Exercise 1.5 Construction and Reality

Reflecting on Searle’s observation (below), how would you explain the difference between the construction of social reality and the social construction of reality?

Searle’s observations is:

There are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world, that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. … things like money, property, governments, and marriages. Yet many facts regarding these things are ‘objective’ facts in the sense that they are not a matter of [our] preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes. (Searle, 1995, 1)


Here is the question:

How would you explain the difference between the construction of social reality and the social construction of reality?

In answer, I want to state that my interpretation of the word ‘reality’ in the term social construction of reality means the totality of all human reality.  I hope to explain that total reality is constructed from social reality (constructed from institutional facts), and a presupposed external reality (constructed by representations of brute facts), and thereby demonstrate that the construction of social reality is a composite part of the social construction of total reality.

I use Searle’s book, The Construction of Social Reality (Searle, 1995) for most of my reasoning.

Construction of social reality

I addressed some aspects of social reality in  Exercise 1.0 The Construction of Social Reality, where I note that Searle identifies ‘institutional facts’ as being:

‘… objective facts in the world, that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. … things like money, property, governments, and marriages.’

The creation of institutional facts rely on a system of language for humans to discuss and agree the ‘preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes‘ which shape each fact.

Without language, institutional facts could not exist, and it is through language and discourse that humans construct a social reality.

Social construction of external reality

Searle explains that we cannot adequately explain what is the totality of reality, as our position is that of living ‘inside’ reality.  We need various constructs of reality to define reality which, by the limited accounts I have read (see Bibliography), lead to inconclusive circular arguments.

However, Searle argues that there must be an external objective reality on which to construct a social reality, and in order to further a discussion on the nature of reality, we must presuppose an external reality, a reality created from brute facts, a reality which would still exist in the absence of all humankind.

Humans do not create external reality, we construct a representation of external reality in order to function within it. Searle uses the example of a screwdriver to illustrate this, so let us mentally lay a screwdriver before us for examination. We can describe its qualities as Searle does:

‘… it has a certain mass and a certain chemical composition. It is made partly of wood, the cells of which are composed of cellulose fibers, and also partly of metal, which is itself composed of metal alloy molecules.’

These are intrinsic qualities, and are unchanging in the sense that they exist independently of an observer or user of the object. Searle goes on to say:

‘When I describe it as a screwdriver, I am specifying a feature of the object that is observer or user relative. It is a screwdriver only because people use it as (or made it for the purpose of, or regard it as) a screwdriver.’

Searle explains that this sort of observer relative feature does not add new physical material to the object or to external reality, it simply adds a piece of objective knowledge into a representation of external reality.

It is the adoption of this knowledge by members of society that constitutes the social construction of external reality.


So what is the difference between the construction of social reality and the social construction of reality?

I understand, using Searle’s hypotheses, that the construction of social reality is made collectively by humans from institutional facts. This social reality is only a part of total reality. The other part is a presupposed external reality which humans cannot create, but who can collectively interpret by constructing a system of representation.  The social construction of reality is therefore a composite of the construction of social reality, and the construction of a representation of external reality.


Searle, J (1995) The construction of social reality. USA, The Free Press. Available from: https://www.scribd.com/read/224430184/The-Construction-of-Social-Reality [Accessed 18 April  2017]


Reality on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality

Reality: The Definition on New Scientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528840-500-reality-the-definition/

Social Constructionism on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_constructionism

Social Reality on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_reality

What is Reality? on Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-and-the-pursuit-leadership/201510/what-is-reality

Main research during this part of the course

Reading The Construction of Social Reality by J.R Searle (1995) focussing on chapters 1 and 8, and understanding his terms of epistemic and ontological objectivity and subjectivity, intrinsic facts and observer related facts, the assignment or imposition of function and value, agentive and nonagentive functions, collective intentionality, and constitutive rules.

Contextual Research

This section contains my notes for this exercise – there may be direct copy quotes from Searle’s book, or paraphrasing or my own synopsis of a concept.  This section is not meant to be part of the answer to the exercise, it contains notes from my studies.

