Department of Philosophy
and Philosophy of Science
Searle's Monadological Construction of Social Reality
According to Searle's analysis of collective intentions, such intentions are not in any literal sense shared by the persons who make up the collective. Therefore, an explicit I-intention ('I am A-ing') can be regarded as a single token framed and executed by "the I" in question, but an explicit We-intention ( 'We are A-ing') cannot similarly be regarded as a single token jointly framed and executed by "the We" in question. This consequence has been noted and criticized by J.D. Velleman in a recent article.(1) My point here will be, that in order to see what really is at stake we have to dig much deeper than Velleman does in his article. In my view, the existence of jointly framed single tokens of collective prior intentions ('We intend to A'), as well as of collective intentions in action ('We are A-ing'), can be defended only within a philosophical framework of direct realism. But that belongs to the end of this paper. I will start by reminding the reader of some of Searle's views.
1. Are Intentional states in the head?
A persistent theme in Searle's writings from Intentionality onwards, is the view that mental states, nonintentional as well as Intentional, exist in brains. Here are some quotations ranging from 1983 to 1997; the italicizations are Searle's:
… mental states are both caused by the operation of the brain and realized in the structure of the brain (and the rest of the nervous system).(2)
Pains and other mental phenomena just are features of the brain (and perhaps the rest of the central nervous system).(3)
Consciousness, in short, is a biological feature of human and certain animal brains. It is caused by neurobiological processes and is as much a part of the natural biological order as any other biological features such as photosynthesis, digestion, or mitosis.(4)
It is indeed the case that all my mental life is inside my brain, and all your mental life is inside your brain, and so on for everybody else.(5)
Collective intentionality is a primitive notion in the sense that it does not reduce to individual intentionality. This is consistent with methodological individualism because collective intentionality exists entirely in the heads of individual agents.(6)
Searle argues philosophically that mental states are non-reducible, but he presents his view that mental states exist entirely in our heads(7)as something which is in no real need of philosophical comment. He seems to think that science has answered the latter question. In my view, however, some philosophy is needed here, too. From Descartes and onwards there has, among ontologists, been great consensus to the effect that matter (if it exists) exists in both time and space, but that mental phenomena lack spatial extension and exist only in time (if time and space exist). Any consistent biological naturalism which contains a realist view of mental states has to deny this old assumption, and Searle is consistent. According to him, mental phenomena are spatially located, and located in the brain.
For every entity which exists in space one can ask, literally, what its spatial extension is. Searle has to face this question in relation to mental states. And implicitly he has answered it. The quotations above afford us with his answer for the upper limit: The spatial extension of mental phenomena does not exceed that of the brain. Also, at least once, Searle has stated a lower limit for mental spatial extension: Single synapses, receptors and neurons are too small to have mental features.(8)
It may, for good phenomenological reasons, be claimed that many mental states lack well-defined spatial locations since they lack distinct boundaries. Searle has commented upon the view which adds that if mental states lack such boundaries they cannot exist in space. His primary answer is that "If we had perfect knowledge of how the brain produced, for example, thirst or visual experiences, we would have no hesitation in assigning these experiences location in the brain".(9) But then he says that even if mental states lack well-defined borders, they can exist as "global features of the brain or of some large brain area such as the cortex", and "they would still be treated as global features of a spatial entity, viz., the brain or some brain area such as the cortex."(10) As far as I can see, Searle has committed himself to the following three views:
(a) All mental states are localized in the brain;
(b) the spatial extension of mental states is not larger than the brain and not smaller than single neurons;
(c) we do not know at the moment whether or not mental states have well-defined spatial borders.(11)
Searle's views on the spatial
localization and the spatial extension of mental states have repercussions
for other areas in his ontology. In particular, they affect his analysis
of Intentional states. I will present the point I want to make by means
of a constructed dialogue between an interrogator (i.e. me) and Searle
(i.e. my Searle reception).
