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


About Joseph Kisolo

Philosopher teaching Ethics & Epistemology @ NottsUni and interested in in Social Ontology. Outside academia interested in climbing, design, geekery and radical social justice.
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