Belonging as a Social and Institutional Fact


The first issue raised in the paper is difference between social and institutional facts; both exist only because we believe they are real. Second is the claim that belonging to collectives is always a social fact, not necessarily as a result of any decision-making process; it might also become institutional through actual, sometimes only implicit, acceptance of some constitutive rules (which necessarily includes decision-making). Third, accepting constitutive rules functions by setting an irreversible point in time after which the scope of available justificatory reasons for deciding and doing narrows. The implication is that reality of collectives cannot be reduced to individuals. Individuals often participate in this reality by belonging. Belonging thus becomes a social and sometimes also an institutional fact.

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  1. 1.

    Cf. Popper (1972), 73 ff.

  2. 2.

    Searle (1998): “Functions are never observer-independent. {Only} [c]ausation is observer-independent; what functions add to causation is normativity and teleology.”

  3. 3.

    However, this „us“ here means not only humans, but all beings capable of producing things on purpose: abandoned nests, for instance, would lose their potential purposefulness without animals (including us as animals) or other possible users of those nests.

  4. 4.

    Cf. Wellman (2005), 3

  5. 5.

    (Searle 1998, 136–138).

  6. 6.

    That’s why the gold standard for money could be replaced by any other standard. Anything can be used for this purpose, including immaterial, conventional, “things” like monetary decisions, or, as a matter of fact, any decision. What the bearer of institutional factuality will be remains entirely arbitrary; it only matters that the decisions contained in it be “real”, in the sense that they are serious (that believing in the reality of money is real, not only conceived – which makes decisions such as “to pave roads” for example, actually realizable).

  7. 7.

    Cf. Margaret Gilbert, various places, for example Living Together, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996, 187.

  8. 8.

    (Hobbes 1994, 61).

  9. 9.

    Belonging is one of those social facts, institutionalized or not.

  10. 10.

    On social level belonging might be rather passive, implicit, implied or just presumed, even wrongly (as when others, not yourself, perceive or assume that you belong to a particular collective regardless of your own feelings or even accepted identifications).

  11. 11.

    (Searle 2010, 58–9).

  12. 12.

    The price of this tendency might be huge: it might be destruction of the difference between morality, which is a raw – and independent - kind of social reality, and law, which is clearly an institutional matter; other part of that price might be abandoning the difference of “mine” and “thine”, or of “ours” and “yours”, with disastrous consequences for the existence and relevance of freedom, dignity and privacy – but with a comfort of a benefit of universal commensurability of all values, so much needed for justice and happiness.

  13. 13.

    Searle, Making the Social World, 59: “A function is a cause that serves a purpose”.

  14. 14.

    From the external viewpoint we can see all the possibilities before any one of them has been actualized (what could have been if the decisions and acts based on them were different). In that sense external point of view does not designate anything factual. Factual is always within the realm of “internal” viewpoint; it is only one that “exists”, as an actualized fact (with all the accompanying baggage: acceptance, established expectations, durability and stability, predictability, responsibility, etc.). From the external viewpoint, however, it is not possible to discern what might have happened from what actually happens (either as a success or even as a failure, the whole inventory of achievements). In that sense anything factual must be established, and for that matter produced, within some “internal” viewpoint.

  15. 15.

    “[I]nstitutional facts only exist within systems of [constitutive] rules”. Cf. Searle, Mind, Language, and Society, p. 123; “institutional facts are facts that exist only within human institutions…[a]n institution is a system of constitutive rules”, Making the Social world,. 10.

  16. 16.

    Which of these properties (descriptions), or positions, is practically relevant is the question of which facts are at stake. As Hannah Arendt put in 1941 “you can only defend yourself as that for which you are being attacked. A man attacked as a Jew cannot defend himself as an Englishman or a Frenchman” (Arendt 2000). Being a French citizen you may believe that you have to defend yourself as a Frenchman - “only to end up being held in special Jewish prison camps in Germany by [your] French fellow combatants” (ib.).

  17. 17.

    Institutional facts are (exist as) functions, they are not “mere things”. Cf. footnote 12.

  18. 18.

    In the case of promise, for example, external viewpoint would be demonstrated in the question “Ought one to keep one’s promises?” But that question is “as empty as the question ‘Are triangles three-sided?’. Cf. Searle (1964). There are no promises that ought not kept – if so they would cease to be promises. For the conditions promises should satisfy to be established, or cancelled, cf. footnote 28.

  19. 19.

    This excludes possibility of happy slaves, where the benefits of being a slave, i. e. deprived the capacity to decide for oneself and so be coerced all the time (as per definition), can outhweigh the costs of such a position. Although both citizenship and slavery are subject to non-consensual coercion, it is possible for citizens what, according to this assumption, is not possible for slaves.

  20. 20.

    Christopher Wellman & A. John Simmons, Op. cit., p. 16-17. By the way, this is not true: benefits of slavery might outweigh its costs to the point that those costs are not unreasonable high in some cases, for example those in which the alternative to slavery is death or torture, or enslavement or death (or torture) of those whose freedom or life is more valuable to us than our own freedom.

  21. 21.

    Ib, 14.

  22. 22.

    Cf. footnote 28.

  23. 23.

    Why do we need a “too high” ratio of the cost, as we can rely on “more” – more costs than benefits? Why do we need the difference between costs and benefits to be big, instead of being just there?

  24. 24.

    As, for example, in Godwin (1946).

  25. 25.

    We may not be able to narrow the scope of what we can justifiably do all the way to zero t. There are conditions which have to be fulfilled for promises to be valid in the first place, and conditions for revocation of those promises. But if a promise has not been revoked (e.g. by the promisee granting a release), then there are two other levels on which it may still be overridden. First, the promise can be overridden by a rival obligation, in cases where unpredicted events occur. However, in such a case, the obligation to fulfill a promise is not “annulled”, as there is a duty to give some apology or at least an explanation for (justified) breaking of the promise: it should not go as if nothing was promised in the first place. (For example, if in the process of fulfilling my promise to come to meet you, I suddenly rush to save someone’s life - I am still obliged to inform you that I will not come, and explain why). Another level is that some of Sidgwick’s conditions mentioned in footnote 28 cannot avoid retroactivity, for example the condition that the fulfilling the promise will not inflict disproportionate sacrifice of the promisor (which can be learned about only after the promise has been given), and especially that the fulfillment of the promise will not be harmful to the promisee (which would make it normatively contradictory and invalidated). The last of Sidgwick’s condition, that the circumstances have not significantly materially changed already contain retroactivity in its formulation.

  26. 26.

    (Searle 2010, 8ff).

  27. 27.

    (Searle 1998, 124).

  28. 28.

    A list of such conditions for valid promising can be found in Sidwick (1981): “the promiser has a clear belief as to the sense in which it was understand by the promisee”, the promisee is “in a position to grant release from it, but unwilling to do so”, the promise “was not obtained by force or fraud”, it “does not conflict with definite prior obligations”, “we do not believe that fulfillment [of promise] will be harmful to the promisee”, or “inflict disproportionate sacrifices of the promiser”, and that the “circumstances have not materially changed since [the promise] was made”.

  29. 29.

    (Searle 1998, 123).


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Babić, J. Belonging as a Social and Institutional Fact. Philosophia 47, 1341–1354 (2019).

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  • Belonging
  • Social fact
  • Institutional fact
  • Constitutive and regulative rules
  • Irreversibility