George Herbert Mead (1863–1931)

On the morning of September 14, 1926, George Herbert Mead and Alfred North Whitehead appeared together on the program of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy meeting at Harvard University, both presenting papers at a session entitled “Physics and metaphysics, with special reference to the problem of time.” Later that day Mead reported in a letter to a family member that he had been particularly pleased by the fact that after the session “Whitehead said he wanted to chat with me, that he thought we could get together.” “There are metaphysical abysms between us,” Mead observed, “but what are they between gentlemen?” (Cook 1993, 138). While there is no evidence that the proposed “chat” ever took place, or that Mead had any other communication with Whitehead, it is clear from his essays and correspondence that he maintained a serious interest in Whitehead’s thought throughout the period stretching from the summer of 1921, when he first read a book by Whitehead, until death ended his career in 1931. Despite the “metaphysical abysms” Mead saw looming between their two philosophical orientations, he made repeated efforts to assimilate Whiteheadian concerns and concepts into his own evolving thought. And these efforts did much to shape Mead’s intellectual work during the last decade of his life.

1. Brief Vita

G. H. Mead was born on February 27, 1863 in South Hadley, Massachusetts, but spent most of his early life in Oberlin, Ohio. He attended Oberlin College, earning a BA degree in 1883, and then worked for several years as a tutor for college-bound students before resuming his formal education at Harvard University in the fall of 1887. While at Harvard he studied philosophy with Josiah Royce and George Herbert Palmer; he also served during the summer of 1888 as a tutor for the 10-year-old son of William James at the James summer home in New Hampshire. In the fall of 1888 Mead left Harvard for three years of additional work at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin, where he studied with professors Wilhelm Wundt, Hermann Ebbinghaus, Friedrich Paulsen, and Wilhelm Dilthey.

Mead began his professional career in 1891, teaching philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan under the guidance of departmental chairman John Dewey. When Dewey moved to the University of Chicago in 1894 to head up a new department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy, he arranged for Mead to go with him and join two others who had previously been associated with the University of Michigan—James H. Tufts and James Rowland Angell. Together these four men laid the foundation for what came to be known in later years as the Chicago School of Pragmatism. Dewey left Chicago in 1904 and moved on to a position at Columbia University, while Mead remained on the faculty of the University of Chicago for the remainder of his life.

Although Mead completed no book-length manuscripts during his lifetime, he did publish many articles and book reviews. The most important of these (including all of those cited by title in later sections of the present essay) have been reprinted in two collections, edited respectively by Reck (Mead 1964) and Petras (Mead 1968). In addition, Mead’s academic reputation rests upon a series of four posthumously published volumes: Mind, Self and Society (1934) and Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936) are based upon student notes taken in two of the courses Mead taught regularly at the University of Chicago; The Philosophy of the Present (1932) is based primarily upon the Carus Lectures Mead delivered in December 1930 at the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association; The Philosophy of the Act (1938) consists of a large and diverse collection of previously unpublished manuscripts left among Mead’s papers at the time of his death.

2. Common Ideas

Mead’s most fruitful ideas grow out of his commitment to the model of conduct used in the functionalist approach to psychology and philosophy pursued by members of the early Chicago School. This model of conduct, which was given its classic articulation in John Dewey’s 1896 essay entitled “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” (Dewey 1896), treats stimulus and response not as mechanical building blocks of action but as functionally defined phases within an ongoing process of behavioral coordination. Such coordination, Dewey says, is better termed “organic” than “reflex,” better viewed as a “circuit” than an “arc,” because of the way in which stimulus and response reciprocally affect one another within action. In a typical act of eye-arm coordination, for example, the reaching guides the looking and seeing as much as the looking and seeing guide the reaching.

