Searle and Collective Intentionality (2)


2.1.2. I-Intentionality versus We-Intentionality

To illustrate the irreducibility of we-intentions, he offers one counterexample. The counterexample goes as such, a group of Harvard Business School graduates are committed to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand. In their jobs, they try to realize the idea of the invisible hand by being as selfish as possible in order to benefit humanity. Each of them intends to be as rich as possible, and each has knowledge that others have the same intention. To Searle, this is not a collective intentionality, since cooperation is absent. He states, “Thus there is a goal that each has, and each knows that all the others know that each has it and that they know that each knows that each has is. All the same, there is no cooperation. There is even an ideology that there should be no cooperation. This is a case where the people have an end, and people have common knowledge that other people have that end, but there is no intentionality in my sense” (47-48).[1] This example is supposed to highlight the Irreducibility Thesis, that is, collective intentionality is not summation of individual intentions and cannot be reduced to its members’ intentions. But he does it by an appeal to cooperation, which can be counted as a non-internalist factor.[2] It is not sufficient, he maintains, for each person to have a we-intention individually; each person should have we-intention not individually but collectively. As Schweikard and Schmid explain, “One person’s we-intention does not make for a collective intention. Other we-intending individuals need to be around” (“Collective Intentionality”). As Searle mentions, cooperation is an essential part of collective intentionality, and since there is no cooperation between the participants, he rejects that this case is an instance of collective intentionality. Searle tries to show that we-intention does not imply that an intention is actually shared. The question is that how the individual we-intention of the members should be related to each other in order for a successful collective intentionality to emerge? It seems that his second example is supposed to answer this question.

The second example intends to explain collective intentionality by modifying the first case. He says, imagine that those graduate students come together and “make a solemn pact that they will each go out and try to help humanity by becoming as rich as they can and acting as selfishly as they can. All this will be done in order to help humanity.” In this case, since we have cooperation between the participants, there is collective intentionality. The major difference between the two cases is that in the first case we do not have “a pact or promise to act in this way” (48). So what can we make out from these examples? Can we say that collective intentionality is an intention to cooperate collectively? I think what we can draw from these examples is that collective intentionality is more than shared beliefs and goals. It is shared beliefs and goals plus a commitment or promise from participants to cooperate collectively.[3] On the other hand, once again his emphasis on his internalist criterion by saying, “All intentionality, collective or individual, exist in individual minds. But at the same time, we can grant that the strong forms of collective intentionality, those involving cooperation, are irreducible to I-intentionality” (MSW 60). However, it is very odd for his internalist account to consider commitment from participants as an essential property of collective intentionality. In fact, his commitment to internalism, at this point prior to establishing the possibility of deontic capacities in society, does not give him permission to endorse commitment as an essential component of collective intentionality without deviating from his internalism.[4] It seems that by emphasizing on commitment to cooperate, he deviates from his internalist account, because commitment as a deontic power comes into existence as a result of collective intentionality not the way around. I will return to this point after explaining his analysis of we-intentions.

We-intentions have a double nature. They have an individual or private dimension; simultaneously, they are collective in the sense that creates a group behavior. Let’s take the Department of Philosophy pub night as an example. In the pub night example, my decision to go to the pub night, even if it is an I-intention, is somewhat dependent on other people’s decisions. I need to believe that enough people, at least one person beside me, is going to show up; otherwise, going to Blackbird by myself is not a collective intentionality even if each of my classmates would showed up at Blackbird as individual decision. As he says, “Notice that the assumption behind my collective intentionality is that if I make my contribution on the assumption that you make your contribution, together we will have collective intentionality” (MSW 53). For this reason, we-intentionality is not only dependent on my own I-intention, but it is contingent on other participants’ collective decision making. If it were, it would be an I-intention, but not a we-intention. Therefore, what is essential in a collective intention is cooperation of the agents.

As we know, collective intentionality can be express as “We intend to do X.” In contrast with individual intention that takes the form of “I intend to do X.” As he states, “’we intend to do such and such,’ ‘we believe such and such.’ I call all of these sorts of cases ‘collective intentionality,’ but for purpose of this book, the most important form of collective intentionality is collective intentions in planning and acting, that is, collective prior intentions and collective intentions-in-action” (MSW 43). This instances of collective intentionality are such as “go on a picnic together or collectively pushing a car together” (MSW 43).

