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Collective Intentionality, Rationality, and Institutions

Ivan Mladenovic
p. 67-86


L’intenzionalità collettiva è di centrale importanza per l’ontologia sociale. In questo articolo, discuteremo il suo ruolo nella interpretazione di Searle dell’ontologia sociale e della realtà istituzionale. La prima sezione dell’articolo ricostruisce il punto di vista di Searle sull’ontologia sociale e la sua identificazione degli elementi necessari per la costruzione della realtà istituzionale. Verranno qui discusse le nozioni di imposizione di funzione, di intenzionalità collettiva, e di regola costitutiva. La seconda sezione riesaminerà in maniera critica la nozione di intenzionalità collettiva. Nella terza sezione, la visione di Searle della realtà istituzionale verrà confrontata con quella basata sulla teoria evoluzionistica dei giochi. Considerando che Searle descrive la sua posizione come naturalistica, lo scopo principale di tale sezione sarà esaminare in qual misura la teoria alternativa, anch’essa di stampo naturalistico, può affrontare certi problemi, che rimangono insolubili nel quadro della teoria searliana.

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  • 1 Searle 1995: xii.

1The main ontological question which motivates Searle’s grappling with the problem of construction of social reality is: How is it possible to reconcile an objective world of weddings, parliaments and courts to a world which utterly consists of physical particles, as described by the natural sciences? The task is to show how everything holds together. One would have to be able to show such a thing, given that the basic message of Searle’s theory is precisely that we live in a single world. For Searle, it is of crucial importance to answer the question «How do we construct an objective social reality?»1.

  • 2 Searle 1969: 50-53.

2This question could be formulated in the following way: How are institutional facts possible in a world that consists of brute facts? Searle has introduced the terms institutional and brute facts in the early phase of speech act theory in order to distinguish between a physical aspect of uttering sounds while speaking, and the meanings that these sounds conjure up i.e. performing an act by uttering certain words2.

3Making this distinction is very important because institutional facts are dependent on opinions and mental states or, more precisely, on human agreements and acceptance, while brute facts exist independently of human thinking. Searle’s favourite example is the institution of money. The brute fact is that a one-dollar bill is a piece of paper, but what really makes it a banknote is an institutional fact or the collectively recognized institution of money. In other words, it is nothing but human agreement that turns a piece of paper into a one-dollar bill. However, Searle does not think of this kind of prior agreement in terms of traditional social contract theory or some of its contemporary versions, but in terms of collective intentionality. Searle’s claim that institution of money is collectively recognized suggests such a perspective.

4Obviously, even when we postulate things in terms of institutional and brute facts, we only revert to the basic question: How are objective facts produced by human agreement or acceptance possible in a world that consists merely of brute facts? What kind of solution does Searle propose to both problems? In this section, we will discuss how it is possible to construct an objective social reality. Furthermore, we will discuss the more specific issue of constructing institutional reality.

5In order to answer the first question, Searle introduces several terminological distinctions. It is necessary to make a clear distinction along subjective/objective axis. In epistemic terms, subjective and objective are predicates of judgements. Judgements are subjective if they express certain attitudes or feelings. On the other hand, in the case of objectively true or false judgements, there are corresponding objective facts, which make those judgements true or false. In ontological terms, subjective and objective are predicates of certain entities, which means that they are ascribed a certain mode of existence. In Searle’s classification, pain would be an example of a subjective entity, for example, while rivers would have an ontologically objective existence because their mode of existence is independent from mental states of a subject.

  • 3 Searle 2010: 17.

6The true purpose of these distinctions is to ascertain which characteristics of the world exist independently of human mind and which exist precisely due to dependence on human mind. To see the things to the end, Searle proposes an additional terminological distinction between intrinsic and observer-relative characteristics of the world. It is clear that rivers and atoms would have existed even if they had not been represented in human mind, while money and weddings are dependent on mental states and thoughts, which means that they are observer-relative. This distinction can alternatively be expressed by saying that the former are observer-independent while the latter are observer-dependent. Searle later proposed that the best term for the latter type would be intentionality-relative characteristics3.

7The distinction between intrinsic and intentionality-relative characteristics of the world would consist in the following: if it is true that a ball is made of leather (an intrinsic characteristic), it is also true that something can be a ball (or technically speaking that something counts as a ball) only if there are people who recognize or use it like that (an intentionality-relative characteristic). The essence is that intentionality-relative characteristics are not objects, which are added to an already existing reality, but that their role is to add epistemically objective, but intentionality-relative, characteristics of reality.

8In the aforementioned example, an epistemically objective characteristic is the fact that a thing made of leather is a ball, but this characteristic still exists only as intentionality-relative, which means that it is ontologically subjective. With these distinctions in mind it is possible to grasp Searle’s answer to the question, How do we construct an objective social reality? This answer implies that some ontologically subjective characteristics are epistemically objective. It is not just a matter of subjective opinion that something is a ball, but it is also an objectively verifiable fact.

  • 4 Searle 1995: 41.

