Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions

A Philosophical Investigation about Human Cooperation

by Guido Seddone (Author)
©2014 Postdoctoral Thesis 186 Pages


Cooperation is the fundamental feature of intelligent beings. It makes them able to evolve complex social behaviors and to better resolve practical issues. Humans have evolved a very powerful form of cooperation, which is spread anywhere in the everyday life: norms, institutions, states, hierarchies, ordinary relationships, etc., are deeply determined by the original notion of cooperation. This book addresses the conditions of the human cooperative activities in order to focus on their common roots and to bring them back to an unitary origin. It is profoundly animated by the task of understanding how cooperative skills are able to evolve the plurality of the cooperative activities from the spontaneous to the institutional ones and to find a common denominator for joint actions. It also explores the social-political aspects related to joint activities and deals with the notion of intersubjective freedom.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • I Linguistic-Theoretical Definition of Joint Actions and Cooperation
  • 1. Nature and Origins of the We-Intentionality
  • a. Definition of We-Intentionality
  • b. Belongingness and Being-with-an-other
  • c. Break-up of the Community
  • d. Belongingness as Plot of Language, Language Transmission and Social Collaborative Activities
  • e. Conclusions
  • 2. Norms and Institutions
  • a. Symbolization of Social Collaborative Activities through Language
  • b. The Dialogical Dimension of the Normative
  • c. Development of Institutions
  • II Social-political Aspects of Cooperation
  • 3. Borders of Cooperation
  • a. Hierarchy and Obedience
  • b. Culture of Freedom and Borders of Cooperation
  • c. Conclusions
  • 4. Institutions and intersubjective Freedom
  • a. Definition of intersubjective Freedom
  • b. Freedom and Institutions
  • References


This book explains a theory about human cooperation that I have developed during several years of research. The main question addressed concerns the notion of We meant as an intentional agency formed by the contribution of individual and autonomous intentional beings normally called members. The necessity for giving an account of the dynamic, historic and adaptive feature of a We forced me to define it as a cooperative enterprise that is preserved, evolved and transmitted by means of the personal engagement of its members. Moreover, a We can either distinguish itself or be distinguished from other We-entities through the notions of group and social organization. The unity and the identity of a cooperative enterprise is determined by the internal interaction of its members and can be called cooperative firmness or agreement. The notion of We is cognitively determined by its members but its ontology or reality depends on their contributions. In other words, a social organization is a social object and is conceived as such by its members; however, it is also a historic, enduring and adaptive agency that can bear many things like, for example, responsibility for its actions or institutional shape. Thus when we think about a social organization we prevalently figure out a cooperative enterprise that acts historically by means of the actions of its members. Being a member fundamentally means assuming a We-mode attitude, i.e. an intentional good disposition towards one’s own group. However, this notion does not explain the interdependence between the existence of a group and the personal engagement of its members and consequently it does not contemplate the fact that social organizations are real, enduring and adaptive agencies. The entire book is profoundly animated by the task of understanding how human cooperative skills are able to evolve the plurality of the cooperative activities from the spontaneous to the institutional ones and to find a common denominator for joint actions. I believe that all joint activities are characterized by the actualization and improvement of practical forms acquired by the singular individuals during the process of integration. There is hence a correlation between we-attitudes and the rules of joint activities because individual intentionality is shaped by the integration in common and shareable pursuits. Human intentionality is properly a we-attitude because it is quite difficult to conceive of it outside the symbolized dimension of the human practices as both Wittgenstein, Heidegger and more recently M. Tomasello ← 7 | 8 → maintain. Therefore, belonging to a community means acquiring competencies about a practical, social and cooperative environment in which the participants contribute to its preservation, improvement and the transmission to new members. Cooperation is therefore strictly related to both the event of integration of individual participants and the historic evolution of the group in which individuals are integrated and for which they offer their contribution for the conservation of the group itself. By relating cooperative attitudes with the process of integration one can coherently understand the different forms of cooperative activities, such as the spontaneous, the occasional, the institutionalized and the enduring ones and develop a theory of social groups as enduring, historic and adaptive entities. The book aims to furnish an extensive and coherent conception of cooperation and therefore it also tackles questions concerning the socio-political consequences of acting jointly. Hierarchies, obedience, submission, etc. represent dysfunctional alterations within the cooperative activities that are considered here in order to delineate those cooperative designs in which individual autonomy is not prevented but rather promoted. On the contrary, cooperation is conceivable in a liberal political dimension in which a social organization is not authorized to exert power over the autonomy of its members.

The book is divided in four sections, which are incorporated in two different parts. The first part is about cooperation in general while the second deals with social-political aspects connected with the evolution of social activities. Since the sections are reciprocally related and the parts indicate general arguments, I have decided to numerate them independently from the division in parts. This is the reason why the two sections of the second part are indicated as section three and four. Each section is divided in chapters, which are indicated with alphabetic characters.