To wrap up this section, we saw in the last section that, to Searle, individual intentionality is a thing that is intended by an individual. These intentions find their expression in the I-intention sentences; “I intend X.” It is an individual intention since its agent/subject is an individual. In the contrast, the collective intentions are collective since the agent of the intention is collective. A collective intention finds its expression in we-intention sentences, such as “We intend X.” Hence, we are able to distinguish I-intentions from we-intentions on the grounds of their distinct agent; the former being “I” and the latter being “we.” As he repeats frequently, we-intention is irreducible to I-intention since for Searle we-intention is more than the sum of I-intentions plus beliefs of its participants. At the same time, he does not believe that we-intention is something of a supra-group entity. As he states, “We do not need to postulate some mysterious type of thought process outside of the individual minds. All intentionality collective or individual exist in the mind” (MSW 60). Searle’s next challenge is how he can believe that we-intention is irreducible to I-intentions without stipulating a mysterious supra-group factor. On the other hand, how can he establish the Irreducibility Thesis without sacrificing the individuality of I-intentions?[5] Is there any way that Searle’s internalist view finds a way out of these two irreconcilable theses? In the next section I will explain some of the theorists’ criticism against Searle’s notion of collective intentionality and then I will say which one is more compelling.

  1. Searle’s Theory of Collective Intentionality and Critics

Searle’s account of collective intentionality has received significant attention from critics. My purpose is not to reproduce all of their criticisms in details here. I just want mention some of their remarks that are relevant to my discussion. Deborah Perron Tollefsen has shown in her paper, “From Extended Mind to Collective Mind,” it is not impossible for the group to have a mind, since mind, despite what Searle thinks, is not bonded by brain. She rejects Searle’s assumption that mind exists only in the heads of individuals, and groups cannot have minds. According to Tollefsen, collectivity can exist independent from intentionality.[6] Therefore, since she believes that the mind can be ascribed to a group, she can defend the Irreducibility Thesis. Since she frees her account from an internalist commitment, by this move, she does not need to worry about the Individual Autonomy Intention. Therefore, the dilemma between the two theses will disappear.

In the same anti-internalist spirit, Peter Bjorn Petersson in “Collectivity and Circularity” states that the notion of collective intentionality is circular, since it defines collectivity in terms of intention and intention in terms of the content of participants’ intentions. Since the notion of collective intentionality presupposes the shared intention in its analysis, then it is circular (138-139). The solution to this problem, he states, is that in a collective action, we do not need to suppose a shred intention. As he states, “We do not need to place the notion of a jointly intentional achievement in the content of the intentions of parties to a collective action” (155).[7]

Zaibert in his paper “Collective Intentions and Collective Intentionality” identifies deeper issues with Searle’s collective intentionality, and he believes that the problem with Searle’s notion of collective intentionality is rooted in his account of intentionality. He gives two reasons why Searle’s accounts of collective intentionality is inadequate.

  • Problems inherent in the theory of individual intentionality even before to extend it into a ‘general theory’ is made (CIA; 401).
  • The problems when we try to move from individual intentionality toward collective intentionality.

Analyzing his first criticism against Searle requires more space. But his second criticism is more relevant to my discussion. I think he is right about Searle’s problem with moving from individual intentionality toward collective intentionality. Searle’s position is to resist reducing the we-intentions to I-intentions, but when it comes to explaining we-intention, his explanation of the we-intention is limited to the fact that the phenomenon happens in the people’s minds. First, I-intention is not sufficient to bring about we-intention; the second is that each participant should have we-intention not individually, but collectively. Therefore, the actual form of we-intention for each participant is “I intend to have a we-intention.” And everyone of the group should have this intention in their minds. But the problem is that how “I intend to have a we intention” can be a we-intention, but not another mode of I-intention. Searle himself recognizes the problem. In this case, he maintains, “But if ‘we’ intentionality exists only in individual brains, then it seems that all ‘we intend’ statements made by any three people A, B, C must reduce to ‘I, as A, intend’ plus ‘I, as B, intend’ plus ‘I, as C, intend’ plus mutual beliefs among A, B, and C” (MSW 46). In a “we-intention,” each agent has an “I intend that we intend X” in the mind. Does it qualify for we-intention? Address the charge of circularity. In other words, his challenge is how to reject the mental state of the group while defending the Irreducible Thesis. As Zaibert puts it, “Searle wants to deny that collective intentions are analyzable in terms of singular intentions, but he also wants (and in my view with better reasons) to deny that there are collective spirits or other mysterious creations. But he then admits that his ‘claim that there is a form of collective intentionality which is not the product of some mysterious group mind and at the same time is not reducible to individual intentions has plenty of problems of its own, and we must set about solving some of them'” (CIA: 406).

