John Searle:

This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time: 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. I am thinking of 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 your or my preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes. I am thinking of such facts as that I am a citizen of the United States, that the piece of paper in my pocket is a five dollar bill, that my younger sister got married on December 14, that I own a piece of property in Berkeley, and that the New York Giants won the 1991 superbowl. These contrast with such facts as that Mount Everest has snow and ice near the summit or that hydrogen atoms have one electron, which are facts totally independent of any human opinions. Years ago I baptized some of the facts dependent on human agreement as “institutional facts,” in contrast to noninstitutional, or “brute,” facts. Institutional facts are so called because they require human institutions for their existence. In order that this piece of paper should be a five dollar bill, for example, there has to be the human institution of money. Brute facts require no human institutions for their existence. Of course, in order to state a brute fact we require the institution of language, but the fact stated needs to be distinguished from the statement of it.

The question that has puzzled me is, How are institutional facts possible? And what exactly is the structure of such facts?”


I want to begin by considering the metaphysics of ordinary social relations. Consider a simple scene like the following. I go into a café in Paris and sit in a chair at a table. The waiter comes and I utter a fragment of a French sentence. I say “un demi, Munich, à pression, s’il vous plaît.” The waiter brings the beer and I drink it. I leave some money on the table and leave. An innocent scene, but its metaphysical complexity is truly staggering, and its complexity would have taken Kant’s breath away if he had ever bothered to think about such things. Notice that we cannot capture the features of the description I have just given in the language of physics and chemistry. There is no physical-chemical description adequate to define “restaurant,” “waiter,” “sentence of French,” “money,” or even “chair” and “table,” even though all restaurants, waiters, sentences of French, money, and chairs and tables are physical phenomena. Notice, furthermore, that the scene as described has a huge, invisible ontology: the waiter did not actually own the beer he gave me, but he is employed by the restaurant, which owned it. The restaurant is required to post a list of the prices of all the boissons, and even if I never see such a list, I am required to pay only the listed price. The owner of the restaurant is licensed by the French government to operate it. As such, he is subject to a thousand rules and regulations I know nothing about. I am entitled to be there in the first place only because I am a citizen of the United States, the bearer of a valid passport, and I have entered France legally.

Notice, furthermore, that though my description was intended to be as neutral as possible, the vocabulary automatically introduces normative criteria of assessment. Waiters can be competent or incompetent, honest or dishonest, rude or polite. Beer can be sour, flat, tasty, too warm, or simply delicious. Restaurants can be elegant, ugly, refined, vulgar, or out of fashion, and so on with the chairs and tables, the money, and the French phrases.

If, after leaving the restaurant, I then go to listen to a lecture or attend a party, the size of the metaphysical burden I am carrying only increases; and one sometimes wonders how anyone can bear it.

The Construction of Social Reality, one of my favorite works of contemporary philosophy. Here’s a rogue PDF.



In the game Taboo (by Hasbro), the objective is for a player to have their partner guess a word written on a card, without using that word or five additional words listed on the card. For example, you might have to get your partner to say “baseball” without using the words “sport”, “bat”, “hit”, “pitch”, “base” or of course “baseball”.

As soon as I see a problem like that, I at once think, “An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions.” It might not be the most efficient strategy to convey the word ‘baseball’ under the stated rules - that might be, “It’s what the Yankees play” - but the general skill of blanking a word out of my mind was one I’d practiced for years, albeit with a different purpose.

Yesterday we saw how replacing terms with definitions could reveal the empirical unproductivity of the classical Aristotelian syllogism. All humans are mortal (and also, apparently, featherless bipeds); Socrates is human; therefore Socrates is mortal. When we replace the word ‘human’ by its apparent definition, the following underlying reasoning is revealed:

All [mortal, ~feathers, biped] are mortal;
Socrates is a [mortal, ~feathers, biped];
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

But the principle of replacing words by definitions applies much more broadly:

Albert: “A tree falling in a deserted forest makes a sound.”
Barry: “A tree falling in a deserted forest does not make a sound.”

Clearly, since one says “sound” and one says “not sound”, we must have a contradiction, right? But suppose that they both dereference their pointers before speaking:

Albert: “A tree falling in a deserted forest matches [membership test: this event generates acoustic vibrations].”
Barry: “A tree falling in a deserted forest does not match [membership test: this event generates auditory experiences].”

Now there is no longer an apparent collision—all they had to do was prohibit themselves from using the word sound. If “acoustic vibrations” came into dispute, we would just play Taboo again and say “pressure waves in a material medium”; if necessary we would play Taboo again on the word “wave” and replace it with the wave equation. (Play Taboo on “auditory experience” and you get “That form of sensory processing, within the human brain, which takes as input a linear time series of frequency mixes…”)

But suppose, on the other hand, that Albert and Barry were to have the argument:

Albert: “Socrates matches the concept [membership test: this person will die after drinking hemlock].”
Barry: “Socrates matches the concept [membership test: this person will not die after drinking hemlock].”

Now Albert and Barry have a substantive clash of expectations; a difference in what they anticipate seeing after Socrates drinks hemlock. But they might not notice this, if they happened to use the same word “human” for their different concepts.

