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John Searle

One of the leading figures in contemporary philosophy, John Searle is the author of many influential books, but thinks that in a way he has just been writing one book all along. In June he visited London, where Julian Moore asked him what it is about.

Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed. It is for me a personal pleasure because it’s a chance to look into some of the things that have been wrapped together in your most recent book, Mind Language and Society. It all seems to go back in the very beginning to speech acts….

It does, yes, you’re right.

but was that a conscious campaign?

No. No, I was always solving one problem at a time, and then eventually it occurred to me, these hang together. See, when I worked on speech-acts, I knew eventually I’d have to pay a debt to the philosophy of mind, because I was using these difficult notions like belief and desire and intention and action. So I thought, well eventually I might have to sit down and work it out. But when I began to work on it, it seemed clear to me there is a theory of mind implicit already in the theory of speech-acts, so I wrote a book called Intentionality, where I spelled that out and of course, its one thing to have the germ of an idea and another thing to work it out in detail, and then when I worked it out in detail it led into general problems in the philosophy of mind. Then in the course of doing that I discovered that there were all these crazy things being said in the philosophy of mind, y’know, that the brain is really a computer and the mind is the software, and all that kind of stuff. So I wrote a book attacking that, called The Rediscovery of the Mind. And then there is a problem that has always bothered me, and that’s about the nature of social reality, and I thought it was implicit in my philosophy of language, a theory of social reality, so I wrote a book about that, called The Construction of Social Reality. So there’s a sense in which in your life you write one book – it just gets bigger and bigger!

The chapter that grows into a book, the book that grows into a series…

That’s right. And it looks at the end as if, well, you must have planned this from the time you were a kid, but that’s not the way it was. It just grew on its own, but it grew in a coherent fashion.

In talking about the creation of a social reality, does that hark back to your early student days as a radical activist in looking for explanations of the unrest at the time?

It does, but in an odd way. It occurred to me during the period of student unrest that we really didn’t even have a vocabulary to describe it. The vocabulary we had was either the silliest kind of journalism or it was too abstract, you know, Platonic theories of the state and of justice. And I was puzzled at the time by how it could be the case in Berkeley that a group of students with very few faculty supporters – I was for quite a while the only regular faculty member who supported the student movement – how we could defeat the established authority. And I actually wrote a book about that too, kind of a footnote to my other books, called The Campus War. It wasn’t so much that I thought that the period of student unrest demanded a theory of society, but that any theory of society would have to account for this, and I didn’t know how to do it. And I still think to some extent this is true and I would like to write another book about this. You see, we lack a political philosophy of the middle distance. Politics is either discussed on the level of day-to-day journalism or in terms of abstract theories of the state like Jack Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. But we don’t have a vocabulary that will enable us to say or even pose the question, “What the hell happened to socialism? Why did it fail? What happened?” I mean, it’s not enough to say, “Well, Margaret Thatcher rescued the Labour Party by killing socialism.” Maybe that’s true, but that’s still at the level of journalism. So I think all of that needs to be done, and I haven’t done it yet, but I did the beginning when I tried to work out a theory of what these social entities are anyway, what is this structure of social and institutional fact?

You put it in those terms, but I wondered whether perhaps there is a mental life of society in the states that it goes through, the dialogue that it seems to have with itself?

Well, I think there is a deep level at which something like that is right. On the account that I give, social reality is a matter of what people think, and what they think is a matter of how they talk to each other, and relate to each other. So you can’t have a social reality without a language, not a human social reality without a language. And you have to have a set of institutional structures where the linguistic representations are partly constitutive of the facts. So this is an interview. And because we both know it’s an interview, we know what to do. And if it were a cocktail party or a fist-fight, then we’d know how to behave differently, but we have to have some way to represent the social realities.

But how can we know what to do? In talking about speech-acts in conversation, and following on from J.L. Austin’s work, you talked about illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. How do they differ?