In essays he published early in his career at Chicago, Mead used this organic model of conduct as the basis for hypotheses about the nature of subjective consciousness and the genesis of our perceptual consciousness of physical objects. A few years later he began to enrich the conceptual framework of Chicago functionalism by stretching Dewey’s concept of action to include insights related to his growing interest in social psychology. Much of the conduct of both humans and animals, he now maintained, is social conduct—i.e., conduct in which one organism responds to acts of others of the same species. As an example of such conduct, consider the simple form of social interaction that Mead called a “conversation of gestures.” Here an early overt stage of one organism’s conduct functions as a social stimulus (“a gesture”) calling forth an anticipatory response from another organism; an early overt phase of that response serves in turn as a gesture calling forth a response from the first organism, and so on. This sort of “conversation” is a common feature of the conduct of non-human animals, even though such animals seem to have no explicit awareness of gestures as signs having meanings. In the sphere of human conduct, Mead held, conversations of gestures give rise to consciousness of meaning through a special kind of self-stimulation: human individuals call out in their own conduct, by means of their gestures, the beginning of the sorts of responses that other organisms have made to these gestures in the past. It is by thus “taking the attitude or the role of the other,” he argued, that humans begin to import into their conduct the social significance of their own gestures.

In a series of essays published between 1906 and 1913, and also in the lectures that eventually led to the posthumous publication of Mind, Self and Society, Mead used his analysis of human social conduct (especially, his concept of “taking the attitude or the role of the other”) to develop a rich set of social psychological theories. These include not only a genetic and social theory about the origin of human language, but also theories about the development of human self-consciousness and rational thought. Our awareness of our selves, he claims, is a social achievement rather than a biological given: we become aware of our selves as social objects when we learn to respond to our own conduct in the roles of specific others and eventually in the role of a “generalized other.” Indeed, such conduct is the chief mechanism by which we acquire the social structure of our personalities. Similarly, we acquire the capacity for rational thought when our acquisition of language gives us a set of socially meaningful symbols that we use to interpret our experience and analyze problems encountered in our conduct.

3. Whitehead’s Influence on Mead

Mead makes numerous references to Whitehead in two different sets of his later writings. One of these is a series of four essays he published between 1925 and 1929, in which can be found every remark about Whitehead that Mead published during his lifetime. These essays are “The Genesis of Social Control” (1925), “The Objective Reality of Perspectives” (1927), “A Pragmatic Theory of Truth” (1929), and “The Nature of the Past” (1929). The second set of writings in which Mead deals with Whitehead’s thought consists of manuscripts posthumously published in The Philosophy of the Present and The Philosophy of the Act. An examination of the themes that characterize Mead’s discussions of Whitehead in these sources will reveal both what drew him to Whitehead’s ideas, and why he could not accept those ideas without reservation.

All of Mead’s substantive discussions of Whitehead, it is worth observing at the outset, are based entirely upon the volumes in which the latter set forth his early philosophy of nature—An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), The Principle of Relativity (1922), and Science and the Modern World (1925). In particular, it is important to note that Mead’s discussions of Whitehead involve no reference to the subsequent developments of Whitehead’s thought that appear in Process and Reality. According to David Miller (Mead 1964, 512), Mead told some of his students in 1931 (the year of his death) that he was reading that book but had not yet come to a clear understanding of it.

What initially drew Mead’s attention to Whitehead’s early works was the doctrine in terms of which they interpret Einsteinian relativity: this is the doctrine sometimes called “objective relativism,” but which Mead more often labels “the objective reality of perspectives.” Whitehead here maintains that we encounter nature in our immediate sense experience as a passage of overlapping durations, each of which extends over many finite events (CN 53-60). Moreover, each of these experienced durations extends over a “percipient event” (roughly, Whitehead says, the event that is the perceiver’s bodily life)—an event that is temporally present throughout that duration. Whitehead tells us further that the relation between a percipient event and its associated duration, a relation he calls “cogredience,” is what provides definite meanings to here and now within any experienced duration (PNK 68-71). This relation of cogredience is the basis for the selection of a “consentient set” of objects, i.e., a set of objects that are at rest with respect to the perspective of a particular percipient event; and this set of objects is, in turn, the basis for a space within which motion can take place (PNK 31-32, 70-71). In this manner, Whitehead maintains, the continuum of events in nature is differentiated or “stratified” into a plurality of spatio-temporal systems relative to different percipient events (CN 187, 194-195; PR 66-67). But—and this is the thesis that leads to the label “objective relativism”—the relativity of these perspectives or stratifications does not render them subjective: “they are in truth characters of nature and not illusions of consciousness” (PR 25).

