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Critical notes

Hegel and Searle on the Necessity of Social Reality

Sebastian Ostritsch
p. 205-218


L’intento di questo articolo è di illustrare le risposte di J. Searle e G.W.F. Hegel alla domanda sul perché gli esseri umani vivano in un mondo di istituzioni che fornisce loro delle ragioni per l’azione che sono indipendenti dai desideri. Entrambe le risposte coinvolgono la connessione fra la realtà istituzionale, la normatività pratica ad essa essenziale, e il fatto che le creature che istituiscono tale realtà sono dotate di libero arbitrio. La mia tesi principale è che nella sua Filosofia del Diritto, Hegel offra una spiegazione molto più cogente di quella di Searle della necessità di una realtà sociale essenzialmente normativa. Mentre Searle crede che esseri liberi potrebbero anche esistere indipendentemente da una realtà istituzionale, l’idea di Hegel è che non sarebbe possibile per degli essere liberi esistere in un mondo sociale di istituzioni che fondi la normatività pratica. Si sosterrà che una conseguenza importante del punto di vista di Hegel è che la realtà sociale non può essere compresa come qualcosa di meramente costruito o illusorio.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 Cf. Searle 2010. For his first attempt at a social ontology see Searle 1996.

1In his 2010 book Making the Social World, John Searle offers a refined account of his theory of how social reality is instituted by acts of collective intentionality1. In the following, I am not so much concerned with this theory directly but rather with a closely connected question that Searle addresses towards the end of his book: Why do human beings live in a social world of institutions that has the property of providing them with objective reasons for actions? Searle’s answer to this question draws on the intimate connection between institutional reality, the practical normativity essential to it, and the fact that the creatures that institute this reality are endowed with a free will. It is this conceptual relation between free will, practical normativity, and the structure of social reality that I want to explore from the standpoint of Hegel’s mature philosophical thought. More specifically, my thesis is that Hegel’s Philosophy of Right offers an explanation of the necessity of an essentially normative social reality by arguing that subjects are only truly free when they live within a social world of institutions that secure and further their freedom. Whereas Searle believes that the free beings could also exist independently of forming an institutional reality, Hegel’s point is that if there are to be free beings at all, they must live within a world of essentially normative social institutions.

2The first part of this paper offers a short overview of Searle’s position on how freedom, practical normativity, and social institutions hang together. In the second part, I sketch the main line of argumentation of the Philosophy of Right. My goal is to elucidate Hegel’s view on the interconnectedness of the above-mentioned concepts. In the third and last part, I compare Hegel’s account with the one put forth by Searle. I claim that Hegel offers a much stronger explanation of the necessity of institutional reality than Searle and that the main deficiency of Searle’s theory lies in his understanding of freedom as freedom of choice. From this Hegelian critique of Searle, I infer some consequences concerning the ontological status of social reality and argue that Searle’s talk of social reality as constructed and illusionary is unwarranted.

2. Searle on the Necessity of Social Reality

  • 2 Searle 2010: 143.
  • 3 Ibidem.

3After having established his account of how social reality is created through acts of collective intentionality, Searle considers two questions about the necessity of institutional reality. The first and more fundamental one is: «Why have institutional reality at all?»2 According to Searle, the answer is simply that «we are better off than animals in countless ways by living a civilized life»3. Even though it is true that one can only be married, president of the United States of America, or dining at one’s favorite restaurant if one lives in a social world with the corresponding institutions, I am not sure whether Searle’s answer is an answer to the question at all. If the question is why creatures that are already living in an institutional reality should think it is a good thing that they do, then the philosophical import of this question is, I believe, quite dubious. If the question is, however, why there is a social reality at all, then Searle’s answer commits the fallacy of deriving what is from what he thinks ought to be.

  • 4 Ibidem: 143.
  • 5 Ibidem: 137.
  • 6 Ibidem: 87.
  • 7 For this distinction between weak and strong practical normativity see Luckner 2005. In the followi (...)
  • 8 Ibidem: 123.
  • 9 Ibidem: 129.

