Sunday, September 28, 2008


Thomas Riggins

John Searle is a well known Oxford educated American philosopher who has been writing and publishing for over fifty years. His latest book is a small tome (128 pages) entitled “Freedom and Neurobiology” and these remarks are based on David Papineau’s review in the TLS of 18 January 2008 (“How We Fit In”). Papineau tells us it is a good lead into Searle’s current philosophical concerns.

We are told that these concerns are to find “a place for humanity within the world described by basic science.” This concern is not unlike that of Wilfrid Sellars whose views I posted in an earlier blog.

Back in the 50s Searle was brought up in the school of linguistic philosophy practiced at Oxford. Ordinary language “embodies the accumulated wisdom [and one might add the foolishness] of past generations.” By the 1980s, according to Papineau, he had moved away from the philosophy of language to that of mind “with language merely the medium by which we make thought public.”

Papineau points out that Searle’s goal of telling us how we “fit in” to the world described by science would not be supported by most practitioners of Oxford philosophy as they are “deeply unscientific” and don’t see how science can help us understand people’s daily activities. This is very unlike Marxism, by the way, which looks to science to explain our relation to the universe and everyday life.

Although Searle has moved beyond Oxford philosophy he shares with it a reliance on "common sense" outlooks over those of complicated philosophical theories. This is just a preference according to Papineau, and it can "sometimes look little more than refusal to address real questions."

The problem of "consciousness" is an example. Papineau points out that Searle rejects both of the commonest current views on it, namely MATERIALISM (consciousness is just what goes on in the brain) and DUALISM (consciousness is "an additional non-physical element of reality": the brain may be responsible for consciousness but our subjective awareness is not the same as chemical reactions in the brain.)

Searle thinks both views go against common sense but he doesn't come up with a coherent alternative third view, according to Papineau, and this suggests that "common sense is leading us astray somewhere." Searle has a similar problem trying to explain "free will" in terms of "common sense." It seems that we have a free will and this means determinism must be wrong somewhere along the line. Searle appeals to quantum mechanics to explain how consciousness can make choices as a result of the indeterminacy principle working on the quantum level in the brain.

Papineau explodes this theory by pointing out that in quantum mechanics "the probabilities of physical effects are always fixed by prior physical circumstances." Papineau doubts that physicists are going "to start looking for violations of quantum mechanics inside the human skull."

Searle has some strange, for Marxists, theories about politics which he discusses in this book. Papineau reports that he says "political power derives from the duties, obligations, permissions and privileges that come with the collective ascription of 'status functions.'" Thus Searle writes that political power "comes from the bottom up." He means that as long as the governed believe that the rulers should have the status they have as rulers they will have it.

This boils down to "rulers rule because the people accept being ruled by the rulers." Papineau thinks these ideas are developed "with originality and flair" but I can't agree. I don't think Searle has said anything meaningful at all. The Pharaoh rules in Egypt because the Egyptians think the Pharaoh should rule, therefore political power comes from the bottom up. That doesn't tell us anything about how the power of the Pharaoh came about, how it was maintained, how the people were led to believe in it, and what social forces and levels of production brought it about and made the ideology that supported it prevail.

How did the rulers of the USSR and of apartheid South Africa lose their power. Searle writes, "In both cases, as far as I can tell, the key element in the collapse of the system of status functions was the withdrawal of acceptance by large numbers of people involved." The key question for Marxists is not THAT people withdrew support of "status functions" but WHY. In the case of the USSR it is even doubtful that they did as in the only so called "free" election (by Western standards) before the collapse the majority expressed a desire to maintain the USSR and not dissolve it.

Papineau laments the fact that Searle's political philosophy rests too much on his own "common sense" and that he ignores the insights of thinkers in the sociology tradition [not to mention Marx and Engels]. Searle mentions in passing Simmel, Durkheim and Weber but remarks the he doesn't think they had much to say about the unique status of institutions. Papineau begs to differ and says, for example, Weber concerned himself with this aspect of political philosophy, citing Weber's definition of the state as an example: The state is a "community that successfully claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force."

Again, for Marxists the question is: what is that claim based on, what is its justification? Papineau himself recognizes that "legitimacy need only be successfully claimed, not endorsed." This would seem to conflict with Searle's "bottom up" views.

All criticism aside, Papineau concludes that Searle is well worth reading as he has made philosophy accessible to the non specialized reading public. He states, truthfully, that "philosophy has become a dry technical business" and that the majority of philosophers "write only for other philosophers about issues that can accurately be termed scholastic." Since understanding philosophical propositions is basic to understanding Marxist thought anyone who demystifies philosophy should be appreciated and Searle at least does that. When we propose Marxist alternatives to some of his ideas we at least have his ideas clearly stated and argued for. But, Marxism leavened by common sense is still the best tool for understanding the complexities of the modern world.