Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

This is a very natural pair of reviews. Both focus on the same subject, the social world and how such social phenomena come about be they marriages, sporting events, cocktail parties, governments, or money. He is not concerned with the history of these things, but their ontological structure and how that structure is brought into existence. Searle devotes particular attention to how language, a special social phenomena with correspondingly unique properties. It is precisely language, particularly its capacity to make declarations (“I anoint you King”), and that these declarations can be compounded, that bring about both informal (cocktail parties) and formal (governments, money) social institutions. Language is not necessary to social organization as such. Higher animals engage in social behaviors without the benefit of language. But social behaviors are not institutions. Only humans create institutions, and declarative language is both necessary and sufficient. As Searle puts it, once you have language you already have [at least one] a social institution.

Naturally this raises some epistemological issues. Searle doesn’t much address libertarian free will in the earlier book, but in the later he has to address it because he recognizes that the obligations and powers of institutions, even abstract ones like money, ultimately devolve onto individuals. But obligations and powers stemming from the declarative utterances of individuals (many of course codified into such things as laws and constitutions) simply make no sense if their creation and subsequent behavioral acceptance was determined by physics. I would take the successful creation of functioning and persistent institutions to be evidence of the metaphysical genuineness of free will, but Searle refuses to go there, asserting nevertheless that it might be an illusion. He does not note that if illusion, nothing of philosophy makes any sense either.

At the end of the later book Searle addresses the subject of rights. He seems to recognize that there is no such thing as a “natural right” or “absolute right” outside of a social context. The consequences of being unarmed and meeting a hungry lion on the savanna should put paid to the idea of natural or absolute rights, but he wants to give a sensible context to the terms even within a social context. He tries, but I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps this is but a linguistic disagreement between us. Even to communicate the concept of a natural or absolute right requires language, and as Searle points out this puts the notions squarely into a social context from their inception.

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

In an earlier review of a later book (“Seeing Things as they Are” 2015) I said Searle’s argument for “direct realism” was a bit circular. In this earlier book, he addresses that very circularity.

This book is about the physical and conceptual structure of social reality, such things as money, marriage, government, corporations, and cocktail parties. Searle points out that many animals live and cooperate in packs and so exhibit a “social reality”. All it takes to be social is for two people, or animals, to do something together. If you and I decide to go for a walk together, that, our walk, is a social fact. If we agree that a screwdriver is useful for driving screws, our agreement takes place in a social and linguistic framework in that we both know what screwdrivers and screws are for. But neither the walk, nor the screwdriver are institutional. Walking is something that humans are able to do by their physical constitution and the same goes for the screwdriver’s ability to drive screws. But other objects (coins) can also drive screws and if they can do that it is also thanks to their physical constitution.

Institutions are different. Money is not valuable intrinsically because of the properties of colored paper. It is valuable because it is embedded in an institution that applies symbols to physical things (like printed money) granting them powers they do not have merely as a product of their physics. These symbolic applications can be compounded endlessly yielding more and more complex institutions into which subsequent generations are born and raised against a background of these already symbolized and so constructed social realities. Language, that which we use to assign these symbols, is itself a socially constructed phenomenon and special because it is the institution that originates in a pre-linguistic but already social (in the animal way) context. Apart from the bodies that utter them, words work because they are symbols from the beginning. Paper colored and printed in a certain way by a certain institution (a mint) is, after all, physical. The government itself rests, ultimately, on something physical, a constitution, which is recorded in one form or another. Records (whether in language on paper, pictures, bits encoded in a computer, or uniforms conveying certain assigned powers to their wearer) are often the “at bottom” physical manifestations of our symbolic institutions. Every dollar bill is a record. Here (as I suspected) Searle and M. Ferraris (“Documentality”) come together. All of these are physical RECORDS that constitute the foundations of “from that point on” persisting social institutions. We connect the raw physical thing to the constructed institution by language.

If all of this seems too quick and over simplified, it is here in this review, but not in the book. Searle takes us through the argument that social institutions are, step by step, constructed by such symbolic assignments. “X has power to Y in context C” being the fundamental form of all institutional facts. This structure can be infinitely recursed. “Y’s” can become “X’s” and “C’s” can become “Y’s” generating symbolic constructs (social facts) recursively and Searle takes us through numerous examples demonstrating how it is that our complex social reality can be generated from the same structure which, when fully unpacked, and except for language, always finds its bottom in some physical X. Thus society grows out of the physical foundations of the world and is continuous with it.

In the book’s last three chapters, Searle connects all of this to the ontological reality of the physical world and our shared experience. Physical reality must exist in order that any statements about it are intelligible, and specific forms of physical reality (like Mt. Everest or the screwdriver) must exist and be shareable, part of our “public reality”, or we could not be sure, when we communicate (a social phenomenon) that our meanings are ever understood. If I say “the cat is on the mat” we take for granted that we know what we mean by ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, not to mention an enormous background of experience in physical and social reality such that we understand and agree on a reasonable range of contexts for cats, mats, and so on. Searle essentially argues that it is our capacity to communicate and construct social realities out of physical realities, that demonstrate the independent correspondence between our epistemic categories and the external world. None of this would work if not for mind-independent things structured much as (if not always exactly) we take them to be. Our capacity to communicate rests on the correspondence between language-reflected concept and mind-independent fact.

I would give this book six stars if I could. Searle is exceptionally good at getting at what he means in plain English. Anglo-analytic philosophy at its best, and about a meaningful subject!

Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010)

This book written in 2010 amounts to a reprise of Searle’s earlier “The Construction of Social Reality” (1997) which I have also reviewed. In the introduction to this book Searle says there were a few issues not sufficiently clarified and his aim is to clarify them.

