John Searle

John Searle Picture

John Searle is an American philosopher of the contemporary times, recognized for his theories of speech acts and consciousness. His work on philosophy deals with language, the mind and social institutions, as he attempts at showing human experiences as a distinct image in the social universe, where they take place.

Searle’s interest in the philosophy of language is not merely based on the function of the language as a tool for communication, but because of the depth languages hold in themselves. His first work Speech Acts was an extension of works of his colleagues, J.L Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein and G. C. J. Midgle.

Searle believes that the basic unit of any language is a speech act, called the illocutionary act. This act works as a communicative symbol in the context of the utterance. His work focused mostly on illocutionary acts performed by the speaker, among which the act of promising was his main concern. He defined a set of rules that marks the necessary conditions for performing a speech act.

For instance, the rules of promising include that the speaker intends to carry out a future act, that the listener also wants the act to be carried out by the speaker, that both of them agree that the speaker will carry out the act under normal circumstances, and that now the speaker is under an obligation to the listener in terms of carrying out the act.

He also held the belief that an utterance is left bereft of any meaning when the context in which it was delivered is unknown. Sentences without context do not express propositions, instead illocutionary acts (communicative tokens) and contextual sentences fulfill the purpose of giving meaning to an utterance.

His focus on speech and language drove Searle to the philosophy of mind, where speech develops. In Philosophy of Mind, he discusses the nature of our intentions behind conscious actions.

He defines intentionality as the mind’s ability to take a stand for and correspond to happenings around us. Our thoughts are structural and intentional in the sense that they are in regard to something. On the other hand, some mental states like pain, anger, happiness and anxiety are not intentional. But, the speech acts used to express these mental states are intentional. It is this derived intentionality of tongue which explains how our words and expressions do not only cover worldly, physical things but also unreal fantasies and fiction.

Searle argues that modern philosophy has denied the presence of consciousness. In Intentionality and in The Rediscovery of the Mind he presents several alternative theories of consciousness. He states that consciousness is a metaphysical experience caused by physical processes in our brains.

Chinese Room Philosophy:

The Chinese Room philosophy is Searle’s argument against the notion that when physical processes of our brain are reproduced artificially, it creates a conscious being (artificial intelligence). Imagine you are in a room where there is a book and some paper. A person from outside slides into the room some Chinese characters, which you translate from the book, compute a response from the book and slide it outside, which gives an impression that you are familiar with Chinese, while in reality you are not. Thus translating English into Chinese does not mean you understand it too. Searle disputes that feeding data into a computer does not make it intelligent; the computer merely processes it.

Social Philosophy:

Searle probes into collective intentionality as he delves into the world of social philosophy. A person can not aim to perform an act collectively as a group if he doesn’t intend to play his part. The we-intention is not a collection of many I-intentions; they are creators of our social institwas utions.

John Searle has received several awards for his work including the Jean Nicod Prize (2000), the National Humanities Medal (2004) and the Mind and Brain Prize (2006).

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