Intentional Action: from the ‘I’ to the ‘We’.


A philosophical tradition that springs from the work of Anscombe (1956) defends the idea that the core characteristic of solitary intentional action – intentional action carried out by one individual alone – is for the agent of such intentional actions to have self-knowledge of what she is doing, a kind of knowledge that is to be had only ‘in the first person’. Analogously some authors have argued that to partake in joint intentional activities is for the agents involved in them to have plural or collective self-knowledge of what they are intentionally doing together (Laurence 2011, Schmid 2014, 2016, Rödl 2015, 2018), that is, a kind of knowledge that agents have only in ‘the first person plural’. While some authors have advanced proposals about what this kind of plural self-knowledge amounts to (Schmid 2014; Rödl 2018) this alternative remains relatively underexplored in the current literature, in particular it is not clear whether (and if so, how) the view can be extended from one-on-one face-to-face interactions in which interactants are in direct communication with each other to cases in which the collectives are largely spread in time and space (proposals in this direction are offered by Laurence 2011; Schmid 2014). An analogous situation holds for other views on collective intentional action, whose analysis apply to some forms of joint or collective intentional action but not all ( e.g. Bratman 1992, List & Pettit 2011, Gilbert 2013)

This paper discusses two alternative methodological solutions to this problem: a reductionist solution, that understands accounts of joint/collective intentional action as offering sufficient and/or necessary conditions for an action to be jointly/collectively intentional (e.g. Bratman 1992, Rödl 2015), and a pluralist proposal, that allows for differences in the core characteristics of collective intentional activities (e.g. Schmid 2014, Zahavi 2018). The paper offers a third route to this problem, the paradigmatic account, by distinguishing a set of criteria that allows to identify core and borderline cases of collective intentional action. The proposal offers a multi-dimensional matrix to classify different cases and analyze them according to the established criteria. The paper then discusses the differences between the proposed approach and pluralist and reductionist views. One of the main advantages of the paradigmatic view is that it remains neutral about which is the best way to characterize the intentional activities of collectives while at the same time offering a way to identify their common features, opening the door for their conceptual and empirical enquiry.


7 thoughts on “Intentional Action: from the ‘I’ to the ‘We’.

  1. Mackenzie, Charles says:

    Hi Glenda,

    Tremendous lecture. I certainly see the methodological comparison you were making with my work.

    What I wonder is how you foresee transposing the methodology onto the social sciences and its’ framework. I imagine your first reply would be that your recommendations are already practical. But what I mean, rather, is if you nevertheless intuit some or other correspondence to some or other framework. You disregard *merely* underlying mechanisms, so is it fair to say inter-level metaphysics is out the window?

    Personally, I believe something like your paradigmatic account gels well with a scale and/or systems based view. But I suspect you might take issue with the broader – albeit somewhat still essentialising notions as inter-dependence and micro-reductions. What are your thoughts?


  2. Roth, Abe says:

    Hi Glenda,

    Thanks for the stimulating paper. If i’m understanding you, In implementing the paradigmatic methodology we identify certain core features of the concept collective intentional action. Now, I’m tempted to think that there must be some story that accounts for why the core features go together and explain why this particular event is a collective intentional action. Perhaps there is some essentialist story, or maybe some distinctive underlying causal mechanism. But you reject both of these. So is your view that it is just a mistake to insist on some unifying explanatory? Or is there some other source of unity, perhaps some practical or normative consideration?

    Sorry I missed your session. It was the middle of the night for me. By the way,
    I’m looking forward to reading your paper on pluralizing the Anscombian view.


  3. Vincini, Stefano says:

    Dear Glenda (if I may), thank you for your instructive presentation. I’d like to ask you two little questions.

    The first one probably arises from the fact that these presentations had to be very short and there was not enough time to explain. It is not clear to me whether there is a real incompatibility or contrast between pluralism and your paradigmatic approach. If I understand it correctly, the paradigmatic approach identifies a plurality of criteria, none of which is sufficient to determine the question of membership in the class of collective intentional actions. Yet, it seems to me that this is precisely what the pluralist approach tries to do as well. Furthermore, your slide on “Straightforward Pluralism” seems to make the point that pluralism entails abandoning the overall notion of collective intentional action (for which all legitimate instances would be “cases of the same kind”), but this characterization of pluralism may be rejected by the advocates of the pluralist approach. After all, it makes sense to talk of “pluralism” only if the many criteria are referred to a single class of phenomena. If one only distinguishes between different classes of phenomena, without maintaining a single overall class that the embraces the different classes, then she or he will be an eliminativist with regard to the single overall class and may or may not be a pluralist with respect to each of the different classes identified. Is the paradigmatic approach simply making explicit the notion of family resemblance to clarify what holds together the overall class of collective intentional actions? Or is there a more substantial contrast with the pluralist approach?

