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Critical notes

On the Very Idea of Imposition. Some Remarks on Searle’s Social Ontology

Marius Bartmann
p. 155-164


Nel suo libro Making the Social World, John Searle dà voce ad un’aspirazione molto diffusa in ontologia sociale, vale a dire l’idea che gli oggetti sociali possano essere ridotti a oggetti fisici. Da questa prospettiva, gli oggetti sociali non sarebbero niente più che oggetti fisici sui quali imponiamo funzioni che sono meramente soggettive e dunque ad essi esterne. Questo articolo ha due obiettivi. Nella prima parte, si mostrerà che la teoria di Searle comporta una forma di interpretazionismo che entra in difficoltà nel momento in cui si rifletta sulla nozione essenziale di imposizione. Nella seconda parte, si tratteggerà una prospettiva wittgensteiniana che permetterebbe di descrivere la nostra relazione agli oggetti sociali senza che si debba abbracciare il suddetto modello di interpretazionismo insieme con le sue presupposizioni metafisiche.

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Testo integrale

1. Introduction

  • 1 Searle 1995: 28.

1As is well known, in his book The Construction of Social Reality John Searle develops the famous formula «X counts as Y in context C»1 in order to explain the mode of existence of social objects such as money, presidents and cocktail parties. According to this rule, every social object is the result of a transformation rendered possible by what Searle calls «collective intentionality»: social objects are brought into existence by our regarding or counting a physical object as something that exceeds the physical structure of that object, thus giving it a social status in a certain context – for example, in virtue of collective recognition, a piece of paper counts as a fifty dollar bill in the context of economy.

  • 2 Smith 2003: 19. For a similar critique see Ferraris 2006 and Thomasson 2002.
  • 3 Cf. Searle 2003: 302 and 2010: 20.

2Although Searle acknowledges in his 2010 book Making the Social World that this formula is flawed, thus accepting objections raised by Barry Smith and Maurizio Ferraris, he does not give it up. Rather, he makes some minor adjustments in his background theory while maintaining the theorem. The main objection is what Barry Smith calls the problem of «free-standing Y terms»2, which Searle addresses at some points of his new book, however, assuring that the problem of the free-standing Y terms can be easily solved within the framework of his account3.

3Even though I think Smith and Ferraris have made a compelling case concerning this problem, I want to leave open the question whether Searle succeeds in solving the problem or if it might be that it reappears on another level. Therefore, I am not so much concerned with Searle’s formula itself, rather, I want to focus on the very structure of the operational mode of status functions. This means I am concerned with the way in which status functions are applied regardless of the ontological status of the objects involved.

4In the first part of my paper, I try to point out a difficulty located at the foundations of Searle’s theory, a difficulty that can be formulated independently of the «free-standing Y terms» and, as a consequence, affects Searle’s basic idea even where this problem does not occur. Against the background of the critique developed in the first part, I offer in the second part of my paper a brief Wittgensteinian account of how we might conceive of social objects without falling prey to unwarranted metaphysical assumptions.

2. The Concept of Imposition and its Implications

5In the following I will briefly expound the main outlines of Searle’s theory and present the problem of the free-standing Y terms in order then to contrast it with what I take to be the key problem of Searle’s account.

  • 4 Searle 2010: 4.

6In the introduction of Making the Social World Searle formulates a fundamental condition that every theory concerned with the social world has to satisfy in order for it to be adequate. Every theory must be compatible with what Searle calls the «basic facts», on which social phenomena are dependent, and to which they can be reduced, at least in principle. They «are given by physics and chemistry, by evolutionary biology and the other natural sciences»4. A basic fact is characterized by its being entirely independent of any human institution, as for example the existence of trees and mountains, i.e. objects that would have existed even if no human being had ever inhabited the earth.

