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Friedman - Comment on Searle's Social Ontology

Friedman - Comment on Searle's Social Ontology

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 Anthropological Theory
Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)http://ant.sagepub.comVol 6(1): 70–8010.1177/1463499606061736
Comment on Searle’s‘Social ontology’
The reality of the imaginary and the cunningof the non-intentional
 Jonathan Friedman
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, France and Lund University, Sweden
This discussion of Searle’s article attempts to come to grips with a number of issuesthat the latter has made so important for the social sciences. First, regarding the issueof objectivity/subjectivity, it is argued that there are natural properties of reality thatare unaltered by observation, but that what is constructed as a phenomenon is alwayspartly the result of human interpretation. The same is argued to be true of socialphenomena, which cannot be reduced to human constitution first because they become institutional realities and second because they contain properties that areexternal to acts of human construction. The characterization of the social as institutedvia language, especially the language of linked propositions, is taken up in relation toother approaches to social reality, arguing that Castoriadis’ social imaginary, as well asa certain interpretation of Marx’s fetishism, argues for the dominance of suchconstructions in the creation of social worlds. Within the intentional world suchphenomena account for the way in which social life can be seen in part as thematerialization of the imaginary, the latter being non-symbolic in the sense that it isnot a representation of an already existing reality or referent but the immediateconstitution of the real. On the other hand, a crucial aspect of such worlds that Searledoes not address is the non-intentional systemic properties of the social, for examplein the form of business cycles, politico-economic declines and expansions, and otherproperties of social reality that are not deducible from intentional organization. They are not a mere spin-off but crucial elements of social systems.
Key Words
fetish • functionalism • imaginary • linguistic determinism • logic • non-intentional
For many years the philosophy of Searle, as a continuation of that of Austin, contributedto extending the subject into the issues of the nature of social life. Anthropologists as
different as Maurice Bloch and Roy Rappaport have over the years referred to this work.Rappaport made it the cornerstone of a theory of the ritual origins of society by makinguse of the important notion that language is not merely descriptive but also performa-tive. Searle has gone even further, of course, and in recent work attempted to developan account of the nature of social reality from a very general philosophical perspective.This is important in itself since it must force us to think clearly about our conceptualapparatus, especially in a period when such analytical discipline has been largely abandoned within the field.Searle takes up a number of classical issues in the social sciences and applies a certainvariety of analytical philosophy to their deconstruction. These issues can be groupedunder the notion of the constructed nature of social reality. As his article begins withresults of his well-known book 
The Construction of Social Reality 
(Searle, 1995), it is bestto follow his argument here, perhaps, to deconstruct further.The first issue concerns objectivity, or the independent existence of the world. ForSearle the issue is how human beings create a social order which he asserts ‘only existsbecause we think it exists’ (Searle, 1995: 2). He does not mean by this that the social world is merely subjective, since social events do occur whether or not we accept them,but that their existence is in some way based on collective recognition. He continues with two basic distinctions:Observer-independent phenomena which do not depend on us for their existence.Observer-relative features of reality which do depend upon us for their existence.Thus social realities like citizenship, the map of a country and so on are all said to beobserver dependent while the phenomena or objects of natural science are observer inde-pendent. Now this very old epistemological distinction is surely more complicated andneeds refinement.Natural phenomena may very well be independent of the observer, but once observedand interpreted by human agents they become something different. At least this was theproblem of Kant and the foundation of Boasian anthropology as well as Gestalt psychol-ogy. The so-called ‘noumena’ or things in themselves have no existence as such for us.They are always instead part of our world of ‘phenomena’, and the properties that weattribute to nature become part of nature for us. Now of course if one accepts theprinciple of falsification, the very possibility of scientific development admits and evenstresses that our models of the world are by and large incorrect, implying that we doindeed confront a noumenal reality at least in negative terms. This has led to numerousand important issues in the philosophy of science that have not necessarily been resolved.In any case the very construction of observer independence is an observer-dependentactivity, that is, the construction of Kant’s ‘phenomena’, the world for us. Even theHeisenberg principle poses certain problems for this approach. No, the natural scienceassumption of natural laws or properties of reality independent of our observation is ourown construction, one that I, for one, accept, but not because it is ‘intuitively obviousto the most casual observer’, but because we have so constructed it.Social phenomena likewise can be understood as observer independent. The latter areof course constructed by our own species, although not necessarily by the observer in
FRIEDMANComment on Searle’s ‘Social ontology’
question. It might be said that intentionality and consciousness are involved in theconstitution of such phenomena, but it is not clear why that should make such phenom-ena observer dependent, not unless the same person is both observer and constructor of a particular reality. Business cycles, for example, are in part the result of intentionalconstructions of institutions, but they are also observer independent insofar as observa-tion as such has no effect upon them. And Searle of course comes to this himself in stating that ‘social institutional facts canbe epistemically objective even though human attitudes are part of their mode of exist-ence’ (Searle, 1995: 5). But why is this so and in what sense? To my mind it is simply because states, clans, to say nothing of business cycles, or at least their effects, are record-able independently of any particular observer. That is, they are not observer dependent.The fact that the human world is constituted by humans is equivalent to saying that thebiological world is constituted by chemical reactions and molecular structures. What isthe problem here? It has to do with the old distinction between the human and thenatural sciences (Brentano). A domestic animal embodies characteristics of its relationsto humans. It has been appropriated to human ends and needs to be socialized into aparticular configuration of responses and actions. It also embodies its relations to otheranimals and it has, of course, a repertoire said to be biologically stable or even geneti-cally programmed, containing those properties which exist prior to human intervention. A domestic horse is exactly that, a horse that has been domesticated. It is both ‘natural’and ‘cultural’ and observer independent.Searle modifies or even supersedes his first distinction of observer independence/dependence by introducing a second set of distinctions, a double set: ontological/epistemological versus objectivity/subjectivity. His argument seems to be that money and other objective realities of social life are, as Durkheim said, ‘social facts’ even if they are in part constituted of subjective elements such as intentionality. This is in fact a trivialproblem that may indeed hamper anthropological thinking, but is it really so? Observa-tion of anything external to our own bodies can be understood in observer-independentterms, even the products of our own activities, even our activities, as long as otherobservers can do the same. Intentionality is in this view perfectly objective. In other words the subjective is objective from the point of view of the investigator. Have we thusreturned to the starting point of sociology?

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