John Searle: The Philosopher in the World

On May 22, the philosopher and longtime New York Review contributor John Searle gave a public lecture at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) on “Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology.” During Searle’s visit, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy Tim Crane interviewed him about his work and the state of philosophy today. The following is drawn from their conversation.

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John Searle

Tim Crane: In our discussion earlier today, you talked about questions of rights and freedom. This is a bit of a new departure for you, isn’t it?

John Searle: I have never written much about political rights and political power. But if you have a theory of social ontology it ought to have implications in other areas of social philosophy concerning other issues. Social ontology is a beautiful subject by the way. We all live with money and private property, and universities, and governments, and summer vacations: What’s their ontology? How do they exist? How can there be an objective fact that this piece of paper is money, but it’s only money in virtue of our subjective opinions? That’s a big question I have tried to answer. And I think my theory of social ontology has important implications for political philosophy. One is on the notion of human rights, universal human rights.

Are you skeptical of the idea of universal human rights?

No, I’m not skeptical about the idea of universal human rights. I’m skeptical about what I call positive rights. You see, if you look at the logical structure of rights, every right implies an obligation on someone else’s part. A right is always a right against somebody. If I have a right to park my car in your driveway, then you have an obligation not to interfere with my parking my car in your driveway. Now the idea of universal human rights is a remarkable idea because if there are such things, then all human beings are under an obligation to do—what? Well, I want to say that with things like the right to free speech it just means not to interfere. It’s a negative right. My right to free speech means I have a right to exercise my free speech without being interfered with. And that means that other people are under an obligation not to interfere with me.

Now, when I look at the literature, I discover that there is a tradition going back to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where not all of the rights listed are negative rights like the right to free speech, or the right to freedom of religion, or the right to freedom of association, I think all those negative rights are perfectly legitimate. But there are supposed to be such rights as “every human being has a right to adequate housing.” Now I don’t think that can be made into a meaningful claim.

The claim that “every human being has a right to seek adequate housing,” or that there are particular jurisdictions where the British government, or the government of the State of California, can decide “we’re going to guarantee or give that right to all of our citizens”—that seems to me OK. But the idea that every human being, just in virtue of being a human being, has a right to adequate housing in a way that would impose an obligation on every other human being to provide that housing, that seems to me nonsense. So I say that you can make a good case for universal human rights of a negative kind, but that you cannot make the comparable case for universal human rights of a positive kind.

Now I come up with one counter-example. One exception to that is that it does seem to me where life and safety themselves are concerned, we’re all under an obligation, where we can, to help people whose life is threatened. If someone has been hit by a car, he has a right to expect that he will receive assistance from us, and we have an obligation to afford him assistance. And the reason that’s an exception is that a condition of anything else in life is that you have rights of survival. But in general, I think it’s a big mistake in contemporary political thinking to suppose that there is a list, an inventory, of universal human rights of a positive kind. I don’t think I can make sense of this.

Have you ever been interested in getting involved with politics yourself?

It’s funny you should ask that. There was a period when I first went back to California when I was fairly active in the Democratic Party, and then was very active in the Free Speech Movement, but it’s not as intellectually satisfying as an academic career. You do have the satisfaction that you get involved in decisions that make a difference in a way that most philosophical arguments don’t. And in fact, during the Vietnam War, a friend of mine who was a high official with the State Department invited me to come and serve on the State Department policy planning staff where they plan American policy. And I said, “Not during the war.” I was so opposed to the war that I absolutely refused to do anything that would even seem to be lending tacit support to the war. So I didn’t do it and I have seldom been active in public affairs since.


It’s a choice you have to make, especially in the United States. I think it’s possible to combine a political career with an academic, philosophical career. But the cases of people who’ve done it have not been very inspiring to me.

Coming back to the question of rights, since every right requires a corresponding obligation, does it follow from your view that animals don’t have rights, since they have no obligations?

Most rights have to do with specific institutions. As a professor in Berkeley I have certain rights, and certain obligations. But the idea of universal rights—that you have certain rights just in virtue of being a human being—is a fantastic idea. And I think, Why not extend the idea of universal rights to conscious animals? Just in virtue of being a conscious animal, you have certain rights. The fact that animals cannot undertake obligations does not imply that they cannot have rights against us who do have obligations. Babies have rights even before they are able to undertake obligations.

Now I have to make a confession. I try not to think about animal rights because I fear I’d have to become a vegetarian if I worked it out consistently. But I think there is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights. I think there are animal rights.

Why does that mean they have rights?

