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Is Society Built on Collective Intentions? A Response to Searle

Stephan Zimmermann
p. 121-141


Le seguenti considerazioni fanno parte dell’ambito che recentemente è stato denominato “ontologia sociale”. L’articolo si concentra sulla distinzione di Searle fra realtà sociale e realtà naturale. La mia tesi è che tale differenziazione è insostenibile poiché presuppone una gerarchia ontologica sbagliata. Il mio intento è di mostrare che Searle intende erroneamente l’ontologia sociale come un’ontologia specifica a un dominio, soggetta all’ontologia della natura. Criticherò il potere persuasivo di tale idea discutendo la nozione di Searle di intenzionalità collettiva, che sta al cuore della sua dottrina dei fatti sociali e istituzionali stando a cui la realtà sociale ha origine dall’intenzionalità collettiva. Tale nozione oggettualizza indebitamente la sfera del sociale, poiché non è certo se il piano del sociale sia davvero esaurito dal contenuto delle nostre azioni pianificate e dal contenuto vero-funzionale dei nostri pensieri.

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  • 1 Cf. Heidegger 1996.
  • 2 See Gadamer 20042.
  • 3 See for example Dilthey 2002.
  • 4 Cf. Theunissen 1984.

1The following considerations belong to what has recently been discussed as “social ontology”. The concept of social ontology is a relatively new one. It can be considered to mean at least two things. Social ontology can be the project of exhibiting the ontological status of the social world in which people live and according to which they understand themselves, others and their environment, for human Dasein and examining it in this way. The issue, then, is to bring out the firstly and mostly invisible lasting effectiveness of the living together with others and the membership in a cultural community for all of our everyday world- and self-relations. Supporting this view are, of course, Martin Heidegger’s famous existential analytic of the Mitsein in Being and Time1 as well as Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic approach to the positivity of prejudices, the happening of tradition as effective history and the linguisticality of understanding in Truth and Method2 and, as a predecessor of both, the later Dilthey and his struggle for a conceptual self-enlightenment of the Lebenszusammenhang3 although the three of them do not themselves speak explicitly of “social ontology”; furthermore, for example, the authors treated in Michael Theunissen’s 1965 The Other. Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Buber where the term is used for the first time as far as I can see4.

  • 5 Cf. Gilbert 1992. See also Gilbert 1987 and 1990.
  • 6 See Searle 1995 and 2010.
  • 7 See Kondylis 1999.

2On the other hand, however, one can also speak of “social ontology”, and this is increasingly the case when it comes to explaining how paradigmatic, if not all social entities occur in a world defined and examined by natural sciences – entities which can be sufficiently explained neither by physics nor by chemistry or biology. At question is, then, a characterisation of the creation and maintenance of the distinctive features of cultural institutions and social organisations as opposed to all those entities which are not part of human society. As a representative of this, I just mention On Social Facts by Margaret Gilbert which came out in 1989 as well as several papers by Gilbert treating the same topic5. John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality from 1995 and his Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, published in 2010, where he continues the major lines of argument of his earlier book6, and finally Panajotis Kondylis’ Das Politische und der Mensch as the first volume of a planned, but never completed project named Grundzüge der Sozialontologie which was published only posthumously in 19997.

3If one designs the project of social ontology in this second way, its decisive question can be formulated like this: what distinguishes society qua society? What is the common link between all those institutions in which social interaction and conversation takes place? What makes a circle of friends, a music society, a sports club, a department of philosophy, a parliament and so on more than just the sum of its physically present and biologically existing members? Social ontology, therefore, tells us which universal and more or less accurately determinable factors and forces make society a society and make it different from that what does not belong to the social. It provides a description, not to say a strict definition of – a set of non-trivial, essential necessary and sufficient conditions for – the fundamental nature and mode of existence of human social reality in comparison to and in distinction from everything else that is not by itself social.

4Raising this question has become ever more popular in recent years, as shown in particular by the debates triggered by Searle’s writings. One of the most important aspects to note hereby is the opposition in which the adjective “social” and other related terms, like “society” or “the social”, is used. As with all words in a language, its meaning depends among other things on the linguistic context, i.e. on how it is used in relation to other words. And the contrast that is relevant here is palpable in the (new) comparison of social and natural sciences. We have to pay attention to the meaning the word “social” receives in this comparison because this very meaning decides about the legitimacy of the question to which social ontology seeks to respond. There is at least one understanding of the contrast between the social and the natural that is deeply unsatisfying. It is unsatisfying because it falls short. I find this understanding especially, although not exclusively, in Searle’s analysis.

  • 8 See Searle 1995: 27.
  • 9 Anscombe coined the term “brute facts”, as opposed to facts constituted by the presence of appropri (...)
  • 10 Searle 1995: 1.

5Searle roughly understands “nature” as the entirety of what man himself has not produced but which leaves room for him to have an effect on it and fill it with his imagination and creativity. “Social”, on the other hand, is said to be that which is in a very broad sense made by human beings: including not only the products of human work and artistry but also the conditions, contexts and results of actions of which we may sensibly say that they would not exist without man8. Subsequent to a paper by Anscombe in 1958, Searle conceptually distinguishes between “social” respectively “institutional facts” and “brute facts”9. According to this distinction, the world of brute facts is not dependent on our agreements but pre-given to us, for it exists entirely without our help. Among this Searle counts everything that falls within the subject matter of physics, chemistry, biology and the other natural sciences: the movement of atoms, the density of solids, the existence of different species of animals, their evolution etc. This is different to the social sphere. The subject of the social sciences, the world of social and institutional facts, in the context of which Searle understands the latter as a subclass of the former, has its origin and development in human behaviour and interpersonal acceptance. «[T]ere are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world, that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist»10. State presidents, works of art and good manners do not exist out of themselves. There must be people who believe that there are state presidents, works of art, and good manners and who demonstrate this regularly by their behaviour.

