Searle on social ontology


Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language made a big impression on the field of the philosophy of language when it appeared in 1969.  But its author, John Searle, thinks the theory of speech acts has a much broader scope than simply the philosophy of language; he thinks it provides a foundation for the philosophy of mind, and — of particular interest here — for the philosophy of society.   Two books in the past decade or so have pushed this programme forward — The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010).  So — how much insight into the social world can we get from the ideas underlying speech act theory?

Fundamentally, Searle’s interest is in the nature of social ontology:

[The philosophy of society is] the study of the nature of human society itself: What is the mode of existence of social entities such as governments, families, cocktail parties, summer vacations, trade unions, baseball games, and passports? (MSW, kindle loc 161)

His answer is categorical and dogmatic; there is precisely one human intentional activity that underlies all of social reality:

Humans have the capacity to impose functions on objects and people where the objects and the people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure. [E.g. a five-dollar bill can’t be physically transformed into a grande latte.] The performance of the function requires that there be a collectively recognized status that the person or object has, and it is only in virtue of that status that the person or object can perform the function in question. (kindle loc 194)

Status functions are fundamental, according to Searle, because they are the bearers of rights, obligations, and norms — what he refers to as “deontic powers.” As a member of the American Philosophical Association, I have a right to attend the annual conference, and this right is embodied in the states of intentionality of other actors who recognize that status and the associated right.  “So status functions are the glue that holds society together.  They are created by collective intentionality and they function by carrying deontic powers” (kindle loc 225).

Searle thinks that rules, institutions, and collective intentions are the fundamental “atoms” of social phenomena; and — this is the dogmatic part — he thinks that these all depend on one mental action, which he refers to as a Status Function Declaration.  He holds that we cannot understand the working of a rule, a socially embodied obligation, or a socially embodied right, without postulating a commonly recognized Status Function Declaration that establishes that practice.  And, sure enough — a status function declaration is a form of a speech act.

All institutional facts, and therefore all status functions, are created by speech acts of a type that in 1975 I baptized as “Declarations”…. With the important exception of language itself, all of institutional reality, and therefore, in a sense, all of human civilization, is created by speech acts that have the same logical form as Declarations…. Institutional facts are without exception constituted by language, but the functioning of language is especially hard to see. (kindle loc 253, 282, 1683)

So speech acts, and the linguistic intentionality that they express, are the foundation of all social phenomena.  “All of institutional reality is created by linguistic representation” (kindle loc 313).  Voila.

What this all seems to boil down to, is three points: (1) Social interactions always involve language, both internally in thought and externally in communication. (2) The idea of a norm is an inherently social idea that needs to be embodied in the beliefs and attitudes of the individuals in the group through linguistically framed mental representations. (3) Norms need to be shared and publicly articulated if they are to be socially real.  Searle represents these three common ideas in a more technical vocabulary: individuals have individual and collective intentionality; individuals have deontic commitments; and deontic commitments result from status function declarations  — speech acts of a specific kind.

Let’s consider each of the points.  Is intentionality inherently linguistic?  Of course adult human intentionality is — we can always paraphrase a state of consciousness as a linguistic declaration of some sort, and it is common to think of “thought” as internal speech.  But is it possible to imagine purposiveness and intentionality in a non-linguistic species?  Can we find examples of non-human cooperation that appears to presuppose intentionality without language?  The answers to these two questions appear to be affirmative.  Examples of primate problem-solving, group hunting, and simple cooperation in which the behavior of members of a group are oriented to the behavior of others all appear in the animal behavior literature.  (Here is an earlier post on current research on human cooperation that appears to contradict the assumption that intentionality requires language; link.  The post draws on the work of Michael Tomasello and colleagues in Why We Cooperate.)

