An interview with John Searle

Take questions that really keep you awake at nights, and work on them with passion. "





















































"In Moses Hall in Berkeley, if you throw a stone you are likely to hit a Disjunctivist."














































































"I think it’s possible to combine a political career with an academic, philosophical career. But the cases of people who’ve done it have not been very inspiring to me."








































































"I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students.

TC: John, welcome to Cambridge. You’ve been to Cambridge before I assume?


JS: Yes, but it has been a long time. When I started as a don at Christ Church and I was still a DPhil student, I came and gave a talk to what I guess was the Moral Sciences Club, and it was an extraordinary experience. It was in Gibbs Building in the very same room where the famous event occurred during which Wittgenstein and Popper either did or did not threaten each other. But in any case, it was a remarkable experience and it lived up to the – how should I say? – Cambridge reputation for eccentricity. In the middle of my talk a propos of nothing, Richard Braithwaite began to shout over and over, 'Ewing is a featherless biped!' You’re not old enough to remember A C Ewing and R B Braithwaite, but Ewing was a figure of some eccentricity as well. And Ewing, who had apparently fallen asleep in my lecture, woke and said, 'What’s that, Braithwaite, what’s that?'. And so the whole thing went on in this bizarre, and somewhat inconsequential, fashion.

However, Cambridge was a remarkable experience, and the hardest part, which I think is probably difficult to convey to anybody today, was the difficulty of driving from Oxford to Cambridge. Maybe it’s just as bad today, but in those days, if you had to drive in the dark, it seemed the road system was designed to prevent you from getting to your destination. In any case, that was the very first time I came to Cambridge and I’ve been here a few times since. But this is the longest stay I think I’ve ever had in Cambridge: a whole delightful week.


TC: So how you would contrast the philosophical style of the Oxford you were living in at the time, in the 1950s, with the Cambridge style then?


JS: The Cambridge style then was really quite different from Oxford. The Moral Sciences Faculty was much smaller than the Philosophy Sub-Faculty at Oxford. Philosophy in Oxford was huge. And it still is huge. At that time I could have named fifty or sixty Oxford Philosophy dons. So it was the dominant subject in Oxford in the sense that more undergraduates took philosophy than any other subject. Even if you were not specializing in philosophy, there was no real philosophy equivalent of the Tripos, you could take PPE, or Philosophy, Physiology and Psychology. Several different degrees included philosophy, Greats most famously. The result was that Philosophy was the dominant subject in Oxford, and I don’t think that was ever the case in Cambridge. Philosophy was always a minority enterprise in Cambridge. And then, of course, at that particular point in history, Oxford Philosophy dominated, not just Cambridge, but in a way, the world. It was just immensely influential and there were just an awful lot of good people.  I was taught by Austin, Strawson, Isaiah Berlin, and Stuart Hampshire for example. There were a whole lot of very good philosophers in Oxford, so it was a wonderful place to do philosophy. Cambridge, I think, was a good place, but it was eccentric and philosophy was a minority enterprise; it was a rather small group of people.


TC: Who would you say was your biggest influence at Oxford. Was it J L Austin?


JS: No. The biggest influence on me, personally, was Peter Strawson. I arranged to have him as my tutor even though he was in another College. I think anyone who looked at my work would think that I was more influenced by Austin. In fact, I got one idea from Austin which was a crucial idea, namely that the right way to approach language was by way of the study of speech acts. Well, my first book was heavily influenced by Austin. And Austin had a much bigger influence on me than I was aware of at the time because not only did I write my first book on Austinian themes, but prior to that I met my wife Dagmar in Austin’s rooms at Corpus Christi College. And unknown to me until many years later, Austin apparently got me my job at Berkeley. I didn’t know that for a long time. Apparently he told them, ‘Look, you can’t get me, so hire Searle’. I don’t know if this legend is true, but something like it may well be true because out of the blue, I received an offer from Berkeley.

So Austin had a big influence on me, but there’s a sense in which I never could have done philosophy in Austin’s style, partly because my whole mode of sensibility is so different. Austin’s attention to the minutiae of linguistic distinctions did not arouse my passions. I thought Austin was very good at what he did, but it was not what I found most interesting in philosophy.


