In Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, John Searle challenges dualistic philosophical theories in how they address the conceptual structure of human institutional reality. His concerns are with the creation and maintenance of the distinctive features of human civilization, and in particular the mode of existence of institutions such as civil governments, families, schools, trade unions, investment firms, social clubs, etc., which he contends is based on one formal linguistic mechanism called a Status Function Declaration.
Given Searle’s repeated commitment to the “basic facts” of the Darwinian theory of Evolution (pp. 61, 65, 66, 68, 76, 84), upon which he says “our mental life depends” (p. 4), I admit that because I don’t personally accept those “basic facts” as truth (which he self-consciously makes no attempt to offer any epistemic justification for anyway; see p. 6), I think there are some troubling, and even insurmountable, obstacles laid at the foundation of his philosophy of society. Nevertheless, Searle offers an intriguingly logical and essentially linguistic structure of human institutional reality worth serious consideration.
Searle theorizes that all institutional facts are derived from the collective recognition or acceptance of declarative speech acts that assign both status’ and functions to entities (i.e. things and persons). These speech acts are called Status Function Declarations. Searle even contends that “all of non-linguistic human institutional reality,” such as a belief, perception, desire, and intention, is “created by Declaration” (p. 16). These Declarations “change the world by declaring that a state of affairs exists and thus bringing that state of affairs into existence.” (p. 12). Searle says this reinforces his point in earlier works that “all of institutional reality is created by linguistic representation.” (p. 14). To explain what he meant by those Declarations, Searle leads his audience on a lengthy trek into linguistic categories and sub-categories until the reader is drowned in elaborate philosophical distinctions and terminology, and left desperate for some tangible examples of application to save them from total despair. Fortunately for those who wade long enough, Searle offers enough interaction between his theory of linguistic representation and common social concerns (e.g. the essence of political power and human rights) to serve as a life-jacket around his theory. One still needs to cling to his theory in order to keep their head above water.
Searle begins this journey by asking such questions as, “How is it possible in a universe consisting entirely of physical particles in fields of force that there can be such things as consciousness, intentionality, free will, language, society, ethics, aesthetics, and political obligations?” ... “This is,” after all “the single overriding question in contemporary philosophy.” (p. 4). He begins answering this question with a description of the human capacity for consciousness:
Our capacity for consciousness and other mental phenomena is the result of long periods of biological evolution. Collective mental phenomena …[is] derived from the mental phenomena of individuals. This same pattern of dependence continues higher as we see that social institutions such as governments and corporations are dependent on and derived from the mental phenomena and behavior of individual human beings. This is the basic requirement of our investigation. …We have to show how everything we say is not only consistent with but in various ways derived from and dependent on the basic facts. [p. 4; Italics are original]
Searle claims that all of human language is derived from individual human consciousness and behavior, yet he insists that the nature of reality consists as one unified whole, not two, as Dualism contends (i.e. one part of which is physical and another is mental). In Searle’s mind, because all human institutions are derived from collective consciousness and behavior, there must be a single unifying mechanism between the creation of all institutional reality from individual human consciousness. The path of Searle’s book takes us directly en route to discovering this mechanism.
Searle journeys further by delineating six important “notions” that relate to this singular mechanism. These notions are essential to making sense of his investigation. The first related notion is what Searle calls a basic Status Function. Status Functions are “the glue that holds society together” (p. 9). Such functions are conceptually imposed on objects and people, and their functionality requires that there be a collectively recognized status that the object or person has. It is “only in virtue of that status that the person or object can perform the function in question.” (p. 7). As an example of this, a Status Function of a person would be the function of the President of the United States. An example regarding an object would be the function of a twenty-dollar bill (p. 7).
