2021 Research Colloquium, TU Berlin


Autonomous agency is traditionally thought in terms of reasons and rationality. An autonomous agent is a self-positing reflective self-conscious agent. This gets expressed in the agent’s rational deliberation about reasons for action. Such conceptions focus on self-sufficiency, self-legislation, and self-determination.

At the same time, we find research in sociology and cognitive science showing that the coherence and normativity of our behavior often stems from other sources.

In this talk I will introduce Bourdieu’s idea of a habitus and how a habitus can set the agent up to set-off. I will further explore and extend his ideas with cognitive science inspired analyses of habits, skills, and attention.

With these tools in hand I will return to the question of autonomy, acting for reasons, and normativity. Rather than to attack the idea of an autonomous agent based on the idea that much of our cognition is implicit and therefore “not in control of the agent”, I look for means to interweave the implicit and the explicit.

2020 with Pascale Willemsen, presented at:

  • Colloquium of Katedra filosofie a dějin přírodních věd (invited)
  • Workshop on Meta-Ethics and -Epistemology, University of Vienna (invited)
Suppose a good friend says the following thing to you: “What you did yesterday was very rude”. From this statement, you probably understand that your friend considered your behaviour offensive, hurtful, or disrespectful. You might further understand that your friend disapproves of your behaviour. And you might even understand that, because of this disapproval, your friend wants you to behave differently in the future. In contrast, suppose that you friend had instead uttered the following sentence: “What you did was bad”. While you can infer her disapproval towards your behaviour, you might have problems to see why exactly your behaviour was disapproved of. “Bad” does not provide such information. Terms and concepts which are a unity of evaluation and description are called thick ethical terms and concepts (Eklund 2011, Väyrynen 2019), such as “rude”, “friendly”, “honest”, “manipulative”, “cruel”, or “compassionate”. Other evaluative terms and concepts which merely evaluate, such as “bad”, “good, “permissible”, “right”, “wrong”, are called thin ethical terms and concepts. Both types of concepts stand in opposition to descriptive terms and concepts whose function it is to merely provide information on what the world is like, yet not to evaluate, such as “round”, “rectangular”, “blonde”, “Australian”, etc.
In this talk, we present empirical evidence on the use of thick concepts in ordinary language and on how they relate to reasons for actions. 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. The idea that thick concepts are action-guiding goes back to Bernard Williams, and many philosophers have followed his reasoning. While this is a quite plausible and seldomly disputed assumption, no empirical evidence has been offered in its support. In this talk we present empirical evidence on whether laypeople understand statements containing thick terms as motivating, reason-giving, and morally evaluative. In addition, we also present data on an even more fundamental, yet never empirically tested assumption, namely that thin concepts are action-guiding as well. 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. Second, we present evidence on 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. Similarly, it is still an open question whether positively or negatively evaluating concepts provide stronger reasons for actions. Such evidence would yet go a long way in understanding evaluative language and their role in moral psychology.

2020 Social Ontology (peer reviewed)

Abstract and video:

Current philosophical understanding of joint action relies heavily on the idea of rationality as “coherence” or “all things considered”. Theories of shared agency typically presuppose such forms of rationality and assumptions about common knowledge. Empirical findings in social and cognitive psychology, as well as debates on skillful and habitual action, suggest that this account of rationality does not apply to a good deal of human actions. This situation spells trouble for the rationality as coherence approach to joint (and individual) action, both as an explanatory framework and for the normative expectations and judgments about human action that it entails.

The philosophical puzzle I focus on is the following: how can we retain rationality as a normative criterion for individual and joint action, given the indicated role of habits? I give a tentative answer using pragmatist approaches on habit and Bourdieu’s work on habitus.

