John Searle

National Humanities Medal


Philosopher John Searle challenges the notion that the mind works as a computer. "That's not to say that computers are useless and we shouldn't use them," he says. "But the computer does a model or a simulation of a process. The computer theory of the mind is a fallacy."

Searle, Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at the University of California at Berkeley, has devoted his career to a central problem of philosophy--how physical brain matter results in conscious thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and aspirations.

"We have a pretty good knowledge of how the world works from physics, chemistry, and other natural sciences," he says. "So how do we reconcile a commonsense conception we have of ourselves as mindful, free-will-having, speech-acting, rational, ethical, intentional, social beings?"

Searle, whose mother was a medical doctor and whose father was an engineer, describes his methodology as "an engineering approach to philosophical problems." As a philosophical issue, cognitive science "touches on this whole division between the mind and the body, which is something philosophy has never really resolved." Searle's approach is to fight against the notion of the mental and the physical as two separate realms. "The philosophical problem--how is it possible that the mental can be a real part of a world that's entirely physical--I think I can resolve."

Early in his career, Searle focused on language and speech. "How is it that when I make these noises I succeed in performing speech acts or communication?" he explains. "That's the philosophy of language." That investigation led to an exploration of consciousness and intentionality. "How is it possible that the stuff inside my skull can cause consciousness, and I can direct thoughts?" he asks. That pursuit led to considerations about society and his questions such as, "How is it possible that society, through attitudes and behaviors, can create object reality that exists only because we think it can--such as government, universities, presidents, nations, money?" His focus has now turned to rationality and answering his question, "Since Aristotle, we like to think about ourselves as rational animals --what does that mean?"

For Searle, the philosopher-engineer, it's important to start with the facts. "In philosophy you have to remind yourself of what you know already," he says. "We know that the world is made up of entities that we call particles. They're organized into systems. And these systems have causal relations to other systems. That's how much we know before the philosopher ever goes to work. Then we go to work on that. We don't go back and think, well, maybe the real world doesn't exist."

Searle attended the University of Wisconsin for three years before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he spent seven years--the last two as a lecturer--earning his undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees. His books include The Mystery of Consciousness Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, Rationality in Action, Consciousness and Language, and his most recent, Mind: A Brief Introduction. Searle has served as a member of the National Council on the Humanities.

Although he often writes for science professionals, he enjoys teaching undergraduates at Berkeley, where he has been on the faculty since 1959 and has received the university's distinguished teaching award. "The beauty of philosophy is that you can lead people to the frontier of a subject immediately," Searle says. "I take my research to my students. They helped me with my new book. They bring intelligence, and all I ask is a desperate commitment, a high level of intelligence, and a great deal of work. A good education is a recipe for a permanent state of dissatisfaction."

Searle revels in many activities--jogging, skiing, listening to opera, and reading outside his specialty. "The beauty of philosophy is that everything is philosophy, and you can bring everything into it," he says.


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.