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The phenomenology of joint agency: the implicit structures of the shared life-world

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We do lots of things together in a shared manner. From the phenomenological point of view, does joint or shared agency need a conscious sense of shared agency? Yet there are many processes where we seem to just go along with the group without conscious intent. Building on the classic phenomenological accounts of Edmund Husserl, Alfred Schutz, Martin Heidegger (and the synthetic account of Berger & Luckmann), I want to emphasize the thick horizon of the life-world as a fundamental condition for intentional shared agency. Joint agency has divergent forms with their own peculiar intentionality, attentivity, anticipations and expectations, and embeddedness in a pre-predicative tacit knowledge in the overall live-world. Phenomenology recognizes that even ego-centered activities that appear to be fully ‘agential’ can be carried out in an anonymous un-owned manner, in the manner which Heidegger calls ‘das Man’, or ‘the one’. This suggests that tacit belonging to the collective ‘we’ undergirds individual agency. Husserl, Heidegger, and Schutz all have accounts of this ‘anonymous’, pre-predicative kind of group participation. Phenomenology has rich accounts of anonymous, voluntary, shared, social participation that demand a new concept of agency, one neglected in the current literature in philosophy of action.

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  1. This is not to say that animals are not social (Husserl already allows that animals are egoic with ‘conscious lives’ and ‘environing worlds’ (Umwelten, Husserl, 1973c 177), but human sociality is mediated by highly complex symbolic forms, and involves personhood and mutual recognition. Heidegger thought of animals as ‘world-poor’ (weltarm) since they are in relatively closed relationships to their environment. A major influence on both Husserl and Heidegger was the work of von Uexküll (2013). There is now a large and burgeoning literature on human-animal interactions and a growing literature on the social worlds of non-human primates. Animal ethology is an enormous field; zoo-sociology is a relatively new field. See Peggs, 2012. It would be fascinating, but beyond the scope of this paper, to include animal-human relations in joint agency, e.g. horse and rider in showjumping. Merleau-Ponty coined the terms ‘intercorporeality’ and ‘interanimality’ for these complex interactions between humans and animals.

  2. The analytical approaches of Bratman (2014) and Gilbert (2006), on the other hand, assume that concepts (e.g. intention, planning) involved in individual agency – or small groups – can largely be mapped without alteration onto the larger social domain. Thus, Bratman states: “My guiding conjecture is that such individual planning agency brings with it sufficiently rich structures-conceptual, metaphysical, and normative-that the further step to basic forms of sociality, while significant and demanding, need not involve fundamentally new elements” (2014, 8). Gilbert similarly states: “A good reason for starting small is that it allows one to look closely at a situation that is relatively simple. If the crucial details of the membership relationship do indeed lie there one can expect most easily to discover it by this means” (2006, 97). Continental philosophy since Hegel, on the other hand, considers group dynamics to require new concepts not found at the individual level.

  3. In this paper I shall refer to the Austrian born Alfred Schutz (1899–1959) as ‘Schutz’. He wrote his first book in 1932 under the name ‘Schütz’ but once he emigrated to the USA, he dropped the Umlaut.

  4. We are involved, furthermore, not just with immediate, significant others in my present zone of one-to-one, face-to-face relations (Zahavi, 2014), but also with anonymized, unknown others (e.g. my ‘generation’, Schmid, 2009).

  5. Polanyi drew on Gestalt psychology’s holism (Polanyi, 1958), and was familiar with Gilbert Ryle’s concept of ‘knowing how’ (Polanyi, 1966, 7).

  6. Heidegger makes clear in Being and Time that ‘being-in-the-world’ is a ‘unitary phenomenon’ (Heidegger, 1927, 78). Dwelling in a world is not being placed in a spatio-temporal world. In fact existing spatially is only possible because of Dasein’s prior being-in-the-world (Heidegger, 1927, 82). By contrast, John Searle has a static and reified concept of ‘world’ as the extant, external world, independently of our conceptions of it (Searle, 1995).

  7. The German popular philosopher Peter Sloterdijk likens being born to entering a conversation that started before one and one has the sense of trying to catch up.

  8. Some accounts of joint agency want to reduce it to a set of diplomatically cooperating individual agencies (so called ‘individualism’).

  9. Margaret Gilbert discusses going for a walk in some detail – including the idea that the participants follow ‘private conventions’, e.g. the tacit assumption that one can choose to decide when one has walked enough (2006, 110).

