The past is not what it used to be: An introduction to G. H. Mead’s radical emergentism


George Herbert Mead, besides having been an undisputed pioneer in the development of sociology and social-psychology, was also, in the words of his colleague and friend John Dewey, “…the most original mind in philosophy in America of the last generation” who took the doctrine of emergence “much more fundamentally” than “most of those who have played with the idea” (Dewey quoted in El-Hani & Pihlström, 2002: 29). Yet, Mead’s highly original and even radical speculations on emergence are little known among complexity afficionados. That is why we are including in this issue of E:CO the second chapter of Mead’s posthumously published The Philosophy of the Present where he laid out his views on both the emergence of the self out of social interactions and the intimate relation between emergence and temporality.

In America, the rise of the movement known as Emergent Evolutionism was roughly historically coincident with the rise of the concept of sociality as a major motif in philosophy, in particular the philosophical sociology propounded at the University of Chicago where Dewey and Mead were prominent members of the faculty. In his doctoral dissertation on Mead’s emergentism, Martin Monroe Jones (1969), makes an impressive case for how thoroughly the concept of emergence was woven throughout Mead’s socially based philosophy. Jones pointed out that Mead’s embrace of the idea of emergence in conjunction with his active engagement in various sciences of his day such as the theory of evolution, the early days of quantum physics, and the theory of relativity, prompted his extremely inventive attempt to reconcile the deterministic inclination of modern science with an individual’s experience of novelty, the very same dilemma that had earlier incited such emergentist precursors as Henri Bergson and William James. Unlike Bergson and James, however, Mead didn’t restrict emergent novelty to experience alone, but instead considered it a fundamental feature of nature as a whole1.

Mead’s rigorous speculations on how the self emerges out of social interactions has also been of great importance to the work of the highly esteemed contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas who has in almost countless ways expressed the indebtedness of his philosophy to Mead’s much earlier work. In particular, Habermas has pointed to his own understanding of the social constitution of human subjectivity which takes its departure from the more socially isolated conception of subjectivity found in earlier German idealism and ensconced in the hermetically closed Dasein of Heidegger. Habermas has praised Mead’s work as: “The only promising attempt to grasp the entire significance of social individualization in concepts…” and, “I see the more far-reaching contribution of Mead in his having taken up themes that can be found in Humboldt and Kierkegaard: individuation is pictured not as the self-realization of an independently acting subject carried out in isolation and freedom, but as a linguistically mediated process of socialization and the simultaneous constitution of a life-history that is conscious of itself,” and “G. H. Mead was the first to have thought through this inter-subjective model of the socially produced ego” (Habermas, 1992: 151, 152, 153, 170). Indeed, a careful reading of Habermas’s theory of inter-subjectivity cannot fail to see the imprint of Mead’s emergentist ideas throughout.

The emergent social self

Although other early emergentist thinkers, such as the entomologist W. M. Wheeler, speculated about emergent “super-organisms” like ant colonies, Mead focused his own emergentist speculations on how the personal self emerged out of a social nexi of interactions within the human community. For Mead, sociality was “the principle and form of emergence” (Mead quoted in Jones, 1969: 124), a foundational principle defining the transition from a lower to a higher type of existence. Moreover, this novel, higher emergent level effectuated a new organization which took-up the lower substrate into itself and in the process redefined the lower level. This process occurred throughout nature, for the emergent level was “… only the culmination of that sociality which is found throughout the universe, its culmination lying in the fact that the organism, by occupying the attitudes of others, can occupy its own attitude in the role of the other” (Mead, 1932: 86). The critical juncture of lower and higher levels functioned reciprocally for Mead, a double movement in which the lower level attributes of the individual were shaped by the higher level, emergent social whole and, simultaneously, the lower level attributes of the individuals were built-up the from the higher level social whole (see Reck, 1964: 84).

For Mead, the emergent event itself was understood as the experiential manifestation of the novel quality of the temporally present, an experience undergone by a self fundamentally social in its constitution. No other early emergentist thinker, neither Roy Wood Sellars, C. L. Morgan nor Samuel Alexander had gone as far as Mead in not only placing human beingness into such a key position at the foundation of emergence, but in understanding human experience as primarily social. Mead appropriated Dewey’s sociality and elaborated it into a general theory of natural processes as well as human culture and its history, all centered on the notion of emergence (Schneider, 1963). But by placing emergence into such a key conceptual role, Mead was not simply saying individuals were the lower, antecedent components with the social grouping being the consequent emergent phase. Rather, he carefully examined the reciprocal relations that would need to hold between emergent sociality and the individual members of that sociality. As, Habermas has pointed out, “Mead can explain the phenomenon and emergence of conscious life only after he has given up Dewey’s model of an isolated actor’s instrumental dealing with things and events and has made the transition to the model of several actors’ interactive dealings with each other” (p. 174).

