Review of John R. Searle Rationality in Action

(Cambridge MA:  MIT Press, 2001, xvi + 303 pp., $35.00, ISBN 0-262-19463-5 hbk).

(Review originally published in 2005 Journal of Consciousness Studies 9(2), 92-94:  journal web page:



In this book, John Searle makes a significant contribution to the philosophy of rational action, and its implications for the problem of free will.  The book also marks a change in Searle’s thinking since his 1992 book The Rediscovery of the Mind, particularly in that he now leaves open, as a reasonable possibility, that consciousness may be able to cause things that cannot be fully explained by the causal behaviour of neurons:  for me, a step in the right direction (cf. Hodgson 1994).  Searle also for the first time supports a non-Humean notion of the self, as an entity that can, as a whole, consciously try to do things.

The main focus of the book, however, is an attack on what Searle calls the ‘Classical Model’ of human rationality and the construction of an alternative model.

At the heart of the Classical Model, according to Searle, are the related ideas that actions are caused by beliefs and desires, that primary or ultimate desires are not themselves subject to rational constraints, and that rationality in practical reasoning is a matter of devising means to satisfy these desires.  Other aspects of this model are (1) that primary desires are supposed to be consistent, (2) that rationality is a matter of following rules, and (3) that weakness of the will can only arise where something is wrong with the psychological antecedents of action.  In Chapter 1, Searle discusses these ideas and argues against them in his customary forthright and robust fashion, introducing on the way a central theme of the book, that the operation of rational decision-making pre-supposes a gap between the reasons for a decision and the decision itself.  He recognises the need to justify an alternative theory, and undertakes that task in the remainder of the book.

Chapter 2 lays some groundwork for this enterprise, by discussing what Searle calls the basic structure of intentionality, action, and meaning.  After discussing intentional states and their conditions of satisfaction and directions of fit, he returns to the gap, and notes that there are in fact three gaps:  (1) between reasons and prior intention to act; (2) between prior intention to act and ‘intention-in-action’; and (3) between initiating intention-in-action and carrying it through to conclusion.

Chapter 3 continues the discussion of the gap, and argues that the intelligibility of what happens in the gap requires an irreducible non-Humean notion of the self, an entity that (1) is conscious, (2) persists through time, (3) operates with reasons under constraints of rationality, (4) is capable of deciding upon, initiating, and carrying out actions under the presupposition of freedom, and (5) is responsible for at least some of its behaviour.  Reasons acted upon by such an entity, Searle argues, do not causally determine the action, and yet do provide an adequate explanation of it.

In Chapter 4, Searle discusses the logical structure of reasons, arguing inter alia that they (1) have propositional structure, (2) must relate to what they are reasons for, (3) must, if they are to function in an agent’s deliberation and explain an action, be part of a total reason for the action and be internal to the agent, but, if the deliberation is to be rational, they should also match reasons external to the agent (we should recognise and believe relevant facts), (4) must include at least one element (a motivator) that has world-to-mind direction of fit, which may be fully internal (such as a desire) or may be external albeit internally-represented (such as a need or obligation).  Then, rationality in decision-making requires recognition of relevant motivators and appraisal of their relative weights, recognition and appraisal of relevant non-motivational facts, and construction from them of a total reason for action.

Chapters 5 and 6 develop Searle’s contention that there can be motivators that are not desires, not even desires to fulfil obligations.  Searle claims that use of language involves a commitment to its generality of application in use by oneself and others; and this in turn means, for example, that attribution to myself of a need for help commits me to accept that such a need should be attributed to another person in similar circumstances.  Accordingly, if I recognise my need as a reason for others to help me, I am committed to recognising others’ needs as reasons for me to help them.  Similarly, Searle argues, we create desire-independent reasons for action by making commitments by assertions (committing ourselves to assert truthfully) and promises (committing ourselves to fulfil them).

Chapter 7 argues that Searle’s position deals better with weakness of the will than does the Classical Model, and Chapter 8 explains why there is no deductive logic for practical reasoning.  (Searle notes a close connection between rational constraints on belief and logical relations between properties, and contends there is no such connection between the structure of desire and the structure of logic.)

Finally, in Chapter 9 Searle relates the discussion of the book to the problem of free will.  (The substance of this chapter was previously published as Searle 2000.)  He quickly (perhaps too quickly) dismisses compatibilism.  He argues that the psychological reality of the gap involves psychological indeterminism (a complete specification of all psychological causes would not be sufficient to determine the outcome), and that the question is whether this coexists with neurobiological determinism (in which case the psychologically real gap corresponds to no neurobiological reality and free will is a massive illusion) or whether it is matched by neurobiological indeterminism (giving rise to the difficulty of explaining how there could be causal efficacy which is not deterministic).  Searle does not answer this question.

Searle’s writing in this book is characteristically clear and straightforward, and I find his arguments very persuasive – although this may be partly because they are very compatible with my own views!  Particularly valuable are his attack on the dogma that ultimate motivators must be desires that are independent of reason and his analysis of the psychological gap.  (Searle’s treatment of the psychological gap has some affinity with my argument in Hodgson 1999 that it is futile to look for a clincher in decision-making, other than the decision itself.)

However, while the case he makes out for commitments as desire-independent reasons is interesting, to my mind it does not fully answer the question of why a commitment and/or recognition thereof does and/or should motivate action, independently of desire.  I do not think this can simply be a consequence of the generality of language, as Searle seems to suggest:  I think that some appeal to and recognition of the force of guiding moral principles is necessary (cf. Hodgson 2001).  In any event, I believe that the position that we can apply rationality to at least some of our desires does not stand or fall by these arguments:  whilst there may be some plausibility in a suggestion that reason has little if any application to desires like hunger, thirst, or sex, the position that all motivators are desires can have plausibility only if one defines desires widely so that ultimate desires can include such things as desires to fulfil obligations and to do the right thing; and it is highly implausible to suggest that desires of that kind are or should be unaffected by reason.

Searle makes out a powerful case for the view that there is no algorithm for practical rationality, but sheds little light on what makes for satisfactory practical reasoning:  if there is no algorithm, what explains how we recognise relevant motivators and non-motivational facts, and appraise and weigh these reasons; and what is it that distinguishes superior from inferior performances of these tasks?  Again, I think some guiding principles are involved, not merely in practical reasoning but also in plausible theoretical reasoning as well.

But it is not possible for one book to answer all questions, and I thoroughly recommend this book for its contribution to the philosophy of practical reasoning.



Hodgson, D. (1994), ‘Why Searle hasn’t rediscovered the mind’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 1, 264-74.

Hodgson, D. (1999), ‘Hume’s mistake’, in Libet, B., Freeman, A., and Sutherland, K. (eds) The Volitional Brain (Thorverton:  Imprint Academic).

Hodgson, D. (2001), ‘Constraint, empowerment, and guidance:  a conjectural classification of laws of nature’, Philosophy 76, 341-70.

Searle, J. R. (1992), The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge MA:  MIT).

Searle, J. R. (2000), ‘Consciousness, free action and the brain’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 7, 3-22.


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