Monday, July 27, 2020

What is a group?

Everybody has the same intention, but do they form a group?
Farmer's demonstration in The Hague, Netherlands, 2019

One of the major problems in the philosophy of action is how it is possible that a group acts while actually the acts are performed by the members of the group. That was the theme of my blog last week. This problem can be solved, for instance, by ascribing intentions to groups and treat them as entities that perform actions. This is Tollefsen’s solution. However, what is the entity that we can ascribe intentions to? In other words, what is, what I want to call, an intentional group?
Michael E. Bratman, and actually also Margaret Gilbert, state that entities we can ascribe to collective intentions must be small. However, when is a collectivity is small enough to consider it as an intentional group? Let’s take Bratman. He says: “... my focus will be primarily on the shared intentional activities of small, adult groups in the absence of asymmetric authority relations within those groups, and in which the individuals who are participants remain constant over time. Further, I will bracket complexities introduced by the inclusion of the group within a specific legal institution such as marriage, or incorporation. My interest will be primarily with duets and quartets rather than symphony orchestras with conductors, with small teams of builders rather than large and hierarchical construction companies” (2014, p. 7)
In his analyses, Bratman considers only two-person groups. But why should it be so that what is true for two-person groups is also true for bigger groups like quartets if not for groups bigger than quartets? Bratman doesn’t justify his choice. Actually any upper-limit in group size will be arbitrary. We can change a quartet into a quintet and the philosophical analysis will not basically change. And the same so if we take a sextet, then an octet, then a nonet. The change is gradual and to limit group size in view of the possibility to ascribe a collective intention is difficult to justify.
A second problem is whether a group is still the same group, when a member is replaced, especially if we consider small groups like duos or foursomes. In many groups it’s normal that members are substituted. Think of sports teams, the board of an organisation, debating clubs, etc. Members come and go and often after some time the group has got a completely different composition. Four members of a symphony orchestra have formed a string quartet. Then one of them is ill and is temporarily replaced by another musician. Must we say then that we have a different string quartet, although name and repertoire of the ensemble haven’t changed?
A third question is whether a group needs to be an independent entity not linked to an umbrella organisation. Bratman, and also Gilbert – implicitly –, think so. However, it’s doubtful whether this assumption is realistic. Bratman and Gilbert analyse examples like two people who want to paint a house together or who have agreed to make a walk together. But often groups are not of that kind in the sense that they are merely a few people who voluntarily perform activities together without any responsibility towards a kind of umbrella organization. Take the string quartet just mentioned. Even if the strings can decide themselves where to play and if they always want to play with the same four musicians, probably they must take care of what their boss, the symphony orchestra, requires of them. Or four athletes decide to form a relay team, but they’ll have to reckon with the rules of their club and the athletic union. Or four virologists decide to form a corona vaccine development team. Nevertheless, they can only do so if they belong to a medical institute, since they lack the means to work independently. If we would require that a group is really independent, then many cooperating people with a common intention to perform a certain task would be denied the status of being a group, although they apparently are.
But, fourth, even the differences between individual actions and groups actions are gradual. Let’s say that I want to take the train to Utrecht. I buy a ticket and take the train. This apparently simple individual action supposes much implicit cooperation with other people! Already buying a ticket requires many intentions of other persons in order to make it possible. I buy, for example, the ticket at the ticket machine. Someone (or several people) must have thought out this machine, some must have constructed it, some must have put the ticket machine on the platform, maintain the ticket machine and take care that there is enough paper and ink for tickets to be printed, etc. For being able to buy a simple railway ticket – not to speak of the ride itself – a whole structure of intentions (and actions) is involved and without such a structure buying a ticket is simply impossible. Nobody can make his own train ticket, or it would be seen as a falsification. That such buying a ticket is “groupish” becomes clear if we compare it with my spading my garden. I take a scoop, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over. There is no other person involved than myself.
These are a few questions that I want to raise when we consider intentional groups. The upshot is that although groups exist and although we can ascribe intentions to groups, it’s impossible to define what a group is. Agents, groups and big complicated organizations if not societies or humanity as a whole are actually ranges on a continuum with the former and the latter as extremes. In this sense groups do not exist.

- Bratman, Michael E., Shared Agency. A Planning Theory of Acting Together. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Gilbert, Margaret, On Social Facts. London, etc.: Routledge, 1989.
- Weg, Henk bij de, “Collective Intentionality and Individual Action”,

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