Saturday, 1 September 2001

John Searle: Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (1999)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999
Review number: 932

In this book, John Searle sets out a defence of what he calls the "default" positions in philosophy, the assumptions that are likely to be made by someone who has never encountered the sort of speculation that philosophers indulge in (such as the existence of the real world). He ignores the term "naive realism", probably because it would psychologically undermine his arguments before he starts, but that is basically what the default assumptions amount to.

According to Searle, the book is intended for those who know nothing about philosophy, but he quite frequently lapses from his stated ideal of not using any unexplained technical terms. The arguments he uses are also quite complex, thought perhaps not compared to, say, Sartre's philosophical writing. The major virtue of the book is Searle's writing style, much clearer than many philosophers. (In the twentieth century, philosophers have begun to want to come across as scientific rather than mystical, and this has made their writing much easier to read than nineteenth century equivalents.)

The book's major flaw is Searle's assumption that he is always right and that the philosophers who have disagreed with him are wrong; his writing loses interest as soon as he fails to convince the reader of a point in his argument. (In my case, this was about when he argues that introspection about the nature of consciousness is impossible.) The book becomes more sketchy towards the end, with far less on language and society than on mind, and this does not help - despite the sub-title, Mind, Language and Society has little to do with the real world. There are still interesting sections (that on the boundary between philosophy and science, for example), but I would say that he certainly fails to deliver an integrated account of the three elements of the title, his stated aim.

Overall, Mind, Language and Society is thought provoking if not as important as it thinks it is, and clear if not as non-technical as Searle thinks it is. Worth reading if you have an interest in philosophy.

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