Living in One World: Searle’s
Social Ontology and Semiotics
Phila Mfundo Msimang, The Natal Society Foundation
Searle’s social ontology concerns the question of how it is that we are to reconcile dif-
ferent aspects of reality but takes for granted a particular kind of naturalism based on his
unexplicated “basic facts”of nature. The consequence of this approach is that Searle’s
ontology deals speciﬁcally with social reality and its institutions, and never directly with the
basic facts upon which his position rests. Paradoxically, this naturalistic assumption
alienates his theory from its connection with the basic facts because the nature of this
connection is taken for granted and not explicitly shown how nature is connectable to the
social world. I hope to show that Searle’s project is redeemed by biosemiotic theory that
makes an explicit connection between the beginnings of sociality, which is where Searle’s
work starts off, and the biological and physical nature of things, which is what Searle’s
work takes for granted but what biosemiotics explicates.
Searle’s social ontology concerns the question of how it is that we are to
reconcile all the different aspects of reality. The task, he says, is to “give
an account of how we live in exactly one world, and how all of these
different phenomena, from quarks and gravitational attraction to cocktail
parties and governments, are part of that one world”ðSearle 2010, 3Þ. How, he
asks, are social facts such as voting to be reconciled with physical facts such
as ﬁelds of force or biological facts ðlet us say, of metabolism, for instanceÞ?
Searle calls the physical facts and the facts established by evolutionary biol-
ogy, inclusive of the laws of physics and chemistry, the “basic facts”of the universe
ð2007b, 4Þ. These basic facts are all assumed within his theory. Thus, he takes for
granted a particular kind of naturalism that is contained within his notion of the
Contact Phila Mfundo Msimang at P.O. Box 11093, Dorpspruit 3206, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
This article has been funded by a research grant from the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors’Association
of South Africa (ANFASA) for the development of a book of which the theme of this article is a part. I would
like to thank Ndumiso Dladla of the University of South Africa (UNISA) for his assistance in making research
materials available to me.
Signs and Society, vol. 2, no. 2 (Fall 2014). © 2014 Semiosis Research Center at Hankuk University of Foreign
Studies. All rights reserved. 2326-4489/2014/0202-0001$10.00
“basic facts.”What his use of this notion of the basic facts entails is that the
physical, chemical, and biological aspects of reality are to be taken for granted as
if they have already been accounted for by the sciences ðSearle 2007b, 4Þ.What-
ever the basic facts are that constitute the world, it is presumed that social reality is
installed upon them. So it is assumed that the study of society can be made
independently of an account of the basic facts of nature ðsee Searle 1995, 2007b,
2010Þ. Because of the hierarchical structure of the universe, having the different
orders of phenomena operating on their own rules and principles, it is possible for
Searle to properly delineate society and its rules almost independently of their
emergence out of the physical and biological world.
Paradoxically, this naturalistic assumption alienates his theory from its
connection with the basic facts of nature by the very reason that nature is taken
for granted and is not explicitly shown as to how it is connectable to the social
world. What I will show in this article is that Searle’s approach can be redeemed
by biosemiotic theory that does make an explicit connection between the be-
ginnings of sociality, which is where Searle’s work starts off, and the biological,
chemical, and physical nature of things, which is what Searle’sworktakesfor
granted. In order that we really do achieve an account of how we live in one
world, making such an explicit connection between nature and society is nec-
essary because social ontology presents only half of the story of reality in the
There is a cascade of phenomena at different ontological orders that need to
be accounted for—from the microscopic and biological facts of reality to the
psychological and social aspects of reality. Semiotics, in the context of being a
study of how meaningful information is created, stored, and retrieved as, for
instance, by abiotic as well as biotic systems, accommodates Searle’ssocial
ontology and presents, within the same logic and metaphysics through the tri-
adic hierarchical structure of biosemiotic analysis, the connection of the cascade
of phenomena from physics and the basic facts to culture.
The importance of this connection is in completing the paradigm of realism
and methodological naturalism or, at least, reducing the explanatory lacuna
between nature and culture by giving an account of how it is that both physical
things and social things are real, and in what ways this realness manifests itself
for each respective kind of thing in the world.
1. Various studies in diﬀerent domains have shown how classical reductionism falls short of producing
such explanations. Rather, the universe has been shown to operate on hierarchical structures in which diﬀerent
levels of organization produce novel classes of phenomena that are not directly reducible to physical facts
by way of classical or naïve reductionism ðKelso and Tuller 1984Þ—an idea present and central in the semi-
otic tradition as is evidenced in Peirce’s“cosmogonic philosophy”ðSørensen et al. 2012Þ, which receives its
analogue from traditional cosmogony. An early systematization of the hierarchical perspective under dynamical
174 •Signs and Society
Searle assumes that however it is that the natural world may be his system
can be installed on top of those facts of reality.
The fact of the matter is that the
world has to be structured in a hierarchical fashion for it to be the case that the
theory of social reality could be installed upon the basic facts in the ﬁrst place.
Nevertheless, what Searle has uncovered within his own social ontology is the
hierarchical structure of social institutions, noting that their establishment is
based upon the establishment of prior institutions right down to the institution
of language ðSearle 1989, 2010Þ. By itself, this leaves open the question whether
or not this hierarchical structure continues down into the natural world. The
fact that language is said to be the foundation of social institutions implicates
natural history and evolutionary theory because our very employment of lan-
guage has a natural basis and is a faculty that emerges out of our natural history.
Knowing that language connects the social world to the natural world in some
respect, the general question still needs to be asked: How does the social world
connect with the natural world?
Triadic semiotics in the tradition of biosemiotics has a methodological
advantage in its ability to deal with this question, both empirically and phil-
osophically. Its advantage lies in it being a general theory of meaning and
meaningfulness as a study of the creation and functioning of natural informa-
tion and meaning structures ðwhich is a notion inclusive of the agents to which
things are meaningful and of what meaning is in relation to those agentsÞ.
As early as the origin of the mathematical theory of communication ðShannon
1948; Shannon and Weaver 1949Þand the semantic theory of truth ðTarski
1944Þ, it had become apparent that abstract or informational structures were
profuse not only in human communication ðthrough technology and within nat-
ural languageÞ, but in nature as well. This general view of the world drove the
positivists and the logical empiricists to claim that the universe has a proposi-
tional structure that can be explicated through the logic of a formal language
ðRussell 1910; Carnap 1956Þ, a sentiment not too different from Galileo’sclaim
that the book of nature is written in mathematics. This view of the propositional
structure of the universe was informed and inﬂuenced by the semiotic theoretic
work of Charles Morris ð1946Þ, who argued that the world is a network of signs
or can, at least, be represented as a network of sign systems.
2. The fact that sociality is founded on the basic facts revealed by evolutionary biology and that society
reﬂects and is actively inﬂuenced by and through this inheritance is not thoroughly explored in this article.
Nevertheless, the biosemiotic framework suggested in this article takes account of such facts and has them as a
central part of its logic of explanation.
systems analysis in the sciences, in line with the semiotic perspective, was called hierarchy theory ðPattee 1973Þ.
The general picture of the theory, though, has developed a wide sphere of inﬂuence and, in a branch of its
development, is reﬂected in the philosophical theories of emergence ðsee Barham 2000Þ.
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •175
Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the two fathers and early pioneers of modern
semiotic theory, who was also the great semiotic inﬂuence on Morris, put this
matter another way. He said that the world was profuse with signs if it was not
completely composed of them ðCP 5.448Þ. Thus, he also saw the entire universe
in terms of meaning structures. This is an uncontroversial statement in the
context of life in which the world is set in a meaningful relation to the organ-
ism ðor, rather, that the organism is relationally disposed in a meaningful way
to its environmentÞ.Thescientiﬁc study of this ﬁeld is known as biosemiotics.
