‘Groups as Agents’ reviewed by Richard Weir

Groups as Agents

Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2015. 155pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9780745684840

Reviewed by Richard Weir

About the reviewer

Richard Weir (R.A.Weir@Sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral candidate in the Centre for Social and Political …


How are we to understand collective forms of thought and action? When we talk of armies invading other countries or football teams wanting to win matches, how literally are we supposed to understand such claims? Can groups be minded agents in their own right or are these attributions a useful fiction more accurately captured in terms of the thoughts and actions of the individuals who constitute the group? Most puzzling of all, can corporations feel guilt or be held morally responsible for their actions? Deborah Tollefsen’s latest book is a relatively short entry-level introduction to a group of theories whose attempts to answer some of these questions have been rapidly gaining attention over the past few decades. This collection of theories (most prominently associated with ideas such as collective intentionality and distributed cognition) are united by a general anti-individualism. This is to say, they are concerned with the task of demonstrating how and when it is appropriate to ascribe properties such as beliefs, intentions, or agency, to groups as a whole, as opposed to the individuals who constitute them. And in many ways Tollefsen’s introduction is a long overdue addition to this literature.

The first criterion on which any such introduction must be assessed is clarity (for if it cannot be achieved at the introductory level, it is hard to imagine that the scholar will find this clarity with the addition of further layers of complexity), and in this regard Tollefsen’s text is faultless. The unique and forthright style that epitomises her work in general is perfectly suited to such an introduction and she demonstrates an unparalleled ability to take what represents a broad and complex field of research and break it down into interesting yet easily digestible chunks. As such, the text manages to cover a quite substantial volume of work in what amounts to a remarkably short space of time.

However, the second criterion by which such an introduction must be evaluated is the selection of the material to be covered, and it is in this regard that the sheer quantity of ideas introduced works against Tollefsen, creating something of a natural divide between the two halves of the book. In the first half Tollefsen deals with those approaches in the literature with which she finds the greatest fault. As such, chapter 1 provides a consideration of summative, acceptance, and commitment based accounts of group belief, all of which she believes are only able to account for a narrow range of phenomena and rest, in their own ways, on an oversimplification of the nature of belief in general. In chapter 2 the focus turns to the possibility of group intentions to act, and in particular a discussion of the work of Searle, Tuomela, Bratman, and Gilbert (the four names most readily associated with theories of collective intentionality), but is led to criticise all of them for failing to be open to more interesting and radical ways in which groups might be considered to be minded. In turn Tollefsen finds such an openness to also be lacking in the attempts of French, List, and Pettit to attribute agency to groups, which are outlined and dismissed in chapter 3.

It is not that her reasons for rejecting each of these positions are unfounded. In fact, I find myself mostly in agreement with Tollefsen’s criticisms, which are, as always, extremely well articulated. Rather, the problem is that these positions represent such a vast amount of material to cover in three short chapters that certain corners are inevitably cut in the attempt to get at these points of disagreement. For instance, Tollefsen quite rightly feels the need to address preliminary issues in the philosophy of mind; given the plurality of voices that are part of the debate, it is essential to make each of their underlying assumptions crystal clear, because they are very often diametrically opposed to one another on various fundamental issues. However, the lack of space means that the way in which these underlying issues are dealt with is essentially the path of least resistance to Tollefsen’s own point of view, and this is problematic from a pedagogical standpoint. For in general it gives the impression that there is no other path for the student to take. Either these ideas would need to be covered in more detail, necessitating a much longer text, or Tollefsen would do better simply to state her own view as a bald assumption of the work. By doing neither the result is that the first half of the book comes across as a little superficial and almost as if Tollefsen cannot quite decide for whom it is intended.

By stark contrast, in the second half of the book Tollefsen turns to those areas of the literature that might be considered to be her wheelhouse, and the weaknesses of the first half are more than compensated for. Thus, in chapter 4 we are treated to an in-depth discussion of the merits of theories of distributed cognition, an approach that builds on the extended mind hypothesis first elucidated by Clark and Chalmers and which argues that groups can be viewed as unified cognitive systems on grounds of functional equivalence. Then, in response to some lingering objections to this approach, in chapter 5 Tollefsen explicates her own preferred position, which mainly consists in the attempt to extend an interpretivist account of intentional agency to the collective case. Roughly put, the idea is that we can understand the mindedness of groups as consisting in the fact that it is appropriate to interpret their behaviour as that of a single complex agent by adopting an intentional stance towards them. Finally, in chapter 6 the book concludes with a consideration of the question as to whether or not groups can be held morally responsible for their actions, on which matter Tollefsen appears to assume a conciliatory approach and accepts a certain middle-ground in which they can, but which doesn’t involve ascribing full-blown moral agency to them.

