The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead
edited by Hans Joas and Daniel R. Huebner
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-37694-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-37713-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.001.0001


George Herbert Mead is widely considered one of the most influential American philosophers of the twentieth century, and his work remains vibrant and relevant to many areas of scholarly inquiry today. The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead brings together a range of scholars who provide detailed analyses of Mead’s importance to innovative fields of scholarship, including cognitive science, environmental studies, democratic epistemology, and social ethics, non-teleological historiography, and the history of the natural and social sciences.

Edited by well-respected Mead scholars Hans Joas and Daniel R. Huebner, the volume as a whole makes a coherent statement that places Mead in dialogue with current research, pushing these domains of scholarship forward while also revitalizing the growing literature on an author who has an ongoing and major influence on sociology, psychology, and philosophy.


Hans Joas is the Ernst Troeltsch Professor for the Sociology of Religion at the Humboldt University of Berlin and professor of sociology and social thought at the University of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Daniel R. Huebner is assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge. Together, Joas and Huebner prepared Mind, Self, and Society: The Definitive Edition, published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press.


“A comprehensive and extremely useful collection of contemporary scholarship on the work of America’s most thoughtful and original social theorist.”
— Michael Tomasello, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

“This first-rate collection of essays by European and North American scholars showcases cutting edge research. It demonstrates Mead’s importance as a founding pragmatist and his relevance to current developments in historiography, sociology, environmental philosophy, neuroscience, and much more. It is surely a must-read for anyone interested in the roots and continuing development of American philosophy.”
— Larry H. Hickman, director emeritus, Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

“George Herbert Mead is an important figure in the development of both Chicago pragmatism and sociology, one whose work has finally begun to receive the careful attention it deserves. The thoughtful essays written by a variety of scholars for this volume do an outstanding job of explaining Mead's ideas and showing their continuing relevance for areas of contemporary scholarly concern. Joas and Huebner are to be congratulated for their excellent editorial work in bringing these essays to publication.”
— Gary A. Cook, author of George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist


- Hans Joas, Daniel R. Huebner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0001
[George Herbert Mead;cognitive science;environmental studies;philosophy;sociology;psychology;history;historiography;democracy;pragmatism]
The Introduction lays out the justification for Mead’s contemporary relevance, provides an overview of the volume’s contents, and contextualizes the various contributions in relation to one another. (pages 1 - 12)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

Part I: History, Historiography, Historical Sociology��������������������������������������������������&#

