John Searle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Philosophy and the Habits of Critical Thinking: Conversation with John R. Searle, Mills Professor of Philosophy, UC Berkeley; 9/22/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Professor Searle, welcome.

Thank you. Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Denver and I lived there until I was twelve, but because of the vagaries of the Second World War and the way people moved around then, I then lived in a lot of places. My father was an executive of AT&T. My mother was a medical doctor. And after we left Denver I lived in New York, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, where I graduated from high school and where I went to my first university.

How did your parents shape your character?

That's not for me to say. I think a lot of people think they didn't do a good enough job. But I think now that my education was somewhat unusual, my upbringing was a bit unusual, because my mother was a professional medical doctor so I never had the problem that a lot of people have of finding it difficult to get used to women as equal members of the profession. I never had any doubts about that in my house. In fact, I sort of thought, when I was a real little kid, that professions like law and medicine really were more women's professions than they were [for men] ... like my dad was an engineer. Now that I'm a bit older and I can look back on it, I think a kind of wanting to know how things work has infected my philosophy, which I got from both of my parents -- a kind of engineering approach to philosophical problems. And that's not entirely typical in my profession, I've discovered.

What about your interest in science?

Well the funny thing is, in a sense I reacted against science in high school and college. I didn't want to be a doctor and I didn't want to be an engineer. I thought that the humanities were the more exciting parts of my education. But in fact, now I wouldn't make the distinction. Now it all comes together for me. I don't see any distinction between, let's say, mathematics, literature, and neurobiology. Now I have a big enough scope and a big enough view of human intellectual enterprise that I don't make the distinction between these things. And I think my problem, a problem for every philosopher, is that to do philosophy well you have to know everything. And I don't know everything. Neither does any other philosopher. And there's a bad inference from that. That is, it looks like we've got a built-in problem.

Still talking about your youth, any particular books that you read that turned you on, that really made a difference?

Gosh, there must be hundreds.

You read a lot.

Yes. Much more then than I do now. I think [Bertrand] Russell's History of Western Philosophy, which I read when I was a teenager -- it's not a very good book really from a scholarly point of view -- but it made it seem like these were real people doing real things. It made it look like philosophy was a human activity. You didn't have to be a genius or some kind of monster to do it. So I think that had a big influence on me, but other obvious things, like Huckleberry Finn. I read it over and over, more or less every year. And every time I read it, it seemed like a different book to me, and it is a remarkable book. And then I started reading literature seriously when I was a teenager. Proust ... I read the great modernists: Proust and Joyce and Mann and Kafka. And they had a tremendous influence on me.

But you were reading things then probably that your cohorts weren't? You were ahead of the game?

Well, I'm not sure that that was true. I had an unusual bunch of friends in high school and in college. And we were, now that I think about it, for sixteen-year-olds, we were pretty self-consciously intellectual. That is, we hated American popular culture. We had nothing to do with the culture of the fifties. We threw up when we heard Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra. We thought that was just dreck, we wanted nothing to do with that. And we were self-consciously intellectual in our interests, and I think that was healthy.

I think it's healthy, especially when you're young, to feel that you're different and unique and not just part of a great mass of people flowing forward. I think it's good to fight against the current.

That's something that a philosopher is often doing, as we'll talk about in a couple a minutes.

Yes. I got used to being in a minority by the time I was fourteen or fifteen. One thing I should say is, I went to a very unusual school when we lived in New York. I went to the experimental school of Columbia University called Horace Mann Lincoln. And that, I have to say, at the age of thirteen, was the most intense intellectual environment I'd ever lived in, was when I was thirteen years old. These were very intense ninth graders. They were fanatically political. So I was a Fabian Socialist at the time but I was sort of the class right-winger of the ninth grade, being merely a socialist. That was a remarkable atmosphere and I think it did have an effect on me in the long run. For one thing, it gave me a kind of intellectual self-confidence in debate. You had to shout as loud as anybody else at Horace Mann Lincoln or you were never heard.

So toughness went along with thinking in this environment.

I got used to arguing. I do not feel uncomfortable when people challenge my views. And I don't feel uncomfortable if it turns out I'm in a minority. That doesn't bother me.

As an undergraduate you went to the University of Wisconsin.

That was my first university, yes. And at the time it was a wonderful place. I think all universities have lost some of that enthusiasm that they had in the early fifties, but I was part of what was called the Integrated Liberal Studies Program. They taught us Western civilization, roughly speaking from the pre-Socratics right up to the present time. headline from U of W newspaper: Searle to Head Student Board, under another headline: Truman Relieves 'Mac' And it really was a marvelous intellectual environment.

You were also in student government?

Yes. I don't know how I got into that exactly, but in the way that you do. You find suddenly you're running for an office in student government, and I did.

You were president of the student body.

I was, yes. But I'm afraid I disappointed a lot of people because I found I had a terrific conflict between being president of the student body and my intellectual interests. And in the end I resigned as president to pursue my studies. I just had to make a choice and I did.

And you were in philosophy as a major?

Well, I was in everything. You see, I hadn't settled on anything.

Everything interested me, and it still does. I mean this is part of my problem, everything interests me. I go to the library to get a book on symbolic logic and I find I'm reading about the war in the desert or the development of ceramic pottery in Europe or Byzantine art. Everything interests me.

But you want to bring order to ...

Yes, I do. Maybe that's one of the reasons that I, intellectually, like to produce orderly books and an orderly theory, because inside it's all chaos.

Then you were a Rhodes scholar and went to England Searle celebrating the end of exams at Oxford, June 1955. to study for how many years?

Well, I got a Rhodes scholarship in my junior year and I was only nineteen. And I really was not very well formed. Now, I didn't know that at the time. I thought, you know, I was a pretty old guy, pretty far along. And when I got to Oxford they treated me as if I had no education at all. They made me start at the very beginning because, unlike other Rhodes scholars, I didn't already have a degree. And consequently they said, "Well, you have to start at the beginning." So I took philosophy, politics, and economics, which was a standard degree, a standard combination. And that's when I first became professionally interested in philosophy. Then when I got my BA -- in Oxford in those days you could get a job; if you got a good BA you could be hired -- and some months after I got my BA I got a job as what's called a "don," a research lecturer at Christ Church, my old college. So I stayed on for another three years. I spent a total of seven years in Oxford my first visit. That is, three years as an undergraduate, one year doing research, and then three years as a faculty member.

And then your first position in the United States was at Berkeley?

Berkeley, yes.

You came here in what year?

Fifty-nine, and I've been here since. Forty years.

Fifty-nine, forty years, my goodness! Let's talk a little about doing philosophy.

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