Friday, October 26, 2018

Groups and roles

I’ve had a grad student, Nathan Mueller, do an independent study in social epistemology in the hope of learning from him about the area (and indeed, I have learned much from him), so I’ve been thinking about group stuff once a week (at least). Here’s something that hit me today during our meeting. There is an interesting disanalogy between individuals and groups. Each group is partly but centrally defined by a role, with different groups often having different defining roles. The American Philosophical Association has a role defined by joint philosophical engagement, while the Huaco Bowmen have a role defined by joint archery. But this is not the case for individuals. While individuals have roles, the only roles that it is very plausible to say that they are partly and centrally defined by are general roles that all human beings have, roles like human being or child of God.

This means that if we try to draw analogies between group and individual concepts such as belief or intention, we should be careful to draw the analogy between the group concept and the concept as it applies not just to an individual but to an individual-in-a-role. Thus, the analogy is not between, say, the APA believing some proposition and my believing some proposition, but between the APA believing some proposition and my believing that proposition qua father (or qua philosopher or qua mathematician).

If this is right, then it suggests an interesting research program: Study the attribution of mental properties to individuals-in-roles as a way of making progress on the attribution of analogous properties to groups. For instance, there are well-founded worries in the social epistemology literature about simple ways of moving from the belief of the members of the group to the belief of the group (e.g., attributing to the group any belief held by the majority of the members). These might be seen to parallel the obvious fact that one cannot move from my believing p to my believing p qua father (or qua mathematician). And perhaps if we better understand what one needs to add to my believing p to get that I believe p qua father, this addition will help us understand the group case.

(I should say, for completeness, that my claim that the only roles that human beings are partly and centrally defined by are general roles like human being is controversial. Our recent graduate Mengyao Yan in her very interesting dissertation argues that we are centrally defined by token roles like child of x. She may even be right about the specific case of descent-based roles like child of x, given essentiality of origins, but I do not think it is helpful to analyze the attribution of mental properties to us in general in terms of us having these roles.)

No comments: