Searle - Reply to Friedman | Objectivity (Philosophy) | Reality

Anthropological Theory

Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol 6(1): 81–88 10.1177/1463499606061738

Reality and social construction
Reply to Friedman
John R. Searle University of California, Berkeley, USA

Jonathan Friedman raises more questions in his provocative article than I can hope to answer in the space of this reply. I will try to pick out what I think are some of his most important themes and comment on them. I will do this, rather briefly, as a series of numbered responses.

I proceed on the Background presupposition that there is a way the world is independent of our representations of how it is. Given this Background presupposition, we discover the real world of observer-independent phenomena, the world of nature, the world described by physics and chemistry. All of this exists absolutely independently of any observer. Friedman objects: Natural phenomena may very well be independent of the observer, but once observed and interpreted by human agents they become something different. At least this was the problem of Kant and the foundation of Boasian anthropology as well as Gestalt psychology. (p. 71) I am rejecting Kantian idealism as well as any form of cultural or anthropological relativism about truth and reality. The real, observer-independent world does not give a damn about us. Things such as hydrogen atoms and tectonic plates do not become something different ‘once observed and interpreted by human agents’. They remain the same thing all along. In this respect they differ from money, property, government, marriage and other social constructions. There are famous cases where the act of observation alters the phenomena observed. But in the sorts of cases I am discussing, as, for example, when I observe the Pacific Ocean or the moon, there is no alteration in the phenomena. There is a standard mistake that many philosophers make, and I hope Friedman is not making it. The actual verbal


formulations with which we express our knowledge claims, and indeed the knowledge claims themselves, are human constructions and subject to all of the limitations that human beings bring to bear on the organization of their experiences. But from the fact that the knowledge claims, and indeed even the categories in which they are stated, are human constructions, it does not follow that the reality represented by these claims is a human construction. We do indeed construct the sentences that we believe express our best knowledge. But if we are right, the reality represented by those sentences is not itself a human construction. Institutional reality is an exception to this general principle, and that is the reason I find it so philosophically fascinating.
Observer dependence and observer independence

Friedman has some difficulty with the notion of observer dependence and observer independence, and he wonders whether I am assuming that the same person is both observer and constructor of a particular reality (pp. 71–2). For me, the notion of ‘observer’ is short for all of the forms of intentionality that human beings have in dealing with their environment. So, when I say that the existence of money is observer relative, by ‘observer’ I mean observer, user, possessor, buyer, seller, borrower and so on. I needed a term which would summarize all the relevant forms of intentionality and I wanted to make a clear distinction between those features of the world, like force, mass and gravitational attraction, that are, so to speak, intentionality-independent features, and those features that are intentionality dependent. I used the term ‘observer’ to cover the whole variety of the forms of intentionality in question. He points out that if we try to apply these distinctions to social phenomena, then: It might be said that intentionality and consciousness are involved in the constitution of such phenomena, but it is not clear why that should make such phenomena observer dependent, not unless the same person is both observer and constructor of a particular reality. (p. 72) The answer to this is that the construction involves the participants in the institution, and not the observer from outside. He is right to point out that my observations have no effect on money, but without users of money, there is no money, whereas without physicists, hydrogen atoms still have one electron. ‘Observer dependent’, in short, does not name an epistemic category, but an ontological category.
Objectivity and subjectivity

He is puzzled about whether or not intentionality is ‘perfectly objective’. Here I think my distinction between ontological objectivity and subjectivity on the one hand, and epistemic objectivity and subjectivity on the other, may be useful. There is no question that intentionality, real intrinsic intentionality, is ontologically subjective. It exists only in human and animal agents. But from the fact that it is ontologically subjective it does not follow that we cannot have completely objective knowledge about at least certain forms of human intentionality. It is an objective fact, for example, that George Bush got elected in the 2004 presidential election, even though many of the activities that constituted the election were ontologically subjective.

