Book Review

An Erstwhile Philosopher

Daniel R. Huebner. Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 349 pages.


Review by Nicholas Strohl

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is remembered as a foundational figure in the field of sociology but, if placed before a tenure review committee today, he might struggle to pass muster. Recognized in his lifetime as a brilliant thinker and formidable public speaker, the University of Chicago philosopher apparently was loath to publish. “Historians will never know” the extent of Mead’s contributions to his field, one scholar has lamented, “because Mead had crippling psychological blocks that prevented him from being either an especially good teacher or writer.”[1] Friends and colleagues suggested the same. The philosopher T.V. Smith wrote that “conversation was [Mead’s] best medium; writing was a poor second best” (32). John Dewey added that Mead was “reluctant to fix his ideas in the printed word” (36-37). Fittingly, perhaps, Mead’s best known and most frequently cited work, Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (1934), is a posthumous volume compiled from notes and transcripts of his course lectures.

This “problem” of publication—or “the uneasy relationship” between Mead’s published work and his “interests or intentions” (37)—is one of many problems of knowledge that interest the sociologist Daniel Huebner, whose book, Becoming Mead, tells the curious tale of an erstwhile philosopher who came to be “known in a discipline in which he did not teach for a book he did not write” (3). Combining intellectual biography, reception history, and sociological theory, Huebner’s account of Mead’s career and legacy is a case study of the “complex social action processes”(1) through which academic knowledge is produced. It also sheds light on how reputations are made and why certain knowledge becomes “canonized” in one field or another—or not at all.

In seven substantive chapters, divided into three parts, Becoming Mead examines the production, transmission, and re-production of Mead’s ideas as they travel outward from the man himself to his students, colleagues, and, ultimately, to later generations of students and scholars. Like concentric rings, each part builds upon the last, demonstrating how one scholar’s “intellectual project”—a term Huebner proposes and usefully employs—becomes entangled with and shaped by the intellectual projects of others, both in life and well after death.

Part I (“Rethinking Mead”) offers a look at certain aspects of Mead’s early life and career in order to foreground the social experiences that shaped his knowledge production. Huebner finds that Mead was no “armchair philosopher,” as some have presumed, but rather one who developed his ideas through active engagement in social reform movements. A prolific public speaker, Mead “was almost assuredly known in his own lifetime more widely for his public reform efforts than for his contributions to professional philosophy or social becoming meadthought” (28). Mead also loved to work in the laboratory, a byproduct of his training as an undergraduate at Oberlin College and as a graduate student in Berlin. Well into the middle of his career, Mead was an investigator “who got his hands dirty quite literally in calibrating mechanical apparatuses, handling animals, and dissecting neurological specimens” (59). As a result, what appear in Mead’s later work to be “abstract, theoretical points made on the basis of anecdote and intuition”(58) were undergirded by decades of laboratory investigation.

Mead’s ideas were also shaped by social contexts quite far afield from the “Chicago” scene with which he is normally associated. Foremost among these, Huebner argues, was his lasting relationship with the Hawaiian Islands, the birthplace of his wife, Helen Castle Mead, and his best friend since college (and Helen’s younger brother) Henry Northrup Castle. Indeed, Mead most comes to life in the book’s third chapter, “Hawaiian Sojourns.” Here the reader encounters him grieving over the tragic death of Castle in January 1895; undertaking strenuous and, at times, dangerous hikes and climbs in remote parts of the Islands; and, back in Chicago, recalling his experiences with native Hawaiians as he begins to ponder the concept of a “double” self (73).

Part II (“Notes and Books”) examines Mead’s career as a teacher at the University of Chicago and how his relationships with students and colleagues shaped the reception of his ideas. Using extensive documentation produced by Mead’s students, including classroom notes and dissertations, Huebner argues that Mead’s lectures were not an expression of “fixed ideas,” but rather a “pedagogical enterprise” in which he continually refined his thoughts in conversation with students. “[Mead] was not lecturing to us, delivering what was old stuff to him,” wrote Van Meter Ames. “He was thinking out loud and we were overhearing his thoughts” (111). As a product of Mead’s teaching, Mind, Self, and Society is therefore best understood in this context; it is a volume “no single person intended,”(136) perhaps least of all Mead himself.

Part III (“Influence and Interpretation”) traces how Mead, the philosopher, became a foundational figure in sociology decades after his death. Huebner explains how two of Mead’s students, the philosopher Charles Morris and the sociologist Herbert Blumer, leveraged their interpersonal relationships with him to claim special insight. It was Morris who labeled Mead a “social behaviorist”; and it was Blumer who applied the term “symbol interactionism” to his work (142). In doing so, both men played decisive roles in interpreting Mead’s ideas for a later generation of scholars.

Finally, with meticulous attention to a vast database of scholarly references, Huebner shows how Mead’s ideas migrated from philosophy to sociology in the second half of the twentieth century. The story is complex, and involves an account of the politics of departmental reorganization at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as an understanding of the divergent trajectories of American philosophy, psychology, and sociology after 1940. Even though Mead saw himself as a philosopher, Huebner writes, those who sought to carry his torch in the discipline “were not very successful in convincing the next generation, their students, junior colleagues, and younger philosopher in general, of the continuing importance of G.H. Mead” (195). Sociologists, however, did just that.

Although Becoming Mead is addressed primarily to scholars interested in the sociology of knowledge, it is a study that intellectual historians will find valuable. Indeed, it is the product of a heroic amount of historical research and data collection. In addition to examining extensive archival material related to Mead at the University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center and other libraries, Huebner has also compiled and analyzed datasets based on physical and digital searches of roughly 1,000 dissertations and theses written by University of Chicago students; historical newspaper reports that include any mention of Mead; and all references and citations to Mead, from the informal to the formal, in academic journals and reviews between 1894 and 2010 (nearly 9,000 in total). His contribution to Mead’s bibliography alone, documented in two appendices, is noteworthy.

The book may hold limited appeal for general readers, given its heavy use of academic jargon and its extensive discussion of theory and methods. Nevertheless, Becoming Mead is an innovative project that offers new approaches to studying the social processes of knowledge production. As historians have discovered, Mead is an elusive figure.[2] Huebner’s study makes it clear why such is the case, while demonstrating that we still have much to learn about how one’s “knowledge” can live on, in sometimes surprising ways, long after death.

Nicholas Strohl is a Ph.D. candidate in History and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His interests include the history of education, higher education, and American intellectual history. His dissertation project is titled “Higher Education and the Public Good: The Truman Commission and the Case for Universal College Access, 1918-1953.”

[1] Robert M. Crunden, Ministers of Reform: The Progressives’ Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1920 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984): 26-27.

[2] See, for instance, Crunden, Ministers of Reform, Ch. 1 and Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), esp. 304-305 and Ch. 12, for a discussion of Mead’s relationship with Dewey.