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John R. Searle - The Unity of Reality: Why We Live in One World at Most

domingo, 24 de julio de 2016

John R. Searle - The Unity of Reality: Why We Live in One World at Most

Lecture at the University of Bonn, 26 March 2012. ("Prospects for a New Realism").
John Searle (Dpt. of Philosophy, U of California at Berkeley). Online at

I transcribe here the following lecture by J. R. Searle:

J.R. Searle:

Thanks a lot for that excellent introduction. I listened carefully. I think people giving an introduction to a conference don’t expect anybody to listen. But I actually listened carefully, and it was a rare philosophical talk becausde as far as I can tell I agree with almost everything he said about philosophy, and it almost never happens to me, so I am very impressed. Also, now I want to thank the organisers for all the work that goes into organising this conference and especially for inviting me, and above all I want to thank everybody for being willing to listen to a lecture in a language that for many of you is not your own first language. I could never do it myself, but I am very glad that other people are willing to listen to a lecture in English, ’cause that’s what you’re going to get from me, being in effect resolutely monolingual. I have lectured in other languages, but generally to the pain of everybody involved.

OK; normally, at a conference like this, the speakers don’t take their theme very seriously, "Prospects for a New Realism"; they talk about whatever they happen to be interested in at the moment, and if it’s got anything to do with the prospects for a new realism, then so much the better, but so much the worse if it doesn’t. I in fact intend to address the actual subject implicit in the title, and I take it from Marcus’s introduction that the sense of realism that we’re talking now is a descendant of the traditional medieval sense, but it’s now... the notion of realism is opposed not so much to nominalism, but to various forms of anti-realism, and in particular the entire idealistic tradition, or pragmatism and instrumentalism.

The basic idea, the basic intuition behind realism, is that there exists a reality that is totally independent of our representations of it. And that has enormous consequences, because, among other consequences, it lends support to the idea of some sort of correspondence conception of truth. If there is a reality out there, then our representations of it are, at least in some respects, answerable to that reality and they will be true or false depending on whether or not they succeed in meeting that requirement.

Now I need to situate the discussion I’m going to give you in present intellectual context, and the central intellectual fact about the present era is that knowledge grows. The increase of knowledge that we’ve had over the past few centuries, but in particular over the past century, is absolutely stunning. I wonder what would be like to take Descartes or Leibniz into a university bookstore and just show them textbooks on molecular biology, or, for that matter, civil engineering. There is a stunning increase in knowledge and that places our philosophical investigation in a somewhat different situation from the tradition. For three hundred years the dominant question in philosophy was epistemic, as Locke put it: the nature and extent of human knowledge, and as Descartes put it more pressingly, how can we answer the skeptic. Now, I think that in a way that in the seventeenth century it was possible to take skepticism seriously as a real threat, I think that we can no longer, we no longer take it seriously as a real threat. There are interesting philosophical puzzles, about how we know we’re not brains in vats or deceived by evil demons, but I think, to put it very bluntly, you can’t send men to the Moon and back and then wonder "does reality really exist out there, is there anything independent"—you can’t send men to the Moon and back and wonder if it’s really possible to make secure predictions about the future based on inductive reasoning.

So, it isn’t that we have resolved the questions of traditional epistemology, but they are no longer gripping to us in the way that they were. Well, what has replaced the epistemic skeptical problem, then, as the central problem in philosophy? Well, when I was an undergraduate, that would have had an easy answer. We were all obsessed with language. And for rather complex reasons that I won’t have time to go into, we’ve evolved beyond that; we no longer have quite the obsession with language, but we have a kind of sensitivity to the philosophical nuances and the threats posed by language that not all of our forebears had.

What has replaced the obsession with language as a central question? Well, a number of questions have replaced it, but the one I want to face is this: given that we have now a remarkable extension of human knowledge, particularly in the form of atomic physics, chemistry, both organic and inorganic, and the natural sciences generally; given this remarkable extension of knowledge, there is a quite pressing philosophical problem, and I want to say it’s the central problem of philosophy today. Well, where is the central problem of intellectual life today? It’s a problem that’s so vast we in effect unconsciously try to prevent our students from understanding that we really don’t know how to answer the problem or even how to pose it, but here is a crude way to pose it. The knowledge that I described tells us that reality is ultimately a matter of entities that we call physical particles. They are not really particles, but that’s a useful shorthand. That the world is made of the entities described by atomic physics and in some sense all of reality has to be a matter of aspects of the basic facts, the basic facts of physics and chemistry.

But now we’ve got a problem, because there is a tension; there is a tension between the basic facts of physics and chemistry and our self-conception. The facts of physics and chemistry tell us that these particles—that the universe is made entirely of mindless tiny physical particles, and yet we think of ourselves as conscious, as having rationality, intentionality, we think of ourselves as moral, as performing speech acts, as having free will, as capable of aesthetic creation and artistic judgement. Now we can pose the central question in a more pressing vein, and that is, how do we reconcile our self-conception as mindful, conscious, free, rational, social, langauge-speaking agents, how do we reconcile that picture with a picture of reality as consisting entirely of mindless, meaningless physical particles? Now, that I think is the problem posed for the new realism; and I want to say, a constraint in addressing that problem, is not just realism, but naturalism: the idea that we are discussing natural phenomena, phenomena that are a part of the real world. On the conception that I am putting forward, if there were such a thing as the supernatural, it would be part of nature like anything else. If God really existed, that would be a fact of physics like anything else; there couln’t be a supernatural, because if there were, it would be part of nature like anything else.

OK, but if that is our question, how to give an account of reality that shows not just how our self-conception is consistent with not only what we know about the world from physics and chemistry, but in some sense is a natural development from; it isn’t just that we’ve got to show that our social reality is possible given a world of basic facts but rather that it is a natural extension of the world of basic facts. We’ve got to show how you can get from electrons to elections and from protons to presidents, and we know that you have to do that because it happens; that is, for example, if you’re going to have an election, you’d better have enough electrons; nobody brings the electrons, you can’t have an election—to put it very crudely.

OK, now again, you might say, well, let’s just get busy, and solve the problem that I have posed. And that’s what I’m going to start doing, in a very cursory fashion. But I have to say there are certain enormous intellectual obstacles that we face and for the most part these obstacles derive from our remarkable philosophical tradition, and I have to mention a few of those before I make my positive suggestions.

Well, the first obstacle we face is that somehow or other there’s something especially problematic about the mental. The mind cannot be part of the physical world. You all know the name of that view; traditionally, it’s dualism, but I want to say, the traditional opposition to dualism—monism, materialism, behaviorism—they inherit the worst mistaken dualism, the idea that somehow or other there’s something problematic about the mental, naively construed. One of the worst expressions of this confusion is in something called artificial intelligence, or what I call strong artificial intelligence. I think you can’t understand the project of strong AI unless you see that they don’t think of the mind as part of the natural world like digestion; as one of them, Dan Dennett, said, "the mind is something formal and abstract"—well, you can’t get more Cartesian than that. There’s nothing formal or abstract about digestion, or photosynthesis, or the secretion of bile, and that’s how we are to think of the mental. So that’s one of our curses: it’s the curse, to put it crudely, of God, the soul, and immortality. If you start off with your conception of mind as deriving from a conception of God, the soul, and immortality, then you will never get a naturalistic account of the mental, of the sort that I am advocating.

Now, I used to think that was our main obstacle—the refusal to see the mind as a natural part of the world. But there are a couple of other sources of mistakes. And just as we live under the shadow of God, the soul, and immortality, so we live in the shadow of a certain conception of science. And people mistakenly suppose that science is the name of a set of propositions, of a set of tentative...—what are in fact the actual tentative results of scientific investigation at any stage of human history. And on that conception that they have of science it is as they sometimes like to say, thoroughly materialistic and reductionist. So, on this conception of science, there would be no place for the mental, naively construed, for consciousness and intentionality as I construe them. And indeed if you look at most contemporary philosophers, when they engage in something they like to call "naturalizing consciousness", or "naturalizing intentionality", it almost always means denying the existence of consciousness and intentionality and showing that they are really something else. As Jerry Fodor once put it, "if intentionality really exists, it must be something else". And the answer to that is "it does really exist, and it’s not something else", for reasons that I’m going to try to tell you in a few moments.

