On Power, Conventions, and the Varieties of Normativity

Leo Zaibert


The fundamental unifying notion in Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality is that of power. As he himself admits, the resultant framework is incapable of dealing adequately with those “purely honorific” institutional phenomena in which no power is transferred or modified in any way. Searle refers to such phenomena both as constituting a “huge exception” to his views and also as simple “degenerate cases” of other institutional phenomena to which his theory does apply (so that chess, for example, would be a degenerate case of war). Searle’s treatment is problematic also in that he conceives the normativity embodied in institutional power-relations by analogy with the conventional rule-governed normativity of games. Just as in chess bishops are empowered to move diagonally, so in the social world, according to Searle, creditors are empowered to demand restitution from debtors, and citizens are empowered to vote. How then are we to deal with a purely honorific phenomenon such as the awarding of medals? It is appropriate (in a normative sense) that a hero receives a medal, and this appropriateness is independent of any powers that may accrue to the recipient. The same holds too in regard to a host of other normative phenomena: it is appropriate that we respect our elders; that we do not betray our friends; that we avoid cruelty; that we help those in need, etc. How are phenomena of these sorts to be explained within the conventionalist framework of a social ontology like Searle’s?


20th century philosophy; philosophy; social studies; Wittgenstein Ludwig; convention; ethics; is vs ought; naturalism; normativity; Searle John; power

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