The Philosophy of Language with John Searle

Bertrand Russell once said that until the
second decade of this century–and remember that by that time he was in his 40s and
had done virtually all the philosophical work for which he’s really distinguished–he
regarded language as transparent. That’s to say, as a medium he could simply use without
paying particular attention to it. Much the same must be true, I think, not only of other
philosophers, but of writers of every kind: novelists, poets, and so on. It’s only in this
century that the enormous self-consciousness about language which we now take for granted
has developed. In fact, it’s become one of the most prominent intellectual characteristics
of our age. What’s involved isn’t just a superficial interest in words, but beliefs about absolutely
fundamental matters. For instance, it’s come to be widely believed that it’s, more than
anything else, the particular power of abstract thinking made possible to us by language,
that enables us to conceptualize and cope with innumerable aspects of reality which are not
present to us, and thus to relate ourselves to the world in the way we do. Many believe that it’s
this more than anything else that differentiates us from the animals. And for all these reasons
many believe that it’s through the acquisition of a language that we become selves. If many
of these things are true, then language is fundamental to our humanity and our individuality
in ways that were not dreamt of until comparatively recently. And this, I think, is the underlying
reason why philosophers have newly come to take such a powerful and indeed passionate
interest in language. A philosopher of language who has made a reputation on both sides
of the Atlantic is the American John Searle. He first studied philosophy at Oxford, where
he arrived as a Rhodes Scholar in the early 1950s. And he taught at Oxford for some years
before returning to the United States. His book called Speech Acts, published in 1969,
is something of a recent classic. He’s now professor of philosophy at the University
of California in Berkeley. Professor Searle, there’s one thing which I think we must get
straight right at the beginning. I’ve been talking about the philosophy of language, but
there is another phrase “linguistic philosophy” or “linguistic analysis” which means something
quite different. And this could be very confusing to our viewers unless we make the distinction
clear at the outset. Yes well, it can be made very simply. “Linguistic philosophy”
and “linguistic analysis” are names techniques or methods for solving philosophical problems.
The philosophy of language is not the name of a technique, but the name of a subject
matter, branch of philosophy. I’ll give you a couple of examples. The linguistic philosopher
believes that you can solve certain traditional problems, such as problems about skepticism,
by examining the ordinary use of words such as ‘know’. You examine the use–‘know’,
K-N-O-W–verbs like ‘know’, ‘believe’, ‘suppose’, ‘guess’. Now that would be a problem that
the linguistic philosopher would work on. The philosophy of language is the name of
a subject matter within philosophy. And there, the problems are such things as: How do words
relate to reality? What is the nature of meaning? What is truth, reference, logical necessity?
Those are problems in the subject matter of the philosophy of language. Now obviously,
philosophers of language like yourself regard language as being absolutely fundamental
to human life and human thought and so on. I tried to explain just now in my introduction
to this discussion some of the reasons why, but I think it would be especially interesting
to hear from you as a professional in the field your reasons for regarding language as
being as central as you clearly do regard it as being. Well, I think to begin with,
it’s almost bound to be central to philosophy. Philosophy is, in an important sense, a
conceptual inquiry. But quite apart from philosophy I think language is crucial for some of the
reasons you were suggesting–crucial to an understanding of human beings and human life.
We tend, in a pre-theoretical way, to have the idea that words are, as you said, transparent
–quoting Russell–and that we can just apply them; we just name our experiences and our social
relations. But in fact, when we began to investigate, what I think we find is that those forms of
experience and those forms of social relation that we regard as characteristically human
would be impossible without language. That language really is what distinguishes us more
than anything else from other forms of animal life. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
Wittgenstein gave a very simple example to illustrate this about experience. It might
seem obvious that our experiences just come to us independently of any language.
But what Wittgenstein pointed out was a great many of our experiences would be impossible
without language. And he gives this example: He draws a triangle, and he says: now see this
as apex and that as base. And then he says: now see that as apex and that as base. And
you’ll find you have a different experience. I’ve named two different experiences that
you can have. But the interesting thing is they’re not experiences my dog can have, not
because he hasn’t got the optical apparatus, but because he hasn’t got the conceptual apparatus.
The words, one wants to say, are part of the experience. Now, that’s a trivial example. And one
can give lots of more grand examples. I mean, take the following. La Rochefoucauld
said — I forget where — that very few people would fall in love if they never read about
it. And I think there is a real underlying truth in that and that is that categories like “love”
and “hate” themselves influence the experiences. That our concepts determine or at least
shape our experiences; that it would be impossible to have the experiences that we have
without the linguistic categories we have. In other words, our experience of the
world doesn’t consist of the world as a lot of independent objects to which we as
human beings then attach the labels of names, i.e. words. What you’re saying is the objects
don’t exist separately from words, that the words enter into the very structure of our
experience. Yes, now let me see if I can say what I think you’re driving at. It would be
this. Not that language makes the world. That’s the kind of subjectivism that I wouldn’t
want to accept, but rather something like this. What counts as an object, what counts as reality,
is a function of the system of representation that we bring to bear on reality, namely language.
So, the world doesn’t come to us all sliced up into objects and experiences. What counts
as this object or the same object or as a book or a table or a glass, that is a matter of
the categories that we impose on the world. And those are linguistic. Would you say
that this is true of, say, an everyday object? Now I’m holding here a glass of water. And I’m
having the simple experience of seeing a glass of water. Now, for me to have the experience
of seeing a glass of water, it’s not enough for me simply to be having certain visual
data, I’ve also got to have the concept “glass” and the concept “water.” Precisely. And I’ve
got to be able to locate this experience as coming under that concept. And therefore,
I couldn’t have the experience of seeing a glass of water without some linguistic equipment.
That’s the point I’m making, precisely that. And therefore, the language that we have
helps to create the very categories in which we experience the world, the very categories
in which we see objects has language built into it is what you’re saying. It’s precisely that.
And therefore, by investigations in the philosophy of language, we are investigating
the very structure of experience and the structure of whole ways of life and ways of viewing
the world and so on. And indeed, that was one of Wittgenstein’s great themes, was the
idea that a language is a form of life and that we should think of language as inner-penetrating
with our life, not as something that stands outside it and pictures it as he once thought.
Now another thing I said in my introduction to this was that this enormous self-consciousness
about the use of language is something that characterizes this century. It’s very striking
that something very similar is true of the arts as well. For example, in this century
an enormous amount of poetry is being written about the writing of poetry or about how difficult
it is to be a poet. We have filmmakers making films about the making of a film. And it’s
true of plays. And painting has, so to speak, exhibited its own techniques. Even musical
composition exhibits its own techniques. Art has become its own subject matter. The
medium has itself become the object of attention. Now, there’s an obvious parallel there with
what has happened with language and philosophy. Do you think that these developments are all
interconnected or do you think it’s sheer coincidence? Well, it surely is not sheer coincidence.
I mean, I think there are certain features of the 20th century mode of sensibility that
makes language seem immensely problematic to us. But let me disagree with one thing
you’ve said. It isn’t that philosophers have suddenly discovered language in the 20th century.
There’s a lot about language in Locke–he devoted a whole book of the Essay to it. There’s a
theory of language in Hume. And indeed, back to Plato in the Theaetetus there are theories
of language. So it isn’t something we’ve recently discovered. But the point I think you’re making
and I entirely agree with it, is that language has come to seem problematic. It has come
to seem–to use your quotation from Russell– not a matter of transparency. It isn’t something
that we can see right through to the world. It is itself a problem. And I think that has
a great deal to do with something like the tremendous loss of confidence, the decline
of rationality that occurred at the end of the 19th century. One doesn’t know quite how
to date the rise of Modernism. But it is part of Modernism in the arts. And surely, it can’t
as you say — it can’t be just coincidental that the same awareness of the complexity
and the problematic character of language exists in philosophy. Contrast Mill with the
later Wittgenstein, and I think you see the break that I’m talking about now. You’re stressing
then that self-consciousness about language which in fact goes back quite a long way in
philosophy, probably further than it does in the arts with poetry and so on. Now, what were the
specifically philosophical developments that brought it to a head in this century in
the way that it did? Right, right. Well, now that is a marvelously complicated subject.
Let me pick out a couple of strands in that. First of all, there’s a historical development.
Descartes, over three centuries ago, asked this basic question in philosophy: What is
knowledge? How is knowledge possible? And I think if you take that question very seriously–
and we have in philosophy, that has been the central question for the centuries after Descartes–
eventually, that leads you to what will I think almost inevitably seem a more fundamental
question: namely, how does our mind represent the world at all? The question of what is meaning
has come to seem prior to the question of what is knowledge. And there’s certain other
historical, certain specific historical features that led to that. Particularly, I would say
the work of Frege in the 19th century, the German philosopher and mathematician,
and the work of Russell in the early 20th century. And both of them were engaged in an investigation
of the foundations of mathematics, the nature of mathematical knowledge. And they
were led to develop certain theories about the nature of linguistic representation. In
order to answer questions about the nature of mathematics and what goes on in mathematical
statements, they were led to fundamental questions about the nature of statement making. Well,
how? I mean, what is the connection between mathematical knowledge–which would seem
to be purely abstract and carried out in Greek symbols and so on–what is the connection between
