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the social world according to searle

John Searle has written a new book that should be of interest to many of you. Following the line of thought of his earlier The Construction of Social Reality, Searle’s Making the Social World tries to explain how we create a world of institutions, like organizations and culture, from a physical world that seems to play by a different set of principles. He starts by identifying a simple principle that he thinks can explain much of what counts for social reality. Here’s an excerpt from the introductory chapter:

It is typical of domains where we have a secure understanding of the ontology, that there is a single unifying principle of that ontology. In physics it is the atom, in chemistry it is the chemical bond, in biology it is the cell, in genetics it is the DNA molecule, and in geology it is the tectonic plate. I will argue that there is similarly an underlying principle of social ontology, and one of the primary aims of the book is to explain it. In making these analogies to the natural sciences I do not imply that the social sciences are just like the natural sciences. That is not the point. The point rather is that it seems to me implausible to suppose that we would use a series of logically independent mechanisms for creating institutional facts, and I am in search of a single mechanism. I claim we use one formal linguistic mechanism, and we apply it over and over with different contents (7).

The claim that I will be expounding and defending in this book is that all of human institutional reality is created and maintained in existence by (representations that have the same logical form as) [Status Function] Declarations, including the cases that are not speech acts in the explicit form of Declarations (13).

Searle isn’t saying that every speech act makes the world change and therefore has a declarative effect.  But some sorts of speech are intended to “change the world by declaring that the state of affairs exists and thus bringing that state of affairs into existence” (12). These declarative speech acts, then, are the fundamental units of any institution because without them humans would be completely constrained by reality as it stands now. They would be unable to create anything new.

Needless to say, the performativity folks will eat this up.

Written by brayden king

February 25, 2010 at 3:35 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Sounds like it’s Austin + plus game theory. Maybe speech is like a focal point. You can “do” things with speech, one of which is to make claims about what our actions will be. Thus, speaking creates reality by coordinating behavior.

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    fabiorojas

    February 25, 2010 at 7:09 pm

  2. What’s missing in Searle (and Austin) is (and always has been) power. Of course we can “do” things with our language, but some people can “do” more because they can draw on a wider array of vocabularies, ideas, languages, phrases, tropes, etc. by virtue of having more education, more money, more agency, etc.

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    Max

    February 25, 2010 at 7:15 pm

  3. Max: If I were a hard core Searle person, I might say that power is often dependent on language. Very few of us directly assert power through physical force, but power depends on laws, money, and property which are all social constructions dependent on language.

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    fabiorojas

    February 25, 2010 at 7:18 pm

  4. I’ve been monitoring Searle’s recent writings on this stuff, and I’ve seen lots of redudancy and lots of cutting and pasting. So I’m gonna go on a limb (having not read this book yet) and suggest that if you want to save time, and get the gist of the argument, you should consult Searle (2006 [Anthropological Theory], 2008 [Theory and Society]). I agree with Max that power is absent here, but is more a matter of focus and presentation rather than a deficiency with the proposed status-function assignment model (in fact, Searle is vociferously clear that his model offers an explanation for the social bases of power that has escaped the classical theory tradition). For instance, I read Bourdieu (1991) as essentially saying the same thing as Searle with a power-twist.

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    Omar

    February 25, 2010 at 11:17 pm

  5. If you want to get an overview of all-things-Searle — you can listen to his 30+ hours of lecture in iTunes U, under Berkeley and Philosophy 138, Philosophy of Society. Some of it can also be found here —> http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details_new.php?seriesid=2009-D-67309

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    tf

    February 26, 2010 at 12:04 am

  6. I suppose what I wanted to point out is that Searle often lacks overt references to how language fosters the reproduction of inequality. But as Omar mentioned, Bourdieu repackages this stuff through his lens and gets, what I believe to be, a fuller picture.

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    Max

    February 26, 2010 at 2:52 am

  7. “It is typical of domains where we have a secure understanding of the ontology, that there is a single unifying principle of that ontology.”

    I think this is either tautological or wrong.

    “The claim that I will be expounding and defending in this book is that all of human institutional reality is created and maintained in existence by (representations that have the same logical form as) [Status Function] Declarations, including the cases that are not speech acts in the explicit form of Declarations (13).”

    Why do people make such grand claims? Instead of “human institutional reality is…” why not, “I think this perspective on human institutional reality is useful because…”

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    Michael Bishop

    February 27, 2010 at 7:52 pm

  8. Sounds like an apt description of human institutions: they exist because we say and agree that they exist. Much like money — especially fiat money. Of course, with a firm, the institution does have to actually do or make something for people to cotninue to agree that it exists, so it’s not entirely a speech act.

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    Troy Camplin

    March 1, 2010 at 9:41 am

  9. […] might be. I wanted to share some more thoughts as I read John Searle’s new book “Making the Social World“And one of the things that has struck me profoundly about social reality is the degree to […]

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  10. […] might be. I wanted to share some more thoughts as I read John Searle’s new book “Making the Social World“And one of the things that has struck me profoundly about social reality is the degree to […]

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