think: does anything Mead has said provide an answer to 'where is this object?'. The quote above might make more sense then: 'The locus of mind is not in the individual. Mental processes are fragments of the complex conduct of the individual in and on his environment'.

Secondly, think about the 'non-existent object' that you get to see this way. The information that is needed to see it is there, in the black and white pattern. In a sense, then, the object is implicitly there, but not explicitly revealed. This is another analogy for Mead's point that meaning can be 'there', in interactions between animals, and in their relationship with their environments. In addition, you can also use the object as an analogy for the evolution of sensory systems: the information is 'there', in the environment, but you have to construct a way of sensing it and turning it into a real experience.