The two books are about the same length, but Searle manages to say much more in this one about language, free will, and the sensibility of “human rights” outside formal institutional contexts. How does he manage this feat? In the earlier book he very carefully constructs his primary insight into the structure of social institutions and carefully demonstrates its application to a wide range of social phenomena like cocktail parties, sports, money, and government. In this book, he is able to state that fundamental argument more succinctly (he’s had a lot of time to work with it after all), embedding it more firmly into a clarified examination of the nature of human language as it relates to the development of social phenomena. As a result, there is nothing in the first book that isn’t also in this second one, but for some readers the main argument, the structure of all social contexts, might be stated a little too quickly here. I had no problem with it, but then I had already read the earlier book.

But despite the extensions and clarifications here, Searle still leaves a few things not clarified. He distinguishes between negative and positive rights. “Free speech” is a negative right because it requires nothing else of others besides letting me speak my mind. By contrast, a right to clean water (a UN declaration says this is a right) is a positive right because it puts an obligation on everyone else in the world to contribute to providing such a right. Searle rightly points out that positive rights are thus more problematic than negative rights, but he does not note that the UN declaration of such positive rights puts the onus of obligation on governments rather than mere individuals. He also uses a strange example, the right (in the context of the social institution of marriage) of a spouse to be consulted by their spouse before the latter commits to some life changing course of action. This is not a negative right as he seems to cast it, but a positive right, the corresponding obligation being on the spouse contemplating the act.

Finally, Searle tries to make sense of the notions of “natural” and “absolute” rights, those that exist by virtue of our being human beings outside any social context. I do not think he clarifies these ideas fully. An unarmed man encountering a hungry lion on the savanna will be eaten by the lion ninety nine times out of a hundred and that puts paid to any such thing as “natural rights” outside social contexts.

Despite getting a little loose with the notion of “human rights” at the end of the book, this is a superb portrait of the ontological structure of social reality. In a last section, Searle points out that most social scientists do not think that a grasp of social ontology really helps them with their work but they are mostly wrong about this. Most social science (for example) begins by assuming language and then asks how social reality is constructed with it. By contrast Searle notes that once you have a language, you already have a significant social context.

Book Review: Mind: A Brief Introduction by J. Searle

Below is the text of my Amazon review of John Searle’s “Mind”, an introduction to the philosophy of mind published in 2004. In this book Searle does a superb job of analyzing the structure of our mental processes, but he runs into problems trying to get a handle on free will and personal agency. Rather than comment on these two issues as a part of this review I have written an article on the subject located here.

“Mind: A Brief Introduction” by John Searle 2004

Another good book from a good philosopher, Searle’s review and proposals concerning the philosophy of mind. He sets out reviewing the dominant threads in the development of philosophy of mind noting and striking at their particular weaknesses. Searle dismisses property and substance dualism but also strikes at the weaknesses of various branches of materialist thinking on the subject. He then proposes his own theory, one that is fundamentally materialistic (physics being for Searle the ultimate basis of all things), but different in that it takes mental properties seriously but rests them firmly on what amounts to “the power and functional purpose of brains”.

Searle is an honest philosopher. He states his assumptions, makes clear his reasoning, and knows when his approach to the subject hits a wall that he has not (perhaps yet) found a way round. In this book, like everyone else, he cannot reduce-away the gap between the objective ontology of brains and the subjective ontology of experience. He points out that while every other phenomena in the physical universe can be both logically and physically reduced to some more fundamental phenomena, subjective experience cannot be logically reduced precisely because it is subjective while everything else is objective, public. Of course he assumes that there is some underlying, solely physical, foundation which will become known in time.

The book covers consciousness taken as a whole, a gestalt, and also intentionality (the “about-ness” of our thinking), the aspectral nature of all consciousness, emotions, desires, beliefs, and with these also acts: decisions and volitional control of the body. There is also a chapter on the unconscious, and that too fits perfectly well into his view of what mind is.

Searle runs into two other barriers not normally acknowledged by other philosophers. In a chapter on [libertarian] free will, he says that from a psychological point of view, free will must be real, but from his own view that consciousness is just what the brain does in the same sense that kidneys filter blood, he admits that he cannot figure out how free will could work. He alludes to a popular view that quantum mechanics might have something to do with this, but is honest enough to admit that this idea still does not really answer the question.

The other barrier is that of personal identity, the conviction that although my body and character change I remain, to myself subjectively, the same person today as I was a month or a decade back and that I can plan for the future when, presumably, this same person will still be around to enjoy the fruits of present labor. Here he addresses the “continuity of memory” theory to personal identity and accepts that this is important but is insufficient to explain the phenomenon. That these are MY memories still presupposes some “I” whose memories they are. He denies the “I” is substantive, but merely a functional hypothesis that we must have to make experience intelligible. He admits that he does not know how to get deeper into it than that.

The book is well written (could Searle do otherwise?) with little formality. His assumptions and arguments are clearly made in plain English. It isn’t an encyclopedic introduction to the philosophy of mind, but it does touch briefly on the main threads of the field as explored by Western philosophers for the past 300 or so years. His own theory, well expounded, illustrates how subtle and problematic some of the questions in the field can be. A good read. Highly recommended.

Two More by Zizek

Picture of me blowing smoke

Here are reviews of two books by Slavoj Zizek. “Refugees” (2016) is much more social commentary than philosophy concerning as it does a more specific “current event”, the matter of Middle Eastern and North African refugees in Europe. Beginning in earnest a few years ago now, the issue has passed from most American headlines. But this social phenomenon remains pressing for all the peoples involved and may grow again to numbers well beyond the capacity of European (not to mention American) governments to process and absorb. Written only a year earlier, “Trouble in Paradise” (2015), is commentary on a wider (but still present) phenomenon, global capitalism (mostly since the collapse of the Soviet Union), and what hope there is that something better can be brought to political and economic fruition before ecological catastrophe kills us all. Hint: I do not hold out much hope and I do not believe Zizek does either.

