Searle’s We-Intentions, Collective Intentionality, and the Social Sciences 3190 words (without bibliography

Abstract: In John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality, We-intentions are proffered to account for the cooperative nature of collective intentions, which Searle argues cannot be secured by the reduction of group intentions to individuals’ intentions. I argue that Searle is correct that such reductionist analyses fail, but that his own account is untenable: it cannot ensure that intentions are anything other than presupposed as shared. I then examine J. David Velleman’s “How To Share An Intention”, which plausibly extends the category of intention from Searle’s limiting stance that intentions exist in heads to include public speech acts and written assertions. I argue that Velleman’s revisitation suffers the same difficulty as the Searlian program and that such conceptual analyses are not helpful in the project of explaining how and why ascriptions of collective intention figure in macro-level explanations, especially in the social sciences, and why such ascriptions are not easily eliminable.

In John R. Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality (hereafter CSR), We-intentions are proffered as accounting for the cooperative nature of collective intentionality, which he argues cannot be secured by analyses that attempt to reduce group intentions to individuals’ intentions (even when such analyses are supplemented with individuals’ beliefs about others’ intentions and beliefs). Searle may be correct to argue that such reductionist analyses fail, but his own account is ultimately untenable as well; that is, it cannot ensure that intentions really are shared (as opposed to merely being presupposed as shared) and is excessively restrictive in what it can accommodate as a case of collective intention. I then examine J. David Velleman’s “How To Share An Intention”, a revisitation and revamping of Searlian collective intentionality, which, since the interests of this paper lay in the relation of such conceptual questions to the social sciences, plausibly extends the category of intention from Searle’s limiting stance that intentions exist in heads, to include public speech acts and written assertions. I suggest that Velleman’s revisitation suffers from the same two difficulties that plague the Searlian program. I then turn to the idea that such conceptual analyses do not serve us well in the project of explaining how and why ascriptions of collective intention figure in macro-level explanations proffered by the social sciences and why such ascriptions are not easily eliminable. When social scientists attempt to analyse or predict group intentions and behaviours, reference to the actual intentions of the

its facts are observer relative.5 Searlian collective intentionality is rooted in the intuition that collective intentional behaviour is distinct from individual intentional behaviour and that the former is not tantamount. p. 6. the macro-level properties/intentions/goals of groups are multiply realizable.”2 CSR aims to develop an account of the ontology of social facts and institutions where collective intentionality plays a leading role since it is an essential feature of any social fact. p. p. 6. p. 4 Ibid. are connected to his positions in the philosophy of mind and to his general ontological commitments. 2 Ibid. 2. 5 Ibid. 2 . namely how are institutional facts possible and what is the structure of such facts?1 The response. 3 Ibid. with different individuals with different individual intentions. his We-intentions). the sum of the intentional behaviours of the individuals qua individuals who 1 John R. 26. the social world is manifest in a plurality of intentional states existing in brains and so. The Construction of Social Reality.members is not necessarily required.3 Though ultimately physical. An individual’s intention qua individual need not mirror an individual’s intention qua group member and secondly. that is. which is to say Searle’s views concerning the mode of existence of social reality and collective intentionality (especially. or reducible to. Explicit in his position that all mental states exist in brains4. His broad attempt is to situate intentionality within a naturalist program that is consistent with “the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology. looking for explanations at the micro-level will leave out features that are common between social group types with differing supervenience bases. a Searlian world also contains irreducible properties. CSR attempts to answer the following questions. Hence. 10. Searle. intentional states being one such example. p.

the behaviour of individuals might constitute a set of individual acts and in another. is possible. convergence on goals and actions might be accidental and in any case. 23.”8 The robust and contentious claim in CSR is that no analysis whatsoever of collective intentionality in terms of individual intentions. 25. “I-intend”s derive from “We-intend”s. 7 Ibid. even when supplemented with beliefs (“I believe and I believe that you believe and I believe that you believe that I believe. the sum of the individual intentions “does not add up to a collectivity. 24. p. 9 Ibid. 3 . 24. while I am practicing my part. where “I am doing something only as part of our doing something. There is a big difference between two violinists playing in an orchestra. The possibility of We-intentions is intended to 6 Ibid. That is.compose the collective.”7 The category of Searlian collective intention encompasses various kinds of collectively intended activities. by chance. 8 Ibid. they possess a common goal – as Searle says. As Searle underscores with the following example.9 In a spirit typical of an analytic philosopher. though the actions of the group members are unalike.. ranging from cases where the individual goals or behaviours of the members are identical to cases where they are only similar or related. the very same movements might constitute a collective action.6 The difficulty is in explaining in what this internal difference consists. and discovering. Searle remarks that “every attempt at reducing “We intentionality” to “I intentionality” that I have seen is subject to counterexamples. that someone in the next room is practicing her part. As regards individual intentional behaviour. we are playing the same piece in a synchronized fashion. 10 Ibid. p. p. and so on). in one case. In the latter case..”10 A Searlian We-intention is biologically primitive. Its bearer is an individual although it takes the form of the first person plural. and thus discovering.

