Searle and Collective Intentionality (1)

internet1. Introduction

John Searle in his book Making the Social World (2010) as well as The Construction of Social Reality (1995) presents a naturalist account of social ontology.[1] According to Searle, social facts are rooted in natural “basic facts” that we know about through natural sciences. Hence, any explanation about social facts should reflect their natural roots. For his analysis, he develops a conceptual apparatus, containing half a dozen concepts that he believes are engrained in “basic facts.” One of the central concepts of his apparatus is the controversial concept of collective intentionality. In Making Social World, he gives a high place to the notion of collective intentionality. He states, “But I will focus on what I believe is the fundamental building block of all human social ontology and human society in general: human beings, along with a lot of other social animals, have the capacity for collective intentionality” (Searle, MSW 43). Despite its high place in his analysis, he is not very clear about the notion of collective intentionality and leaves many questions unanswered. In the broadest sense, as the term suggests, he defines it as the convergence of intentionality of individual agents directed toward a shared end. To him, collective intentionality constitutes a group agency in the form of we-intentions irreducible to I-intentions. The notion of collective intentionality consists of two theses: the first is that each mind alone posses his/her intentionality (Autonomy of Individual Intention Thesis) and the second is that the collective intentionality is not a simple summation of the participants’ individual intentions (The Irreducibility Thesis). Searle tries to justify we-intentions without appealing to a mysterious supra-group entity; at the same time, he wants to preserve his “methodological individualism.” Therefore, we are facing a tension within his account of collective intentionality.

The tension in Searle’s account of collective intentionality is that; on the one hand, he believes that intentionality is a property of individuals’ neurobiological process that can be expressed as “I intend to do X”—I-intentions; on the other hand, he maintains that the collective intentionality expressed in a sentence such as, “We intend to do X,”—we-intentions is irreducible to sum of individual intentions and the agents’ mutual believes about their joint actions. Since the notion of collective intentionality has a central place in his conception of society—to the extent that he calls it “the building block of human civilization”—it is important to understand how he defines collective intentionality. I will argue that his internalist conception of collective intentionality, i.e., justifying collectivity on the ground of participants’ mental state alone, will lead to various problems, among them, question-begging[2].

  1. Intentionality

Searle’s goal in his book is to present a social ontology. Since he believes that social reality is a product of the mind, he wants to know what property of the mind creates this reality. His answer is the property of intentionality (Searle, MSW 25). According to Searle all intentionality, whether individual or collective is rooted in brain process. Whatever one intends is explainable by giving a neurological account of brain process. Despite the traditional Cartesian dualism, believing the body and the mind are two distinct entities with two distinct properties, Searle believes that brain has mental properties, and intentionality is a property of brain. As he asserts, “I am insisting as you read this sentence, the thoughts going through your mind are also neurological processes on the brain, and those processes have logical properties, exactly the same logical properties as those of the thoughts, because they are simply the neurobiological realization of the thoughts… Intentionality is already naturalized because, for example, thinking is as natural as digesting” (Searle, MSW 42-43). The property of being logical gives intentionality condition of satisfaction. A belief has a truth-condition. So if a belief corresponds to the reality that it expresses, then it is true and if not, it is false. However, intentionality can be satisfied or remains unfulfilled. If I intend to become a millionaire, the conditions of satisfaction are met after I obtain some million dollars, if I do not obtain some million dollars, the conditions of satisfaction are not met, and I will remain a poor graduate student.

Intentionality is about the directness or aboutness of the mind. He maintains, “‘Intentionality’ is a fancy philosopher’s term for that capacity of the mind by which it is directed at, or about, object and states of affairs in the world, typically independent of itself” (Searle, MSW 25). When we fear failure, hope to maintain a friendship, or want to visit Greece, are all instances of intentions. Fear, hope, desires, or belief are intentions and are always about something else. Intentionality always has a direction as well as an object. The object of intentionality can be a physical object, like when one wants to buy a pair of shoes, or it can be abstract, like when one intends to run a marathon. As he repeats frequently, intentionality springs from the capacity of the mind to be directed at objects. When a person wants to cook, his/her intentionality is directed toward cooking. However, we do things collectively. We cooperate with others, and we expect others to cooperate with us to accomplish shared goals. Searle refers to this collectivity as collective intentions. However, he acknowledges that there are other types of collective intentionality that are mostly cognitive, such as believing and desiring. “…there are also forms of collective intentionality in such things as believing and desiring. I might for example, as a member of a religious faith, believe something only as part of our believing it, as part of our faith. I might, as part of a political movement, desire something as part of our desiring it” (MSW 43). However, his focus in Making the Social World would be “to say what exactly constitutes collective intentionality in cooperative planning and acting.” (MSW 43).

Searle’s basic goal by appealing to the notion of collective intentionality is to explain collective actions. So collective intentionality accounts for collective actions. “Collective intentionality is a type of intentionality, and society is created by collective intentionality”(Searle, MSW 25). He believes we as human beings have a natural capacity for collective actions, which arises from collective intentionality. But what is collective intentionality, according to Searle? He does not give a straight definition of collective intentionality in his book. In the chapter of Making Social World that he devoted to collective intentionality, rather than defining collective intentionality in a sentence or a passage, he does two things to clarify what collective intentionality is.[3] First, he gives several conditions that any collective intentionality theory must have. Second, he gives two examples, the first one which shows what collective intentionality is not and the second shows what collective intentionality is. So we need to analyze those conditions and examples that he gives in order to have a better grasp of his notion of collective intentionality.

