John Searle Assesses and Advises


Tim Crane interviewed John Searle, and all he got was a lousy t-shirt another dimissal of the state of contemporary philosophy: “It’s in terrible shape!”  Searle also talks about his influences, discusses his new book on perception, makes what we can charitably call an “opening move” on the topic of human rights, and offers some advice to young philosophers:

Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at nights, and work on them with passion…. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.

I can’t figure out what to make of this. I don’t think that the main reason “so very few” students come up with their own philosophical problems is that their professors have been bullying them into accepting their conception of what counts as a legitimate philosophical problem. Two other explanations come to mind. One is that their professors have a pretty good idea of what counts as a legitimate philosophical problem and so it is no surprise that some of their students would want to take up these problems, too. And since it seems that there are many extant philosophical questions on which more work could be done, it is not clear that this is a problem. The other explanation is that coming up with new philosophical problems is not easy. So it is not surprising that fewer students do so.

So yes, young philosophers, work on questions that genuinely worry you. And don’t take existing ways of framing the conceptual landscape for granted. And don’t be afraid to formulate new questions (and be sure to explain how these new questions hook up with or speak to or replace or otherwise relate to the old ones). And hey you profs who don’t like to see your students do these great  things, well, come out of John Searle’s imagination and defend yourselves.

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whitefrozen
6 years ago

It’ the professors.Report

James Camien McGuiggan
James Camien McGuiggan
6 years ago

I’m sure Searle means something a bit more sophisticated than this. Here’s what he could mean. We all have ideas about what counts as philosophy, what philosophical questions are tractable, what philosophical areas are sufficiently worked on that there’s a base on which to build something rigorous and what areas are sufficiently unworked on that there’s more to be said, what questions are large enough and small enough to fit into the three years’ research and 70,000 words of a PhD, what we are competent to supervise, etc. Searle has such ideas as much as his opponents. Supervisors will advise their students away from what they see as inappropriate questions. When the student refuses to listen, the responsible supervisor will be more forceful. But if the supervisor’s ideas on these matters are too rigid or narrow, it is going to look like he is bullying the student. And perhaps he is, if he has not tried sufficiently hard to see things in the student’s way and supervise the student in a way that suits her, and, more generally, to see things in other ways than his own and to be competent to supervise ways of doing philosophy other than his own.

The charge then, has to be that contemporary analytic philosophers do not try sufficiently hard to see things in other ways and be competent to supervise ways of doing philosophy other than their own, and so, in urging and persuading their students to engage in what they (the supervisors) see as the only workable philosophical questions, end up bullying them.

This is controversial, of course, but it’s not obviously false. There’s a terrible paucity of research on topics such as wisdom and the meaning of life; I’ve been told by a brilliant philosopher of language that the entire field of aesthetics is a waste of time; a friend of mine was bullied away from her desired BA dissertation topic of Dostoevsky and freedom toward compatibilism, which she hated so much that she gave up philosophy. I did do my own thing philosophically (because I’m an arrogant white male, and not easily bullied), but I felt enormous pressure in my Master’s to find my research passion to be something more respectable, ideally with symbols. This is all anecdotal, to be sure, but the accumulation of it in my own experience leaves me in agreement with Searle. Perhaps my experience isn’t representative, but I’m glad Searle said what he did, because at the very least we need to discuss this.Report

David Kaspar
David Kaspar
6 years ago

Searle might be speaking of two things here. Though questions and problems can overlap, and any philosophical problem can be put in a question form, there are questions of a large order that often seem not to be considered philosophical problems today, though current broadening trends are heartening. What he says is that young philosophers ‘should ‘take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at nights, and work on them with passion’. He then moves to problems: ‘so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems’. I am not sure that Searle had questions such as ‘What kind of being am I?’ ‘How can I think?’ etc in mind. But I think that attempting to answer these questions can be very philosophically fruitful, even if our answers aren’t large enough to suitably cover the questions.

‘How can I know anything?’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘What is the world?’ ‘How should I live?’ are very important questions that move people to philosophize. In the process of trying to answer them we will encounter many philosophical theories and philosophical problems along the way. Philosophical problems will spring up uninvited, whether we like it or not.

But when we focus solely on philosophical problems, attempt to separate the legitimate ones from the illegitimate, and believe that professors can recognize the difference, we might even unintentionally limit the approaches we can take to solving philosophical problems. I’m not proposing ‘anything goes’ for what can be considered a philosophical problem. Far from it. But if, for example, a young philosopher thinks that to account for the way the world is, ‘essences’ must be a part of the story, whether they are working pre- or post-*Naming and Necessity* will have a large part in whether what they are doing is considered a legitimate philosophical problem. So if it is 1977 and a professor says accounting for essences is not a legitimate philosophical problem , and if a professor in 1987 says it is, what kind of knowledge does the one have that the other does not?Report

Marcus Hedahl
Marcus Hedahl
6 years ago

Notice Searle said
“We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems.”

and you say in response (in a manner that suggests that this is already happening)
“So yes, young philosophers … Don’t be afraid to formulate new questions”

But then quickly add:
“and be sure to explain how these new questions hook up with or speak to or replace or otherwise relate to the old ones”

But therein, it seems, lies the rub. There’s the requirement (more to the point how that requirement is interpreted and instantiated) that perhaps demonstrates the professors and practices Searle is worried about may not be as limited to his imagination as you initially believe.

Just one philosopher’s opinion:
Coming up with new, interesting philosophical questions isn’t hard.
Coming up with new, interesting philosophical questions that you can sufficiently convince other philosophers actually warrant attention because they hook up with, speak to, replace, otherwise relate to the existing questions often is.

And maybe it ought to be.

But let’s not be surprised that we, as a profession, create a lot of incramentalists with respect to new philosophic questions, theories, and approaches, when we have a system that rewards, and often requires, incrementalism.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Marcus Hedahl
6 years ago

Marcus H., the requirement that one be able to explain how one’s “new questions” relate in some way to others’ “old questions” is a guard against ignorance and/or merely talking to oneself. Neither is conducive to good philosophy. I would argue that being able to meet that requirement is a good practical test for figuring out whether you should be confident in your judgment that you have actually formulated a new and interesting philosophical question. I agree that the requirement can be interpreted too strictly, that others might be (too?) hard to convince, and that incrementalism is no surprise (I also don’t think having a lot of incrementalism is a problem).Report

jason
6 years ago

Even supposing Searle is right about the basic dynamics about how grad students pick PhD topics, I’m not sure blaming supervisors is fair. One of the things supervisors will be thinking is “How easy/difficult will it be for this student to get a job with a PhD on this topic?” If the philosophical community thinks that Question X isn’t “really philosophy,” then no matter how ecumenical a supervisor I am, or how willing I am to supervise a dissertation on Question X, I’ll be doing my student a disservice if I do not give them a realistic appraisal of how this will affect them on the job market. To some minds, that realistic appraisal itself might look like ‘bullying’, but surely it’s my duty as a supervisor.Report

Marcus Hedahl
Marcus Hedahl
6 years ago

I’m not sure I agree that Searle is blaming supervisors.

I take the ‘we’ to be disambiguated as all of us in the profession: supervisors, teachers, conference referees, readers of philosophy, fellow philosophers.
Of course, one problem with the first personal plural pronoun is that its nearly always ambiguous. I can say that’s how I would read Searle’s charge.

He does later say that graduate students get the list of legitimate philosophical problems from “their professors” but that seems to include at least their seminar instructors and not merely their supervisors.Report