John Searle’s Mind, Language and Society engages the forces of darkness that threaten the continuation of the Enlightenment. It rebuts sharply those pragmatist, antirealist and postmodernist arguments which seek to convince us that we say nothing true — or nothing to any point, or nothing interesting — when we incline, as many of us still do, to say that enquiry and reflection strive to, and sometimes do, arrive at thoughts, theories, or statements that are true or false depending on whether the world is or is not as such thoughts represent it. There are facts to which true statements correspond and there are objects (as well as properties and relations) to which our words refer. Searle urges both correspondence to independently existing facts and reference to independently existing objects as features of our interactions with the world.
Searle’s thought is distinctive in that he has long advocated that it is an error to regard these ancient homilies as belonging to common sense. Common sense, according to Searle, delivers itself in the form of beliefs such as that if we want folks to be nice to us, we have to be nice to them, or that if it is very humid, moderately high temperatures can be very uncomfortable. But the existence of a mind-independent reality and the referentiality of our talk and thought belongs to what Searle calls the Background. What is tricky about the Background is that when we philosophise about it, we have no choice but to carry on in a way that makes it appear that we are evincing deep-seated beliefs. But the correct outlook is that these things lie so deep, are so much taken for granted, so much something whose denial never so much as occurs to us, that none of our ordinary cognitive words, such as believe, know, take for granted, assume, presuppose, be certain of, are appropriate to them. Perhaps Wittgenstein in his late work On Certainty is urging something akin to this. He might even have touched on it in his early work when he made the enigmatic distinction between what can be said and what cannot be said but only shown.
Searle characterises these Background matters as “default positions”, by which he means that those who dispute them have to make the running in philosophical debate. It is not that nothing can ever happen which might remove something from the Background and put it up for grabs, even finally dispose of it. But it is so hard to make this happen that those who challenge default positions have to start all the ball-rolling and the rest of us only need to rebut challenges. Searle does acknowledge that most of the great philosophers got that way by attacking default positions and he hints that his own attachment to philosophy is a little embarrassed by that.
SEARLE IS SCRUPULOUS, though his tongue is tempted toward his cheek, to distinguish between rebutting the arguments of the anti-realists and postmodernists, and diagnosing adherent of these arguments as a cultural phenomenon. He thinks diagnosis is called for because the arguments are so bad that it is hard to believe that they can be what sustains the animus against an independent and objective reality. This reviewer, anyway, is inclined to agree with Searle. I will leave it to those who read this book to appreciate most of the detail of Searle’s rebuttals and use most of my allotted words to applaud and even elaborate Searle’s diagnostic efforts.
Searle rightly remarks that the main impetus to idealism or anti-realism has been that realism carries with it a problem about whether the representations we arrive at through perception, memory and inference are reliable and true. This generates global scepticism, always there when philosophy is there, but more prominent since Descartes imagined his powerful and deceptive Evil Demon, and revivified by the Demon’s modern counterpart, the Brain in the Vat. Idealism, classically exemplified by George Berkeley, overcomes scepticism by reducing the content of claims about independent material bodies to the evidence for those claims. Thus tables and chairs are understood by Berkeley and later idealists or phenomenalists as really being more or less regular and organised bits of sensory experience, something available to brains in vats. J.S. Mill said that material objects were “permanent possibilities of sensation”. This also comes to reducing truths about what exists to truths about evidence for them. Since scepticism thrives on the gap between evidence and what it is evidence for, scepticism is thereby overcome; but the price is idealism in one or other of its guises.
Searle, following one of his mentors, John Austin, is happy to rebut scepticism with the observation that it is a mistake to infer from the fact that two experiences are intrinsically alike while one is veridical and the other not, that there really is no such thing as veridical experience in the first place. For who says that in order to determine that experience A was veridical and experience B was not, I may exploit only the resources of the two experiences and not rely on further or prior tests and observations? This is a developed version of the point, often made against Descartes, that he appears to be inferring from the fact that any experience can be deceptive, to the conclusion that all experiences can be. But this is a bad inference. No-one would say that because any runner can win the race, they all can.
