The less than pure need not apply

Mind, Language and Society
July 16, 1999

For nearly 40 years John Searle has been the leading practitioner of the puritan plain-dealing style in American philosophy. He has always tackled big issues head-on and with wonderfully forthright clarity, and you feel he would never forgive himself if he got sidetracked by ironies or anecdotes, historical curiosities or rhetorical adornments. Philosophy for Searle is a serious matter.

Searle is puritanical in doctrine as well as style. He is committed to philosophy as a kind of intellectual self-punishment - an unrelenting battle against the temptations of intellectual luxuriousness and conceptual laxity. He is a ruthless campaigner against those thinkers who, as he sees it, try to evade the bleak implications of natural science by resorting to the sentimental comforts of religion and spirituality or the elaborate verbal evasions of "continental" philosophy. He observes the passing show of intellectual fashion - "pragmatism, deconstructionism, relativism, postmodernism" - with extravagant distaste, cultivating a special loathing for Derrida, with whom he had some fierce but unedifying exchanges in the 1970s.

For Searle, the first truth of philosophy is that, despite all our wishful thinking, we are really no more than biological entities, subject like other animals to the indifferent and unbiddable forces of nature. He has hammered out his austere intellectual programme in numerous articles and an influential series of books ranging from Speech Acts (1969), through Minds, Brains and Science (the Reith lectures for 1984), to The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and The Mystery of Consciousness (1997). And now that he has reached his mid-sixties he has decided to take stock and show us "how it all hangs together". Mind, Language and Society is "a synthesis by an analyst", as he puts it: a further defence of "the Enlightenment vision", another assault on intellectual evasiveness and obscurantism, and a splendidly opinionated and accessible introduction to the current state of analytic philosophy in the US and therefore the world.

In this tradition, the main question in philosophy is how the mind fits into the natural order as revealed by chemistry and physics - a world that consists, according to Searle, "entirely of physical particles in fields of force". And the obvious answer, developed in recent years by philosophers like Jerry Fodor and Daniel Dennett, is physicalism or deflationary materialism: in the unenlightened past - so their story goes - the mind was always treated as a supernatural entity over and above the human body; but we now know, they say, that it is nothing more than an aspect or function of the physical brain.

But Searle has not been prepared to follow his colleagues down this obvious path. He has three substantial objections to the idea that the human mind can be explained away in terms of physical, chemical or computational principles. In the first place, he says, states of consciousness cannot be reduced to isolated and self-enclosed physical events: they are integral parts of the extended process of "living a conscious life", always tethered to the past and reaching out towards the future. Second, states of consciousness have their own specific "feel", according to Searle: there is something special about drinking chilled wine on a sunny evening with the scent of jasmine, for instance - a quality we can recognise but not define, let alone capture in the impersonal language of science. And third, states of consciousness always presuppose the subjective "point of view" of an individual human agent: they have a "first-person ontology", Searle says, that makes them incommensurable with the ordinary objective facts of nature.

Despite rejecting simple reductionist materialism, Searle nevertheless tries to accommodate mentality within a naturalistic framework by treating it as "a biological phenomenon": natural selection has favoured the development of our qualitative inner subjectivities, he argues, because they help our species to survive. Searle devotes the rest of Mind, Language and Society to various phenomena that depend on the peculiarly subjective properties of our minds - both on our capacity to integrate diverse experiences into meaningful totalities, and on our "intentionality", in other words our ability to direct our attention to external or even imaginary or non-existent objects. He also argues that linguistic meanings are not inherent in language as such, but dependent on socially contextualised "speech acts", which in turn derive their signficance from the biologically conditioned intentionality of our minds. Finally, he explores the status of what he calls "social" and "institutional" facts - political constitutions, for example, or territorial boundaries or monetary systems - that are "observer-dependent" in the sense that they would not exist if their existence were not generally acknowledged: their objectivity, Searle insists, is partly constituted by our mental activities.

From the point of view of hard-line fundamentalists within analytic philosophy, Searle's doctrines of the irreducibilty of intentionality and consciousness and his championship of observer-dependent social facts concede far too much to the woolly-minded irrationalisms of mystics and relativists. On the other hand, those of an opposite persuasion are disappointed that Searle does not give up on naturalism altogether, and accept that the physical sciences are themselves institutional facts, constituted not by nature but by human convention.

Many of us, however, find it hard to get excited by the histrionic battles between stiff scientific puritans and playful postmodernist cavaliers. We are suitably grateful to natural scientists for devising effective new ways of describing the world, but we see no reason to suppose that theirs are the only truths worth knowing. (And we will scratch our heads in baffled sadness when the puritanical Searle tries to tell us that sunrises are no more than illusions caused by the earth's daily rotation on its axis: as far as we are concerned, there really is a new one every morning, and we will never submit to a scientific empire on which the sun never rises.) We are as wary of pro-scientific absolutism as we are of anti-scientific relativism. We are sub-Utopians and will content ourselves with a modest stock of true-enough opinions in the spheres of fact and theory, just as we will settle for a sufficiency of good-enough arrangements in the world of practice.

The most consistent thing in Searle's remarkably consistent career is his horror of intellectual softness. He never misses an opportunity to speculate that those who do not share his militancy for science are spoilt kids who have never had to face the rigours of reality: fantasists who dream of cutting loose "from the tiresome moorings and constraints of having to confront the real world", as he puts it, or wimps who find it "too repugnant", "too disgusting", "too awful" or "too horrible" to contemplate an existence "at the mercy of the 'real world'".

Searle's rhetoric about the "real world" goes back at least as far as 1972, when he wrote a book denouncing the waywardness of rebellious students in the United States. According to The Campus Wars , the rot started with the collapse of "the Protestant ethic" in child-rearing. The infantile offspring of America's middle class were being showered with praise for their "grubby childhood finger paintings". They had been encouraged "to indulge I the very impulses which the parents' and grandparents' generation were taught to restrain", and had therefore come "to regard form, structure, discipline and rigour with contempt and to prize feeling, immediacy and the self". Students preferred their right to happiness, it seems, to their duty to truth.

But the choice may not be as stark as Searle supposes. Discipline and rigour are not absolutely incompatible with pleasure and imagination. Truth is not necessarily harsh and troubling, and enlightenment can come from careless joy as well as joyless restraint. Searle remains an outstandingly vigorous thinker - let us hope he will give up his puritanism some day and fall out of love with pain.

Jonathan Rée is lecturer in philosophy, Middlesex University.

Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World

Author - John Searle
ISBN - 0 297 64300 2
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £12.99
Pages - 173

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