Zizek analyzes both the “human condition” and the inconsistencies inherent in global capitalism. He says in effect “something must change or we are headed for disaster”, but I get the sense that he knows full well that disaster will be the outcome no matter what happens in the near to medium term. In the first review below I take note of Zizek’s reliance (over much I think) on abstract cultural artifacts, namely fiction represented in contemporary literature and film. I only want to note here that this is not a problem only here in this book, but I suppose in Zizek’s style, for I remember it from his earlier “Living in End Times” reveiwed here.

Zizek’s atheism also gets in his way alas. It is one thing to critique the “institutional church” in social, political, and economic dimensions. But throwing the baby (God) out with the bath water (institutional religion) cannot help but further distort his picture of history as a whole. Since the literature he chooses as foundation for examining the human condition as such is also either atheist or non-committal on the subject, the distortion (if there happens to be a God) is self-reinforcing. But it is also the case that this literature reflects the real culture of the present day in which most people are functional atheists. People, the majority of people on Earth, claim to believe in God, but the God they believe in is often limited, fickle, inconsistent, and intolerant, sometimes even justifying horrific evil. Zizek’s analysis of religion is mostly wrong, but by analyzing this mistaken notion of God he does achieve genuine insight into the nature of real people and history because that is the God in which they believe. Alas for both him and us, those insights do not give us a lot of confidence that things will ever get better any time soon.

Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism

I still enjoy reading Zizek, but I find so many problematic issues in his views. His style and sense of (sometimes twisted) humor are on full display in this, something of a reprise of his “Living in End Times”, but much less heavy on the triumverate of Hegel, Lacan, and Badiou. All three appear of course along with many others, philosophers, novelists, film makers, and so on. His hammer falls squarely on Capitalism generally, and global Capitalism in particular. The book’s over-arching subject is the socio-political-economic situation of our present world. Zizek’s scholarship is as broad here as always.

It isn’t possible to say “there is no truth” in Zizek’s analysis. Published in 2015 he makes a statement that proves to be a prescient prophecy in his own terms: “…if moderate liberal forces continue to ignore the radical Left, they will generate an insurmountable fundamentalist wave”. Isn’t this exactly what happened in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S? Once she gained her party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton more or less ignored her primary opponent’s positions along with his substantial base who, while not radical, were to the political left of her. Sanders’ supporters are here exactly in the position of the “ignored left” of which Zizek speaks. As a result, a large cohort of Bernie’s supporters in critical states simply did not vote and effectively cost Clinton the election.

Having established that Capitalism is a part of the problem Zizek calls for something else, but what? He would like, I think, to see a more egalitarian world, something of a more level playing field economically at least, but in the first half of his book he recognizes that the inclusive forces that initiate a true “emancipatory movement” (Zizek is careful to distinguish these from purposeless violence, though they can and perhaps must [Zizek’s opinion] have a violence of their own) are never the forces that ultimately take power if the movement succeeds in its initial aim; ridding themselves of an unjust regime in the aegis of some particular master.

If nothing else history teaches us that some less inclusive (often out-rightly intolerant) agency, whether of the left or right, has always got the edge in the in-between time, when the government has collapsed but nothing yet has crystallized in its place. Zizek cites numerous examples of this process. Zizek well knows that today, with more than seven billion people on Earth, any transition, even leading to a better outcome eventually (something highly unlikely in itself), would if globalized, precipitate the death of billions! He also knows that this fate likely awaits us anyway as ecological catastrophe catches up with us eventually. Perhaps that is the ultimate fountain of Zizek’s inclination to an “any movement having some genuine aim is better than nothing” position.

But while there is truth in Zizek’s analysis, it is distorted, in my opinion, by his reliance on art, particularly literature and film (along with a few jokes) to support his over all view of human nature. Fiction is wonderful for highlighting particular characteristics of the human condition, for contrasting them to a real environment that otherwise might swamp them out. But their very value in this regard is also a liability because they accomplish their mission precisely by distorting reality.

I think it is unfortunate also that Zizek uses the word ‘violence’ as ambiguously as he does. In an appendix, among many other things, he mentions this and addresses one of his critics. I would take a different tack. Earlier in the book he uses the Christian notion of ‘agape’ as an example of violence because it aims at precipitating the destruction of the existing (speaking of Biblical times) order. An atheist by reputation and declaration, Zizek cannot but have a distorted view of theology. A true “emancipative act” need not be violent in the normal sense of that term. Christian emancipation in the proper sense has nothing to do with the politico-economic order as such (be it Biblical Rome or modern global Capitalism). In the Christian sense, agape is “beyond the law” (among the senses of violence he seems to mean) because it goes farther than the law being more just, more fair; an act that would be approved by the law.

Zizek is surely right that anything that is aimed at the politico-economic order, if successful, will surely precipitate violence of the literal kind as it collapses, but that is a distinction, the violence (or lack of violence) of the act versus the violence it precipitates elsewhere, he seems not to recognize. Was the violence of the Jacobins who commandeered the French Revolution greater than the violence the European system visited on countless peasants for hundreds of years? Perhaps not, but the same cannot be automatically said today of violence perpetrated by left or right in relation to the overall impact of global Capitalism. For one thing, in the 18th century there were fewer people in all of Europe than live today in any one of its countries.