2019 Vorlesungsreihe “Diskurse der Bildsamkeit” organized by Prof. dr. Ricken, RUB (invited)

2019 Social Ontology, Tampere (peer reviewed)

2018 Colloquium, Institute of Cognitive Science Osnabrück (invited)

2018 Situated Approaches to Social Understanding, Emotion, and Meaning, RUB (invited)

2018 Lunch Seminar, Radboud University (invited)

2018 Implicit Attitudes, Explicit Attitudes, and (Joint) Action, RUB (organized by Tobias Schlicht and me)

2018 With Luke Roelofs presented at:

  • Third Cork Annual Workshop on Social Agency (peer reviewed)
  • Layers of Collective Intentionality, Uni Vienna (peer reviewed)


We identify a social phenomenon in which large numbers of people seem to work towards a shared goal without explicitly trying to do so. We argue that this phenomenon – implicit coordination – is best understood as a form of joint agency differing from the forms most commonly discussed in the literature in the same way that individual actions driven by “explicit” intentions (those available for reflection and report) differ from individual actions driven by “implicit” intentions (those not thus available). More precisely, implicit coordination is both analogous to wholly implicit individual intentions, and constituted by the partly implicit intentions of participants. We discuss the significance of this category for action theory, social ontology, and social criticism.

2017 WIP seminar, Macquarie University Sydney (invited)


Dancing with a partner is one of the key examples in philosophy of joint action and collective intentionality. When explaining this phenomenon theories so far have mainly focused on either emergent coordination (lower-level cognitive processes) or planned coordination (higher-level cognitive processes). With some exemptions, most theories take either to be sufficient to explain the joint action phenomenon of dancing. Analyzing my own experience as a ballroom dancer and teacher, I suggest that we enrich our explanatory theories with a ‘level’ of cognitive processes. Furthermore, I will argue that all these processes can only be understood as recursively interrelated, functioning interdependently.

2017 RUB-Rutgers workshop, RUB (invited)

2017 European Network Social Ontology, Lund (peer reviewed)

2017 Joint Action Meeting, London (peer reviewed)

2017 Spring School “Social Cognition, Emotion and Joint Action”, RUB (invited)

2016 Colloquium TU Dortmund (invited)

2016 Collective Intentionality X, The Hague (peer reviewed)

2016 WIP Seminar, Warwick University (invited)


In this paper I discuss a few questions concerning the impact of implicit attitudes and heuristics (heuristic reasoning) on joint action. Some philosophers of actions, amongst others Harry Frankfurt, David Velleman, and Brian O’Shaughnessy, have argued for an interesting category between mere bodily movement and full-blown intentional action. These accounts, however, are not without problems. I will first discuss these proposals and point at some of the problems they face.

I believe that two recent developments in social psychology are relevant to make a new attempt at trying to understand what may lie between the two extremes of mere bodily movement and intentional action. I will use theory and data from the debates on implicit attitudes and heuristic reasoning to do so. Some of the focal points will be (1) the question whether there are clear cut categories, (2) the distinction and interdependency of different controlling factors of our behaviour, and (3) the notion of control that is used.

2016 Metacognition in Individuals and Groups’-workshop, Stuttgart (peer reviewed)

Long Abstract:

This talk explores the role of emergent coordination between individuals in understanding group reasoning. Emergent coordination (Knoblich, Butterfill, & Sebanz, 2011) can help us to develop a better understanding of the sense of we-agency as conceptualized by Pacherie (2014). I will argue that a combination of emergent coordination and we-agency can shape the practical reasons that are available to the agent. In order to understand the impact of this idea, and to be able to apply it in the first place, I will compare two proposals in game theory. The first consists of Bacharach’s ideas (2006) on game theory and his account of the impact of the different frames of reasoning that an individual might be in, depending on his or her social situation. The second is Sugden’s perspective on game theory, which starts with the idea that team reasoning requires common knowledge, i.e. individuals require mutual assurance that team reasoning will take place (Sugden, 2003). How does emergent coordination play a role in their accounts? And is that in line with how emergent coordination is discussed in both the philosophy and psychology of joint action?