  • 11 Searle 1995: 5 f.
  • 12 See, for example, Searle 2007 where he is concerned among other things with the old question of fre (...)
  • 13 Searle 1995: 35. In a sub-chapter which is entitled The Hierarchy of Facts: From Brute to Instituti (...)
  • 14 Searle 1995: 5 f. «Institutional facts exist, so to speak, on top of brute physical facts» (ibidem: (...)

6Searle’s understanding of the difference between social and natural reality falls short because it supports a wrong ontological hierarchy. Our «fundamental ontology», as he puts it, shall be «derived from physics (including the other natural sciences)»11, an assumption that is well known from many other writings by Searle12. The basic characteristics of the world in which we live are those, according to Searle, about which the modern natural sciences like physics, chemistry and biology teach us. They take the ontological and consequently explanatory primacy. By contrast, for Searle the ontology of the social realm is a derived undertaking. For «social facts in general, and institutional facts especially, are», as he writes, «hierarchically structured. Institutional facts exist, so to speak, on top of brute physical facts»13. We therefore «need to figure out how social reality fits into our overall ontology, i.e. how the existence of social facts relates to other things that exist»14. Social ontology is mistakenly, as I want to show, designed by Searle as a domain-specific ontology subjected to the doctrine of nature. I will cast doubts on the persuasive power of this idea by dealing with Searle’s notion of collective intentionality, which lies at the very heart of his ontology of social and institutional facts: social reality shall originate from collective intentionality. But this notion stands for a wrong objectification of the social, for it is highly questionable whether the social is really exhausted by being the content of our conscious action plans and truth-apt thoughts.


  • 15 For a good overview of this discussion and its genesis see the anthology Schmid and Schweikard 2009

7At first sight, approaching the social world and its characteristics by means of the notion of intentionality or collective intentionality looks convincing. An overwhelming number of social phenomena is indeed characterised by the fact that people share their beliefs and purposes with each other, join forces and establish common practises and organisations. There are social institutions, such as property or money, which exist only to the extent as by the descriptions and actions of the members of a cultural community they are referred to as property or money. For about two decades the conceptual foundations and particularities of these phenomena have been summarised and increasingly interdisciplinarily discussed under the heading “collective intentionality”. The formation of social networks and the emergence of a social realm is explained by the smallest atoms society is composed of, i.e. the individuals and their intentionality. The question of the being of society or the social is, thus, uncovered as the question of whether there is such a thing as common or “we-intentionality”, of when exactly you can talk about it, and above all if it can be reduced to the individual or the “I-intentionality” of the individuals15.

8This approach to the social being anchored in the intentions of actors looks back to a good tradition. It is, of course, not a historical reinvention of the current debate of social ontology, much less a reinvention of Searle. It has its predecessors and is, for example, already found in modern thinking alongside the founding fathers of sociology as an independent discipline during the 19th and early 20th century. Max Weber, to mention just one, in his Soziologische Grundbegriffe focuses on the conceptual apparatus and the methodological foundations of sociology. Here it can be already studied what might be meant by saying that society is based on intentions.

  • 16 Weber 1980: 1 (my translation).

9Let us take a short look. Weber begins by defining what it means that people act. Action is one of the basic concepts of all social events and thus one of the major categories of the social scientist. Society is only where actions take place and form a complex network of institutions, organisations and discourses. And action is said to be «human behaviour (regardless of whether it is external or internal action, failure or refrain)», «if and insofar the actor or actors associate with it a subjective meaning»16. Without going into detail on the theoretical vocable “meaning”, it does not mean a somewhat objectively correct or metaphysically true sense. Instead, for Weber meaning is the direction and the sense that an agent himself or herself actually attaches to his or her acting. So I can chop wood either because I need firewood, or to abreact, or as part of my morning sports programme. One and the same externally observable behaviour has a different meaning each time.

  • 17 Ibidem (my translation).
  • 18 Cf. Weber 1980: 11.

10Subsequent to the definition of action, then, the social comes into play. «Action is “social” if», Weber writes, «the acting individual takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course»17. According to this, social actions are based on the past, present or expected behaviour of others. These others can be individuals and acquaintances or an infinite number of people and complete strangers. What matters is that not every encounter between people already has a social character. Weber gives his prominent example: if two cyclists collide, this is just a mere event like a natural process. But their attempt to avoid each other, or the attempt to ram the other person together with the following name-calling, row or peaceful discussion would be a social event. And that is so because in the first case that is missing what is indeed found in the second case, and that is purposefulness18.

11For Weber, therefore, sociality is attached to the content of the intention with which behaviour takes place. Whether an action is to be qualified as social or not depends on the involved actors being specifically oriented at a purpose. A simple uniform action by itself is not enough. If people in the street simultaneously open their umbrellas at the coming of a rainstorm or try to take cover in doorways or under trees, the action of each person is usually not based on that of the other persons around but is rather meant to seek protection from getting wet. The relevant determination that makes an action a social one and thus a part of society is that at least one person is adjusting to others and that the meaning of his or her action specifies itself in relation to the actual or potential behaviour of at least one other person. Weber, therefore, sees the basic fact of social life in the process of more or less conscious and purposeful behaviour, which unfolds either in one-sidedness or in reciprocity. In other words, Weber obviously gives a definition, i.e. a necessary and sufficient condition for something to be social. What he calls “social” is always the subjective meaning of an action; and such a subjective meaning is a social one if and only if it involves other persons, if it orients the action at the past, present or future behaviour of others. So orientedness at others, may it be at least one other or perhaps many others, is Weber’s decisive criterion for an adequate sociological use of the term “social”.


  • 19 Searle introduces a fourth element «to explain the causal functioning of institutional structures», (...)

12The kind of social ontology that has recently been made prominent by Searle stands in this line of tradition. For it operates with the same or at least a similar model of intentionality to specify the distinguishing property of entities we rightly consider to be social ones. In The Construction of Social Reality and in many subsequent writings, including Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, Searle deals with the question of social ontology in terms of consciousness and intentionality. He combines, however, his central idea of what he calls collective intentionality with the concept of the attribution of functions and the concept of constitutive rules and procedures. For him, all three elements together define and explain the institutionalised sphere of society19.

