Searle has good ideas and original ideas, but his good ones aren’t original, and his original ones aren’t good.

John Searle is an important philosopher of mind who has managed to maintain his status despite near-ridicule by every philosopher of mind I’ve ever met. He has good ideas and original ones. In the “original” column you can put the Chinese Room and his theory of consciousness. In the “good” column go his theories of speech acts, intentionality, and institutions. None of the former are good and none of the latter are original.

All credit for this particular takedown goes to Dennett, who put it more thoroughly and less zippily: Searle’s “direction of fit” idea about intentionality is cribbed from Elizabeth AnscombeĀ¹s Intention, Searle’s contributions to speech acts are largely a simplified version of Austin’s “How to do things with words,” and his framework for the social construction of reality is obvious enough that the not-even-that-impressive distinction of having gotten there first can be attributed to Anscombe again, in other ways to Schuetz and Berger, and clearly to Durkheim and probably dozens of other sociologists.

I never admired Searle. His understanding of philosophy of mind is pre-Copernican, both in terms of being based on ancient metaphysics and having everything revolve around him. He only assigned his own books, and the points we had to argue were always only his. He also had a reputation of being a slumlord and a creep. The world recently discovered that he’s definitely a creep. Already feeling not generous about his work and personality, I do hope that his scandals undermine his intellectual legacy.