Collective Understanding

A conceptual defense for when groups should be regarded as epistemic agents with understanding

Avant, Vol. XI, No. 2, doi: 10.26913/avant.2020.02.01
published under license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Sven Delarivière
Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Sven.Delariviere @

Received 29 August 2018; accepted 19 July 2019; published Online First 6 January 2020

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Abstract: Could groups ever be an understanding subject (an epistemic agent ascribed with understanding) or should we keep our focus exclusively on the individuals that make up the group? The way this paper will shape an answer to this question is by starting from a case we are most willing to accept as group understanding, then mark out the crucial differences with an unconvincing case, and, ultimately, explain why these differences matter. In order to concoct the cases, however, we need to elucidate what it means to be attributed with understanding and what makes up an epistemic agent. I shall argue that it is abilities, above all, that guide our attributions of understanding. While it is true that understanding must go beyond single acts, this is not going beyond as in going behind them (to private occurrences which are impossible to discern and don’t themselves contribute anything of value), but beyond as in considering what people could and would do: their discernable and valuable abilities. To conceptualize whom the abilities belong to, I will specify what it means to be an epistemic agent. I shall argue that it is being a successful target of the epistemic stance. The epistemic stance (heavily inspired by Dennett’s intentional stance) forms an instrumental abstraction by attributing epistemic properties (i.e., beliefs, epistemic aims, problem-solving tactics) to an entity to explain or predict its behavior. Macro-systematicity (a higher-level pattern which a theory can exploit) is what makes the epistemic stance’s abstraction an explanatory powerful one (regardless of how that macro-systematicity is realized) and emergence (the lack of a straightforward mapping-relation between the micro and the macro) is what makes its power unique to a particular level of explanation. To end, I suggest two kinds of mapping-relations and walk through the shift from reducibility to emergence.

Keywords: cognition; collective understanding; group agents; epistemic stance; emergence


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“Avant” journal – the task financed under the contract 711/P-DUN/2019 from the funds of the Minister of Science and Higher Education for the dissemination of science.
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