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Two interpretations of Gilbert’s plural-subject account

Giulia Lasagni
p. 115-129


The notion of collective action is one of the most discussed topics in contemporary social ontology, which offers different explanations of how two or more individuals can act together in the pursuit of a common goal. Many believe that collective intentionality is at the basis of actions of this kind, whereas others deny that collective actions have a distinctive nature or involve different faculties than those required by individual actions. The article aims to outline the most influential approaches to collective agency and discuss the disputed case of Margaret Gilbert’s theory, which is subject to conflicting interpretations. I start from asking the question: what is it that makes a group of people act together intentionally? First, I will outline three approaches offered in social ontology, i.e., content, mode, and subject account. Then, I will focus on Gilbert’s view, allegedly a proponent of the (plural) subject account. The main purpose of these pages is to show that Gilbert’s approach should rather be classified as a mode account and that the interpretation attributing to her a subject account is, if not to be discarded, at least to be regarded as uncertain. While some scholars have questioned the theory of plural subjects as presented in Gilbert’s early essays, this article makes the point by considering Gilbert’s latest publications.

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1. Introduction

1We do things together. As players of a soccer team, we train and play together; as members of a prize committee, we evaluate the candidates and – as a group – we declare the winner of the competition; as shareholders in a corporation, we make investments and acquire other companies. In these and other such cases, we do something together as parties of a group that has its own internal organization, connections with the social environment and specific functions. On other occasions, we do things together more spontaneously, by coordinating and organizing our efforts so as to achieve a common goal, such as moving a heavy object, dancing, and preparing dinner together. The variety of examples shows that collective actions happen at different levels of complexity and wide-ranging discussions in social ontology attest to the richness of forms of action that we can simply call collective.

  • 1 It goes beyond the purpose of this article to consider Gilbert’s social ontology in relation to its (...)

2In this article, I will focus on small-scale collective actions, in which the group of participants does not have a stable organizational structure – at least not necessarily. Examples of this kind are walking together, painting the house together, making a decision, and so forth. In particular, the article aims to outline the most influential theories of such collective actions and to discuss the disputed case of Margaret Gilbert’s account, which has been the subject of conflicting interpretations.1

3I start from the question on what it is that makes a group of people act together successfully. First, I will outline three different approaches advanced in social ontology, namely, the content, the mode, and the subject account (Schweikard and Schmid 2012). The first account holds that if there is something special about the intentions that people have when they act jointly, then that something is to be found in the content of mental states. The second approach places the specificity of collective versus individual intentionality in the mode of intentions, while the third assumes the existence of a plural intentional subject, i.e., the ‘we’. Then, I will focus on Gilbert’s position (Gilbert 1989, 1990, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2018), allegedly a proponent of the plural-subject account.

4The main purpose of these pages is to show that Gilbert’s approach should rather be classified as a mode account and that the interpretation attributing to her a subject account is, if not to be discarded, at least to be regarded as uncertain. Gilbert builds her concept of plural subject on the notion of joint commitment, which is a binding relationship between the members leading them to think and behave jointly, as a body. In short, the idea defended in this paper is that, although joint commitment is compatible with the fact that some individuals together can form and take part in group-scale actions, joint commitment in itself is not a guarantee of a plural subject for collective intentions and actions. Therefore, I will argue that Gilbert’s proposal is not at odds with the idea that some groups can be intentional agents but only with the interpretation that classifies the theory as a subject account, according to which the plural subject is grounded in the collective attitudes of each.

2. Content, mode, and subject account

5What is it that makes a group of people act together successfully? Consider the case in which my friends and I want to go hiking together. What is that makes our trekking a collective action? What ensures that our action is really a collective one and not just an aggregate of individual actions? Do collective actions have any specific features in comparison to (aggregates of) individual actions?

  • 2 There has been criticism about the idea that collective actions are a special class of actions othe (...)
  • 3 An overview of the main approaches to collective intentionality can be found in Jankovic and Ludwig (...)
  • 4 The mode of intentions has been introduced in social ontology by Tuomela, who proposes a notion of (...)