- Charles Camic
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0002
[George Herbert Mead;John Dewey;history of social science;scientific research;evolution;pragmatism]
Charles Camic examines Mead’s neglected posthumously published Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, a book that is based on notes from a course of the same title, and shows how it relates to the intellectual context of the University of Chicago in its early years. Camic considers several offerings of the course first by John Dewey and then by Mead not so much to contrast the two thinkers as to trace the increasing emphasis on research science and evolution and the diminishing emphasis on nineteenth-century social sciences in Mead’s accounts. Camic’s study applies Mead’s views on the historicity of mind to Mead’s own work and shows how Mead’s own contexts, in this case specifically local contexts, shaped his historical narratives. The importance of the results of this study go beyond Mead’s contribution to the history of ideas because they exemplify the gradual replacement of a Hegelian-teleological narrative by a pragmatist account in terms of historical contingency. (pages 15 - 39)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Daniel R. Huebner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0003
[George Herbert Mead;history of science;philosophy of science;historical reconstruction;pragmatism]
Daniel Huebner’s chapter deals with Mead’s relevance for the history of science. He utilizes newly discovered student notes from Mead’s courses and other historical data to make the case that Mead was an expert in the history of science, that he contributed self-consciously to the formation of the history of science as a field of inquiry, and that he had a thoroughly social account of the development of scientific knowledge. Mead’s strong interest in ancient Greek philosophy and science and the complex relationship between this area of his work and his social psychology thus become evident. Huebner documents the wide variety of Mead’s courses and papers in this area, his attempts to institute a society and book series for the history of science, and the criticisms leveled at him at the time. (pages 40 - 61)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Hans Joas, Alex Skinner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0004
[George Herbert Mead;Ernst Troeltsch;Josiah Royce;John Dewey;pragmatism;historicism;temporality;historiography]
Hans Joas explores the similarities between American pragmatism and German historicism in the nineteenth century—similarities that were often ignored because of cultural differences between the United States and Germany and the different status of the natural sciences and humanities in the two cultures. But the main claim of this chapter is that American pragmatism developed ideas that allow us to overcome the dichotomy between objectivism and relativism in historiography. Joas identifies conceptual tools in the works of Josiah Royce, Mead, and Dewey that can account for the intersubjective and the temporal nature of human experience as well as for the processes of the formation of ideals. By bringing Ernst Troeltsch, the most sophisticated thinker from the historicist tradition, into the picture, Joas demonstrates that in the 1920s one could almost speak of the beginning of a convergence of Mead’s temporalized pragmatism and Troeltsch’s existential historicism. For contingent reasons, this convergence never took place, but it remains a challenge to which this paper responds. (pages 62 - 81)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Robert Westbrook
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0005
[George Herbert Mead;John Dewey;intellectual history;democracy;democratic participation;inclusiveness;political realism]
Robert Westbrook observes that Mead has remained neglected in the renaissance of interest in John Dewey. However, Westbrook argues, Mead was not merely a friend and colleague who shared Dewey’s views, but one who substantially and productively enlarged them. By focusing on Mead’s 1923 “Scientific Method and the Moral Sciences,” Westbrook argues that Mead pioneered a theory in which inclusive democratic participation incorporated the values of all interested inquirers and in which such inquiry provided more adequate assessments of the consequences of social actions. Hence, Mead developed a defense of democratic inclusiveness against the challenge of so-called realist critics on the basis that inclusion made for “smarter” polities, a defense that is superior even to Dewey’s attempts. (pages 82 - 91)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Karl-Siegbert Rehberg, Alex Skinner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0006
[George Herbert Mead;Arnold Gehlen;Helmuth Plessner;Max Scheler;intersubjectivity;philosophical anthropology]
Karl-Siegbert Rehberg examines Mead’s philosophy in light of the tradition of German philosophical anthropology, including Arnold Gehlen, Helmuth Plessner, and Max Scheler. Gehlen, in particular, who many Germans consider to be of equal intellectual significance to Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, has not received much attention in the English-speaking world. Gehlen was, however, the first major German author to recognize Mead’s importance and to refer to him in his own creative work. In his chapter Rehberg is driven by an interest in understanding how thinkers of such different attitudes toward democracy can nevertheless show profound affinities in their understanding of human action. In his essay Rehberg provides a novel reevaluation of the relationship between Mead and the broader intellectual tradition of German human sciences scholarship, and he introduces previously unpublished documentation on Gehlen’s study of Mead. (pages 92 - 114)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

Part II: Nature, Environment, Process��������������������������������������������

