Having given Searle's 2015 book (Seeing things as the are) a quick read, to me he seems like he's really (mostly) espousing intentionalism but he calls his position "direct realism". He gives for example a fairly standard "intentionalist" diagram of why someone sees a hallucination, and then writes:

enter image description here

Figure 1.3. Hallucination. The internal processes in the brain are sufficient to produce a visual experience which is type identical with the visual experience produced by the external stimulus. The visual experience has the same intentional content as the veridical experience, but there is no object of the visual experience.

I believe these diagrams are accurate, but they can be dangerously misleading if they suggest that the internal visual experience is itself an object of perception. Supposing that the internal experiences are themselves objects of perception is one of the major mistakes that this book aims to overcome. The subjective visual experience cannot itself be seen, because it is itself the seeing of anything.

Actually, I hope the account so far seems obvious to the point that you wonder why I am boring you with these platitudes. But here is the amazing thing: The account I just gave you is denied by just about every famous philosopher who writes on this subject. Indeed of the philosophers that have written about perception since the seventeenth century, I do not know of any Great Philosopher who even accepted Naïve or Direct Realism. (“Great Philosophers” in this period begin with Bacon and Descartes and end with Kant. They include Locke, Leibniz, Spinoza, Berkeley, Bacon and Hume. If someone wants to count Mill and Hegel as Great Philosophers, I will not argue the point.)

Most of his book devoted to refuting the argument from illusion (which Searle calls the Bad Argument in his book, to emphasize how misleading he thinks that is.) He argues mostly from a linguistic perspective that when someone says they "see" a hallucination that's just bad/misleading use of language, e.g.

At the most fundamental level the entire [Bad] argument rests on a pun, a simple fallacy of ambiguity, over the use of the English expressions “aware of” and “conscious of.” The proof that the same expression is being used with two different senses is that the semantics is different. Consider sentences of the form: “Subject S has an awareness A of object O.” In the intentionality sense, that has the consequence: A is not identical with O. A ≠ O. In the intentionality sense: A is an ontologically subjective event that presents the existence and features of O as its conditions of satisfaction. But in the constitution or identity sense: A is identical with O. The thing that one is “aware of” is the awareness itself (A = O).

Strictly speaking, the Argument from Illusion rests on a fallacy of ambiguity. But it would be misleading if I give the reader the impression that that is an ambiguity like the ambiguity in the word “bank” in “I went to the bank,” which can mean either “I went to a finance house” or “I went to the side of the river.” The ambiguity in “aware of” and “conscious of” is not at all like that. They are not two different dictionary meanings, as there are for “bank,” rather because there is a common phenomenon to both the hallucination and the veridical perception. The temptation is to treat the visual experience itself as the object of the visual experience in the case of the hallucination, but in fact there is no such object. English and other European languages allow us to make this mistake because we can always invent an internal accusative for the verb phrase. It is a good example of Wittgenstein’s claim that philosophical problems typically arise when we misunderstand the logic of our language. But the example is not an example of lexical ambiguity. The linguists’ test of conjunction reduction shows this: “I am aware of the table” and “I am aware of a sensation in my hand” imply “I am aware of both the table and the sensation in my hand.”

The reason we feel an urge to put sneer quotes around “see” when we describe hallucinatory “seeing” is that, in the sense of intentionality, in such cases we do not see anything. If I am having a visual hallucination of the book on the table, then literally I do not see anything. Since I am “aware of” something, the temptation is to put in a noun phrase to form the direct object of “see.” We compound the ambiguity of “aware of” by introducing an ambiguity of “see.” This shift from describing the ontologically objective state of affairs in the world to describing the ontologically subjective conscious intentional state itself underlies the whole epistemological tradition. The mistake derives from a failure to understand the intentionality of conscious perceptual experience. How exactly? There is obviously something in common between the veridical perception and the indistinguishable hallucination. They are, after all, indistinguishable. If you fail to see that the something in common is a conscious intentional experience with conditions of satisfaction, you are likely to think that the something in common is itself the object of perception. That is, if you fail to understand the intentionality of the experience, you are likely to think the experience is the object of the experience in the hallucinatory case. In the diagram the hallucination is shown with the same type of visual experience and the same intentional content, but no intentional object and only internal causes. This shift is to move from the object-directed intentionality of the perceptual experience to treating the visual experience itself as the object of visual consciousness. I do indeed have a conscious experience when I see the table, but the conscious experience is of the table. The conscious experience is also an entity, but it is not the object of perception; it is indeed the experience itself of perceiving. [...]

