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Making the Social World

June 28, 2010

I found some of John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality to be useful for thinking critically about some elements of social constructionism, so I was looking forward to his new one: Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization.

It is rare that I can say I didn’t learn anything of value from a book. So yeah, it’s bad.

1) He starts with a great principle: things like states and money exist only because we recognize them as such.

2) Then he proceeds to try to prove we can make absolutely objective statements about these things. Along the way to his proof, which is not convincing, he’s got this great mix of extreme precision and superficiality characteristic of analytic philosophy, like those philosophers who write 100 pages on why “snow is white” or how we can know “the cat is on the mat.”

3) He ignores the most obvious objection to the whole project: what about when people’s recognition is divided? Like when it comes to Kashmir or Palestine? Or Christianity or Hinduism? It doesn’t get interesting until we get into these sorts of cases, but these are the sorts that move beyond the complexity of “snow is white,” so I guess they’re verboten.

Also, he defines “power” in a way that includes “intention” as central. Fine; I’m all for stipulative definitions if they are useful for your project. However, once he defines power in this way, he goes on to criticize Foucault’s account of power: he says that Foucault’s account of power is no good because it doesn’t center around intentionality. This is about as dumb as writing a book about “football” (i.e., American football) and saying that the World Cup misunderstands football because it doesn’t even have touchdowns or quarterbacks.

Don’t waste your time.

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