The term "I" was introduced by George Herbert Mead to refer to the aspect of identity, or self, that reacts in social interaction to the expectations of others. In social interaction individuals are aware of the expectations of others, but they do not necessarily conform to these expectations in their reactions. This spontaneous, never entirely predictable, element of individual personality makes each individual a unique social actor.
George Herbert Mead. "The
Social Self", Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 10, (1913):
RECOGNIZING that the self can not appear in consciousness as an "I," that it is always an object, i.e., a "me," I wish to suggest an answer to the question, What is involved in the self being an object? The first answer may be that an object involves a subject. Stated in other words, that a "me" is inconceivable without an "I."
And to this reply must be made that such an "I" is a presupposition, but never a presentation of conscious experience, for the moment it is presented it has passed into the objective case, presuming, if you like, an "I" that observes -- but an "I" that can disclose himself only by ceasing to be the subject for whom the object "me" exists. It is, of course, not the Hegelism of a self that becomes another to himself in which I am interested, but the nature of the self as revealed by introspection and subject to our factual analysis.
The contents of this presented
subject, who thus has become an object in being presented, but which still distinguish him
as the subject of the passed experience from the "me" whom he
addressed, are those images which initiated the conversation and the motor sensations
which accompany the expression, plus the organic sensations and the response of the whole
system to the activity initiated. In a word, just those contents which go to make up the
self which is distinguished from the others whom he addresses. The self appearing as
"I" is the memory image self who acted toward himself and is the same self who
acts toward other selves.
On the other hand, the stuff that goes to make up the "me" whom the "I" addresses and whom he observes, is the experience which is induced by this action of the "I." If the "I" speaks, the "me" hears. If the "I" strikes, the "me" feels the blow. Here again the "me" consciousness is of the same character as that which arises from the action of the other upon him. That is, it is only as the individual finds himself acting with reference to himself as he acts towards others, that he becomes a subject to himself rather than an object, and only as he is affected by his own social conduct in the manner in which he is affected by that of others, that he becomes an object to his own social conduct.
The differences in our memory presentations of the "I" and the "me" are those of the memory images of the initiated social conduct and those of the sensory responses thereto.