TC: Would you think of yourself more as a descriptive metaphysician, in P F Strawson’s sense?


JS: Yes. Though I’m not sure I like that terminology that Strawson invented. But Peter Strawson was undoubtedly the guy who actually taught me how to do philosophy. And tutorials with him were a remarkable experience because he insisted on having my essay a day in advance. And when we met, he had obviously thought about the essay very carefully. He had a technique that was very impressive. First, he would summarise what I was trying to say in ways that were vastly better than I had ever said it. And I’d say, ‘Yes, yes, that’s it’. And then he’d say, ‘Well that does seem to admit of the following objections…’. But I never felt put down by this. I had the sense that this was the most exciting place in the world to do philosophy, and I had the best philosopher as a tutor. This was a wonderful experience, and, not surprisingly, we became very close friends. I frequently stayed in the Strawson’s house on Banbury Road, and the Strawson’s stayed with us when they came to California. I spoke at his Memorial Service a couple of years ago.


TC: He was a great man. So you moved to Berkeley and you stayed there ever since?


JS: Ever since. Yes. I’ve been a visiting professor all over the place including at Oxford -- I was a Visiting Professor at Brasenose for a year. So I have visited a lot. But essentially, I have been a full-time faculty member in Oxford – I mean in Berkeley – there’s a Freudian slip! – from 1959 until now.


TC: During that period you’ve written a large number of books on many different subjects, and you’ve made original contributions to many areas of philosophy. What’s the book you’re most proud of?


JS: The book that cost me the most work – and in a way the foundation for all the others – is Intentionality. I think it was 1983. But in any case, when I wrote Speech Acts, I knew eventually I’d have to write a book about intentionality because I’d used all these intentionalistic notions of belief and intention and desire and all the rest of it. And I thought: That’s like borrowing money from the bank. I have to pay my dues. I have to write a book about how the mind works. And when I went to work on the book I discovered, to my amazement, that there was a theory of intentionality already implicit in Speech Acts. And so there’s a sense in which the book was very hard to write; but there was a sense in which I had a working plan already implicit in a book that I’d done. As you know, in Philosophy, you sometimes build the foundation after you’ve built the house. I built the theory of speech acts, and then I built the foundation for the theory, which is the theory of intentionality. Intentionality is my best book – well, from my point of view – and the other books, in a way, are all developments of ideas in Intentionality.

It was, by the way, a huge effort.  I set aside a thousand days to write it and kept a calendar of numbered days.  In the end, it took over 1,100. 


TC: I’m a big fan of that book. Do you think it shows the influence of Edmund Husserl at all?


JS: Well here’s a funny thing. I thought, conscientiously, I should read some other people on intentionality. Several people told me to read Husserl’s Logical Investigations. Well, I was working on this, and I read the first Logical Investigation, and I was actually furious. I thought it was self-indulgent and unpublishable in the version that he published it. So I gave up on Husserl. Probably too soon, but that’s the only thing I had to do with Husserl. Later on, many years later, I read some more Husserl when I had to write something on the relation between phenomenology and analytic philosophy. It occurred to me that his later philosophy was a kind of idealism. But the short answer to your question is that Husserl had no influence whatever on Intentionality. However, it would be surprising if there wasn’t a lot of overlap between his work and mine. After all, we were working on the same questions, the same subjects, and by the way, we had both read Frege. There were also Germans, such as Reinach, who wrote about Speech Acts that I knew nothing about. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they had similar views to the views that I had and the views that Austin had.


TC: Your most recent book – the forthcoming book – is on the intentionality of perception as I understand? So could you tell us about what caused you to go back to intentionality of perception?


