Language, Social Ontology and Political Power
John R. Searle
The Western philosophical tradition is especially rich in political philosophy. The great political philosophers from Plato to Rawls are correctly regarded as making some of the most important contributions to philosophy in its entire history. However in spite of all of this great intellectual achievement I have always found something unrealistic in our tradition of political philosophy. Its persistent utopianism, its recurrent postulation of fantasies such as the social contract, and its overestimation of human rationality have always seemed to me serious limitations. My general impression is that our western philosophical tradition in political philosophy has not been very strong in describing the real world. I have found this especially to be true in situations of extreme political agitation. In the 1960's and '70's American university campuses underwent a series of upheavals. I was involved in these events both as a participant and a spectator. It struck me at the time that the political philosophy that I had been brought up on was not much use either in analyzing or coping with these events.
The problem is not that our tradition gives wrong answers to the questions it asks, but rather it seems to me it does not always ask the questions that need to be asked in the first place. Prior to answering such questions as “What is a just society?” and “What is the proper exercise of political power?” it seems to me we should answer the more fundamental questions: “What is a society in the first place?” and “What sort of power is political power anyhow? And how does political ontology relate to the rest of social, mental and physical ontology? This talk then will not be an essay in traditional political philosophy. I will be attempting to go behind the issues discussed in political philosophy---issues about the nature of justice, the ideal state, and the social contract---to discuss of what I think are the more basic issues in political ontology, especially the ontology of political power.
I want to show how political reality is a special case of more general social and institutional reality. I believe that some of the fundamental notions used to describe and analyze institutional and social reality can give us insights into the nature of political reality.
There are exactly three notions that I will be attempting to explain. First the notion of status functions and with that the correlative notions of institutional facts and deontic powers. Second the constitutive role of language in institutional reality and consequently the constitutive role of language in any system of deontology. Third the peculiar human ability to create and act on desire independent reasons for action. Humans have a remarkable capacity not possessed by other animals to recognize and to be motivated by reasons for action that do not appeal to their immediate inclinations. I believe this capacity underlies the possibility of human civilization, and a fortiori, the possibility of political organization. I think each of these ideas can be explained clearly but unfortunately it is very difficult to understand one without understanding the other two, and I will just have to do the best I can in explaining them in order.
One way to put my task in this talk is to cite to Aristotle's characterization of human beings as zoon politikon. . This expression receives two translations: one is that humans are social animals. But the second is that humans are political animals. Well, social animals are a dime a dozen. Everything from ants to timber wolves are social animals. But only human beings are political animals. My question is what we have to add to social animals to get to political animals?
I. Social Ontology
I want to begin the discussion by summarizing some of the elements of a theory I expounded in The Construction of Social Reality.
In order to give this analysis I need one distinction and three primitive notions. The distinction is between observer relative and observer independent facts. The three notions are the notions of collective intentionality, assignment of function, and constitutive rules.
To begin, we need to make clear a distinction on which the whole analysis rests, that between those features of reality that are observer (or intentionality) independent and those that are observer (or intentionality) dependent. A feature is observer dependent if its very existence depends on the attitudes, thoughts and intentionality of observers, users, creators, designers, buyers, sellers and conscious intentional agents generally. Otherwise it is observer or intentionality independent. Examples of observer dependent features include money, property, marriage and language. Examples of observer independent features of the world include force, mass, gravitational attraction, the chemical bond, and photosynthesis. A rough test for whether a feature is observer independent is whether it could have existed if there had never been any conscious agents in the world. Without conscious agents there would still be force, mass and the chemical bond, but there would not be money, property, marriage or language. This test is only rough, because, of course, consciousness and intentionality themselves are observer independent even though they are the source of all observer dependent features of the world.
To say that a feature is observer dependent does not necessarily imply that we cannot have objective knowledge of that feature. For example the piece of paper in my hand is American money, and as such is observer dependent: It is only money because we think it is money. But it is an objective fact that this is a ten dollar bill. It is not, for example, just a matter of my subjective opinion that it is money.
