Individualism versus interactionism about social understanding

Judith Martens & Tobias Schlicht


In the debate about the nature of social cognition we see a shift towards theories that explain social understanding through interaction. This paper discusses autopoietic enactivism and the we-mode approach in the light of such developments. We argue that a problem seems to arise for these theories: an interactionist account of social cognition makes the capacity of shared intentionality a presupposition of social understanding, while the capacity of engaging in scenes of shared intentionality in turn presupposes exactly the kind of social understanding that it is intended to explain. The social capacity in question that is presupposed by these accounts is then analyzed in the second section via a discussion and further development of Searle’s ‘sense of us’ and ‘sense of the other’ as a precondition for social cognition and joint action. After a critical discussion of Schmid’s recent proposal to analyze this in terms of plural pre-reflective selfawareness, we develop an alternative account. Starting from the idea that infants distinguish in perception between physical objects and other agents we distinguish between affordances and social affordances and cash out the notion of a social affordance in terms of “interaction-oriented representations”, parallel to the analysis of object affordances in terms of “action-oriented representations”. By characterizing their respective features we demonstrate how this approach can solve the problem formulated in the first part.

Exploring the Relation between the Sense of the Other and the Sense of Us

Exploring the Relation between the Sense the of Other and the Sense of Us: Core Agency Cognition, Emergent Coordination, and the Sense of Agency.[i]


It has been claimed that a sense of us is presupposed for shared intentions to be possible. Searle introduced this notion together with the notion of the sense of the other. This article distinguishes between the “sense of the other” and the “sense of us” and elaborates on their role in joint action. It argues that the sense of the other is a necessary condition for a sense of us. Whereas the sense of the other is immediate and automatic, the sense of us can (but need not) arise between people and can (a) develop over time, (b) depend on the situation, and (c) involves several sufficient but not necessary processes. The article relies on research on core knowledge to better understand the sense of the other. It elaborates the sense of us using insights from cognitive science and social psychology. The article shows that the sense of the other and the sense of us can contribute to our understanding of the perception of possibilities for joint action and how individuals can come to experience actions and intentions as shared, even if the participants lack common knowledge. This leads to the conclusion that people are ordinarily socially oriented rather than individually.

[i] I would like to thank the organizers of the workshop and editors of the special edition, Hans Bernhard Schmid and Michael Schmitz, and Bas Leijssenaar, Wil Martens, Tobias Schlicht, and two anonymous reviewers for constructive criticism of the manuscript.

The work on this paper was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation for the project Situated Cognition. Perceiving the world and understanding other minds.

Questioning Individual Intentional Autonomy in Collective Intentionality

with Bas Leijssenaar

Most accounts of collective intentionality adhere to the individual ownership claim: that only individuals can have intentions and perform actions. All interpretations of the individual ownership claim adhere to some form of individual intentional autonomy: that individuals are responsible for their behaviour as agents and that their behaviour can be ascribed to them as actions for which they can claim ownership. However, despite the apparent importance that the current literature assigns to individual intentional autonomy, the meaning of the concept ‘autonomy’ remains unclear. Additionally, individual intentional autonomy and individual motivational autarky are often mixed up, adding to the confusion about individual ownership and autonomy. We explore possible interpretations of the individual autonomy claim to see whether they are viable. Through data found in developmental psychology, social psychology, and social and political philosophy we hope to show that individual intentional autonomy is hampered on many different levels. A revaluation of the claims at the basis of most accounts of collective intentionality, in particular the individual ownership claim and the role of individual intentional autonomy, is needed. Our considerations point at the fact that although intentionality, qua mental state, might indeed be owned by the individual, individuals do not ‘own’—are not autonomous—in regard to the contents of their intentions. Does this mean that such intentions are no longer—or not solely— ‘ours’? Are intentions caused by ‘influence’ no longer the result of individual autonomy and can we still consider them intentions? In order to better understand the relation between individual and collective intentions, the social determination of intentions and the situatedness of individual autonomy should be taken into consideration.