that and ordinary statements of the kind that philosophers now analyze? There are numerous
connections. But one basic connection was: What is the nature of mathematical truth? And
both Frege and Russell argued that mathematics was really an extension of logic, that the
statements of mathematics were true in a sense by definition. And in order to develop
that, they needed a theory of truth and a theory of logic, and already now we’re in
the philosophy of language when they began to develop that. So in other words, it’s investigation
into truth which develops into an investigation into meaning and hence an analysis of statements,
sentences, and so on. Historically, I think it went that way. How did we get from Russell
at the turn of the century to now? I think we can identify several lines of development.
And oddly enough, Wittgenstein tends to play a crucial role in more than one of them. There’s
one line of development that goes from early Wittgenstein through the logical positivists
like Carnap–and I think one would include Russell’s work in this line as well–up to the
present day in the works of philosophers like Quine and Davidson. Now, that line is
mostly concerned with the relationship between meaning and truth. And the crucial question
tends to be: What are the truth conditions of an utterance? They are mostly concerned
with conditions for establishing or determining the truth of sentences. And obviously this
line will be more closely connected with the philosophy of science. Now, another line
which is the later Wittgenstein and also the work of philosophers like Austin and Grice,
and I think I would include myself in this, is more concerned with questions of linguistic
use, with language seen as a part of human behavior. And the crucial question there is not
what is the relation between meaning and truth, but what is the relation between meaning
and use, or meaning and the intentions with which a speaker makes an utterance. Now
those are two lines that I see developing. I don’t wanna give you the impression that
they’re completely independent. No, they overlap and intertwine and interact in all sorts of
ways. But then there’s a third line that has come to seem very prominent in recent
years. And that is the science of linguistics– of which Chomsky’s name is the most prominent
among contemporary linguists–has come to interact with philosophy in ways that were
not the case until really quite recently, until after 1957. You’ve made so many important
points at once, Professor Searle, that I think it will be helpful if I, so to speak,
recapitulate before we start moving ahead. We’re considering language, this amazing phenomenon
of words and utterances and noises that is so fundamental to our humanity and to the way
we cope with life and see the world and everything. Now, you might say there are two main ends
to this process. There is the relationship of language to the world, the relationship
of language to its objects; to all the things in the world that we talk about. And there
is also the relationship of language to the language user. So this gives, as it were,
two lines of development in the history of the subject we are considering. One lot of
people have concentrated on discussing the relation of words to their objects. And what
that leads them to do is to analyze sentences and statements. It leads them to consider,
above all else, the question of under what conditions can statements be said to be true
or false. And that leads them to develop formal criteria of truth and so on. That’s one line
of development that you mentioned. And you named Russell, the early Wittgenstein, Carnap,
and Davidson as being the main–and Quine–and Quine, of course, yes. Now, the other line
of development is interestingly different from that. That considers the subjects
of language, not the objects of language, in other words, the human beings using language.
And the questions there are about their intentions. What are they using language for? What are
their purposes? And–well now, you didn’t say who the main people in that line of development
were. No, I did–the later Wittgenstein, Austin, and I would include Grice and Strawson,
and other people as well. Yes, yes. Yes. And so those are the two main lines of development
of the philosophy of language. And then as a sort of third, you threw in Chomsky in linguistics.
I didn’t throw it in, it comes charging in. It comes charging in. Well now, right.
Now, we’ve got that sketch map of the field. For clarity’s sake, let’s take these one at
a time. Now, let’s start by discussing the school of thought that is interested in the
relationship between language and its objects. In other words, to use the most famous phrase,
words and things. Can you unpack that a little? Well let me–should I do it by way of telling
you something about the central figures? I think perhaps that’s one way to go about it.
Well, an epoch-making book in this field is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
And he there articulates a very powerful theory of language, that sentences consistent
for him as being, in effect, pictures. They’re conventionalized pictures of
facts. Not that they actually look like the fact, but that the relation between the
way a sentence represents and the way a picture represents is structurally quite close. And
then, this picture theory of meaning, as it was called, formed the basis of his theory
of language. Now, he came to reject that later. But that had a powerful influence. His book
the Tractatus had a powerful influence on a school of philosophers who were known
as the logical positivists and their center was in Vienna between the wars. And they I
think at least partly misunderstanding Wittgenstein, took the question of verification–how do
we verify a proposition–as the central question in meaning. And their slogan was called the
“verification principle”. And the question that they asked, the crucial question was: In order to
know what a sentence means, what must we do to find out whether or not it’s true? This
was one way of putting the claim that the meaning of a statement is its method of verification.