3.1. My Take on His Theory of Collective Intentionality:

I agree with the above critics that Searle’s theory of collective intentionality has some form of question-begging, because of its commitment to internalism. In this section, I try to explain my reasons to have such beliefs.  

            Searle’s internalist view of collective intentionality endorses two irreconcilable theses:

1) Individual Intention Autonomy

2) Irreducibility of we-intentions

The Individual Intention Autonomy thesis asserts that each person has his/her independent mind, and he denies that collective intentions are analyzable in terms of individual intuitions. On the other hand, the Irreducibility Thesis asserts that the collective intentions are more than the summation of individual intention. These two theses are not easily reconcilable, and Searle himself has recognized that there is a problem. He maintains, “There is a form of collective intentionality which is not the product of some mysterious group mind and at the same is not reducible to individual intentions has plenty of problems of its own, and we must set about solving some of them” (“Collective Intentionality and Actions 406).

Let’s begin with reexamining the second case of Harvard Business students’ example that he offers. Does Searle in his second case of Harvard Business School satisfy the two theses on which his collective intentionality built? I think there are good reasons to believe that he does not. They engage in a collective intentionality mainly after they cooperated with each other. In the first case even they had a shared intention and a common goal, their collective action did not constitute collective intentionality, since there was no coordination and commitment for cooperation between them although they knew about each other’s intentions. However, this move by him is not successful and represents a question begging way of argument, since in his explaining of collective intentionality, he presumes that there is a society from which collective intentionality arises.

In fact, what his second HBS example indicates is that it defends the Irreducibility Thesis at the expense of abandoning his internalist view as well as begging the question. Instead of explaining collective intentionality in terms of an internalist feature, for example some features of mental state, he appeals to commitment for cooperation, which is not an internalist criterion. Of course, he might rightly say that cooperation is rooted in our mental state; however, cooperation, although we grant him that is rooted in the participants’ mental states, it is not, strictly speaking, a feature of mind, but it is a social fact. Furthermore, it implies the existence of society. As he rightly states, “Cooperation implies the existence of common knowledge or common belief, but the common knowledge or belief, together with individual intention to achieve a common goal is not by itself sufficient for cooperation” (MSW 49). So cooperation as a social fact itself is a form of collectivity; therefore, appealing to a form of collectivity to explain collective intentionality is presupposing collective intentionality in order to explain collective intentionality. Searle himself in a different occasion takes issue with the similar move that other theorists make when they try to justify collective intentionality on the bases of existence of language. To those theorists, Searle rightly mentions that language presupposes the existence of society, and it is not what we want to do theoretically prior establishing collective intentionality. He rejects the view that collective intentionality arises among language-using adults. As he says, “ That is of course a reasonable assumption for most theoretical purpose, but for me it cannot be the fundamental concept analyzing human society, because it already presupposes language, and if you have a language, for reason I will spell out in the next chapter, you have a human society” (MSW 49-50). He believes a proper theory of collective intentionality, if it wants to be a “fundamental concept analyzing human society,” must go back further than the existence of language. He states, “There must be a ground-floor form of collective intentionality one that exists before cooperation which makes cooperation possible” (MSW 50). He is exactly right about primacy of collective intentionality to be prior to cooperation. However, in the second HBS example, to show what an instance of collective intentionality is, he incorporates cooperation into his account of collective intentionality. So despite what he has established, in his second HBS example, there is no “ground-floor form of collective intentionality one that exists before cooperation which makes cooperation possible.”[8] There is no difference between commitment for cooperation and language in terms of social facts; they are both forms of collectivities. I think he is right in this latter point, but if he is right, then his internalist account of collective intentionality has a problem.

