Indispensability, the Discursive Dilemma, and Groups with Minds of Their Own

In Sara Rachel Chant, Frank Hindriks & Gerhard Preyer (eds.), From Individual to Collective Intentionality. Oxford University Press. pp. 137-162 (2014)
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There is a way of talking that would appear to involve ascriptions of purpose, goal directed activity, and intentional states to groups. Cases are familiar enough: classmates intend to vacation in Switzerland, the department is searching for a metaphysician, the Democrats want to minimize losses in the upcoming elections, and the US intends to improve relations with such and such country. But is this talk to be understood just in terms of the attitudes and actions of the individuals involved? Is the talk, to take an overly simple proposal as an example, a mere summary of familiar individual attitudes of the group members? Or is the ascription of attitudes and actions to groups to be taken more literally, as suggesting that the group for example believes that P, or intends to A, over and above what the members individually think and do? In short, are there groups with minds of their own? Philip Pettit has deployed the “discursive dilemma” to defend the thesis that there are such group minds. In what follows, I explore the relationship between the group allegedly with a mind of its own and the individuals it comprises, and I consider just how this relationship must be understood in order to give Pettit’s argument for group minds its best chance for success. As I understand it, the discursive dilemma has to be used in conjunction with what might be called an indispensability argument for group minds. It is useful to distinguish two forms of this argument. The explanatory version of the indispensability argument is, very schematically, as follows: there is a compelling explanatory theory T concerning the social, certain indispensable elements of T entail the group mind thesis, so the group mind thesis is true. Several questions immediately arise: What sort of theory is T? In what sense is it indispensable? Are there other forms of indispensability? I don’t have definitive answers to these questions. But how we settle them will have implications for the interaction and support the discursive dilemma provides the indispensability argument. In particular, using the discursive dilemma to defend what I characterize below as a practical version of the indispensability argument commits us to the rationality of individual participants in a way that the explanatory version of the indispensability argument does not. My point in the first part of the paper is that if Pettit wants to avoid the weaknesses of the explanatory indispensability argument and pursue the practical version, then he owes us a story about the rationality of individual participation in groups. Pettit also owes us a story about the agency an individual exercises as part of a group. If it takes the actions of individuals to execute the intentions of the group, how are we to understand those actions in order for the group to count as having a mind of its own? How must group intentions figure in the practical or deliberative perspective of individuals who execute those intentions? I will argue that the proponent of the group mind thesis must proceed with some care here, because some natural ways of answering these questions will undermine the thesis. But in the end, I think that these questions are interesting independently of whether Pettit is right to think that groups do have minds of their own. That’s because investigating Pettit’s arguments might lead to new ideas about how the rationality and agency of individuals can be exercised, and suggests new ways of understanding how individuals can act together, irrespective of whether the groups they compose ever have minds of their own.
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