An Interview of

Dr. John Searle – Language, Writing, Mind, and Consciousness

Dr. John Searle is Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at University of California- Berkeley.  In 2004 he received the National Humanities Medal for shaping modern thought about the nature of the human mind. He is the author of over a dozen books on language, mind and consciousness and  has written hundreds of articles and papers.  Additional bio info

Professor Searle was a delight to interview and one of the most brilliant human beings we have ever encountered.

The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.

David Boulton: We want to talk about writing and its effect on civilization, its effect on consciousness, and then go where language, intelligence and writing meet. We’d also like a glimpse of your view of human intelligence today. So human intelligence and writing, and what writing did to create a new step or plateau in the development of our minds – our consciousness, intelligence, and so forth. Let’s start with that.

Human Spoken Language:

Dr. John Searle: All right. Well, first of all, we have to think about the role of language in cognition and in society, generally. I think most biologists make a serious mistake when they think that human language is just kind of a more elaborate form of animal signaling system. And of course, that’s completely wrong. Human languages have the capacity to represent in a way that animal signaling systems don’t have.

Animals can signal danger or sexual desire or a few things like that, but they cannot get this articulated form of precise representation that we get in human languages. So the big jump off point is between animal signaling and human languages. Human languages have these remarkable capacities that they are compositional; that is, you can figure out the meaning of the utterance from the meanings of the parts and the way they’re composed.

Human languages have also involved this remarkable ability of commitment; humans commit themselves to doing something when they make a promise. They commit themselves to something being the case when they make a statement. There’s nothing like that in animal signaling. Now, that’s the basics of language:compositionalityrepresentation and commitment. Keep those three in mind.

Written Language:

Dr. John Searle: But now when we move to written language, you get another big jump off because you can now do things with compositionalityrepresentation and commitment that you can’t do with spoken language. You now start to create not just a more elaborate animal society, you start now to create civilization. So once you have written language, you can have long-term commitments, commitments that go over a generation. You can have commandments, like the Ten Commandments that go on for millennia.

But furthermore — and this is where it really gets exciting — is you can now create the forms of civilization that are enduring. I’m thinking not just of great art and literature, but of money, property, government, marriage, universities, textbooks, all of the elaborate systems that language has that we can encode in written language that enable us to create an elaborate civilization that is based on our capacity to represent and to create enduring representations.

So, the bottom line of this is that the big step between us and animals is in the language. But the big step between civilization and more primitive forms of human society is written language. Once you have written language, you have the capacity not just for creating a civilization, but getting these accretions, where the elements of civilization then build on earlier elements of civilization, and those build on yet earlier elements of civilization, until you get where we are today.

The Enabling Technology of Civilization:

David Boulton: So in a sense, writing is the enabling technology of civilization.

Dr. John Searle: It’s right, as far as it goes, to say that the written language enables civilization. But I would go a further step and say it doesn’t just enable it in the sense of making it possible, but rather, it constitutes itIt is a constitutive element of civilization in that you cannot have what we think of as the defining social institutions of civilization without having written language. You cannot have universities and schools. But not just the pedagogical institutions, but you can’t even have money or private property or governments or national elections, or for that matter, cocktail parties and marriages. You can’t even have a summer vacation or a lawsuit without a written language.

So, written language is where language acquires, not just a much greater creative power, but an enduring power, because you can create these wonderful writings that survive, that go on and on and get repeated. Think of the Constitution of the United States or the Declaration of Independence.

David Boulton: It’s the infrastructure of civilization.

Dr. John Searle: Indeed. It is the infrastructure, but it isn’t just the infrastructure of roads and bridges, it’s the infrastructure of human civilization itself.

The Technology Behind Our Modern Minds:

David Boulton: Excellent. So, in addition to these external dimensions of the effect of writing on civilization, there’s another effect, which is how writing has become a virtual reality environment for the human mind. How it’s affected who we are, how we think, how we remember, how we organize…

Dr. John Searle: Yeah.

David Boulton: Our thoughts, and so forth.

Dr. John Searle: The best remark ever made in this regard was made by the French — the cynical French philosopher of the 17th Century, La Rochefoucauld. He said, “Very few people would ever fall in love if they never read about it.” And he’s onto something there. Now we’d have to add, “If they didn’t see it on television and in the movies and so on.”

But the point is this: People don’t just get born into how to live as human beings, they have to learn how to live as human beingsMuch of their learning — indeed, almost all of their learning is by way of language. Some is by way of brute animal imitation. But once you get really going with advanced forms of civilization like falling in love or becoming a doctor, then you must have written language.