9Even though the proposed view seems plausible, the question still remains of how it helps us understand the construction of social reality. Searle’s answer is that «the central span on the bridge from physics to society is collective intentionality, and the decisive movement on that bridge in the creation of social reality is the collective intentional imposition of function on entities that cannot perform those functions without that imposition»4. Since these two elements – collective intentionality and imposition of function – represent the basic material for the construction of institutional reality, we will now turn to this specific problem. By discussing it, their central role in social ontology will become clear.

  • 5 Ibidem: 63.

10Institutional facts are a result of previously described operation of constructing objective social reality. Something has a certain function, or a status function, only if it is collectively acknowledged or accepted as such. Searle says that «all institutional facts are, in this sense ontologically subjective, even though in general they are epistemically objective»5.

11He maintains that even the simplest everyday scene such as, for example, paying a bill in a restaurant implies a complex structure of interdependence among institutional facts. For someone to do such a simple thing, it is necessary to accept and acknowledge that she is in a specific institution (a restaurant), that certain people have a status of representing that institution, to acknowledge the institution of money, to know how to use it etc. However, no matter how complex this structure may be, Searle claims that to produce institutional facts only a couple of things are necessary. The following is the list of three necessary elements for producing institutional facts:

1. imposition of function
2. collective intentionality
3. constitutive rules

121. Imposition of function. Using the terminology that I have already introduced, it could be said that functions can best be described as intentionality-relative characteristics. Functions are not intrinsic features of physical aspects of phenomena, they are externally imposed by human intentionality. It is possible, however, to impose a function to an already existing natural phenomenon. The example of a ball is a clear case in which one object is made to serve specific function, for example, playing a certain game. However, it is also thinkable that a tribe should begin using a simple round stone as a ball, imposing a certain function to it within a certain game. The conclusion would seem to be that functions are never intrinsic, but intentionality-relative.

  • 6 For the solution to this seeming paradox see ibidem: 15-23.

13However, Searle makes a further distinction between agentive and nonagentive functions. Even though the notion of function is intentionality-dependent (because, properly speaking, there are no intentionality-independent functions), it is also true that some functions exist in nature independently from human intentions6. These kinds of functions are nonagentive functions. In addition to them, there are also agentive functions. They imply human intentionality. Something can be a ball as long as it serves specific purposes, and as long as it is recognized as such. Among agentive functions, Searle identifies a sub-category of those the role of which is to symbolize or represent. They can be called symbolic functions. This sub-category of agentive functions is of crucial importance for creating institutional facts.

142. Collective intentionality. Searle assumes that in addition to intentionality of the form «I intend» there is another kind of intentionality of the form «we intend,» which does not exclude the former. One of the obvious examples would be when several people push a car. It is true that each of them has the intention «I intend,» but, according to Searle, it is also true that the intention of each of them also assumes the form of «we intend». Searle’s notion of collective intentionality could in this context be understood as a necessary condition for cooperative behaviour. Searle also cites an example of two musicians who quite accidentally (due to the fact that they live next to each other) perform the same melody, and musicians who do that as members of an orchestra. In the first case, it could be said that their performance is simply synchronized, while in the second case there is a true cooperative behaviour. Searle says:

  • 7 Searle 1999: 119.

Just take the collective intentionality in my head as a primitive. It is of the form “we intend” even though it is in my individual head. And if in fact I am succeeding in cooperating with you, then what is in your head will also be of the form “we intend”7.

  • 8 Ibidem: 120.

Whenever you have people cooperating, you have collective intentionality […] I want to say, this is the foundation of all social activities8.

15There are two things that need to be cleared up. Firstly, in what sense collective intentionality is understood as primitive, and secondly, why «we intend» cannot be reduced to «I intend». Searle claims that collective intentionality is a basic phenomenon in the biological sense and that it cannot be reduced to anything else. It can be reduced neither to individual intentionality nor to some Hegelian world spirit, which would be something beyond individuals. The evidence for the claim that collective intentionality is a basic biological phenomenon can be found in the fact that even animals that hunt together display some form of cooperative behaviour.

  • 9 Searle later somewhat revised his negative attitude towards methodological individualism. See Searl (...)
  • 10 Jennifer Hornsby notices that Searle’s explanation of social cooperation implies a kind of irreduci (...)

16Searle thinks that requirements of methodological individualism should be rejected, because it reduces collective intentionality to an individual one9. According to Searle, if a person does something together with others, she does that in a collective way10. What she is doing cannot simply be reduced to first person singular. «I intend» is in that case just a part of our joint intention. Searle adds that a construction which contains two or more «I intend» elements, which implies a belief that others believe too etc., is far too complicated and that it leads to infinite regress. Therefore, it is possible that actors in their heads have intentionality of the form «we intend» even in the case when it is reformulated in the form «I intend». The «we intend», according to Searle, neither excludes nor reduces the «I intend».