6There is a dense debate in social ontology and action theory on the nature of collective action2. Much of the debate considers the problem in reference to the intentional states that plan, guide and ensure the success of the action.3 Therefore, for an action to be collective and thus different from any (aggregate of) individual actions, it must be planned by an intention for the action that refers to all the individual efforts involved in the performance. While an aggregate of individual actions coincides with the set of individual actions, each guided by the intention ‘I intend to go trekking’ plus eventual beliefs about the others’ participation, a collective action realizes the intention that all of us, members of the group, mean to go trekking together. The issue is to understand how an intention relates to a collective action. On this point, the debate offers three main solutions, each of which locates the reference to the collective dimension in a specific aspect of the intentional state. Briefly, we can assume that every intention for the action is an intentional state that has content, mode and subject. The subject is who or what has the intention, the content is the representation of what the intention is aiming at, and the mode is defined by the way in which the subject (whoever or whatever he/she/it is) conceives the intention, either as an intention referred to the individual pursuing some personal/group-oriented goal (I-mode) or as an intention referred to the fulfillment of the plan meant by the group of individuals together (we-mode).4 Depending on the aspect they collectivize, theories of collective intention and action can be classified as content, mode and subject accounts (Schweikard and Schmid 2012).

  • 5 For the sake of simplicity, I am using the adjective ‘collective’ for all authors, without distinct (...)

7The major proponent of the content account is Michael Bratman (Bratman 1999, 2007, 2014), who holds that the intentions behind collective actions are of the same nature as the intentions planning individual actions. There is no fracture between the two types of intentions; indeed, they are not even two different types but different applications of the same faculty.5 This first means that, the attitudes planning for collective actions are attributes of individuals, who belong to a social context, made up of mutual expectations, common knowledge, and shared norms, securing the interdependencies of the parties (cf., Bratman 2014: 12). The subject of collective intention is thus reduced to the interrelated individuals who take part in the common effort. Second, the mode of intentions planning for collective actions is an I-mode, since the plan states of each are experienced as personal plan states.

  • 6 Although Searle does not refer to collective attitudes as we-mode attitudes, the way he talks of co (...)

8Then we find the mode account, which has an important point in common with Bratman’s proposal, since here again the subject of intentions are the individuals participating in the collective action, and not the ‘we’ as a whole. Different views of the mode account have been proposed by John R. Searle (1990; 1995; 2010) and Raimo Tuomela (2002; 2007; 2013a; 2013b), who have approached the case of collective actions based on the idea that acting together comes with special mental states as originally collective mental states.6 While individual agency is based on I-mode intentionality, psychologically speaking, collective agency refers to we-mode intentionality (best known as collective intentionality), a specific way of thinking, according to which each individual agent has plans in a plural grammatical form or mode. Examples of we-mode intentions are ‘we intend to do x together’, ‘we collectively intend to x’, ‘we have the collective intention to do x’. Consider the phrase, ‘we intend to go to Alfonzo’s for lunch’:

Here ‘we’ could consist of you and me. Two main interpretations are that you and I have the separate intentions (intended goals) to go to Alfonzo’s for lunch even if we might mutually know about each other’s intentions. This is the I-mode case of shared intention. Here your having had your lunch at Alfonzo’s satisfies your intention. However, in the we-mode case, we together intend to go to Alfonzo’s (whether we go there together or separately need not matter). In this case your intention is a proper we-intention, and your personal lunch-going intention is to participate in our going to Alfonzo’s for lunch. Obviously your intention here is not satisfied merely by your going to Alfonzo’s for lunch; it is satisfied only after I have done my part and gone to Alfonzo’s as well. (Tuomela 2007: 46-47).

  • 7 In a recent volume dedicated to Tuomela’s work, Schmitz has introduced the role-mode, a way in whic (...)

9Therefore, both the I-mode and we-mode can apply to collective actions by expressing different ways of experiencing the event, from the weakest (I-mode) to the strongest (we-mode).7

10When it comes to the subject of collective attitudes, the content and the mode account offer distributive interpretations in that they are both bound to the idea that «any interpretation of an individual’s behavior has to be given in terms of individual intentional states» (Schmid 2009: 23). Hans Bernard Schmid calls this methodological claim intentional individualism, an expression that fully grasps the tendency to reduce the subject of collective intentionality to some feature in the mind of each participant. The virtue of this framework is that it allows going beyond a strictly individualistic, if not even atomistic, view of the mental, by including in it also some kind of collective phenomena. The limit is that the collective dimension is still trapped in a mild individualist mindset, for which it makes sense to speak of collective attitudes but not of collective subjects (cf., Schmid 2009: 34).

