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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


SEARLE

(b. 1932)

 

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY

John Searle was born in Denver, Colorado, and educated at the Universities of Wisconsin and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. A lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, 1957-9, he subsequently became Professor of Mind and Language at the University of California, Berkeley, and has been a visiting professor at many other universities in the U.S.A. and Europe.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE

[1] [Speech Acts; see also Expression and Meaning.] Central to Searle's account of language is the concept of a speech-act, which he sees as a type of human action. His philosophy of language is thus a branch of the philosophy of mind (though he draws on his views of language for his exposition of the latter). The production of a 'sentence token' in a performance of a speech-act is an illocutionary act, and the basic unit of linguistic communication. The performance of illocutionary acts is a rule-grounded form of behaviour and is constitutive (as opposed to the regulative employment of rules). Illocutionary acts in general have (1) propositional content, that is, meaning, and (2) illocutionary force [a], that is, how propositions are to be taken — as stating, warning, questioning, and so on.

A theory of meaning for Searle must involve rules for the use of expressions in speech-acts [b]. Illocutionary acts have both intentional and conventional aspects. A speaker intends to produce certain effects by means of getting a hearer to recognise the intention, and intends the recognition to be achieved in virtue of the fact that rules for use associate expressions with the production of effects. Searle argues in favour of the view that meanings are, as it were, 'in the head' — grounded in the intentional mental states of speakers and hearers, but he rejects the necessity to postulate the existence of a 'third realm' [c] of senses or propositions, and so on. And he subscribes to the theory that the meaning or sense of a proper names is expressed by a 'cluster' of associated descriptions which thereby determines the reference of the name. Such a theory is said to avoid the problem of linking the name to a single definite description [see especially 'Proper names'] [d]. He also argues that identity sentences (for example, 'Tully = Cicero') could be used to make either analytic or synthetic statements [e], depending on which descriptive statements are associated with each name [ibid.].

 

PHILOSOPHY OF MIND

[2] [See Mind, Language and Society and The Rediscovery of the Mind.] Searle's philosophy of mind underpins his views in most of the branches of philosophy he has been interested in. His main concern is to account for what he identifies as four features of mental phenomena: consciousness, intentionality, the subjectivity of mental states, and mental causation; and to solve the mind-body problem, to defeat dualism, he argues in favour of a revision of conceptual categories [a] — and refuses "to accept the system of categories that makes consciousness out as something nonbiological, not part of the natural world" [MLS, p. 52]. He does not believe there is an intrinsic opposition between the vocabulary of 'mental' and 'physical' [Rediscovery of the Mind, chs 2, 5]. Intentionality — perhaps the central concept for Searle — is that which our mental states are directed at or are 'about', that is, represent objects, states of affairs in the world. It applies to beliefs, desires, perceptions, feelings, as well as intentions and actions [see Intentionality and MLS, ch. 4] [b]. To explain how intentionality 'represents' Searle appeals to the linguistic concepts of 'propositional content' and 'direction of fit'. The propositional content or 'sense' of a mental state determines what he calls 'conditions of satisfaction' [Intentionality, ch. 6, MLS, ch. 4]. In the case of belief these are conditions for truth; in the case of intentions they are conditions for the intentions to be effected; while for desires fulfilment is the condition. The relevant psychological mode determines the direction of fit [c]. Beliefs, for example, are intended to match the world (the direction of fit is then mind-to-world). If there is a match then we can say the belief is true: there is a word-to-world direction of fit. Desires and intentions, however, have world-to-mind direction of fit; it is, as it were, the responsibility of the world if it satisfies or does not satisfy the desire or intention.

Searle extends his theory of intentionality to perception and action [Intentionality, chs, 2 & 3]. Particular states of affairs in the world give the conditions of satisfaction required for a perceptual experience to be veridical. (He thus subscribes to a realist view of the world and to a correspondence theory of truth) [d]. Similarly he accounts for human action in terms of 'mental' and 'physical' aspects. When we act we are conscious of physical changes, as in, for example, exertions; but also involved is a mental component — an intention characterized by intentionality. The content and type of the mental state relates it to the world; and if the state is successful, that is, leads to the intended action, it is satisfied. The world, Searle says, matches the content of the state. He recognises, however, that many of our actions, especially those involved in speech, occur without prior reflection, though in such cases there is 'intention-in-action'. It follows that observed physical behaviour is compatible with different intentions, and that therefore a variety of descriptions may apply and are known especially to the agent [e].