173. Constitutive rules. The essential difference between constitutive and regulative rules is in the following. Searle says that some rules are constitutive because acting in accordance with them constitutes the very activity. Probably the best example is a chess game. Evoking the famous Wittgensteinean topic, Searle claims that chess rules actually create the very possibility of playing this game. It means that some rules are constitutive for the game of chess, in the sense that playing chess is partly constituted precisely by following the rules. Viewed either individually or as a system, constitutive rules take the form «X counts as Y» or «X counts as Y in context C». Contrary to constitutive rules, regulative rules only regulate an already existing activity. For example, the rule to drive on the right-hand side of the road would be a rule of this kind. The characteristic of regulative rules is that the activity they regulate exists independently of the rules themselves.

  • 11 See also Fotion 2000: 202.

18Let us reiterate key characteristics of brute and institutional facts. A brute fact is that a banknote is a piece of paper that has a certain physical structure. Even though this physical structure can exist independently of human mind, what cannot exist independently of human mind is the institution of money. Institutional facts imply the existence of certain human institutions without which they would not exist. And institutions, according to Searle, are nothing else but systems of constitutive rules. Before we demonstrate in what way institutional reality is constructed by combining the three discussed elements, we could already conclude that it is precisely the systems of rules that make institutional facts possible11. Thus, in the game of chess, for example, the possibility of winning is created by a possibility of applying a specific rule of checkmate.

  • 12 Searle also makes the stronger and more problematic claim that this characteristic is what separate (...)
  • 13 Searle 1995: 41.

19What Searle terms a simple model of construction of institutional reality is a kind of a construction that links the three analyzed elements. They are linked in the following way. The first step is to link imposition of function to collective intentionality. Searle assumes that collective intentionality creates agentive functions. The step of collective imposition of function, when function can exist only due to collective agreement or acceptance, is a key point for construction of institutional facts. In that context, Searle cites the following example. Let us imagine that people have erected a fortress around their territory, which has a function of physical protection. This fortress would be a result of their cooperation. Let us also imagine that after some time at the place where the fortress used to be, only a line of stones remains. If people still continue to recognize this line as marking their territory, it becomes a symbolic border, which exists only due to collective intentionality. Its function is symbolic because the physical element is no longer important. The line consisting of stones now represents something completely different from its physical structure, it represents a border. It would be proper to say that it actually counts as a border. We see that in addition to collective intentionality and imposition of function, for constructing institutional reality what is also necessary are constitutive rules. Searle holds that the starting point of all institutional forms has the structure «X counts as Y in C» which signifies acknowledgement, acceptance and recognition of some new status which is not possible only on the basis of a purely physical structure12: «The key element in the move from the collective imposition of function to the creation of institutional facts is the imposition of collectively recognized status to which a function is attached»13. In Searle’s terminology, the name for this special category of agentive functions is a status function. Searle describes status functions’ dependency on symbolic or language elements in the following way:

  • 14 Searle 2005: 12.

The knife function can exist for anybody capable of exploiting the physics, but the status function can only exist if there is collective representation of the object as having the status that carries the function. A status function must be represented as existing in order to exist at all, and language or symbolism of some kind provides the means of representation. You can explore the physics of the X terms as much as you like, but you cannot read off the status function as you can read off physical functions, because there is nothing in the X term physically that by itself carries the status function. The piece of paper is only money, the man is only president, insofar as the piece of paper is represented as money and the man is represented as president. But now, if there are to be these representations, there must be some medium of representation, and that medium is language or symbolism in the broadest sense. We must have some means of representing the fact that this stuff is money or that that man is president in order that the stuff can acquire the status of money and the man can acquire the status of a president. No representation, no status function14.

20In the above example, the border should function in the same way as the fortress, but it does that precisely due to collective recognition or acceptance of a proposition that the line has a new status (the sign of a border line). In this way collective imposition of function produces a new fact, which is institutional – an objective fact created only due to human acceptance and agreement. This also provides an answer to the second question – how the existence of institutional facts is possible in a world that consists of brute facts.


  • 15 Searle 2010: 43.

21In this section, we will examine the assumption of collective intentionality, which for Searle is an essential element for the construction of social and institutional reality. Namely, he claims that «fundamental building block of all social ontology and human society in general» is the fact that «human beings, along with a lot of other social animals, have the capacity for collective intentionality»15. We have seen that his understanding of collective intentionality assumes that methodological individualism is not a good starting point for explaining institutional reality. However, it should be noticed that Searle refutes a possible objection from the standpoint of methodological individualism only in terms of intentionality. Namely, he does not discuss a rational actor and the role of a rational individual in cooperative behaviour. Game theory, which views actions of individuals precisely from the standpoint of rationality, describes games of coordination only as one type of games that are relatively unproblematic. The games of coordination can be represented by the following table:

Table 1. A Coordination Game







22Designations I and II in Table 1 stand for various players. The first number in each cell is the payoff for player I, the second the payoff for player II. Obviously, it is not important for player I whether player II has decided to pursue one or the other possible optimal strategy. Whatever strategy she chooses, if both players adopt the same strategy, they will achieve an optimal outcome (3, 3). It seems that Searle assumes that the entire social cooperation can be understood in accordance with the model of games of coordination. Even though each person brings an independent decision that can be articulated in the form of «I intend», she can also articulate that decision in the form «we intend», assuming that she is in relation of cooperation with another person. If there is collective intentionality, it makes it impossible that any player could make a wrong move that would lead to a suboptimal outcome (1, 1).