In this book, Zizek has a decision to make. Global Capitalism is a fact and seven-and-a-half billion people on Earth is also a fact. Zizek insists that no amount of “adjustments to the present system” can over-come its inherent contradictions. True as this is, he surely sees that such adjustments can extend the life of the inconsistent system precisely by, perhaps periodically, ameliorating excessively wide discrepancies. He describes such adjustments. If he understood the distorting nature of his reliance on fiction to provide his archetypes, he might realize that “adjustment” constitutes a more ethical course under the circumstances than even a successful emancipatory event. In the end the most pressing issue is the future ecological catastrophe. While Capitalism is certainly a contributor, there doesn’t seem to be any likely outcome of an “emancipatory event” that would halt the slide to that disaster anyway. Perhaps I am even more of a pessimist than Zizek?

Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail

Think of this little book as “applied Zizek”. It isn’t philosophy, it is social commentary and Zizek is one of today’s premier social commentators. Having written this book, Zizek has been accused by the left of being a fascist ideologue, and by the right of being an old-style communist ideologue. I have never taken him to be either and I read his little book to see for myself.

Zizek is here a “discerner of nuance” of every sort: sociopolitical, geopolitical, historical, environmental, economic, psychological, ethical ideological, and so on. His subject is the European refugee crisis spawned by ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, though he brings to the subject plenty of historical material demonstrating exactly the sort behavior (good and bad, even outrightly evil) seen in all parties to the present matter. This includes the refugees themselves, but also the governments and peoples of nations who are parties in the conflicts, and of course the corrosive effects of the present economic order. No one calls a spade a spade like Zizek, and it seems precisely his point in this book to note that there are spades everywhere, on every side, in the present context and none of them is without precedent in the history of the last few centuries. He draws his examples from every peoples on every continent, and this is how he opens himself to be a target of every side.

So what is to be done now, and in particular by Europe? Here Zizek seems to despair of an answer. Perhaps anything (to the right? To the left?) is better than nothing, anything that advances some vision. But he is well aware that no vision will actually come out as intended, and he spends time examining what must be done as concerns so much of the violent behavior of refugees that has no vision but the destruction of their own present environment. He concedes that much of what is being done (police raids, information gathering, and such) must to some extent be done, but he tries to discern the productive from the counter productive. His most concrete recommendation is to militarize, literally give to the army, the job of gathering refugees in temporary camps near to their points of origin, seeing to their registration, and then to safe passage into Europe. The military is expert at large scale organization, this a logical suggestion, but then what?

Ironically, as this was published in 2016, Zizek seems to assume that the nations of the European Union will each take their share of refugees! This is not taking place now in 2017 and the reasons it is not are all fully anticipated in Zizek’s analysis from politics, economics, racism, and the mindless violence of SOME individuals! Zizek sees both the rationale behind the backlash, and feels the ethical weight (on Europe) of at least some measure of responsibility. Is that not the attitude Christians are supposed to take? Can ethics and political will ever be genuinely reconciled; especially “on the ground”?

Even this is not the end of the matter, as bad as the situation can yet become as goes Europe (and by extension the United States) with refugees fleeing wars in which all these parties (including other Arab powers who take no refugees) have a part, reasonable projections for the future of our globe portend an even greater world-wide refugee crisis in the offing spawned by environmental disaster, political fragmentation, anti-globalism, and the inevitable economic dislocations that will follow from these. Is capitalism and globalism (including the colonialism of the last few centuries) largely to blame for all this? You bet! But Zizek also knows that it is too late simply to abandon their present manifestations wholesale! It is in calling attention to all this nuance that he makes himself a target for everyone. And the book can also be read as a kind of plea. Zizek fully admits that he does not know of a “solution” that is politically acceptable, economically feasible, and ethically justifiable all at the same time. But he pleads of those who have the power to do this to prepare some plan for that inevitable future.

If you aren’t afraid of seeing all the spades called out, including perhaps one or two that you might presently hold, and if you can stomach the answer that there may not be a realistic answer, a future in which millions don’t die, this will be a good book for you.

John Searle: Seeing Things as they Are


I gave this book 5 stars in my review and possibly I should have left it at 4. Not only is Searle a bit over confident about consciousness in general (this is not the book’s focus but he does review his position because most perception happens in consciousness), and the validity of his somewhat circular argument for the nature of perception. However for other reasons (I am after all a realist philosopher) I do believe that his description of what it is that perception delivers to mind is correct, and he very effectively compares and contrasts that description to most of the other dominant philosophical threads on the subject. Thus even if his own view is not so perfectly supported, his demolition of competing views is effective.

Searle’s work dovetails with that of Maruzio Ferraris just about perfectly. I mention this in the review, but I want to say something more about the connection here. Both philosophers might be called “common sense realists” despite their emerging from radically different backgrounds; Searle from Anglo-analytic realism, and Ferraris from Continental anti-realism. For Ferraris, the evidence that our senses present (Searle’s term) already structured mind-independent reality is its unamendability. In terms of “objective ontology” a tree cannot be wished or for that matter simply pushed out of your path. In relation to subjective ontology (what vision presents to mind) you cannot simply “see it” ten feet to the left. By contrast, if you close your eyes and merely imagine the tree, you can, in your imagination, move it anywhere you wish. Reality (Ferraris again) also provides affordances. With the proper tools, you can cut the tree down and make a shelter from it. In Searle’s terms, mind-independent reality responds to (fits) our acts upon it.

I have two more books from Searle to read, the subject being social reality. I expect to find more parallels with Ferraris. For Ferraris, the ontologically objective basis of social reality is located in documents, from constitutions and laws to parking tickets and restaurant menus. One of the first things Searle mentions among constructed social phenomena is money, one of Ferraris’ recorded documents whether represented in bills, coins, or bits in computer memory. I expect to find these parallels because both Ferraris and Searle are genuine realists as compared to “speculative realists” like Harman and Meillassoux. For genuine realists the bottom line, the philosophical starting or ending (depending on which way you look at it) has to be, well, logically prior and already structured mind-independent “objective reality”. If realism is true, then all realists have to agree on (start or end with) the same mind-independent reality. This is clearly not the case with the “speculative realists” (see my “Problems with Object Oriented Ontology” and its links). Harman and Meillassoux come to different and mutually exclusive conclusions about what constitutes the mind-independent world because they are not fundamentally realists at all.

Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Kindle Edition 2015)

A very good book. Searle’s focus is on perception, particularly vision, but he brings the other senses in as well. He begins by reviewing what he calls the “bad argument” which he claims has misled philosophy for the past few hundred years. His review of the “bad argument” is straight forward but its badness springs directly from its opposition to his own view which he calls “direct realism”, a term he prefers to “naive realism” which nevertheless also fits his position. Searle’s view is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. I would call it “common sense realism”, but M. Ferraris has already adopted that phrase for his “new realism”. The two views have much in common, but Ferraris’ focus is not perception as such. I have reviewed a few of Ferraris’ books elsewhere on Amazon.

In an early chapter on consciousness in general Searle burnishes his materialist credentials by declaring (at least as concerns life on Earth) that consciousness is necessarily associated with brains (which is uncontroversial), but he also declares that brains alone are sufficient to produce consciousness, something that no one (on Earth) knows for sure. This precisely why there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. He repeats this claim a few times but his theory of perception does not hang on it. Another quibble is that he is a little sloppy as concerns statements of cosmological fact. In one of his examples he says “I look at the star and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago”. He could only mean “I look at the stellar explosion” (a nova or supernova) and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago.” If he “sees the star” then the light of its demise has not reached us yet and he could not know that it has already ceased to exist.

Searle begins by recognizing that when we experience something visually, what we have is a “subjective ontology”, a phenomenal experience that philosophers for centuries have called a “sense datum”. The “bad argument” comes down to the belief that this sense datum is really all we KNOW and that for all we know there is nothing about “objective ontology”, the structure of the mind-independent world, to which we have access unless the sense datum represents the objective to the subjective. What has confused philosophy for centuries is the matter of how (or if) this representation actually works. Searle’s argument here is very simple. Our senses, particularly vision and touch, do not merely represent the world, but PRESENT it, presentation being a special case of representation. What constitutes presentation specifically is that there are “conditions of satisfaction” for the presentation. If I see a tree, the sense datum is satisfied (and so presented and not merely represented) by there being an actual tree where I see it. This accounts for hallucinations. If the identical sense datum is hallucinated then the satisfaction criteria are not met, no tree is present where I appear to see it.

Presentation is causal with the direction of cause going from world to mind, objective to subjective. Response (what Searle calls “direction of fit”), on the other hand goes from mind to world. Searle also gets a bit into “action” because it happens that its connection between mind and world is the inverse of perception. Cause goes from mind to world and the “direction of fit” from world to mind. This ties in beautifully with Ferraris’ concepts “unamendability” (perception) and affordance (action). Searle recognizes the matter of will, free will, comes up here but he demurs. I would like to see him talk about it somewhere.

Searle goes on to flesh out perception with a distinction between basic presentational properties like shape, color, motion, and so on, and those properties that require background knowledge on the part of the receiver. Perception is hierarchical. This accounts for the distinction between seeing a shape and color (basic perception) and seeing “an automobile”, and further up the hierarchy (additional background), recognizing “my car”. Importantly, “conditions of satisfaction” lie all the way up the hierarchy and they really apply TO THE OBJECT. The base phenomenology is not only a black object of such and such a size, but a car, and furthermore, it really is my car! All of this makes perfect sense to me, but then I am also a realist. It is hard to imagine not living one’s life in a realist mental environment. If you are about to step off a curb into a lane of traffic but have a visual experience of a black object about the size of a car hurtling down the same lane towards you, you likely ASSUME that the object IS a car and that it makes sense not to step into the lane. You take for granted that the object is being presented and not merely represented to you.

Philosophically though, Searle’s perception requires two assumptions. First that your brain and sensory system are operating within normal parameters, and second that the mind-independent world is genuinely structured AS PRESENTED. It is this mind-independent structure (including I believe its causal relations) that constitutes the “conditions of satisfaction” of the presentation which rests also on the causal relations between perception and the perceived object! For Searle to get his theory of perception out, he has to presuppose that the world is real and already structured having causal properties. The apropos structure must be present to be presented. This is the very assumption that anti-realists want desperately to avoid and it makes Searle’s argument circular. Because of the causal properties, the demand that we live AS IF the world is presented breaks the tie in favor of Searle’s position (and against anti-realism), but I do not recall him acknowledging this circularity..

Apart from this omission, the book is a very refreshing departure from all the anti-realism I’ve been reading lately. It is not a long or very technical read. I highly recommend it.

Review: Harman and DeLanda

Two more books, one (2002) by Graham Harman is I think an early statement of his full system. There are things missing here (dormant and symbiotic objects for example) but the core of it, that Heiddeger’s tool/broken-tool distinction is a foundation for a full fledged ontology, and that what is both real and mind-independent has, nevertheless, a being or essence (haeccity is an old word for it from the scholars of the middle ages, but it fits) that is both ontologically real and unreachable (withdrawing) from any relation. The second review is of a recent collaboration between Harman and Manuel DeLanda. I have not read DeLanda otherwise. His thoughts about ontology are not systematically clear for me. Harman’s would not be either if I had only this book to go by. Instead what we get is terminological refinements of one another’s thoughts (each compared to the other) in five broad ontological subjects.