4Searle’s second question goes as follows: «Why should we have the sorts of [institutional] structures we do?»4. This question presupposes that humans live in a social reality and then asks if there are reasons that can be provided by philosophy for the fact that we have the social structures we do. It is Searle’s answer to this question that draws on the interconnection between free will, practical normativity and institutional reality. Searle argues that institutional facts, such as being a father or a university professor, are essentially normative because they provide us with «deontic powers»5 such as obligations, rights, duties and so on. This normative dimension of institutional reality is the result of acts of collective intentionality becoming conventional, so that anyone who engages in such acts is expected to do so according to what has been established as the correct way6. If people recognize something as their obligation, right or duty, they are provided with reasons for actions that do not depend on prior motivation. If, for example, a father realizes that it is his duty to pick up his son from soccer practice, then he has a good reason to do so, even if he does not feel like leaving the house after a long day of work. The normative dimension that Searle is concerned with is clearly not the weak practical normativity that is in play in desire-dependent reasons (e.g. “in order to fulfill your desire for something sweet, your should eat chocolate”), but the strong practical normativity of desire-independent reasons7. Such desire-independent reasons do not advise us on what would be a smart thing to do with respect to our preexisting desires, but they tell us what we must do: «Thus, for example, I must give a lecture tomorrow morning at 8 A.M. because I am under a firm and binding obligation both to my students and to the university to give a lecture at that time»8. In cases of desire-independent practical reasons, «the desire derives from the obligation, or more strictly, it derives from the recognition of the obligation, and the obligation does not derive from the desire»9. Therefore, the practical normativity that is characteristic of the deontic powers provided by social institutions is one that strongly binds us in our actions, i.e. whether we happen to like it or not.

  • 10 Ibidem: 137
  • 11 Ibidem: 133.
  • 12 Cf. Searle’s thought experiment about the impossibility of unconscious robots having institutions t (...)
  • 13 Ibidem: 138.

5According to Searle, this normative dimension of institutions only makes sense for conscious beings who have a free will, or as Searle calls it: «the gap»: «But the notion of a deontic power makes no sense unless you presuppose consciousness and the gap»10. Why is that so? Human beings, according to Searle, experience themselves as having a free will in the sense that they experience a «causal gap» between having reasons for doing something and actually doing it11. Searle understands freedom as the possibility to be free from quasi-mechanical causal determination and thereby as the ability to choose what one wants to do. The reason that Searle sees for institutional reality being the way it is is that only if we are free and thus not determined externally, we can have rights, duties, and obligations that give us reasons for action instead of quasi-mechanically determining the way we behave12. Searle’s argument thus goes as follows: The essentially normative nature of institutional reality, i.e. the fact that it provides objective practical reasons, interlocks with the fact that human beings have a free will because deontic powers can only be meaningful for free beings. But now the following question arises: Why could there not be an institutional reality that was not normative at all, i.e. an institutional reality that would not provide deontic powers to free beings? According to Searle, this cannot be the case because if social reality were stripped of its normative dimension, it would become instable and collapse. Without objective reasons to act upon, «[p]eople might just disobey the rules. They might just say, “To hell with the rules,” and do what they felt like doing»13. Searle’s view on the interconnection between free will, institutional reality, and the practical normativity it grounds is summed up nicely in the following quote:

  • 14 Ibidem: 138 f.

You can have consciousness and the gap without having institutional reality. (That is exactly the situation that the higher nonhuman animals are in.) But you cannot have institutional reality in our sense without consciousness and the gap, because in such a case the institutions would be without a function, and once you have consciousness and the gap, a system of rules will work only if it comes with some motivational structure [i.e. desire-independent practical reasons]14.

6Searle’s view is thus that there can be free beings that do not live in an institutional reality at all. However, if it is assumed as given that free beings live in an institutional reality, the latter must be such that it provides them with objective practical reasons. I will not try to point out what I take to be the problems of Searle’s position right away. Rather, I will first turn to the Philosophy of Right and Hegel’s views on this matter. Only after that I will discuss the shortcomings of Searle’s view.

3. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

  • 15 Searle 1998: 149. See also Searle 1996: 25. Even Maurizio Ferraris, who is quite critical of Searle (...)

7Hegel’s Instead of trying to understand Hegel’s philosophy or at least considering it worth reading, many contemporary philosophers prefer to ridicule Hegel for his allegedly outrageous metaphysical fabulations. As the following quote from Searle indicates, this is also the case in contemporary social ontology: «If you say that collective intentionality is primitive, then it seems you are in a very bad company. It seems you are postulating some kind of Hegelian Weltgeist that is floating around overhead, or something like that»15. In the following, I want to show that such prejudices about Hegel’s philosophy are ill-founded and that his Philosophy of Right, which he also develops under the heading of Objective Spirit in his Encylopedia, is a sober conceptual inquiry.

  • 16 See Martin 2012.

8The concept of free will lies at the heart of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. More specifically, the Philosophy of Right can be understood as the conceptual explication of what it means to be a free human subject that has a practical stance towards the world. Hegel’s inquiry in the Philosophy of Right presupposes the other parts of his philosophical system in which he develops an encompassing theory on how it is possible that self-determining bodily entities that are capable of theoretically cognizing and practically shaping the world, i.e. human beings, come to exist in a natural universe that exhibits the kind of structures uncovered by natural science16. Hegel’s term «spirit» does not refer to some kind of free-floating specter-like entity, but it is the overall name for the ways in which human subjects achieve self-determination. «Objective spirit», with which Hegel is concerned in his Philosophy of Right, is thus the name for the ways in which human self-determination objectively manifests and realizes itself in the world.

9Since, in this paper, I am only concerned with the conceptual connection between free will, practical normativity and social institutions, I will only provide a very selective account of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The first question to be asked concerns Hegel’s understanding of freedom. The answer to this question will reveal the intimate connection between free will, and practical normativity.

3.1. From Freedom to Practical Normativity

  • 17 Hegel 2008: §§ 5-7.
  • 18 Houlgate 2005: 183 f.

10Hegel argues in the introduction of the Philosophy of Right that the minimal conception of free will is self-determination17. To be free means to determine oneself. But what does it mean to determine oneself? The most common and probably simplest answer is that to determine oneself means to be able to choose and thus to do as one pleases. As we have already seen, this is exactly how Searle conceives freedom. The «gap» signifies that we are not determined externally in our actions and that we can decide or choose what to do. Freedom understood as freedom of choice has no intrinsic connection to practical normativity because – as Stephen Houlgate points out – freedom of choice «is not understood to bring with it any necessary commitments of its own»18. On this account of freedom, I am free when I am free from external force or necessity. Therefore, it follows from Searle’s conception of freedom that it is possible to be free without having normative commitments of the kind that humans actually have. This is, as we have already seen as well, precisely what Searle holds.

  • 19 Hegel 2008: § 27.

11Hegel neither denies that freedom of choice is part of what it means to be free nor does he criticize freedom of choice from the viewpoint of a different, presupposed understanding of freedom. Rather, he points out that limiting freedom to freedom of choice is, on its own terms, self-contradictory. In order to successfully exercise freedom of choice, there have to be options to choose from. But what determines these options that can become the content of willing? Since there are no necessary commitments associated with freedom of choice, these contents must be merely given. Therefore, freedom of choice fails to achieve self-determination because the will is determined externally by the options it chooses from. In order for the free will to be truly self-determining, one must not choose as one pleases, but one must choose in a way that the chosen content is nothing external to the free will. If what is willed by the truly free will cannot be external to it, then the free will itself must be its own object of choice. This is the meaning of Hegel’s famous formula: «the free will which wills the free will»19. Self-determination in the full sense is therefore to be understood as self-relating self-determination, meaning that the free will is truly free only when it determines itself in such a way that it becomes and remains self-determination.

  • 20 Ibidem: § 29.

