John Searle

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Philosopher John Searle takes a detailed and passionate look back on the student activism of the 1960s.



BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. When I was an undergraduate I studied, reluctantly but beneficially, Plato, Augustine, Shakespeare, Tolstoy. I did not study Allen Ginsburg’s beat poem, “Howl,” or the translation of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, or Ralph Elison’s novel of black identity, Invisible Man. These were published while I was in school, and are now widely read on college campuses. From the University of Maryland to Stanford today, a debate is raging; what must an educated person know? Should we teach the traditional classics of western civilization, the canon, as the foundation of all our thought? Or is it cultural elitism to ignore the contributions of women, minorities, and the Third world? My guest tonight takes the position that tradition is not out of date, although Sally Smith now sits in class next to Sally Chung. Join me for a conversation with philosopher, John Searle.

[voice-over] John Searle long ago accepted the challenge that a philosopher who doesn’t engage in public debate is like a boxer who never enters the ring. So in 30 years of teaching philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, he has earned a reputation of an intellectual prizefighter who leaps into the ring when there’s a battle of ideas to be waged. He has defied the computer scientists to argue that no machine will ever think like a person can. He has championed the cause of rationality, intelligence and the values of Western civilization. As a young instructor, this Rhodes scholar joined the movement to protest the suppression of academic freedom. He was teaching at Berkeley during the heyday of the student movement. We began our conversation by recalling those tumultuous times.

JOHN SEARLE: [on camera] Essentially, what we had here was something that began with the civil-rights movement and was fueled by the Vietnam War. You won’t understand the sru-dent revolution unless you see its origin in the civil-rights movement, but it was transformed by the anti-war protest; and the particular genius of that period of student unrest was the ability to focus these larger issues, like the civil-rights issue, or like the protest against the war, against university authorities, and that gave it its peculiar power. See, as long as you’re trying to fight the Pentagon, that’s a tough customer. But to fight the Dean’s Office, that turns out to be a whole lot easier, and the way that you fight the Dean’s Office successfully is by getting a whole lot of srudents to think that they’re in cahoots with the Pentagon. And that was the peculiar source of the success of the srudent movement, was the ability to focus larger emotions around some sacred topic against the authority of the university by identifying the university with the forces of evil on this issue.

BILL MOYERS: [interviewing] Some sacred topic, you said?

JOHN SEARLE: Yes, right. Now here were some of the sacred topics. The first one was free speech. That was where we all got it going in Berkeley. But then, the one that, in away, had the longest staying power was civil rights, was the issue of equality for blacks and minorities generally. And then, the one that had the biggest eclat in the period was the protest against the Vietnam War and, in fact, as you know, that was so dramatic that after the Cambodian invasion it virtually shut down the American university system.

BILL MOYERS: It was common in those days to think of this as an assault on the authority of the university, but in fact, as Robert Nisbet says in his new book, The Present Age, it happened in part because the authority of the university was already crumbling.

JOHN SEARLE: The way that the authority of the university was undermined was by identifying the university with the sources of authority in the larger society. So the idea was-the sort of ideology was the structure of power in the United States is a seamless web, and it goes all the way from the Pentagon at the top down to the Dean’s Office. And the idea was that by throwing a rock through the window of the Dean’s Office, you were striking a blow against militarism. Now, that sounds so stupid that it’s hard to imagine anybody believing it, but I can tell you many thousands of students believed that in the ’60s.

BILL MOYERS: Did you believe it?

JOHN SEARLE: I never believed that. I thought it was a load of nonsense. From the very beginning I thought that was total nonsense. I thought that there were problems in the universities and they needed addressing in university terms, and in the very early days I was very active in the Free Speech movement, because there wasn’t any doubt that the University of California was suppressing freedom of speech. They were suppressing my freedom of speech. They forbade me to lecture on the campus on the house un-American Activities Committee. This when I was an assistant professor, so I was very bitter about that, and I had very strong opposition to them, but I never for a moment supposed that they were doing this on orders from Washington. I never for a moment thought that the Chancellor’s Office was doing this because they were in league with some military-industrial complex. I just thought they were being stupid, stupid and oppressive.

