John Searle was born on 31 July 1932 in Denver, Colorado. His father, G. W. Searle, was an electrical engineer and his mother, Hester Searle, was a doctor. He began his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin in 1949, and transferred to the University of Oxford in 1952 with a Rhodes Scholarship. He completed his Oxford BA in 1955 and remained at Oxford as a lecturer at Christ Church College while working for the MA and DPhil degrees, which were both conferred in 1959. Upon leaving Oxford, he became a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley in 1959. He was named Mills Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Language, and later his title changed to Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy. Searle has been awarded numerous honors and fellowships, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Jean Nicod Prize in 2000, the National Humanities Medal in 2004, and the Mind & Brain Prize in 2006.
Searle has written extensively on topics in the philosophy of mind and language, and taken together, his writings constitute a comprehensive account of three central aspects of human experience: language, mind, and social reality. The starting point for his work is language, and in particular, speech acts, which he takes to constitute the basic units of linguistic communication. While a student, Searle was chiefly influenced by two of Oxford’s most famous philosophers of language, P. F. Strawson and J. L. Austin. His doctorate thesis, written under Strawson’s supervision, explored the implications of Austin’s work on speech acts for the notions of sense and reference. Searle subsequently developed a comprehensive treatment of the nature of speech acts, culminating in his first book, Speech Acts (1969). He extended the Austinian analysis of how language is used to do such things as assert, promise, and command, to develop both a detailed analysis of the general nature of a speech act and a taxonomy of the range of speech acts.
The fundamental premise behind Searle’s analysis is that language use is a rule-governed activity. The first goal in studying communication, then, is to distinguish the range of possible linguistic actions (speech acts), and specify the rules that correspond to each one. On Searle’s account, every speech act has two parts: a propositional content determined by predication and reference, and an illocutionary force, the particular way in which the propositional content is offered (such as a promise or a threat). Speech acts fall into different kinds according to variations in their illocutionary force. There are five basic types of illocutionary force, and so, five basic things one can do with language: (1) make a claim about how the world is (assertives); (2) try to get someone to do something (directives); (3) undertake an obligation to do something oneself (commissives, e.g., promise); (4) express one’s feelings (expressives, e.g., congratulate someone); and (5) affect a change in the world by means of one’s speaking (declarations, e.g., christen a ship).
Each type of illocutionary force has its own associated rules or conditions, and one central task of Speech Acts is to specify these conditions. The conditions themselves are of four kinds: conditions on the propositional content of the act; conditions on the background conditions under which the act can be performed; conditions for the sincere performance of the act; and what Searle calls an essential condition, which characterizes what counts as an action of the kind in question. Taking the case of asserting as an example, the specific conditions are as follows: any proposition at all can be asserted, subject to the background conditions that the hearer does not already know it and the speaker has some evidence for its truth. A speech act is an assertion when it counts as “an undertaking to the effect that [the proposition asserted] represents an actual state of affairs” (1969, p. 66), and it is sincere just in case the speaker believes what she asserts. Just as these conditions demarcate what counts as an act of assertion, analogous conditions are constitutive of other speech acts.
In subsequent work, Searle extended the analysis of Speech Acts in several directions. First, he undertakes a more thorough taxonomy of the range of speech acts. This also involves him in tackling a variety of “nonstandard” uses of language, including indirect speech acts, fictional discourse and figurative language (see the essays collected in Expression and Meaning, 1979). Second, he tackles one of the central, yet unexplained, notions employed in the account of speech acts: intentionality.
Intentionality is the property of “aboutness” or “directedness” that both our linguistic items and many of our mental states (such as beliefs, desires, and hopes) possess. For example, the sentence “John grimaced at the taste of the medicine,” in addition to being written in black letters and containing eight words, is about a certain individual, namely, John. In a similar way, my belief that the sun is currently hidden by clouds is about the sun. Speech acts are intentional on two levels: first, they involve producing linguistic items (sounds or marks) that have intentionality (that are about something); second, they involve mental items that also have intentionality, namely, specific intentions of the speaker to produce certain effects on their hearer(s). Examining this crucial aspect of the theory of speech acts resulted in Intentionality (1983).
