Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.

Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.

Reflections on BEING

Being is one of those ideas only philosophers worry about, and not even all of them. There’s a good reason for that. I’ve recently read a few philosophers who touch on the subject. Harman and DeLanda debate what being is in “The Rise of Realism” (2017), while Umberto Eco devotes a chapter to it in his “Kant and the Platypus (1997), and Meillassoux touches on it in “After Finitude” (2015). Eco’s essay ties the others together and points out that being appears to mind only against the possibility of “not being”, and that concept presupposes language that discloses limits to our capacity to rationalize experience. Eco is clear however in that being, should it be more than a mere fantasy of mind, must precede mind. It must be, ontologically, mind-independent, though it becomes visible only to mind and by way of a linguistic shadow.

I am not convinced of that last part. A shadow yes, a blindspot to mind like the blindspot on the human retina caused by the placement of the optic nerve. But it is a phenomenal blindspot and prelinguistic; a genuine epistemological limit. At the same time it is no mere coincidence the recognition, the conceptualization, of this blindspot happens only in humans who also notice that it necessarily reflects itself in language.

So what am I talking about? As philosophers discuss it this purported ontological reality splits into two levels, the particular, and the universal. In the particular philosophers speak of an essence that lies at the core of every particular in this universe, from quarks to all their assemblies both natural and artifactual taken as discrete objects. Every rock, grain of dust, star, animal, statue, and more. Harman extends object-ness to every mind, thought (even outright fantasy), and relation, even to such arbitrary sets as my right arm, the statue of liberty, and the present queen of England. The being of these particulars is what, in addition to their properties, histories and relations, makes up their individual existence.

This being is sometimes associated with what medieval scholars called “haecceity”, or “thisness”, distinguishing particulars from those otherwise identical. The question comes down to whether this impenetrable essence exists mind-independently, or is merely a mirage a product, ultimately, of the nature of human, language-using, consciousness. It has to be human mind specifically because there is no evidence that higher animals (who I take it have sophisticated subjective arenas adapted to their way of life) concern themselves with being. They do not recognize any blind-spot.

Harman says every particular, even imaginary ones, have being. DeLanda denies this. In DeLanda’s view, if we could (and we cannot) know every micro detail about some particular object, if we could know its entire history, including details of all its relations with other objects, if we could literally exhaust all of what could theoretically be known about an object, then we would exhaust the object, encompassing all of what that object is leaving nothing left over. Harman insists that even that would not exhaust the object itself; haecceity is logically prior to everything else. So who is right here? It seems to me that ontologically this is a tossup. Both DeLanda and Harman concede that “knowing every micro detail” is an impossible goal. Mind comes up against a limit. We cannot ever know every detail so how can we be sure there is something left over? Perhaps DeLanda is right in that being lies at this asymptotic limit. It is nothing more than a word standing for “those details we can never know”.

An honest ontologist has no business insisting on residual being one-way or another. Epistemologically the situation is different. Like being itself, only humans, using language, concern themselves with epistemology. Recognizing a “limit to what can be known” about any particular is in part to accept that something more might lie beyond “what can be known”. To label that possibility ‘being’ is simply to name that which we cannot know but perhaps is. What this represents ontologically is indeterminate, but for human mind, recognizing that a blind-spot exists, being seems a reasonable and possibly useful hypothesis. It is reasonable, because we cannot communicate (language) without presupposing existence. Useful because it gives us a reason to reject idealism; to assume there is a mind-independent world.

This brings us to the universal. As associate the particular with haecceity, the universal relates to something the scholars called quiddity. Quiddity is the aboutness of something, that which is common to its type. Kitty cats and lions are both feline. What justifies our carving out this class and assigning to it both kitty cats and lions but not poodles? Today most people would answer with DNA, jaw and tooth shapes, claws, and many other morphological features, but the scholars knew about most of those as well. Their interest was in the logical principles that characterize classes or kinds and what must be the case, ontologically, to make the classification work.

Like haecceity, quiddity might be no more than a stand-in for those principles and if we could theoretically know every one of them down to their finest detail, there wouldn’t be anything left. But what is interesting about quiddity is it applies up the whole chain of nested classes to the whole universe. It is the something in the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” What is common to everything there is (we can debate the details of that if we want) and does not belong to what is not? That would be being.

So what does everything that exists have in common? Trivially, they have existence. Is there anything more to it than this? Once again human mind cannot resolve the ontological question. At least everything that exists must, perforce, have existence. But are existence and being simply synonyms, or must something have being to exist? It doesn’t matter here any more than it did for particulars.

We cannot in principle exhaust existence (witness the endless debate in which philosophers engage on “what exists”) so how could we hope to discover, in any positive way, what might be left over if we did exhaust it? But in this case, we fare no better epistemologically. Mind at least can grasp the particularity of particulars. Human mind can become aware of a blind-spot, the inability to encompass every detail, but at least as concerns the particular we are justified in creating a word for “that which we cannot know about this”. As concerns the universal, we cannot even to that or if we do, it cannot be justified.

As concerns the global being, even human mind has nothing to grasp onto. Metaphysically speaking there can be nothing to grasp onto because unlike a particular rock or even thought, mind itself is a part of that universal. Mind exists in some sense and so “has existence” (and so being if everything else has it) in common with everything else. This also holds for language which also exists and has existence (at least) in common with everything else. To be able to speak about something presupposes being able to distinguish that something from everything else. But as concerns universal being, that which everything has in common, is to presuppose a reality-foundation (or reality concept) for which in principle there are no distinctions to be made. Existence alone is uni-vocal, something everything has in common, how much more so being if there is indeed any such thing.