12The decisive point is that it follows immediately from this concept of freedom as self-relating self-determination that freedom is intrinsically connected to practical normativity. The free will that relates to itself as such is not just arbitrary choice, i.e. doing as one pleases, but free will has a necessary content, namely itself. This means that there is something that the free will must will in order to be truly free. This “must” obviously does not refer to a causal necessity, but it is the very “must” of practical normativity in the strong sense that also Searle is interested in. Hegel’s analysis of freedom thus turns into a philosophical account of “right” because right is what must be done by free beings. This is why Hegel can say at the end of the introduction of the Philosophy of Right that «[r]ight is any existence [Dasein] at all which is the existence [Dasein] of the free will»20. As it turns out, practical normativity is something that was already implicit in the concept of free will and now has become explicit in the concept of right.

13At this point, all that we know is that the free will implies necessity in the sense that in order to be free, one must determine oneself in accordance with the demands of practical normativity that follow from the notion of freedom itself. As I try to sketch in the next section, the concepts of freedom and practical normativity (right) are necessarily and internally linked to an institutional social reality that Hegel calls Sittlichkeit.

3.2. From Freedom and Practical Normativity to Social Institutions

14Hegel arrives at his claim that social institutions are necessary for the free will and practical normativity by simply making explicit what is implicitly contained in the concept of right as it follows from freedom as self-relating self-determination. This leads to three fundamental ways of how right is to be understood. The first one is the sphere of abstract right («abstraktes Recht»), within which persons assert their freedom as a right by acquiring property. The second one is the sphere of morality («Moralität»), within which moral subjects assert their freedom mainly in form of intentional actions; actions whose goodness is to be judged only by the moral subjects themselves (or their conscience). The third one is the sphere of ethical life («Sittlichkeit»), within which free subjects understand themselves and their actions as guided by the transindividual normativity of those social institutions that are actually securing and aiming at the freedom constitutive for human subjects. The first two of these three, abstract right and morality, however turn out to be conceptually insufficient ways of comprehending right and thus are right only insofar as they are dependent moments or aspects of the social reality of ethical life.

  • 21 Ibidem: § 34.
  • 22 Ibidem: §§ 35 f.
  • 23 Ibidem: §§ 41 f.
  • 24 Ibidem: § 82.

15Abstract right follows simply from taking up the concept of right as it is derived from the concept of free will in its immediacy21. Hegel claims that by doing this we gain the notion of personhood. Being a person means to know oneself as a self-determining individual and thus as a bearer of rights. Persons can not only abstract from given inclinations and determine what they want, but they also know this to be their right as persons22. The freedom of personhood is thus not identical to freedom of choice, but the former incorporates the latter in such a way that persons know their exercise in freedom of choice to be an assertion of their right. For Hegel, the self-determination of persons finds its immediate expression in persons claiming things as their property, i.e. by transforming mere things into objects of the free will23. Under closer scrutiny, however, abstract right turns out to be unstable. Right as such has been established as that which the free will must will, but whether or not persons actually live up to this normative necessity is itself contingent in the sphere of abstract right. This contingency results from the fact that it depends on the mere choice of persons whether or not they respect the rights of others. Therefore, there is an inherent possibility of wrongdoing in the concept of abstract right. Whether or not persons actually uphold what is right and thus live up to the necessity inherent in the concept of freedom depends on their arbitrary choice24. This argument is somewhat similar to the one put forth by Searle against the possibility of a non-normative social reality. But whereas Searle seems to think that, for free beings, institutional reality must be normative in order to be stable, Hegel’s point is more basic. It follows from the very notion of freedom itself that the practical normativity inherent in it cannot just be (out) there as something immediate.

  • 25 Ibidem: § 104.
  • 26 Ibidem: § 114.
  • 27 Ibidem: § 129.
  • 28 Ibidem: § 133.
  • 29 Ibidem: § 135.
  • 30 Ibidem: § 135 remark.

