• I would like to thank Mark Bevir, Maeve Cooke, Maksymilian Del Mar, Stephen Turner, and Thomas Uebel for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. However, I alone bear responsibility for the essay.


John Searle's most recent effort to account for human social institutions claims to provide a synthesis of the explanatory and the normative while simultaneously dismissing as confused and wrongheaded theorists who held otherwise. Searle, although doubtless alert to the usual considerations for separating the normative and the explanatory projects, announces at the outset that he conceives of matters quite differently. Searle's reason for reconceiving the field rests on his claim that both ends can be achieved by a single “underlying principle of social ontology” (7). This principle, he maintains, proves basic both to any explanation of how the social arises and sustains itself as well as to all justifications of core common norms, for example, human rights. His approach transforms what previously appeared to be ontological/explanatory questions (and so prima facie empirical/causal matters) completely into semantic/conceptual issues. By situating language as constitutive of the social, and intentionality as a necessary conceptual precursor to language, Searle claims to join by semantic necessity philosophical projects that the philosophical tradition that he rejects held distinct. Searle's notion of the social comes for free once one has language as a conventional cloak for prelinguistic, semantically well-formed intentional contents, individual and collective. But upon examination, Searle's key argument for displacement of the tradition depends upon the viability of his linguistic mechanism, and that in turn requires prelinguistic necessity for all forms of intentionality. But he can produce no compelling connection, conceptual or empirical, to establish the role that collective intentionality supposedly must play.