Analyzing Social Wrongs: Social Criticism in Analytic Philosophy workshop

I am very much looking forward to chairing the Metaphysics and Epistemology panel at the forthcoming Analyzing Social Wrongs: Social Criticism in Analytic Philosophy workshop at the University of Vienna, 14-16 May.

Below is the abstract for my panel introduction:

Reason cannot become transparent to itself as long as men act as members of an organism which lacks reason” (Horkheimer, 1937)

… in order to proceed with proper confidence to do something together, people must already justifiably see themselves as ‘us’ or ‘we’” (Gilbert, 1992)

What does adopting a critical frame mean for taking an analytic approach to issues such as the Social’s relation to metaphysical grounding; the relationship between individuals and structures of social domination; or the effect of purported epistemic norms of enquiry on these structures?

Critical Theory clearly requires taking the existence of oppressive social facts to be of fundamental importance. Further, I argue that this necessitates seeing the totality of our social lives as linked to our historical mode of economic existence.

This implies a tension with the analytic tradition as the latter sees its task as abstracting out ‘extraneous details’ and views issues of social oppression as such. Even more problematically, the whole social sphere has been seen as an ephemeral distraction from the ‘true nature’ of the world that ‘rigorous’ philosophy is meant to expose.
I will make the case that analytic philosophy has moved towards taking social facts, in general, seriously through the emerging field of Collective Intentionality. However, I will suggest – by way of an illustration using the case of race and collective identity – that adopting a critical theory lens radically alters the necessary trajectory of such projects.

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Thinking about theory sitting around the kitchen table

kttlogo4Does the way we think about, and the way we do, philosophy change depending on the setting in which we do it? This is a question I have been thinking about a lot recently as I have been spending more time looking after my two young kids than I have in anything vaguely resembling an ivory tower.

In this vein, I have recently become involved in forming a loose collective with some other Manchester-based artists, philosophers, academics and activists with in similar interest in doing theory ‘in the wild’. We believe that engagement with theoretical ideas should not be confined either to the classroom or to the committee rooms of political parties and this has lead us to set up Kitchen Table Theory – a projected series of collaborative events designed to encourage debate and discussion about critical and cultural issues in a non-academic environment.

The inaugural event will take place tomorrow (July 12th 2014) at Levenshulme Market where members of the public will be encouraged to participate in a dynamic conversation about community and community space.

Each of us have proposed a quote that relates to the the question and I put forward the following, below which are my notes explaining what I see the quote to mean.

“… in order to proceed with proper confidence to do something together, people must already justifiably see themselves as ‘us’ or ‘we’.”
Margaret Gilbert, On Social Facts, 1992


In order for us to understand ourselves as together forming a community we must understand ourselves as socially united in some sense. Margaret Gilbert argues that our conceiving of ourselves as a we – or as she puts it a ‘plural subject’ – is the central component of this unity.

Imagine a pair on a long walk, as time drags on one of them becomes bored and announces to the other that they intend to abandon the endeavour, “You can’t give up”, the other reacts, “We said we would walk to the top!” Think of a couple buying sofa, “I know you don’t like red”, one says to the other after many hours of pontificating, “… but I think it would really work for us.” Take the desolate football fan, crying over a pint of beer, “We could have done it”, he says “we could have gone all the way”. Recoil from the words of the suburban nationalist, “I don’t have anything against the Asians” she says, “its just that they don’t share our values”.

There seems to be something more to these evocations of collective agency than a mere sum of the standpoints of the individuals involved, and yet we might want to avoid conjuring up a mysterious collective organism or spirit. Gilbert argues that this collective agency is not that of a separate entity but rather that it is comprised of a plurality of people intentionally committed to be a we. For Gilbert, this social unity requires the sharing, or we might say the pooling, of the individuals’ agency. For this sharing of agency to occur, Gilbert believes that the relevant individuals must together, in conditions of common knowledge, make joint commitments to hold certain attitudes or do certain things as a we.

