Searle's philosophical project can be characterized as a highly consistent ontological project, driven by a single question with basically two types of answers. In my paper I will first discuss the place of The Construction of Social Reality in this overall project. I will then turn to Searle's account of collective intentionality and its ontological status. I will argue that Searle's attempt to combine both ontological individualism and the irreducibility of collective intentionality makes his account of social reality in the end unintelligible.
A diagnostic section on the ontology of relations follows, intended
to identify the main problem in Searle's position. A final remark on the
ontology of theory of speech acts concludes the paper.
1. The Structure of Searle's Philosophical Project
In the introduction to The Social Construction of Reality Searle
formulates a question which is is my view characteristic for his philosophical
project as a whole: "how do the various parts of the world relate to each
other"? Or, more precise, how do intentional phenomena and consciousness
fit into a world made up entirely of physical particles in fields of force?
This question is central to Searle's project from Speech Acts to
his latest book The Mystery of Consciousness.(2)
This is, of course, not deny that in many places Searle addresses specific
questions, like, for example, the question how proper names refer, or how
promising succeeds. Nevertheless, the ultimate question Searle is driving
at is the one mentioned above. It is an ontological question since
it is concerned with the logical analysis of phenomena and the way they
relate to each other. Epistemology, according to Searle, has an important
but certainly not a central place in the enterprise of philosophy".(3)
To this fundamental question Searle gives basically two types of answers.
One is in terms of what may be called his principle of constitution:
'X constitutes Y in context C'; the other is in terms of what may be called
his principle of transfer, for which he uses his well-known formula
'X counts as Y in context C'.(4)
The principle of constitution is used to explain how higher order properties
arise in both physical and biological systems. It allows Searle to maintain
at the same time the atomic theory of matter and the irreducibility of
macro phenomena that arise at a particular stage of development. The liquidity
of water, for example, is caused by a particular micro-structure of H2O
molecules (you need at least five molecules to have this type of behavior),
where liquidity is not a property of these molecules taken separately.
This model is used by Searle for other phenomena. Thus biological life
emerges when a particular configuration of DNA molecules is developed in
the course of the evolution, but it is not a property of DNA molecules.
The constitution principle 'X constitutes Y in
context C' also applies to the macrophenomena of consciousness and
intentionality: they are caused by and realized in a particular neurophysiological
structure. But being macro properties they are not reducible to properties
of the individual elements of the underlying structure. This is Searle's
approach from Intentionality to the Mystery of Consciousness.
The principle of transfer is used to explain intentional characteristics
of phenomena that are not intrinsically intentional. The linguistic meaning
of certain sounds is explained in Speech Acts in terms of constitutive
rules that have the form 'X count as Y in context C.' Symbolic functions
in general are in Intentionality conceived as a matter of derived
intentionality: conditions of satisfaction are imposed upon entities that
are not intrinsically intentional. Functions of everyday objects exist
according to The Construction of Social Reality
because they are assigned by beings that have intrinsic intentionality,
where the assignment can be described in terms of 'X counts as Y in context
C'. And the same applies to social properties and social institutions,
which are a matter of the collective assignment of functions.
Many philosophers feel that the formal nature of these two ontological
principles makes them to a certain extent question begging, since they
simply seem restate the problem that needs to solved.(5)
For them, it is not enough to say that intentionality and consciousness
are compatible with biological naturalism and that these phenomena arise
at a particular level of complexity, they want to know how they
arise; or, that it is not enough to say that the ability to transfer intentionality
is a primitive biological ability, they want to know how this ability
works. For Searle, however, these are questions that should be left to
The Construction of Social Reality fits very well into Searle's
overall project. He uses a limited conceptual apparatus to explain complex
social phenomena, where most of the apparatus was already present in his
earlier work. Specifically Searle employs four tools: (i) the distinction
between constitutive and regulative rules, (ii) the imposition of function
according to the formula 'X counts as Y in context C', (iii) collective
intentionality, and (iv) the background of intentionality consisting of
non-intentional skills and abilities. In a way The Construction of Social
Reality closes a circle that began with Speech Acts. Speech
Acts is concerned with the analysis of linguistic social phenomena,
The Construction of Social Reality broadens the earlier analysis.
