What you have inherited from your fathers, you must earn in order to possess.
Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that “a science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost,”1 referring to the need to separate the history of science from theory construction. It is my contention that, on the contrary, theory construction in the social sciences actually benefits from historically accurate reconstructions of the founding fathers of those disciplines. The purpose of this book is to produce a historically rigorous reconstruction of Mead that can be of use to contemporary social and political theorists. In particular, I shall favor the angle of the reception of Mead’s ideas in sociology. There are two reasons that justify this decision. Firstly, with the exception of social psychology, in no other scientific discipline does Mead enjoy the status of a classic author. Secondly, as my reconstruction will show, a much neglected contribution of Mead to contemporary social science focuses on the societal shift towards modernity, one of sociology’s constitutive themes.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, many of the social sciences and humanistic disciplines organized themselves around the methodological fault line dividing the “historicist” and “presentist” approaches. Separated by intellectual style as well as substance, these two camps have long viewed each other with a certain amount of incomprehension, and dialogue has effectively broken down. It is my wish to suggest the ultimately untenable nature of such a dichotomy. Historicist methods can and should be used to attain presentist aims. This is the general methodological strategy behind the reconstruction of Mead’s thinking presented in this book. I will not only make use of a methodology usually connected with historicist works – archival research – but I will also pay attention to the relevant contexts in which Mead worked in order to pursue a goal commonly associated with presentist texts, namely to retrieve from past texts the lessons needed to solve contemporary problems. The originality of my thesis consists not so much in a discussion of the ways contemporary social and political theories can make use of Mead’s insights, as in providing a fresh and sustained re-interpretation of his ideas. An examination of all the relevant secondary literature on Mead will show that there are virtually no precedents for reconstructing his thought in the manner I propose. The relevance of this is revealed as soon as one realizes that the image currently held of Mead in sociology and social psychology fails to do justice to some of his areas of interest, as well as to the systematic nature of his thought.
This last remark ties in with the way the structure of this book is conceived. Taking into account every single element of the corpus of Mead’s writings, published and unpublished, as well as several lecture transcripts from his classes on various topics, I will produce a triadic reconstruction of his system of thought. Resorting to an architectonic metaphor, I suggest that Mead’s intellectual edifice is sustained upon the pillars of science, of social psychology, and of politics. Furthermore, I contend that these pillars are better understood as responses to fundamental modern problematics. As I try to show, Mead investigates the problem of consciousness, its epistemological conditions and its radical democratic implications, as a social theorist seeking to respond to some of the inescapable questions modernity imposes on us moderns. My methodological strategy has two different implications. The first is related to the meaning of Mead’s writings. The method I employ here allows me 1) to go beyond the existing secondary literature on Mead by identifying the three constitutive problem-areas around which his thinking evolved and 2) it paves the way for an original reconstruction of each of these pillars and hence of the system itself, one which combines a genetic or historical reconstruction with a reconstruction according to themes. The second implication of my methodological strategy is a new understanding of the relevance of Mead’s work, no longer limited to his account of the social nature of the self. The relative merit of Mead’s responses to three fundamental modern problematics can thus be appreciated in comparison to responses to those same fundamental questions from other modern authors, from classical figures such as Hobbes or Hegel to contemporary thinkers. In sum, I try to answer the questions of “How should one read Mead?” and of “Why should we read Mead today?” in an articulated way, thus suggesting that the meaning and the relevance of any given author’s work are but different sides of the same coin.
My chief contention regarding the internal organization of Mead’s system of thinking is that the pillar of science takes logical precedence over the two other pillars. Indeed, the cornerstone of Mead’s intellectual building is, I suggest, his conception of science as a problem-solving activity. His writings and lectures on the history and philosophy of science amply corroborate this assertion. Mead equates the societal shift to modernity with a progressive control of mankind over nature through the systematic application of the “method of intelligence,” i.e., the experimental method of science. The emergence of experimental science is given a pivotal role with the advent of modern times, whose method is said to be the very process of “evolution grown self-conscious.” The history of the human species and the history of science thus become interrelated at the moment when mastery of the experimental method allowed mankind, for the first time, to gain some control over its own process of evolution, understood as a creative adaptation to the surrounding environment. To provide an accurate account of such a phylogenetic process is one of the aims of a “scientific social psychology;” another is to show that the history of the evolution of the species is reflected in the developmental process of individual human beings. Ontogenesis and phylogenesis are two facets of the same evolutionary process, a process that social psychology is deemed to reconstruct in a scientific fashion. The perspective of the research scientist bears a strong resemblance to the attitude of the “generalized other,” one of the conceptual elements adduced by Mead to explain the social character of ontogeny. Both share an orientation to abstraction, impersonality, and objectivity. The same can be said, however, of the attitude of the critical moral agent or of the statesman. In fact, Mead’s writings on morals and politics should be given the status of applied research insofar as a science of politics and morals is one of his chief aims. The resolution of practical moral and political problems is to be achieved through the application of the method of intelligence. Intelligent social reform and moral reconstruction are, then, the promises of Mead’s scientific approach to the “social or moral order.”
