07 October 2016

Institutional Facts & Language: Social Reality (II)

Part II of a V part essay. Begin with Part I.

"The central span on the bridge from physics
to society is collective intentionality."
- John Searle

Stipulating the nature of functions, we now need only add one more ingredient to begin to see how social reality is constructed. This is collective intentionality.

As with my essay on Searle's philosophy of mind, we need to be clear about what this word intentionality means. The word comes from a Latin verb tendere 'to be tense' (probably cognate with Sanskrit √tan, whence tantra). With the prefix in- it comes to mean 'directed at'. "In medieval logic and philosophy, the Latin word intentio was used for what contemporary philosophers and logicians nowadays call a ‘concept’" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). A conscious state is intentional if it is directed at or to objects and states of affairs in the world. Sensations like pain are not usually thought of as intentional, but thoughts about being in pain could be. The phenomena of intending is only incidental to this usage; it is only one kind of intentionality and not definitive.

Searle notes that we humans and many animals do things together. For humans to cooperate requires that we have conscious states which are intentional in the same way, i.e. states refer to the same objects, and to the same goals, at the same time. Suppose that a group of builders are going to build a house. They all have to look at the plans and understand how they map onto the site. They all have to look at the project and know what stage it is at. They must coordinate their activities so that everything that is required (drainage, utilities, foundations, walls, roof, etc) is included in the project and at the right time. They have to cooperate on some tasks to make them happen. This requires that they have common reference points, common understanding, common knowledge, and common motivations. Thus we can say that there is collective intentionality.

A lot of philosophy, particularly philosophy of mind, focusses on individuals. But humans are social and any philosophy of mind in which this commonality is not an obvious and significant feature is just not interesting.

Collective intentionality allows us to agree to refer to some object or person as performing some function. And by function here I mean specifically function as defined in the preceding part of this essay. The screwdriver is a rather trivial example, that helps to establish the idea. As I said, the function of screw driver is an observer relative feature of the object. A naive observer could not the intrinsic features of the object and not think of it as serving the function of turning screws. The function requires intentionality. Social reality requires collective intentionality.

Money is a more compelling example. Money can only function as money if we all agree that it is money and act as though this agreement holds. Nowadays the function of being money is almost unrelated to any intrinsic feature of the objects that serve as tokens of money. We require our monetary token be durable, distinctive, and difficult to copy, but it is not intrinsically valuable. Paper money is almost worthless as an object. However, money as such is an abstraction that need not have any physical representation. Money is a symbol: it performs the function of symbolising wealth.

Another apposite example is government. Being a ruler, despite what rulers themselves have said down the ages, is not an intrinsic quality of a person. It's a function that requires collective intentionality. We all have to agree to the leader being the leader. A leader may not even be very good at leading. No one ever said of a water molecule that it wasn't very good at being wet. Leaders cannot lead if followers do not consent to follow. The British political landscape is replete with examples of leaders who the people, party, or government would not follow. 

Searle has created a shorthand for functions:

X counts as Y in C

C here stands for context; the conditions which much hold for us to agree to the imposition of the function. The relation is that there is agreement under certain circumstances to impose the function Y on object/person X. X carries out the function of Y, in a particular context. For example a £5 note counts as money in the United Kingdom if it is issued by the UK government (or certain Scottish banks) consistent with the relevant laws. Barrack Obama counts as "Mr President" for a limited period in the context of having won election to the office and having taken the oath of office. I count as Dharmacārin Jayarava in the context of the having been ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order by Nāgabodhi on my ordination retreat in 2005. I also have the function of son, i.e. I count as a son of Peter and Durelle, in the context of my family; and because they had other sons, I count as brother to them.

Society can be described in terms of rules taking this form. However, keep in mind that rules and collective agreements by themselves don't make a society. Later (Part IV) we will see that Searle does not believe that we follow rules per se, but that rules shape dispositions so that we behave in ways that are consistent with rules, without necessarily referring to them consciously or unconsciously.

As an aside, compare this with Lakoff and Johnson: "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (2003: 5). Metaphors allows us to think about a target domain, as if it were the source domain. In other words, in the context of a metaphor, the target domain counts as the source domain. Once I map the idea of an object onto thoughts, I can verbally apply to thoughts, any action that is relevant to objects. This looks like the same relation as being described by Searle. Can we then say that the nature of Searle's relation is essentially metaphorical? A £5 note is money. Theresa May is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. No statement of this form is true because of some external reality, but only because we ascent to X counts as Y. This probably requires more thought, but I think there is potential for some synthesis here. I may be the first person to notice the similarity, because I don't see any other discussion of it.