23However, in contrast to games of coordination, the real challenge is to show in what way cooperation is at all possible in conditions that imply that there are incentives for both cooperation and defection. The classic and most frequently discussed game in this context is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This game can be represented in the following way:

Table 2. A Prisoner’s Dilemma











24If the same designations as in previous example hold, in Table 2 we see that each player has two strategies at her disposal – cooperation and defection. It is obvious that defection represents the strictly dominant strategy for each of the players because each player achieves the best outcome if she defects, regardless of what another player does. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, mutual defection is the so-called Nash equilibrium, because none of the players could achieve a better outcome by changing the strategy. The problem is that if both players decide to follow the defection strategy, they would fare worse (0, 0) than if they decide to mutually cooperate (2, 2). In rational choice theory, it is usually assumed that in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, a player would act irrationally if she would decide to cooperate even though, collectively speaking, this would produce a suboptimal outcome.

25Considering that Searle describes his position as naturalistic, and we have seen that he views collective intentionality as a biological phenomenon, it is surprising that in his discussion, he does not take into account the importance of evolutionary game theory for explaining institutional reality. The evolutionary game theory provides an alternative explanation of emergence and maintenance of institutions, one which is in accord with the assumption of rationality and the spirit of methodological individualism and which claims that cooperation in the Prisoner’s Dilemma can only be rational if the game is repeatedly played. Otherwise cooperation is either impossible or the assumption of rational behaviour has to be given up. Binmore explains this in the following way:

  • 16 Binmore 2005: 10.

Rational reciprocity can’t work unless people interact repeatedly, without a definite end to their relationship in sight. If the reason I scratch your back today is that I expect you will then scratch my back tomorrow, then our cooperative arrangement will unravel if we know that there will eventually be no tomorrow.
The simplest kind of game in which reciprocity can appear is therefore a repeated game with an indefinite time horizon. The simplest of the folk theorems characterizes all the equilibria of such a game in the case when nobody can conceal any information, and everybody always cares about tomorrow nearly as much as they care about today. The important point is that any efficient outcome of the original game on which the players might like to agree approximates an equilibrium outcome of the repeated game16.

  • 17 See also Vromen 2003.

26Considering the possibility of such an explanation of equilibrium of individual strategies, it is clear that Searle should have offered an argument that explains cooperative behaviour not only in terms of intentionality, but also in terms of rationality. In the absence of such an argument, adducing collective intentionality to explain the phenomenon of human cooperation can be relevant only for specific, relatively unproblematic, type of interactions, such as games of coordination. If our analysis is correct, it also means that collective intentionality is neither necessary for human cooperation nor for explaining institutional and social reality17. Namely, if we presume in the spirit of methodological individualism that individuals are rational and that they pursue their interests, it would also be possible to explain emergence and maintenance of cooperative behaviour. The evolutionary game theory could be important for explaining institutional reality to the extent to which it explains the evolution of norms of cooperation. If we additionally assume that institutionalization of a formal rule is supported by existence and stabilization of certain informal rules or norms, it means that it is possible to offer an alternative explanation of institutional reality in terms of evolutionary game theory which is based not on collective intentionality, but on the assumption of individual rationality.

27An additional problem is that in Searle’s construction of institutional reality, there is no place for justice. In order to assess to what degree this fact constricts the understanding of the procedure of constructing institutional reality, we will shortly compare it with the Kantian version of constructivism, which Rawls draws on in his theory. While for Searle collective intentionality is sufficient for collective behaviour, for Rawls social cooperation is possible only among individuals who are free and equal moral persons. According to Rawls, the possibility of social cooperation is based on the conception of free and equal individuals capable of acting in a rational and reasonable way. This is the reason why it matters whether the results of construction are merely institutions and institutional reality or those institutions and basic structure of society are also just. It seems that Searle, by strictly adhering to the position of collective intentionality, is not well positioned to offer a satisfactory formulation of the conception of just institutions and just society. A proposition that unjust institutions and unjust social order are collectively accepted or recognized is in line with Searle’s theory. Namely, if some powers and obligations have been created through institutional reality and an individual recognizes those obligations not as self-imposed, but as collectively imposed, then it annuls her autonomy. For Rawls the conception of an individual is therefore directly connected with principles of justice, which are applied to the basic structure of society, that is, to the scheme of the main institutions. What is of particular importance for Rawls is the Kantian conception of an individual as a rational and autonomous actor. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls says the following:

  • 18 Rawls 1971: 252.

Kant held, I believe, that a person is acting autonomously when the principles of his action are chosen by him as the most adequate possible expression of his nature as a free and equal rational being. The principles he acts upon are not adopted because of his social position or natural endowments, or in view of the particular kind of society in which he lives or the specific things that he happens to want. To act on such principles is to act heteronomously18.

  • 19 Rawls describes the main feature of Kantian constructivism in the following way: «What distinguishe (...)