  10. In going for a walk to the store, I defer to the one who has the intention to buy something. I am alongside but also a follower (similar to a dance partner). Margaret Gilbert’s discussion of a joint walk includes notions like rights and correlative obligations of the participants to one another, grounded in the activity itself (Gilbert, 2006, 105–6). She does acknowledge that there are ‘pertinent background understandings involved’ but she does not elaborate. Gilbert’s discussion, while recognizing the contribution of Simmel and other social psychologists, frames the problem in terms of social contract theory and ‘concurrence conditions’ rather than a more implicit and tacit belonging to a social world that enables certain normatively constrained practices.

  11. Gilbert (2006) also notes the difference between participant and observer (although she does not invoke Schutz). Thus one of the walkers may feel the other is walking too fast and can indicate (perhaps by stopping) that the partner should slow down; but it would not be socially appropriate for an observer who notices this to intervene to ask the person to slow down. Of course, there is currently a social push for bystanders to intervene in certain situations, so the codes governing public behavior may change and be modified over time.

  12. Harold Garfinkel (1967) developed an interesting account of this embeddedness in social roles, influenced by phenomenology, especially Schutz (whom Garfinkel met through Aron Gurwitsch). Gilbert talks of ‘background understandings’ without the presence of explicit agreements (2006, 112) but tends to see these as conventions. I think this way of setting up the problem is reading back explicit ‘agreements’ into the tacit social situation.

  13. Even taken-for-granted social forms such as ‘going for a walk together’ are historical cultural forms (one finds accounts of such social forms in Plato’s dialogues or in Rousseau). There are differences between a leisurely stroll, a trip to the shops, a brisk walk for exercise, a reconnoitre of a new neighborhood, and so on. Each social form has its own implicit regimen and normative structure.

  14. Even the act of translating a poet (e.g. Amanda Gorman) has recently drawn attention to certain presumptions about who can translate. Must the translator and poet share not just life experiences but also gender or skin color? The acts of writing and translating involve collective agency and a communal context.

  15. Current Anglophone discussions of collective agency in Gilbert (2006), Bratman (2014), and others, tend to ignore this communal world of spirit (or ‘group mind’). Indeed, John Searle (1995) simply mocks the very idea of any kind of Hegelian collective spirit.

  16. For Husserl, following Wilhelm Dilthey, interpersonal experiences are to be understood not in terms of strict causality but in terms of what he calls motivation (Husserl, 1989, 231–59), which is a network of supportive significance or motivating reasons, within a complex of intentions and fulfilments. Motivations prompt actions.

  17. Margaret Gilbert’s discussion of groups does recognize the differences between different types of groups: “Clubs, trade unions, and army units are likely to have a set of explicit rules of procedure and explicit goals. Families are less likely to have such rules and goals” (Gilbert, 2006, 94). She recognizes that larger groups may have members who are unknown to each other but her approach is to begin with small transient groups, e.g. two people going for a walk. Phenomenologists, on the other hand, like to understand how smaller groups belong to a larger social world.

  18. The entry ‘Shared Agency’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, focuses on recent accounts (e.g. Searle, Bratman, Gilbert, Tuomela) that cluster around interrelatedness of the participants’ intentions. As Roth writes: ‘Most of the views canvassed here emphasize as a condition for shared activity fairly robust forms of integration between participants’ (Roth, 2017).

  19. Pacherie (2012, 343–44) recognizes that there are different forms in which groups vary. She lists six: size, hierarchy, division of labor among members, types of interaction among agents, transience or permanence of the group, dependence on institutions. However, her overall account involves agents representing their actions to themselves and phenomenology generally does not favor a representationalist account.

  20. Bratman (1992) identifies mutual responsiveness, commitment to joint activity, commitment to mutual support, and common knowledge of these commitments. He speaks of mutually interlocking plans whereas I am suggesting that there need be no explicit knowledge or commitment and one may be daydreaming along or living in the music.

  21. Pacherie (2012, 350) acknowledges that “philosophers have tended to focus on the latter kind of collective actions, joint actions for short. … their paradigmatic examples of joint actions tend to be small-scale, egalitarian joint actions, such as two people painting a house together, moving heavy furniture together, preparing a sauce together, or walking together”.

  22. Since the time of the Stoics there has been an attempt to have each of us think of ourselves as ‘citizens of the world’. Socrates is said to have used this phrase cosmou polites – I am not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world. This is a very peculiar form of self-identification according to which I identify myself with all humanity, all possible human beings. The early Marx speaks of ‘species being’. Environmentalists today encourage us to think of ourselves as travelers on ‘spaceship Earth’ (Buckminster Fuller, 1969). Humans can identify not just with specific groups but with the whole human race (commonly expressed in religions). Husserl writes: “I fit myself into the family of man, or, rather, I create the constitutive possibility for the unity of this ‘family.’ It is only now that I am, in the proper sense, an Ego over against an other and can then say ‘we”’ (Husserl, 1989, 254).

