John Searle

John Searle

Infobox Philosopher
region = Western Philosophy
era = Contemporary philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption =
name = John Rogers Searle
birth = July 31, 1932 (age 76)
death =
school_tradition = Analytic
notable_ideas = Speech acts· Chinese room
main_interests = Philosophy of language Philosophy of mind Intentionality· Social reality
influences = J.L. Austin· Ludwig Wittgenstein Gottlob Frege· P.F. Strawson
influenced =

John Rogers Searle (born July 31 1932 in Denver, Colorado) is an American philosopher and the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). Widely noted for his contributions to the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and social philosophy, he was the first tenured professor to join the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley.


Speech acts

Searle's early work, which to a great extent established his reputation as an estimable philosopher, was on speech acts. It adopts elements of the philosophy of, among others, J. L. Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, P. F. Strawson, John Rawls, H. Paul Grice and William P. Alston. In particular in his book "Speech Acts" (1969) Searle attempts to combine these elements to what he presents as an account of speech acts in the tradition of Austin's account of illocutionary acts, as exposed in "How To Do Things with Words".

The core of the account he presents in "Speech Acts" is an analysis of promising, which he regards as a prototypical instance of an illocutionary act, and further several sets of semantical rules which are intended to represent the linguistic meaning of devices indicating further (supposed) illocutionary act types (these sets of rules enable the reader to reconstruct at least in part Searle's conceptions of these act types).

Among the ideas Searle uses in this book is the distinction between 'illocutionary force' and 'propositional content'. He does not give any definitions of these notions, but introduces them by reference to examples. According to Searle, the sentences (Searle 1969, 22)
# Sam smokes habitually.
# Does Sam smoke habitually?
# Sam, smoke habitually!
# Would that Sam smoke habitually!each indicate the same propositional content (Sam smoking) but differ in the illocutionary force indicated (a statement, a question, a command and an expression of desire, respectively).

Despite his (1969, 54) announcement that he would be providing a "full dress analysis of the illocutionary act", he does not give any straightforward definition of either "illocutionary force", or "illocutionary act"; thus in the end it remains unclear how to distinguish illocutionary acts from other acts, whether for instance answering a question, expressing love, or cursing actually are illocutionary acts. As a consequence, a serious examination of the truth of what he says about 'illocutionary' acts is extremely difficult.

According to a later account, which Searle presents in "Intentionality" (1983), and which differs in several fundamental ways from the one suggested in "Speech Acts", illocutionary acts are characterised by their having "conditions of satisfaction" and a "direction of fit" (an idea Searle inherits from John Austin via Elizabeth Anscombe). For example, the statement "John bought two candy bars" is satisfied if and only if it is true, i.e. John did buy two candy bars. By contrast, the command "John, buy two candy bars" is satisfied if and only if John carries out the action of purchasing two candy bars. Searle refers to the first as having the "word-to-world" direction of fit, since the words are supposed to change to accurately represent the world, and the second as having the "world-to-word" direction of fit, since the world is supposed to change to match the words. (There is also the double direction of fit, in which the relationship goes both ways, and the null or zero direction of fit, in which it goes neither because the propositional content is presupposed, as in "I'm sorry I ate John's candy bars".)

Searle's speech-act theory has been challenged by several thinkers, and in a variety of ways. A wide-ranging critique is in F C Doerge [ "Illocutionary Acts"] . [Doerge (Friedrich Christoph), "Illocutionary Acts - Austin's Account and What Searle Made Out of It" Tuebingen University (2006) [] ] Whole collections of articles referring to Searle's account are: Burkhardt 1990 [Burkhardt, Armin (ed.), Speech Acts, Meaning and Intentions: Critical Approaches to the Philosophy of John R. Searle. Berlin / New York 1990.] and Lepore / van Gulick 1991. [Lepore, Ernest / van Gulick, Robert (eds): John Searle and his Critics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1991.] For a debate which became famous see Jacques Derrida's "Limited Inc." [Jacques Derrida. "Limited Inc.". Evanston, Il.: Northwestern University Press, 1988, 2000.] and Searle's brief reply in "The Construction of Social Reality". [Searle "The Construction of Social Reality" (1995) p.157-160]

Intentionality and the Background

In "Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind" (1983), Searle sets out to apply certain elements of his account(s) of 'illocutionary acts' to the investigation of intentionality. (Intentionality, not to be confused with intensionality-with-an-s, is a technical philosophical term meaning roughly "aboutness". It captures the relation between mental states or meanings and their associated objects, such as for example beliefs or written words and the objects they refer to. Thus being anxious about a deadline is an intentional state, while free-floating anxiety is a non-intentional one. Intending to do something is just one kind of intentionality in this sense.) To a certain extent, Searle's account of Intentionality consists of the transfer of certain features, which he had formerly presented as features of speech acts, to Intentional states. For example, believing John has two candy bars is an intentional state with the psychological mode of belief and the propositional content that John has two candy bars. Beliefs have the conditions of satisfaction that they are true and the mind-to-world direction of fit.

