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Marxism and Meadism

George Herbert Mead
George Herbert Mead

August, 2007.— Here’s one of the many parallels between Marxism and 'Meadism' [i.e., George Herbert Mead's system of thought]: “Human society, we have insisted, does not merely stamp the pattern of its organized social behavior upon any one of its individual members, so that this pattern becomes likewise the pattern of the individual’s self; it also, at the same time, gives him a mind, as the means or ability of consciously conversing with himself in terms of the social attitudes which constitute the structure of his self and which embody the pattern of human society’s organized behavior as reflected in that structure. And his mind enables him in turn to stamp the pattern of his further developing self (further developing through his mental activity) upon the structure or organization of human society, and thus in a degree to reconstruct and modify in terms of his self the general pattern of social or group behavior in terms of which his self was originally constituted.” (Mind, Self, and Society, p. 263) Social being determines consciousness more than vice versa, but there is nonetheless a dialectical interaction.

(If you’ll ask, with David Hume, how there can be a causal relationship between things that are logically implied in each other—namely, social being and consciousness—I’ll answer, first, that that’s a misleading way of framing the issue, and second, that Marx’s claim can be made more convincing by being made more precise. The character of one’s social activities influences the character of one’s ‘inner life’ (thoughts and emotions). If, for example, there’s a social hierarchy in one’s society—say, a caste system, as in India—one will internalize this system and come to interpret the world and organize one’s life along hierarchical lines. Only with a supreme effort can one mentally rebel against the system, and even in that case one has already been decisively influenced by it (and will, moreover, surely never be rid of certain prejudices). It’s true that thoughts etc. are logically implied in activities, but since activities are not merely thoughts—they’re also physical forms of life, unconscious internalizations of the environment, responses to the other, and so on—they can causally influence mental life in the long run, more than vice versa. This isn’t just a terminological dispute, by the way. Social being is a broader concept than consciousness: it includes societal activities, structures, institutions and patterns, and, to an extent, the ways they react upon the individual’s psyche. Therefore, if social being can be structured differently than in capitalism, consciousness can be different than it is in capitalism—and with a different consciousness will follow different ways of ‘being social’, which will themselves further influence consciousness, etc. ad infinitum.)

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