Friday, January 21, 2011

John Searle, Philosophy in a New Century: Selected Essays (2008)

For the second consecutive post, I connect with issues I first encountered nearly forty years ago in college. I took two undergraduate philosophy classes with Professor Searle in the early 1970s: ethics and logic. He was an engaging lecturer, someone you wanted to listen to. Surprisingly the assigned texts for ethics were not authored by the usual sages from Greek antiquity or the Enlightenment; instead novels by John Barth --- The Floating Opera and The End of the Road --- and Searle's own Speech Acts, which includes his argument on deriving "ought" from "is."

This compilation of selected essays assembles several articles that Searle has written since the 1990s with some updating. This is not the first time I have mentioned Professor Searle in this blog (see September 27, 2009 and August 17, 2009 post) where I mentioned his willingness to recognize that consciousness is a biological phenomenon, which seems "remarkable" coming from an esteemed member of the philosophical community, "where for millenia its leading lights have been debating and struggling with non-biological metaphysical ideas about what form reality takes and how we know reality." I mention this again because I want to focus on the title article from the selected essays, Philosophy in a New Century.

Searle's article, first published at the end of 1999, begins, "A number of important overall changes in the subject [of philosophy] have occurred in my lifetime and I want to discuss their significance and the possibilities they raise for the future [of philosophy . . . The central intellectual fact of the present era is that knowledge grows. It grows daily and cumulatively. We know more than our grandparents did; our children will know more than we do. We now have a huge accumulation of knowledge, which is certain, objective, and universal . . . This growth of knowledge is quietly producing a transformation of philosophy." There are two ways one can approach this acknowledgment: as a struggle, in the sense of Henry Adams who, in his autobiography just a century earlier, felt that the accelerating accumulation of knowledge was always just beyond his grasp, or, in the case of Searle, with a sense of optimism that mysteries are on the verge of being solved while some new mysteries will be discovered.

The "modern era of philosophy" that began with the Enlightenment was based on a premise that the "existence of knowledge was in question" and the main task of the philosopher "was to cope with the problem of skepticism." This premise, says Searle, is on the verge of becoming obsolete. At the core of philosophy in the modern era was epistemology: how do we know what we know and how do we know what is real? Can there truly be objective knowledge? The era of skepticism is over, Searle says, "because the sheer growth of certain, objective, universal knowledge." And we should not conclude otherwise, just because science has not solved every mystery, or what we know today is capable of being corrected or revised tomorrow, and new mysteries are discovered regularly. Nor should we think that knowledge is not objective just because "all knowledge of reality is, from a point of view, from a perspective."

"A very curious thing has happened in the past two or three decades -- the philosophy of mind has moved to the center of philosophy. Several other important branches of philosophy, such as epistemology, metaphysics, the philosophy of action, and even the philosophy of language must be treated as dependent upon, and in some cases, even as branches of the philosophy of mind. Whereas fifty years ago [when Searle first began teaching] the philosophy of language was considered "first philosophy," now it is the philosophy of mind." John Searle moved with this trend. Nearly forty years ago, when I had the opportunity to attend his lectures, he was one of the premier teachers on the philosophy of language. In more recent years, as I came to reacquaint myself with his work, such as The Mystery of Consciousness, Mind: A Brief Introduction, and Mind Language and Society, it was clear that Searle had a new focus: the mind and the social construction of reality.

The "mind-body problem" that was an obsession of philosophers for centuries --- the relation between consciousness and the brain, is "a straight neurobiological problem," says Searle. Philosophers need to forget about Cartesian dualism "and just remind ourselves that mental phenomena are ordinary biological phenomena in the same sense as digestion and photosynthesis." Searle believes that the scientific inquiry into consciousness is not to ask 'How does the brain produce the conscious experience of red?' but 'How does the brain produce the unified, subjective conscious field.?' Recall what I quoted earlier, "[A]ll knowledge of reality, is from a point of view, from a perspective." In Searle's view, "We should think of perception, not as creating consciousness, but as modifying a preexisting conscious field." This is an important point, because it treats physically objective facts as existing reality that we present ourselves to rather than skeptically questioning whether that reality actually exists.

The philosophy of mind, Searle asserts, is now at the center of philosophy, and he believes cognitive science will be the most fruitful contributor to this branch of philosophy. "The basic subject matter of cognitive science is intentionality in all its forms." Too much time, Searle asserts, has been wasted on pursuing the thought that the brain is a digital computer and the mind is a computer program. Minds contain more than symbolic or syntactic components, they contain actual mental states with semantic content in the form of thoughts, feelings and the like, which are caused by neurobiological processes in the brain. He concludes that neuroscience is moving away from a computational approach to the brain, and this is likely to introduce new philosophical questions including a shift in our concept of memory. While I believe Searle is correct in questioning the purely computational approach to the brain, I note my comment in the August 17, 2009 post that Searle should reconsider the extent that information is physical and that information contained in energy is exchanged in a computational manner. This has to have some significance for neuronal electro-chemical activity.