Is it possible for a group of humans to embody a set of norms of behavior that are not explicitly formulated in language?  Again, it seems that we have good empirical and theoretical reasons for thinking that “implicit norms”, conventions, and practices exist.  Searle himself gives some attention to what we would call “norms by convention”, but only to argue that these examples are on their way to full-fledged status function declarations (“pre-institutional examples of the same logical form”) (kindle loc 404, 449).  But David Lewis’s extensive work on the topic in Convention: A Philosophical Study (which Searle does not discuss) gives substantial support for the idea that conventions can emerge within a human group without formal linguistic articulation, and they can persist as a basis for organizing group behavior without requiring “codification” through a speech act.  Here is a simple example:

In my hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, until recently all local telephone calls were cut off without warning after three minutes. Soon after the practice had begun, a convention grew up among Oberlin residents that when a call was cut off the original caller would call back while the called party waited.  Residents usually conformed to this regularity in the expectation of conformity by the other party to the call.  In this way calls were easily restored, to the advantage of all caoncerned.  New residents were told about the convention [deontic speech act!] or learned it through experience [no deontic speech act required!].  It persisted for a decade or so until the cutoff was abolished. (43)

So, according to Lewis, coordination through tacit or implicit convention is a common feature of social life, and it does not require a deontic speech act for its effectiveness.  (In fact, Lewis argues that the arrow points the other direction: language presupposes conventions rather than being a necessary condition to the possibility of a convention.)  Lewis’s analysis is responsive to condition (3) above as well; Lewis has demonstrated how a practice can become “common knowledge” and effective in regulating coordinative and cooperative behavior, without ever having been expressed through a deontic declaration.

So it seems that Searle’s insistence on the inescapable role of language and performative speech acts goes beyond what is justified by the facts.  The social is not reducible to a set of logical characteristics of language.  That said, it is of course true that human social life — coordination, planning, strategizing, conspiring, cooperating, and competing — is enormously dependent on our species’ ability to use language to express our thoughts and intentions.  But we don’t gain very much by paraphrasing social action in the language of speech acts; the real challenge for the social scientist is to explain social outcomes, not to redefine them.

Most fundamentally, we would hope that the philosophy of society or the philosophy of social science will help to formulate better theories and better research questions in the social sciences.  The hard part of the social sciences is not arriving at a logical analysis of how institutions and norms can be defined in terms of something else; it is rather the difficult challenge of sorting out real human behavior within a set of institutions and explaining outcomes on that basis.  But because of its single-minded focus on a single logical hypothesis, Making the Social World doesn’t really do that.  It is a formal treatment of the supposed relationship between institutions and speech acts that unfortunately does not provide substantive insight into the workings of real social institutions or human behavior.



How important is cooperation in a market society?

First, what is cooperation? Suppose a number of individuals occupy a common social and geographical space. They have a variety of individual interests and things they value, and they have outcomes they’d like to bring about. Some of those outcomes are purely private goods, and some can be brought about through private activities by each individual.  These are the circumstances where private market-based activity can bring about socially optimal outcomes.

But some outcomes may look more like public or common goods — for example, greater safety in the neighborhood or more sustainable uses of resources.  These are outcomes that no single individual can bring about, and — once established — no one can be excluded from the enjoyment of these goods.  (Public choice theorists sometimes look at other kinds of non-private goods such as “club goods”; see Dennis Mueller, Perspectives on Public Choice: A Handbook.)

Further, some outcomes may in fact be private goods, but may be such that they require coordinated efforts by multiple individuals to achieve them efficiently. An example of this is traditional farming: it may be that the yield on one individual’s plot is greater if a group of neighbors provide concentrated labor on weeding this plot today and the neighbor’s plot tomorrow than if each of us do all the weeding on our individual plots. The technical conditions surrounding traditional agriculture impose a cycle of labor demand that makes cooperation an efficient strategy.

This is where cooperation comes in. If a number of the members of a group agree to contribute our efforts to a common project we may find that the total results are greater — for both common goods and private goods — than if we had each pursued these goods through individual efforts. Cooperation can lead to improvement in the overall production of a good for a given level of sacrifice of time and effort.  This description uses the word “agree”; but Robert Axelrod (The Evolution of Cooperation) and David Lewis (Convention: A Philosophical Study) observe that many examples of cooperation depend on “convention” and tacit agreement rather than an explicit understanding among participants.

So cooperation can lead to better outcomes for a group and each individual in the group than would be achievable through entirely private efforts.

Cooperation should be distinguished from altruistic behavior; cooperation makes sense for rationally self-interested individuals if appropriate conditions are satisfied.  A cooperative arrangement can make everyone better off.  So we don’t have to assume that individuals act altruistically in order to account for cooperation.