It is clear from Mead’s earliest essays referring to Whitehead that he wants to generalize this notion of objective perspectives so that it will include the entire relation between the experiencing human individual and the experienced world. We can apply this idea, he says, not only to the spatio-temporal structures of our experience, but also to other sensible qualities (e.g., colors, odors, sounds, tastes, and tactile qualities) that exist in nature as it is related to percipient organisms. And we can further extend it to include values (e.g., moral and aesthetic properties) “which have been regarded as dependent upon appetence, appreciation, and affection” (Mead 1964, 315). The relativity of such qualities or properties to the perspectives of human individuals, Mead claims, need not lead us to conclude that they are subjective; rather, we can follow the lead of Whitehead by claiming that “each individual stratifies the common life in a different manner, and the life of the community is the sum of all these stratifications, and all of these stratifications exist in nature.” If we view the experience of the human individual in this manner, Mead points out, then a psychology that studies such experience can be regarded as a science of nature rather than one concerned with a separate realm of consciousness or mind (Mead 1964, 276-77).

Mead was thus attracted to Whitehead’s philosophy of nature because he saw it as being in harmony with the “revolt against dualism” that had been an important part of his own thought for many years. This is why his initial discussions of Whitehead emphasize a possible convergence between the objective relativism found in Whitehead’s work and the approach to human individuals found in behaviorist psychology (Mead, 1964, 267, 307). But there were other aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy of nature that also caught his attention. He was profoundly influenced, for instance, by Whitehead’s attempt to ground the spatial and temporal structures of the human perceptual world in our immediate experience of passage. Consequently, he made repeated attempts to elaborate his own earlier account of perceptual objects along related lines; and he began to extend his discussion of these matters to include also the entities and spatio-temporal structures of both Newtonian and post-Newtonian physics.

Mead’s approach to these tasks turns upon a contrast between the character of our everyday perceptual world and a more immediate form of experience in which there is no separation of space from time. To the extent that we can accurately portray the content of immediate experience in which we act without thinking, he claims, we encounter a world in which distant objects lie ahead of us in time as well as in space. But we can recapture this world only with great difficulty because we live so constantly in a world mediated by reflection. This latter world, the world of our everyday perceptual experience, is one of enduring objects occupying a timeless space; it is a world in which distant objects are not infected with futurity but are contemporaneous with our perceptual present (Mead 1938, 147, 179, 326-35).

Many of the essays and fragments in The Philosophy of the Act, together with significant portions of The Philosophy of the Present, are devoted to an exploration of the ways in which this world of our reflective moments is constructed within our experience. Mead emphasizes in particular the functions of the human hand and the human capacity to “take the role of the other” in this connection. The former gives us a wealth of manipulatory experiences that make up much of the perceptual content of physical objects; the latter enables us to evoke within ourselves the anticipated resistances of such objects while they are still at a distance from us. By means of these mechanisms of conduct, he suggests, we hypothetically extend our manipulatory area to the limits of distance experience; we see things at a distance as already having the contact characters they would have if they were presently being handled. The resulting perceptual world is one in which the temporal passage between distance and contact characters in immediate experience is collapsed or annihilated. We are thereby left with “an enduring fabric as a basis for alternative courses of action, a world of things that have identical dates, namely, the date of the manipulatory area.” This enduring fabric is the “timeless space” of our everyday reflective moments; and passage, having been squeezed out of this fabric, remains only in the form of time—i.e., an abstract passage marked off and measured by recurrent motion within the field of enduring objects (Mead 1938, 104, 148-52, 178, 191-92, 231).

In this manner, Mead holds, we can account for the constitution within human experience of the “timeless space” and “spaceless time” of our everyday perceptual world as well as the world of Newtonian science. But when we turn to the physical world as it is construed by Einsteinian physics, we encounter entities whose spatial dimensions are inextricably linked to temporal perspectives. Here we cannot simply collapse the temporal differences of different perspectives to arrive at a shared world existing at an instant. The solution for this difficulty, Mead argues, can be found in the capacity of human individuals to bring a plurality of perspectives into their experience through the mechanism of role-taking. By regarding such individuals as a part of nature, we can make room within nature for what would otherwise be incompatible meanings. The mutually exclusive spatio-temporal structures of different perspectives can all be present in nature, and there can be “a form of sociality within which we can go from one to the other by means of a system of transformations” (Mead 1932, 78-82).

