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The Other in Mead | by timtak
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The Other in Mead

George Herbert Mead was great in that he explained the apparent dualism of the Western mind away.


Rather than having an idea or meaning which we link to, or float on, an arbitrary symbol (shaking our fist, saying "I am angry" or "Je me fache'") which we pass to someone else to decipher, the causal sequence of entities is reversed.


Meanings are originally the reactions of others, the acts that they perform in response to our communicative acts. Further, *conscious* meanings, are not something that we have before communication, but as a result of it. Conscious ideas and meanings arise when we respond to our own words and gestures as others do, when we get our own drift, when we react as if as an other.


At first Mead seems to insist that the vocal gesture, contra bearing ones teeth, is necessary and sufficient cause for the arousal of such ideas. But he stumbles over the Lion's roar. The lion he realises "does not appreciably frighten itself by its roar (p.63-64)" More is going on than the reflection of sound. Mead realises this, and states that, the difference between animal roars and human vocalisations is that humans not only hear their own vocalisations, but take on the role of the other as they do so.


"Such is the difference between intelligent conduct of the part of animals, and what we call a reflective individual. We say that the animal does not think.... He does not put himself in the place of the other....That is the general mechanism of what we term "thought," for in order that thought may exist there must be symbols, vocal gestures generally, which arouse in the individual himself the response which he is calling out in the other, and such that from the point of view of that response he is able to direct his latter conduct. It innovates not only the communication in the sense in which birds and animals communicate with each other, but also an arousal in the individual himself of the response which he is calling out in the other individual, a taking of the rôle of the other, a tendency to act as the other acts. " (p 73)


Where Mead goes wrong imho is in the way he sanitizes, rationalises this process as something useful for social cognition. He argues that we think in vocalisations, and hear and understand them from the perspective of others, so as to gain an objective, social understanding of self. Meads theory is a precursor to that of the "sociometer, theory" of self-esteem (Leary & Baumeister, 2000). Put this way thought sounds so rational, clean and sensible.


The advantage of Derrida (1998) is he turns the tables again, this time from the point of view motivation: the objective of thinking is what appears to be its means, and what appears to be its means is in fact its objective. We do not internalise the roles of others so as gain some useful social perspective so that we can understand the objective "meaning" of our vocalisations, but rather we make make vocalisations in order to internalise the role of others, to take others within ourselves and relate to them. It is this dirty snuggly wuggly feeling that we seek, not some nice clean, rational, objective, social cognition.


(After all, consider the only time that language has been 'evolved' in the laboratory by Kanzi.)


Where Derrida and Mead are missing is that they both do not realise that this doubling (for cognitive or auto-affective reasons) can be done in other ways. The really difficulty part of language, is not the reflexivity provided by reflection of sound, but the role taking. The fact that we hear ourselves speak is hardly an issue. We also can imagine how we look without the aid of a mirror.


It is not even the next step - role taking - that is really notable. Every time we shout or wave our fist we can feel what these gestures feel like to others. The really special part of the process is that we learn to care, and identify with the meanings that we make.


Mead ascribes this genesis of self to the creation of a "generalised other".


The process he outlines has three steps. We gesture, we react as others, and we then we react as a no particular other, an other not present, a ghost that is always here. It is at this point that we are removed from the immediate social, and have (or simulate) an independent self.


Reviewing the literature on self cognition and processes, it is very clear that our view of ourselves is far from "generalised". We are no where as biased as we are when it comes to ourselves. But it is true that we have a self as a result of our simulating some otherness.


What are its attributes?

It is not general but...

Ever present

Not anyone existent in the particular

Very closely, emotionally, ego involved

Often unconscious, even hidden

A comforter in more ways than one.

Mead's theory is missing the sin.


Derrida, J. (1998). Of grammatology. (G. C. Spivak, Trans.). JHU Press.

Leary, M. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). The nature and function of self-esteem: Sociometer theory. Retrieved from

Mead, G. H. (1967). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist (Vol. 1). The University of Chicago Press.


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Taken on May 2, 2014