11There are at least two ways for groups to be subjects. First, we find Schmid’s proposal, holding the ‘we’ as a proper intentional subject, i.e., the subject to whom collective intentions relate (Schmid 2009). Second, a group can be viewed as a new ontological entity, which has the ability to act intentionally by virtue of specific decision-making procedures, strategies of division of labor, and/or other problem-solving mechanisms (Hess 2014, List and Pettit 2011, Rovane 2004, Tollefsen 2015). This kind of functionalist considerations has been first developed by Philip Pettit (1996), who argued that some collectives can have mental states and thus be intentional agents. Pettit’s analysis goes beyond the extent to which a bunch of individuals interact with one another and act together as a group to form a plural subject, as it is rather focused on how certain groups can have a mind of their own (Pettit 2003).

  • 8 In these pages, I just want to suggest that there are reasons to believe that, on Gilbert’s view, g (...)

12Then, there is Margaret Gilbert’s plural-subject theory (Gilbert 1989, 1990, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2018), which appears a bit ambiguous about the identification of the intentional subject. On the one hand, the author seems to defend a subject account, considering the ‘we’ as the ultimate subject of collective attitudes (Schmitz 2017). On the other hand, what Gilbert means by plural subject seems rather a way for individuals to think and act together and, therefore, her approach appears closer to the mode account, stepping back from introducing any plural subject (Schmid 2009).8 In what follows, I will argue for the latter interpretation by explaining based on what it is that Gilbert’s position can be viewed as a (somehow reductive) mode account of collective intentions and actions. In order to suggest a more convincing anti-reductionism regarding plural subjects, the conclusion will show in what way Gilbert’s account might be combined with a theory of group agency such as the one proposed by Pettit.

3. Gilbert’s plural-subject account

13Gilbert takes the view that «when a goal has a plural subject, each of a number of persons (two or more) has, in effect, offered his will to be part of a pool of wills which is dedicated, as one, to that goal» (Gilbert 1990: 7). What is special about this conception is the idea that a certain set of individual attitudes can be bound together in such a way as to form «a ‘plural will’ dedicated to a particular goal» (Ivi). Thus, when a group of individuals acts together in the relevant sense, the collective action can be described as the fulfillment of a rational plan state that gives expression to the plural will, which is the will of the collective.

  • 9 One might want to contend that my argument in favor of a reductive interpretation of Gilbert’s plur (...)

14To discuss to what extent Gilbert’s account may support a non-reductive conception of plural subjects, in what follows, I am going to outline some fundamental notions proposed by the author. Then, in the next section, I will focus on some comments offered by Gilbert herself suggesting instability in the subject account. We will see how these reflections refer to plural intentional subjects as «semantic phenomena» (Gilbert 1990: 8) that do not exist «aside the sphere of human action, emotion, and will» (Gilbert 2013: 73).9

  • 10 Italic in the original.
  • 11 See also Gilbert 2013: 47-48.

15One of the most basic principles in Gilbert’s account is joint commitment. The notion identifies a conditional bond between two or more individuals, who commit themselves to act as one in obtaining a particular goal in a way that «only when everyone has done similarly is anyone committed» (Gilbert 1990: 7).10 Most recently, Gilbert has further characterized the relation by saying that joint commitment is a kind of background attitude that creates mutual expectations and normative relationships among the participants by giving each of them the standing to demand a certain action from the other parties (Gilbert 2018: 165). Thus, joint commitment is a fundamental relationship that prepares the collective action by bringing the agents together interdependently. By virtue of its social nature, joint commitment has been further described as a conditional attitude. Although fundamental, joint commitment comes about if and only if, among the agents involved in the context, there is common knowledge concerning the fact that the other participants are co-present and ready to commit themselves to one another (Gilbert 2011).11 Insofar as each participant has recognized the others as co-present, and since this form of recognition is a mutual relationship among the parties, the conditions for joint commitment are met. Hence, the participants can form a group by expressing their willingness to be part of the ‘we’, either with words or simple gestures, such as staring, smiling and winking at each other (cf., Gilbert 1989: 167-203). Once the individuals have mutually recognized themselves as part of the same group, they are able to engage themselves, as one, in the action and collectively pursue a common goal. In this sense, «people may jointly commit to accepting, as a body, a certain goal» (Gilbert 2006: 136), where accepting an end on the basis of joint commitment has relevant consequences for the perspective from which the participants are holding the intention of obtaining it. In fact, according to Gilbert’s theory of collective intentions, when the attitude is assumed by the individuals as group members, the attitude will be held by those individuals from a group perspective. Thus, collective intentions are located on a psychological level, concerned with the individual acting as part of a group and separated from the one to which individual intentions belong as personal attitudes. According to this, Gilbert postulates two intentional levels in the individuals’ mind, both generated by the kind of commitment and perspective (personal or joint) from which the attitude proceeds. While in planning individual activities an agent has intentions on a personal level, in collective contexts the intention belongs to another intentional domain that is the collective psychological dimension (cf., Miller and Makela 2005: 637). In a few words, shared intentions are reasons to which the individuals are jointly committed (as one) due to their being part of the same group.

