Alfarabi on Euthyphro: Religion and Happiness

ConversationAlfarabi’s comment on Euthyphro (Εὐθύφρων), despite its brevity, I think, is extremely important for understanding his Plato. Alfarabi’s view about Plato’s corpus is anti-developmentalist, i.e., he does not hold the view that Plato’s philosophy develops or progresses from the early to later dialogues. Alfarabi talks about “philosophy of Plato” and understands it as a unified philosophy that is guided by some fundamental interrelated questions. Alfarabi thus explains this unified philosophy in his Philosophy of Plato. To him, each dialogue pursues certain aspects of the guiding questions. To Alfarabi, Plato’s major philosophical inquiry evolves around a central question about the possibility of perfection of man or happiness.

            Euthyphro is a dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutor Euthyphro, a priest, about the definition of piety or holiness (τὸ ὅσιον) that takes place in the court. Socrates asks his interlocutor the reason for which he appeared in the court. He tells Socrates that he has brought a charge of manslaughter against his father whose neglect has caused the death of their worker. The worker earlier had killed one of their slaves, so his father tied the worker and put him in a ditch then sent someone to a priest to decide what to do with the worker. In the meantime, the tied worker dies in the ditch (3e-4e). Expressing his shock, Socrates asks him if bringing charges against his father would be an act of piety. Socrates himself is in the court since there is a charge of impiety against him. Because Euthyphro claims that he knows what piety is, Socrates expresses his willingness to learn from Euthyphro in the hope that he will be able to use Euthyphro’s knowledge of piety and impiety to assist him in defending himself against the charge of impiety. However, it is extremely doubtful that Socrates believes that Euthyphro posses this knowledge.[1] To Socrates, if Euthyphro does not have sufficient knowledge of piety, then he cannot defend prosecuting his father as an act of piety. To know whether his act is pious or not first he needs to have a robust knowledge of piety. It seems that Euthyphro, prior to his conversation with Socrates, is confident that he has the knowledge, specifically the divine knowledge, which he thinks, supplies knowledge of piety. Euthyphro’s knowledge-claim about piety problematizes the notion of piety for Socrates; hence, he wants to test Euthyphro’s knowledge-claim of piety. Along with the former inquiry, he wants to know if Euthyphro’s knowledge, or knowledge-claim, of the divine is sufficient to know whether prosecuting his father is pious or impious.[2]

Euthyphro, as a priest, is supposed to know the meaning of piety, perhaps, better than anyone else. However, he is puzzled with Socrates’s cross-examinations of the various definitions of piety that he presents. The fact that he has no clear definition of the notion, which is in the core of his profession, is another attempt from Socrates’s part to show that many knowledge-claims are in fact unjustified beliefs, and how people’s practices are based on false beliefs, a fact that disqualifies them for the job that they perform in their society. Socrates’s whole profession is to reveal to the belief holders how their knowledge-claims are baseless. Revealing ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, and philosophic dialogue serves this purpose the best, to Socrates. Throughout his dialogue with Socrates, Euthyphro presents several definitions of piety that get rejected by Socrates. Euthyphro in one instance defines piety as what is dear to the gods and impious as what the gods hate (9e1-2). Socrates problematizes this definition of piety by saying, “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or it is pious because it is being loved by the gods?” (10a2-3). After revealing Euthyphro’s flawed definitions of piety at the end of dialogue, Socrates does not present a definition of piety, and Euthyphro is left with his puzzlements about the nature of piety and whether what he does is an act of piety or not. However, Alfarabi sees the purpose of Euthyphro as a dialogue about the adequacy of religion to supply the knowledge required for happiness. Alfarabi maintains that Plato’s position is that religion is inadequate to supply the knowledge of happiness.