Clearly not timid when it came to theorizing, Mead took on no less a daunting topic than consciousness itself, understanding it as a reflective internalization of the social. That is why he held that any attempt at developing an adequate psychology of the self which neglected its social core would have to fall far short of an adequate theory. According to the contemporary philosopher George Cronk’s (2005) interpretation of Mead’s point of view, “The world in which the self lives, then, is an inter-subjective and interactive world — a ‘populated world’ containing, not only the individual self, but also other persons. Inter-subjectivity is to be explained in terms of that ‘meeting of minds’ which occurs in conversation, learning, reading, and thinking.” This conceptualization of a social self emerging out of inter-subjectivity can be clearly seen in Mead’s famous discussion on the difference between the sense of “I” and “me” (see Campbell, 1992). The “me” referred to that aspect of self-identity having to do with one’s social self, the introjected social representations arising in the developing child through the mediation of family, friends, neighborhoods, and society at large. It was the “me” which enabled social empathy and was organized according to “the attitude of the whole community” or the “generalized other.” In terms of emergence, the “me” was the individual reflection of emergent sociality itself.

The “I,” though, referred to the reaction of the organism to the ideas, values, and so forth of the “generalized other.” That is, whereas the “me” emerged out of the “generalized other,” the “I” came out of the reaction to the “generalized other.” By the way, it is interesting to note all of this discourse having to do with “the other” took place way before it became expressed in the thought of Emmanuel Levinas which has had such a large impact on postmodernism. For Mead, the “I” included that sense of efficacy or agency which a mature person possesses. However, because the “I” and the “me” were so intimately interrelated in a “creative balance,” personal and social novelty could emerge as the “I” acted in society and in so doing reconstructed it (Mead, 1956). Thus, the individual self as a conscious, experiencing entity was not to be thought of as a mere passive recipient of a social whole’s “downward” influence on the individual member, but, rather an active shaper of what that very emergent sociality was and could become. This meant that even though logically the individual as a “lower” level entity and the social as a “higher” level collective occupied distinct realms, in the reality of conscious experience this distinction was mostly confounded in the ongoing actions of a person’s life.

This confoundedness was also evident in Mead’s complexity theory-sounding employment of the word “system” in contrast to a mere aggregate so that emergence signified the presence of things in two or more coincident systems with the presence in one system changing the character in earlier systems. The philosopher William Desmonde (1967) understood Mead’s emergent sociality in this sense as directly tied into the latter’s perspectivalism involving the crucial notion of a frame of reference. Although that which may be viewed from one person’s perspective can be quite different than that of another’s perspective, the integration of these various perspectives, or their being grounded in an inter-subjectivity, was what made-up an emergent social whole for Mead. As Desmonde put it, “society is the ability to be in more than one system at a time, to take more than one perspective simultaneously… This phenomenon occurs in emergence, for here an object in the process of becoming something new passes from one system to another, and in the passage is in two systems at the same time. During this transition, or transmutation, the emergent entity exists on two levels of nature concomitantly” (p. 232, p. 233). This was tied into, as the historian of American philosophy Herbert Schneider (1963) once indicated, in the temporal experience, “the reconstruction of the interpretation of the past as the present shifts from one perspective to another” (p. 522). This connection between the emergence and time will be discussed below.

To continue about Mead’s emergent perspectivalism, sociality had to do with how the “novel event is in both the old order and the new which its advent heralds. Sociality is the capacity for being several things at once” or “the occupation of two or more systems by the same objects” (Mead quoted in Jones, 1969: 6). Jones points out that sociality, in this sense, represents the manifold relations of the present emergent to all other members of the system to which it belongs, and, in this manner also represented the potentialities the system has for future actualization. Thus, it was emergent sociality, according to Mead, which organized the various clashing systems and perspectives, just as a particular society was the organization of diverse individuals so that sociality could be said to have a synthesizing function. Sociality then, operating according to a seeming paradox encompassed both permanence and change by allowing a process of adjustment made necessary by the new relations characterizing the emergent event. According to Jones (1969), society could do this through its dual capacity: first, to unite in a circularly reinforcing fashion the individual with her society of which she was a member; and, second, to allow for the individual qua individual to actually express the social as its collective.