In between, Searle has been concerned with the foundation of his analysis
in the theory of human intentionality and consciousness. That is why the
later analysis is in different terms than the earlier one. Closing the
circle also completes for Searle the overall ontological picture.
2. Collective Intentionality and Searle's Ontological Individualism
I now turn from the exegetical to the more critical part of my paper,
in which I will discuss a central element of Searle's account of social
reality: his notion of collective intentionality and its ontological status.
The notion of collective intentionality is without any doubt crucial for
Searle's account of social reality. It defines the notion of a social fact
since "any fact involving collective intentionality is a social fact",(6)
and it is essential for the construction of institutional reality. The
latter involves the collective imposition of a specific type of functions,
status functions, on entities that do not already have this function. As
Searle says: "The central span on the bridge between physics to society
is collective intentionality".(7) An evaluation
of Searle's account of social reality therefore calls for a careful (ontological)
analysis of this phenomenon.
Searle's theory of collective intentionality goes back to an earlier
article in which he argued that collective intentional behavior cannot
be analyzed as the summation of individual behavior or individual intentionality.
It is a primitive phenomenon.(8)
One of Searle's examples is intended to illustrate the irreducibility of
collective intentions. Imagine a group of people sitting on the grass in
various places of a park. Suddenly it begins to rain and they all get up
and run to a common, centrally located shelter. In this situation each
person has the intention 'I am running to the shelter', independently of
one another. The actions are individual and do not involve anything like
collective behavior. Imagine now a situation in which there is a group
of theater actors performing a play in which everybody performs the same
action as in the earlier case, but now as part of their collective performance.
What makes these cases different? Since the bodily movements are exactly
the same, the difference must lie in the mental component. The latter involves,
according to Searle, a collective intention of the form 'we
intend to do x', which is different from an individual intention of the
form 'I intend to do x', or from the summation of individual intentions
of this form. Collective intentions, or more generally, collective intentional
states are irreducible. We- intentions, we-beliefs or we-desires form a
separate class of intentional phenomena.
Since we are interested here in the ontology of intentional states,
we want to know on what kind of entities collective intentionality supervenes.
Who is the 'we', so to say, of the collective intentional states? Here
Searle makes a very peculiar move. I quote extensively, to make sure that
I am not making any mistakes here. According to Searle,
"Anything we say about collective intentionality must meet the following conditions of adequacy:
1) It must be consistent with the fact that society consists of nothing but individuals. Since society consists entirely of individuals, there cannot be a group mind or consciousness. All consciousness is in individual minds, in individual brains;
2) It must be consistent with the fact that the structure of any individual's
intentionality has to be independent of the fact of whether or not he is
getting things right, whether or not he is radically mistaken about what
is actually occurring. And this constraint applies as much to collective
intentionality as it does to individual intentionality. One way to put
this constraint is to say that the account must be consistent with the
fact that all intentionality, whether collective or individual, could be
had by a brain in a vat or by sets of brains in vats".(9)
These two conditions of individualism and internalism are characteristic
of what I will call Searle's ontological individualism. They force
him into a position in which collective intentions are not only conceived
as primitive, but also as existing 'in the head' of individuals. All intentionality,
whether singular or plural, can only be attributed to individuals. Heroically,
Searle takes the ultimate consequence: his position allows for the possibility
of one person having the collective intention 'we intend
to do x'. "Of course I take it in such cases that my collective intentionality,
is in fact shared; I take it in such cases that I am not simply acting
alone. But I could have all the intentionality I do have even if I am radically
mistaken, even if the apparent presence and cooperation of other people
is an illusion, even if I am suffering a total hallucination, even if I
am a brain in a vat."(10)
Though I am sympathetic to Searle's analysis of collective intentionality
as a primitive phenomenon, I find his ontological position, according
to which a single individual does have a collective intentional
state, unintelligible. In case of intentions we have to make distinction
between three types of intentions:
(1) I intend to do p
(2) I intend that we do p
(3) we intend to do p
The first and second intentions are intentions of individual subjects,
though the second intention has a plural subject in its content. Only the
third intention is a genuine collective intention, since it has a plural
subject. Now Searle wants the third intention but he only has an individual
as its subject. I don't see how such a combination is possible. It would
lead to individuals having intentions like 'we intend to perform
an opera', 'we intend to play a football match', etc. This amounts in my
view to a reductio ad absurdum of Searle's internalist position. But at
the very least Searle takes such a deviant position here that the burden
lies clearly on him to defend and clarify this
One of the reasons why Searle is probably tempted to this view is his
fear that he would end up with a "group mind" or "group consciousness",
if he would not stick to his individualism. This is indeed a position to
avoid. But the mistake is to think that there are only two alternatives
here: individualism or collectivism (in this strong sense). The most plausible
view is overlooked, according to which there are both individual subjects
as well as subjects in relation. When we agree on going out for
dinner, for example, we enter into a relation between subjects which is
also constitutive for our collective intention 'we intend to gou out for
dinner'. The intention is collectivity involving, as Margaret Gilbert puts
it.(11) The related subject is formed in
the process of forming a collective intention. Such a notion of a related
subject does not fit into Searle's theory, because he wants all intentionality
to be possible by a brain in a vat.
