It is quite fitting that Walter Buckley’s paper “Mind, Mead and Mental Behaviorism” has been selected as the classic paper contribution for this special issue of Emergence: Complexity and Organization (E:CO) concerning human interaction dynamics and complex adaptive systems. The paper presents a discussion of the dynamics of fine-grained interactions from the agent’s perspective. Buckley reaches back into the history of the social sciences to bring forward and integrate concepts of “self and society” into the realm of 1990s neuroscience and complex adaptive social systems. He spans a history of almost 100 years.

While writing in 1996, he goes back to the 1920s and 1930s to incorporate Mead’s (1934) (and others’) work on human interaction as part of the explanation of fine-grained actor dynamics and the emergence of the actor’s social structures and their coarse-grained environment. His paper appropriately illustrates Kurt Richardson’s original goal of the “Classical Papers Section” of E:CO: to combat the four difficulties in theory building (retranslation issues, reinventing the wheel, empire building, and historicity) (2004). As the complexity field explores human interaction dynamics, we can benefit from past research and theory so as to refrain from reinventing human dynamics and building new empires. This in turn allows us to concentrate our efforts on considering human dynamics as the focus of complexity explanations.

The complexity of human interaction dynamics exists at multiple levels of analysis. In furthering our quest to better understand these “dynamics,” both fine-grained and coarse-grained, this special issue of E:CO addresses the interactions of individuals with others, with their environments, and with their “self.” In the context of complex adaptive social systems, Buckley uses the seminal work of Herbert Mead to develop a critical introduction to a human systems model of “knowledge acquisition and maintenance of consciousness” (p. 354). His synthesis allows him to assert that in human interactions we can no longer sidestep the role of mind and brain in the conscious actions of agency (or the knowledgeable actor).

This is not the first time Buckley’s work has been selected for E:CO’s classic contribution. His groundbreaking work in complex adaptive systems, “Society as a Complex Adaptive System” (1968), provided a bridge for complexity scientists to bring sociological meaning to their models of emergence. He is considered a pioneer in the field of modern social systems, sociology, and sociocybernetics. His early academic career resulted in the publication of Sociology and Modern Systems Theory (1967), in which he constructed the foundations for a dynamic morphogenic conceptualization of coevolving social structures that defied the prevailing (1960s) thought of human interactions being driven by equilibrium or homeostasis seeking processes.

The following paper first appeared in a book honoring the University of Chicago pragmatist and sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani (Buckley, 1996). It later appeared as a chapter in Buckley’s final book, Society—A Complex Adaptive System: Essays in Social Theory (1998). This book not only served as a capstone to his complex adaptive systems contributions, but connected the nature of complex adaptive social systems to societal issues concerning values, technology, power, policy, and social control.

In “Mind, Mead and mental behaviorism,” Buckley postulates a clear link between the dynamics of human interaction and the emergence of anticipated and unanticipated consequences at both the fine-grained and coarse-grained levels of analysis. He brings the work of Mead (circa 1930s) to bear on understanding mind, cognition, and social interactions (circa 1990s) as they influence the systemic nature of consciousness. He makes the case that Mead’s seminal statement in Mind, Self, and Society (1934) was ignored, or was unknown, to contemporary researchers concerning the dynamics of human consciousness and the mind-brain relationship. His 1996 nonreductionist argument could also be made for today’s researchers in the field of complex adaptive social systems as we try to understand the dynamics of knowledgeable actors and their capabilities (conscious behaviors, affect, and cognition) as they make choices of action (Winter, 2013).

Buckley divides his paper into four major sections. First, he reviews current approaches (1990s) to the study of the “mind,” which include efforts of both psychologists and neuroscientists. After his analysis of these efforts, he critically concludes: “This questioning assumes a mind-brain equivalence, ignoring the possibility that consciousness may be a total organism-environment systemic process, not simply an inessential feature of brain physiology” (p. 341).