16Thus, right as the necessity of self-relating self-determination turns out to be such that the internal difference between the necessity of right and the necessary contingency of wrongdoing must be accounted for. The sphere of morality refers exactly to this more elaborate conception of the free will. While personhood, as the immediate mode of existence of right, cannot account for the necessity of right, the subjects of morality know about this potential divergence between the necessity of right and the contingent choice of particular individuals25. Through the failure of abstract right to live up to its very own concept of self-relating self-determination, the difference between the particular and the universal aspect of the free will has become explicit. In the sphere of morality, the free will is therefore not restricted to immediate realizations, but it manifests itself in the mediated form of purposive and intentional action26. Hegel calls right, insofar it has to be attained through the particular purposes and intentions of human subjects, the good («das Gute»27). From the internal perspective of the acting subject, the good is understood as a duty («Pflicht») – as that which presents itself to the subject as something that it must do28. At this point of the conceptual development of freedom and right, morality faces a problem similar to the one abstract right runs into. What the good actually is, is solely determined by the will of the acting subject. The good is not immediately given like the abstract right, but the crucial point about the sphere of morality is that the good is mediated by the intentional action of subjects. But how does the subject determine what the good is? What gave way to the concept of morality and the corresponding notion of freedom in the first place was the need to understand the free will as having in view the potentially diverging relation between the particular content of the will and the universality of the will. Therefore, from the standpoint of morality, all that can be said about what the good is, is that particular intentions have to be universalizable29. But as Hegel insists against Kant, any subjective intention whatsoever can be universalizable insofar universality here simply means that an intention is self-consistent. If I steal in order to gain property, my action is surely self-contradictory. However, if I steal with the very intention to destroy property as such, there is no contradiction in my action30. Therefore, the attempt of the subjective will to determine what its duty is fails because it cannot avoid arbitrariness. This arbitrariness is, however, not something we might want to avoid because we do not like its relativistic implications, but because such arbitrary self-determination fails to live up to its very own concept of freedom, which has a necessary content and is thus bound to practical normativity.

  • 31 Ibidem: § 144 addition.
  • 32 Ibidem: § 146 remark.
  • 33 Ibidem: § 144.
  • 34 Ibidem.
  • 35 Ibidem: § 150 remark.
  • 36 Ibidem: § 142.
  • 37 Ibidem: § 147.

17Hegel’s immanent critique of morality provides an inherent transition to a viable understanding of freedom and right. This means that the failure of morality implicitly contains what is needed for a full understanding of freedom and practical normativity: The subjectivist account of the good presupposes objectively binding norms and values for its test of universalizability. Only if life and property are recognized as objective values, it is possible to criticize murder and theft as self-contradictory and therefore as bad. Hegel’s name for this sphere of objective practical normativity is ethical life. In the sphere of morality, it was up to the subject to determine what the good is. The only criterion it had in trying to do so was to check particular maxims for their universalizability. But such a test always already presupposes certain norms and values that are not up to the individual. But if one were to supplement morality with an objective normative order that was immediately there or given, this would equal a fallback into abstract right. If the objective moral order was determined independently of the particular intentions and purposes of subjects, then the moral realm would be external to self-relating self-determination, and consequently, it could not live up to its own concept of freedom and practical normativity. We have already seen that, in order to guarantee the necessity inherent in freedom and right, the objective normative order must incorporate the insight that right can only be achieved if it is mediated by subjects that determine the good in light of the difference between the particular and the universal aspect of the will. Therefore, the objective normative order presupposed by moral subjects cannot be just any given order, but it must be such that, as Hegel puts it, «the objective is filled with subjectivity»31. Ethical life cannot be some kind of immediately given quasi-natural normative realm32. What is objective in the ethical order is precisely free subjectivity. Such an objective subjectivity, Hegel points out, is to be found in the «laws and institutions» of an ethical community33. These laws and institutions are subjective because they are not just there anyway, but they exist only insofar they are known, wanted, and actively upheld by human subjects. Also, these laws and institutions are subjective because it is through them that subjects achieve true self-determination. At the same time, the laws and institutions of an ethical community are objective because they are «exalted above subjective opinion and caprice»34. What must be done is simply not up to the caprice and arbitrary will of individuals, but it is determined by the ethical institutions of which the subject is a part. Therefore Hegel can say that, «[i]n an ethical community, it is easy to say what someone must do, what are the duties he has to fulfill in order to be virtuous: he has simply to follow the well-known and explicit rules of his own situation»35. What it means to be a caring father, an honest businessman or a patriotic citizen is not up for grabs by the individual. At the same time, the institutions within which it is objectively determined what it means to be good, caring, honest, and patriotic are not there anyway, independently of subjective activity but they are «actualized by self-conscious action»36. Just as practical normativity was already implicitly contained in the concept of freedom, it turns out that the social institutions of ethical life are inherent in the concept of practical normativity. The normative necessity that follows from understanding freedom as self-relating self-determination can only be guaranteed by social institutions because they are at the same time unassailable by individual caprice and yet – since the subject’s «spirit bears witness to them as to its own essence»37 – nothing external to subjective self-determination.