” and reductionism as a false dilemma. this problem runs much deeper than Searle seems to imagine. not in the way that the elements in the conditions of satisfaction relate to each other. 414. My italics added for emphasis. p.. in CSR. indeed as actual or potential members of a cooperative activity. 14 Ibid. “Collective intentions and actions”.” Unfortunately.12 We-intentions are different in kind from I-intentions. 12 John R. p.14 However. a sense of others as more than mere conscious agents. they are a separate psychological mode. the possibility of error is special to a Web-intention since collective intentionality in my head can make a purported reference to other members of a collective independent of the question of whether or not there actually are such members. For elucidation. for example. p. Searle. or something equally implausible. is not sufficient to ensure cooperation in the context of a very important collective intention. 407. .. Since one has no omniscience about others’ intentions. it would seem that the existence of a single We-intention in Jack’s brain. with respect to his girlfriend Jill. p. “We (Jack and Jill)”. as Searle admits. let us say that Jack’s brain contains the We-intention that. The real distinction between the singular and the collective case is in the type of intention involved. 13 Ibid.13 Underscoring Searle’s commitment to internalism and methodological individualism. because love is 11 Ibid. a group to which I belong might intend to do x without there being a corresponding We-intention in my brain (there might very well be a Weintention that not-x in my brain).11 We-intentions appeal to so-called Background abilities (better elucidated in Searle’s “Collective intentions and actions” (1990)). 25. Jack thinks to himself. As so often sadly happens. 4 . “intend to one day marry. 412. My italics added for emphasis. a collective consciousness.portray the alternatives of choosing between “a Hegelian world spirit. The condition of possibility of collective intentionality presupposes a Background sense of the other as a candidate for cooperative agency.

at least insofar as we are concerned with accounting for actual cases of cooperative activities and collective intendings (as opposed to just the sense of being cooperated with and the sense of sharing intentions).. Plausibly. that you also have a We-intention with content that matches mine. Jill’s intention is just to fill in time with Jack until she meets a man she would like to marry.blind and Jack is naive. if we are committed to Searlian internalism.for “a single token of intention [to] be jointly framed and executed by multiple agents. David Velleman. p. that We-intentions must be shared. simply by there being a psychological state in my head. 5 . David Velleman wants to show that it is possible to literally share an intention . the content of the We-intentions of individuals’ brains must align in some manner. J. In “How To Share An Intention”. one may be mistaken in the supposition of a shared collective intention. is. intentions exist in the heads of individuals. but it would seem that an implicit requirement. intentions are psychological states that resolve deliberative questions (at least those that are really are up to a person) both in reality as well as notionally.17 15 J. contra Searle.. “How To Share An Intention”. I cannot intend that there be a shooting star tonight and I cannot intend (and so ensure or cause). But there is nothing in my head that ensures any matching with the contents of your head. More precisely.”15 Velleman remarks that collective intention as it features in CSR is not completely “faithful to . p. In other words. 32.. yields the conclusion that talk of literally shared intentions is neither mysterious nor incoherent. [Searle’s more general] conception of what an intention is” and that a more faithful application.. 16 Ibid.16 For both Searle and Velleman. p. Jack is oblivious to the fact that Jill’s brain has no such qualitatively identical or similar We-intention. 31. These things are not within my power to settle. 17 Ibid. 29.

45. p. p.. 39. but still purports to articulate a truth and so is unlike a prediction or a report. 20 Ibid.. 23 Ibid.. is [the fact that it is] a representation with a particular content and causal role. 22 Ibid. if you are willing” (assuming both parties are honest and psychologically committed to action) has the proper causal role and so. will be “everything that an intention is except mental.18 Since mental representations exist in brains and brains belong to individuals. there is no discretion left for you and vice versa). Velleman argues that “[a]ll that’s essential to intention. I am thereby making an oral or written decision. then there would seem to be a sense in which I can frame an oral or written intention. Searle regards intentions as belonging to individuals. and their 18 Ibid. saying “I am willing if you are” does not “purport to represent a fact that’s independent of itself”.. p.23 Here. The publicly asserted conditional willing that “I am willing.22 In the simple response “Then I will”. 40. two cases of individual discretion combine into one instance of collective discretion – each person’s statement “represents itself as determining it. 37.20 Perhaps certain gestures may qualify as framing intentions as well. only in conjunction with the other’s statement”..”19 If I can commit myself to a course of action by speaking or writing. .The reason the suggestion that we can share an intention if we both intend that “we are going to do it” is untenable is because there are “too many cooks and too little broth” (if I settle it. ‘then’ indicates that your intention is conditional on mine and vice versa and also that you also will because the condition of your willing has already been met. 19 Ibid. 21 Ibid. 6 .. p. 34. the causal powers of the statements are “in fact interdependent”. However. if I can make a decision by speaking or writing.”21 As Velleman suggests. p..