To those familiar with this area of research, and indeed with Tollefsen’s previous work, the interpretivist account of group agency in particular should strike most as original and interesting. There are many aspects of the argument that would require an extended analysis in order to be wholly convincing, but it is nonetheless an incredibly clear and concise sketch of a position that certainly inclines the reader to learn more. In other words, it does precisely what any good introductory text ought to do. Moreover, in general the material covered in the last three chapters does an excellent job of defending the relevant core premises in an accessible, yet not overly simplistic, manner. Thus, where the first half of the book might not be a great introduction for either the student or the uninitiated, purely in virtue of being too brief, the second half will work well for both and one is inclined to think that the book as a whole could have benefitted from being confined to the topics of the final chapters.

However, any such introduction, especially one of the first genuine attempts to do so in this area, is an opportunity not just to evaluate the substance of the book, but also to reflect on the state of the field in general. In this respect, what is not included is often just as significant as what is, and what is conspicuous by its absence in Tollefsen’s work is any consideration of political philosophy. This ought to strike one as odd considering the fact that, in dealing with the nature of collectivity and the relation between the group and the individual, it relates to questions that are of central concern to all political philosophy and is a perennial theme throughout Marxism and critical theory. Of course, this lacuna is not Tollefsen’s fault; one cannot introduce what has not been written. Beyond Margaret Gilbert’s work on the nature of political obligation, there has been very little in the way of an attempt to link this contemporary wave of anti-individualism to existing political theory. Nevertheless, considering the fact that this field of research has had the time and interest to develop a quite distinct identity, Tollefsen’s introduction demonstrates the need now to ask why?

One potential culprit is evidenced by the difficulties into which the first half of the book runs. Tollefsen attempts to provide brief introductions to the main approaches, but is hamstrung by the fact that many of these approaches differ in such fundamental ways with regard to their underlying assumptions regarding the nature of mind and action, that a coherent and brief introduction becomes impossible. It is striking, considering the amount that has now been written on the subject, that no-one really agrees on how to carve up the material and no-one is willing explicitly to acknowledge this disagreement. Rather, the prevailing view seems to be that if everyone continues to discuss the matter as if all taking part in the same conversation, then this conversation will naturally emerge and huge exegetical issues will dissipate.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the fault partially lies with political philosophers and their reluctance to consider underlying questions of ontology. Since the broad criticisms levelled at the work of the likes of Jerry Cohen and Jon Elster in the 1980s, Marxism in particular has demonstrated a reticence towards anything that looks like micro-foundationalism, which inevitably carries with it the odour of individualism. Of course, part of the very explicit aims of the range of theories dealt with by Tollefsen is to escape the individualistic assumptions that were dominant in the social sciences at that time. In other words, the argument is that we can talk about micro-foundations without those foundations having to be individualistic. However, the problem is that, thus far, those interested in this line of thought have still been too tightly committed to some basic individualistic assumptions. Theories of collective intentionality in particular do not really aim to overthrow methodological individualism, but to merely build on top of it.

Nevertheless, in this regard the positive account that Tollefsen advances in this book represents something of a sea change, and this is perhaps why the second half of the book is so much more interesting than the first. There are now a number of positions arising that, in recognising the inherent flaws in earlier theories, do aim at the complete overthrow of individualism. It is these positions that represent a new front of research and one with more directly significant implications for contemporary Marxism and political philosophy more generally. As an introduction Tollefsen’s work is a little uneven and I suspect that most will be fascinated and frustrated in equal measure. But what it represents at a different level is a shift: a shift away from some of the dead-ends of the last couple of decades, towards a new set of ideas that embrace a stronger form of holism and which generally present a more rounded and useful anti-individualistic ontology.

21 September 2015


  1. very interesting read.. requires more time to go through..
    The ‘Clark’ you mention in relation to Distributed Cognition.. would that be Andy Clark?

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