First question: How
do my mental phenomena, which are located in my brain, manage to relate
to the world outside my brain?
Searle: By means of Intentionality, as in thinking of a specific material thing or in perceiving it.
Second question: What kind of structure is at work when I am thinking of my old father who is about six hundred miles away?
Searle: In the psychological mode of thinking you represent your father by means of an Intentional content, and Intentional states, like this act of thinking, have conditions of satisfaction (=c.o.s.). All representations are unities of a psychological mode and an Intentional content; unities which have conditions of satisfaction.
Third question: Am
I then in some kind of spatial contact with my father?
Searle: No, you cannot possibly be. You and your brain are here, but your father is far away. However, you are by means of your mental and Intentional act directed at your father. An Intentional state has two kinds of conditions of satisfaction: one of them, the requirement c.o.s. (i.e. the meaning of your thought), is spatially internal to your thought, whereas the other, the required c.o.s. (i.e. your father), is spatially external to your thought.(12) We all know that we can think of persons and things which exist outside our thoughts and outside our brain.
Fourth question: When
you and I are thinking of the same thing, what do we share?
Searle: Nothing spatially, but we are directed at the same thing. For some reasons we happen to think of the same thing at the same time.
Fifth question: What kind of structure is at work when I am visiting my father and I perceive him in front of me?
Searle: In the psychological mode of perceiving, your father is represented by means of an Intentional content. Representations, however, may differ in kind, and this kind of representation, which contains visual experiences, had better be called 'presentation'.(13) Since presentations constitute a species of representation, they are unities of a psychological mode and an Intentional content, and they have conditions of satisfaction. In this respect there is no difference between thinking and perceiving.
Sixth question: Do I then in this presentation have direct access to my father?
Searle: Yes, you have.
Seventh question: Do you mean that I am in some kind of spatial contact with him?
Searle: No, you cannot possibly be. Like all your mental states and events, this perception of yours is located in your brain. And, of course, your brain is spatially distinct from your father. But you are directed at your father. Furthermore, you are directed at your father as being the cause of your perception of him. Nothing of the sort appears in thinking. Presentational Intentionality is causally self-referential. You may also put it like this: In veridical perception the required c.o.s., which are spatially external to the perception, cause the Intentional state (the perception) with its requirement c.o.s., which are spatially internal to it. In your case, your father, who is external to your brain, causes your visual experiences, which are internal to your brain.
Eighth question: So, you make a difference between having direct access(14) and being in some kind of spatial contact?
Ninth question: Is then no human mind in any kind of spatial contact with any other mind or with things outside the brain in which it is located?
Tenth question: Do you believe in any kind of purely mental contact and/or action between mental phenomena at a distance?
Eleventh question: When you say that a certain perceiver has direct access to an object, you then only mean that the perceiver perceives an Intentional object which is a main and immediate cause of his perception. Is that right?
Twelfth question: When two persons, P and Q, look at each other, the following four statements are all true descriptions of the situation: 1) the mental event which is P's look of Q is wholly located in the brain of P, and the mental event which is Q's look of P is wholly located in the brain of Q; 2) the Intentional object(15) of P's look is outside the brain of P, and the Intentional object of Q's look is outside the brain of Q; 3) P and Q have direct access to each other; 4) P and Q are not in any kind of spatial contact. Have I understood your position?
2. Leibniz and Searle
Leibniz occurs a couple of times in Searle's writings. In Speech Acts,(16) Leibniz is mentioned when Searle is discussing substitution salva veritate; in Intentionality(17) and in Minds, Brains and Science,(18) Leibniz is used as a foil for Searle's own view that mental states can have physical causes. Leibniz believed that mental states can only be caused by other mental states. However, in spite of this difference, there is in another respect an astonishing similarity between Searle and Leibniz.