So, the forms of civilization that we think of as essential to the distinction between humans and other forms of animal life require advanced institutional structures. You and I spend our lives locked into institutional structures. I spend my life in a university. You spend your life engaged in various kinds of linguistic and technological enterprises. All of those require language, but particularly the advanced human forms of civilizations, like universities and like governments and like national elections – all of those require writing.

David Boulton: Excellent. So the development of writing and the complexity that’s come with writing and the dimensions with which writing can refer to itself, and so forth, has actually changed the oral language.

Dr. John Searle: Oh, well, of course. It’s changed the way we think and talk. I can’t have the kinds of feelings that I have without language, but I can’t have those without writing. So I mentioned falling in love, but there are all kinds of other emotions that you cannot have without some way to articulate those. And that requires social forms of articulation, and they require written forms of articulation.

So, for example, some of my friends claim that they suffer, let’s say, the angst of post-industrial man under late capitalism. Now, I don’t suffer from that. If I did, I’d run out and buy a beer. But people who do suffer from the angst of post-industrial man under late capitalism, have got to have words to do that. In fact, you’ve got to be able to string a lot of words together to have that.

I have a very intelligent dog, named Gilbert. As I watch Gilbert there snoring away, I know he’s not suffering the angst of post-industrial man under late capitalism; that’s just not a problem for Gilbert. It would be oversimplifying it to say, “It’s because the damn dog can’t read.” But that’s part of his problem, is that his capacity for expressing and articulating is very limited.

But the remarkable thing — and I haven’t explained this yet, but I think you’re aware of it — is that human language has this capacity, not just that it has much more expressive power than other forms of representation, but that the expressive power builds on the expressive power. You get a snowball effect. So, once the kid gets a few words, that enables him to build more words. Then once he’s got more words, he can build more complex sentences. And those more complex sentences enable him to accumulate yet more words. And so you get this remarkable exponential growing capacity of human representation. There’s nothing like written language.

Think of the damned computational technology. For most of us it is a device for conveying and composing strings of words. There’s a certain irony in that, because the damn computers were invented as number crunchers. See, they were invented as a fancy — or as medical things. But I would say most computing that’s done today, I mean, I haven’t got any hard statistics on this, but my bet is most computing that’s done today is done by people like you and me using word processing, using e-mail, using devices for composing and manipulating and correcting and preserving the written word on the computer. The computer has made it — and it was never intended that way — but the computer has made it just a hell of a lot easier to write.

Meta-Cognitive Implications:

David Boulton: Excellent. The cognitive implications seems to have enabled a greater dimensional extent of meta-reflectivity and an explosion of vocabulary differentiation that expanded the dimensionality of our minds, our ability to think about our thinking, and so forth.

Dr. John Searle: Well, that’s right.

David Boulton: Can you speak to the meta-cognitive implications?

Dr. John Searle: It has enormous meta-cognitive implications. The power is this: That you cannot only think in ways that you could not possibly think if you did not have the written word, but you can now think about the thinking that you do with the written word. There is danger in this, and the danger is that the enormous expressive and self-referential capacities of the written word, that is, the capacities to keep referring to referring to referring, will reach a point where you lose contact with the real world. And this, believe me, is very common in universities. There’s a technical name for it, I don’t know if we can use it on television, it’s called “bullshit.” But this is very common in academic life, where people just get a form of self-referentiality of the language, where the language is talking about the language, which is talking about the language, and in the end, it’s hot air. That’s another name for the same phenomenon.

So, here’s the trick: The trick is to use the expressive power of language, but keep your feet on the ground, always know what you’re talking about. Of course, much of what you’re talking about is linguistically created reality — money and government and private property. George Bush is president only because we represent him as being president. If we stopped thinking of him as president, then he can’t function as a president. He is president — this is no joke because of words — he is president because we have the capacity to think he’s president, and we have that capacity to think because we can represent his being president in the form of words.

So, I’m not saying that there isn’t a reality created by language, there is. But you have to keep your eye on the reality, whether it’s the brute reality of mountains and molecules and tectonic plates, or it’s the institutional reality of presidencies and governments and universities and private property. And all of those require the written word.

David Boulton: Aren’t they distinct in the sense that up until this point, in the case of oral language, before writing, there’s this immediate sensorial contact with one another, with the world and even with the sound and movement of words back and forth? But when we start talking about writing and all that it makes possible, we’re crossing the line into virtual reality, into artificial reality.