Searle observes that these days, the anti-realists (let me use that tag for pragmatists, idealists, linguistic idealists, social constructionists, postmodernist textualists), do not seem to lean so much on scepticism (I think they fall back on it more than Searle suggests), but on an array of other arguments which are shot through with confusions. There is, first, the argument that if you encounter something from a point of view or a perspective (to use the fashionable Nietzschean term) you do not really encounter reality. Then there is the idea that since we have to use words to say what we think, the things we think about are somehow linguisticised or (might one say?) cultured (like a pearl!). Arguments of this genre are often accompanied with sneer caps, as when we are told of “Reality As It Is In Itself”, that it is a notion to be dispensed with as rather adolescent in the growth of thought through Hegel and the pragmatists to the wisdom of various more recent luminaries such as John Dewey, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. It is fair enough to confront all this with Gottlob Frege’s observation that, of course, you cannot wash the wool without getting it wet. He meant to imply that even if that is so, you have no business to infer that wool does not exist independently of being wetted.
Searle does not use the following example, but he ought to have. It captures most of the point he is after about the way anti-realists confuse words and the world. Some years ago (in the New York Review of Books) I read: “The Pacific Ocean was an invention of 19th century cartography”. It is to me one of the mysteries of intellectual life why some thinkers feel the urge to talk in such a silly way. Cartographers do not invent oceans any more than astronomers invent galaxies. This point holds even if, as I reckon is so, dividing up the waters of the earth into so and so many oceans, seas, lakes, ponds and puddles will lead to borderline cases and a degree of conventionality, though it is almost certainly not as arbitrary as setting out the borderlines among, say, states of Australia.
The mistake involved in that example is of the exact same kind as would be made by someone who expected a river to be blue because blue is the colour used on maps for rivers; or, even sillier, the mistake someone would make if he expected Annabelle to be lovelier than Gertrude because “Gertrude” was a repellent sounding name to him and “Annabelle” a lovely one.
Searle’s rebuttals are effective. But his diagnosis should sting. He judges that the anti-realists are moved by dislike of the idea of a reality to which their thoughts are answerable, some of them seeing the idea of such a reality as the last bastion of the tyranny of an omnipotent and authoritative divine being. (This is very cute, enabling indubitably secular, naturalistic and pro-enlightenment thinkers such as Searle to be tarred with brush of spiritualism.) This dislike, especially in academic life, involves a hatred of natural science. What better way to put science in its place (or remove it from its place) than to say that chemistry and physics too are texts and what they speak of is not really different from fictions? This animus against science, Searle suggests, is not merely envy and dislike, but a will to power. Power is, in a sense, asserted over reality itself (it is a social construction). But equality of status and power, within the academy and in society, is also sought, even if the way to get it is to reduce the prestige of science.
IT IS WORTH REMARKING that Richard Rorty, the most famous pragmatist walking the earth today and a frequent critic of Searle, is on record as saying that the intellectual credentials of literary criticism are on a par with those of biology or physics. I once met a structuralist literary analyst who insisted that her analyses of literary texts (or the texts of matchbooks and T-shirts) were “scientific” and that she had no interest in questions of value, such as what makes Shakespeare so much better than Joyce Kilmer, and no interest either in the truth or falsity of the claim that Shakespeare is better. That conversation took place nearly thirty years ago and structuralists in English departments were claiming kinship with the objectivity of science. That “us too” move was the beginning of the envy of science that Searle speaks of; the idea was, to repeat the point, that humanists were also scientific. Post-structuralism gives up the claim that literary analysis is objective and scientific, but also assimilates the two domains by saying that science is a branch of literature, and by insisting that not even physics is, or can be, objective in the way realists think it is. What has gone on here is interesting. It used to be that the humanities acknowledged a serious difference between what they did and what natural science did; but this acknowledgment was not a matter of accepting some inferior cultural status. It was a matter of the difference between the pursuit and growth of knowledge and the pursuit and growth of sensibility. The humanities also sometimes saw themselves as the major carriers of high cultural traditions. Reason was important and available all round, just as it is available in ethical life via the difference between good reasons and bad reasons for acting or via the difference between emotions that are appropriate and rational instead of inappropriate and irrational.