In Searle’s view, the intentionality of linguistic items derives from the intentionality of mental states, which have their intentionality intrinsically. It is this phenomenon of intrinsic intentionality that Searle seeks to explain by cashing out the relationship between an intentional state and its object, in effect, explaining how intentional states represent their objects. Searle’s solution parallels the account of speech acts in important respects; indeed, the account of speech acts provides the key to explaining intentionality. Four crucial points of connection exist between speech acts and intentional mental states or events. First, there is a counterpart to the distinction between propositional content and illocutionary force, namely, between the “representational content” of the intentional state and the “psychological mode” (e.g., hope, belief, or desire) in which that content is held. Second, like speech acts, intentional states have what Searle calls a direction of fit. For example, beliefs, like assertions, have a mind-to-world direction of fit: they are correct when what is in the mind fits (corresponds correctly to) the world. Desires, like intentions, are the opposite: they succeed when the world comes into line with what is in the mind. The third point of connection is that the performance of each speech act just is the expression of an intentional state with the same content, and the actual possession of that intentional state is the condition for the sincerity of the speech act. If I assert that Sara is double-crossing me, I express the belief that she is, and my assertion is sincere just in case I do actually hold this belief. Fourth, the conditions of satisfaction for various speech acts carry over quite directly to the intentional states that have corresponding directions of fit, as we just saw for assertion and belief.
These connections constitute the central features of Searle’s characterization of the intentionality of our mental states. They provide a structure for understanding the relation between an intentional state and its content. However, a further question remains: how intrinsic intentionality arises. Searle is clear that intentionality must ultimately have a biological explanation. He takes it to be one of the hallmarks of our mental lives, but while emphasizing its importance, he rejects one of the most popular approaches to intentionality in the literature, computationalism or what he calls Strong AI.
Against computationalism, Searle has produced one of the best-known arguments in the philosophy of mind: the Chinese Room Argument (CRA). First presented in Searle (1980), it has engendered a vigorous and lasting debate between Searle and other philosophers and cognitive scientists. The target of CRA is Strong AI’s idea that the mind is in essence a computer, because the brain implements a (very elaborate) computer program that moves from one mental state to another solely by attending to the structural or syntactic properties of those states. The key idea to which Searle objects is that such manipulation of structural properties could possibly suffice to generate intrinsic content in those states. Searle disputes that merely running a computer program could generate a mind; at best, a program simulates mental processes.
At the heart of Searle’s argument is a thought experiment. We are to imagine a room in which a person (Searle himself) is locked with a set of rules in English for manipulating Chinese characters solely on the basis of the characters’ shapes. When a piece of paper bearing a string of Chinese characters is slipped under the door, Searle looks up the characters (by their shapes) in his book of rules, which instructs him as to what to do next (look up other instructions or write down certain characters). This eventually results in his writing a string of Chinese characters on another bit of paper and sliding it back under the door. Suppose that Searle is so good at manipulating the characters and rules that from outside the room it looks as though a native Chinese speaker is providing responses to questions slipped under his door. This appearance, however, is deceiving: the person in the room does not understand Chinese, but merely manipulates the symbols as instructed by the rules. The problem for Strong AI lies in the following fact: the person in the room is analogous to a computer. He follows a set of rules, a program, for manipulating his data according to its formal features. The person’s failure to understand Chinese shows, Searle claims, that the computer does not understand what it computes either. Running a computer program is not sufficient to have a mind. There is something extremely compelling about Searle’s CRA, and it has attracted a great deal of critical attention (see Preston and Bishop 2002). However, the general consensus among cognitive scientists seems to be that the CRA is ultimately unsuccessful, although critics disagree about what precisely is wrong with the argument.
Searle (1992) develops a second (and in his view stronger) argument against computationalism: formal (computational) properties could not possibly suffice for intentionality (or consciousness) because they are observer-relative. Whether something is instantiating a given program is not a brute fact about the universe, but depends on a decision by observers to treat a certain physical process as an instantiation of that program. As Searle puts it, “syntax is not intrinsic to physics” (1992, p. 208). This argument challenges the computationalist to show how computational properties are objective properties of physical entities.
Because Searle rejects computationalism, he must provide a different explanation of the source of intrinsic intentionality. This leads him to what he takes to be the defining feature of mental life: consciousness. His strong commitment to the importance of the first-person perspective – what mental states are like from the inside – is most visible here. At the same time, his thoroughgoing naturalism demands that this respect for the subjective nature of consciousness be satisfied within an explanation of consciousness as a biological product, as the result of objective processes occurring in the brain.