Game Theory

In game theory it is almost universally presupposed that agency is invested in individuals: each agent acts on his or her own preferences. Bacharach has successfully pointed out shortcomings in current game theoretic theories, especially when it comes to explaining Hi-Lo dilemmas. Hi-Lo games have two outcomes that are both Nash Equilibria (high-high and low-low). Although intuition tells us what the ‘obvious’ right answer is, standard game theory has no way of predicting or commending one equilibrium over the other. Bacharach and Sugden each suggest a different solution to the problem posed in these games. Each has a different take on what explains the motivation for and general principle of team reasoning (asking “what should we do?”, rather than asking “what should I do?”). This difference depends on their differing views on the importance of common knowledge and how group membership is constituted.

Bacharach’s ideas are founded on the idea that people team reason when they identify with a group. Group identification changes their frame (a set of concepts an agent uses when thinking about his or her situation). Bacharach distinguishes three main frames; personal, relational and collective. The we-frame (collective) is induced by situations like the Hi-Lo game. This need not always happen and the individual cannot willfully decide to be in one frame or another.

According to Sugden, an agent will not commit him- or herself to team reasoning unless he or she has some form of assurance that the others will also act on team reasoning. In mutually assured team reasoning two “reasons to believe” have to be in place: (I) Each identifies with the group and acknowledges the group payoff function as the objective of the group, and (II) each endorses and acts on mutually assured team reasoning.

To conclude, the basic idea of team reasoning is that agents consider which combination of actions would best promote the team’s objective. This raises the question, however, whether they decide based on the joint goal, or whether the joint goal comes about through joint reasoning.

Emergent Coordination

In the second part of the talk I will focus on processes of a different level, that of motor level coordination and emergent coordination. Emergent coordination –synchrony and alignment with another individual – effects the willingness to cooperate, as well as the liking of the other individual involved and results in a more pro-social attitude in general (Knoblich et al., 2011). At the same time, liking increases emergent coordination too. Hence, there is a bi-directional influence that influences the willingness of people to cooperate, most probably also in Hi-Lo games. The level of emergent coordination influences the extent to which individuals identify with the group, both when the group already has a (joint) goal, and when there is no goal (yet). This can influence the level of we-agency that is experienced by the individuals (Pacherie, 2014).

One problem in Hi-Lo games is that these games are structured in such a way that there is no room for emergent coordination to arise. This is very unlikely to be the case in any real life situation, even when a Hi-Lo situation arises (as happens often according to Bacharach). As any Hi-Lo game will be situated, there seems room for emergent coordination to arise in almost any of those situations (either before the dilemma arises or during the presentation and solving of the dilemma). This might endorse Bacharach’s ideas on framing, as emergent coordination could be a way to cash out the route to different frames of reasoning. The idea in Bacharach, however, that we have no influence over the frame from which we reason, might be unappealing to many. A remaining question I would like to discuss is whether there is any room left for the kind of approach that we find in Sugden, where we (sometimes) choose to reason from either an individual or group perspective.


Bacharach, M. (2006). Beyond Individual Choice: Teams and Frames in Game Theory. Princeton University Press.

Knoblich, G., Butterfill, S. A., & Sebanz, N. (2011). Psychological Research on Joint Action : Theory and Data.

Pacherie, E. (2014). How Does It Feel to Act Together? Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences13(1), 25–46.

Sugden, R. (2003). The logic of team reasoning. Philosophical Explorations6, 165–181.

2017 poster at the Spring School “Social Cognition, Emotion and Joint Action”, RUB (peer reviewed)

View poster

2016 Dan Zahavi; Lectures on Self and Other (workshop), RUB (invited)

2015 with Bas Leijssenaar, European Network Social Ontology, Palermo (peer reviewed)


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.

2015 Workshop collective self-awareness Vienna (peer reviewed)


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.

2015 poster at the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology Tartu (peer reviewed)

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2015 ASSC Paris (peer reviewed)


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.

2015 GCTP Nijmegen (peer reviewed)


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.