Mind, Language And Society

Philosophy In The Real World


By John R Searle

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Disillusionment with psychology is leading more and more people to formal philosophy for clues about how to think about life. But most of us who try to grapple with concepts such as reality, truth, common sense, consciousness, and society lack the rigorous training to discuss them with any confidence. John Searle brings these notions down from their abstract heights to the terra firma of real-world understanding, so that those with no knowledge of philosophy can understand how these principles play out in our everyday lives. The author stresses that there is a real world out there to deal with, and condemns the belief that the reality of our world is dependent on our perception of it.



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For Agar


Anyone who writes books on a variety of topics must eventually feel an urge to write a book explaining how the various topics relate to each other. How does it all hang together? This is such a book. In it I try to explain, at least in summary form, some of my views on mind, language, and society, and to explain how they relate to each other, and how they fit into our overall contemporary conception of the universe. Indeed, my first thought for a subtitle was “How It All Hangs Together.”

I am partly emboldened to undertake such a project by the generous reception given my 1984 Reith Lectures for the BBC,1 published in book form as Minds, Brains, and Science, which was similarly broad in scope. Both books attempt to address a wide range of problems in a way that is accessible to nonspecialists, but without sacrificing intellectual complexity. The earlier book stayed at the levels of the mind and brain. This one tries, so to speak, to climb up the levels from mind to language and social reality generally.

Both books also exemplify a pervasive contemporary trend in philosophy: for a large number of philosophers, the philosophy of mind is now first philosophy. Problems about language, knowledge, ethics, society, free will, rationality, and a large number of other topics are best approached by way of an understanding of mental phenomena. In my hands at least, they are approached by way of an analysis of mind that rejects both dualism and materialism. I set out to write a book about mind, language, and society, and now that it is finished, I discover that a disproportionately large part of it is about the mind. Given the intellectual basis from which the argument proceeds, that emphasis should not be surprising.

I have borrowed shamelessly from my earlier writings. Friends of those works may justifiably feel a sense of deja vu at some of the ideas in this book. I can only say that in order to tell you how it all works together, I have to tell you some of the things I have said before.

Several people have helped in the preparation of this book. I especially want to thank my research assistant, Jennifer Hudin; and most of all, my wife Dagmar Searle, who, as usual, was helpful at every stage. I dedicate this book to her.


Basic Metaphysics: Reality and Truth

The Enlightenment Vision: Reality and Its Intelligibility

From the time of the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century until the early decades of the twentieth, it was possible for an educated person to believe that he or she could come to know and understand the important things about how the universe works. From the Copernican Revolution, through Newtonian mechanics, the theory of electromagnetism, and Darwin’s theory of evolution, the universe made a kind of sense, had a kind of intelligibility, and was becoming ever more accessible through the steadily increasing growth of knowledge and understanding. It was even possible for educated people to feel that scientific knowledge was perfectly consistent with, even an adjunct to, their religious faith. This belief required making a distinction between two metaphysical realms—the mental or spiritual on the one hand, and the physical or material on the other. Religion owned the spiritual realm, science the material. This distinction between the realms of the mind and the body seemed independently justifiable; indeed, it had a long history and received its most famous formulation in the work of Rene Descartes, a philosopher who was very much part of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution. Even the great “subversive” revolutionaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, though they rejected Cartesian dualism, thought of their work as part of the growth of science as it had been conceived since the seventeenth century. Freud thought he was creating a science of the mind, Marx a science of history and society.

There was, in short, a long period in Western civilization when it was assumed that the universe was completely intelligible and that we were capable of a systematic understanding of its nature. Because these twin assumptions found expression in a series of classic statements in the European Enlightenment, I propose to call them “the Enlightenment vision.” The high-water mark of this optimistic vision came in the late nineteenth century, especially in Bismarckian Germany and Victorian England, and two of its most eloquent exemplars were Gottlob Frege, a German mathematician and philosopher, and Bertrand Russell, a British logician and philosopher.

Beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, a number of events, intellectual and otherwise, happened to challenge and undermine this traditional optimism both about the nature of things and about our ability to comprehend that nature. My guess is that the greatest single psychological blow to the intellectual optimism of the nineteenth century was not an intellectual development at all but rather the catastrophe of the First World War. There were also a number of purely intellectual challenges, however, to the Enlightenment vision. Both the intelligibility of the real world and our capacity to comprehend the world seemed to come under attack from various quarters. First, relativity theory challenged our most fundamental assumptions about space and time, and about matter and energy. How, for example, are we to understand a universe where, according to Albert Einstein, if we went to a star at nearly the speed of light and returned in ten years we would be ten years older but everything on earth would be a hundred years older? Second, the discovery of the set theoretical paradoxes seemed to challenge the rationality of that very citadel of rationality, mathematics. If the foundations of mathematics contain a contradiction, then nothing seems secure. As Frege himself said when confronted with Russell’s paradox, “Your discovery of the contradiction has surprised me beyond words and, I should almost like to say, left: me thunderstruck, because it has rocked the ground on which I had meant to build arithmetic.” It seems “to undermine not only the foundations of my arithmetic but the only possible foundations of arithmetic as such.”1 Third, Freudian psychology was taken not as a gateway to an improved rationality but as a proof of the impossibility of rationality. According to Freud, the rational consciousness is only an island in a sea of the irrational unconscious. Fourth, Kurt Godel’s incompleteness proof seemed to deliver another blow to mathematics. There are true statements in mathematical systems that we can all see to be true but that cannot be proven to be true within those systems. Prior to Godel, it had seemed that the very meaning of “true” in mathematics implied “mathematically provable.” Fifth, and worst of all, on certain interpretations, quantum mechanics seemed simply unassimilable to our traditional conceptions of the determinacy and independent existence of the physical universe. Quantum mechanics seemed to show both that physical reality at the most fundamental level is indeterministic and that the conscious observer, in the very act of observation, is in part creating the very reality he or she is observing. Sixth, in the late twentieth century the rationality of science itself came under attack from authors such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, who argued that science itself was infected with arbitrariness and irrationality. Kuhn was taken to have shown that a major scientific revolution is not just a new description of the same reality, but that it creates a different “reality.” “After a revolution,” he says, “scientists work in a different world.”2 And Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, is taken by many to have shown that our discourse is a series of mutually untranslatable and incommensurable language games. We are not engaged in one big language game, in which there are universal standards of rationality and everything is intelligible to everybody, but in a series of smaller language games, each with its own inner standards of intelligibility.

I could continue this dreary list. For example, several anthropologists have claimed that there is no universally valid rationality, but that different cultures have different rationalities. Similar versions of relativism have become common in the intellectual movements known collectively as “postmodernism.” Postmodernists see themselves as challenging the Enlightenment vision.

Just to put my cards on the table at the beginning: I accept the Enlightenment vision. I think that the universe exists quite independently of our minds and that, within the limits set by our evolutionary endowments, we can come to comprehend its nature. I believe that the real change since the nineteenth century is not that the world has become unintelligible in some exciting and apocalyptic way, but that it is a lot harder to understand for the rather boring and unexciting reason that you have to be smarter and you have to know a lot more. For example, to understand contemporary physics you have to know a lot of mathematics. I will not attempt to answer all of these challenges to the Enlightenment vision. That would require several books. Rather, since my main aim is constructive, I will briefly state why I am not bothered by the arguments I just presented, and then, in more detail, I will respond to various aspects of the “postmodernist” challenge.