- Trevor Pearce
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0007
[George Herbert Mead;Charles Darwin;evolution;naturalism;Josiah Royce;Wilhelm Dilthey;personal crisis]
Trevor Pearce examines Mead’s early intellectual development and shows in detail how difficult it was for a young Christian at the time to integrate Darwin into his worldview. Pearce explores the deep existential crisis that resulted from these difficulties. Based on new and newly reevaluated biographical material, Pearce traces the development of Mead’s views through his years in college, in a longer phase of existential reorientation, and as a student of philosophy and psychology. Pearce also shows how Mead’s education with Josiah Royce at Harvard and Wilhelm Dilthey in Berlin—both authors who saw the doctrine of evolution as a means to come to a better understanding of the human being’s “spiritual” nature—was key to resolving his early intellectual and personal problems and continued to form the center of his later work. (pages 117 - 143)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Bradley H. Brewster, Antony J. Puddephatt
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0008
[George Herbert Mead;environment;sociality;environmental studies;conservationism;biosociality]
Bradley Brewster and Antony Puddephatt propose that Mead was one of the most thoroughgoing bio-social thinkers in the classical sociological canon, and they criticize those who lump him together with some of his later followers who showed little interest in the natural world and the relationships between the human organism and its environment. This relationship, according to Mead, can be understood neither as a determinism where all the causality lies on the side of the environment nor as an unfettered construction of environment by organism. Brewster and Puddephatt see Mead in a revolt against dualism and idealism. The authors propose that Mead’s theory of fundamental sociality and the objective location of perspectives in nature provides an avenue for linking the social sciences with environmental studies. There are affinities of Mead’s theory to the thinking of early conservationists. They clearly find anticipated in Mead what is presently debated as a new view of the social—that is, a view that includes nonhumans. Mead’s theory could, therefore, provide the foundation for contemporary claims about the obligation of human communities to multiple forms of ecology. (pages 144 - 164)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Daniel Cefaï
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0009
[George Herbert Mead;Chicago School of Sociology;history of sociology;University of Chicago;social ecology;social theory]
Daniel Cefaï examines the research of major and minor figures of the Chicago School of Sociology. He traces the importance of Mead’s examination of fields of experience organized by universes of discourse to the development of so-called social worlds in that school—for example, in the works of eminent sociologists Tamotsu Shibutani, Anselm Strauss, and Howard S. Becker. Cefaï utilizes the numerous (often unpublished) dissertations of sociologists trained at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to present a novel, detailed analysis of the theoretical complexity of ecologies of social worlds, including their multiplicity, their various forms, and their intersections. He finds in Mead’s understanding of ecology an important counterpoint to the human ecology practiced in Chicago in the 1920s and an important contribution to the rethinking of the place of objects in social theory. (pages 165 - 184)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Michael L. Thomas
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0010
[George Herbert Mead;Alfred North Whitehead;sociality;perspective;temporality;subjectivity]
Michael L. Thomas provides a fresh analysis of the relationship between Mead and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. There can be no doubt that in the last years of his life Mead grappled with Whitehead’s thinking more than with any other philosophy. The expression “objective reality of perspectives”—the title of one of Mead’s essays—conveys the basic idea behind his effort very well. Perspective alludes to subjectivity, but every subjectivity is itself part of an objective reality. Instead of yielding to a bifurcation of nature into an objective and a subjective realm, both Mead and Whitehead view reality as a temporal, constructive process in which the subjectivity of individuals plays a role in its construction. But Thomas also insists on the differences between the two thinkers. Mead saw himself as being more consistent in this shared effort and better able to prevent any recreation of the bifurcation they were both struggling to overcome. Thomas sees Mead as focusing on the scientific understanding of reality and Whitehead as more interested in an aesthetic project. But these two projects do not necessarily contradict each other, and it is Thomas’s ambition to outline possible avenues of synthesis. (pages 185 - 206)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

Part III: Cognition, Conscience, Language������������������������������������������������

- Ryan Mcveigh
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0011
[George Herbert Mead;cognitive science;problem of other minds;cognition;self;other;philosophy of mind;roletaking]
Ryan McVeigh lays out some of the fundamental philosophical issues at stake with his evaluation of the so-called problem of other minds. In the contemporary cognitive sciences, the dominant views emphasize cognition as a phenomenon internal to the individual organism, and this ontological priority of the individual—hegemonic in theorizing this problem from Descartes to the present day—makes it difficult to explain the reality and necessity of our understanding of others. Even perspectives that draw on research on mirror neurons and other possible neurological mechanisms by which the individual may simulate the behaviors of others ultimately fail to resolve this problem. McVeigh argues that Mead’s perspective, in contrast, dissolves the very problem itself by showing how the self only emerges as the result of the individual developing in a pre-existing world of social others. Instead of taking the individual’s sense of self as a starting premise and asking how we can be logically sure others exist, we can take up the charge from Mead and reorient research to investigate how we personally come to exist as selves among others. (pages 209 - 230)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Kelvin Jay Booth
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0012
[George Herbert Mead;comparative psychology;develpmental psychology;imitation;roletaking;philosophy of mind]
Kelvin Booth carefully dissects the findings of research that claims to show the extent to which apes understand the intentions and experiences of others, and he argues that there is no clear evidence of definite imitation or “mind-reading” abilities in these cases. Research on human infants demonstrates the range of behavioral mimicries they exhibit early in development, but Booth argues that these behaviors develop from a tendency of infants to synchronize activities with others, not to intuitively take the role of others and truly imitate their intentions. In this chapter Booth reaffirms the importance of Mead’s efforts to distinguish the role-taking abilities that humans develop from seemingly analogous behavior of other animals and human infants. And by building on the notion of synchronizing behaviors, Booth contributes an explanation of why humans are the only animals that imitate in a strict sense, which both lends further support for Mead’s overall theory of mind and makes a novel contribution to the literature on comparative behavior. (pages 231 - 251)
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    University of Chicago Press

