Is Mead already mainstream?


Currently I am checking neuroscience textbooks about their way how to tackle fundamental issues such as consciousness. One widely used textbook on cognitive neuroscience is subtitled ‘The Biology of Mind’ and written by Gazzaniga, Ivry and Mangun. Gazzaniga is a leading neuroscientist, and among his different contributions, the notion of ‘interpreter’ looms large in our context.

Especially when screening the final chapter on free will and consciousness, I was baffled about the closeness of the discussion to the approach that I champion in this blog, based on G.H. Mead. The authors argue that a mechanistic approach need not be reductionist and deterministic. One of the major reasons is human sociality: The brain is a complex, even ‘chaotic’ (in the sense of mathematical chaos theory) system with many degrees of freedom, and sociality acts as a top-down mechanism that co-determines actions together with the bottom-up neuronal mechanisms. This interaction is mediated via the ‘interpreter’.

The authors locate the interpreter in the left hemisphere, together with certain essential functions of language. That means, we humans have the capacity to assign meaning to the actions that are produced by our body and brain, even though in a mechanistic way. Via this process, actions regain their degrees of freedom. This is a thoroughly Hegelian argument, as I developed this with Ivan Boldyrev in our book on Hegel and economics. Mead was a student of Hegel. Human sociality creates our freedom, and essential categories on consciousness such as intentions are social states, not individual ones. Especially, the interpreter posits free will as a means to establish ourselves as social agents. In other words, we believe that we have free will, even if our actions may be determined by efficient causality working in our neuronal system, because this enables us to act in social contexts. Since brain causality has so many degrees of freedom, we create ourselves in interaction with others, and the reason why we do that is that our self has a function, which is making successful coordination of actions in groups possible.

This is Mead’s view, even in the details. Thus, I suggest that the ‘interpreter’ is just Mead’s ‘me’. In the first chapter, the textbook points to many misunderstandings of modern neuroscience, especially the popular ‘left/right’ distinction between the hemispheres. Yet, given the clear assignment of the ‘interpreter’ to the left hemisphere, I feel tempted to suggest that Mead’s ‘me’ may be located there. I don’t think that this is mere speculation, given the prominent role of the ‘interpreter’ in the textbook. This could be further detailed in discussing language as mediator of constructing ‘free will’, since language is essentially social.

Perhaps this is too simple. But it is straightforward to rewrite the pertinent textbook passages in Mead’s words. Thus, I believe that Mead is already mainstream in neuroscience, but the mainstream doesn’t know.


Gazzaniga, Michael S., Richard B. Ivry, und George R. Mangun. Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind. Fourth edition. New York London: W W Norton, 2016.

Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten, und I. A. Boldyrev. Hegel, institutions, and economics: performing the social. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.


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