George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead Picture

George Herbert Mead, an influential American philosopher and one the founders of Pragmatism, was born on February 27, 1863 in South Hadley, Massachusetts, United States. Mead came from a conventional Christian background, and spent many years of his life dealing with a personal spiritual crisis due to his fundamental doubts about religion and Christianity in particular. He studied at Oberlin College and later at the Harvard University. Mead was deeply discontented with the dominant speculative approach and its failure to provide an answer to the ongoing social and scientific problems. He moved to Berlin in search of a more realistic philosophy, and ended up writing a dissertation at the University of Berlin. During his stay in Germany, he not only studied philosophy, but also had a first-hand experience of the political workings of the Social-Democratic Labor Movement. This involvement later encouraged him to take an active part in the American Social Reform.

In 1891, Mead secured a job as an instructor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan. There he began a lifelong friendship with another young philosophy professor, John Dewey. In 1894, Dewey was presented with the offer to teach at the University of Chicago, Dewey accepted the proposition on a condition that required George Herbert Mead to be given a position there as well. Hence, in 1894, Mead along with Dewey, went to the University of Chicago and took up the post of a professor of philosophy, which he held for the next forty years. At Chicago, Mead was an active participant in various local movements and social programs. He was appointed as the treasurer of the Hull House, admitted as a member to the progressive City Club and also, made the editor of the Elementary School Teacher.

Mead’s influence in the University of Chicago was immense. In 1931, Mead and four other philosophers created a nationwide stir by resigning from the University in opposition to Mortimer Adler’s appointment to the philosophy department. Mead was strongly against Adler’s neothomist approach, and believed that his appointment would bring about a disruptive philosophical and political change within the students. Upon his resignation, Mead accepted a post at the Columbia University. However, he died soon after.

Mead did not publish any of his work, and upon his death, his son and daughter in law, Henry and Irene Tufts Mead, along with some of his students, edited and compiled his unpublished manuscripts, lectures and student notes. His works have been published posthumously as a three-volume set, ‘Mind, Self and Society’ was published in 1934, ‘Movements of Thoughts in the Nineteenth Century’ was published in 1936 and the ‘Philosophy of the Act’ was published in 1938. An edited version of his Carus lectures that form the main crux of Mead’s philosophical teachings was published as ‘The Philosophy of the Present’, in 1932.

George Herbert Mead ranks amongst the most influential contributors to the field of American Pragmatism. His teachings were formed on the theory of relativity and the doctrine of emergence. According to Mead, life, consciousness, personality and experiences were valued as objective properties of nature which are relative to a specific set of circumstances. His philosophy is widely known as Objective Relativism. Mead has also made several notable contributions to social psychology. His theories put forward the notion that self-awareness in human beings is shaped through the process of social interaction, and languages play an extremely significant role in development. Mead followed the behavioristic paradigm of psychology, and believed that children can learn, understand and alter behavior patterns through language.

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