One of the consistently best sites on the Internet for thoughtful reviews of worthwhile books is Metapsychology Online Reviews, edited by Christian Perring. A standout in the current issue is George Tudorie's review of Michael Tomasello's A Natural History of Human Thinking.
Tomasello is co-director of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the author of several influential books on the evolutionary origins of human cognition, language use, and cooperation. Tudorie explains the problem being addressed in A Natural History like this:
From early on, human children are quite different from the progeny of even closely related animals, like chimps. They are, for example, much more inclined to cooperate (manifesting the rudiments of 'prosocial' behavior), and seem driven to understand what goes on in others' minds way before they could master anything like the mature repertoire of concepts applicable to a thinking being. What makes human babies and infants unique in this way?
And the solution Tomasello proposes is to borrow an idea from philosophy: specifically, the notion of collective intentionality. The issue at stake,as Tudorie explains it:
Philosophers were interested in demystifying the apparent 'merging' of minds involved in such impressive coordination as that exhibited by a symphonic orchestra, but also in more prosaic events such as jump starting a car by dividing labor between pushing the vehicle and working its clutch. In philosophy, this was perceived as a problem only in the context of a more general challenge, that of linking intention, supposedly an instance of the 'inner', and action, which is overt. The problem of collective action seemed harder, since it involved a certain 'meshing' . . . of intentions in separate individuals. If I act alone, my intentions control, or are reflected by, my actions; but when we act together there seems to be a need for my intentions to inform your actions and vice versa. How could that be, since presumably I can only intend what I myself could attempt?
Versions of solutions to this problem have been proposed by Michael Bratman and John Searle, among others. (Bratman explains his solution in this lecture.) Tomasello's adaptation of the "shared intentionality hypothesis" into evolutionary psychology includes elements of both.
Tudorie refers to above-described problem as a "somewhat marginal philosophical conundrum," and suggests that it may be "a badly formulated problem to begin with." His more important critique of Tomasello, though, is that this borrowing represents a misuse of a philosophical analysis:
These changes are described, as in previous works by the Max Planck group, on the lines of the criteria suggested by Michael Bratman for 'joint cooperative action' -- this is the basis for what Tomasello calls 'joint intentionality'. However, while Bratman was asking what defines genuine cooperation, Tomasello reifies the defining criteria and reads them as specific adaptations.
. . .
The heavily psychologized theory of early cooperation [Tomasello's account] is based on -- effectively forcing Bratman's functional description of familiar interactions of competent contemporary adults into the role of evolutionary psychological speculation about (at best) protolinguistic hominids -- remains a weakness. One can hardly begin to ask questions of plausibility regarding the emergence of 'joint intentionality' if this very concept is ill-suited for describing adaptive transformations driven by natural selection. As things stand, this seems to be the case. Any intelligible notion of sharing thoughts already requires such a sophisticated understanding of mental life that to posit it as the root of human thinking -- and not as its culmination -- begs the question.
Other works under review in the current issue of Metapsychology include
Philosophy of Biology (Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy)(Peter Godfrey-Smith)
Foucault Now (Current Perspectives in Foucault Studies) (James Faubion, ed.)
Evolved Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience
(Frans B.M. de Waal, Patricia Smith Churchland, et al., eds.)
The Aesthetic Mind: Philosophy and Psychology (Elisabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie, eds.)
Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
(Daniel K. Gardner)
And finally, one of the books that Tudorie cites in his review of Tomasello gets the prize for Book Title of the Week:
Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition
Artwork by Jfderry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Adam Arnold says
Thank you for the post. Quick question: You report George Tudorie as reporting that issues of collective intentionality is a “somewhat marginal philosophical conundrum.” This seems a bit ambiguous. Is it a marginal philosophical conundrum for the developmental psychology? Or, is it that collective intentionality is a marginal philosophical conundrum in and of itself? And why is the issues surrounding collective intentionality possibly ‘a badly formulated problem to begin with’? This comment suggestions a reading that the ‘philosophical conundrum’ is marginal in itself. I would be curious as to why this would be. There is a good argument to be had that it is fundamental to the philosophy of social science as well as practical philosophy.
Thanks for your comment. I do have the hunch that there’s something fishy about the way the problem is formulated, but at the moment it’s nothing more than I hutch. I’m currently reading some of the literature on the topic and trying to think it through; it may take me a little while. In the meantime, maybe you can keep the conversation going by saying why you think the problem is fundamental to the philosophy of the social sciences and practical philosophy.
Adam Arnold says
The issue of collective intentionality is fundamentally about how it is possible that a group of individuals can cooperate together when there is no Nash equilibrium. There is one view which see this as Hobbes’s question in Hobbes’s Leviathan. The problem for political philosophy, I think, is quite clear: how is it possible for people who disagree carry out a collective enterprise? One possible way to answer this question is to go through issues of collective intentionality. Most of the leading theories other than Bratman’s (e.g., Searle’s, Margaret Gilbert’s and Raimo Tuomela’s) all have room for collective intentionality to be independent individuals intentions and beliefs. This then leads to fundamental questions of the philosophy of social science as well. Namely, these debates can be seen as a new iteration of the debate between Durkheim and Weber about holism and individualism. Bratman’s view is clearly in the Weberian tradition of individualism. The other theories have a much more interesting perspective and follow more in the Durkhiemian tradition (Gilbert explicitly doing so) in viewing ‘social facts’ as “consist[ing] of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.”
George Tudorie says
Dear Adam & Alan,
I was surprised to read this post. Thank you. A few quick words about what you found puzzling in my review. It seems to me Searle put the debate on the wrong footing in the 1990, when his social ontology started to make waves. It transformed cooperation (or more to the point attempts at cooperating) in almost mysterious happenings underlined by an implausible machinery of special intentional states. At least between competent adults, cooperation is not that opaque, really. But things are quite different in a developmental scenario, where you need a solid independent justification for diagnosing something like a Bratmanian meshing of states in young children. So, to put it bluntly, what I think I see in this growing literature is a secondary issue in the theory of action (and it is secondary compared e.g. to a Davidsonian menu) derailed and misused as jargon in parts of developmental psychology where it can’t have an explanatory contribution (badly formulated problem: how come babies cooperate early? they just don’t, in the required sense). As for the use of this conceptual apparatus in political philosophy, it doesn’t seem very promising to me. Yes, the analogies, to some extent, are there, but Bratman at least is more lucid – modest sociality, symmetric small group, small scale exchanges,, rather than large scale, thoroughly normative interaction, as in political behavior.
Alan Cook says
Would you be interested in writing a guest post on this issue? We’re looking for writers.
George Tudorie says
Sure, I could try a post on shared intentionality. I probably won’t have time to spare until mid to late October though. I had to fill in my e-mail to post comments here – if it’s visible to you, please send me some details about the format, word limit etc.