John R. Searle Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Searle elaborated on speech act theory and developed theories of intentionality and consciousness. His famous thought experiment, “the Chinese room argument,” is arguably the most influential argument against artificial intelligence.

Early Life

John Rogers Searle was born to G. W. Searle, an electrical engineer, and Hester Beck Searle, a physician. He attended the University of Wisconsin from 1949 to 1952, then studied philosophy at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar. He received his B.A. from Oxford in 1955 and his M.A. and D.Phil. from Oxford in 1959. He taught as a lecturer in philosophy at Christ Church in Oxford from 1956 to 1959. In 1959, he was appointed to the philosophy department at the University of California, Berkeley, where he eventually became the Mills Professor of Philosophy. On December 24, 1959, he married Dagmar Carboch, an attorney, with whom he had two sons.

Life’s Work

One of Searle’s earliest and most important contributions was in the area of philosophy of language, especially speech act theory. While he was at Oxford, Searle studied under British philosopher J. L. Austin, who had developed speech act theory. Austin demonstrated that many utterances are significant not so much in terms of what they say, but rather in terms of what they do. In other words, some utterances do not simply state facts but instead are performances in and of themselves. Speech act theory distinguishes between what Austin referred to as constative and performative, or illocutionary, speech acts, or utterances. An utterance that only describes an event is called constative. An utterance is performative if it describes a certain action accomplished by its speaker and producing this expression amounts to accomplishing that action. For example, a sentence such as “I promise you I will pay you back” is performative, because by using it, one accomplishes the act of promising; not only does one say that one is promising, but one actually promises. Other examples of performative utterances are those of betting, commanding, greeting, requesting an action, acknowledging, and insulting.

Searle is credited with having elaborated and expanded speech act theory by examining the importance of rules in communication and by introducing the role of intentionality in constituting the meaning of speech acts. His first major book, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, took as its hypothesis the idea that speaking a language is engaging in a rule-governed form of behavior. One type of rule that is important to speech act theory is what Searle calls a constitutive rule. A rule is constitutive with respect to a certain form of activity if failure to observe the rule takes away from the activity its distinctive character; for example, the rules of chess are constitutive with respect to chess, because one ceases to play chess as soon as one disregards these rules. Searle believed that the rules establishing the performative value of utterances are constitutive with respect to the use of these utterances. For example, one cannot say “I promise I will pay you back” without actually taking on the obligation to accomplish what is promised. One may not keep the promise, but it is a constitutive rule that in promising, one makes a commitment. Searle refined his earlier analyses and extended speech act theory to new areas such as indirect and figurative discourse, metaphor, and fiction in Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts.

While examining the role played by speakers’ and receivers’ intentions in creating the meaning of speech acts, Searle became interested in the philosophy of mind. He formulated a comprehensive theory of intentionality that he explains in Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. This book, although it was published after Speech Acts and Expression and Meaning, provides the philosophical foundations for Searle’s work in speech act theory. According to Searle, intentionality is the capacity of the mind to represent objects and states of affairs in the world other than itself. He uses “intentionality” as a technical term meaning that feature of representations by which they are about something or are directed at something. Intentionality has no special connection with intending. For example, intending to go to the store is just one kind of intentionality.

An important component of Searle’s theory of intentionality is that of collective intentionality. Searle believes that humans have a capacity to share intentional states such as beliefs, desires, and intentions. The crucial element in collective intentionality is a sense of doing or wanting or believing something together; the individual intentionality of each person is derived from the collective intentionality that they share. For example, two men who are participating in a prize fight are engaging in collective intentionality, but a man who sneaks up behind another man in an alley and beats him is not engaging in collective intentionality.

Another important feature of intentionality is what Searle calls the “Background.” Searle argues that the structure of human institutions is a structure of constitutive rules, but that no rule or meaning is self-interpreting; rather, a person needs a contextual understanding to arrive at the correct interpretation. The Background helps to provide this context and operates as the precondition for the intelligibility of representation and intentionality. The Background consists of two parts: the Deep Background and the Local Background. The Deep Background consists of neurophysiological...

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