  • 12 On the disjunction criterion, see Gilbert 2009: 171-173. It may be that personal goals match the gr (...)

16To ensure the unity of plural subjects, Gilbert introduces three principles that are the disjunction, concurrence and obligation criteria (Gilbert 2006, 2009, 2013). The disjunction criterion concerns the relation between shared and personal attitudes. Since collective and individual intentionality rest on two different psychological levels, mental states related to the former domain have no direct influence on the attitudes belonging to the latter, and vice versa. Consequently, the two intentional stances can be treated in a separate way – i.e. can be disjointed – so it is possible to imagine a situation in which personal attitudes could even be in contrast with the collective purpose without representing a relevant obstacle for the satisfaction of the group’s goal.12 An example of this is the event of two or more individuals, who are jointly committed to go hiking together. Even though one of the members is so tired that she would rather stop walking if personally committed to the activity, as a collective, they keep walking independently of any personal hesitation, because joint commitment bounds the members to the group purpose, by leaving aside their individual viewpoints. Apart from being separable from personal attitudes, shared intentions are characterized by the concurrence criterion, which states that those attitudes require the engagement of all the parties in the action. This assumption has, at least, two meanings. On one side, it implies that shared intentions are properly formulated and realized only when each member of the group plays her role in the fulfillment of the entire performance (e.g., climbing a mountain together, by agent a checking the map, agent b following the marked trails, agent c using the compass, and so forth). On the other side, the concurrence criterion refers to the fact that shared intentions can be changed or rescinded only in a collective way, i.e. when the parties change or rescind the plan together (i.e., when all the agents decide to stop walking and refrain from climbing that peak). This means that nobody is in the position to break the shared intention unilaterally (unless she is authorized): at most, one might violate the collective intention and act in opposition to the common effort, without suspending the shared intention in question. The outcome would just be the transgression of the collective attitude, which might be found by the other members of the group as a wrongdoing. The fact that the participants are entitled to blame the behavior of another member is also connected with the third principle identified by Gilbert, which is the obligation criterion. The idea is that «each participant has obligations towards the other participants to behave in a way appropriate to the activity in question» and such obligations are «grounded in the joint activity itself» (Gilbert 2006: 106). In this sense, all parties are obliged to perform the action to which they are jointly committed as group members. To say it otherwise, this means that, by virtue of joint commitment, each participant has the right to demand a certain action from the others as if each of them owns the action that the others are committed to perform as group members (cf., Gilbert 2018: 68-69). To say it with an example, agent a has the right to demand from agent b to follow the marked trail, while b owns the indications that a is committed to provide by checking the map.

17In short, the formation of a plural subject has its roots in the notion of joint commitment, which is a relational and conditional concept. In fact, it requires common knowledge of co-presence, mutual recognition among the parties and some expression of willingness to participate. Gilbert describes joint commitment as a psychological process leading to the formation of a plural will, which is secured by the disjunction, concurrence, and obligation criterion. The plural will is technically defined as the plural subject and, as the outcome of joint commitment, it is a normative product that derives from the psychological process bringing the members together, as one, through an act of joint commitment (cf., Gilbert 2018: 181).

