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The Philosophy of Society

John R. Searle is the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, and is noted for contributions to the 9780195396171philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and consciousness, on the characteristics of socially contructed versus physical realities, and on practical reason.  His new book, Making The Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, builds on the provocative and original theory he first developed in The Construction of Social Reality.  In this new book, Searle asks: how is that in a universe of physical objects, facts, and laws, we can also have ‘facts’ like lawsuits, summer vacations, and presidents?  In the excerpt below we begin to learn about the philosophy of society.

The entire enterprise is in part based on, and in part an attempt to justify, the assumption that we need a new branch of philosophy that might be called “The Philosophy of Society.”  Philosophical disciplines are not eternal.  Some of the most important have been created fairly recently.  Perhaps without knowing it, Gottlob Frege, along with Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others, invented the philosophy of language in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  But in the sense in which we now regard the philosophy of language as a central part of philosophy, Immanuel Kant did not have and could not have had such an attitude.  I am proposing that “The Philosophy of Society” ought to be regarded as a legitimate branch of philosophy along with such disciplines as the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language.  I believe this is already happening, as is evidenced by the recent interest in questions of “social ontology” and “collective intentionality.”  One might object that there already was a recognized branch of philosophy called “social philosophy,” on which there are numerous university courses.  But social philosophy courses, as they have traditionally been conceived, tended to be either the philosophy of social science or a continuation of political philosophy, sometimes called “political and social philosophy.”  Thus in such a course one is likely to study either such topics as C. G. Hempel on deductive nomological explanations or John Rawls on the theory of justice.  I am suggesting that there is a line of research that is more fundamental than either the philosophy of social science or social and political philosophy, namely, the study of the nature of human society itself: what is the mode of existence of social entities such as governments, families, cocktail parties, summer vacations, trade unions, baseball games, and passports?  I believe it will deepen our understanding of social phenomena generally and help out research in the social sciences if we get a clearer understanding of the nature and the mode of existence of social reality.  We need not so much a philosophy of the social sciences of the present and the past as we need a philosophy for the social sciences of the future and, indeed, for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of social phenomena.

This investigation is historically situated.  It not the sort of thing that could have been undertaken a hundred years ago or even fifty years ago.  In earlier eras, from the seventeenth century until the late twentieth century, most philosophers in the Western tradition were preoccupied with epistemic questions.  Even questions about language and society were construed as largely epistemic: How do we know what other people mean when they talk?  How do we know that the statements we make about social reality are really true?  How do we verify them?  These are interesting questions, but I regard them as peripheral.  One of the agreeable features of writing in the present eta is that we have in large part overcome our three-hundred-year obsession with epistemology and skepticism.  No doubt many interesting epistemic questions remain, but in this investigation I will mostly ignore them.

It is an odd fact of intellectual history that the great philosophers of the past century had little or nothing to do say about social ontology.  I am thinking of such figures as Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, as well as Quine, Carnap, Strawson, and Austin.  But if they did not address the problems that interest me…, they did develop techniques of analysis and approaches to language that I intend to use.  Standing on their shoulders, as well as on my own earlier work, I am going to try to look at a terrain they did not see.  And why is this an appropriate subject for philosophy and not for the proper domain of empirical sciences?  Because it turns out that society has a logical (conceptual, propositional) structure that admits of, indeed requires, logical analysis.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Sullenszino

    Doesn’t the list of names seem very, very narrow here? What about Dithey, Gadamer, Marx, Foucault, Hacking, just to mention one transmission line? They talked quite a bit about the nature of language and intentionality as social ontology. Am I missing the gist of the area of research here?

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