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Reviewed by:
  • Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization
  • John E. Wills Jr.
Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. By John R. Searle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 224 pp. $24.95 (cloth).

What Journal of World History reader could resist a short book with this title? If you open it you will be surprised not to find much history. If you persist a bit you will find some very deep guidance in dealing with puzzles of how we create and change social realities and how we understand them. Searle has been a major contributor to the philosophy of mind since the 1960s. He writes clearly and vividly and loves an argument. If a colleague in the sciences is driving you crazy with "strong Artificial Intelligence" fantasies, have him or her read Searle's Minds, Brains, and Science (1984).

On his first page of text (p. 3), Searle asks, "How is it possible in a universe consisting entirely of physical particles in fields of force that there are such things as consciousness, intentionality, free will, language, society, ethics, esthetics, and political obligations?" His working out of an answer is firmly in the tradition of speech act philosophy, where we are urged always to pay attention to what is being done with words in a sentence. There are some useful tricks here for the various kinds of reading historians do, including some notation that is helpful once you get the hang of it. Philosophers have spent most of their energy on statements about how the world is; "I think of these speech acts as hovering over the world and pointing down at it, as fitting or failing to fit the world, as having what I call the word-to-world direction [End Page 811] of fit. I represent it with the downward arrow ↓." That is, if you don't have a fit you have to change your words. Also basic are speech acts that intend to change the world or behavior in it to match the content of the speech act. Searle represents these cases of "upward or world-to-word fit" with an upward arrow ↑.

But then:

"There is a fascinating class of speech acts that combine the word-to-world ↓ and the world-to-word ↑ direction of fit, which have both directions of fit simultaneously in a single speech act ↕. These are speech acts in which we change reality to match the propositional content of the speech act and thus achieve world-to-word direction of fit. But, and this is the amazing part, we succeed in doing so because we simultaneously represent the reality as being so changed." Searle calls these speech acts "Declarations" and makes "a very strong claim. With the important exception of language itself, all of institutional reality, and therefore, in a sense, all of human civilization, is created by speech acts that have the same logical form as Declarations. . . . Let us call these cases where we create an institutional reality of status functions by representing them as existing as 'Status Function Declarations' (sometimes for short, 'SF Declarations'). . . . The claim that I will be expounding and defending in this book is that all of human institutional reality is created and maintained in existence by (representations that have the same logical form as) SF Declarations, including the cases that are not speech acts in the explicit form of Declarations" (pp. 11-13). Examples include "governments, families, cocktail parties, summer vacations, trade unions, baseball games, and passports" (p. 5).

Historians need all the help they can find in explaining to themselves the logics of human intention and action and of our interpretations of the traces of action. In Searle's chapter 2, "Intentionality," they will find some arguments among philosophers in which they probably don't need to take sides, some useful distinctions between intentions prior to the performance of an action and intentions while you're performing it, and an intriguing but underdeveloped approach to the ways in which all our intentions depend on a "network" of already existing intentional states and a "background" of abilities, ways of doing things, and so on that don't typically take intentional forms (p...