18The Philosophy of Right does not end with the claim that ethical life is internal to and thus necessary for freedom and practical normativity. Hegel continues to unpack the concept of ethical life, thus deriving family, civil society and the state as necessary moments of any complete ethical life. Since, in this paper, I am only interested in the general conceptual link between the freedom of the will, practical normativity and institutional reality, I will not trace these further developments of ethical life. Instead, I will now compare the accounts of the necessity of institutional reality offered by Searle and Hegel.

4. A Hegelian Critique of Searle’s Social Ontology

  • 38 Searle 2010: 133.
  • 39 Ibidem.
  • 40 I thank Giuliano Torrengo for pointing out this possible objection.

19Both Searle and Hegel see an intimate connection between free will, practical normativity, and institutional social reality. However, there are important and major differences when it comes to explaining this connection. On Searle’s account, freedom – understood as freedom of choice – and institutional reality are presupposed as existing independently of each other. Searle then tries to show that, if free beings are to have an institutional reality at all, it must be such that it provides objective practical reasons to free beings, or as Searle himself puts it: «Given our conscious experience of the gap, other sorts of structures that one can imagine will not do the job»38. Searle does not explain the fact that there actually is an institutional reality as something necessary. Rather, on his view, it appears to be simply a happy coincidence that humans inhabit a social world since «[t]he possibilities of life are increased enormously if you have the sorts of institutional structures I have described»39. It seems one could object that Searle explains the emergence of institutional structures by pointing towards an evolutionary advantage, thereby making the existence of said structures more than just a coincidence40. However, such an explanation consists in making sense of how something could come into existence, not that it necessarily had to. Evolution could have increased the «possibilities of life» in another way, without leading to an institutional social reality.

20Hegel agrees that institutional structures must be essentially normative in order for them to make sense to free beings, but he also stresses the fact that, pace Searle, it is essential for self-determining beings to live within a social world of free institutions. Therefore, Hegel’s claim is that if humans are to exist as free beings at all, they must exist within a social reality that grounds practical normativity and objectively binds free subjects precisely because this social reality is the objective expression of their very own essence as self-determining subjects. The difference between Searle and Hegel thus has its conceptual roots in their diverging understanding of freedom. While Searle’s conception of freedom, which he calls the gap, refers to the freedom to choose to do as one pleases, Hegel insists that the concept of free will itself yields a necessary content, thereby going beyond mere free choice. It is this much stronger notion of freedom as self-relating self-determination that – because of its internal necessity – proves to be inseparable from practical normativity. The latter in turn is conceptually stable only within the social and institutional reality that Hegel calls ethical life. In comparison to Searle’s account, the one given by Hegel offers a much stronger explanation for the interconnectedness of free will, practical normativity, and institutional reality, and thereby an explanation for there being a social reality at all as well as its being such as it is. At the same time, the theory of freedom that drives Hegel’s explanatory account of social reality exposes an internal inconsistency in Searle’s understanding of freedom. If freedom is limited to freedom of choice, it turns out to be essentially dependent on merely given content and therefore it cannot count as genuine self-determination.

  • 41 Searle 1995.
  • 42 Searle 2010: 201.
  • 43 Ibidem: 4.
  • 44 Taylor 1975: 381. The same point is made by Stephen Houlgate’s remark that «[l]ike marriage and the (...)