In Philosophy of Plato, Alfarabi makes the reader believe that 1) The true happiness is possible 2) The knowledge that leads to this happiness is possible and accessible to us 3) The approach that leads to this knowledge is philosophical inquiry. He rejects that religion can supply the knowledge necessary to happiness. About Euthyphro, Alfarabi says, “He [Plato] began to investigate whether religious speculation and the religious investigation of the beings supply this knowledge and that desired way of life; and whether the religious syllogistic art that conducts this kind of investigation of the beings and the ways of life supplies this knowledge, or does not supply it at all, or is not adequate for supplying this knowledge of the beings and this way of life. It became clear to him, further, how much knowledge of the beings and knowledge of the ways of life is supplied by religious investigation and the religious syllogistic art, and that the amount they supply is not sufficient. All this is to be found in the Euthyphron (the name of a man)—On Piety” (PP sec.12).[3]

It is a charming interpretation of Euthyphro. In fact, it is not only charming, but it explains the role of the dialogue and its relevancy among Plato’s corpus. As Alfarabi mentions, piety is the subject of the dialogue that Socrates has with Euthyphro who is a priest and therefore he supposed to know the meaning of piety better than anybody else. Contrary to our expectation, Euthyphro has an inadequate knowledge about the central notion of his profession. However, Alfarabi reads more to the dialogue and sees the priest as the embodiment of the religious knowledge that is incapable of supplying the sufficient knowledge that true happiness requires. Alfarabi through this interpretation of Euthyphro alludes to the inevitable tension between religion and philosophy. The tension arises from the fact that each one claims to possess the knowledge and way of life that produce happiness. To Alfarabi, the way of religion and the way of philosophy never meet. He expands on this latter point in his discussion about the state of religious knowledge and philosophical knowledge in the soul. This latter point requires another inquiry and space. However, what is clear is that he attributes to Plato the idea that religion cannot supply the sufficient knowledge that happiness requires. The crucial point about Alfarabi’s interpretation of Plato is that medieval thinkers often expressed their own ideas in their commentaries on other thinkers, mostly Plato and Aristotle that had the most authority in their intellectual context. It also is true about Alfarabi. We can say with high confidence that it is Alfarabi’s belief that religion is inadequate to supply knowledge required for the true happiness. Alfarabi sees Socrates’s criticism of the Greek gods expandable in content and applicable to Islam and perhaps to all Abrahamic religions. Unlike Plato in Euthyphro, his critique is not limited to the justice of gods, but it is about religions’ capability to realize happiness. What both Plato and Alfarabi shares is a belief about the limit of divine knowledge to supply knowledge about concepts, such as piety for Socrates, that are central to religions. In this respect, a philosopher, as far as he believes in the limit of religious knowledge and questions the generally accepted opinions about divinity, is impious in the eye of the multitude.

Another important point we need to make with respect to Alfarabi’s view on religion is that he does not say that religion does not supply any knowledge regarding happiness at all, but he says that the knowledge that religion supplies is inadequate for achieving happiness only. Religion supplies the knowledge for those who are incapable of doing philosophy. It is this inadequacy of religion that makes it subordinate to philosophy.

Amin Sophiamehr


[1] It does not mean that Socrates possesses the knowledge of piety or impiety, but it is certain that, to Socrates, the commonly accepted beliefs about piety, and many other notions, are false.

[2] Socrates says, “Whereas by Zeus, Euthyphro, you think that your knowledge of the divine, and of piety and impiety, is so accurate that, when those things happened as you say, you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?”(4e4-7).

[3] Alfarabi’s tone in his Philosophy of Plato is such that to persuade the reader that the perfection of man is not only possible, but also the knowledge and art that brings about this realization is accessible to us. For instance, in sec.22, he describes Plato beliefs that the knowledge produces true happiness is philosophy and the way of life that leads this happiness is political art. However, Philosophy of Plato’s structure and sequence of arguments as well as the hints that Alfarabi gives in the same work cast doubts on these possibilities.


Alfarabi. 2001. Alfarabi: Attainment of Happiness, Philosophy of Plato, and Aristotle. Translated by Muhsin Mahdi. Ithaca, NY: Cornel University Press.

Plato. Euthyphro. In “Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Pheado.” Second Edit. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2002.


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