The second related notion is Collective Intentionality. Status Functions can only work to the extent that they are collectively recognized, and so they are “created by collective intentionality” (p. 9). There must be a collective acceptance or recognition of the object or person as having that status. One does not need to approve the Status Function of a thing in order for it to be collectively accepted or recognized (p. 8). It is only in virtue of collective recognition that a person is the President of an institution, or a piece of paper is a legal-tender twenty-dollar bill. Searle says that the conceptual gist of Collective Intentionality can be compared to playing in a symphony (p. 45). All intentionality, whether collective or individual, exists only inside individuals’ human brains, and yet collective intentionality not only needs my performance from intentions in my brain, but the total collective performance of others in that symphony (institution) as well.
The third related notion is Deontic Power, which is a way of describing the human capacity (and phenomena) to function as though social commitments such as rights, duties, obligations, and requirements exist. For Searle, all Deontic Powers are created and maintained by Status Functions (pp. 9, 24).
The fourth related notion is Desire Independent Reasons For Action which, in brief, is the result of recognizing the Deontic Powers of social institutions (p. 9). Once people collectively recognize or accept the Status Function of a person or thing (for example, that Joe Shmoe is the CEO of a corporation), certain Deontic Powers are generated as a result (for example, obligations to not take, relocate, and use the CEO’s leather chair without his permission). Once those Deontic Powers are recognized, they provide individuals with reasons for acting that are independent of their inclinations and desires. An individual may desire to borrow the boss’s nice leather chair for a while, but once the obligation to not take it or use it without permission is recognized, Desire Independent Reasons for Action are generated. These reasons affect the success of all Collective Intentionality, and therefore all Status Functions.
The fifth related notion is Constitutive Rules. This is important because, according to Searle, “an institution is a system of constitutive rules …that creates the possibility of institutional facts” (p. 10). Accordingly, Searle makes a distinction between rules that regulate and rules that constitute, so as not to confuse the two conceptually. Regulative rules have a form like “Do X” or “Do X, Y, or C.” Constitutive rules, on the other hand, have the form “X counts as Y in context C” (p. 10). When applied within institutions (such as the CEO of a corporation), because Joe Shmoe satisfies certain social conditions (X), he counts as the CEO (Y) of a specific corporation (C). This means that Constitutive Rules bring further Status Functions into existence (p. 10), thereby providing further opportunities for Collective Intentionality to play its part in the maintenance (or breakdown) of an institution.
Finally, the sixth related notion is Institutional Fact. Institutional Facts are to be distinguished from “brute facts” (p. 10) that simply exist with or without human consent, such as the fact that the Sun exists, whereas Institutional Facts exist only because of human agreement or acceptance. For example, the Institutional Fact of a twenty-dollar bill does not have intrinsic value (i.e. purchasing power), but rather is valued according to the Collective Intentionality of its institution.
All of this prepares us for diving into some deeper aspects of Searle’s general theory. According to Searle, all human (social) institutions have institutional facts, and all institutional facts must be derived from the collective recognition or acceptance of declarative speech acts (i.e. Declarations) that assign both status’ and functions (i.e. Status Functions) to entities (i.e. things and persons). Institutional Facts do not exist without this logical structure, therefore, Institutions rise and fall, come and go, live and die according to this structure. They exist and are maintained because “we” create and maintain them. “They” exist because people agree or accept them based on Declarations about them, representing “them” as existing and thus bringing “them” into existence. It is—rather shockingly, I might add—a purely subjective existence of something that society treats as objectively existing. To illustrate further, consider that the sun shines every day without Collective Intentionality being involved at all. This is because it is a “brute fact” of reality, totally independent of human agreement or acceptance; yet compare this with the Institutional Facts of a “twenty-dollar” sheet of green rag cotton linen. That rectangular piece of linen is viewed by all Americans as “money” and not a mere sheet of rag cotton. This green “twenty-dollar” sheet is a very different “fact.” It is an Institutional Fact. But where did that fact come from? And why is it that a book written by John Searle is exchangeable for a “twenty-dollar” sheet of rag cotton, but not for one on which I hand-painted the words “twenty dollars”? That green linen sheet of rag cotton with the words “twenty-dollars” stamped on it (or hand-painted) is not intrinsically valuable, and “we” know this. We know this because with the collective recognition or acceptance of declarative speech acts that assign the Status Function “twenty dollars” to a green linen sheet of rag cotton comes the subjective existence of “money.” These insights, I think, should have an enormous impact on the way people recognize or accept social reality (or at least the perceived reality of social institutions). It should also help us rethink and revalue the role that institutions play in maintaining social reality.