  23. John Searle has a similar example of people in a park running for shelter in a cloudburst (Searle, 1990, 402).

  24. Sartre conducts his analysis in terms of an overarching dialectic between human ‘praxis’ and the ‘practico-inert’, (the practico-inert field is everything that does not belong to human agency). The practico-inert is what is deposited by human action, it is both the ground and limit of action, is marked by scarcity, and is “the field of our servitude” (Sartre, 1960, 332). Free human action (praxis) always has to interact with the limiting practico-inert.

  25. Sartre found this concept in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as mediated through the lectures of Alexandre Kojève. For a useful survey of different concepts of recognition see Iser, 2019.

  26. Sartre is anticipating the in-group/out-group discussion of social psychology in the 1970s (see Tajfel et al., 1971).

  27. See Moran, 2015.

  28. The term ‘embeddedness’ (Einbettung) was first used by Husserl’s student Gerda Walther (1923).

  29. Horizon-consciousness, for Husserl is indefinite and empty but it has a particular character relative to the theme. There is always what is relevant or irrelevant, interesting or uninteresting, wrapped up in the experience. Every experience has specifically and lawfully determined but also essentially unlimited horizons of intentional implication, including not just what is actually given but also available potentialities and possibilities in which such intentional objects are apprehended and made meaningful. In Husserl’s terms, we have tacit knowledge of the overall horizon or context of a problem.

  30. The German phenomenological sociologist Helmuth Plessner wrote in his Preface to the 1969 German translation of The Social Construction of Reality: “The two authors call the present book ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ and not ‘The Construction of Social Reality,’ which is by no means the same, because in the latter version the social world would have been taken for granted and one would be confronted with one of its many theoretical attempts of coming to terms with it. The book doesn’t want to be read like that” (Plessner, 1969: ix; transl. Martin Endress in Endress, 2016, 129). This is important given that John Searle entitled his book The Construction of Social Reality (1995).

  31. Peter Berger, born in Austria, was student of Schutz at the New School in 1950s, but he also studied Weber. Thomas Luckmann was also Austrian, trained in German philosophy, and was influenced by Husserl and Durkheim. Luckmann wrote: “Through Schutz I encountered phenomenology. I hadn’t read Husserl before I met Schutz. I would say that I am or was a trained phenomenologist, which few people who describe themselves as phenomenologists are, if I may add this bitter note. Dorion Cairns was one of my teachers in phenomenology, so I think I had decent training in the field” (Dreher & Göttlich, 2016). Luckmann read Plessner’s Conditio Humana in 1963 and met him in the New School. Plessner’s wife translated Berger and Luckmann into German and Plessner wrote the Preface to the German Edition.

  32. Phenomenology is best understood as an approach rather than a strict method (Moran, 2000).

  33. Berger & Luckmann here refer to Weber and Schutz.

  34. For the paramount status of everyday reality, Berger and Luckmann draw on Schutz’s paper, “On Multiple Realities” (Schutz, 1962, 207–259). Berger & Luckmann’s inspiration for the notion of internalization is the American philosopher and sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863–1931),.

  35. It is worth noting that another New School phenomenologist and student of Schutz, Maurice Natanson, published a book on Mead, The Social Dynamics of George H. Mead (Natanson, 1956) that is referenced by Berger and Luckmann (1967, 195 n. 6).

  36. The term ‘significant other’ that has now entered the common parlance was first used by George Herbert Mead in 1934 in his Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, 195, n. 6) but others credit the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan (1892–1949), in his The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (Sullivan, 1953). Berger & Luckmann do not limit primary socialization solely to the activities of significant others. The social process distinguishes between significant others and less important ones (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, 149), but “less significant others function as a sort of chorus” (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, 151), reinforcing and solidifying our sense of reality in the crowd.

  37. Husserl writes in the Crisis of European Sciences of the ‘poeticizing of history’ (die Dichtung der Geschichte der Philosophie). Each person responds to their own perceived version of the tradition, what motivates and inspires is “in part made by himself, and in part taken over” (Husserl, 1970, 395). Just as a poet reactivates and revivifies the tradition of poetry by writing poems, perhaps consciously or unconsciously influenced by the poet’s selective reading of earlier poets, similarly, the philosopher inserts herself selectively and creatively into the philosophical tradition and how they allow themselves to be oriented by it. Everyone belongs to a tradition and, in that respect, shares its telos and its horizons.

