Context

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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?

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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...

(The entire section contains 2112 words.)

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