Coming back to the main point, money only works because we collectively agree on it. When we stop agreeing, as sometimes happens in countries with hyper-inflation for example, then money stops working. Even officially issued tokens cannot function as money if people lose confidence in them. When a central bank starts issuing 100 trillion dollar notes, as happened in Zimbabwe, you stop taking them seriously and start using something more stable as money or you go back to bartering. Money is a fact, in the same way as the screwdriver was a fact. Money is defined socially by collective intentionality rather than by any appeal to ontology or reality. Searle calls this an institutional fact.

Modern money has no basis in physical reality whatever. It is entirely based on ideas and symbols of wealth; where wealth is itself an abstraction from concepts of value; and value is a concept combined with an emotional response. Money per se is therefore ontologically subjective. However, if I pull out a fiver, i.e. a £5 note, the note itself, the paper/plastic and ink, does physically exist. A £5 note is ontologically objective (the only people who doubt this are philosophers) even though the function and the value of the note are ontologically subjective. As above, the brute physical facts of the note are more or less unrelated to its function as money. Whether made of paper or plastic, for example, a fiver is a fiver. There is no doubt that a £5 note is money and we know it is money, and we know that the value of a £5 note is £5. These facts are epistemically objective.

This differentiation of facts is really very important. We can and do have facts that are not ontologically objective and not in any way related to brute physical facts, not based on reality, but which are still unequivocally facts. Despite not being real in the widely understood sense, such facts are never-the-less true. It is straight-forwardly true that a £5 note is money in the UK and yet this statement has no basis in reality. A £5 note is only money because of the collective agreement that it counts as money. And this relation is true of government, schools, hospitals, roads, clubs, associations, families, parties, playgrounds, traffic lights, etc.

Next time you step out of your house imagine what your world would be like if everyone simply withdrew their consent to follow these rules. Almost everything we see in the world around us functions as it does only because we agree that it does. Almost everything could go the way of the Zimbabwean Dollar. Imagine if we had to consciously decide what was what, and negotiate every detail of every interaction with every person we met. It would be chaotic. The fact that our Western Industrialised world works at all is remarkable, let alone that it works well.

This observation about the nature of social facts has far reaching implications. There is an the argument that because consciousness is subjective, that it does not exist or is an illusion; or another argument that because of the ontological subjectivity of consciousness, that we can never have objective knowledge of it. The same arguments are clearly false when applied to money or any other facet of our social worlds. So why do we treat these arguments as true when applied to consciousness? However, I'm going to leave this question hanging and continue on.

Society would not work well if anyone could declare anything to be money. Money must have some relation to wealth. If there is more money than wealth, then money is devalued.  If money is worth less, it buys less, and we get price inflation. Price inflation devalues many forms of wealth (such as savings or fixed assets). Deflation is also problematic. Managing the supply of money is an important role of government, even though banks create by far the great majority of all money through issuing debt. A government can create more money simply by allowing banks to create more debt - the 2008 financial crisis was underpinned by banks issuing too much debt. For a bank, a debt they issue generates income in the form of interest payments. In economics this is a form of rent (a form of wealth accumulation that requires no effort or labour, but relies on appropriating the wealth of others). So-called "quantitative easing" is sometimes called "printing money", but in fact it involves the government buying debts from banks. This frees the banks to issue more debt, thereby increasing the supply of money. A government does this when inflation is too low and there is a risk of deflation. In deflation prices fall and consumers defer purchases in anticipation of getting a bargain. The lack of demand further depresses prices. Both inflation and deflation are susceptible to positive feedback. There are many historical examples of runaway inflation or deflation wrecking an economy. This whole set up is ontologically subjective, but none-the-less we can have epistemically objective knowledge about it.

We collectively impose the function of managing money on government, which largely exercises this function though regulating banks. We elect the government and thus impose the function of member of parliament (or whatever title our country uses) on those we elect. Government imposes the function of central bank on the Bank of England. The Bank of England has a governor who oversees and implements the functions of the bank, one of which is regulating and over-seeing the behaviour of banks. And so on. Such functions are iterative. We can diagram this iterability like this:

Y1 in context C1 becomes X2 in context C1,2. I've tried to show that the context aspect of this model is cumulative. In line two, the context in line 1, C1, is still important. Hence the notation C1,2. In this case we can see that the relation X1 counts as Y1 is part of the context C2. So not only is the structure of these relations iterative, it is also interconnected. Society is based on a network of interconnected, iterated relations of this kind.