So why is cooperation not ubiquitous? It is in fact pretty widespread. But there are a couple of important obstacles to cooperation in ordinary social life: the rational incentive that exists to become a freerider or easy rider when the good in question is a public good; and the risk that cooperators run that the endeavor will fail because of non-contribution from other potential contributors. There is also often a timing problem: it is common for the contribution and the benefit to be separated in time, so contributors are even more concerned that they will be denied the benefits of cooperation. If Mr Wong is asked to weed today in consideration of assistance from Mr Li in harvesting the crop four months from now, he may be doubtful about the future benefit.

The basic logic of this situation has stimulated a mountain of great social science research and theory. Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” (Managing the Commons) and Mancur Olsen’s The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups set the negative case for thinking that cooperation is all but impossible to sustain.  Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-prize winning work on common property resource regimes documents the ways in which communities have solved these cooperation dilemmas (Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action). Douglas North essentially argues that only private property and binding contracts can do the job (The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History). And Robert Axelrod has made the case for the rational basis of cooperation in The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition. He argues that there are specific conditions that enhance or undermine cooperation and reciprocity; essentially, participants need to be able to reidentify each other over time and they need to have a high likelihood of continuing to interact with each other over an extended time. (His analysis is based on a series of experiments involving repeated prisoners’ dilemmas.)

A market can “simulate” cooperation through enforceable contracts; so, for example, a peasant farming community could create a legally binding system of labor exchange among households.  And organizations can create quasi-binding agreements for cooperation through “memoranda of understanding” and “inter-governmental agreements” — written agreements that may not be enforceable through legal remedies but nonetheless create a strong incentive for each party to fulfill the obligations of cooperation.  However, quite a bit of the opportunities for cooperation seem to fall outside the sphere of these formal and semi-formal mechanisms for binding agreements.

Informal cooperation needs some kind of institutional or normative setting that encourages compliance with the cooperative arrangement.  So there has been an energetic debate in the past twenty years over the feasibility of non-coercive solutions to cooperation problems; this is an area where the new institutionalism has played a key role.  And in the real world, we do in fact find numerous sustainable examples of informal cooperation.  Individuals work in community gardens; foundations join together in supporting urban renewal projects; villagers create labor-sharing practices.  But it is an interesting question to consider: are there institutional reforms that we could invent that would allow us as a society to capture more of the benefits of cooperation than we currently realize?

Creativity, convention, and tradition

images: Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906); Courbet, Burial at Ornans (1849)

Conventions define how to do things correctly — trim the hedges, choose an outfit for an evening at the opera or the racetrack, how much to tip the server. They also define or constrain productions in the arts — writing a short story or a sonnet, performing a Brahms quintet, participating in an Andean flute group. We might define a convention as a stylized but unwritten rule of performance. A tradition is an extended set of conventions for a given area of performance. We can refer to traditions of classical German chamber composition, Japanese landscape painting, or hiphop street performance. A conventional act or performance, then, is one that directly and consistently expresses the relevant conventions.

So — at any given time, a particular set of conventions drive the creation of works of culture and guide the interpretation of the product. These conventions are somehow embedded in the community of creators, viewers, and critics. And innovation, breaking or stretching the rules, creates the possibility of novelty and creativity within the process. It is important to notice, though, that conventions generally don’t govern every aspect of a performance. The convention of the sonnet mandates a form and meter and gives some constraint on subject. But it would certainly be possible to write a sonnet in deviant meter in praise of a farm tractor; the audience would be able to make sense of the production. So the artist always has a degree of freedom within the tradition.

I find several specific ideas to be useful in analyzing cultural conventions and their products — in particular, “idiom”, “voice”, and “novelty”. Within a given medium, there is an existing stock of shorthand ways of expressing an artistic or symbolic idea. We may refer to these modes of expression as “idioms” of the genre. When the stranger in the 1950s western is wearing a black hat, the audience understands he is the villain. When the soundtrack swells in an ominous minor key the audience knows there is trouble coming. These idioms aren’t natural signifiers; rather, they are conventions of the B movie. So the idioms of a genre are a particularly direct form of convention within the semiotics of the genre.

