Andrés Alonso Martos / On reading groups and other groups in general. The Brian Epstein’s case.

Last autumn I did a predoctoral research stay at the Center for Subjectivity Research (University of Copenhagen). My main goal was to introduce myself to contemporary issues in the field of collective intentionality and social ontology, and especially in the philosophy of collective and group action. While unfolding this task, the almost daily discussions with Olle Blomberg ‒ who is a post-doctoral fellow working on intentional joint action at CFS ‒ were of decisive importance. Besides doing research with respect to collective agency, I had the opportunity to take part in the activities hosted by the CFS (seminars, lectures, conferences, etc.), the result being one of the most stimulating research experiences I have ever had.

Amongst those activities mentioned, I got involved in a reading group organised by Olle, in which were engaged additionally Julie Zahle and Ezio di Nucci, who are associate professors at the University of Copenhagen, as well as some visiting and guest researchers at CFS such as Maria Chiara Bruttomesso, Marine Kneubühler, Henning Norënberg and Yunlong Xiao. And myself. Needless to say, given the way any reading group is organised (viz. planning its meetings, submissions, debates, speaking slots, etc.), that the latter turns out to be a paradigmatic case of joint, coordinated action. Be that as it may, regardless of the wide diversity of philosophical interests and backgrounds of the participants, who together formed quite a heterogeneous cluster, the very point is that the reading group epitomised, to my view, the outstanding, successful mix of interdisciplinarity, openness and philosophical rigour usually exhibited at CFS.

Interestingly, the book we chose to read jointly actually dealt with the nature of social groups, namely: Brian Epstein’s The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences (Oxford UP, 2015). Broadly speaking, Epstein challenges what he takes to be some basic but misleading assumptions made in the social sciences ‒ and also in most of the contemporary works in social ontology ‒ concerning the foundations of social explanations. To wit: ontological individualism, on the one hand, and a kind of “people-centered” conception of social facts, on the other. According to those assumptions, social facts are what they are precisely because of individual agents being at their very bottom. Epstein openly disagrees though, and he lays out an alternative social metaphysics that pays special attention to group constraints that transcend such an “anthropocentric view”, as he puts it. In other words, groups and social facts in general, along with their explanations, rely on much more complex, heterogeneous factors than social scientists and contemporary philosophers typically assume.

In summary, that was my own experience while participating in the reading group meetings and what I learnt at the same time at CFS as regards the collective agency issues. I recently published a review of Epstein’s book in which I discuss his views in more detail. (Please find it here.) Let me just add that I always had the impression that the discussions in the reading group were truly lying at the very heart of each and every word of my review.

Andrés Alonso Martos
(University of Valencia)

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