Something else happens when we impose a function on an object or person. With the function comes a status. In order for X to act as Y, we have to treat X as if it is Y. X has to have a change of status consistent with the imposed function. Status and function coexist. As Searle puts it:
"Collective intentionality assigns a new status to some phenomena, where that status has an accompanying function that cannot be performed solely in virtue of the intrinsic physical features of the phenomenon in question." (46)
"Collective agreement about the possession of the status is constitutive of having the status, and having the status is essential to the performance of the function assigned to that status." (51)
In assigning a status to X than enables X to count as Y, we can say that X is empowered to count as Y. The imposition of the function is thus both an act of power and an empowerment to act. So the rules governing institutional facts involve: functions, statuses, and powers. Neither function, status, nor power are related to the intrinsic physical properties of the object or person they apply to; they rely only on the collective intention that X counts as Y. Indeed it is quite possible to appoint X as Y, only to discover that X is not a very good Y. But not being a very good Y, does not stop X from counting as Y, until the collective intentionality is withdrawn.

We now need to look more closely at the issue of empowerment and power.

~ Status and Power ~

When we impose social functions, at the same time we impose a social status on the object or person who carries out the function. The example of money can illustrate this process. A £5 note counts as money. This imposes the function of money on the paper/plastic and ink of the note. By general agreement (i.e. collective intentionality) the note is money. The £5 note has the status that comes with being money. It can be used for all transactions where money represents wealth or value. In the American phrase it is "legal tender for all debts public and private". Status in he human world often comes with a label or title: mother, father, mayor, Prime Minister, priest, cab driver, etc. In some cases, having the status requires some kind of indicator. Examples include a wedding ring, a soldier's uniform, a bishop's mitre, and so on. Other status functions merely require general acknowledgement.
"Where the institution demands more of its participants that it can extract by force, where consent is essential, a great deal of pomp, ceremony, and razzamatazz is used in such a way as to suggest that something more is going on than simply acceptance of [the institutional fact]." (Searle 1995: 118)
The social status associated with the function is important in understanding social reality because status exists in a hierarchy. Human societies, like most primate groups, are constituted as loose, nested, hierarchies. Our position in the hierarchy is to some extent defined by the functions we carry out. And the functions we carry out are largely those imposed on us by collective intentionality. In other words our overall status in any social group is also determined by collective intentionality, more than by features which are intrinsic to us.

At least as important as the bestowal of status along with a function is that "in general the creation of status functions is a matter of conferring some new power" (95). Several different kinds of power may be involved in conferring status-functions: symbolic, deontic, honorific, or procedural. I'll deal with symbolic power here and deontic power in the next essay. For the others see Searle (1995).

The symbolic function refers mainly to powers that we impose on verbal phenomena. Some noises we make with our mouths are count as words; some collections of words count as sentences. In other words language is a power that we humans collectively impose upon our own utterances. Language is not intrinsic to any utterance and many utterances are not language. Without collective intentionality language could not work. The rest of this essay is about language in this sense and how it contributes to social reality.

~ Language ~

Some people invested with a status-function are empowered to authorise new institutional facts, which they may do by making a declaration. A declaration is a particular kind of speech act, i.e. something that we do with speech, rather than something we mean by it. This is the essential distinction between pragmatic and semantic approaches to language; a distinction that Searle was instrumental in establishing. When the Governor of the Bank of England declares, this £5 note is legal tender (by having "I promise to pay the bearer the amount of five pounds" and the signature of the Chief Cashier "for the governor" printed on the note), it becomes, in fact, legal tender. As above this fact is epistemically objective, but ontologically subjective. One of the paradigmatic examples of this kind of declaration occurs in a marriage ceremony.

A modern marriage ceremony has two parts: verbal and written. Typically the couple each declare their willingness to marry, recite vows outlining the duties and responsibilities that each undertakes. If the marriage celebrant is satisfied they then say - "I now pronounce you to be spouses". In days gone the marriage would be a fact at this point. However, nowadays governments wish to regulate marriage so they have imposed a layer of bureaucracy. So once the traditional ceremony is completely, the celebrant, couple, and witnesses have to sign the marriage licence, which is a legally binding contract whose terms are dictated by state law. The signature is another type of declaration - it symbolises ascent to taking on the legal obligations of marriage as defined by the state. Signing the licence is a declaration that one accepts the legal contract. It is only once the paperwork is filed that the state recognises the change in legal status of the individuals and starts treating them as a couple. The declaration of willingness and vows are often felt by the couple to be significant moments in their life. But if they should decide to separate the legal contract dominates the proceedings. Rich folk try to get around state laws by having pre-nuptial agreements that allow one or both spouses to contract out of their rights under state law.

