Part C - Return of the Group Mind? Social Identity and Shared Intentionality


The current debate on the structure of collective intentionality is haunted by the specter of the group mind. Its importance in this debate seems to stem from a rather innocentlooking assumption. It seems plausible to assume that wherever there is intentionality, there has to be somebody who ‘has’ it. If it is further claimed that there is such a thing as collective intentionality and that collective intentionality has to be distinguished from individual intentionality, the conclusion imposes itself that it has to be not the single individuals but the collectives that ‘have it’. From here it is just a short step to the group mind, because for collectives to have intentions, some sort of a ‘collective mind’ seems to be required, something hovering over and above the mind of the individuals. For its collectivist connotation, particularly because it seems incompatible with a commonsensical notion of intentional autonomy, this idea does not look very appealing.

Current Issues

By some of the leading proponents of collective intentionality analysis, any appeal to the group mind is therefore directly and unambiguously rejected (Searle calls it “a perfectly dreadful metaphysical excrescence”; Searle 1998, 150; cf. also Bratman 111; 122f.). Other proponents seem to advocate a more moderate strategy. Tuomela points out the possibility of incorporating some “modernized version” of the group mind in his account (Tuomela 1995, p. 231), and Margaret Gilbert, though far from giving this a mentalistic reading, makes some version of the collective subject the label of her entire theory (Plural Subject Theory). Still other contributors even seem to endorse the existence of “Groups with Minds of Their Own”, to quote the title of an influential paper by Philip Pettit (1993), or the existence (or at least the conceptual possibility) of collective personhood (Rovane 1998).

Research Questions

Against the background of this apparent resurgence of a vocabulary that has been shunned for its collectivist (and even totalitarian) connotations, this third part of the project will address three issues.

  • Firstly, the numerous variations of concepts of the group minds, collective persons, and collective subjects shall be examined, which phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler (and in a particular sense Martin Heidegger) have put forth at various times and places of their work, and which – with the exception of the case of Heidegger – are conspicuously absent in the later interpretations of the work of these philosophers. Especially in the case of Husserl, an analysis of the use of these concepts (which extended over a vast period of his later work) seems urgently needed, and might turn out to be of great importance to the current debate. An inventory of these and related concepts in the works of these philosophers and a rough overview of its development shall be sketched, and the reasons that led these philosophers to endorse the group mind (and other phenomenologists to reject any such idea – cf., e.g., Schütz [1957] 1971, 114f.) shall be analyzed.
  • Secondly, the question of whether emotional states can be attributed to collectives shall be addressed. In what sense can collectives be the subject or “bearers” of emotions and feelings, andwhat is the relation to the emotions and feelings of the participating individuals?
  • Thirdly, the concept of “social identity” shall be examined. In a relatively uncontroversial core sense of the word, a given individual’s social identities are determined by whatever makes this individual a member of the groups to which she or he belongs. The standard view in the current debate is that the conceptual core of “collective identity” lies in some reflexive self-ascribed team-membership on the side of the participating individuals (cf., e.g., Abrams/Hogg 1990, 2ff.; Emcke 2000, 204ff.; Tamir 1996, 176ff.; Matthiesen 2003). This view, however, leads into difficulties, as can be learned from early phenomenological thought on social identity. Thus Simon L. Frank, whose significance for the phenomenology of the social world is often overlooked, has forcefully argued that an understanding of team membership in terms of the reflective attitudes of the individuals leads back into the very “atomism” from which departure is sought (Frank [1930] 2002, 130ff.).

The question is: how can these difficulties be avoided? In some places of his work, Martin Heidegger remarks that the reflective identification from the side of the individuals might completely miss or distort Dasein’s sociality (cf. Heidegger [1934] 1982, 53; 55). Some phenomenologists and existential philosophers – particularly Sartre with his concept of “le “’nous’-sujet” (Sartre [1943] 1991, 465ff.), and Dietrich von Hildebrand in his Metaphysik der Gemeinschaft (1930), have put forward pre-reflective notion of sharedness or togetherness which revolve largely around the notion of shared intentionality.


The central questions to be addressed in this part of the project are the following: What is the role of group mind concepts (and related ideas) in the current debate on collective intentionality and in early phenomenology and existential philosophy? Does the claim that groups can “have” emotions involve the group mind? Are there arguments for the assumption of a group mind or for related assumptions, particularly in the theory of social identities?