So we’ve got these twin curses of God, the soul and immortality on the one hand, and a misconception of science as, so to speak, alternative dogma on the other hand, and we’ve got to crawl out—I’m going to mix this metaphor here slightly—we’ve got to crawl out from under these two heavy burdens that we’ve been carrying. And in the account that I’m going to give you we have to resist any form of postulating that there are alternative realities. The dualism was one horrendous mistake that we’ve still not fully escaped, but it came out in even worse form in the views of, well, for example, Popper and Habermas, that know there are really three worlds out there, there’s the world of the physical, the world of the mental, and then there’s the world, as one author put it, of the social, of the cultural, in all of its manifestations. And I want to say, echoing my title here, no, as my colleague Donald Davidson liked to put it, we live in one world at most, and that’s the world that we need to describe. Well, OK, then, let’s just get busy and do it.

Well, I said we had this... —we live under the course of God, the soul and immortality, but also we live under the influence of a certain conception of perception. Perception, along with action, is a basic way of relating to the world, so you can’t get going in philosophy if you have a false theory of perception. And it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that philosophy over the past three centuries has suffered from a mistaken theory of perception. And the people who make the mistake, well, the names are rather familiar: Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant... I could keep going and certainly mail on Hegel, right up to positivism. What’s the mistake? This is a philosophers’ jam, because it’s a simple fallacy and it’s repeated over and over in the history of the subject; I wish I had a blackboard, but anyway, imagine I did, here’s what I would write down. There’s a famous argument, and here’s how it goes. Whatever it is I am now seeing, let’s suppose I now say I now see my watch, well, I could be having a hallucination that was indiscriminable from this case. And fill in your favourite hallucinatory story, we could be deceived by an evil demon, or we’re brains in vats—whatever. The point is I could have exactly this experience and it ’d still be hallucination. But now, in the hallucinatory case, I’m aware of something. I mean, there’s something in my awareness: I’m surely aware of something, it isn’t just impy, my experience. But since the two experiences are indiscriminable, they are qualitatively identical —that’s by hypothesis— then, whatever I’m aware of in the veridical case, it must be exactly the same as what I’m aware of in the hallucination case, because the two cases are indiscriminable. But in the hallucination case I’m not aware of anything in the real world, I’m aware of an idea, an impression or sense data, or whatever term you want to use to describe it. Therefore, it turns out, we’re never directly aware of the real world in perception, we’re always aware only of our own experiences. And we’re then often running with traditional epistemology and I have now... —I’ve been going through a lot of these old arguments, and they all make the following fallacy: In the example I gave you, we’re aware of something in the veridical case, and aware of something in the hallucinatory case; but it must be the same thing in the two cases. There’s a fallacy of ambiguity over the expression "aware of". The sense in which I am aware of my watch when I see it is an intentionalistic sense; the watch is the object of my awareness. The sense in which I am aware of something in the hallucinatory case is not an intentionalistic sense, because the awareness and the object of the awareness are identical; the awareness in the case of the hallucination just is an awareness of the experience. "Awareness of" then just picks an internal accusative, where in awareness the thing you are aware of is the awareness itself. You can see this with a very simple example: push your hand against the table; you are aware of the table, you are also aware of a painful sensation in your hand, if you push hard enough, so it looks like what? That you are really... —that you are aware only of the painful sensation in your hand, or you’re aware really of two things? There’s a fallacy and ambiguity in "aware of". "Aware of" has two senses. In the intentionalistic sense, the thing you are aware of is not identical with the awareness.  In the constitutive or identity sense, the thing that you are aware of is the awareness itself, it’s the sensation itself when you push your hand against the table. Now it might seem odd that so much philosophy should be based on such a simple fallacy, but I’ve been through a lot of these guys and I find the fallacy over and over and over and in fact it’s repeated in modern science: "aware", the temptation is to think "well, all we are really aware of when we see anything is what actually happens in the cortex, when the neuron firings finally produce a visual experience" So, roughly speaking, from Descartes to Francis Crick, we find the same fallacy repeated over and over. And it is a beauty for philosophers, because it is a clear and identifiable fallacy, that rare thing, it’s a fallacy of ambiguity in the occurrence of the expression "aware of"; the fallacy is repeated in all —at least all that I’ve been able to find—all of the traditional arguments. Hume thought a realistic theory of perception was so stupid that he only bothered to refute it in one sentence. He said, if you are tempted to realism, to naive or direct realism, push your eyeball. The world would double if naive realism were true, so it’s not true. That’s the fallacy I’ve been talking about. The world doesn’t "double" when I push my eyeball. What actually happens is that I then have two visual experiences where I used to have one visual experience before.