  • 20 See Searle 1983.
  • 21 See Searle 2010: 27.
  • 22 Searle 2004: 16. See also Searle 2010: 25 ff.

13To begin with, collective intentionality in the full sense of the term consists in the ability of actors to behave cooperatively and to share the same intentions. For Searle, intentions in general are mental states such as beliefs, hopes, desires, emotions, perceptions, action plans and lots of others, states, therefore, in which someone is when he or she is directed to something, may it be a rather theoretical or a rather practical attitude. In his book Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind from 1983 Searle introduced the expression “aboutness”, for he defines “intentionality” as the power of minds to be about something: things, properties and states of affairs20. In this sense, being convinced that one person is a faster runner than another person or wanting a glass of cold water to quench ones thirst constitutes a case of aboutness, although not every intentional state has or has to have a whole proposition as its content21. It is sufficient that something is somehow the object of someone’s aboutness. «“Intentionality” is the word philosophers use to describe that feature of minds by which mental states are directed at or about objects and states of affairs in the world.»22

  • 23 See Searle 2010: 43.
  • 24 Cf. Searle 1995: 23.
  • 25 Searle 2010: 43.

14But according to Searle, we have to differentiate at this point. Apart from an individual intentionality, as he calls it, which is expressed in sentences in the first person singular such as “I believe” or “I want”, there is also a collective one23. To illustrate this crucial difference, Searle uses the example of a violinist playing in an orchestra; such a person plays her part only in the context of jointly performing the symphony, and her behaviour remains to be meaningfully related to that of others. Or, as Searle’s second example goes, if someone participates in a football game as a striker; he will maybe block the defender of the opposing team, but he does so only as part of a team and as part of a joint offensive game24. Collective intentionality is, thus, permeated by a kind of “we-consciousness”. It is an intersubjective mental phenomenon, for it includes several people in a way that their intendedness is expressed in first-person plural sentences like “we believe” or “we want”. Every individual involved is aware that their actions are interlaced with a wider context involving other people; and it is this context what they have in mind insofar as they adjust their behaviour to it. Collective intentionality, though, is not limited to actual behaviour. The term also covers all the underlying intentions and attitudes shared by the actors concerned, i.e. the same hopes, emotions, perceptions, purposes and so on. «They can cooperate not only in the actions that they perform, but they can even have shared attitudes, shared desires, and shared beliefs.»25

  • 26 Searle 1995: 24.
  • 27 Ibidem: 24 f.
  • 28 Searle 2010: 47.

15A collective intention is, thus, a mental state shared by several people (at least two) connecting them with each other in one way or another. Yet, it shall not be necessary, as Searle repeatedly asserts, to consciously have in mind the others and their intentions. For having a collective intention the fact that others cooperate with me or share the same intention need not be an enduring component of the content of my intention such that I permanently know that you know und you permanently know that I know. «The problem with believing that you believe that I believe, etc., and you believing that I believe that you believe, etc., is that it does not add up to a sense of collectivity.»26 The «crucial element in collective intentionality is a sense of doing (wanting, believing, etc.) something together»27, even though this «sense» surely never occurs completely independent of our initial consciousness that we cooperate in our actions or share the same intentions. The idea which is central for the notion of intentionality, i.e. the idea of aboutness, commits Searle to define the social just as we have found it in Weber, namely in terms of the content of a mental state of aboutness, for the said subliminal feeling that determines us can only arise on the occasion of the initial consciousness of a togetherness, i.e. that we do something together or that we share a common belief. As Searle himself writes: «If we are cleaning the yard together, then in my head I have the thought, “We are cleaning the yard together” and in your head you have the thought “We are cleaning the yard together”»28. Searle’s appeal to a pale or vague «sense» of collectivity only spells out the circumstance that we need not have in mind our togetherness continuously.

  • 29 Ibidem: 56.
  • 30 Cf. Weber 1980: 20.

16An important difference to Weber, however, is that Searle tends to draw a harmonistic image of the social world. Searle is primarily concerned with full-blown cooperation; the paradigmatic case of collective intentionality is the situation when people cooperate to jointly achieve a goal. Indeed, Searle accepts a «weaker form of collective attitudes» which he calls «collective recognition»29; prior to a particular action, a financial transaction, for instance, some actors share a common recognition according to which they recognise some pieces of paper as money and the general institution of a financial transaction and which continues also after the end of the particular event. But this difference between cooperation and collective recognition, as important as it is, nevertheless remains biased. For it prefers situations of complementary courses of action and a consonance in thinking, feeling and willing of the actors involved. In any case, all the examples mentioned by Searle are of this sort. In contrast, by his conceptual apparatus Weber also wants to capture those elements of social life that take place by means of conflict, competition, hostility and struggle and that are certainly no less important in the history of human society. In this case a social action is purposefully meant to implement the actor’s own will against the resistance of the other party or parties. And there are, as Weber emphasises, all kinds of continuous transitions, ranging from the bloody type of conflict which, setting aside all rules, aims at the destruction of the adversary, to the case of the battles of medieval chivalry, bound as they were to conventions, and to the strict regulations imposed on sport by the rules of the game30. Such cases of conflict, competition, hostility and struggle are certainly an essential part of the social world and must, therefore, not remain omitted in its analysis.

  • 31 Searle 1995: 26. «Collective intentionality is the psychological presupposition of all social reali (...)
  • 32 Weber 1980: 13 (my translation).

17Another, closely related difference I want to stress is that Searle’s notion of collective intentionality is conceptually more demanding than Weber’s notion of a social relationship. For what Searle means by collective intentionality (as far as I can get into this concept here) is exactly what Weber calls social relationship. As Searle defines: «By stipulating I will henceforth use the expression “social fact” to refer to any fact involving collective intentionality. So, for example, the fact that two people are going for a walk together is a social fact»31. And Weber: «The term “social relationship” will be used for the meaning-content by which a circle of persons relates each other and to which their behaviours are oriented»32. Thus, the criterion for a social relationship is similar to what Searle holds for collective intentionality, and that is a minimum of mutual orientation of each person towards the other. For Weber, however, the social space does not begin with such a reciprocity. As we have seen, he already recognises as a genuine social occurrence when the behaviour of only one actor is meaningfully oriented to that of another even if this other actor does not know about it. Strictly speaking, Searle’s notion of collective intentionality as defining the social as such is over-determined. It reduces the social world by abstracting from events that, properly seen, cannot be separated from it without loosing their meaning. The social world Searle draws is in the end much poorer than that of Weber because he does not recognise a myriad of activities that have quite obviously something social in themselves and are part of the social world. I will come back to this again.