Furthermore, an obvious problem for an internalist like Searle is the notion of agreement. Agreement is constitutive of many social and collective phenomena, as Searle himself observes. But how can this notion be construed internalistically? Agreement cannot be analyzed solely in terms of intentions and (mutual) beliefs, which can be seen by looking at the phenomena that follow from collective intentional states. For example, joint acceptance of a view, resulting in the collective belief 'we believe that p', gives the right to members of the group to correct each other. They may therefore claim that members stick to this view. Collective beliefs thus involve normative relations among participating individuals. The emergence of these relations is incomprehensible within Searle's framework. If a collective belief is only the belief of an individual subject, there can never arise a claim on somebody else's intentions or beliefs based on that belief.
3. The Irreducibility of Relations
The foregoing discussion already suggested why Searle runs into trouble.
He is not able to account for relations in his individualistic ontology.
More generally, any form of individualism, methodological or metaphysical,
is unable to account for relations. With hindsight we may say that the
ontology of substance and (non-relational) attribute has been a real hindrance
in the history of philosophy for developing an adequate understanding of
the concept of a relation.(12) This ontology
forces one to adopt a reductive strategy of relations, since all properties,
including relational ones, have to fit the framework.
Reductive strategies have been effectively refuted by Russell, among
others. I will recall some of the discussion here, because an adequate
concept of relation is in my view a sine qua non for a theory of
social reality. Russell distinguished two reductive theories: the monadistic
and the monistic theory.(13) He describes
them as follows: "[g]iven, say, the proposition aRb, where R
is some relation, the monadistic will analyze this into two propositions,
which we may call ar1 and br2 , which
give to a and b respectively adjectives supposed to be together
equivalent to R. The monistic view, on the contrary, regards the
relation as a property of the whole composed of a and b,
is thus equivalent to a proposition which we may denote by (ab)r."(14)
The monadistic theory has difficulties accounting for asymmetrical relations
such as greater than. According to this theory, there must be intrinsic
properties that explain why the relation is asymmetrical. Take, for example,
two lines L and M which are identical in every respect, except
that L is greater than M. This will be analysed as L is
(greater than M). The adjective is complex, consisting of several parts.
The part greater than by itself does not discriminate between the
terms, since M will also have this property in some respect. The
asymmetry must come therefore from the inclusion of M in the predicate
greater than M. But on analysis this turns out to be a relation
in a disguised form, since greater than M is an extrinsic predicate
instead of an intrinsic one. The original relation is transformed in a
relation between extrinsic predicates. The monadistic theory thus fails.
The monistic theory is equally flawed. It holds that every relational
proposition aRb is to be resolved into a proposition concerning
the whole which a and b compose. The proposition a is
greater than b is analysed, say, as the proposition (ab) contains
diversity of magnitude. Asymmetrical relations are a source of trouble
here again. (ab) is symmetrical with regard to a and b,
and thus the property will be exactly the same in the case where a
is greater than b as in the case where b is greater than
a. "In order to distinguish a whole (ab) from a whole (ba),
as we must do if we are to explain asymmetry, we shall be forced back from
the whole to the parts and their relation."(15)
The monistic theory is thus unable to explain the sense of a relation.
