Reality Principles: An Interview with John R. Searle

Eminent philosopher John R. Searle defends free speech, free inquiry, and the Enlightenment.

In an intellectual scene filled with critics of the Enlightenment's quest for a coherent understanding of the way the world works, philosopher John R. Searle has become a high-profile defender and exemplar of Enlightenment methods. A professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of 10 books, he attacks big questions--the nature of reality, the mind/body problem, the nature of consciousness--in what he sees as a continuation of the Enlightenment's scientific and philosophical program.

Along the way, he has become a leading voice in the debates over the possibility of artificial intelligence. Among A.I. researchers and cognitive scientists, he is most famous, and controversial, for his "Chinese Room" thought experiment, which attacks the idea that intelligence is merely rapid computation.

"Philosophy in the Real World," the subtitle of his most recent book, Mind, Language, and Society (1998), captures two important aspects of Searle's work: First, he focuses his rigorous philosophical explorations on our common sense of how the "real world" works. Searle believes that good philosophical inquiry begins by paying close attention to everyday experiences, such as speech, and noticing their strangeness. "We have to begin by approaching the problem naively," he has said. "We have to let ourselves be astounded by facts that any sane person would take for granted."

Second, Searle believes that the world is in fact real, not a mere construct of texts and word games, and that we can understand that real world--a position known as "metaphysical realism." He is famous as a vocal and vigorous defender of reason, objectivity, and intellectual standards within the academy. In 1977, he engaged in a highly publicized and often nasty debate over deconstruction's logical incoherence with French critic Jacques Derrida.

Searle, 67, says he's not particularly political, preferring intellectual life: "It's more fun. In the long run it's more satisfying" than political life. But his intellectual convictions have led periodically to political controversy. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, he was active in Students Against McCarthy, a group opposed to Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. He left Wisconsin at 19 to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, returning to the United States in 1959, when he joined the Berkeley faculty. A proud supporter of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the early 1960s, he is concerned today with the erosion of free speech, free inquiry, and academic standards on college campuses.

Searle was interviewed in his Berkeley office in November by Edward Feser (, who teaches philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and Steven Postrel, an economist who teaches business strategy at the University of California, Irvine. Searle's arm was in a sling--he broke it in a household accident he finds particularly embarrassing to discuss given his fracture-free years as an avid skier--and his office was a bustle of activity, with research assistants and students coming and going.

Reason: In your book Mind, Language, and Society, you say you're going to defend the "Enlightenment vision." How would you define this vision, and why does it need defense?

John R. Searle: During the 18th century primarily, but even going back longer in history, there was a movement, largely in Western Europe, that sought to throw off various kinds of superstitions. The parts of this "Enlightenment vision" that I find most impressive are the ideas that the attainment of scientific truth and the advance of human rights and democratic government would lead to enormous possibilities for human progress. And, despite a lot of setbacks, something like that happened.

In the past few decades there has been a movement sometimes described as the "postmodern movement." There's no single word that's really adequate to describe it, but that's one that the people [involved] typically accept. In many respects, they see themselves as challenging the Enlightenment vision that there is an independently existing reality, that we can have a language that refers in some clear and intelligible way to elements of that reality, and that we can obtain objective truth about that reality. They advance the view that what we think of as reality is largely a social construct, or that it's a device designed to oppress the marginalized peoples of the world--the colonial peoples, women, racial minorities. They see the attempt to attain rationality and truth and knowledge as some kind of power play, and what they want instead is what they take to be more liberating--a rejection of the rationalist view.

Reason: One version of "postmodernism" which you discuss is "relativism." There are many varieties of relativism, and it's pretty clear from your book that you take the arguments for these views to be pretty bad.

Searle: I think they're terrible.

Reason: How did you characterize these arguments, and what do you think is wrong with them?

Searle: There are a number of arguments. The one that most affects people today is what I call "perspectivalism." That's the idea that we never have unmediated access to reality, that it's always mediated by our perspectives. We have a certain perspective on the world, we have a certain position in society that we occupy, we have a certain set of interests that we articulate, and it's only in relation to these perspectives that we can have knowledge of reality. So the argument goes, because all knowledge is perspectival there is no such thing as objective knowledge--you can't really know things about the real world or about things as they are in themselves.

Now that's just a bad argument. I grant you the tautology: All knowledge is our knowledge. All knowledge is possessed by human beings who operate in a certain context and from a certain perspective. Those seem to me to be trivial truths. But the conclusion that therefore you can never have objectively valid knowledge of how things really are just doesn't follow. It's a bad argument. And that's typical of a whole lot of these arguments.

Reason: You've debated Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. Are they making bad arguments, or are they just being misread?

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  • Les Reid||

    Very good interview. Questions are well put and to the point, so that Searle is encouraged to explain his philosophy in the round. Interesting comments on Derrida, Focault and Rorty. The jokes are pretty good too!

    More discussion of the gap (if any) between the deterministic world of physics and the free world of language, intentionality and action, would have been welcome. Freedom of action is surely essential to the creative use of language, which is in turn required to create all the social institutions which Searle analysed in Making the Social World. In this interview, and in the book, Searle seems to insist that the physical realm is all there is, while at the same time he says that consciousness and intentionality are irreducible. It is not clear to me how those comments can be reconciled.


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