Mar 17, 2012

John Searle's stupid face

John Searle is disproportionately annoying. I'm reading his The Construction of Social Reality, to compare it to Peter Berger's work on the social construction of reality. The book will perhaps be helpful precisely in how wrong-headed it can be. I find Searle more frustrating than any other philosopher, I think, and frustrating even in excess of the amount he's wrong. It's not because he's wrong, but because his most basic argument, the ground beneath what he has to say, is "isn't it obvious?"

No it isn't John R. Searle. That's why there's philosophy.

If it were obvious, or clear, or "of course," there wouldn't be any point to your writing anything about it, would there? So for chrissake cut it out.

An example of what I'm talking about (because I think it's important to show what you're talking about, rather than baldly assert it): Searle says "deontic phenomena are not reducible to something more primitive and simple," by which he means, basically, that meaning isn't use and meaning can't be simplified so it's understood not primarily as a mental activity, but an observable social one. Rather, he says, meaning is only meaning if the person meaning to mean means in their mind.

Against those who find this problematic, and more than a little unclear, Searle waves his hand:

"Famously, Hume and many others have tried to make such eliminations, but without success."

This is the entirety of his counter-argument, and how he deals with the criticisms he faces from such philosophical schlumps as David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

His own arguments for his ideas are often likewise some version of "see?"

He recapitulates his famous Chinese Room thought experiment in this book I'm reading, for example, by saying:
"Suppose I train my dog to chase dollar bills and bring them back to me in return for food. He is still not buying the food and the bills are not money to him. Why not? Because he cannot represent to himself the relevant deontic phenomena .... He cannot think, for example, now I have the right to buy things and when someone else has this, he will also have the right to buy things."

How Searle knows what dogs are or are not thinking is not clear, since he's made thinking something that's only done in the privacy of one's own head.

It's not clear either, if one accepts Searle's idea that money is only money if it's mentally represented as money, buying only buying, etc., how far it should be extended. Is a small child following instructions to give cash to a cashier is she buying food and is the money money for her? What about a smart crow? A mentally disabled adult? What about me, if I'm really tired and distracted and not representing to myself the relevant deontic phenomena?

Who knows.

Even when I think Searle's partially right about something, it seems like his argument depends mostly on italics. He doesn't seem to be able to say why something is right.

So, e.g.:
"My claim that language is partly constitutive of institutional facts amounts to the claim that institutional facts essentially contain some symbolic elements in this sense of 'symbolic': there are words, symbols, or other conventional devices that mean something or express something or symbolize something beyond themselves, in a way that is publicly understandable .... Language, as I am using the notion here, essentially contains entities that symbolize."

The part of that I agree with and think is important is "in a way that is publicly understandable." That, it seems to me, is particularly interesting, and critical to what language does, along with it's being publicly mis-understandable. What does Searle mean by italicizing those seven words, though, along with "conventional" and "mean"?

Just: Really really. Emphatically. And, it seems, "I have no additional argument or explanation here, but will stress certain words and phrases more, and arch an eyebrow and suggest it's obvious when you accept it's obvious. See?"

This is a little book he's written, though, so it hasn't hurt anything when I've thrown it against the wall.