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The Circularity Objection Again

Recall that the Simple View is an answer to our question, What distinguishes joint action from parallel but merely individual action?

We each intend that we, you and I, cycle to school together.

Recall also the circularity objection:. appealing to togetherness in the specifying the content of the intention introduces circularity because ...
\textbf{Doesn’t doing something together involve exercising shared agency? And if it does, aren’t we explaining shared agency by appeal to intentions to exercise shared agency?}
Earlier I replied to this objection by [...] Now I want to consider a deeper response.
The motivation for this is the fact that Gilbert, among others, takes acting together to be synonymous with joint action. Proponents of the Simple View need to establish that there is a defensible distinction between merely acting together and genuine joint action.

‘Examples of what I shall refer to ... as “acting together” include dancing together, building a house together, and marching together against the enemy, where these are construed as something other than a matter of doing the same thing concurrently and in the same place

Gilbert 2013, p. 23

Say hello to the first of several major figures on joint action, Margaret Gilbert.
Note the contrast she wants to draw between acting togther and several people ‘doing the same thing concurrently and in the same place’. This seems reasonable.
Now for our purposes Gilbert is relevant because she takes acting together to be the same thing as joint action. In that case, the Simple View would clearly be circular. (You can’t appeal to acting together in explaining what joint action is if acting together *is* joint action.)
Let me emphasise this point with a different quote from Gilbert.

‘The key question in the philosophy of collective action is simply ... under what conditions are two or more people doing something together?’

\citep[p.\ 67]{Gilbert:2010fk}

Gilbert 2010, p. 67

If this is correct, the Circularity Objection would appear inescapable. Certainly the reply I’ve just offered to it would be inadequate.
We are going to explore Gilbert’s views in some detail later in the course, but let us have a quick peek at what she thinks is involved in acting together ...
Here is Gilbert’s own statement of her view.

‘two or more people are acting together if [and only if] they are jointly committed to espousing as a body a certain goal, and each one is acting in a way appropriate to the achievement of that goal, where each one is doing this in light of the fact that he or she is subject to a joint commitment to espouse the goal in question as a body.’

Gilbert 2013, p. 34

There is a lot going on here but I want to zoom in on just one feature for now, the joint commitment.
Joint commitment is Gilbert's central notion. Start with individual commitment (which Gilbert calls ‘personal commitment’). You can make an individual commitment to me that you will write an essay, and I can make an individual commitment to you that I will mark it. In this case the commitment entails certain obligations and perhaps rights. Gilbert’s idea is that several people can also become collectively committed, in which case they have a joint commitment which entails collective obligations. So the idea is that a joint commitment is something irreducibly collective. This is an interesting idea which will become clearer later. (We need to think more carefully about the basic individual/collective contrast.) But for now I just want to note that Gilbert thinks along these lines ...
  1. Every event of acting together is a joint action.
  2. Every joint action constitutively involves joint commitment.
If Gilbert is right the circularity objection to the Simple View is clearly justified. But is Gilbert right?
Let me go back to Ayesha and Beatrice lifting the block.
Consider two questions ...

Are Ayesha and Beatrice acting together?

Do Ayesha and Beatrice have a joint commitment?

On Gilbert’s view, you cannot say yes to one and no to the other. I think you can, of course. But at this point we are just in danger of trading intuitions. And if I’m wrong, the Circularity Objection would appear to be correct.
Can we find an argument here?

collective vs distributive

Here are two sentences:

The tiny drops fell from the bottle.

- distributive

The tiny drops soaked Zach’s trousers.