JS: OK, that’s a kind of funny story. There’s a sense in which the book that I’m finishing now was pre-figured in Intentionality. There’s a chapter on perception in Intentionality, and, essentially, this book develops that chapter into a whole book. But what happened was quite amusing. Two good friends of mine, Ned Block and Tyler Burge, were in Berkeley and they said, ‘You ought to do something about Disjunctivism’. They described Disjunctivism as ‘weeds growing in your own garden here in Berkeley’. I’d heard the word but I didn’t know what it was. Well it turns out, it is a theory of perception very popular in Berkeley.

In Moses Hall in Berkeley, if you throw a stone you are likely to hit a Disjunctivist. So I did start to write an article about Disjunctivism, and then it grew into a whole book. In the end, not much of the book is about Disjunctivism. There is only one chapter on the subject, and in fact it’s an extremely difficult topic to write about because so many people describe themselves, or are described, as Disjunctivists, and they don’t all share a common core conception of Disjunctivism. But I do criticize the two I know best, the two guys who are down the hall from me in Berkeley, Mike Martin and John Campbell. So I do discuss their views.


TC: How would you summarise the Disjunctivist view?


JS: Well, the Disjunctivist view is that, contrary to the great epistemic tradition that says there’s some essential element in common between any accurate perception and the corresponding hallucination, they want to say: There’s nothing significant in common. They have to modify this slightly because clearly there are some things in common. This is why it is called Disjunctivism: they want to say that there is a disjunction between the good case, the veridical case, and the bad case, the hallucinatory case. And they think philosophy has suffered terribly from trying to identify a common element.

I think that here they probably follow John McDowell, who also has a view something like this. McDowell says: if you think there’s a highest common factor to the good case and the bad case, then you’re forced to the view that somehow that highest common factor is, itself, the object of perception. Now, I think that’s the mistake. The mistake — and this is the bad argument, in the history of Western epistemology — is that the existence of hallucinations and other arguments show you never see the real world, you just see your own sense data, or your own ideas, or your own impressions.

So I begin, in this new book, by attacking that bad argument. And I think just about every major philosopher in the modern era accepted it – if you think of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant -- I mean it’s just an incredible list of people including Hegel and Mill… So I do attack what I call the ‘bad argument’ which I think is pervasive in Western epistemology. But when you reject that argument, you don’t go the route of Disjunctivism. You don’t say, ‘Well then there’s nothing in common between the good case and the bad case’. What you say is that the big mistake was to suppose that the common element is an object of perception.

You see, when I see my hand in front of my face, there’s a conscious visual experience occurring in my head, but that is not seen. What is seen is the hand. The conscious visual experience is the seeing of the hand, and one thing you cannot see when you see anything is the seeing of that thing. You can have the event of the seeing, even if there is no object seen, even if it’s a hallucination. So you can have the visual experience minus the object perceived, but the disastrous mistake in the history of Western philosophy is to suppose that the visual experience itself becomes the object of perception. And just about all the famous philosophers make this mistake. I go through a bunch of famous philosophers and show how they made this mistake.

Now if you reject that mistake, then you get a version of what I call ‘naïve realism’, or direct realism, where, typically, you just see the real world.  And if the response is ‘yes, but what about the hallucination case?’, the answer is that in the hallucination case you don’t see anything. That’s what makes it a hallucination. So logically speaking, the Disjunctivists accept the worst feature of the bad argument in thinking that it was a valid argument. If there’s a common element, then it is perceived. And consequently, you have to deny direct realism. And so they denied the first premise: there’s a common element. I say no, you can accept the first premise – there is a common element – and deny the conclusion that the common element is that which is perceived. I’m talking awfully fast but I think you probably understand everything I am saying. So that’s the beginning of the book.

Then I have a really tough question: how the hell does it work? I mean, from a philosophical and an intentionalistic point of view. And here I part company from my book Intentionality. In that book I said: Look, it’s intrinsic to the perceptual experience that it has the content it does. I couldn’t have this visual experience if it didn’t seem to me that I was seeing something blue. So there can’t be an answer to the question: What fact about the visual experience makes it a presentation of blue, gives it that content, those conditions of satisfaction?