BILL MOYERS: Was it a revolution, then, or was it a series of expedient protests that found a common target in the university?

JOHN SEARLE: There were places where it had elements of a revolution. In Berkeley, for example, most people didn’t understand this but in Berkeley, in 1964, it had this feature of a revolution. We totally destroyed the established authority of the university administration. We wiped it out and we did something that all revolutionary movements do, we created this wonderful sense of possibility. I mean, people thought anything is possible. We can rewrite this university — make a completely different university. But nationally it was not a revolution. It was just one damn enthusiastic moment after another, and they’d live for these ecstatic moments when we’d get 10,000 of us in the street. But the idea that you need an ongoing organization, you need some sort of theory of social change, you need an agenda of social policy, they never had that; they never had any of those.

BILL MOYERS: They liked to think of themselves as idealists. And I remember that the report that was done on the student uprisings at Columbia, in fact, began by saying, “these students have come out of the most idealistic generation in the history of American education.” Did you see them as idealists? Were you an idealist?

JOHN SEARLE: Yes. I think there was a great deal of idealism. The difficulty was, it was a fragile idealism, and it couldn’t last through the year-in year-out contact with reality. And what happened was it became more and more cynical, and in the end, by the late ’60s, by ’68, I would say the idealism had been lost, for the most part, and become quite vicious.

BILL MOYERS: Why cynical?

JOHN SEARLE: Because part of the idealism was a kind of naivete. People wanted an instant solution. And when they discovered that they couldn’t get an instant solution, they suddenly became disenchanted. They became disenchanted with the whole of American society. See, I was brought up in the ‘ 50s, and we took it for granted that, in the short run, you just get beat, you just lose. I was secretary of an organization called Students Against McCarthy, that was the earlier — Joe McCarthy, nobody even remembers him anymore — but anyway, at the University of Wisconsin. Now, we never for a moment thought we could beat Joe, but at least we could protest against him. But these kids thought, “Well, there’s so many of us, we’re right and we have our ideals. We must win.” And when they didn’t win, when the war went on and black people didn’t have overnight equality, they were quite bitter about this. So, they were idealists, but they were also just plain spoiled. There were a lot of spoiled kids who were used to getting their own way, and when they were idealistic about it and they didn’t get their own way, they had a kind of mass temper tantrum. Now, of course, we’re generalizing. There were a lot of exceptions. But there was no question in my mind that by the late ’60s the student movement in the United States had really become quite vicious.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, Dr. Searle, the faculties in many cases had buckled. I mean, classes — lectures were given with no assignments. Whole classes were given A’s. Hasn’t that left permanent damage on the university — the fact that so many faculties did buckle. .

JOHN SEARLE: Here’s the most amazing thing about the ’60s. On the one hand, the university seemed to me the most fragile institution I ever saw. I was absolutely amazed how easy it was to overthrow it, or shut the whole place down, or fire the Chancellor, or fire the President. It turned out to be terribly fragile. But the other thing that amazed me in the long haul, how incredibly resilient it is. If you go to the Berkeley campus today, and you hadn’t been there since 1959 when I first came here, you wouldn’t see much difference. I mean, the hair is longer, or some of it is, but it just looks an awful lot like it did in 1959, and the structure of authority is exactly the same. There’s the Chancellor, and the professors and departments and tenure and there are freshmen and sophomores and graduate students. So, I am amazed by the sheer resiliency. Now, long term bad effects-yes, we weakened a lot of academic requirements that we shouldn’t have weakened. I mean. in the face of straight student demands. we just decided “Okay, you don’t want to take a language requirement, we won’t make you do that. You don’t want to take this or that math requirement. we won’t make you do that.” Now we’re starting to make them do that again.

BILL MOYERS: You say the university is resilient. fragile but resilient. What are the threats to the university today?

