John Searle’s Construction of Social Reality

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Social ontology is a philosophical field that focuses on the properties of the social world, by that we mean all that is evolves through human interaction. Social ontology focuses on the basic structure of society and how that society is formed through human actions and attitudes (Searle, 2006, p.12). By arguing that there is a reality of money, marriages and governments, the question seeks to answer how this is possible. A prominent thinker of social ontology is John Searle, contributing to the area of human experience and how that experience comes about. John Searle’s book The Construction of Social Reality analyses the depth in which society is formed. For him, this is through, status functions, collective intentionality and constitutive rules. These three components will be discussed throughout the essay, for they underpin Searle’s social reality and his perception of money. The Construction of Social reality, from which I will base my thesis, contains nine chapters examining social reality. This book was written in opposition of the view that all of reality exists due to human beings and their experience alone. Taking a different view, Searle asserts that there are some but not all things in the world that only exist because people believe they exist. By looking at Searle’s construction of social reality, I will form the basis as to why things exist because we allow them to. Specifically focusing on how money is one of these facts that only exists because people allow it to.

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John Searle argues that there are parts of the real word, that are only facts by human agreement (Searle, 1996, p.1). Money along with other things like marriage and property are examples of these parts of the world that are only facts by human agreement. These facts are termed institutional facts. If there was a world that existed without humans, these facts would cease to exist. It will become clear as to why this is the case throughout this paper. As mentioned before, Searle argues against the theory that the world exists only through human beings and their experience alone. Searle proposes brute facts, which are important to distinguish from institutional facts as they are facts independent of humans. Again, if in another world, humans did not exist, this world would still have mountains, the sea and plants. Brute facts are independent of everything including language because they do not require an institution to exist. That being the case, we only require the institution of language to state a brute fact. This is because if we did not have the institution of language, we could not say ‘there is the sea’. Searles importance of language will be touched upon later in this paper. We have become conditioned to institutional facts as we do not have to think about when we are doing or using them. In relation to money, we do not stop and think that we are taking this piece of paper with encrypted ink on to pay for a loave of bread. From a very young age we are conditioned to hand over this piece of paper without any sort of reflection especially because this is what we see everyone else doing. These objects and things are portrayed as to having no complex structure. We are not aware that money is more than just for spending or that marriage is more than just marrying. Over time, this is what seems to have been forgotten. Money and marriage do in fact have a complex structure, which Searle establishes throughout his book. Institutional facts are important because it allows us to separate facts into human dependent and non-dependent categories regarding the construction of social reality. By separating them, the reader can recognize the significance of institutional facts because they reinforce notion of the social world. Now that we have established Searles understanding of brute and institutional facts the next paragraph will look to his theory on functions.

Searle defines two categories for functions. Firstly, agentive functions mean that the user must understand the function of the object, otherwise the function would never have been assigned in the first place. Functions do not exist within themselves, but instead exist because human beings allow it to and prescribe a reason to use that object. Therefore, ‘Functions in short, are never intrinsic but are always observer relative’ (Searle, 1996, p.14). Observer relative means that the thing or object only exists because of humans. These are things like footballs, desks and curtains. Some things are built to serve a function, like desks which are observer relative and are useful to us because they enable us to work efficiently. However, functions are changeable because if we then decided the desk was not for doing work but instead for eating our food from, we would have assigned it a new function. Functions can only change if and only if it is collectively accepted in that given society. It is not enough that only one person changes a function in their home. There must be a majority who accept its function, this is coined the term collective intentionality which will be addressed in the next point. For money, the function of gold was as jewellery but today it also functions as a medium of exchange. Over time, some people must have accepted its function for that function to have been accepted into society. Searle (1996, p.19) rightly believes functions ‘are assigned relative to the interests of users and observes’. There are brute facts that also have been assigned a function because it is in our interest to do so like the sea. When we say, the sea is useful because we catch our food in it, we are assigning the sea a function. That function being a place that produces our food source. Functions allow us to recognize why we are using that object or fact and how things may have multiple functions that we have collectively allowed them too.