The first part deals with general aspects of cooperation such as we-intentionality, belongingness, plural subjects, interaction, language, institutions, etc. The first section tackles the cognitive aspects related to the human disposition to form groups and evolve joint activities, while the second gives an account of the development of norms and institutions within the cooperative dimension. In fact, cooperation is the outcome of spontaneous practical attitudes but it also develops institutions, improving the cooperative activities themselves. As language improves the daily interaction, norms and institutions improve the cooperative activities by establishing what is right and what is wrong in the behavior of every member. Since states and nations are institutions this section also introduces the argument of the second part of the book.

There are many social-political aspects connected with cooperation and particularly with the development of institutions like, for example, the function of ← 8 | 9 → hierarchies, the way obedience works, the importance of autonomous participation, intersubjective freedom, etc. These aspects are treated in the sections included in the second part. In particular, section three puts the focus on dysfunctional aspects of cooperation like rigid hierarchies, obedience and submission and develops a liberal theory of cooperation. Section four eventually deals with the notion of intersubjective freedom and highlights the liberal design as the most adequate.

I would like to end this preface with the acknowledgment of my indebtedness to relevant colleagues and academics. Firstly, a special thanks to the Department of History, Human Sciences and Education of the University of Sassari, Italy where I currently have a post-doc fellowship and to the Philosophical Institute of the University of Leipzig, Germany where I have obtained my PhD in philosophy and am permanent visiting scholar. A special thanks also goes to the Berkeley Social Ontology Group (UC Berkeley) where in May 2013 I had the opportunity to present the project of the present book. There was also a very fruitful exchange with the members of the European Network of Social Ontology (ENSO). There are many people who gave fundamental feedback and suggestions during the last five years, among them I would to remember: John Searle, Raimo Tuomela, Pirmin Stekeler-Weithofer, Sebastiano Ghisu, Nikos Psarros, Andrea Kern, Michael Tomasello, Jennifer Hudin, Hans Bernhard Schmid, Sebastian Rödl, Heikki Ikäheimo, Arto Laitinien, Henrike Moll, Giuseppe Vicari, Raffaela Giovagnoli, Italo Testa, Corrado Roversi, Mattia Gallotti, Ulla Schmid. The ideas and methodology of this book have been decisively improved by their competent criticism, support and supervision. Finally, I would like to thank the Autonomous Region of Sardinia – Master&Back Program for the financial support.

Leipzig, February 2014. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →


Linguistic-Theoretical Definition of Joint Actions and Cooperation

← 11 | 12 →

← 12 | 13 →

1.  Nature and Origins of We-Intentionality

Cooperative activities consist of actions borne by intentional subjects having a rational attitude to share intentional contents and to coordinate themselves in joint actions. In the recent debate about sociality this rational attitude is normally called We-intentionality. This must be explained in order to put the focus on all forms of human socialization including the more advanced institutions like states, nations and international organizations. In this sense, We-intentionality is a basic concept valid for cooperation in general that enables us to understand the rational elements responsible for the emergence of social organizations. A correct inquiry about this issue supplies us with a definition for the interdependence between individuals and groups and between individuals of the same group. This definition explains what social organizations are, which is their internal dynamic and what is the difference between an intentional cooperative unity and a mere aggregate of individuals. Moreover, such investigation provides the instruments for a social ontology that explains not only the intentional attitudes of the members towards a group, but rather the nature of the cooperation as an objective fact that finds its historical realization in human social organizations. Through a definition of group we might overcome different forms of contract-centered theories, which consider collaborative activities to be merely the result of an interpersonal agreement and commitment. In contrast to Tuomela, I believe that social organizations are not mechanism of self-committing and control over individual commitments, but rather organisms with the final structure of self-preservation. This self-preservation is borne by the personal engagement of the individual members and represents the essence of a double interdependence: among members and between each member and his group.

At this level of the investigation I will use the words group and social organization to indicate all forms of human social enterprise, from small corporations to states and nations. This elucidates the general conditions for the development of human collaborative activities and institutions without making recourse to a real specific realization of them.

The most important target of this section is clarifying the interdependence borne by a peculiar rational faculty (We-intentionality) and that produces intentional and collaborative units (groups or social organizations) with a historical identity (the Self). With historical identity of the Self I mean that this entity has a practical ← 13 | 14 → characterization like specific forms of life, which denote it in a specific temporary lapse. Occasionally this unity of practical activities is structured in form of an idea; this is the case of the nations, which exist by means of the idea that their members share about them. In these cases the idea reunifies the practical activities in the form of a shared self-awareness among the members (like the idea to share the same language, history, traditions etc.).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (June)
Hierarchie Freiheit Zusammenarbeit Sozialverhalten
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 186 pp.

Biographical notes

Guido Seddone (Author)

Guido Seddone studied Philosophy, History and German at the Universities of Pisa and Vienna. He obtained a PhD in Philosophical Studies at the University of Cagliari (2005) and a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Leipzig (2011). He is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Sassari and Visiting Scholar at the University of Leipzig.


Title: Collective Intentionality, Norms and Institutions