JOHN SEARLE: Well, there is a peculiar intellectual crisis in our sense of our educational mission. We’re not quite confident about what constitutes an educated person. For the generation after the Second World War. there was a certain tacit agreement about what made an educated man or woman in the United States, and. of course. in various ways we failed to realize that ideal. We didn’t always succeed. but at least we were agreed pretty much on what it was. And now it seems like everything’s up for grabs. The traditional ideal of an educated man or woman in the United States was that you had to have a certain knowledge of Western civilization. You had to know how we got to be what we are. and what were the great intellectual achievements of that civilization stretching back to the Greeks. And, furthermore you had to be able to cope with the world. You had to know something about science and about social science. You had to be able to speak a foreign language and you had to master a certain specialty your major. You had to choose a major where you could get some sort of level of mastery so that you could read advanced works in it and maybe even go on to graduate school. Now, that conception of higher education is undergoing a lot of challenges and one form of the challenge is to say. “Well, that’s essentially an elitist conception. 1bat’s a conception that says, ‘Western civilization is superior to other civilizations. And that’s a conception-one of the sneer words is the DEWMs. the DEWMs dead European white males. And according to this challenge we gotta get out of this idea that everybody has to read dead European white males. We’ve got to respect that there are all sorts of different cultures in the world and we’ve got to get over this cultural chauvinism of supposing that ours is superior.

BILL MOYERS: Are there, in your opinion certain books that an educated man or woman must have read? .

JOHN SEARLE: I won’t say that there is some list of books that everybody has got to read -I mean, maybe one or two like the Bible. But it does seem to me there is a core tradition in our civilization, and if that tradition is foreign to you you will always be an alien in our culture. Now what are the criteria for picking the best books?


JOHN SEARLE: Well. does it articulate general human experiences? Does it deal with central issues? Is it written by a superior intelligence? Does it affect you? Does it change your life? And, indeed is it fun to read? I mean, if it’s not fun to read, people aren’t going to read it regardless of this other stuff. Anyway what I’m trying to say is this. There isn’t an algorithm that I can give you.


JOHN SEARLE: There isn’t a mechanical test. You have to use obvious things like the ones I’ve been mentioning in selecting important books. But I would be very anxious that we should avoid the mistake of supposing that any answer you give to this question is absolutely arbitrary and un-warranted and just an expression of your political bias.

BILL MOYERS: But aren’t all choices of curriculum, in a sense. political choices reflecting the culture, the values. the ambitions, purposes, sense of calling of the people who are sitting there saying. “This is a good text; this is the right text; this is a text for learned people”? Aren’t they all political in that sense?

JOHN SEARLE: I think every decision of a policy nature like this has political consequences. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and in that sense it’s political. But it doesn’t follow from that that the only criteria for making the decision are political, or even the primary criteria are political. I’m called on to make decisions all the time about which books do I assign in my courses. What do I emphasize and what do I not emphasize? What do I think is essential that a beginning philosophy student should read and know and think about and write about? And. of course, all those will have political consequences in the sense that their lives would have been different if I’d made them read something else. But I don’t make the decision on political grounds.

Now let me say something else which a lot of people are opposed to, and that’s this. You can’t really understand other traditions if you don’t understand your own. So, the mere fact that we’re educating Americans who are brought up in a country which is an offshoot of Europe. and which was founded on a certain 18th-century European philosophy. That also has to constrain what we teach in education. If I was designing a university for people from Mars, then it really would be — I’d be absolutely neutral between the Judeo-Christian tradition and all sorts ofother religious traditions. But given that I’m not teaching people from Mars, it’s terribly important that these people know who they are. You must know your own tradition or you can’t understand others.

BILL MOYERS: I subscribe to that. Let me tell you what happened to me when I came into San Fran-cisco the other night. So help me. the first ten people I heard while I was standing and waiting for the baggage, not one of them was speaking English. They were speaking Spanish. Japanese, Chinese. Pakistani. I don’t know what else. And I’ve listened enough to know they’re coming here to live. So. America is a real place. on real ground. occupying a real time in history, but it is constantly reshaping itself. The question is, why don’t we have to constantly shuffle what kids at] Berkeley are gonna get? Because if they’re going to be Americans. they’re not going to be a certain kind of American?

JOHN SEARLE: What does it mean. however. to be an American? I fit just means, “Look. you’ve got citizenship papers.” that’s all it means. then we’re not going to sustain a country.

BILL MOYERS: As heirs of a tradition?