an ordinary I-intention. 7 . cooperation’s being satisfied is not a condition that can be fulfilled or known to be fulfilled internal to the individuals’ brains – the condition is fulfilled or unfulfilled in the relation between them and so. and so on. but y only has the intention to do whatever x does. we ever really do literally share an intention. demonstrating your having had the willingness and the commitment to psychological action in your head. Hence. one might be suspicious about how often. Ultimately. In the case of Velleman’s account. z cannot properly be said to have any intentions at all since he has consumed a large quantity of LSD. in a certain sense. in Searle’s account and even in Velleman’s reconstruction. a preferred 24 Ibid. there is no way for me to know that you are sincere when you reply “Then I will” in advance of you acting and hence. given the strict criterion that Velleman outlines. by both individuals. For example. In On Social Facts. 48.behaviour is mutually determined. is external to both of them. Perhaps x has the intention to loot the store. there may not exist in the brains of each of the members of the group an intention in their head (whether in the form of a We-intention. It would further seem that not all instances of an attribution of intention to collectives require that each member also have the intention that is attributed to the collective. in the case of a group looting a store. p. both Searle’s and Velleman’s accounts are too restrictive in their scope.24 Yet. Margaret Gilbert proffers the following example. or through the literally shared intention à la Velleman) to loot the store. accentuating another kind of difficulty: a reading group meets to discuss poetry and after some time. The problem is in the ineliminability of the sincerity of the speakers and the requirement of their psychological commitment to action. and represented as so.

a collective belief is adopted by a group as a means to realizing the group’s goals. and to get on with the night). p. Gilbert elucidates a few plausible reasons why individuals come to act as if in concert with others. to accomplish tasks more 25 Margaret Gilbert. the so-called collective interpretation is the result of the more properly shared intention. the intentions that groups adopt and which Gilbert refers to as “collective beliefs” “are not a species of belief in an important and central sense [for the individuals involved].”28 Hence.interpretation emerges.26 Instead. 8 .”27 An external account attributes a collective interpretation. namely that the last line of some poem is very moving indeed.29 In other words. perhaps the group settled on the interpretation simply because “they wished the session to end quickly or because they were afraid to speak out. to avoid being rude. “Collective Belief and Acceptance”. 25 While we might say that the poetry reading group believes that the last line of the poem is moving. Brad Wray. p. 26 Ibid. 28. This points to a distinction that K. which is to have the dull event end as quickly as possible. for an individual to accept something as the goal or intention of the group is for the individual to commit one’s self to act with others as if it was one’s personal goal or intention. it is possible that not every individual (or indeed anyone at all) thinks that the line is moving. 288-9. Brad Wray underscores in “Collective Belief and Acceptance” between acceptance or “a settling” and genuine intentions and beliefs: “[u]nlike proper beliefs. 319. 28 K. while an internal version might have it that each individual feigned agreement in order to end the evening early without being rude (and so each had the intentions to feign agreement. On this latter interpretation. namely to avoid conflict. but rather a species of acceptance” (though they still fulfill the proper causal role). “Collective Intentionality and the Social Sciences”. p. On Social Facts. 27 Deborah Perron Tollefsen. 29 Ibid.