Dr. John Searle: Yeah. Well, now you can do something with writing that you can’t do until you get writing, and that is you can have very elaborate forms of fiction. See, preliterate societies can also have myths and can have stories that are told and passed down through the generations, but I don’t think that they can have the elaborate fictional art forms that we have. No preliterate society has something corresponding to the novel, for example. You can have stories, but my guess is — and this is only a guess on my part — is you can’t make a clear distinction between the fictional story, where the author is not committed, and the non-fictional story where you’re just telling a narrative of how things happen. You don’t get a clear demarcation of those two until you get some capacity to represent it in writing.

See, I think when the Greeks — they’re, of course, a very literate society — but I think in the early days of Homer when they were telling the Iliad and the Odyssey, when it was coming in oral forms, I don’t think they made a clear distinction between how much of this is supposed to be fictional and how much of it is supposed to be fact. It was just part of their oral tradition.

David Boulton: Right. And then within a few hundred years of getting the alphabet it just…

Dr. John Searle: Takes off. It takes off like crazy.

David Boulton: Can you speak to that moment in western civilization? It seems like there are two, when the Jews start writing the ‘book’ and the Greeks start writing their myths. They’re both using variations of the alphabet.

Dr. John Searle: Here’s Christ speaking Aramaic, and who knows what happened when it got into Greek. I mean, I’m not enough of a scholar to know about this. But one hypothesis is that the Greek word for ‘virgin’ is the same for young girl, and that this was a mistranslation of what had been in Hebrew and Aramaic. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that happens when the Greeks take over.

David Boulton: Okay. Back to cognitive functions for just a moment. We’re talking about an exercise that increases the bandwidth, so to speak, a change in our attention span.

Dr. John Searle: Yeah.

David Boulton: I mean, one of the things about reading is…

Dr. John Searle: It requires a lot…

David Boulton: We’re ‘buffering up’ information – our brains are doing something different. They’re creating …

Dr. John Searle: It’s scary.

David Boulton: A code instructed and informed virtual reality.

Dr. John Searle: The point is we’re now in a kind of torrent. We’re now in a flood, a tidal wave of the printed word. I cannot even read all the intelligent attacks on myself. I look around this room, there must be at least 200 or more books in this room that I’ve never read, and I’m unlikely to be able to have time to read them. There’s something else that happens in my line of business, and that is, when I was a kid, I couldn’t afford to buy the books I need. Now I can’t shelve the books that are mailed to me free. They keep coming in every day. So there is too damn much out there, and I don’t know how we’re going to cope with this.

We’ve reached a peculiar situation in academic life where the requirement that you publish has produced a lot more books than anybody ever needs to read, and it’s now putting a tremendous drain on the publishers because they can’t make a living out of publishing all of these books. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. But we’ve reached the kind of crisis in academic writing and academic publishing. There’s too much of it.

David Boulton: Well — just a quick aside — you’re describing a perspective that’s unique to the highly literate…

Dr. John Searle: Yeah, that’s right.

David Boulton: From the highest vantage point of literacy. But there are 100 million people in this country that are underwater…

Dr. John Searle: That’s right.

David Boulton: For whom the code is not transparent like it is for you and I. One of the things that we’re trying to draw out, that you might be interested in, is that assembling this virtual reality experience…

Dr. John Searle: Yeah.

David Boulton: From this code — which has a very sloppy, mismatched letter-sound system — is creating a form of confusion that, as far as we can tell, the brains of human beings never experienced before. It precipitates an artificial form of confusion that children are developing a preconscious shame aversion to.

Dr. John Searle: Yeah. Well, there is this peculiar situation, and I don’t fully understand it, and that is the conflict between the print media and the visual media. I think a lot of my students were brought up on television, and it takes an enormous effort, which it did not take for me, for example, in high school, to get attuned to the fact of reading big books that have hard covers and have more than a couple hundred pages. It’s not over in an hour and there are no commercial breaks. It takes a kind of discipline and attention. Maybe in the end that’s what universities function to do, is to teach people how to read, because an awful lot of my students give me the impression that they arrive in the university without much real experience of reading, but they are attuned to all of the visual references. They know the names of movie stars and TV stars that I never heard of, and they keep referring to television programs that I never heard of, and I guess it was obviously part of their culture.

That was not part of my culture. We went to Hollywood movies when I was a kid, but once a week at most, and the television was too ridiculous to be worth watching if you were an intellectual. I think it’s probably still too ridiculous, but something else has happened, and this is related to the print medium. We’re seeing now a breakdown of the distinction between high culture and popular culture. Now, university humanities departments exist for the purpose of celebrating and transmitting high culture, that’s one of their main functions. So if they lose that distinction, then it’s hard to know exactly why we’re paying them, I mean, what they’re supposed to be doing.

