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John Rogers Searle (born July 31, 1932 in Denver, Coloradomarker) is an American philosopher and presently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeleymarker. Searle began his college education at the University of Wisconsinmarker, and subsequently became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford Universitymarker where he earned an undergraduate degree and a doctorate in philosophy. Widely noted for his contributions to the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and social philosophy, he began teaching at Berkeley in 1959, where, among his many distinctions, he was the first tenured professor to join the Free Speech Movement. He received the Jean Nicod Prize in 2000, and the National Humanities Medal in 2004.


In the 1950s, as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsinmarker, Searle was the secretary of "Students against [Joseph] McCarthy." (McCarthy was the junior Senator from Wisconsin).

While a professor at Berkeley in 1964, he joined the Free Speech Movement opposing campus administration. Later, in 1969, he sided with the administration against the students over People's Parkmarker. Also in 1969, he served as chairman of the Academic Freedom Committee of the Academic Senate of the University of California. He authored The Campus War: A Sympathetic Look at the University in Agony (1971). [22563] The book attempted to investigate the causes behind the campus uprisings of the era. In it, Searle notes "I have been attacked by both the House Un-American Activities Committee and ... several radical polemicists.... Stylistically, the attacks are interestingly similar. Both rely heavily on insinuation and innuendo, and both display a hatred -- one might almost say terror -- of close analysis and dissection of argument" and says "my wife was threatened that I (and other members of the administration) would be assassinated or violently attacked."

In an op-ed written shortly after 9/11, he argued the attacks were part of a longer-term struggle whose only solution was to root out governments that supported terrorism.

Searle owns a large amount of property in Berkeley, Californiamarker. In the 1980s he filed a lawsuit which led the California Supreme Court to overturn the city's rent control policy, in what came to be known as the "Searle Decision". The city government claimed this led to "significantly increased rent levels in Berkeley".


Speech acts

Searle's early work, which did a great deal to establish his reputation as an estimable philosopher, was on speech acts. He attempted to synthesize ideas from (among others) J. L. Austin (the term "illocutionary act"), Ludwig Wittgenstein (the slogan that linguistic meaning is "rule-governed"), GCJ Midgley (the distinction between regulative and constitutive rules, and the main thesis of Searle's 'Speech Acts', that speech acts are constituted by the rules of language), P. F. Strawson, John Rawls, H. Paul Grice (the analysis of meaning as an attempt at being understood), Hare and Stenius (the distinction, concerning meaning, between illocutionary force and propositional content) and William P. Alston (the notion that sentence meaning consists in sets of regulative rules requiring the speaker to perform the illocutionary act which the sentence indicates). In his 1969 book Speech Acts, Searle sets out to combine these elements to give an account of so-called 'illocutionary acts', which Austin had introduced in How To Do Things with Words.

Despite his (1969, 54) announcement to present a "full dress analysis of the illocutionary act", however, he in fact does not give one. Instead, he (1969, 57-71) provides an analysis of the (allegedly prototypical) illocutionary act of promising, and sets of semantical rules, intended to represent the linguistic meaning of devices indicating further (supposed) illocutionary act types.

Among the concepts Searle uses in his book is the distinction between the 'illocutionary force' and the 'propositional content' of an utterance. He does not precisely define the former as such, but rather introduces several possible illocutionary forces by example. According to Searle, the sentences (Searle 1969, 22)
  1. Sam smokes habitually.
  2. Does Sam smoke habitually?
  3. Sam, smoke habitually!
  4. Would that Sam smoked habitually!
each indicate the same propositional content (Sam smoking) but differ in the illocutionary force indicated (a statement, a question, a command and an expression of desire, respectively).

According to a later account which Searle presents later in Intentionality (1983), which differs in important ways from the one suggested in Speech Acts, illocutionary acts are characterised by their having conditions of satisfaction (Searle silently takes over this idea from Strawson's (1971) paper "Meaning and Truth") and a direction of fit (an idea Searle adopts from Elizabeth Anscombe). For example, the statement "John bought two candy bars" is satisfied if and only if it is true, i.e. John did buy two candy bars. By contrast, the command "John, buy two candy bars" is satisfied if and only if John carries out the action of purchasing two candy bars. Searle refers to the first as having the word-to-world direction of fit, since the words are supposed to change to accurately represent the world, and the second as having the world-to-word direction of fit, since the world is supposed to change to match the words. (There is also the double direction of fit, in which the relationship goes both ways, and the null or zero direction of fit, in which it goes neither because the propositional content is presupposed, as in "I'm sorry I ate John's candy bars".)

