Soul Project

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George H. Mead

James Brown, The Godfather of Soul. When I hear the word ‘soul’ I think of James Brown. I think of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, and Cold Sweat.” And more recently in my own generation “Living in America” off the Rocky soundtrack. Soul music began in as early as 1960. Roots in gospel, Soul music was an emotion filled sound. Performers such as Ray Charles and King Curtis could draw out of the listener immense emotions simply by the way the performer sung the song. Sobs, falsetto, melismas, vocal sighs, whispers, and spoken words were all used to draw the audience into the same portrayed emotional state of the singer. Within the Soul music realm if you were told, “hey you ain’t got no soul.” It meant you were shallow, you didn’t ‘feel’ the music, and you probably stunk. Soul music meant that you became what you were singing. If you were singing about a long lost love, then you felt the same emotions and pain that you would feel if you had just lost her or him. To have ‘soul’ meant that you had something inside that was not only part of you, but in a sense was you (Groves 263)

What is inside? Have you looked inside yourself lately. If you have ever watched an autopsy, it’s one of most fascinating things. They split you open and take out organs by the handfuls. Then they peal your face back to get inside you head. After they’re done and nothings left inside, does this mean that you know longer exist? Or was it when they took the person’s spleen out, is it at this point they no longer exist? To the Vietnam amputee, do you say that because he’s lost both his legs, he’s lost his identity? When someone says, “I’m a Democrat, or I’m a Republican.” Does this mean that they go around telling lies and stealing from poor people all the time? Or do they just do it from 9 to 5? Surely you can loose your spleen even both legs and still be functional. But is functional really existence. Do we say to the comatose patient, “because you no longer can talk, think, learn and eat on your own, then you must be non-existent.” So at what point in our existence do we become non-existent?

A man was walking around a frozen pond one early sunny morning. It seemed that someone was watching him. This happened every day through out the winter. Becoming very uneasy about being watched or so it seemed, the man quit coming to the lake. On the first day of Spring he walked out to the lake. As he walked around the lake he noticed that he didn’t feel as if he was being watched. The man was so happy that “no one” was watching him. No, by this time the lake had defrosted and his reflection was no longer there. Is who we are who inflects on us? Or is there more to us? Do we just emulate to the society in which we exist? Are we mimeographs of each other? Is science going to be able to reproduce an exact likeness of human kind? Who are we? Who am I? That’s the question. Just who am I?

Now that we have concluded that we have a question about who we are, where do we look? Where is ‘GO’ on the board of identity? Do we look vertical for our answer, or horizontal? If you look to a Biologist, he’ll probably conclude that you are a mass of living organisms, nerves, blood, and tissue. If look to an Anthropologist, he might conclude that you are an American, age 43, having Spanish-Irish heritage living in the suburbs of New York. And if you look to the government of the United States as to who you are, they are likely to say, “you are 256-21-4865.” And if look the way of the capitalist as to who you are, they would say, “you are my next BMW.” But do these answers really get at the core of who we are? Some might say yes, I propose no.

In the following sections of this paper I will present various points of view of “who you are, who I am.” By no means are these a comprehensive list of all the thoughts, ideologies, philosophies, and theologies that seek to solve the problem of identity. But they are multifarious enough to enlighten the reader to question himself or herself on you their true essence. Considering the breadth and density of religions, my insights will be limited to only a few aspects of each religion and theorists. My central concern is not where we physically come from. My research is not an evolution vs. creationism argument. Nor am I to state that I believe in one more than the other. The fact is, from my research I have come to the conclusion that each religion and theorist can and does have positive points. When I say positive this is not a moral judgment. But the religions and even philosophies presented all strive to explain purpose. In their respective explanations each exert that it’s imperative for humankind to advance. As you will read, this advancement is a value based one. While I will not make a case for morality one way or another, each point of view will make a case for the value of humanity.

“To attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world” Aristotle. And yet many religions seem to claim a legitimate answer. Why should we even care about the soul. Because throughout history human kind has grappled with personal identity. We have seen in this paper that some religions believe that the soul is the true essence of humans. But in the case of Buddhism for instance, there is a disregard of the soul and any thing else that hints towards a personal identity. In Christianity we saw a picture of a fixed soul that can in the afterlife, which is spiritual, spend eternity in Heaven or Hell. In Judaism the soul is perfect and can function to lead the individual to strive for perfection on this earth. In Islam we found the belief that the soul is to be transformed by an internal cleansing and an external reformation of the world in the name of Allah. In Hinduism we saw that the soul is caught in an ever turning cycle of births only to be freed into pure Nirvana through dedicated good deeds and selfless desires. While many would argue as to the validity of these beliefs, what is hard to argue is the validity of reason for these beliefs. Obviously people feel the need to understand who they are.

