LINGUIST List 13.2998

Mon Nov 18 2002

Review: Philosophy of Lang: Searle (2002)

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  1. Katharine Beals, Searle (2002) Consciousness and Language

Message 1: Searle (2002) Consciousness and Language

Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2002 17:09:08 +0000
From: Katharine Beals <>
Subject: Searle (2002) Consciousness and Language

Searle, John R. (2002) Consciousness and Language.
Cambridge University Press, vii+269 pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-59237-2.

Book Announcement on Linguist: 

Katharine Beals, Ph.D., Autism Language Therapies


''Consciousness and Language'' is a collection of John Searle's essays
from the last two decades, all but one of them previously published.
The first five defend his conception of consciousness, or sentience,
and situate it within a broader scientific world view. Essay 6
addresses how, in cases of group collaboration, the intentionality of
individuals relates to that of groups. Essays 7 and 8 discuss the
implications for psychology and the social sciences of Searle's
approach to consciousness; essays 9 through 11 discuss the
implications for speech act theory and for a theory of conversation.
Essay 12-15 challenge various forms of philosophical skepticism: about
the existence of mental phenomena, about the determinacy of meaning,
and about rules and intentionality.

Linking these essays are a number of overarching themes and arguments.

Consciousness, by which Searle means ''the subjective states of
sentience or awareness'' that we're in when we are awake (p. 7), what
others have called ''qualia,'' is a physically real phenomenon, and
thus a worthy object for scientific inquiry. These subjective states,
he argues, constitute all of our conscious brain activity, including
our emotions, memories, and thoughts. Such consciousness, therefore,
may also characterize those animals which can be said to have
memories, emotions, and other intentional states (even if these are
far more limited or primitive than ours).

Searle argues that consciousness is to the brain what digestion is to
the stomach. Conscious states are higher level features of the brain
caused by low level brain activity, just as solidity or transparency
are higher level properties of matter caused by the arrangement of
molecules. Digestion, solidity and transparency are real physical
phenomena that play causal roles in the physical world; so, too, are
conscious states. Their causal effects are realized in their
production of human and animal behavior-- e.g., when we act on our
desires, with their world-to-mind direction of fit. Indeed, because
much of what we must do to stay alive requires it, consciousness has
figured crucially in our evolutionary survival. Conscious states,
therefore, aren't mere epiphenomena like heat, which has no real
existence or causal effects that apply above and beyond the molecular
level. Rather, they are physically real emergent properties,
constituting an explanatorily useful level of causal description.

What makes conscious states unique, and distinct from other high-level
phenomena like digestion, solidity or transparency, is that they are
also subjective: I am related to my fears, or my itches, in a way that
no one else is. But this is an ontological subjectivity, not an
epistemic one: because they are biologically real and figure causally
in the physical world, conscious states are epistimically objective
phenomena that science can study.

Conscious states cannot be reduced to behavioral output. Being in
pain does not amount to a pattern or patterns of behavioral response.
More generally, just as a bird simulation might fly by some mechanism
other than wings, ''a system could behave as if it were conscious
without actually being conscious'' (p. 16).

Nor are conscious states reducible to internal computations or
information processing of the sort that computers perform. Reviving
his well-known ''Chinese Room'' parable, Searle points out that such
computation is defined only syntactically, with abstract symbols, and
so has no inherent semantic or informational content. Any meaning
that such a computation might carry depends on the interpretations of
outside observers. Thus, even phenomena as apparently
observer-independent as the mathematical calculations of a computer or
the rings on a tree trunk bear mathematical or botanical meaning only
relative to third party interpreters. This observer relativity means
that being an information processor is nothing special: everything
can, in principle, be so conceived. A falling rock, observed by
someone with a stop watch, becomes a calculator of the height of the
cliff it was dropped from. Another calculator, of far greater
complexity but equally trivially, is the human brain.

