John R. Searle

John Roger Searle was born in Denver, Colorado on July 31, 1932. He is a philosopher and Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California Berkley. His college education began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he earned his undergraduate degree and doctorate in philosophy and ethics from Oxford University. He is known for his studies of and contributions to the philosophy of mind, social philosophy and the philosophy of language. In 1959 he began teaching at Berkeley, where he became the first tenured professor to join the Free Speech Movement. He is the recipient of many prestigious awards and honors including the Jean Nicod Prize in 2000 and the National Humanities Medal in 2004.

Searle is known for many philosophical theories, one of the most famous being the Chinese room experiment. He began with a hypothesis that supposes that artificial intelligence has been able to build a computer which acts as if it comprehends and understands the Chinese language. One gives the computer instructions in code that includes Chinese characters, and through the computer program the computer will translate the command and export other Chinese characters. The computer is also able to answer correctly all questions posed to it, and even convinces a Chinese speakers that they are talking to a human being who speaks Chinese. The question posed by Searle was: Does this computer actually understand Chinese, or is it making believe that it understands Chinese?

Searle continues his experiment by supposing that he is locked in a room with a written English description of the program. Somebody on the other side of the door presents to Searle the same questions that were presented to the computer using the same Chinese characters by sliding them under the door for Searle to process and answer. By using the written program, Searle is able to process the information and produce an answer using the Chinese characters correctly.

This raises the philosophical question: Is it correct to theorize that if the computer was able to run the program manually, would it have been able to do so correctly? If one can engage in intelligent communication using paper and pencil that were slid under the door, does that necessarily mean that somebody understands what is being asked?

Searle concluded that there is no basic difference between what the computer has done and the role the person with the written instructions has done. The computer and the person are both following a step by step program, which resembles intelligent behavior. Searle compared himself to the computer and said that he does not speak a word of Chinese and he got the correct answers. Since he does not understand Chinese, one can deduce that neither does the computer, and yet it produced the correct answers. Searle thus theorized that without understanding, it is impossible to characterize what the computer is doing as thinking. The computer cannot think because it does not have a mind in the normal sense of the word.

The main point of the Chinese room argument is that giving a computer a program does not give it a mind nor any understanding. This is regardless of how highly intelligently it acts or behaves. Searle thus concluded that computer programs are not a substitute for a mind nor sufficient for a mind. Just because something is programmed a certain way, it can still understand nothing. This is not only true about computers, but of humans too. A person can be programmed to do something a certain way, will perform the task perfectly, but will still understand nothing.

Searle's theory was first published in 1980 in his paper "Minds, Brains and Programs," published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. It became the most influential article in the journal and generated a large number of commentaries and responses. Most responses attempted to refute the theory and many think the premise is completely wrong.

John R. Searle: Selected full-text books and articles

John Searle By Barry Smith Cambridge University Press, 2003
The Rediscovery of the Mind By John R. Searle MIT Press, 1994
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Mind: A Brief Introduction By John R. Searle Oxford University Press, 2004
Concepts in Social and Political Philosophy By Richard E. Flathman Macmillan Publishing, 1973
Librarian's tip: Includes Ch. 2 "How to Derive Ought from Is" by John R. Searle
Knowledge and Experience: Proceedings By C. D. Rollins University of Pittsburgh Press, 1966
Librarian's tip: "Meaning and Speech Acts" by John Searle begins on p. 28
The Emperor Redressed: Critiquing Critical Theory By Dwight Eddins University of Alabama Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: "Literary Theory And Its Discontents" by John R. Searle begins on p. 166
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