Is Collective Agency a Coherent Idea? Considerations from the Enactive Theory of Agency

In Catrin Misselhorn (ed.), Collective Agency and Cooperation in Natural and Artificial Systems. Springer Verlag. pp. 219-236 (1st ed. 2015)
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Whether collective agency is a coherent concept depends on the theory of agency that we choose to adopt. We argue that the enactive theory of agency developed by Barandiaran, Di Paolo and Rohde (2009) provides a principled way of grounding agency in biological organisms. However the importance of biological embodiment for the enactive approach might lead one to be skeptical as to whether artificial systems or collectives of individuals could instantiate genuine agency. To explore this issue we contrast the concept of collective agency with multi-agent systems and multi-system agents, and argue that genuinely collective agents instantiate agency at both the collective level and at the level of the component parts. Developing the enactive model, we propose understanding agency – both at the level of the individual and of the collective – as spectra that are constituted by dimensions that vary across time. Finally, we consider whether collectives that are not merely metaphorically ‘agents’ but rather are genuinely agentive also instantiate subjectivity at the collective level. We propose that investigations using the perceptual crossing paradigm suggest that a shared lived perspective can indeed emerge but this should not be conflated with a collective first-person perspective, for which material integration in a living body may be required.

Author Profiles

Mog Stapleton
University of Edinburgh
Tom Froese
Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University


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