28In Rawls’s version of Kantianism, individuals as rational and reasonable actors are supposed to arrive to the first principles of justice through the procedure of construction or through mutual agreement19. His main aim is to connect a certain conception of an individual with the first principles of justice through the procedure of construction. In other words, what is explicitly Kantian in Rawls’s approach is the attempt to link the content of justice to a certain conception of an individual in a way that an individual is understood as free and equal, rational and reasonable and therefore capable of social cooperation.

29On the other hand, what is specifically Rawlsian or has the quality of justice as fairness is that all the above elements, namely freedom and equality, individual and social cooperation, have been combined into a singular standpoint by employing three theoretical models. The three basic models of justice as fairness are: a moral individual, the original position, and a well-ordered society.

30The basic point of the model of a well-ordered society and a moral individual is to distil essential Kantian ideas of persons as moral individuals and their relationship in terms of social community, which imply that they are free and equal citizens. The role of the model of the original position is to link the model of an individual and the model of a well-ordered society through the principle of justice that determines relations among individuals in a given society. The essence is to determine which principles the citizens of a well-ordered society, perceived as moral individuals, would choose as the first principles of their society. If the result of such a procedure is an agreement on certain principles of justice, then the basic aim of Kantian constructivism would be fulfilled – namely, that principles of justice are linked to a certain conception of an individual.

31However, it remains insufficiently clear what does it mean that the conception of a moral individual as rational and reasonable is the basis of the entire construction. Rawls claims that the reasonable implies and at the same time transcends the rational. It implies the rational because without a conception of the good that drives actors, cooperative behaviour would make no sense. On the other hand, the reasonable transcends the rational because the principles are supposed to limit goals of each of the individuals. The unity of the practical reason for which Kant was looking is explained in Rawls’s version as the reasonable that absolutely limits and transcends the rational. It means that the principles of justice, which are agreed upon in the original position, in the case of a well-ordered society precede individual conceptions of the good. This Kantian characteristic is best explained by emphasizing primacy of the just in relation to the good:

  • 20 Ibidem: 319.

This illustrates one feature of the unity of reason: the Reasonable and the Rational are unified within one scheme of practical reasoning which establishes the strict priority of the Reasonable with respect to the Rational. This priority of the right over the good is characteristic of Kantian constructivism20.

32If all the assumptions related to individuals are taken into account, then, according to Rawls, certain principles of justice will be chosen in the original position. The original position is nothing but an abstract model, which presents a kind of a stylized state of nature or a point in which the principles of social contract are defined. The conception of justice as fairness assumes that in the original situation, which is fair, free and equal individuals would choose certain principles of justice. The fairness of conditions in which the agreement is reached is thus transposed to the principles of justice that are the object of agreement. The reason is that if individuals are in a fair position in the original condition, that is, if they are free and equal, the result of the procedure of their choice also has to be fair. Rawls specifies the necessary condition that guarantees that the original situation is fair. This condition is termed a veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance ensures that, when choosing the basic principles, nobody should be advantaged or disadvantaged due to natural or social circumstances. The positive side of the veil of ignorance would ensure that all parties to the original position are equal in terms of their rights during the procedure of the choice of principles. This condition is important because it disables individuals to know their social position in advance, leading them to assume an unbiased point of view.

  • 21 Rawls 1971: 302.

33We have seen that Rawls also assumes that individuals in the original position are rational. The main question that needs to be answered regarding the original position is: What are the principles the adoption of which would be rational? Rawls therefore claims that a theory of justice and a theory of rational choice have to be closely connected. Rawls defines a rational person as the one who has a coherent set of preferences among various options. The ranking of preferences in a way that will satisfy more desires rather than less desires is what makes her plan coherent. Viewed as rational, the individuals in the original position would thus pursue their own interests. However, we have seen that individuals also have the capacity of being reasonable. It means that in addition to the capability of pursuing their own conceptions of the good, they also have a sense of justice. Rawls thinks that the way in which reasonable is represented in the original position directly results in certain principles of justice. Therefore, if individuals are rational and reasonable, equal and free, they will choose principles of justice which guarantee maximum degree of basic freedoms; that inequalities in society are such that they work to the benefit of the least advantaged and that equality of opportunity exists in terms of offices and positions21.

  • 22 Rawls 2001: 58.

34A particularly important aspect that these principles regulate is the distribution of primary goods. As opposed to what people want, primary goods are what people cannot do without if they are free and equal persons22. Regardless of anyone’s life plan, primary goods such as rights, freedoms, income and a basis for self-respect are goods that would be chosen in the original position if individuals were rational. If individuals in the original position do not have to know the conception of the good they would pursue, they certainly know that they would choose more rather than less primary goods. Rawls assumes that in addition to the two principles of justice in the original position, the primary goods would also have been chosen.

  • 23 Scanlon remarks that, according to Rawls, institutions are just only if each individual member of s (...)

35It is obvious that Rawls’s vision of society is completely different from Searle’s, which accounts for cooperative behaviour from the point of view of collective intentionality. A typical understanding of society within the justice as fairness model is that it is joint venture undertaken for mutual benefit23. The testimony that the basic structure of society is just would be provided by the main institutions, which distribute fundamental rights and duties employing the principles of justice, providing at the same time just distribution of benefits from social cooperation. It is hardly surprising that Rawls thus claims that justice is the first virtue of social institutions.