- Frithjof Nungesser
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0013
[George Herbert Mead;Michael Tomasello;cognitive science;communication;gesture;comparative psychology]
Frithjof Nungesser takes up a systematic comparison of Tomasello, a key figure working to reorient comparative and developmental research in cognitive science around social and cultural issues, and Mead, focusing especially on the evolutionary development of human-specific features of communication. Both authors agree that the key transition between animal and human communication is in gestural interaction and that humans have developed unique role-taking abilities that transform cognition into internal dialogue. Their differences of emphasis, however, are instructive. They choose different reference species with differing types of social skills to compare with humans, and they place different emphases on verbal and manual communication in evolutionary development. Although Tomasello provides a more up-to-date analysis of the evolutionary development of human communication, Nungesser argues that he ultimately fails to fully incorporate Mead’s pragmatist principles, which both recognize the evolutionary continuity of human and animal sociality and at the same time stress the change of existence as a whole—the emergence of a qualitatively new intersubjective space affecting all human motivations and behaviors—that results from biologically evolved human specific capacities. (pages 252 - 275)
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    University of Chicago Press

- Joshua Daniel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0014
[George Herbert Mead;conscience;moral conflict;self;social ecology;ethics;moral philosophy]
Joshua Daniel takes up the moral implications of Mead’s anthropology in order to investigate the nature of conscience. Modern conceptions of conscience, Daniel shows, emphasize its function as either the voice of society’s moral conventions or of personal moral discernment, which results in a fundamental tension between the individual and social aspects of conscience. Daniel derives from Mead’s notion of the self, especially the distinction between the I and the me, an ecological view in which the embodied self engages in interactions with various social environments, both performing social roles and responding individually to social demands. The real advance of Mead’s view over current moral philosophy is showing that moral conflicts are not fundamentally between the individual and society but between competing socially funded consciences and that the work of the individual’s conscience is not in punctuated moments of judgment but rather in continually negotiating between multiple ecologies of social roles. On the basis of this formulation Daniel proposes that conscience does not serve simply to resolve moral perplexity once and for all but to allow individuals to rationally maintain perplexity and to participate successfully in a variety of morally ambiguous roles. (pages 276 - 295)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

- Roman Madzia
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0015
[George Herbert Mead;language;experience;action theory;epistemology]
Roman Madzia focuses on Mead’s embodied and situated concept of the mind in order to examine a central problem for modern thought—specifically, the relationship between experience and language. Madzia argues that modern philosophies—including so-called neo-pragmatists—view language as a necessary mediation through which humans experience the world, but this common view has resulted in fundamental problems. Mead, in contrast, developed a theory in which our primary relation with the world is absorbed skillful coping with an engrossing and unproblematized realm of objects, not an objective world mediated for an actor by propositional content. On this basis, Mead develops a theory of the emergence of linguistic communication in which symbols enable humans to systematically reconstruct their habits in response to practical problems. Thus, Madzia argues, the linguistic mediation of the world is a second-order attitude situated within a larger theory of direct, unmediated action. The apparently problematic features of linguistic representation of the world are resolved into transitory but necessary phases in the action of the body as it attempts to restore the direct unity of experience—to re-present a unified field of action. (pages 296 - 314)
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    University of Chicago Press

- Timothy Gallagher
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226377131.003.0016
[George Herbert Mead;Niko Tinbergen;evolution;language;communication;gesture;consciousness]
Mead’s theory of the nature and development of language is thoroughly evaluated in light of subsequent research in the chapter by Timothy Gallagher. The chapter is structured as a response to ethologist Niko Tinbergen’s well-known four questions in the explanation of behavior: How does it work (mechanics)? How does it develop in the individual (ontogeny)? How did it emerge in history (phylogeny)? And how is it adaptive for survival (function)? Mead, Gallagher shows, fares well on each of these questions, and his writings exhibit an explicit awareness of features of language that have received confirmation in recent scholarship, including its neuro-physiological apparatus, its complex development that is dependent on features of human biology and social learning, its evolutionary relation to and advance over non-symbolic gestures, and its role in producing flexible and dynamic coordination of social activities. Ultimately Mead goes beyond these questions by developing a non-dualistic theory of the relationship between language and consciousness—a problem not considered by Tinbergen’s reductive questions. (pages 315 - 336)
This chapter is available at:
    University of Chicago Press

List of Contributors���������������������������

Name Index�����������������

Subject Index��������������������