man working in a collective space

Collective Intentionality – An Examination of John Searle’s: The Construction of Social Reality.

Page 1 (First Installment of 4 Page Essay)

“The central pan on the bridge from physics to society is collective intentionality, and the decisive movement on that bridge in the creation of social reality is the collective intentional imposition of function on entities that cannot perform those functions without that imposition” (Searle: 41). Let us examine this claim in three parts. Firstly, the central pan from physics to society is collective intentionality. Secondly, the decisive movement on that bridge in the creation of social reality is the collective intentional imposition. Thirdly, the collective intentional imposition of function on entities cannot perform those functions without that imposition.

The central pan from physics to society is collective intentionality. The central part of physics might be the basis of physics. Human knowledge of the physical sciences is limited, in the sense that we see the sciences through mathematical equations, which form the laws of physics. Also, by referring to ‘the central pan of the bridge’, Searle might be making an analogy to the arch of the bridge between physics and society. It is the arch of a bridge that provides structural support to that bridge. Should the bridge break in anyway, it is the arch that will remain intact and serve to support that part of the bridge that did not collapse. More specifically, the arch that connects the two phenomena together is collective intentionality.

Collective intentionality joins (or rather incorporates) physics and society. Searle claims that “if we never existed, if there had never been any representations – any statements, beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, etc. – most of the world would have remained unaffected” (Searle: 153). Yet this would not prevent the existence of a natural process in the world. Physical laws, however, would not have any meaning without human beings. The world might have operated according to a natural process without human beings (who provide collective intentionality), but scientific laws and theories would not exist. Furthermore, society, which is comprised of intentional and social facts, could not exist without collective intentionality. Society is a composition of collective intentionality (Searle: 41).

Page 2

It is not collective intentionality that provides for the existence of society and social facts. The shared perception of the members of society (and of the World for that matter), comprises collective intentionality. Collective intentionality also comprises mathematical law (such as 1 + 1 = 2), because there is a collective intention to produce this sum.

The decisive movement on that bridge in the creation of social reality is the collective intentional imposition. More than there simply being a collective intentionality, it seems that there is also an imposition of the intentionality. Laws of physics and social facts exist as they do (and are understood in a certain way) because intentionality does not exist automatically. Human beings impose social facts on the laws of physics and on society.

We might then ponder the following question: If there were a collective intentional imposition, would such an imposition not affect the thing that is defined or conceived? In the case of social facts, it is by defining the purpose of the constructed item that gives that item meaning, which actually makes it what it is and not something else. For example, a chair is defined as a chair and not as various pieces of wood of differing sizes and shapes that are interconnected. To further clarify our position, a person from a remote culture would likely not identify a hat in the same manner that we would. The same idea applies to Inuit people when dealing with snow as an object. Firstly, with regard to our example of dealing with the hat as an object, members of the remote culture might interpret our idea of a hat to be a container for food. In the second example, Inuit people may consider outside cultures as being simplistic, because Inuit people have more than thirty names for snow, while most people only know of one name for this substance.

Page 3

The collective intention of a societal fact might have meaning in the culture by which it is defined, or where it is perceived as a social fact. These values and norms might not be universally interpreted in the same way. The language we use to defined social facts sets a boundary for something to be a social fact. Culture might not be so much a distinguishing factor for common value, as might be language and the limits of translation to maintain identical meaning (Searle: 37). The same might not be accurate for physics.

Physics, unlike social facts, is a form of mathematics. Mathematics does not need to be translated and numbers can be universally understood. The number 1 or the number 5 carries the same value in any language. This claim, however, suggests that all cultures both use and understand numbers in the same fashion that we do and that all nationalities have been exposed to our numeric system. If there was a universal method of communicating to all cultures the meaning of a number and its relationships within our mathematical system, then we could claim: that every culture could understand our numeric system and its mathematical laws. Whether or not we could teach people from different cultures to perform equations – in math or physics –  is irrelevant. Within our society, there are educated people who understand our numerical system and can perform basic mathematical calculations. Yet they are unable to understand the dynamics of physics.

Page 4

The collective intentional imposition of function on entities cannot perform those functions without that imposition (Searle: 41). We should then understand that social facts and physics could not exist, as they are, without a collective intentional imposition. The imposition also allows for social facts and physics to function. In the case of physics, it is not only physics (including the laws of physics) that seemingly causes it to function the way it seems to those who employ its use. The crucial point to consider is, that without the collective intentional imposition, we would not be able to derive universally accepts laws about the world and complete formula equations.

We would not be able to use or exchange social facts within our society, unless the collective intentionality was imposed upon it. Money would not only fail to have the meaning that is ascribed to it (as a form of currency), but its value which is based on a certain standard would not have any meaning unless we imposed a collective intentionality on the standard (Searle: 37). Society collectively accepts as a norm and as an economic standard, that money does not have an inherent value. The value of money is based on whatever the collectively accepted criteria might be at the time. During the Bretton Woods Summit, it was decided that currency would demonstrate value based on the gold standard. Since then, basing its worth on other components has provided a standard value for currency. Money maintains a certain value, only when, in the international community, it is accepted at the same value that had been ascribed to it by the issuing government.

Society and physics both exist as a result of collective intentionality. They exist for the purpose of demonstrating social facts and social institutional facts. Society, and the various segments that comprise it, has an existence due to components of many social facts, which are collectively accepted as having an imposed purpose attached to them. Physics and the laws of the universe are a human construction, which is based on an effort to comprehend the systems of nature. Through the collective intentional imposition of set systems and laws, human beings affect and impact the natural world.



Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. Great Britain: Allen Lane Penguin Press, 1995. Penguin Books.



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