Well, that’s easy. I think the perlocutionary act is a matter of the effect that your speech-act has on the hearer once he or she understands it. But the illocutionary act is a matter of communicating a message. There the illocutionary effect is one of understanding. So if you ask me “Is it raining?”, and I say “Yes, it’s raining”, then the illocutionary effect is my just getting you to understand that I’ve said that its raining. But the perlocutionary act would be things like producing in you the belief that it’s raining, or getting you to carry an umbrella. So I think there is a clear, intuitive distinction between communicating, that’s just getting your message across, and the further effects that it has. Now of course the whole point of communicating, typically, is to get further effects. We want to convince people of our point of view, we want to change their ways, we want to feel stable expectations because we’ve made a promise. But all the same you need a strict theoretical distinction – and in a way this was Austin’s great contribution – between the speech-act proper and the further effects. Behaviourists always wanted to make it about producing behavioural effects in other people, and that’s too crude a device, so I think there is a clear distinction.

You went further and divided illocutionary acts into …

… directives, commissives, assertives, expressives and declarations, yeah. And the idea is that the existence of those categories can’t be an accident. It couldn’t be the case that you found a language where they had totally different categories. That has to be somehow or other a consequence of the nature of the mind. If my theory of language is right, then those are the possibilities: you can’t go and invent a totally new kind of speech act. Wittgenstein always tells us we can do this: just invent a new language game. But I used to ask my students to do it: “OK, go home and tomorrow bring back a new language game.” And it turns out they’re always variations on the old ones, as far as speech acts are concerned. Now the basis of the taxonomy is that there are only a finite number of ways that the mind can represent reality. It can represent it with the mind to world direction of fit, where you represent something as true or false, so “It’s raining.” Or you can represent it with the world to mind direction of fit, so when I tell you “Shut the door!”, then I’m trying to get your behaviour to change to match the mental or linguistic content. And then you get both directions of fit in the case of a declaration, and a null direction of fit in the case of the expressives.

Well that’s interesting, but I think it needs to be asked – why do we bother to express ourselves if not to affect something in the world? Perhaps simply expressing how we feel is an invitation to someone to respond in some way…?

It can’t be.

So what would be the point of a null illocutionary act?

The point of the expressive is to express your feelings and attitudes about some state of affairs that you presuppose to exist already. So you apologise for doing something that you think is a bad thing to have done, or you thank somebody. And I think there are all kinds of points in having expressives, it just makes society work better, if you can express gratitude or express thanks or express regrets in the case of apologies, or express pleasure at somebody’s good fortune…

But that’s appealing to society rather than to the mind. No doubt it contributes in that way, but why does it arise?

Because we are the kinds of beasts we are. Why do I congratulate my friends when they’ve had some good luck? Because I feel good about it. And they feel good about my feeling good about it. And there’s a name for that; that’s called ‘congratulations’. When I say “Gee, I’m glad you won the race”, or whatever. So I think there are all kinds of reason for expressing our feelings and attitudes. It isn’t just to get people to change their behaviour. Maybe when you’re seducing a woman you’re trying to get her to change her behaviour, you give all sorts of expressives. But there’s a variety of reasons for performing expressives, and I don’t think there is any simple motivation. It’s just part of social relations that we have these feelings and attitudes and one way we relate to other people is to communicate them to them.

But the whole point of communication is to exchange meaning…

That’s right.

…and you use the distinction between syntax and semantics to great effect. Syntax is the formal structure of language, and one would normally understand semantics as the part of language which allows us to understand what is going on, but in various places you introduce the concepts of the network and the background, concepts which some have thought of as unnecessary complications. Could you perhaps tell us what the background and the network are and how they contribute?

