Hyenas, Institutions and God

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • The Construction of Social Reality by John Searle
    Allen Lane, 241 pp, £20.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 7139 9112 7

John Searle is in a café in Paris. The waiter arrives. ‘Un demi,’ Searle asks, ‘Munich, à pression, s’il vous plaît.’ The waiter brings the beer. Searle drinks it, puts a few francs on the table, and leaves. ‘An innocent scene’, he agrees, ‘but its metaphysical complexity is truly staggering, and its complexity would have taken Kant’s breath away if he had ever bothered to think about such things.’ Kant didn’t think about such things because, at the time, philosophers were obsessed with knowledge. ‘Much later,’ Searle observes, ‘for a brief, glorious moment, they were obsessed with language. Now this philosopher at least is obsessed with certain general structures of human culture.’

Sociologists have been trying to think about this matter for more than a hundred years. The first generation, however, people like Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Max Weber, lacked what Searle regards as the necessary equipment with which to tackle it. They had no theories of the kind that Searle has spent his own career spelling out and defending in books on speech acts, expression and meaning, intentionality, The Rediscovery of the Mind and the exaggerated claims of cognitive science about minds and brains. Recent generations of sociologists have been more fortunate. But they’ve not been as clear as one might wish, and have made mistakes. They have tended to think that since institutions are socially ‘constructed’, they can only exist by some sort of agreement. If this is the case, they have thought, institutions can’t in the philosophical sense of the word be real, can’t exist independently of any agreement to present them as the institutions they are.

Searle’s characterisation is correct. Ethno-methodologists, for example, a species of sociologist that first appeared in Southern California in the Sixties, used to instruct their students to go out into the social world and turn it upside down. They were to beg from beggars, arrest policemen, instruct salesgirls to try on the clothes they were employed to sell. They were to perform acts which even in Southern California in the Sixties would, in the reactions they produced, show that social life rested on nothing more substantial than convention. An instructor at Santa Barbara used to demonstrate the point. He would come into class in his wet-suit, still goggled and dripping from the ocean.

The attitude has been extended to all inquiry. Our conceptions are all we have. There is no point of view that is not someone’s point of view. All views are conventional, there is no firm ‘foundation’ for any, and none is privileged. Searle dislikes what this has licensed. ‘In my observation,’ he says, ‘the rejection of realism, and the denial of ontological objectivity,’ of the view that the world is as it is and not otherwise, independently of any representation of it, ‘is an essential component of the attacks on epistemic objectivity, rationality, truth, and intelligence in contemporary intellectual life.’ This brisk, bold and extremely clear little book, the distillation of various lectures in America and Europe over the past three years, is his response. Realism, he wants to show, is right, even for social life. Moreover, our statements about things, if they’re true, correspond to the way things are. Ontologically and epistemically, as an argument about how to see the social world and about what we’re doing when we talk about it, this is unfashionable. Searle does not flinch. ‘Our aim is to assimilate social reality to the basic ontology of physics, chemistry and biology.’

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