Is Just Thinking Enough?

Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos
Children of Jesus, Bugbrooke, England, 1973; photographs by Chris Steele-Perkins from his book England, My England, published last year by Northumbria Press

Philosophers interest themselves in ontological questions—questions about what kind of being something has. What kind of being do mental states have? Are they material or immaterial? What kind of being do numbers have? Are they objective abstract entities or ideas in the mind or marks on paper? What kind of being do atoms have? Are they tiny packets of matter (whatever that is) or just useful ways of summing up our observations?

In his stimulating and vigorous new book, John Searle inquires into the mode of existence of human institutions into what he calls “social ontology.”1 Money, marriage, private property, universities, presidents, citizens, banks, and corporations: What is their distinctive mode of being, and what gives rise to them? Are they, specifically, objective entities that do not depend for their existence on human minds, or are they subjectively defined entities, products of human psychology? What is an institution exactly—what is the nature of institutions as such? Searle takes answering this question to require logical analysis: he seeks the logically necessary and sufficient conditions for a given institution to exist. Thus social ontology calls for conceptual investigation—the discovery of the essence of institutions by elucidating what we mean when we speak of institutions. And an important aim of such analysis, for Searle, is demonstrating that social facts depend for their nature and existence upon what we already know of the psychological, biological, and physical world. How is it that, say, banks can exist in a world consisting solely of individual material human organisms (and other material things) with a certain type of psychology? How, in particular, do banks dovetail with brains?

Searle’s guiding principle is that social ontology depends upon psychological ontology; in other words, minds create institutions. There would be no money or marriage or private property without human minds to create these institutions. This view may strike you as something of a truism—for how else but by human decision could institutions come to be? But the question Searle seeks to address is precisely how minds create institutions: By exactly what mental mechanism do we conjure marriage and money into existence? The answer to this question can be expected to have a considerable bearing on what the social sciences are ultimately about—what they are the sciences of. Sociology, political science, economics, and anthropology all deal with social institutions, and it would be useful for them to have an analysis of what their subject matter consists in at the deepest level. Then they would know better what it is that they are studying—what the basic structure of a social fact is.

To resolve that question, Searle employs four central concepts: collective intentionality, status function, deontic power, and desire-independent reason. Collective intentionality is…

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