The philosophy of language, a branch of philosophy to which Searle devoted a significant part of his intellectual life, is going nowhere, he concludes. Searle does believe that in the 21st century, the profession needs to develop a philosophy of society. And in a nod to Amartya Sen (see previous post dated January 11, 2011) he believes that an "expanded social philosophy would give us the tools for analyzing social institutions as they exist in real societies in ways that would enable us to make comparative judgments between different countries and larger societies without rising to the level of abstraction that we cannot make specific value judgments about specific institutional structures." This is a tall order, and I would like to know who Searle has in mind to serve as the 'impartial spectator.' Also with an implicit nod to Sen, Searle encourages ethics to steer from its obsession with epistemic objectivity, and approach ethics as a problem of "practical reason and rationality." But I will say here, as I did in the previous post, human evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and cognitive science can inform this subject as well. Finally, the philosophy of science in the 21st century needs to get in touch with the questions that physicists are trying to solve about the nature of the reality and causation.

Each of the remaining nine articles in this volume addresses these subjects in one way or another, and I want to specifically call out only one, titled Social Ontology: Some Basic Principles. In this article, Searle explains there are phenomena that are social facts (the piece of paper I have in my hand is a ten dollar bill), social objects (money), and social processes (the determination of rates of exchange). How is it, he asks, that we create a "social reality" --- of social facts, social objects, and social processes --- that exist only by virtue of collective acceptance and acknowledgement of them? Searle proposes that we need to distinguish between features of reality that are observer-independent and those that are observer-relative (dependent). Physical features such as gravity is observer-independent, for example; the United States of America is observer-dependent. The existence of an observer-relative fact depends upon the existence of a conscious agent agent for its existence. Social facts, social objects, and social processes are observer-relative. The important point that Searle wants to make is that "observer-relativity implies ontological subjectivity, but ontological subjectivity does not preclude epistemic objectivity." In other words, just because something is known subjectively does not deny its objective existence. This is his response to the skeptic and why he believes modern philosophy has reached the post-skeptical era. His example: the fact that Barack Obama is the current president of the United States, and the fact that a piece of paper in my hand is a $20 bill are epistemically objective facts even though observer-dependent "human attitudes" are part of their mode of existence. We should not let subjectivity or apparent dualism getting in the way of saying these facts are certain, objective, and universal.

Second, humans (and some animals), Searle asserts, have the ability to assign functions to certain objects. The assigned function is not intrinsic to its physical character, but the function exists only because of a collective assignment (e.g., the function of money as a means of exchange) --- they are observer-relative. "Function" has a normative component --- they are causes that serve a purpose. Functionality that exists as a result of a collective assignment is deemed, by Searle, to be a "status function." Human institutions --- government, marriage, religion, and the like --- are status functions. "Status functions are vehicles of power in a society." They are deontic powers because they deal with obligations, permissions, rights and responsibilities, duties, entitlements, and the like. Within society, we have a set of deontic power relations, which gives rise to reasons for action: to recognize something as an obligations, a right, duty or requirement is to recognize a reasons for action that are essential in human society. The deontic relations that evolve make possible observer-independent reasons for action. Thus, if others recognize the fact that the $20 bill in my hand belongs to me, they have desire-independent reasons for not stealing the $20 bill from me. What makes this possible, Searle believes, is language, a faculty that distinguishes humans from other animals.

Status functions, deontic powers, and desire-independent reasons for acting give rise to specific human forms of socialization. What makes this possible in humans is their ability to represent observer-relative institutional facts to be the case, and representation depends on language. So we have a language that relates to obligations, commitments, rights, duties and the like that other species do not. "All status functions and thus all human institutional reality, are created by a single type of linguistic operation, the Status Function Declaration. These create and maintain a reality in existence by representing that reality as existing." Here we see what Searle means when he says that the philosophy of language is a branch of the philosophy of the mind and how it all may become a branch of the philosophy of society.

The final note I want to make in this post is to acknowledge what I think drives Searle: "there is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy: given that we must rule out Cartesian or any other type of dualism, how do we give an account of ourselves as conscious, intentionalistic, rational, speech-act performing, ethical, free-will possessing, political and social animals in a world that consists entirely [his emphasis] of mindless, meaningless, brute physical particles?" How can there be an ethical right or wrong in a world of meaningless physical particles? How can unconscious bits of matter in the skull [the brain] create consciousness? The answer lies in the fact that neurobiological systems are the foundation of our mental life, and language that enables human to create a social reality. Many of the posts in this blog from books that come off the bookshelf touch on some aspect of Searle's questions and the answers to those questions.

I was going to turn next to some fiction, but I changed my mind. I want to explore next the work of a skeptic, David Hume, which I have had on the bookshelf for some time, and then the recent work of a neurobiologist and see if I can discern the trends of which Professor Searle writes.


  1. Hi, I appreciate this is an old post, but I was wondering if you could say more about what how Searle used the two Barth novels in his lecture series

    1. I am sorry I don't recall after 40 years. I am inclined to think he connected it to his argument about deriving ought from is as that was a focal point of the class, but that is surmise on my part. I reread The Floating Opera 5-6 years ago and asked the same question myself, but a novel about free love and a suicide didn't make a connection.