The thirst for self-identity is not just limited to religion. There have been many scholars such as Aristotle, Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche, and notably George Mead who all sought to understand life through the eyes of different perceptions, perceptions that were as different as the self-identities. And the definitions of the self-identities were as different as the theories themselves. Nietzsche proposed that humankind had not yet reached its evolutionary plateau. That humans needed to break free from morals that kept it from creating, exploring, and overcoming. In stark contrast to the five religions presented in this paper, Nietzsche saw that morals and rules governing morality and human behavior were the exact things that were sinning against man. There was not a Supreme Being to save man, only that the “supreme being” was within man. This has been expressed in a 21st century song entitled “Hero” by American pop arstist Miriah Carey.” The words go,”and then a hero comes along, with the strength to carry on, and you cast your fears aside, and you know you can survive, so when you feel like hope is gone, look inside yourself and be strong, and you’ll finally see the truth, that the hero lies in you (Sony Music, 1993 Music Box). Does the ‘hero’ really lie inside us? If so who put it there? Did God put it there? Did Allah? Or is it really there just waiting to be discovered?

George Mead presents a picture of identity as being socially made. You are not what you eat, but who you come in contact with during your maturation from birth. Mead says that as we encounter symbols we begin to associate meaning with those symbols. As we begin through repetition correlate meaning, we begin to make the symbol-meaning our own. And this is what enables us to interact and adjust in society. The generalized other according to Mead is when an individual takes on the attitudes of society. “The organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called the generalized other” (Morris, 1934: 154). A complete self according to Mead is when an individual not only understands the community in which has given the individual the generalized other, but also that individual understands the dynamics and mechanisms that link those attitudes to the society. Simply put Mead believes we are similar to a computer. If you build a computer and never turn it on, it never has identity. But when you turn it on and put information into it. Then it gains information of which it could if possible for computers use to complete procedures and operations. But unlike the computer we have individuality, the propensity for creative and unpredictable behavior based solely on our individual interpretation of meaning of symbols. So in contrast to the five religions discussed Mead believes like Nietzsche that the self or identity is not a metaphysical action or source.

In this paper it was not my intent to present any one right answer. My only purpose is to show that different people have different ideas about who we are. But why is that important? Who cares? Obviously its important in understanding society and how it functions. Why is there crime? Some would say that people commit crime in response to adverse conditions. Why is there abortion on demand? The argument goes that it is a woman’s right to do with her body what she wishes. But if we were all Muslims then the abortion activity would drastically change. People’s beliefs do play a part in how they function in society. While no one can ever claim true freedom, because even that person would be a slave to death, there can be freedom to chose how to respond to different social catalysts. And I believe based on my research that different people with different self-identities will respond differently.

In my introduction I talked about the value of humanity. If you study the ideologies of Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and even Nietzsche they all claim a value or significant worth of humankind. In contrast it is difficult to find a basis in Mead’s theory for value of any kind. Unlike Nietzsche who believed that man could become something great, Mead’s individual is enslaved to the social process. The religions in this paper and Nietzsche all give hope for the individual, Mead places the individual in society to only be as great as the greatness of society. But you could stretch to say that if that is true, then our goal as a society should be to make society great. Because if you make society great, then you will have great individuals. So even here you can take a theory such as Mead and point to a need for humankind to improve, to stop destructive behavior. Some call this return to improvement “morality.” Darwin talked about the survival of the species. As anti-creationistic as he was, even he saw a sense of cause and effect of destructive behavior and death.

What is morality? According to Webster’s dictionary, morality is an act of virtue or “conformity to a standard of right.” Immanuel Kant believed that moral behavior was based on a set of rules within society. An individual would rationally choose to follow the rules. Kant’s premise was that all people were rational and would make choices based on the expectations of the rules. On the contrary Mead disagreed that in principle that all people were born rational. Humans are not born rational because everyone is not equally rational. With regard to moral choice Mead said that there was an “openness, a chance element in moral behavior. Anthony Giddens writes that in the modern world the self is reflexive, “that is the self comes to be something to be reflected upon, altered, even molded. Not only does the individual become responsible for the creation and maintenance of the self, but this responsibility is continuos and all-pervasive.” (Ritzer, 1997: 147-148). In pre-modern society there were fewer sources of authority. As opposed to today where there are many “claimant” authorities that say what are the purposes, goals, and “states” of society and individuals. One form of authority in pre-modern societies was tradition. It was the way things are and always have been. Therefore because of the historically based social and moral law, decisions were based on what was always done regardless of individual feeling perception or case specific variables (Giddens, 1991: 187-201). The generalized other is malleable and can grow historically for both the community and any individual. Rationality or the application of it can change according to the knowledge we gain. What may be right to do at one time may not be right in the next. When a group goes to solve a problem, it is not what one individual thinks that is decided as the answer, it is what the group feels is acceptable (Miller, 1973:55).

Who am I? If you were to ever find the answer to that question then you would understand everything about society. You would understand actions and be able to interpret them with such accuracy that no laws would be needed because you could predict behavior. You could have a book of identity that everyone could read and know what they’ll do based on the identity program they have. A little fictitious my argument just goes to show the immense diversity of humankind. Fact is no one has come up with such a book of identity. Many claim to have the answer, but no one has had a 100% full proof scientific provable explanation. Given the diversity of the present ideologies, theologies, and philosophies, I doubt we ever will.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991
Miller, David L. George Herbert Mead; Self, Language, and the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1973
Morris, Charles W. ed. Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago Press. 1934
Ritzer, George. Post Modern Social Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1997

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