Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Explaining Collective Intentionality. (Criticisms and Reconstructions)

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Explaining Collective Intentionality. (Criticisms and Reconstructions)

Article excerpt


Introducing We-Intentionality

SEARLE'S NEW BOOK THE CONSTRUCTION OF SOCIAL REALITY (The Free Press, New York, 1995; to be referenced in this paper by page number) is a significant contribution to social ontology: original, refreshing, and thought-provoking. It is accessible to a much wider audience than usual analytic books are. (I have tried it on undergraduates and it works; I have discussed it with history teachers and they were quite enthusiastic about the ideas.) This accessibility is important, especially given the amount of philosophical confusion in social sciences; let us hope the book will have a salutary effect. I must say I agree with the main line of thought, as I see it: namely, with the project of explaining institutional facts, the most puzzling of all social facts, in terms of more elementary building-blocks, that is, agent(s) intentionality and status-bestowing acts. I find the discussion of objectivity--and the distinction between epistemic and ontological variety--congenial and enlightening. (Let me, however, note the existence of interesting and promising alternatives, most recently the ecological one proposed by B. Smith in his "Social Objects" [unpublished ins]). I disagree however, about the nature of the ultimate building blocks, that is, about the nature and status of we-intentionality, and this brings me to the present topic.

In this brief note I wish to critically discuss Searle's claim that we-intentionality is biologically primitive and irreducible. In order to do this, I shall first put it in a wider perspective, indicating (what I think is) its place within the whole of Searle's project of social ontology. I shall put aside the important issue of objectivity, where I have no disagreements with him, and concentrate upon the construction part.

Searle's project is to reconstruct institutional reality, which is philosophically challenging, starting from less problematic material, that is, from intentionality of social agents. (He writes, for instance: "By stipulation I will henceforward use the expression 'social fact' to refer to any fact involving collective intentionality." [p. 26]). Institutional facts have many problematic features: they involve human thought, often derive from performatives whose ontological efficiency might look like a piece of magic, and often involve seW-referential, impredicative features such as "to be money is to be regarded as money." Finally, they threaten philosophical understanding with a combination of complexity and deceptive obviousness. Searle explains the obviousness in an elegant way, through mutual adaptations of institutions and men who live in and through them. He deals with complexity in an exquisitely reductionist way: complex facts are produced by combinations and iterations of simple acts and facts derivi ng from them. If I get Searle right, the self-referentiality of institutional properties does not result in circularity, since it is less than mandatory: to be money is to be treated as an object with such-and-such properties, hence no need to mention money again in the definition of money (p. 52). Close to the basic level, we have imposition of functions and the empowerment of individuals to bestow functions in the name of their collective. The air of mystery thus gets progressively dispelled. The bottom line of social reality is the collective intentionality: thoughts and intentions of human groups. Such collective thoughts and intentions are the very building blocks, nay, even defining features, of social reality. Searle calls them we-intentions. (We shall accordingly call the collective belief of the form "We believe" we-belief and the intention of the form "We intend" we-intention [WI].)

Let me mention at the outset that it is important to separate the issue of how the we-intentionality building blocks fit together to create wider social reality from the issue of their internal nature and structure. …

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