- The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead ed. by Hans Joas, Daniel R. Huebner
The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead
Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 349 pp., incl. name index and subject index
“The organism is assumed to be originally acting and for this action no cause need be sought.” Thus concluded American sociologist Ellsworth Faris about George H. Mead’s basic position years ago when reviewing the posthumous edition of lectures, Mind, Self, and Society (1934), for which Mead has become best known. Soon after that time, that basic idea and Mead’s thought in general sank into negligence. Mead has not been absent from the philosophical map in the same way as his fellow-pragmatist and personal friend, John Dewey, once was. Dewey’s philosophy was declared obsolete in the immediate post-WWII time, and it began to arouse new interest only since the 1980s. Mead’s thought has not received that kind of premature negative verdict. There rather is a paradox in his reception. He has for decades been a household name in sociology and social psychology, but his actual views have remained less well known. In recent decades, however, Mead’s ideas [End Page 631] have had a kind of second coming. Scholars have taken them up in extensive, immanently orienting monographs. The seldom outspoken tenor in such immanent treatments is that once the classic thinker is explicated thoroughly enough, his real eminence will become apparent. The volume at hand might be called, slightly poetically, the crowning achievement of this re-evaluating endeavor. Namely, it keeps the implicit promise underlying the earlier, monographic treatments, in that it shows how far ahead of his time Mead really was. As one of contributors, Ryan McVeigh, aptly puts it, “There has never been a more fruitful time to reexamine the work of George Herbert Mead.”
Ours is a particularly fruitful time for such reexamination because empirical science about the human mind is turning to those problems that already exercised Mead. More importantly, in many cases contemporary psychology and cognitive science even corroborate some of Mead’s original hypotheses. Another fine contribution in the book, by Frithjof Nungesser, is tellingly entitled “Mead meets Tomasello”. It is striking how often Mead’s philosophy has anticipated those conclusions that Michael Tomasello, one of the leading developmental and comparative psychologists today, recently reached on an empirical basis. Tomasello’s work is not the only point of comparison either to demonstrate how well Mead’s work dovetails with 21st century psychology and cognitive research. Six of the fifteen contributions in the book analyze Mead’s relation to these disciplines, and they converge toward a more or less shared conclusion: There is astonishingly little discrepancy between Mead’s original philosophical theories and contemporary empirical views about what the human mind is and how it works.
That conclusion is important, but the book has other important things to say as well. It contains new historical and biographical studies about Mead, and philosophical comparisons between him and thinkers from other traditions. These comparisons address Mead’s relation to the ontologically interpreted sociality concept of Alfred North Whitehead, the concept of human conscience as understood from the viewpoint of theological ethics, and Mead’s relation to the German tradition of hermeneutics.
I shall not paraphrase chapters of the book one by one. Instead, I sample some discussions that address current, particularly pertinent themes. As I mentioned earlier, Mead’s name has survived best in sociology, but attempts to apply his ideas in this discipline have tended to remain rudimentary. However, it is only welcome if sociological research turns to Mead—to the actual Mead—whose starting point was in the organism/environment relation. Quite an impressive opening in this direction is provided by Bradley Brewster and Anthony Puddephatt, whose contribution deals with environmental sociology. Particularly topical today, environmental sociology has existed for some [End Page 632] time, but so far it has hardly utilized Meadian ideas in its research. Brewster and Puddephatt point out that precisely those ideas are timely and useful in addressing environmental problems. Mead’s philosophy is not predicated...