George Herbert Mead

The Person

George Herbert Mead Was born at South Hadley, Massachusetts, onFebruary 27, 1863. His father, Hiram Mead, Was a minister who descendedfrom a long line of New England Puritan farmers and clergymen. His mother,Elizabeth Storrs Billings, like her husband, came from a family backgroundin which intellectual achievement had been highly valued

When Mead was seven, his father was called to Oberlin College to takethe chair of homiletics (the art of preaching) at the newly founded theologicalseminary. Mead grew up at Oberlin and went to college there. Although hewas to revolt against its pious atmosphere, he was decisively influenced by themixture of New England Puritan ethics and Midwestern progressive ideas thatdominated the college.

Oberlin was founded in 1833 by a militant Congregationalist reformer, theReverend John Jay Shipherd. Its first president, Asa Mahan, preached a some-what attenuated form of the perfectionist doctrine that later came to fullflowering in the communal and sexual experiments of John Humphrey Noyes'Oneida utopian community. Oberlin was one of the first American colleges toadmit Negroes and, in 1841, it became the first coeducational college to granta bachelor's degree to women. In the years preceding the Civil War, Oberlinwas one of the chief stations on the Underground Railroad that helped thou-sands of Southern Negro slaves escape to the North and to Canada. Anothermajor social cause, that of temperance, also owes much to Oberlin. The Anti-Saloon League originated there.

While Oberlin displayed most prominently its Christian social conscience,in its curriculum it resembled the narrowness that characterized the New Eng-land sponsored Protestant colleges that had grown up in the Middle Westthroughout the nineteenth century. Mead's son recalls that his father's educa-tion at Oberlin consisted mainly of "the classics, rhetoric and literature, moralphilosophy, mathematics, and a smattering of elementary science. . . . Ques-tioning was discouraged, ultimate values being determined by men learned inthe dogmas and passed on to the moral philosophers for dissemination." Inthis respect Oberlin was similar to Carleton College where, it will be recalled,Thorstein Veblen formed his abrasive personality by pitting himself againstthe narrow theological dogmatism of his teachers. Mead had a like reactionto Oberlin, his robust intellect revolting against the excessive theological fare.The son of many generations of Puritan theologians lost his faith in the dog-mas of the church. Nevertheless, he continued to be marked throughout hislife by the Christian ethics of brotherhood and the social conscience that hehad absorbed at his father's house and at Oberlin.

In 1881 Mead's father died and the family, left with very little, sold theirhouse and moved into rented rooms. The young Mead waited on college tablesto earn his board, and his mother taught at the college to make ends meet.(She later became President of Mount Holyoke College.) In 1883 Mead grad-uated from Oberlin, and for the next half-year taught school amid circum-stances that have a curiously contemporary ring. Several teachers had re-signed from the school because they were unable to cope with a group of row-dies who terrorized teachers and classmates. Mead discharged the rowdies, butwas fired by the board of trustees who believed that every child had a God-given right to be taught.

Having given up an earlier dream of starting a literary paper in NewYork, Mead lived for the next three years in the Northwest, alternating be-tween tutoring and doing survey work for railroad construction. He was onthe team that laid out the first line from Minneapolis to Moose-Jaw, there toconnect with the Canadian Pacific. In the winter months, when surveying wasimpossible, Mead supported himself by tutoring and read omnivorously. Dur-ing this period he seems to have been somewhat unsettled, not knowing wherenext to go or what career to take up. These doubts were resolved in the fall of1887 when he decided to follow his close college friend Henry Castle to Har-vard and to pursue further study in philosophy.

At Harvard, Mead worked mainly with Royce and James, and both theseteachers left a permanent mark on his life and outlook. Having been liberatedfrom his father's Puritanism and Oberlin's Christian pieties by reading Darwinand other "advanced thinkers," Mead was converted to pragmatic philosophyby James. His contact with James seems to have been fairly intimate since henot only did much of his work with James but also tutored his children.

After the year at Harvard, Mead decided, as was very common in hisgeneration, to go to Germany for advanced studies in philosophy. He first wentto Leipzig to study with Wilhelm Wundt, whose conception of the "gesture"profoundly influenced Mead's later work. It was also at Leipzig that he met G.Stanley Hall, the eminent American physiological psychologist, who seems tohave stimulated Mead's interest in the subject. Later in 1889, Mead went toBerlin for further studies in both psychology and philosophy (I have beenunable to find a record of whose classes Mead attended at Berlin, but it ispossible he may have listened to an already famous lecturer, Georg Simmel,who had begun to teach there a few y ears earlier.)

On October 1, 1891, Mead married Helen Castle, the sister of his friendHenry Castle, and the young couple left for Ann Arbor where Mead had beenappointed instructor in the University of Michigan Department of Philosophyand Psychology. Charles H Cooley, John Dewey, and James H. Tufts were allthen teaching at the university and they all soon became intellectual com-panions. Mead pursued the investigations in physiological psychology first sug-gested by Stanley Hall and began to elaborate a physiological theory of emo-tions that paralleled the teleological theory John Dewey was working on at thetime.

The Meads' only son, Henry, was born in Ann Arbor in 1892. A yearlater Mead accepted John Dewey's invitation to join him at the new Universityof Chicago where the latter had become head professor in the Department ofPhilosophy. Mead stayed at the university until his death on April 26, 1931.

From Coser, 1977:341-343.


Forward to "Mead at Chicago"
Back to the Index