In 'Foundations of Illocutionary Logic' (1985, with Daniel Vanderveken), Searle prominently uses the notion of 'illocutionary point' (although Searle does not mention earlier uses of the concept, it originates from Alexander Sesonske's article "Performatives").

Searle's speech-act theory has been challenged by several thinkers, and in a variety of ways. A wide-ranging critique is in F C Doerge Illocutionary Acts. Whole collections of articles referring to Searle's account are: Burkhardt 1990 and Lepore / van Gulick 1991. For a debate which became famous see Jacques Derrida's Limited Inc. and Searle's brief reply in The Construction of Social Reality.

Intentionality and the Background

In Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983), Searle sets out to apply certain elements of his account(s) of 'illocutionary acts' to the investigation of intentionality. Searle also introduces a technical term, the Background, which, according to him, has been the source of much philosophical discussion ("though I have been arguing for this thesis for almost twenty years," Searle writes, "many people whose opinions I respect still disagree with me about it"). Background he calls the set of abilities, capacities, tendencies, and dispositions that humans have and that are not themselves intentional states. Thus, when someone asks us to "cut the cake" we know to use a knife and when someone asks us to "cut the grass" we know to use a lawnmower (and not vice versa), even though the actual request did not include this detail. Searle sometimes supplements his reference to the Background with the concept of the Network, one's network of other beliefs, desires, and other intentional states necessary for any particular intentional state to make sense. Searle argues that the concept of a Background is similar to the concepts provided by several other thinkers, including Wittgenstein's private language argument ("the work of the later Wittgenstein is in large part about the Background") and Bourdieu's habitus.

To give an example, two chess players might be engaged in a bitter struggle at the board, but they share all sorts of Background presuppositions: that they will take turns to move, that no-one else will intervene, that they are both playing to the same rules, that the fire alarm won't go off, that the board won't suddenly disintegrate, that their opponent won't magically turn into a grapefruit, and so on indefinitely. As most of these possibilities won't have occurred to either player, Searle thinks the Background must be unconscious, though elements of it can be called to consciousness (if the fire alarm does go off, say).


Building upon his views upon Intentionality, Searle presented a view concerning consciousness in his book The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992). He argues that, starting with behaviorism (an early but influential scientific view, succeeded by many later accounts that Searle also dismisses), much of modern philosophy has tried to deny the existence of consciousness, with little success. In Intentionality, he parodies several alternative theories of consciousness by replacing their accounts of intentionality with comparable accounts of the hand:

No one would think of saying, for example, "Having a hand is just being disposed to certain sorts of behavior such as grasping" (manual behaviorism), or "Hands can be defined entirely in terms of their causes and effects" (manual functionalism), or "For a system to have a hand is just for it to be in a certain computer state with the right sorts of inputs and outputs" (manual Turing machine functionalism), or "Saying that a system has hands is just adopting a certain stance toward it" (the manual stance). (p. 263)

Searle argues that philosophy has been trapped by a false dichotomy: that on the one hand, the world consists of nothing but objective particles in fields of force, but that yet, on the other hand, consciousness is clearly a subjective first-person experience. Dualists deny the first, but our current knowledge of physics makes their position seem increasingly unlikely, so philosophy, starting with behaviorists, has denied the second. But denying the second has led to endless problems and thus to endless revisions of behaviorism (with functionalism being the one currently in vogue).

Searle says simply that both are true: consciousness is a real subjective experience, caused by the physical processes of the brain. (A view which he suggests might be called biological naturalism)

Ontological subjectivity

Searle has argued that critics like Daniel Dennett, who (he claims) insist that discussing subjectivity is unscientific because science presupposes objectivity, are making a category error. Perhaps the goal of science is to establish and validate statements which are epistemically objective, (i.e., whose truth can be discovered and evaluated by any interested party), but are not necessarily ontologically objective?

Searle calls any value judgment epistemically subjective. Thus, "McKinleymarker is prettier than Everestmarker" is epistemically subjective, whereas "McKinley is higher than Everest" is epistemically objective. In other words, the latter statement is evaluable (in fact, falsifiable) by an understood ('background') criterion for mountain height, like 'the summit is so many meters above sea level'. No such criteria exist for prettiness.

Beyond this distinction, Searle thinks there are certain phenomena (including all conscious experiences) which are ontologically subjective, i.e. are experienced subjectively. For example, although it might be subjective or objective in the epistemic sense, a doctor's note that a patient suffers from back pain is an ontologically objective claim: it counts as a medical diagnosis only because the existence of back pain is "an objective fact of medical science". But the pain itself is ontologically subjective: it is only experienced by the person having it.