33 In investigating social event types. 41... if the metaphorical account is true. p. as there may be very little or even nothing at all in common at the individual (or micro) level that can explain why groups act in the same way (there is no type-type reduction)..”31 Related to explanatory concerns. As Deborah Perron Tollefsen suggests in “Collective Intentionality and the Social Sciences”. 33 Ibid. but social scientists are also interested in questions that concern “social event types” (asking such questions as “Why do firms or companies. 40. appeal to individuals’ intentional states is inappropriate. 283. 31 Tollefsen. Given that much of the social world is largely presupposed by individuals (in our nonphilosophical moods. in the case of an admissions committee. there are good reasons to accept literally attributing intentions to collectives.. 34 Ibid. analyses that ascribe intentions to groups are.”32 To use another example from Tollefsen... 38. p. the token event of the merger between Chrysler and Daimler can be explained by looking to the intentions and actions of the individual decision makers at Chrysler and Daimler. in general. strictly speaking. 27. 9 . p. for instance. it seems to have always already been there). explanatory power is prima facie evidence that the theory is not false. 32 Ibid. etc. false and though “false theories can still have explanatory power. on one hand. for a sense of community. p. “the reasons. p.easily (some goods are only accessible by being part of a group). to accept candidates are reasons for the group but not [necessarily] reasons for any individual. as concerns the methodology and explanatory goals of the social sciences. those who are living within it 30 Gilbert. merge under certain economic situations?”).34 In this sense.30 To say that the attribution of collective intention is merely metaphorical or a mere manner of speaking is problematic for several reasons.

one cannot capture the whole picture. our practice of ascribing intentions to collectives often happens without worrying about the particular intentions of its members and in both of these cases (in our ascriptions of beliefs and intentions to other people and in our ascriptions of beliefs and intentions to groups). be unnecessary or simply irrelevant. panoptic gaze. perhaps they have good reason to gaze in such a manner. p. and understand as through a glass darkly. Because social kinds/events/properties are multiply realizable. as she cites Daniel Dennett in The intentional stance. As Tollefsen plausibly argues throughout “Collective Intentionality and The Social Sciences”.cannot be expected to give an exhaustive. Though the social scientist or anthropologist is sometimes condemned for their structuralist. Indeed systemic features of collectives may not even be recognizable by the individuals who compose them. 36 Tollefsen. The intentional stance.”35 That is. our ability to predict their behaviour. depending on the context. 29. to say that the ascription of intentional states to groups is possible even in the ignorance of the actual intentional states of its members is analogous to the way in which we interact with other people every day. An external perspective is required to examine structural features of collectives in which individuals sometimes feature as mere placeholders and to examine the relations of groups qua groups with other groups. act. There is also a sense in which individuals can mostly only think. 10 .36 If our interests lay in ensuring cooperation with 35 Daniel Dennett. This is to say that in reducing collective intentionality to an analysis of the psychologies of individuals qua individuals. is fairly successful. in general. this is analogous to the way in which “we all use folk psychology knowing next to nothing about what actually happens inside people’s skulls. individuals’ intentions may be explanatorily necessary in explaining group behaviour and in other cases. 48 as found in Tollefsen. accurate account of why they do what they are doing. p. More specifically. p. 29.

Folk psychology does necessitate that an individual have beliefs about others’ beliefs and intentions (but this is consistent. intentions can only be presupposed as being shared and secondly. exists in the relation of two or more heads and no one can directly access the contents of another’s mind. MA: MIT Press. this is fairly futile for the simple reason that we cannot read others’ minds – we cannot access others’ intentions or read sincerity off of faces infallibly. with Searle’s internalism). to draw out the implications of what happens when. Vol. goals. MA: MIT Press. The Construction of Social Reality. 129. Since the ascription of intentions to collectives is possible in ignorance of the actual intentions of the individuals who compose it and since macro-level properties of groups (their intentions. 2001. Cambridge. and so on) are multiply realizable.others. 319-333. Brad Wray. are excessively limiting in cases they can accommodate as instances of collective intentionality. pp. (eds.R. so to speak. On Social Facts. 401-415. “Collective Intentions and Actions” in P. engaging in conceptual analysis in the spirit of Searle and Velleman may not be the most appropriate course of action for analysing collective intentionality. 1987. Intentions in Communication. Although analyses that reduce collective intention to I-intentions (plus beliefs) cannot ensure cooperation. Synthese. John R. Searle. K. Folk psychological ascriptions are not infallible. but they are. at best. Searle. The problem is that the condition of actually satisfying cooperation. neither can We-intentions. “Collective Belief and Acceptance”. John R. 1997.). 1989. This paper has argued that both Searle’s and Velleman’s accounts of collective intention fail. Princeton: Princeton University Press. New York: Free Press. The intentional stance. in ensuring the actual sharing of intentions. firstly. that is. at least. Cohen et al. Margaret Gilbert. Cambridge. pp. Bibliography: Daniel Dennett. the best one can work with. 11 . when it is ever met.

. pp. “How To Share An Intention”. Vol. Vol. 1. March. 1.Deborah Perron Tollefsen. J. 57. No. No. March. “Collective Intentionality and the Social Sciences”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 2002. 1997. 12 . 25-50. 29-50. pp. 32. David Velleman.

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