Both perception and bodily actions have to be caused in an appropriate manner — respectively by the state of affairs (world-to-mind) and the agent's intention (mind-to-world). There is thus an internal connection between causes and effects. Perception and action, he says, are "causally self-referential". His theory is one of efficient causation [f]. He argues that all mental phenomena, conscious or unconscious, are caused by brain processes, but at the same time are features of the brain. He clarifies this by means of an analogy. The liquidity of water is a 'surface' phenomenon realized in the system but yet explained in terms of interactions between water molecules, that is, the microstructure. The four aspects of mental phenomena thus have a biological explanation; and the interaction of mind and body, he thinks, ceases to be a problem [g].

As might be expected, Searle rejects functionalist and exclusively physicalist or materialist accounts of mental phenomena, as well as 'strong' theories of artificial intelligence [MLS, ch. 2]. Central to his argument is the view that mental phenomena have semantic content, whereas computer programs are defined entirely by their syntactical, that is, formal structures. Similarly he attacks cognitivist theories designed to fill the supposed gap between neurophysiological explanations of human behaviour and commonsense accounts in terms of desires, hopes, and so on. The key argument here is that human rule-following differs from the following of rules by computers in that the semantic content has a causal role in the bringing about of what one does [h]. Strictly, computers do not 'follow' rules at all; only human behaviour is meaningful. (Searle compares the implementation of a formal computer program to the manipulation of Chinese symbols by a person who has no understanding of the language.)

[3] Freedom. [MLS, ch. 4.] While it is true, he says, that the surface features of the world are both caused by and are realized in microstructures — different levels of atoms, molecules, neurons, etc. (he calls this 'bottom-up' explanation), he argues also for 'top-down' causation — from the mind to the body. We intend, decide to perform particular actions. However, top-down causation works only because it is already grounded in neurophysiology. So how can there be room for or belief in 'freedom of the will'? Searle's suggestion is that our conviction of freedom is inseparable from our consciousness that we engage in intentional voluntary actions. The evidence available suggests that the hypothesis of psychological determinism is false. Radical libertarianism, however, is ruled out by the bottom-up approaches of physical explanation. Freedom has to operate within a restricted framework. But in the last analysis, Searle admits that his own approach does not overcome the gap between the causes of one's decision in the form of beliefs and desires and the actual decision, and the gap between the decision and the performance of an action [a]: "It remains an unsolved problem in philosophy how there can be freedom of the will, given that there are no corresponding gaps in the brain" [MLS, p. 107].

 

SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY/ METHODOLOGY

[4] [MLS, ch. 5; see also The Construction of Social Reality.] Language for Searle is a social phenomenon and as such provides the 'Background' or network or non-representational abilities in the context of which meanings and mental states of an individual speaker or hearer can operate [a]. Searle thinks of linguistic rules as relating to individuals in society. The symbols of language are components of 'institutional' facts. So what account does he give of social phenomena? Like psychological phenomena they possess a 'mental' character, that is, they are aspects of intentionality [b]. Social phenomena are not grounded in micro-level behaviour, primarily because the concepts that name such phenomena are themselves constituent of them. Thus, money, marriage, property, and modes of behaviour involving, say, promising, refer to whatever people regard as money, and so on. Thoughts and psychological attitudes belong to the definitions of such concepts.

Searle argues for a radical discontinuity between the social and natural sciences [c]. There are no systematic correlations between phenomena identified in social and psychological terms and those identified in physical terms. As social/ psychological categories are physically open-ended (there is no physical limit to what we stipulate to be, for example, money), there are no 'bridge principles' between social and physical features of the world; and indeed there cannot be, because there is an indefinite range of stimulus conditions for social concepts.

