This is a book review

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilisation by John Searle
    Oxford, 208 pp, £14.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 957691 3

It’s striking nowadays to hear a philosopher say that ‘we want a unified account of our knowledge’; even more striking to hear him say ‘I think we can get it’; very striking indeed to hear this from a philosopher of language. That wouldn’t always have been so. A hundred years or so ago, there was great enthusiasm for looking closely at the structure of sentences and at the distinction Frege had drawn between their sense and reference (the difference between saying that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn and saying that Samuel Clemens did – Clemens was Twain’s real name – where the sense, the cognitive significance, is different but the reference is the same); a great will, too, to separate sentences that were true by definition from those that weren’t, and among those that weren’t, to admit only those that could be independently verified. This was at the heart of the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle for which Otto Neurath wrote the manifesto in 1929. And Neurath persuaded his colleagues (and the University of Chicago Press) that it was possible to bring all that was positively known into an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. The unification would be provided by the purified language of meta-theoretical propositions. (Twenty monographs for the encyclopedia appeared between 1938 and 1969 but only two of the foundational volumes were published before the project eventually lapsed.)

The Vienna Circle’s radicalism, however, went only halfway round what came later to be called the linguistic turn in 20th-century philosophy. Within two years of writing his manifesto, Neurath himself declared that the idea of statements representing things in the world and being verified by experience was unacceptably metaphysical: ‘reality’ consists solely in the sum of true sentences and the relations between them. Language itself, indeed, with all its metaphysical baggage, was suspect, and Neurath, following the model of mathematical physics, proceeded to advocate a new way of doing propositions in what he called the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics, which his wife Marie refashioned as an International System of Typographic Picture Education. (She continued the work in Oxford after Otto’s death there in 1945, until her own, in London, in 1986; it is now archived at Reading.)

Neurath’s more enduring holistic conception of a language which we have no reliable way of connecting to the world was taken up by Quine in America and by the later Wittgenstein. Two men see a lolloping object, Quine imagined. One exclaims ‘rabbit’, the other ‘gavagai’, and there’s no way the first man can know whether ‘gavagai’ means ‘rabbit’ or something like ‘undetached rabbit part’ or ‘temporal slice of rabbithood’. (Quine also produced a powerful objection to the distinction between statements that were true by definition and those that were not.) In the 1920s, the early Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus had been one of the Vienna Circle’s canonical texts. But it’s said that even then he’d insist on reciting poetry at their meetings, and by the 1950s, he too had taken the full turn to claiming, or so it could seem, that we are our language, though neither he nor Quine followed Neurath and his radical friends in the 1920s and 1930s in pressing the thought that a firm, clear, shared language would show the way to a true socialism. And although each took a holistic view of language, neither showed any interest in a unified account of the world.

All these philosophers, however, did assume that the point of language was to describe the world, however difficult or indeed impossible it might be to know that we’re doing so. So too did Husserl’s phenomenology, though from a different direction. Husserl concentrated on consciousness, which he saw, in his word, as intentional, directed towards objects in the world. We may exercise our consciousness in many ways, in hoping, declaring, commanding, promising and so on, as well as describing or referring, but Husserl regarded all such performances as one or another kind of objectifying act. For him, my declaring that you’ll get to the end of this piece would be to say that ‘your getting to the end of this piece is my declaration.’ That may prompt you into thinking that you might not, and not just because you don’t like being declared to. The reformulation, you will rightly think, misses the point. I’m not just saying something to myself. I’m saying something to you. The declaration is a social act. But what may be obvious to us now had not been so in phenomenological circles in Germany, and when Adolf Reinach suggested it in 1913, he caused a stir. Even Husserl, who was not known for listening to others, was impressed. But Reinach was killed in action in Flanders in 1917, aged 34, and although his thinking was revived in Munich after the first war, where it was described as the study of ‘speech acts’, it was not until after the second that it was developed by J.L. Austin in Oxford.

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