21If we say, against Searle and with Hegel, that institutional reality is not just enabling us to do certain things, but that it is essential for living a self-determined life, then some interesting consequences follow for the ontological status of social reality. Searle’s account of social reality is outspokenly antirealist. This can be seen in his talk of the «construction of social reality»41 or his insistence that, in the end, social entities are nothing but «products of massive fantasy»42. This ontological view is certainly due to Searle’s naturalist conviction according to which everything has to be derived from the basic facts that «are given by physics and chemistry, by evolutionary biology and the other natural sciences»43. However, even if one does not buy into the highly questionable metaphysical assumptions of naturalism, it seems questionable how one could endorse a non-constructivist view about social reality. Social reality obviously does not exist independently of the activity and self-understanding of individual human subjects. Contrary to widespread prejudices, Hegel does not think otherwise. In the brief overview of the basic argumentative steps of the Philosophy of Right that I have provided above, there is no talk of a disembodied spirit or of a social reality existing independently of human subjectivity in some pseudo-Platonic realm. On the contrary, Hegel stresses the fact that, as Charles Taylor puts it, «the objects of public experience, rite, festival, election etc. are not like facts of nature. For they are not entirely separable from the experience they give rise to. They are partly constituted by the ideas and interpretations which underlie them»44. The institutions and laws of ethical life depend on the self-understanding of human subjects that they are essentially free. Because human institutions do depend on the self-understanding of human subjects, institutional facts cannot be separated from what free subjects take themselves to be.

  • 45 Ikäheimo 2011: 148.

22At the same time, however, the constructivist ontology must be rejected from a Hegelian point of view because – and this is the decisive point – it is only in and through social reality that the alleged constructors, i.e. free subjects, come to be what they are. The constructivist view and its talk of social reality being the product of mass fantasy presupposes that the entities responsible for the alleged ontological construction are out there anyway and then – in a second and contingent step – construct the social world they inhabit. Hegel on the other hand defies this «typical move in the contemporary landscape of philosophical social ontology [that] is to take more or less full-fledged persons as given and discuss the rest of social reality as constituted by them»45. As we have seen, Hegel agues in the Philosophy of Right that it is only within the institutions of ethical life that self-determining subjectivity is actually achieved. Therefore, the atomistic scenario that the constructivist presupposes is inconsistent because free human beings are not just out there anyway, independently of a social world that grounds the practical normativity essential for the very freedom of these subjects.

  • 46 Hegel 1986: 62 (the translation is my own).
  • 47 Hegel 2008: § 257.
  • 48 Ibidem.

23Hegel’s position on the ontological status of social entities is nicely summed up by a quote from his Lectures on the Philosophy of History: «The state is an abstraction that has its reality, which by itself is only an abstract reality, in its citizens; but it [the state] is actual [wirklich46. The same goes for all social institutions. They only exist «immediately in custom [Sitte], [or] mediately in individual self-consciousness, knowledge, and activity»47, but at the same time the social institutions of ethical life are not accidental or external to human subjectivity because it is within family, civil society and the state that human subjects achieve true self-determination and find their «substantial freedom»48. That the state and other social institutions are actual thus means that it is in and through such institutions that humans exist as what they essentially are, i.e. self-determining subjects. As it turns out, it is not social reality that is the product of human fantasy but the constructivist assumption that free subjects exist as such independently of a social reality itself. The Hegelian insight I have tried to make plausible in this paper is that if humans are to exist as free beings, then they must exist as members of a social order that provides the practical normativity essential to leading a truly self-determined life.

