Saturday, November 6, 2010

Our Knowledge of the Social World

I have been reading Colin McGinn’s review of John Searle’s new book, Making the Social World:  The Structure of Human Civilization, in the latest (November 11) issue of The New York Review with some relish.  McGinn has no problem with Searle’s premise that the social world is a constructed reality, a point that Searle has made in his previous writings.  However, this book purports to explain just how that reality is constructed;  and the bottom line is that McGinn concludes that Searle has not made a particularly good case for his position.  As a result, he skewers Searle rather neatly with the following conclusion:

The upshot is that it is never altogether clear what his book is about, though it is clear that it is not about what the title and subtitle say it is.

I have heard Searle talk, so I have had my own experiences with what I might call his “tactics of smokescreen rhetoric.”  Thus, it is not hard for me to sympathize with McGinn.  However, having read the body of his critique (as well as the punch line), I am not sure that he chose the best skewer for the job.

If we are going to talk about how a reality is being constructed, then it seems to me that we need to begin with some thoughts about just what that reality is.  This may just be my engineer’s intuition.  (You can’t build anything without first having a good set of blueprints.)  I can even appreciate that “reality” may be too nebulous to ever admit of anything as specific as engineering blueprints, but I would hope that we can get beyond wallowing in vague generalities.

Usually one uses the blueprints to figure what will be the best tools for the job.  However, on the basis of McGinn’s account, I came away with the impression that Searle was doing things the other way:  Start with a set of tools, and see what you can build with them.  Searle’s tools are those of speech act theory;  and, in that context, it is not surprising that the bottom line of his hypothesis is that reality is how we talk about it.

However, Searle’s methodology is a risky one.  It is that of the small boy with the hammer who sees everything as a nail (even if speech act theory is far more sophisticated than even the best-built hammer).  However, this is a surface difficulty.  At a deeper level speech activity provides a set of constructs in the objective world through which we should be able to describe and explain “how we do things with words” (as it was elegantly expressed by its pioneer, John L. Austin).  This leaves us with the question of whether any set of constructs in the objective world have sufficient expressiveness to provide an adequate account of the social world.

At least one social theorist made a strong case that objective constructs lack this expressiveness.  His name was Alfred Schutz;  and he made that case with both concision and relative brevity in the paper “Concept and Theory Formation in the Social Sciences,” which I recently discussed for other reasons.  Schutz rejected the objective stance of both linguistics and formal logic in favor of the more subjective stance of phenomenology, particularly has it had been investigated by Edmund Husserl.  In my own reading of Husserl, I have not encountered his trying to make the leap from a subjective construction of reality to a social one;  but, to invoke one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s metaphors, he certainly provided Schutz with a good ladder to climb in the latter’s efforts to do so.

In the context of more contemporary thinking (Schutz’ paper is based on a talk he gave in 1953), it is worth noting that Schutz was a major influence on the work of Jürgen Habermas.  Searle was an equally important influence;  but I have always felt that Habermas called his magnum opus The Theory of Communicative Action because he recognized that communication could not be reduced to the exchange of linguistic tokens, even if those tokens were accounted for as speech acts.  Habermas recognized that any theory of communication had to be equally grounded in the objective, subjective, and social worlds;  and I suspect that it was through Schutz that he came to appreciate that neither Austin nor Searle had come up with an adequate set of tools.  This does not mean that Habermas was any more successful in explaining how each of us constructs a social reality, but I suspect my time would be better spent with his efforts than with Searle’s!

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