It seems to me that as concerns the most ontologically fundamental nature of being Harman and Delanda have a very fundamental disagreement. The haeccity that withdraws from us (Harman) is summed up (for DeLanda) in the object’s world-line, the exact details of its entire history. I get the impression that DeLanda is saying that if we had immediate experiential knowledge of every detail at all levels of graining expressed in all (even possible) linguistic systems, we would know that object. He concedes that such knowledge is in principle impossible and so what constitutes being cannot ever be fully touch it. Harman agrees that the world-line is real (an object), but insists that even the entirety of its history does not exhaust it. The two positions come out, in the end, to the same thing as concerns our experience of what is real. We cannot ever reach the core of things. In this sense, Harman is a little more realist in the sense that he adds a little more to what is mind-independent, but his addition seems arbitrary, utterly speculative. He never quite explains what difference it makes. DeLanda also doesn’t know for sure if being is encompassed by a world-line, but he argues that it goes at least that far, something on which both authors agree.

Both of these authors, along with Meillassoux are called “speculative realists”. The moniker is well deserved. Coming from a continental anti-realist position both remain trapped behind the anti-realist boundary between thought and mind-independent reality. But even anti-realists (apart from pure idealists who became extinct over a century ago) believe that there is a mind-independent world though nothing can be known for certain about it. In becoming “realists” all three are attempting to formulate a view of what can be said about that world, but they still accept that what might be said cannot be known with certainty. Thus it is they are *speculating!*

Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Kindle Edition 2002)

I suspect Tool-Being was Harman’s first attempt to reveal his developed ontology to the world. The book, written in 2002, is now a bit dated as Harman has updated his ontology with a few modifications (additions and subtractions) in later books, but those are still only adjustments around the edges. The basic ideas are all still here. What I do not see, again, is any development of his conclusions from first principles, but his ontology does not simply spring fully formed into his head. Rather than first principles it appears to have been a patchwork of inspiration taken from the ideas of Heidegger, Whitehead, Latour, and others. If anything Tool-Being provides us with this historical foundation of Harman’s thought.

So what we get here in this book is first a review of Heidegger’s theory of tools and broken tools which forms the fundamental insight that Harman extends to everything, not just tools, in the universe. Next he looks into various interpretations of Heidegger and shows how they can be extended to be about more, and different, than Heidegger himself had in mind. Lastly, we have the explication of his own insights derived from the foregoing. All of this until the last 7 or 8 pages of the book is illustrated by reference to other philosophers, in the last chapter mostly Levinas and Zubri. Finally, at the end Harman states his conclusions and several problems (paradoxes and regresses) stemming from them. He recognizes that these issues must be worked through (presumably by him and others) to fully flesh out the ontology, but he declines to do this here claiming for this book only a pointer to the way forward.

There is a good reason why Harman is grouped with a few others among the new generation of “speculative realists”. Given their continental anti-realist roots (Meillassoux being the only other of this group I’ve reviewed) they accept that perception alone (naive realism) doesn’t give us reality, and that, in the end, we can’t do philosophy (or anything else) from outside the mind. What they have in common is the conviction that from within mind, we can say something reasonable about the layout of a reality that includes both mind and something outside it. But they also know that what might well be reasonable and even useful for other areas of philosophy and the human-sciences cannot be known to be true. At best, as concerns ontology, these ideas of Harman (and Meillassoux and others) are speculations. They are not inductive conclusions based on evidence, but speculative possibilities. Harman is at least aware that the summing up of his particular speculations, up through the development of his thought to this point, leaves many questions to be resolved. He finishes convinced that, as a beginning, the fleshed out [future] system will be useful to someone. I have to wonder if he doesn’t come across a bit too convinced given the historical foundations of his ideas, but he does make a good effort in the last pages to explain his views particularly as they contrast with those of Heidegger and Whitehead.

I gave the book 4 stars because even if one is not a fan of Harman, the book is a superb explication of Heidegger and others as concerns possible implications of their metaphysics, epistemology, and phenomenology to the nature of the mind independent world.

The Rise of Realism (Kindle Edition 2017)

This little book consists of a dialog between Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman, two of a small suite of continental philosophers who today are trying to reclaim realism from the self-referential swamp of anti-realism having its beginnings in Kant. The book is divided into five broad subjects (chapters): Realism and Materialism; Realism and Anti-Realism; Realist Ontology; Cognition and Experience; Time, Space, and Science. In each chapter DeLanda and Harman conduct a conversation covering various sub-topics within the overall category.

One gets the impression of a couple of philosophy graduate students chatting over beers in a local pub. Of course Harman and DeLanda are a bit more disciplined than graduate students, but not by a lot. The conversation tends to drift from sub-topic to sub-topic. As each side of the conversation approaches more technical or nuanced issues over which they might disagree more than being a “matter of terminology”, each changes the subject so as to move on. Nothing is explored in any depth. In part this is understandable. I suppose neither wanted to write a thousand page book. But neither party actually explains the derivation of their particular “system of thought”, merely stating it as it relates to whatever particular subject is at hand. Harman mildly contradicts himself here and there as one broad subject (chapter) moves on to the next, and overall DeLanda’s position seems to me to be the more common-sensical but both have their problems.

Meanwhile, the two rarely disagree and when they approach disagreement they tend to change the subject. Only in the last chapter is there any substantive disagreement discussed. Overall if you are looking for some overview of both philosopher’s thoughts on these broad issues this book is a good summary. As a means of using one another’s thought to adjust their own positions it falls flat. Neither author’s position changes in the slightest except where they can agree that their positions on some particular sub-issue can be brought closer together by terminological adjustments. Not a bad book and a good review of each author’s already mature thought. But it isn’t great either. Nothing new is accomplished. For $18 (Kindle edition) this book is probably more expensive than it should be.