Mead on emergence and time

In Mead’s Philosophy of the Present, published posthumously, he laid out a radical, even mind-bending understanding of temporality which, along with his idea of the emergent self, served as the two linchpins of his approach to emergence. It is unfortunate that his emergentist take on time has been neglected, for the most part, not only by later emergentist thinkers but, also within the wider scope of modern philosophy in general. Influenced by Bergson’s idea of durée, James’ idea of the specious present, Dewey’s construal of “events” and “acts,” and responding to Whitehead’s emergentist ideas on time, Mead held his own view of time was the one most natural to the scientist even though reductionist scientists continually made the mistake of pigeonholing time into an artificial distinction between past, present, and future, a distinction which Mead believed compacted the emerging present to a mere vanishing point: “A present, then, as contrasted with the abstraction of mere passage, is not a piece cut out anywhere from the temporal dimension of uniformly passing reality. Its chief reference is to the emergent event, that is, to the occurrence of something which is more than the processes that have led up to it, and which by its change, continuance, or disappearance, adds to later passages a content they would not otherwise have possessed” (Mead, 1932: 105).

Mead further elaborated of the present emergent event as that which gave structure to time. Note that Mead claimed emergence gave structure to time and not the other way around which is what other emergence-oriented thinkers had held. That is, he emphasized that emergence didn’t come about as the result of time’s passage, an implication of Bergson and Whitehead and in more recent times of Prigogine (2003). We can posit Mead’s stipulation on the relation of emergence and time in a Husserlian fashion: the emergent event establishes its own temporal horizon2. In so doing, emergence inverts the traditional picture of time so that the present determines the past! That is, the past flows out of the emergent present, or in Mead’s own words, “…there has never been present in experience a past which has not changed with the passing generations. The pasts that we are involved in are both irrevocable and revocable” (Mead, 1932: 2).

I offer here two ways to aid in understanding Mead’s highly idiosyncratic interpretation of time. The first involves an appeal to McTaggart’s (1908) famous A and B series of temporality. The second has to do with using Mead’s own idea of reconstruction. But first, in McTaggart’s A-Series, time is imagined as a lineal sequence with the past on the left as having already taken place before the present, the present is in the middle as what is taking place now, and the future is on the right as taking place after the present. In the A-Series, an event’s position is always changing in that it is first future, then moves to the left into the present, then farther to the left into the past (and continuing to recede further and further into the past on the left) (Le Poidevin, 2003). By contrast, in the B-Series, temporal sequence is set-up in terms of an earlier than (or before than) relation and a later than (or after than) relation. In the B-series, the temporal “locations” of events do not change since if an event i is earlier than an event j, i will always remain earlier than j.

Mead’s scenario of temporality, though, was different than either the A-Series or the B-Series. To see how, imagine Mead’s emergent present as that cutting through the water by the prow of a boat. The water being cut by the prow is the emergent present event, a moment that continues as long as the bow keeps cutting through the water. The body of water up ahead into which the prow moves is the future which is not yet present, and the wake made by the boat is the past. Since the wake (i.e., the past) is generated by the boat cutting through the water, that is, the present, this implies the past is being generated out of the present. In this view of time, the past as the wake occurs, not before the present as it does in Series-A, but instead comes after the present emergent event. Moreover, just as the prow keeps cutting into novel water on ahead, the wake of the boat or the past is also always novel by constantly being generated anew. In addition, the future as what is yet to come occurs before the present and not after it as again the A-Series would have it. Concerning the B-Series, the earlier than relation is assumed to be what happened in the past before the present event in question, and the later than relation becomes a before than relation since, again, the past as wake takes place later than the present. Thus, in Mead’s emergentist event take on temporality, the earlier than or before than actually becomes after than, the “than” being the present” and the later than or after than becomes before than.

We can also approach Mead’s understanding of time in terms of constructing events or what Mead referred to as “reconstructive” adapting this term from Dewey. The emergent present, as the ongoing cutting of the prow in the water, constructs the past. That is, the temporal dimensions of past and future are somehow reconstructed out of the present emergent event. We can say that the present emergent event is the site of a set of constructional operations which render the past and the future by, in Mead’s terms, “conditioning” the relationship of the emergent event to its situation, that is, from the vantage point of the present as the constructional locus of temporarily: “The past as it appears with the present and future, is the relation of the emergent event to the situation out of which it arose, and it is the event that defines that situation…. Past, present and future belong to a passage which attains temporal structure through the event… the past and the future are the boundaries of what we term the present, and are determined by the conditioning relationships of the event to its situation (Mead, 1932: 23, 24). He even went so far as to postulate that “… the materials out of which that past is constructed lie in the present” (Mead, 1929: 351).

To be sure, Mead was here flirting with outright paradox by interpreting the present emergent event as constructing itself out of the past while at the same time changing the past as it did so. Far more radical than Dewey’s “reconstruction,” for Mead, the future’s novelty demanded a novel past as well! Indeed, the very potency of emergence lies in its having “made a different world through its appearances” (Mead, 1932: 42). Somehow, emergence includes both continuity with the past plus novelty with respect to that same past and the way it could do both was for the emergent present to construct itself out of the past which was constructing it. In Mead’s view there is a kind of circularity or even impredicativity in that the emergent event appears as an event determined by the past only when it is placed within the context of the reconstructed past but because the past is that which was reconstructed out of the perspective of the emergent event, the emergent event itself in the present is a determining event.