SEARLE Reality and social construction. Reply to Friedman

The logical structure of society

I turn to the problem about the use of the word ‘logic’. For me it is not a metaphor. When Jacob refers to ‘the logic of living systems’, I think he means ‘logic’ metaphorically. But that is not the way I am using the term. My point is that where institutional reality is concerned, the very thoughts that are constitutive of that reality have propositional contents with logical relations. If I am right that collective intentionality is constitutive of institutional reality, then we ought to be able to state what exactly is the propositional content and the psychological mode of the intentionality in question. And of course, for individual cases such as the United States government, or baseball games, or a faculty cocktail party, it is easy enough to do this. My question is: Are there general forms of the logical structures of institutional reality? I make some strong claims to the effect that there are. My two most general formulae are intended to capture important aspects of these logical structures: X counts as Y in context C, and We accept (S has power [S does A]). When I use the word ‘logical’ here, I am not using it in any laudatory sense. I am not saying that society is logical as opposed to illogical, but rather that the domain of propositional contents is essential to the ontology of social existence, especially in its institutional forms. The point is not that human beings behave logically or rationally, but rather that they operate in a domain where logical structures and the corresponding manifestations of rationality and irrationality are constitutive of the domain in question. So, for example, a declaration of war may be stupid, illogical, and irrational; all the same, there is a propositional content to that declaration and thus a logical structure. The logical structure of declaring war is different from the logical structure of getting married, for example; and, of course, in a particular case declaring war and getting married may be rational or irrational, and in that sense logical or illogical. I am trying to lay bare that propositional content and how it relates to thousands of other such propositional contents. In the case of declaring war, the propositional content in question is that the existing state of affairs between our two countries now counts as a state of warfare; and, more importantly, because it is a state of warfare, all sorts of other deontic powers come into play. We accept that such and such people on our side now have certain rights to do things such as advance on enemy territory, bomb enemy cities and so on, which they would not have had the right to do if we were not in a state of war.
Collective intentionality and history

Professor Friedman has doubts about my notion of collective intentionality. He says, ‘Durkheim’s social fact as constraint seems more accurate than any form of collective intentionality. The latter concept erases real history as well, by assuming that institutions are simply created on the spot’ (pp. 73–4). If this criticism were valid it would be a very serious objection to my whole approach, but I do not think it is valid. Durkheim’s ‘social fact’ suffers from, among other defects, failing to recognize the empowering and enabling property of human institutions. He sees social facts as essentially negative ‘constraints’, and that is inadequate for reasons that I explained in my response to Gross. Furthermore, as I am construing the notion of collective intentionality and the other conceptual apparatuses that I use, such as the assignment of function and deontic powers, these concepts do not ‘erase real history by assuming that institutions are simply created on


the spot’. I make no such assumption. But I am struck by the fact that institutions with entirely different histories can have similar logical structures. For example, the history of money in the United States is quite different from its history in other parts of the world. All the same, when I go into a bank in a foreign country I can exchange our money for their money. When I go to remote countries I can buy things with money and sell things for money. There appears to be a common logical structure that can be described independently of the peculiarities of the individual histories in question. Friedman here raises a question that comes up elsewhere in these discussions, and that is that I seem to be neglecting the historical component. I intend no such neglect. I think that, for example, to understand slavery in the United States you have to understand its peculiar history. But I am trying to provide us with the tools within which that history can be intelligibly described. There is no opposition between the historical approach and the analytical approach. They are complementary to each other and, indeed, unless we have our analytic categories right to begin with, we cannot hope to give an intelligent account of the histories in question.
Institutional reality and the imaginary

I found his remarks about the imaginary to be suggestive and provocative. In a sense, there is an element of the imaginary in all institutional reality. That is why we have to use such expressions as ‘counts as’, because of course it is not money in virtue of its structure, he is not president in virtue of his structure, but rather, we count it as money, we count him as president. Friedman is surely right about this, but I am puzzled that he says that these ‘imaginary’ cases are not symbolic. It seems to me that if you go through the steps you will find that symbolism is essential. For example, it requires, in some sense, imagination to construe a material object as money, because the perceived material properties are not sufficient to constitute monetary properties. But to imagine the monetary properties you need to be able to symbolize them. Perceptual imagery is not enough by itself.
Non-intentional systemic realities

Friedman points out that there are lots of facts about institutions which are in no sense intended, and the participants in the institutions may not even recognize them or become conscious of them. He gives the very good example of business cycles as such a case. I think this is a very important point and I intend to emphasize it more than I have in the past. Any institutional structure will, so to speak, produce systematic fallouts. The structure will produce epistemically objective facts that were not intended by the original creators or users. Once we have the set of institutional facts that create an economy, then the business cycle is something that happens. You do not need an extra imposition of status functions in order to create a business cycle; it is a consequence of the status functions you have already created. Now, this feature is indeed pervasive in institutional facts. So, for example, we discover that left-handed batters do better against right-handed pitchers and right-handed batters do better against left-handed pitchers. This is not part of the rules of baseball; it is not the result of collective intentionality; it just happens once the structure is created. It works like the business cycle. Various people have called my attention to this important point, and I am certainly grateful to Friedman for suggesting the excellent example of the business cycle.