OK, well those are good questions and I think they still need more work. There is a view that is now very widespread, I guess it comes from Wittgenstein and other people like that but it’s sometimes called ‘holism’, and the idea is that you only understand a sentence in relation to other sentences. So you understand “Close the door!” only if you understand what it is for something to be a door, and that doors are things you put in openings between rooms in houses. And you have to understand what a house is, and what it is to pass from one room to another. So it looks like in order to understand any sentence, you can only understand it within a network of other sentences and words. But what goes for sentences goes for beliefs. In order to believe that the door is closed, you’ve got to have a whole lot of other beliefs. Now that I call the network. But now it turns out if you try to track down the threads in the network, if you think “OK let’s not be lazy about this, let’s write it all down”, you find somehow you can’t quite do it, because it goes on indefinitely. Each time you write a new sentence it turns out you’ve got more sentences that you need to explain that sentence. Now what I’m giving you is not a formal deductive argument, but it’s a plausibility argument, and it says look, it’s best to think that this network trails off into a set of capacities that people just have. They know how to do things. They know what it is to walk into a room or open a door or sit down. Those capacities, I think, underlie our ability to interpret the semantic content in the network, and it’s that set of capacities that I call the background. Now I think again that something like this is in Wittgenstein, I’m certainly not the first philosopher to say this. In fact if you look carefully, you’ll find this in a bunch of philosophies. You’ll find it in Hume, because Hume is always saying “Well we just have these habits, we just have dispositions to behave in this way.”

You’ve made frequent references to Wittgenstein. Obviously J.L. Austin was a great source of inspiration, too. I believe you worked with him at Berkeley?

No, in Oxford. All my degrees are from Oxford. Austin left Oxford when I was a student of his to go and be a Visitor in Berkeley.

Austin was certainly a wonderful writer. I think his book Sense and Sensibilia which I saw described as the funniest book of serious philosophy in existence…

It probably is! I went to the lectures. The things we call Austin’s books weren’t in fact books, they were lectures that he gave, published as books after his death. Austin was so careful and so precise, he would never have allowed them to be published in this form, because it’s too informal and some things aren’t worked out. But I think it’s fine that way. I think we’re lucky that we have these lecture notes that we can turn into books.

I think his arguments and his mode of expression is very telling. He demolished a paragraph of Ayer so beautifully and so wittily by looking at a number of things which were implicit in the tone, and the role of rhetoric in the argument – you’re not averse to a bit of rhetoric yourself occasionally are you?

Well, I think you have to communicate effectively. I don’t think rhetoric is a substitute for logic but I think there’s no point in saying something if people can’t understand it or they can’t see the force of the argument. Take this Chinese Room argument of mine; I think a lot of the effectiveness of that has to do with not just the abstract structure – that syntax isn’t sufficient for semantics – but derives from the fact that here’s a simple example that anybody can understand: you’re locked in a room with a bunch of Chinese symbols on cards and you have a program which tells you how to give them back through a slot in the wall in response to other cards coming in, and all the same you don’t understand Chinese. Now any kid can understand that.

But in the context of the current interest in consciousness, the Chinese Room is possibly the best-known philosophical argument in the world today. Is it?

I would say so, because not many philosophical arguments make the mainstream press. It’s appeared on television; I know Horizon did a documentary on it. And it’s very nice because it does bring together all those strands: language, consciousness, and even, in miniature, the social relationship because you have what’s going on inside the room and you have the real person outside. But the argument seems to have changed over time – assuming you still believe that it’s not possible to have a mind by virtue of running a computer program. But are you restricting that to a particular program or algorithm or just anything that is executed by a formal mechanism of symbol manipulation?

Well, I think that’s a very good question. The basis of the argument is that the formal symbol manipulation of a computer program isn’t sufficient to guarantee a mind. And the beauty of the example was I didn’t have to consider consciousness, and secondly, I didn’t have to ask the “How do you know?” question because I made it about my own case and it’s obvious I don’t know Chinese. But now then, the question is, well, what is meant by computation? And, of course, I use a standard textbook definition where computation is a matter of carrying out the steps in an algorithm. Now some people thought, well, how about algorithms for connectionism – connectionism is another word for parallel computing – but it’s the same point.

We could do that linearly. That doesn’t really affect the argument at all.