According to Leibniz, the world (except God) is made up of indivisible, but nevertheless complex, self-sufficient units which he called monads. Each monad is a kind of mental power point which produces perceptions, imaginations, thoughts, and other mental phenomena. No monad, however, can be part of, or be in contact with, any other monad. Every monad is wholly enclosed within itself. Since some of the monads correspond to what we usually think of as persons, Leibniz might be taken to imply that our common-sense view that we all live in and have knowledge of a common world, is in every respect mistaken. But that is a false interpretation. He deflected epistemological solipsism by his famous thesis that there exists a Pre-Established Harmony between the monads. There is a law to the effect that everything that happens in one monad is in some way mirrored in all the others.
According to my description of Searle's ontology, our minds come out just as self-enclosed in his ontology as they do in Leibniz'. Since minds are spatially enclosed in brains and two brains cannot be in the same place neither can two minds.
Searle has explicitly said that he thinks that his account of visual perception is "a version of 'naive' (direct, common sense) realism",(19) but in my view this claim cannot be justified. In the unreflective moments of my life I take myself in veridical perception to be in direct contact with things which exist outside myself. Unreflectively I assume that I am in some kind of spatial contact with an outside world, not with something which like a headache is situated in my head. And I do not think that this is a view which is peculiar to me. It is not unreflective common-sense, but philosophical prima facie interpretations of modern science which, so to speak, have stuck the whole perceived world up into our brain.
When, to take another example, I pull my fingers through my hair and I feel that my fingers are touching the outside of my head, this head-being-touched-on-perception is in Searle's view a mental phenomenon which exists inside my material head. Likewise, all my perceptions of seemingly outer things are merely phenomena situated in my brain.
Searle's conflict with common-sense has at least one terminological consequence. He has to twist the ordinary concept of presentation. Normally, we talk of veridical perceptions as presentations in contrast to representations like thoughts and pictures. Something cannot be both a presentation and a representation. But that is what happens in Searle's conceptual apparatus. In Searle's vocabulary, veridical perceptions are both presentations and representations (see the answer to the fifth question in the dialogue in section one).
Naive realism is not monadological, but Searle's ontology is. They are in conflict. And this conflict does not disappear when we move from veridical perception of things to veridical perception of other persons and of social reality. On the contrary, it becomes even more challenging. As a philosopher I can, if I try really hard, accept that I may be wholly wrong when I think that I am directly seeing and touching, say, a wall which I am painting. But I find it almost impossible to think that I have neither in visual nor in tactual perception ever been in direct contact with any of the persons that I like. Applied to kissings and other nice things done intentionally together with a beloved one, Searle's analysis means the following. In such situations one's material body is in contact with one's beloved's body, but one's perceptions are wholly in one's head, and the beloved's perceptions are wholly in the beloved's head. Monadological thinking looks very strange when applied to human relations.
According to Leibniz, the whole world is scattered in a plurality of monads. According to Searle, the whole social world is scattered in a plurality of brains. Since Searle takes social reality to be observer-relative, he has to regard it the same way he regards all other mental phenomena. In particular, Searle's analysis means that a We-intention of P and Q, 'We are A-ing', can only exist as scattered in the two brains of P and Q. Such a We-intention necessarily consists of two tokens of the same type. Therefore, We-intentions cannot like I-intentions possibly be token-reflexive. This seems to me to be a rather awkward consequence for Searle, who stresses that I-intentions and We-intentions semantically are on a par with each other. He regards them as two different and equally primitive kinds of biological phenomena, none of which can be reduced to the other.(20)
3. To think with Searle against Searle
Searle's view that all Intentional states are in our heads leads him inevitably to a monadological construction of social reality. And this is not "ordinary" social reality. In order to get a common-sense conception of social reality, one needs a common-sensical conception of veridical perception, i.e. one needs direct realism. However, that position is not as far away from Searle's actual analysis of mind as it may seem. It is important to remember that Searle does not regard consciousness as a "stuff". There is according to Searle no spiritual substance which is mixed with, blended with, dissolved in, or juxtaposed with parts of the brain. Mental states are macro level properties of physical systems.
