Critical Thinking/Meaning and Meaning Making


It is not unusual, upon a careful reading of another’s work, to discover themes unintended by the author. Such is the case here as Mead’s behaviorist account of self and society is given a more expansive interpretation. As a result, Mead’s me-self and I-self are transformed into conflicting collective voices, that under this new interpretation—begin the process of the dialogical juggling of multiple collective voices that ultimately “… bridge(s) the domains of social conflict and unity, because dialogical relationships allow for the existence of both agreement and disagreement and for both intersubjective exchange and dominance.”

As A Society Is Rent By Hostile Divisions, So Will Be The Selves Of Its Citizens

The Self Derives Its Unity, Not From Empathic And Rational Internalization Of A Generalized Other; Rather, It Is Forged In The Emotional Intensity Of Mob- Like Hatred Of An Out-Group

Collective Voice and the “Other”

In his critical evaluation of Mead’s self-concept, Gregg (1991) concluded that Mead is proposing two different self-models. There is, of course, the self-model heretofore described where the self is emphasized as rational, based in society, and unified by the generalized other. Gregg, however, has identified another self in Mead’s work that tends to dominate in social relations and therefore expresses more of the irrational side of human affections. It is the tension that occurs between these two selves that, for Gregg, proves to be critical in reflections on the relationship that exists between self and society.

Gregg takes the position that Mead developed, (Mead’s theoretical notion that society is a unified system resulting from a person’s cognitive ability to adapt the attitude of the generalized other, which, in turn, becomes the attitude of the community as a whole), and counters this position with Mead’s other theory that connects the concepts of superiority and opposition to the relation of person and society. In Gregg’s analysis, a “reconciliation of differences” is emphasized. According to Gregg (1991: 185), “Unsocialized, the individual would founder in irrational selfishness; partially socialized, he becomes rational and moral, and the interests of his multiple selves are consolidated into a superordinate self-interest, which in its turn has been coordinated with the interests of all.” Gregg posed the question: “But from whence does unity come?” and concluded that Mead’s social structure is not unlike Rousseau’s “General Will” which reconciles the opposing interests of individuals to the common good.

It is this theme of differentiation of interests, that is, the division of the superiority of in-group opposed to out-group, which Gregg traces in Mead’s work (Mead, 1934: 207-208; 220-221), and identifies as Mead’s counter theory of self. For instance, expressing an interest in the relation between primitive and civilized societies, Mead compares the primitive’s conception of the ‘double’ with a child’s imaginary playmate (Mead, 1934: 40), and considers them, in relation to the preceding higher game stage, to be both lower forms of self-development. Mead (1934: 265) further states, in reference to a more integrated civilization: “We are struggling now to get a certain amount of international-mindedness… The vivid nationalism of the present period should, in the end, call out an international attitude of the larger community.” Gregg (1991: 185) points out the natural corollary, which follows from this distinction of levels of civility:

“By making this primitive versus civilized distinction, by asserting with such confidence that personal unification is in fact achieved in the social, and by lamenting that a generalized other has yet to be attained in the sphere of international relations, Mead made it clear that he believed “modern”–or at least modern American–society had achieved a harmonious unification of its various differentiated parts. But this view also implies a neo-Marxist corollary he was unwilling to state: to the extent that a society is rent by irreconcilable and hostile divisions, so will be the selves of its citizens.”

It is the case for Gregg that the realization of self requires the ability to see oneself in terms of distinctions of superiority/inferiority, me/not me distinctions, and, as is the case for Mead, this self-realization may be reflected in a person’s identification with the “superior group.” Accordingly, Gregg (1991: 186) is able to answer his own question, “From whence does this unity of self come?” when he states: “The self derives its unity not from empathic and rational internalization of a generalized other that has been made possible by the modern age’s achievement of rational social institutions. Rather, it is forged in the emotional intensity of mob-like hatred of an out-group.”

The Me-Self In The Role Of Multiple Voices Adds A Narrative Dimension To Mead’s Self

When A Person Is Mentally Able To Differentiate, Oppose, And Synthesize Conflicting Collective Voices, Meaning Is Birthed, Values Are Tested, and Judgments Are Authenticated

Hermans and Kempen (1993), in their book, The Dialogical Self, reconstruct Gregg’s analysis of Mead’s self-concept in order to show how the me-self or generalized other can function as a relatively autonomous (as opposed to an internalized, conventional given) creative voice in the self.

[Footnote. In the dialogical view of self the concepts of dialogue and self are brought together in a conversationalist view of self which holds that the self is not “… an intrapsychic but a relational phenomenon, that typically transcends the boundaries between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside.’ This view of the self,” according to Hermans and Kempen (1993: xxi), “opens a possibility to study ‘meaning,’ and ‘meaning making’ in particular, as a ‘movement’ between dialogical positions.”]

Hermans and Kempen, as with Gregg before them, did not cite Mead’s two different theories, –societal unity as expressed in the generalized other (his main theory) and reflections concerning conflict and superiority (his counter theory), –in order to reject Mead’s theory. Rather, it is the tension that exists between these two theories that Hermans and Kempen, and Gregg cite as the starting point for further analysis.

This analysis, for Hermans and Kempen, becomes expressed in a reformulation of Mead’s me-self and I-self as the collective voice of the generalized other. Interpreting the tension between the two models of Mead’s opposing theories as Mead’s own use of collective voices, Hermans and Kempen, are able to show how the me-self, in the role of multiple voices of different generalized others, adds a narrative dimension to Mead’s behavioristic account of self and society. In order to illustrate this narrative dimension Hermans and Kempen cite an example from James’ book, The Principles Of Psychology, in which James (1890) states: “As a man I pity you, but as an official I must show you no mercy; as a politician I regard him as an ally, but as a moralist I loathe him.”

From a theoretical point of view, this example is instructive for the following reasons: 1) An individual person is speaking through the viewpoint of the group–Mead’s generalized other; 2) The voices that are being used are collective and in disagreement; 3) These two collective, but opposite, positions are, in the mind of the self-reflective person, being interrelated in a constructive or (co-) constructive manner. When taken collectively, these three positions represent the capacity of a person to mentally differentiate, oppose and synthesize conflicting collective voices. At the heart of this process meaning is birthed, values are tested, and judgments are authenticated against realizable human experience. James’ politician, in this respect, is not responding “…to an internalized and stabilized attitude or set of rules, but as a person-in-a-social-position, who is involved in shaping the world of politics” (Hermans and Kempen, 1993: 115). According to Hermans and Kempen (1993: 116), it is this dialogical juggling of multiple collective voices that is taken up in self-narratives and it is this process of self-narrative that “… bridge(s) the domains of social conflict and unity, because dialogical relationships allow for the existence of both agreement and disagreement and for both intersubjective exchange and dominance.”

There is, I believe, a way to understand the collective voices of the generalized other without departing from Mead’s conceptual framework, and, without reverting to a Jamesian model of self.

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