This example shows that in addition to the distinction between observer dependent and observer independent features of the world we need a distinction between epistemic objectivity and subjectivity, on the one hand, and ontological objectivity and subjectivity, on the other. Epistemic objectivity and subjectivity are features of claims. A claim is epistemically objective if its truth or falsity can be established independently of the feelings, attitudes and preferences, etc. of the makers and interpreters of the claim. Thus the claim that van Gogh was born in Holland is epistemically objective. The claim that van Gogh was a better painter than Manet is, as they say, a matter of opinion. It is epistemically subjective. On the other hand, ontological subjectivity and objectivity are features of reality. Pains tickles and itches are ontologically subjective because their existence depends on being experienced by a human or animal subject. Mountains, planets and molecules are ontologically objective because their existence is not dependent on subjective experiences.
The point of these distinctions for the present discussion is this: Almost all of political reality is observer relative. For example something is an election, a Parliament, a President or a revolution only if people have certain attitudes toward the phenomenon in question. And all such phenomena thereby have an element of ontological subjectivity. The subjective attitudes of the people involved are constitutive elements of the observer dependent phenomena. But ontological subjectivity does not by itself imply epistemic subjectivity. One can have a domain such as politics or economics whose entities are ontologically subjective but one can still make epistemically objective claims about elements in that domain. For example the United States presidency is an observer relative phenomenon, hence ontologically subjective. But it is an epistemically objective fact that George W. Bush is now President.
Given these distinctions, between the epistemic and the ontological sense of the objective subjective distinction, and the distinction between observer relative and observer independent facts, we can now turn to explaining social and institutional reality. Let's start with collective intentionality and social facts.
The capacity for social cooperation is a biologically based capacity shared by humans and many other species. It is the capacity for collective intentionality and collective intentionality is just the phenomenon of shared forms of intentionality in human or animal cooperation. So, for example, collective intentionality exists when a group of animals cooperates in hunting their prey, or two people are having a conversation, or a group of people are trying to organize a revolution. Collective intentionality exists both in the form of cooperative behaviour and in consciously shared attitudes such as shared desires and beliefs and intentions. Whenever two or more agents share a belief, desire, intention or other intentional state, and where they are aware of so sharing, the agents in question have collective intentionality. It is a familiar point, often made by sociological theorists, that collective intentionality is the foundation of society. This point is made in different ways by Durkheim, Simmel and Weber. Though they did not have the jargon I am using, and did not have a theory of intentionality, I think they were making this point, using the 19th century vocabulary that was available to them. The question that – as far as I know -- they did not address, and that I am addressing now, is: How do you get from social facts to institutional facts?
Collective intentionality is all that is necessary for the creation of simple forms of social reality and social facts. Indeed, I define a social fact as any fact involving the collective intentionality of two or more human or animal agents. But it is a long way from simple collective intentionality to money, property, marriage, or government, and consequently it is a long way from being a social animal to being an institutional or a political animal. What specifically has to be added to collective intentionality to get the forms of institutional reality that are characteristic of human beings, and in particular characteristic of human political reality? It seems to me that exactly two further elements are necessary: First, the imposition of function and, second, certain sorts of rules that I call “constitutive rules”. It is this combination, in addition to collective intentionality, that is the foundation of what we think of as specifically human society.