To reiterate the architectonic metaphor that will guide my argument throughout this book, there are two other pillars that sustain Mead’s intellectual edifice. The pillar of social psychology is certainly Mead’s most well-known research area. This is not surprising since not only was Mead a social psychologist, but the main vehicle of his ideas for posterity is Mind, Self and Society, a posthumously published set of lecture transcripts from his course on advanced social psychology. The originality of his social conception of the human self helps to explain how Mead came to occupy a place in the canon of twentieth-century social theory. Almost as a rule, social scientists and theorists tend to accept at face value the canonical status of Mind, Self and Society as the most faithful and complete account of Mead’s social psychology. In my view, there are good reasons to abandon this way of approaching Mead’s thinking on social psychology. Making use of my findings at the Mead Papers archive, held in the University of Chicago, as well as all of Mead’s published articles on social psychology and philosophy of education, I will offer a distinct portrait of Mead as a social psychologist. Firstly, Mead’s published essays will provide the textual evidence needed to reconstruct the main stages of the development of his social psychology. Secondly, Mead’s published and unpublished manuscripts will be analyzed in order to show the importance of educational issues for Mead until about the mid-1910s. Thirdly, resorting to an almost unknown collection of essays on social psychology and education prepared by Mead for publication, as well as to student notes from other offerings of the course on advanced social psychology, I will argue that some of the criticisms usually leveled at Mead can be shown to derive from the incomplete portrait that Mind, Self and Society offers of Mead’s social psychology. Finally, I will critically address one of the most influential interpretations of Mead’s ideas in the past two decades. I refer to Jürgen Habermas’s claim that Mead is responsible for the paradigm shift from purposive to communicative action, as presented in The Theory of Communicative Action. Despite its theoretical sophistication, Habermas’s interpretation of Mead is not without problems. In my opinion, the most serious question that can be raised is the extent to which it is fair to criticize Mead for failing to provide an analysis of the “material reproduction of societies.” Habermas suggests that Mead’s inability to study phenomena such as warfare, political struggles and class conflicts stems from the “idealistic deviation” that allegedly his social theory suffers from.
As I will show in the last part of my book, such a criticism can be leveled at Mead only if one ignores a whole pillar of his intellectual edifice. Indeed, and again resorting to both published and unpublished materials, I shall discuss Mead’s account of the shift towards modernity from the point of view of the processes of industrialization, immigration, and urban growth. Another relevant aspect concerns Mead’s treatment of the main military conflict of his lifetime, World War I. In all these cases, I will try to show how Mead envisages the successful resolution of concrete social, political, and moral problems through the application of the method of intelligence. My next step will be to assess Mead’s theory of deliberative democracy and his scientific approach to morals. Despite the deficiencies that can be pointed out in his proposals, the fact remains that Mead is able to show that moral and political theories require sound social theoretical foundations. In particular, Mead’s moral and political thought will be shown to be a valuable resource for contemporary theorists interested in providing their models of deliberative democracy with a socio-linguistic foundation. Such is, in my opinion, Mead’s main contribution to today’s moral and political theory. This book will, then, be brought to an end with a critical reflection on the need to complement a historically-minded reconstruction of our predecessors with a theoretically sustained examination of the inescapable questions they sought to answer. These are the questions that Simmel seminally described as those that “we have so far been unable either to answer or to dismiss.”2 That these very same questions still motivate much of our work today shows that it is both possible and desirable to learn from Mead, as a partner in an imaginary conversation, the best ways to respond to the central problematics of our “modern times.”