And they accepted the idea that all of statements are either analytic or synthetic. A leading
figure in this group and perhaps the leading figure is Carnap. And Carnap, though his
views changed a great deal over the years, I think is primarily famous for this conception
of language. That is, that language primarily consists in statements that are true or false,
and that their meaning is intimately connected with their method of verification in such a
way that we can define meaning in terms of verification. Now then, when we get to
more recent times, when we get to Quine. Quine is most famous–his single most famous work
was an attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction. He attacks the idea that we can make a
clear distinction between that truth which is in virtue of meaning and that which is
in virtue of matters of fact. And this then led in his more recent work to what I can
only describe as a general rejection of the notion of meaning. Quine adopts a behavioristic
conception of language. He sees us as beings who are bombarded by stimuli, verbal and otherwise,
and then we make verbal responses. And all that really amounts to meaning is our dispositions to
respond verbally. There isn’t in addition to these dispositions to verbal responses anything
called “meanings” going through our mind. So Quine’s behaviorism is closely connected
with his empiricism. But ironically, it led him to reject what had seemed one of the foundation
stones of an earlier generation of empiricists, namely the distinction between analytic and
synthetic proposition. His famous article is called “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”.
Am I going too fast through these? No, no. Shall I go on to Davidson, then? Yes,
Davidson is the one person you mentioned that you haven’t taken up. Now, Davidson
incidentally is remarkably influential in England. Indeed I would say more influential in England
than he is in his home country, but for what perhaps is a very good reason. He’s certainly
a very powerful philosopher. Davidson argues that there is a more intimate connection between
meaning and truth than previous philosophers have been aware of or least have made explicit.
And that is this. If we wanted a theory of meaning for a language, the way to get that
theory of meaning would be to get a set of principles which would enable us to deduce
for any sentence of the language under what conditions it was true. So that for Davidson,
a theory of truth really is a theory of meaning. There isn’t any gulf between meaning and
truth there, in that once we’ve got a theory that makes clear what are the truth conditions
of sentences, that is already a theory of meaning of the sentences of the language.
Well, I don’t think we’ll go any further into the work of each of these individuals, Professor
Searle. I think we ought to move on now to the second of the main lines of development
that you mentioned. And that is the line of development that’s concerned with the intentions
of speech users. Now, the central notion here is the notion of a “speech act”, which is
indeed the title of your famous book. The idea is that sentences don’t just kind
of exist in limbo. They don’t exist all by themselves autonomously in the universe.
They are generated by human beings and they’re always generated in actual situations.
And they’re always generated for a purpose in order to do something. And the idea is
that you can only understand meaning if you understand the intentions of the language
user. What is he doing when he utters something? Would you take up this? Yes well, let me go on
with that. In the tradition we’re now talking about, it isn’t that there is a rejection of the
question: What is the relation between language and the world? Rather, that question is
put in a larger context. The question now becomes: What sort of behavior is linguistic behavior?
And then the way that that is answered is in such a fashion as to try to explain how
the speaker’s intentions, how his rule-governed intentional behavior, relates language to the
world. So the question: “How does language relate to reality?”, which I think is one of the
fundamental questions–perhaps the fundamental question in the philosophy of language–is
assimilated to what I think is the larger question. And that is: What is it about human beings
that enables them to–as you said earlier– make these noises that have such remarkable
consequences, among them is the consequence that they do relate to reality? Look, for me
in this tradition the fundamental question is: How is it that we get from the noises that
come out of my mouth to all these semantic properties that we attribute to them? After
all, from a physical point of view, the noises that come out of my mouth are fairly trivial
stuff. I mean, my jaw flaps open and I make this racket and out it comes. And in linguistics
textbooks, there’s all this ridiculous stuff in my throat and mouth that enables me to
do that. But physically, it’s all rather trivial. And yet the most remarkable things occur.
We say the Chap made a statement or asked a question or gave a command or an order,
explanation; that what he said was true or false or interesting or boring or uninteresting.
We attribute all these remarkable properties to it. And one set of those properties are
those that relate it to the world. Now, the basic idea behind this second approach is
that the way that language relates to the world is a matter of how people do that relating.
And the basic term of that, at least in the tradition as I see it, is, as you said, the notion
of a speech act. When people do communicate with each other, whether in words or in writing,
they perform a series of acts that we have names for such as making statements, asking
questions, giving orders, commands, apologies. Austin incidentally, claimed that he could get
a list of about 1,000 such verbs and verb phrases in English. Now, that is the alternative
tradition. And I should say Wittgenstein’s enormously important role in developing that–
the later Wittgenstein–but it would be misleading if I said that he would agree with everything