Let's go through these features in order. Human beings use all sorts of objects to perform functions which can be performed by virtue of the physical features of the objects. At the most primitive level, we use sticks for levers and benches to sit on. At a more advanced level we create objects so that they can perform particular functions. So early humans have chiselled stones to use them to cut with. At a more advanced level we manufacture knives to use for cutting, and chairs to sit on. Some animals are capable of very simple forms of the imposition of function. Famously, Kohler's apes were able to use a stick and a box in order to bring down bananas that were otherwise out of reach. And the famous Japanese macaque monkey, Imo, learned how to use seawater to wash sweet potatoes and thus improve their flavour by removing dirt and adding salt. But, in general, the use of objects with imposed functions is very limited among animals. Once animals have the capacity for collective intentionality and for the imposition of function, it is an easy step to combine the two. If one of us can use a stump to sit on, several of us can use a log as a bench or a big stick as a lever operated by us together. When we consider human capacities specifically we discover a truly remarkable phenomenon. Human beings have the capacity to impose functions on objects, which, unlike sticks, levers, boxes and salt water, cannot perform their function solely in virtue of their physical structure, but only in virtue of the collective acceptance of the objects as having a certain sort of status. With that status comes a function, that can only be performed in virtue of the collective acceptance by the community that the object has that status, and that the status carries the function with it. Perhaps the simplest and the most obvious example of this is money. The bits of paper are able to perform their function not in virtue of their physical structure, but in virtue of the fact that we have a certain set of attitudes toward them. We acknowledge that they have a certain status, we count them as money, and consequently they are able to perform their function in virtue of our acceptance of them as having that status. I propose to call such functions, “status functions.”
How is it possible that there can be such things as status functions? In order to explain this possibility, I have to introduce a third notion, in addition to the already explained notions of collective intentionality and the assignment of function. The third notion is that of the constitutive rule. In order to explain it, I need to note the distinction between what I call brute facts and institutional facts. Brute facts can exist without human institutions, institutional facts require human institutions for their very existence. An example of a brute fact is the that this stone is larger than that stone, or that the earth is 93 million miles from the sun. An example of institutional facts is that I am a citizen of the United States or that this is a 20 dollar bill. How are institutional facts possible? Institutional facts require human institutions. To explain such institutions we need to make a distinction between two kinds of rules, which, years ago, I baptized as “regulative rules” and “constitutive rules”. Regulative rules regulate antecedently existing forms of behavior. A rule such as “drive on the right hand side of the road” regulates driving, for example. But constitutive rules not only regulate, they create the very possibility, or define, new forms of behavior. An obvious example is the rules of chess. Chess rules do not just regulate the playing of chess, but rather, playing chess is constituted by acting according to the rules in a certain sort of way. Constitutive rules typically have the form: “X counts as Y”, or “X counts as Y in context C”. Such and such counts as a legal move of a knight in chess, such and such a position counts as check-mate, such and such a person that meets certain qualifications counts as President of the United States, etc.
The key element in the move from the brute to the institutional, and correspondingly the move from assigned physical functions to status functions, is the move expressed in the constitutive rule. It is the move whereby we count something as having a certain status, and with that status, a certain function. So the key element, that gets us from the sheer animal imposition of function and from collective intentionality to the imposition of status functions, is our ability to follow a set of rules, procedures or practices, whereby we count certain things as having a certain status. Such and such a person who satisfies certain conditions counts as our president, such and such a type of object counts as money in our society, and, most important of all, as we shall see, such and such a sequence of sounds or marks counts as a sentence, and, indeed, its utterance counts as a speech act in our language. It is this feature, the distinctly human feature, to count certain things as having a status which they do not have intrinsically, and then to grant, with that status, a set of functions, which can only be performed in virtue of the collective acceptance of the status and the corresponding function, that creates the very possibility of institutional facts. Institutional facts are constituted by the existence of status functions.
Two things to notice about status functions. First, they are always matters of positive and negative powers. The person who possesses money or property or is married has powers, rights and obligations that he or she would not otherwise have. Notice that these powers are of a peculiar kind because they are not like, for example, electrical power or the power that one person might have over another because of brute physical force. Indeed it seems to me a kind of pun to call both the power of my car engine and the power of George W. Bush as President "powers" because they are totally different. The power of my car engine is brute power. But the powers that are constitutive of institutional facts are always matters of rights, duties, obligations, commitments, authorizations, requirements, permissions and privileges. Notice that such powers only exist as long as they are acknowledged, recognized or otherwise accepted. I propose to call all such powers deontic powers. Institutional facts are always matters of deontic powers.
So far then, I have a explained the relations between constitutive rules, institutional facts, status functions and deontic powers. Institutional facts are created in accordance with constitutive rules, they invariably create status functions and the status functions assign deontic powers.