Now the account of perception in Intentionality seems to me to not go far enough. A visual experience is an event in the world like any other, and there must be some feature of it characterisable in non-intentionalistic terms that fixes the conditions of satisfaction that it has. Now that’s the toughest question I face in the book, and I develop it using the notion of intentional causation and what it is to be a basic perceptible feature of the world such as a color or a shape. But once you give an answer for colors and shapes, you are still left with the question about more complex phenomena. How about seeing a tree as a kind of tree, or a car as a kind of car, or seeing it as my car? The two most difficult chapters are about how the phenomenology of the visual experience necessarily fixes the intentional content that it does. And that’s not a trivial question. That turned out to be a tough question.


TC: And what fixes the relation between the intentional content and the object when there is one?


JS: OK. The intentional content must have, as intrinsic to it, conditions of satisfaction. There’s no way I can believe that it’s raining without it being the case that the belief would be true or false depending on whether it’s raining. And that’s certainly a general feature of intentionality. And where language is concerned, we have a rather easy way of answering that question. If you have your belief expressed in a sentence, then the meaning of the sentence fixes the intentional content. What is challenging about perception is that you must identify the phenomenological features of the perceptual experience in non-intentional terms and show how they fix the intentional content that the experience has.

Now that’s a tough question to answer. It’s hard to describe that because you have to characterize that in non-intentional terms. It won’t do to say ‘the experience presents blue because the experience is one of something looking blue’ because then the account is circular. That won’t do. But at the same time, it must be internal to the perceptual experience that if you have that experience, it will seem to you that you’re seeing blue even if you know it’s an hallucination, and even if you know that it’s wrong. Anyway, that caused me a lot of headaches. However, those chapters were fun to write because the issues are really challenging. The argument is complex so I will not try to summarise it here.


TC: So coming back to this bad argument, for just a minute. I agree with you that it’s a bad argument. The bad argument is that if there’s something significant in common between the perception and the indistinguishable hallucination, then that thing must be the object that you perceive. Surely we’ve moved on from older versions of this idea, at least a bit, and we can see this as a bad argument. So how can it be that your colleagues Campbell and Martin who are brilliant philosophers, how can it be that they’re misled into accepting this bad argument? Do you have a diagnosis of that?


JS: Well, they think the way to avoid the bad argument is to deny that there is a common element in the first place. Now it turns out that their positions are quite different. Mike Martin’s position is quite different from Campbell’s. Campbell, I think, has a remarkably – how shall I say? – counter-intuitive conception of visual perception. I think it is obvious that there is a conscious experience going on in my head when I see anything, but he denies that.  He thinks there is just a direct relation between me and the object itself. And frankly, I can’t make a coherent statement of that position. I struggle with that in the chapter about these guys. However, you’ll have to look at the book, and I’m sure they will – I sent them copies of these chapters -- tell me how they think I’ve misunderstood them.


TC: But is a puzzling thing, why they are supposed to be misled by this very bad argument, isn’t it? The error you’re accusing them of is that thinking that just because there’s a common element, then this must be the object of perception; but this seems like an obvious mistake.


JS: Yeah. That’s more characteristic of McDowell and Martin than it is of Campbell. Campbell’s view is that in a sense in which I think it’s obvious that there is an element of consciousness in the veridical case, he doesn’t think there is a conscious perceptual experience going on in my head. He just thinks there’s a direct relation between the perceiver and the object perceived. And that the qualitative character of the perception just is the qualitative character of the object you are seeing. I don’t think you can state that position coherently, and I try to show that it’s not a coherent position.


TC: Well, we’re looking forward to the book. Can we maybe move on to what we were talking about today in the discussion because you’ve done a lot of work on social ontology, and the construction of social reality


JS: That’s a beautiful subject by the way. For some reason, analytic philosophers have neglected it. I think it is a fascinating subject for analytic philosophy, and we have exactly the tools to analyse it. We all live with money and private property, and universities, and governments, and summer vacations: What’s their ontology? How do they exist? How can there be an objective fact that this piece of paper is money, but it’s only money in virtue of our subjective opinions? That’s a big question I have tried to answer.