that I have said. And I think there’s a basic point of disagreement. Wittgenstein, though
he was really the person who gave this direction to the philosophy of language–the idea of
looking at language as a form of human behavior and language as a form of life–nonetheless,
he resisted making general theories of language. He thought any kind of general theorizing
was almost bound to lead to distortion and falsehood when we were doing philosophy.
So though, I regard myself as, at least in part, inspired by the work of Wittgenstein,
I think he would reject the theoretical bent that I personally try to pursue and that
Austin I think was pursuing. I was gonna say the other really big figure in this tradition
apart from Wittgenstein, the later Wittgenstein, is J. L. Austin–now alas dead, he died rather
young–an Oxford philosopher. And indeed, you were a pupil. Yes I was indeed… He invented the term ‘speech act’. He didn’t quite
invent the term. It did exist in certain structural linguists such as Bloomfield in the 1930s.
But in its modern meaning, it is Austin’s invention. And he arrived at it by quite an
interesting route. Before Austin, the primary concern of philosophers of language had been
with those utterances that are true or false. And indeed, as I was saying earlier, verification
loomed large. And there were such questions as whether or not propositions that weren’t
verifiable could even be said to be meaningful. The logical positivists argued that they
couldn’t. Now, Austin made an interesting observation. He observed that there are lots
of utterances that don’t set out to be true or false. I mean, he gave the following
example. He said in a wedding ceremony when the preacher says “Do you take this woman to
be your lawfully wedded wife?” the man, the chap who says “I do”, according to Austin, is not
describing a marriage ceremony, he’s indulging in one. That is, his utterance isn’t meant
to be a description true or false of anything. He’s performing an action. And Austin then
observed a whole class of these utterances. When I say “I promise” or “I bet” or “I apologize”
or “thanks” or “I congratulate you”, these he called performatives. And he then made a distinction
between these cases where saying something is doing something, where uttering these phrases,
these ritual phrases is doing something. And he contrasted these so-called performatives
with what he called constatives, those utterances that did set out to be true or false. But then
the theory underwent an interesting sea change. He discovered that he couldn’t make
the distinction between performative really quite precise. The constative class was supposed
to be sayings and the performative class was supposed to be doings. But what he
discovered is that of course saying is a kind of doing as well. And that then led to what
he called the general theory of speech acts where ALL of our utterances are seen as speech
acts. And in my own work, I have come to the conclusion that the basic unit of meaning,
if I may so speak, is the speech act. What we are looking for when we ask such things
as “What did he mean by that?” is precisely into those intentions with which his utterance
was performed. That is to say, what kind of speech act was he performing: statement, question,
command, and so on? And then within the speech act, we’ll need to distinguish between
the kind of speech act it is, whether or not it’s a statement or a question or an order on the
one hand and what its content is. I can both predict that you will leave the room and order
you to leave the room or ask whether you will leave the room. Now, in some sense I want
to say all of those have the same content though they have what Austin called different
force. And he had a label for this, he called those illocutionary acts. That is, the basic
speech acts where we’re saying something and saying it as a statement or question or
a command, as contrasted with those of our utterances that we can describe in terms
of the effects they produce on people. Whether or not I convince you or amuse you or bore
you or annoy you, those he called perlocutionary acts. Now, I think that bit of his taxonomy
enables us to see that our quarry here, the target of our investigation, is the illocutionary
act, that large class that includes making statements, asking questions, giving commands,
apologies, thanks, congratulations, and so on. And there, it seems to me, if we investigate
those–and here Austin unfortunately didn’t live long enough really to do this investigation.
But I have been working on it and other people have tried to work on it. And there the crucial question
is: What is the structure of the illocutionary act? And that’s the form–and I think this is
a derivative from Austin–that is the form in which the question I was asking earlier
has really come to take shape. And that is, if we ask what I said was the question “How
do we get from the physics to the semantics?” that then is translated into the question “How do
we get from the utterance to the illocutionary act?” So I think you can see a line of development
there from Austin. But again, I want to emphasize that Wittgenstein wasn’t like that. He did
inspire much of this, but he would’ve thought that to do it in this theoretical way was
almost invariably, almost bound to distort the immense complexity and subtlety of language.
Now you yourself have, as it were, taken up this work of Austin’s and you’re developing
it further. It’s already several years since your book Speech Acts was produced. What
are you working on now? Well, I’m trying to carry this investigation into the next
stage. If we really take seriously the idea that speaking a language is engaging in a
form of behavior, then we’re led to ask, well in what sense of behavior exactly? And what
is it about action that seems so crucial here? And this ties in with what, to me, are the two
central questions in contemporary philosophy. And I think in a way they come together. The
two questions are: How does language relate to reality?” which all philosophers of language
are concerned with in one way or another. And the second is: What is the nature of
