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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Being a Philosopher

When you think of coming to get a degree here and taking a philosophy course, it might be intimidating for a student.

At one point you say, "We have to begin by approaching the problem naïvely. We have to let ourselves be astounded by facts that any sane person would take for granted." So this sense of wonder and naïveté and innocence that you might have is a virtue, in a way.

Yes. I mean that quite literally, and in fact we've been exhibiting that just in our discussion. The way that I describe the mind-body problem: you have to allow yourself to be astounded by things that any sane person takes for granted. We've got this stuff in our brains, it's conscious. How the hell can it be conscious? Now that's the childlike question that you have to ask. When you begin working on a philosophical question you have to be totally naïve. "I've got this hole in my face, noise comes out. People find it meaningful. They think it's true or false or interesting. How can that be? How can just making these noises through my mouth, how can that have all of these remarkable properties?" That's the naïve stage. Then you have, at some point, to become incredibly sophisticated. You stop being naïve and become immensely knowledgeable, rigorous, and sophisticated. And I've never figured out the algorithm for when you stop being dumb and start being smart. But you have to start off very naïve and very dumb. "Oh yes, amazing, how can that be?" Then later on, then you bring in your intellectual apparatus and get it resolved.

But also you have to immerse yourself in the studies, for example, in the case of what's going on in the mind that science is discovering.

Yes. And the Internet is a disaster, because it means there's more stuff than ever to read. And the proliferation of good articles -- I can't read all the intelligent attacks on myself. There are just too many! And I can't read all my e-mail. So the problem is that technology doesn't give us more time in the day, this is the real problem. And you have to read a lot and I'm sure I don't read enough. But what I do read I take very seriously.

Now you've given us a sense of the domain in which you work, the kinds of problems you work on. What then are the traits that go with doing philosophy well? It sounds like you have to be very patient.

Yes. Well I'm not patient, I know that. I tend to get impatient.

But let me describe some of the traits, I think, that make for a good philosopher. One is you really have to have a kind of openness. You can't think that you know all the right answers in advance, you've got to be willing to be astonished when you go to work on problems. And this has happened to me on a number of occasions. I'll give one example.

I knew all my life I would some day have to write an article about metaphor: How do metaphors work? And like every American, I've been to high school. And like every American, I guess, you think that the stuff you learn in high school must, at some level, be right. In high school they taught us that all metaphors are really similes in disguise. It's really, when you say "man is a wolf," you mean "man is like a wolf," in certain respects. I just assumed that, and then I was astounded to discover that theory doesn't work. You can't make that theory work because, well, for a number of reasons it doesn't work. But that's an example of how you've got to be open. Searle lecturing in the seventies You've got to be willing to have your most fundamental beliefs challenged and even refuted. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is you've got to mind your p's and q's. You've got to make sure that each step follows logically from the earlier steps.

The third thing is, in a way, the hardest of all. You just have to avoid saying things that are obviously false. And you'd be surprised how many famous philosophers say things that are obviously false. I mean, Berkeley says the material world doesn't exist, it's all just ideas. A lot of contemporary philosophers say the mind doesn't really exist, it's just a computer program or it's a way we have of looking at things. Consciousness doesn't really exist, it's just a certain type of computer program. I would say, if you can proceed rigorously, you have an open mind, and you avoid making obvious mistakes, avoid saying things that are obviously false, well, I don't guarantee you a successful career in philosophy, but you're off and running. I mean, you're doing better than a lot of famous people.

And you have to be argumentative and courageous, right?

Yes, I think it takes a certain amount of courage. If you have a view that you think is right but an awful lot of people don't think is right, and you publish it and you turn on your e-mail or open the philosophy journals and you find out all these guys think you're wrong, if you really think you're right and you really think you have good arguments, you have to have the courage of your convictions. And some people find that difficult. I don't. I guess my upbringing or my personal style ... I don't mind it if other people disagree with me. I'm sorry that they make these mistakes, but I do what I can to correct them.

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