Anyhow, I’m tempted to give you the whole lecture about this fallacy, because it’s everywhere you turn around. There’s a mistaken theory of perception called "disjunctivism"—I hope it hasn’t spread to Bonn, because it’s all over the streets of Berkeley; but it commits the same fallacy. The idea is that if you think that you can actually... that there’s something in common between the hallucination and the veridical case, then what is in common has to be the object perceived. So it turns the traditional argument on its head; the traditional argument says, well, all you do perceive are the contents of your mind. And the disjunctivist says, well, if you don’t accept disjunctivism, you would have to accept that all that you perceive are the contents of your mind. Both make the same mistake.

OK, I want to assume we’ve overcome those mistakes, that we have naive realism —some kind of direct realism as our theory of perception, and we are out from under the burden of God, the Soul and Immortality, and a certain conception of science... —where do we go? Well, actually I think many —not all, but many— of the philosophical problems have relatively easy and fairly natural, if not solutions, at least approaches to the problem, that would give us a correct conception of the relations. So le’ts just go through several of these problems.

Well, I’d start with the famous mind/body problem. How can it be the case, —I said the world consisted entirely of physical particles... —by the way, I’m embarrassed to say they’re not really particles, and there is a more acute embarrassment I should mention at least in passing. The latest version of physics that I get in Berkeley is that our old friends the atoms and the molecules, and I loved physics when there were electrons, protons, and neutrons, but now God knows, with all the quarks and muons and so on, it’s less fun. But that’s just, you know, that’s what we pay all those guys to do. But it turns out that that cheerful friendly world, that’s only about four per cent of reality. And what’s the rest? Well, the other 96% is dark energy and dark matter. Oh, yeah? And what’s dark about them? What’s dark about them is we don’t know what the hell is going on in there. The darkness is a matter of our cognitive state, not a feature of the physics we are describing. But anyway, I’m going to assume that whatever is going on there is the same as goes on in physics as traditionally conceived. OK, well, if that’s right, then how do we situate consciousness and intentionality within this picture? And I think once you accept a completely naturalistic view, and you accept the realistic conception of the mental, of consciousness and intentionality, then it’s not all that hard.

Try to imagine what it would be like if we had no philosophical tradition. If we had the kind of knowledge  of how the world works that we have anyway, but we had no great tradition on the one hand of God, the Soul and Immortality, and no great tradition on the other hand of supposing that science has to be reductionist and materialistic. Then it seems to me that there’s a fairly obvious solution to the philosophical parts of the so-called mind/body problem, and that is, mental states, there are the two great features of mental states, consciousness and intentionality—they are real: they are real, natural phenomena. They are as real as any other biological phenomena, and they are entirely caused by neurobiological processes. We don’t know the details, but we’re making a lot of progress. We now know a whole lot more about the brain than we did when I first got interested in these, just the sheer volume of knowledge that we have. When I first got interested in the brain, there were about five known neurotransmitters. Now there are over fifty, and still counting. So we know now a lot more about the brain, but whatever we know, we know that all our conscious states and all of our intentional processes are caused by neurobiological processes.

But that doesn’t solve our ontological problem. Where are they? What’s going on? And there I want to say the answer to that is equally simple. They are realized in the brain as higher-level features. Just as the liquidity of this glass of water is not something squirted out by the H2O molecules, but rather is a state that the molecules are in, it’s causally explained by the behavior of the molecules, so the consciousness present in my brain right now is not an extra juice squirted out by the neurons, but is a state that the brain is in, and it’s causally explained by the behavior of the neurons.