Most representations and uses of information become meaningful or
purposeful, thus, only through the interpretations of outside
observers. The mental representations of our intentional states, and
our intentional processing of symbols or information, are special.
There is a deep difference between a symbolic representation of the
proposition 2+2=4, which requires some observer-dependent
interpretation, and a belief that 2+2=4: beliefs are not ABOUT
abstract propositions (the term ''propositional attitude,'' Searle
notes, is misleading); rather, beliefs are equivalent to the intrinsic
mental representation of propositions. There is, also, a deep
difference between a computer calculating 2+2, and a person doing so:
in the latter case, neither the meaning of the operation-adding two
and two- nor the person's performance of it, depends on an outside
observer to interpret or ascribe deliberate intention.

There is, relatedly, a fundamental difference between rule-governed
behavior, where someone intentionally follows a rule and the rule thus
drives the behavior, and rule-described behavior, where the rule is
merely descriptive of the behavior. While dog adept at catching balls
might be described as computing the parabolic trajectory law,
intentionally speaking he is simply trying to catch the ball. The
parabolic trajectory law plays no causal role here: the only real
players are the dog's intention and his brain's neurological activity.
''Except for cases where an agent is actually intentionally carrying
out a computation'', Searle notes, ''the computational description
does not identify a separate causal level distinct from the physical
structure of the organism.'' (p. 126). Thus, while our brains might be
described as computers, they are not, in fact, governed by the
computations that some outside observer might attribute to them--
unless we ourselves are intentionally carrying out these computations.

While computational descriptions are not inherently causal,
intentionality is. We see this not just with a dog or person trying
to catch a ball, but also throughout social or observer-relative
phenomena. Most of these can be adequately explained only with
reference to individual or collective intentionality: for example,
what money is, and how it figures in our economies. While we interact
with money according to collective intentionality, however, this
intentionality is realized only in the individual brains of individual

Four of Searle's chapters address topics more closely related to

In Chapter 9 Searle discusses the role of intentionality in speech
acts, and how one can reconcile the Gricean account, which stresses
individual intentionality, with the Austinian and Wittgensteinian
accounts, which stress the roles of convention and social practice.
All speech acts involve at least some individual intentionality: an
intention to produce certain speech sounds, an intention that these
sounds have certain conditions of satisfaction (or directions of fit
with the outside world), and an intention that one's intentions be
recognized. The conditions of satisfaction for commissives and
directives involve further intentionality: I intend to intentionally
keep my promise, or that my addressee intentionally follow my orders.

While individual intentionality is key, however, speech acts are also
social. Not only are their meanings a matter of social convention; so
too are their underlying conventions (promising, ordering, firing).
As Searle points out, ''the social-conventional aspects of language do
not REPLACE individual intentionality, but rather that intentionality
is only able to function against the PRESUPPOSITION of social rules,
conventions and practices.'' (pp. 150-151). These social rules,
however, are realized only in the brains of individuals.

Chapter 10 explains, as its title indicates, ''How Performatives
Work.'' By ''performative,'' Searle means what Austin calls
''explicit performatives:'' only those utterances that can be
performed by uttering a sentence with an expression that names the
type of speech act. His quest: to explain the self-guaranteeing
character of performatives while respecting his intuitions that only
their literal meaning applies here, that performative verbs are
unambiguous, and that performative utterances are statements rather
than indirect speech acts.

As the term ''hereby,'' which stereotypically introduces the
performative verb, suggests, performatives are self-referential.
Perhaps they are self-referential assertives. However, Searle argues,
making a self-referential statement to the effect that one is, e.g.,
making a promise is not sufficient to guarantee that one had the
intention to make the promise: describing oneself as having an
intention is not the same as actually manifesting that intention.
Assertives, even self-referential ones, are not self-guaranteeing.

