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Review of  Consciousness and Language

Reviewer: Katherine Beals
Book Title: Consciousness and Language
Book Author: John R. Searle
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 13.2998

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Date: Sun, 17 Nov 2002 18:03:02 -0500
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.

By 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

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, brains.

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.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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