human action? What is it to perform an action? What is it to explain an action? Why is that the
methods of science have not given us the kind of results in the study of human behavior
that they’ve been able to give us elsewhere? Or to put that part more pointedly: “Why have
so much of the social sciences seemed to be a bore and unproductive?” Now, the way those
two questions come together or two families of questions come together, I want to say,
is in the notion of what philosophers call “intentionality”. Now, intentionality was a
term introduced by Brentano. And it is itself a medieval term. And at least the way I use
it, the feature that certain mental states have of being directed at objects and states
of affairs in the world is what I call their–and what following this tradition I call–their
intentionality. If we think of our beliefs and fears and hopes and desires, they’re
all in this sense intentional. If you believe, you must believe that such and such is the
case. Or if you fear, you must fear something. Whereas, for pains and tickles and itches,
they aren’t in that way directed. They are so to speak independent. They’re not directed
at objects and states of affairs in the world. Now, the way that this notion of intentionality
ties in with the philosophy of language is this. The question that we’ve been posing–and incidentally in philosophy the way you pose the question is half the battle. If you can get your question
phrased exactly right, you’re well on the way to a solution. The way I want to now repose
that question is this. Given that our mental states are, so to speak, intrinsically intentional,
they can’t help but be directed at objects and states of affairs in the world, the question
is “How does the mind impose intentionality on objects that are not intrinsically intentional?”
Because the noises that come out of my mouth, as I was saying earlier, they’re just noises.
The marks that I make on paper, the pictures that hang on the wall of a museum are after
all, again, just physical objects, bits of canvas with paint slashed on them or painted
on them. And now we want to ask, how is it that these fairly trivial, middle-sized, physical
phenomena acquire this remarkable capacity to represent the world and represent it in
these different illocutionary modes, to be statements or questions or commands or pictures
of Bryan Magee or of the Battle of Hastings? And that, I think, is the point at which the
theory of language and the theory of action come together in this problem of intentionality.
So you get a kind of double prong with the theory of speech acts. On the one hand, by
seeing language as action, by seeing speaking as a form of human behavior, I think you get a
deeper insight into language. You see how–and to use a Wittgensteinian metaphor–it meshes
with the rest of our behavior. But now, by taking this representative feature, this intentionality
of language back into your theory of action, you also see how actions themselves have
a kind of intentionality in the sense in which language is meaningful, it isn’t such a move
to say that actions can also be meaningful, that our intentions are a kind of representation
of what we’re going to do. Now, let me say having said that, that I’m not going back to
arguing for the ghost in the machine or saying that there are all these mysterious mental
events occurring in this queer mental medium. I’m not going back to Descartes. I think it’s
a big mistake to suppose that the logical features of intentionality–that is, how it
is that the mind can represent the world either in our mental states, beliefs, hopes,
fears, and so on, or perceptions or in our representations of a public kind, in language–it’s
a big mistake to suppose that those questions have to be the same as Descartes’ questions:
namely, what’s going on in my mind? Is there some queer mental event occurring
in my soul when I speak? So I wanna separate the Cartesian questions, the questions about the
nature of consciousness, from what I take to be– what to me is the basic question about intentionality,
namely: How do mental states represent? And how do they have this remarkable capacity
to make objects represent? I mean, look at it this way: How can mere things represent? How
can a mere object or noise stand for something in the world? So, my current research, which
is really going a step back from speech acts into more basic primitive questions. “Speech
Acts” asked the question: How does language represent the world? Now I’m concerned with the
question: How does anything represent anything? And that, I think, is a question about
intentionality. We’ve left one loose end in this discussion, Professor Searle,
which I want to take up and tie up before we bring the program to an end. When you
were earlier on sketching out the whole state of the subject, you mentioned linguistics and
in particular, the work of Chomsky as being an important feature in the landscape. I think
I must ask you before we do finally conclude to say just a little bit briefly about him.
Yes. Well of course, Chomsky, I think it’s no exaggeration to say, produced a revolution
in linguistics. What he did was take syntax as central to language. Now, that wasn’t just
the revolution, that had been done before him. But he took it in a particular way. He
asked the question, how can we get a finite set of rules that will generate all and only the
sentences of a language? And then he showed that these rules had to have certain very
special logical features. But the impact that this has had on philosophy is quite interesting
and it’s in different realms that it’s had. One obvious thing is that it’s given us new
syntactical tools to do studies of language. I mean, in my own case for example, I use
some of Chomsky’s apparatus to try to show how different speech acts are realized in
different syntactical forms in English. And I think one could do similar studies for other
languages. But more importantly, I think in Chomsky, he was led to the following conclusion.
The syntax that he came up with was extremely abstract and complicated. And that raised