First, relativity theory is not a refutation of traditional physics, but its extension. It requires us to think in counterintuitive ways about space and time, but that is no threat to the intelligibility of the universe. It is worth recalling that Newtonian mechanics also seemed paradoxical in the seventeenth century. Second, the logical paradoxes, both semantic and set theoretical, seem to me to show nothing except certain philosophical errors we can make. Just as Zeno’s famous paradoxes about space, time, and motion do not show the unreality of space, time, or motion,3 so the logical paradoxes do not show any contradictions at the heart of language, logic, and mathematics. Third, Freudian psychology, whatever its ultimate contribution to human culture, is no longer taken seriously as a scientific theory. It continues to exist as a cultural phenomenon, but few serious scientists suppose it gives a scientifically well-substantiated account of human psychological development and pathology. Fourth, Godel’s proof is a kind of support to the traditional rationalist conception that separates ontology (what exists) from epistemology (how we know). Truth is a matter of correspondence to the facts. If a statement is true, there must be some fact in virtue of which it is true. The facts are a matter of what exists, of ontology. Provability and verification are matters of finding out about truth and thus are epistemic notions, but they are not to be confused with the facts we find out about. Godel shows conclusively that mathematical truth cannot be identified with provability. Fifth, quantum mechanics, on some interpretations, I agree, is a serious challenge to the Enlightenment vision, and I am not technically competent to make a serious assessment of its significance. I want to distinguish, however, between the claim that quantum mechanics shows an indeterminacy in the relation of micro to macro levels on the one hand, and the claim that it shows that reality does not have an existence independent of observers on the other. As far as I can tell, we simply have to accept a certain level of statistical indeterminacy in micro-macro relations as a fact about reality. As far as I can see, however, there is nothing in the actual results in quantum mechanics that forces us to the conclusion that the conscious observer creates in part the reality observed. Such paradoxes are not in the actual results of the experiments, but in the varying interpretation4 of the results, and nothing forces us to such a paradoxical and counterintuitive interpretation, though some physicists have accepted that interpretation. Next, efforts to prove relativism about rationality—that all standards of rationality are culturally relative—invariably end up showing the reverse. For example, to establish cultural relativism the anthropologist tells us that the Nuer regard twin siblings as birds and that in certain ceremonies the cucumber is the head of an ox. When he tells how the Nuer make sense of these claims, however, it invariably turns out that he can tell us how they make sense by our standards and thus how they can make sense to us.5 It turns out that the apparent irrationality within a tribal culture can be made intelligible by universal standards of rationality.

I will have more to say about Kuhn and postmodernist challenges to the Enlightenment vision later.

In this book, I want to use the contemporary period of confusion as an opportunity to undertake a very traditional philosophical enterprise of giving an account of several apparently diverse phenomena in order to show their underlying unity. I do not believe that we live in two worlds, the mental and the physical—much less in three worlds, the mental, the physical, and the cultural—but in one world, and I want to describe the relations between some of the many parts of that one world. I want to explain the general structure of several of the philosophically most puzzling parts of reality. Specifically, I want to explain certain structural features of mind, language, and society, and then show how they all fit together. My aim, then, is to make a modest contribution to the Enlightenment vision.

Introducing Philosophy

This project may sound unduly ambitious, but in at least one important sense this is an “introductory book” in philosophy: no previous technical philosophical training or knowledge is required on the part of the reader.

Books in philosophy that are introductory in this sense usually take one of two forms, and since this one takes neither, I think it important to make the distinction between it and other such books at the outset. The first and perhaps most common type of introductory book is one that takes the reader through a list of famous philosophical problems, such as free will, the existence of God, the mind-body problem, the problem of good and evil, or the problem of skepticism and knowledge. A good recent example of this sort of book is Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean?6 The second sort of introductory book is a short history of the subject. The reader is given a brief account of the major philosophical thinkers and doctrines, beginning with the pre-Socratic Greeks and ending with some prominent recent figure, such as Wittgenstein, or movement, such as existentialism. Probably the most famous book of this type is Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.7 Russell’s book is weak on scholarship, but I think it has done much more to encourage the spread of philosophical thought than more accurate histories because anybody can read it with pleasure and with at least some understanding. I read it as a teenager, and it made a big impression on me. Jimmy Carter is alleged to have kept it on his bedside table when he was president.

The present book is neither a survey of big questions nor a history. Indeed, it is of a type that has gone out of fashion and that many good philosophers would think impossible. It is a synthetic book in that it attempts to synthesize a number of accounts of apparently unrelated or marginally related subjects. Because we live in one world, we ought to be able to explain exactly how the different parts of that world relate to each other and how they all hang together in a coherent whole. I want to emphasize the words synthesis and synthetic because I was brought up by—and am usually thought of as belonging to—a bunch of philosophers who think of themselves as doing something called “analytic philosophy.” Analytic philosophers take philosophical questions apart and analyze them into their component elements. They do what is called “logical analysis.” This book contains a lot of logical analysis, but it is also a book in which I put things together. It is a synthesis by an analyst. Building on my earlier writings, I want to explain how certain essential parts of mind, language, and social reality work and how they form a coherent whole.

I have three distinguishable objectives. First, I want to advance a series of theoretical claims, both about the nature of mind, language, and society and about the interrelations among them. Second, in achieving the first objective, I want to exemplify a certain style of philosophical analysis. Philosophical inquiry has important similarities with, but also dissimilarities from, other forms of inquiry, such as scientific inquiry, and I want to make them clear in the course of this discussion. Third, I want to make in passing, so to speak, a series of observations about the nature of philosophical puzzlement and philosophical problems. To put these three points more succinctly: I want to do some philosophy, in doing it I want to illustrate how to do it, and I want to make some observations about the special problems of doing it. At the end of the book I state some general conclusions about the nature of philosophy.