Biosemiotics is the study of meaning and signiﬁcation in the context of life and
the environment in which life exists ðsee Uexküll ½19401982Þ. This discipline
crosscuts the nature-culture dichotomy in accounting for the structures and
hierarchies of meaning in life systems in general. Since the human being is sub-
merged in its own biology and environment as much as it is submerged in his
culture and technology, biosemiotics proves to have much explanatory efﬁ-
cacy in explicating the connection between social ontology and the basic facts
through the fact that social ontology is composed of social facts that are, them-
selves, social meanings; and that the basic facts are composed of physical, chem-
ical, and biological structures of information ðPattee 1973Þthat are meaningful
to the organism in the living ðEmmeche 2010; cf. Brier 2003Þ.
In this article, I will describe central aspects of Searle’s social ontology after
which I will frame these aspects of his social ontology within semiotic theory.
Having social ontology situated in triadic semiotics places it in relation to the
rest of the tradition of the triadic semiotic ediﬁce that includes the facts of phys-
ics, biology, and chemistry. Social ontology within semiotics describes the kind
of system of meaning society is and how this meaning comes about in terms of
the basic facts, making the connection between nature and society explicable.
Thus, what I hope to show in this article is the connection between the nat-
ural world and the cultural world through the linking of biosemiotics with so-
cial ontology by showing the connection of John Searle’sstatusfunctioninhis
social ontology to the general notion of meaning attribution within a general
Searle’s Social Ontology in Relation to Some Aspects of Semiotics
Searle summarized his logic of social ontology in the constitutive rule “Xcounts
as Y in C”ð1995, 2010Þ. Illustrated by an example, this means that a speciﬁckind
of processed metal, X, counts as money, Y, in the context of a particular econ-
omy, C. The constitutive rule or formula xcounts as yin cis the general struc-
ture that all human social institutions conform to and that all possible social
176 •Signs and Society
institutions are structured. Social institutions are a special kind of agreement, a
social convention, and this formula is the logical structure of these agreements.
Underlying these agreements is language ðas opposed to signalingÞand inten-
tionality. Language itself is an intentional system because it is always about
something other than itself and is never about itself. More clearly, it is because
of the semantic structure of language—that language is about the employment
and expression of concepts corresponding to some meanings logically indepen-
dent of the language itself—that makes language an intentional system. Lan-
guageissaidtobetheﬁrst and most fundamental social institution upon which
the convention xcounts as yin cis engendered and afforded in the human do-
main because social agreements, their institutions, and facts are dependent on
the linguistic conventions found in natural language ðSearle 1989, 2007aÞ.
Searle shows how social phenomena are epistemically objective although
they are ontologically subjective. By this he means that their ontological ex-
istence is subject to their being realized only through the minds of individuals—
that is, they are truly subjective phenomena—but within the context of those
individuals, those phenomena are objective facts ðSearle 2007aÞ. So, using his
most favored example, that he has money in his pocket that is a twenty dollar
bill is an epistemically objective fact although it is ontologically subjective. This
distinction between the epistemic and the ontological aspects of epistemolog-
ical metaphysics undermines most of the traditional debate around objectivity
and subjectivity by providing a more sophisticated ﬁne-grained metaphysics
under which something is shown how it can be an objective or a subjective fact
depending on the context of its description ðviz., epistemic or ontological subjec-
tivity or objectivityÞ. In terms of social facts, we know them to be epistemically
objective facts, as they have validity independent of any single individual’s be-
liefs or intentions but, in the same breath, they are ontologically subjective as
their existence is dependent on this collective recognition ðSearle 2007aÞ.
Searle notes how social facts and social institutions are dependent on
“functions.”But not all functions, he notes, are social, as some may be “natural
A distinction needs to be made between the functions that are a
result of the basic facts of physics, chemistry, and biology and those functions
established on the basis of linguistic agreements. This distinction is what sets
3. In The Construction of Social Reality, Searle claims that there are not true functions in nature, as
functions imply normative purpose, but in his Making the Social World, he makes a diﬀerent statement saying
that we can ﬁnd functions in nature but that the status function can only be found in the context of social
reality. That is the basis of his introduction of “proto-status functions,”which are the recognition of functions
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •177
apart functions found in the natural world and the functions of the social
world. Searle discusses examples of this distinction such as the function of the
heart as a function that is observer relative ðSearle 1995, 19–20Þ. The function
of the heart being to pump blood around the body, he says, is a normative
statement whereas the fact that the heart causes blood to ﬂow around the body
has no such normative commitment. Functions assume that there is a par-
ticular manner in which things are meant to operate.
The question is left open of how these assumptions are established or jus-
tiﬁed. Where do functions, in general, arise?
The answer is that functions are the result of systemic relationships. With
the case of the heart, as it would be with any other organ, it is evolutionary de-
velopment that has established the systemic relationship between the heart and
the body that created the function of the heart to have the purpose of pumping
blood around the body by aligning its causes to the needs of the body. In the
natural world, natural mechanisms are what establish functions and purposes.
What about the social world? What gives money its function as money
ðbecause money, to be money, must have a functionÞ? Searle explains that it is
through collective intentionality—people sharing similar attitudes toward a
particular thing—that things such as money assume their function. One must
believe that the piece of paper one has is of a particular value in relation to the
society in which one lives, and the shopkeeper must accept that the piece of
paper one is handing him is of a particular trading value as well. The function
of money is established on an agreement, on an institutional basis.
A more basic example of this latter kind of function is the institution of
language: cat means “cat”because we agree for it to mean cat ðviz., a feline
creatureÞ. The ﬁrst kind of function as found in the natural world Searle
sometimes calls just that—a function—but the latter kind of function found in
the social world is called a “status function”because of its special property of
having had to be accorded some speciﬁc status to serve a particular purpose
ðe.g., the status of currency for particular kinds of printed pieces of paper,
sticks, or shaped metal to be money or serve the function “money”Þ.
But, what is the connection between the two kinds of functions if they are
ontologically independent of one another? How are they, then, “part of the same
reality”? Searle’s metaphysics within the context social ontology is not explicit on
this point except to suggest that the answer to this question lies in our evolu-
tionary history. From the perspective of semiotic metaphysics, reconciling the
two classes of function is not so problematic or vague. The sign has a function,
and it only has a function because it belongs to a system of signs. Once the equiv-
178 •Signs and Society
alence between signs and functions is realized, the nature of a function becomes
In short, under a single metaphysics for functions and status functions,
we would say that every function is the result of a systemic relationship—be it
a natural system such as the human body, or a social institution such as a lan-
guage or an economy using money. How these two distinct ontologies are part
of one reality within semiotic theory is that sign systems are established hierar-
chically and that each level of the hierarchy incorporates the former level by
building onto it through being a constraint on the next level ðPattee 2009Þ.The
work of biosemioticians is an explication of this point ðKull 2010Þ.