You’re absolutely right. It’s just most people don’t get that point, I have to explain it to them. I mean, we know from the Church-Turing thesis that any computation you can do on a parallel machine, you can also do on a classical machine. So, the computational power of connectionism is not one whit better than a classical machine.

But there are still some interesting issues which I’d like to take up. In the original example, you built upon Shank’s work and then turned it into this exchange of symbols – the people on the outside were putting in ‘questions’ and out came ‘answers’. The labelling of that process is entirely arbitrary. Suppose instead it turns out from speaking to an interpreter who spoke to the Chinese outside and they said, “I’ve been having a very nice conversation with whatever is in the room.” What would that do to the argument – it would seem to suggest that in order for that to be possible, many other things would have had to be granted: the existence of a common background, some intentionality in order to have a meaningful conversation.

Yeah but the point is, you see, they’d be mistaken. That is, they thought they were having a meaningful conversation but it turns out that their interlocutor, namely me, was treating all their questions as meaningless symbols. The person they appeared to be talking to didn’t understand a word they said.

That deals with the essential argument of the ‘systems reply’, which says that the symbol-manipulator doesn’t understand anything but the system as a whole does. But how do you deal with the issues of different levels of description?

The answer is very simple: why don’t I understand Chinese? After all, I’m answering all the questions. And the answer is, because I have no way to know what any of those words mean. I just have the symbols. And it’s no good saying, “Well, the system knows what they mean.” Because the system’s in the same situation I am. The system has no way to get from the syntax to the semantics either. It’s just a bunch of meaningless symbols to me or the system. And I show that in the original publication by saying, “Internalise the system: let me be the whole system.” I’ll memorise the rules and get rid of the room and work outdoors. All the same: I still have only symbols. So the ‘systems reply’ is a desperate move which says the whole room understands. And the reason that it’s a desperate move is: the room hasn’t got anything that I don’t have. See, the ‘systems reply’ says “you really do understand Chinese, you just don’t know that you do.”

You said that the people outside, in believing that they’re speaking to someone/something that understands, can be mistaken. But from the first person perspective understanding has a privileged position and it really only makes sense to say, “I understand” or “I don’t.” The ‘I’ is making a first person statement which it has the privilege to do; an individual neuron or group of neurons in your brain can’t respond with, “I know how to speak English,” but John Searle can say, “I speak English, but not little bits of my brain.”

But, you see, the point is not that there are features of the system that aren’t features of the elements. Of course that’s true. But this is a specific feature, namely the ability to move from the syntax to the semantics; from the symbols to the meaning of the symbols. And in the room you haven’t got any way to do that. I have no way of attaching any mental content to these symbols. And the point is: neither does the room. The room hasn’t got any way to figure out what the symbols mean any more than I do. So the point that there can be system features that aren’t features in individual elements is irrelevant to the argument. The argument is: the syntax – which defines the operation of the system – isn’t sufficient to guarantee the presence of the semantics. And that’s true for the individual element or for the whole system.

That’s a fair point because it brings together a number of things – I can’t say I agree, of course, but…

Why not? I think it’s obvious – it’s an obvious point.

Well, there’s also the issue of mind-body dualism and I think you’ve dealt with it in a unique way which is basically to say: wrong question.

Yeah, get rid of all those old questions and just ask how the brain works. We know that it works – I mean, we don’t know the details, but we’re getting better at it; we’re figuring out how it works.

So what is, in a nutshell, the way of abolishing the distinction between mind and brain?

For human beings?


In real life, the way you do it is this: The brain is made up of all these neurons and the individual neurons – you’re absolutely right – don’t have any semantics. But what happens is that neurons, through causal interactions – causal interactions, not just formal, symbolic interactions but actual causal relationships with actual neurons firing and synapses operating – cause a higher level feature of the system, namely, consciousness and intentionality. So, I am all in favour of the idea that there are different levels of description of the system because that’s my way of solving the mind-body problem. That is, that you can have these causal relations among these meaningless elements at the lower level that produce meaning at the higher level. But that’s a causal story, that’s how it works as a piece of machinery.