Searle also introduces a technical term, "the Background", [Searle, "Intentionality" (1983); "The Rediscovery of the Mind" (1992) ch. 8] which, according to him, has been the source of much philosophical discussion ("though I have been arguing for this thesis for almost twenty years," Searle writes, ["Literary Theory and Its Discontents", "New Literary History", 640] "many people whose opinions I respect still disagree with me about it"). "Background" he calls the set of abilities, capacities, tendencies, and dispositions that humans have and that are not themselves intentional states. Thus, when someone asks us to "cut the cake" we know to use a knife and when someone asks us to "cut the grass" we know to use a lawnmower (and not vice versa), even though the actual request did not include this detail. Searle sometimes supplements his reference to the "Background" with the concept of "the Network", one's network of other beliefs, desires, and other intentional states necessary for any particular intentional state to make sense. Searle argues that the concept of a Background is similar to the concepts provided by several other thinkers, including Wittgenstein's private language argument ("the work of the later Wittgenstein is in large part about the Background" [Searle, "The Rediscovery of the Mind" (1992) p.177] ) and Bourdieu's "habitus".

To give an example, two chess players might be engaged in a bitter struggle at the board, but they share all sorts of Background presuppositions: that they will take turns to move, that no-one else will intervene, that they are both playing to the same rules, that the fire alarm won't go off, that the board won't suddenly disintegrate, that their opponent won't magically turn into a grapefruit, and so on indefinitely. As most of these possibilities won't have occurred to either player, [ibid, p. 185] Searle thinks the Background must be unconscious, though elements of it can be called to consciousness (if the fire alarm does go off, say).


Building upon his views upon Intentionality, Searle presented a view concerning consciousness in his book "The Rediscovery of the Mind" (1992). Searle argues that, starting with behaviorism (a view which then actually was not very influential any more), much of modern philosophy has tried to deny the existence of consciousness, with little success. In "Intentionality", he parodies several alternative theories of consciousness by replacing their accounts of intentionality with comparable accounts of the hand:

:No one would think of saying, for example, "Having a hand is just being disposed to certain sorts of behavior such as grasping" (manual behaviorism), or "Hands can be defined entirely in terms of their causes and effects" (manual functionalism), or "For a system to have a hand is just for it to be in a certain computer state with the right sorts of inputs and outputs" (manual Turing machine functionalism), or "Saying that a system has hands is just adopting a certain stance toward it" (the manual stance). (p. 263)

Searle argues that philosophy has been trapped by a false dichotomy: that on the one hand, the world consists of nothing but objective particles in fields of force, but that yet, on the other hand, consciousness is clearly a subjective first-person experience. Dualists deny the first, but our current knowledge of physics makes their position seem increasingly unlikely, so philosophy, starting with behaviorists, has denied the second. But denying the second has led to endless problems and thus to endless revisions of behaviorism (with functionalism being the one currently in vogue).

Searle says simply that both are true: conscious is a real subjective experience, caused by the physical processes of the brain. (A view which he suggests might be called "biological naturalism")

Ontological subjectivity

Searle argues that critics like Dennett, who insist that discussing subjectivity is unscientific (since science is supposed to be objective), are making a category error. Science's goal is to make statements which are "epistemically objective", i.e. whose truth can be discovered and evaluated by any interested party. (By contrast, value judgments are "epistemically subjective".) Thus, "McKinley is higher than Everest" is epistemically objective while "McKinley is prettier than Everest" is epistemically subjective.

But, in addition, there are certain things (including all conscious experiences) which are "ontologically subjective", i.e., are experienced subjectively. For example, that someone suffers from back pain is epistemically objective -- whether someone is having back pain is something that medical science happily discusses -- but the pain itself is ontologically subjective; the pain is only experienced by the person having it.

Artificial intelligence

A consequence of biological naturalism is that if we want to create a conscious being, we will have to duplicate whatever physical processes the brain goes through to cause consciousness. Searle thereby means to contradict to what he calls "Strong AI", which view is defined by the assumption that as soon as a certain kind of software is running on a computer, a conscious being is thereby created.

