16 September 2018

Searle's ‘Social Ontology and Political Power’

In his 2003 paper ‘Social Ontology and Political Power’, John R. Searle approaches the problem of the ontology of social power from within subjectivist metaphysics. “The important point to emphasize is that the essence of political power is deontic power. [...] It is a matter of rights, duties, obligations, authorizations, permissions and the like. Such powers have a special ontology.” (All further quotes in double inverted commas are from Searle’s paper.) This “special ontology” is said to reside in “status functions”, as distinct from ‘objective’ “physical functions” such as ‘Rain makes you wet’. Status functions, “imposed” by the “collective intentionality” of human beings “can be represented in the form, ‘X counts as Y in C’”. What enables this collectivity of intention is not a question for Searle, but simply taken as an ontic fact.

The “brute fact” of a physical phenomenon such as expressed in the statement “It is raining” or ‘George is sitting at his desk’ is superimposed with a status that allows, for example, the statement “George W. Bush is president” to fit the model ‘X counts as Y in C’: Bush counts as President in the context of the institutions of democratic elections. “Counts as” here is synonymous with ‘is valid as’ or ‘is recognized as’. Like all analytic philosophy, Searle seeks to locate truth in the logos, i.e. in logical propositions.

The status accorded to Bush through this putative projection of collective intentionality confers on him deontic powers such as the power to command the armed forces, which are obliged (deontically) to obey, or the power to veto legislation which Congress is obliged to acknowledge. Furthermore, Searle asserts, “Where political status functions are concerned it is [sic] almost invariably linguistic.”, an example being the linguistic thought, “He is president”. Hence, according to Searle, political power is constituted “almost invariably” by certain linguistic conventions that confer “rights, duties, obligations, authorizations, permissions and the like”.

Likewise, Searle regards the social power, money, as a thing (paper) accorded a “status function” by convention according to the formula, ‘This paper counts as means of payment (money) in the context of market exchange’. This counting-as-money is presumably accompanied by the linguistic thought, ‘This is money’. Searle’s problematic of social and political power is thus isomorphic with Neo-Kantianism’s (e.g. Heinrich Rickert) account of values, according to which ‘values’ are overlaid over ‘objective reality’, instead of being intrinsic to the being of the entity in question. 'Counting as' is a mere sticker stuck on by analytic philosophy. In Searle’s terminology, such ‘values’ are status functions projected onto “observer-independent”, objective, physical things and physical people by “collective intentionality” and are therefore “observer-dependent”.

The key distinction between “observer-independent” objectivity and “observer-dependent” subjectivity, however, is untenable. Why? Searle’s root concern (a misguided non-question) is with the question “How can there be political reality in a world consisting of physical particles?”. Hence the dichotomy between physical objectivity and social reality, which latter, it is claimed, is “observer-dependent” in the sense that it depends on a projection of “collective intentionality” onto physical things of the kind ‘X counts as Y in C’. But all beings in the world, including bare, physical beings, are ‘counted as’ in the sense that they are understood as, say, “physical particles”. Such understanding-as... is only possible in the modern scientific age within the Cartesian cast of being (which Searle obviously believes is the unquestionable, rock-bottom, scientific truth), and “physical particles” are such only for the scientific subject of the modern age, i.e. ‘physical reality’ is not “observer-independent” and “objective”, but is conceived and cast as such by an historical way of human thinking.

Even the innocuous, brute, factual statement adduced by Searle that “it is raining” depends upon the apophantic as according to which the observed phenomenon of precipitation is understood as rain. There can be no “observer-independent” objectivity because objectivity is such only for a human subject within an historical world that is cast within its own epochal understanding of the world. Moreover, human beings are always already in the world engaged in practices with each other, i.e. in interplay, taking care of their lives, and are never merely subjective consciousnesses separated from objective reality. Rather, they always already share the open 3D-temporal clearing. Moreover, in the context of these practices of interplay, and not merely linguistically through representations in consciousness, individual or collective, they estimate, value and evaluate things and people based first of all upon what they are good for and worth in the context of such daily, individual and shared, practices. The stepwise path in thinking via value (τιμή) as it emerges from the practices of everyday life through to specifically political power has been adopted in the present inquiry to bring the power play among human beings in all its facets socio-ontologically to light. For Searle, mired as he is in subjectivist metaphysics, for which unquestioned ‘collective intentionality’ serves as theological anchor, such a social ontology can make no sense.

Adapted excerpt from Social Ontology of Whoness: Rethinking core phenomena of political philosophy

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