Searle: it upsets me when I read the nonsense written by my contemporaries

by Zan Boag on January 25, 2014

What purpose does philosophy serve? And what are philosophers doing to ensure that philosophy remains relevant?

John Searle: I don’t think philosophers should worry too much about what people think about them, just get on with the work. As far as I’m concerned philosophy is the most important subject of all because other subjects get their importance by how they relate to the larger issues. And that’s what philosophy is about – the larger issues.

Scientists and philosophers aren’t known for working closely together – they are often at odds with one another, particularly when it comes to consciousness. Over recent years have you seen an improvement in relations between scientists and philosophers in tackling “the hard problem”?

John Searle: I haven’t had that experience myself. I work with a lot of neurobiologists and cognitive scientists… I don’t detect any professional dispute. These guys are more inclined to do lab research than I am, but we’re both addressing common problems and we bring to bear on it all the knowledge that we can get our hands on. I don’t see any sharp distinction between philosophy and the sciences, I’ll use any material I can lay my hands on and stick with anything that seems to work and I often find that empirical research is very useful to philosophical investigations that I’m making.

Is it fair to say that Wittgenstein has had an influence on your work?

John Searle: Wittgenstein has had a very large influence on me in many respects, a negative influence because Wittgenstein said that the kind of philosophy that I’m trying to do is impossible. He said that you shouldn’t try and do theoretical philosophy where you address a whole lot of issues, you should just try and solve specific puzzles by examining the use of language. Now, if somebody tells me you can’t have general theories in philosophy, my natural instinct is to go build general theories. That’s exactly what I’ve done. So the enterprise is profoundly anti-Wittgensteinian. However having said that, I have to say that I think that Wittgenstein was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and he did have a big influence on me and a big impact on me, it’s just that his overall conception of philosophy is one I do not share.

I’d like to talk about the importance of thought experiments that philosophers put forward such as your Chinese Room argument. In what way are these thought experiments important?

John Searle: Thought experiments are important because a lot of the time you can’t carry out the actual experiment and this is true not only in philosophy but in science as well. So when Einstein said “imagine that you’re sitting on a beam of light going into outer space”, well, that’s a thought experiment. He wasn’t going to say, “let’s get on a beam of light”. Of course you miss the point if you say, “well, we’d fall off” or “it would be too cold”. So, thought experiments are always useful, and you test your concepts by imagining what it would be like if such and such were the case. Well, in this particular case I imagined what it would be like if I followed a program for answering questions in Chinese and giving back answers in Chinese, even though I don’t understand a word of Chinese. And that was a very useful thought experiment because it enables us to see that computation by itself isn’t thinking.

You say that consciousness is a real subjective experience, caused by the physical processes of the brain, and that where consciousness is concerned, the appearance is reality. Can you elaborate on this?

John Searle: Consciousness exists only insofar as it is experienced by a human or animal subject. OK, now grant me that consciousness is a genuine biological phenomenon. Well, all the same it’s somewhat different from other biological phenomena because it only exists insofar as it is experienced. However, that does give it an interesting status. You can’t refute the existence of consciousness by showing that it’s just an illusion because the illusion/ reality distinction rests on the difference between how things consciously seem to us and how they really are. But where the very existence of consciousness is concerned, if it consciously seems to me that I’m conscious, then I am conscious. You can’t make the illusion/reality distinction for the very existence of consciousness the way you can for sunsets and rainbows because the distinction is between how things consciously seem and how they really are.

You also say that consciousness is a physical property, like digestion or fire.

John Searle: Consciousness is a biological property like digestion or photosynthesis. Now why isn’t that screamingly obvious to anybody who’s had any education? And I think the answer is these twin traditions. On the one hand there’s God, the soul and immortality that says it’s really not part of the physical world, and then there is the almost as bad tradition of scientific materialism that says it’s not a part of the physical world. They both make the same mistake, they refuse to take consciousness on its own terms as a biological phenomenon like digestion, or photosynthesis, or mitosis, or miosis, or any other biological phenomenon.

You have worked on a theory of the mind over the decades. Have your ideas changed over the course of time?

John Searle: I’ve gone into a whole lot of subjects that I never was in before. I started off working in the philosophy of language and it really wasn’t until I was in middle life that I got into the philosophy of mind. I thought I was just trying to answer how language works. But language is a natural phenomenon and has this miraculous quality. The noises that come out of my mouth are just physical noises, acoustic blasts, and yet they’re meaningful. How do we get from the physics to the semantics? From the noise to the meaning? Then that’s part of a general question about the nature of the relation between the human reality and the basic reality as described by physics and chemistry. And that’s been a constant preoccupation of mine. I didn’t see a lot of the issues 30 years ago or 40 years ago as clearly as I see them now and no doubt if I live long enough I’ll come to see them more clearly than I do now. But that’s the basic continuity in my research.

