John Searle on language, literacy, and the mind

Written language is where language acquires not just a much greater creative power but an enduring power…

Below is a short, lively interview with philosopher John Searle on language and the mind, in particular the impact of spoken and written language on human cognition, culture, and civilisation.

Total running time is approx. 23 minutes, in three parts; transcript link is below:



Further information is available at Children of the Code (including an interview transcript); Searle’s home page at University of California, Berkeley; and Wikipedia.

6 Responses to John Searle on language, literacy, and the mind

  1. johnwcowan says:

    (I read the transcript, which was a lot faster than watching the videos.)

    Sigh. Just another non-linguist blathering on about spoken vs. written language. For someone who thinks the invention of writing is the greatest thing since fire, he sure doesn’t seem to be able to keep writing and speaking apart in the talk. The whole dog anecdote is about how his dog can’t talk, not about how he can’t write, yet it’s in answer to a question about writing.

    The claim that oral societies don’t know the difference between fact and fiction is ludicrous, as is the association with the novel (some two centuries old) with writing (some fifty centuries old). What does unquestionably depend on writing is prose, and perhaps that’s what he means.

    But consider this: “It’s right, as far as it goes, to say that the written language enables civilization. But I would go a further step and say it doesn’t just enable it in the sense of making it possible, but rather, it constitutes it. It is a constitutive element of civilization in that you cannot have what we think of as the defining social institutions of civilization without having written language. You cannot have universities and schools. But not just the pedagogical institutions, but you can’t even have money or private property or governments or national elections, or for that matter, cocktail parties and marriages. You can’t even have a summer vacation or a lawsuit without a written language.” What, has he never heard of the Inca Empire? No writing except for numbers in knotted cords, and yet they had all those things (well, not the cocktail parties). Of course, every culture has marriage.

    There are a lot of good bits in here, like the limitations of animal speech and the snowballing effects of human language in creating ever-higher towers of abstraction. “This is both good and original: but what is original is not good, and what is good is not original”.

  2. languagehat says:

    Yeah, what he said. I didn’t get much out of it; what wasn’t a belabored statement of the obvious was basic Old Fartism (“Kids today, they watch too much television, they can’t read…”). But then, I don’t usually get much from philosophers, which is probably as much my fault as theirs.

  3. Stan says:

    Fair points. One reason I enjoyed the interview was that I like Searle’s speaking style; maybe I should have read the transcript first! John, I love that Samuel Johnson line.

  4. johnwcowan says:

    Me too, though there seems to be no evidence that Johnson actually said it. I first saw it attributed to a composer rather than a writer, actually.

    Which reminds me:

    A musician of more ambition than talent composed an elegy at the death of composer Edward MacDowell. She played the elegy for the pianist Josef Hoffman, then asked his opinion. “Well, it’s quite nice,” he replied, but don’t you think it would be better if…”

    “If what?” asked the composer.

    “If … if you had died and MacDowell had written the elegy?”

  5. Stan says:

    That is very funny and very brutal. I hope it isn’t quite true.

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