18In any case, we can state that Searle defines the social space by the phenomenon of collective intentionality. What he calls “social” is always an intention or, more general, the mental state of a person; just as Weber, he describes the social world in terms of individual psychological categories. But for an intention to be a social one it is necessary that it is somehow shared with other persons. Apart from the fact that with respect to its form such an intention begins with “we”, in which Searle differs from Weber, its content is similar to Weber’s one which necessarily includes, among other things but decisively, a context of action or an interlocking network of action sequences in which also at least one other person is involved so that the meaning of my action is inextricably intertwined with the involvedness of the other. Social facts in the sense of Searle are nothing else than commonly shared intentions (and the actions caused by them) whose content is any kind of a joint action. Or to have it even shorter in the words of Searle: society is built on collective intentions.


  • 33 Searle 1995: 26. Cf. Searle 2004: 17.

19For Searle, institutional facts are a subset of social facts. None of these is simply the same thing. «A special subclass of social facts are institutional facts, facts involving human institutions.»33 Searle’s major focus is on this subclass. For while social facts are based solely on what Searle calls collective intentionality, institutional facts require more, namely the collective attribution of functions and the collective acceptance of constitutive rules and procedures.

  • 34 Searle 2004: 14.

20The attribution of functions means the faculty of humans and of some animal species to ascribe functional roles to objects. These may be natural objects or those that are specifically made to fulfil the function imposed upon them. Of course, we live in a world of artefacts like chairs and tables, houses and cars, lecture rooms, images, streets, gardens and so forth. But even natural occurrences that were originally not created by humans, such as rivers or trees on a forested mountain, can play a functional role in our lives and be, therefore, judged on how well or badly they carry out this function. A river can be good for swimming in, a certain type of tree may be particularly suitable to build houses of and some mountains are better for climbing than others. And for Searle this allocation of functions is done and reproduced as part of an intentional act. «The important thing to see at this point is that functions are never intrinsic to the physics of any phenomenon but are assigned from outside by conscious observers and users. Functions […] are always observer relative.»34 Observer relativity says that depending on our interests, values ​and purposes we attach a function or several functions to things, properties and states of affairs by using them in a particular manner or by looking at them in a certain way.

  • 35 See Searle 1969: 33 ff.
  • 36 Cf. Midgley 1959.
  • 37 See Searle 1995: 27 ff.

21Concerning the notion of constitutive rules, it is the thereby described phenomenon that shall distinguish man from all other living beings. According to Searle, what characterises human action above everything else is not that it is deliberately done or that it functionally calls upon things in its execution, but that human action is in many respects dependent on special human institutions. Searle describes these human institutions in terms of the conceptual distinction between regulative and constitutive rules. This distinction is not a new one, Searle has already developed the concept of constitutive rules in his philosophy of language and his philosophy of mind. In particular, in Speech Acts of 196935, he uses the difference between regulating and constituting rules introduced by Geoffrey Midgley in his essay Linguistic Rules36. According to this difference constitutive rules, roughly speaking, establish new behaviour patterns that would not exist without these rules; regulative rules, however, turn already existing practices in other directions. For instance, the rule of “driving on the right side of the road” regulates driving a car; but driving a car was already possible before the existence of such a rule. By contrast, the rules of playing chess inaugurate this activity in the first place. Playing chess is constituted by playing according to the corresponding rules and, therefore, by using the pieces in the prescribed ways instead of many possible others. If you do not follow these rules, at least to a certain extent, you do not play chess at all. Constitutive rules are the condition for the fact they put in order37.

  • 38 Ibidem: 28. See also Searle 2010: 10 f.
  • 39 See, among others, Giddens 2004: 17 ff.
  • 40 Cf. Rawls 1955.

22Now there is a connection between Searle’s distinction of constitutive and regulative rules and his distinction of social and institutional facts: institutional facts shall be based on constitutive rules. Searle holds that «institutional facts exist only within systems of constitutive rules»38. It has often been observed that the distinction between regulating and constituting rules can hardly be held up at a closer look39. For Searle understands this distinction as one of different types of rules rather than of different aspects of each rule. Accordingly, a constitutive rule cannot be a regulative rule, and vice versa40. One could, for example, say that all rule-governed behaviour follows a rule that has a constitutive aspect, by making a behaviour possible that logically remains dependent from this rule, and a regulative aspect, by prescribing the respective behaviour. The regulative function, then, would consist in the normative claim of such a rule, the claim that (from now on) everybody should behave according to this rule. On the contrary, understood as a distinction of different types of rules it seems that regulative rules have no place in the space of order opened up by a «system of constitutive rules». The distinction between regulative and constitutive rules within the institutional world seems to break down if the world of institutions is constituted and defined by the latter.

  • 41 Cf. Searle 1975.
  • 42 Searle 2010: 11.

23Anyway, what matters in our context is that constitutive rules are formed and reproduced not by themselves but by the interplay of collective intentionality and the attribution of functions. The three notions are not juxtaposed immediately. Searle’s idea is that a community of people can collectively attribute a function to something, which the object in question does not already have by virtue of its natural, i.e. physical, chemical or biological properties. And this functional role is based on the common cognition and acceptance of the object in question as something – this “as” indicating the constitution of a new dimension that did not exist before and does not exist detached from its common cognition and acceptance. Institutions are not to be confused with mere conventions or gradually and tacitly evolving agreements; they are instead founded specifically, which is why Searle recently speaks of institutions being created by what he earlier, in his essay A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts41 from 1975, called declarative speech acts. «All institutional facts, and therefore all status functions, are created by speech acts of a type that in 1975 I baptized as “Declarations”.»42 Language is not only itself such an institution, it also plays a particularly important role in the foundation of institutions, on which (as well as the difficulties associated with it) I cannot elaborate here.