In the case of money, ‘the intended agentive function of money is to serve as a medium of exchange and a store of value (Searle, 1996, p.22). This is true because when we are at a supermarket, we hand over money for the things we are buying. Money in this case has an agentive function because some people must have understood and accepted its use at some point. Searle (1996, p.22) then goes on to say, ‘money also serves the hidden secret, unintended function of maintaining the system of power relationships in society’. Searle’s statement would not necessarily come under the conditions of agentive functions. For money to be an ‘unintended function’ the person(s) would need to be unaware of the function of money, rendering it a non-agentive function. On the other hand, if a person or group of people were keeping money as a ‘hidden secret’ within society to maintain power. They would understand the function assigned meaning it would be an agentive function. As with the conditions of agentive functions, some people must be able to understand what the thing is for or its function. Alternatively, if no one was aware of monies unintended function, then this would fall under the second category of non-agentive functions. This is because the function was naturally occurring. A non-agentive function that Searle (1996, p.20) uses as an example is the heart. Its function is to pump blood. Humans can change or modify agentive functions in the way that they cannot do so with non-agentive functions. We cannot change the function or add another function to the heart. These points show how these different types of functions can affect the way the social world exists. This is because we can change things like the function of money to best suit our interests. The next point will look at Searles importance of collective intentionality, as it is required for institutions to exist in the first place.

Collective intentionality occurs in many species of animals, including humans. Searle (1996, p.23) interprets collective intentionality as to ‘engage in cooperative behaviours’. Many species of animals’ hunt in packs and groups and cooperate because it increases their chances of catching their prey. Searle, (1996, p.23) terms this ‘intentional states’ because they share the belief and desire that they will have a better chance at catching their prey as a collective or group. Ultimately, each animals’ intention in that group are the same and must be the same to be collective intentionality. One example being for humans is a house being built. A house requires builders, architects and decorators at the very least. It is the collective intention to build this house together because they share the common belief that at the end of the month, they will receive a regular pay. As Searle (2006, p.16) asserts ’I am doing something only as part of our doing something’. Collective intentionally is required for institutions to function. In Searles (2006, p.17) view ‘two or more human or animal agents’ are sufficient enough in order to be classed as collective intentionality. If only one person had the intention that something would serve as a function, that something would not fit the criteria of collective intentionality. Searle’s collective intentionality enables the reader to depict how ‘collective intentionality is the only way to explain how status functions are assigned’ (Tieffenbach, 2010, p.196). There needs to be a minimum of two people for collective intentionality to arise. Functions cannot be assigned without the collective intention of a group who accept that function. It is also the case that Searle found when referring to any social facts he is referring to any fact involving collective intentionality and that institutional facts are a sub-category of social facts. Arguably, collective intentionality is essential when talking about institutional facts because it involves prescribing functions which requires a collective group to accept that function in the first place. The next point will be on constitutive rules and how they regulate institutions.

Under institutional facts exist constitutive rules, which are rules that regulate an activity. Searle galvanises that not only do rules regulate an activity but they ‘create the very possibility of certain activities’ (Searles, 1996, p.27). The rule of obtaining a passport to travel to different countries regulates travelling. However, travelling existed prior to the notion of passports and of the rule that we must show our passports in order to travel. With travel we must know the rules, it is not enough to hand them a piece of paper with your name and nationality on it. We must act in accordance with the rules that regulate the activity for it to work. Therefore, constitutive rules are made if and only if you act in accord to the rules of that thing. Constitutive rules operate in money, when a person exchanges x for y they are following the rule that when they hand over x they will then receive y. Humans know that if they would like to purchase a loave of bread they will need one pound. It is not enough or acceptable to hand over a fifty pence piece to pay for that loave of bread. If we do not follow the rules for buying and selling such as buying a loave of bread for one pound, we would not be playing the ‘game’ of money. Without knowing the rules of money, we cannot use money as a form of exchange. What is the same for money is also the same for other institutions. Searle (1996, p.28) postulates the formula X counts as Y in context C which pertains coins issued by the government (x) counts as money (Y) in the United Kingdom (C). The three points we have looked at including functions, collective intentionality and constitutive rules are some of the fundamental basics to understanding how the social world functions. For an institutional fact to exist there needs to be rules that we as society follow otherwise the activity would not be regulated. The next point argues that language is crucial in creating institutional facts.

