Don't Mind the Plurality

 [edited 6/7/11]

When it comes to talking about plural subjects, or collective intentionality, or the philosophy of social phenomena in general, the toughest issue pertains to whether we should posit some unique ontological entity that is the bearer of these supra-individual states.  Many philosophers, such as Michael Bratman, contend that in order to properly account for social phenomena we must work within the parameters established by an ontology of subjectivity that is limited to individual mental states, their contents, and properties.  Thus, on this line of thought, social phenomena are accounted for in the “singularist” paradigm that reduces phenomena such as shared intentions and collective beliefs to the individual mental states of the constituent group members.  However, other philosophers, such as Margaret Gilbert and John Searle, have persuasively argued against the singularist account—arguing that there are good grounds for committing to the existence of shared intentions and collective beliefs that are not reducible to the mental states or behaviors of individuals.  And yet, Gilbert, Searle, and those sympathetic to their holistic view adamantly resist the idea that they are positing some unique “hive mind” or “group thought.”  Thus, the question becomes: how can we account for social phenomena in a way that does justice to the (relative) autonomy of such phenomena (i.e. that they are non-reducible), but also without over-inflating our ontology of subjectivity? 

I contend that this debate over the ontology of social phenomena would greatly benefit from some phenomenological considerations, which are largely absent from most discussions of the topic.  The phenomenal character of experience (i.e., what it is like) extends beyond merely sensuous experience, and is an irreducible aspect of the content of “cognitive” experiences such as intention and belief.  Thus, we may speak of the properties and features of a plural subject with psychological predicates, but we must be mindful that these are analogies.  Theses analogies are possible insofar as we are all intimately acquainted with what it is like to intend or what it is like to believe in virtue of the unique phenomenal character of these mental states.  We must not mind the plural subject in that we must not en-mind whatever entity ‘plural subject’ designates.  On this line of argument, phenomenal character is the mark of the mental.

Accounting for plural subjects thus becomes twofold: we must understand the conceptual limitations of reduction and describe the social phenomena constituted by plural subjects as if they were an autonomous form of agency (i.e., we use psychological predicates: we talk of collective beliefs, joint commitments, and shared trauma); simultaneously, we must describe the phenomenology of being a member of a plural subject in individualist terms (for only these terms pick out the primordial phenomenon of subjectivity) that maintain the sui generis character of this unique form of experience.  This twofold task can be achieved by paying specific attention to the classic phenomenological notion of empathy, which is treated as a phenomenon sui generis and is meant to account for the lived reality of social interaction.


The Peculiar Unity of James Franco

I've watched a couple interviews with James Franco in the past month.   Below is a short, funny interview he did with Stephen Colbert. 

For a longer, more serious examination of the same topics, watch his interview with Charlie Rose here: James Franco on Charlie Rose.
One might say that James Franco is striving to turn himself into an idea (his "persona"), but the very immateriality and hence dubitability of ideas makes him profoundly unsure of himself.  He is intensely self-aware, yet the harder he focuses on himself, the more indeterminately the object of awareness appears to him.  His form of life is tragi-comic.  He counters the deep uncertainty dwelling in the foundation of his identity by joyfully experimenting and creating alternative personas that allow for distinct varieties of expression.  Actor, film-maker, author, painter, poet...the list goes on.  Franco is extremely on-guard about being called out as a dilettante or silly playboy.  Yet he displays the typical neophyte academic honesty, strongly insisting that he recognizes his inherent limited abilities in each art form.  "I never said I'd be the best writer," he says on Charlie Rose.  He frequently allows little burps of cocky smile to erupt to the surface, only to quickly double back and qualify himself, show humility, placing his hand to his mouth and looking off into the distance, being not-stoned.

The most interesting thing I've heard Franco discuss is the possible underlying unity of all his various projects.  He's on a soap opera.  He's teaching a class at NYU film school (he's not really teaching it, he's just letting a bunch of film students edit footage of him and make whatever they want while he talks to them on Skype a couple times a semester).  He wrote a collection of short stories.  He made a documentary.  He continues to take on acting roles in mainstream films.  Charlie Rose (admirably) called him out on his apparent schizophrenia:  You like contradictions, he told Franco, you like bridging all of these seemingly unrelated fields.  Yes, Franco replied, he does.  And this is where is gets fascinating.   Again and again, when asked to explain the appeal of a certain project, or reasons for doing something like play a serial killer artist named "Franco" on General Hospital, Franco's responses include the concepts of "vitality" and "energy."  He claims he's not "disrupting" anything, but he is fully aware that its his Hollywood star power that makes these disparate forays interesting.  He tells us to be suspicious of celebrities leveraging their status, yet he's doing it blatantly (Stephen Colbert's response to this is especially good).  He likes the "tension" all of this creates.  He thinks it makes for "vital" performances that generate a lot of "energy." 

I can empathize with him a bit on this.  There is some vitality to be found in the tension created by exploring different fields.  Good for you James Franco, ride that wave.