Searle’s construction of social reality

by Tim Harding

In his book ‘The Construction of Social Reality’ (Searle 1995:1) and later works, John Searle [1] discusses the problem that ‘there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world, that are only facts by human agreement’.  He describes these objective facts as observer relative features of reality, or components of ‘social reality’, as opposed to the intrinsic features of physical reality or ‘brute facts’, such as rocks, water and trees.  He then asks the question ‘how is a socially constructed reality possible?’ and then devotes much of this book to providing some answers.  In this essay, I propose to go further and suggest that because these observer relative features are more relevant and important to our daily lives than intrinsic features, for many people social reality seems more ‘real’ than physical reality.  In other words, rather than being hard to account for, observer relative features ‘have a grip on us’.


Prof. John R. Searle

Before presenting this thesis, I need to describe in summary form, the conceptual tools that Searle provides to construct the edifice of social reality.  One of key philosophical concepts is that of intentionality, meaning ‘the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs’ (Jacob, 2010).   The term refers to the ability of the mind to think about the external world, but should not be confused with the meaning of ‘intention’.  Searle argues that humans and other higher animal species have a capacity for collective intentionality – the sharing of intentional states such as beliefs, desires and intentions – which is essential to understanding social reality.  He uses the expression ‘social fact’ to refer to any fact involving collective intentionality (Searle 1995:23-26).

Searle draws a distinction between objectivity and subjectivity in two different senses: an epistemic sense and an ontological sense.  In the epistemic sense, we speak of judgments as being subjective when we mean that their truth or falsity cannot be settled objectively because of different attitudes or values.  For example, ‘Rembrandt was a better artist than Rubens’ is epistemically subjective; whereas ‘Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam’ is epistemically objective.  In the ontological sense, a pain is subjective because its existence depends on being felt by subjects; whereas a mountain is ontologically objective because its existence is independent of any mental state (Searle 1995:8).

Searle then distinguishes between features that exist independently of our representations of them, which he calls intrinsic to nature; and those features that exist relative to the intentionality of observers, which he calls observer relative features.  He gives the example of a screwdriver as an observer relative object only because people recognize and use this particular object as a screwdriver; whereas intrinsically it is a rod of metal with a narrowed blade at one end and a widened wooden or plastic encasing at the other end.  A useful test of whether an object is intrinsic or observer relative is to imagine what the nature of the object would be without the existence of humans.  Observer relative features exist only relative to the attitudes of observers; whereas intrinsic features exist independently of observers.  The existence of the screwdriver is ontologically subjective; whereas its existence as the unnamed object I have described above is ontologically objective.  On the other hand, some of these ontologically subjective features are epistemically objective.  Everybody agrees that this object is a screwdriver – it is not a matter for subjective judgment.  Searle claims that social reality in general can be understood only in the light of the distinction between intrinsic and observer relative features (Searle 1995:9-12).  I would also draw the conclusion that the epistemic objectivity of ontologically subjective features provides a rational foundation for the concept of social reality.

Searle then builds his account of social reality using three elements: collective intentionality (as discussed earlier), the assignment of function and constitutive rules.  Declarative acts and deontic powers are also relevant, as will be discussed later.

He makes the point that in our daily lives, we experience things such as chairs, tables, cars and houses by the way we use them, rather than simply as material objects.  In other words, we assign functions, not just to things made by humans, but also to natural things such as trees and rivers.  The important thing is that functions ‘are never intrinsic but always observer relative’ (Searle 1995: 14).   Searle makes a further distinction between agentive functions that are intentionally assigned to objects, such as using a stone as a paperweight, and non-agentive functions that are independent of our use of objects, such as hearts pumping blood.  Agentive functions require continuous intentionality by humans, whereas non-agentive functions operate independently of humans, despite being recognised as functions by humans (Searle 1995: 20-23).