 

ETHICS     NATURALISM

[5] In his moral philosophy Searle draws on distinctions already made in his philosophy of language and society. As against both emotivists and prescriptivists, he argues in favour of a descriptivist and naturalist (and 'realist') view of moral judgements. For him 'evaluative' emotivism and 'factual' descriptivism are not reconcilable. Those who have made this distinction have conflated the distinction between various kinds of illocutionary force and utterances which make truth claims are which are are mattrers of opinion. The job of language (in the form of moral judgements) is to describe real values and obligations — and which are part of the natural world [a]. He is therefore particularly concerned to undermine his opponents by rejecting the supposed dichotomy between facts and values and attempting to show that 'ought' can be derived from 'is' [b]. Consider the example of promising. This, Searle argues, is an institutionalized fact, that is, it exists within a system of constitutive rules that the legitimacy of the inference to 'I ought to do x' is effected. The only additional statements required in the argument, Searle says, are empirical assumptions, tautologies, and descriptions of word usage. [See 'How to Derive "Ought" from "Is" '.]

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Searle's writings on a wide range of philosophical issues are characterized by vision and originality combined with acute analysis. Of particular interest is the emphasis he places on the philosophy of mind as the basis for his views on perception, language, and social philosophy. The key features are his detailed treatment of the concept of intentionality, his 'bottom-up' account of mental causation as grounded in but not reducible to micro-physical structures; a rejection of functionalist and materialist accounts of mind and 'strong' artificial intelligence theories; a modified treatment of Austin's presentation of speech-acts, and the advocacy of the primacy of sense over reference and acceptance of the 'cluster' theory of descriptions; a view of meaning as based on intentional mental states; an analysis of social phenomena in terms of psychological attitudes, and his view that there is radical methodological discontinuity between the social and the natural sciences; and his attempt to overcome the fact-value distinction in ethics.

Understandably critical attacks have come from many directions. Some of the more serious objections are as follows.

(1) Language. Searle's account of speech-acts probably marks an improvement on Austin's in that Searle argues that a satisfactory theory of meaning requires an analysis not only of their use (speaker's meaning) in speech-acts (intentions) but also the of semantic rules followed in use (sentence meaning). Nevertheless some critics have said that this approach is still inadequate in so far as it fails to clarify what it is to understand linguistic rules. Searle's espousal of a 'cluster of descriptions' account of names to give sense and fix references has likewise been criticized on similar grounds by philosophers wedded to extensionalist assumptions and causal theories. Questions can also been asked about which descriptions are to be included in a cluster, and whether ambiguity can be excluded.

(2) Mind. Searle's apparent claim that the subjective view or first person standpoint is equivalent to consciousness has been questioned. The issue of 'understanding' has also been raised in relation to his 'Chinese room' analogy. It has been suggested that he seems to be assuming what is to be proved, namely that a clear indication or criterion is available for determining whether instructions are understood without being analysable in computational terms. More seriously, some of his opponents reject his claim altogether that intentionality is the basic or definitive feature of mental states.

(3) Causation and freedom. Searle's biological naturalism, while promising much, arguably does not provide a satisfactory account of the emergence of freedom — though to be fair to him it has to be recognised that he himself considers the problem to be unresolved. A conscious conviction that we engage in intentional voluntary action does not of itself seem to be philosophically adequate. Likewise his account of efficient and mental causation may not be as firmly based as one would wish. The analogy of the liquidity of water is not entirely convincing. As a surface phenomenon it is no doubt correctly explained in terms of physical microstructures. But our perceptual experience (as a mental state, consciousness) of liquidity, which the analogy is intended to shed light on, seems to remain something of a mystery.

(4) Ethics/ social philosophy. Searle's attempt to overcome the 'is-ought' dichotomy is commendable but has not satisfied many critics. They argue that the treatment of promising as an institutionalized fact within a system of constitutive rules, which he claims legitimate inferences from factual premises to evaluative conclusions, may obscure the 'gap' but does not eliminate it. His commitment to 'real' values has also been questioned by some philosophers. The notion of institutionalized facts (x counting as y in C) has itself been criticized and stands or falls with his fundamental concept of collective intentionality. Lastly one might mention that Searle's treatment of social phenomena would (understandably) be opposed by philosophers who seek to extend covering-law models of explanation to the social sciences.

 

READING

Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969); Expression and Meaning: Essays in the Theory of Speech Acts (1979); Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983); Minds, Brains and Science (1984); The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992); The Construction of Social Reality (1995); Mind, Language and Society — Philosophy in the Real World (1998) [this last book being an excellent condensation of Searle's whole corpus of works]; and the following articles: 'Proper Names' (1958), in P. F. Strawson (ed.), Philosophical Logic, 'How to Derive "Ought" from "Is" ' (1964), in P. Foot (ed.), Theories of Ethics, and 'What is a Speech Act?' (1965), in J. R. Searle (ed.), The Philosophy of Language.

Studies

N. Fotion, John Searle.

W. Hirstein, On Searle.

W. D. Hudson, Modern Moral Philosophy, ch. 6, II (1), 'Searle's Derivation of "Ought" From "Is".

Collections of essays

E. Lepore and R. van Gulick (eds), John Searle and his Critics.

B. Smith (ed.), John Searle.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Searle

 

[1a] Speech act as action; illocutionary act basic unit of linguistic communication; contains meaning and force; performance as constitutive not regulative

   Frege

   Austin

Ricoeur

Habermas

[2k]

[1e]

[2a 5c]

[3b]

 

[1b] Theory of meaning involves rules for use of expressions in speech acts

   Wittgenstein

Kripke

[2c]

[1b]

 

[1c] Meanings as intentional mental states but no 'third realm'

   Frege

   Husserl

   Wittgenstein

   Quine

Putnam

[2i]

[3e]

[2a]

[1a]

[1a]

 

[1d] Sense of proper names in terms of 'clusters' of descriptions; intentional reference 'fits' sense; critique of definite descriptions theory

   Frege

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Quine

   Strawson

Putnam

Kripke

[2e f]

[1c]

[2e]

[1a e h]

[1c d]

[1b f]

[1a c]

 

[1e] Identity statements analytic or synthetic

   Frege

   Quine

   Strawson

Kripke

[2d]

[1g]

[1f]

[1e]

 

[2a; cf. 2e g] Rejection of mind-body dualism; no introspective knowledge of self; conceptual categories to be revised

   Descartes

   Husserl

   Wittgenstein

   Ryle

   Merleau-Ponty

   Ricoeur

   Strawson

   Kripke

[3g]

[5a 6a]

[2c]

[1b 3a]

[5b]

[5a]

[2c d]

[2a]

 

[2b c] Intentionality (beliefs, perception, actions, etc.) 'represents' by propositional content (= 'sense'); 'conditions of satisfaction' and 'direction of fit' [phrase originated with Austin]

   Brentano

   Frege

   Husserl

[1a]

[2e]

[7h]

 

[2d] Perception: states of affairs (i.e., 'intentional' objects') → conditions of satisfaction for veridical experience; realist theory; correspondence theory of truth

   Austin

   Strawson

   Dummett

   Putnam

[1d]

[1e]

[1b]

[1g]

 

[2e] In action awareness of mental and physical components; different intentions compatible with observed behaviour: variety of descriptions

   Davidson

   Kripke

[2a b]

[2a]

 

[2f] Perception (states of affairs: world→mind) and action (intention: mind→world) — both caused

   Davidson

   Ricoeur

[2b]

[5g]

 

[2g; cf. 2a] Naturalistic (biological) explanation of belief, etc., resolves mind/ body transcendental dualism

   Husserl

   Merleau-Ponty

   Davidson

Putnam

   Kripke

[5a 6a]

[2a]

[2b]

[2a]

[2a]

 

[2h] Rejection of behaviourism, functionalist, physicalist, materialist, and cognitivist theories of mind; causal role of semantic content of mental phenomena

   Ryle

   Merleau-Ponty

   Davidson

   Putnam

   Kripke

[3b]

[2a]

[2a b]

[2a]

[2a]

 

[3a] Freedom inseparable from consciousness of intentional voluntary action (but 'gap' remains)

   Hampshire

   Davidson

[1d]

[2c]

 

[4a] Language as social phenomenon; 'background' of non-representational abilities in which meanings/ mental states operate    Wittgenstein [2g]

 

[4b] Social phenomena as aspects of intentionality    Husserl [1c]

 

[4c] Discontinuity between natural and social sciences

   Wittgenstein

   Hempel

   Hampshire

   Ricoeur

   Habermas

[3c]

[2a c]

[1c]

[2b d 3a]

[2e]

 

[5a] Rejection of emotivism and prescriptivism (in favour of naturalistic/ descriptivist views)

   Moore

   Ayer

   Hare

[3a]

[5a c]

[1a b]

 

[5b] Rejection of fact-value distinction: 'ought' derivable from 'is'

   Hume

   Hare

   Ricoeur

   Putnam

[3j]

[1d]

[8b]

[1i]