SEARLE Reality and social construction. Reply to Friedman

Actually, there are at least three different levels of acceptance involved. First, the system of constitutive rules (such as the rules of baseball or the structure of the economic system) has to be collectively accepted or the institutional processes cannot take place. Second, there are specific outcomes of a type which are envisioned by the rules but not in each specific token case determined by the rules (such as the facts that Boston won the World Series and Bill Gates has a lot of money). The acceptance of the rules commits the participants to accepting the existence of these outcomes. Third, there are outcomes not envisioned by the rules but which just happen once the rules come into play (lefthanded batters do better against right-handed pitchers and the American economy undergoes business cycles). It does not matter if the participants accept these, they just happen, given the acceptance of the system and the processes that acceptance generates.
Language and reality

Friedman raises some general questions about the relation of language and reality. He is worried about my objections to Rosaldo, because they appeal to general properties of language and he asks, ‘What are these general properties?’ Well, I have tried to explain some of them in Speech Acts (Searle, 1969), Expression and Meaning (Searle, 1979), and Intentionality (Searle, 1983). The point is that there are certain possibilities of linguistic representation that are in the very nature of the activity of representing. They have nothing to do with the various culturally distinct ways in which these representations occur. He asks, ‘If I define things do they become such? If I call you a hamburger are you then a hamburger? What is accepted and why? The problem with speech acts is that they are totally dependent on a non-linguistic context of acceptance and the latter context does not obey the laws of language’ (p. 76). I think there is a certain amount of confusion in this characterization. The point is that the creation of words and their meanings in our language is done by us and is to that extent arbitrary. So, the word ‘hamburger’ is introduced into our language with a certain definition, but once introduced it has certain objectively ascertainable truth conditions. Given the meaning of the word ‘hamburger’, it is definitely the case that you are not a hamburger and neither am I. The creation of language is a matter of the creation of certain conventions. But once those conventions have been adopted, it then becomes an objective matter of fact whether or not certain objects fit those conventional definitions. It is an objective fact that the thing I ate at McDonald’s was a hamburger; it is an equally objective fact that I am not a hamburger.

In the last few pages of his article, Friedman ‘concentrate[s] the argument’ (p. 77). I will respond briefly to his concentrated statements. 1. ‘To say that there are constitutive rules of institutions is not a description of the way the latter are actually produced’ (p. 77). His point is that the evolution of institutions is in part the result of the way they are embedded in larger social contexts. He is absolutely right about this. I am describing logical structures, not their histories or their relations to larger social contexts. I think we get a deeper understanding of both history and social context if we understand the logical structure of institutions. A full understanding of specific institutions, such as private property in the United States and


family structures in industrial societies, requires an understanding of their historical evolution in relation to specific social contexts. I do not present the logical structure as the whole story about institutions but as an essential part of the story. 2. He emphasizes again the historical character of the development of deontic properties. Think of the evolution of monarchies. He says, ‘Powers are not merely attributed and then exist, they emerge in quite a different way which cannot be separated from historical interactions’ (p. 78). I entirely agree with that, as he suggests I would, but I do not see that it is a drawback to the analysis of logical structure that any given logical structure will have a history. 3. He applies his approach to the problem of money, saying, ‘The only explanation of the power of money can be sought in its historical emergence in the position that it has attained’ (p. 78). I would modify that by saying ‘the only historical explanation’. But in addition to the historical explanation, there is a synchronic description of the structure and deontic powers of money. We have to understand those powers to understand what the history has led us to. The analogy with language is obvious. One can do a description of the current syntactical, semantic and phonological structure of English without discussing the history of English, but one can also do a history of how English got into its present state. These are not competing analyses; rather, they are attempts to answer two different and importantly related questions. In this connection, he raises the question of the relationship between money and credit cards. Credit cards are not a form of money. Having a credit card enables the user to borrow money from the issuer of the card, and on the basis of that borrowing, the holder of the card can then pay for objects with the borrowed money, without actually using his own money. Credit cards literally give you ‘credit’. It is a common mistake, one I have made myself, to say that plastic credit cards are a form of money. They are not. They function in a way that is similar to money, but the underlying logical structure is different. 4. He raises the question of whether or not God is a social construct. There is a technical name for people who think that God is a social construct. They are called ‘atheists’. That is, the whole conception of God, at least in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim monotheistic civilization, is precisely that God is a supernatural being and not a social construct. Of course, once people have that belief they make all kinds of other social constructs – they elect somebody as Pope, for example. But it is wrong to say that within monotheistic religious traditions God is understood as a social construct. 5. He returns to the question of the imaginary, and I find the concept of the imagination suggestive and I hope he will work it out in more detail. He says institutions such as money and corporations have a semantic content that defines a specific set of relations between abstract categories rather than actual people. There is no operation of the form X counts as Y in condition C that can account for their existence because, except in special cases of planned organizations, no such operation has ever occurred. (p. 79) This characterization repeats an earlier misunderstanding of my view. ‘X counts as Y’ is not intended to name a historical operation. Sometimes when we count a certain X as Y it is a historical event, as when a president is elected. But the formula is not intended