Mead’s explorations of these matters can be usefully contrasted with Whitehead’s use of the “method of extensive abstraction” in his early writings on the philosophy of nature. Whitehead uses this method to show us how the fundamental conceptions of physical science can be seen as idealizations corresponding to patterns that a suitable formal analysis can extract from the concrete passage of nature presented to sense awareness. Mead embraces the aim of this Whiteheadian endeavor, but at the same time he is concerned to relate the previously mentioned “idealizations” and the process of their abstraction from the passage of experience to his own analysis of conduct. Thus we find him asking again and again about the mechanisms of behavior that give rise to such items as moments, consentient sets, timeless space, and abstract time—and about the functions these perform within the economy of human action. Whitehead’s formal analyses are relevant to such questions, but clearly not sufficient to answer them.

Here we have one of the fundamental philosophical differences that Mead may have had in mind when he referred to the “metaphysical abysms” between himself and Whitehead. Another important difference can be seen in their respective ways of thinking about the relationship between mind and nature. It is fundamental to Whitehead’s epistemological realism in his early works to treat mind as something external to nature; he regards mind as belonging to the subject matter of metaphysics rather than the philosophy of nature. Whitehead thus speaks of nature as a field of phenomena “closed to mind”—i.e., “a complex of entities whose mutual relations to each other are expressible in thought without recourse to mind, that is without reference to either sense awareness or to thought” (CN 4-5). Mead, on the other hand, wants to locate the entire subject matter of human psychology (including not only overt behavior but also thought and sense awareness) within the same nature that provides the subject matter of the physical sciences. He consistently treats mind as a natural and social phenomenon. Hence he can hardly accept Whitehead’s intention to restrict the concept of nature to a field of phenomena “closed to mind.”

Mead nevertheless moves in his later writings toward a partial synthesis of his own social psychological ideas and the Whiteheadian view of nature. One way in which he does this is by focusing upon Whitehead’s claim in Science and the Modern World that each event in nature “mirrors” or “prehends” in its unity aspects of all other events from its own perspective. What particularly interests Mead about this conception is its resemblance to his own conception of “role-taking” as an important feature of human social experience. An understanding of this kind of conduct, Mead suggests, supplies a needed corrective to a weakness in the Whiteheadian scheme of ideas. Whitehead, he says, fails to give an adequate account of the manner in which individual human perspectives give rise to an experience of a common or shared world. The remedy for this weakness consists in pointing out that the human individual puts himself or herself

in the place of others and in their common undertakings in the world and observes things spatio-temporally and meaningfully as they observe them. Answering to these common experiences there lies before them a common world, the world of the group (Mead 1964, 308-310, 340-41).

Mead is here taking a large step in the direction of locating mind within a modified Whiteheadian view of nature. A nature that includes individuals who can take the roles of others, he remarks is “no nature that can be closed to mind” (Mead 1964, 310). Mead further believes that human mentality must be understood in terms of its reconstructive function within ongoing conduct. He therefore seeks to show how this idea can be related to the Whiteheadian view of nature as a system of perspectives, and he does this by calling attention to the exercise of mind in the growth of scientific knowledge. A dominant feature of this growth, he argues, is a process of reconstruction in which some aspect of an accepted or common world is called into question by data that cannot be accounted for in terms of that world. Such recalcitrant data are initially referred to perspectives of individuals, but science does not rest until they are successfully integrated into a reconstructed common perspective. This reconstructive process, he says, “in which new common minds and new common perspectives arise,” is itself a part of nature. And this claim “amounts to the affirmation that mind as it appears in the mechanism of social conduct is the organization of perspectives in nature and a least a phase of the creative advance of nature” (Mead 1964, 316).

