Projects

My current main project focuses on the intersection between skills and habits, joint action and interaction, and normativity. The philosophical puzzle is this: how can we retain rationality as a normative criterion for individual and joint action, given the indicated complexity of human behavior?

Traditionally, philosophers who emphasized the first category of purposive action have argued that rationality is best understood as coherence between different beliefs and desires. We do the things for which we have reasons “all things considered”.

In at least two ways this picture matches well with how people understand and describe themselves. First, we usually find ourselves in a position where we are able to explain our behavior by means of reasons. Second, we all agree that holding contradicting beliefs, desires, and intentions is undesirable. In this sense, coherence forms a normative criterion for most of our behavior and is deeply ingrained in our expectations towards others. As such, it is relevant for individuals and for others they engage with in cooperative agency. There is, however, a stark tension between the philosophical idea (and normative expectation) that our behavior is guided by rationality as coherence and empirical findings in psychological research, which emphasize the second category of purposive action.

Present debates on heuristic processes, naturalistic decision making, skillful action, and habits show that people’s actions are most-times guided by less demanding rationalities. Most human behaviors, these debates show, are only indirectly related to an “all-things-considered” reason. Humans rely predominantly on ‘fast’, heuristic cognition.

Although heuristic processes are flexible, goal-oriented, and intelligent, and in this sense “rational”, they do not follow the strong coherence constraints on rationality that are specified by many philosophers. Unlike “all things considered” rationality, heuristic cognition does not necessarily (or at least less heavily) rely on “working memory” or on “linguistic capacities”.

Consequently, heuristic cognition provides only limited resources for rationality and normativity. Nevertheless, given the reliance on heuristic processes in general, we can reasonably assume that heuristic processes allow for joint, collaborative action and fundamentally shape human sociality.

To understand these relations I focus on social psychology and cognitive science on automaticity and ‘implicit’ cognition, the literature on capacities and dispositions, and the American pragmatist tradition.

The field of collective intentionality has long recognized a problem with authority when agents jointly intent and act. Both habitual and skillful actions are inconsistent with the notion of autonomy in philosophy of action. I translate these findings from individual action to joint action. What role(s) does habitual and skillful joint action play in collective intentionality?

A second aim is to theorize about the impact of such an account on our understanding of the normative expectations and judgments involved in purposive joint agency. If joint purposive action plays a major role in the general tissue of social life – in customs, norms, (sub-)cultures, ways of life, social milieus, providing conceptual tools for thinking about the middle ground between the merely aggregate emergent and the fully joint actions allow us to think about responsibility in new ways.

In this project with Pascale Willemsen, we investigate the use of thick concepts in ordinary language. More specifically, we investigate whether statements containing thick terms provide reasons for action and motivate speakers and addressees of a moral statement to change their behaviour or stick to it.

According to authors such as Bernard Williams or Simon Kirchin, thick concepts are practical concepts which are both world-guided and action-guiding. They are world-guided in the sense that for an action to count as cruel, certain objective features need to be given, such as inflicting unnecessary pain or pleasure from the suffering of others. They are action-guiding in these sense that by calling an action cruel, we provide a reason not to perform this action.

While this is a quite plausible and seldomly disputed assumption, no empirical evidence has been offered in its support. The first aim of this project is, thus, to investigate whether laypeople understand statements containing thick terms as motivating, reason-giving, and morally evaluative.

In pursuing this first goal, we also collect data on an even more fundamental, yet never empirically tested assumption, namely that thin concepts are action-guiding. Many philosophers believe that thick concepts gain their action-guiding potential from the evaluation they share with thin concepts.

The experimental design we developed helps us test this hypothesis as well. A second aim of this project is, to see whether there is a difference between thick concepts and thin concepts to the extent to which they are action-guiding. Assuming that philosophers are correct in claiming that both thin and thick concepts are action-guiding, it is still an open and never empirically investigated question whether thin or thick concepts are more-action-guiding. Such evidence would yet go a long way in understanding evaluative language and their role in moral psychology.

In everyday contexts we do numerous things together. We cook, eat, and drink together, do chores together, and engage in more complex activities such as work in highly structured organizations. Whether we cycled to work together or by sheer coincidence cycled to work almost at the same time and only a few meters apart, makes a difference in the way we prepare for the cycling, do the cycling, and experience the cycling. What this difference between parallel and joint action consists in is hotly debated.

This debate on joint action is shaped by both philosophers and psychologists. Their traditions give them different starting points and different worries, leading to different theories. In recent scholarship, there is a tendency to distinguish between emergent coordination (Tollefsen and Dale 2012, Knoblich et al., 2011) and planned coordination (Bratman 2014, Knoblich et al., 2011). I argued that this pushes us to a position of dualism, a strict —and problematic— division between two kinds of joint action.

I develop three claims: (1) There are several functions that help human agents coordinate, which entails that joint action can be best understood by understanding the differences but also the interrelatedness of these different types of coordination. (2) In order to understand the different forms of coordination and their contribution to join action we need a multidimensional conceptual space. This multidimensional space will allow us to understand the jointness of an action in a more encompassing way. This multidimensional allows for a more embodied perspective of coordination and joint action. (3) In order to understand this interplay we also have to take the situatedness of this agency into account.