Philosophers like labels. I was once asked, "What’s the name of your view?" Oh my God, I didn’t have a name, so I thought of one on the spot; I said, "It’s Biological Naturalism". Well, OK. I’m sort of stuck with that. But anyway, that’s the view that I’m putting forward.

Now grant me, then, that we do have a reality of the mental, and that it’s part of nature, it’s part of biology, there’s nothing in it that’s reminiscent of the dualistic tradition that postulates somehow or other that Geist cannot be part of the ordinary physical world. Grant me that: then, it’s not all that hard to see how if you’ve got creatures that have intentionality, that have this capacity for beliefs and desires and hopes and fears and intentions and perceptions, they have all these capacities —then it seems to me it’s not hard to see how they can get collective intentionality; how you can have shared intentions, and even shared beliefs, and shared desires; where you are engaged in an activity, not just "I am doing this", but "I am doing this as part of our doing this", you have collective intentionality". Now, once you have intentionality and collective intentionality, you are often running with the possibility of a much richer ontology than you would have without that.

However, lots of animals have both of those features; they have intentionality and consciousness on the one hand, and they have a capacity to share that on the other. What’s special about human beings?

Well, one of the things that’s special is that human beings have language. So the next great task that we have to account for in philosophy is how do you get from this raw, pre-linguistic mental life, to the richness of natural human languages. And here I’m going to be rather brief, but I would want to tell you the broad outlines. The key to understand intentionality is that intentional states have conditions under which they are satisfied or not satisfied—what I call conditions of satisfaction. What stands to the beliefs being true is what stands to the desires being satisfied is what it stands to the intentions being carried out. Think of intentionality as the representation of the conditions of satisfaction. I think that perceptual intentionality is a special kind of case where you’ve got a direct presentation of the conditions of satisfaction, it’s not a matter of shuffling representations.

Well, if that’s right, then if you ask yourself, well, how do you get linguistic meaning in a world that has a rich neurobiology along with the structures of intentionality including collective intentionality? Then I think the answer is fairly simple, at least in its broad outline, and it’s this. If you ask yourself, what’s the difference between saying something and meaning it, and saying it without meaning it, I think there’s a simple answer to that. Wittgenstein, by the way, used to ask questions like that because he wanted us to get out of the idea that meaning was the name of an introspective process. But there is a difference between saying something and meaning it, and saying it without meaning it.

Suppose I say es regnet as the matter of practising German pronunciation. I say it, but I don’t mean it: I’m practising it in the shower, we’ll say. But now if I actually go outdoors and say es regnet, and I really mean it, then there’s a difference. What’s the difference? The utterance with a meaning has conditions of satisfaction which just practising the pronunciation does not have. The condition of satisfaction of saying es regnet without meaning it is just that I correctly pronounce the German words. But if I say it and mean it, then the correct... the utterance with a correct pronunciation of the words now has additional conditions of satisfaction—namely, it should be raining. I know... —I think this is, in its simple form, as a key to understanding meaning, speaker meaning, a fundamental form of meaning, is the intentional imposition of conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction. You make the sounds through your mouth, and that’s intentional, so the production of the sounds is itself the condition of satisfaction of your intention to produce them. But the production of the sounds now has conditions of satisfaction on... —built on to those conditions of satisfaction, namely that they should correspond to something in the world, in one or the other... —one of various possible directions of fit. So that gives us the first step in the analysis of language. Now you’ve got to be able to communicate those meanings to other people. And the next crucial element we need is the notion of convention. The notion of convention is the notion of a procedure that you can follow: you make the noises that other people in your tribe have a right to expect will only be uttered under certain conditions, that is, only under conditions... —when the conditions of satisfaction are in fact satisfied; they have a right to expect that you will be speaking truly.

So you get meaning and convention. And that enables you to communicate meanings, because the conventions are shared.

Now the next thing you need in your account of language —and this is a stunning development, it changes everything— and that is internal structure. The marvelous thing about human language is, you see, there are all sorts of other signaling systems among animals; the bees are probably the best understood—they have nothing like the internal structure of... —the syntax of natural languages. You have a structure when you can make the distinction between the reference of the noun phrase and the condition specified by the verb phrase.