The assumption that some authors make is that every intentional state must have an object, but this is confusion between the true claim that every intentional state must have a content and the false claim that every intentional state must have an object. It is just false that all intentional states have objects. Some authors even postulate an “intentional object” as a special kind of object for unsatisfied intentional states. So, for example, if the child believes his father comes home in the evening, the intentional object of his belief is his father. If he believes Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve, his belief has no intentional object; it has a content but no object. Some philosophers find that uncomfortable and so they say there is a special kind of intentional object for intentional states about nonexistent entities. I hope it is obvious that this is a confusion.

But he does seem (see e.g. last para above) to have a shade of difference in that he rejects one kind of intentionalist account, in which one would assign an "object" (a mental/intentional "object") to every intention. But is this enough to call his position something other than intentionalism, which e.g. IEP describes as:

Let us see how the intentionalist reacts to the argument from illusion. The key claim will be that representational states can be in error. I can have false beliefs: I can believe that my cup is full when it is not; and I can have beliefs about non-existent entities: I can believe that the Tooth Fairy visited me last night. Such beliefs are analogous to the non-veridical perceptual cases of illusion and hallucination. In both belief and perception, the world is represented to be a certain way that it is not. And, crucially, the intentionalist has an account of what such veridical and non-veridical cases have in common: their intentional content. My perception has the representational content, there is a bent pencil there, whether or not there really is such a pencil in the world (I might have been duped and an actual bent pencil placed in the glass). In the veridical case this content correctly represents the world; in the non-veridical case it does not. Intentionalists, therefore, agree with sense datum theorists that there is an aspect of perception that is shared by the veridical and the non-veridical cases. This shared component, however, is not the presence of a perceptual object, but rather, that of a certain intentional content. Therefore, both intentionalists and sense datum theorists can be seen as providing representational accounts of perception: intentional content and the sense data of the indirect realist represent the state of the independent external world. Intentionalists, however, have representation without an ontological commitment to mental objects.

So, I wonder if any other academic, book reviewers etc. came to the same conclusion in that regard, i.e. is Searle just relabelling intentionalism as "Direct Realism"?

Or is it proper to say that there are (at least two?) kinds of intentionalism, and Searle is trying to distinguish the realist one (from the other) by saying that all intentions have "a content but no object" and that there are no "intentional object[s] for intentional states about nonexistent entities"? Calling a mental/brain process "an object" is itself weird from a neuroscience perspective, but I guess [some] philosophers like to call everything, including processes, "objects"? Is Searle arguing against a straw man here? IEP doesn't seem to acknowledge that any intentionalist would say that [the content of] intentions are (reasonably called) objects. But maybe there are non-realist intentionalists? (Searle himself doesn't exemplify with any.)

  • According to wikipedia on intentionality, John Searle regards phenomenality itself as the "mark of the mental" and sidelines intentionality. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentionality#Overview) He seems not an intentionalist. Even illusion, as long as it can have a distinctive mark on one's mind, it's counted as "direct (realistic) perception" by his theory... Mar 26, 2021 at 5:14
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    A key tenet of direct or naive realism is that veridical perception puts us into a direct relation (of awareness) with real objects, and Searle endorses that. That he then has no need for intentionally inexistent objects is just a consequence. On the other hand, he denies key tenets of intentionalism, that our experience is non-relational and representational (of reality). His endorsement of intentionality does not make him an intentionalist, he reinterprets what intentionalists talk about within his own position just as anti-realists, say, reinterpret the talk of reality within theirs.
    – Conifold
    Mar 26, 2021 at 9:20
  • One of the things Searle says is that we have direct perceptual knowledge of the outside world. I'm unsure what he really means by this. Is he saying we have direct knowledge of the fact that we're not in the matrix... and we're not brains in a vat? Or is he simply saying we have knowledge of things "other than ourselves"... I mean if it's the latter, even Berkeley wouldn't disagree with that. Mar 26, 2021 at 15:47
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    @AmeetSharma Knowledge of the fact that we're not in the matrix is not direct perceptual knowledge, it is not first order knowledge at all, it is an epistemological meta-claim. Searle does say that we have direct perceptual knowledge of external objects, but it does not come with epistemological meta-certificates that would definitively distinguish it from elaborate deceptions. Still, typically we can do so with practical plausibility, and any other scheme is not ensured against sophisticated enough skeptical scenarios either. Berkeley would not endorse direct realism.
    – Conifold
    Mar 26, 2021 at 18:52
  • @Conifold, Doesn't scientific realism conflict with Searle's direct realism? I mean the "real" ontology of the world is the stuff of physics... quarks quantum fields etc... but that's not our direct perception. What would Searle say about this? Mar 26, 2021 at 19:37

