Anthropological Theory

Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol 6(1): 112–121 10.1177/1463499606061730

Reality and relativism
Shweder on a which? hunt
John R. Searle University of California, Berkeley, USA

I am very grateful to Professor Shweder for his thoughtful essay. As I am sure he is aware, he raises more issues than I can really hope to answer in a response of this type. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that he raises many of the fundamental issues in philosophy – everything from the status of the real world to the nature of mathematical truth to the validity of moral judgments to the possibility of culturally neutral judgments of truth and falsity – all of these questions and more are raised by Shweder. In what follows I am going to try to answer as many as I can. I will begin by stating certain fundamental propositions and then deal with his specific questions about cultural relativism and other issues.


He begins with the affirmation that we ought to accept ‘the reality, validity and human intelligibility of . . . forms of life very different from our own’ (p. 89). I entirely concur. But such acceptance of alternative forms of life does not imply that everything asserted within these alternative forms is true, any more than everything asserted within our forms is true. One massive constraint on truth cuts across all forms of life. I mentioned it in my reply to Friedman and I call it ‘External Realism’: There exists a way that things are that is independent of our representations of how things are. This, I think, is not a ‘thesis’ that one can argue for or against; rather, it is a Background presupposition of the intelligibility of large sections of discourse, whether in our form of life or in the most exotic. Consider such utterances as ‘hydrogen atoms have one electron’, ‘it rained yesterday’, or ‘the sun has nine planets’ – for every one of these utterances, and indeed for an infinite number of other such utterances, in our forms of life and in others, External Realism is a Background presupposition. I have tried to make this point in other writings and I will not repeat the arguments here, but rather just refer the reader to a statement of the argument (Searle, 1995: chapters 7–9). The essential point is that External Realism is not just another philosophical thesis or hypothesis that one should attempt to prove or disprove, but rather it is the presupposition of having a very large number of theses and hypotheses, and in consequence, it is not something that can be ‘proved’ or ‘disproved’, because all such proofs and disproofs presuppose it.

SEARLE Reality and relativism. Reply to Shweder

The fact that, in the form of scientific revolutions, we change our opinions about how the world is, can sometimes be taken as an argument against External Realism, but it argues exactly for the converse. For example, we would not bother to change our account from classical physics to relativity physics except on the presupposition that there is a way the universe really is, and we are trying to get as close as we can to stating how it is. The denial of External Realism, typically in the form of idealism, I regard as the ultimate bad faith in philosophy. Idealism is a form of philosophical bad faith because it makes the real world responsible to us. It is an expression of a will to power and a refusal to accept our rather limited human status and capacity in the universe. This last point is not intended as an argument against idealism; the argument is as I suggested before, but it is a diagnosis of the persistent appeal of idealism, and a rejection of the basis of that appeal.

Within the presupposition of External Realism we have discovered certain fundamental facts about the structure of the universe: we have discovered that, at the most basic level, the universe consists of what I have, for short, called physical particles in fields of force. Other such discoveries are the nature of the chemical bond and the evolutionary origin of biological species. Another, of equal importance for us, is that all human mental states are caused by neurobiological processes and realized in neurobiological systems. These are some of the most basic facts for understanding the reality of the world we live in. Notice that I do not say ‘scientific reality’. ‘Science’ is the name of a set of techniques, not the name of an ontological domain. Scientific techniques have given us truths about the real world, but once discovered, those truths are no longer the property of science, nor in a particular ontological domain of science. They are public property accessible to anyone. Furthermore, though these facts were discovered within certain cultural practices, they are not the property of any one culture or set of cultures. If they only existed in one culture or set of cultures they would not exist at all. It is in the very nature of the claims made stating these facts – atomic theory, evolutionary biology, neuroscience – that they have to be absolute and universal across all cultures. Notice that I have said all of this without using any of the traditional vocabulary of materialism, dualism and all the rest of it. These categories for the most part express massive confusions. I have tried to expose some of the confusions elsewhere (e.g. Searle, 2004) and will not repeat the arguments here. I reject both materialism and dualism as they are standardly conceived. I said earlier that idealism was a form of philosophical bad faith. It seems to me that dualism, or the three worlds theory of Popper and Eccles, is not so much bad faith as a form of giving up, a form of philosophical defeatism, in some cases even a form of philosophical timidity. It might turn out that we are forced to accept a spiritual component in reality that cannot be explained by natural phenomena. It might also turn out that we cannot explain culture, society, and institutional facts using mental concepts, but we should not assume defeat at the outset of our investigations. At the outset we have to assume that we live in one world and we need to try to account for all of the real phenomena in that world. We need to explain everything from the fact that hydrogen atoms have one electron, to the fact that we are conscious, to the fact that George Bush is president, as part of one world, using a common explanatory apparatus.