- collective

The first sentence is naturally read *distributively*; that is, as specifying something that each drop did individually. Perhaps first drop one fell, then another fell.
But the second sentence is naturally read *collectively*. No one drop soaked Zach’s trousers; rather the soaking was something that the drops accomplised together.
If the sentence is true on this reading, the tiny drops' soaking Zach’s trousers is not a matter of each drop soaking Zach’s trousers.
[*Might need more examples. Bad pint? Ask them to think of an example?]
Here is a second example contrasting distributive vs collective interpretations. Consider the sentence ‘The ants carried tiny stones’. This is naturally interpreted as implying only that each ant carried a tiny stone, which is a distributive interpretation. By contrast, consider this ...
Some ants harvest plant hair and fungus in order to build traps to capture large insects; once captured, many worker ants sting the large insects, transport them and carve them up \citep{Dejean:2005vb}. There’s a lot you might extract from this behaviour (and we will return to the ants later), but for now just focus on the killing. Each ant stings the large insect they have captured, where none of the stings are individually fatal although together they are deadly. So when I tell you that the ants killed the large insect, this should be interpreted collectively. That is, it is not a matter of each ant killing the large insect; rather killing is collectively predicated of the ants.
You have two minutes to think of two sentences which, like mine, illustrate the contrast between collective and distributive.

Give another
contrast pair.

Here are is my first example of the distinction between distributive and collective interpretations again ...

The tiny drops fell from the bottle.

- distributive

The tiny drops soaked Zach’s trousers.

- collective

Now consider an example involving actions and their outcomes:

Their thoughtless actions soaked Zach’s trousers. [causal]

- ambiguous (really!)

This sentence can be read in two ways, distributively or collectively. We can imagine that we are talking about a sequence of actions done over a period of time, each of which soaked Zach’s trousers. In this case the outcome, soaking Zach’s trousers, is an outcome of each action.
Alternatively we can imagine several actions which have this outcome collectively---as in our illustration where Ayesha holds a glass while Beatrice pours. In this case the outcome, soaking Zach’s trousers, is not necessarily an outcome of any of the individual actions but it is an outcome of all of them taken together. That is, it is a collective outcome.
(Here I'm ignoring complications associated with the possibility that some of the actions collectively soaked Zach’s trousers while others did so distributively.)
Note that there is a genuine ambiguity here. To see this, ask yourself how many times Zach’s trousers were soaked. On the distributive reading they were soaked at least as many times as there are actions. On the collective reading they were not necessarily soaked more than once. (On the distributive reading there are several outcomes of the same type and each action has a different token outcome of this type; on the collective reading there is a single token outcome which is the outcome of two or more actions.)


When collective, they act together.

Recall Gilbert’s view ...


  1. Every event of acting together is a joint action.
  2. Every joint action constitutively involves joint commitment.
Compare these three sentences ...

The tiny drops soaked Zach’s trousers together.

The three legs of the tripod support the camera together.

Ayesha and Beatrice lifted the block together.

I want to suggest that reflection on these allows us to distinguish merely acting together from performing a joint action. Why? ...
  1. In each case there is a collective interpretation.
  2. The collective interpretation is what makes ‘together’ appropriate.
  3. It is the same sense of ‘together’ in each case.
  4. (1) and (2) are not joint actions (nor actions).
  5. So ‘together’ does not entail joint action.

acting together doesn’t entail joint action

So I disagree with Gilbert that

‘The key question in the philosophy of collective action is simply ... under what conditions are two or more people doing something together?’

\citep[p.\ 67]{Gilbert:2010fk}

Gilbert 2010, p. 67

This turns out to be a significant problem for Gilbert, who needs to separate her characterisation of the phenomenon to be explained from the theory that explains it.
In saying this I’m broadly in agreement with Ludwig ...

‘any random group of agents is a group that does something together’


Ludwig (2014, p. 128)

The important point here is that acting together is very pervasive and doesn’t require intention or awareness that we are doing it.

Simple View

Two or more agents perform an intentional joint action
exactly when there is an act-type, φ, such that
each agent intends that
they, these agents, φ together
and their intentions are appropriately related to their actions.

I've been explaining the threat of circularity arising from the fact that the Simple View involves appeal to ‘acting together’. The threat was that all events in which we act together are joint actions and so the Simple View would be explaining joint action by appeal to joint action. Support from this view comes from Gilbert, who does think that all events in which we act together are joint actions. However reflection on the distinction between distributive and collective interpretations of sentences, inclduing sentences that are not about action at all, suggested that acting together can occur without there being a joint action.
As things stand, then, we do not yet have a reason to reject the Simple View.