There are many other implications of this theory as well. One other important implication is that all human institutional reality must necessarily be the product of language. This is significant because it means all institutional “life”—all human interaction—depends upon language. Indeed, for Searle, language is itself the most fundamental institution and from it all other human institutions are created and maintained. Every day, human beings live with and according to all sorts of institutional facts (e.g. the facts that a single “twenty-dollar bill” can be exchanged for Searle’s book) without ever considering that they all come into existence because people collectively agree that they exist. Only when Collective Intentionality breaks down because the Constitutive Rules are violated and Deontic Powers broken does an institution and it’s Institutional Facts break down with it. Yet without language, Searle argues, even these notions are impossible. This, I admit, is a profound insight.
Overall, I think Searle’s concern with the creation and maintenance of societies’ distinctive linguistic features is a valid one. What is declared and what we accept or recognize to be today actually does shape future civilizations. When a teacher assigns homework, an office manager fires someone, or a Pastor absolves sinners, a liturgy of language is shaping classrooms, corporations, and congregations. However, I think another important question—a more fundamental one—deserves to be asked (and answered), and that is: Is human language itself the most fundamental institutional reality? So far my comments have neither affirmed or denied this claim of Searle’s. Yet, I am concerned that Searle’s affirmative argument raises more questions than it helps to answer. If all human reality is, as Searle contends, merely the natural outgrowth of more fundamental physical, chemical, and biological phenomena, it is impossible for there to be a pre-linguistic analogue for Declarations (which is what leads Searle to conclude that human language is the most fundamental institutional reality). But if human reality is the outgrowth of what God declared all things to be (Gen. 1:1-2:4), from beginning to end (Isa. 46:10), and is maintained in existence by the infinite and eternal communication of Father, Son, and Spirit, then that God is also the pre-linguistic analogue for all Declarations, and His language, His speech, Himself as the Word in the beginning of all creation really is the most fundamental institutional reality. It is only because of sin that the Triune existence and personal involvement of God is suppressed in the minds of men (Rom. 1:18-21), and therefore does not share that most honorable Status Function in society.
As a Christian, I believe a Biblical worldview allows one to justify Searle’s linguistic paradigm with more clarity and sense. Within a Biblical worldview, a Creator-God who is the Word is presupposed (John 1:1) and that Word has spoken all things into existence. From these “basic facts,” divine speech acts and collective intentionality within the Trinitarian community of Father, Son, and Spirit would be the ultimate source from which all human language structures are derived. Indeed, the incarnation of the Son confirms this personal solidarity of God with human institutional reality (Col. 1:15-20). One reason why the existence of all human society presupposes language is because the God who speaks all things into existence really does exist and all things are maintained by His Word (Matt. 4:4; 8:8; Jn. 1:1; 17:17; Rom. 9:18; Heb. 1:3; 4:12; 11:3; I Pet. 1:25; II Pet. 3:5-7). Furthermore, God’s Word teaches that He made mankind uniquely to image Him in the world. So, if people seriously considered the logical structure of Searle’s general theory in connection with God’s Word, they could see another corollary—a corollary between God creating institutional reality through speech-acts and His image bearers naturally doing the same thing. It is only because Searle presupposes an evolutionary origin of all language (which he suggests has come from some kind of prelinguistic hominid), the notion of a transcendent “Word” is never seriously considered.