TC: In our discussion with a seminar group earlier today, you talked about the connection between your views on social ontology and more normative political issues, questions of rights and freedom. This is a bit of a new departure for you, isn’t it?


JS: Yes. It is in the sense that I had never written much about political rights and political power. But if you have a theory of social ontology, it ought to have implications in other areas of social philosophy concerning other issues. And on two particular issues, I think my theory of social ontology has important implications for political philosophy. One is the notion of human rights, universal human rights. And the other is the notion of political power. And I talked about human rights today.


TC: Are you sceptical of the idea of universal human rights?


JS: No, I’m not sceptical about the idea of universal human rights. I’m sceptical about what I call positive rights. You see, if you look at the logical structure of rights, every right implies an obligation on someone else’s part. A right is always a right against somebody. If I have a right to park my car in your driveway, then you have an obligation not to interfere with my parking my car in your driveway. Now the idea of universal human rights is a remarkable idea because if there are such things, then all human beings are under an obligation to do – what? Well, I want to say that with things like the right to free speech it just means not to interfere. It’s a negative right. My right to free speech means I have a right to exercise my free speech without being interfered with. And that means that other people are under an obligation not to interfere with me. But now, when I look at the literature, I discover that there is a tradition going back to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where not all of the rights listed are negative rights like the right to free speech, or the right to freedom of religion, or the right to freedom of association, I think all those negative rights are perfectly legitimate. But there are supposed to be such rights as ‘every human being has a right to adequate housing’. Now I don’t think that can be made into a meaningful claim. I have to distinguish between the claim that ‘every human being has a right to seek adequate housing’ -- that seems to me OK -- or particular jurisdictions where the British government, or the government of the State of California, can decide ‘we’re going to guarantee or give that right to all of our citizens’. But the idea that every human being, just in virtue of being a human being, has a right to adequate housing in a way that would impose an obligation on every other human being to provide that housing, that seems to me nonsense. So I say that you can make a good case for universal human rights of a negative kind, but that you cannot make the comparable case for universal human rights of a positive kind. Now I come up with one counter-example. One exception to that is that it does seem to me where life and safety themselves are concerned, we’re all under an obligation, where we can, to help people whose life is threatened. If someone has been hit by a car, he has a right to expect that he will receive assistance from us, and we have an obligation to afford him assistance. And the reason that’s an exception is that a condition of anything else in life is that you have rights of survival. But in general, I think it’s a big mistake in contemporary political thinking to suppose that there is a list, an inventory, of universal human rights of a positive kind. I don’t think I can make sense of this.


TC: Have you ever been interested in getting involved with politics yourself?


JS: [LAUGHS.] It’s funny you should ask that. There was a period when I first went back to California when I was fairly active in the Democratic Party, and then was very active in the Free Speech Movement, but it’s not as intellectually satisfying as an academic career. You do have the satisfaction that you get involved in decisions that make a difference in a way that most philosophical arguments don’t make a difference except to us philosophers. And in fact, during the Vietnam War, a friend of mine who was a high official with the State Department invited me to come and serve on the State Department policy planning staff where they plan American policy. And I said, ‘Not during the war’. I was so opposed to the war that I absolutely refused to do anything that would even seem to be lending tacit support to the war. So I didn’t do it and I have seldom been active in public affairs since. It’s a choice you have to make, especially in the United States. I think it’s possible to combine a political career with an academic, philosophical career. But the cases of people who’ve done it have not been very inspiring to me. So the short answer is: I have not had a political career in the United States, although I’ve been occasionally active.


TC: Coming back to the question of rights, since every right requires a corresponding obligation, does it follow from your view that animals don’t have rights, since they have no obligations?


JS: Most rights have to do with specific institutions. As a Professor in Berkeley I have certain rights, and certain obligations. But the idea of universal human rights is just in virtue of being a human being …you have certain rights… a fantastic idea. And I think, Why not extend the idea of universal rights to conscious animals? Just in virtue of being a conscious animal, you have certain rights. The fact that animals cannot undertake obligations does not imply that they cannot have rights against us who do have obligations. Babies have rights even before they are able to undertake obligations. Now I have to make a confession. I try not to think about animal rights because I fear I’d have to become a vegetarian if I worked it out consistently. But I think there is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights.

