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.