Within the presupposition of External Realism we try to figure out how the world works. Given External Realism we discover that one of the features of the world is causal relations, and in consequence one of the fundamental modes for explaining the operation of the world is to cite causal relations, such as gravitational attraction, electromagnetism and so on. A specific form of causation that is especially interesting in psychology and the other social sciences is intentional causation. For example, I intend to raise my arm and my arm goes up, as caused by my intention. There are serious neurobiological problems, not completely resolved, about how the intention and the bodily movement relate to the firings of neurons in the motor cortex and the secretion of acetylcholine at the axon end plates of the motor neurons. I think the philosophical part of this problem is not difficult to explain, and I have done so in a number of writings (most recently Searle, 2004). However, Shweder is right that we do not understand the details of the neurobiology. But this I regard as a problem to be solved and not an unfathomable metaphysical mystery that is forever beyond our grasp.

Within the overall conception expressed by propositions 1–3, I try to give an account of the ontological status of institutions and of institutional facts. How can there be objective facts about money, property, marriage, and government if the facts only exist in some sense because we believe that they exist? And I try to provide an analysis of these sorts of facts together with an account of how the existence of these facts fits into our explanatory apparatus for describing human behavior. Specifically, given the presupposition of rationality on the part of human beings, that is, the presupposition that human beings are capable of acting on reasons, I am able to give an account of the causal force of institutional reality, the causal powers of money and government, for example. He challenges me to state exactly what it is that makes social institutional facts into objective facts. How can they have epistemic objectivity (that is, how can claims about them be established as straightforwardly true or false) – even though they are ontologically subjective (they exist only because people think they exist)? Well, that is what I wrote the Construction of Social Reality about. The enterprise is Kantian in this sense: I start with the assumption that it is an epistemically objective fact that George W. Bush is president, that the piece of paper in my hand is a $20 bill, that the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, and so on for thousands of other such facts. Not just Republicans, bankers and Red Sox fans have to agree that these are facts, but even a visitor from Mars would, if rational, have to concede that they are facts. I do not try to prove that they are objective truths. I take it as a given. I then ask, in a Kantian vein, what are the conditions of possibility for these to be objective facts? The answer is fairly involved, and requires at least the 12 concepts I mentioned in my reply to Gross, and it is summarized in the target article, so I will not repeat it here. But now comes Shweder’s challenge. If these are facts, then what about such ‘facts’ as ‘Ngugi is the witch who killed the lion-hunter’ and ‘By having my hair cut and eating chicken the day after my father’s death I have committed a great sin’? Why are not these just as valid institutional facts as the ones I cite? If Bush and the Red Sox can make it over the institutional hurdle into epistemic objectivity, then why not Ngugi?

