What was John Searle’s “Chinese Room Argument”?

Jerry Fodor Read more from
Chapter Analytic Philosophy

In his The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992), Searle supposed that a person who understands no Chinese is locked in a room with Chinese symbols and an algorithm or computer program that can be used to automatically answer questions in Chinese. The answers are good enough to be indistinguishable from answers by a Chinese speaker. Searle insists that what is missing from this picture, which is the overall computational theory of the mind in contemporary philosophy, is understanding—the person in the room does not understand Chinese!

Adherents to a computational theory of mind, in response to Searle’s position, would probably claim that unless we go back to a mysterious “ghost in the machine,” the behavior of the person locked in the room is exactly what is meant by “understanding Chinese.”

As to who is right in this argument, no one knows for sure. As Jerry Fodor (1935–) noted, “we,” meaning philosophers of mind, do not yet have an adequate theory of mind. If you think you do, then try explaining exactly how your desire to raise your right arm results in that arm going up.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Philosophy Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App