Deconstructing the objective-subjective distinction

Epistemic objectivity – objective knowledge – “Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam during the year 1632.”

Epistemic subjectivity – subjective knowledge – “Rembrandt is a better artist than Rubens.”

Ontologically objective – things which exist e.g – mountains

Ontologically subjective – pains, because their mode of existence depends on being felt by subjects.

We can make epistemically subjective statements about entities that are ontologically objective … the statement “Mt. Everest is more beautiful than Mt. Whitney” is about ontologically objective entities, but makes a subjective judgment about them.

We can make epistemically objective statements about entities that are ontologically subjectivethe statement “I now have a pain in my lower back” reports an epistemically objective fact (in the sense that it is made true by the existence of an actual fact that is not dependent 
on any stance, attitudes, or opinions of observers) but the actual pain has a ontologically subjective mode of existence. 

Intrinsic features and observer-relative features

In discussing the screwdriver … Observer-relative features exist only relative to the attitudes of observers. Intrinsic features don’t give a damn about observers and exist independently of observers.

Intrinsic features of reality are those that exist independently of all mental states, except for mental states themselves, which are also intrinsic features of reality. 

In each of the following pairs, the first states an intrinsic fact about an object, and the second states an observer-relative fact about the very same object. 

1a. intrinsic: That object is a stone. 

1b. observer relative: That object is a paperweight.   (epistemically objective – objective knowledge)

2a. intrinsic: The moon causes the tides. 

2b. observer relative: The moon is beautiful tonight.   (epistemically subjective – subjective knowledge)

3a. intrinsic: Earthquakes often occur where tectonic plates meet. 

3b. observer relative: Earthquakes are bad for real estate values.  (epistemically objective – objective knowledge)

Observer-relative features are always created by the intrinsic mental phenomena of the users which like all mental phenomena is ontologically subjective (because their mode of existence depends on being felt by subjects); and the observer-relative features inherit that ontological subjectivity. But this ontological subjectivity does not prevent claims about observer-relative features from being epistemically objective. Notice that in 1b and 3b the observer-relative statement is epistemically objective; in 2b it is subjective.

‘It is a logical consequence … that for any observer-relative feature F, seeming to be F is logically prior to being F, because—appropriately understood—seeming to be F is a necessary condition of being F. If we understand this point, we are well on the road to understanding the ontology of socially created reality.’

So I take from this that on seeing a screwdriver a user will first determine that it seems like a screwdriver before it becomes a screwdriver (or not). “Oh that looks like a screwdriver, yes it is a screwdriver”.

The assignment (or imposition) of function

As far as our normal experiences of the inanimate parts of the world are concerned, we do not experience things as material objects, much less as collections of molecules. Rather, we experience a world of chairs and tables, houses and cars, lecture halls, pictures, streets, gardens, houses, and so forth.

In the case of some artifacts we build the object to serve a function. Chairs, bathtubs, and computers are obvious examples. In the case of many naturally occurring objects, such as rivers and trees, we assign a function — aesthetic, practical, and so on — to a preexisting object. We say, “That river is good to swim in,” or “That type of tree can be used for lumber.” 

Functions are never intrinsic to the physics of any phenomenon but are assigned from outside by conscious observers and users – they are always observer-relative

There’s a discussion about how we assign function to nature, using the heart as an example.

It is intrinsic to nature that the heart pumps blood. When, in addition to saying “The heart pumps blood” we say, “The function of the heart is to pump blood,” we are doing something more than recording these intrinsic facts – we are situating these facts relative to a system of values that we hold. It is intrinsic to us that we hold these values, but the attribution of these values to nature independent of us is observer relative.