Philosophers of collective intentionality have wondered how we can distinguish parallel cases from cases where we act together. Often their theories argue in favor of one characteristic, feature, or process, that differentiates the two. This feature then distinguishes parallel actions from joint action.

One of the problems with contrasting cases, is the potential dualism lurking in the background, enticing us to see the distinction as a hard distinction. Another problem with this approach is the tendency to focus on one key element, and forgetting about the situational factors that play an important role in the coordination between agents. Picking out one thing (a shared intention) seems wrong in the sense that this one feature can only be understood within a specific situation.

Although psychologists seem more open to the idea that there is a multiplicity of ways to act jointly, they usually merely focus on fairly automatic processes that contribute to coordination. By setting up the debate as such, (1) both philosophers and psychologists underestimate the interdependence of the different levels of coordination and (2) both overemphasize the difference between the two types of coordination. Based on the distinction between three levels of control (Pacherie 2008, Fridland 2014, and Christensen and colleagues 2016) I introduced three —highly integrated— levels of coordination. Together these three levels of coordination allow us to skillfully act together.

  1. Planned Coordination. The long-term plans, including the upcoming minutes, but also the upcoming years.
  2. Situation Coordination. These include adjustments of existing plans because due to contingencies and on-the-spot improvisations when there is no plan yet.
  3. Emergent Coordination. At all times agents that are interacting and acting jointly will adjust their movements and facilitate coordination of their movements through alignment and synchronization mechanisms.

In order to make room for these three levels of coordination we have to give up on several binary distinctions, including those between action and mere bodily movement, joint action and parallel action, and acting together and not together.

One influential attempt to understand collective intentionality starts from the idea that individuals have an innate capacity to we-intend. This idea was first introduced by Searle (1990), who argued that individuals can we-intend because they (can) have a “sense of us”.

Recently, H.B. Schmid (2014) has drawn attention to this analysis. I argue that Schmid overlooks an important element of Searle´s theory, i.e., the distinction between a sense of the other (as being an actual or potential partner for cooperation) and a sense of us.

I believe this distinction can demystify what Schmid has called “the mysterious sense of us”. A renewed focus on this distinction opens up routes to underpin the sense of the other that coalesces into a sense of us (as Searle described it originally) with data from cognitive and social psychology.

I develop an account of a sense of the other that coalesces into a sense us, using research on psychological and cognitive functions and mechanisms.

I use elements from three distinct fields of research:

  1. Carey’s ideas on core mechanisms, with a focus on core agency knowledge (Carey 2009).
  2. Pacherie’s ideas on a sense of agency in singular and plural form explained by mechanisms of prediction and control (Pacherie 2014)
  3. Theories on the relation between emergent coordination and planned coordination (in the same spirit as Butterfill 2011, and Tollefsen and Dale 2012).

This enables me to understand an innate capacity to recognise other agents as possible partners for cooperation, explained by core mechanisms, as the utmost basic part in Searle’s ideas on we-intentions. I will argue that this capacity is not only innate, but also automatically influences the possible actions we perceive. In combination with other cognitive functions, both automatic and deliberate, it provides a picture of possible partners for possible joint action. A sense of the other is immediately there, whether we want it or not. This has important consequences for our cognitive processes and actions.

The immediately present sense of the other, combined with processes that are initiated by the ensuing sense of the other as potential partner for joint action, makes that a sense of us can grow on two individuals or a group. Over time, individuals align, synchronise, and plan with (potential) partners, both reflectively and automatically. Through these processes they generate control over what is happening, predictability of what will happen, a liking or disliking of the other, and many more things.

These processes are bi-directional. For example: liking increases synchronisation between agents, yet a higher level of synchronisation also improves how people judge each other. The background presence of these processes makes individuals feel more and more certain that they are thinking and working jointly, which may cause a sense of us to grow on a group. Once this sense if us has grown it can be a ground for further planning and acting together.

In the debate about the nature of social cognition we see a shift towards theories that explain social understanding through interaction.

In two papers with Tobias Schlicht, we discuss autopoietic enactivism and the we-mode approach in the light of such developments. We also take a closer look at the the role of representation in social cognition/perception, comparing enactivists and representationalists.

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.

A representationalist analysis of the presumed ability to view others as potential cooperation partners is developed, using Millikan’s Teleosemantic. This theory, and especially her Pushmi-Pullyu representations, provides us the adequate terms to develop embodied, action-oriented representations for the analysis of affordances, as well as embodied interaction-oriented representations for the analysis of social affordances.

I am currently connected to the Social Ontology and Philosophy of Social Sciences Research Group at the University Vienna.

I was previously working with Prof. Albert Newen and Prof. Tobias Schlicht. My project Joint Action, Coordination, and Control was part of Tobias’ bigger project Situated Cognition. Perceiving the World and Understanding other minds. Within the project, I focused on joint action and collective intentionality.

I am thankful for the useful interactions with my secondary supervisor, Prof. Jan Bransen, working at the Radboud University Nijmegen, Prof. Stephen Butterfill who I visited for three month fall 2016 at Warwick University and is now a Visiting International Professor at the Ruhr-University, and Prof. John Sutton who I visited at Macquarie University, Sydney, for three months at the end of 2017.