Learning to be a Self

George Herbert Mead said a self is a subject that is an object to itself. A subject is a perceiving thing and a self is a perceiving thing that can perceive itself.  Human beings are self reflective beings. We are able to perceive ourselves. How did we learn to be self reflective? When you look in a mirror you know you are looking at yourself. How do you know that? How did you come to understand that there was such a thing as you that existed in something else called a world?

George Herbert Mead’s answer was that you learned to self reflect through the process of conversation. First you learned to speak out loud to another and then you learned to speak to yourself as if you were another. Thought is internal dialog that you address to yourself as if you were another person. This internal dialog is what Mead felt was the source of our self awareness. One of the implications of this view is that you can only become self aware if you are part of a social body. No intelligent organism can become self aware if it is all alone.

Imagine that you were the only human being on earth. You could learn things. You could learn what foods to eat and what foods not to eat. You might try something and get sick and learn never to eat it again. You might also learn where to find food and how to best get it. You might learn how to hunt and how to avoid danger. If you were the only human you would be intelligent but you would never learn to think or self reflect.

A lone human being like this might also learn to get along with other animals. He or she might learn to make certain noises that would frighten away potential predators or make other noises or gestures that would lure in possible prey. Although this is in a sense meaningful gesturing it is not true communication because true communication implies a “communion” of meaning that is shared between two or more organisms.

According to Mead what makes it possible for human beings to become self reflective is our ability to communicate particularly using language. And our ability to communicate rests on the fact that we can gesture with language to other human beings in ways that stimulate certain internal responses in them – like saying the word chair might stimulate the image of a chair in the mind of the person you are talking to. At the same time our gestures of communication also stimulate the same response in ourselves. When I say the word chair to you an image of a chair appears in your mind and at the same time it also appears in my mind. We are communing in meaning.  

As you learn to communicate first you learn that you can tell someone else “to get a chair” and it will stimulate them to do it. Then you learn that you can also tell yourself “to get a chair” and stimulate yourself to do it. First you learn to communicate to another person and then you learn to communicate with yourself as if you were another person. You become a generalized other to yourself. This generalized other is what we commonly refer to as a ‘self’.