Even when we discover a function in nature (e.g the function of the heart) the discovery consists in the discovery of the causal processes together with the assignment of a teleology [the belief that purpose and design are a part of … nature] to those causal processes. A whole vocabulary of success and failure is now appropriate that is not appropriate to simple brute facts of nature. We can speak of “malfunction,” “heart disease,” and better and worse hearts. We do not speak of better and worse stones, unless of course we have assigned a function to the stone. If we use the stone as a weapon or a paperweight or an objet d’art trouvé, for example, we can asses its adequacy under these functional descriptions. 

We do indeed “discover” functions in nature. But the discovery of a natural function can take place only within a set of prior assignments of value. Thus given that we already accept that for organisms there is a value in survival and reproduction, and that for a species there is a value in continued existence, we can discover that the function of the heart is to pump blood.

It is because we take it for granted in biology that life and survival are values that we can discover that the function of the heart is to pump blood. If we thought the most important value in the world was to glorify God by making thumping noises, then the function of the heart would be to make a thumping noise, and the noisier heart would be the better heart. If we valued death and extinction above all, then we would say that a function of cancer is to speed death. In these functional assignments, no new intrinsic facts are involved. As far as nature is concerned intrinsically, there are no functional facts beyond causal facts. The further assignment of function is observer relative.

Agentive function –  are instance of uses to which agents intentionally put objects. When we say, “This stone is a paperweight,” “This object is a screwdriver,” or “This is a chair,” these three functional notions mark uses to which we put objects, functions that we do not discover, and that do not occur naturally, but that are assigned relative to the practical interests of conscious agents.

Nonagentive function – functions assigned to naturally occurring objects and processes as part of a theoretical account of the phenomena in question – e.g “The heart functions to pump blood”.

A special case of agentive function – Sometimes the agentive function assigned to an object is that of standing for or representing something else. Thus, when I draw a diagram of a football play, I let certain circles stand for the quarterback, the running back, the offensive linemen, and so on. In this case, the agentive function assigned to the marks on the paper is that of representing or standing for; but because “representing” and “standing for” are just other names for intentionality, in this case we have intentionally imposed intentionality on objects and states of affairs that are not intrinsically intentional. There are names in English for the result of this type of imposition of function: They are called “meaning” or “symbolism.” Marks on the paper now have meaning in a way that a screwdriver, for example, does not have meaning, because the marks on the paper now stand for or represent objects and states of affairs independent of themselves. The most famous sorts of meaning are, of course, in language. In the use of language we impose a specific function, namely, that of representing, onto marks and sounds. 

Functions may be imposed quite unconsciously, and the functions once imposed are often—so to speak—invisible. So, for example, money may simply have evolved without anyone ever thinking, “We are now imposing a new function on these objects”; and once money has evolved, people may use money to buy and sell without thinking about the logical structure of imposed function. However, for all cases of agentive function, someone must be capable of understanding what the thing is for, or the function could never be assigned. At least some of the participants in the system of exchange must understand, consciously or unconsciously, that money is to buy things with, screwdrivers are for driving screws, and so forth. If we assign a function that is totally apart from human intentions, it would have to fall in the category of nonagentive functions. Thus suppose someone says that the intended agentive function of money is to serve as a medium of exchange and a store of value, but money also serves the hidden, secret, unintended function of maintaining the system of power relationships in society. The first claim is about the intentionality of agentive function. The second claim is about nonagentive function. To see this, simply ask yourself what facts in the world would make each claim true. The first claim is made true by the intentionality with which agents use objects as money. They use it for the purpose of buying, selling, and storing value. The second claim, like the claim that the heart functions to pump blood, would be true if and only if there is a set of unintended causal relations and these serve some teleology, even if it is not a teleology shared by the speaker. 