  • 43 Searle 1995: 28. See also Searle 2010: 9 f.
  • 44 Ibidem: 28.

24Searle has summarised this connection between collective intentionality, the attribution of functions and constitutive rules which is to be found in all human institutions as such by the handy principle: «X counts as Y in context C»43. This is the principle in which his ontology of institutional facts culminates. Institutional is what meets the application condition of this principle. To give an example, in a specific context a piece of paper counts as a means for payment. «Bills issued by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (X) count as money (Y) in the United States (C).»44 Or a stone can carry the function of a boundary stone; the same function could also be imputed to a number of wooden spiles rammed in the ground when a community recognises this line as a boundary and then directs its actions according to it. That something counts as a boundary is constituted by a common constitutive rule. “Institutional” in the sense of Searle, therefore, is a status which is added to a brute fact of nature (X) through a collective attribution of a function (Y) which is always already interwoven with a network of other status functions of the same or other entities (C). Or, once again reduced to the most essential: institutions are built on (processes of tradition, reiteration and alteration of) collective intentions.


  • 45 Cf. Luhmann 1995: 103 ff.
  • 46 Cf. Habermas 1971.

25Searle’s social-ontological theses have not remained unchallenged. By this I do not mean, for example, those responses that could have been raised from the corner of the sociological system theory. These responses amounted to saying that the explanation of society from the intentions of the persons involved, as proposed among others by Weber and Searle, had no prospect of success: for, by standing in relationships with other people, the actors never completely overlook the meaning of their own actions, they do not have it completely in their own hands. The single actor is not able to constitute the meaning of a social interaction solely by his or her own, which is why Luhmann, for example, speaks of a mutual constitution as the common structure of all communication45. Hence, action theory cannot fully explain the meaning of actions by tracing it back to what the agent himself or herself attaches to his or her action. The early debate between Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann on an adequate access to the social realm, i.e. the question whether we should think of society and social groups in terms of action theory or system theory, is essentially as up to date as it was46.

26I will concede to Searle, however, that who speaks about society always has to speak about the interests and plans of the actors bound together to a society. Without participating consciousnesses, if I may say so, there can trivially be no society (as consciousness can, conversely, only develop its possibilities through participation in social events and processes). Instead, my objections have a different direction. In my opinion, there are at least two things which earn criticism: on the one hand Searle’s basic law of social institutions which is inadequate in at least two respects, on the other hand the underlying concept of collective intentionality which abets an inappropriate reification of the social.

27I begin with the first point. The law “X counts as Y in context C”, which in Searle’s view runs through human institutions, is wrong. Let us clarify this by using an example. We have previously assumed that in the context of a particular community a piece of paper counts as a means of payment. To pick up Searle’s own example, let us take a bill issued by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in the United States. In this case a piece of paper on which one can see certain symbols, among them the portrait of Ulysses S. Grant, which has a certain colour or certain patterns and on which a certain amount is noted, namely 50, has a certain face value; it has the exchange value of 50 dollars. In this case it is clear what Searle’s variable Y – the variable for the functional role something has – stands for. It stands for the status something has when we call it a “means of payment” and use it in one of the corresponding ways. A 50-dollars bill can be brought to the bank and deposited into one’s own savings account, you can give the bill away, buy something with it, hide it and lots more. The context C can also be easily determined; it refers to the scope of the United States. The boundaries of the sphere of influence of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing mark at the same time the limits within which you can definitely pay with a 50-Dollar bill – even though, of course, it can also be used outside the United States, but not self-evidently as a valid means of payment.

28Yet, and this is the interesting question, what is X in this case? Searle’s answer is: a bill or a piece of paper. According to Searle’s basic law of social ontology, “X counts as Y in context C”, it is a bill which within the scope of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing counts as a 50-dollars note. What receives an extra dimension through a collectively binding attribution of a status function shall be nothing else than a piece of paper.

29However, there is something strange about this answer. For X, that is the piece of paper, had to be a “brute fact” according to Searle, something that precedes the dimension of the social realm and its functional use by the members of a society. As a reminder: the world of brute facts is the total of given entities, the natural things that exist without our help. Now it is, however, a fact that a piece of paper is nothing of which one would seriously say that it exists before and independently of human society. Paper does not exist in the way rocks, trees and clouds do. It is not entirely independent of any action of humans. A piece of paper is just an artefact. Of course, the production of a bill is not a creatio ex nihilo. Raw materials are used that we prepare but ultimately find in nature. Banknotes were originally made of paper – sometimes of fine cloth – and in many countries they are still today printed on paper, but you can also use other materials (e.g. polymer). The material of the Euro banknotes, for instance, is made of cotton. For this we need trees and wood, water, bleach, printing ink etc., not to mention the technical equipment and the material this equipment itself is originally made of. In any case, according to his own presuppositions Searle has to assert that the variable X, which stands for a brute fact, stands for an artefact in this case. X is a brute fact of nature and an artefact within a society at the same time. Sure, a clear demarcation between nature and society seems hardly possible today, if one considers that man’s scientific and technological intervention blurs the boundary between untouched nature and social space. But a piece of paper in no way is an antecedent to any collectively accepted attribution of functionality in Searle’s sense. A piece of paper as such, and that is as an artefact, plays always already a functional role in the life of a social community (since we can make dollar bills out of it, for example) and, hence, cannot be a brute fact.

  • 47 This is supported by the fact that, according to Searle, the fundamental law of the social can be i (...)

30But this is not enough. Indeed, one could certainly understand Searle to the effect that X does not precede any, but only the respective attribution of a status function. The piece of paper in question has had, therefore, already one or more functional roles in the social practice where it is produced, used in one way or another and talked about, and now just one more is added47. The outlined kind of reasoning, however, where “brute fact” means something which is not made by humans leads to another and more fundamental. For can there be something like a last X which has no status function at all? Which is just a brute fact? It seems to me that one cannot determine what this ominous X is without having it already determined as that as what it appears in social contexts. This consideration is decisive. For “brute fact” now means something = X which is not already recognised by humans, but only if it is determined as a Y in some context C.