  1. Conclusion

An internalist account of collectivity intentionality will lead to a circular or question begging reasoning. It is supposed to explain collective actions, but it presupposes collectivity while its purpose is to explain the collectivity by appealing to collective intentionality. Prior to postulating collective intentionality, an internalist account cannot presuppose cooperation, since cooperation must come as a natural result of collective intentionality, not the other way around. Since collective intentionality is irreducible to the sum of individual intentions, I think it is the property of the group as a whole. Hence, a collective intentionality creates a different level of social reality that is irreducible to the individuals’ intentions that occurs in the brain process of each individual. If this is the case, then, as Tollefsen has shown, we do not need to assert that mind is bounded by skin and bones, and it can be ascribed to the group.


[1] The emphasis is mine.

[2] I think it is no accident that Seale appeals to cooperation as an essential component of collective intentionality that distinguishes it from other types of collective actions. I think his Irreducibility Thesis compelled him to appeal to a non-internalist account of collective intentionality. I think it is an indication of the tension between the two theses that he tries to endorse at the same time.

[3] However, as I mentioned above, the surprising part of the book is that he does not give a straight definition of collective intentionality. It seems unlikely it was unintentional to give a definition of collective intentionality.

[4] I say it at this point prior to arguing for deontic powers because the notion of deontic powers, to Searle, are contingent on the possibility of collective intentionality, so he cannot appeal to those deontic powers, among them commitment to cooperate. It is a defective way of arguing. I will explain this more later.

[5] David P. Schweikard and Hans Bernhard Schmid formulate the latter problem as such: ““Collective Intentionality”

[6] Barry Smith also shows that collectivity or at least some social facts can exist independent from participants’ intentions and beliefs. For instance, he gives inflation in market as an example that shows a collective action does not require for participant to believe it or even recognize it.

[7] Dan Fitzpatrick levels the same criticism against Searle’s internalist notion of collective intentionality. In “The Self-defeating nature of Internalism with Respect to Social Facts” (2003) he believes that collective intentionality is an inconsistent notion since it is grounded on internalist factors. To him, there is no doubt that we-intention initially happens in people’s mind, but this account is not adequate to explain collective action as a social reality. He shows the inconsistency by providing a counterexample that shows since collective intentionality is grounded on the mental state of participants in some cases, like legal battle over whether a contract was struck or not, the participants can deny the fact that any contract took place between them.

[8] He continues his discussion by saying that, “You do not need a promise in order to have collective intentionality.” It is surprising that Searle thinks that promise making is not necessary for collective intentionality, since in the second example of HBS, he believes that since participants enter into a pact, then it is a collective intentionality and, therefore, fundamentally different from the first example of HBS. As I understand pact, even informal, it implies some level of promise making. It is impossible to imagine making a sincere pact without making a promise. About the second case of HBS and why it is different than the first case he says, “But one might object, What difference does it make? After all, we supposed that the behavior is exactly the same in the two cases. In each case, each individual tries to help humanity by becoming as rich as he or she can. There is a tremendous difference in the two cases because in the second case there is an obligation assumed by each individual member. In the first case, the individuals have no pact or promise to act this way. If someone changes his or her mind, that person if free to drop out as any point and go to work for the Peace Corps. But in the second case, there is a solemn promise made by each to all the others” (MSW 48). Emphasis is mine.

Works Cited

Bratman, Michael. “Shared Cooperative Activity” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 101, No. 2. 327-341. 1992.

Fitzpatrick, Dan. “The Self-defeating nature of Internalism with Respect to Social Facts” American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol. 63, No.1. 45-66. 2003. Print.

Meijers, W. M .“Can Collective Intentionality Be Individualized?” American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol. 63, No.1. 167-183. 2003. Print.

Schweikard, David. Hans Bernard Schmid. “Collective Intentionality” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2013. Online.

Searle, John. Making Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford Press. 2010. Print.

Searle, John. “Collective Intentions and Actions,” in P. Cohen, J. Morgan, and M.E. Pollack (eds.), Intentions in Communication, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1990.

Smith, Barry. ““Searle and De Soto; The Ontology of the Social World,” 35-51. 2008. Print.

Tollefsen, Deborah. “From Extended Mind to Collective Mind,” Cognitive System Research 7. 140-150. 2006. Print.

Petersson, Björn. “Collectivity and Circularity.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 104, No. 3. 138-156. 2007.

Zaibert, L. “Collective Intentions and Collective Intentionality.” Journal of Economics and Sociology, 209-232. Vol. 62, No. 1. 2003. Print.


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