Sense of Agency, You, We, and Us

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.