© John Searle and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Searle was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis on November 19th, 2012
Professor Searle received his Doctorate at the University of Oxford and he is currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His work ranges broadly over philosophical problems of mind and language. Recent books include The Mystery of Consciousness (1997), Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (1998), Rationality in Action (2001), Mind (2004), and Liberté et Neurobiologie (2004). He teaches philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of social science; recent seminars topics include consciousness, free will, and rationality. He received the Jean Nicod Prize in 2000 and the National Humanities Medal in 2004. Among his notable concepts are the “Chinese room” argument against “strong” artificial intelligence.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
There was no exact point at which I decided to become a university professor. The way that my career evolved was this. When I entered the university at the age of seventeen, I thought this was the first time in my life that I had really been in an institution where I felt completely comfortable and happy. It seemed to me wonderful that one could spend one’s life investigating exciting ideas and trying to solve important questions. It was a long time before I chose an area of study, and it was not really until my second year in Oxford that I thought I might become a professional philosopher. The worry that I had, and I guess it is a common worry, was that I was not sure whether I was good enough to do it at a level that I thought was acceptable. But in the end I did satisfy myself and have been a professional philosopher now for fifty-seven years.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I am not sure that “mentor” is the right word to describe people who have influenced me. But in my profession, philosophically, I have been most influenced by Peter Strawson and J.L. Austin. What I acquired from Austin was a certain carefulness about getting things clear and getting them right. I could never do philosophy the way Austin did it; but a certain style of approaching problems and a certain deep commitment to clarity and truth, I think, I do share with Austin.
There is a sense in which I learned to do the subject from Peter Strawson when he was my tutor. I could not readily summarize what it was, but I think it was largely a matter of going for the center of a philosophical problem, never being satisfied with the periphery.
I think the thing I got most out of my Oxford education in philosophy was a deep commitment to trying to speak the truth. It is perhaps important to emphasize this because all sorts of false and nonsensical things are said in philosophy. The situation is probably as bad now as it has ever been in my lifetime.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
There is a sociological dimension to this question that I am not really competent to discuss. But I can talk about my own experience. I do not see much change in the conception that I have of the professorial life between now and which I had when I first began university work all those decades ago. I think simply it is the most wonderful life one could possibly have. You are given enormous freedom and autonomy. You get to make your own decisions of what work to do, even which days on which to teach, what courses to teach, what books to write. It gives you enormous freedom, more than any other profession I know. Furthermore, if you love the intellectual subject that you are working on, you get paid to do things that you would do for nothing, or that you would pay for the opportunity to do. Not least of its delights is that you get to work with intelligent young people at what is, in many ways, the best years of their lives. Their lives are not yet weighted down by jobs, mortgages, marriages, taxes, children, divorces, and all the other things that occupy much of adult life.
There are some negative parts to the professorial life. There is a certain amount of bureaucratic boredom that attaches to it. And if I had to say the most disappointing thing about academic life is discovering how few professors really are deeply committed to intellectual values. The situation has gotten worse in the past several decades, where a certain conception of the humanities was, to some extent, undermined by a series of anti-rational and irrational ideological movements, generally going under the name of “post-modernism”. My impression is that these were so intellectually feeble as, more or less, to die under the weight of their own preposterousness. But I am not sure about that; they may still be influential in some humanities departments. However, post-modernism has almost no influence in the better philosophy departments.
So, on balance, I think it is a wonderful mode of existence. It has been and remained all of my life. People often lament how poorly paid professors are, but again I am not sure that it is true. I have never suffered any financial desperation as a result of having chosen an academic career.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload?
Again, I teach the same way I always have; and in fact I think there has been very little change in what makes a good teacher since the time of Aristotle. I think my students are more distracted by the technology than was the case 50 years ago, and the way I cope with this is that I do not allow any use of computers in my class. You cannot have your laptop open while I am lecturing. I think, tacitly, I have always abolished the use of cellphones and iPads; and my students just put up with this.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?
McLuhan was wrong about this question as he was wrong about so many other things. Philosophy departments are as strong as they have ever been. “Interdisciplinary” has become a kind of favorable buzz word, but it often is an excuse for people trying to talk about subjects they know nothing about. However, it is not all bad and I think sometimes you can learn a lot by looking at other people’s work. For example, I have learned a lot from studying neurobiology. Just as early on I learned a lot by studying linguistics. I do not think the university is in a crisis or under threat. On the contrary, the changes in society make university level education and university research more important than ever.
In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?
I feel about tenure as Winston Churchill felt about democracy: it is the worst system there is, except for all the others. I can tell you everything that is wrong with tenure. It establishes mediocrities in positions in which they cannot be removed and in which they do not do a good job. A good feature is that it does give freedom and security. If there was some way to remove deadbeats from university faculties without removing the good people, without destroying the good features, I would welcome it. In short, I would like to see tenure abolished, but only if there could be a system that achieves the same thing. And I do not know of such a system.
Can you say a few words on where we are, today, in the externalism-internalism debate?
I have never been able to see any merit in the arguments for externalism. The most famous account is probably Putnam’s Twin Earth argument. I think he did succeed in showing that the checklist conception of the definition of general terms is inadequate. So it will not do to try to define water as a “clear, colorless, tasteless liquid, etc”. I think there may be a causal and indexical component in the definition. So, for example, water is identical with any substance that bears the relation “same liquid” to whatever is causing this visual experience. In other words water is defined in terms of an indexical definition. But the falsity of the checklist conception does not show the truth of externalism. Internalism is the view that the resources of the mind are sufficient to fix the conditions of satisfaction of intentional states in general and the meanings of words in particular. I have never seen any effective argument against this, and I think most of the arguments really reveal a failure to understand the nature of indexicality.
What is your position on anti-individualism?
Similar remarks apply to individualism. I have responded to Burge’s anti-individualism and I have not seen any effective replies to my attempts to refute anti-individualism.
Can you tell us about your theories of Background and Network, and how they explain human intentionality?
The Network and the Background are not designed to “explain” Intentionality. The explanation is biological. We are endowed with neurobiological capacities that enable us through perception, thought, and intention-in-action, for example, to relate to objects and states of affairs in the world. In my investigation of how this works I am forced to postulate a type of holism, not only the holism of the Network, but a holism of a Background that is presupposed by the Network. The Network is the set of intentional states that enable an intentional state to function. So, for example, I now believe that Barack Obama is President of the United States. But in order to have that belief I have to have a whole lot of other beliefs: that United States is a republic, that it has elections, that the winner of the election will get a majority vote in the Electoral College, etc. etc. Furthermore in order to have an intention to do something, such as the intention I have to go skiing next weekend, I have to presuppose a whole lot of Background abilities: my ability to ski, my ability to cope with roads and highways and snow conditions, etc. So the Network and the Background do not explain Intentionality, but they do add to the description of how it works in real life. I used to think it ought to be possible to make a principled distinction between the Network and the Background, but I now believe that it is impossible; briefly because much of the Network is unconscious, but the unconscious network when unconscious satisfies the definition of the Background, it consists of a set of abilities.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
My advice would be the same today as it had always had been. Work hard. Think hard. Avoid bullshit.
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