Charles Horton Cooley

The Work

"Self and society," wrote Cooley, "are twin-born." This emphasis on the organic link and the indissoluble connection between self and society is the theme of most of Cooley's writings and remains the crucial contribution he made to modern social psychology and sociology.

The Looking Glass Self

Building upon the work of William James, Cooley opposed the Cartesian tradition that posited a sharp disjunction between the knowing, thinking sub- ject and the external world. The objects of the social world, Cooley taught, are constitutive parts of the subject's mind and the self. Cooley wished to remove the conceptual barrier that Cartesian thought had erected between the indi- vidual and his society and to stress, instead, their interpenetration. "A separate individual," he wrote,

is an abstraction unknown to experience, and so likewise is society when re- garded as something apart from individuals. . . ." Society" and "individuals" do not denote separable phenomena but are simply collective and distributive aspects of the same thing. . . When we speak of society, or use any other collective term, we fix our minds upon some general view of the people con- cerned, while when we speak of individuals we disregard the general aspect and think of them as if they were separate

Cooley argued that a person's self grows out of a person's commerce with others. "The social origin of his life comes by the pathway of intercourse with other persons." The self, to Cooley, is not first individual and then social; it arises dialectically through communication. One's consciousness of himself is a reflection of the ideas about himself that he attributes to other minds; thus, there can be no isolated selves. "There is no sense of 'I' without its cor- relative sense of you, or he, or they. "

In his attempt to illustrate the reflected character of the self, Cooley compared it to a looking glass:
Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.
"As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be, so in imagination we perceive in another's mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it."

The notion of the looking-glass self is composed of three principal ele- ments: "The imagination of our appearance to the other person, the imagina- tion of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification." The self arises in a social process of communicative interchange as it is reflected in a person's consciousness. As George H. Mead put it when discussing Cooley's contribution, "By placing both phases of this social process in the same consciousness, by regarding the self as the ideas entertained by others of the self, and the other as the ideas entertained of him by the self, the action of the others upon the self and of the self upon the others becomes simply the interaction of ideas upon each other within mind."

This somewhat abstract notion can be illustrated by a delightful example which Cooley gave himself when he imagined an encounter between Alice, who has a new hat, and Angela, who just bought a new dress. He argues that we then have,

I) The real Alice, known only to her maker. 2) Her idea of herself; e.g. "I [Alice] look well in this hat." 3) Her idea of Angela's idea of her; e.g. "Angela thinks I look well in this hat." 4) Her idea of what Angela thinks she thinks of herself: e.g. "Angela thinks I am proud of my looks in this hat." 5) Angela's idea of what Alice thinks of herself; e.g. "Alice thinks she is stunning in that hat." And of course six analogous phases of Angela and her dress.

"Society," Cooley adds, "is an interweaving and interworking of mental selves. I imagine your mind, and especially what your mind thinks about my mind, and what your mind thinks about what my mind thinks about your mind. I dress my mind before yours and expect that you will dress yours before mine. Whoever cannot or will not perform these feats is not properly in the game." Multiple perspectives are brought into congruence through continued multi- lateral exchanges of impressions and evaluations between our minds and those of others. Society is internalized in the individual psyche; it becomes part of the individual self through the interaction of many; individuals, which links and fuses them into an organic whole.

From Coser, 1977:305-307.

Forward to "The Organic View of Society"
Back to "The Sage of Ann Arbor"
Back to the Index