So do you think that one of the classic mistakes is to cross levels to create problems? In other words, to keep on trying to explain mental states in terms of lower-level phenomena and establishing a causal relationship which is meaningless?

Well, I do, I agree with that. But I want to go to the next step and I want to say, it isn’t just that they mix levels, but that they don’t understand that the key to understanding nature is that it’s a series of causal relations and the notion of computation is not a causal notion, it’s an abstract syntactical or symbolic or formal notion. And that’s one of the beauties of it. I mean, it’s one of the great achievements of the 20th century that you can do so much with so little. So in a funny kind of way, though a computer is a machine, computation isn’t a machine process; unlike the running of an internal combustion engine, it doesn’t involve the transfer of energy. Now here’s the irony: the brain really is a machine and consciousness really is a machine process involving the transfer of energy in the brain, but computation is not in that way a machine process. Computation is an abstract, formal, mathematical, symbolic process that you can implement in a machine. But consciousness isn’t just implemented in the brain, it’s actually caused by the brain: it’s an actual effect of the interaction of the neurons. So I want to say, you’re absolutely right about levels but there’s something more than levels: consciousness.

So could you explain that now in the case of the engine?

Well, the point is this: if you want to know how the car engine works, there are different levels of description. There’s one level of the alloys of the metal molecules and the oxidisation of the hydrocarbons in the cylinder. But there’s another level you talk about: of pistons and crankshafts and the explosion in the cylinder that puts pressure on the piston that turns the flywheel that powers the crankshaft. Now that is a higher level of description of the same system that has these lower level elements. And I want to say that analogous points can be made about the brain. But all this talk about systems in both the car engine and the brain only works because we understand the causal relations involved.

So what was the overall intention behind Mind, Language and Society, apart from simply drawing together these things?

What I tried to say in the introduction is, if you write a lot of books that look like they’re on different topics, eventually, you’d like to write a book that shows how it all hangs together. And this is that book. Now, I didn’t put everything in it. My next book is about rationality and I had a chapter in this book on rationality, but my wife convinced me to leave it out because it overburdens it, I’ve got too much material already. But I do think that intellectual advance comes not when you make a series of little discoveries but when you get a comprehensive theory. And, basically, as a philosopher, I want a comprehensive account of how things work. We’ve got a pretty good account of physics – about how the physical world works – but we do not have a satisfactory account of the set of relations between mental states, language and social reality and that’s what this book is about.

You say philosophers shouldn’t be too worried about it, but you did say many years back it was a shame that freedom of speech and civil rights were not ‘sacred topics’ – these are things which need to be defended. But this is very much a philosophical question, particularly when people have the freedom to be emotive, or to incite. Would you defend freedom of speech absolutely?

The traditional defence of free speech in our culture, I think, is much too feeble. It comes from John Stuart Mill and it is essentially a utilitarian defence: that we’re all better off and happier if there’s freedom of speech. I think that’s much too feeble. I think it’s a basic human right and it’s a basic human right precisely because we are speech act performing animals; it’s like a right to move your body around. And so the question, “Why should we have free speech?” is not answered by saying, “Well, society is better off if we have free speech than if we don’t have free speech.” Because that means, in a situation where society isn’t better off, it looks like we’d be justified in restricting free speech. I think, in fact, the justification for free speech has to do with us – and I should write something about this; I never have – but it has to do with us as speech act performing animals. It seems to me, it’s a basic feature of us as biological human beings, as beasts of a certain kind, that we’ve got this capacity to talk. And I think a restriction of that is like a restriction of any other human capacity: it’s a violation of a basic right.

That’s interesting because you’re taking that concept back to our fundamental nature whereas you’ve done a lot of work on the creation of a social reality. How does a social reality actually come about by virtue of our intentionality and our speech acts?