These and other arguments have shown that relations cannot be reduced
to intrinsic properties. They belong to an ontological category of their
own. As we have seen, talk about relational properties is often misleading
in that it suggests that there is only one term of a relation, where a
relation relates at least two terms.
Now given the irreducibility of relations, can Searle's position be
modified to prevent these counterintuitive results? I believe this can
be done, though it does require that Searle gives up his commitment to
ontological individualism. His ontology allows for relational properties
like functions, linguistic meanings, or social properties, but when it
comes to intentionality he states two additional conditions that make the
notion of a related subject impossible. And without such a notion, i.e.,
without the notion of a genuine *we*, an adequate account of collective
intentionality is not possible.
Such a concession might be hard for Searle, since it also implies giving
up his internalism, i.e., the idea that the structure of intentionality
has to be independent of the fact of whether or not the subject is getting
things right (with the extreme case of a brain in a vat). If the subject
of an intentional state is a related subject, it does matter wether individuals
get things right or wrong. For the ascription of a collective intentional
state might be wrong about the subject of the state, i.e. whether of not
*we* intend, believe, or desire something, and without a genuine *we* there
is no collective intentionality.
The lack of a notion of a related subject
also brings into question Searle's account of speech acts. Do speech acts
have an adequate ontological underpinning in Searle's theory? Many speech
acts, like promising, ordering, or apologizing create asymmetrical relations
between subjects when accepted. A promise, for example, creates the relation
of claim and obligation between two or more subjects. From the analysis
given it follows that such a relation cannot be accounted for within Searle's
current ontology, and that might be another reason for Searle to change
his mind on the issue of ontological individualism
In this paper I have argued that Searle's account of social reality
is in the end unintelligible because of the ontological status of collective
intentionality. The problem arises because Searle does not give relations
their proper ontological due, thus effectively excluding the notion of
a related subject. This notion is required in any account of social reality.
My conclusion, when correct, has also repercussions for the ontological
underpinnings of the theory of speech acts. Searle's position, however,
can be modified to avoid these problems if he is prepared to give up his
commitment to ontological individualism.
2. Compare: "How is it possible that when a speaker stands before a hearer and emits an acoustic blast such remarkable things occur as: the speaker means something; the sounds he emits mean something; the hearer understands what is meant?" (Speech Acts , 3); "How does the mind impose Intentionality on entities that are not intrinsically intentional?" en "How do we get from the physics to the semantics?" (Intentionality, 27); "Once we have gone beyond both materialism and dualism, how do we locate consciousness in relation to the rest of the world?" (The Rediscovery of the Mind, xiii); "How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?" (The Construction of Social Reality, xi).
4. My terminology. I intentionally avoid technical terms like 'emergence' or 'supervenience' here and I use 'constitution' as a general term, not referring to specific ways of conceiving the notion of constitution (as for example Lynne Baker does in her "Why Constitution is not Identity", Journal of Philosophy 1997, 599-621).
8. Searle's theory of collective intentionality has originally been developed in his article "Collective Intentions and Actions", in Intentions in Communication, eds. P. Cohen, J. Morgan and M.E. Pollack, Cambridge (Mass.) 1990, 401-415.
13. The principal texts for Russell's philosophical views on the irreducibility of relations are: "The Classification of Relations" (1899), in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, volume ii: 1896-1899, eds. N. Griffin and A.C. Lewis, London 1990, 138-146; and The Principles of Mathematics, London 1903/19372, 534 pp; especially the chapters ""Relations" (95-100), "Whole and Part" (137-142), "Asymmetrical Relations" (218-226), and "Logical Arguments against Points" (445-455). For an account of the development of Russell's views on relations see Nicolas Griffin, Russell's Idealist Apprenticeship, Oxford 1991, chapter 8: "Relation. The End of Russell's Apprenticeship", 314-369.