Wednesday, 13 August 2014

John Searle on Social Facts

John Searle argues that there are indeed normative facts and he applies this position to his ontology of social reality, which is set within a broadly Wittgensteinian framework. Thus:

"I say that’s the key element in understanding institutional reality: there’s a class of objectively existing facts in the world that are only the facts they are because we collectively recognise them as such, and that goes with prime ministers, governments, marriage, private property, universities, professorships, conferences and the English language. They’re all very important in our life but they are all cases of “status-functions” – where the fact can only perform the function in virtue of collective acceptance or recognition." (189)

This is a recognition of Wittgenstein’s positions on social practices, norms and rule-following. However, Searle adds a realist ontology to the basically constructivist position of Wittgenstein. Either that, or Wittgenstein himself was basically a realist when it came to these matters – only that there are ‘social facts’ as well as the facts recognised by physics and perhaps by other sciences.

Why shouldn’t there be social facts anyway?

People and institutions behave in certain ways, so why can’t these things be deemed to be factual simply because they aren't about natural laws, electrons and other things accepted by physics?

In addition, some of these social facts are themselves constituted by the facts of physics; though they are further up the line of physics, as it were. (Quine would make a similar point to this.) Our recognition and indeed construction of prime ministers, governments, marriage and the rest doesn’t seem to make them any less factual than natural laws and electrons. Why should they be any less factual than the arcane entities of physics?

Searle then goes into greater philosophical detail as to why there are such things as ‘institutional facts’:

"Now here’s the point: institutional facts do have an ontologically subjective component. They’re only the facts they are because we think they are. But that doesn’t prevent them from being epistemically objective. It’s just an objective fact, epistemically speaking, that this piece of paper in my hand is a five-pound note. That is, it isn’t just my opinion that it’s a five-pound note." (190)

Institutional facts "have an ontologically subjective component" (190) in the sense that we create certain institutional facts, like the fact that five-pound notes can buy 10 cigarettes, etc. More to the point, they’re "only the facts they are because we think they are" (190). Though that too is a fact – that we think that institutional facts are facts. That is, even if five-pound notes are ‘social constructions’ it is still a fact that they are social constructions and it is still a fact that we can buy 10 cigarettes with a five-pound note.

I’m not immediately sure why Searle calls such facts ‘epistemically objective’ rather than ‘ontologically objective’. Are they epistemically objectively because it's about what we know about these institutional facts and not about what they are regardless of our contingent knowledge or how they are ‘in themselves’?Only in the latter case would institutional facts be ontologically objective.

Again, it's an ‘objective fact’ - even if an epistemically objective fact - that a five-pound note is a five-pound note and that this five-pound note can buy 10 cigs, amongst other things. The institutional creation of five-pound notes, amongst indefinite other things, doesn’t at all change the factual status of any of these things.

Social reality is objective reality even if social reality is a ‘construction’ or indeed an invention of human beings and therefore, yes, ontologically subjective. The fact remains that this element of ontological subjectivity doesn't take away the epistemically objective status of all institutional facts. The two modes of ontology, according to Searle at least, can run alongside each other without contradiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment