Social Constructions

Review of John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, Free Press: N.Y., 1995

John Searle is a well-known American philosopher, at the Univ. of Calif, Berkeley. He has written a number of books such as "Speech Acts," "Intentionality," "The Rediscovery of the Mind," and "Minds, Brains, and Science," and a multitude of scholarly articles.

Searle is very much a Modernist philosopher. He believes that there exist objective facts which make the world the way it is and that at least some of these facts can be known to a high degree of probability. He is careful to define key terms as precisely as he can and explain them with a multitude of examples. He writes in a plain and unadorned style, avoiding flowery passages and dark sayings. No special expertise is needed to understand this book. Any theses he advances he defends with arguments that he believes to be rigorous and logical. But for all his Modernism, he is Post-Modern in holding that much of our knowledge is concerned with facts which are socially constructed. Most of this ``book consists of an examination of these social facts and an explanation of how they arise.

In this book, Searle defends the "Realist" view that there exists a real world comprised of objective facts which fall into two categories. In one category are (1) those facts (he calls them "brute facts") which exist independently of what humans think about them and (2) those facts which depend for their existence on human thought (he calls them "social facts.") Examples of the first sort are the mental fact that I am now in pain and the physical facts that Mount Everest has snow and ice at its summit and that hydrogen atoms have one electron. Examples of the second sort of fact, social facts, are that this piece of paper is a five dollar bill, that he is a citizen of the U. S., that the New York Giants won the 1991 superbowl, and that he owns a piece of property in Berkeley, CA.

Of course, in order to state facts we need the existence of language, a social fact, but the facts we state can be distinguished from our statement of them. Facts are facts, whether they are stated or not. Furthermore nothing in Searle's view implies that there is some "best" language for stating facts. Different and even incommensurable languages may be needed to describe the facts.

For Searle, long before there were humans, there were brute physical facts. Eventually, as consciousness appeared, there came to be brute mental facts. However, as humans developed, there has come into existence a new kind of fact, social fact, generated by human practices and human attitudes. The project of this book is two-fold, (1) to justify his Realism, his claim that there are objective brute and social facts, and (2) to explain how social facts, and the social reality they comprise, come into existence. Let me start with Searle's views on (2).

Social facts come into existence through human construction. We produce a social reality by (1)the assigning of functions or roles to physical objects, (turning pieces of matter into chairs, lecture halls, money, swimming holes, national parks, and countries) by groups of individuals who (2) share a common intention to treat those objects in that way, and (3) conform to rules for the treatment of those objects. Much of the book consists of working out some of the details of how social reality is constructed.

For Searle, these social constructions are realities consisting of objective facts. There is such a country as the U. S.; and a certain number of citizens and a certain number of non-citizens inhabit it. There is also the physical reality consisting of the physical particles which exist in the space occupied by the U. S. But the social realities and the physical realities are not separate and independent. Searle thinks of the social facts as a kind of overlay, existing, "so to speak, on top of brute physical facts"(p.35). The brute physical facts could exist without there being a U. S., but there could not be a U. S. without the brute physical facts. The overlay exists by virtue of the common intentions, functions, and rules adopted by humans. For example, a physical object, a piece of paper becomes a five dollar bill by virtue of the rule-governed use to which it is put by a group of people. The five dollar bill is a reality, but it is a social reality, constructed out of the piece of paper by the collective attitudes of the group that use it.

The second half of Searle's book consists of his defense of his Realism, the existence of a real world consisting of facts which exist independently of human agreement in representations, intentions, practices, rules, and language. On this view, except for the little corner of the world that is constituted by human agreement, most of the world would remain the same whether we humans existed or not and will go on long after everything human has perished.

Searle defends his Realism in two ways, first by examining the main arguments of those who attack Realism and showing what he believes to be various logical flaws which rob those arguments of any force. I will give one example. Consider the Big Dipper. It is by agreement that we pick out those stars and give them that name and that agreement goes back only some thousands of years. But to claim that the Big Dipper does not exist independently of the concept of the Big Dipper or that the Big Dipper has only existed for some thousands of years is to confuse properties of the concept with properties of the thing picked out by that concept. It would be a fallacy akin to claiming that babies do not exist until they are given names or called babies.

Searle's second line of defense of Realism is to argue that any alternative to Realism assumes the very truth of Realism. (1) For example, to claim that an individual's world is a construction based on certain features of the brain is to assume that brains exist and have certain features. To claim that certain realities are socially constructed is to assume that there exist social beings coming to certain agreements. To claim that everything exists in some context or other is to assume that various contexts exist. And it makes no sense to reply that brains, social beings, or contexts are themselves constructs; who or what would they be constructed by or out of?

Furthermore (2) for example, that the five dollar bill is a social construction requires that there be the piece of paper, or whatever, that is taken, by agreement, to be that piece of money. Social realities are overlays on physical realities, requiring those physical realities for their own reality.

And, finally (3), for the social construction to succeed, it must bring into existence a (social) *reality*, a *real* five dollar bill, for example, which constitutes the *fact* that this is a real five dollar bill and makes *true* the statement, "This is a real five dollar bill."

Searle points out that these considerations do not show that there is a real world. They merely show that anything we say commits us to the Realist assumption that there is a real world. Nor do they tell us anything about what that world is like or what we can know about it.

Searle ends by asking why it is important to defend Realism. After all, he says, don't all of us, whatever our views, take our cars to the mechanic and brush our teeth, as if cars and teeth really exist? He thinks that the rejection of Realism is dangerous in tending to undermine rationality and open the gates to anti-rational forces. "Philosophical theories make a tremendous difference to every aspect of our lives" (p. 197).


  • John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, Free Press: N.Y., 1995

  • Updated:Thursday, 20-Feb-2003 09:14:23 PST