What do you do differently from the everyday person? Do you get up early and read texts by ancient philosophers?

John Searle: I don’t watch television very much…I think it is clear that the media have had an enormous effect on our sensibility. It’s very hard to know what the long-term effect of this is, but I think there’s no question that we’re getting an impoverished sensibility as a result of overexposure to electronic media. I don’t read much philosophy, it upsets me when I read the nonsense written by my contemporaries, the theory of extended mind makes me want to throw up…so mostly I read works of fiction and history. I love reading history books and I love reading works of fiction, there’s just an enormous amount of great stuff written.

Faulkner, the great American modernists, I can’t tell you the influence they’ve had on me. No philosopher has influenced me as much as Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald – they’ve had an enormous influence on my whole sensibility – and the whole American modernist tradition. There are so many great history books and great novels, not to mention poetry and other forms of literature, that I spend much more time on literature than I do on philosophy. I’m not boasting about that, I’m complaining, I probably should read more philosophy than I do. But I think a lot of works of philosophy are like root-canal work, you just think you’ve got to get through that damn thing.

My great obsession of course is skiing, and I do ski like a nut. However I have to tell you, once you get past 80 you are just not as good at giant slalom as you used to be. I’m not going to make the next Olympic team.

Aside from your own work, are there any books concerning philosophy of mind that you can recommend?

John Searle: I don’t think any of them are any good really. Wittgenstein is always an inspiration to read and mostly because it is a dialogue, you’re having an argument with him. But I have not found philosophers of mind who say what I think needs to be said. That’s why I write so many books about it. You’d think I could write one book and that would be enough, but now I’ve written several books about the mind and no doubt it will keep going because there are just so many mistaken views that are still out there.

But still, I can recommend Wittgenstein as somebody who is great to sharpen your wits on. It’s great to argue with Wittgenstein because he is so intelligent and he has an instinct for what are important philosophical questions. He resists what I think is essential, namely, getting a systematic theory of answering those questions.

Now, I admire the history of philosophy, but not for the right reasons. I don’t think I learnt a lot of truths from reading Leibniz or Kant. I think Leibniz was probably the most intelligent person who ever lived, but I think his philosophical views are probably pretty much mistaken. I mean, the bit about the monads and so on. Kant was probably the greatest philosopher that ever lived and he is an obsession, but I think the whole thing is based on a mistake – that you can’t have a direct knowledge of things in themselves. You can. I’m looking at a desk and I see a thing in itself.

I’m writing a book about perception. I try to answer Kant, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Spinoza and all of these guys because they all had the same mistaken view of perception. So I’m the wrong guy to ask about who to admire in the history of philosophy. I have a suitable reverence for the great thinkers of the past, but alas, they are all pretty much mistaken, and my job is to point out the mistakes.

Mark S.

March 30, 2014 12:31 pm

He has an entire course about the philosophy of mind on Itunes U ; he is a bit arrogant when it comes to knocking all other positions except his own. However the guy's a genius and is rather funny sometimes on that particular Itunes U podcast.


March 28, 2014 2:06 am

"And that, in a nutshell, is everything wrong with Anglo-American Analytic philosophy…general illiteracy, hubris and an overall ignorance of history."

For your info Searle was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and hardly illiterate. He has written at least 10 books. He is writing a book replying to Kant, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, and Spinoza. And his earlier books cite work by Plato, Aristotle, James, Husserl, Locke, Merleau-Ponty, Mill, Reid, Russell, and Wittgenstein. This is hardly unhistorical.


March 27, 2014 1:15 am

Good read. I'm not on board with the ability to have access to the thing in itself, but I'm not trying to sell books either.

Chase Turner

March 26, 2014 11:54 am

It isn't bragging if it's true, Dick. Searle will be remembered long after you and I are both dead.

Prof B

March 26, 2014 4:46 am

" have a suitable reverence for the great thinkers of the past, but alas, they are all pretty much mistaken, and my job is to point out the mistakes."

And that, in a nutshell, is everything wrong with Anglo-American Analytic philosophy…general illiteracy, hubris and an overall ignorance of history.

lover of wisdom

February 6, 2014 2:15 am

Great picture. Pure resilience in that face.

Richard W. Symonds

January 27, 2014 3:36 pm

Humility Isn't one of his strong points, is it?!


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