Mead’s reference here to “the creative advance of nature” points in the direction of yet another respect in which he disagrees with Whitehead. Whenever new experiences or problems arise to upset the prevailing scientific account of the world, Mead notes, science revises its theories so as to make the sort of thing that has happened predictable. In this way it is able at least to approximate the goal of representing the universe as a wholly determined system. On Mead’s view, however, the creative advance of nature has the last word: scientific theories are never more than provisional conceptualizations of nature, and the scientist must always remain open to the possible need to reconstruct them in the light of additional incursions of novelty into the world. Whitehead, on the other hand, at least as Mead understands him, embraces a view that seems in the last analysis to preclude the incursion of true novelty into the world. In his ultimate description of nature, Mead claims, Whitehead makes use of “a fixed geometry of space-time,” and Mead professes himself unable to see how this fixed order of events can be reconciled with the emergence of novelty as a fundamental feature of reality. “Whitehead’s philosophy,” Mead says, “is a valiant attempt to harmonize this sort of geometric necessity with emergence and the differences of varying perspectives. I do not believe that this can be accomplished” (Mead 1932, 10-11).

Finally, Mead will have nothing to do with Whitehead’s attempt to construe the qualitative characters of events as “eternal objects” that “ingress” into happenings as a result of the activity of God. Whitehead goes astray in his analysis of experienced passage, according to Mead, when he uses the method of extensive abstraction as a method of metaphysical abstraction and finds in mere happenings or events “the substance of what becomes,” while transferring the contents of these happenings to a realm of eternal objects. On Mead’s view, this is an instance of what Whitehead himself calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For the events and the contents here torn asunder and given independent ontological status, Mead believes, are both abstractions from the experienced passage of nature; the qualitative characters that Whitehead wants to treat as “eternal objects” are, in fact, implicated in both the passage and the perspectival character of nature (Mead 1932, 20; Mead 1938, 539).

4. Concluding Remarks

The writings of Whitehead, it should now be clear, exercised a potent influence upon Mead’s later thought. But this influence did not lead Mead to abandon any of the characteristic concerns of his earlier work. His readings of Whitehead’s philosophy of nature turned his attention toward a new set of problems, but he then proceeded to attack these problems by extensions of his own previously developed ideas. Mead explicitly criticized various aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy, but he did so infrequently and almost never in great detail. He was, in short, neither a disciple nor a systematic critic of Whitehead’s thought. Rather, he found in Whitehead’s ideas a rich mine of suggestions relevant to his own quest for a unified view of nature and human conduct.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Aboulafia, Mitchell. 2001. The Cosmopolitan Self: George Herbert Mead and Continental Philosophy (University of Illinois Press).

Cook, Gary A. 1993. George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist (University of Illinois Press).

De Waal, Cornelis. 2002. On Mead (Wadsworth Press).

Dewey, John. 1972 [1896]. “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,” reprinted in John Dewey: The Early Works, Vol. 4, 1893-1894, edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Southern Illinois University Press), 96-109.

Mead, G. H. 1932. The Philosophy of the Present, edited by Arthur E. Murphy (Open Court Publishing).

Mead, G. H. 1934. Mind, Self and Society, edited by Charles W. Morris (University of Chicago Press).

Mead, G. H. 1936. Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Merritt H. Moore (University of Chicago Press).

Mead, G. H. 1938. The Philosophy of the Act, edited by Charles W. Morris et al. (University of Chicago Press).

Mead, G. H. 1964. George Herbert Mead: Selected Writings, edited by Andrew J. Reck (University of Chicago Press).

Mead, G. H. 1964b. “Two Unpublished Papers,” edited with an introduction by David L. Miller, Review of Metaphysics17, 511-56.

Mead, G. H. 1968. George Herbert Mead: Essays on His Social Philosophy, edited by John W. Petras (Teachers College Press).

Hamilton, Peter. 1992. George Herbert Mead: Critical Assessments (Routledge).

Joas, Hans. 1985. G. H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of his Thought (MIT Press).

Miller, David L. 1973. George Herbert Mead: Self, Language, and the World (University of Texas Press).

Author Information

Gary A. Cook
Department of Philosophy
Beloit College, Beloit, WI 53511

How to Cite this Article

Cook, Gary A., “George Herbert Mead (1863–1931)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.