David D. Franks

(Encyclopedia of Sociology, George Ritzer, Ed., Blackwell Publishing, 2006, forthcoming)

In common parlance mind means cognitive intelligence, self consciousness, mentality or reason, all of which were once considered unique to humans.  While some animal forms exhibit these capacities to some extent, only in humans are they developed as primary adaptive mechanisms.  In more academic circles the use of the term mind rather than its other synonyms recalls its place in broader debates in western theories of knowledge. This is especially true in social psychology since the philosophically trained George Herbert Mead demonstrated the dependency of individual mind on society and behavior. Mind had been previously understood purely mentally, as a self enclosed, enduring entity in the head rather than an episodic bio-social, behavior-dependent process. The broad outline of Mead’s theory of mind remains important for a thoroughly social rendition of human mentality. Mead’s theory and some current continuities and refinements from neuroscience are presented below.

Through his school of social behaviorism Mead transcended the futile debates between the idealists, rationalists and empirical realists of the enlightenment era.  Rather than viewing the primary link between mind and world as the rationalist’s reason or the realist’s senses, Mead saw the primary link as behavior.  The world became known actively through the way it responded to our actions upon it, rather than by mere reflection or by passive registration through the senses. This view made mind dependent on behavioral process rather than some substantial tabula rasa on which experience could write “carbon copies” as contended by empiricists. Nor was mind solely a “projector” imposing its inherent forms on the experienced world as some rationalists and idealists argued. For Mead, human knowledge was as much a result of the knower’s contribution as what the impartial world contributed.   


Behavior was defined through Mead’s theory of the social act which in turn provided the context for his theory of mind. Four phases comprised the act -- impulse, perception, manipulation and consummation. Thought, consciousness, and thus “minded behavior” arose in the manipulative phase of the act. Action was prior to, and necessary for reflection since consciousness typically occurred when behavior was blocked. Otherwise one acted unreflectively and thus mindlessly. It was the “obdurate character” of the world of resistance that caused action to stop as individuals considered two things: hypothetical alternatives around the resistance and their own capacities for alternative conduct. Such processes assumed the capacity for self consciousness which relied on the capacity for taking the role of the other -- seeing one’s own behavior from others’ standpoints.  Minded behavior incorporates both capacities, fostering flexible and coordinated social action.


In role taking, actors respond to their own on-coming behavior as would the other and then use the anticipated response to guide their lines of conduct. The cognitive demands on such a process guarantee that role taking will be episodic and situated. For example, it may be triggered when the person is confronting those whose responses matter or who have some capacity to constrain spontaneous behavior. Much of Mead’s work centered on how self awareness, and thus minded behavior arose through the process of role taking.


Accuracy in role taking also implies a preexisting social world of shared linguistic meanings that enable actors to respond to their own on-coming behavior in the same way as the other. Mead referred to words with shared meanings as significant symbols. Without them, role taking and coordinated behavior could not proceed.


Role taking then is a process of voluntary self control of behavior. Rather than behavior being passively pushed by external past conditioning, behavior was pulled along by one’s own future anticipation of its consummation. Lines of minded human behavior then were teleologically constructed wherein the termination of the act was implicit in its beginnings. Social behaviorism and Mead’s theory of mind were born in opposition to the psychological and individualistic behaviorism of Watson and Skinner and offered the only available alternative as a voluntaristic theory of behavioral and self control.

The extra sensory character of symbols meant that humans could think beyond the immediately sensed actuality, considering the hypothetical or possible, i.e. how two originally unrelated objects could be joined together in a new way to produce tools. It also enabled cognition transcending particular time or space. Rather than thinking only of particular red objects, the symbol allowed one to think of abstract redness itself. This gave a great efficiency to human mentality. 


A final feature of minded behavior consisted of the capacity for internal dialogues with oneself using significant symbols. This involves the self reflexive, conscious process of being both speaker and spoken to as actors make indications to themselves in the flexible weighing of alternative behaviors before acting.   


Giving balanced weight to the role of the organism and environment in forming the individual’s perceptual experience made Mead’s basic framework amenable to findings from contemporary neuroscience. Any individual working brain owes its functioning to interactions with other brains operating within symbolic cultural systems (Cacioppo et al. 2002). But current findings are mounting that the brain itself adds significantly to our sociality with propensities for rudimentary prelinguistic thought, concepts and innate sensitivities to facial expressions and gazes (Brothers, 2001). Independently of Mead’s notion of role taking, neuroscientists currently talk of the infant’s early capacities to create “theories of minds”. This is the prelinguistic disposition to construct other’s thoughts and to develop the notion of self and others’ selves beyond observable bodies (Brothers, 2001; Bloom 2000).  According to Brothers, “...it is by virtue of social participation that the practices constituting mind emerge…”  For example, the inability to invest other bodies with intentions and feelings is now thought to be a major deficit in autism. A theory of mind is also necessary for learning languages which is often problematic for autistics. They have pronounced difficulty with pronouns, the understanding of which Mead attributed to the ability to role take.


Mead’s theory of mind recognized the importance of the central nervous system long before the field of neuroscience had advanced enough to be useful to him (Mead 1934: 236fn). Mind presupposes a highly developed brain, but the brain alone is not sufficient for mind. Current findings from neuroscience will no doubt further refine and change Mead’s original theory.        


SEE ALSO:  Meaning, Semiotics, Social behaviorism, Reflexivity, Self, Self consciousness, Role Taking, Significant symbols, Self indications, Internal conversation, Emergence, Mind-body dualism.


References and Suggested Readings


Brothers, Leslie, (2001) Mistaken Identity: The Mind-Brain Problem Reconsidered. State University of New York Press, New York.


Bloom, Paul, (2000) How Children Learn the meaning of Words. The MIT Press, Cambridge Mass.

Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


_________ . (1938) Theory of the Act. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


Meltzer, Bernard N. (2003) Mind: in Reynolds L.T. and N.J. Herman-Kennedy (eds.) Handbook of Symbolic Interaction. AltaMira Press, N.Y.: New York, pp.253-256.