I said above Mead’s speculations on the relation of emergence to time were mind-bending. Yet what serious thinking about time and its mysteries does not at some point tip over into seeming paradox, as St. Augustine realized 1500 yeas ago? In commenting on Mead’s emergence inspired, paradoxical sounding meditations on time, Cronk (2005) put it this way: “Experience begins with the problematic. Continuity itself cannot be experienced unless it is broken; that is, continuity is not an object of awareness unless it becomes problematic, and continuity becomes problematic as a result of the emergence of discontinuous events. Hence, continuity and discontinuity (emergence) are not contradictories, but dialectical polarities (mutually dependent levels of reality) that generate experience itself.”

Furthermore, for Mead, the force of the irrevocability of the past lay in the degree to which, through reconstituting it by means of emergent novelty in the present, we are then able to project something necessarily about the future. This indeed was a strange twist about temporality that again put the onus on the present, for it is only from the present that we could anticipate any kind of future at all whether one there is merely a possibility or one that is a necessity. For Mead, the present emergent event itself was unpredictable although paradoxically at the same time it was determined.

Trying to get a conceptual handle on time has way-laid many a thinker from time immemorial and Mead was certainly no exception. An alternative approach to a metaphysics of emergent systems which downplayed the significance of temporality was proposed by the American philosopher Justus Buchler (1990) with his notion of a “natural complex.” Buchler pointed out that early emergentist thinkers like Whitehead (and I would add, by implication, Mead as well) got caught on the horns of a intractable dilemma by trying to explain the relation of their fundamental ontological categories to time. Buchler emphasized, though, that temporality need not play such a crucial role in explicating the nature of complex systems as such — it all depended on the presumptions with which one approached the nature and dynamics of a system. Buchler’s work is even less well-known in complexity circles than Mead’s which is quite an unfortunate fact given the richness of Buchler’s insights into systems and their dynamics.


To appreciate what Mead was trying to accomplish with his flirtation with paradox about time, it is critical to keep in mind that Mead saw the task of his philosophy of emergence to be a matter of reconciling the deterministic assumptions of modern science with what he held to be two indubitable facts about the world, namely, the emergence of the novel in nature and the emergence of the novel within human experience, about both of which science was supposed to increase our knowledge. But science, according to Mead, had set about this by resorting to a rationalizing process as soon as novelty emerged which inevitably rendered novelty a mere product of what preceded its occurrence. What was required in order to remedy this situation was an appreciation for and study of the emergent novelty as that which takes explanatory precedence whatever past or antecedent had a role in leading to the emergent event in the present.

Ultimately what Mead was conceptually wrestling with is a common theme threaded throughout the discourse on emergence for the past hundred years. This is the issue of how we are to get a conceptual handle on a fundamental claim made by emergentists of various persuasions, notably, that processes of emergence amount to genuine new starts in nature, culture, and human experience. How do we reconcile the possibility of genuinely new starts in a scientifically defined deterministic universe. These new starts need not only involve the momentous events of life emerging from the inert or consciousness emerging from the merely sentient. These are innumerable other examples of new starts like the construction of a beaver’s dam, or a termite’s hill, or a person’s house, or baking a cake, or even taking a new route to work. In Mead’s understanding of emergence, we can say that each new start constructs its own temporal scheme, or to use the loftier language of phenomenology, its own temporal horizon since the emergent event is the simultaneous emergence of a new temporal scheme and a new temporal horizon. Because of its very novelty, though, each new start is independent from any kind of absolutely grounded temporal ordering, Mead was here, like Alexander and Whitehead, trying to maintain his fealty to insights of general and special relativity having to do with the abrogation of Newton’s absolute time and the emergence of novelty in the world. But if there is no absolute time, there is no absolute passage as a background against which the emergent event takes place. Instead, emergence itself is the marker of a new beginning and hence a new temporal horizon. The temporality of each emergent event is unique in a manner expressed in the famous jazz lyrics immortalized by Eddie Harris and Les McKann in the title of their song, “Compared to What?”


Originally published as Mead, G. H. (1932). “Chapter 2: Emergence and Identity,” in The Philosophy of the Present, London, England: Open Court Publishing Company, pp. 32-46. Reprinted with kind permission.

1. By contrast, another early emergentist William McDougal held that emergence only took place in mental synthesis and not in the physical realm (see Jones, 1969, for a discussion of McDougall’s work Modern Materialism and Emergent Evolution ).

2. Mead explicitly contrasted his position of time and emergence with the temporal “landscape” of past, present, and future laid out by Sir Arthur Eddington in his description of Einstein’s theory of relativity which Mead believed corresponded too closely to the deterministic “block universe” so decried by William James.