7The result of differentiating between basic facts and social phenomena in this way establishes an ontological hierarchy that in turn implies the assumption of a division between two distinct realms that do not seem to be interlocked with each other, namely the physical and the social. Both domains can be distinguished by at least two crucial features: first of all, the realm of the social can be in principle explained by and reduced to the more fundamental realm of the physical, and, second of all – consequently – the relation between both realms is such that the non-existence of the social sphere would not affect the structure of the physical in any sort of way. Searle’s basic idea is summed up concisely in the following passage:

  • 5 Searle 2010: 7 (my emphasis).

The distinctive feature of human social reality, the way in which it differs from other forms of animal reality known to me, is that humans have the capacity to impose functions on objects and people where the objects and the people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure5.

  • 6 Smith 2003: 19.

8According to Barry Smith, this account of a social ontology encounters the following problem. If by definition social objects are conceived of as being created by imposing a function on a physical object in a certain context such that the new object comprises the components of a spatio-temporal object and a socially constructed meaning, a fundamental question immediately arises. How can we explain social objects that are not capable of supervening upon a physical object precisely because there is none, i.e. «entities that do not coincide ontologically with any part of physical reality»6? As examples, Smith cites debts, corporations, and promises and he correctly points out that in neither of these cases an underlying (physical) object can be identified.

  • 7 Cf. Searle 2003: 301.
  • 8 Searle 2003: 302.

9Since this objection draws almost exclusively on the condensed «X counts as Y in C» formula, to whose consistency it poses a serious threat, Searle strives to mitigate the significance of the formula for his account. In a reply to Barry Smith, Searle claims that the formula is nothing but a «useful mnemonic» and the thesis of his book The Construction of Social Reality could have been stated without it7. Searle tries to prevent his standpoint from being misrepresented by specifying his central claim in the following terms: «If the “counts as” formula is misleading, then we can simply get rid of it, and state it all in terms of the imposition of status functions»8.

  • 9 Searle 1995: 13; Searle 2003: 302 and Searle 2010: 7.

10Undoubtedly, the basic concept in this quote is that of imposition, a notion occurring explicitly in almost every passage in which Searle develops the main line of thought of his theory, from The Construction of Social Reality to Making the Social World9. It is this notion of imposition that I consider to inform the whole account of Searle’s theory of social ontology (and even his theory of language, as we shall see). For that reason, I want to subject the concept of imposition to critical scrutiny and spell out some of its implications.

11There are at least two important features belonging to the grammar of imposition. For one thing, the imposition of something – in this case: status functions – simply requires that there is something on which it can be imposed upon. The object on which a status function is imposed upon need not be a physical object, it might as well be a social object. For example, a human being can count as a citizen, a citizen can count as a taxpayer, and so forth. For another thing, the notion of imposition employed by Searle implies – and he never gets tired of insisting on this point – that the functions imposed on objects or persons are not to be conceived of as being intrinsic to them, rather, they are to be understood as subjective, and hence external. They are ingredients added by human beings through the exercise of collective intentionality. Precisely because of the mere subjective character of status functions, Searle is reluctant to attribute reality to them. This is made quite clear in the following passage:

  • 10 Searle 1995: 45. This point is reaffirmed at the end of Making the Social World, where he writes th (...)

For example, are these bits of paper really money? Is this piece of land really somebody’s private property? Is making certain noises in a ceremony really getting married? […] Surely when you get down to brass tacks, these are not real facts10.

  • 11 Cf. Searle 2010: 4.
  • 12 Cf. Searle 2003: 300.
  • 13 Searle 2010: ix.

12As I have already pointed out, this seems to suggest a strong metaphysical claim underlying Searle’s conception of social reality, namely the opposition of two realms, the physical and the social. Searle is well aware of this metaphysical implication of his account, which is why, at the very beginning of Making the Social World, he tries to undercut the obvious labels that come to mind after his having established the main thought of his theory11, such as “dualism”, “reductionism” and “naturalism”, whereas the latter conception is being even strongly affirmed in the above-mentioned reply to Barry Smith12. Despite all appearances, Searle claims to «avoid postulating different ontological realms» and to talk about «one reality»13.

