The Construction of Social Reality Analysis

John R. Searle


John R. Searle first presented the ideas in The Construction of Social Reality as the Immanuel Kant Lectures at Stanford University in 1992. Subsequent versions were presented at various lectures and seminars in the United States and Europe. Searle wrote the book in part as a reaction against an increasingly relativistic view of reality that became popular with many philosophers and social scientists. Searle rejects the view that all of reality is created by humans. That view states that there are no brute facts, but only facts dependent on the human mind. His main purpose in writing this book was to answer the question, “How is a socially constructed reality possible?” Searle says there are things in the world that exist only because people believe them to exist, such as marriage, money, property, and governments; however, many facts regarding these things are objective in the sense that they are not a matter of human preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes. How, then, do people come to believe them?

Consciousness and Intentionality

Searle begins by stating this fundamental ontology: People live in a world made up entirely of physical particles in fields of force, organized into systems such as planets, mountains, rivers, animals, and humans. Some of these systems are living, and some of these living systems have evolved, through natural selection, nervous systems capable of causing and sustaining consciousness. Consciousness is a physical, biological, and mental feature of humans and certain other animals that can create intentionality. Intentionality is the capacity of the mind to represent, to itself, objects and states of affairs in the world. Many species of animals, especially humans, have a capacity for collective intentionality. This means that they engage in cooperative behavior and, more important, that they share intentional states such as beliefs, desires, and intentions. Searle says that even most forms of human conflict require collective intentionality. Two prizefighters, opposing litigants in a court battle, or two countries at war with each other are all engaging in cooperative collective behavior at a higher level, within which the antagonistic hostile behavior can take place.

One of Searle’s most important and controversial points concerns his distinction between brute facts and institutional facts and the role played by constitutive rules. Brute facts exist independently of any human institutions; they would exist even if humans did not exist. Institutional facts can exist only within human institutions. Constitutive rules are rules that create the very possibility of certain activities. For example, the rules of chess create the very possibility of playing chess. The rules are constitutive of playing chess in the sense that playing chess is constituted in part by acting according to the rules. If one does not play according to at least a large subset of the rules, one is not playing chess. Institutional facts exist only within systems of constitutive rules. Money is an institutional fact because there are certain constitutive rules that govern its existence and use. The fact that the earth is ninety-three million miles from the Sun is a brute fact; it, and all other brute facts, require the institution of language to state the fact, but the distance would remain the same even if there were no humans.

Institutional Facts

Searle describes several important features of institutional facts. First, many social concepts are self-referential; that is, the attitude a person takes toward the phenomenon is partly constitutive of the phenomenon. If someone gives a huge cocktail party at which events become violent and there are many casualties, it is still a cocktail party. Part of an event being a cocktail party is that it is thought to be a cocktail party, just as part of being a war is being thought to be a war. Second, a very large number of institutional facts can be created by explicit performative, or declarative, utterances. Utterances such as “War is hereby declared” and “I now pronounce you husband and wife” create the very state of affairs that they represent, and in each case the state of affairs is an institutional fact. Third, there can be no institutional facts without brute facts. For example, just about any substance can be money, but money has to exist in some physical form or another. Fourth, an institutional fact cannot exist in isolation but only in a set of systematic relations to other facts. For example, for anyone in a society to have money, that society must have a system of exchanging goods and services for money, and for a system of exchange to exist, the society must have a system of property and property ownership. Fifth, social objects are always constituted by social acts, and, in a sense, the object is simply the continuous possibility of the activity.

Searle describes the process of creation of an institutional fact in a clear and concise manner, using the example of money. First, collective intentionality assigns a new status to some phenomenon, where that status has an accompanying function that cannot be performed solely by virtue of the intrinsic physical feature of the phenomenon in question (there is nothing intrinsically valuable about the green and white pieces of paper that U.S. citizens use as money). This assignment creates an institutional fact. Second, the...

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Searle next attempts to answer the question of causation. If the structure of human institutions is a structure of constitutive rules, and the people who are participating in the institutions are not conscious of these rules, what causal role can these rules play in the actual behavior of those who are participating in the institutions? He rejects the idea that people follow rules unconsciously and instead proposes an alternative explanation that he calls the Background. He defines Background as the set of nonintentional or preintentional capacities that enable intentional states of function. By capacities he means abilities, dispositions, tendencies, and causal structures, including neurophysiological causation. The Background enables linguistic and perceptual interpretation to take place, structures consciousness, and disposes people to certain kinds of behavior.

Although the major thrust of Searle’s book is development of a general theory of the ontology of social facts and social institutions, he devotes the last three chapters to defending realism and the correspondence conception of truth. Searle believes in “external realism,” the view that the world exists independently of human representations of it. Human beings have a variety of interconnected ways of representing features of the world to themselves, including perception, thought, language, beliefs, desires, and pictures. Because these representations are human creations, they are...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Burkhardt, Armin, ed. Speech Acts, Meaning, and Intentions: Critical Approaches to the Philosophy of John R. Searle. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990. A detailed look at Searle’s contributions to speech act theory, especially his work on illocutionary logic, intentionality, meaning, and metaphor. Although the book is primarily concerned with Searle’s work on speech act theory, the final chapter discusses his work on philosophy of mind and critiques the Chinese room argument.

Lanigan, Richard. Speech Act Phenomenology. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977. Provides an introduction to the philosophy of human communication that gives a good foundation for studying Searle. This is one of the most comprehensive and in-depth treatments of speech act theory available. It provides useful information but is most suitable for advanced undergraduates.

Lepore, Ernest, and Robert Van Gulick. John Searle and His Critics. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990. The authors, both philosophy professors, analyze the importance and influence of Searle’s work in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind. The book provides a thorough analysis of Searle’s theories and impact. Each chapter concludes with a summary and a response from Searle himself.

Searle, John R., et al. (On) Searle on Conversation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1992. Although Searle is listed as the major author, this book should be considered an excellent secondary source. It consists of eight articles by various scholars critiquing Searle’s work on speech acts, with replies by Searle.

Van der Auwera, Johan. Indirect Speech Acts Revisited. Antwerp, Belgium: Universiteit Antwerpen, 1980. This is a short (75-page), well-written discussion of Searle’s research on indirect speech acts. It is easy to read and understand, and it is useful in that it gives many conversational examples. A good resource for readers not very familiar with speech acts.

Vanderveken, Daniel. Meaning and Speech Acts. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. This book gives a good overall explanation and description of speech act theory. The discussion of Searle’s research on illocutionary acts is particularly valuable.