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John Searle

John Rogers Searle (born December 1932) is Mills Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and is noted for contributions in the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and consciousness, on the characteristics of socially constructed versus physical realities, and on practical reason.


Illocutionary force

Searle's early works built on the efforts of his teachers, J. L. Austin and P. F. Strawson. In particular Searle's Speech Acts developed Austin's analysis of performative utterances. Searle focused on what Austin had called illocutionary acts, acts performed in saying something. In this analysis the sentences (Speech Acts p. 22)

  1. Sam smokes habitually
  2. Does Sam smoke habitually?
  3. Sam, smoke habitually!
  4. Would that Sam smoked habitually

each have the same propositional content, Sam smoking, yet they differ in their illocutionary force, respectively a statement, a question, a command and an expression of desire.

Searle explains how the illocutionary forces of a sentence can be described as obeying specifiable rules or conditions. These rules set out the circumstances and purpose of different illocutionary acts. Searle uses four general types of rules.

Usually an illocution will have some specifiable propositional content. For instance, a request will have some future act as its content, while a statement can have any proposition as its content. Some illocutions, such as greetings, have no propositional content.

Certain background conditions are necessary for the success of each type of illocution. For instance, to successfully perform a request, it is necessary that the hearer be able to perform the requested action and that the speaker believe that the hearer can perform the action. For a greeting to be successful, the hearer and the speaker will have either just met or just been introduced. Searle called these preparatory conditions.

A greeting can be insincere. But to really thank someone, it is necessary that the speaker be sincerely appreciative, and to sincerely ask a question, the speaker has to want the answer. Searle called this the sincerity condition.

Finally, and crucially, each illocution can be described in terms of what it is attempting to do. So an assertion counts as an undertaking that something really is the case. A question counts as an attempt to elicit some information. Thanking someone counts as an expression of gratitude. This assumed intent of the speaker, or the intentionality of the sentence, became a prime focus in Searle’s later work.

Strong AI

The argument against what he calls "strong AI" is part of a broader positive position on the issue of the relations of mind and body. Searle opposes both dualism and reductionism in favor of a position he calls "biological naturalism." This view characterizes consciousness as an emergent phenomena of the organism that is an entirely physical property (analogous to the way the pressure of a gas in a container is an emergent property of many gas molecules collliding).

Intentionality lies at the heart of Searle's Chinese Room argument against artificial intelligence which proposes that since minds have intentionality, but computers do not, computers cannot be minds.


Searle next generalised this rules-based description of illocutionary force, treating it as a specific case of intentionality. In doing so he identifies a property of intentional phenomena called their direction of fit. For example, when one sees a flower, one's mental state is made to fit with the state of the world. The direction of fit is mind-to-world. But if one raises one's hand to pick the flower, one is aiming to make the world fit with one's mental state. So the direction of fit is world-to-mind.

He also develops the term Background, used here in a rather technical way, which has been the source of some philosophical discussion. Roughly speaking it is the context within which the intentional act occurs. Importantly it includes the actor's understanding of the world, including that others can and do participate in intentional activities.

Social intentionality

Searle provides a strong theoretical basis for the use of the notion of intentionality in a social context. Intentionality is a technical philosophical term meaning aboutness. Intentionality indicates that someone has attached some meaning to an object, such as a belief abut it, possession of it, contempt towards it, and so on. It includes, but is somewhat larger than, the ordinary use of intent. In Collective intentions and actions Searle seeks to explain collective intentions as a distinct form of intentionality. In his previous work he has provided rules-based accounts of language and intentionality. He develops this theme by looking for a set of rules that are essential for collective intentionality.

Searle supports this analysis with five theses. The first three are:

1. Collective intentional behaviour exists, and is not the same as the summation of individual intentional behaviour.
2. Collective intentions cannot be reduced to individual intentions.
3. The preceding two thesis are consistent with two constraints:
a. Society consists of nothing but individuals; there is no such thing a group mind or group consciousness.
b. Individual or group intentionality is independent of the truth or falsehood of the beliefs of the individual.

In order to satisfy these theses, Searle develops a notation for collective intentionality that links an individual intention with a collective one, but keeps the two types of intentions distinct. In effect, an individual intention can have as its outcome a collective intention. Forming a collective intention presupposes that one understands that others can participate in the intention. Therefore:

4. Collective intentionality presupposes a Background sense of the other as a social actor – as being able to participate in collective activities.

Together, these theses lead to the claim that:

5. The theory of intentionality, together with the notion of a Background, are able to explain collective intentionality.

Constructing social reality

Searle has more recently applied his analysis of intentionality to social constructs. His interest is in the way in which certain aspects of our world come into being as a result of the combined intentionality of those who make use of them. For example, a five dollar note is a five dollar note only in virtue of collective intentionality. It is only because I think it is worth five dollars and you think it is worth five dollars that it can perform its economic function. This is so despite the apparent role of the government in backing up the value of its currency. Imagine a case in which you were attempting to make a purchase from someone who did not recognise the value of the note. Until you can convince them of its value, all you have is a coloured piece of paper. Such socially constructed objects permeate our lives. The language we use, ownership of property and relations with others depend fundamentally on such implicit intentionalities.

Searle’s approach to social construction is quite distance and divergent from those who would suggest that there is no such thing as a mind-independent reality – that what we call reality is a social construct. Towards the end of constructing social reality Searle presents one of the few arguments for realism in modern philosophy.

See also

Pragmatics, practical reason

External links

Further reading

  • Consciousness - Annu Rev Neurosci. 2000;23:557-78. Review.
  • 'Is the Brain a Digital Computer? Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association
  • Speech Acts: An essay in the philosophy of language, John Searle, (1969)
  • The Campus War, John Searle, (1971)
  • Expression and Meaning, John Searle, (1979)
  • Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind, John Searle, (1983)
  • Minds, Brains and Science, John Searle, (1984)
  • Collective intentions and actions.(1990) Searle, J. R., in Intentions in Communication J. M. P. R. Cohen, & M. and E. Pollack. Cambridge, Mass.: . MIT Press: 401-416.
  • The Construction of Social Reality, John Searle, (1997)
  • Rationality in Action, MIT Press, (2001?)
  • The Rediscovery of the Mind, (1993?)
  • John Searle (Philosophy Now), Nick Fotion, ISBN 1902683099

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45