  • 24 For a critique of Searle’s understanding of social ontology based on normative assumptions see also (...)
  • 25 Binmore 2005: 15.

36One could perhaps notice that our two basic objections to Searle’s conception of collective intentionality pull in opposite directions. While the first objection implies a naturalistic framework of evolutionary game theory, the second objection concerns the problem Searle’s theory encounters in introducing a conception of justice, which is more normative in nature24. The question is whether these two directions of our criticism could be subsumed under a single theoretical framework that would offer an important theoretical alternative to Searle’s understanding of institutional reality that is based on the assumption of collective intentionality. Good prospects for such a theoretical framework are provided by recent discussions within evolutionary game theory, which aim at naturalizing the theory of justice. In distinction to Rawls, who asked which principles of justice could be expected to make a basis of the social contract adopted in conditions which are fair and which imply moral autonomy, equality and rationality of individuals, recent research in evolutionary game theory is primarily concerned with the question how evolution of cooperation on the basis of a just social contract could have emerged. Binmore claims that evolution of cooperation is based precisely on stabilizing norms of fairness, which are equivalent to the basic principles of justice for which Rawls assumes that they would be accepted in a hypothetical situation that is fair25. The aspiration towards naturalization of the theory of justice is mostly limited to this essential part of Rawls’s theory.

  • 26 Rawls 1971: 11.

37Rawls held that the main subject of the principles of justice is the basic structure of society i.e. the system of social institutions. He describes the basic idea of justice as fairness as an attempt to arrive at the principles that free and rational individuals would accept in the original position of equality in order to ensure fairness of institutions. This contract precedes all other social contracts and is supposed to regulate them precisely because it specifies basic forms of social cooperation. The principles of justice around which an agreement has been made should then be applied to basic institutions of society. Rawls wraps up all these elements with the claim that «the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement»26.

38A recent research into the nature of institutions and institutional reality based on rational choice theory, apart from formal rules on which the basic structure of society is based, also places an emphasis on informal rules or social norms. North thus says that institutions

  • 27 North 1990: 4.

consist of formal written rules as well as typically unwritten codes of conduct that underlie and supplement formal rules, such as not deliberately injuring a key player on the opposing team. And as this analogy would imply, the rules and informal codes are sometimes violated and punishment is enacted. Therefore, an essential part of the functioning of institutions is the costliness of ascertaining violations and the severity of punishment27.

39The evolutionary game theory has offered an explanation of how evolution of social norms takes place but also of how rules that are informal in character can guarantee stability and successful functioning of formal rules.

  • 28 Trivers 2002: 3-55.
  • 29 See Axelrod 1984.
  • 30 Binmore 2005: 10.

40The answers that this theory has offered are based on reciprocal altruism and repetition of interactions28. Let us go back to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The defection strategy in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game is dominant only in case the game is not repeated. If the game is repeated, the player who chooses the defection strategy can predict that her defection in the first round would be punished by defection of other people in the second round. The perspective then somewhat changes. It turns out that for each player the much more profitable strategy now is to cooperate in the first round, and then act in accordance with actions of other people (a tit-for-tat strategy)29. The evolution of norms takes place precisely due to the large number of interactions that have proved to be successful, while their maintenance rests on aforementioned mechanism of punishing those who defect. Binmore says that if the Prisoners’ Dilemma is repeated, the folk theorem would mandate that it is possible to maintain cooperation «as a self-policing social contract»30.

41Unlike Rawls, who presupposes a hypothetical condition of the original position in which people behind a veil of ignorance choose the first principles of justice, Binmore perceives social contract as a set of common understandings that enable individuals who make up a society to achieve successful coordination in order to pursue their aspirations. Regardless of impositions made by formal rules and laws, social contract is made up of those rules and norms to which people adhere in everyday life in order to coordinate their actions. Laws that sanction certain behaviour are relevant only to the extent to which they are obeyed. The social contract is self-regulating because its stability rests on previously described mechanism of punishment. Even though punishment for breaching norms can be very rigorous, most of the time it is very subtle and barely noticeable, so that people at most times adjust their behaviour in such a way to make it conform to what is considered an accepted social contract unconsciously.

  • 31 Ibidem: 13.
  • 32 Ibidem: 14.

42We have seen how evolutionary game theory contributes to explanation of evolution of norms of cooperation. However, the proposed solution does not rule out the problem of indeterminacy. Namely, on the basis of what are we to assume that an optimal, rather than a suboptimal equilibrium would be chosen within society? According to Binmore, even though the answer to this problem is mostly sought in culture, it should be noted «that human biology must impose constraints on what social contracts can evolve, just as human biology imposes constraints on the deep structure of the languages that can evolve»31. Therefore, the deep structure of social contracts should be sought in biology because this structure is actually «written into our genes»32. This by no means implies a sort of a genetic determinism which rules out any influence of culture. If reference to biology can explain the deep structure of social contracts, reference to culture actually explains multitude of variants of social contracts in different time periods or in different societies.

