Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions


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A queue is a kind of temporary interaction group Elder-Vass , p. When we join a queue we implicitly acknowledge that we have become part of a collective that shares certain intentional attitudes: we all individually wish to gain access to whatever resource the queue is for, we all accept that access to this resource must be serialised, and we implicitly undertake to join the queue, treat it as an agreed and accepted mechanism for achieving this serialisation, and follow the related set of queuing practices.

In these respects, there is quite a high degree of homogeneity of intention though it would be unusual for the members of a queue to have surfaced all of these intentions clearly to consciousness. The consequence of this set of practices is that we collectively form a social entity - the queue - with the causal power to serialise access to the resource concerned in a form that avoids most of the potential conflict over the process Elder-Vass , p.

In doing so, we create an institutional fact: a group of people only counts as a queue and is only able to perform the functions of a queue because we collectively recognise it as such.

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The 'we' is well-defined in this case: it is the intentions of the people who join it, and of those who interact with it e. All of this occurs, however, without any explicit agreement between the parties concerned. When two people agree to walk somewhere together, they create a collective intention. In agreeing to walk together, they implicitly agree that they will conform to certain standards that are normatively expected of people with. This includes, for example, that they will keep pace with each other, and continue walking together until they have reached the agreed destination, unless they explicitly agree to terminate the agreement at some point.

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In such cases, mutual awareness of the commitments that have been made is high though this depends on the unstated assumption that both share the same normative understandings of what is involved in walking together and so this case approaches the model of collective intentionality that requires common knowledge of each other's intentions. We could perhaps argue that a group of people walking together are a social entity, but this is a social entity whose only causal consequence seems to be the effects it has on the members of the group: their sense of obligation to keep to their commitment.

The employees of the business all know that it exists and that they work for it, they have explicitly agreed to do so and explicitly agreed the terms on which they will do so, the aims of the corporation are usually explicitly stated, and the responsibilities of individual employees are usually quite explicitly stated too. As a consequence of the employees interacting with each other and with outsiders in the ways specified in their roles, the corporation as a whole has emergent causal powers Elder-Vass , chapter 7. Thus we have a strong form of collective intention-ality that makes a substantial contribution to the mechanisms underlying a clear set of causal powers.

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On the whole, this seems like a clear case in which common knowledge, explicit collective intentionality, and causal power all go hand in hand. Nevertheless, one might express a few doubts. Perhaps the most obvious is that it is unlikely that there is homogeneity of collective intentional-ity within most corporations of any size. Let us imagine that the corporation's official goals include profitability, growth, legality, and some level of integrity in dealing with employees and customers.

In practice, we might expect senior executives to have bought into these goals though even here there are exceptions but it is not unusual for there to be many employees who do not share them all. An employee's intention in coming to work may be, for example, to earn a salary, enjoy working life as much as possible, and avoid getting fired, and for such employees there may be no internalised commitment to the apparent collective intentionality of the corporation at all.

Such employees may be brought to contribute to the corporation's goals by a suitable system of disciplinary threats and rewards, but can we really say that in such cases collective intentionality is a significant mechanism underpinning the causal powers of the corporation? What seems to be causally significant is the acceptance by each position holder that they will individually perform their role in the corporation, but this need not entail the presence of any collective intentionality.

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Individual optimising agents, on this view, pursue their own objectives with no concern for others' intentions, and engage in production and exchange in the market. The consequence, for this tradition, is that they tend to produce various systemic effects, such as price equilibration, efficient allocation of productive resources, and economic growth.

From a more critical perspective we might modify this story in a number of ways. For example, economic actors are embedded in social networks and normative systems, they have non-individualistic concerns, and the consequences of market systems include unemployment, inflation, and cycles of boom and bust. But neither of these perspectives provides a collective intentionality of the market. Granted, in the heterodox perspective markets depend on normative practices, but even in this perspective there is no sense that economic actors create a market system by agreeing to treat something as a market system though there are exceptions: e.

Instead, a market system exists as an unintended aggregative consequence of large numbers of individual exchanges, and most market systems exist and have macro consequences independently of agreement about their institutional status and indeed often without any such agreement existing. This is not to deny that institutional facts can be built around market systems -perhaps initiatives to set up managed exchanges, or state regulation of aspects of the market, for example - but market systems as such are not institutional facts established by collective intentionality.

Despite this, they do have causal powers: the power to produce at least some of the various systemic effects listed earlier in this paragraph. These examples were intended to demonstrate the diversity of social forms, the variety of forms of collective intentionality at work within them, and the varying relationships between collective intentionality and causal power. Table 1 summarises the analysis.


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One might be forgiven for concluding that there is no relationship between collective intentionality and causal powers, but this is the wrong way to read this table. What it reflects is that some social causal powers depend on collective intentionality and others do not, and that the way in which a power depends on collective intentionality varies from type to type. The crucial issue for the purposes of this paper is whether the mechanism that underlies the power depends on collective intentionality, and what form of collective intentionality it depends on.

The collective intentionality tradition has paid relatively little attention to questions of causal power; and critical realists have paid relatively little attention to the question of collective intentionality. But this paper suggests that these two traditions could be brought together productively, and has attempted to illustrate the point with the case of norm circles. Norm circles are social entities with causal powers, and the mechanism that generates this causal power depends on a particular form of collective intentionality, though one in which the members' sense of the collective may be rather nebulous, and in which the content of the collective intention is limited to backing a particular social norm.

Nevertheless, this collective intentionality ultimately depends for its causal significance on the existence of an actual collective composed of individuals who share the collective intention. There are, however, many other forms of social entity with causal powers.

It seems likely that some of these depend on stronger forms of collective inten-tionality than norm circles, whereas others may exert causal power without any dependence on collective intentionality at all.

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Understanding the relation between social causal power and collective intentionality more generally therefore requires us to recognise multiple forms of collective intentionality with differing roles in different types of social entity, as well as cases in which collective intentionality is at best peripheral. Combining these two traditions therefore seems to be a productive endeavour, and an endeavour that begins to make the concept of collective intentionality relevant to sociological and causal-explanatory questions, and not just philosophical and analytical questions.


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Critical realism can supply the absent collective in Searle's account of social reality, and theories of collective intentionality help to explain at least some of the mechanisms behind the social causal powers that critical realists are interested in theorising. Archer, Margaret S.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In: G. Grewendorf and G. Meggle Eds. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, p. Bunge, Mario : "Mechanism and Explanation". In: Philosophy of the Social Sciences 27, p. In: J. Zahle and F. Colin Eds. Cham: Springer, p. Gilbert, Margaret : "Walking Together". In: Erkenntnis 71, p. In: Philosophy of the Social Sciences 28, p. In: Cambridge Journal of Economics 36, p. McLaughlin, Brian P. In: A. Beckermann, H. Flohr and J.

Kim Eds. Berlin: De Gruyter, p. Meijers, Anthonie W. Osborne, Thomas : "The Limits of Ontology". In: History of the Human Sciences 10, p.

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In: Synthese , p. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Searle, John R. In: D. Levine Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. Smith, Christian : What is a Person? Chicago: University of Chicago Press. In: Grazer. Philosophische Studien 65, p. Tuomela, Raimo : Social Ontology. New York: Oxford University Press. I would like to thank the participants for their stimulating and useful comments.

Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions
Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions
Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions
Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions
Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions
Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions
Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions
Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions
Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions

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