13Now, even if we grant that Searle succeeds in clearing himself of the metaphysical charge deriving from the distinction between two separate realms, I believe there is another problem that his theory cannot avoid for it is rooted in the very idea of imposition, which is never given up by him. I will develop my argument along the lines of Frege’s famous distinction between sense («Sinn») and reference («Bedeutung») made in his eponymous essay, in which he formulates a problem of his semantic theory that is strikingly similar to the one I want to confront Searle’s account with.

  • 14 Frege 1997: 153.

14In this essay, Frege defines sense as «mode of presentation»14 («Art des Gegebenseins»). Sense is the medium through which we have access to objects such that every reference to an object is informed by a certain semantic viewpoint from which the object is apprehended. Thus, our supposedly direct grasp of objects turns out to be mediated by and dependent on the specific descriptions we are able to give of them. In this sense, objects are always objects-under-a-certain-description. In other words, sense is the detour understanding has to take in order to get to objects. To use Frege’s famous example: “morning star” and “evening star” both signify the same object, namely the planet Venus, but express different senses of it.

15Now, given the distinction between sense and reference, a fundamental problem immediately arises. For, “Venus” is itself associated with a certain description and hence presents an object under a specific mode or, as we might as well say, under a certain interpretation. But this triggers an infinite regress because the question as to what the description really describes can always be iterated, thereby constantly generating only new descriptions. We could ask the question what “Venus” actually stands for and give the answer “a planet”; but what does “planet” signify? At some (subatomic) level, one may be inclined to say that Venus is nothing but a conglomerate of particles, but even that is, qua answer, just another description. On this conception, the object sought after disappears behind an impenetrable veil of descriptions.

  • 15 Searle 2003: 302.

16Searle seems to be aware of this problem, at least with respect to social objects, when he writes that «something is a social object only under certain descriptions and no others, and then we are forced to ask the crucial question: What is it that these descriptions describe?»15 In trying to address this problem, he gives the following example:

  • 16 Searle 2003: 302.

Again, when I am alone in my room, that room contains at least the following “social objects”: a citizen of the United States, an employee of the State of California, a licensed driver, and a taxpayer. So how many objects are in the room? There is exactly one: me16.

  • 17 Cf. Kaplan 1989.
  • 18 Searle 1983: 220.
  • 19 Searle 1983: 229.

17It seems as if invoking the pronoun “me” here avoids the use of descriptions because indexicals are widely held to be directly referential17. But this answer obviously begs the question if only for the simple reason that Searle himself rejects the theory of direct reference as a «desperate expedient»18 and defends a «Fregean account of indexicals»19. Therefore, we have to realize that even according to Searle’s own theoretical standards the pronoun “me”, referring to John Searle, is just another description, presenting an object under a particular mode of description or interpretation.

  • 20 Searle 2003: 304.

18This follows directly from his basic idea of imposition, according to which, in this case, a socially constructed personality is imposed on a human being, or rather, as Searle calls them, on a specimen of the type «biological beasts»20. Understood in this way, the person “John Searle” is just one interpretation among many others imposed on an underlying, allegedly description-independent, physical object, namely a biological organism. This answer leads, as we have already seen, directly into an infinite regress, for, “biological organism” in turn is not that which provides the basis for the different descriptions we are capable of giving, but is itself a description among many others.

  • 21 Searle 2010: 4.

19But even, or rather, especially according to Searle’s own naturalistic standards, it would be wrong to say that only one object is in the room. As we have already seen, Searle commits himself to the basic facts given by the natural sciences, in particular the «atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology»21. If we were to ask a physicist: How many objects are in the room? then the answer would be far bigger then “one”, depending on whether he would count molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, or what have you. If we were to ask a biologist the same question, the number given would be much smaller than the one given by the physicist, but it would still be bigger than one, since he might count as well the microorganisms, such as bacteria, which live within our organism.