I think there are animal rights. I have not thought about it well enough to have a worked out position, but it seems to me such things as cruelty to animals ought to be universally forbidden.


TC: Why does that mean they have rights?


JS: For every right there’s an obligation. We’re under an obligation to treat animals as we arrogantly say, ‘humanely’.  And I think that’s right. I think we are under an obligation to treat animals humanely. The sort of obligation is the sort that typically goes with rights. Animals have a right against us to be treated humanely. Now whether or not this gives us a right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them, well, I’ve been eating them for so long that I’ve come to take it for granted. But I’m not sure that I could justify it if I was forced to. I once argued this with Bernard Williams. Bernard thought that it was absolutely preposterous for me to think that a consideration of animal rights would forbid carnivorous eating habits. I’m not so sure if Bernard was right about it.


TC: Interesting you mentioned Bernard Williams. He was, of course, a Cambridge philosopher, one of the great philosophers of the 2nd half of the 20th century, and his influence remains very strong in Cambridge in all sorts of different ways. He was also someone who had interests in political life.


JS: Yes. Well, Bernard was a very good friend of mine. He had an enormous influence on me of the kind that would be hard to describe because it was mostly just admiration for his sheer intellectual abilities. I think Bernard was as intelligent as any human being I’ve ever met. He had a kind of quickness which was stunning. Now one consequence of that is there’s a sense in which people who knew him well, or at least in my case, we always feel the published work is not up to the level of the Bernard we remember. Yes, it’s wonderful and admirable, the published work, but the particular fire and light that came from discussions with Bernard are lost on the printed page. Now whether that’s inevitable, or whether or not he had actually been more patient about sitting down and doing a hard slog necessary to write a great book, I don’t know. I know that in the last years of his life he suddenly became very productive. I think -- I mean now since we’re talking about somebody I admire -- that in some ways his career was a disappointment to his admirers because he never produced a work of the calibre of his highest ability. And one of the reasons for that is he had all this other stuff going on. He was always on some Royal Commission, or dining in Buckingham Palace. And this is one of the reasons I tried very hard to get him a job in Berkeley. I thought if he was in Berkeley, away from the distractions of London, he might sit down and do really great philosophy. And he did great things in Berkeley, but then he turned around and went back to Oxford, and back to his old ways.


TC: Some people describe him as a sceptical philosopher, or reactive in the sense that he would just be able to see all the flaws in every position, and this made him somewhat pessimistic.


JS: He could see instantly the flaws in arguments, including his own. This was the fatal element: that Bernard could see the limitations of philosophical theories, but they led to him seeing the limitations of his own theories, and that was partly debilitating. But there’s another sense in which he never really was part of mainstream philosophy. You see, Oxford had this wonderfully exciting period where it was all about language, and we thought we were going to get an understanding of language which would enable us to solve a lot of philosophical problems. Bernard was always very sceptical about that. He always stood outside the mainstream. And though he admired people like Strawson, there’s a sense in which he really was not inspired to do philosophy the way others did it – in the way, for example, that I was inspired to pick up themes others had developed, and pick up methods that they had used to try to carry the work further. Now there is another aspect of Bernard that I haven’t touched on yet and that is that he had a deep knowledge of certain parts of the history of philosophy. He was a first-rate historical scholar, and it’s important not to forget that. He wasn’t just a brilliant philosopher, but he was actually a brilliant classical scholar. Bernard had a kind of historicist conception of philosophy which is profoundly out of sync with mainstream philosophy of the past hundred years.


TC: What do you think about this kind of historicism? Is that something that was ever attractive to you?