Rather than speaking of functions as “observer relative,”as Searle does, we
could rather say that functions are systemic properties or that functions are
“system relative.”There is a true sense to the statement that the function of the
heart is to pump blood because it is part of a system in which it is to serve this
purpose. Without the heart there to pump blood, there would be no body. It
becomes both an epistemically and ontologically necessary function that the heart
serves when analyzed at this level. But that it is an epistemically objective fact
that the function of the heart is to pump blood, although it is an ontologically
subjective statement, can also be made more clearly apparent in the talk about
systems because the function is then understood to be a result of the system in
which the heart appears by deﬁnition. The objective fact is that the heart serves
the function of pumping blood in the human body; this fact is ontologically
subjective because this epistemic fact exists only in the context of the system
of a human body. Systemity reveals the greater generality of the relationship be-
tween observer relativity, implying ontological subjectivity, and epistemic ob-
Both individuals and collectives can impose functions on things. A rock
can serve as a paperweight in an individual’s intentionality; a woman can be a
president through collective intentionality. Whereas the individual is the sole
determiner of the function of the rock as a paperweight, the woman receiving
the status function of a president can only be the result of a collective inten-
tionality. Although the imposition of function is an important notion in social
ontology, the realization that there are different kinds of functions is just as
important in order to delineate these functions from institutional facts or status
In this connection, Searle makes the point that some animals also have the
capacity to impose functions on objects and asks us to think of birds’nests and
beaver dams ð2007a, 13Þ. He says that this fact leads to the point that all func-
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •179
tions are observer-relative. Evolutionary functions, though, differ ontologically
from our social status functions, Searle points out. The former, it is argued, is
established by biological and hereditary fact, whereas the latter is based on
linguistic agreements. In Searle’s social ontology, this claim is defended on the
grounds that natural language sets humanity apart from the sociality of the
animal world by the use of natural language as the foundation on which func-
tions in human social reality are based. We create status functions, functions that
contain deontic powers ðSearle 2007aÞ. They are status functions because we
attribute these functions not by virtue of an object’s physical affordances but
through the attitudes and beliefs associated and ascribed to that object by a
community of speakers.
The most popular example of this principle is the case of money. It is not
the paper on which money is printed, its size, nor what is printed on it that
makes it money; rather, it is what function a community attributes to particular
kinds of paper of a speciﬁc size printed in a particular way, for instance. In fact,
money is not even deﬁned by its material being. Money is a status function be-
cause it is a function dependent on shared beliefs by some community about a
precious metals as money, or even digital codes on the Internet and the infor-
mation on the magnetic strips of plastic cards ðsee Searle 2010, 20Þ.
Biosemiotics shows that is it not just some animals that have the propensity
to impose functions on things, but that this propensity is a founding principle of
life itself ðeven though an organism’s actual imposition of function on things is
distributed in different degrees in the natural and social worldÞ.Searle’s recog-
nition of functions in nature is just but another way to state the general biose-
miotic principle of the general subjectiveness of systems, speciﬁcally life—that
organisms attribute meaning to objects, and that they can and do assign func-
tions to things that their physical composition does not necessarily entail ðal-
though those objects must be amenable to such exploitationÞ; that is, the physi-
cal composition of the object must afford the function to which the object is
put, or the function it is attributed, even if this use or attribution of function
extends beyond the thing’s physical attributes.
The Case for Collective Intentionality
It has been argued by some authors that there is no real collective intentional-
ity in social ontology and the phenomena of collective intentionality are just
the collection of individual intentionalities ðTuomela and Miller 1988Þ. I argue,
alongside Searle and others ðSearle 1990; Ludwig 2007Þ, that the reality of col-
180 •Signs and Society
lective intentionality is a primitive and irreducible notion that is fundamental
to any account of social ontology. In other words, that “the foundation of any
account of social reality is an account of the nature of collective behavior, and
in particular collective intentional behavior”because “social practices and so-
cial interaction of any sort involve some form of collective intentional behavior
essentially”ðLudwig 2007, 49Þ.
Searle makes the point that the challenge is in having to show “how col-
lective intentionality can exist in the heads of individual human and animal
agents,”while collectiveness being irreducible to individual intentionality. Meet-
ing this challenge is in opposition to accounts in which collective intentionality
is reduced to the additive effect of individual intentionality ðSearle 2007a, 12; cf.
Tuomela and Miller 1988Þ. Searle argues that there is something ontologically
distinctive that takes place when individuals do something together rather than
the case where each individual is acting independently. Searle uses various ex-
amples to make this point, such as an orchestra playing a symphony and a foot-
ball team making a pass play ðSearle 2007aÞ.
I will also illustrate this notion of collective intentionality by way of ex-
ample. Imagine that you are part of a group of ten people who have decided
to walk in a straight line down a road. The pace at which you walk is informed
by the pace in which others are walking in this line: if they speed up, you speed
up; if they slow down to a halt, so do you. You have the single intention to walk
in a straight line with others, and it is true that each of the other individuals
have the same intention. This fact disguises the fact that the phenomenon of our
walking in a line is as a result of all of us wanting to walk in a straight line, which
is not reducible to our individual intentions. It is only a grammatical anomaly,
Searle would say, that it looks to mean the same thing to say that each of us
want to walk in a straight line and that all of us want to walk in a straight line.
But if we actually look at the behavior of us walking in a straight line together it
will be seen that it is achieved only through coordination between members, each
calibrating their own strides to those of others but also compensating for the
differences in stride by others and themselves. This is not two ways of saying the
same thing but, rather, it is making the point that the system is dynamical with
inﬂuences ﬂowing both ways: my speed inﬂuences the speed of the group, and
the speed of the group inﬂuences my speed.
Whereas singular intentionality is generally construed as a unidirectional
force from the agent to the world ðviz., imposing one’s will on a state of affairsÞ,
collective intentionality is a bidirectional force from the point of view of any
participating agent because it both guides and restricts each agent’s action
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •181
while, at the same time, being bolstered and inﬂuenced by each respective agent’s
own actions. In this context, individual intentionality is derivative of the group
or collective intentionality.
As alluded to above, there is a logical reason why collective intentionality
cannot be reduced to individual intentionality even though, admittedly, all there
is are individuals in these cases. This is the fact that collective intentionality
relies on a symmetrical relation between the intentionality of individuals. As dem-
onstrated by Russell and by Peirce before him, symmetrical relationships are ir-
reducible to their constituent parts, which in itself necessitates a realism about
relations ðRussell 1922, 56–59; CP 1.363Þ.
Without collective intentionality, social institutions could not exist. All
social institutions are founded on a symmetrical agreement ðby which I mean
mutual recognitionÞ, and this entails not only that people have to hold the same
intentionality but that they must hold this intentionality fundamentally in rela-
tion to one another’s intentionality. What I mean by this is that there is no sense
to collective intentionality outside its relation to, and satisfaction by, another in-
dividual’s intentionality. Collective intentionality cannot be satisﬁed by respec-
tive individual intentionalities but has its conditions of satisfaction deﬁned by a
symmetrical relationship between intentionalities.
For instance, that Senzo is now married requires collective intentionality to
be true. He cannot, alone, believe that he is wed without being mistaken; it is a
communal fact, and it can only be a communal fact, that he is married. And so it
is with being a member of a political party, a teacher, or money. Collective in-
tentionality is that form of intentionality that is fundamentally relational to the
intentionality of others, whereas individual intentionality is sufﬁcient in and of
itself as it relates to the world.
Not all symmetrical relationships satisfy the conditions of collective in-
tentionality, although all instances of collective intentionality must satisfy the
symmetrical relation between intentionalities.
An example of this is the fact
that I am a biological sibling. This is a fact established by biology that, although
symmetrical because to be a sibling I must have a biological sibling or siblings
to whom I am a biological sibling, it does not satisfy the condition of collective
4. A reviewer pointed out that Searle argues that people are not fully aware or “fully intentional”about their
role in maintaining social institutions. This means that some people act in a more intentional manner than
others. The reviewer states that this argument implies that if there is a relational dependency of “we-intend”on
individual intentionalities, then the degrees of intentionality are of an asymmetrical rather than symmetrical
type. This comment is beside the point that collective intentionality is dependent on the individuals holding the
same kind of intentionality irrespective of the degree of intentionality. So, although the degree of intention may
be asymmetrical, the dependence relation itself—the kind of intentionality that must be held—is symmetrical in
182 •Signs and Society
intentionality. It is a biological fact and not an institutional one. On the other
hand, if there is a child adopted into the family, it can be recognized as a sib-
ling by social convention in spite of the biological fact. It is an institutional fact
that an adopted child becomes the sibling of its adopted parents’children. The
symmetrical relation is established on the basis of an institutional fact, on the
basis of a status function. Even if the adopted child did not know it was adopted,
that the child is intended as a sibling establishes the symmetry of the sibling re-
lation regardless of the biological fact—namely, it is still a fact of collective in-
tentionality that the child is a sibling.