20It seems that Searle’s account is being confronted with an unpleasant dilemma, both horns of which amount to untenable metaphysical consequences Searle is trying to avoid. Either he argues for the existence of “basic facts”, claiming that, in the end, we can attribute reality to the realm of the physical only. This realm counts, therefore, as the ultimate foundation everything else is ontologically dependent on. This is tantamount to the annihilation of the social world, a sphere we have no choice but to deem a mere chimera of human imagination. The metaphysical hierarchy between two distinct realms returns in the form of a questionable two-worlds-theory, a conception Searle rejects from the outset.

21Or he credits social objects with reality, giving them the same ontological value as physical objects. But by being located on the same ontological level, there is no theoretical reason for preferring the physical to the social. This means in turn that the natural sciences, which are to provide the “basic facts” of the structure of the universe, lose their leading role among the other sciences, a result that Searle also rejects from the outset.

22As I have been arguing, the problems Searle’s theory is facing is rooted in his basic idea of imposition, the most important feature of which can now be formulated as the assumption that there is a given (physical) reality out there in which worldless subjects are thrown into, subjects that impose sense on an otherwise senseless world. Reflection reveals that the relation between mind and world so conceived is itself by definition socially constructed and, as a consequence, illusory.

  • 22 Cf. Davidson 1973/1974.

23At this point, one important caveat is necessary. Considering the problems Searle’s naturalistic account is facing, one might, as a consequence of the argument developed above, be inclined to think that even physical objects turn out to be description-dependent under closer inspection and, therefore, conceive of them as being the product of human imagination. For example, because we have seen that there is no final answer to the question “How many objects?” precisely because the answer depends on the respective concept of object that is to be applied, one might conclude that categorizations of given data is always dependent on a conceptual scheme22. Thus, reality itself turns out to be relative to the specific scheme we adopt. But if we are to give an appropriate account of the relation between mind and world we have to address the following crucial difficulty: How can we make room for the possibility of different descriptions without being committed to postulate metaphysical entities of any kind?

3. A Wittgensteinian Approach

24The basic idea of imposition is involved not only in Searle’s social ontology, but also in his theory of language. The analysis of what it is for someone to mean something by an utterance exhibits the exact same structure of what it is for a physical object to be considered as a social object:

  • 23 Searle 1995: 35.

Institutional facts exist, so to speak, on top of brute physical facts. Often, the brute facts will not be manifested as physical objects but as sounds coming out of people’s mouths or as marks on paper23.

  • 24 Searle specifies these rules in Searle 1969: 49 f.
  • 25 Wittgenstein 1963: § 81.

25Utterances of sounds count as meaningful words or sentences if they are uttered according to certain rules24. On this conception, just as physical objects stand in need of the exercise of collective intentionality in order for them to count as social objects, certain acoustic events or sound patterns stand in need of the exercise of rule-governed operations in order for them to count as meaningful utterances. In both cases, Searle presupposes a given raw material on which something is imposed according to certain rules. If we accept the distinction between acoustic events and meaningful utterances, the latter supervening on the former, so to speak, one is inclined to think, as Wittgenstein puts it, «that if anyone utters a sentence and means or understands it he is operating a calculus according to definite rules»25.

  • 26 Cf. Wittgenstein 1963: § 85.
  • 27 Ibidem: § 201.

26It is one of the central aims of the Philosophical Investigations to show that it is misleading – to say the least – to think of language as a calculus in this way. One of the strongest arguments Wittgenstein provides against this misconception is the so-called rule-following skepticism. In a famous passage Wittgenstein compares rules with sign-posts and asks the seemingly innocent question as to whether the sign-post leaves no doubt about the path we have to take26. Within the confines of Searle’s account, we would have to say that it is always possible to interpret the sign-post in different ways, for, a sign-post is a social object brought into existence by collectively interpreting a piece of wood as a sign-post. Understood this way, a sign-post is always a sign-post under a certain interpretation. The skeptic can now ask the question: How do you know that this interpretation is correct? Wittgenstein’s point is that there is a constitutive gap between a rule and its application, a gap that cannot be bridged by any interpretation because in order to decide whether the interpretation was correct we would need another rule that in turn had to be interpreted. Wittgenstein concludes: «It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another […]. What this shews [sic] is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation»27.