Searle is very well known for his so-called "Chinese room" argument, which purports to prove strong AI is impossible. Familiarity with the Turing test is required to understand the argument. Assume you do not speak Chinese and imagine yourself in a room with two slits, a book, and some scratch paper. Someone slides you some Chinese characters through the first slit, you follow the instructions in the book, write what it says on the scratch paper, and slide the resulting sheet out the second slit. To people on the outside world, it appears the room speaks Chinese -- they slide Chinese statements in one slit and get valid responses in return -- yet you do not understand a word of Chinese. Therefore, no computer can ever understand Chinese, since all it can do is the same syntactic manipulations as a man in the Chinese room.

The argument is highly controversial. In particular, it is unclear whether what Searle says really represents any argument, and if so, what the argument actually is. Nevertheless, dozens of papers claim to refute it, which is connected with the fact that over the years quite a number of suggestions have been made as to what the argument actually amounts to. Among the many replies are that while the man does not understand Chinese, the "system as a whole" does (the systems reply). Searle responds that the person in the Chinese room could memorize all the rules and become the system yet without understanding what the symbols mean, but proponents of the systems maintain that there is the system within the person that does understand, while the person does not understand.

Since then, Searle has come up with another argument against strong AI. Strong AI proponents claim that anything that carries out the same informational processes as a human is also conscious. Thus, if we wrote a computer program that was conscious, we could run that computer program on, say, a system of ping-pong balls and beer cups and the system would be equally conscious, because it was running the same information processes.

Searle argues that this is impossible, since consciousness is a physical property, like digestion or fire. No matter how good a simulation of digestion you build on the computer, it will not digest anything; no matter how well you simulate fire, nothing will get burnt. By contrast, informational processes are "observer-relative": observers pick out certain patterns in the world and consider them information processes, but information processes are not things-in-the-world themselves. Since they do not exist at a physical level, Searle argues, they cannot have "causal efficacy" and thus cannot cause consciousness. There is no physical law, Searle insists, that can see the equivalence between a personal computer, a series of ping-pong balls and beer cans, and a pipe-and-water system all implementing the same program.

Some Strong AI proponents respond by arguing that physics will eventually develop a way of discovering informational processes at the physical level.

Social reality

Searle extended his inquiries into observer-relative phenomena by trying to understand social reality. Searle begins by arguing collective intentionality (e.g. "we're going for a walk") is a distinct form of intentionality, not simply reducible to individual intentionality (e.g. "I'm going for a walk with him and I think he thinks he's going for a walk with me and thinks I think I'm going for a walk with him and ..."). However, he believes collective intentionality is sustained by individual people: each person thinks "we're going for a walk", there's no "group mind" that has this thought.

Searle's "The Construction of Social Reality" (1995) addresses the mystery of how social constructs like "baseball" or "money" can exist in a world consisting only of physical particles in fields of force. Searle distinguishes between "brute facts", like the height of a mountain, and "institutional facts", like the score of a baseball game. He argues institutional facts arise out of collective intentionality through logical rules of the form "X counts as Y in C". Thus, for instance, filling out a ballot counts as a vote in a polling place, getting so many votes counts as a victory in an election, getting a victory counts as being elected president in the presidential race, etc.


In "Rationality in Action" (2001), Searle argues that standard notions of rationality are badly flawed. According to what he calls the Classical Model, rationality is seen as something like a train track: you get on at one point with your beliefs and desires and the rules of rationality compel you all the way to a conclusion.

Searle briefly critiques one particular set of these rules: those of mathematical decision theory. He points out that its axioms require that anyone who valued a quarter and their life would, at some odds, bet their life for a quarter. Searle insists he would never do this and believes that this is perfectly rational.

But most of his attack is against the larger model. He believes it is badly flawed in every detail. First, he argues that reasons don't cause you to do anything, in the sense that having the reasons is sufficient to force you to do the thing. This is because in any decision we have the experience of the "gap" between our reasons and our actions. When one decides to vote, we do not simply determine that we care most about economic policy and that we prefer candidate Jones's economic policy. We also have to make an effort to cast our vote. It is this gap that makes us think we have "freedom of the will". Searle thinks whether we really have free will or not is an open question, but considers its absence highly unappealing because it makes the feeling of freedom of will an epiphenomenon, which is highly unlikely from the evolutionary point of view given its biological cost. He also says that all rational activity presupposes free will.

Second, he believes rationality is not a system of rules, but more of an adverb. We see certain behavior as rational, no matter what its source, and our system of rules derives from finding patterns in what we see as rational.