Collective intentionality is deﬁned by a symmetrical relationship between
individuals established on a social basis. Because the institutions of society are
based on natural language, we should say that collective intentionality is a lin-
guistically symmetrical relationship between individuals and their intentionality.
Society is dependent on the use and rules of language insofar as language
facilitates the deontic aspects of social reality. The rules of the institution of
language exist on the global level and constrain the behavior of individuals not
because there is necessarily an understanding of grammar and syntax on the part
of the individuals but because that is the convention which the coordination
game of language use has settled. In other words, the rules are the result of an
agreement or conformity ðarrived at through the coordination game of useÞand
that then these rules guide the behavior of the individual as the rule sets the norm
or convention that the individual follows. This is not merely the case with lan-
guage, but with social institutions in general because all social institutions de-
pend on “rule governed”behavior. The use of money does not depend on the
internalization—conscious or unconscious—of the theory of money: one simply
learns how to use money through imitating the behavior of others engaged with
and within the institution; and it is in this way that one personally acquires the
habit to act in a manner conforming to the rules of the institution of money.
In a breath: one learns how to speak English and one learns how to use
money, but this does not necessarily imply, though, that one therefore under-
stands or has internalized English grammar or monetary economics when one’s
behaviors “conform to the rules of the institution.”In the same way as we can
speak of “language games”we can speak of the game of society.
Searle argues, on the rule-governed nature of society and language, that
“we should say, ﬁrst ðthe causal levelÞ, the person behaves the way he does,
because he has a structure that disposes him to behave that way; and second
ðthe functional levelÞ, he has come to be disposed to behave that way because
that’s the way that conforms to the rules of the institution”ð1995, 144Þ.Thepoint
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •183
Searle is making is that it is not the rule that is acquired ﬁrst and then that the
performance is made in accordance to that rule; rather, the performance is ﬁrst
made through imitation or whatever affordance would so dispose the individual to
act in such a way ði.e., evolutionÞ, and then that this behavior is regulated by co-
ordination to meet the conventions of the institution ðwhich is the set of rules that
we call the grammar and syntax of language in this instanceÞ.Thisallowsindi-
viduals oblivious to the rules of an institution to act in accordance with those
rules anyway—without having consciously or unconsciously internalized the
rules. Analogous to the lesson we have learned from dynamical systems theory,
weseethatorder,suchasagrammarorafullyﬂedged language with rules and
structure, can emerge at a global level to constrain action—the speech act—on
the local level—the speech patterns of individuals ðcf. Elman 1995Þ.
This point has been made in, and is supported by, evolutionary theory and
linguistics from the empirical stance ðScott-Phillips et al. 2011, 43Þ.Thegeneral
and vague sounding “dispositions”that Searle speaks of are given explicit form
in this structure. What disposes one to speech acts and, in fact, enables these
linguistic performances are biological and cognitive affordances: the diaphragm,
the structure of the larynx, the tongue, and so on, and the information-processing
structures of the brain-body complex—all of which exploit developments in the
evolutionary history of man out of which signaling behavior and language have
emerged ðDeacon 1997; Christensen and Chater 2008Þ. Since we are already dis-
posed to communicate because of our evolutionary history, we will communi-
cate; how we communicate, though, will be conditioned by the community of
speakers that we are born into and interact with as speakers. For communica-
tion to be effective, a system of correspondence of meanings through the use of
some convention needs to be established between the community of speakers.
This order is established in the individual by the use of language in the com-
munity in which the individual is attempting to be a speaker by imitating these
other users, and these users as a collective are the rule to which individual users
thereby conform or attempt to conform.
It is important to understand, in this respect, that the constraining role of
language is on the global level. Its rules are only established at the level of the
community of speakers. The global level is only as a result of the interindividual
dynamics of use, namely: the rule is only established through the development
of a norm of use.
Undermining and contrary to the debate between Searle and the cognitivists
ðcf. Hershﬁeld 2005Þis a line of argument that views the development and exis-
tence of a language as analogous to that of an organism under selective pres-
184 •Signs and Society
sure. As Christensen and Chater argue, this selective pressure is our capacity
for illocution that is established by evolutionary and cognitive development to
which language performances must conform and for which different languages
compete ðChristiansen and Chater 2008Þ—an insight developed a decade earlier
in Deacon’sThe Symbolic Species ðDeacon 1997Þin the semiotic tradition and
further reﬁned and developed within the biosemiotic tradition ðStjernfelt et al.
2012Þ. We are the environment in which languages attempt to persist. What is
important about this point is the justiﬁcation of an obvious truth: that we are
the rule makers of languages, that languages do not impose their rules from
above on humanity but rather that the rules of language are created from below
through a dynamical consensus by the language users themselves. It is only at the
individual level that the rules of language, the rules that are the social institution
of language, play a constraining role. This is just but another way of saying that
there are no ﬁxed rules in language and that the rules that we speak of are only
ascertained through analysis of a speciﬁc norm of use.
This constraining role of language only has purchase because the institution
of language itself is recognized by a collective—that is, languages are systems of
collective intentionality. As Locke pointed out, people can use words however
they please to mean whatever it is they want those words to mean. That is the
extent to which individual intentionality works in relation to language: it can
establish only a “private language”or a personal code. But in order that we un-
derstand one another—that we actually communicate with one another—re-
quires that we share the same attitudes and connections to words and phrases
in how they apply to the world or a game. That is, we must have a collective in-
tentionality about speech acts.
Language, as the foundation of all social institutions and social facts, im-
plies the presence of collective intentionality throughout the various levels and
orders of society and implies its presence in the logic of social ontology. Never-
theless, the point must be proved by actual instances of the presumption that
collective intentionality is already implied by the founding of society in the prac-
tices of natural language.
As we have seen, the reason why collective intentionality cannot be reduced
to individual intentionality is because the “notion of a we-intention, of col-
lective intentionality, implies the notion of cooperation”ðSearle 2002, 95Þ. This
explains why individuals can have identical beliefs, goals, and so on—namely,
individuals could have identical intentional content—but not have a collective
intentionality simply because they are not “cooperating”with one another.
There must be dependence between the two intentionalities for them to be a
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •185
collective intentionality. The principle here is that the intentionality of one
individual must be in relation to the intentionality of another individual such
that it is their intentionality at play. That we are dancing together is satisﬁed
by cooperation—I can dance alone or you can dance alone, or we could even
be dancing at the same time. What makes it a fact that we are dancing together
is that we dance in relation to one another. As I have argued, collective in-
tentionality has the form of a logically symmetrical relationship by the kind
of intentionality being symmetrical through being dependent on the mutual
ðbidirectionalÞsatisfaction of the intentionality.
There is an ambiguity in what is meant by cooperation. In ethology, the
notion of cooperation is often construed as the performance of mutually ben-
eﬁcial behaviors among a group of organisms ðDugatkin 1997Þ. In contrast to
this, when we speak of cooperation in a cultural context, we mean that there is
an agreement between particular individuals—a linguistic agreement, as Searle
ð1989Þargues. This agreement is a “speech act,”and so may also be an act sym-
bolic of linguistic semantic content. For instance, if I stop by the side of the
road and help you push your broken-down car, I need not speak to assert my
intention, but my action in itself is a declaration of my intention to help you
push your car. The conceptualization of natural language as the foundation of
social facts needs to be extended to encompass such extralinguistic content as
part of natural language, and this is exactly what Searle’s theory of speech-acts
aims to do. It is through such an extension that we can identify singular and col-
lective intentionality by the presence or absence of agreements in happenings
composed of extralinguistic agreements—for example, when I nod my head in
response to a question when you look to me for an answer, or by me tugging
at your arm to signal you to stop and take note of something without having
said a word.