Where does this leave us on the matter of being? I would say in an ambivalent position. I believe every language has some equivalent to the English verb “to be”. In English this construct and its conjugates applies to material objects (“that is a horse”), and actions, attitudes, or states (“to be creative”, “to be good”, “to be a disaster”) whether those of the physical world or strictly the subjective arena (“to be depressed”). It might perhaps be this broad application that persuades Harman to grant equivalency of existence (being an object) to everything from rocks to thoughts and all their relations (“to be taller than”). But perhaps this is merely an affect of language and should not be counted in an ontology?

If I teach my daughter the word cat, and eventually she displays an ability to tell cats from other animals, has she implicitly understood quiddity or is she merely learning to identify the morphological characteristics that distinguish cats from other animals most of the time? Suppose if she comes to know a particular cat as “Ben”. Has she thereby grasped the notion of haecceity or merely understood that “Ben” is one particular cat easily distinguished from others by subtleties of size, coloration, and so on? Eco insists that all of human language automatically and necessarily involves a generalization from the particular to the class, at least as concerns naming things, but as it turns out in many other contexts as well. Even grasping the idea that Ben is a “particular cat” implies there are “other cats” who are not Ben.

From how we use ‘being’ and how we try to talk about it using language we should infer nothing more than that it names, by implication, or gives some reference to our mental blind-spot, that which we suppose exists in the form of something we cannot know, something our cognitive capacities cannot in principle encompass. There must be such a blind-spot. Why? Because everything that we are counting as subjective experience and the world in which it is immersed has existence in common. We cannot get outside this commonality to distinguish it from anything else. It is the something that we cannot name because it has no particular about which to generalize and applies equally to being in the universal and the particular. Is there anything in common between all cats besides their various biophysical properties (including for example being born of other cats), with characteristic behaviors and relations?

Concerning thinking and experience (including the experience of thinking) if there is a common factor besides the properties we could theoretically come to know (and bearing in mind that even in theory we cannot come to know every micro detail of those properties), it might as well not be there. ‘Being’ stands for the blind-spot. It stands for something that might exist (ontologically) besides all the micro details of properties, relations, and history (Harman), or it stands for the theoretical sum total of such properties which we can only asymptotically approach (DeLanda).

As concerns anything that philosophy might explore it doesn’t matter. What the notion of being delivers, philosophically, is purely epistemological; there must be a blind-spot, there are things the human mind cannot know and because we cannot know them (like Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”) we cannot name them. We can only refer to them indirectly with a place-holder; being.

So why does this blind-spot belong only to human experience? Eco thinks it is language, the necessarily limited product of limited mind, that reveals the blind-spot we call being. I do not believe this is correct. It is only a coincidence that human beings recognize the blind-spot and happen to have language that we use to try to make sense of it. I agree with Eco that only a “rational animal” with a sufficiently powerful language, can attempt some evaluation of the blind-spot, but I think we develop the language, words like ‘being’, because there is something about our prelinguistic experience that suggests the need.

Does lion consciousness then lack such a blind-spot? No, there is a blind-spot in all animal consciousness, but it is invisible to even the higher animals. There is nothing in what it is like to be a lion that suggests anything like the need for an idea of being. It isn’t that lions don’t have “the language”. They don’t have any need for such language because there is nothing about the way they experience the world that suggests it.

If it isn’t language that reveals the blind-spot, what then is it? The key here is personality, in oversimplified terms the agent that appears to itself as a locus of experience. As Hume famously noted (and thus put a stranglehold on philosophy since his day) we cannot find our personality when we look for it, we only find our own minds (perceptions, memories, and so on). Hume was technically correct. His mistake was concluding that therefore, there was nothing there. Hume also derided being. He is one of those philosophers who simply does not believe mind might have “blind-spots”, a philosophical hubris shared by many philosophers down to the present day.

But the blind-spot that makes personality invisible is not the same as the one obscuring being though the principle underlying both is the same. You cannot analyze that which you do not ‘transcend’ in the sense of “rising above” or in some sense being “inclusive but more-than”. We cannot evaluate being because everything in the universe, including mind, takes part in it equally. It might as well not be there because it, should it even be real, is a common denominator of all mind-dependent and mind-independent reality.

Analogously, we cannot evaluate personality because we are it and we cannot distinguish ourselves from ourselves. But unlike being, personality must exist because it is that in our subjective arena which is partially distinct from mind and thereby provides for the possibility of self-evaluation of mind. It is only “partially distinct” because it exists in some sense in (amalgamated with) and expresses only through mind. No matter what we, as agents, experience or choose we experience and choose in mind. This partial transcendence explains why a first person analysis of mind always ends in philosophically slippery speculations that are not ever definitively closed. Unlike lions, we are reflexively aware of mind, but because we are “personalized minds” we cannot distinguish the personal from mind as such.

I have written much more on the subject of personality and its relation to mind in other essays. See “Why Personality”, “Why Free Will”, and “Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness” among others. My point of raising it here has only to do with why it is that humans, persons have any epistemological purchase on being at all. As I have already noted, this purchase is something of a negative quality. We experience a hole, an empty place in our examination of experience but unlike personality, we cannot ever know if that emptiness represents anything positive that belongs in our ontology.

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.