Ontology of Art


David Davies in his article, “The Primacy of Practice in the Ontology of Art,” tries to defend Julian Dodd’s “simple view.” Although he thinks that Dodd’s position on simple view is articulated and persuasive, but he believes that Dodd’s reasons for defending the simple view is insufficient.
The simple view tries to answer two fundamental questions; 1) To what ontological categorical artworks belong? 2) Identity question, i.e., under what conditions an artwork is the same. According to the simple view, the musical works are type-token, which is, eternal “sound-sequence event.” Since musical works are viewed as eternal sounds, then the act of composition and notation are not created but are a matter of discovery. To the second question, it states that, as Dodd affirms, “according to sonicism, when it comes to the individuation of works of music, all that matters is how they sound” (Dodd 9).

Davies brands his ontology of art as “aesthetic empiricism,” a view that maintains an aesthetic experience is consists of an immediate encounter with an instance of work of art and a “knowledge of the category of art to which the work belongs” (161). This view contrasts with the view of Dodd, with endorses type-token theory. Dodd believes his theory has an advantage of two essential feature of music, which is repeatability and audibility. Davies believes that Dodd’s ontology posits what he calls it “pragmatic constrain,” according to which “it does not require that ontology conform to our practice per se, but to those features of our practice that we deem acceptable on reflection” (162). The role of pragmatic constrain is normative, and its role is to correct our practices of art by showing us what kind of properties we can rightly ascribe to artworks. Hence, it gives us an evaluative tool to exclude works that do not meet true ontological requirements. In contrast Davies believes that ontology of art should make the artistic practices its primacy.

For Davies, the problem of individuation can be solved on the bases of the identity of the of the properties normative for their proper appreciation” (170). Despite what Dodd assumes, Davies states, the starting point should not be categorical questions and then consider the questions regarding individuation of works. Davies’ approach starting point is to understand what is already established as artwork. Then tries to build an ontology of art based on observing what is already established. However, one problem with Davies, if I have understood him correctly, is that we see artwork through our aesthetic lenses that direct our attention to a certain ontology of art; consequently, those lenses ascribe the properties to the artwork. As a result, in the artwork we see what we want to see. Therefore, we appreciate what we already had in mind rather than what the artwork represents. I found Dodd’s position more realistic for it acknowledges the fact that we do not look at artwork with a mind without a theory; therefore, we need to have a set of normative tools to show us how to appreciate the work of art. Indeed, a normative ontology can help us to individuate artworks in a more effective way. Furthermore, if we merely rely of primacy of practice, we would have hard time to appreciate innovative art since it is not part of what is already established as art.


What is Art?


Philosophers for a long time have contemplated the question of “What sort of things are artworks?” In one one the recent attempts to respond to this fundamental question, Amie Thomasson in her article “Debates about the Ontology of Art: What Are We Doing Here?” revisits the ontological questions regarding works of art. In her inquiry, she wants to know what sort of thing is the artwork and what are the conditions of identity and conditions of persistence of the work of art?

To answer these questions, Thomasson’s makes a fundamental assumption, i.e., artworks are not content-specific. Philosophers have located artworks in a variety of categories, such as objects, events, actions, abstract objects, and so on. Which ontological view do we need to accept? Thomasson’s answer is that “the rules of use for sortal terms like “painting” and “symphony” establish what ontological sorts of thing we are referring to with those terms.” Consequently, to resolve the ontological debates about these sortal terms we need to employ a form of conceptual analysis.

Since artworks are not content-specifying entities; locating artworks in either of these possible categories would be misleading. Artworks can be physical or abstract objects, performances, or combinations of both. This quality of artworks makes the ontological status of art complex. The view that sees artworks as physical objects fails sees a piece of music, a novel, or poem as art. By the same token, the reductionist view that sees artworks as purely abstract objects excludes a wide range of artworks. However, a more comprehensive method will include physical and abstract objects.


Thomasson admit that some artworks are abstract, but she defines abstract in a new way. Abstract, despite what philosophers thought, she asserts, are not eternal and detached from human activities. They are created and are spatiotemporal.

She believes before answering questions like “When does a painting survive?” and “Must a novel be created?” we need to know what kind of ontological sort of things the terms “painting” and “novel” pick out. We can answer this latter question by an analysis of concepts of those who ground and reground the reference of the term. The grand question such as “what is the ontological status of artworks?” is not answerable, to Thomasson.

Thomasson replaces the question of ontological status of art with a linguistic question. For she believes that the question of ontology of art is not answerable. The category of art is like a gift, which encompasses a wide range of entities, including physical or abstract. Hence, she defends a pluralistic ontology of art, which its content is determined by the competent user. She maintains that her methodology can answer identity conditions and persistence conditions better than its rival theories. Furthermore, if we divide the question of ontology of art into smaller questions such as ontology of symphony or ontology of painting, the problem is that these inquiries will go beyond the limit of traditional philosophy and are more problematic.