In the same way in which Searle established a taxonomy of illocutionary
acts ðSearle 1979Þ, semiotic theory in the Peircian tradition has established a
taxonomy for communication systems in general ðDeacon 1997Þ. Illocutionary
acts, in the semiotic taxonomy, fall into the “symbolic”or conventional class of
signs, which includes linguistic forms of meaning. Importantly, in addition to
symbolic illocutionary acts, we have, for Peirce, “indexical”and “iconic”signs.
To illustrate these categories: the location of a ﬁre can be described in words, in
which case I would only be using the abstractly symbolic signs of language
which are those words and phrases I would use for this description; I could
draw a map of where the ﬁre is or produce a photograph of the area, in which
case I would be employing iconic signs which are those pictorial representa-
186 •Signs and Society
tions of the ﬁre’s locality; or I could just point out the smoke emanating out of
the neighbor’s window to make the point, in which case I indicate the presence
of the ﬁre through the indexical sign of the smoke coming out of the window by
making you follow the indexal action of me pointing in that direction. The
semiotic taxonomy is useful in recognizing other avenues in which agreements
can be made through these means and methods of communication ðe.g., I could
point out the smoke, grab your hand, and run, in which case running with me
is an implicit agreement to run awayÞ. Semiotics provides a sophisticated set of
tools to identify collective intentionality through all avenues of communication
between individuals, encompassing the full extent of the purely linguistic and the
extralinguistic modes of communication in the same spirit of Searle’s speech-act
theory. The advantage of semiotic analysis is the taxonomy of communication
it provides over and above Searle’s taxonomy of illocutionary acts.
Throughout the ﬁrst three sections of this article, I have discussed central
aspects of Searle’s social ontology and have outlined some connections between
his theory and the triadic semiotics of the Peircean tradition. In the last two
sections of this article, I argue that there is actually a signiﬁcant equivalence
and connection in the logic of Searle’s social ontology and that of semiotics.
What makes this connection signiﬁcant is that it reﬂects and reafﬁrms em-
pirical truths about the social world that are revealed by both systems of
analysis while bringing together independent discoveries of the perspectives. I
argue for the grounding of Searle’s social ontology within an explicitly semiotic
framework because of the fact that the triadic semiotic metaphysics carries
through its metaphysics an uninterrupted line of explanation from culture into
biology and physics and back from biology and physics into culture. This is an
important line of explanation to establish if we are ever to describe and explain
how it is we live in one world.
The Fundamental Connection of Searle’s Social Ontology
In the outline of the general question, the semiotic analogue is intuitively clear. I
will develop this superﬁcial analogue before drawing the deep structure of cor-
respondence between social ontology as construed within Searle’s philosophy of
society and triadic semiotics ðviz., biosemiotics informed by PeircianismÞ.
The ﬁrst half of the general question, “How can we reconcile consciousness—
subjective, qualitative, ﬁrst-person consciousness—with the basic facts?”ðSearle
2007a, 11Þ, is the same question asked by biosemioticians about the subjective
reality of the higher orders of life. Biosemiotics deals with the subjective, qual-
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •187
itative reality of natural living systems—it is “a project whose goal ½isnothing
less than a scientiﬁc understanding of how the subjective experience of ½the
organism ½isrealized differently by each species’particular biological consti-
tution”ðFavareau 2010, 43Þ. In other words, it is concerned with the general
problem of how the subjective life-experience of an organism exists as an ob-
jective phenomenon in the domain of science. In Searle’s terminology, the bio-
semiotic project would be the establishment of the epistemically objective sci-
ence of meaning as it relates to organisms. Importantly, biosemiotics opens up a
clear line of development from the origins of life to the fundamentally cultural
domain of meaning.
The second half of this question—that is: How can “we reconcile ratio-
nality, language, free will, ethics and aesthetics with the basic facts?”ðSearle
2007a, 11Þ—is a subject which has not had much explicit attention within bio-
semiotics partly because of the fact that rationality, language, free will, ethics,
and aesthetics exist on a different ontological order than the basic facts that com-
prise the natural basis of existence ðwhich is the subject of biosemioticsÞ. But
those aspects of the human being are extensively addressed within cultural se-
miotics that connects with the traditions of sociolinguistics, anthropology, and
the humanities ðEco 1984Þ. Notably, cultural semiotics has its foundations within
the semiotic scaffolding provided by biosemiotics—that is, cultural meaning is
afforded by biological systems of meaning ðHoffmeyer 1993; Pattee 2009Þ.
Although Searle admits the hierarchical nature of this arrangement through
his recognition that subjective and social phenomena are built upon and grounded
within the “basic facts,”there is no explanation of this hierarchical dependence
on the basic facts in his social ontology. The conceptual space in which he works
is relatively independent, dealing speciﬁcally with human intentionality and so-
cial institutions. Semiotic analysis in the triadic and biosemiotic tradition is ex-
plicitly founded on hierarchical structures that are ordered networks of systems.
Part of general semiotics’purpose is to make these connections between dif-
ferent systems explicit—across cultural phenomena, into biological reality, and
down into the basic physical facts of the universe ðHoffmeyer 2010, 590Þ.
How is this possible? Let us ﬁrst look at this in the context of the social world.
To say that some particular thing, x, counts as something other than itself, y,
in some speciﬁccontext,c, is a semiotic statement describing a “codiﬁed”rela-
tionship between a sign, x, the symbolic meaning the sign engenders, y,within
some system of signs, c.Searle’s formula of constitutive rules as he exploits it,
though, is a formulation of the relationship of signs in the social domain. From
this vantage point, both semiotics and Searle’s social ontology show how the
188 •Signs and Society
functional apprehension of some particular thing can become further layered
in increasing orders of complexity. Searle gives the example that he may be
born a citizen of the United States of America, become a voter on grounds of
his citizenship, as a voter become a member of a political party, and hold some
particular ofﬁce thereafter ðSearle 2007a, 15Þ.
In general, a symbol within one context may be apprehended as a sign in
another in which the symbol would take on a higher order symbolic meaning.
For instance, a particular cut of the ﬂesh of a fresh carcass ðxÞcounts as meat ðyÞ
in the context of human society ðcÞ;thatverypieceofmeatðxÞ, though, counts
as a steak ðyÞin a particular cuisine culture of human society ðcÞ.Whenwe
are at the supermarket, we do not see packets of ﬂesh—we see cuts of meat,
and our thinking and reasoning about the ﬂesh we encounter is in terms of it
as meat and only indirectly as part of a carcass if that aspect of the object is
even considered at all.
This is a practical manifestation of the hierarchical order of the sign sys-
tem. We can generalize this notion by saying that in the social world we ap-
prehend a sign, x, come to understand the symbolic meaning the sign engenders,
y, within some system of signs or code ðcontextÞ,c, which is some culture or social
institution. This is analogous to the upward iteration of status functions Searle
describes, but, importantly, just as easily demonstrates the downward iteration
of symbolic meanings.
Searle described this as the “counts as”structure that logically iterates “itself
upward more or less indeﬁnitely, and spreads laterally across many different
kinds of institutions”ð2007a, 15Þ. Within the semiotic perspective, this logical
iteration not only extends upward indeﬁnitely but also extends downward be-
low the sociological to the biological, chemical, and physical. This theoretical
feat is achieved by biosemiotics through explaining how life comes about in
terms of codiﬁed relationships between systems and how the complexity in
meaning in the world is accompanied by the increasing complexity of forms.
