John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality

John R. Searle (b. 1932) is an American philosopher who was born in Denver, Colorado. He attended the University of Wisconsin and was a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford. He has been a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley since 1959. He has made important contributions to such fields as the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and the study of artificial intelligence. His many books include Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969), Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (1979), Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983), Minds, Brains, and Science (1984), The Construction of Social Reality (1995), Consciousness and Language (2002), and Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010).

The Construction of Social Reality is an examination of the relation between physical and social reality. It discusses the ways in which social reality can be based on physical reality, and it investigates the nature of the rules that constitute and regulate the social world. It defends epistemological realism (the theory that there is a real world existing independently of our ideas and representations) as being necessary for our understanding of social reality, and it also defends the correspondence theory of truth (the theory that statements are true if they correspond to facts in the real world).

Searle distinguishes between "brute" physical facts and mental facts. Brute physical facts include such things as rivers, trees, and mountains. Mental facts include such things as perceptions, feelings, and judgments. Mental facts are ultimately caused by physical facts, because mental facts depend for their existence on physiological processes of consciousness. The physiological processes that produce consciousness enable conscious individuals to recognize physical and mental facts. Thus, mental facts are based on physical facts, and both physical and mental facts are required for the construction of social reality.

Mental facts may be intentional or nonintentional, depending on whether or not they are directed at, or refer to, something. Intentionality is a quality of representations whereby they are directed at, or refer to, something.1 Intentional mental facts may be recognized by a single individual or by multiple individuals. If they are recognized by many individuals, then they become social facts. Social facts are facts that are generally agreed upon, and that have collective intentionality.

Physical facts are objective, explains Searle, but social facts may be both subjective and objective. Brute physical facts do not depend on our attitudes toward them. For example, mountains and valleys are brute physical facts, regardless of our attitudes toward them. On the other hand, social facts depend on our attitudes toward them. For example, the value of a five-dollar bill is a social fact that depends on our agreement that a five-dollar bill is worth something.

However, social facts may become objective if they are commonly accepted, and if they are not a matter of individual preference or opinion. For example, the duty of a policeman to enforce the law may be regarded as an objective social fact. Social facts may be epistemically objective, because they are not merely a matter of individual preference or opinion, but they may be ontologically subjective, because they depend for their existence on being agreed upon as facts.2

Brute facts may be "status-indicators" of social facts.3 For example, a driver’s license is a brute fact, which indicates the social fact that a person may legally drive a car. A "status-function" may be imposed on a social fact by collective intentionality.4 For example, the fact that a person is driving a car without a license may be assigned a status-function by collective intentionality.

Status-functions may become institutional facts. Institutional facts are social facts that depend for their existence on social institutions. For example, marriages, businesses, property, and governments are institutional facts. Brute facts (such as baseball stadiums and government buildings) may be status-indicators of institutional facts (such as baseball teams and governments, respectively).

Social rules may be regulative or constitutive, says Searle. Regulative rules may regulate an activity (such as driving a car), while constitutive rules may create the possibility of an activity (such as playing a baseball game). Constitutive rules provide a structure for institutional facts. However, institutional facts ultimately depend on brute facts, and social reality ultimately depends on physical reality. For example, in order to say that a particular player in a football game scored a touchdown, we must have confirmed the occurrence of a physical event that we called a touchdown. Brute facts may thus be logically prior to institutional facts. If there are no brute facts to provide a foundation for social facts, then there is no logical basis for the structure of social reality.

Both physical facts and mental facts are constitutive elements of social reality. Intentional facts may become social facts by collective intentionality. Social facts are collective intentional facts, and they may become functional facts if they assign functions to physical or mental phenomena. Functional facts that assign status-functions to phenomena may also be institutional facts. Institutional facts may include linguistic and non-linguistic facts. The structure of social reality is a hierarchy in which logical functions are assigned to social facts, and in which status-functions are determined by collective intentionality.5

Furthermore, intentionality functions against a "background" of mental capacities that are nonintentional or preintentional. Background mental abilities are necessary for intentional states of function.6 Epistemological realism (the theory that reality exists independently of our ideas and representations) is a necessary part of this background.

Searle does not enumerate the ways in which contradictory views of social reality and contradictory expressions of collective intentionality may become a source of social conflict. Nor does he enumerate the ways in which social reality may be viewed differently by individuals from different groups or classes of society. Nor does he attempt to fully answer the question of why phenomena that are viewed as physical or social facts by some individuals may not be viewed as physical or social facts by other individuals. In his view, physical reality is objectively the same for all individuals, and it exists independently of their representations. The structure of social reality may involve the assignment of functions to subjective facts, but social reality must ultimately be based on objective facts.

Seale’s definition of a social fact is that it is a collective intentional fact, (an intentional fact that is agreed upon by many people and that is not a matter of subjective preference or attitude). However, a social fact may be agreed upon by a large number of people, and yet may not be agreed upon by a large number of people. It may not be possible to determine exactly how many people must agree upon a social fact before it becomes an objective fact.

It may also be important to more fully investigate the agreement or disagreement of different forms of collective intentionality if we are to better understand the differences that may occur in our views of social reality and if we are to try to achieve social harmony and understanding. Searle’s theory of intentionality is thus an important contribution to our understanding of the methods that may be used to analyze the logical structure of social facts, and to our understanding of the metaphysics of social reality.


1John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press: 1995), p.7.
2Ibid., p. 8.
3Ibid., p. 85
4Ibid., p. 41
5Ibid., pp. 120-5.
6Ibid., p. 129.


Searle, John. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Review by Alex Scott

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