JOHN SEARLE: All right. But now when we talk about tradition we’re talking about a specific tradition. You see. this isn’t the first wave of immigrants. We’ve had immigrants in this country be-fore. Now how did we deal with these immigrants? And to what extent has it been successful? Well. the answer is that for the most part, we assimilated these immigrants into an existing tradition. They all leaned English. They all were educated in the fundamental constitutional structure of the United States, and they became full-fledged citizens in our culture. Now. that isn’t to say we tried to get them not to speak their own languages as well, or that they shouldn’t prize the tradition that they came from, but we tried to make each new wave of immigrants into citizens of the United States. Now, suppose we said. “Look. we’ll give you citizenship papers. but don’t think that English has any special status in the United States, or that there’s any special importance… to American history. You can set up any culture you want in the United States.” I think that’s a recipe for disaster.

BILL MOYERS: I agree with that.

JOHN SEARLE: And we’ve seen that in Quebec and in Belgium. That is whenever you get really rival cultural and linguistic communities within larger communities. it’s very hard to sustain a sense of a nation.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that what it takes to educate a man or woman is static?

JOHN SEARLE: No. of course not. I think it’s constantly changing. For one thing, what we know is constantly changing. The amazing thing about knowledge is-one of the things that makes it fun to be a professor is knowledge grows. We just know a lot more than we did when I was an undergraduate. So, I haven’t for a moment suggested that there is a sort of a static, fixed-in-stone body of knowledge that we ‘ve got to transmit to each and every generation. Nonetheless. there is one thing we have to get across.

BILL MOYERS: And that is?

JOHN SEARLE: A sense of quality. A sense that some books are just bener than others. And some 1 people are smarter than others. And some ideas are truer than others. And it’s just not the case. in intellectual life. that everything is equal. everything is up for grabs. And if we lose sight of that, we’re out of business. I mean, this is what universities are for. is to teach people to make intellectual and moral discriminations, to be able to say, “This is better than that. This is true and that’s false. This is rational and that’s irrational.” And, I think, one of the most dangerous things about a whole lot of-not just one, but several different movements that are now going on in American intellectual life. not just in the streets or in politics, but in American intellectual and academic life. are challenges to this conception of truth, rationality. excellence and quality.

BILL MOYERS: When you and I were growing up. there was very little awareness of Africa as a society, a culture —


BILL MOYERS: -Asia as a culture or society; of women and the life of their minds, Virginia Woolf and all of that To me, it seems to me my children today have to read American novels and Asian novels and Virginia Woolf and all of these that, in our day, were not part of the sacred text or topic, in order to be educated.

JOHN SEARLE: Yes. No, I think that’s right. I think there was-I agree with what you just said. I think there was a period when we were wonderfully insular and provincial, but there are two different ways to see the tax on our insularity. One way is to see that we ought to open up to other forms, and other varieties of quality, other sorts of experiences. But there’s another, more sinister aspect and that is the idea of quality. The idea of there being a canon of great books is itself what’s suspect. You see, what’s the right reaction to what you just said? The right reaction is to open the doors. Let quality in from everywhere. If it’s true, as I think it probably is, that a lot of great women writers got neglected just because they were women, then let’s start recognizing their quality. But there’s another, more sinister aspect that says the whole idea of this canon of all this list of great books -the whole idea that some authors are better than others, that some cultures have made enormous contributions and others have made less contributions -all of that is itself elitist and oppressive and sexist and racist. That’s where I draw the line. See, I think we ought to open the doors to all kinds of quality, we ought to get out of this provincialism of our childhood, but don’t give up the ideal of quality.

BILL MOYERS: So, you’re acknowledging that the corpus, the body that is the literature we should read to be educated, contains certain things that are unchangeable, but it also is constantly changing.

JOHN SEARLE: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: That you’re constantly adding.