Another aspect of Searle’s theory worth further reflection from Christians is his notion of Deontic Powers. Searle argues that Deontic Powers are an essential byproduct of language (p. 82), are “conventionally encoded” within institutions, and must be publicly assumed in order for them to exist (p. 84). In fact, he argues that all deontology is collectively created by humans and nothing more (p. 84, c.f. p. 107). What this means is that human rights are nothing more than an institutional status imposed upon human beings, i.e. they are nothing more than Status Functions. This, I believe, is another fundamental flaw of his theory. For Searle, people must collectively accept a constitutive rule in order for there to be such Deontic Powers (e.g. human rights and obligations). But this presupposes what I believe is a major mistake: that no Deontic Powers can be absolute. They can’t be absolute because no singular unifying standard of authority exists in a world of purely physical, chemical, and biological processes. Surely there can be real authority, not simply perceived authority, but all social authority must be collectively intentional and must not transcend institutional reality. Consequently, Searle reasons as though the legitimacy of all human rights changes from institution to institution, depending on the vast power or force of the collective intentionality involved. But again, it’s important to recognize that this is presupposed, not proven, by Searle, and therefore he cannot allow the conceptual possibility of human rights and obligations that are not publicly recognized or accepted. However, if the personal involvement of the Triune God of Scripture in all human affairs is indeed a “basic fact” of life, these issues must be approached differently. With that fact presupposed instead, all individual human beings have rights and obligations derived from His Word which are not mere Status Functions of society. There is a personal God who declares certain things to have rights and corresponding duties toward Him and that which images Him. God declares the boundaries of what is morally obligatory and permissible upon all human beings because they image Him. God declares His own unchangeable character to be the standard for the rights, duties, and obligations He wants man to honor and uphold so that all people can image Him properly. Of course, Searle quickly brushes off any association between Deontic Powers and Divine will, and the belief that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” (p. 107). These beliefs in the supernatural, he says, “are almost certainly false” (p. 107).
Ironically, Searle repeatedly distinguishes between true and false “facts” and “beliefs” which can be collectively recognized, and he encourages his audience to identify with the ones that are true. Indeed his entire theory concerning Deontic Powers necessitates this distinction in order to be persuasive. Yet in no way, shape, or form does he account for why anyone is morally obligated to believe in what is true, as opposed to what is false. His theory rests on man’s capacity to recognize and accept truth in its mode of existence, and the presumption that, collectively, people ought to believe in it. That is a huge epistemic failure on his part. In contrast, these conditions are satisfied within a Biblical worldview.
Finally, Searle invites critique in his view of the relationship between Deontic Powers and political power (ch. 7). In Searle’s mind, the civil government is recognizably the ultimate institutional structure in most societies (p. 161), and therefore is the ultimate system of Status Functions—the collectively intentional sovereign institution (p. 163). Although Searle offers a variety of beneficial insights concerning the relationship between collective belief and political power, this portion of his thesis rests too heavily on the naturalistic presumption that all deontology is collectively created by humans and nothing more, and that all human rights and obligations are mere Status Functions and nothing more. So ultimately, what Searle contends for is a theory that unifies all institutional immorality, all political tyranny, all destructive Collective Intentionality, all Desire Independent Reasons for unjust action, and all Institutional lies under the rubric of natural and biological consequences. For a supernatural worldview such as the Christian one, this is unacceptable because it rejects the possibility of God as the Sovereign Institutor of all, thus taking away any need for His Son to save people from their sins (Col. 1:13-14) and any need for His Bride—the Church—in the world. For He declared the Church to be an institution of salvation, health, and life that reconciles not only all nations into Him, but social status’ as well (Gal 3:28), thus remaking the social world after His own image.
In conclusion, I think anyone who seriously considers the magnitude of institutional reality to be the same as Searle considers it to be, and who is committed to depending upon the singular mechanism underlying its creation that Searle investigates in this book, has to be careful and considerate of Searle’s presuppositions. Searle’s purely naturalistic presuppositions are not entirely inconsequential to his overall theory. Nevertheless, his theory has offered an intriguing solution to the dilemma of a dualistic conception of institutional reality worth further development and application.