31Let us make this clear. In rather theoretical terms, thinking of a piece of paper as what it is, namely a piece of paper, already means determining it in the light of a commonly shared language, and to draw it into a horizon of conceptual and inferential possibilities. Language and language-based thinking, which as such is never only mine and completely closed off from the community with whom I live, opens up what there is in such a way that we can always try to reveal ourselves to others and to communicate with each other about everything. Through them as the media of cognising we have an access to things, properties and states of affairs; and these media arise from living together with others and remain steadily shaped by this social engagement. In rather practical terms, too, we have to acknowledge that to a piece of paper as a basic commodity there essentially belongs the entire diversity of the ways in which it can be met: who can use it, where and when you can use it, that you can buy and write on it, that it is made ​​of wood, that you can make hats and small gliders out of it and so on and so on. A piece of paper in everyday life is all we can say about it and everything we can use it for. All these possibilities are part of its being. How, then, we have to ask, can we determine that X without any reference to its way of appearance in a particular context? How do we distinguish between what something is and what it counts for? Even assuming that a piece of paper was a brute fact in the first sense, which is obviously not the case, as it is an artefact – must we not say that for us even brute facts are only as what we have disclosed them in one way or another, may it be a rather theoretical or a rather practical way, and thus integrated them into the whole of our active work and conceptual description that connects us with others? That there are no brute facts in the second sense? In other words, that X has always been entangled with our shared normative practice. Its appearing to us is never completely socially undetermined, as Searle implies. The formula “X counts as Y in context C” does, therefore, not correctly conceptualise the relationship between the social and the natural when it is understood epistemological.


32My second and main point of critique concerns the concept of intentionality respectively collective intentionality that underlies Searle’s formula. The fundamental challenge for any social ontology operating with the concept of intentionality and constructing the social solely on it is that is likewise erroneous. As much as it is true, as I conceded, that one cannot make the social intelligible without including people’s consciousness and intentions into this explanation (how exactly this has to happen is, however, not my topic here), the model of intentionality itself falls short. It lacks complexity in several respects and, therefore, draws a distorted image of society.

33I want to mention two counter-examples. Firstly, there is what might be briefly called a “solitary act”. We have already addressed this above. I mean the following. Imagine someone who is deeply rooted in the country life of southern Germany und lives, let us say, in Todtnauberg, in a small hut. Maybe his name is Martin. As it is the custom, Martin has learned from his father and copied from other residents of the village how to make firewood, i.e., which type of tree of the southern Black Forest is best suited for it, how it must be cut with a small axe in the most adequate way, how to saw it up and process it into pieces. And just as Martin has learned and practiced for years, he still practices it, week after week. Of course, I am alluding here at the famous photograph from the early 20’s of the 20th century where you can see Martin Heidegger and his young assistant, Hans-Georg Gadamer, as they saw up a big tree trunk together. But our assumption shall be a situation in which Heidegger pursues this job alone.

  • 48 It is true that Searle explicitly recognises that people who are part of an institution and move wi (...)

34This example is interesting, as on the one hand one can hardly say that Martin, whenever he makes firewood in the usual way, consciously thinks of others and their way of making firewood. He does not make it the way he makes it because it comes to his mind that others are doing it in this way, although this is, of course, a possible scenario. Thus, Martin is not acting towards others; he is not attuned to the behaviour of his fellow men. In the words of Searle, his intention is an individual one, an “I-intentionality”. Martin is acting with an “I-consciousness”. And yet on the other hand in Martin’s action society indeed continues to determine itself. Or how should we understand the fact that he cuts the tree trunk in the way it is normally done? That his behaviour shows conformities with the behaviour of others? Without him noticing, orientations and regularities are manifest in the course of his action that are not only the orientations and regularities of his action alone but more or less commonly shared orientations and regularities of a social practice. And these regularities guide Martin’s behaviour, as it were, behind his back. Therefore, although the action is – in terms of the content of Martin’s intention or consciousness – a solitary one, its full sense cannot be explanatorily separated from the world of socially mediated conventions and traditions in which Martin was born and raised. Although a solitary one, Martin’s and everyone’s behaviour is in a wider but nonetheless non-negligible sense socially characterised even if one does not always or completely realise that circumstance48.

35I would also like to single out a second respect in which the model of intentionality remains unsatisfactory. For not only our external actions, if we chop wood or do anything else principally visible for everybody, but also our quiet reflection in a thoughtful moment is not without any reference to common life with others. So, let us take as a counter-example that Martin is now figuring out where in his hut he could put up his new bookshelf. We have to accept that the orders in which our life takes place often emanate in a lengthy and in detail hardly comprehensible historical process from the exchange with others and the building of a common world. And these orders – consolidated more or less through socialisation, education and habit – prove their power over us even when we do not consciously notice them. The language we speak is not a private invention, and our language-based thinking moves within many restrictions and requirements that are not only our own. But these restrictions and requirements mostly disappear behind the execution of speaking and thinking. If Martin considers where he should place the new bookshelf, he does not ask himself what a bookshelf in general is; rather, the situation presents itself to him in the light of the concept of “bookshelf” and everything that has to do with it and he knows from his living together with others in a common practice, and it is the concrete situation and the possibilities it holds in readiness on which he focuses. Whatever it may be, therefore, that fascinates our mind – all our inner thinking, desiring and feeling through circuitous routes seems to be subject to social influences without us necessarily being intentionally and knowingly oriented towards others.