Furthermore, biosemiotics delineates the different kinds of meaning structures
that comprise the different levels of complexity from the endosemiotic transfer
of information between cells and organs through molecular exchange to the
5. This division is so complete that the urban legend persists of individuals questioning why hunters kill for
meat instead of purchasing it at a shop where it is “made.”Whether this is a fabricated story or not, the point is
that the sign is already taken symbolically when apprehended as a further symbol—that cuts of meat are already
considered meat when apprehended regardless of the fact that meat is an oﬀcut of muscle from animal car-
casses. That connection, though, must be made through a diﬀerent hierarchical level within the system of signs.
The hierarchies operate independent of one another in this sense, although they may be completely depen-
dent on one another. This is because the dependence is a contingent and epistemic one, and the independence is
an ontological and logically intensional one.
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •189
ethological phenomena of signaling ðUexküll et al. ½19932010Þ. Once we
advance from signaling into the semiotic scaffolding of natural language, we
then reach the level of complexity that is of present interest, namely: the signs
of society. The system of signs of the social world retain the logical form x
counts as yin c, but are ontologically distinct from the physical and biological
signs out of which social signs emerge—that is, the sign systems of the basic
facts are ontologically distinct from the social system of signs. Nevertheless,
there is a continuum between these levels of signs demonstrated by the upward
and downward iteration of sign systems. It is in this way that we know that the
words of language are part of the same world as electrical or chemical signals.
The journey through the basic facts to social phenomena that Searle assumes
is possible can actually be made ðby theoretical standards, at leastÞthrough
What is special about the compatibility of Searle’s social ontology with se-
miotics is its establishment through the work of two different traditions that
have conventionally been seen to be working at divergent purposes. The view
from the doctrine of signs of this social ontology provides a deep reconciliation
of the “two cultures.”It connects the ethological, anthropological, sociological,
and traditionally philosophical investigations of man in the context of language,
art, and the whole of culture, as in Searle’s ontology, to the ontology of natural
reality by exploiting the metaphysical connections of the hierarchical structure
of reality as revealed within semiotics. This is anthroposemiotics proper: the full
conception of man as both a sociocultural being along with being, at the same
time, a biological creature connected to the whole of nature out of which the
human has come.
In spite of the logical equivalence of Searle’s social ontology and the semi-
otic system of signs in relation to culture and society, it might remain impor-
tant that we revert to some of the philosophical nomenclature introduced by
Searle in order to highlight the ontology of the kind of signs we are dealing with
when we look at reality from this resolution and focus.
What I would like to bring to attention is what Searle calls “status func-
tions,”which are the attribution of symbolic functions to objects and also to
It is an obvious matter that we attach status functions to our own
artifacts because our construction of artifacts presupposes the fact that we are
making those things for some particular purpose. The meaning that they are to
6. More generally, we can say that status functions can apply to processes as well—even if physical. For
instance, cultural attitudes toward the erupting of a volcano may attribute a status function to the eruption of
190 •Signs and Society
represent or do represent is the very reason for their construction and crea-
tion in the ﬁrst place even if we choose to change the function of the object at
some later stage ðe.g., a hammer is made to hammer in nails, but it could also
be given the function of a murder weaponÞ. This extension to the notion of
status function is that of our ability to attribute cultural meanings to even nat-
ural objects and processes. This is to say that status functions are just the
anthroposemiotic-level manifestations of biosemiotic meaning attribution.
Such an understanding of the status function captures not only the custom-
ary issues of sociology current today ðe.g., gender, race, morality, ethicsÞ, but
deals with a broader class of phenomena connectable from anthropology into
animal behavior from whence status functions proper, as Searle discusses them,
have come ðcf. Searle 2007a and Sebeok and Danesi 2000Þ. On the anthropo-
logical level, the cultural attitudes toward a natural event attribute a status func-
tion to that particular natural event. An “act of God”could just as easily be seen,
in this context, as a message from, say, the spiritual world. In such a case, a status
function has been attributed to a natural phenomenon by attributing to the phe-
nomenon a cultural signiﬁcance or a social meaning. On the ethological level,
we can recognize proto-status functional objects in the world of animals from
their artifacts and collections of goods ðcf. Sebeok and Danesi 2000, 142Þ, or even
in their ornamental traits that evolved solely for the purpose of displaying such
things as the status of an organism within its group ðZahavi 1975Þ.Thisdoesnot
so much blur the line between social reality as explored by the philosophy of so-
ciety as it makes more explicit the evolutionary connection of human society and
the meanings thereof to animal society and the meaning found there within.
As Searle points out, there is a fundamental difference between human and
animal societies based upon the role and kind of sign systems employed by ani-
mals in general as opposed to human beings ðe.g., Searle 2007aÞ.Animallanguage
is structurally dissimilar to natural language and would better be called signal-
ing rather than language proper ðSebeok 1962Þ. Signaling is an evolutionary-
based kind of communication between organisms that is apprehended on the
basis of biologically determined cognitive processes encoded into a conven-
tion by the culmination of hereditary developments and through the faculty of
learning or of acquired behaviors in the development of the organism ðSearcy
and Nowicki 2005Þ. Language ðviz., natural languageÞ, on the other hand, is
a socially based learned capacity that is not merely apprehended through the
biology like most animals but must be learned to be understood through the
assimilation of cultural conventions that are what informs the language user
of the language in question the meaning of its expressions. It is true that in
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •191
nature some creatures learn parts of their “language”mimetically, such as with
some birds that learn speciﬁc dialects of their song from their parents and other
local conspeciﬁcs ðMountjoy and Lemon 1995; Sebeok and Danesi 2000, 23Þ,or
the extreme case of the great apes learning to “speak”in sign language ðPatterson
1981Þ. Nonetheless, this is signiﬁcantly different to the human kind of learn-
ing of language because it is not merely the learning of a signaling dialect or
the assimilation of a few abstract symbols into one’s commutative repository
but what sets human language apart is the learning of a thoroughly abstract
representational system ðTerrace et al. 1979; Sebeok and Danesi 2000, 19, 165;
Pattee 2009, 299Þ.
It is in this sense that the symbolic conventions of the natural world and
the cultural world must be differentiated and delineated through this funda-
mental ontological difference. The term “status function”serves this purpose of
unambiguously delineating cultural conventions from natural conventions, ordi-
nary functions from status functions.
Now, it should already be clear that the status function is based on a notion
of intentionality. Throughout the natural world, we encounter intentional sys-
tems. But the intentional system that is found in human society is one peculiar
to the rest of the intentional systems found in nature. It is the social and men-
tal basis of these intentions—for example, promises, beliefs, volitions, and the
like—that separate this kind of intentionality from all other intentional systems.
That we are able to make promises and the like is afforded by the structure of
natural language, and Searle makes this point by showing that our intentional-
ity is dependent on the speech act ðSearle 1989Þ: in short, the peculiarity of the
human intentional system is dependent on our exploitation of natural language.
Society is afforded by natural language; the deontic aspect of society is a
human intentional system. This is because the establishment of meaning in so-
ciety is arbitrarily abstract although conventionalized. What is meant by abstract
is that the symbolism is an idealization of some aspect of some particular thing
and that it is arbitrary, as there is no necessary connection between the sym-
bols of society and that which they are made to represent. It is conventional as
it is an established mode of behavior or use of signs. Conceivably, the symbols
used could be replaced by other symbols to serve the same meaningful functions.