“Voice” is a counterpart of originality. It is the intangible “signature” that the individual artist brings to his or her work — what Eisenstein brings to many of his films, distinctive from Bergman and Kurosawa. Voice represents a kind of consistency over time, but it is not defined by homage to tradition; instead, it is an expression of the specific sensibility of the individual artist, the specific way in which this artist forges together his/her material and vision within the resources of the genre and its conventions. Eisenstein’s films aren’t formulaic, even though one can recognize a common sensibility running through them.

What about novelty and creativity? Novelty is the break outside of convention that the artist brings to the production in order to express a particular idea or perspective in a new and forceful way — for example, the transition from sepia to color in The Wizard of Oz. The original and genuinely creative artist or writer finds ways of bringing novelty and his/her own originality into the production, giving the audience new and unexpected insights and ideas. The element of innovation needs to point the audience towards its signification without relying wholly on the existing traditions of reading. (Picasso’s portrait above of Gertrude Stein displeased some friends of the writer because “it doesn’t resemble Gertrude Stein.” Picasso is said to have replied, “It will.”)

But here is an apparent conundrum of creativity and convention. Any performance or artistic work that is wholly determined by the relevant conventions is, for that reason, wholly uncreative. It is like a conversation in a Dashiell Hammett novel: no surprises, each gambit programmed by the conventions of the crime novel. Or it is like a string quartet composed by an earnest follower of Beethoven, with no phrase breaking the flow, no note out of place. And for the careful listener, each is ultimately boring; there is no novelty in the work. And there is no opening for the original and creative voice of the creator. Originality and new perspective have no place.

But now the other half of the conundrum: novelty without regard to the frame of tradition is incomprehensible and meaningless. The classical composer of 1800 who somehow heard the world atonally, arhythmically, and to the accompaniment of falling trash cans and who then wrote a symphony in thirty movements on this basis — this composer is innovating, all right. But he/she is not creating works that any existing audience could hear as “music”. There is no bridge of meaning or hermeneutic practice to facilitate interpretation.

It is relevant here that we are led to refer to the audience. Because cultural products require the conveying of meaning; and communication of meaning requires some reference to conventions shared with the audience — whether in music, painting, literature, or hiphop. Meaning of any cultural performance is inherently public, and this means there have to be publicly shared standards of interpretation. The audience can only interpret the performance by relating it to some set of conventions or other. These may be conventions of representation, structure, or mythology; but the audience needs some clues in order to be able to “read” the work.

There are, of course, periods in art history where it appears that innovation is all and continuous convention is nothing. For example, Courbet and the realist painters were evidently shocking to the viewing public for their dismissal of the classical values of the Salon — in the Burial at Ornans above, for example. But really, there was a great deal of continuity within the context of which the realist manifesto was shocking to the public. (T. J. Clark does a great job of “reading” the painting for its continuities with previous traditions of painting and the sources of its originality; Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, pp. 80-83.)

So what does all of this imply about “creative breakthroughs” in the genres of the arts? It seems to imply that major and culturally significant breakthroughs occur when talented people fully absorb the semantic (and historically specific) conventions that define the genre at the current time; he/she finds ways of squeezing every bit of new meaning out of these conventions in the production of the cultural product; he/she plays with the limits of the convention, testing them for the possibility of forging new meanings; and sometimes, he/she breaks a convention altogether and substitutes a new meaning maker in its place (presenting Julius Caesar in the garb of fascist Italy of the 1930s, for example).

These topics are relevant to understanding society, because this dialectic of convention, innovation, and meaning-making is virtually pervasive in everyday life. Jokes, business meetings, and street demonstrations all have some elements of this dance of meaning, convention, and originality. So it is important to gain greater understanding of the intersection of convention and innovation.

(There are numerous unanswered questions raised by this topic. How is a tradition of painting or composition related to a scientific or technological tradition? How is a literary or artistic tradition related to a “style” of technology or a scientific research programme? How can we take measure of “radical innovators” in the arts such as Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, or John Cage and American experimentalism in composition? And how do beauty or aesthetic value come into this equation? What are the qualities of a work of art that lead us to say, “That is beautiful!” or “that is hideous!”? What are the threads of convention, form, meaning, and originality that contribute to great aesthetic value?)