Review: Hicks, Postmodernism

Not a long or profound review here but I put it up because the topic has come up a lot lately on various philosophy forums. One can trace the development of postmodernism all the way from the Greeks, but in our era, it all begins with Kant and the question of “what we can know?”. It is an epistemological position, about truth and what we can know of it. There are both Anglo-analytic and continental expressions of it, but the dominant thread runs through continental antirealist philosophy. As the history of Western philosophy progressed the notion of what we could know, how we could recognize truth became narrower and narrower. Eventually someone thought: “well if there is nothing we can know for sure, no truth that we can be absolutely sure of, perhaps there isn’t any such thing as truth that can be known at all”. From there it was but a small step for the next philosopher to add: “It doesn’t matter that we try to approach truth. Since we cannot know what it is, or even in what direction it lies, we can call anything we want ‘truth'” and with this, postmodernism was born. If you don’t like postmodernism (I don’t). If you think it leads down a dangerous path; “getting what you want matters, truth does not, any lie is justified and the ends always justify the means” (I do), then this is a book for you. Hicks skewers postmodernism with both humor and philosophical rigor.

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Kindle Edition 2010) by Stephen Hicks

Not often I get to say of a non-fiction book that I didn’t want to put it down and was sad when I reached the end. Except for a sense of the movement’s nihilism, I didn’t know much about Postmodernism, but Dr. Hicks has covered the ground. He begins with a broad brush of what postmodernism stands for metaphysically (anti-realism), epistemologically (skepticism), ethically (collectivism in the social, educational and political sphere) and aesthetically (the meaninglessness of art and criticism). One gets the impression that he knows the subject well. His attention to detail is that of the scholar and even the true believer, but he hints slyly at the movement’s absurdity even here. From his review he goes backwards and traces the roots of the movement beginning with Kant’s response to the Enlightenment in an attempt to shore up the authority of the Church, and up through Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Nietzsche, Marx, and then Heidegger to the later 20th century with Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty. There are many other voices mentioned along the way (Kierkegaard plays a role as does Freud). Besides philosophers he traces political movements of the left and the right in opposition to the Enlightenment’s development of capitalism resting on individualism.

In the last chapter HIcks returns to Postmodernism proper and its absurdity from the metaphysical and epistemological to the political and aesthetic. In 200 hundred years every political and social consequence of anti-Enlightenment philosophy, every prediction and political hope has singularly failed. Postmodernism is the response to this failure by philosophers who come to the conclusion that if the foundation and development of the anti-Enlightenment movement over 200 years is rotten the only thing left to do, besides admit that you are wrong, is attack and destroy what the Enlightenment produced. Even Nietzsche (who Hicks returns to illustratively at the end) presciently suggests that one can take anti-realism and nihilism too far leaving the postmodernists to “quote Nietzsche less and Rousseau more”. Not only is Postmodernism nihilistic, it is destructively so, the bitter fruits of jealousy over the failure of collectivist anti-realism and seeming political, economic, and social success of Enlightenment realism, rationalism, and individualism.

An excellent review, through, scholarly, and easy to read. I find Hick’s style both serious and humerous at the same time. Superb!

Review: Deacon “Incomplete Nature”

The book here is 6 years old but only recently reviewed by me. Somehow it escaped my attention until now. This is one of those books that no short review could do justice. I said so much in the review, but I will stand for now on what I wrote in it albeit I emphasize that it is summary, oversimplified, and confusing because terms like “teleodynamic” are not defined (in the review) not to mention a half dozen other terms that Deacon creates for the sake of necessary abstractions with which to continue the narrative. In the book, every one of these new terms is carefully explained, defined, and justified.

In this commentary, I’m not going to expand on or further clarify the review but rather say something about what “isn’t there”, something I think Dr. Deacon will appreciate. In “Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” the authors build a case that amounts to saying what is important about the way the universe turned out is the particular historical path followed by its events. At different points of the universe’s history different things might have happened, but what should be informing present science, theories about origins and destinies, is what actually happened. The material world is contingent; things might have happened otherwise, but they happened to happen the way they did and that way was not only perfectly compatible with the regularities of physics but just as likely to have happened as any other outcome compatible with those regularities. The question of why things went one way rather than another can be asked, but not answered (if even then) until after the fact.

This view is perfectly compatible with Deacon’s account of the rise of life and consciousness but Deacon emphasizes what Unger and Smolin leave out. As goes life and mind what didn’t happen, that is what was excluded and made impossible (or improbable) by what did happen, is the real key to understanding how the particular path that is history came out as it did. As in “Singular Universe”, from any given temporal viewpoint, we can no more predict what exactly will be excluded in the future than we can predict what will happen. Why certain possible histories were precluded can, again, be answered only after the fact. While this viewpoint may make it possible to more fully understand the relation between basic physics, the origin of life, and the nature (and causal efficacy) of consciousness (a case Deacon makes well), it doesn’t in the slightest demonstrate that the path actually taken was accidental.

Since historical outcomes (and exclusions) were just as possible as alternatives that “might have been”, if in fact such outcomes were not literally accidental, there would be no way to tell. To put it another way, if God wanted to make physics do the maximum possible work (sans intervention) to result in life and consciousness, the possibility of this pathway, this set of exclusions (emergent constraints resulting in emergent attractors), perfectly lawful and equally likely, would be the very sort of process involved. Because the information bearing nature of the final outcome is the result of possibilities subtracted away from the infinite possibilities present at earlier stages it stands out only after the fact. Rather than there being no evidence for teleology added up-front, there couldn’t be (evidence) by presupposition because what happened was always one possibility among others.