You get a very different picture of what people agree or disagree about, depending on whether you take a label’s-eye-view (Albert says “sound” and Barry says “not sound”, so they must disagree) or taking the test’s-eye-view (Albert’s membership test is acoustic vibrations, Barry’s is auditory experience).

Get together a pack of soi-disant futurists and ask them if they believe we’ll have Artificial Intelligence in thirty years, and I would guess that at least half of them will say yes. If you leave it at that, they’ll shake hands and congratulate themselves on their consensus. But make the term “Artificial Intelligence” taboo, and ask them to describe what they expect to see, without ever using words like “computers” or “think”, and you might find quite a conflict of expectations hiding under that featureless standard word. Likewise that other term. And see also Shane Legg’s compilation of 71 definitions of “intelligence”.

The illusion of unity across religions can be dispelled by making the term “God” taboo, and asking them to say what it is they believe in; or making the word “faith” taboo, and asking them why they believe it. Though mostly they won’t be able to answer at all, because it is mostly profession in the first place, and you cannot cognitively zoom in on an audio recording.

When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all. Or any of their short synonyms. And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don’t use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

Albert says that people have “free will”. Barry says that people don’t have “free will”. Well, that will certainly generate an apparent conflict. Most philosophers would advise Albert and Barry to try to define exactly what they mean by “free will”, on which topic they will certainly be able to discourse at great length. I would advise Albert and Barry to describe what it is that they think people do, or do not have, without using the phrase “free will” at all. (If you want to try this at home, you should also avoid the words “choose”, “act”, “decide”, “determined”, “responsible”, or any of their synonyms.)

This is one of the nonstandard tools in my toolbox, and in my humble opinion, it works way way better than the standard one. It also requires more effort to use; you get what you pay for.



[Philosopher A.J. Ayer] taught or lectured several times in the United States, including serving as a visiting professor at Bard College in the fall of 1987. At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson who was forcing himself upon the (then little-known) model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.


“Taking philosophy was the best thing I ever did for myself. It is probably true that had I become a plumber I would be making more money now than I ever will, but I feel like philosophy has given me a much richer life experience. I can debate anyone on anything. I am very difficult to manipulate. When I get upset about something I can articulate exactly why. I understand the grounding for my opinions and I am confident enough to stand up for them. So here is my message to anyone who’s afraid to jump into the philosophy pool: Fucking do it. Philosophers carry their tools everywhere they go.”


“Unlimited is just a word, it doesn’t really mean anything.”


Verizon CFO Fran Shammo


Photos of my Philosophy Posters in production at Blue Collar Press.


Sussundzeit wrote a great reply to my post on Nietzsche and Star Trek:

Kirk is an aggressive, domineering presence. He leaves Spock, his Platonic logos metaphor on board the enterprise, and sets forth with only his stallions epithumia and thumos, as well as a couple red shirts - human lives reduced to mere resources to be utilized and appropriated by Kirk’s Will as he conquers the natives and ravishes their women. Kirk’s Will craves violence; it may be a Master’s Will but without logos to turn in upon itself and rule itself and the other parts with Justice, Kirk’s Competitive and Appetitive drives run amok and pit themselves against other consciousness.


Picard, in contrast is shown to be a man not merely of science, but a Renaissance Man, a consummate thinker who considers multiple interpretations and celebrates the wisdom understanding and hermeneutic insight, gained by a Gesamteswissenschaft perspective. Picard does not demand a slave, an Other, to acknowledge his existence, rather he seeks out an Other for dialogue and conversation, to both accumulate and exercise power and knowledge in a forum where the Other may retain their alterity without being shoehorned and reduced into Picard’s frame of reference.

Picard’s relation to the other is thus not one of violent struggle, but of seeking a common ground, a Lichtung or clearing in which language might mediate and serve as a means of mutual unconcealment and discourse between Picard and the Other. We see this as Kirk is reluctant to ask anyone for help, save Spock/logos and even then only in dire straits; Picard, though, will often solicit advice, suggestions, or thoughts from Data, Riker, Geordi, Deanna, the character Whoopi Goldberg played, Worf, and others when he sees the opportunity to enrich his interpretation by recognizing how their prejudices and experiences might complement his and bridging onto-historical horizons through language. Kirk is a bully, but Picard is a communicator, and I can’t recall a single battle wherein Picard did not make every effort to bring the enemy commander on-screen for dialogue and non-violent reconciliation.


Žižek, on happiness:

You know happiness is, for me, an unethical category. And also, we don’t really want to get what we think that we want.



Crisis-enduring Greece received a bit of hope for belated justice. A re-trial of Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates in Athens, the very city that sentenced him to death in 399 BC, ended with his acquittal.

A panel of ten judges from Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Switzerland and the United States was hearing the case at the event at the Onassis Foundation. Five of them cast their votes for “guilty” verdict while five other said “not guilty”.

Close call.


Just added Cornel West to my philosophy posters. Ten hours left!


Added Aristotle and Descartes to my Philosophy Posters project. There’s only 48 hours left to grab them!


New poster added to my Philosophy Posters project. One week left!


Hey Tumblr friends, there are fewer than ten days left for you to grab one of my philosophy screen prints on Kickstarter.


18x24” hand-made screen print signed and numbered by me, $20 shipped, only on Kickstarter.