On Gilbert’s account, for us to jointly occupy a space we must together be engaging in the activity of filling it, but also, we must have jointly committed, each in conditions of common knowledge, to be a plural subject that collectively intends to fill said space. For Gilbert then, such occupation requires more than merely cooperating in having mutually dependent other-directed intentions (I intend to stand next to you, you intend to stand next to me); rather, it requires cooperating in sharing one single collective intention (we intend to take the square).


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On finishing PhD and future research

thesisI’m a bit late in posting this up — because I have been busy looking after intermittently poorly children (just the common cold type things), giving Philosophy of Science seminars at Manchester University and preparing a paper which I delivered at the Cooperation and Equality reach group (on the construction of the Plural Subject) — but very happy to say that I had a successful viva with Jennifer Saul and Christopher Woodard examining my thesis On Collective Action: underpinning the plural subject with a model of planning agency.

I am now applying for academic jobs and exploring further research in to the questions that my thesis opened up. In particular I am interested in debates about autonomy, heterogeneous plural subjects and the possibility of inter-subjective alienation . My ambitious research aspiration is to work towards an account of collective action that can robustly link questions of practical political philosophy with an explanation of the underlying nature of social reality.

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Institutions, Emotions, and Group Agents

I presented a paper at the Collective Intentionality VII conference in 2010 and submitted it to a call papers for a volume of conference proceedings the following year.

Its been a long wait (CVIII – which I also presented at – has happened in the mean time)

… and there is still a bit of waiting to be done …

… but its almost published …

How Where We Stand Constrains Where I Stand: Applying Bratman’s Account of Self-Governance to Collective Action
Institutions, Emotions, and Group Agents
Springer Philosophical Studies Series, Contributions to Social Ontology, forthcoming September 2013

I think I could have chosen a snappier title.

Current estimated price = £117 pounds (!!)

More info @

Update: Site is now saying that the book’s due date is July 31, 2013

Updated update: Site is now, now saying that the book’s due date is September 30, 2013

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The Philosophy of Society

headerBelow is a text from of the course booklet of The Philosophy of Society, the level three course I devised, taught and examined (essays and final seen exam) at Sheffield University. A pdf of the booklet can be downloaded via this link.

Course Overview:

Recently philosophers have become increasingly interested in the underlying nature of social facts leading to several new avenues of enquiry. These enquiries start from the idea that our lives are thoroughly social – we navigate social structures, we negotiate collective positions, and we craft our actions with reference to other agents. Together they can be taken to form a new branch of analytic philosophy; The Philosophy of Society.

This module will be an introduction to this emerging field. It will look at the different topics that comprise it and the different positions on them of philosophers such as; John Searle, Margaret Gilbert, Michael Bratman and David Velleman. Questions addressed will include: the constitution of social rules and conventions, the relation between a collective and its individual members, the possibility of collective belief/knowledge, the nature of collective action, and the ontological effect of dissent. By the end of the course a picture will have been built up of the connections between these topics and the approaches that can be taken to them.


There will be two lectures each week

Monday: 11:00 – 11:50 HI-LT4 Tuesday: 11:00 – 11:50 HI-LTB

Please note that all lectures now start on the hour, and finish at ten minutes to the hour

You must also attend one discussion seminar, possible slots are

Tuesday: 2:00 – 2:50 JB-SR 117 Friday: 1:00 – 1:50 JB-SR 117

Writing week: Week 7 of the Autumn Semester (7-11 November 2011) is a writing week. There will be no lectures or discussion seminars in the department that week.

Office Hours: My office hours for Autumn semester are after both lectures i.e. Monday 12:00 – 1.00 and Tuesday 12:00 – 1:00. I am sometimes available at other times also. If you want to arrange a meeting please email me.


Objectivity and subjectivity Conventions and normativity

‘Individualism’ -vs- ‘Collectivism’ Distinguishing collectives from ‘mere sets’

Collective belief Collective knowledge

Collective action Collective intentions and desires

Collective rationality Obligation and dissent

Reading List:

The following reading list offers a good place to start. It is not by any means exhaustive, and you are encouraged to go away and find other relevant readings (in fact it will help us all out if you find things that I may have missed!) For further reading a good search resource is the Philosopher’s Index, it can be accessed via MUSE.

