What’s it all about?

Richard Rorty

  • Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind by John Searle
    Cambridge, 278 pp, £20.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 521 22895 6

In a recent polemic against Derrida, John Searle said that the present was a sort of ‘golden age of the philosophy of language’. This is certainly true. It is an era of system-building, in which dozens of immensely complex structures are being constructed. The older rhetoric of analytic philosophy, which decried system-building, big fat books (as opposed to thin, stiletto-like journal articles), and the development of philosophical ‘schools’, has been put aside. Nobody now talks about ‘teamwork’ or ‘bite-size problems’. Rather, every few years the problematic of philosophy of language is altered by the intrusion of yet another brilliantly original account of meaning and reference, one which starts off by denying a premise which had previously been assumed to be part of the rules of the game. Philosophy of language nowadays is an area in which a lot of extremely bright people, inspired by the challenge of friendly competition with equals, are busy creating schools – bodies of students prepared to defend the ‘central insight’ of their teacher by marvellously detailed accounts of modal contexts, conditionals, indexicals, and so on. No area of analytic philosophy demands, or gets, more concentrated intelligence. None generates more intellectual excitement.

This golden age is the product of the same sort of challenge which produced previous golden ages in philosophy – for example, the great ‘scholastic’ systems of the 13th and 14th centuries, or the great metaphysical systems of German Idealism. The challenge consists in the suggestion that we may somehow be locked in by our own limitations, unable to crash through to something with which it is very important to get in touch. In the Middle Ages, it was God who seemed out of reach. Human finitude might, or might not, manage to bridge the gap between itself and the infinite. Fabulous ingenuity was devoted to describing this gap, and to presenting or repelling suggestions about how it might be crossed. After Kant, it was the thing-in-itself which might, or might not, be beyond our grasp. Great feats of the metaphysical imagination produced systems explaining, or denying, the concealed identity of subject and object. After Frege, it has sometimes seemed as if the world of space and time were beyond the reach of human language. Kant’s vision of us as locked in with our own, merely phenomenal creations gave place to the suggestion that we may be locked in with our own intentions, unable to make our language-games latch onto the world. In recent years, the question of the relation between sense (what is in the heads of language-users) and reference (the relation which ties words to the world) has dominated analytic philosophy. It has been debated in the same tone of urgency in which the problem of ‘transcending our subjectivity’ used to be discussed.

Searle’s new book is an exceptionally elegant and incisive account of how we manage to, so to speak, be both inside and outside our heads at the same time. Here is his statement of purpose:

discussions like this can tend to degenerate into a fussy scholasticism which conceals the basic ‘metaphysical’ assumptions at issue ... My basic assumption is simply this: causal and other sorts of natural relations to language are only relevant to language and other sorts of Intentionality insofar as they impact on the brain ... Some form of internalism must be right because there isn’t anything else to do the job. The brain is all we have for the purpose of representing the world to ourselves and everything we can use must be inside the brain. Each of our beliefs must be possible for a being who is a brain in a vat because each of us is precisely a brain in a vat; the vat is a skull and the ‘messages’ coming in are coming in by way of impacts on the nervous system.

In Searle’s sense of the term, internalism contrasts with the Putnam-Kripke view that in order to figure out what somebody is referring to, talking about, you have to look outside her and see her in the context of causal relationships to the rest of the universe – relationships which she may know nothing about. Kripke had made Searle a whipping-boy for Frege, and had claimed that Searle’s account of proper names (in his earlier book, Speech Acts) discredited Frege’s idea that ‘sense determines reference’ – roughly, the internalist idea that what you are in touch with outside you depends on what is inside you. In Intentionality, internalism strikes back.

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