II. The constitutive role of language.
Where status functions are concerned, language and symbolism have not only the function to describe the phenomena but are partly constitutive of the very phenomena described. How can that be? After all, when I say that George W. Bush is President, that is a simple statement of fact, like the statement that it is raining. Why is language more constitutive of the fact in the case where the fact is that George Bush is President, than it is in the fact that it is raining? In order to understand this we have to understand the nature of the move from X to Y whereby we count something as having a certain status that it does not have intrinsically, but has it only relative to our attitudes. As a preliminary formulation we can say that the reason that language is constitutive of institutional facts, in a way that it is not constitutive of brute facts, or other sorts of social facts, or intentional facts in general, is that the move from X to Y in the formula X counts as Y in C can only exist in so far as it is represented as existing. There is no physical feature present in the Y term that was not present in the X term. Rather the Y term just is the X term represented in a certain way. The ten dollar bill is a piece of paper, the president is a man. Their new statuses exist only insofar as they are represented as existing. But in order that they should be represented as existing there must be some device for representing them. And that device is some system of representation, or at the minimum some symbolic device, whereby we represent the X phenomenon as having the Y status. In order that Bush can be President, people must be able to think that he is President, but in order that they be able to think that he is President, they have to have some means for thinking that, and that means has to be linguistic or symbolic. But why must the thought be linguistic?
That is a nontrivial question to which I now turn.
. It is a fascinating feature of human language that we use it not only to represent objects and states of affairs that exist independent of language but also to represent facts of which language is itself is partly constitutive. Now that must seem very puzzling. How can language be constitutive of any facts other than linguistic facts. It is indeed a fact of English that the word "ski " can function both as a noun and as a verb. But such facts as this occupy only a very small corner of our reality. How can there be a linguistic component of facts that are not in this way, obviously and trivially linguistic facts?
I am arguing that the fact that George W. Bush is president and the fact that I am a U.S. citizen are partly constituted by language. How can that be? One way to see how this is possible is to consider some actual and unproblematic cases of facts that are partly linguistically constituted. It is a fact about today that it is the 27th of May 2002. Now that is just a plain objective fact. But if you ask yourself what are the components of that fact, what must be the case in order that today is the 27th of May 2002, I think you will agree that you have to have a linguistic system of measuring dates. That is, a particular diurnal rotation of the sun on its axis can only be the 27 of May 2002 because of the position of that date relative to a linguistic system, relative to a system of counting days, months and years.
Well, you might say, isn't that true of anything that we identify with words? In order to identify something as a tree, we have some word with a meaning equivalent to " tree”. Yes, but there is a huge difference: though we need a word for tree in order to describe something as a tree, the fact which makes it a tree, the actual truth conditions of the noun "tree," are not in any way linguistic. Trees exist totally independently of language, even though we need words in a language to identify them verbally as “ trees.” Similarly, the diurnal rotations of the earth on its axis exists independently of language. But the fact that this is the 27th of May 2002 is a fact that goes beyond the existence of a single diurnal rotation of the earth; it is a fact which involves the relation of the diurnal rotation to a linguistic calendar system. The point of this example is to get you to see that there can be facts that are not in any obvious sense linguistic facts that are nonetheless partly constituted by language.
In our discussion of institutional reality, I said that the move from X to Y in the application of the constitutive rule only exists so far as it is represented as existing. But now, and this is the key point, in order to represent it as existing the participants in the institution must have some means for forming those representations. There is nothing to the X term that makes it a Y term other than the fact that people count it as having the Y status. But now then in order that they should so count it as having the Y status they must have some means of representing that status and that means is necessarily linguistic or symbolic. Well, someone might say, why can't the X term itself perform that symbolic role. And the answer is of course of that it can, but insofar as it does that, it is itself being used linguistically.