SEARLE Reality and relativism. Reply to Shweder


So I now turn to the witch hunt. It is important to understand how status functions work. By collectively assigning a status function to a person or object we affect its deontic powers. Bush as president has rights, obligations and authority that I do not have as just a citizen. But those powers work only through the intentionality of the members of the community. It is important to emphasize that status functions do not increase physical powers. When George Bush becomes president his arm strength does not increase. He is able, using his authority, to get other people to activate physical powers, and indeed one of the most important functions of institutional facts is to interact with brute facts. Thus, for example, by exchanging bits of paper with the airline officials I am entitled to board an airplane which transports me across huge stretches of space. The institutional facts enable me to alter the brute facts. But what happens in the case of the witch? Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the status in question is a genuine status function and not simply a false physical attribution. That is, let us suppose that once you have acquired the status of being a witch in a community you have certain collectively recognized duties and obligations that you would not otherwise have. All the same, that would not give you any physical powers in addition to those of the physical universe. The deontic powers deriving from status functions work only through human intentionality. It is only because other people recognize status functions that one has institutional rights, authorizations, and entitlements; otherwise one would not have them. In the case that Shweder describes, there is no way that status functions could create a witch-lion, that is, a man who can assume the shape of a lion and who can withstand gunshots. Status functions cannot create supernatural powers and cannot kill lionhunters, not just like that. There are no people who are ‘witch-lions’ and who have physical powers in addition to those of ordinary people. Even if we decided to appoint a class of ‘witch-lions’ and assign a status function to them, any such assignment would not increase their physical powers. No amount of status function will enable Ngugi to leave his body, assume the form of a witch-lion, commit murder and withstand repeated gunshot wounds. The fact that large numbers of people throughout the entire history of the world have acted on massive falsehoods should not mislead us into thinking that those falsehoods are any less false. For example, many people believe in the existence of witches and they act on that belief even to the extent of executing people for witchcraft. All the same, on the standard supernatural definition of ‘witch’ there are no witches and there never have been any. One can grant ‘the reality, validity and human intelligibility of values and forms of life very different from our own’ (p. 89) without assenting to straight falsehood. The mistake is to suppose that because all facts are stated from within a culture and a point of view, what Shweder calls an ‘interpretive community’, that therefore the facts only exist relative to a culture, a point of view, or an ‘interpretive community’. To take cases closer to home, in our own civilization witches were defined as women who acquired supernatural powers by having sexual intercourse with the devil. They then used their supernatural powers to do terrible harm. The fact that some women sincerely and voluntarily confessed to these crimes, and the fact that their confessions were widely believed, does not make the confessions any less false. No amount of status functions can enable anyone to do what these alleged witches were supposed to have done. The


‘tough-minded scientific anthropologist’ in Shweder’s account, who made the conviction of Ngugi unanimous, did a disservice to the tribe and to himself by pretending to accept a whole bunch of what he knew to be falsehoods. To put the point more generally, the assignment of status functions and the accompanying deontic powers do not make witches and witchcraft real. For this reason, the question of whether or not Ngugi was guilty of witchcraft is fundamentally different from the question in our community, whether a touchdown was scored in a football game, or whether some piece of paper is a $20 bill. Actually, Shweder gives a very good statement of the position I am advocating: ‘the lion-hunter is not dead because of Ngugi’s witchcraft’ (p. 92).

The case of the son who had a haircut and ate chicken the day after his father’s death is in important ways different from the case of the witch hunt. You may believe, as I do, that the set of beliefs the people in question had about the transmigratory journey of the soul which is trapped inside a corpse and held back by death pollution is entirely false. All the same, even if these are false beliefs, the son should respect the father’s memory in death. A son who has become an atheist in our society could well be under an obligation to honor his father’s wish to have a church funeral. It would be disrespectful for the son to deny the father’s last wish for a church funeral even though the son may not believe the metaphysics that underlies the requiem mass. The reason this case is different from the witch hunting case is that it raises moral questions about the behavior of the son and his lack of respect for his father’s memory and not just questions about supernatural powers.

Shweder points out correctly that I do not provide the materials to distinguish between institutional facts that are ‘valid and/or moral from those that are invalid (or even delusional) and/or immoral’ (p. 102). The reason for this is that I am trying to describe the formal structure of a certain type of social ontology. For these purposes, I do not need to distinguish between the Nazi Party in Germany and the Democratic Party in the United States. Of course there are all sorts of moral differences, and of course the Nazi Party was based on a ridiculous racial ideology. But as far as the institutional structure is concerned, they are both systems of status functions. Shweder characterizes my views as ‘monism and materialism’, but I do not find these terms helpful, much less accurate. I am just trying to describe the facts as we know them. But now he raises a special question. If institutional facts (he sometimes confuses social and institutional facts so I will concentrate on institutional facts) are ontologically subjective, how can they be epistemically objective? The best way to answer that question is already implicit in his discussion, and that is to take specific examples. What fact about George W. Bush makes him president of the United States? What fact about this piece of paper makes it a $20 bill? I take it both of these facts are epistemically objective in that they are not just a matter of some particular person’s opinion. What interests me is this: the fact that George W. Bush is president is quite different from the fact that he has two eyes and one nose. The fact that this is a $20 bill is quite different from the fact that it is made of cellulose fibers. The brute fact is part of the institutional fact but it is not sufficient for it. I will come back to this question of epistemic objectivity.

