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Searle, John (1932–)

DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-DD088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

John Rogers Searle (born July 31, 1932) is the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. This analytic philosopher has made major contributions to the fields of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, and social ontology. He is best known for his Chinese room argument, which aims to demonstrate that the formally described systems of computer functionalism cannot give rise to intentional understanding.

Searle’s early work focused on the philosophy of language, where, in Speech Acts (1969), he explores the hypothesis that speaking a language is a rule-governed form of behavior. Just as one must follow certain rules in order to be considered to be playing chess, rules determine whether a speaker is making a promise, giving a command, asking a question, making a statement, and so forth. The kind of speech act that an utterance is depends on, among other conditions, its propositional content and illocutionary force. The content depicts the world as being a certain way, and the force specifies what a speaker is trying to do with that content. For example, for an utterance to qualify as a promise a speaker must describe a future act (content) and intend that the utterance place him or herself under an obligation to do that act (force).

In Intentionality (1983), Searle argues that the structure of language not only mirrors but is derivative of the structure of intentional thought, so that core elements of his analysis of speech acts can be used as the basis for a theory of intentionality. Just as we can only promise by bringing certain propositional contents under a certain illocutionary force, intentional states such as belief, desire, fear, and joy can only be about the world in virtue of a representative content and a psychological mode.

A theory of intentionality does not explain how intentionality is possible, given the basic facts of the world as identified by the natural sciences. Much of Searle’s work in the philosophy of mind, as found in Minds, Brains, and Science (1984) and The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992), is dedicated to the question of how mental facts, including but not limited to intentional facts, can be reconciled with basic, natural facts. Searle’s Chinese room argument is formulated in the service of rejecting computer functionalism, a prominent attempt at such reconciliation. Searle’s positive view, which he describes as “biological naturalism,” is that mental facts are both caused by and features of underlying neurophysiological processes.

In Speech Acts (1969), Searle claims that using language is akin to playing chess, in that both activities are made possible by participants following what he describes as “constitutive rules,” rules that must be followed in order for someone to be considered to be undertaking those activities. Other institutional facts, such as money or the U.S. presidency, are also created and maintained in virtue of our following certain constitutive rules. For example, someone can only count as a U.S. president if that person is, among other conditions, a U.S. citizen who receives a majority of electoral votes. This thought is extended and explored in Searle’s two book-length contributions to the field of social ontology, The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and Making the Social World (2010).

In addition to the philosophy of language and social ontology, Searle has made book-length contributions to the philosophy of action (Rationality in Action (2001)) and the philosophy of perception (Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (2015)). He also famously engaged Jacques Derrida’s critique of J. L. Austin’s discussion of illocutionary acts (“Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida” (1977)). Searle has summarized his various positions in Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (1998) and Mind: A Brief Introduction (2004).

Citing this article:
Rust, Joshua. Searle, John (1932–), 2017, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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