Collective intentionality is the power of minds to be jointly directed at objects, matters of fact, states of affairs, goals, or values. Collective intentionality comes in a variety of modes, including shared intention, joint attention, shared belief, collective acceptance, and collective emotion. Collective intentional attitudes permeate our everyday lives, for instance when two or more agents look after or raise a child, campaign for a political party, or cheer for a sports team.
The study of collective intentionality is the study of intentionality in the social context. What is distinctive about the study of collective intentionality within the broader study of social interactions and structures is its focus on the conceptual and psychological features of joint or shared actions and attitudes, that is, actions and attitudes of (or apparent attributions of such to) groups or collectives, their relations to individual actions and attitudes, and their implications for the nature of social groups and their functioning.
In the 20th century, the likes of Wilfrid Sellars and Anthony Quinton noted the existence of “We-Intentions” amid broader discussion of the concept of intentionality, and thus laid the groundwork for the focused philosophical analysis of collective intentionality that began in the late 1980s.
Collective acceptance is a central presupposition for the creation of a language, and of a whole world of symbols, institutions, and social status. Shared evaluative attitudes provide us with a conception of the common good. In virtue of this, we can reason from the perspective of our groups, and conceive of ourselves in terms of our social identities and social roles. This again enables us to constitute group agents such as business enterprises, universities, or political parties.
The main philosophical challenge connected with the analysis of collective intentionality is in the tension within the expression “individuals as a group”. It can be spelled out as a contradiction between the following two widely accepted claims (the Central Problem):
- Collective intentionality is no simple summation, aggregate, or distributive pattern of individual intentionality (the Irreducibility Claim);
- Collective intentionality is had by the participating individuals, and all the intentionality an individual has is his or her own (the Individual Ownership Claim).
Contemporary philosophical discussion of collective intentionality was initiated by Raimo Tuomela and Kaarlo Miller’s “We-Intentions”. In this paper, Tuomela and Miller assert three conditions necessary for a collective intention, highlighting the importance of beliefs among the agents of the group. After citing examples that are commonly accepted as requiring more than one member to participate (carrying a table upstairs, playing tennis, toasting to a friend, conversing, etc.), they state their criteria:
A member (A) of a collective (G) we-intends to do a group action (X) if and only if:
- (A) intends to do his or her part of X
- (A) believes that accomplishing X is possible and that all members of G intend to do their part towards accomplishing X
- (A) believes that all the members of G also believe that accomplishing X is possible.
John Searle’s 1990 paper, “Collective Intentions and Actions” offers another interpretation of collective action. In contrast to Tuomela and Miller, Searle claims that collective intentionality is a “primitive phenomenon, which cannot be analyzed as the summation of individual intentional behavior”. He exemplifies the fundamental distinction between “I-intentions” and “We-intentions” by comparing the hypothetical case of a set of picnickers and a dance troupe.
Michael Bratman’s 1992 paper “Shared Cooperative Activity”, contends that shared cooperative activity (SCA) can be reduced to “I-intentions”. In other words, just as an individual can plan to act by him or herself, that same individual can also plan for a group to act. With this in mind, he presents three characteristics of shared cooperative activity:
- Each participant must be mutually responsive to the intentions and actions of the others,
- The participants must each be committed to the joint activity,
- The participants must each be committed to supporting the efforts of the others.
Collective intentionality is a rapidly growing interdisciplinary area of research that draws on philosophy, logic, linguistics, cognitive science, sociology, computer science, psychology, economics, political science, legal theory, and cultural and evolutionary anthropology.