SEARLE Reality and social construction. Reply to Friedman

universally to name discrete historical events; rather, it describes a logical structure by which we count certain things as having certain status functions. There is an important distinction implicit in his account that I want to make fully explicit. We need to distinguish between abstract status functions, where different people might come to occupy exactly the same status function, from the assignment of status functions to particular individuals on a case by case basis without a corresponding abstract status which recurs in these assignments. Thus, for example, the status function of being the president of the United States remains constant but the occupiers of that status vary with elections. This differs from cases where a tribe simply counts someone as their leader, simply accepts someone as having the status of the leader, without that person being the occupant of a recurring abstract leadership position. In such a case the person has the status function of leader, but there is no recurring, abstract, common status function which can devolve from one person to another. I like the invocation of imagination and it is certainly worth further development. There are at least two levels of imagination involved in institutional reality. First, the ground level, the X term, may not be real but imagined. Corporations and money (without currency) are two such cases. We ‘imagine’ there is an entity that is the corporation or the money in my bank account. Second, as we move up the hierarchy of status functions we have to be able to ‘imagine’ the next Y level, because there is nothing in the X level that marks the presence of the Y status function. To get from ‘The object is in my possession’ to ‘The object is my property’ you have to be able to imagine something beyond possession, something invisible, a deontic power. Here language and symbolism become absolutely necessary. 6. I think he is developing exactly this idea when he says that in social life, ‘the real is the imaginary manifested, realized in actual social relations with physical coordinates’ (p. 79). One way to put this in my terminology would be to say that in institutional life, one way institutional facts become real is by creating brute facts. Consider his comparison of ‘Monopoly and real life’ (p. 79). Suppose we decided to play Monopoly with real hotels, real jails and so on, then it is no longer just a board game, because brute facts could be altered at every throw of the dice. You could go to jail or take possession of a house, for example. Actual Monopoly is ‘only a game’ and the buying, selling and owning are all pretended, not real. One mark of its pretended status is that it does not have consequences in real life. If I buy a hotel in the game of Monopoly, I do not the next day thereby own a real hotel in the real world. 7. I did not understand his final point very well. He says, ‘Thus while the accumulation of money capital dominates the economic process it also misrepresents the properties of that process because it measures very different things’ (p. 79). But economists would say, correctly in my view, that this is precisely one of the most useful features of money: things of vastly different character – consumption goods, services, and capital investments – can all be represented on the same numerical scale. This is not an objection to the money economy, it is one of its great merits. Earlier in an equally puzzling passage Friedman writes, ‘money is precisely a fetish that does not represent something material but is simply a free-floating signifier, a signifier of property, of the value of everything else on the market, not because it is defined as an equivalent of such things, but because in Weber’s sense it is simply abstract wealth’ (p. 76). But money does much more than signify. Rather the possessor of money is empowered. He has, for


example, the power to acquire objects and employ people. To see both the power and the merits of the institution of money one has only to try to imagine what it would be like to return to a system of barter. The objection I would make to the economists, but not to Friedman, is that they assume that everything can be measured on the money scale. And, of course, that is not true.

Searle, John R. (1969) Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Searle, John R. (1979) Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Searle, John R. (1983) Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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