See if any of these sentences strike you as weird:
The Thunder won last night.
The Thunder believed they were better than the white-hot Jazz, and wanted to break their winning streak.
The Jazz really should have come out with more defensive intensity in the first half.
Anything weird at all? No?
Some philosophers don’t think these sentences are false, exactly, but that their truth is a bit complicated. They think facts about groups always boil down to facts about individuals.
So if the Thunder believed they were better than the Jazz, that’s saying something about what the coach and the players and the trainers believed (even if not everyone on the team agreed).
After all, groups don’t have minds—individuals do. So what could it mean for a group to have beliefs and desires, or to act on them, or be responsible for their actions?
Call these philosophers reductionists, because they want to reduce facts about groups to facts about individuals.
Whenever there’s a position in philosophy, it’s because someone else disagrees. So of course there are also anti-reductionists who insist that no, groups really can believe, desire, act, and be responsible in ways that go beyond what their individual members do.
After all, groups can do things together that none of their members can do individually, like lose a basketball game, or argue over who blew their coverage last play, or reunite and console one another in the locker room afterwards.
According to anti-reductionists, sometimes our actions can’t be boiled down to what we individuals do. Sometimes it’s a matter of what we do together, as an irreducible group agent. As Christian List and Philip Pettit explain:
These groups are not just networked collections of individuals; they are networked collections whose performance parallels that of individual agents. They can take on tasks, commit themselves to goals, enter into contractual relationships, and be held responsible for what they do. They are entities that may have the status of legal persons.
So what do you think? Before I give you my answer, are the reductionists right? Or the anti-reductionists?
See if this bench celebration makes you believe in group agents:
I’ve written about this dispute before (briefly), though I have to admit I’ve never fully understood what’s at stake here. But boy is each side bewildered by the other.
(Yes I was at the APA conference this week and I did see the two famous philosophers become so flustered imagining the other’s approach during Q&A that they both forgot to ask the panel an actual question.)
It’s worth noting we’re in a space where neither side is making amazing arguments.
Reductionists think their view is obvious and just falls out of a broadly scientific understanding of the world. After all, physics works bottom-up, building and explaining larger phenoma in terms of the interactions of their tiniest components. So why shouldn’t social philosophy?
Reductionists are proud to point out that their approach is more parsimonious, which just means it has fewer moving parts. Everyone agrees there are individual agents. But reductionists don’t have to posit group agents over and above those. And isn’t it slightly spooky to appeal to irreducible group agents with mental states and actions and responsibilities of their own, anyway?
If we can account for everything by talking about the players, coaches, and trainers, why posit the team as a further group agent with mental states and actions and responsibilities of its own? What more is there to explain?
But to be fair, reductionists end up with complicated relationships that seem less intelligible. Speaking in terms of group agents is much friendlier to the social sciences, which often do take group agents (families, classes, states…) to be fundamental.
Take a sentence like “The Democratic Party doesn’t want Trump to be president.”
What do we gain by trying to partition this belief across thousands of individual minds (the party apparatus)? Or millions (the party base)? Is that explanation better just because it starts with smaller bits?
And here comes the anti-reductionist with some pretty good critiques: Individuals aren’t really the fundamental unit of social reality in any obvious sense. After all, individuals are raised within social groups, and come to understand themselves as individuals in that context. The group always comes first! Why try to be an atomist about sociality?
Their positive case is less impressive. Often anti-reductionists end up trying to distinguish between things like convergent beliefs and beliefs in common.
Consider the intrigue of statecraft. Nuclear states might have convergent beliefs (I know that they know that I know they’d retaliate…) without sharing common knowledge that they have, say, arrived at together via cooperation. As a result, the actions of hostile states can be coordinated very differently than yours and mine would be if we both agreed to meet for lunch at noon.
Once again, the critiques are better than the positive arguments. The reductionist is just gonna say something like, we meet for lunch as a result of agreeing to play our individual parts in some larger procedure. (“Here, let me check my iCal…how’s noon?”) But the states don’t agree to cooperate like that. Yawn.
So what, is this all a waste of time?
Let’s talk ideology. There’s a bias in a lot of English-speaking philosophy towards a more individualistic, reductionist approach, that I do think is well-analyzed as a product of our peculiar intellectual history.
We usually show students radical individualists like Hobbes and Locke early on in the semester so they go “Oh my god” and we can spend the rest of the class exploring more plausible views that work better. But our world has been radically transformed by political figures who say the damnedest things:
[W]ho is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.
That’s right, there’s no such thing as society! Just…families and governments?
Wait, where’s all that from?
Here’s my suggestion:
Learning to talk both ways is useful.
After all, the reductionist language and the anti-reductionist language each shift our focus. And that has implications everywhere.
A quick example:
A lot of folks are taken in by what cutting-edge disability theorist Joel Michael Reynolds calls the ableist conflation, this widespread idea that disability makes your life worse because disability just means pain and suffering.
(Check out his book, it’s surprisingly readable and cheap.)
Reynolds asks tough questions about where we locate disability. Is a disability something missing or wrong in an individual? Or is it something we need to situate in a broader social context by asking how we have shaped physical spaces and social institutions to accommodate differences?
When we look closely, Reynolds notices the concept of disability is used to demand justification for reimagining and restructuring our ways of living together. If you (or someone close to you) isn’t disabled, there’s a presumed default way of life you probably haven’t had to challenge or even think about very often. And that’s okay!
But when someone with a disability shares their experiences, maybe it isn’t just a personal problem about them. Maybe they’re pointing out some of our unreflective social practices.
You could probably translate Reynolds’s really interesting critique into the reductionist language. But having both languages makes it easier to switch perspectives. And his point about our group practices is a lot easier to see when we think about how a deeply ableist society reasons about what’s “normal”—without having to say, look at all these ableist individuals and making people feel shitty and defensive!
I think the anti-reductionist language can serve as a useful counter-ideology for the world we live in. Maybe it’s worth trying to speak a different language once in a while just to see if things look any different.