That happy accommodation was an offspring of enlightenment, no doubt midwived by economic and political liberalism, with its attachment to pluralism and tolerance. J.S. Mill’s awakening to poetry and his recovery from despair, with the aid of Wordsworth, are a marvellous example of the possibility and importance of finding a harmonious relation between science and sensibility. “Only connect the prose and the passion,” says Margaret Schlegel in Howards End. Many of us who got our educations in the fifties lived under this happy dispensation. Many philosophers during the last thirty or so years have been much concerned to criticise those who see a far more radical and sharp divide between reason and emotion than is really visible there.
Even so, it is a sort of Romantic revival, this envious hatred of science that Searle diagnoses. Mill did not lose respect for Newton when he gained so much from Wordsworth. But others, Keats and Blake in the lead, Shelley not far behind, saw Newton as a great beast, a destroyer of sensibility, prophet of a meaningless and mechanical reality, no decent abode for the spirit. Keats (here I follow Mark Abram’s book The Mirror and the Lamp), said that poets were the only real discoverers of truth and (more famously) that truth was beauty. Blake’s loathing of Newton is well recorded. Mill was on the side of mutual respect, as Coleridge seemed to have been, and Wordsworth too. But the depth of the divide between poetry and philosophy (which should be construed in this context as including physics, whose name used to be “natural philosophy”) has reasserted itself at the end of our century.
It has done so in a remarkable way. No Keatsian claim to be the only genuine seekers after truth, no Blakean horror at the meaningless world urged by materialist philosophers; rather a poisoning of the wells of reasoned inquiry by casting suspicion on the motives and putative power-playing of those one criticises. Cultural studies, the newest kid on the academic block, is making its way by claiming to descry causes and motives behind ideas and arguments in a way even more blatant than the Marxists and Freudians of yore. Marx and Freud were as much offspring of the enlightenment as Diderot, Darwin and Bertrand Russell. Their diagnostic moves would normally be prefaced by evidence or argument of a straight kind against the positions or theses they took issue with. Freud surely had an opinion of what was unconsciously sustaining Jung in his views. But he urges the superiority of his own theory in a way that conforms (well enough) to the norms of objective enquiry and proper intellectual debate, even if, with hindsight, we can see in Freud (as we almost always can with any thinker) instances of blindness, oversight or pigheadedness in defence of his own views.
I have devoted this review to the beginning and the end of Searle’s book. In between we are given succinct representations of views for which Searle is well known, written for educated non-philosophers. And well done it is. We are given his views on consciousness and intentionality (the name given to the directedness or the “aboutness” of thought and feeling), and the centrality of this to the nature of the mind as a biological phenomenon. We are given a good taste of Searle on language and speech acts, for which, as I opened by mentioning, he is widely known outside philosophy. Further, we get Searle on human institutionality and on the constructed nature of social institutions (nothing to do, except via gross muddle, with the doctrine of the social constructedness of reality) and the centrality of language to the existence and nature of the social or the institutional. Searle even has a go at explaining to us the nature of money, a secular mystery if there ever has been one. This belongs to Searle’s latest ventures beyond philosophy of mind and language into the realm of philosophy of social science. It is very useful to get clear about the difference between things whose very existence and nature are constituted by our minds and our practices, such things as votes and money, and things which, while our having concepts of them is an outcome of human life and mentality, nevertheless exist and have their nature independently of our minds; such things as rocks.