27The lesson to be drawn from this argument is that as long as we conceive of objects as objects under a certain interpretation, we will be committed to the metaphysical claim that the answer to the question how objects really are is beyond our grasp.

  • 28 Ibidem: § 95.

28Now, Wittgenstein tries to make room for the possibility that we are capable of following a sign-post and not just a sign-post under a certain interpretation. This secures that we have in principle access to things and states of affairs, which are not just the product of human imagination. As Wittgenstein famously puts it: «When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we – and our meaning – do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this – is – so»28.

  • 29 Wittgenstein 1963: 200.

29Wittgenstein illustrates his point by exploring the visual phenomenon of reversible figures, the most famous of which is the so-called duck-rabbit, a figure that can be seen both as a duck and a rabbit. Again, the central question we have been dealing with can be raised: What is really there? It is a picture of a duck, of a rabbit, or is it not a picture at all but just lines on paper that are interpreted in different ways? The problem becomes even more obvious if we consider another example cited by Wittgenstein, namely a simple triangle, of which he gives various descriptions: it can be seen as «a triangular hole, as a solid, as a geometrical drawing; as standing on its base, as hanging from its apex; as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or pointer»29. What are we to say if asked what is really there? Again the metaphysical threat returns, for, the object we want to grasp disappears behind an indefinite amount of interpretations.

30Wittgenstein’s point is not that we are condemned forever to employing interpretations, thereby necessarily blocking the view to that which is really there. Rather, the example of the reversible figures shows that we are always already engaged with persons, things and states of affairs, the access to which is permeated with sense. Of course I can count the things in my room as mere amassment of colors and shapes, as well as I can consider the utterances of an interlocutor as mere noise (even if I think that this is very hard to do in a non-metaphorical manner). But in our normal relationship to other persons and things we directly perceive books, pens and paper just as we directly perceive meaningful words and sentences. These relationships are what I call the calibration of our forms of life, precisely because they are constitutive of our being embedded in the world and, therefore, not external to it.

31At this point it would be very misleading to understand Wittgenstein as putting forward some kind of linguistic relativism or pluralism in the sense that every reference to an object is relative to a conceptual scheme such that the real essence of the object is being concealed by the very act of referring to it. To emphasize the importance of our conceptual activity as informing our access to the world need not be tantamount to the commitment to an incoherent dualism of scheme and world, as John McDowell points out:

  • 30 McDowell 1996: 155.

Conceptual schemes or perspectives need not be one side of the exploded dualism of scheme and world. Thus innocently conceived, schemes or perspectives can be seen as embodied in languages or cultural traditions. So languages and traditions can figure not as “tertia” that would threaten to make our grip on the world philosophically problematic, but as constitutive of our unproblematic openness to the world30.

32Thus the example of the reversible figure reveals two crucial and closely connected features of our being embedded in a world. First, that our access to what there is is always already permeated with sense such that it informs our relation to persons, things, and states of affairs rather than standing as a mediating layer between us and them and second, as a consequence, that there is no need in postulating metaphysical entities of any kind in order to explain the multiplicity of possible aspects of an object. Every object is in principle capable of being relocated in another context or set of involvements, in which it plays a new role and thereby gaining another meaning. Only if we succumb to the metaphysical distinction between the social and the physical, the world becomes an alien place, as Stephen Mulhall succinctly renders this point:

  • 31 Mulhall 1990: 105.

