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Searle, John (1932–)


John R. Searle was born in Denver Colorado in 1932. He attended the University of Wisconsin (19491952), then Oxford (19521959) as a Rhodes Scholar. He earned his PhD (Oxford) in 1959 and went to the University of California Berkeley, where he remained, and where he is Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language. Over the past forty years, Searle has been working on a selection of problems in philosophy at three levels of description: mind (the basic level), language (the middle level), and society (the highest level). In each case Searle can be seen as following a certain pattern: he proposes analyses of facts at one level of description in which they cause, are realized in, or constitute, facts at another higher level. Brute facts can count as institutional facts, and some objective brute facts can cause and realize other, subjective, brute facts. Like phenomenological analyses, Searle's approach is not classically reductive, but there is an explanatory asymmetry: higher level phenomena often are to be explained in terms of lower level phenomena (explaining is not explaining away). However, as contrasted with phenomenology, this procedure does not require that conditions revealed by analysis be revealed in experience.

Mind, Cognitive Science and Rationality

Searle (1981) presents the "Chinese Room" argument against "strong artificial intelligence," the view that mental states are and can be explained by programs running on the brain, by claiming that programs will give you at best the syntax or structure of thoughts, but not their semantics, their intentionality (aboutness). Searle (1985) schematized such intentional states S(r), where S is a psychological mode, such as believing, and r is a representational or propositional content: that snow is white. S typically determines the "direction of fit" of the intentional state: beliefs have a mind-to-world direction of fit, intentions and desires have a world-to-mind direction of fit. Together, S and r fix conditions of satisfaction. For beliefs this is a truth-condition, for intentions and desires it is a fulfillment-condition. Some intentional states, such as perception, memory, intention, have the added feature of causal self-reference, in that their conditions of satisfaction make reference to their own causal role. All intentional states are linked in a causal and logical network, and function against a background of nonintentional capacities and abilities.

Consciousness, Searle (1992) argued, is not only a unified qualitative experiential state, it is a natural biological phenomena caused by and realized in the brain. Furthermore, according to the "connection principle," all mental states are either conscious, or available in principle to consciousness. This principle if correct would rule out many of the kinds of preconscious mental states favored by cognitive science, including linguists' "cognized" principles of language, vision theorists's algorithms for the computation of stereopsis, and philosophers's "functionalist" analysis of intentional states. Furthermore, "cognitivism," the view that brains are computers (digital or connectionist) is mistaken, because being a computer is an observer-relative fact and not an intrinsic feature of the neuroscience of brains. Mental states are ontologically subjective in that they depend on a mind to exist, but they are epistemically objective in that claims about them are true or false independently of opinion.

Searle (2001) claims that human agents can act rationally because they have free choice. There are three potential "gaps" or decision points in the chain leading to free, voluntary action: a gap between having reasons and forming a prior intention to act; a gap between the prior intention and the intention-in-action that causes the movement that counts as the action; and the gap between segments of temporally extended activitiescontinuing to act. Acting freely involves selecting a reason to act on, and that reason cannot be causally sufficient for the action.

Language, Speech Acts, and Society

According to Searle (1958), Frege was almost right: the use of proper names is backed by descriptive content, not by any particular one, but by a cluster. No particular predication on a name is necessary, but the disjunction of contents is. This doctrine is the target of Saul Kripke's attack on description theories of names. Searle (1969, 1979, 2001) elaborates and defends the idea that speaking a language is a form of rule-governed behavior, and that the semantics of a natural language is to be given in terms of "constitutive" rules for performing speech acts. These rules "regulate" antecedently existing forms of behavior, or "count as" the creation of a new form of behavior, or both. Illocutionary acts, such as asserting that snow is white, typically have the structure F(P), where F is the illocutionary force (assertion) and P is the propositional content (that snow is white). Sentences typically encode this distinction in devices for indicating the force, F, of the utterance, and devices for indicating the propositional content, P, and these devices are governed by constitutive rules for performing the relevant illocutionary and propositional acts. Each illocutionary act has a distinct (illocutionary) point or purpose, which can be used to taxonomize such acts. Searle and Daniel Vanderveken (1985) propose an illocutionary logic in which relations between illocutionary acts and forces are captured formally.

Many illocutionary acts can be performed explicitly with the performative formula ("I hereby adjourn the meeting"), in which case the speaker makes a self-referential, self-guaranteeing declaration. Illocutionary acts can also be performed indirectly, and nonliterally (metaphor), and the theory of these forms of communication need not appeal to any special principles beyond the constitutive rules for speech acts, general rationality, and Gricean principles of conversation. Viewed from the lower level of intentional states, the performance of a speech act is the mental imposition of conditions of satisfaction on an utterance, which itself satisfies the intention in action to produce that utterance. Hence Searle's recurrent slogan that all meaning involves "imposing conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction" (Searle 2001, p. 53). Searle (1995) argues that institutions, and social facts in general, are created when agents collectively impose a new status on things that antecedently do not have it, and go on to attach certain functions to that status. Thus, a piece of paper or metal becomes money when exchange value is assigned to it and accepted. The general form of the creation of such institutional facts is: People collectively accept that X has the power to do A. Such status-functions can be nested within one another creating tangled hierarchies of social facts and organizationmoney can pay mortgages for property, and that property can then be inherited. Such "collective intentionality" is basic and cannot be reduced to individual or mutual intentionality.

See also Chinese Room Argument.


primary sources

"Proper Names." Mind 67 (1958): 166173.

Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

"Minds, Brains and Programs." The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (1981): 417424.

Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. With Daniel Vanderveken. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

The Rediscovery of the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

The Construction of Social Reality. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1995.

Rationality in Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Consciousness and Language. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

secondary works

Grewendorf, Guenther, and Georg Meggle, eds. Speech Acts, Mind and Social Reality. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 2002.

Lepore, Ernest, and Robert van Gulick, eds. John Searle and His Critics. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991.

Smith, Barry, ed. John Searle. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Robert M. Harnish (2005)

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