About the Project

In recent philosophical debates, the peculiar aspects of collective intentionality or we-consciousness are regarded as foundations of human society. These discussions of collective intentionality, however, have been largely dominated by accounts of planning and acting, of explicitly intending to do something together. According to such accounts, we-consciousness is mainly a matter of the cognitive and conative structures of the mind. Only more recently, the interest in the structures of collective affective intentionality has grown. But is affective sharing only a special case of a more general form of we-consciousness or is it, as one of the central hypotheses underlying the project would suggest, something original in its own right?

A lot of things depend on the answer to this question. If we cannot simply reduce phenomena of collective affectivity to cognitive or conative structures, we will have to find other ways to account for group formation and joint action on the basis of such phenomena. So, for instance, it makes a big difference whether a protest group is formed in order to achieve a certain goal to which all group members are jointly committed, or whether such a group is formed on the basis of a more spontaneous, but less goal-oriented collective mood of indignation. Investigating such more primitive aspects of collective affective intentionality will in turn enrich our understanding of social phenomena.

The major innovation of the project is to conceive collective affective intentionality in terms of embodiment. The underlying hypothesis is that the significance of collective affectivity cannot be adequately understood unless the central role of embodiment is considered. Therefore, the aim is to get over the shortcomings of current approaches in the field which have their focus on the structures of mental states only and thus tend to reduce collective affectivity to the sharing of goals, projects or concerns, i.e. to the conative dimension of collective intentionality. In the context of the project, the notion of embodiment pertains to the lived body which is not only the medium of a person’s active engagement with the world, but also a body that feels and is felt in various instances of sensed contraction and expansion.

Embodiment plays a central role in collective affectivity for several reasons.

  1. It is a pre-condition that an individual can be affected by something at all: A disembodied mind may possibly form the judgment that one of its thoughts must have been improper, but it cannot be affected by shame which would imply a complex sense of space in terms of centripetal vectors, vulnerability, downward head-movement as well as an urge to disappear.
  2. Embodiment involves a pre-reflective grasp of one’s situation in terms of intermodal as well as movement-related cues from the environment. Thus, the feeling body is some sort of resonance chamber for expressive phenomena such as the meekness of another person’s glance or the strident character of her voice.
  3. Due to its sensitivity to movement-related environmental cues the body is the medium for primitive coordination with others, for instance when spontaneously joining in another person’s attention to a certain object.

In order to characterize the specific domain of collective affectivity, the project focuses on the following four research questions:

  1. How does embodied affectivity relate to other modes of pre-reflective consciousness?
    Here, the aim is to work out the most important correlations and differences between affectivity and other pre-reflective modes of consciousness which already have been thematized in the literature in terms of ‘background’, ‘tacit knowledge’, ‘cultural unconscious’, or ‘care’. Among other things, these notions are supposed to explain how communication among individuals is established. Can the notion of embodied affectivity enrich our understanding of such processes?
  2. How can two or more individuals share a feeling?
    This question concerns the capacity of a person to participate in another person’s or a collective’s feelings. In this context, several distinctions between empathy, affective contagion, affective attunement, emotional climate as well as affective sharing have been suggested. Are those distinct phenomena conceivable in terms of embodied affectivity as their common root?
  3. In which sense is collective affectivity constitutive of we-consciousness?
    The distinctive modes of participating in the feelings of others correspond to specific gradations of we-consciousness among the individuals involved. There are instances of empathy in which the relevant you-me relations do not amount to any substantial we-consciousness. Affective sharing in the stricter sense, however, opens up a theme to the individuals involved which may become a common starting point for their collective will and joint actions. For instance, a collectively felt indignation about how X behaves can evoke a feeling of solidarity among those being indignant though the only thing they have in common may be articulated in the following way: ‘We are shocked by…’ Such a being shocked would be the basis for further contention with respect to concrete plans for coordinated actions against the behaviour of X.
  4. How can a theory of embodied affectivity improve our understanding of collective intentionality in particular and social phenomena in general?
    After the aforementioned questions have been investigated, the findings will be collated with current theories of collective intentionality in order to work out a more comprehensive picture of social coordination processes. Most likely, this picture will delimitate conceptions of social atomism as well as predominantly cognitivist accounts of how communities are formed.

Postdoc Henning Nörenberg