4. Reductive and non-reductive interpretations of Gilbert’s view

18Gilbert argues that, as a result of joint commitment, two or more individuals act together as if they were a plural subject. This description may lead to two different interpretations. Gilbert herself observes that a first way to understand this unity of the wills is the so-called ‘subjectivist stance’, which focuses on «how these individuals see themselves and their relation to the other individuals» (Gilbert 2013: 342). This approach concerns personal and inter-subjective characteristics of collective intentional action since it describes collective actions by assuming the perspective of the members and by looking at some particular aspects of their psychology, behavior and interaction. Due to the centrality of individuals’ perspective, it seems reasonable to refer to the subjectivist stance as a mode account of collective intentions and actions, which reduces the subject of collective attitudes and behaviors to (the interaction of) the members. This form of reduction locates the collective dimension in the mind of each, in a way that the notion of plural subject appears just as a metaphorical concept, reducible to member-level attributes and relations.

  • 13 Some authors have pointed out that Gilbert’s account seems to be a circular one, since the plural s (...)

19Then, Gilbert outlines another reading of collective agency, which is the ‘objectivistic stance’. This account focuses on «one’s thinking in terms of ‘us’ as opposed to ‘me’, ‘you’, and all the rest» (Gilbert 2013: 344). Different from the subjectivist stance is that the objectivist view involves a kind of perspective-taking, through which the ‘we’ is identified as the subject of collective attitudes. The collective is here conceived by the members as the outcome of joint commitment, i.e., the plural will that the agents constitute all together, which could not have occurred in the mind of any single individual taken personally, because the unity of all the members just resides in the unity of them all.13 This leads the author to the assumption that the ‘we’ – in the objectivist stance – is to be associated with a set of jointly committed persons, who non-tendentiously understand themselves to be party to a plural subject (cf. Gilbert 2018: 180). Those who form the ‘we’, Gilbert says, «are jointly committed to emulate, by virtue of their several actions including their utterances, a single body that phi-s» (ibidem), and to this extent they act together as one.

20One could assume that – inasmuch as we have referred to the subjectivist perspective as an approach that recalls the mode account – thinking of one’s attitudes in terms of ‘we’ should rather constitute, as Gilbert suggests, the basis for a non-reductive account of the plural subject. This interpretation is meant to take the group as the direct subject of intentional agency that could not be reduced to (the aggregation of) all individual contributions.

21Although the non-reducibility of collective attitudes to personal attitudes is a clear point of Gilbert’s account, it seems that the objectivist stance aims at assuming the non-reducibility of plural subjects while it relates especially to distinctive member-level features rather than addressing the issue of a non-reducible plural subject straightforwardly. In fact, in some passages, Gilbert seems to reject the idea of groups as intentional subjects in that she says that,

in using this label I have never meant to refer to something that exists independently of individual human beings, their attitudes, and relationships. Nor have I meant to suggest that when there is a plural subject there is a stream of consciousness or sequence of subjective experiences that exist apart from any such streams or sequences associated with the individual human members of the plural subject. (Gilbert 2018: 180).

22Non-reducible in this context are some traits of individual experience, which can be considered similar to we-mode intentionality and yet not open to the claim of irreducible plural subjects. In fact, the author has accounted for collectives in strict relation to the sequence of subjective experiences of the group members.

  • 14 This characterization is similar to the distinction made by List and Pettit between natural and cor (...)

23Moreover, such a reductive interpretation is corroborated by how Gilbert speaks of emulation, as a process through which the individuals act jointly by following the example of a single body. On the issue, Gilbert points out that «instead of writing of emulating a single body […] one might write of emulating a single person, a single agent, a single phi-er, or simply ‘one’ who phi-s» (Gilbert 2018: 166). This remark implies a categorical gap between group agents and individual agents, which is based on the assumption that, «whereas a single human being constitutes a single body, in the sense I have in mind, a plurality of human individuals does not in and of itself constitute such a body» (Gilbert 2013: 116).14 As Gilbert writes in a footnote, «what is at issue for the jointly committed parties is largely a type of behavior or performance» (Gilbert 2013: 116–117), in which the individuals, by virtue of the actions of each, emulate a single instance of intending to do that thing (cf., ibidem). This is to say that, the case of collective actions does not require a proper plural subject of mental states. Instead, group intentional activities need specific member-level processes, we-mode attitudes and commitments by which the agents can provide a rational guidance to the entire joint performance, as if they were one. Still, as far as intentionality is concerned, they are not one but a set of individual agents acting jointly as one.

