background, the
A set of nonrepresentational capacities that enable all representing to take place. The Background includes biological and cultural capacities, skills, stances, assumptions and presuppositions. Introduced in Searle (1978). See also intentionality, intention-in-action, implicit memory, tacit knowledge.

It should be noted right off that the hypothesis of the Background is, by Searle's admission, marked by "obscurity" (1991, p. 289), and accordingly, its developing theorization has involved a number of shifts and clarifications (1992, pp. 186- 187; cf 1991 generally) since it was first introduced to explain the fixing of literal meaning (1978). The general explanatory function of the Background has remained constant, however, and that is to account for how intentions are grounded and how skills can be applied.
The Background can be seen as one solution to the rule- or representation-grounding problem: how does one prevent an infinite regress in the interpretation of a rule or a representation? Searle's basic argument is that no rule or meaning is self-interpreting; a person needs a contextual understanding in order to arrive at the correct application or interpretation. According to Searle the literal meaning of a sentence underdetermines its truth conditions; our correct literal reading of, e.g., a verb can only be secured given a certain Background in relation to which a clarifying interpretive context can be established (1995, p. 132; 1992, pp. 178-179; 1983, pp. 145-148). The Background, then, functions as the precondition for the intelligibility of representation and intentionality generally.
The Topography and Make-Up of the Background
Searle has described the Background as consisting of two major divisions which he calls the Deep Background and the Local Background (1983, p. 143-144). The Deep Background is composed of biological skills and universally human capacities, such as eating, walking, and seeing given patterns of perceptual stimuli as discrete objects. The Local Background, by contrast, is composed of culturally-bound skills and capacities, such as knowing what culturally-specific objects are for, recognizing culturally-specific situations as appropriate or inappropriate for certain types of behavior, and so forth. Within each of these major divisions, Searle further distinguishes between knowing how things are and knowing how to do things (1983, p. 144) -- roughly, between presuppositions and stances on the one hand, and skills on the other.
What becomes apparent almost immediately is the sheer heterogeneity of the items said to make up the Background. Some appear to be entirely physical skills dependent on automatized sequences of motor activity. For example, Searle describes the case of a skier who first learns the basics of balance by being taught certain rules, and who, after having skied enough times, no longer is mindful of those rules but instead lets the learned responses of the body take over (1983, pp. 150-151). At this point the skills required for skiing have become part of the skier's Background; his or her "repeated experiences" have effectively created the right kind of "physical capacities" (1983, p. 150).
Other Background capacities appear to consist in what might be described as habits. These capacities, which seem to belong largely to the Local Background, are characterized as skills and abilities that are "functionally equivalent" to the systems of rules guiding socially- or culturally-situated behaviors and practices, but without involving any "representation or internalization of those rules" (1995, p. 142). Rather than internalizing rules, Searle holds, we "evolve a set of dispositions that are sensitive to the rule structure" (1995, p. 145).
A third category of Background capacities consists of the cognitive capacities inhering in stances, presuppositions, pretheoretical commitments, and the like. One such presupposition or stance, according to Searle, is the sense that objects are solid, which he claims is simply manifested in one's behavior without one's having to have any belief or conviction about the matter (1992, p. 185). My sitting, walking, and manipulation of objects for instance, are executed in such a way that manifests my taking for granted the solidity of things like tables, chairs, the ground beneath me, and so forth (1992, p. 186; 1983, pp. 142-143). Searle emphasizes that such stances are not beliefs or expectations, but rather are simply presupposed by the agent in performing the actions manifesting them (1992, p. 186; 1983, pp. 156-157).
Is the Background a Form of Tacit Knowledge?
There would seem to be a certain amount of ambiguity in the Background. A major source of this ambiguity, as Searle acknowledges, is the difficulty of avoiding terms associated with mental representation per se for describing the Background's nonrepresentational capacities (1983, pp. 156-157). But we might point to another source, and that is the fact that in at least some cases, the notion of an embodied commitment is liable to explanatory elimination.
At one level, some Background capacities can be described as the automatized effects of our having acquired certain skills (e.g., of grasping objects or walking) under contingent circumstances. To the extent that contingent facts about our learning how to walk (i.e., that we did so on Earth with its solid ground, particular gravitational force, etc. rather than in a weightless environment) have produced the physical habits that afford our walking, we can describe those habits as automatized physical responses to a given environment, and perhaps leave it at that. What is embodied is simply a certain causal history that has left the right kinds of traces in the appropriate neural pathways. While the characterization of Background capacities in terms of neurophysiological structures is consistent with Searle's thesis (1995, p. 130; 1992, p. 188), it is difficult to see how purely automatized physical skills or habits could qualify as mental.
But to the extent that these physical responses can be associated with properly cognitive commitments regarding the environment, i.e., that it will be reasonably like that in which the physical responses were formed in the first place, we can say that there is an element of expectation involved, if not of hypothesis formation. This raises the possibility that at least some Background capacities can be described as a kind of tacit knowledge or cognitive unconscious in the sense of Reber (1995), which may implicate them as induced abstract generalizations of some sort (see entry on tacit knowledge). That Background stances can be individuated in terms of specific contents would further seem to indicate that they are a kind of tacit knowledge.
Searle's response to the suggestion that the Background's cognitive capacities are a kind of tacit knowledge would probably be that Background capacities are not themselves a form of knowledge (such as beliefs, theories, empirical hypotheses, and so forth) but rather are the preconditions of knowledge. He might further argue -- as he in fact does (1983 pp. 156-157) -- that though it is very difficult to describe the contents of the Background other than in language that is more appropriate to the description of representational content, Background capacities are not representational. By this he means that Background capacities are not "features of the world independent of the mind" (1991, p. 291). (For Searle, mental representation is defined in terms of such mind-independent features as conditions of satisfaction, and directions of fit and causation.)
Still, the case for understanding some Background items as elements in a cognitive unconscious is compelling. Much of what Searle consigns to the Background does seem to contain information about how the world is, and as with hypotheses is subject to falsification, as in cases of breakdown (1992, p.p. 184-185; 1983, p. 155). In addition, a Background at least partly composed of induced generalizations would flesh out the otherwise vague suggestion that the Background is (or contains) a mechanism that is sensitive to the appropriate features of the world, such as socially- or culturally-specific rules (1995, p. 146).
The Background as a Mental Causal Mechanism
What Searle wants to capture with the postulation of a Background is a causal mechanism that is mental. Not only are Background mechanisms described as "causal structures generally" (1995, p. 129), but as specifically neurophysiological structures (1995, p. 130; 1992, p. 188). While the latter stipulation can be understood to follow from Searle's overall position of "biological naturalism" in regard to mental phenomena (1992, p. 1), it also seems to mean that Background capacities, to the extent that they remain in the Background and do not manifest themselves in intentional states or behaviors, are simply "neurophysiological rather than psychological" (1992, p. 188). Although it is difficult to say for certain, Searle here seems to be saying that the Background as such simply is the capacity for certain neurophysiological events to occur and thus to produce mental events with their associated intentional contents. The relation of this view of the Background to the Background skills described above as automatized motor skills is obscure, as the latter seem more or less independent of the generation of psychological events.
But the postulation of the Background as a physical, causal mechanism also can be interpreted as showing the way out of a difficulty that turns up in a certain class of explanatory theories. These are theories of "practices" such as Bourdieu's, to which Searle's theory of the Background bears some resemblance (1995, p. 132; 1992, p. 177). ("Practices" can be defined, roughly, as consisting in the agreements and regularities, behavioral and otherwise, characterizing given social groups and communities.) Such theories, as Turner has pointed out (1995), often suffer from a vagueness regarding "where" practices are located, what kind of entities they may be, and what exact causal role they may play in producing behavior. By positing a Background that is in people's brains, Searle effectively addresses these issues by redescribing "practices" as ultimately physical mechanisms in individuals, and thus provides the kind of causal explanation that such theories require.
Daniel Barbiero