Reflexivity in george herbert mead

Norbert Wiley

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Mead’s notion of “reflexivity” is one of his key ideas. Our mind “bends” or “flexes” back to itself in this process. Mead argues that universal ideas were first attained reflexively when humans could understand their own communications; for example, when the primate mother could both indicate to her children where food was and also give herself the same message. These two cases, viewed together, constituted the first “universal” (for Mead). This contrasted with the traditional theory of universals, which had the knower abstracting the universal idea, i.e. the “essence,” from a group of particulars. Mead’s universal is not essentialist but linguistic. It is syntactic and not ontological. This allowed him to sidestep the problem of essences (since no one could find any, anyway). Mead’s version shows how reflexivity may have first originated, in the evolutionary process, though he does not actually prove this. I examine reflexivity itself here, singling out several varieties. I look at self-referencing pronouns (especially “I”) and show how Cooley’s observations of his daughter’s use of pronouns clarified this process. I also examine the reflexivity of recognizing one’s own face in the mirror. Mead said the body could not be reflexive, but self-recognition in a mirror is a form of bodily reflexivity. And there are several others, for example the varieties of bodily meditation, that Mead missed. Recognizing this reflexivity introduces the body (and, therefore, gender) early in Mead’s theory, rather than late, as he has it. This point also opens him to a badly needed infusion of feminist thought, such as that of Nancy Chodorow. The self-recognizing mirror face is, as Lacan points out, “all smiles.” This insight also introduces emotion early into Mead. As it is, he has emotion late, as a kind of afterthought. This paper then promotes a badly needed feminization of Mead.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationStudies in Symbolic Interaction
PublisherEmerald Group Holdings Ltd.
Number of pages12
StatePublished - 2021

Publication series

NameStudies in Symbolic Interaction
ISSN (Print)0163-2396


  • Cooley
  • Emotion
  • Feminist thought
  • Mead
  • Reflexivity
  • Symbolic interactionism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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