Searle touches upon language as a constraint needed to understand institutional facts as without language, we would not be able to think of things like the number it would cost to buy a loave of bread. Language is vital because we need to know the set of symbols or numbers that constitute them. Without knowing these symbols there is nothing apart from a person handing a loave of bread to a man at a till, passing a piece of paper to the man and walking away with the loave of bread. Without language we cannot purchase and sell things because these symbols cannot exist independently of language. Language enables people in society to produce complex thoughts that allows these situations to take place. There are language independent objects such as the man behind the till or the counter. Searle (1996, p.68) explains that numbers not out there in the way that language independent objects like planets or men are. Thus, things like the government or property fall under the constraint that without language we would not be able to understand institutional facts. We would not be able to understand the institutional facts because they require language to think about them. Marriage, for example, requires that we know the words that constitute a marriage such as their vowels ‘I do’. If we do not have any language skills, we are not able to know what constitutes a wedding. This is the same as for money. Searle (1996, p.70) states that you can train a dog to chase dollar bills and bring them back in exchange for food, but the dog is not buying the food and does not recognise that the bills are money. The dog cannot think that he now has the right to buy things with this bill or know that that is what other people do. This indicates that institutions require language and cannot be reduced to anything simple. Language plays a large part in the construction of social reality because language allows us to process complex thoughts like we have ten thousand pounds. It is only because we do this so often that we do not stop and realise the complexity of these institutions.

By constantly using money repeatedly we are strengthening these institutions. A five-pound note may wear out because of our using of it, but our belief of using that note does not wear out. Repetitive use of something like a note supports the commitment we have to that institution. Searle (1996, p.86) contends ‘all sorts of substances can serve as money; objects need only meet certain minimum conditions of durability, handleability, transportability, noncounterfeitability, recognizability’. There may be some cases where a counterfeit note is in circulation. If no one knew that it was a counterfeit note, everyone would still use it as money even though it was in fact not money. This goes to show that it does not matter what form money takes but rather the collective intentionality that money must exist in a physical form that they all accept. D’Amico, and Butchard, (2012, p.447) argue ‘it is not the physical features alone but those features plus our attitudes toward them that, taken together, count as money’. Indeed, it requires both components for money to be accepted, but our attitudes can change towards the physical features of money. Cowry shells no longer explain the existence of money because our attitudes have changed towards them and we do not use them as a medium of exchange. Searle finds the downfall to this repetitive use of these institutions as they can collapse very quickly if people lose confidence in the institution itself. Money in countries such as Puerto Rico used to use their own currency named the Puerto Rican peso. Due to the value of their own currency failing they have adopted the U.S dollar and ultimately their own currency ceases to exist for the purposes of exchange. The same can be said with governments, marriages and other institutions. If people are to lose confidence in marriages, marriage will cease to exist because it requires collective intentionality in order to be an institution. This leads to Searle questioning what sort of power can be created by collective agreement. This power does not pertain to our physical abilities, it is regarding how through collective agreement, wealth can be increased or decreased. Power for Searle (1996, p.104) is ‘always the power to do something or constrain someone else from doing something’. Power will be addressed in the next chapter as it is important to understand how power can be created through collective intentionality and what this means for money.





  1. D’Amico, R. and Butchard, W. (2012) ‘How Not to Save Searle: A Reply to Weber’s Reply’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 42(3), pp. 445–448. doi: 10.1177/0048393112440798.
  2. Searle, J., 1996. The Construction Of Social Reality. Harmondsworth [etc.]: Penguin Books.
  3. Searle, J. R. (2006) ‘Social ontology: Some basic principles’, Anthropological Theory, 6(1), pp. 12–29. doi: 10.1177/1463499606061731.
  4. Tieffenbach, E. (2010) ‘Searle and Menger on Money’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 40(2), pp. 191–212. doi: 10.1177/0048393109353185.


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