JOHN SEARLE: That’s a very good way to put it. That’s absolutely right and the point is, look — what’s so wonderful about teaching in Berkeley is the single greatest change that has happened in Berkeley in all the years that I’ve been there — you’d never guess what it is; Asian faces are no longer a minority. I mean, it just seems like — it used to be, when I came here in 1959, it was very unusual to see an Asian face. They were a very small minority. But now, literally just about every other face on the Berkeley campus is Asian. And do you know what difference it makes in my teaching? None. I teach the courses that I would teach quite oblivious to what the racial background of my students is. And it never occurs to me that somehow or other I oughta teach Sally Chung differently from Sally Smith. I teach them both the same way.

BILL MOYERS: You want both Sallys to read Tocqueville.

JOHN SEARLE: Exactly. Tocqueville in particular, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Mark Twain?

JOHN SEARLE: Yes. Yes. And Karl Marx. I mean, there are just an awful lot of people that Sally Chung and Sally Smith ought to both read.

BILL MOYERS: Do you want the two Sallys to read anything additional because Sally Chung is now here’?

JOHN SEARLE: Well, if there are enough Sally Chungs, that is, if they form a sense of a cultural identity, then I think there’s a case to be made for saying part of them knowing who they are is an understanding of Confucius. And there, I’m really not competent to teach Confucius. I mean, they oughta get somebody who can teach Confucius. But this goes back to what I said earlier, namely, in order to understand other traditions you’ve got to know your own. And there’s no reason why an awful lot of Americans shouldn’t have traditions other than just the European tradition, but to the overwhelming majority of Americans, that’s our tradition.

BILL MOYERS: What you say smacks so strongly of common sense that I wonder what the argument is all about, except that I haven’t been black and I haven’t been female.

JOHN SEARLE: Yes, I mean I think everything I’m saying is two plus two equals four. It’s kind of obvious. The point is one of the things that’s scary is it’s no longer taken as obvious, and I think an awful lot of people would say, “In what Searle just said there’s really a hidden agenda. The hidden agenda is that the power structure of middle-aged white males like him should stay in power and force us to read books by other middle-aged white males who happen to be dead. Now, if that’s gonna happen, then there’s really no place for the rest of us because the conception of rationality and intelligence and truth that he has is not universal, it’s just a product of a certain phase of history and basically, if you look closely at it, you’ll see that it’s a device that he and guys like him use 10 oppress the rest of us…
Now, I don’t agree with that Rationality and truth and intelligence aren’t themselves substantive theses like a particular dogmatic theology. They’re not themselves particular historical claims, but they are standards which any attempt to communicate, any attempt to represent, are forced to meet. So, the canons of rationality aren’t themselves up for grabs. They are built into the nature of what it is to think and speak. When we reach an age where the brain develops to the point where we can son of put thoughts one after the other consecutively and where we can articulate thoughts and words, and that’s an enormous step, when a kid learns language, that’s when it all gets going. I mean, that’s when life as we think of it really becomes possible. Once you reach that stage, then rationality isn’t itself an option. Rationality isn’t something-well, oh, it’s just one of the ways of being-one of the ways of thinking-thinking with this form of rationality or that form. No. The notion of there being mental states; beliefs and desires and hopes and fears and actions, and there being thoughts, and there being sentences and statements, already when you’ve said that you’ve brought in standards of rationality.

BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about thinking and learning to think learning to discriminate.

JOHN SEARLE: That’s right. Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Can that be taught’?

JOHN SEARLE: You can teach people to get to the point where they can teach themselves. I don’t think I can teach my students how to do philosophy, but I can certainly put their nose in it and tell them where they’re making their mistakes, so that eventually they can teach themselves. And the distressing thing about that is when they get really good they start refuting me. This is very annoying, but officially at least I have to recognize the desirability of that That is, when they can get to the point where they can respect their teacher or respect the books I ask them to read, and nonetheless point out what seems to them to be inadequacies, then I know we’re on the right road.

BILL MOYERS: You do like to teach, don’t you?

JOHN SEARLE: Oh, I love it. Yes.


JOHN SEARLE: Somebody once said, “Teaching is a lot like sex. If you don’t like it, you won’t be any good at it.” And liking it and being good at it often go hand in hand. If you do like it, you certainly like to be better at it.

BILL MOYERS: {voice-over] From his home in Berkeley, California, this has been a conversation with John Searle. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on June 26, 2015.

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