Philosophy Index

John Searle

John Searle (1932—) is an analytic philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is known for his contributions to the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language.

Chinese Room

John Searle is well known for producing the chinese room argument against strong artificial intelligence (AI). Strong AI theorists often suggest that if an artificial intelligence were created that could perform all of the functions of a human being, it would have experiences and understanding, just as humans do.

To argue against this, Searle first gives the example of a computer that has been built to read Chinese characters. The computer then takes these characters, and following its programming, produces a meaningful output in Chinese. The computer is sophisticated enough to fool any Chinese speaker into believing that they are communicating with another Chinese-speaking human. A strong AI theorist would argue that the computer's ability to take Chinese characters, interperet them and produce meaningful results implies that the computer understands Chinese.

Searle challenges this assertion by giving an alternative version of the machine. This time, an English-speaking person is sitting in a closed room, and has a book, written in English, with the same instructions that the computer's program has. The person is supplied with all of the materials they would need to write Chinese characters, and the book instructs them, based on the shapes of the characters provided to them, how to draw the forms of Chinese characters as a response. Chinese-speakers are then able to slip messages through or under the door, where the English speaker follows his English instructions based on the character and, properly following them, produces meaningful responses in Chinese, just as the computer does. A Chinese-speaker is similarly fooled into believing that the room (or the person in it) speaks Chinese.

Searle points out the obvious: that the person performing the task in the Chinese Room does not understand Chinese, despite the fact that the procedures he follows are essentially equivalent to those of the computer.

Selected Works

  • Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969)
  • Expression and Meaning (1979)
  • The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992)
  • Rationality in Action (2001)


Name: John Searle
Born: July 31, 1932
Degrees: B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Various honorary degrees
Awards: Mind and Brain Prize, Torino, 2006
Jean Nicod Prize, 2000
National Humanities Medal, 2005