George Herbert Mead: The Self, ''Me'' and ''I''

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Some kinds of utterances which have an indicative grammatical form seem, for different reasons, to be unable to say something true of the world. Logical contradictions are only the prime example of something the author baptizes impossible descriptions. So-called performative contradictions (e.g., "I do not exist") make up another kind, but there are at least two more such kinds: negating affirmations and performatives which cannot be explained within the philosophy of language. Only philosophical anthropology can explain their feature of "impossibleness," and a distinction between unreflective and reflective consciousness is central to the explanation. Particularly important here is G. H. Mead's distinction between two aspects of the self: the "I" and the "me." Each of the four kinds of impossible descriptions distinguished has its own contrary opposite. These are, in turn, logical tautologies, performative tautologies, affirming negations, and omissive performatives. The last three types as types have not received the philosophical recognition that they deserve. All four fit a general characterization which is given as a definition of the concept of superfluous description.


A logically self-contradictory utterance is not only false, it cannot possibly describe anything. Therefore, it may also be called an impossible description. A tautological utterance, on the other hand, says something true, but it supplies no new information about the world. Therefore, from a common sense point of view, it is a superfluous description. There are at least, I will show, three other kinds of utterances which adequately can be called impossible descriptions and three which can be called superfluous descriptions. Only views which belong ...

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...hole arrow as with our eyes in relation to the rest of our body. As Mead himself notices (§18), we can see many parts of our bodies, but we can never see the whole body.

With Mead's "I" as a background, let us take a look at performatives again. A performative is an action performed by the "I" aspect of a self. Consequently, it cannot be directed at itself when it is performed. Since it is a speech act, this means that it cannot describe itself when it is performed. Afterwards, in another speech act, it can be described, but at that moment it belongs to the "me". Austin's views on performatives fits in perfectly with Mead's philosophical anthropology. Even more, this anthropology affords us an explanation why a performative utterance cannot simultaneously both perform and describe the same action, or, in other words, why performatives are impossible descriptions.

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