Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2345

Illustration of PDF document

Download John R. Searle Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 functions, biological skills, and universally human capacities, such as eating, walking, and talking. The Local Background is made up of culturally bound skills and capacities, such as knowing the purposes of culturally specific objects and which behaviors are appropriate for certain culturally bound occasions.

Searle describes several ways that Background is important to intentions. First, Background enables linguistic interpretation to take place. Second, Background enables perceptual interpretation to take place. Third, Background structures consciousness. Fourth, Background facilitates certain kinds of readiness that help to structure the nature of human experiences. Finally, Background disposes people to certain kinds of behavior. Searle’s work on intentionality and Background helps to form the basis of one of his most influential books, The Construction of Social Reality.

Searle became increasingly interested in the question “What is consciousness?” His theory of biological naturalism is an attempt to answer this question; it is described in detail in The Rediscovery of the Mind and The Mystery of Consciousness. Searle defines consciousness as a subjective state of sentience or awareness that begins when one wakes up in the morning and continues throughout the day until one goes to sleep at night, or falls into a coma or dies. He theorizes that mental phenomena such as thoughts, emotions, and desires are caused by neurophysiological processes in the brain and are themselves features of the brain. Above all, he says, consciousness is a biological phenomenon. Searle says consciousness should be thought of as part of ordinary biological history, along with digestion, growth, mitosis, and meiosis; however, it has some features that other biological phenomena do not. The most important of these, Searle says, is what he calls “subjectivity.” This is the sense in which each person’s consciousness is private to that person. Searle believes that consciousness is essentially a first-person, subjective phenomenon, and thus talk of conscious states cannot be reduced or eliminated in favor of third-person, objective talk about neural events. According to Searle, brain processes cause consciousness, but the consciousness they cause is not some extra substance or entity: It is just a higher level feature of the whole system. The two crucial relationships between the brain and consciousness are that lower level neuronal processes in the brain cause consciousness and that consciousness is simply a higher level feature of the system that is made up of the lower level neuronal elements. Searle acknowledges that although it appears that certain brain functions are sufficient for producing conscious states, limited knowledge of neurobiological matters prevents researchers from concluding that brain functions are necessary for producing consciousness.

Much of Searle’s later career was concerned with arguing against artificial intelligence (AI), the basis of which is the claim that computers can think, or at least have the potential to do so. In “Minds, Brains, and Programs,” published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1980, he presented a thought experiment he called the Chinese room argument; it has become one of the best-known and most widely credited counters to artificial intelligence. In this argument, Searle targets what he calls “strong AI,” in which the computer is not just a tool in the study of the mind but really is a mind, in the sense that computers given the right programs can be said literally to understand and to have other cognitive states.

In the Chinese room argument, he asks readers to imagine themselves to be monolingual English speakers locked in a room and given a large set of Chinese writing, a second set of Chinese script, and a set of rules in English for correlating the second group with the first group. The rules correlate one set of syntactic symbols with another set of syntactic symbols. A third group of Chinese symbols and more instructions in English enable readers to correlate elements of this third group with elements of the first two groups and instruct readers to give back certain sorts of Chinese symbols with certain sorts of shapes in response. Those who provide readers with the symbols have terms for each of the groups of symbols. They call the first set of Chinese writing a script, which is a data structure with natural language processing applications. The second set is called a story, the third set is called “questions,” the set of rules in English is called “the program,” and the symbols readers would give back are called “answers to the questions.” The readers engaged in the experiment know none of this, but they become so skilled at following the instructions that from the viewpoint of someone outside the room, their responses are indistinguishable from those of a Chinese speaker. In producing answers by manipulating uninterpreted formal symbols, they have behaved like a computer, but they still do not understand a word of Chinese.

According to Searle, the argument against strong AI is based on two truths: Brains cause minds, and syntax does not suffice for semantics. No matter how intelligently a computer behaves and no matter what programming makes it behave that way, because the symbols it processes are meaningless and lack semantics, it is not really intelligent and it is not really thinking. In Minds, Brains, and Science, Searle expanded his argument, providing this axiom: Syntax is not sufficient for semantics; programs are syntactic; minds are semantic; therefore, no program (or computer) is sufficient for the mind. His position against strong AI has become more forceful with time; in The Mystery of Consciousness, he argues that the Chinese room argument gives too much credit to computers. He says the argument wrongly took as unproblematic the assumption that computer programs are syntactic or symbolic in the first place, because there is nothing intrinsic in the physics of computers that makes their operations syntactic or symbolic. The ascription of syntax or symbolic operations to a computer program, therefore, is a matter of human interpretation.


Searle has made major contributions in the areas of philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, but his work also has been important in other scholarly fields. His contribution to speech act theory is important for communication and cultural studies because it counters the simplistic linear flow models of communication that see communication simply in terms of information transfer or exchanging ideas. Searle’s contributions also have been influential in studies of social interaction because they provide an analytic tool for a variety of research traditions ranging from discourse analysis to ethnography of communication. His work in philosophy of mind, especially in terms of consciousness and artificial intelligence, has engendered great discussion in academic circles. Searle has been a prolific lecturer and researcher, acting as visiting professor at prestigious universities across the United States and around the world, in such cities as Venice, Florence, Frankfurt, Toronto, Oslo, Berlin, and Oxford. His works have been translated into twenty languages.

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.