Nonetheless, our systems of representation are not absolutely arbitrary because
their development is out of the natural conventions of signing in our evolu-
tionary history. Many aspects of language connect with the world they are ab-
stractly describing in quite a direct fashion by a literal mimicking of the natural
signs or by iconic and indexical representation ðDeacon 1997; cf. Sebeok and
192 •Signs and Society
Danesi 2000Þmaking the connection between the code and its object nonarbi-
trary and sometimes even implicated by the rules or pattern of abstraction built
into the code by the constraints of the code maker—the agent of signiﬁcation or
the thing to which something is meaningful, which is, in this case, the human
being. As a practical matter, our symbols have developed on a gradual basis from
mere signaling to their far-removed symbolic representational state that seems in
its present state so arbitrary.
Once this “arbitrary”mode of abstract representation was established, a
whole new manner of accessing the world developed that became the primary
medium mediating between the man and the world. As such, after the basic se-
miotic foundations were in place—the “basic facts”of chemistry and biology—
the semiotic abilities developed thereafter were disjoint from their historical
and biological origins through their mode of operation. We know, for instance,
that a Japanese infant, historically and biologically of a Japanese lineage, can
easily be raised in rural China and become, by culture and language, Chinese.
The cultural domain at its fundamental levels does not care for natural history,
as it takes a particular level of semiotic sophistication for granted. Upon it, any
culture may be installed. Searle recognizes this general fact, but what becomes
problematic about Searle’s approach is that it becomes unclear how, exactly,
his ontology connects with the natural world even though it is admitted that so-
ciety and its accompanying social ontology emerge out of the natural order of
Semiotics and the biosemiotic approach, on the other hand, although admit-
ting the social world the same kind of autonomy, make explicit the connections
between the social world and the natural world. The biosemiotician Jesper
Hoffmeyer makes this point when he explains that, in man, “the natural history of
intentionality seems to have reached a threshold level, where the social and cul-
tural environment attained an autonomous kind of creativity that irreducibly
interactswith, and largely—but never completely—determines the horizon inside
which the personal intentionality of human beings exhibits itself ”ð2012, 114Þ.He
goes on to explain: “Unlike biological creativity ðorganic evolutionÞthe history of
cultural creativity is deeply dependent on semiotic scaffolding right from the
beginning. Language itself is of course a powerful semiotic scaffolding tool, al-
lowing for oral transmission of cultural experiences in time ðfrom generation to
generationÞand space ðfrom group to groupÞ”ð114Þ.
Biosemiotics, in essence, serves to complete the naturalization of Searle’s
social ontology by establishing an explicit connection with the facts of biology.
This is done through the founding of social ontology within triadic semiotics.
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •193
Triadic semiotics, as construed in the metaphysics of the biosemiotic disci-
plines, is hierarchical but retains the same logical form throughout its levels
and orders. Biosemiotics shows how sign systems from cell communication
to signaling behavior ðand even languageÞare triadic and hierarchical ðUexküll
½19932010; Kull 2010; Deely 2007Þ.
Importantly, Hoffmeyer points out the fact that language is a semiotic sys-
tem. The explicit place of language in semiotics has a long history, from Locke
who coined the term “Semeiotike, or the doctrine of signs”at the end of his
Essay concerning Human Understanding ð½16901975Þto Saussure’sCourse in
General Linguistics ð½19161959Þ, which is a landmark work of linguistic, an-
thropological, and cultural semiotics, along with the Tartu School publication
of the Theses ðIvanov et al. 1973Þand the work of Umberto Eco ð1984Þin cul-
tural and linguistic semiotics. Since Searle’s entire system of social ontology is
founded on natural language and its use, and natural language has been shown
to be a semiotic system of sign exchange, Searle’s system rests on semiotics it-
self. The recognition of this semiotic foundation has the advantages of a direct
connection, and an extensive explication of that connection, to the basic facts
when developed upon a biosemiotic foundation.
Central to the argument of social ontology is the notion of “rules.”For one,
language is recognized as a system of rules. Speech acts, themselves, are seen as
rule-governed behavior ðSearle 1974, 16Þ. Rules govern behavior not because
they are the necessary cause of the behavior, but because rules are constraints on
behavior and in this way are causal inﬂuences on behavior ðsee Juarrero 2002Þ.
This is true not only in the social context in which we act in accordance with
what we are allowed and not allowed to do by acting within some boundaries
that are the rules of society ðor even in the transgression of those rulesÞ, but also
in ethology and the natural behavior of animals in which codes of behavior
constrain the choices open to be acted upon. This is the broad notion of affor-
dance—speciﬁcally of social and natural affordances in this case ðWithagen et al.
2012Þ. That these are both affordances but are of ontologically different kinds of
affordance is best delineated through the concept of semiotic niche. The semiotic
niche is the world as it is to the organism—the totality of action possibilities
ðincluding cognition and mental lifeÞopen to the organism—determined by the
situation and construction of the organism ðHoffmeyer 2008Þ. In the natural
world, this is the ecology in which the organism ﬁnds itself inclusive of its
7. If an action will necessarily be made, whatever limits action possibilities is, itself, a causal inﬂuence by
increasing the probability of what it has not limited to happening through the elimination of other possibilities.
194 •Signs and Society
biological propensities; in the social world, this is the society and culture one
ﬁnds one’s self within and the kind of capabilities ðphysical and mentalÞ, beliefs,
attitudes, and general dispositions ðintentionalityÞone has.
The importance of the distinction between rule-governed behavior and
nonrule-governed behavior in social ontology is that in the case of social be-
havior a rule may be the reason for action that counts, also, as the explanation
for the action by this causal relation. This is because the rules of the social world
contain deontic commitments such as those within the notions of rights and
responsibilities. The obligation to pay tax will result in the action of the indi-
vidual paying his or her taxes, or the obligation may result in that individual
being ﬁned or put in jail for not paying taxes. On the other hand, the rule that
theweakermaleinaﬁght between two lions should or will concede and retreat
is only a so-called rule because only the lions that do so are the ones that gen-
erally survive to perform this behavior to the extent that this behavior has be-
come the norm among lions. The rule is the reason for the phenomena in a
fundamental way in the social world, whereas the rule in the natural world is
a description but not the true explanation of the action ðbecause the expla-
nation for such action in the natural world is an evolutionary and develop-
mental oneÞ. In the same breath, it is argued that “we can, in principle, char-
acterize any counterfactual supporting regularity as a case of rule following.
Thus, a rock in free fall can be characterized as following the rule ðcomputing
, though such a characterization is clearly metaphor-
ical”ðHershﬁeld 2005, 273Þ. Such regularities in nature, the laws of nature, have
the same structure as rules proper but are descriptive ðand can only be phys-
ically explanatory under a general theoryÞrather than being prescriptive ðwhich
is explanatory by being a ruleÞ. Rules, in the social context, always prescribe a
course of action and so act as a constraint that causes particular behaviors to
occur or not to occur ðe.g., you should drive on the left-hand side of the road
in South Africa or you should not kick the ball when it is outside of the line
when playing soccerÞ,whereasthe“rules”of the natural world are descriptive of
regularities by telling us how things generally occur, which is a state of affairs
not caused by the ‘rule’but rather by the mechanism that underlies the rule,
making the use of the term ‘rule’for natural systems metaphorical. The im-
portant point here is the ontological formation of explanation: the explanation
of natural phenomena is ontologically physical and social explanations are in-
This difference is a signiﬁcant one. Searle himself recognizes this difference
between human and animal societies ð1989, 1995, 2002, 2007a, 2010Þ, and I have
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •195
just extended this insight further to biotic and abiotic factors. Even so, regardless
of these differences, the connection between the ontologies needs to be made in
order to show how it is that they truly exist in one reality. Some of
this explanatory work can be achieved by an extension of Searle’s social ontol-
ogy, but its limitations are that the terms of his ontology apply only to the so-
cial domain and have import only within the social ontology he created them
in. Within the tradition of semiotics, the connection between physical systems,
biological systems, and cultural systems—at least insofar as how physical sys-
tems can become informational systems such as in the biochemistry of life
ðBarbieri 2003; Emmeche et al. 2005Þ, how molecules can become messages
ðPattee 1969; Emmeche 1999; see also Pattee 2009Þ, how life is an “autopoietic
dynamical system”ðUexküll ½19932010Þ, and how from life we further sig-
nify and create ethological, and build up to cultural, meaning ðHoffmeyer 1993;
Sebeok and Danesi 2000; Deely 2007Þ—this connection has already been made.