So, for example, in the game of football it is not necessary that one count points by having actual words. One might have a pile of stones, and when each side scores a goal a stone is placed on its side of the field. But now, though we are doing this counting of points without words, I hope it is obvious that the stones are functioning symbolically. The deep reason why we have to have some linguistic way to represent points in a game is that they have no existence outside of our representations. And what goes for points goes for institutional facts generally. They can only exist insofar as they are represented as existing. But this will be misleading if it gives us the impression that being a citizen of Italy, or the President of the United States or the owner of a million dollars consists in having a purely linguistic status. The trick is to see how language is constitutive of institutional reality and yet institutional reality is not just a matter of words.
To explore this point, I want to return to the distinction between observer independent and observer relative facts. Observer relative facts require attitudes on the part of observers and participants in order that they should exist. But the attitudes themselves are not observer relative. The attitudes themselves are observer independent. So, to take an example, something is money only if we think it is money. Hence money has an observer relative existence. But our thinking it is money, is not itself observer relative. We are thinking it is money regardless of what anybody thinks about us thinking that.
But now we have an interesting puzzle. The thought in which we think that something is money itself contains concepts which name phenomena that are observer relative. And that raises an interesting question which thoughts are themselves language dependent. That is, which thoughts are such that a being without language could not have those thoughts.
We saw in our discussion of dates, such as the 27th of May 2002, and that the very thought that today is the 27th of May 2002 is a language dependent thought. So, though the thought is itself observer independent, it requires concepts that refer to observer relative phenomena.
At this point I want to make a strong claim. All deontic phenomena are not only observer relative but the thought that something is a deontic phenomenon --- a right, obligation, duty or responsibility--is a language dependent thought. An animal without a language cannot think such thoughts as: I am now under an obligation.
Well why not, if Kohler’s Apes can think thoughts about tools and levers and bananas, why can't they think thoughts about obligations and duties rights and responsibilities? Because deontic phenomena can only exist insofar as they are thought to exist and the thoughts in which their existence is constituted are language dependent thoughts. The objects referred to by the terms are not thinkable without language.
Why? Because the phenomena in question are all desire independent or inclination independent reasons for action. The whole point of having a system of obligations is to have a system of desire independent reasons for action. But now there is a puzzle about how such things can exist. If every action is the expression of a desire to perform that action, how can there be reasons for action that are desire independent? In such cases the reason, in the form of an obligation or duty or requirement, provides the ground for the desire to perform the action; but the desire does not provide the ground for the reason. The reason is desire independent. But if human beings can have desire independent reasons for action and can be motivated to act on the basis of desire independent reasons for action and if every action is the expression a desire to perform that action then how is it possible to make the connection between the reason and the performance of the action? I take it is just a fact that human beings can make and be motivated by desire independent reasons for action. The favourite example of philosophers is promising. But the phenomenon of creating and acting on, desire independent reasons is quite pervasive.
You have to have a linguistic expression of these concepts in order that the phenomena named by the concept can function. If you take away the vocabulary of obligation and all of its attendant vocabulary then you don't have anything left which can provide you with a motivation for an action, because you don't have any desires or inclinations to provide the ground for the action. To recognize something as an obligation is to recognize that one has a reason for doing the thing one is under an obligation to do regardless of one's desires or inclinations in the case. So the recognition in question has two logical peculiarities. it is the recognition of something that is not itself a desire, but whose recognition can provide a rational ground for a desire. Nothing could satisfy these conditions which did not exist within the system of linguistic representation.
The best way to see this is to consider cases which are obvious and unproblematic, and these are the logical and epistemic cases. Suppose I have asserted that p and have asserted that if p then q, then I have a commitment to q. That is I have a desire independent reason for accepting that q. In this case, there is really no question about the linguistic nature of the phenomena nor about the existence of desire independent reasons. But the same logical structure exists in cases which are non linguistics. If I recognize that I have an obligation to do something, let us say because I promised to do it, then I recognize that I have a desire independent reason to do it. The ground of the obligation need not itself be linguistic. Thus my relation to my children is not linguistic, but I recognize in that relation a set of obligations. So in the total network, not all of the elements of the network need to be linguistically constituted, but the crucial point is that the deontic facts, however grounded they may be, have an essential symbolic component in order that they can provide desire independent reasons for action.