If I succeed in my expository ambitions, almost everything I say should sound pretty much obviously true, so obvious, indeed, that the philosophically innocent reader—the reader the book is aimed at—will sometimes wonder: Why is he bothering to tell us this? The answer is that every claim I make, even the most obvious, will be, and typically has been for centuries, a subject of controversy and even rage. Why is that? Why is it that when we start doing philosophy we are almost inexorably driven to deny things we all know to be true—for example, that there is a real world, that we can have certain sorts of knowledge of that world, that statements are typically true if they correspond to facts in the world and false if they don’t? Wittgenstein thought that the urge to philosophical error came primarily from a misunderstanding of the workings of language, and also from our tendency to overgeneralize and to extend the methods of science into areas where they are not appropriate. I think these are indeed some of the sources of philosophical error—but only some of them. I will point out others as we go along, others that are more reprehensible than the sources Wittgenstein gives, sources such as self-deception and will to power.

In any case, it is worth saying what sounds obvious because what seems obvious usually only seems that way after you have said it. Before you say it, it is not obvious what it is you need to say. This book, then, may give the impression that I am taking you along a smooth and open road. That is an illusion. We are on a narrow path through a jungle. My method of exposition is to point out the path and then point to the parts of the jungle we need to avoid. Or to put the same point in a way that seems more pretentious than I intend, I try to state the truth and then state the competing falsehoods that give the statement of the truth much of its philosophical interest.

The Default Positions

On most of the major philosophical issues there is what we might call, using a computer metaphor, the default position. Default positions are the views we hold prereflectively so that any departure from them requires a conscious effort and a convincing argument. Here are the default positions on some major questions:

  • There is a real world that exists independently of us, independently of our experiences, our thoughts, our language.
  • We have direct perceptual access to that world through our senses, especially touch and vision.
  • Words in our language, words like rabbit or tree, typically have reasonably clear meanings. Because of their meanings, they can be used to refer to and talk about real objects in the world.
  • Our statements are typically true or false depending on whether they correspond to how things are, that is, to the facts in the world.
  • Causation is a real relation among objects and events in the world, a relation whereby one phenomenon, the cause, causes another, the effect.

In our ordinary everyday lives, these views are so much taken for granted that I think it is misleading to describe them as “views”—or hypotheses or opinions—at all. I do not, for example, hold the opinion that the real world exists, in the way I hold the opinion that Shakespeare was a great playwright. These taken-for-granted presuppositions are part of what I call the Background of our thought and language. I capitalize the word to make it clear that I am using it as a quasi-technical term, and I will explain its meaning in more detail later.

Much of the history of philosophy consists in attacks on default positions. The great philosophers are often famous for rejecting what everybody else takes for granted. The characteristic attack begins by pointing out the puzzles and paradoxes of the default position. We apparently can’t hold the default position and also believe a whole lot of other things we would like to believe. So the default position must be given up and some revolutionary new view substituted for it. Famous examples are David Hume’s refutation of the idea that causation is a real relation between events in the world, Bishop George Berkeley’s refutation of the view that a material world exists independently of our perceptions of it, and the rejection by Descartes, as well as many other philosophers, of the view that we can have direct perceptual knowledge of the world. More recently, Willard Quine is supposed by many to have refuted the view that the words in our language have determinate meanings. And several philosophers think they have refuted the correspondence theory of truth—the view that if a statement is true, it is so typically because there is some fact, situation, or state of affairs in the world that makes it true.


On Sale
Aug 4, 2008
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

John R Searle

About the Author

John R. Searle was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1932. He attended the University of Wisconsin from 1949 to 1952 and studied at Oxford University, where he received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. Phil and was a Rhodes Scholar. He taught as a lecturer in philosophy at Christ Church in Oxford from 1956 to 1959 and since then has been a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has also been a visiting professor at many universities, both in the US and abroad, including the universities of Syracuse, Rutgers, Colorado, SUNY Buffalo, Washington, Michigan, Venice, Florence, Frankfurt, Toronto, Campinas (Brazil), Oslo, Berlin, and Oxford.

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