Just to keep the terminology straight (Searle) will adopt the following conventions. 
1. Since all functions are observer relative I will speak of all functions as assigned or equivalently as imposed
2. Within the category of assigned functions some are agentive because they are matters of the use to which agents put entities, e.g., the function of bathtubs is to take baths in. 
3. Within the category of assigned functions some are nonagentive because they are naturally occurring causal processes to which we have assigned a purpose, e.g., the function of the heart is to pump blood. 
4. Within the category of agentive functions is a special category of those entities whose agentive function is to symbolize, represent, stand for, or — in general — to mean something or other. 
Collective Intentionality
Many species of animals, our own especially, have a capacity for collective intentionality. By this I mean not only that they engage in cooperative behavior, but that they share intentional states such as beliefs, desires, and intentions. In addition to singular intentionality there is also collective intentionality. Obvious examples are cases where I am doing something only as part of our doing something.  If I am a violinist in an orchestra I play my part in our performance of the symphony.
Collective intentionality is a biologically primitive phenomenon.
The crucial element in collective intentionality is a sense of doing (wanting, believing, etc.) something together, and the individual intentionality that each person has is derived from the collective intentionality that they share.
By stipulation I (Searle) will henceforth use the expression “social fact” to refer to any fact involving collective intentionally. So, for example, the fact that two people are going for a walk together is a social fact
Constitutive Rules and the Distinction Between Brute and Institutional Facts 
Brute facts exist independently of any human institutions; institutional facts can exist only within human institutions. Brute facts require the institution of language in order that we can state the facts, but the brute facts themselves exist quite independently of language or of any other institution.
Regulative rules – regulate antecedently existing activities. For example, the rule “drive on the right-hand side of the road” regulates driving; but driving can exist prior to the existence of that rule.
Constitutive rules – create the very possibility of certain activities – e.g the rules of chess create the game of chess. 

Searle p232:

Carefully stated, external realism is the thesis that there is a way that things are that is independent of all representations of how things are. The thesis that there is a reality independent of our representations identifies not how things are in fact, but rather identifies a space of possibilities.

Searle p247:

Normal understanding of talk of both money and mountains requires external realism, but normal understanding of talk of money presupposes the existence of representations in a way that normal understanding of mountains does not. Money is understood as socially constructed; mountains are not understood as socially constructed. 


Searle’s treatment of a screwdriver to explain observer relative features of objects (p23, 24)

…an intrinsic feature of the object in front of me that it has a certain mass and a certain chemical composition. It is made partly of wood, the cells of which are composed of cellulose fibers, and also partly of metal, which is itself com- posed of metal alloy molecules. All these features are intrinsic. But it is also true to say of the very same object that it is a screwdriver. When I de- scribe it as a screwdriver, I am specifying a feature of the object that is ob- server or user relative. It is a screwdriver only because people use it as (or made it for the purpose of, or regard it as) a screwdriver. The existence of observer-relative features of the world does not add any new material ob- jects to reality, but it can add epistemically objective features to reality where the features in question exist relative to observers and users. It is, for example, an epistemically objective feature of this thing that it is a screwdriver, but that feature exists only relative to observers and users, and so the feature is ontologically subjective. By “observers and users” I mean to include makers, designers, owners, buyers, sellers, and anyone else whose intentionality toward the object is such that he or she regards it as a screwdriverSince the issues are important and the example is simple, I want to belabor these points a bit further. 
1. The sheer existence of the physical object in front of me does not depend on any attitudes we may take toward it. 
2. It has many features that are intrinsic in the sense that they do not depend on any attitudes of observers or users. For example, it has a certain mass and a certain chemical composition. 
3. It has other features that exist only relative to the intentionality of agents. For example, it is a screwdriver. To have a general term, I will call such features “observer relative.” Observer-relative features are ontologically subjective. 
4. Some of these ontologically subjective features are epistemically objective. For example, it isn’t just my opinion or evaluation that it is a screwdriver. It is a matter of objectively ascertainable fact that it is a screwdriver
5. Although the feature of being a screwdriver is observer relative, the feature of thinking that something is a screwdriver (treating it as a screwdriver, using it as a screwdriver, etc.) is intrinsic to the thinkers (treaters, users, etc.). Being a screwdriver is observer relative, but the features of the observers that enable them to create such observer-relative features of the world are intrinsic features of the observers.

Searle, page 25:

Intrinsic features of reality are those that exist independently of all mental states, except for mental states themselves, which are also intrinsic features of reality. 

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