1 Answer 1


A central issue for theories of intentionality (intentionalism following the tradition of phenomenology) has been the problem of intentional inexistence: to determine the ontological status of the entities which are the objects of intentional states. This is particularly relevant for your case of hallucination. According to this wikipedia on intentionality, there're 3 schools of thought to deal with this problem: Eliminativism, Relationalism, and Adverbialism. Searle's approach clearly is not reductive Eliminativism or Relationalism which accepts an intentional object. So Adverbialism is the only remaining review matching that of Searle's.

Adverbialists hold that intentional states are properties of subjects. So no independent objects are needed besides the subject, which is how adverbialists avoid the problem of non-existence. This approach has been termed "adverbialism" since the object of the intentional state is seen as a modification of this state, which can be linguistically expressed through adverbs. Instead of saying that Mary is thinking about Superman, it would be more precise, according to adverbialists, to say that Mary is thinking in a superman-ly manner or that Mary is thinking superman-ly.

But does this so far proves Searle's direct realism of perceptions is just intentionalism? Not yet. In the same reference above:

Intentionalism is the thesis that all mental states are intentional, i.e. that they are about something: about their intentional object. This thesis has also been referred to as "representationalism". Intentionalism is entailed by Brentano's claim that intentionality is "the mark of the mental"

And from the reference of Philosophy of perception

Philosophy of perception is concerned with the nature of perceptual experience and the status of perceptual objects, in particular how perceptual experience relates to appearances and beliefs about the world. The main contemporary views within philosophy of perception include naive (direct) realism, enactivism and representational views.

So this clearly shows Searle's direct realism is not intentionalism sctrictly speaking since intention generated from any supposed direct perception in the hallucination case must be a representation due to no direct object encountered per Searle's own emphasis.

Searle as described here accepts that conscious experiences (including perception) are only subjective ontologically:

Searle thinks there are certain phenomena (including all conscious experiences) that are ontologically subjective, i.e. can only exist as subjective experience. For example, although it might be subjective or objective in the epistemic sense, a doctor's note that a patient suffers from back pain is an ontologically objective claim: it counts as a medical diagnosis only because the existence of back pain is "an objective fact of medical science". The pain itself, however, is ontologically subjective: it is only experienced by the person having it.

His position of philosophy of mind is self-proclaimed Biological naturalism which is somewhere between property dualism and reductive materialism. He's reductive on bran's neuroscientific basis while accepting both supervenient intentionality and qualia, which is unconventional and weird among most modern materialists. Below is a key description of his view on mind from above Biological naturalism's reference:

Searle holds mental properties to be a species of physical property—ones with first-person ontology. So this sets his view apart from a dualism of physical and non-physical properties. His mental properties are putatively physical.

So "physical property but only with first-person ontology regarding mental states" is Searle's key unique feature which helps to understand his direct realism. It neither belongs to any type of dualism nor any type of reductive materialism, then it must be a type of Emergentism. But he chose to call it in a idiosyncratic way as Biological naturalism.

  • I didn't see anything in Searle's book endorsing something like adverbalism. As for qualia, I'd have to reread his ch.8... but again I don't recall him endorsing qualia explicitly. Apr 7, 2021 at 2:05
  • I see he says elsewhere on the web "As I am using the term, thoughts definitely are qualia." But that's again coming up to this issue that he's redefining terms... The way Searle uses that term as synonymous with (any) thoughts runs counter to three-fourts of the criteria that Dennett set out for qualia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualia#Definitions Apr 7, 2021 at 3:26
  • Searle actually gives in his older (2002) book "2+2=4" as his example of qualia... Apr 7, 2021 at 3:39
  • He's not very easily understood even by peers, also had a famous debate with Derrida in the early 1970s regarding speech-act theory from his wikipage, and many said the debate related concepts was not well communicated and shared... Apr 7, 2021 at 4:02
  • " Searle holds mental properties to be a species of physical property—ones with first-person ontology. So this sets his view apart from a dualism of physical and non-physical properties. His mental properties are putatively physical." From the link of his Biological naturalism, this is a critical feature (half-physical-half-subjective contradictory/controversial?) of his direct realism, which neither belongs to any type of dualism or reductive materialism, it must be a type of emergentism (Biological naturalism) which I always feel incomplete (essentially a mixing of materialism and idealism.) Apr 7, 2021 at 5:22

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