The Philosophy of the Act

By George Herbert Mead; Charles W. Morris et al. | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

THE TASK OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE ACT

IN 1900, in the Philosophical Review, under the title of "Suggestions toward a Theory of the Philosophical Disciplines," George H. Mead sketched in outline a philosophy which may appropriately be called "the philosophy of the act." The emphasis upon action implicit in the growth of modern biological science had taken at times an abortive form, as if the organism merely responded mechanically to an environment which itself owed nothing to the organism. Such a position could not long stand in the face of the facts which crystallized in voluntarism as a biological and psychological principle. For American thought, William James had marked the emphasis in pointing out the insurgent character of the organism and the way attention helped to constitute the object of perception. Dewey had isolated the basic point in his 1896 article on "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology": the stimulus is actually a stimulus to the organism only in virtue of the implicit response or interest which sensitizes the organism to those features of the world capable of furthering the release of the response itself.

It is not difficult to generalize the correlativity of stimulus and response into the recognition that organism and environment are mutually determinative of each other. It is true that at the level of achievement of a naturalistic science, when organism and environment have taken their places in a world neutral to any observer, it often seems as if the environment produces, stimulates, and controls the organism; but even here it must be recognized that what the organism is attentive to is by and large a function of its impulses seeking expression. This is even more obvious if one puts one's self at the focus of action: here the world that stands over against one is the world that answers to dominant interests and problems. The difference is

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