Declarations (''You're fired'' or ''The meeting is adjourned''), on
the other hand, can be, provided that certain extra-linguistic
conventions hold (pertaining, e.g., to the speaker's authority). A
more promising account of performatives, Searle concludes, treats them
as a variety of declaration-specifically, a ''linguistic
declaration.'' What distinguishes declarations and performatives is
that the former create non-linguistic facts (a firing, an
adjournment), while the latter create linguistic ones-i.e., that of
the speech act itself (of promising, ordering, issuing a statement).
Thus, ''[s]ince the facts created by linguistic declarations are
linguistic facts, we don't need an extra-linguistic institution to
perform them. Language is itself an institution, and it is sufficient
to empower speakers to perform such declarations such as
promising... or ordering...'' (p. 171).

How, specifically, does this work? There is, Searle notes, a class of
actions (including most speech acts) where the manifestation of the
intention to perform the action (a manifestation, in the case of
speech acts, most often realized through mood-indicative, imperative,
etc.) is sufficient for the action's performance. There is,
furthermore, a class of verbs, the performative verbs, which contain
the notion of intention as part of their meaning, and ''which name
actions where the manifestation of the intention is constitutive of
the action''(p. 175). And there is a class of literal utterances
which are not only about themselves (self-referential) but also
operate on themselves (self-executive). When ''I order you to leave''
succeeds as an order, it does so because, Searle explains, ''(a) the
verb 'order' is an intentional verb, (b) ordering is something you can
do by manifesting the intention to do it, and (c) the utterance is
both self-referential and executive, as indicated by the word
'hereby'...'' (p. 173)

In Chapter 11 Searle asks whether one can describe rules for
conversations which are parallel to those for speech acts. Any rules
that actually govern conversations, as opposed to merely describing
them, must incorporate the interlocutors' intentions. One candidate
is something like Relevance. But what's relevant depends on the
purpose of the conversation, which in turn depends on the shared
intentionality of the participants, which varies arbitrarily from
conversation to conversation. Successful discourse also depends on a
shared background of ''capacities, stances, attitudes,
presuppositions, ways of behaving, modes of sensibility, and so on,
that are not themselves representational.'' (p. 202) Furthermore,
''[a]ll interpretation, understanding, meaning, as well as
intentionality in general, function against a background of mental
capacities that are not themselves interpretations, meanings,
understandings, or intentional states.'' (Ibid.) Searle, therefore,
is not optimistic.

In Chapter 13, Searle assesses Quine's indeterminacy thesis, which
rejects the existence of objectively real, psychologically-based
meanings. Meaning is merely a function of behavioral responses to
external stimuli. Thus, when a nonnative overhears a native utter
''gavagai'' as a rabbit scurries past, he cannot validly infer any
specific translation for ''gavagai,'' for any number of meanings
(''rabbit object,'' ''rabbit stage,'' etc.) are consistent with the
native's behavior. This indeterminacy which, as Searle points out,
applies not just to translations between particular languages, but to
language in general, contradicts our first person intuitions that we
do mean particular things by particular words. When Searle says
''rabbit,'' he means the object. Describing a friend who, until
middle age, thought that ''hoi polloi'' meant ''rich elite'' but was
typically used ironically, and thus treated the word in a manner
indistinguishable from those who understand it correctly, Searle
argues that meaning does not reduce to behavior. Rejecting Quine's
attempts to simultaneously justify behaviorism and respect intuitions
about speaker psychology, Searle concludes that a philosophical bias
underlies the continued popularity of linguistic behaviorism among
philosophers: their rejection of mentalism, and of the empirical
validity of the first person viewpoint.


For linguists, Searle is a most refreshing philosopher: he is
plainspoken, straightforward, and sticks with natural, plausible
scenarios. Throughout this unassuming background, his ideas resonate:
original, often mind-bending, sometimes radical. Most ring loud and

Particularly compelling is Searle's take on the degree to which
sentience-- a.k.a. qualia, a.k.a. qualitative states-- pervades our
thinking. Perceptions are not just inscriptions triggered by sensors;
beliefs, desires, and conscious thought processes are not just
inscriptions in memory or computational operations. They are also
things we feel: subjective states. Imagine such intentionality
without conscious awareness, or conscious awareness without sentience.
The three seem inextricably connected, and perhaps, as Searle's
account suggests, essentially equivalent.

