John Searle on External-World Realism

‘At a much deeper level, here is what I think is going on: external realism is not a theory. It is not an opinion I hold that there is a world out there. It is rather the framework that is necessary for it to be possible to hold opinions or theories about such things as planetary movements. When you debate the merits of a theory, such as the heliocentric theory of the solar system, you have to take it for granted that there is a way that things really are. Otherwise, the debate can’t get started. Its very terms are unintelligible. But that assumption, that there is a way that things are, independent of our representations of how they are, is external realism. External realism is not a claim about the existence of this or that object, but rather a presupposition of the way we understand such claims. This is why the “debates” always look inconclusive. You can more or less conclusively settle the issue about Darwinian evolutionary theory, but you can’t in that way settle the issue about the existence of the real world, because any such settling presupposes the existence of the real world. This does not mean that realism is an unprovable theory; rather, it means that realism is not a theory at all but the framework within which it is possible to ave theories.’ (John R. Searle, ‘Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, p. 32)


14 thoughts on “John Searle on External-World Realism

  1. guymax February 2, 2014 / 6:12 am

    Interesting. Searle seems to reject the idea that Realism may mean accepting the unreality of the external world. Maybe this unreality is the way things are, independent of our representations. I wonder if he misses this point.


    • whitefrozen February 2, 2014 / 8:37 am

      If unreality is the way things are, is this any more than a semantic difference? If my coffee cup I’m looking at is unreality, or reality, independent of my representation, then it seems like the distinction is almost trivial. Or did I miss something? I did jut wake up…


  2. guymax February 2, 2014 / 2:27 pm

    It was probably a small point, and not a clear one. I was just noting that in order to ‘settle the issue’ of the external world’ it would not be necessary to presuppose that it is real, only that our representation is real. Iow, we’d have to presuppose that something is real, but it wouldn’t have to be the external world. We can argue about the details of a crime thriller and even settle the issue, but it would remain a work of fiction. I think I was just objecting to (what seems to be) the unnecessary limit Searle places on empiricism.

    Neo could have argued that there is a ‘way things are’, without having to reify the Matrix.

    But I’m a little muddled on the issue. No excuse, I’ve been up a while.


    • whitefrozen February 2, 2014 / 2:45 pm

      I think it get what you’re saying.

      Searle would probably say that if our representations are real, they are representations of something real. Searle holds that when we see a tree, we actually see the tree, not a ‘thing-in-the-middle’ a la Kant or the medievals. His use of ‘representation’ refers to things such as a theory of the solar system, not so much a mental representation a la Berkely.

      I had a second point, but I forgot it.


  3. guymax February 2, 2014 / 3:26 pm

    Maybe my worry is that Searle takes for granted a fundamental distinction between the external and internal worlds that is denied by many philosophers, and doesn’t seem to notice he’s doing it. Just shooting the breeze. .


  4. guymax February 3, 2014 / 7:12 am

    I take the point that Searle is talking more about methodological principles than metaphysical facts, but it is easy to confuse the two (as often happens). What I was getting at is…

    A very large proportion of philosophers argue that the distinction between subject and object is emergent. So, while it makes sense for everyday practical purposes to assume that the external world is just as we perceive it to be, in order that we can develop predictive theories etc., make breakfast or whatever, to then carry this assumption over into metaphysics would be a risky gamble and quite possibly a fatal mistake. The division of the word into two halves may be a misrepresentation or misperception.

    The situation is dealt with in Buddhist philosophy by allowing two views to be taken depending on the circumstance, a conventional view or an ultimate view. The conventional view would be Searle’s everyday practical view, while the ultimate or fundamental view would be a more profound and accurate analysis. The former would work for physics, since we would be studying only the conventional world, while the latter would work for metaphysics, where we need to get right the heart of things.

    Iow, we could agree that there is a way things actually are without needing to posit a final distinction between (what seem to be) our external and internal worlds.

    After all, a God’s-eye view would be ultimate, and what can be external to God?


  5. guymax February 3, 2014 / 3:26 pm

    Yes! It is so interesting that it mystifies me why philosophers of mind almost always ignore it. Yet it is a common view. Even the physicist Paul Davies awards it some credence in ‘The Mind of God’, and many ‘western’ thinkers have endorsed it. But still it is ignored by people trying to solve the ‘hard’ problem’. .

    This annoys me so much I tend to rabbit on in others people’s comments section. If it’s wrong let’s refute it. If we can’t then it is profoundly unprofessional to simply ignore it.

    There would be fascinating consequences for theology. Some would say that such a view would vindicate the NT and much of the OT. No doubt this has some relevance to it’s invisibility in ‘scientific’ consciousness studies. It would be directly relevant to your post ‘The Knowability of God’.


    • whitefrozen February 3, 2014 / 3:28 pm

      I read ‘God and the New Physics’ by Davies, and honestly, while he’s a hell of a physicist, he is a terrible philosopher. That book was pretty bad, IMO. But that’s a rabbit trail of my own :p


    • whitefrozen February 3, 2014 / 3:32 pm

      Ha, that old post. Been a while since I read that one.


  6. guymax February 3, 2014 / 4:20 pm

    You may be right. It’s unusual these days find a physicist who can talk sensibly about philosophy. But ‘Mind of God’ is very good. Not necessarily correct, but it engages with the issues in a way that’s rare for a professional physicist, and perhaps even quite brave. He gets mysticism wrong but at least he has the decency to mention it. It was the book that got me started in metaphysics, and in hindsight it was good place to start.


    • whitefrozen February 3, 2014 / 4:21 pm

      I read a recent article of his on the whole new ‘information/digital physics’ thing that’s hot right now, and it was freaking outstanding. I have no doubts about his chops as a physicist. Are you familiar with Tim Maudlin?


  7. guymax February 4, 2014 / 7:33 am

    No, but I’ve had a quick look. He seems to believe that metaphysics is a sub-discipline of physics. You can imagine how sensible that idea seems to me.


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