It’s often said that humans are “social animals.” What this means is that humans, like other animals in nature from ants to higher mammas like dolphins, are reared in groups and live most of our lives in groups.
And although, at times, some of us need solitude, we are by and large social. From the moment we are born until our deaths we rely on others for care, emotional support, learning, and so on.
By its nature, probing human society remains an interdisciplinary subject where no one area of expertise can fully explain all of the aspects of human social life. For centuries, political philosophers, anthropologies, sociologists, and psychologists have, at times, weighed in on the subject. More recently, a classic emerged that blurs in the line between psychology and philosophy, John Searle’s “The Construction of Social Reality,” which takes a shot at how humans “construct” social reality in our minds.
In this modern classic, Searle distinguishes between what he calls “brute” facts and “institutional” facts. The latter, institution facts, are things, like money, which only have meaning if individuals believe in that meaning.
“These facts can exist only if people have certain sorts of beliefs and other mental attitudes,” he writes. “In Moscow [Russia], in 1990 and 1991, packs of Marlboro cigarettes had attained the status of a kind of currency. People would accept payment in Marlboros, even if they themselves did not smoke.”
The above example is an illustration about how institutional facts come into being. Brute facts, on the other hand, are of a different sort. These types of facts, Searle says, are independent of the human mind. The statement, “gravity exists in the universe,” is a type of brute fact because it does not rely on the human mind or human societies to make it valid. This is, in a way, how our minds construct facts about the world. Many of the things we deal with on a daily basis, things such as money, marriage, and work are socially constructed, institutional facts.
These and many other forms of social phenomenon are, in many ways, created by our own minds and the minds of others—even though at time we may think of money, marriage, and work, for instance, as naturally occurring forces of nature. This is, I think, what Searle means by “the social construction of reality”: each day we move throughout the world, a world that stands apart from us (brute facts) and a world that we have, in a way, helped to create (via institutional facts). It can be said, then, that our minds are makers of meaning.
Perhaps, through years of biological evolution, nature acted upon our brains to create our minds, and, at some critical point, our minds had become evolved and complex enough to act upon nature, and that was the moment in history when the social construction of reality was born.
Searle, J. B. (1995). The construction of social reality. The Free Press. New York, NY.