SEARLE Reality and relativism. Reply to Shweder

It is easy enough to establish ‘objectively’ that George W. Bush is president of the United States because the set of attitudes and so on that constitute the collective intentionality, which is the essential part of the fact that he is president, is easy enough to ascertain. I am puzzled that Shweder rejects the account implicit in his own discussion. He says ‘(a) that epistemic objectivity is not achievable for social facts’ (p. 99). He thinks that there is an apparent conflict between (a) and ‘(b) that social facts are possible to grasp and understand nonetheless precisely because they are ontologically real’ (p. 99). He thinks that the problem arises because the real objects of study are ‘“states of the soul” and the non-visible world of concepts or ideas, neither of which is available for sensory observation and for the recording of appearances across differently situated observers’ (p. 99). Now, I entirely agree with (b), but it is not in conflict with the view that mental states of others are not directly observable. There are all kinds of features of the world that are not directly observable, but are nonetheless objects of epistemically objective scientific studies. Think of black holes, or, for that matter, subatomic particles. None of these is directly observable, but nevertheless we can have objective knowledge about them. The same goes for institutional facts.

Now we come to the part of his article that I disagree with most strongly, his endorsement of Popper’s philosophy of the three worlds. A problem with this is that it is a desperate maneuver that does not solve the philosophical problem but simply refuses to face it. Granted that there are true statements in each of these domains, they must be part of one and the same world because they all interact causally; and, indeed, we can show that so-called Worlds 2 and 3 are entirely dependent on the basic facts, that is, they are aspects of World 1, which is to say that there is only one world, not three. Specifically, mental states, World 2, are entirely caused by neurobiological processes and realized in neurobiological structures. There is no need to postulate dualism or a separate World 2 in order to account for the mind. Furthermore, the social reality of institutions, such as money, universities, governments and marriages, is entirely accounted for by the collective behavior of humans manifesting their collective intentionality. To put this in very simple terms, World 2 is entirely caused by and realized in World 1, specifically the neurobiological parts of World 1. And World 3 is entirely constituted by the appropriate attitudes and behaviors of the people in question, that is, it is entirely constituted by World 2. There is no reason whatever to postulate three separate worlds. It is crucial to distinguish between the epistemic sense of the objective/subjective distinction and the ontological sense. The world does indeed contain as brute facts ontologically subjective states, in the form of consciousness and intentionality, in both humans and other animals. The existence of these ontologically subjective states can be established by methods that are epistemically objective. We find that the causal bases of our own intentionality are shared by certain other sorts of animals, but not shared by plants and stones. There is indeed a connection between the epistemic and the ontological sense of the objective/subjective distinction. In typical cases of epistemic objectivity we can have recognized criteria for establishing truth or falsity where the criteria do not require approval or disapproval of the subject matter of the claim in question. So, for example,


it is a matter of epistemic objectivity that Bush is president, because that statement can be ascertained as true by people of widely different political views, and indeed by people who stand outside our civilization altogether. But in typical cases of epistemic subjectivity, there is no way to establish truth or falsity independently of the evaluative attitudes and feelings of the participants. We cannot establish by epistemically objective means that Rubens was a better painter than Rembrandt, because the evaluative attitudes of the makers of the judgment do not settle the issue in the way that the intentionality of the participants in the social situation settle the issue for the judgment that Bush is president or that this is a $20 bill. We can find out objectively who is president and whether or not something is really money, because the appropriate attitudes that constitute the presidency or the existence of something as money are easily ascertainable. But the ‘appropriate attitudes’ do not constitute being a better painter than another painter. A symptom, by the way, that there is something fishy about postulating three worlds is that numbers and other mathematical entities are lumped into World 3 along with cultural productions. But the number three is quite different from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or the United States government. Numbers are properties along with other properties, such as colors, shapes, and sizes. But where colors, shapes, and sizes are properties of objects, numbers are properties of sets. If I say, for example, ‘There are three horses in the field’, the property of being a horse is a property of objects, and the property of being in the field is a property of – among other things – objects. But the property of being three is not a property of objects; it is not a property of particular horses. It is a property of the set: horses in the field.