43The previous explanation of evolution of norms and the point that deep structure of social contract is written in our genes still does not guarantee that norms and contracts themselves would be just. In other words, previous assumptions and explanations in the light of these assumptions would constitute only a part of the story. How can the norm of fairness evolve? Binmore thinks that fairness can be perceived precisely as a solution offered by the evolution to the problem of the choice of an equilibrium that emerges in games that have a multitude of possible equilibria. The main reason for the evolution of the norms of fairness is precisely that

  • 33 Binmore 2009: 5.

they allowed our species a quick and efficient way to solve the coordination problems that inevitably arise when a group is faced with a new situation. For example, how should a novel source of food be shared without fighting or other wasteful conflict? […] fairness can be seen as evolution’s solution to the equilibrium selection problem that arises in certain games with multiple equilibria33.

44Earlier it has been stressed that Binmore considers social contracts dependent on both cultural and genetic factors. This is also true for the social contract of fairness. It cannot be claimed that the norms of fairness are fully genetically determined because it is possible to observe significant variations regarding what is considered fair in various societies and even within one society in various time periods or its various parts. But this does not mean that it is sufficient to refer merely to culture for the explanation of the norms of fairness. If Binmore’s earlier claim that deep structure of social contract is written in our genes is right, it means that the deep structure which implies fairness also has to be written in our genes.

  • 34 Skyrms 2006: 99.

45According to Binmore, it is precisely Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness that has decisive importance for explaining the deep structure of fairness. He claims that the deep structure of fairness is encompassed by Rawls’s conception of the original position. Due to the veil of ignorance no person can be sure that she will not end up in an extremely unfavourable position of the least advantaged person in the future society. Binmore therefore concludes that outcome of negotiations in the original position will be egalitarian, but not quite in the sense Rawls has in mind. Speaking of this result, Skyrms says that «in a repeated setting, in which the option to renegotiate the contract behind the veil is always freely available, the only viable position is egalitarian. Otherwise, those who get the short end of the stick would always opt to renegotiate»34. According to Binmore, this egalitarian outcome would reflect Aristotle’s position that the just is what is proportionate, although the road leading to it would pass through the theory of negotiations.

  • 35 Güth and Tietz 1990.

46The importance of the conclusion regarding proportionality of outcomes for a naturalistic theory of justice will not further be explored on the basis of negotiations as Binmore does. Instead, we will rely on the Ultimatum Game experiments. In this game, two players have a possibility to share a certain amount of money. Player I proposes to player II a certain distribution. If player II accepts the proposed distribution, the sum of money will be apportioned in that way. However, player II also has a possibility to reject the proposed manner of distribution. In this case, both players are left with nothing. In numerous experiments with the Ultimatum Game, it has been demonstrated that the more distant the offer by player I from the egalitarian distribution of 50%, the more the readiness of player II to reject the offer increases, and vice versa35. These experiments show that persons are ready to reject an unfair offer despite the fact that they are thus acting to their own detriment (because any distribution which includes an amount greater than 0 for player II is better than an outcome of the game when the offer is rejected). Even though these experiments furnish evidence that supports naturalistic theory of justice, they in a sense question the assumption of individual rationality on which the theory is based.

  • 36 Sanfey et al. 2003: 1757.
  • 37 But see Bicchieri 2006: ch. 6.
  • 38 For this idea see Elster 1996; 2007: ch. 8; 2009: 40-45.

47Sanfey and colleagues have tested a hypothesis that in addition to activating cognitive processes, decision-making in the Ultimatum Game involved emotional processes as well. They scanned players who have been in the position to accept or reject an offer (player II in our presentation of the Ultimatum Game) with functional magnetic resonance imaging to ascertain which neurological substrata have been activated when accepting or rejecting various offers. Their research has shown that in addition to activating the area of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (Dlpcf), mostly in charge of higher cognitive functions, bilateral anterior insula is also activated, which mostly signals negative emotions (such as pain, feelings of hunger, thirst as well as anger and disgust). The activation of these areas is conversely proportionate to cases of accepting and rejecting because «unfair offers that are subsequently rejected have greater anterior insula than Dlpcf activation, whereas accepted offers exhibit greater Dlpcf than anterior insula»36. Even though it may seem that results of research by Sanfey and colleagues question the assumption of rationality, it can also be concluded that emotions also play a significant role for the analysis of the norms of fairness, in addition to rationality37. In that sense there are good reasons to expand discussions based on rational choice theory in the direction of considering the role of emotions in decision-making38.

48Previous discussion in this section could be summed up as follows: In contrast to Searle’s explanation of institutional reality based on formal rules, which he terms constitutive rules, and on collective intentionality, evolutionary game theory offers explanations which are based on informal rules or social norms and individual rationality. Even though Searle describes his position as naturalistic, he has failed to consider implications of an alternative position based on evolutionary game theory. In this part of the paper, we have attempted to show that evolutionary game theory offers a much better framework for naturalistic understanding of institutional reality. Its additional advantage is that its framework enables us to explain emergence and maintainince of the norms of fairness, for which elements of constitutive rules and collective intentionality do not suffice. In that sense, a theory of institutions and a theory of justice based on evolutionary game thoery have some advantages over Searle’s conception, at least to the degree to which one wishes to consistently abide by naturalistic point of view.


