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SSPT Profiles – Richard Weir

October 17, 2014

Over the coming weeks we will be publishing a series of profiles of the fine graduate students whose hard work makes the journal possible. The idea is to give an insight into the research being conducted by all of us, in what is hopefully a more interesting and revealing format than those short university bios that everyone has and nobody reads. Sort of like an answer to that question, ‘so, what is your research on’, if you were asked in the pub and happened to have a laptop to hand.

As editor I have the unenviable task of going first. I hope you enjoy and don’t forget to keep checking back for profiles written by people whose research is far more interesting than my own!

For the most part my PhD has followed a course that I am sure will be familiar to many doctoral students. I began working on a quite specific topic that I had originally become acquainted with during my undergraduate, and gradually became increasingly frustrated with almost everything written on the subject until I decided that it was all wrong and that a fresh start was needed.

The specific topic in question is generally known as collective intentionality—a subject with either a very short or a very long backstory, depending on how you choose to look at it. The long story situates the idea within a line of questioning that has festered at the heart of social theory, in all of its guises, for the best part of the last century and a half: If we are trying to examine and understand society, what exactly are we looking at? What are the units of analysis? And what does it mean to do something socially or collectively? On the other hand the short story only goes back 20 years or so, and points to the foundational work of several key authors (most notably John Searle, Margaret Gilbert, Raimo Tuomela, and Michael Bratman), who started talking about the idea of collective intentions as a possible response to the methodology that had come to dominate mainstream sociology at the time: individualism. Where the latter posited that when studying society the only units of analysis available to the theorist were individuals, collective intentionality argued that the ability of individuals to form intentions that did not relate to them only as individuals, but ranged over groups of which they were members, meant that groups could very often be valid objects of study in their own right.

As some see it, one of the biggest problems for this theory is how little of individualism it actually wants to give up. While the whole point of collective intentionality is to provide a basis for a sound alternative methodology, this soundness is achieved by giving up as little of individualism as possible (individualism being perceived as lacking in numerous respects, but ultimately a solid foundation), and steering clear of the strongly collectivist areas of thought that John Searle described as ‘ontologically mysterious’.

While I share these reservations, I do not feel that they strike at the heart of what is truly unconvincing about the idea of collective intentionality. After all, the attempt to carve a middle path between the two extremes of individualism and collectivism can easily be seen as the field’s greatest strength. I share the intuition that an answer to the question of what it means to act collectively is only going to be found in this fertile and hazy ground between individuality and the loss of that individuality wholly to the collective. The far bigger problem, as far as I am concerned, is that the idea of collective intentionality is completely unequipped to explore this murky territory, as much as it might desire to do so.

This problem is masked by frequent references to the term ‘we’. Thus, virtually every analysis of these supposedly collective intentions involves, at some level, some reference to ‘we’ (either the respective individuals in the collective think of themselves as a ‘we’ or their own individual thoughts make a reference to ‘we’ such that they are all linked). However, these references to ‘we’ are never themselves analysed. As such, what is missed is that the term ‘we’ is itself ambiguous between either an individualistic or collectivist reading. In other words, collective intentionality seeks the middle ground between the individual and the collective by relying on intentionality that makes reference to ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, but talk of ‘we’ is already suggestive of precisely this middle ground and requires its own analysis. The question that collective intentionality set out to answer has, therefore, been merely sublimated.

It is this critique that is the dominant focus of the first few chapters of my thesis (the chapters within which I find myself perennially stuck). I agree that individualism offers a thoroughly unsatisfactory analysis of society. And I agree that our analysis ought to be formed on ontologically solid foundations. But, I argue, it is because collective intentionality as an idea seeks to bypass crucial questions of subjectivity that must be at the heart of any such ontology that it fails. It fails to grapple with the question of what it means to be the possessor of an intentional state and what it would mean for a group, that is for a ‘we’, to be such a possessor. In no small part this is because, in taking individualism as its foundation, collective intentionality as an idea tends to take for granted the individual as the sovereign seat of subjectivity and casts off any suggestion to the contrary into the category of Searle’s ontologically mysterious collectivists.

In coming towards the latter stages of my PhD my focus has now turned towards offering some preliminary responses (or perhaps ‘gestures’ would be the more accurate description) of my own to these questions of subjectivity that I feel have been neglected. In this regard my work has followed what I view as two largely distinct, but complimentary trajectories. The first is focused on several fringe authors in the field who have tried to tackle questions of subjectivity and argue, at least in part, for its extension to groups (most notably Carol Rovane and Michael Bacharach). This work, I believe, can point us in the right direction, but unfortunately falls short in several key respects. The second trajectory is guided by my increasing conviction that only a phenomenologically minded approach can deal with the inherent ambiguity involved in thinking and acting collectively. In particular I have become fascinated with the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the idea of body intentionality. Some of this work is now being taken up in the cognitive sciences under the guise of embodied cognition, albeit in an inevitably watered-down way, and has begun to exert quite a lot of influence amongst those concerned with collectivity. What is crucial for me, however, is that this way of thinking allows us to begin to theorise both thought and subjectivity as features that are intrinsically extended out into the world. It allows us to detach these concepts from the sovereignty of the individual and therefore move further away from the limiting tenets of individualism that have had a largely negative impact on theories of collective intentionality to date.

So that is where things currently stand for me. In all likelihood, and if the past is anything to go by, I will have changed my mind completely by the end of the week. However, and as that most important of deadlines looms (the one where they won’t give me any more money), I hope to try and stick to the script- no matter what!


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