Well, that was my book on the construction of social reality and I repeat a lot of that in Mind, Language and Society. The basic idea is that there is this reality of money and property and marriage and government and cocktail parties and universities and television stations, and it, in some sense, exists only because we believe it exists; it exists because we accept it. And I argued in the book that you really need only three primitive notions in order to construct social reality: you need the notion of assigning a function to something; and you need collective intentionality – the capacity that people have to act co-operatively; and then, you need this peculiar notion which I call a status function, where something can perform a function only by virtue of the fact that it’s recognised as having a certain status. That’s true of money, and presidents of the United States, and language. And that’s the key notion in the book. Then I went back and used this old notion of a constitutive rule – that something is counted as something else. So this piece of paper counts as money in our society. So that’s the basic idea of the book and then I work it out in some detail.

So, in the context of human rights, are there some rights which are based in social reality or are they all fundamental to our nature like that of free speech resulting from us being speech act animals?

All rights are socially constructed. I mean, you don’t discover a right the way you discover you’ve got a thumb. What you do is you discover that you have a certain nature and then you assign rights on the basis of facts like what sort of beings are we. So, in my terminology, our rights are observerrelative – a right only exists relative to the acceptance or assignment of that right. But that doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary and I think we can give a better justification for free speech than John Stuart Mill ever did.

You talked about the fun of the philosophy. What’s most fun for you?

Well, I like a lot of things about philosophy. I love teaching my students in Berkeley, especially a certain kind of Berkeley undergraduate who is very sophisticated but very critical as well – and enthusiastic. I like working. I like this kind of conversation you and I are just now having, I think that’s great. All the issues come out and it’s perfectly open and nobody’s putting on a show or trying to impress anybody. I don’t like reading a lot of stuff and that’s a fault on my part. I don’t read as much philosophy as I should because I usually get stuck. I’m trying to read out of this book and I get stuck on about the second page.

So what future projects do you have in mind?

Oh God, well, if I could live long enough, I’d like to write a hundred books. Some of the stuff we’ve been talking about, I think, really, there ought to be more books. I think if we had a theory of social ontology and a theory of rationality, then we could maybe advance political philosophy in a direction that I think it ought to go: what I’m calling a political philosophy of the middle distance.

Is the political philosophy of the middle distance, is that equivalent to – what shall we call it – the third way, which is, perhaps neither the right wing conservative style or the fully socialist?

No, no it’s not the third way. It’s more like this: there are philosophical points to be made but we don’t have a vocabulary or the categories or the intellectual resources even to state them. So, for example, some countries are just awful: Mexico, as a set of institutions, is just dreadful. The people are nice, the country is beautiful, but the institutional structure in Mexico is awful. Now, here’s our problem: no politician can say that – well, okay, they can’t say it for political reasons – but no political scientist can say it because it doesn’t sound like science. And no philosopher can say it; all they can do is talk abstractly about, what…? Does it meet Rawlsian conditions of the veil of ignorance? But to actually talk about social, institutional reality in politically thick terms, we’re not yet able to do that and we ought to have the vocabulary to do that.

And how do we get the vocabulary into common use?

Well, we don’t worry about it. It either happens or it doesn’t.

Just create the tools and if they’re useful, people will pick them up.


How would you feel then about the political and social role of the alternative vocabularies created by the political correctness movement?

Well, I think they try to impose a more or less oppressive vocabulary on the rest of us. But it’s not working. The use of the term ‘political correctness’ itself is a rejection of this oppressive total – ‘totalitarian’ is too strong – this authoritarian tendency.

Orwellian Newspeak?

That’s right – trying to get us to have this sort of Orwellian avoidance of ‘crimethink’. Newspeak I think is awful. But I think it may be going away.

Professor Searle, it’s been a great pleasure talking with you.

Thanks a lot, that was very nice.

Mind, Language and Society by John Searle is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £12.99

Julian Moore has a degree in physics from Bristol University and works in I.T., but considers himself primarily a poet and philospher


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