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Ferraris, M.
– 2009, Documentality or Europe, “The Monist”, 92: 286-314

Hegel, G.W.F.
– 1986, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte. Theorie-Werkausgabe vol. 12, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp
– 2008, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, Eng. tr. by T.M. Knox, revised, edited and introduced by S. Houlgate, Oxford - New York, Oxford University Press

Houlgate, S.
– 2005, Freedom, Truth and History. An Introduction to Hegel, Malden-Oxford, Blackwell

Ikäheimo, H.
– 2011, Holism and normative essentialism in social ontology, in H. Ikäheimo and A. Laitinen (eds), Recognition and Social Ontology, Leiden-Boston, Brill: 145-209

Luckner, A.
– 2005, Klugheit, Berlin - New York, de Gruyter

Martin, Ch.
– 2012, Ontologie der Selbstbestimmung, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck

Searle, J.
– 1996, The Construction of Social Reality, London, Penguin
– 1998, Social ontology and the philosophy of society, “Analyse und Kritik”, 20: 143-158
– 2010, Making the Social World, Oxford - New York, Oxford University Press

Taylor, C.
– 1975, Hegel, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Quante, M. and Schweikard, D.
– 2009, Leading a universal life. The systematic relevance of Hegel’s social philosophy, “History of the Human Sciences”, 22: 58-78

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1 Cf. Searle 2010. For his first attempt at a social ontology see Searle 1996.

2 Searle 2010: 143.

3 Ibidem.

4 Ibidem: 143.

5 Ibidem: 137.

6 Ibidem: 87.

7 For this distinction between weak and strong practical normativity see Luckner 2005. In the following, I will, unless indicated otherwise, use the term “practical normativity” to refer to its strong version.

8 Ibidem: 123.

9 Ibidem: 129.

10 Ibidem: 137

11 Ibidem: 133.

12 Cf. Searle’s thought experiment about the impossibility of unconscious robots having institutions that provide deontic powers, ibidem: 135 ff.

13 Ibidem: 138.

14 Ibidem: 138 f.

15 Searle 1998: 149. See also Searle 1996: 25. Even Maurizio Ferraris, who is quite critical of Searle’s social ontology, depicts Hegel as being committed to the existence of absurd metaphysical super-entities: «In fact, there is in the Hegelian notion of “spirit” an underlying misunderstanding, the idea that an autonomous entity exists, which has no physical foundation, and which is objectified in institutions or manifests itself independently from them in the form of the absolute spirit.» Ferraris 2009: 301. However, there is also a growing number of scholars who try to show that contemporary philosophical debates in all fields can still learn a lot from Hegel. For Hegel and his relation to contemporary social ontology see Quante and Schweikard 2009, and Ikäheimo 2011.

16 See Martin 2012.

17 Hegel 2008: §§ 5-7.

18 Houlgate 2005: 183 f.

19 Hegel 2008: § 27.

20 Ibidem: § 29.

21 Ibidem: § 34.

22 Ibidem: §§ 35 f.

23 Ibidem: §§ 41 f.

24 Ibidem: § 82.

25 Ibidem: § 104.

26 Ibidem: § 114.

27 Ibidem: § 129.

28 Ibidem: § 133.

29 Ibidem: § 135.

30 Ibidem: § 135 remark.

31 Ibidem: § 144 addition.

32 Ibidem: § 146 remark.

33 Ibidem: § 144.

34 Ibidem.

35 Ibidem: § 150 remark.

36 Ibidem: § 142.

37 Ibidem: § 147.

38 Searle 2010: 133.

39 Ibidem.

40 I thank Giuliano Torrengo for pointing out this possible objection.

41 Searle 1995.

42 Searle 2010: 201.

43 Ibidem: 4.

44 Taylor 1975: 381. The same point is made by Stephen Houlgate’s remark that «[l]ike marriage and the corporations, the state does not have an existence of its own, independent of the human beings who constitute it and who are conscious of being part of it, and so is not to be compared to natural objects which exist whether or nor we are aware of them.» (Houlgate 2005: 207)

45 Ikäheimo 2011: 148.

46 Hegel 1986: 62 (the translation is my own).

47 Hegel 2008: § 257.

48 Ibidem.

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Notizia bibliografica

Sebastian Ostritsch, «Hegel and Searle on the Necessity of Social Reality»Rivista di estetica, 57 | 2014, 205-218.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Sebastian Ostritsch, «Hegel and Searle on the Necessity of Social Reality»Rivista di estetica [Online], 57 | 2014, online dal 01 novembre 2014, consultato il 14 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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