So far I have analyzed two of my three basic concepts, status functions and the linguistic constitution of institutional facts. In the course of discussing these I have already said a great deal about desire independent reasons for action. So in this section I will be brief.
A remarkable trait of human beings, one in which they differ from all other animal species is their capacity to create, be motivated by, and act on desire independent reasons for action. In philosophy the most famous case of this is promising. Promising is interesting because the agent deliberately creates a desire independent reason for action. But once we see the possibility of creation, we can also see that we are simply born into systems of desire independent reason for action. We are born into families and communities and we grow up in schools, clubs, and social organizations in general that impose on us all sorts of obligations. We are born into and grow up in interlocking systems of status functions. . The system of status function is precisely a system of deontic powers and the system of deontic powers is a system of desire independent reasons for action.
( Kant saw the crucial problem associated with desire independent reasons for action. The form in which he put the question was " How can pure reason be practical? " as usual, he cheated like crazy in giving his answer. )
Typically we think of desire-independent reasons for action as intentionally created by the agent, and promising is simply the most famous case of this. But one of the keys to understanding political ontology and political power is to see that the entire system of status functions is a system of providing desire-independent reasons for action. The recognition by the agent, that is to say by the citizen of a political community, of a status function, as valid, gives the agent a desire-independent reason for doing something. Without this there is no such thing as organized political and institutional reality.
What we are trying to explain is the difference between humans and other social animals. The first step in explaining the difference is to identify institutional reality. Institutional reality is a system of status functions, and those status functions always involve deontic powers. For example, the person who occupies an office near mine in Berkeley is the Chair of the philosophy department. But the status function of being Chair of the department imposes rights and obligations that the occupant did not otherwise have. In such ways there is an essential connection between status function and deontic power. But, and this is the next key step, the recognition of a status function by a conscious agent such as me can give the me reasons for acting, which are independent of my immediate desires. If my chairman asks me to serve on a committee then, if I recognize his position as chairman, I have a reason for doing so, even if committees are boring and there are no penalties for my refusal.
More generally, if I have an obligation, for example, to meet someone by 9:00 AM, I have a reason to do so, even if in the morning I do not feel like it, and the fact that the obligation requires it, gives me a reason to want to do it. Thus, in human society, unlike animal societies, reasons can motivate desires, instead of all reasons being motivated by desires. The most obvious example of this is promising. I promise something to you and thus create a desire independent reason for doing it. But it is important to see that where political reality is concerned, we do not need to make or create desire independent reasons for action explicitly, as when we make promises or undertake various other commitments. The simple recognition of a set of institutional facts as valid, as binding on us, creates desire independent reasons for action. To take an important contemporary example, many people do not want George W. Bush as president, and some of them even think he got the status function in an illegitimate fashion. But the important thing for the structure of deontic power in the United States is that with very few exceptions they continue to recognize his deontic powers and thus they recognize that they have reasons for doing things that they would not otherwise have a desire to do.
It is a consequence of what I am saying that if I am right not all political motivation is self-interested or prudential. You can see this by contrasting political and economic motivation. The logical relations between political and economic power are extremely complex: both the economic and the political systems are systems of status functions. The political system consists of the machinery of government, together with the attendant apparatus of political parties, interest groups, etc. The economic system consists of the economic apparatus for creating, distributing and sustaining the distribution of wealth. Though the logical structure is similar, the systems of rational motivations are interestingly different. Economic power is mostly a matter of being able to offer economic awards incentives and penalties. The rich have more power than the poor because the poor want what the rich can pay them and thus will give the rich what they want. Political power is often like that, but not always. It is like that when the political leaders can exercise power only as long as they offer greater rewards. This has lead to any number of confused theories that try to treat political relations as having the same logical structure as economic relations. But such desire based reasons for action, even when they are in a deontic system, are not deontological. The important point to emphasize is that the essence of political power is deontic power.