The question that Thomasson’s approach raises is that how we can correct our ontological belief if we make defective judgments about either artworks or art kinds? Is there any other criterion, beside the artistic practice, to show us if we go wrong? If the ontology of art is determined by the rules of use, it is not clear how we can make judgment about the rules of use themselves, since the rules of use do not provide any criteria for determining the rules of use.


Ontology of Art?

What Art Is by Arthur C. DantoArthur Danto in his paper “The Artworld” (2003) discusses the nature of art. His starting point is criticizing what he calls the Socratic notion of art, which views art as an attempt to mirror appearances of objects. According to Danto this notion of art, or as he calls it “imitation theory of art (IT),” has dominated the history of art. The merit of this theory is that it simplifies the complexity of art history by bringing a wide range of human creations under a conceptual umbrella as artworks; however, it has its own defections. Domination of IT throughout history, Danto maintains, has led to prejudices against new artistic creativities, considering them as deviant, pervert, or even inept art, for instance, in the case of post-impressionist paintings. Accepting the post-impressionist artworks was due to a theory change.

A major paradigm shift in the  history of art was when the imitation theory of art was replaced by an opposite theory, which posited that art is not imitation of reality but creating a new reality. In this respect, the artist’s creations had the same ontological status as reality itself, and the artist viewed as a person who had a godly power to create new things ex nihilo. Danto maintains that the way we need to understand today’s art is not through IT but the non-imitative theory that is the theory of art that emerged in the post-impressionist era.

However, if imitation of reality is not a necessary condition for art, Danto asks, then what distinguishes between a piece of art and an artifact? For example, is Rauschenberg’s bed hanging on a wall a mere artifact or a piece of art? His bed in fact imitates bed in real life. According to IT, his bed is imitative, though, imitation of an artifact. However, according RT, his bed is a piece of art real, which has the same ontological status as a real bed. In fact, Rauschenberg’s bed has no similar function as an artifact bed. However, it does not have similar function since people do not ascribe this function to it, or they do not use it as an artifact. So it seem that an element of identification of a thing as artwork is recognition of the artist or audience. Therefore, the social and cultural context of artworks becomes a determining factor whether an object is an artwork or not, a notion that give birth to art as a socially constructed phenomenon. As Danto puts it, “ To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of history of art; an artwork” (580). What makes something art is the previous contexts that allow it to be viewed as a piece of art. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes are a good example of this ontology of art. In 1964, Warhol placed bunch of Brillo boxes on top of each other in the corner of exhibition as a piece of art, which made many wonder about the nature of modern art.

Brillo Box by Andy Warhol

The same issues arise when we take Andy Warhol’s display of Brillo boxes. What make us to think that they are art? I think when we rule out the fact that there is nothing intrinsically about a thing that makes it a piece of art, then we are inclined to argue for subjectivity or intersubjective of ontology of art. In fact, this path that Danto takes is the predominant ontology of modern art. In the case of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, he maintains that there is no difference between a Brillo box and Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and what makes us to consider Warhol’s boxes art is “a certain theory of art” (581). It is the theories of art that enable us to locate certain things in the realm of art, or as he calls it “worldart.” Without these theories, objects will fall into the realm of brute objects. Danto’s analysis of artworks reminds me of Heidegger’s hammer example. Heidegger says that a hammer for a different culture that does not have exposes to it, a hammer can be an artwork, while for us it is a tool with certain functions. For Danto theories of art, like Midas that by touching objects turned them into pure gold, transform objects into artworks.

If Danto’s subjectivist ontology of art is true, then a piece of art is nothing but an appendix to intertwined historical and theoretical contexts. To Danto, if an object fits in these contexts, and they are displayed in respectful galleries, then they are art. This reductionist ontology of art strips off many valuable and essential features of art that those theoretical and socio-historical contexts fail to recognize.

The Regime of Martyrdom

The link is to my M.A. thesis (2012) that analyzes the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) as a vehicle to build a new Shi’a sovereignty in Iran.

The Regime of Martyrdom: mechanisms of inventing a Shi’a Sovereignty during in Iran-Iraq war 

Woman and Martyrdom


The Islamic republic of Iran, in its current formation, is rooted in the power relations that the Iran-Iraq War generated. However, scholarship on the Iran-Iraq War with respect to building a new Shi’a sovereignty in the post-revolutionary Iran is an uncharted territory. This research explains the rationale and function of the war, as a state of exception, with respect to creating a new Shi’a sovereignty through inventing a brand-new form of manhood and womanhood. This form of sovereignty building necessitated a mechanism of inventing a new female and male body. In fact, because during the war the notion and practice of sacrifice, in the form of martyrdom, was the central driving force of making a new Shi’a sovereignty, this thesis attempts to explain the sacrificial origins of the Islamic republic. In other words, the central concern of this research is, “How did practices and power relations generated by the war around martyrdom give birth to a new Shi’a sovereignty?”

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.


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