For an overview introduction to the area a good starting point is the Collective Intentionality article in the The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [ ]. The following collection of essays is also recommended:

  • Schmitt, F. ed. (2003), Socializing Metaphysics

For influential approaches that have shaped the subject area see:

  • Searle, J. (1995), The Construction of Social Reality

  • Gilbert, M. (1989), On Social Facts

Each week there will be at least one required reading. These are marked with a (*). If you read them before start of the week this will help you get more out of the lectures. Discussion of these will form the starting point of the seminars so it is essential that they are read before the seminars. Those readings that are not available online are collected together in a course pack. Additionally, I have listed some suggested additional readings corresponding to each week’s main topics that are available online or in the library.

Week 1: What is social philosophy?

  • * Searle, J. (1995), “The Building blocks of social reality”, Chapter 1 from his The Construction of Social Reality, p.1-30

  • Schmitt, F. (2003), “Socializing Metaphysics: An introduction”, in Socializing Metaphysics ed. Schmitt, F.

  • Week 2: Conventions and social facts

  • * Lewis, D. (2002) “Convention”, Chapter 1:Section 4 from his Convention, p. 37 – 42

  • * Searle, J. (2006), “Social ontology : Some basic principles”, Anthropological Theory, 6: 12

  • Lewis, D. (2002) “Sample conventions”, chapter 5 from his Convention, p. 42 – 51

  • Gilbert, M. (1996), “Notes on the concept of social convention”, chapter 3 from her Living Together: Rationality Sociality & Obligation

  • Gilbert, M. (2001), “ Social Rules as Plural subject phenomena” in On the Nature of Social and Institutional Reality, eds. Lagerspetz, Ikaheimo and Kotkavirta

  • Tumela, R. (2007) , “Social institutions”, chapter 8 from his The philosophy of Society: A Shared Point of View

  • Marmor, A. (1996), “On Convention”, Synthese

Week 3: Social facts – Individualism -v- collectivism

  • * Gilbert, M. “Concerning ‘Individualism’ versus ‘Holism’”, in her On social Facts

  • * Quinton, A. (1975) ‘Social Objects’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New series – Vol. LXXVI

  • Currie, G. (1984) “Individualism and Global Supervenience”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 35, No. 4, p. 345 – 358

  • Schmid, H. (2009), “Overcoming the ‘Cartesian Brainwash’: Beyond Intentional Individualism”, chapter 2 in his Plural Action: Essays in Philosophy and Social Science

  • Oliver, A. & Smiley, T. (2008), “Is plural denotation collective?”, Analysis, Vol. 68

  • Meijers, A. (2003), “Can collective intentionality be individualised?”, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 62

Week 4: What is a collective?

  • * Gilbert, M. (1992), “Introduction: everyday concepts and social reality”, chapter 1 from her On social Facts

  • * Keeley, M. (1981), “Organizations as non-persons”, Journal of Value Enquiry

  • Oliver, A. and Smiley, T. (2008), “Is plural denotation collective?”, Analysis, Vol. 68

  • Vincent, A. (1989), “Can groups be persons?”, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XLII

  • Scruton, R. and Finnis J. (1989), “Corporate Person”, The Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Vol. LXIII

Week 5: Collective belief

  • * Gilbert, M. (1987), “Modelling collective belief”, Synthese, Vol. 72

  • * Lewis, D. (1969), “Common Knowledge”, from his Convention

  • Wray, (2002), “Collective Belief and Acceptance”

  • Heal, J. (1978), “Common Knowledge”, The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 28

  • Bradway, K. (2001) “Collective belief and acceptance”, Synthese, Vol. 129

  • Tuomela, R. (1992) “Group Beliefs”, Synthese, Vol. 91

Week 6: Epistemology for collectives

  • * Gilbert, M. (2000) “Collective Belief and Scientific Change”, chapter 3 in her Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural subject theory

  • * Schmitt, F. (1994), “The justification of group beliefs”, in Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimension of Knowledge, ed. Schmitt, F.

  • Solomon, M. (1994) “A more Social Epistemology”, in Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimension of Knowledge, ed. Schmitt, F.