The most provocative sentence in Shweder’s provocative essay is this one: Thus the stance John Searle assumes ultimately rests on the (sound enough) analytic point that epistemic objectivity does not logically require ontological objectivity plus some type of empirical demonstration that the way social facts really are (as social facts) can be pictured or represented from an objective point of view, that is to say, without any involvement in the perspective of any particular group of intentional human beings. (p. 101) He adds, ‘If that is his claim, I find it strange, even paradoxical’. But I do not think that it is strange or paradoxical once you remove the ambiguity in the crucial phrase ‘without any involvement in the perspective of any particular group of intentional human beings’. ‘Involvement in the perspective’ can mean either understanding the perspective from an internal point of view, or it can also mean a commitment to the validity of that point of view. Again, let us take an example. In order for me to understand the claim that Hitler was chancellor of Germany I have to be involved in the perspective of the Germans in question so that I understand how they regarded somebody as ‘chancellor’. This was the correct point in the old discussions about how ‘Verstehen’ is essential to understanding social reality. You have to share the concepts of the tribe you are describing in order to state the intentional content that functions to constitute the institutional reality of the tribe and that functions causally by way of intentional

SEARLE Reality and relativism. Reply to Shweder

causation. In explaining the behavior of people, using the notion of intentional causation, you have to express in your vocabulary the same mental contents that function causally in their vocabulary, otherwise the explanation will not be any good. But this sense of ‘Verstehen’ does not imply that the investigator has to be ‘involved’ in the perspective in the sense that he has to think that somehow or other it was a good thing or a valid move on the part of the Germans to make Hitler chancellor. Imagine an infinite knower, God, who ‘sees’ everything but has no ‘point of view’ in the human sense, because he encompasses all of reality at once. God would see all the so-called physical world and all the consciousness and intentionality in humans and other animals, because all such things really exist independently of any observer. But God could not see money, or private property or governments, because such things do not have an observer-independent existence. Without a ‘point of view’ there are no such things. God would see us treating things as money, private property and governments, but that is all there is (given all the complexities I have tried to describe) to their being money, property and governments. And what goes for money, property and governments goes for all of institutional reality and indeed for everything that is observer relative. God could not see knives and cars, because without a point of view, there are no such things. Rather he would see us treating certain objects as knives or cars. Epistemic objectivity is possible for observer-relative phenomena because the intentionality that is constitutive of the phenomena can be understood as such, that is, it can be understood without thinking that it is good or valid. He challenges me to provide a demonstration of how we can have an objective account of the witchcraft incident or the pollution practices of the Hindus. But I think he already gave us that account. That is, I can understand the beliefs that these people have without sharing those beliefs. I can understand their values without sharing their values. He could not have told us the epistemically objective story that he did about these cases if it were not possible to achieve precisely the kind of epistemic objectivity that he is challenging. To repeat the point, one does not have to share the values of a tribe, even one’s own tribe, in order to understand the intentional content that is present in that tribe. Shweder challenges my statement that it is a matter of epistemically objective fact that the world consists of physical particles in fields of force. He thinks this is ‘an article of philosophical faith’ (p. 102). But that is not right. The atomic theory is the result of several centuries of investigation in the natural sciences. In detail it may well turn out to be wrong, if it turns out, for example, that the basic constituents of matter are not particles but points of mass energy or strings. The point is that if there is a way that the world is independent of our representations, then there must be an epistemically objective truth about the way the world is. I distinguished earlier between the Background presupposition that there is a way the world is (External Realism), and specific hypotheses about how it is in fact (the basic facts). But neither of these is, contrary to what he says, ‘an article of faith’. Rather, the Background presupposition is a condition of the intelligibility of discourse, including those discourses that express faiths. You cannot have faith in anything in the external world at all – faith in God, faith in physical particles, or anything else – without the Background presupposition of External Realism. But the basic facts that are discovered within that presupposition are well substantiated by literally centuries of research and they are not, in that sense, ‘articles of faith’.