the question, how can little kids learn that? I mean, you can’t teach a small child
axiomatic set theory. Chomsky showed that English is much more complicated than axiomatic
set theory. How is it that little kids can learn that? And his answer was quite interesting. What
he said was, in a sense they already know it. It’s a mistake to suppose that the mind
is a blank tablet. What happens is that the form of all natural human languages is
programmed into the child’s mind at birth. I mean, in his strongest moments, Chomsky
says that the child has a perfect knowledge of universal grammar at birth, and then his
exposure to language just triggers this antecedent knowledge, and it’s realized in the different
natural human languages. Now, there used to be a traditional objection to this idea of a
universal grammar. People would say, but languages are so different; English is so
different from Chinese. Chomsky’s answer to that was that though they’re different on
the surface, they have a common, underlying or deep structure. And it’s that which is
programmed into the child’s mind. Now, that seems to me Chomsky’s positive contribution
and I think it really is remarkable. But there are I think certain limitations and those
limitations have to do with the present disarray in linguistics. Chomsky sees man as essentially
a syntactical animal. He never asked such questions as “Well, what are these syntactical
forms used for?” And his notion of syntax is that this theory of the syntax of language
must be stated in purely syntactical terms. That is, we’re not allowed to say what these
forms mean or how people are supposed to use them. And Chomsky’s actually denied what seems
to me to be true, namely, that the purpose of language is communication. He doesn’t think
that that’s the case. I mean, he thinks that… He thinks it’s expression. Well, that’s right. And
that language, the essence of language is syntax and that we have the syntax programmed into
us, that we are, as I said, syntactical animals. Now, I think that leads to a certain
limitation in his research. I think that the most interesting questions about syntax have
to do with how form and function interact. And I wanna ask the question, what are these
syntactical forms for? Language, for me, is to talk with and to write with. So I want to
say that the study of the syntax will always be incomplete unless we get a study of
linguistic use. Now, it’s a factual question. I mean, the research in the end in the long haul,
it might show that he was right and I am wrong. But my gut feel is that we will not get an
understanding of syntax of language and how language evolved without a conception of what
human beings use language to do. And that’s back to speech acts. Well, Professor Searle,
you’ve given us an excellent survey I think of what the present situation is in the philosophy
of language and also how it developed out of the past. Would you–and I put this to
you as my very last question–would you conclude this discussion by hazarding some
informed guesses about how it’s gonna develop in the immediate future.
Yes, I’ll try. I Left my crystal ball in Berkeley, but I’ll see what I can do without it. First of
all, I think linguistics is now such a booming subject that that’s bound to continue, partly
because it’s so well-funded. And I think linguists and philosophers are gonna find each
other useful. I mean, we’re interacting more than we did in the past. I find myself speaking at
linguistics conferences and inviting linguists to come and speak in philosophy conferences. So I
think, though the Chomskyan paradigm has broken down, there isn’t the kind of unified development
of linguistics as a science that there once seemed in the heyday of Chomsky’s paradigm.
Though the field is in kind of a mess, it seems to me that it’s going to continue, that
the field will continue to develop. Linguistics will be a source of enormous usefulness for
the philosopher of language, even though, of course, the direction of the interest that
the linguist and the philosopher have are different. The linguist interest is factual, empirical.
He wants to know what are the facts about language. The philosopher really is more conceptual,
he wants to know how is meaning & communication possible at all. His question, to use an old-fashioned
jargon, is transcendental, it’s not just empirical. So that’s one thing that I think will continue.
Now, another thing I think is really having a kind of a boom in England and in certain
parts of the United States now is the work of Quine & Davidson, and especially Davidson’s
idea that you can get a theory of meaning by way of a theory of truth. The thing that
is so appealing about that is you get well-defined questions. I mean, you get questions that
you can state using the apparatus of modern mathematical logic. And you get the sort of
questions that Austin liked incidentally, questions where cooperative group effort
could produce results. So I think that vein is by no means worked out. We’re going to see
a lot of interesting work done in the Davidsonian tradition. And finally, I wanna say that
the kind of stuff I’m interested in I think is going to continue to interest people. And
I’m quite interested to see that on the European continent, where for so long there seemed
really a kind of iron curtain between the way they did philosophy and the way we did
philosophy–I mean, French and German philosophy seem so different from Anglo-American philosophy.
They’re now getting more and more interested in precisely this aspect of language that
we’ve been talking about. So I see at least these three strands of work going. Post-Chomsky
and of course I’m including Chomsky himself in in what I call post-Chomsky linguistics will
continue to develop. I see more and more work going on in formal semantics of the
Davidsonian kind & I think that a lot of useful work is going to be done there. And then I see these
problems about language usage and intentionality. That seems to me a very rich field. More
and more in the Searlean kind, as well. Thank you very much Professor Searle. Thank you.