The notion that sentience is more than just abstract patterning meshes
with neurological findings that, brain-anatomically speaking, location
is everything. In what Ian Glynn calls a system of ''labeled-line
coding,'' which nerve fiber carries an impulse determines what sort of
stimulus is perceived (e.g. pain versus heat). (Glynn 1999: p. 119).

Also compelling is Searle's careful scrutiny of what is intrinsically
meaningful or causally real versus observer-relative or merely
descriptive. One intriguing conclusion emerging from these essays is
that the only sort of representation that is inherently meaningful is
a mental representation. All other representations acquire meaning
only through the mental representations of outside interpreters. This
means that if the brain is nothing more than a computer, so that there
is no such thing as intentionality, then there is also no such thing
as an outside interpreter, and therefore no meaning or informational
content to anything-falling rocks, tree rings, computers, sentences,

While cognitive scientists like Steven Pinker who view the brain as an
information processor might argue with Searle, there are fewer points
of disagreement than one might at first suppose. Searle does not
dispute that the brain is, among other things, a complex computer, or
that a computational description of the brain, albeit not causally
real, might be a useful one.

Where he differs with Pinker and others is over whether the brain is
an information processor. Pinker suggests that there is a meaningful
level of information processing that lies outside our conscious
awareness. Here subroutines, or what computer scientists call
''demons,'' process representations that have informational content.
Where does this content come from? From the very demons that operate
on them. These guys, to use Searle's words, purportedly serve as
third-party interpreters. (See Pinker 1997: 79). Searle's objection
to this approach is that any act of interpretation requires
intentionality, and intentionality, as a high-level emergent property
of the brain, doesn't trickle down to subroutines. By the same token,
Searle argues, subroutines fail to bestow meaning when they operate in
computer programs. Neither computers, nor subconscious brains, have
any objective status as information processors.

I found less plausible Searle's idea that one could in principle
create robots who behave as we do but aren't conscious. If so, then
what about humans? How do we know that some of us aren't mere
zombies, with no intentional states-a subset of humanity who, just
like those of us who lack stereoscopic vision, behave like everyone
else? Perhaps, then, intentionality, while subjectively real for those
of us who have it, plays no causal role in our behavior. Perhaps it
is an evolutionary accident whose apparent fortuitousness is an
illusion: an epiphenomenon, not like heat, which reduces to molecular
movement, but like foam on waves, which, while distinctly real,
doesn't participate causally but merely goes along for the ride.
Searle allows for this possibility (p. 28), but says that no valid a
priori argument has been given for it; nor does he supply one for the
possibility of artificial robot zombies that mimic human behavior.

Then there is Searle's position that intentional states are reasonable
objects for scientific inquiry. As Searle himself notes in reference
to flat-earth skepticism, ''In the case of the earth there is a clear
distinction between how things are and how they seem to be, but in the
case of the very existence of conscious mental phenomena it is hard to
know what a parallel distinction would look like.'' (p. 81). In
particular, given how unique and scientifically unprecedented the
question is of how objective properties can cause subjective states,
Searle may be overly optimistic that it will ever be answered.


Glynn, Ian (1999) An Anatomy of Thought: The Origin and Machinery of
 the Mind. Oxford University Press.
Pinker, Steven (1997) How the Mind Works. Norton.


Katharine Beals received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University
of Chicago in 1995. From 1995 to 2000 she worked as a Senior Software
Engineer with the Natural Language Group at Unisys. She is currently
at work on two projects: linguistic software for autistic children,
and a book about her deaf, autistic son, which explores such issues as
language modality, cochlear implants, and language and consciousness
in autistic people.
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