So far I have gone, rather rapidly, through a summary of the basic ideas that I need in order to explore the nature of political power in its relation to language. In a sense our enterprise is Aristotelian, in that we are seeking progressively more refined differentia, to get from the genus of social facts to progressively more refined specifications, that will give us the species of political reality. We are now on the verge of being able to do that, though, of course, we need to remind ourselves that we are not following the essentialism that characterized Aristotle’s approach.
IV. Political Power
Implicit in my account of social reality and rationality is a conception of politics and political power. We could summarize it as a number of propositions.
1. All political power is a matter of status functions, and for that reason all political power is deontic power.
Deontic powers are rights, duties, obligations, authorizations, permissions, privileges, authority and the like. The power of the local party bosses and the village council as much as the power of such grander figures as Presidents, Prime Ministers, Congress and the Supreme Court are all derived from the possession by these entities of recognized status functions. And these status functions assign deontic powers. Political power thus differs from military power, police power or the brute physical power that the strong have over the weak. An army that occupies a foreign country has power over its citizens but such power is based on brute physical force. Among the invaders there is a recognized system of status functions and thus there can be political relations within the army, but the relation of the occupiers to the occupied is not political unless the occupied come to accept and recognize the validity of the status functions. To the extent that the victims accept the orders of the occupiers without accepting the validity of the status functions they act from fear and prudence. They act on reasons on which are desire dependent.
I realize, of course, that all of these different forms of power - political, military, police, economic, etc. - interact and overlap in all sorts of ways. I do not suppose for a moment that there is a sharp dividing line, and I am not much concerned with the ordinary use of the word “political” as it is distinct from “economic” or “military”. The point I am making, however, is that there is a different logical structure to the ontology where the power is deontic from the cases where it is for example, based on brute force or self-interest.
The form of motivation that goes with a system of accepted status functions is essential to our concept of the political and I will have more to say about it shortly. Historically, the awareness of its centrality was the underlying intuition that motivated the old Social Contract theorists
They saw that society requires the recognition of desire independent reasons for action, that political society will only work if people recognize desire independent reasons for action, and so they postulated an original contract or a tacit contract that would provide the essential rational ground for political authority.
2. Because all political power is a matter of status functions, all political power, though exercised from above, comes from below.
Because the system of status functions requires collective acceptance, all genuine political power comes from the bottom up. This is as much true in dictatorships as it is in democracies. Hitler and Stalin, for example, were both constantly obsessed by the need for security. They could never take the system of status functions as having been accepted, as a given part of reality. It had to be constantly maintained by a system of rewards and punishments and by terror.
The single most stunning political event of the second half of the twentieth century was the collapse of communism. It collapsed when the structure of collective intentionality was no longer able to maintain the system of status functions. On a smaller scale a similar collapse of status functions occurred with the abandonment of Apartheid in South Africa. In both cases, as far as I can tell the key element in the collapse of the system of status functions was the withdrawal of acceptance on the part of large numbers of the people involved.
3. Even though the individual is the source of all political power, by his or her ability to engage in collective intentionality, all the same, the individual, typically, feels powerless.
The individual typically feels that the powers that be are not in any way dependent on him or her. This is why it is so important for revolutionaries to introduce some kind of collective intentionality: class consciousness, identification with the proletariat, student solidarity, consciousness raising among women or some such. Because the entire structure rests on collective intentionality its destruction can be attained by creating an alternative and inconsistent form of collective intentionality
5. Because political powers are matters of status functions they are, in large part, linguistically constituted.
I have said that political power is in general deontic power. It is a matter of rights, duties, obligations, authorizations and permissions and the like. Such powers have a special ontology. The fact that George W. Bush is President has a different logical structure altogether from the fact that it is raining. The fact that it is raining consists of water drops falling out of the sky, together with facts about their meteorological history, but the fact that George W. Bush is President is not in that way a natural phenomenon. That fact is constituted by an extremely complex set of explicitly verbal phenomena. There is no way that that fact can exist without language. The essential component in that fact is that people regard him, and accept him, as President, and consequently accept a whole system of deontic powers that goes with that original acceptance. Status functions can only exist as long as they are represented as existing and to be represented as existing there needs to be some means of representation and that means is typically linguistic. Where political status functions are concerned it is almost invariably linguistic. It is important to emphasize that the content of the representation need not match the actual content of the logical structure of the deontic power. For example, in order for Bush to be President people do not have to think “We have imposed on him a status function according to the formula “X counts as Y in C,” even though that is exactly what they have done. But they do have to be able to think something. For example, they typically think “He is President” and such thoughts are sufficient to maintain the status function.
