The Origin Of Meaning


Non Being’s Positive Side Chap 6 Being What Is Not (I Self) While Not Being What Is (Me Self). What makes humans unique is that they have selves, an I-self and me-self. The origin of meaning can be traced to the intermingling of these selves in the I/me couplet. The human capacity “to think” develops as a consequence of this intermingling.

Two Exclusive Self-Components In Relationship-Me-Self, I-Self, Social Identity

The Complete Self Is Thus A Reflection Of the Complete Social Process

Self-Reflexive Identity

Mead’s Self and Society

Mead’s particular social behaviorist interpretation of the self was influenced by the behaviorism of Watson (1958), the psychology of James (1910), and the psychophysical parallelism of Wundt (1920). According to Mead’s behaviorism, human beings have self’s, and because they have self’s, human beings can be understood as a product of their environment.

Mead drew upon Wundt’s analysis of the role of gesture in language as the means to describe the social mechanism for the inner restructuring of experience into self and other. According to Mead, we learn to recognize and attach a social meaning to gestures as they are presented to us in a social context. For example, we learn very quickly, after a physical encounter with a bully, that the gesture of a clenched fist is not an invitation to freely speak one’s opinions. In this sense, a person, through the imaginative completion of a portentous act, is able to share in the social experience of the other person. By engaging in role taking (hopefully under more friendly circumstances) we become socialized to cultural norms, as we become part of culture.

From this notion of meaningful gesture Mead was able to develop his theory, which recognizes that we act toward ourselves in the same manner that we act toward other people. Mead (1934: 80) developed this idea in his characterization of the logical structure of meaning when he described meaning as:

“…found in the threefold relationship of gesture to adjustive response and to the resultant of the given social act. Response on the part of the second organism to the gesture of the first is the interpretation–and brings out the meaning–of that gesture, as indicating the resultant of the social act which it initiates, and in which both organisms are thus involved. This threefold or triadic relation between gesture, adjustive response, and resultant of the social act which the gesture initiates is the basis of meaning….”

Mead’s social psychology is not a deterministic model of human behavior however. Novelty and spontaneity are permitted within the reflexive point and counterpoint of Mead’s I/me couplet. Mead, like James (1910) before him, understood the self to be divided into two mutually exclusive components, the I-self and the me-self. Mead’s theory asserts the me-self to be the identity — the social identity — of which the I-self becomes conscious in the development of the child.

This process occurs in two stages. In the play stage the child learns to take on the attitude of others toward them. At this stage the child learns to imitate behavior as she/he begins to play at taking on the different roles of some significant other, for example, doctor, policeman, teacher, etc.. In the second stage, or, the game stage, the child learns to internalize social roles and the rules governing the roles of significant others. The game stage is the “completing” stage of self.

In the game stage of self-development there arises, in the child, an awareness of the socially defined roles of the generalized other. The personality develops, indeed, the capacity to think at all, develops from the ability to take the attitude of the generalized other toward oneself. It is this generalized other that, in addition to giving the self a sense of completeness, also, permits the social process to have a determining affect on the persons involved in carrying it out. Mead (1934: 144) states: “[T]he various elementary selves which constitute, or are organized into, a complete self are the various aspects of the structure of the complete self answering to the various aspects of the structure of the social process as a whole; the structure of the complete self is thus a reflection of the complete social process.”

The “I” Both Calls Out To “Me” And Responds To It

The I-Self Is Identical With The Analytic Process Of Cognition And Implies That Human Beings Can Never Be Mere Reflections Of Society

Once the I-self has become conscious in the child’s development, or, to put it another way, once the child is fully able to take a position concerning the generalized other, then novelty, spontaneity, impulsiveness, and creativity become realizable potentials of behavior. The awareness of creative behavior, however, is always discovered within the me-self. The “I” gives to the self its novelty and innovation while the “me” directs this novelty and innovation. Mead (1934: 178) expresses this idea as follows:

“The two are separated in the process but they belong together in the sense of being parts of a whole… The “me’ does call for a certain sort of an “I” in so far as we meet the obligations that are given in conduct itself, but the “I” is always something different from what the situation itself calls for. So there is always that distinction, if you like, between the “I” and the “me.” The “I” both calls out the “me” and responds to it. Taken together they constitute a personality as it appears in social experience.”

Mead’s me-self, as it may be understood to represent the common values, meanings, viewpoints, definitions, and expectations of the group, is not a controversial idea. Mead’s I-self, on the other hand, does represent something of a paradox. For instance, it is, according to Zeitlin (1973: 227), “essentially biologic and impulsive, it is blind and unconscious” but it also “represents freedom, spontaneity, novelty, initiative.” Reynolds (1993: 61) further elaborates on the complex and potentially confusing nature of Mead’s I-self:

“Suffice it to say that the “I” is a manifestation of both natural needs and impulses (Mead lists 10), that it is a process of thinking as well as acting (Mead, 1912:405, says it “is identical with the analytic or synthetic process of cognition”), and that, because it represents the truly spontaneous and unpredictable, its existence implies that human beings can never be mere reflections of society and will never be those completely passive agents Dennis Wrong (1961) referred to as oversocialized.”

If Mead’s “I” represents “the truly spontaneous and unpredictable” in human behavior then it becomes awkward, if not impossible, to understand how the “I” can function in a narrative role, especially in the sense that Giddens’ used the term narrative; that is, “to keep in touch with one’s self-identity”. I do believe, however, that it would take only a slight modification in the way we understand Mead’s I/me couplet in order to understand the “I” in terms of narrative, and thus to understand the role narrative plays in Mead’s description of self and society.

“Contemporary self understanding requires,” according to Weigert (1995: 6), “social psychologies that bridge biography and history, self and society, body and self.” In keeping with this plea for consistency, I will attempt to address all three categories in my discussion of the self-concept, starting where I left off; that is, with a follow up to Mead’s social behavioristic model of self and society.

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