36What I want to say is that a social ontology centred around the notion of (collective) intentions finally reduces the social to that what the members of a cultural community are aware of. It means a wrong narrowing of the concept of the social if one explains it primarily or exclusively in terms of the content of a mental state of aboutness and as the qualified object of our intendedness. Although such an orientedness towards others is undoubtedly an important element of participation in society, the influence of society seems to go much further and seems to determine human being more profoundly, as Weber, Searle and others insofar as they pursue the project of a social ontology are willing to admit. For all our orientedness somehow actually remains melted into the whole of our being-with with others and in the continuous flow of sense that characterises our existence: even when we are actually without others. But we are never aware of this circumstance in all its breadth and depth and, moreover, do not even need to. It is true that the orders of a social and historical world are only built up and only continue to develop and change where people pursue certain interests and have certain intentions, but it is also true that these orders are not restricted to this. It is not these intentions alone by which the social and historical world lives and lives on. Rather, our intentions – may it be a so called “I-intention” or may it be a “we-intention” – are affected directly and indirectly by our living with others and remain surrounded by a horizon of indefinite and mostly unnoticed conventions and practices which inevitably orient our acting and thinking.


  • 49 Searle 2010: 47.

37To be precise, Weber actually does not aim at providing an ontology or a regional ontology of the social in the true sense. Unlike Searle, his question is basically not under which circumstances something is something social as opposed to something natural. Weber rather wants to conceptually distinguish between different types of action in order to prepare the topic of social scientific analysis and to define the object domain for a sociology that he calls «interpretive sociology (verstehende Soziologie)». In the course of this, at a relevant point he introduces, as we have seen, the word “social” in order to indicate a certain type of action respectively the actors’ underlying sense orientation. And we can retroactively identify these considerations as belonging to the field of social ontology. But as in Searle, also Weber’s approach is deeply indebted to a view that Searle explicitly calls «methodological individualism»49. Methodological individualism in the field of social sciences is usually understood as the method to explain social events and processes at the macro level by recourse to the actions and the underlying intentions of the individuals involved. The core idea of methodological individualism is nothing else than the idea we are already familiar with: that looking at social phenomena from the perspective of the consciousness of the intentionally acting humans allows to understand and to explain these phenomena fully.

  • 50 Differently Schmid 2005: 237.

38As I have tried to give rise to some reservations, the social never fully merges into the objects of our purposeful actions and the contents of our conscious thinking. The intentionalist paradigm is not sufficient for a satisfying ontology of the social50. Consciousness and intentionality are not the correct reference points to distinguish whether something is something social or not. We must recognise that even what we take as natural in Searle’s sense, because it is not created by human beings, even though we may exert influence on it, is among other things always already mediated with our common conceptual equipment and coordinated normative practices and thus theoretically and practically made accessible and interpreted in their light. Similarly, every attempt to exhibit the being of the social is itself inescapably surpassed by that it is concerned with. What it deals with is at the same time that by which it is itself rendered possible and supported: living with others in a historical world as an existential characteristic of human existence. In other words, neither the natural scientist, nor his colleague from the social sciences, nor common sense, are able to put the social entirely in front of him or her. It rather belongs to the peculiarity of the social that it can never be objectified in a residue-free way since any such attempt is itself supported by it.

39One can indeed ask the question, and the social sciences surely have to do that, if they want to account for the object domain of their investigations, what constitutes social entities as opposed to other entities, particularly natural ones, and characterises it peculiarly. Then, with Luhmann one might say, for example, that the social consists of communication, or with Weber that it consists of the actingly being oriented of individuals towards others, or with Searle that society and their institutions are built on collective intentions. But you have to be aware that by this definition the social is not comprehended and exhausted in its total width. For the social is still there and has its effects when we no longer participate in communicative events, when we do not act towards others and, accordingly, do not have a “we-consciousness”. Thus, the social can be sufficiently determined only if we take into account that it is not something we have to deal with only sometimes and sometimes not – just as a tool you take in your hand when you need it and afterwards put it away again when it is no longer needed. Living together with other people, the celebration of common festivals and traditional rites, the common struggle for the enforcement of shared values, the practice of religion, the use of symbols etc., all of this permanently accompanies us, so to speak, in one way or another and fundamentally permeates our attitudes towards the world. This pre-conditional structure in which every I- and we-intention, every collective and solitary action is likewise embedded is therefore originally to be called “social”.

  • 51 Cf. McDowell 1994: 76 ff.

40If this is the case, it also means among other things that the ontology of the social can hardly be subjected to the condition of the ontology of nature. The primacy of the latter is the result of an abstraction we have to see through. Natural sciences owe their authority only to the specific measurable events and their causal relations of the physical universe. And this authority is achieved by a methodical abstraction from everything belonging to the historical and life-worldly relatedness of each event explained and the respective explaining scientist. Only the elimination of the particular moments allows scientific judgments to come forward with seemingly universal claims. But a «fundamental ontology» as «derived from physics (including the other natural sciences)», as Searle writes, never takes the specific features of society into account, which McDowell, by referring particularly to Aristotle and Gadamer, has recently expressed through an expanded concept of “second nature” containing the elements of ethos and Bildung51. It seems to me that social ontology, as it can be found in Searle, Weber and others, must be supplemented by respectively even remains sublated in that first understanding of social ontology, which I have differentiated at the beginning. Social ontology cannot be reduced to a secondary undertaking. Rather, living together with others belongs so fundamentally to our human existence that it can no longer merely be the subject of a single discipline or a domain-specific ontology. It even enables and supports any ontology of nature that we design.

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Anscombe, G.E.M.
1958, On brute facts, “Analysis”, 18: 69-72

Dilthey, W.
2002, The formation of the historical world in the human sciences, in Selected Works III, ed. by R.A. Makkreel and F. Rodi, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Gadamer, H.-G.
20042 [1960], Truth and Method, Eng. tr. by J. Weinsheimer and D.G. Marshall, New York, Crossroad

Giddens, A.
2004, The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration, Cambridge, Polity Press

Gilbert M.P.
– 1987, Modelling collective belief, “Synthese”, 73: 185-201
1990, Walking together: A paradigmatic social phenomenon, “Midwest Studies in Philosophy”, 15: 1-14
1992, On Social Facts, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Habermas, J. and Luhmann, N.
1971, Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie. Was leistet die Systemforschung?, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp

Heidegger, M.
1996 [1927], Being and Time, Eng. tr. by J. Stambaugh, Albany, State University of New York Press