Maps, narratives, and abstraction

It is obvious that maps are selective representations of the world. They represent an abstraction: a representation of a complex, dense reality that signifies some characteristics while deliberately ignoring other aspects. The principles of selection used by the cartographer are highly dependent on the expected interests of the user. Topography will be relevant to the hiker but not the motorist. Location of points of interest will be important to the tourist but not the long-distance trucker. Location of railroad hubs will be valued by the military planner but not the birdwatcher. So there is no such thing as a comprehensive map — one that represents all geographical details; and there is also no such thing as a truly “all-purpose” map — one that includes all the details that any user could want.

We also know that there are different schemes of representation of geography — different projections, different conventions for representing items and relationships, etc. So there is no objectively best map of a given terrain. Rather, comparing maps for adequacy, accuracy, and usefulness requires semantic and pragmatic comparison. (Here the word “semantic” is used in a specialized sense: “having to do with the reference relationship between a sign and the signified.”) Semantically, we are interested in the correspondence between the map and the world. The conventions of a given cartography imply a specific set of statements about the spatial relations that actually exist among places, as well as denoting a variety of characteristics of places. So there is a perfectly natural question to ask of a given map: is it representationally accurate? This sort of assessment leads to judgments like these: This map does a more accurate job of representing driving distances than that one, given the rules of representation that each presupposes. This map errs in representing the relative population sizes of Cleveland and Peoria. These are features that have to do with the accuracy of the correspondence between the map and the world.

The pragmatic considerations have to do with how well the representation or its underlying conventions conform to how various people want to use it. Maps are particularly dependent on pragmatic considerations. We need to assess the value of a map with respect to a set of practical interests. How well does the map convey the information about places and spatial relationships that the user will want to consult? How have the judgments about what to include and what to exclude worked out from the point of view of the user? Pragmatic considerations lead to judgments like these: this mapping convention corresponds better to the needs of the military planner or the public health official than that one. The pragmatic questions about a map have to do with a different kind of fit — fit between the features and design of the map and the practical interests of a particular set of users. Do the conventions of the given cartography correspond well to the interests that specific sets of users have in the map?

Here is the point of this discussion: are there useful analogies between the epistemology of maps and the cognitive situation of other representational constructs — for example, historical narratives and scientific theories? Several points of parallel seem particularly evident. First, narratives and theories are selective too. It is impossible to incorporate every element of a historical event or natural process into a theory or narrative; rather, it is necessary to select a storyline that permits us to provide a partial account of what happened. This is true for the French Revolution; but it is also true for the trajectory of a hockey puck.

Second, there is a parallel point about veridicality that applies to narratives and theories as much as to maps. No map stands as an isolated representation; rather, it is embedded within a set of conventions of representation. We must apply the conventions in order to discover what “assertions” are contained in the representation. So maps are in an important sense “conventional.” However, given the conventions of the map, we can undertake to evaluate its accuracy. And this is true for narratives and theories as well; we can attempt to assess the degree of approximate truth possessed by the construction. Are the statements about the nature of the events and their sequence approximately true? (Given that an account of the French Revolution singles out class interests of parties within the narrative, has the historian correctly described the economic interests of the Jacobins?)

And third, the point about the relevance of users’ interests to assessment of the construction seems pertinent to narratives and theories as well. The civil engineer who is investigating the collapse of a building will probably find a truthful analysis of the thermodynamics of the HVAC system unhelpful, even though it is true. The detective investigating a robbery of a party store will probably become impatient at a narrative that highlights the sequence of street noises that were audible during the heist, rather than the descriptions and actions of the visitors during the relevant time.

When it comes to narratives and theories, there is another value dimension that we want to impose on the construction: the idea of explanatory adequacy. A narrative ought to provide a basis for explaining the “how and why” of historical events; it ought to single out the circumstances and reasoning that help to explain the actions of participants, and it ought to highlight some of the environmental circumstances that influenced the outcome. A scientific theory is intended to identify some of the fundamental causal factors that explain a puzzling phenomenon — the turbulence that occurs in a pot of water as it approaches the boiling point, for example. So when we say that a narrative or a theory is an abstraction, part of what we’re getting at is the idea that the historian or natural scientist has deliberately excluded factors that don’t make a difference, in order to highlight a set of factors that do make a difference.

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