Socializing the self: Using Plural Self-Awareness against the Anti-Social Bias


I looked at the “anti-social bias”: the assumption that we should start from individual minds, as this idea seems to make an account of collective intentions and joint action more complicated than I believe necessary. I will argue that, when starting from a less individualistic perspective, one need not accept a group mind to be able to argue for collective intention.

In order to argue in this direction I will use Schmid’s notion on plural self-awareness, and the idea of common intention by Baier, extended by Raczaszek-Leonardi’s ideas on social affordances. These two can give us a richer understanding of collective intentionality.

Is plural self-awareness prior to joint action?

Why do people choose to act jointly or to shift towards a plural subject? How can several people together become a collective? Why would individuals take a we-perspective? These are some of the main issues in collective intentionality and joint action. In Tomasello we find the idea that cooperation is the basis, or motivation, for behaving jointly. The capacity of cooperation frames our understanding of others’ intentions, the capacity for joint attention, and joint action. His idea of cooperation as the
motivation for social interaction seems a helpful basis for the main questions in collective intentionality that were raised above. Likewise, Godman (2013) argued for a social human being, with social interaction not the explanandum but the explanans of why we act jointly. Instead of appealing to a shared goal, intention, or representation, she suggests to appeal to a shared social motivation that drives joint action. Social experiences are rewarding in their own right. Therefore, no further reason
seems necessary to understand why we act jointly. Schmid (2014) makes an even more radical suggestion. He argues for a new interpretation of the “sense of us” that many claim to be presupposed in collective intentionality. He argues for the introduction of plural pre-reflective self-awareness that
plays the same role in the constitution of a common mind as does singular pre-reflective self-awareness in the individual mind. The “sense of us” is a characteristic of experience; pre-reflexive and
non-thematic. It has often been claimed that self-awareness plays a constitutive role for the sort of unity in virtue of which the mind is somebody’s mind. Self-awareness a) constitutes ownership (a
formal unity of mind), b) creates perspective (what is “self” and what is not), and c) is the driving force behind normatively unified minds that are committed to consistency. Schmid argues that self-awareness may occur in the plural too. Joint intention presupposes a background awareness of plural
selfhood, understood as a) common ownership, b) shared perspective, and c) joint commitment. And just as the individual self is not prior to individual self-awareness, plural self-awareness is what the plural self is. Based on this analysis of plural self-awareness I will reevaluate the motivations for joint action that Tomasello and Godman offer. In light of the idea of plural self-awareness, the motivational argument seems redundant. I will investigate whether it really is.

Can I only intend-that?

Pettit and Schweikard’s (2006) analyze several requirements that must be fulfilled for a joint performance to occur. 1) There has to be a common target. 2) Every individual must be focused on the joint performance. 3) Each must act intentionally in enacting that performance.

Regarding this third requirement they wonder how an individual can intend to do something that lies outside his/her control. So I cannot intend to X, where X-ing is a joint performance. But I may still be able to intend that we X together.” This intending-that clause is formulated by Bratman (1999). This solution, however, has its own problems. In short, the problem with Bratman’s formula “I intend that we J” is that an intention only concerns actions that the intended actor him- or herself is able to settle and control. As it turns out “I intend that we J” is equally self-defeating as a definition as is “I intend to X” (where X-ing is a joint performance).

I argue that Pettit and Schweikard’s position results in most intentions, even individual intentions, becoming I-intend-that intentions, which face the same problem of control as we-intentions. As our lives are enormously entwined with those of others, and we can hardly turn a corner without meeting other people, we very often intend things that lie beyond our (direct) control. The reason that is used to argue that collective intentions are problematic seems to imply that individual intentions are problematic as well.

The realization of our intentions (both I and we) seems to be depending unceasingly on an intensive fine-tuning with other people and their intentions and actions. I will argue that the distinction between intention in action and prior intention might be helpful to explore collective intentions when taking into account the problem of control.