Kondylis, P.
1999, Das Politische und der Mensch. Grundzüge der Sozialontologie, Vol. I: Soziale Beziehung, Verstehen, Rationalität, ed. by F. Horst, Berlin, Akademie Verlag

Luhmann, N.
1995, Social Systems, Stanford, Stanford University Press

McDowell, J.
1994, Mind and World, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press

Rawls, J.
1995, Two concepts of rules, “The Philosophical Review”, 64: 3-32

Schmid, H.B.
2005, Wir-Intentionalität: Kritik des ontologischen Individualismus und Rekonstruktion der Gemeinschaft, Freiburg, Alber

Schmid, H.B. and Schweikard, D.P. (eds)
2009, Kollektive Intentionalität. Eine Debatte über die Grundlagen des Sozialen, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp

Searle, J.R.
1965, What Is a Speech Act?, in M. Black (ed), Philosophy in America, Ithaca, Cornell University Press: 615-628
1969, Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
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2004, Social ontology. Some basic principles, “Anthropological Theory”, 6/1: 12-29
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Theunissen, M.
1984, The Other. Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Buber, Eng. tr. by C. Macann, with an introd. by F.R. Dallmayr, Cambridge, Mit Press

Weber, M.
19805, Soziologische Grundbegriffe, in: Idem, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie, ed. by J. Winckelmann, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck

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1 Cf. Heidegger 1996.

2 See Gadamer 20042.

3 See for example Dilthey 2002.

4 Cf. Theunissen 1984.

5 Cf. Gilbert 1992. See also Gilbert 1987 and 1990.

6 See Searle 1995 and 2010.

7 See Kondylis 1999.

8 See Searle 1995: 27.

9 Anscombe coined the term “brute facts”, as opposed to facts constituted by the presence of appropriate institutions, later called “institutional facts”. Cf. Anscombe 1958. Searle adopted this conceptual differentiation from Anscombe in some of his earlier writings. See already Searle 1965 and 1969.

10 Searle 1995: 1.

11 Searle 1995: 5 f.

12 See, for example, Searle 2007 where he is concerned among other things with the old question of free will and that in relation to modern neurophysiology which as a representative of the ontology of natural science must not, according to Searle, be violated and insofar functions as the first and inescapable in Searle’s remarks. For a critique cf. Zimmermann 2010: 273 ff.

13 Searle 1995: 35. In a sub-chapter which is entitled The Hierarchy of Facts: From Brute to Institutional (121) Searle even provides a “Hierarchical Taxonomy of (Certain Types of) Facts” (120).

14 Searle 1995: 5 f. «Institutional facts exist, so to speak, on top of brute physical facts» (ibidem: 35).

15 For a good overview of this discussion and its genesis see the anthology Schmid and Schweikard 2009.

16 Weber 1980: 1 (my translation).

17 Ibidem (my translation).

18 Cf. Weber 1980: 11.

19 Searle introduces a fourth element «to explain the causal functioning of institutional structures», which he calls «the Background of capacities that humans have for coping with their environment» (Searle 1995: 13). The point is that people who are participating in institutions are often or even typically not conscious of these rules governing the institutions. Therefore, the question arises how these rules can nonetheless causally, as Searle puts it, influence people’s behaviour. But in what follows I will set this problem aside. Cf. ibidem: 127 ff.

20 See Searle 1983.

21 See Searle 2010: 27.

22 Searle 2004: 16. See also Searle 2010: 25 ff.

23 See Searle 2010: 43.

24 Cf. Searle 1995: 23.

25 Searle 2010: 43.

26 Searle 1995: 24.

27 Ibidem: 24 f.

28 Searle 2010: 47.

29 Ibidem: 56.

30 Cf. Weber 1980: 20.

31 Searle 1995: 26. «Collective intentionality is the psychological presupposition of all social reality and, indeed, I define a social fact as any fact involving collective intentionality of two or more human or animal agents» (Searle 2004: 16 f.).

32 Weber 1980: 13 (my translation).

33 Searle 1995: 26. Cf. Searle 2004: 17.

34 Searle 2004: 14.

35 See Searle 1969: 33 ff.

36 Cf. Midgley 1959.

37 See Searle 1995: 27 ff.

38 Ibidem: 28. See also Searle 2010: 10 f.

39 See, among others, Giddens 2004: 17 ff.

40 Cf. Rawls 1955.

41 Cf. Searle 1975.

42 Searle 2010: 11.

43 Searle 1995: 28. See also Searle 2010: 9 f.

44 Ibidem: 28.

45 Cf. Luhmann 1995: 103 ff.

46 Cf. Habermas 1971.

47 This is supported by the fact that, according to Searle, the fundamental law of the social can be iterated. We can impose status-functions on entities that already have a status-function. «In such cases the X term at a higher level can be a Y term from an earlier level. For example, only a citizen of the United States as X can become President as Y, but to be a citizen is to have a Y status-function from an earlier level» (Searle 1995: 80). Yet, the repeated applicability of the fundamental social law does not change the fact that at the beginning of this chain of repetition there has to be an X which does not already fulfil a status-function and, as such, is a raw physical fact whose being is sensu stricto independent of our agreement. Hence, my criticism remains in force.

48 It is true that Searle explicitly recognises that people who are part of an institution and move within this institution are mostly not aware of the rules according to which this institution functions and according to which they act themselves. Cf. Searle 1995: 127 ff. But Searle does not extend this recognition to those examples I have briefly called “solitary acts”. In my opinion Searle overlooks that the regularities of the exchange with others continue to have an effect outside this exchange and to form the turning to the world of the persons involved.

49 Searle 2010: 47.

50 Differently Schmid 2005: 237.

51 Cf. McDowell 1994: 76 ff.

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Stephan Zimmermann, «Is Society Built on Collective Intentions? A Response to Searle»Rivista di estetica, 57 | 2014, 121-141.

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Stephan Zimmermann, «Is Society Built on Collective Intentions? A Response to Searle»Rivista di estetica [Online], 57 | 2014, online dal 01 novembre 2014, consultato il 24 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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