2.1. John Searle on Collective intentionality

After establishing the autonomy of individual intentions in the “Intentionality” chapter, Searle begins his chapter on collective intentionality to establish his irreducibility thesis. It is a mistake, Searle states, to think that whatever we can say about individual intentionality can be carried over to the notion of collective intentionality. In the outset of the “Collective Intentionality and the Assignment of Function” chapter, he tells the reader that “One might think that the way to deal with collective intentionality is just to take the account that is given in the chapter of individual intentionality and preface all intentional representations with a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I.’ So instead of an ‘I am going to the store,’ we simply say ‘We are going to the store,’ and do the exact analysis of intentionality that I provide for the ‘I’ case” (MSW 43-43). Searle sees three problems with this reductionist view. The first problem is that respecting “basic fact” does not mean defending a reductionist view. The second problem with this approach is that in the case of I-intention, an agent’s intentions only range over actions that he/she causes whereas in the case of we-intentions, “there is an intentionality that is beyond the range of my causation” (MSW 44). The third problem with the reductionist view, Searle believes, is that in many forms of collective intentionality the content of what each participant does is different from the content of others in order to achieve a common goal. For instance, each player in a symphonic orchestra plays a different part in order to perform a piece of music.

It is these remarks that make us to believe that, to Searle, we-intentions differ qualitatively from I-intentions, a view that represents his Irreducibility Thesis. To him, collective intentionality is irreducible to the sum of individual intentions plus beliefs about each other intentions. However, the question that Searle needs to answer is that what make we-intentions qualitatively different from I-intentions? Searle answer this question by the way of laying down six “conditions of adequacy that any account of collective intentionality has to meet” (MSW 44). Some of those conditions are exclusive to collective intentionality whereas some of them participate in both types of intentions, whether individual or collective. Of these six conditions, only the first three conditions are common between the two types of intentions. The first condition is the necessity to make a distinction between prior intentions and intentions-in-action. The second one requires the conditions of satisfaction of both prior intentions and intentions-in-actions to be causally self-referential. The third condition affirms that the locus of intentions is inside the individuals’ head. The rest of the three conditions highlight the distinct features of collective intentionality. The first distinctive condition is that a distinction between what a person can cause individually as “part of the condition of satisfaction of my intentional content and that which I take for granted as contributed by my collaborators in the collective intentionality” (MSW 44). For instance, when a group of people play together in a symphony, all that each player can cause is his/her performance as their contribution to playing together collectively. The second condition, exclusive to collective intentionality, is that one must be clear about what can be in the propositional content and what cannot, since the propositional content merely reflects the condition of satisfaction of the intention. And finally, the last condition that an account of collective intentionality must meet is that in collective intentionality it is not required that each person know what the other participants are doing in details. “All one needs to know is that they share one’s collective goal and intend to do their part in achieving the goal” (MSW 45). Although these six conditions provide useful criteria to determine what a proper theory of collective intentionality must consider, it does not tell us what collective intentionality is itself. What is clear up to this point is that he rejects that collective intentionality has the following form:

X and Y intend to clean the yard together if and only if

X intends to do his part of cleaning the yard, and Y intends to do this part

And each has mutual belief about the other’s intentions.

He rejects that the above formulation represents collective intentionality, since the formulation reduces the we-intention to I-intentions of participant, which is a violation of The Irreducibility Thesis. We-intention, to Searle, is more than summation of I-intentions.[4] The I-intention sentence “ I intend to do X” is different with respect to the mode with the we-intention sentence “We intend to do X.” Although both have the same propositional contents, that is, X, they have two different intentions. The intention of the former is individual and the intention of the latter is collective. It is the mode of “I” or the mode of “we” that distinguishes the two. But again the question is that what is in this mode that distinguishes the two? And more importantly why is the latter irreducible to the former? To answer these questions, it is not sufficient to say that the first has I-mode and the second has we-mode.


[1] Prior to these two major works, Searle also discusses collective intentionality in his article “Collective Intentions and Actions,” where we can see a premature version of his notion on collective intentionality. Compared to his two prior works, Searle gives a more thorough explanation of collective intentionality. However, to understand his notion of collective intentionality, I did not limit my analysis to his work Making Social World only. I have incorporated his discussions of intentionality and collective intentionality whenever I felt that it is relevant to my analysis.

[2] Peterson in his article “Collectivity and Circularity” believes that collective intentionality is an inconsistent notion, and any attempt to justify collectivity on the ground of intentionality cannot avoid circularity. However, W. M. Meijers in his paper, “Can Collective Intentionality Be Individualized?” (2003) believes that an internalist account of collective intentionality is inconsistent but not all accounts of collective intentionality are inconsistent. Meijers maintains that an externalist account of the notion can save it from begging the question.

[3] Prior to publishing Making the Social World, some critics have criticized him for his avoidance of giving a definition of collective intentionality. For instance, L.A. Zaibert in his article “Collective Intentions and Collective Intentionality (2003) states that “… collective intentionality seems to play a protagonist role, for Searle also tells us that ‘the central span on the bridge from physics to society is collective intentionality’ (CSR: 41). Yet, Searle says little of substance about collective intentionality is biologically innate, and reduced to something else’ (CSR: 37). Or that one could defend the notion of collective intentionality without being ‘committed to the idea that there exist some Hegelian world sprit, a collective consciousness, or something equally implausible’ (CSR: 25), is, even if true, of not much help” (3).

[4] To know what collective intentionality is to Searle, one needs to draw a definition from the materials that Searle presents in those conditions as well as the examples of collective intentionality that he gives.

Amin Sophiamehr



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