The set of status functions accepted in a society is necessarily connected to the set of deontic concepts, and consequently to the deontic vocabulary of that society.
6. In order for a society to have a political reality it needs several other distinguishing features: First a distinction between the public and the private sphere with the political as part of the public sphere, second, the existence of nonviolent group conflicts and third, the group conflicts must be over social goods within a structure of deontology.
I said I would suggest some of the differentia that distinguish political facts from other sorts of social and institutional facts. But the ontology I have given so far might fit non political structures such as religions or organized sports. They too involve collective forms of status function and consequently collective forms of deontic powers. What is special about the concept of the political within these sorts of systems of deontic powers?
I am not endorsing any kind of essentialism, and the concept of the political is clearly a family resemblance concept. There is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions that define the essence of the political. But there are I believe a number of typical distinguishing features. First, our concept of the political requires, I believe, a distinction between the public and private spheres, with politics as the paradigm public activity. Second, the concept of the political requires a concept of group conflict (a point made by Carl Schmitt). But not just any group conflict is political. Organized sports involve group conflict, but they are not typically political. The essence of political conflict is that it is a conflict over social goods, and many of these social goods include deontic powers. So, for example, the right to abortion is a political issue because it involves a deontic power.
So among the characteristics of political phenomena we find a system of public status functions that define deontic powers. These provide a system of motivations that provide at least some desire independent reasons for action. These are brought into play in group conflicts over social goods.
So far the analysis is of the political, but we need to distinguish between political relations in general and the special features of government. As we all know, there can be politics within universities and even within families. What is special about government? To answer this question I have to be rather brief. In any complex society, any society that goes beyond hunter gatherer life styles, there has to be a supreme institutional authority in order to sustain other systems. Thus in complex societies government is essential to maintain the system of money or the system of private property or to resolve disputes among the citizenry. In order to do this government requires a feature that the other institutions do not in general have: mechanisms of armed violence. Indeed if there is one defining trait of government it is that a government in order to function has to have a monopoly or near monopoly on armed violence in a society.
The relation between violence and institutional deontic powers is complex. One of the dumbest slogans in 20th-century political philosophy was " power grows out of the barrel of a gun ". The problem with this idea is that the poor chap with a gun is likely to be among the least powerful members of the community. Power grows out of collective intentionality and the imposition of status functions. The gun is only socially useful insofar as it is wielded by members of an organized collective, whether it is an army, a police force, or a revolutionary movement; collective intentionality must come first. However, given the systems of collective intentionality, status functions, and deontic powers not everybody goes along with everything all the time. So that two essential traits of government go hand in hand: it is responsible for the maintenance of other systems of status functions and in order to carry out that responsibility it has a monopoly on armed violence.
One way to get at the aim of this analysis is to say that it is an attempt to describe the features of human political reality that distinguish it from other sorts of collective animal behaviour. The answer that I have proposed to this question proceeds by a number of steps. Humans are distinct from other animals in that they have a capacity to create not merely a social but also an institutional reality. This institutional reality is, above all, a system of deontic powers. These deontic powers provide human agents with the fundamental key for organized human society: the capacity to create and act on desire independent reasons for action.
Some of the distinguishing features of the political within the system of desire independent reasons for action is that the concept of the political requires that a distinction between the public and the private spheres, with the political as the pre-eminent public sphere; it requires the existence of group conflicts settled by nonviolent means, and it requires that the group conflict be over social goods In any complex society, in order that the complex system of status functions can be maintained and actually work, there has to be a system of status functions, the government, that is responsible for the maintenance of several other essential systems of status functions and carries out this responsibility by having a monopoly on armed violence.
 New York: The Free Press, 1995