    The second question is whether you think that the paradigmatic approach admits a role for the phenomenological method of “eidetic (or imaginative) variation” (e.g. as described by Gallagher and Zahavi in The Phenomenological Mind). Can we integrate eidetic variation as a partial tool of the paradigmatic approach or would you rather tend to maintain a critical stance toward eidetic variation in light of the paradigmatic approach? (This question is perhaps related to a task that I take to be common to all philosophical-methodological approaches to collective action. Any approach, including the paradigmatic approach, seems to need to be able to distinguish paradigmatic and border cases from cases that do not fall within the class of collective actions.)

    Again, many thanks!

    Stefano Vincini
    University of Vienna

    1. Satne, Glenda says:

      Thanks, Stefano, for your interest in the talk and your questions.

      About the first, the contrast between the paradigmatic approach and straightforward pluralism. The point here is that pluralism rejects the idea that the different cases have core features in common. In the most extreme versions this can come to the idea that the term ‘collectively intentional’ refers to actions not “with reference to one central idea and one definite characteristic, [but as] merely a common epithet”, to paraphrase Aristotle in the book 4 of his Metaphysics. The idea precisely is that the different cases are all cases that can be referred to by the same name, but not in virtue of sharing some core characteristics that are conceptually interesting. You can say here that these actions involve groups of people-in a lose sense of term- doing something- in a lose sense of the term- together- in a lose sense of the term. Now, this is not eliminativism, for it admits a variety of meanings for the term, rather than none. The contrast here is, following Aristotle again, when we use the term ‘collectively intentional’ “with reference to one principle”. You are right though that many pluralists offer a more refined characterization collective intentionality, but if such characterizations are thought to apply generally then this is not pluralism after all, and the general applicability of the concepts requires some rationale. It may be that these views are closer to the one I seek to characterize here, but are mistakenly classified as pluralistic or it might be that they are straightforwardly pluralistic. The key contrast with the paradigmatic view is that this last can legitimately claim that there are core features of collective intentionality and that these are so with reference to the same principle. That of course, is a matter of further argument, both conceptual and empirical. Here I am only discussing the methodological grounds for such view, but I do defend a version of that claim in my paper ” Practical Knowledge and Shared Agency: Pluralizing the Anscombean view”, forthcoming in Inquiry.

      About your second question, the eidetic variation method and the paradigmatic method have something in common: they both go from the particular to the general. But what I would like to resist is the methodology of identifying essences, which the orthodox Husserlian version is committed to. The features of the paradigmatic cases are not necessary and/or sufficient for all cases of the type, which makes membership to the class a matter of complex overlapping and not merely of degree. There are further questions about how the paradigmatic cases relate to the other cases that remain open, and those in this view are answered by different supplementary methodologies.

    2. Vincini, Stefano says:

      Dear Glenda,
      Thank you very much for your clarifications. I really appreciate your emphasis on “core features of collective intentionality.” Indeed, there seem to be features that stand out as somehow salient when we reflect on the phenomenon and it is not a chance that philosophers discuss them. Also, I appreciate your proposal of a differentiated and nuanced methodology. I listened to your paper asking myself how I would locate my own recent research on emotion sharing. It was helpful to classify my efforts so far and clarify how I wish to proceed.

  4. Faria Costa, Jonas says:

    Thank you for this presentation, Satne.
    I strongly agree with your paradigmatic view approach. It reminds me of Martens and Roelofs’ paper “Implicit Coordination: Acting Quasi-Jointly on Implicit Shared Intentions” (2019), where they provided a map, a Cartesian graph, with two axes: aim-sharing and interdependence.
    What I think is most interesting about the paradigmatic account you are offering is that it broadens the horizons. You mentioned the example of the breastfeeding dyad, but we could also think about the hunting dyad (the hunter and his hound) which would be a borderline case between a form of human collective agency and dog collective agency.

    1. Satne, Glenda says:

      Thanks, Jonas. Yes, Judith and Luke’s paper shares the idea that there are intermediate cases that some methodologies seem to ignore. And, yes, I agree in that my aim here is to broaden the horizons by discussing these methodological issues further. The issues about interspecies collaboration are fascinating, as are issues around compared psychology in the case of collective intentionality, and we need to broaden the methodology to discuss how they bare on our concepts of cooperation, shared intentionality, etc.

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