In response to:

Is Just Thinking Enough? from the November 11, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book Making the Social World [NYR, November 11, 2010], Colin McGinn makes a number of criticisms. I believe they are all mistaken and most rest on misunderstandings.

The first and most important misunderstanding is about language. I claim that human institutional reality—such things as money, property, government, and marriage—requires linguistic representation both for its creation and its maintenance. McGinn thinks I am claiming that it is “logically impossible” for there to be any beings who have such facts without language. I make no such claim. I am talking about humans, not about possible gods. He agrees with me that these institutional facts can only exist if they are represented as existing, but he thinks even we humans do not really need language for that, because we can just think in “concepts.” But thinking in concepts requires some medium in which the thinking takes place. For some simple concepts, for instance color, perhaps imagery is enough, but for complex institutional concepts you have to have words or symbols.

For example, it is easy to imagine a tribe that has language but no property, government, marriage, or money. But try to imagine one that has all of those but no language at all, no symbols or symbolic representations of any kind. It would be impossible. Why can’t we just think, as McGinn believes, in pure concepts and thus create institutional reality? For at least two reasons: first, the representations that are constitutive of institutional reality have to be collectively shared and thus have to be communicable from one person to another.

Second, the complexity, the logical structure of the concepts, and above all their ability to work in status function declarations, which, as I wrote, “impose functions on objects and people [which] cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure,” require linguistic forms of expression. Take a simple institutional thought: “Her mortgage is largely paid off, but the recent decline in interest rates may make it desirable for her to refinance to lower her payments and to take out cash.” Try to think that thought in pure concepts without any words or other sorts of symbols. I cannot do it and I do not believe McGinn can either. Humans need language both to think such thoughts and to communicate them.

McGinn says that I don’t make explicit the difference between humans and social animals that lack language. I thought I did, but I will do it again. They may have cooperation, division of labor, status hierarchies with alpha males and alpha females, territoriality, and pair bonding. But they don’t have government, marriage, private property, money, income taxes, and all the rest of institutional reality, because such phenomena require some symbolic means to create obligations, rights, duties, and the rest of what I call “deontic powers.”

Another difficulty with McGinn’s review is that he is unclear about what is a linguistic act or a speech act. He doubts that just pushing the glass of beer toward someone can be a speech act, and asks rhetorically, “What act is not a speech act if this is one? Is sitting in a chair in the pub also a speech act…?” After fifty years of speech act theory it should be obvious that any intentional movement can be a speech act provided it is performed with certain sets of semantic intentions that are communicated to the hearer. The case I described is obviously a speech act, because it assigns the right to drink the beer to the recipient. You can imagine circumstances in which sitting in a chair would be a speech act, but normally it is not. “Speech act” is a quasi-technical term that means, roughly, “a meaningful linguistic act that is intended to communicate propositional content with a certain force from speaker to hearer, which may be spoken, written, or conveyed in some other symbolic form.” Not all speech acts need to be spoken. He thinks I am somehow weakening or modifying (“sliding and hedging”) my account when I allow for speech acts to be performed by something other than spoken words. But that is an emphatic exemplification, not a weakening.

McGinn assumes that I imagine that any status function can be assigned to any object whatever, for example, that stones can be married. I discuss the constraints on the assignment of status function in some detail, and one interesting class of status function is where we impose status requirements only on preexisting physical abilities. As I explain, not everything can be a licensed driver or a qualified surgeon, much less a married couple.

McGinn seems to have understood only a part but not the whole argument of the book. He writes, “There seems little difficulty in the idea that the collective recognition of status functions by itself is sufficient to create institutional facts….” But he does not see that that is the problem and not the solution. We can’t make it rain by getting together and agreeing that it’s raining, but if we agree in a certain way that something is money, then it is money. The problem is to explain in detail how exactly that works.

For further development of these and other responses to McGinn’s review, see my website,

John R. Searle
Slusser Professor of Philosophy
University of California
Berkeley, California

Colin McGinn replies:

John Searle is sure that I have misunderstood him and that my criticisms are mistaken. I in turn think that he has misunderstood me and that his criticisms are mistaken.

First, my possibility claim did not concern gods but humans and creatures like them: such cognitive beings do not necessarily need to use language in order to have institutions. To say that concepts require language and hence that institutions depend on language is misguided in two ways: it wrongly assimilates the “medium” of thought with language in the full-blown sense (when did Searle become a language of thought theorist?); and it trivializes the thesis of language dependence Searle is advancing—since now anything that involves thought involves language. His original thesis was that institutions depend on linguistic declarations; but my point was that no alleged medium of thought is a declaration (thoughts and intentions are not speech acts). Nor is it convincing to suggest that the sharing of mental representations entails their being communicated: clearly two people can think the same thing without one of them having communicated the thought to the other, linguistically or otherwise.

Second, my point about animal societies is that they are societies, but they don’t exemplify Searle’s conditions for social facts. Such societies lack many of our social formations, but that just shows that the concept of a social fact is broader than Searle allows.

Third, Searle completely misses my point about speech acts and their absence. It is not that pushing the beers cannot be a speech act; it is that such an act need not be a speech act—yet it can establish property rights. Speech acts require complex communicative intentions (as H.P. Grice pointed out long ago), but not all intentional actions are speech acts. My point was that acts without such communicative intentions, such as pushing the beers across the table when you have no such intentions, can be enough to provide evidence of the agent’s wishes—which then confer property rights (“He wants me to have this beer”). Surely Searle does not think that every act of giving is a speech act.

Fourth, my point about objects and status functions was simply that Searle underestimates the strength of the physical constraints in his theoretical framework, not that he recognizes no such constraints. I think the ontology of institutions needs explicitly to build in physical (and other) constraints as part of the very essence of the fact (hence my analogy with artifacts). This is really a point about presentation and emphasis, since obviously not any old physical object can serve as the basis of an institutional fact.

Fifth, the psychological (not linguistic) theory of institutions is a solution to the problem, if the problem is specifying the nature of social ontology. Of course, we need to hear the details, but the general form of the answer is there. My objection to Searle was simply that it is not of the essence of social facts like marriage and private property that they should be brought about by acts involving language—any more than it is part of the essence of pain that pains should be expressed in language. He has mistaken the contingent for the necessary.

This Issue

February 24, 2011