Monday, June 13, 2016

Digging your garden alone or Do pure individual intentions and actions exist?

A hot issue in the philosophy of action today is whether there is such a thing as collective intentionality and if so how it works. Collective intentionality is the idea that in some way we can ascribe intentions to groups and other collectivities, just as we do to individual agents. The phenomenon is discussed under different names like shared intention (Bratman), joint commitment (Gilbert) or we-intention (Tuomela). The main problem in ascribing intentions to groups is that the actual performers of what groups do are the individuals they are composed of and that only these individuals can be the bearers of intentions, for where else should a collective intention be stored than in the brains and minds of the group members? Recently I have written an extensive article on the matter that I’ll publish soon on my website and on (you find the abstract already here: I’ll tell you not yet my conclusions, although you can guess what they are from what I have written in my blogs. Here I want to discuss the opposite problem: In the analytical philosophy of action it is generally supposed that individuals have intentions but whether groups have is controversial. But do individual intentions really exist, at least in their pure form, or are they actually more or less collective? That’s what I want to examine now. By doing so, I want to go one step further than the view – discussed in former blogs – that many individual intentions are not as individual as they seem on the face of it and that they suppose the actions of others. I’ll state here that there are simply no pure individual actions.
Say, I have a garden behind my house, where I want to grow vegetables. However, it’s overgrown with weeds and before I am going to sow the lettuce, beets, beans and carrots, I want to dig it and change the little field into a nice piece of black soil with seed-beds. So I walk to the shed behind my house, take a spade, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over and make the seed-beds. Then I sow the vegetables. I do it all alone. Anyway, that’s what most people think, but is it so? Leaving aside that I had to buy or rent the piece of land where I make the garden, how did I get my spade and other garden tools I need? How did I get the seed? How did I get the knowledge how to make a garden and grow my own food? I think you have already guessed what I am going to say: I bought the garden tools in a shop, I ordered the seed on the Internet, and I learned gardening from a book. Even if I intended to make the garden alone, I couldn’t avoid that others were involved in it. Everything I planned to do in my garden supposed already that there were others who had done some groundwork for me like making a spade and producing seed. Or did you do all this yourself? Did you go to the wood, took a piece of wood and turned it into a spade by using a sharp stone you had found there? And did you collect the seed from wild plants? But how did you get the idea that you can make a garden? Did you invent it yourself like neolithic man some 20.000 years ago (but even this prehistoric man must have developed the idea of gardening in cooperation with his fellow men). Unless you are a Robinson Crusoe on an island and haven’t met yet your Friday (and maybe I must add: haven’t had a father and a mother) everything you want to do supposes a kind of – maybe hidden or under-the-surface –relationship to others and what others have planned and performed. Nobody can live and survive alone. Of course, not all allegedly individual intentions and the actions based on them include the intentions and actions of others in the same degree. In some the individual contribution is bigger, while others suppose more preparatory work by other agents. However, the upshot is that in the end there are no pure individual intentions. Max Weber famously defined “social action” as an agent’s behaviour that is meaningfully orientated towards the behaviour of one or more other agents. If we extend the agent’s intentions to the actions he or she performs we can say that in this way all individual actions are social but some actions are more social than other actions.

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