Deacon is a materialist and insists that his theory at least suggests how life and consciousness could arise out of nothing more than the regularities of physics. He insists that his theory explains these phenomena without resort to anything but physics and he is right, in a way it does. But the theory relies on the fact that the “telos” of the physical process appears only after-the-fact and that renders anything non-accidental (provided it does not violate the regularities of physics) occurring before-the-fact completely invisible.

But perhaps this is a superficial criticism. It can be applied to any purely physical theory whatsoever. Deacon has a bigger problem. Truly an absence, a hole for example, is not a material thing; neither substance nor process. So we have an easy route from physics to non-materiality. It is less clear how absences are causes, formal or efficient (the two levels Deacon relies upon). Surely they can contribute to efficient causes (contributory cause) by being one of a combination of circumstances that together are a cause. They can also be a component of formal causes, of the form of a thing that determines its causal efficacy. But I cannot think of an example where absence qua absence is the sole, single, cause of anything efficient or formal.

Further, consciousness, at least as I experience it, while it might emerge as a result of constraints resulting in an important non-material absence, an attractor (surely these do have a role to play) in association with other causes, is not itself an absence, but a positive; a presence. It is the most present phenomenon to my experience because it is my experience, my subjective perspective. But nowhere in Deacon’s book does he manage to explain how a causally efficacious non-material presence (not absence) emerges. This is merely another way of saying “the way our experience is and not some other way”, but either way you phrase it, Deacon doesn’t arrive at it. In Deacon’s view, consciousness has to emerge from a constraint that emerges in an attractor. But attractors are empty, while consciousness, that is subjectivity, is not.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2011)

This is a great book! For years now I’ve read books by scientists and philosophers addressing the origins of life and consciousness. Many often point to “self organizing” phenomena in the universe (a simple example, simmering water in a pot organizing itself into columns of bubbles, or the way in which water flow in a chaotic rapid can here and there form stable whirlpools) and claim that life’s origin, and eventually even consciousness, are nothing more than complex examples of this process. But none of them make the attempt to cross the divide between these simple regularities and the far more complex nature of life and mind.

In this long book Dr. Deacon uses every page to meticulously build argument upon argument and example upon example in an effort to show exactly how this might be possible both for life and consciousness. His key insight, carefully crafted and expanded all the way along the narrative, is that it isn’t what is present in any particular material organization that matters, but rather what is absent; what the structure of any given complexifying phenomenon constrains away. It isn’t what happens that matters so much as what the evolving structures (structure here should be understood as both stuff and process) prevent from happening. To take a simple and non-dynamical example, a house functions as a home not because it has a certain structure but because that structure precludes it being something else, a boat, a bridge, or a pile of rubble.

Deacon begins by setting a very high bar. He insists that any theory of life and its origins respect its extraordinary complexity and the near impossibility of the dynamic relations between its parts falling together accidentally. Similarly with consciousness he insists that any theory of mind takes into account its patently dualistic nature and causal efficacy. Mind cannot be illusory or epiphenomenal. Life and mind are both teleological (purposeful, end-directed) by nature and he insists that the appearance of teleology in life and mind be accommodated in any theory of its origins and functions. But he also insists that all of this be accounted for by the laws of physics and in particular, the second law of thermodynamics. He spends a chapter explicating and rejecting a generalized theory of homunculi, that is solutions requiring anything, structure, process, or information, imposed from the outside. Somehow, we have to get from physics to mind while recognizing that mind is not physics. Instead, in his view, the solution amounts to a foreground/background reversal. It isn’t the physical stuff or process that results in life or mind, but rather what physical evolution (non-living, then living, then mental) constrains out of possibility.

Deacon carefully crafts his argument focusing on the physical concept of work and the logic of attractors. In physics, work is possible only when there is a thermodynamic gradient. In unbounded (having no formal boundary like a cell wall) physical dynamics, thermodynamic gradients, under the right conditions, can become morphodynamic; taking on a shape (the self-organizing process) that serves to increase the efficiency of thermodynamic dissipation. But in bounded systems (in the first instance boundaries formed by natural conditions having nothing to do with life) a new type of dynamic becomes possible, one that reduces dissipation internally in exchange for increased dissipation between the bounded system an the outside. This is the beginning of teleodynamic organization. He is careful to note that “telos” here is not something imposed from the outside, but rather the appearance of end-directedness stemming from the emergence of the constraints against dissipation on the inside. Once a teleodynamic emerges, other teleodynamic constraints can emerge from it compounding constraint upon constraint which, when viewed after the fact, amount to a compounding of information.

This then is the core of his theory which he then traces up from proto-life to life and from life, via Darwinian evolution (which never adds information, but rather selects out information emerging in compounded teleodynamics relevant to the [then] present environment) to mind. In each step it isn’t what happens or what exists that matters so much as what is progressively constrained or prevented from happening. I want to emphasize that this statement is a highly simplified summary of Deacon’s far more complex but clearly enunciated argument. In the end, mind has causal efficacy because it is itself a hole, an attractor, and by disturbing the metaphorical shape of its own attractor (constraint on constraint on constraint) affects the underlying (metaphorical) shape of the attractors (now neurological) that support it.

This is a book to which no short review can do justice. It is well argued and written for a general audience with a basic grasp of physical principles. Readers with a grasp of high school physics will do fine. But does he succeed? In his last chapter he notes that even the emergence of human social systems, government, economics, even values, amount to further constraints that operate to reduce entropic dissipation in the social system that bounds them. All of this makes perfect sense in the context of his fundamental insight, but he never explains why it all should come out as the experience of subjectivity that we have and not something else with equal capacity to dynamically constrain. This however is not a shortcoming in the basic argument. The emergence of all these constraints (and thus the attractors they manifest) can only be recognized after the fact. Before the fact there are always other possibilities. In short, Deacon goes farther than anyone else in crafting a pathway leading from physics to mind.