Week 8: Collective action

  • * Gilbert, M. (1990) “Walking together: A paradigmatic social phenomenon” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 15, pp. 1-14

  • * Bratman, M. (1999), “Shared Cooperative Activity”, in his Faces of Intention

  • Gruner, R. (1976) “On the actions of social groups”, Inquiry, Vol. 19

  • Tuomela, R. (1989) “Actions by collectives”, Philosophical Perspective, Vol. 3

  • Ozar, D. (1984), “Social Rules and the actions of groups: Control of physical objects”, Journal of Value Enquiry, Vol.18

  • Londey, D. (1978) “On the actions of teams”, Inquiry, Vol.21

  • Copp, D. (1979) “Collective actions and secondary actions” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.16

  • Kutz C. (2000) “Acting Together”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 61, No. 1, p. 1 -31

Week 9: Collective intentions and desires

  • * Velleman, D. (1997), “How to share an intention”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 57

  • * Gilbert, M. (2000), “What is it for us to intend?”, chapter 2 in her Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural subject theory

  • * Bratman, M. (1999), “Shared Intention” in his Faces of Intention

  • Swindler, J. (1996), “Social Intentions”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences

Week 10: Collective rationality

  • * Weirich, P. (2007), “Collective, universal and joint rationality”, Social Choice and Welfare

  • * Pettit, P. “Groups with minds of their own”, in Socializing Metaphysics: The nature of Social Reality

  • Pettit, P. (2002), “Collective Persons and Powers”, Legal Theory, Vol.8

Week 11: Obligation and Collective moral responsibility

  • * Miller, S and Makela, P. (2005) “The collectivist approach to collective moral responsibility”, Metaphilosophy

  • * Gilbert, M. (2000) “Obligation and Joint Commitment”, chapter 4 in her Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural subject theory

  • Gilbert, M. (2000) “Collective Remorse”, chapter 7 in her Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural subject theory

  • Gilbert, M. (2000) “The idea of collective guilt”, chapter 8 in her Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural subject theory

Week 12: Dissent and module recap

  • * Schmid, H. (2009), “On Not Doing Ones Part: Dissidence and the Normativity of Collective Intention” chapter 3 in his Plural Action: Essays in Philosophy and Social Science

  • Searle, J. (2003), “Social Ontology and Political Power” in Socializing Metaphysics: The nature of Social Reality

  • Graham, K. (2002), “Practical collective association and disassociation”, chapter 4 in his Practical Reasoning in a Social World

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Food – collective intention and individual autonomy

horse-meatAt least in the western world, what we choose to consume is often thought to be a prime expression of our individual autonomy. Government attempts to regulate food are frequently thus decried as evidence of an objectionable ‘nanny state‘, that is, as standing in opposition to our autonomy.

But what exactly is food?

It is an objective fact that rocks are undigestible (and thus bad candidates for being food), however – as the recent scandal around horse meat shows – within the wide category of potentially nutritious stuff there is much cultural variation in what we actually do count as food. Rather than being merely a matter of individual choice, the question of what stuff is food appears to be a matter of what John Searle has called social fact. That is, it seems to be collectively up to us (as members of a social group) rather than up to me as an individual.

Social groups in this context may be defined by the boundaries of nation states but they may also be defined by the boundaries of economic status. For Searle social fact is a matter of collective intention and, from each individual’s perspective, something that is epistemically objective.

However, if we – as individuals – are not in the position to determine what counts as food what does this mean for our conception of ourselves as autonomous consumers? Examining the ontology of food will help us to understand general questions about the relation of autonomy to our social existence.

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On editing ‘collective action’ sub catagory

Noting the following on the philpapers ‘Collective Action’ category page


This category needs an editor. We encourage you to help if you are qualified. Volunteer, or read more about what this involves.

I clicked and was accepted.

As philpapers is a nonprofit, volunteer project and editors are not remunerated however, on top of the warm feeling (as noted on their editors guide) of “of helping hundreds of thousands of people find their way around the field” the main benefit seems to be that trawling and sorting through the associated articles is a great way to

a) have something more productive than facebook/twitter to distract oneself with


b) its great for stumbling across material that I have missed in my subject area.

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