Searle’s next building block of social reality is his distinction between what he calls ‘regulative’ and ‘constitutive’ rules.  Regulative rules regulate a pre-existing activity, for example, cars could be driven without road safety rules, but such rules serve to make driving safer.  On the other hand, the rules of chess actually define or constitute the game of chess – the game could not be played without them.  Or to put it positively, the rules of chess enable the game of chess to exist.  Constitutive rules characteristically have the form ‘X counts as Y in context C’ – for instance, rendering the opponent King unable to move without being taken counts as winning the game of Chess.  In this way, the constitutive rule assigns a new status to some phenomenon, known as a status function, which in turn creates a new fact by human agreement, known as an institutional fact (Searle 1995: 46).  Status functions require collective intentionality, both for their initial creation and their continued existence (Searle 2010: 59)

Searle claims that institutional facts exist only within systems of constitutive rules (Searle 1995: 28).  For example, the institutional facts of money, property and government exist only because we have rules constituting them.  If there were no rules regarding the recognition and enforcement of property rights, there would be no property.  This brings us to one of the most important powers of language – the power to create a reality by declaring it to exist.  Searle has called such speech acts  ‘status function declarations’ – declarations being one of several categories of speech acts (Searle 1975: 16-20).

Searle’s next step is to claim that language necessarily involves social commitments to the truth of utterances, if it is to form the foundation of human society in general.  Searle says that ‘When I make a statement I not only express a belief, but I also commit myself to its truth’ (Searle 2010: 81).  I assume that the basis of this claim is that truth telling is the social norm and lying is an aberration.  Indeed, the capacity to create rights, duties and obligations via status function declarations is dependent on such declarations being accepted as true.  This capacity known as a deontic power (Searle 2010: 80-84).

Having now described how Searle attempts to answer the question ‘how is a socially constructed reality possible?,’ I would now like to turn to my thesis of this essay, which is that not only is a social reality possible, but for many people social reality is more ‘real’ than physical reality.

Most of us live in a human-created world rather than the natural world.  The most obvious human creation is the urban environment, but except for wilderness areas, most of our rural environments have been modified by humans as well.  In Australia, even our natural-looking forests have been modified by wild fires started by humans.  The grip that observer relative features can have on us can be so strong that some people believe that all of reality is a human creation (Searle 1995:2).  Children are brought up in a culture where they simply take aspects of social reality such as homes, schools and money for granted (Searle 1995:4).  Many adults find it hard to imagine a world without humans, which as I indicated earlier, is a useful test of whether something is intrinsic or observer relative.  People with a science background, especially in geology or paleontology, would usually be an exception to this generalisation, because they would be aware that humans have existed for only a tiny fraction of the total life of the Earth.

In Chapter Seven of Searle’s ‘The Construction of Social Reality’, he discusses whether the ‘real world’ of brute facts exists.  He refers to ‘the current philosophical scene in which it is common to deny the existence of a reality independent of human representations and to deny that true statements correspond to facts’ (Searle 1995: 150).  So it seems that even some philosophers may be in this ‘grip’ of observer relative features, to the extent of denying intrinsic features.  On the other hand, there are some prominent theoretical physicists, such as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, who claim that only the physical world is real and that philosophers are irrelevant (Pigliucci, 2014).

The philosophical view that the (non-social) world exists independently of our representations of it is known as ‘realism’.  Searle proposes several arguments in favour of realism and against what he thinks are the most powerful arguments in opposition to realism (Searle 1995: 153-176).   Whilst I happen to largely agree with Searle’s arguments on these points, they are peripheral to the topic of this essay.

In conclusion, I think that Searle has built a strong case for the concept of a social reality consisting of observer relative features existing alongside a physical reality consisting of intrinsic features.  This case is primarily relevant to those philosophers (and some theoretical physicists) who deny the existence of either physical reality or social reality.  For many other people, social reality has such a grip on them that it seems more ‘real’ than physical reality.


[1] John Rogers Searle (born July 31, 1932) is an American philosopher and currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.


Jacob, Pierre, ‘Intentionality’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . Viewed 10 September 2014.

Pigliucci, M. ‘Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex’ Rationally Speaking Blog URL = <> Viewed 10 September 2014.

Searle, John R. ‘A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts’, in: Günderson, K. (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge, Minneapolis, vol. 7. 1975

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

Searle, John R. ‘What is language: some preliminary remarks’, in: Tsohatzidis, S. L. (ed.), John Searle’s Philosophy of Language. Force, meaning and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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