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Whatever You Say

The question that John Searle asks himself is a familiar one: how does the natural world of mindless, meaningless physical particles give rise to minded, free, rational, and social human beings? The constraints Searle works under in setting about to answer this question are also familiar. We are to avoid multiple ontologies, ghosts in the machine, unmoved movers and the like, and see all the causal processes that affect us as special instances of the kinds of causal processes that affect everything.

Searle refuses to call this monism, because that “accepts the metaphysical ontologizing that we are out to reject and replace.” I am not sure what this means. It sounds alarmingly reminiscent of the late Richard Rorty, though he would surely have rejected the naturalist program itself. One thing it might mean is that when it comes to societies and their members, there is no one-way traffic. If we say that individuals make societies, we can also say that societies make individuals: I and my thoughts are as much creatures of the English language as the English language is a creature of people like me. But Searle accepts only the direction of explanation from small to big. It is society and social ontology that interests him, and it is to be explained by the collective doings of individual agents.

Searle’s basic thought is that human beings, uniquely, can together create what he calls ‘status functions’: the kinds of powers that we grant to certain things:

Examples are pretty much everywhere: a piece of private property, the president of the United States, a twenty dollar bill, and a professor in a university are all people or objects that are able to perform certain functions in virtue of the fact that they have a collectively recognized status that enables them to perform those functions in a way they could not do without the collective recognition of the status.

The functions in question Searle calls “deontic powers”: rights, duties, obligations, requirements permissions, authorizations, entitlements, and so on. They typically belong to an institutional world, and the institutions are themselves constituted by rules determining the deontic powers of people and things within them, whether they be Presidents, coins, or pieces on a chessboard. So the question becomes one of how together we erect this world of institutions and corresponding deontic powers.

Searle has a characteristically forthright answer: we do so by declaration–by means of speech acts with the amazing power of making something be the case just by saying that it is, as when you make it the case that you promise just by saying ‘I promise’. Searle’s strong claim is that institutions and its corresponding deontic powers are all of them created by this amazing power. They are all of them cases where we collectively create a reality by representing that reality as created.

And even in cases where speech acts are not directly involved, Searle thinks that the representation of the created reality will involve specifically linguistic powers: language is, if not the prime mover, then just a level below the kinds of institution created by “status function declarations.” It is therefore essentially different from the games or other institutions to which philosophers, including Searle in his younger days, have compared it. Meanings are necessary, but not sufficient, to generate status function declarations. As for language itself, Searle repeats his well-known view that biologically extruded intentionality is, as it were, the unmoved mover that puts into motion the whole possibility of linguistic communication, representation of the natural world, and creation of the social deontic world.

Searle has a famously uncompromising style, and this book amply displays it. Perhaps unfairly, I found myself comparing reading it to listening to the monotone of a street preacher. Each point is shouted with equal force. Most of them are said to be crucial, critical, fundamental, and so forth. Much terminology is introduced, although not to fill evident gaps: I did not find that my understanding of rationality in action was much improved by acquaintance with the four notions of “a total reason, a motivator, an effector, and a constitutor.”[italics Searle's] Fortunately these and other such obscure locutions have a short half-life within the book itself.          

Sometimes the mountains labor and bring forth something not much larger than a mouse. Here is a salient example. Suppose we enter on a joint enterprise. Together we are to shift a rock, carry a coffin, or row a boat. I cannot perform the task solely by myself, and neither can you. In Searle’s pleasantly old-fashioned example we set about getting a manual-shift car with a flat battery to start, by means of my pushing and you letting in the clutch at the right moment. I will only push if I expect you to let in the clutch–and if you do not let in the clutch, I will stop pushing and be annoyed at the waste of effort. Here is Searle's account of this situation, in what he bills as his canonical notation for representing the structure of intentionality:

ia collective B by means of singular A (this ia causes: A car moves, causes: B engine starts). In English this is to be read as: I have a collective intention-in-action B, in which I do my part by performing my singular act A, and the content of the intention is that, in that context, this intention-in-action causes it to be the case, as A, that the car moves which, in that context, causes it to be the case that B, the engine starts. Notice furthermore that the free variables "B" and "A" are bound inside the bracket by the verb phrases "car moves" and "engine starts," that follow the respective letters.

It may be that Searle is right that this paraphrases the original. He may even be right that the sentence said to be in English is indeed so, although I must say that it is a rather strange and unfamiliar dialect of English. But how, exactly, are we to understand this dialect? Putting my hand on my heart I should say that for all my gray hairs and many years' experience of fearsome bushwhacking through tangled thickets of logic and philosophy of language, I myself understand it by supposing that it means more or less that we are together trying to start the car by means of my pushing it and you letting in the clutch, which is where we started.          

Searle proudly claims that the great philosophers of the twentieth century failed to tackle the questions of social ontology that concern him. I am not sure that this is true—David Lewis’s classic Convention comes to mind, as well as numerous books on the evolution of cooperation—but in any case their predecessors certainly did. Here is Hume talking of the emergence of cooperation, convention, collective activity, and eventually what Searle would call the social-deontic normative statuses of promises, law, money, and language itself, from habit, reciprocity and self-interest:

Thus, two men pull the oars of a boat by common convention for common interest, without any promise or contract; thus gold and silver are made the measures of exchange; thus speech and words and language are fixed by human convention and agreement.

Whatever is advantageous to two or more persons, if all perform their part; but what loses all advantage if only one perform, can arise from no other principle There would otherwise be no motive for any one of them to enter into that scheme of conduct.

I do not want to pronounce that Hume is right against Searle that the case of conventions underlying language are of the same kind as the others. But he is certainly right that conventions, together with attached norms of conformity, can be slow growths arising in our lives together through recognition of the mutual advantages to be gained by reciprocities, co-operations, and institutions. So, a priori, there is no more difficulty about linguistic conventions thus emerging than there is about conventions underlying acceptance of law and government. Declaration is unnecessary: what we recognize, when we are thrown into the social world, and what we declare for ourselves, are very different things.  

I am sorry to say that I also think Hume is right about the way to write about these things. I am quite certain that I will remember his image of the individual acts of justice together forming a vault, where each individual stone “would, of itself, fall to the ground; nor is the whole fabric supported but by the mutual assistance and combination of its corresponding parts” long after I have forgotten the detail of Searle’s canonical notation for representing the structure of intentionality.       

Searle believes that institutional realities and their associated status functions also provide a set or space of practical reasons that are independent of desires, showing that both Bernard Williams, in his attack on external reasons, and Hume in his subordination of reason to passion or desire, are both in error. I found this unconvincing: it would be strange if Book III, part 2, Section V of the Treatise on Human Nature (‘Of the obligation of promises’) conflicted so sharply with the work of which it is a part. What may be true is that an institutional fact, such as the fact that it is someone’s job to pick up the rubbish, gives them a reason to do so, in the sense of opening them to criticism if they fail, regardless of whether they want to perform their job. But Humeans think this, too. What is not true is that “because it’s your job” has a motivational efficacy regardless of whether you care about your job. But that takes us back to the operation of belief and desire.          

There are many things touched upon in Searle’s book about which I have not had space to comment. The latter part of the book swiftly explores many political and social consequences that Searle sees as following from his fundamental analysis. He dislikes rule-utilitarianism, argues that there is something special about the right to free speech, and holds that consciousness, rationality, and freedom are intertwined elements in the emergence of the social Leviathan. There is much here to chew over, for those with good teeth.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and the author of The Big Questions: Philosophy (Quercus).