  38. For Berger & Luckmann, drawing on Freud and Schutz, everyday life is transcended in jokes, dreams, theatre, philosophy, and so on. But everyday life flows on as the base line or default attitude.

  39. Sartre writes: Even when men are face to face, the reciprocity of their relation is actualised through the mediation of this third party and at once closes itself off from it (Sartre, 1960, 106).

  40. Husserl sees these communicative acts as based on one person addressing another in greeting, etc.

  41. Thus, in a time when behaviorism dominated psychology, Merleau-Ponty could write in 1942: “It is a known fact that infantile perception attaches itself first of all to faces and gestures, in particular those of the mother.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1983, 166). The pregnant mother is already a duality of interwoven consciousnesses.

  42. Contrary to the current popular dictum that ‘one can only be what one sees’ (i.e. one has to see role models similar to oneself), in fact one can learn from others quite different from and even alien to one, e.g. a harsh, distant teacher might still be influential. One might learn mathematics, if not manners, from such a teacher.

  43. Husserl gives an extensive account of habit and habituation, see Moran, 2011. Berger & Luckmann write: “All human activity is subject to habitualization” (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, 53).

  44. The concept of horizon comes from Husserl (Geniusas, 2012). For Husserl, objects are not perceived in isolation but against a background (Hintergrund) and in the midst of a ‘surrounding world’ (Umwelt) of other objects and also of other living bodies which are also other persons, animals, and so on (Ideas II § 51, Husserl, 1989). The ‘horizon of all horizons’ is the world (Ideas I § 27, Husserl, 1913).

  45. Husserl speaks of Verflechtung, Ineinandersein, Miteinandersein (Moran, 2014).

  46. In everyday German, Mitsein simply means ‘togetherness’ or ‘companionship’, but Heidegger gives the term the particular philosophical inflection: human existence is always already structurally related to others (even when one is alone and others are actually absent).

  47. Schutz is invoking Max Scheler’s essay, Cognition and Work (Scheler, 2020).

  48. Of course, for Husserl, some version of the distinction between normal and anormal is operative in all societies. It can mean that normally people do not stand on their heads to greet each other. The extent to which the normality structures of the life-world can be repressive is discussed by Jürgen Habermas (1987), who criticizes phenomenologists for ignoring the structures of domination inherent in the life-world. There is, of course, the capacity for revision of normal/anormal structures, but not their total elimination.

  49. The concept of the ‘I-thou relation’ (Ich-Du Beziehung), normally associated with Martin Buber (2013), is found not just in Husserl (1973b, 170) and Schutz (who speaks of Du-Einstellung) but also earlier in Hermann Lotze.

  50. ‘World of contemporaries’ is Schutz’s own translation of the term Mitwelt as opposed to the world of predecessors (Vorwelt) and the world of successors (Folgewelt). These represent zones in my human world (Schutz, 1967).

  51. Psychology often refers to these ‘types’ as ‘stereotypes’. The much discussed concept of ‘unconscious bias’ in fact assumes these schemes of typification and is focused on the bringing to manifest consciousness and the corrigibility of the initial typifications. Everyday natural language provides a vast grid of types, e.g. schrub, bush, tree, or flowers, weed. These inform our perception and thinking although corrigible by science.

  52. A recent article in Australian Geographic (April 152,014) reported that dingoes are no longer classified as dogs but are recognized as a separate species. A coyote is closer to a wolf. But as a non-expert, I can classify them loosely as dog-like. The power of everyday language lies in its looseness and imprecision.

  53. Typification is developed from Max Weber’s concept of ideal types as well as Husserl’s concept of morphological essences (Psathas, 2005). For Weber, ideal types are heuristic tools, social scientific constructs, he does not consider types as social phenomena. For Schutz, on the other hand, following Husserl, typification functions within the life-world.

  54. Jean-Paul Sartre portrays, in his novel Nausea, how the professional class (bourgeoisie) objectifies itself in terms of these typifications, e.g. surrounding oneself with the ‘anonymous’ but clearly signifying trappings of bourgeois life as a doctor or lawyer (wearing a suit, driving a certain car, belonging to a certain club).

  55. In a 2016 interview Luckmann says that, at the time of writing The Social Construction of Reality, he was vaguely familiar with Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge (“we can know more than we can tell,” (Polanyi, 1966, 4).

  56. This is an indication that phenomenologists agree with Michel Foucault that knowledge-power (savoir-pouvoir) relations are pervasive in the life-world. But not all relations are relations of power.


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Moran, D. The phenomenology of joint agency: the implicit structures of the shared life-world. Phenom Cogn Sci (2021).

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