23 Replies to “The Philosophy of Language with John Searle

  1. not only did I learn from those sounds coming out of his mouth, but his body has a language of its own

  2. "In the triangle I can see now this as apex, that as base—now this as
    apex, that as base.—Clearly the words "Now I am seeing this as the
    apex" cannot so far mean anything to a learner who has only just
    met the concepts of apex, base, and so on.—But I do not mean this
    as an empirical proposition.
    "Now he's seeing it like this", "now like that" would only be said of
    someone capable of making certain applications of the figure quite
    The substratum of this experience is the mastery of a technique."

    It's Wittgenstein in his "Investigations…". He was deeper than this cheap talk about the role of language in our life, because he considered language as part of our form of life, our actions in (mainly social) environment, which shape what we can experience.

    Same thing applies to the experience of "seeing the glass of water". It's not only words, it's use what me make of a thing allows as to experience it as this or that, and this is the case even when we don't have a word for a thing, like when we make spontanious use of something as an instrument or a tool in some situations, and we don't know the word for this kind of tool, but we grab a thing and use it in the way of use which we know, but can not name.

    In polish we have a word "wihajster" for things of some use, which don't have a name, or we don't know the name, forgot it or the name is of no matter.

  3. i used to be concerned about words being specific, even colors having objective names to the shade… I realize now there are two aspects to analyze names and words in language

  4. Magee did two series of interviews; this is #10 in series one. Amazing that these were on primetime TV; they were packed like good university lectures; better in some ways because Magee was a superb interviewer. This particular one was packed, summarizing the history and key concepts in the philosophy of language (audio version of this and other Magee interviews available here: Summary of this session:
    2:30 Philosophy of Language (a subject) vs. Linguistic philosophy/analysis (a technique)

    4:00 Centrality of language (separates humans from other life-forms; linguistic categories create many types of experience)

    9:15 Early 20th century sensibility (‘decline of rationality’)

    11:00 recent history of philosophy of language

    —Frege/Russell (meaning in linguistic representation, relation to mathematical truths

    13:00 Lines of development

    -1- Meaning /truth (more emphasis on object, i.e what is being talked about); truth conditions of utterance;

    relation to philosophy of science (expounders: Early Wittgenstein, Russell, Carnap, Quine, Davidson)

    -2- Meaning/use (more emphasis on subject/user); language as act and tradition (expounders: Later Wittgenstein, Austin, Grice, Strawson, Searle)

    -3-Linguistics (Chomsky, 1957 key year)

    18:00 Tractatus (‘picture theory of meaning’); Logical positivism (verification principle); meaning either T or F

    19:30 Quine’s behavioristic approach and rejection of analytic/synthetic distinction, in favor of dispositions to respond

    Davidson’s theory of truth/theory of meaning (leading to precision in Qs and improved cooperative efforts)

    22:30 Language as act; later Wittgenstein’s rejection of theoretical generalization

    26:30 Austin’s taxonomy and non T/F utterances; performatives vs. constatives

    28:30 Speech acts type and content; illocution vs perlocution

    32:00 Brentano (intentionality); beliefs, hopes, desires vs. pains, itches, tickles

    37:00 Chomsky’s revolution

    Finite set of rules -> all sentences

    Importance of syntax

    Universal grammar

    42:30 transcendental vs. empirical investigation

    44:00 future: formal semantics; linguistic analysis; use/intentionality

  5. / There's no difference between human language and a ghost.
    They have no smell, no shape, no temperature, no taste, no sound,
    no mass, no color. The instrument by which we say we know of
    something is but a ghost.
    You may say you know of something but what you know of it
    is not the real of It . . . we humans have tons of knowledge of
    this world and universe but the knowledge is not the world or
    this universe . . . maybe, i humbly think, your body know more
    about this world and universe than your thoughts do.
    I personally think human knowledge makes us ignorant
    rather than smart in some extent /

  6. "What is the nature of human action? What is it to perform an action? What is it to explain an action? Why is it that the methods of science have not given us the kinds of results in the study of human behavior that they've been able to give us elsewhere? Or to put that part more pointedly: Why have so much of the social sciences seemed to be a bore and unproductive?…Intentionality" The Philosophy of Language, John Searle

  7. What if we saw language as the stretchy bits of reality. Humans have bones, but we also have cartilage, sinew, and muscle. Perhaps language is not a tool of reporting back more than it is a composite part of existence. I think we must move further away from this conception of truth as a cracker jack prize. It's validity appears to be symphonic coordinating many elements we only regard as referential. It's not correct to ask what is underneath the sound or what's behind the spectacle. Reality is relational. Baseball is only truly baseball when played. A bat and ball on the table is not baseball. A worn catchers mitt or umpire mask is still not baseball. These effects must interact and influence each other to truly arrive at baseball. This is why I hate the whole appraisal of language as circular. It's not a stand alone! We forced it in on itself and and declared it to be absurd. Language is suppose to interact with other components of reality, not hand deliver truth on a platter. You can't catch a ball with a bat, nor is it really fair to pronounce bats deficient for this very reason. It is a failure to understand a bat. Language was traditionally seen as a bear trap to capture verifiable states of experience. I think now we see it as a tracking device to see whence the truth came and where it is headed. We know language is not static and yet we still make stiff demands of it.

  8. I don't spend any time anymore on the philosophy of language. But I would point out the book The Language Hoax by John H. McWhorter wherein he discusses the illusion of believing that different languages and their grammar do not construct the way we view the world- peoples of all cultures essentially experience the wholeness and particulars of the world regardless of how they operate. Give it a read if you're curious.

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