It seems to me as if Searle has taken it for granted, that the basic questions about the spatial location and the spatial extension of mental states are purely scientific questions. Questions which perceptual psychology and the neurobiological sciences have already answered with an "in the brain". But notice: If Searle drops "the-mind-in-the-brain" thesis, then nothing else in his general ontology contradicts the view that a visual veridical perception is a kind of property, a mental feature, whose spatial extension covers the whole physical system consisting of the perceiving brain, the perceived object, and the space in-between them.
If one's ontology says that mental phenomena are extended in space, one needs specific reasons in order to defend the view that the mental phenomena of human beings are always spatially confined within the brain. Even if dreams and hallucinations are wholly located in the brain, other mental phenomena, like veridical perceptions, may perhaps have a much larger spatial extension.(21) Perhaps, dreams and hallucinations should be seen as a mind-body problem, but veridical perception as more broadly a mind-nature problem. Veridical seeing is perhaps a mental property which emerges on and is spatially extended over the whole system of perceiver, perceived, and the perceptual causal chain. Such an hypothesis throws new light on the classical arguments from illusion.
If we assume that veridical seeing is extended from the perceiver to the perceived, but that a corresponding hallucination is spatially confined to the brain, then it suddenly seems natural to say that the physical causes of a hallucination are wholly situated within the brain, whereas the physical causes of a veridical perception are spread out from the perceiver to the perceived. In arguments from illusion against direct realism, it is taken for granted that hallucinations and veridical perceptions can be qualitatively identical. But if mental phenomena are ascribed spatial extension, this seemingly innocent presupposition puts the cart before the horse. If the spatial extensions of hallucinations and veridical perceptions are different, then hallucinations and veridical perceptions cannot be qualitatively identical although they can appear to be qualitatively identical!(22) Put differently: If direct realism is false their extensions are the same, but if direct realism is true their extensions are different.
The task here, however, is
not to discuss direct realism,(23) but
to highlight Searle's thinking. My main conclusion is that Searle's radical
ontological claim that mental states have spatial extension opens up uninvestigated
philosophical opportunities. Some of these opportunities point towards
direct realism rather than towards a monadology. Pursuing them may take
us towards a non-monadological construction of social reality. In such
a reality we can directly perceive each other, and the existence of such
mutual perceptions can, I think, help us to explain how the phrase 'We
intend' can be token-reflexive.
1 J.D. Velleman, "How To Share An Intention", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. LVII, p 29-50, 1997.
3 J. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science, Harvard UP: Cambridge, Mass. 1984, p 19.
4 J. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, MIT Press: Cambridge Mass. 1994, p 90.
5 J. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, Free Press: New York 1995, p 25.
6 J. Searle, "Précis of The Construction of Social Reality", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. LVII, p 427-28, 1997.
8 The Rediscovery of the Mind, pp 55-56.
9 Intentionality, p 270-271.
11 Today, living in the world of quantum mechanics with its principle of uncertainty, we cannot take it for granted even that all material states have a well-defined spatial location.
12 Intentionality, pp 10-13 and 122.
13 Ibid. p 46.
14 Ibid. pp 45-46.
15 Note that according to Searle: "Visual experience is never simply of an object but rather it must always be that such and such is the case." Ibid. p 40. I do agree.
16 Op. cit. pp 97 and 102.
19 J. Searle, Intentionality, p 57.
20 J. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, Free Press: New York 1995, pp 24-26.
21 Before proceeding, I had perhaps better mention that I am in no way entertaining the idea of panpsychism. In the debate between Searle and David Chalmers around the latter's book The Conscious Mind, Oxford UP: New York 1996, I side with Searle.
22 Cf. Intentionality, p 75.
23 I have written about it. See I. Johansson, "Perception as the Bridge Between Nature and Life-World", C. Bengt-Pedersen & N. Thomassen (eds.), Nature and Life-World, Odense UP: Odense 1998.