Searle goes on to affirm that "where consciousness is concerned, the appearance is the reality". His view that the epistemic and ontological senses of objective/subjective are cleanly separable is crucial to his self-proclaimed biological naturalism.

Artificial intelligence

A consequence of biological naturalism is that if we want to create a conscious being, we will have to duplicate whatever physical processes the brain goes through to cause consciousness. Searle thereby means to contradict to what he calls "Strong AI", which view is defined by the assumption that as soon as a certain kind of software is running on a computer, a conscious being is thereby created.

Searle is widely credited for having stated what is called a "Chinese room" argument, which purports to prove the falsity of strong AI. (Familiarity with the Turing test is useful for understanding the issue.) Assume you do not speak Chinese and imagine yourself in a room with two slits, a book, and some scratch paper. Someone slides you some Chinese characters through the first slit, you follow the instructions in the book, write what it says on the scratch paper, and slide the resulting sheet out the second slit. To people on the outside world, it appears the room speaks Chinese—they slide Chinese statements in one slit and get valid responses in return—yet you do not understand a word of Chinese. This suggests, according to Searle, somehow that no computer can ever understand Chinese or English, because, as the thought experiment suggests, being able to 'translate' Chinese into English does not entail 'understanding' either Chinese or English: all which the person in the thought experiment, and hence a computer, is able to do is to execute certain syntactic manipulations.

Since then, Searle has come up with another argument against strong AI. Strong AI proponents claim that anything that carries out the same informational processes as a human is also conscious. Thus, if we wrote a computer program that was conscious, we could run that computer program on, say, a system of ping-pong balls and beer cups and the system would be equally conscious, because it was running the same information processes.

Searle argues that this is impossible, since consciousness is a physical property, like digestion or fire. No matter how good a simulation of digestion you build on the computer, it will not digest anything; no matter how well you simulate fire, nothing will get burnt. By contrast, informational processes are observer-relative: observers pick out certain patterns in the world and consider them information processes, but information processes are not things-in-the-world themselves. Since they do not exist at a physical level, Searle argues, they cannot have causal efficacy and thus cannot cause consciousness. There is no physical law, Searle insists, that can see the equivalence between a personal computer, a series of ping-pong balls and beer cans, and a pipe-and-water system all implementing the same program.

Social reality

Searle extended his inquiries into observer-relative phenomena by trying to understand social reality. Searle begins by arguing collective intentionality (e.g. "we're going for a walk") is a distinct form of intentionality, not simply reducible to individual intentionality (e.g. "I'm going for a walk with him and I think he thinks he's going for a walk with me and thinks I think I'm going for a walk with him and ...").

Searle's The Construction of Social Reality (1995) addresses the mystery of how social constructs like "baseball" or "money" can exist in a world consisting only of physical particles in fields of force. Adopting an idea by Elizabeth Anscombe in "On Brute Facts", Searle distinguishes between brute facts, like the height of a mountain, and institutional facts, like the score of a baseball game. Aiming at an explanation of social phenomena in terms of Anscombe's notion, he argues that society can be explained in terms of institutional facts, and institutional facts arise out of collective intentionality through logical rules of the form "X counts as Y in C". Thus, for instance, filling out a ballot counts as a vote in a polling place, getting so many votes counts as a victory in an election, getting a victory counts as being elected president in the presidential race, etc.


In Rationality in Action (2001), Searle argues that standard notions of rationality are badly flawed. According to what he calls the Classical Model, rationality is seen as something like a train track: you get on at one point with your beliefs and desires and the rules of rationality compel you all the way to a conclusion. Searle doubts this picture of rationality holds generally.

Searle briefly critiques one particular set of these rules: those of mathematical decision theory. He points out that its axioms require that anyone who valued a quarter and their life would, at some odds, bet their life for a quarter. Searle insists he would never do this and believes that this is perfectly rational.

Yet most of his attack is directed against the common conception of rationality, which he believes is badly flawed. First, he argues that reasons don't cause you to do anything, because having sufficient reason wills (but doesn't force) you to do that thing. So in any decision situation we experience a gap between our reasons and our actions. For example, when we decide to vote, we do not simply determine that we care most about economic policy and that we prefer candidate Jones's economic policy. We also have to make an effort to cast our vote. Similarly, every time a guilty smoker lights a cigarette they are aware of succumbing to their craving, not merely of acting automatically as they do when they exhale. It is this gap that makes us think we have freedom of the will. Searle thinks whether we really have free will or not is an open question, but considers its absence highly unappealing because it makes the feeling of freedom of will an epiphenomenon, which is highly unlikely from the evolutionary point of view given its biological cost. He also says that all rational activity presupposes free will.