Third, Searle believes we can rationally do things that don't result from our own desires. It is widely believed that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is", i.e. that facts about how the world is can never tell you what you should do ('Hume's Law'). By contrast, Searle believes the fact that you promised to do something means you should do it. Furthermore, he believes that this provides a desire-independent reason for an action -- if you order a drink at a bar, you should pay for it even if you have no desire to. This argument, which he first made in his paper, "How to Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'" (1964), [John Searle, " [;2-9 How to Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'] ", "The Philosophical Review", 73:1 (January 1964), 43-58] remains highly controversial, but three decades later an unrepentant Searle continued to defend his view that "..the traditional metaphysical distinction between fact and value cannot be captured by the linguistic distinction between 'evaluative' and 'descriptive' because all such speech act notions are already normative. [John Searle in Thomas Mautner, "Dictionary of Philosophy" (Penguin 1996). ISBN 0-140-51250-0] "

Fourth, Searle argues that much of rational deliberation involves adjusting our (often inconsistent) patterns of desires to decide between outcomes, not the other way around. While in the Classical Model, one would start from a desire to go to Paris greater than that of saving money and calculate the cheapest way to get there, in reality people balance the niceness of Paris against the costs of travel to decide which desire (visiting Paris or saving money) they value more.

See also

* Pragmatics
* Practical reason
* Philosophy of artificial intelligence
* List of Jean Nicod Prize laureates
* Language/action perspective


Further reading

By John Searle:
* "Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of language", (1969)
* "The Campus War", (1971)
* "Expression and Meaning", (1979)
** Introduction
** Origins of the essays
** 1. A taxonomy of illocutionary acts
** 2. Indirect speech acts
** 3. The logical status of fictional discourse
** 4. Metaphor
** 5. Literal meaning
** 6. Referential and attributive
** 7. Speech acts and recent linguistics
* [ "Minds, Brains and Programs"] , "The Behavioral and Brain Sciences".3, pp. 417-424. (1980)
* "Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind" (1983), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-52127302-1
* "Minds, Brains and Science" (1984), Harvard University Press, hardcover: ISBN 0-67457631-4, paperback: ISBN 0-67457633-0
* [ "Is the Brain a Digital Computer?"] (1990) Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association
* "Collective Intentions and Actions".(1990) in "Intentions in Communication" J. M. P. R. Cohen, & M. and E. Pollack. Cambridge, Mass.: . MIT Press: 401-416.
* "The Rediscovery of the Mind" (1992) ISBN 0-262-69154-X
* "The Construction of Social Reality" (1995)
* "The Mystery of Consciousness", Granta Books, (1997) hardcover: ISBN 1-86207122-5, New York Review Books paperback: ISBN 0-94032206-4
* [ Consciousness] Ann. Rev. Neurosci. (2000) 23:557-78. Review.
* "Rationality in Action", MIT Press, (2001) – contains (among other things) Searle's account of akrasia
* "Consciousness and Language" (2002), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-52159744-7
* "Mind: A Brief Introduction" (2004), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-515733-8
* "Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language and Political Power" (2007), Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-13752-4
* M. Bennett, D. Dennett, P. Hacker, J. Searle, "Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language" (2007), Columbia University Press, ISBN 0231140444
* [ The Storm Over the University]

* Doerge (2006), Friedrich Christoph: "Illocutionary Acts - Austin's Account and What Searle Made Out of It". Tuebingen: Tuebingen University.


* "Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language" (1969)
* "The Campus War: A Sympathetic Look at the University in Agony" (political commentary; 1971)
* "Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts" (essay collection; 1979)
* "Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind" (1983)
* "Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures" (lecture collection; 1984)
* "John Searle and His Critics" (Ernest Lepore and Robert Van Gulick, eds.; 1991)
* "The Rediscovery of the Mind" (1992)
* "The Construction of Social Reality" (1995)
* "The Mystery of Consciousness" (review collection; 1997)
* "Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World" (summary of earlier work; 1998)
* "Rationality in Action" (2001)
* "Consciousness and Language" (essay collection; 2002)
* "Freedom and Neurobiology" (lecture collection; 2004)
* "Mind: A Brief Introduction" (summary of work in philosophy of mind; 2004)

External links

*imdb name|id=1790698|name=John Searle
* [ Searle's homepage at UC Berkeley]
* [ Conversations with Searle] . interview in [ Conversations with History] series. Available in [ webcast] and [ podcast] .
* [ Radio interview] on Philosophy Talk

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