Speech Acts

“One of the advantages of living in other cultures is that one can become more acutely conscious of the different and unfamiliar institutional structures. But at home one is less aware of the sea of institutionality. I get up in the morning in a house jointly owned by me and my wife. I drive to do my job on the campus in a car that is registered to both of us, and I can drive legally only because I am the holder of a valid California driver’s license. On the way I, illegally, answer a cell phone call from an old friend. Once I am in my office the weight of institutional reality increases. I am in the Philosophy Department of the University of California in Berkeley. I am surrounded by students, colleagues and university employees. I teach university courses and make various assignments to my students. The university pays me, but I never see any cash because my pay is deposited automatically into my bank account. After my lecture I go to a restaurant, and I use my credit card to pay the bill. When I get back to campus, I telephone my insurance agent to arrange airline tickets for an invited lecture at a professional society. I accept an invitation to a dinner party. At every stage I am performing SPEECH ACTS. SPEECH ACTS are the basis of all the INSTITUTIONAL REALITIES I have italicized” (Searle, 91).


"The distinctive feature of human social reality is that humans have the capacity to impose functions on objects and people" (7). "Examples are [almost] everywhere: a piece of private property, the president of the United States, a twenty-dollar bill, a professor in a university are all people or objects that are able to perform certain functions because they have a collectively recognized status that enables them to perform those functions in a way they could not do without the collective recognition of the status" (7). "Status functions can only work to the extent that they are collectively recognized" (8). "Status functions carry 'deontic powers' -- rights, duties, obligations, requirements, permissions, authorizations, entitlements, and so on" (9). "Status functions are the glue that holds society together" (9).


"It is because status functions carry deontic powers that they provide the glue that holds human civilization together. And how do they do that? Once recognized, they provide us with reasons for acting that are independent of our inclinations and desires" (9). (EXAMPLE: "If I recognize an object as 'your property,' for example, then I recognize that I am under an obligation not to take it or use it without your permission. Even if I am a thief, I recognize that I am violating your rights when I appropriate your property. Indeed, the profession of being a thief would be meaningless without the belief in the institution of private property, because what the thief hopes to do is to take somebody else's private property and make it his own, thus reinforcing his commitment and the society's commitment to the institution of private property. So status functions are the glue that holds society together" (9).


"Some facts exist independently of any human institution. I call these brute facts. But some facts require human institutions in order to exist at all. An example of a brute fact is that the Earth is 93 million miles from the sun, and an example of an institutional fact is that Barack Obama is president of the United States. Institutional facts are typically objective facts, but oddly enough, they are only facts by human agreement or acceptance. Such facts require institutions for their existence. Typically, institutional facts are facts that exist only within human institutions. "What exactly is a human institution?" "An institution is a system of constitutive rules, and such a system automatically creates the possibility of institutional facts. Thus the fact that Obama is president or the fact that I am a licensed driver or the fact that a chess match was won by a certain person and lost by another are all institutional facts because they exist within systems of constitutive rules" (10).


"All institutional facts, and therefore all status functions, are created by speech acts" (11). "All of institutional reality, and therefore, in a sense, all of human civilization, is created by speech acts" (12-13). "Rules of games and constitutions of nations are typical examples where the constitutive rules function as standing declarations" (13). "All status functions create deontic powers" (24). (EXAMPLE: Suppose I order three beers to bring back to my friends at the table. When I set them down I say, "This one's Emily's, this one's Kerry's, and this one is mine." By making these utterances, I created a reality according to which Emily has certain rights that Kerry does not have and Kerry has rights that Emily does not have. If Kerry tried to drink Emily's drink, Emily would have a legitimate complaint. Indeed, I need not say anything. Just pushing the beer in the direction of their new owners can be a speech act. (89).


"We have a capacity to create a reality by representing it as existing. The only reality we can create is a reality of deontology, a reality that confers rights, responsibilities, and so on. These rights, responsibilities and so on are the glue that hold human society together" (89).

- Searle, J. (2010). Making the social world: The structure of human civilization. NY: Oxford University Press

Synthesis by Sarah E. Dennis, Ph.D. June 2014