Monday, March 19, 2018

The looking-glass of society

A clean Córdoba is a reflection of you

Some philosophers have been forgotten and can be found back only in the archives. Other philosophers are yet only known by a few catchwords, but actually nobody knows anymore what they have written about. Georg Herbert Mead is as a philosopher of the latter kind, I think. Though he is still well-known among sociologists, most contemporary philosophers don’t know more about him than that he wrote about the self, I and me; if they do. Among philosophers he has been forgotten. Anyway, I haven’t come across his name in the discussions where he is relevant, namely those on the self and personal identity.
Many people, including philosophers, think that we are subjects who finally themselves make who they are. Mead doesn’t. For him a self cannot exist without the presence of others, the views of others and communication with others, for a self is a reflection of your society, and especially the people immediately around you. Mead says it this way: “The individual experiences himself as such, not directly, but only indirectly, from the particular standpoints of other individual members of the same social group, or from the generalized standpoint of the social group as a whole to which he belongs. For he enters his own experience as a self or individual, not directly or immediately, not by becoming a subject to himself, but only in so far as he first becomes an object to himself just as other individuals are objects to him or in his experience; and he becomes an object to himself only by taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself within a social environment or context of experience and behavior in which both he and they are involved.” (138; italics mine) This getting to know your self is done via your communication with others, which is here “a form of behavior in which the organism or the individual may become an object to himself”, so Mead. (138)
What is striking here is that according to Mead the self is not a subjective experience but the way others experience us and the way we reflect on it. The self is objective and socially made: “The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience.” (140) However, seen this way, the self is only a kind of objective image of a person, constituted by the society around him – or her, which Mead ignores –. Therefore s/he needs an I: “The ‘I’ is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the ‘me’ is the organized set of attitudes of others which one himself assumes. The attitudes of the others constitute the organized ‘me’, and then one reacts toward that as an ‘I’. ... ‘[I]t is due to the individual’s ability to take the attitudes of [the] others in so far as they can be organized that he gets self-consciousness. The taking of all of those organized sets of attitudes gives him his ‘me’; that is the self he is aware of. ... [However, the] response to [a] situation as it appears in [the individual’s] immediate experience is uncertain, and it is that which constitutes the ‘I’.” (175) Briefly, a person arises in interaction with the social environment and doesn’t exist without this social environment. Actually we find Mead’s view already in the idea of the looking glass self, earlier developed by Charles Cooley: The idea that our self-image arises in an interaction between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Mead has developed it into a comprehensive theory.
Mead’s view on who we are and how we develop into who we are is still interesting for philosophers for it shows important aspects of us and how they come about. We are not our brains, and we are also not the self-centred subjects who many of us think they are in this Age of the Ego: We are where we grew up and where we live. Philosophically, for instance, Mead’s approach implies a criticism on those personal identity theorists who defend the view that it is our personal continuity in time that makes up our personality. According to them a person is formed by the subjective experiences of the past. What they forget, however, is that a person is formed as much by his or her present interactions with the social environment. A person is not simply a remembered past. Look in the looking glass of society and you see a reflection of yourself.

George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974 (1934). The numbers in the text refer to the pages in this book.

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