In this connection he raises the issue about mental causation. Now, I have discussed this elsewhere both from a philosophical and from a neurobiological point of view (Searle, 2004). I think we are a long way from having a completely adequate neurobiological account. But there is no doubt that intentional causation actually functions in the world. For example, my intentions actually function causally in my behavior. Furthermore, those intentions are realized in fundamental underlying neurobiological processes. At present we do not understand in detail how human intentionality is caused by and realized in neurobiological processes. But our ignorance in these cases is a factual ignorance of the details of how it works. I do not think there is any philosophical or metaphysical mystery about what is going on. There is one level of description at which I have an intention that causes my arm to move and another level of description at which neurobiological processes in my brain cause secretion of acetylcholine at the axon end plates of the motor neurons with all sorts of other physiological effects that result in the movement of the arm. The mistake is to think that somehow or other these are independent descriptions of independent phenomena. On the contrary, they are two descriptions of the same phenomenon going on at different levels. He says that he is ‘not entirely sure how to classify John Searle’s position in that regard [about materialism, dualism and so on], for he seems to be on both sides of the fence’ (p. 103). There is a very good reason for this. I think the whole terminology of materialism and dualism and monism and all the rest of it is one of the sources of our difficulties, not the tool for their solutions. Our philosophical tradition involves a whole lot of muddles that I am trying to avoid. Now, it may be that I have made my own mistakes, but they are not the mistakes of falling into the traditional conceptions of materialism and dualism and so on. The most serious misunderstanding of my view is when Shweder repeatedly characterizes me as a ‘materialist’. In a recent book I give what I regard as strong reasons for rejecting both materialism and dualism (Searle, 2004). He thinks that there will be ‘real paradoxes’ for someone who holds my set of views because, he thinks, they run afoul of the approved categories of dualism, materialism and so on. The point I am making is that I reject all those categories. There is no doubt that my conscious states are genuinely biological, but that does not make them any less ontologically subjective, even though their causal bases and the medium in which they are realized is ontologically objective. The existence of ontologically subjective phenomena such as consciousness, as caused by and realized in neurobiological structures, is just a fact about how the world works (Searle, 2000). Shweder thinks that in order to account for his ‘romantic pluralism’ in anthropology he has to opt for the view that there is more to the world than just the material world. What I am trying to suggest is that if you have a rich enough conception of how things actually are, one that accepts all the facts that we know to exist, then expressions like ‘the material world’ are inadequate. There is just one world; it contains everything from interest rates to feelings of boredom, on the one hand, and hydrogen atoms to tectonic plates on the other, but all that is part of one unified world. Our task as analysts is to try to give an account of the general structure of that unity, even if we may not know specific details about how it works in the hypothalamus. The right attitude, I believe, for the ‘romantic pluralist’ is to recognize that we live in one world and that we hold, in all our different cultures, a series of views about this

SEARLE Reality and relativism. Reply to Shweder

world, some of which are just plain false. Romantic pluralism does not require that we accept falsehoods either in our own culture or in alien cultures. The problem with trying to treat the belief in witchcraft as just like the belief that Bush is president is that the witchcraft belief forces Shweder into accepting falsehoods and, what is worse, these falsehoods are inconsistent with a number of truths that he accepts about people’s physical constitution and physical powers. In short, he cannot have it both ways. He has to decide which.

The main message I want to convey in this brief discussion of Shweder’s very impressive, indeed moving, article is that he can have ‘romantic pluralism’ and recognize ‘the reality, validity, and human intelligibility of forms of life very different from our own’ without committing what I think are the intellectual errors of the views that he would like to espouse. It is not possible to assert consistently that on the one hand we have a pretty good understanding of human powers and abilities and on the other hand the villagers were right in convicting Ngugi of witchcraft. This results in an inconsistency because the hypotheses that led to the conviction are flatly inconsistent with facts that we know about how human beings function. In short, Shweder cannot have it both ways. He cannot on the one hand accept what we all know to be true about human capacities and on the other hand accept views that are plainly inconsistent with this. To repeat, he has to decide which he will accept and I am urging that what is correct in the views that he is espousing can be preserved while abandoning the views that are inconsistent with the actual truths.

Searle, John R. (1995) The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Basic Books. Searle, John R. (2000) ‘Consciousness’, Annual Review of Neuroscience 23: 557–78. Searle, John R. (2004) Mind: A Brief Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.


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