Tuesday 16 June 2015

Why don't dogs have Universities? Searle's social ontology talk in Cambridge

John Searle gave a great talk yesterday in Cambridge on his social ontology which is largely articulated in his book "Making the Social World". It's his second trip to Cambridge in a year - a relationship that's emerged from his friendship with Tony Lawson and the Social Ontology Group. Searle and Lawson don't agree with each other, but there is a very high degree of mutual respect in their respective efforts towards a common cause of accounting for social reality - a fundamental question that Searle pithily addresses by asking why animals don't have social institutions. For his part, Searle acknowledges that Lawson's work on social ontology in economics is "the best alternative theory to his own".

This is elegant work which I like a lot - I have used it to deepen understanding of the social dynamics we see in education and technology. However, I am uncomfortable with Searle's linguistic foundationalism - as is Lawson. In the discussion following the talk yesterday, Lawson pointed out the apparent absence of totalities in Searle's ontology. Whilst Searle responded that he did account for totalities, I think the difference lies in the fact that Searle and Lawson have different understandings of what a totality means.

The critical realist ontology that grounds Lawson's work has a materialist-mechanistic foundation. Whilst Searle upholds the importance of language for human institutions, he too argues that it is emergent from matter. This places him in the camp of those information theorists like Deacon (who like Searle is at Berkeley), who articulate an evolutionary model of irreducible structures which emerge from the dynamics of matter. In Deacon's mechanism, absence plays a fundamental role, and within critical realist ontology, absences are part of totalities. Searle, despite being asked about it, didn't say very much about absences.

I've been wrestling recently with the foundationalism in critical realism: so much rests on arguing with Hume that there must be natural necessity. I can't see that the issue is decidable: there is a possibility that Hume was right about natural necessity (it doesn't exist), and Badiou, Meillassoux and others have been pursuing this. It leads to Platonism... but it can't be discounted.

Critical Realism has eschewed what Bhaskar calls the 'linguistic fallacy' - the reduction of the world to language - with Searle's earlier work on speech acts very much in mind. Instead, it sees language as part of the 'transitive domain' - those mechanisms that exist through human agency (Searle calls this "observer dependent"). The linguistic fallacy leads to a flattening of reality according to Bhaskar - what he calls ontological monovalence.

The effects of some of this flattening are evident in Searle's work, or rather what it doesn't account for. An interesting question was asked about "so where does power come from?" (the power to make declarations about the nature of the social world is an important aspect of his theory). He didn't really have an adequate explanation I thought. It seems to me that the ontogeny of human beings is very important: attachments and education together with the socioeconomic conditions within which children grow up mean that we see power in the playground. Then there is something important about the shared  context for language - particularly those aspects of experience that concern justice, security, fear, manipulation, exploitation and so on.  Searle doesn't really get this stuff - he's no Marxist, and quite enjoys goading them cheekily knowing where Lawson's sympathies lie!

I asked whether Searle's idea of a 'status function declaration' - which is the mechanism he articulates for how people determine the reality of things in the social world - has a negative image in a "scarcity declaration". His favourite examples of money, which in the US contains a "status function" of "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private" is also a scarcity declaration of "that note, which isn't a dollar, is not legal tender". University degrees also create scarcity in their declaration of status function: a degree from Oxford University is also the declaration of scarcity of a privileged education. Scarcity declarations create an environment of exclusion, inequality, injustice and fear. It seems to me that it is from these emotions which can create the conditions for the emergence of power and struggle. It's struggle which Searle doesn't acknowledge.

The idea of declaring scarcity appeals to me because it may avoid the problem of linguistic foundationalism. It also muddies the waters about the relationships between humans and animals. Arguably, one could say that the status function declaration "This is mine" is a universal one throughout the animal kingdom. Cats and dogs make this declaration all the time. Ants are perhaps more interesting in appearing to make the declaration "This is ours". Dogs might not have universities, but ants might for all we know...

Searle's statement about language's relationship to social reality is a strong claim which many struggle with. It can easily be taken to be a kind of deterministic relationship: reality is the product of declarative speech acts. But it is less contentious, I think, to say that language constrains reality, and to look at how speech acts constrain individuals and institutions is to ask about the ways in which scarcity is created. This would not be say that institutional behaviour is determined by command, but that the rich totality of the world is shaped by effectively blocking-off options to people. How people deal with these constraints is an issue which is much more ontologically rich than simply language: it involves practice, politics, education, biology, etc.

Practice has become one of key battlegrounds in thinking about foundationalism and post-foundationalism. Practice occurs within constraints. Ideas and languages are themselves aspects of practice: the relationship between practice and reality is one which may not depend on foundations at all. Understanding how constraints operate, and understanding how practice changes constraints is to place the whole human being on the stage, rather than a particular linguistic aspect of them. Furthermore, it is to soften the relationship between foundations and being human in a way which can encourage thinking which avoids dogma.

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