24Even before Gilbert in her most recent book talked so cautiously about the plural subject, some scholars have thought that the subject account she had been proposing did not really postulate a plural subject, but rather a mode relative to collective attitudes. For instance, Velleman has observed that,

although Gilbert explains how two or more subjects combine to form what she calls a plural subject, she doesn’t fully explain how the combination qualifies, in its own right, as a subject. The possibility therefore remains that Gilbert, too, is using talk of a plural subject as a mere facon de parler, a convenient way of summarizing facts about a collection of subjects who never actually meld. (Velleman 1997: 31).

25Along this line, Hindriks has included Gilbert’s account among the internal perspectives of collective agency, which understand collective actions based on members’ attitudes, experience and relations (Hindriks 2008). Then, Schweikard has argued that Gilbert’s notion of plural subject is meant in relation to groups «not in a non-reductive, but rather in a reductive fashion, for it takes the group as intending to perform some action X only in virtue of the group members’ jointly committing themselves to the performance of X» (Schweikard 2008: 10). Similarly, Schmid maintains that

Margaret Gilbert, meanwhile, has repeatedly claimed to go “beyond individualism” (Gilbert 2000: 3). Yet in her book On Social Facts, she explicitly bases her analysis on a concept of the individual that “does not require for its analysis a concept of a collectivity” (Gilbert 1989: 435). The conceptual basis of her account of “joint commitment” consists of nothing but conditional personal commitments (Gilbert 2002). (Schmid 2009: 31).

26Such comments support the claim addressed in this paper that there is some instability in the interpretation of Gilbert’s plural-subject theory as a plural-subject account of collective intentions and actions. In fact, collective intentions are, for Gilbert, attitudes of individuals who, in virtue of joint commitment, perceive themselves as part of a group (objectivistic stance) and not attitudes of the group as a subject (subjectivistic stance). In other words, what is missing is a subjectivistic stance referred to the group straightforwardly.

5. Concluding remarks

27In this article, I outlined the content, the mode and the subject account as three different theories of collective intentions and actions. I focused especially on the third perspective for how it has been developed by Gilbert. I tried to show to what extent Gilbert’s view should be classified not as a subject- but as a mode account, tied to intentional individualism, which prevents the introduction of a plural subjectivistic stance.

  • 15 Among the theorists of group agency, we can also mention French (1984), Hess (2014), Hindriks (2008 (...)

28It is worth mentioning that, assuming Gilbert does not offer an intentional plural-subject account for collective actions does not mean that in her theory there is no room for organized groups capable of acting intentionally as one. The issue of group agency has been suggested, in these terms, by the functionalist view first proposed by Pettit (1996) and further developed in List and Pettit’s book (List and Pettit 2011).15 As said, instead of starting from the analysis of individual intentionality, Pettit’s version of the subject account looks at the group as an agent in itself, by treating the group as a complex system with an internal organization and some decision-making mechanism that allows the members to act jointly by forming, embracing, and enacting the group’s perspective. Underlying the group’s design there can be many factors, including joint commitment and collective intentionality, which enable the system to function as an agent, interacting suitably with the social and normative environment.

29As the functional organization of the group depends on factors that may include joint commitment and collective attitudes, the integration of Pettit’s and Gilbert’s approach seems a feasible attempt, and yet it is not always possible. On the one hand, regarding the engagement of the parties, Pettit’s account is less demanding than Gilbert’s, according to which a set of individuals constitutes a group if and only if there are relationships of joint commitment between the members, who perceive themselves as a single body. Differently, in Pettit’s functionalist framework, for a group to function as an agent, there must be some decision-making procedure in which the members participate, in a way that being a group member is not bound to any strict collective psychological perspective. For example, an employee of a company may perform her function only for self-interested reasons and regardless of the actions of others. Even though this situation would not guarantee strong cohesion within the group, it would not prevent the system from functioning as an agent and achieving its goal. Still, the group would not respect the basic criterion of joint commitment established by Gilbert’s account. On the other hand, Gilbert’s theory can explain small-scale unstructured actions that Pettit’s theory is not designed to capture, such as the case of a group of people going trekking together in virtue of the joint commitment of each.

30Therefore, assuming it is plausible to combine the two approaches, the outcome would be a plural-subject account of collective action suitable to explain a narrow class of phenomena, including only those actions carried out by cohesive structured groups.