The Immediate Signiﬁcance of This Connection
Biosemiotics makes a transdisciplinary connection between physics, chemistry,
biology, ethology, anthropology, and sociology through a uniting metaphysics
within the domain of biosemiotics ðHoffmeyer 1993; Kull 2010Þ. Biosemiotics
has been the great metaphysical uniﬁer of disciplines in the life sciences, cre-
ating interdisciplinary and transdisciplinarity scientiﬁc domains ðAnderson
et al. 1984Þ. Saussurean semiotics has been a dominant tool of analysis in the
arts, bringing the humanities together in a structuralist mode of description
and explanation, but traditional philosophy continued to be favored in the
social sciences. In the development of these currents, though, it has come to
light, ﬁrst, that Saussurean and structuralist semiotics are actually correctly con-
strued triadically by including the constructor or reader of meaning ðPeirce’s
interpretantÞto the dyad of Saussure’ssigniﬁer ðexpressive formÞand signiﬁed
ðmeaningÞ; second, which is the subject of this article, I have argued that a tra-
dition within analytic school philosophy ðviz., the work of John SearleÞconverges
with semiotic practice under a single metaphysical system.
Social institutions are a special kind of agreement, a cultural convention,
and Searle’s formula is the logical structure of those agreements. Affording
these cultural agreements are language ðas opposed to signalingÞand inten-
tionality. Language, itself, is an intentional system because it is always about
something extrinsic to itself and not about itself. Because of the semantic
structure of language—that language is about the employment and expression
196 •Signs and Society
of concepts corresponding to some meanings logically independent of the
language itself—makes language an intentional system and, echoing the ﬁnd-
ing of Searle ð1995Þ,itistheﬁrst and most fundamental social institution upon
which the convention xcounts as yin cis engendered and afforded in the cul-
The connection between semiotic theory and the philosophy of society
established by Searle is made explicit by drawing out the equivalence of the
elegant logic of the two metaphysical systems in the context of his social
ontology. To say that some particular thing, x, counts as something other than
itself, y,insomespeciﬁc context, c, is a semiotic statement describing a codiﬁed
relationship between an object x,thesignði.e., meaningÞthat the object takes on,
y, in a particular context, c. This is the most basic deﬁnition and structure of
meaning and meaningfulness—the basis for the triadic semiotic representa-
tionalist framework. Barbieri ð2008, 33Þreiterates this deﬁnition in the context
of code biology: “the following is a necessary and sufﬁcient condition for some-
thing to be a semiosis: A establishes a conventional correspondence between B
and C. In this relational characterization of semiosis, A is the Adaptor ½viz., the
taken as a sign and C is the meaning that A assigns to B.”
The notion of meaning only receives its sense from there being a subject to
which meaning relates—that is, something is meaningful only if it is meaning-
ful to some other thing. That is why Barbieri states that a meaning is made up
of a code, a world to which the code corresponds to, and the code maker who
encodes this meaning and to which the code is meaningful to by this corre-
codes presuppose a code maker—namely, meaning presupposes something to
which something else is meaningful.
The term “code”may seem to create manifest contradictions in its use, but
that is because the term is ambiguous and refers both to a sign within a system
of signs and to a system of signs itself. For instance, dog is a code for a particu-
lar creature in that the term corresponds to a particular thing in the world; fur-
thermore, the English language is also a code as a system of signs to which the
sign ðsymbol, wordÞdog belongs. Barbieri seems to appreciate this ambiguity
and its implications although he does not explicitly mention it. What he does
mention, though, is more than sufﬁcient to make this point. He says:
Words do not, by themselves, have meanings. They are mere labels to
which meanings are given in order to establish a correspondence be-
Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics •197
tween words and objects. Because of this, it is often said that meanings
are arbitrary, but that is true only if they are taken individually. The
words of a language may seem arbitrary if taken one by one, but together
they form an integrated system and are therefore linked by community
rules. Codes and meanings, in other words, are subject to collective, not
individual, constraints. Codes have, in brief, three fundamental char-
acteristics ðFigure 4.1Þ:
ð1ÞThey are rules of correspondence between two independent worlds.
ð2ÞThey give meanings to informational structures.
ð3ÞThey are collective rules which do not depend on the individual
features of their structures. ðBarbieri 2003, 94Þ
Rather than speaking of codes in general semiotics, we rather speak of signs
ðe.g., stimulus, coo, balladÞand systems of signs ðe.g., zoo semiotics, biosemiot-
ics, social semioticsÞ. The explicit talk of signs does away with the confusion and
ambiguity of what a code is, since when one is speaking of a sign, it is always
implicit that the sign is part of a system of signs and subject to the logic of that
system of signs. Nevertheless, this connection to Barbieri’s“code-biology”ex-
plicates and empirically demonstrates within the metaphysics of semiotics and
the empirical study of biology the continuum of chemistry to biology from which
point biosemiotics takes us from biology into culture. Following Searle, one can
thereafter, on this affordance, justiﬁably explicate the cultural domain of exis-
tence of social institutions and their facts. Within this semiotic metaphysics, we
can begin to see and explain how the whole of reality, or at least life and the
meanings produced thereof, truly belongs to one world.
Semiotics is the tool that realizes Searle’s aim to reconcile all the different
aspects of reality as part of one world. This is not to say that all the problems of
chemistry, physics, and biology are solved—as Searle’s system assumes in order
to explicate the ontology of the social world—but that given all that we know
about the world, we are able to show how each piece of the puzzle of reality
relates with the other.
What is special about the equivalence between semiotics and Searle’s social
ontology is its establishment through the work of two different traditions that
have been seen to be working at divergent purposes. As has been argued nu-
merously in the literature, the view from the doctrine of signs provides a deep
reconciliation of the “two cultures”ðe.g., Hoffmeyer 2012; see also Brier 2003Þ.
198 •Signs and Society
Making this connection between Searle’s social ontology and the metaphys-
ics of semiotics does just that. Semiotics builds up its case through naturalis-
tic means in the biological and natural sciences in the biosemiotic domains,
drawing out the different ontological orders of reality from physical reality
to ethological and basic social reality—all of which are reconciled into a sin-
gle world though a hierarchical metaphysical system. Searle’s social ontology
begins at this very juncture of nature and society—of explicating the condi-
tions in which human reality exists upon the humus of the basic facts of the
universe—the basic facts that are explicated by semiotics within the domains of
In this article, I have shown how situating Searle’s social ontology within
semiotic—speciﬁcally, biosemiotic—metaphysics makes connectable all the dis-
parate aspects of reality ðat least, in the context of lifeÞin accordance with the
ultimate purpose of his philosophical program, which is something, I argued,
that cannot be achieved on the basis of Searle’s own social ontology because it
takes for granted the very connection that it rests upon and which is what needs
to be explained.
To this end, I have described the central aspects of Searle’s social ontology
and have framed his social ontology in semiotic theory. I explained how hav-
ing social ontology situated in triadic semiotics places it in relation to the rest
of the triadic semiotic ediﬁce that includes the facts of physics, biology, and
chemistry as exempliﬁed in the work of Barbieri ð2003Þ. Social ontology sit-
uated within semiotics describes the kind of system of meaning society is and
how this meaning comes about in terms of the basic facts, making the con-
nection between nature and society explicable.
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