For every right there’s an obligation. We’re under an obligation to treat animals as we arrogantly say, “humanely.” And I think that’s right. I think we are under an obligation to treat animals humanely. The sort of obligation is the sort that typically goes with rights. Animals have a right against us to be treated humanely. Now whether or not this gives us a right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them, well, I’ve been eating them for so long that I’ve come to take it for granted. But I’m not sure that I could justify it if I was forced to. I once argued this with Bernard Williams. Bernard thought that it was absolutely preposterous for me to think that a consideration of animal rights would forbid carnivorous eating habits. I’m not so sure if Bernard was right about it.

Interesting you mentioned Bernard Williams. He was, of course, one of the great philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, and he was also someone who had interests in political life.

Yes. Well, Bernard was a very good friend of mine. He had an enormous influence on me of the kind that would be hard to describe because it was mostly just admiration for his sheer intellectual abilities. I think Bernard was as intelligent as any human being I’ve ever met. He had a kind of quickness which was stunning. Now one consequence of that is there’s a sense in which people who knew him well, or at least in my case, we always feel the published work is not up to the level of the Bernard we remember. Yes, it’s wonderful and admirable, the published work, but the particular fire and light that came from discussions with Bernard are lost on the printed page…. And one of the reasons for that is he had all this other stuff going on. He was always on some royal commission, or dining in Buckingham Palace. And this is one of the reasons I tried very hard to get him a job in Berkeley. I thought if he was in Berkeley, away from the distractions of London, he might sit down and do really great philosophy. And he did great things in Berkeley, but then he turned around and went back to Oxford, and back to his old ways.


Some people describe him as a skeptical philosopher, or reactive in the sense that he would just be able to see all the flaws in every position, and this made him somewhat pessimistic.

He could see instantly the flaws in arguments, including his own. This was the fatal element: that Bernard could see the limitations of philosophical theories, but they led to him seeing the limitations of his own theories, and that was partly debilitating. But there’s another sense in which he never really was part of mainstream philosophy. You see, Oxford had this wonderfully exciting period where it was all about language, and we thought we were going to get an understanding of language which would enable us to solve a lot of philosophical problems. Bernard was always very skeptical about that. He always stood outside the mainstream. He wasn’t just a brilliant philosopher, but he was actually a brilliant classical scholar. Bernard had a kind of historicist conception of philosophy which is profoundly out of sync with mainstream philosophy of the past hundred years.

What do you think about this kind of historicism? Is that something that was ever attractive to you?

Well, not me, I think partly because I’m too lazy to read all those works. I mean the thought of reading, let’s say, the collected work of Hegel, I just—I mean—I find it too daunting. I think it is wonderful if you get obsessed with certain classic texts. For example, I became totally obsessed with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and wrote a summary of the whole damn book. My idea was that somebody ought to sit down and rewrite it the way a contemporary philosopher would do since we have tools and knowledge that Kant didn’t have. My first task was to write a summary of the whole book and I did. It’s very useful. But it’s not my life, it’s not my career. I don’t have the patience. I’m more obsessed with the immediate problems that bother me, and there’s a sense in which Kant’s problems are not my problems. I mean, if you think that you can never perceive the thing in itself, and yet you can perceive representations that give you a kind of objectivity, then you have a problematic that I don’t have. You have a set of conceptions of philosophy and epistemology that are really totally foreign to my way of thinking.

You started your career at one of the high points of English-speaking, analytic, Anglophone philosophy. What’s your view of the state of philosophy at the moment?

I think it’s in terrible shape! What has happened in the subject I started out with, the philosophy of language, is that, roughly speaking, formal modeling has replaced insight.

Any account of the philosophy of language ought to stick as closely as possible to the psychology of actual human speakers and hearers. And that doesn’t happen now. What happens now is that many philosophers aim to build a formal model where they can map a puzzling element of language onto it, and people think that gives you an insight. I mean a most famous current example of this is the idea that you will explain counterfactuals—for example, if I had dropped this pen, it would have fallen to the ground—by appealing to possible worlds. And then you have a whole load of technical stuff about how to describe the possible worlds. Well I won’t say that’s a waste of time because very intelligent people do it, but I don’t think it gives us insight. It’s as if I said: Well the way to understand the sentence, “All ravens are black,” is that what it really means is that all non-black things are non-ravens. You can get a mapping of one sentence onto other sentences where each side has the same truth conditions. But that is not, in general, the right way to understand the sense of the original sentence. And it’s a philosophical question of why you don’t get the insight.

And this is pervading other areas of philosophy. Formal epistemology seems to me so boring. I’m sure there’s some merit in it, but it puts me to sleep…. They’ve lost sight of the questions.

What advice would you give to a young philosopher starting out to not lose sight of the questions?

Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at night, and work on them with passion. I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students. The graduate students suffer worse than the undergraduates. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.

Tim Crane’s full interview with John Searle is available on the CRASSH website, which has also posted a video of his Cambridge lecture, “Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology.”

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