Thursday, March 27, 2008

John Searle at UBC

John Searle came to Vancouver. As such, I trekked over to UBC to hear him. In the same theatre that afforded me the opportunity of hearing Peter Singer, Searle stood on stage unwavering as a speech act theorist. Searle gave the unbridled passionate speech about how natural sciences unify around a model or principle of a mind-independent world. For chemistry, it is the chemical bond, and for physics, it is the atom. For the question regarding social ontology and the status of social things, it is the status-function declaration.

Status-function declarations, as far as I understood him, designate a collective recognition of our representing X because we think of X as being represented as X. So, we think of money as being money only because we participate in the collective recognition of X being represented in our minds as money. As such, status-declarations explain why it is we have social things, and gives us an organizing principle for a theory of social things.

Searle was a little confusing when it came to how status-function declarations related to morality. I asked him in front of everyone if there was an a unifying status-function declaration for morality, and pressed how he might answer the 'why be moral' question. He had offered that status-function declarations of friendship provide the norms for being a friend, yet I couldn't find any reason why status-function declarations should be seen as reaons why I abide by norms. They do well to explain how it is that moral agents internalize a moral code, but beyond that, they would only amount to something like the following:

(1) Being a good friend is collectively recognized as having characteristics F1 to Fn only because we think of F1-Fn as being represented as F1-Fn (we might add some contextual constraint on these norms as well)

However, (1) doesn't tell us why I ought to be a good friend. It only informs me of the status of how friendship is regarded by others. If there are norms suggested in the common representation of the status of the friendship characteristics F1-Fn, then this adherence to these norms is not reason-generating, but only habitually practiced. Of course, Searle can say that he is not addressing the question of seeking how we determine the content of moral reasons. He would just say that he is looking for the conceptual underpinnings of why social things are the way they are, yet Searle then shouldn't suggest that deontic implications follow from his view without giving us a story of how the ontological status of duties gives us reasons to follow implicitly from the social ontology.

(1) might be compatible with a relativism as exemplified by Harman's account. Yet, even in Harman, I am left dissatisfied with how norms and values in context give me reasons to do what they describe--so, the same problem cuts across both views, namely, that contextually functioning rules fail to produce morally-guiding reasons; instead, they only produce functioning rules because those rules are habitually ingrained in collective recognition of their status.

So, yeah... I was mad at Searle for failing to answer my question!!!

I think that a colleague of mine said it best when the talk sounded like a "analytic recasting of Foucault."

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