Second, he believes rationality is not a system of rules, but more of an adverb. We see certain behavior as rational, no matter what its source, and our system of rules derives from finding patterns in what we see as rational.

Third, Searle believes we can rationally do things that don't result from our own desires. It is widely believed that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is", i.e. that facts about how the world is can never tell you what you should do ('Hume's Law'). By contrast, Searle believes the fact that you promised to do something means you should do it. Furthermore, he believes that this provides a desire-independent reason for an action—if you order a drink at a bar, you should pay for it even if you have no desire to. This argument, which he first made in his paper, "How to Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'" (1964), remains highly controversial, but even three decades later Searle continued to defend his view that "..the traditional metaphysical distinction between fact and value cannot be captured by the linguistic distinction between 'evaluative' and 'descriptive' because all such speech act notions are already normative."

Fourth, Searle argues that much of rational deliberation involves adjusting our (often inconsistent) patterns of desires to decide between outcomes, not the other way around. While in the Classical Model, one would start from a desire to go to Paris greater than that of saving money and calculate the cheapest way to get there, in reality people balance the niceness of Paris against the costs of travel to decide which desire (visiting Paris or saving money) they value more.

See also


Further reading

By John Searle:
  • Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of language, (1969)
  • The Campus War, (1971)
  • Expression and Meaning, (1979)
    • Introduction
    • Origins of the essays
    • 1. A taxonomy of illocutionary acts
    • 2. Indirect speech acts
    • 3. The logical status of fictional discourse
    • 4. Metaphor
    • 5. Literal meaning
    • 6. Referential and attributive
    • 7. Speech acts and recent linguistics
  • "Minds, Brains and Programs", The Behavioral and Brain Sciences.3, pp. 417-424. (1980)
  • Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-52127302-1
  • Minds, Brains and Science (1984), Harvard University Press, hardcover: ISBN 0-67457631-4, paperback: ISBN 0-67457633-0
  • "Is the Brain a Digital Computer?" (1990) Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association
  • "Collective Intentions and Actions".(1990) in Intentions in Communication J. M. P. R. Cohen, & M. and E. Pollack. Cambridge, Mass.: . MIT Press: 401-416.
  • The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992) ISBN 0-262-69154-X
  • The Problem of Consciousness, Social Research, Vol. 60, No.1, Spring 1993.
  • The Construction of Social Reality (1995)
  • The Mystery of Consciousness, Granta Books, (1997) hardcover: ISBN 1-86207122-5, New York Review Books paperback: ISBN 0-94032206-4
  • Consciousness Ann. Rev. Neurosci. (2000) 23:557-78. Review.
  • Rationality in Action, MIT Press, (2001) – contains (among other things) Searle's account of akrasia
  • Consciousness and Language (2002), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-52159744-7
  • D. Koepsell (ed.) and L. Moss (ed.) "Searle and Smith: A Dialogue" in John Searle's Ideas About Social Reality: Extensions, Criticisms, and Reconstructions (2003), Blackwell, ISBN 978-1405112581
  • Mind: A Brief Introduction (2004), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-515733-8
  • Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language and Political Power (2007), Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-13752-4
  • Dualism revisited J Physiol Paris. 2007 Jul-Nov;101(4-6):169-78. Epub 2008 Jan 19.
  • M. Bennett, D. Dennett, P. Hacker, J. Searle, Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language (2007), Columbia University Press, ISBN 0231140444
  • The Storm Over the University

  • Doerge (2006), Friedrich Christoph: Illocutionary Acts - Austin's Account and What Searle Made Out of It. Tuebingen: Tuebingen University.


  • Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969)
  • The Campus War: A Sympathetic Look at the University in Agony (political commentary; 1971)
  • Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (essay collection; 1979)
  • Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983)
  • Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures (lecture collection; 1984)
  • John Searle and His Critics (Ernest Lepore and Robert Van Gulick, eds.; 1991)
  • The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992)
  • The Construction of Social Reality (1995)
  • The Mystery of Consciousness (review collection; 1997)
  • Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (summary of earlier work; 1998)
  • Rationality in Action (2001)
  • Consciousness and Language (essay collection; 2002)
  • Freedom and Neurobiology (lecture collection; 2004)
  • Mind: A Brief Introduction (summary of work in philosophy of mind; 2004)

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