JS: Well, not me, I think partly because I’m too lazy to read all those works. I mean the thought of reading, let’s say, the collected work of Hegel, I just – I mean -- I find it too daunting. I think it is wonderful if you get obsessed with certain classic texts. For example, I became totally obsessed with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and wrote a summary of the whole damn book. My idea was that somebody ought to sit down and rewrite it the way a contemporary philosopher would do since we have tools and knowledge that Kant didn’t have. My first task was to write a summary of the whole book and I did. It’s very useful. I’ll send you a copy if you want it. And publishers wanted me to publish it, particularly my commentaries, but I never thought it was good enough to publish. But you can become obsessed by the great works of the past for a very simple reason: they’re so brilliant. But it’s not my life, it’s not my career. I don’t have the patience. I’m more obsessed with the immediate problems that bother me, and there’s a sense in which Kant’s problems are not my problems. I mean, if you think that you can never perceive the thing in itself, and yet you can perceive representations that give you a kind of objectivity, then you have a problematic that I don’t have. You have a set of conceptions of philosophy and epistemology that are really totally foreign to my way of thinking.


TC: One thing that Bernard thought, I think, was that thinking about the history of philosophy enabled you to sort of take it a distance from your own assumptions and enable you to see them as very contingent and not always obligatory.


JS: You can see the contingency of your historical situation. That is absolutely right. However, it is my historical situation. I’m sorry if it’s so contingent, but it’s the one I’ve got.


TC: You started your career at one of the high points of English-speaking, analytic, Anglophone philosophy. What’s your view of the state of philosophy at the moment?


JS: I think it’s in terrible shape!


TC: Go on, tell me!


JS: Well, what has happened in the subject I started out with, the philosophy of language, is that, roughly speaking, formal modeling has replaced insight. My own conception is that the formal modeling by itself does not give us any insight into the function of language.

Any account of the philosophy of language ought to stick as closely as possible to the psychology of actual human speakers and hearers. And that doesn’t happen now. What happens now is that many philosophers aim to build a formal model where they can map a puzzling element of language onto the formal model, and people think that gives you an insight. I mean a most famous current example of this is the idea that you will explain counterfactuals – for example, if I had dropped this pen, it would have fallen to the ground – by appealing to possible worlds. And then you have a whole load of technical stuff about how to describe the possible worlds. Well I won’t say that’s a waste of time because very intelligent people do it, but I don’t think it gives us insight. It’s as if I said: Well the way to understand the sentence, ‘All ravens are black’, is that what it really means is that all non-black things are non-ravens. You can get a mapping of one sentence onto other sentences where each side has the same truth conditions, but that is not, in general, the right way to understand the sense of the original sentence. And it’s a philosophical question of why you don’t get the insight.

And this goes back to Russell’s Theory of Descriptions. You see, Russell gets uniqueness of reference by going through a whole domain, but that is logically and psychologically unrealistic. I think the notion of an object already contains the notion of uniqueness. I think this was a fatal move to think that you’ve got to get these intuitive ideas mapped on to a calculus like, in this case, the predicate calculus, which has its own requirements. It is a disastrously inadequate conception of language.

And this is pervading other areas of philosophy. Formal epistemology seems to me so boring. I’m sure there’s some merit in it, but it puts me to sleep. The requirements on formal modeling are that you must have something that’s difficult to do. There must be a right and a wrong way to do it, it must be objective, you must be able to teach it to graduate students, and you have to be able to tell who’s good at it and who isn’t. So those are the four features of formal modeling in philosophy, and I think they lead nowhere. That’s my main objection to contemporary philosophy: they’ve lost sight of the questions. It sounds ridiculous to say this because this was the objection that all the old fogeys made to us when I was a kid in Oxford and we were investigating language. But that is why I’m really out of sympathy. And I’m going to write a book on the philosophy of language in which I will say how I think it ought to be done, and how we really should try to stay very close to the psychological reality of what it is to actually talk about things.


TC: Well, I look forward to that book. But what advice would you give to a young philosopher starting out to not lose sight of the questions?


JS: Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at nights, and work on them with passion. I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students. The graduate students suffer worse than the undergraduates. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.


TC: John Searle, thank you very much.


JS: Well thank you. That was a lot of fun.

Posted: Monday 9 June 2014

Contributor: Tim Crane

Tags: philosophy neuroscience human rights consciousness animal rights

An interview with John Searle