My dog, Tarski, is a very intelligent dog. He’s a Burmese mountain dog; I mean, he looks like a sincere dog and he is very intelligent. And he can believe that someone is at the door. But he can’t believe "Well, maybe there are seventeen people at the door", or "Wouldn’t it be nice if people came to the door next week?" or "By the way, have you done your income tax on time this year?" He can’t think any of those thoughts, and not because he’s too stupid—he’s actually pretty intelligent. But he doesn’t have the internal syntactical resources for those sorts of thoughts. So syntax, literally, gives us the capacity for an infinite number of thoughts, for an infinite number of thoughts in a way that animals lacking inner syntax do not have that capacity. The dog can think "There’s somebody at the door" but he cannot think "I wish there were some more people at the door" or "I hope we get more people coming to the door next week". To have those thoughts, you’ve got to have a richer syntax than he has.

OK, so now we’ve got... –and I apologize for the brevity, but I have only a very short space of time— we’ve got these biological beasts, namely ourselves, we’re running around—and presumably when we’re getting this stuff in its primitive form we’re running around in northern Europe, perhaps not far from here—and we’ve got consciousness and intentionality which we share with lower animals, but also we’ve got meaning, convention and syntax, and that gives us an enormous power. Now, the power is not just the power to communicate, to communicate complex thoughts, but it gives us the power to create a kind of reality that other animals do not have, and I want now to say something about that.

Typically, speech acts represent reality in oner or the other of the most famous directions of fit: the aim of statements, like perception, is to represent how things are, what I call the mind-to-world direction of fit; the contents of the mind are supposed to fit reality, and to the extent that they do we say they are true or false. The test for the mind-to-world direction of fit, the simplest test, is can you say literally that it’s true or false? The upward direction of fit, which you get with commissives and directives, with promises, vows, threats and pledges on the one hand, and orders, commands and requests on the other, the aim there is not to represent how things are, but to change reality by getting reality to match the content of the speech act, to match the content of the representation. They have the world-to-word direction of fit.

But no here’s an amazing fact, and I don’t know any communication system other than the human that has this, and that is that we have a capacity to create a reality by representing that reality as existing. The most famous examples of this were in Austin’s discussion of performatives, where you can make something the case by saying that it’s the case. The chairman can adjourn the meeting by saying "The meeting is adjourned"; war can be declared by the appropriate authorities saying "War is declared". And you can even perform other speech acts by declaring yourself to be performing them: you can make a promise by saying "I promise". These speech acts have both directions of fit. They make something the case by representing it as being the case. They make it the case, and thus achieve the upward or world-to-mind direction of fit, but they change reality, they bring about that change, by representing reality as having been so changed. They make it the case that war is on, that you are husband and wife, that you have received a piece of property, that Barack Obama is the President of the United States, that I’m a professor of the University of California, Berkeley... All those facts are created by speech acts that have this form. And I have a name for those: I call them declarations.

Human institutional civilization is created entirely by a certain class of declarations, where you make something the case by representing it as being the case.

But now, how can you do so much with such a feeble apparatus? What sort of fact do we create? And here we get an interesting hybrid between realism and constructivism. It’s really the case that I’m a professor, and that these bits of paper in my wallet are euros I use as currency in the European... in the signers of the European Community; those really are epistemically objective facts, but they are only facts by human agreement. It’s a fifty-euro note not because of some feature of physics, but because we have accepted that it is, and that acceptation, that fact is created by a declaration, and it’s maintained in its continued existence by representations that have the form of a declaration. How can such a thing be? Well, here I have to introduce a crucial notion: the notion of a status-function.

Humans have a capacity to impose functions on objects. So, this object, my watch, has a function, and this glass carrying water has another, and this, my wallet, has a function... Lots of animals also have that capacity to impose functions on objects. But humans have a remarkable capacity and as far as I know it’s not shared by any other species. And that is there are class of functions where the function is performed not in virtue of the physical structure of the entity in question (you see, these entities perform their function in virtue of their physical structure)—the function is performed not in virtue of the physical structure but in virtue of the fact that through collective intentionality we have assigned a status to the person or the object: the status of being money, or the status of being President of the United States, or the status of being the University of Bonn. And with that status goes a function or set of functions which can only be performed in virtue of the collective acceptance of the object or person’s having that status and with that acceptance the acceptance of the functions that go along with that.