49This paper aimed to critically re-examine Searle’s understanding of collective intentionality which constitutes an essential element for explaining social and institutional reality. However, despite the fact that Searle’s theory is of undisputed importance for a philosophical account of society, two problems that greatly constrain its range have been highlighted. These problems affect the notion of collective intentionality. The first objection concerns the fact that by insisting on collective intentionality as a basis of social cooperation, Searle has neglected the element of rationality which makes entire problematic of cooperative behaviour and social interaction more complex. The essence of the first objection to Searle’s theory therefore is that it applies to a rather limited area of social interaction, represented by games of coordination, and fails to provide a global explanation of social cooperation, which evolutionary game theory is better positioned to offer. The second objection is that conception of collective intentionality does not suffice to explain in what way fairness can be the first virtue of institutions. Since evolutionary game theory has also provided an answer to the question how evolution of the norms of fairness could have emerged, we have concluded that this perspective constitutes a significant alternative to Searle’s theory of institutions.

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Axelrod, R.
– 1984, The Evolution of Cooperation, New York, Basic Books

Bicchieri, C.
– 2006, The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Binmore, K.
– 2005, Natural Justice, Oxford, Oxford University Press
– 2009, Game Theory and Institutions, m.s.

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– 1996, Rationality and the emotions, “The Economic Journal”, 106: 1386-1397
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– 2000, John Searle, Teddington, Acumen

Güth, W. and Tietz, R.
– 1990, Ultimatum bargaining behavior: A survey and comparison of experimental results, “Journal of Economic Psychology”, 11: 417-449

Hornsby, J.
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Rawls, J.
– 1971, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press
– 1999, Collected Papers, S. Freeman (ed), Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press
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1 Searle 1995: xii.

2 Searle 1969: 50-53.

3 Searle 2010: 17.

4 Searle 1995: 41.

5 Ibidem: 63.

6 For the solution to this seeming paradox see ibidem: 15-23.

7 Searle 1999: 119.

8 Ibidem: 120.

9 Searle later somewhat revised his negative attitude towards methodological individualism. See Searle 2005: 21.

10 Jennifer Hornsby notices that Searle’s explanation of social cooperation implies a kind of irreducibility of the social to the individual: «That which engages in co-operative behavior, when its members’ each derivatively have an appropriate intention, seems to be something irreducibly social. It seems to be constituted (partly) from people’s taking themselves to belong to it – from its members each being able to speak of it using “we”» (Hornsby 1997: 430).

11 See also Fotion 2000: 202.

12 Searle also makes the stronger and more problematic claim that this characteristic is what separates humans from other animals. Namely, he says that even though animals can use various objects as tools (imposition of function) and have cooperative forms of behavior (collective intentionality), only humans have institutions and institutional facts. See Searle 1995: 40. For the thesis that collective intentionality can only be ascribed to humans but not to other animals see Rakoczy and Tomasello 2007.

13 Searle 1995: 41.

14 Searle 2005: 12.

15 Searle 2010: 43.

16 Binmore 2005: 10.

17 See also Vromen 2003.

18 Rawls 1971: 252.

19 Rawls describes the main feature of Kantian constructivism in the following way: «What distinguishes Kantian form of constructivism is essentially this: it specifies a particular conception of the person as an element in a reasonable procedure of construction, the outcome of which determines the content of first principles of justice» (Rawls 1999: 304).

20 Ibidem: 319.

21 Rawls 1971: 302.

22 Rawls 2001: 58.

23 Scanlon remarks that, according to Rawls, institutions are just only if each individual member of society would defend them given its contribution to her personal conception of the good: «We must be able to say to each member that the arrangements he is asked to accept provide as well for him as they possibly can, consistent with satisfying the parallel demands of others» (Scanlon 1975: 172).

24 For a critique of Searle’s understanding of social ontology based on normative assumptions see also Zeibert and Smith 2007.

25 Binmore 2005: 15.

26 Rawls 1971: 11.

27 North 1990: 4.

28 Trivers 2002: 3-55.

29 See Axelrod 1984.

30 Binmore 2005: 10.

31 Ibidem: 13.

32 Ibidem: 14.

33 Binmore 2009: 5.

34 Skyrms 2006: 99.

35 Güth and Tietz 1990.

36 Sanfey et al. 2003: 1757.

37 But see Bicchieri 2006: ch. 6.

38 For this idea see Elster 1996; 2007: ch. 8; 2009: 40-45.

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Ivan Mladenovic, «Collective Intentionality, Rationality, and Institutions»Rivista di estetica, 57 | 2014, 67-86.

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Ivan Mladenovic, «Collective Intentionality, Rationality, and Institutions»Rivista di estetica [Online], 57 | 2014, online dal 01 novembre 2014, consultato il 12 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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