Second, he provides a discussion of Mead’s contributions and insistence that “consciousness is functional, not substantive, and must be located in the objective environment in which we find ourselves rather than in the brain” (p. 347). This assertion is one of Mead’s major contributions to the understanding of human conscious choices of actions in the context of “self-knowledge” and knowledge of others and one’s environment. Buckley also supports this assertion and suggests the inclusion of brain functioning as a recursive formulation of symbols that constitutes the actor’s consciousness.

Third, Buckley develops a new synthesis of human epistemological processes. He begins by stating that complex adaptive social systems cannot be studied using a reductionist methodology. He then integrates Mead’s symbolic interactionist explanations of consciousness and reflective self with current (1996) neuroscience concepts to produce a system model of epistemology and conscious processes (Figure 1, p. 354).

Finally, using his integrated systems model, he draws conclusions and implications concerning the dynamics of the mind-brain relationship. In summary, he sees the necessary elements of consciousness as a dynamic process. Within this process the physiology of the brain is involved in a holistic model of human mental processes in which the brain maps the individual’s actions to mental processes and events. He concludes by saying,

It is, then, the total dynamic system of sensory inputs from the external world, the brain processes that generate perception, linguistic symbols and social and cultural definitions, and the actual or potential motor outputs [enacted] back into the external world that generates consciousness. If this systemic cycle is broken at any point for very long, consciousness degenerates and ceases to function in an adaptive way (p. 352).

Although Buckley’s paper brought Mead’s concepts from the 1930s to the 1990s, current complexity scientists should once again review his arguments in the context of our present quest to understand human interaction dynamics. The field can benefit on two levels: the delineation of the dynamic human interaction variables and the engagement of the metaphysical nature of exploring the human condition.

As for the dynamic variables, Buckley calls for a focus on the total system of actors and their environment as a complex ongoing whole. The dynamics of this process include a viable language, information selection mechanisms, cognitive and affective processes for transforming information to knowledge, and coding. In addition, there is a requirement for feedback that allows the actors to incorporate aspects of the physical and social environment—changing the nature of the actor’s later inputs into the system and retroactively changing the meaning of previous actions.

Of particular note are Buckley’s implications for scientists of artificial intelligence (AI) (which could be generalized to all types of complexity scientists). He projects his argument into a set of suggestions concerning the requirements for such AI systems if they are to emulate human consciousness. Their models of human consciousness should include 1) processes for detecting internal felt needs, 2) mechanisms of pleasure and pain associated with those needs, 3) self-referencing, 4) reference frames for the environment’s many facets, and 5) rudimentary creative language ability.

As for the metaphysical implications, Buckley’s paper not only calls for the use of Mead’s work in understanding the dynamics of complex human interactions, but integrates Mead’s formulations of consciousness with neuroscience as he saw it in 1996. In doing this, his argument concerning the mind-brain relationship urges scientists to consider the wholeness of the situation—to not turn away from the metaphysical aspects of the human interaction dynamics, but to understand that “what this means, among other things, is that knowledge is not passively and finally given merely through information input to the sensory apparatus, but rather is actively constructed and reconstructed through continual interchange between the individual and his physical and social environment—as we have seen Mead emphasize” (p. 355).

As Buckley did in 1996, complexity scientists must engage the fine-grained nature of the human condition through a model of epistemology and a set of operational aspects that allow for the variability in human reflection and actions. Both the dynamics and the metaphysical arguments point to the view that human conscious mental processes involve a large social interaction component and that social interaction is influenced by the knowledgeable actor’s conscious choices. These choices constitute the manifestations of acts that are influenced by the actor’s cognition, emotions, and habits (Dewey, 1922). By integrating human interactions with the work of Mead, Buckley expands our understanding of the role of agency, neuroscience, and the “self.” He provides our present world with a plausible explanation of the dynamics inherent in human interaction and social systems as complex adaptive systems.


Buckley, W. (1996) “Mind, Mead, and mental behaviorism,” in K.M. Kwan (eds), Individuality and Social Control: Essays in Honor of Tamotsu Shibutani, ISBN 9780762300952, pp. 337-363. Reproduced by kind permission.