In the Beginning Was the Word:

David Boulton: Right. Let’s go back to whatever we could say about the human mind that connects the dots through the stages of development between spoken and written language.

Dr. John Searle: Okay.

David Boulton: Clearly becoming users of words was as or more important to us becoming what me mean by ‘human’ as walking erect. I mean, how could we even imagine the difference between human beings before words and human beings after words? It’s almost biblical: ‘In the beginning was the word’.

Dr. John Searle: Alright, now this is the absolute point and we have to get this across: there are two great steps in the development of cognition. There’s the step where you go from being prelinguistic to being linguistic. Now, there are a lot of smart primates out there and a lot of smart mammals, but they can’t talk to each other in the way that humans can talk to each other. Even the bees with their celebrated bee language, it’s not much of a language. There’s not going to be much poetry, or even short stories in the bee language. I can guarantee it. They just don’t have the apparatus. But that’s step number one, you learn how to talk.

So Let it be Written:

Dr. John Searle: Step number two, and this doesn’t look like it’s such a big step, but it turns out to be an exponential increase in power, and that is where you learn not just how to talk, but how to write, how to compose the spoken word into written words, and then how to both preserve and extend the capacity of the written word. Then it turns out, of course, that you do things in writing that you cannot possibly do in speaking, because for spoken language we don’t have the kind of attention span that would enable us to compose a whole article, much less a whole book or a whole encyclopedia in the course of a single conversation. So the great leap forward here was when we started talking to each other, and then jumped forward to writing things to each other.

David Boulton: The distinction that we want to make is that writing is something that we can consciously, volitionally, intentionally do.

Dr. John Searle: That’s right.

David Boulton: Reading has to deal with the same code unconsciously faster than we think about it.


Dr. John Searle: Yeah. The one thing we have to keep emphasizing in all of this, and I haven’t said anything about it, is consciousness. You can’t speak without consciousness, you can’t write without consciousness, and you can’t read without consciousness. We’re talking about conscious human forms of intentionality. We’re talking about the thoughtful, intentional behavior of human beings. The speech act is, above all, a conscious voluntary intentional act. The written version of the speech act is simply a potentially much more powerful expression of the same thing.

David Boulton: Right. And reading is different from both.

Dr. John Searle: Yeah, of course. This is why I’m such a poor reader. In reading, you’ve got to try to get inside the intentionality of the author. It’s not enough to just think, ‘Oh, boy, it’d be fun if he meant this,’ or, ‘It’d be fun if he meant that.’ You have to try to figure out what the author actually meant. Reading is a matter of trying to get behind the coded version that you’re presented into actual thought of the author. Reading, I think, is best thought of as a kind of conversation you’re having with the author, where he does most of the talking.

David Boulton: But neither one of you are present, and this is all mediated by…

Dr. John Searle: By the text.

David Boulton: A virtual language experience in the mind.

Dr. John Searle: Well, it’s made possible by the fact that you’ve got this wonderful written text. There’s a great beauty of the written text, and that is you can close the book and go do something else for a while and then come back to it.

David Boulton: We talked about civilization and we talked about consciousness. The one thing that I’d like to drill into a little bit more is how our consciousness has been affected by this technology…

Dr. John Searle: Oh, yeah.

David Boulton: In very profound ways in terms of the way that our brains organize our memory.

Dr. John Searle: Yeah.

David Boulton: I mean, to an animal, memory would be that which re-members, puts back together the ‘presence’ of the animal appropriate to the circumstance. That’s entirely different than intentional volitional recall using words as an index to do it.


Dr. John Searle: Yeah. Well, it turns out that as far as memory is concerned, we’ve got lots of different kinds of memories. I mean, there’s one kind of memory which is skill memory, you remember how to ride a bicycle. But there’s another kind of memory which is a memory of facts and dates and places and memory of narratives and memory of histories. All of those things, at least the interesting ones for us, require a language, and the more elaborate ones require a written language.

So, I was saying this earlier, but I want to repeat it, and that is: Language, particularly written language, shapes cognition. It makes human emotional life possible. As I said earlier, animals don’t fall in love in the sense that we do. They have pair bonding and sexual attraction, but they do not have romantic love affairs because to have that you have to have certain ways of representing it. The capacity of poetry, for example, to articulate, and not just articulate, but to create forms of human experience that would not exist without the written word… this is a famous additional capacity that written language has.

David Boulton: Thank You Dr. Searle.

Dr. John Searle: Great, thank you.