Social Reality

Sunday, May 20, 2012
First Aired: 
Sunday, August 1, 2010

What Is It

Few things affect our lives as much as the fact that we are citizens of one country rather than another.  The government of, the economy of, and the rights recognized and opportunities provided by the country we live in shape our lives.  But how real are any of these facts and things?  Without human beliefs, and societies of humans, there would be no states, no facts of citizenship, no money, and few opportunities.  Are our lives built on ontological fluff?  Ken and John discuss the metaphysics of the social with famed philosopher John Searle, author of Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. This program was recorded live at the Marsh theatre in Berkeley.

Listening Notes

Money, debutante balls, universities, even nations—each of these is in some sense a shared illusion, a social reality rooted in certain conventions and rules. Such social realities can dictate how we view the world around us and, in turn, influence our choices and decisions. Given the importance of social realities, John and Ken discuss how is it possible for humans to bring such things into being simply through agreeing that they exist. John proposes that social realities arise out of the natural world, but Ken expresses his doubts about John’s reductionism.

John Searle joins the discussion and proposes that social realities exist precisely because we represent them as existing, both in our minds and through the use of speech acts. In Searle’s view, whenever there is a structured procedure with a set of standard expectations—from sessions of Congress to fraternity parties—there is the potential for creating a social reality. Ken questions the necessity of language in this process, wondering if other animals might possess cruder forms of social realities through common mental representations. Searle stresses that our abilities to assign functions to objects and to obey conventions that go against our immediate inclinations seem to separate us from other animals. These human capacities allow us to delegate powers, duties, and rights to individuals or institutions, giving our mental representations practical groundings in the social sphere.

Human civilization has changed over the course of its existence, and with these changes once ubiquitous social realities have vanished and new ones have risen up to replace them. The trio considers the possible social realities of the future, as well as the complex ways in which social institutions alter our lives and are then altered by our evaluations of them. The most effective institutions, Searle argues, don’t openly broadcast the fact that they are socially constructed at all.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 6:17): Zoe Corneli talks with satirist Merle Kessler (pen name Ian Shoales) about how we create our particular realities based on the communities in which we participate. Earlier in human history, people tended to identify with and hence participate in communities based on their geographical location and social status, but the Internet and other technological innovations have allowed us to participate in communities based on shared interests and past-times. Shoales considers the future of these trends, pointing out that the modern phenomena of chat rooms and social networking sites stem from a natural desire to belong.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 49:40): Ian Shoales discusses the controversial remarks of Afghani president Hamid Karzai, whether government officials can speak accurately on behalf of their countries’ citizens, and the difficulties of living life on the fringes of the so-called international community.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, March 12, 2022 -- 8:06 AM

In researching the subject

In researching the subject (reality) and the shows devoted to it, it was found that reality exists in many forms. As that is the case, it is a fertile topic. I have some familiarity with Searle and his work. And a hint of the levels-of-reality also mentioned in the blog archive. I have heard Searle both praised and reviled., Am not really interested in either stance or reasons there for. He systematized social foundations for one sort of reality, and wrote and lectured about his findings and theses. Nothing wrong with that. Someone else could have done as well.

So, reality is much like truth. It may be self-evident; found or made. Whether the found and/or made varieties are useful depends on who believes them; whether there are stakeholders; and, moreover, whether there are large sums of money involved. All of these criteria need not be met, but it sure does help. Religious beliefs and political ideologies are, generally, found or made. Some may claim that democracy is a 'natural' state, but any belief about it is ultimately based on freedom and self-determination---I submit these were found and/or made; never were they self-evident. And, whichever the case, those who claim self-evidence, probably had vested interests, a priori. I have asserted something I call contextual reality. This accounts for, encompasses most of Searles' designations. It also takes into consideration mass and popular culture and the oppressive pandemia of extremism, under which some feel compelled to risk life and limb, in order to gain group acceptance (no fear!). Contextual reality is, I claim, forever changing and eminently changeable.

I also think, though have no means of proof, that John Searles' ideas stoked admirers and detractors alike, and that he knew, at least intuitively that they would do so.. His admirers were agents-of-change themselves, believing we should know all we could know about societal change---how and why it happens. The detractors, status quo seekers, feared social change and upheaval, knowing further that such forces could be unpredictable and disruptive. It was not the first time a philosopher had scared people.

Well. You may believe as you will. We are in the age of contextual reality. Postmodernism is one outcome of that diaspora. Extremist views and recklessness are others. Thanks.

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