As with intentionality, Searle rejects any attempt to treat consciousness as a computational phenomenon. Instead, he advocates a view he calls biological naturalism, which treats the explanation of consciousness as analogous to bodily processes such as digestion. Just as there is nothing more to digestion than the causal processes occurring in the stomach, consciousness is simply the effect of processes occurring in the brain. The key idea here is that consciousness is at once caused by lower-level processes occurring in the brain, and at the same time is a higher-level feature of the brain. Consider a second analogy: the solidity of a table is caused by lower-level properties of the molecules of which the table is composed, but at the same time, the table’s solidity is a higher-level feature of the system of molecules taken together. Consciousness, on Searle’s view, works the same way. It is caused by the lower-level features of the brain’s component neurons, and is at the same time a feature of the system (the brain) as a whole. Unlike solidity or digestion, however, consciousness is not entirely reducible to its underlying processes, by retaining an irreducibly subjective dimension.
With this account of consciousness in place, Searle is able to connect it with intentionality, via what he calls the Connection Principle (CP). According to CP, there are no intentional mental states that are not at least in principle accessible to consciousness. Intrinsically intentional states always have what Searle calls an aspectual shape: they represent their content under a particular description or from a specific point of view. This aspectual shape cannot be fully characterized in third-person terms, because it is inherently subjective in nature. As a result, the only way to account for the intentionality of an unconscious mental state (in particular, for its aspectual shape) is to require that the mental state be accessible to consciousness; only in surfacing to consciousness does aspectual shape become visible. This view of consciousness has several important implications, both for Searle’s general account of the mind, and for the study of cognitive science. For Searle, it provides a naturalistic foundation for intentionality, language, and (as we will see momentarily) social reality. For cognitive science, it mandates a focus on consciousness, rather than cognition, and places primary attention on physical processes occurring in the brain.
With this account of consciousness, intentionality, and language in place, Searle turns his attention to the social dimension of human experience, in order to investigate the nature of facts about such human-made institutions as governments, money, and soccer games. Searle takes such institutional facts to be objective, and seeks to understand how such facts come into being. How, for example, given that soccer is a human creation, can it be an objective fact (as it is) that Brazil won the World Cup in 2002?
Searle takes the explanation of institutional facts to depend on three factors: collective intentionality; the assignment of functions to objects; and constitutive rules. The notion of collective intentionality captures our ability to have shared intentional states. When an orchestra plays Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, each of its members has an individual intention to play her own part. But she also shares with the other players a collective intention to play the symphony. This collective intention, Searle argues, is not reducible to a collection of individual intentions. Rather, it is a distinct sort of intention linked to our ability to engage in cooperative behavior. At the same time, humans (and other animals) are able to assign functions to all sorts of objects. We use fallen logs as benches, and sharp sticks as skewers to roast marshmallows. Of particular interest to Searle are cases in which the assignment of a function depends not on the physical features of the object (as with the log-bench), but only on our collective assignment to it of that function. Searle’s paradigmatic example here is money. Certain bits of paper count as money only because we collectively assign them that status. In such cases, which Searle calls status functions, our treating the object as having its assigned function is constitutive of its having that function. Searle points out that all such constitutive rules are of the form “X counts as Y in (context) C” : certain bits of paper count as money in the United States. (This notion of constitutive rule was already visible in Speech Acts in Searle’s specification of the essential conditions on the various speech acts.)
Institutional reality is created when collective intentionality, the assignment of functions, and constitutive rules come together in a very specific way. Through collective intentionality, we assign a status function to something, where that function corresponds to a constitutive rule of the form “X counts as Y in C.” The X in question has its function only in virtue of our recognizing it as having that function. So, for example, certain rules are constitutive of the game of soccer because we regard them as such. On the basis of this collective recognition, matches can be played and won, and objective facts about those matches – facts that bottom out on assignments of status functions to objects – are created. In this way, it comes to be an objective fact that Brazil won the 2002 World Cup.
Searle has written on a number of other topics, including metaphysical realism, truth, normativity, and rationality. All of his writings display certain deep philosophical commitments, as well as a characteristic style. Philosophically, Searle concentrates his attention on metaphysical questions rather than epistemological ones. He begins each inquiry with a commonsensical realism about the facts of our experience: it’s just a fact that we’re conscious, that our mental states have intentionality, that there are objective facts about social reality, and he undertakes to discover what lies behind these facts. He takes some of the most important facts to be those that report our first-person experience; in all areas of enquiry, Searle is careful not to dismiss the first-person perspective. At the same time, he is committed to naturalism: philosophical explanations must be consistent with our best science. This leads him to emphasize our biological abilities, and to be very skeptical of computation as having any place in causal explanations of the natural world. From these commitments, he develops a comprehensive account of our nature, and our relation to the world.