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1 It goes beyond the purpose of this article to consider Gilbert’s social ontology in relation to its specific contribution in explaining the social world. The focus here is limited to examining the grounds of alternative interpretations and then leaning towards one, while assessing the other as doubtful.

2 There has been criticism about the idea that collective actions are a special class of actions other than individual actions (Ludwig 2014 and 2016; Miller 2007; Pacherie 2007; Salice 2015).

3 An overview of the main approaches to collective intentionality can be found in Jankovic and Ludwig 2018, Schweikard and Schmid 2012.

4 The mode of intentions has been introduced in social ontology by Tuomela, who proposes a notion of mode that is fundamentally different from the mode of intentions meant by Brentano (Brentano 1874). While the phenomenological notion captures the way in which the subject refers to the object of intention through the mediation of specific attitudes such as desire, belief, concern, and so forth, according to Tuomela, the mode has an adverbial function as it grasps the mode of experience. On the adverbial function of mode, see Tuomela 2013a: 36-37.

5 For the sake of simplicity, I am using the adjective ‘collective’ for all authors, without distinctions. However, ‘collective’ here is not accurate, as Bratman would rather characterize the plan states in the mind of each as shared intentions (Bratman 2014), which are ontologically and epistemically continuous to individual intentions.

6 Although Searle does not refer to collective attitudes as we-mode attitudes, the way he talks of collective intentions as genuinely collective intentions, thought by the subject in the plural grammatical form, leaves room to rephrase his we-intentions in terms of we-mode intentions (Schmitz 2017; Wilby 2012).

7 In a recent volume dedicated to Tuomela’s work, Schmitz has introduced the role-mode, a way in which the individual has intentions for the action from the perspective of the role he covers in the group. Role-mode attitudes are neither individual nor properly collective (cf., Schmitz 2017: 58-64). Laitinen rather observed that distinctions and stratifications of modes should be considered as analytical tools, because it often happens that people act in an overall mode, «where all one’s duties, reasons, tasks and rights are relevant» (Laitinen 2017: 164).

8 In these pages, I just want to suggest that there are reasons to believe that, on Gilbert’s view, groups are not direct subjects of intentions and actions. This does not mean denying that social groups can be social objects just as money, marriages and States are.

9 One might want to contend that my argument in favor of a reductive interpretation of Gilbert’s plural-subject account is based on considerations that the author proposes mainly in short passages, footnotes and comments. This could therefore mean that the interpretation based on such references makes use of observations that are less informative than the way of describing groups as plural subjects characterizing most of Gilbert’s works. Such criticism says something true in claiming that in general Gilbert treats groups as plural subjects. Yet the ‘minor’ passages I will refer to in this article are important clues to understand how to approach the entire account or, at least, to allow for what Gilbert seems to suggest in some recent developments.

10 Italic in the original.

11 See also Gilbert 2013: 47-48.

12 On the disjunction criterion, see Gilbert 2009: 171-173. It may be that personal goals match the group’s objective in a way that each group member shares the same set of reasons of the others. On the matter, Gilbert makes an important distinction between summative-shared values and collective contents. While the former are the objects of personal attitudes that are just common to a number of individuals, collective reasons are rather grounded on joint commitment (Gilbert 2013: ch. 8).

13 Some authors have pointed out that Gilbert’s account seems to be a circular one, since the plural subject is based on normative constraints that are based on forms of interaction between subjects that are already collective in themselves or that requires, in order to be successful, some sort of collective attitudes (Crone 2018; Schmid 2005; Sheehy 2002; Tollefsen 2002). In order to avoid the regress, Schmid suggests that the ‘we’ can be subject insofar as it can be self-conscious and thus have pre-reflective plural self-awareness. On Schmid’s account, this form of self-awareness operates similarly to the pre-reflexive consciousness that constitutes individual subjectivity (Schmid 2014).

14 This characterization is similar to the distinction made by List and Pettit between natural and corporate persons (List and Pettit 2011: 174-178).

15 Among the theorists of group agency, we can also mention French (1984), Hess (2014), Hindriks (2008), Rovane (2004), Tollefsen (2015).

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Giulia Lasagni, «Two interpretations of Gilbert’s plural-subject account»Rivista di estetica, 80 | 2022, 115-129.

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Giulia Lasagni, «Two interpretations of Gilbert’s plural-subject account»Rivista di estetica [Online], 80 | 2022, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 21 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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