The Construction of Social Reality

by John R. Searle
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 166

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

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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

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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 form of the assignment of the new status function can be represented by the formula “X counts as Y in C”: This rectangular sheet of paper (brute fact X) counts as money (institutional fact Y) in the United States (context C). The “counts as” term is crucial: Because the function in question cannot be performed solely in virtue of the physical features of the X element, it requires agreement or acceptance that it be performed. Third, the process of the creation of institutional facts may proceed without the participants being conscious that it is happening according to this form. People may simply think, “This is money” or “This is valuable” without having to think, “We are collectively imposing a value on something that we do not regard as valuable because of its purely physical features.” As long as people continue to recognize the X as having the Y function, the institutional fact is created and maintained. Fourth, where the imposition of status function according to the formula becomes a matter of general policy, the formula acquires a normative status and becomes a constitutive rule. This is shown by the fact that the general rule creates the possibility of abuses that could not exist without the rule, such as counterfeit money. Searle states that the secret to understanding the continued existence of institutional facts is simply that the individuals directly involved and a sufficient number of members of the relevant community must continue to recognize and accept the existence of such facts. Because the status is constituted by its collective acceptance, and because the function, to be performed, requires the status, it is essential to the functioning that there be continued acceptance of the status. For example, at the moment that all or most of the members of a society refuse to acknowledge property rights, as in a revolution, property rights cease to exist in that society.

Language plays an essential role in the creation of institutional facts and thus social reality. Searle says that institutional facts are language dependent because the thoughts that are constitutive of institutional facts are language dependent. This is true for several reasons. First, some thoughts are of such complexity that it would be empirically impossible to think them without being in possession of symbols. Second, language is epistemically necessary. Language is necessary for its naming or labeling function in creating many institutional facts. Third, because institutional facts are inherently social, they must be communicated. If social systems are to function, then the newly created institutional facts must be communicable from one person to another, even when invisible to the naked eye. Fourth, because institutional facts persist through time independently of the duration of the urges and inclinations of the participants in the institution, there must be some way for people to leave a record of institutional facts for those who live in the society later.


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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 arbitrary. It is possible to have a number of different representations of the same reality. This idea is called “conceptual relativity.” Some of these representations purport to represent how things are in reality. They are true if and only if they correspond to the facts in reality. This is the correspondence theory of truth. Actual human efforts to obtain or create true representations of reality are influenced by cultural, economic, and psychological factors. Complete objectivity is difficult, if not impossible, because actual investigations occur within certain cultural and historical contexts.

In this book, Searle builds on theories that he introduced in Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969) and Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983). One valuable contribution of The Construction of Social Reality is that it brings explicit unity to different aspects of Searle’s works; however, by far the most important impact of Searle’s book resulted from its denunciation of relativism. Many critics welcomed Searle’s application of philosophical rigor to the issue of how reality is socially constructed. Even critics of the book, who felt that his hypothesis regarding the logical structure of institutional reality needed further exploration, welcomed his examination of social and cultural objects. Searle describes the philosophical and psychological basis for why and how people confuse physical and symbolic realities in a novel manner.


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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.

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