So the remarkable thing about human civilization, and I want to keep reminding this is intended as completely realistic in the sense that I described and it’s completely objective epistemically, it isn’t my opinion—this is money, really is money—but it’s a natural consequence of our biological structure, given language: we create a reality, and this is the reality of human civilization. We create a property of money, government, property, marriage, universities, cocktail parties, income tax, and philosophical conferences. All of those are created by repeated applications of representations that have the logical form that I described, and I call them status-function declarations.

Now, not all declarations are status-function declarations. When God, if he had existed, said "Let there be light", that was a declaration: he’s not saying, "Someone over there, turn on the lights", it’s not a directive, it’s not a promise, he’s not saying "I’ll make light for you guys when I get around to it", he’s making it the case that there’s light, by representing it as being the case. Now we can’t do that, we can’t create light just by declaring light to exist, but we can create governments, money, property, marriages, universities, and all the rest of that, phenomena that are peculiar to human civilization. We do those by representations that have this logical structure, where you make something the case by representing it as being the case.

Now, what’s the point of doing that? I mean, ist’t all a kind of massive fantasy? And the answer is, it creates power. Throughout your life, you are immersed in a sea of status-functions. You are a professor or a student; you are a husband or a wife; you are a citizen of Germany, and the owner of a car, and the possessor of a driver’s license. All of those are status-functions: we create these power relations. But what kind of power is that, where status functions can create power? And the power has various names, in English. In English, they are obligations, rights, duties, responsibilities, authorizations, etc.; that is, there is a list of the kind of powers that you can create using this apparatus that I have described. Now, the interesting thing is this, if you say, well, all right, you’ve created these power relations, but how does it work? I mean, how does it give any grip on rationality, how does it motivate behavior?

And the answer is, then, going the next step, human civilization has a remarkable feature, that other forms of animal life do not have. And that is, we create a set of power relations that give people reasons for acting that are independent of their immediate inclinations, they are what I call desire-independent reasons for acting—and that is what status-functions do. If you accept that you have an obligation, or that somebody else has a right, then you accept that you have a reason for doing something that’s independent of your immediate inclination. And this is what gives human institutional reality its enormous power. A nice person invites me to give a talk in Bonn, and it seems like a good idea so I say yes. But then that day arrives, and I’ve got to get up at four in the morning and make my way to San Francisco airport, and do all the sort of things that one has to do nowadays—in the United States you have even got to take you damn shoes off, I won’t go through the sordidnes... well,  you’re all familiar with the sordidness of air travel. And I don’t think, "oh boy, how much fun, to sit in an airplane for endless hours and eat airplane food, and trying to put my elbow where some other guy is trying to put his elbow and all the other things... but I do it!  I do it, why? Well, I made a promise. I made a promise to do it and that gave me a reason for doing it, and now I’m glad i did it!

However, and let me just conclude. What I urge is this: If we can just get out from under our horrendously bad tradition; if we can get out from under the mistake that I’ve described as the foundational mistake of modern epistemology, and if we can get out from under the mistakes which go with that, the twin mistakes of religion and science—both, I think, misconceived; —and those mistakes are not trivial mistakes, I mean, there are names to repeat: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, not to mention Mill and Hegel and others I’ve know better, I mean, you would have to throw in Schopenhauer, I’m sure; and if we can get out from under those mistakes, then there’s a possibility of doing a type of philosophy which I think is much more productive than ocurred in the past. I’ve only mentioned three features of this type of philosophy: they are mind, language, and society. They are rather important features but I think the approach that I’m advocating would also be the right approach to take to ethics, aye, and aesthetics, aye, and political philosophy and lots of other branches of philosophy.

So the general message that I want to leave you with is, as I said, we say we live in one world, and one of the most... the most single, most fascinating question of philosophy today is how we can give an account of ourselves as rational agents in that one physical-so-called world.

Thank you very much.

Notas sobre Searle, The Construction of Social Reality


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