The world we really perceive is radically devoid of any human significance, until we use our interpretative theorizing to organize this primitive data into units of human meaning – words, actions, gestures. Within this generally alien world, we are alienated in particular from language and from human behavior as a whole, for the significance and the humanity we find in those phenomena of our everyday life are a result of our reading our concepts into the data we directly apprehend. Every language is at root a foreign tongue, every person an alien; a world which requires radical interpretation from its human residents is a world in which they can never be at home31.

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Davidson, D.
– 1973/1974, On the very idea of a conceptual scheme, “Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association”, 47: 5-20

Ferraris, M.
– 2006, Documentality – Or Why Nothing Social Exists Beyond the Text, in C. Kanzian and E. Runggaldier (eds), Cultures. Conflict – Analysis – Dialogue. Proceedings of the 29. International Ludwig Wittgenstein Symposium, Kirchberg am Wechsel, ontos: 385-401

Frege, G.
– 1997, On Sinn and Bedeutung, in M. Beany (ed), The Frege Reader, Oxford, Blackwell: 151-157

Kaplan, D.
– 1989, Demonstratives. An Essay on the Semantics, Logic, Metaphysics, and Epistemology of Demonstratives and Other Indexicals, in J. Almog, J. Perry, H. Wettstein (eds), Themes from Kaplan, New York, Oxford University Press: 481-614

McDowell, J.
– 1996, Mind and World, Cambridge-London, Harvard University Press

Mulhall, S.
– 1990, On Being in the World. Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects, London - New York, Routledge

Searle, J.R.
– 1969, Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
– 1983, Intentionality. An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
– 1995, The Construction of Social Reality, London, Penguin
– 2003, Reply to Barry Smith, “American Journal of Economics and Sociology”, 62: 299-309
– 2010, Making the Social World, Oxford - New York, Oxford University Press

Smith, B.
– 2003, John Searle: From Speech Acts to Social Reality, in B. Smith (ed), John Searle, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1-33

Thomasson, A.
– 2002, Foundations for a social ontology, “Protosociology: An International Journal of Interdisciplinary Research”, 18/19: 269-290

Wittgenstein, L.
– 1963, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford, Basil Blackwell

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1 Searle 1995: 28.

2 Smith 2003: 19. For a similar critique see Ferraris 2006 and Thomasson 2002.

3 Cf. Searle 2003: 302 and 2010: 20.

4 Searle 2010: 4.

5 Searle 2010: 7 (my emphasis).

6 Smith 2003: 19.

7 Cf. Searle 2003: 301.

8 Searle 2003: 302.

9 Searle 1995: 13; Searle 2003: 302 and Searle 2010: 7.

10 Searle 1995: 45. This point is reaffirmed at the end of Making the Social World, where he writes that social phenomena are just «products of massive fantasy» (Searle 2010: 301).

11 Cf. Searle 2010: 4.

12 Cf. Searle 2003: 300.

13 Searle 2010: ix.

14 Frege 1997: 153.

15 Searle 2003: 302.

16 Searle 2003: 302.

17 Cf. Kaplan 1989.

18 Searle 1983: 220.

19 Searle 1983: 229.

20 Searle 2003: 304.

21 Searle 2010: 4.

22 Cf. Davidson 1973/1974.

23 Searle 1995: 35.

24 Searle specifies these rules in Searle 1969: 49 f.

25 Wittgenstein 1963: § 81.

26 Cf. Wittgenstein 1963: § 85.

27 Ibidem: § 201.

28 Ibidem: § 95.

29 Wittgenstein 1963: 200.

30 McDowell 1996: 155.

31 Mulhall 1990: 105.

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Notizia bibliografica

Marius Bartmann, «On the Very Idea of Imposition. Some Remarks on Searle’s Social Ontology»Rivista di estetica, 57 | 2014, 155-164.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Marius Bartmann, «On the Very Idea of Imposition. Some Remarks on Searle’s Social Ontology»Rivista di estetica [Online], 57 | 2014, online dal 01 novembre 2014, consultato il 24 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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