Few things affect our lives as much as the fact that we are citizens of one country rather than another. The government of, the economy of, and the rights recognized and opportunities provided by the country we live in shape our lives. But how real are any of these facts and things? Without human beliefs, and societies of humans, there would be no states, no facts of citizenship, no money, and few opportunities. Are our lives built on ontological fluff? Ken and John discuss the metaphysics of the social with famed philosopher John Searle, author of Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. This program was recorded live at the Marsh theatre in Berkeley.
Money, debutante balls, universities, even nations—each of these is in some sense a shared illusion, a social reality rooted in certain conventions and rules. Such social realities can dictate how we view the world around us and, in turn, influence our choices and decisions. Given the importance of social realities, John and Ken discuss how is it possible for humans to bring such things into being simply through agreeing that they exist. John proposes that social realities arise out of the natural world, but Ken expresses his doubts about John’s reductionism.
John Searle joins the discussion and proposes that social realities exist precisely because we represent them as existing, both in our minds and through the use of speech acts. In Searle’s view, whenever there is a structured procedure with a set of standard expectations—from sessions of Congress to fraternity parties—there is the potential for creating a social reality. Ken questions the necessity of language in this process, wondering if other animals might possess cruder forms of social realities through common mental representations. Searle stresses that our abilities to assign functions to objects and to obey conventions that go against our immediate inclinations seem to separate us from other animals. These human capacities allow us to delegate powers, duties, and rights to individuals or institutions, giving our mental representations practical groundings in the social sphere.
Human civilization has changed over the course of its existence, and with these changes once ubiquitous social realities have vanished and new ones have risen up to replace them. The trio considers the possible social realities of the future, as well as the complex ways in which social institutions alter our lives and are then altered by our evaluations of them. The most effective institutions, Searle argues, don’t openly broadcast the fact that they are socially constructed at all.
- Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 6:17): Zoe Corneli talks with satirist Merle Kessler (pen name Ian Shoales) about how we create our particular realities based on the communities in which we participate. Earlier in human history, people tended to identify with and hence participate in communities based on their geographical location and social status, but the Internet and other technological innovations have allowed us to participate in communities based on shared interests and past-times. Shoales considers the future of these trends, pointing out that the modern phenomena of chat rooms and social networking sites stem from a natural desire to belong.
- 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 49:40): Ian Shoales discusses the controversial remarks of Afghani president Hamid Karzai, whether government officials can speak accurately on behalf of their countries’ citizens, and the difficulties of living life on the fringes of the so-called international community.
John Searle, Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California Berkeley
EXTENDED INTERVIEW with Merle Kessler
- Berker, P. and T. Luckmann (1967). The Social Construction of Reality.
- Koepsell, D. and L. Moss (2003), eds. John Searle’s Ideas About Social Reality: Extensions, Criticisms, and Reconstructions.
- Lewis, D. (2008). Convention: A Philosophical Study.
- Miller, S. “Social Institutions.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
- Searle, J.
- Smith, B. (2003). “John Searle: From Speech Acts to Social Reality.” (download .pdf)