Declarations can be explicit verbal statements like "I do" or printing "this note is legal tender" on money. Or they can be implicit statements. Sometimes a lack of any specific gesture or statement. The English habit of lining up at bus stops on a first come, first served basis is only ever commented on if someone tries to jump the queue. Silently agreeing to line up, without in any way acknowledging any of the other passengers, is a declaration that one accepts that such a queue counts as fair. It is one of the few areas of English society where there is no deference to status indicators such as pin-striped suits. Many of us simply acquiesce to the rules of the society we are born into; a few want to question every rule. 

Language itself only works because of collective intentionality, i.e. we all agree that certain verbal sounds count as words; that certain words count as representing concepts; that certain combinations of words count as sentences, and so on. So language is itself an institutional fact. But language is also special because, according to Searle, all institutional facts must be declared in some form, whether verbally or symbolically (e.g. a signature on a marriage licence); explicitly or tacitly. Language is thus constitutive of society, because it is constitutive of institutional facts. Without language we could not have society. For Searle, language underpins all other institutional facts because they require that some authority declares that X counts as Y, one way or another.

I want to take a brief digression to raise a quibble about this definition. For example, the institution of alpha-male in chimpanzee groups has the same structure. Drawing on an example from Jane Goodall's In The Shadow of Man: [The Chimp called] Mike counts as the alpha-male of the Gombe Stream troop in the context of having won the charging display through judicious use of empty kerosene cans which make a loud noise when knocked about (this was captured on film and featured in a National Geography documentary t=14:00). Mike becomes the alpha-male and is acknowledged as such by the others in the troop. Therefore the chimps display collective intentionality with respect to Mike. Furthermore this relationship takes the form of a Searlean institutional fact: X counts as Y in context C, but in a non-linguistic setting.

Chimp and bonobo researcher Frans de Waal recently mentioned in an interview on BBC-Radio4 that although chimps can be aggressive, they also actively reconcile after conflicts (peace making) and also console others who came off worse in conflicts (empathy). He notes that even a small male may become the alpha-male if he can form the necessary coalition. And if he does he is expected to reciprocate with offers of food, and allowing confederates a chance to mate with females, etc. In other words the alpha-male gets privileges, but must also share them. Female chimps also play active roles in supporting candidates for alpha and helping to build coalitions. All of this is rather different from the popular emphasis on testosterone laden males fighting it out for dominance. In fact the group has to reach a consensus on the candidate and the role has a good deal of reciprocity built into it (there is a deontological element to the role of alpha-male, a subject I will return to in Part III). This is even stronger evidence of collective intentionality in chimps. I'll be returning to the work of de Waal on the evolution of morality very soon. He has shot to the top of my non-fiction reading list.

So at the very least for chimpanzees, language per se is not essential to institutional facts. There still has to be a "declaration". The alpha male has to put on a charging display; other chimps, especially large males, have to acknowledge the alpha as alpha, and he in return must carry out the obligations of alpha. However, beyond being member of the troop, some family relationships, and alpha-male, chimp society can sustain no other social institutions. Language is what makes complex human societies possible by allowing us to make a large number of status-functions into facts through declarative speech acts representing our collective intentionality.

I noted that these status-functions confer authority for making declarations on those upon whom they are imposed. This suggests that there is a deontological element to status-functions. This turns out to be a characteristic of status-functions. Status-functions impose rights, duties, and obligations on those who carry out the functions. And deontology is the subject of the next essay in the series.


~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Foucault, Michel. (1983) The Subject and Power, in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd ed.) edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 208-226.  Original Publication: Le sujet et le pouvoir (Gallimard, D&E Vol.4 1982). Online: http://foucault.info/doc/documents/foucault-power-en-html

Goodall, Jane. (1971). In the Shadow of Man. London: Collins.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]. University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press. Originally published as La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir, 1979

MedicalXpress. (2016) Children overeagerly seek social rules. September 27, 2016 http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-09-children-overeagerly-social.html/ [Commenting on Schmidt M. F. H (2016)]

Medical Xpress. (2012) Toddlers object when people break the rules. http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-07-toddlers-people.html July 26, 2012 [commenting on Schmidt 2012)

Schmidt, M. F. H. & Tomasello, M. (2012) Young Children Enforce Social Norms. Psychological Science. 21(4), 232-236. doi: 10.1177/0963721412448659

Schmidt, M. F. H. et al. (2016) Young Children See a Single Action and Infer a Social Norm: Promiscuous Normativity in 3-Year-Olds, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616661182

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur". https://youtu.be/edn8R7ojXFg

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.
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